Ernst Bloch: The Spirit of Utopia. (02/15/2001)

I almost don't know what to say when confronted by a Marxian Christian Utopianism. Take the three ideological positions that have proven to be the most detrimental to the well-being of native Americans in the Western hemisphere, mix them all together in a single pot, like the ones cartoon cannibals use to boil missionaries, add the fires of the most ardent desire, and you come away with Ernst Bloch. It literally boggles the mind. I'm not making this up either. I did not create him. He is not a fictional character. He created himself within the constraints and inspirations of his social interactions at the end and beginning of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Spirit of Utopia (1918) is a real book, characterized as "a unique attempt to rethink the history of Western civilizations as a process of revolutionary disruptions and to reread the artworks, religions, and philosophies of this tradition as incentives to continue disrupting" (outside cover). Disrupting the social fabric of Western Europe at the end of the First World War was the desire of every Marxist thinker at the time. While adding Christian utopian dreams to that process, as the teleological goal of revolution and disruption, might strike some people as unique, if only because Marxism is generally thought to be atheistic, that outcome is hardly more than simply inevitable by virtue of the fact that notions of evolutionary progress must always move toward the better and away from the worst. Since Christian ideology at the heart of its "false consciousness" always defined what was best in the human social structure, as the embodiment of what the concept of utopia means as the "Kingdom of God" on earth, a recapturing and re-creation of Eden itself as social form, any political ideology that advocates motion toward the "best" necessarily can be, even must be, defined as Christian at some level of its articulation. The classless state of pure democracy in Marxian ideology cannot be distinguished effectively from what anyone else would call the re-creation of the Garden of Eden in purely political and social forms.

Bloch begins his advocacy for the Marxian ideal at a typical place: he decries the advent of the machine (Industrial Revolution) and the alienation of the worker from any direct and meaningful contact with the products of his/her labor. "All around us it looks as though no one had ever known a craft and been capable of passing it down" (10), is the way he begins his lament. This condition of "craft-lessness" is the result of the fact that machines have entered the picture in the production of goods, where everything is mass-produced to be exactly identical to everything else that is made by them (machines) instead of by us (workers). Capitalism is blamed for this condition because capitalists own the machines that make only identical goods, care nothing for the workers who run and repair the machines, which is all anyone does for a living anymore, and are motivated themselves by nothing except extracting the most profit with the least amount of effort from the products their machines make. Making the most profit requires exploitation of material (not necessarily a bad thing) and the people who convert that material into goods (a horrible thing).

Bloch's next several sentences are the ones I want to bring forward here: "But in return, we paint like savages again [Cubism?], in the best sense, in the sense of the primordial, the restless, unconcerned, concerned. For this is more or less how the mask was carved. This is more or less how primitive man shaped his fetishes, if only the simple need to express oneself should again be the same" (10). Bloch's concern, even if it is "unconcerned," with the supposed degradation of goods made by machines, and apparently only because they tend to be identical, is that "all this ugly stuff . . . has this misery and this pervasive destruction of the imagination on its conscience" (11). The point here is that the products of primitive savages do not cause misery and the destruction of imagination the way that goods produced by machines are supposed to do. For my own part, I generally do not depend on my cooking utensils, which are machine produced and exactly identical to thousands of others made by the same capitalist-pig corporation, to provide me with inspiration, to alleviate my misery, to stimulate my imagination.

Be that as it may, the European belief that primitive fetishes somehow embody the essence of what they lack (spirit?) has always turned into a desire so strong to possess one that virtually no force on the face of the earth can prevent them from pursuing that objective. Bloch gives some help in comprehending the emotional attachment Europeans have to the handicrafts of the other; but, I must confess that I have no idea why anyone would want one. There is, of course, a reason for my disinterestedness in possessing someone else's fetish. Simply put: I, unlike the average European, know exactly what a fetish is. Fetishes produced by primitive savages do not confront me with mystery because I am myself what Bloch perceives a primitive savage to be. I have always produced my own fetishes, which is precisely why I cannot understand why anyone would want one. Desire, then, is stimulated by that which you do not understand, do not possess, cannot create, and would not know how to use if you did have it.

Fetishes are essentially utilitarian, something Europeans sense about their nature, even if they completely misconstrue the terms of how such things are useful. Europeans have cell-phones which they use to talk to the living. Primitive savages have fetishes which they use to listen to the dead. Cell-phones are powered by electricity. Fetishes are powered by spirit. The only reason a European has ever wanted a fetish is because they believe that, if you possess one, you also possess the spirit that animates it. That idea makes exactly as much sense as believing that possession of a cell-phone gives you possession of electricity. Like to say that if you have a cell-phone you have the power to make lightening strike your enemies to death. Europeans believe their own myths about the nature of native American spirit-power, or any other kind of tribal spirit-power. That native people have fetishes because having one gives you control over the spirit that animates it. It follows, according to Eurocentric logic, that if you control a spirit, and what else but that does possession imply, then you have the power to make it do whatever you want it to do. "Bring gold." The spirit goes out to the gold mine only it knows about, loads up on nuggets, and brings them back to you because it must obey that which controls and possesses it. This is a fairy tale.

Bloch's view of spirit is Faustian, of course. If you control, even if only by knowing what it is, the spirit of Utopia, then you can command it to produce itself. Actually what you command the spirit of Utopia to do is strike down with lightening everything and everyone who impedes or prevents the realization of Utopia from materializing itself in the first place. The problem here is that you cannot have a perfect society if there is anyone in it who does not belong there. Hence it is always necessary to eliminate anyone who looks like, sounds like, thinks like, the other before Utopia becomes possible.

From a purely technological point of view, since it is true that most Europeans have gotten over their abject fear of the machine, consider a different kind of hierarchy, one which Bloch could not have imagined but one that would have frightened him ever so much more than mere machines could have done. I'm writing this on an IBM computer. Typewriters were an abomination as compared to a fountain pen that used real liquid ink. Ball-points were always considered evil so they are difficult to place but probably come fourth. A simple lead or graphite pencil was the epitome of true writing. Better even than that was marking a stone with a piece of charcoal from the fire you used to cook the animal flesh you hunted during the day. Best of all was using a sharp, hard stone to scratch signs on the inside walls of the cave where you cooked the flesh. How could there be any spirit, or truth, in words written on a computer so far removed from the ideal of the primitive savage's holy inscriptions on a piece of stone? Bloch would have you believe that if the sign is not produced by the same means used by the primitive savage, say the spirit-script of the Classic period Maya calendar, which was written mostly by using one stone against another, but is done instead on a computer, then the spirit-power of the script is canceled by virtue of having been produced by technologically advanced means. This is a fairy tale.

Put simply: if the Maya had had computers, then all the essential elements of the spirit-script would have been on the keyboard.