Rethinking Walter Benjamin : The function of the Utopian Ideal
Lesson / Koan : Fiction has a function.
I. Evoking utopia ( part 1 & 2 )
1. Sustaining a general engagement with Walter Benjamin has proven to be an endless discovery of philosophical, as well as poetical, perspectives. However, adding the theme of utopia to the discourse presents yet another dimension — one that, paradoxically, combines philosophy and poetics explicitly, and yet with great complexity. Exemplary of this are Benjamin’s views regarding “utopia,” a theme that figures somewhat multi-directionally in his overall philosophical montage (this latter being Benjamin’s preferred method of theoretical exploration and discovery). On the one hand, utopia is an underlying aspect of his project, one crucial aspect among many. On the other hand, utopia might be said to be the over-arching aspect of his project, the ultimate goal to which all of his work adhered. Moreover, the possibility of utopia is seen as potentially both at hand — i.e., existing imminently in the stories and products of material culture — and latent, until activated within something of a collective unconscious laden with scattered dreams and wishes unfulfilled.
2. It is for these reasons that Benjamin developed the idea of the dialectical image. Initially, we could say that the dialectical image is that moment produced by the collision of the “objective” forces of nature/culture and our own “subjective” experience as socio-historical beings. Thus, for instance, Benjamin would cite fashion as a more blatant utopian dream image — an example of, most generally, humanity grappling with its condition betwixt and between nature and culture. For Benjamin, these images are dialectical precisely because they begin as wish, develop toward an entanglement with the material superstructure of social reality, and then, if we learn to “see,” to bring into visibility, the mediation at play between the utopian capacity to dream and the societal-technological capacity to produce, the presence of these desires can be actualized as transitory moments in a process of cultural transition and awakening. It is here that we can comprehend Benjamin’s project as being one possible extension of Marxism, and thus — although this idea must be received both cautiously and thoughtfully — as also looking toward a certain socialism as, in fact, precisely this “actualization” of utopia.
Utopia is a much more straight forward ideal…happiness?