Gary Wilder | Hasty Reflections on the Genesis of “Concrete Utopianism”

By Gary Wilder

I did not set out to write a book on “concrete utopianism.” This work emerged organically over a number of years, mostly in the wake of my previous book Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World (Duke University Press, 2015). At the time, I was working primarily on another manuscript – still to be completed – on Black radical humanism and the problem of freedom in the Atlantic world. Freedom Time focused specifically on constitutional struggles around decolonization, federalism, and translocal democracy in the French empire (specifically concerning West Africa and the Antilles). This work – located at the intersection of intellectual history, critical theory, and political history — was theoretically driven but empirically anchored.

Through the work I engaged with several conceptual issues (e.g., self-determination, methodological nationalism, post-national democracy, federalism, cosmopolitanism, concrete universalism and situated humanism, historical temporality, untimeliness, anticipation, world-historical openings and foreclosed possibilities, dialectical reversals, the politics of what might have been, poetic knowledge, aesthetic politics, the future of the world etc.) Yet, readers regularly asked me questions about these very issues as if I had not treated them. I remember being struck by an invitation to give a public lecture by someone who had read the book and asked if I had written anything about the politics of history and historical temporality that I could present. I thought, well, yeah, the book you read. I realized that because my analytic and political interventions were embedded in the historical account, they may have been partly lost in translation.

In Freedom Time, I developed my argument primarily through close readings of the intellectual and political work of two figures: Léopold Senghor from Senegal and Aimé Césaire from Martinique. After World War II these young poets were elected to represent their respective territories in the National Assembly of the French Fourth Republic. This was one of the stages on which they envisioned a new political form by waging a constitutional struggle to transform imperial France into a transcontinental socialist and democratic federation that included former colonies as freely associated member states. Their vision of non-national decolonization would have exploded the French national state and created “France” – a federal socio-political formation in which there was no normative alignment between citizenship, nationality, and culture.

Again and again, I emphasized that Senghor and Césaire interested me because of the questions they asked and the unrealized vision that they pursued. In contrast to existing scholarship on each, I explored their attempt to unthink the supposedly self-evident relationship between self-determination and state sovereignty and to figure decolonization as an attempt to remake the global order, or what I called “the future of the world.” I also underscored the limits of their political projects at that time and insisted that their proposed solutions could not directly serve us now. Nevertheless, many readers reached conclusions about the politics guiding my account – indeed, about my own political orientation – based on inherited assumptions about both of these figures as moderate and reformist, as colonial collaborators, based on the fact that they were not revolutionary nationalists and that their political vision was not simply about categorical separation from what would be a former metropole.

This meant that in the wake of Freedom Time, I began giving talks and writing pieces whose aim, I can now see, was to elaborate the theory, method, and politics that grounded and propelled that book. These pieces focused specifically on the political implications of analytic concepts – solidarity, anticipation, untimeliness, internationalism – that were present in but diffused through Freedom Time. Through these interventions, I further clarified my thinking about such issues. I also understood myself to be working out the analytic and political orientation that would guide my new work on Black radical humanism. (In this new work I would wrench Senghor and Césaire free of the French imperial orbit and situate them in a broader field of Black Atlantic critical thinking partly by tracing affinities between their often misunderstood orientations and those of canonical Black radical figures like W.E.B. Du Bois and C.L.R. James).

But there is another story to tell about the genesis of Concrete Utopianism. I had written two detailed works of intellectual history/critical theory that focused on the French imperial Africa and the Caribbean. I was already embarked on another major research project that would focus on a curtain current Black Atlantic critical and political thinking through  the twentieth century. I felt compelled to take a bit of a scholarly pause, or rather to shift gears. But before doing so, I was moved to write more immediately programmatic pieces that would intervene in current intellectual debates. These pieces were not only motivated by an attempt to clarify what I had been trying to do in Freedom Time. They were also fueled by a certain sense of urgency and frustration with certain influential left academic discourses.

Multiple currents of critical theory offered forceful critiques of liberalism – and attendant forms of humanism, universalism, governmentality – from the standpoint of situated and embodied difference (figured in various ways). But, curiously, these were often paired with a disinterest in the political economic arrangements that subtended liberal forms of domination. For almost fifty years, these critical currents became increasingly skeptical about mass movements and political organizing for societal transformation. A well-grounded fear of elitist, authoritarian, and Eurocentric vanguardism nourished antipathy towards political vision (which was often mistaken for prescriptive blueprints or normative plans). Critical theory no longer sought to identify the disjuncture between what is and what ought to be. It renounced the task of elaborating how things might be otherwise. It withdrew from envisioning other possible worlds. Increasingly, such thinking focused exclusively on a negative critique of that which exists. The latter was often characterized in one-dimensional or self-identical terms. Any alternatives would have to come from some kind of categorical outside (non-rational affects, bodies, intuitions or non-Western cultures, religions, epistemologies or non-human nature, materiality, technology). One typical operation was to critique abstract universalism from the standpoint of concrete particularism (rendering emancipatory forms of concrete universalism illegible). Another was to identify the ways in which purportedly progressive concepts, discourses, or frameworks were in fact complicit with disavowed forms of domination. The effect was a treasure-hunt for residual traces of liberalism, universalism, humanism in texts, ideologies, utterances. The focus was often moralizing epistemology critique.

These critical theorists – let’s call them the heirs of Michel Foucault and Edward Said – often included (racial, colonial, extractive, and/or neoliberal) capitalism in its inventory of odious targets. But they just as quickly dismissed Marxism as a framework for understanding (or socialism as a method for overcoming) a capitalism whose deep structures, dynamic tendencies, and conjunctural specificities they did not engage. Instead, they often merely asserted, without demonstrating, that Marxism as such was outmoded or Eurocentric, unable to grasp any but Western metropolitan situations characterized by advanced capitalism and a self-conscious working-class. Typically, such critics offer a cartoonish version of reductive Marxism: vulgar materialism, economic determinism, and class essentialism; a blind faith in progressive history, universal stages of historical development, and teleological outcomes; a quasi-theological belief in an inevitable socialism as the perfect society in which Western reason realizes itself and which would mark the end of history etc. Marxism is thereby conjoined with liberalism as two sides of the same Eurocentric coin.

Conversely, non-Western cultures, epistemologies, social arrangements are celebrated as situated, concrete, particular, embodied, non-rationalist, non-anthropocentric. Such thinking reinforces provincial notions of place, punctual notions of time, and identitarian notions of subjectivity. It often proceeds as if boundaries between here and there, now and then, us and them are categorical and self-evident. Risky assays, like solidarity politics or attempts to envision actual alternatives (through acts of situated political imagination) are denigrated as immature, naïve, and dangerous – as somehow ignoring or denying violence, hierarchy, messiness. Such thinking tends to treat the given order as the horizon of political possibility. Supposedly critical claims about being stranded in an unsurpassable present perversely mirror triumphal neoliberal claims about the end of history: There Is No Alternative.

In short, my analytic and political frustration with these tendencies also propelled much of the writing that found its way into this book. I organized my interventions as critiques of what I call left realism, left culturalism, left presentism. Likewise, I question supposedly critical work that reproduces normative understandings of clock time, of categorical divisions between past, present, and future, and which treats any given period as temporally identical with itself.

This is the perspective from which, in this book, I call on left thinkers to:

  • attend directly than to questions of solidarity and temporality;
  • unthink identiarian notions of here, now, and us;
  • recognize and forge transversal connections across evident territorial, cultural, and ideological boundaries — in Lenin’s terms, “transform the imperial war into a civil war;
  • move beyond negative critique by envisioning and anticipating what Samir Amin called “the world we wish to see” partly through acts of non-realist political imagination;
  • attend to the oppressive and emancipatory dimensions of untimeliness (anachronism, non-syncrhonism, repetition, haunting) in the service of immanent critique that identifies transformative possibilities that may emerge within the existing order, or by seeking, following Marx’s injunction, to draw our poetry from the future, or by tracing what Michel Löwy calls “the dialectic of past and future,” whereby persisting or repeating traces of unrealized past possibilities, of alternative forms of life, may be reactivated in an untimely present;
  • pursue the work of concrete utopianism, or what Henri Lefebvre called the politics of the “possible-impossible”

The interventions that compose this book are not merely scholastic. They were also propelled by a kind of urgency. In an unevenly entangled world-order now characterized by intersecting crises on translocal scales (climate change, capitalist instability, social inequality, mass displacement, neo-fascist authoritarianism, imperial geopolitics) it has never been more important to think freedom, equality, and justice on a global scale — it has never been more important to invent new ways of linking collective self-management to human emancipation and planetary politics.

So, without planning to write a book, let alone a book on concrete utopianism, I wrote a constellation of programmatic essays that engaged critically with influential but, in my view, problematic, currents of critical theory. Over time I came to recognize that running through them was a core concern with questions of solidarity and temporality, with internationalism and futurity, with a conjoined critique of epistemological realism and political realism. With a bit of distance, it became clear to me that again and again I was criticizing certain currents of poststructuralist and postcolonial theory from the standpoint of heterodox Marxism and Black radicalism. In short, I realized – decided – that I was indeed writing a book.

The pieces reverberated with each other and composed a whole that I believed might be greater than the sum of its parts. As is evident throughout, my thinking in this book was refracted through academic debates and worldly events between roughly 2008 and 2018. For several years it had a different working title: “Untimely History, Unhomely Times: On the Politics of Temporality and Solidarity.” It was only after the manuscript was accepted for publication that Tom Lay, my wonderful editor at Fordham University Press, informed me that this obscure and wordy title would need to be changed. After a bit of brainstorming together, I suggested that “concrete utopianism” was a recurrent figure throughout the work. He liked it and the new title was born. Had I set out to write a book about concrete utopianism, had the plan been to engag this issue in a systematic or synthetic way, it would surely have been different. But this title was simply a rubric, one that I embraced, under which to gather the programmatic pieces that emerged over time and began to relate to one another to form the whole in ways that were never intended.