Laëtitia Riss | To Utopize the present: the historical dream of utopias

By Laëtitia Riss

Bronislaw Baczko reports that in 1730, the effervescence of the Enlightenment, which he likes to call the “century of utopias,” led the most daring to shake up the language by inventing the verb “to utopize” (in French, « utopier »). Thus, one no longer writes of utopias but one utopizes. This grammatical innovation already signals that utopias, no longer relegated to the margins of fiction, are invested with a new power of intervention. The utopians of the eighteenth century understood “to utopize” as nothing less than “the action of transforming reality into an ideal.”[1] The development and the diffusion of the great philosophies of history at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the wake of Condorcet, in France, and of Hegel, in Germany, carry farther still utopian hopes, which are tied to the promise of a better future, predicting the effective realization of the ideal society. Utopia then underwent one of its principal metamorphoses: torn from its geographical roots, it was absorbed by the historical movement. The classic opposition between utopian socialism and scientific socialism, popularized by Marx and Engels,[2] exemplifies this disruption: socialist utopias (Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen) were henceforth considered to be fixed micro-societies, incapable of being part of a process of the total transformation of the world. Miguel Abensour predicts that the criticism of the first utopians “is situated at the point of culmination of a real theoretical revolution: the production of a theory of history,”[3] which perpetuates emancipatory utopia in its historicization, that is to say, utopia is requalified as a horizon as well as an aim of History (capitalization in the original French, « l’Histoire »).

This historicist understanding of utopia is still ours today, as shown by the demands made on each of its manifestations. Written utopias are asked to anticipate the future, concrete utopias are invited to go beyond localism and judged in light of their prospects, critical utopias are asked to provide political strategies. The mission entrusted to utopias remains in this sense identical: to create possible destinations and/or transitions. This can only be understood in light of our modern heritage, which has indeed linked the relevance of utopias with their potential to herald future events and has naturalized their immediate attachment to a future epoque. Now, our contemporary problem is that of a mismatch between our anxious experience of history (the closure of the future) and the expectations that we impose upon utopias (the bet on the future) – each of which comes from a different representation of historical temporality, stemming respectively from the twenty-first and nineteenth centuries.[4]  It is this contradiction that authorizes some to conclude that utopias are anachronistic in the face of current issues, dictated by the ecological emergency and the end of the world, no longer announced by biblical accounts, but predicted by scientific reports. “Can we learn to live again in the end times, without veering into utopianism, the one that has downloaded [in the original French, téléchargé] us into the hereafter?” asks Bruno Latour, anxious to prevent futuristic chimeras that distance us from the tasks of the present. This disqualification is nonetheless hasty, since what it calls into question is not “utopia” but the tide of modern history. It is the tide that has transported us into the hereafter and transformed in its course the utopian imagination into the historical imagination, as Reinhart Koselleck has shown.[5] There was indeed nothing obvious for the first utopians to be concerned about regarding the projective dimension: Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), inventor of the neologism and of the utopian genre, is a social satire as much as an account of a voyage to an unknown island, whose customs are presented as a counterpoint to the mores of his time. The utopia there is thus less a model of a future paradise than a mirror held up to the society that produced it.[6]

It is therefore important to free utopia from its modern historicization, to outline its essential properties and to redefine its function so that it does not fall victim, once again, to the prophets of History, who decide at the whim of the “ends” – the end of History or the end of the world – of the happy or unhappy role that is conceded to utopia. It is indeed a theory of utopia that we need in order to readjust our expectations towards it and to better understand the relations that can link utopia to History, without one being subordinated to the other. The utopian corpus, as vast as it is,[7]  has been identifiable since its genesis in the sixteenth century thanks to its paradoxical structure which allows it to be cunning with History. Utopias are indeed historical, in that they relate to a particular social order, which determines them but which they contest, and, at the same time, anhistorical, in that they manufacture narratives, ideal societies or social theories, that are able to cross epochs. This hybrid nature confers upon them a not negligible advantage: it allows them to constitute the traces as much as the remaining reservoirs of critical imagination put at the disposal of societies. They are inexhaustible insofar as they do not cease being re-actualized in contexts different from those which presided over their establishment. The persistence of the utopian phenomenon, from More to our time, finds one of its explanations, as Thomas Bouchet suggests, in a work published in 2021: “To the various understandings of utopia however widespread – the utopia as non place, the utopia as dream, or as nightmare, or as slogan – something resists. (…) For those who want to be sensitive to it, it lifts the veil on an open history, which does not cease to be revived.”[8]  It would be necessary to count on utopias to open History, and not to foresee the « Grand Soirs », in the form of a curious social astrology.

But what does it mean to “open up History” and how do utopias do it? In solidarity with the dreamers of the Enlightenment, I suggest the hypothesis according to which utopias utopize the present, that is for our times to say, they are transforming the present into History. In other words, utopias participate in making the present sensitive to its historicity, revealing it to be the result of a contingent social practice, and in making it, consequently, available as a place for political intervention. We owe this theoretical assumption to Fredric Jameson: in the 1980s, he already remarked that science fiction, as a sub-genre of utopia, did not offer “images of the future” but “defamiliarized and restructured the experience of our own present” and presented “the structurally unique ‘method’ for apprehending the present as history.”[9] It is a disconcerting gesture reminding us that the main enigma haunting our historical condition is less that of the past or the future, but that of the present on which the other two depend. It is precisely this mystery that Ernst Bloch, to whom we owe the most adventurous utopianism of the previous century, makes perceptible when he writes that “our present, our being is obscure, even under the sun” before adding that “this hole is our present, where we all are and from which the narrative is not going to depart, as they almost always do.”[10] The utopians are thus among those who try to face the darkness of the present, in order to dismiss its fate and to allow those who inhabit it to find the strength to find their way, to think and to act there. This is then ultimately an invitation to undertake a new journey through the utopian tradition, to reread it through the dream that it provides – the dream of a present awakened to itself so that History finds a human face again, freed from the weight of destiny – and to demonstrate the precious resources that it continues to offer to contemporaries, including those who seek to learn to live in the end times.

The utopian gap in the test of time

Thomas More’s Utopia is the founding text of the utopian tradition not merely because of its eponymous title but also because it singularizes the utopian form and establishes its invariant elements: utopia is essentially polarized and draws its power from the gap that it introduces between the effective historical reality and the unrealized possibilities ceaselessly working on it. Its very etymology indicates this: it is a place that has no place, what exists and what does not exist, what is and what could be. The effort, as much as the inventiveness of Thomas More, resides in his capacity to formalize the irreducible tension within utopias through a literary and geographical device. Utopia can in fact be read as a vehement satire of 16th-century society (Book I) and as a travelogue (Book II), which blurs the narrative types of that time and leads Fredric Jameson to qualify Thomas More’s work as a “generic hapax.”[11]  In other words, it is a text that has no equivalent among the authors of its time and disrupts the habits of readers, who discover a troubling juxtaposition of two usually distinct genres whose unity remains problematic. It is also remarkable that this split narrative prefigures the hybrid nature of utopias: the satire remains resolutely historical, while the journey leads to an anhistorical space. The geographical elsewhere, represented by the island motif, is therefore less a destination to be reached, than a detour to be made in order to measure the “mismatch between the newly created island of Utopia and its non-utopian neighbors” and from which something like a “utopian politics” can be elaborated.[12]  It is a politics that is often misunderstood, as demonstrated by the controversial reception of Utopia, which tries to remove this fundamental gap by reducing the island of utopia to a “good place” (the utopia becomes a prescriptive ideology) or to a pure “non-place” (the utopia becomes an inaccessible fantasy), where on the contrary, it is actually all to politicize it. The utopian gap is an “absolute gap,” according to the expression that Charles Fourier gives three centuries after Thomas More, inscribing in the heart of utopia the requirement not to withdraw from the world, but to expand the present – to give it the chance to take in the expanse and to come back shaken by its experience of otherness. It is up to his contemporaries to organize themselves to make use of this space suddenly opened by utopia and to inflect the ordinary course of history.

At the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, one of the successors of Thomas More, abandons the spatial metaphor and temporalizes utopia using the imaginary of historical progress. L’An 2440, rêve s’il en fut jamais (1771) displays in epigraph the quotation of Leibniz: “The present carries the future.” If this mutation seems to be a simple substitution, it nevertheless endangers the utopian arrangement. Bronislaw Baczko identifies the upheaval that this new temporal continuity induces:

“Now, this time – the seven centuries that have passed – even if it marks the distance, it does not mark a rupture: time establishes a link between the present and the future. We do not learn from Mercier’s utopia how the great changes took place: the imaginary history is barely sketched. But utopia lets us know that they occurred in time and – more importantly – through time.[13]

The otherness of utopia is converted into identity: it is no longer an outside but an inside and its anhistorical dimension is reduced to a simple historical “after.” Progressive utopias reduce or even cancel the utopian gap, even though it is the condition needed to utopize the present and allow an authentic politics of transformation. Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s story is proof of this: the protagonist emerges in 2440, where the changes have occurred in spite of himself, “thanks to time” and “without an imaginary history.” He is only a dazzled spectator, whose only intervention is that of optimistic expectation. Even if this was able to harness enthusiasm — the dreams, even the most insane, could count on History to accompany them and to make them come true — it also perniciously introduced the modern feeling of historical ineluctability, carried by the arrow of time. But utopia is only of interest insofar as it is the enemy of historical necessity: its permanent task is to tear societies away from their immutability. How do we maintain the possible if it is already inscribed in the promises of the future? Miguel Abensour had already put forward the idea according to which “this relation to time [could] erase the quest for difference, domesticate it to the point of reducing it to a prospect that would barely distinguish itself from the repetition of what is.”[14] The possible is now made predictable and runs the risk of being subordinated to the prospectivist discourses that ceaselessly crush the present under the weight of the future. The utopians of the nineteenth century are perhaps not the inventors of this “utopia of progress” that wears its name uncomfortably. It merges too audaciously history, science and politics and conjures up uncertainty with regard to the future, which is nevertheless the required condition for present action. Those who perpetuated the utopian tradition were paradoxically those socialists whom the time had judged regressive, because they continued to preserve an historical imagination freed from the weight of its repetition. On March 31, 1849, Auguste Blanqui thundered thus to his accusers:

“There are no utopians, in the exaggerated sense of the word; there are thinkers who dream of a more fraternal society and seek to discover their promised land in the moving mists of the horizon. But the fool who would like to leap, in once, towards the point unknown rushes into the void.[15]

Historical nightmares and utopian lights

In the twentieth century, while faith in progress was thrown in doubt by great disasters, the spirit of utopia remained no less alive. Faced with the nightmare of history, according to Joyce’s formula, it sheltered the last salvos of revolts and hopes. This utopian corpus, more theoretical than that of the previous century, is indeed inhabited by the will to interrupt the tragic course of events, where they are the cause of the omnipresent rupture, stop, exit, and awakening. The surrealists declare themselves “in insurrection against History,”[16]  Ernst Bloch denounces “the alleged steel logic of History,”[17]  Walter Benjamin calls for “breaking the continuum of History,”[18] Theodor Adorno seeks to “stop the imposing march of History”[19] – the urgency is palpable. These gestures of interruption should not be interpreted too literally, however: the exile of utopia “outside of History” is in fact the method through which it better returns to it. In response to the themes of suspension answer thus those of the dream, the fantasy, the image, the memory, the recollection, the memory, so many unusual nonplaces which look for the elsewhere of the time, and reveal the strata of the common experience, able to contain the seeds of a historical renewal. The utopians of the twentieth century deliver, from this point of view, a unique method to face the darkness of the time by putting the creative power of the temporal discontinuities in opposition to the oppression of the historical continuities. It is with the surrealist André Breton that one finds perhaps the most expressive illustration of this:

“Who knows if it is not appropriate that in the most tormented times the solitude of some beings is dug in spite of themselves, whose role is to avoid the perishing of what subsists temporarily only in a corner of the greenhouse, to find itself much later in the center of a new order, marking thus of a flower absolutely and simply present, because true, of a flower in some way axial with regard to the time, that for tomorrow to cleave itself all the more closely with yesterday it must break in a more decisive way with it?[20]

Utopia as an “absolutely and simply present flower” and in “some way axial in relation to time,” here is a definition, certainly poetic, but which suggests that the present of the utopias – the one from which to bifurcate History – could also not be always subjected to the laws of chronology. It could be that the task falls to the later generations to honor the utopianism of Breton, Bloch, Benjamin or Adorno, by occupying the temporal gap that they left open between the history already made and the history still to be made. During their time, preserving the very possibility of the possible already seemed a heavy responsibility. As the words of Ernst Bloch testify: “It is in our hands that life is”[21]  he writes on the first page of The Spirit of Utopia.

As if echoing this intuition from which the utopian light had become indispensable, utopia was also an important ally to welcome in its non-places the few refugees who were looking for perches from which to observe the fallings of midnight in the century. Paying tribute to the work of Miguel Abensour, Louis Janover notes that “utopia has proved to be the most radical and profound critique of the system of domination born in the twentieth century, because it went where no one had expected it to go. »[22]  It is a statement that directly echoes the idea according to which it is “on the corpse of utopia that rose totalitarian domination.”[23] We are far from the contemporary condemnations convey by intellectuals which, in the aftermath of the “real socialisms,” abandoned the heritage of Marx and utopia together without noticing the grave they were digging for the Left.[24] The absence of utopia is even more perilous than its prudent dismissal, because it erases not the future but the places from which it is possible right now for a transforming critique to emerge. For our time, it is thus important to own the vow of “anti-anti-utopianism,”[25] formulated by Fredric Jameson, and to reject the fallacious equation between utopia and totalitarianism. To be convinced of this and to ward off fears about the “drift of utopias” [in French : dérives des utopies], it is necessary to recall how utopia only drifts when it is deprived of its two shores [in French : deux rives des utopies]- its place and its non-place. There are utopias only when the present from which they are written or reactualized is utopized: utopias always act obliquely and independently of any political instrumentalization. The critical work consists of distinguishing the utopias that perpetuate existing ideologies and moralize historical alternatives, from the utopias which pursue, reconfigure and reproblematize this dream of an open-becoming through the epochs. Henri Lefebvre differentiates in this sense “the historical utopia” from “the creative utopia”: the first one concerns a “old-fashioned imaginary,” while the second one launches itself “into the possible-impossible, [it] occupies the place of what has no place.”[26]  One can add that the creative utopia does not cease to fight against the historical utopia from a conception of History defined according to a historical praxis, and not according to a prior  knowledge or standard. The creative utopias liberate History from itself and return it to its historicity, that is to say to its capacity “to create historically, to create from history!”[27] Utopia, such as it is defended here, is thus a matter of (re)beginning much more than of completion, and reinforces the power of the Blochian affirmation: “I am, we are. It does not need more. It is up to us to begin.”[28]

The future will be full of utopian presents

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, we must consider how the utopian dream of reviving the present to itself applies in a period of historical turmoil: the perpetuation of the “discourse of the end,”[29] apocalyptic announcements of the end of the world, presentist confinements, injunctions to accelerate or slow down, declinist tones… so many diagnoses seek to account for the present but in the process subordinate its possibilities to a knowledge of history, paralyzing its creative power. Utopias, on the other hand, do not certify anything, but they know that this present, “which is after all we have,”[30] as Fredric Jameson writes, deserves to be actively challenged. The melancholic feeling of a disappearance of utopianism to the benefit of dystopianism, to which we are the contemporaries, exemplifies our modern stubbornness in relating to utopias according to the History they anticipate (the catastrophe to come), instead of seizing the innovative criticisms that they invent (the possibility of the catastrophe, if nothing is done). It is thus not utopias that are anachronistic today, but rather our way of considering them. The utopias of our time, if they seem darker than those of the previous ones, are actually more productive than we think. They transform our worries into new ways of escaping the catastrophes that we are promised. In Fabulating the End of the World (2019), Jean-Paul Engélibert analyzes apocalyptic fictions and demonstrates how transfiguration through narrative prevents the fixity of historical judgments and reopens possibilities. “The most serious fictions (…) project in the future a theory of the present (…) By elaborating scenarios of the end, they permit a different way to think of history: since its end that calls to be avoided.”[31] This is a way of reversing the statement that “the present carries the future” in order to indicate, on the contrary, how much our future depends on our present (in)action. The crisis of the future is in this sense a crisis of the present itself, locked in the tunnel of the destiny imposed by historical divinations, and deprived of the awareness of its own power to make history. To better read the utopias of today, and the utopians of the past centuries bequeathed to us, is to seize the strategies they invent to face verdicts of immobility and impossibility and deviate from “the unjust order of the history.”[32] It is a preliminary stage of transforming the world: because even before demanding the plan of “how?”, it is necessary to modify the division between the possible and the impossible that perpetuates historical-political discourses that imprison our horizons of expectation.

To this strategic utopianism, of which we must still take stock, it is appropriate to add a final remark of a theoretical nature, allowing us to identify, in fine, by what means history, utopia and politics can be linked. For, indeed, how does one explain this paradox of something without a history on a human scale making one dream of a History with a human face? How can the imagination produce action, according to modalities that are not a pure mimicry between the utopian image and the political reality? The literature devoted to the philosophy of utopia are in consensus that utopian productions have a power of negation, allowing them to be inscribed in a dialectical movement.[33] To give an illustration, Bronislaw Baczko maintains for example that the state of nature is succeeded by the historical state, itself negated by the utopian state:

“There is thus a ternary rhythm in human evolution: the state of nature whose negation is history itself and – finally – the negation of the negation, the final phase, the “true society” which will take back all the advantages of the state of nature without keeping any of its defects. Utopia is thus rooted in history, but it is also its refusal and overcoming. The advent of utopia is a consequence of history, but also its completion, its continuation and its negation. Utopia is thus part of a dialectical idea of the history, but it is precisely the presence of the utopian vision of a final society which [makes] possible this dialectical construction.[34]

This perspective nevertheless leads back to the historicization of utopia, by corresponding it to the “final stage” of the historical movement. On the contrary, the re-qualification of the function of utopias, which has been outlined in the course of this essay, requires showing how utopia cannot be considered as an end, but only as a moment, which will have to be overcome in its turn. As such, a new rythm could be established: from the historical to the utopian, from the utopian to the political, from the political to the historical. This waltz, indefinitely played,  renders the experience of human history to its incompleteness and its restarts. The reality of an epoch, resulting from an historical practice that has been objectified and naturalized, is denied by utopian interventions which highlight its contingency and shape its critique through the fabrication of narratives, communities or social theories indicating other possibilities. It reveals through the latter the gap (the non-place) between the immediate reality and the real not-yet happened, which can then be politicize. Politics does not concretize utopia, but has the task of denying it in order to live up to its call to reopen history – that is, to make other realities happen. Politics takes the place of the utopian non-place and discovers again, along the way, that the mission of utopias is never more accomplished than when they abolish themselves and let themselves be overtaken by events. This is why there is no utopian rescue program, but on the contrary, a desire of utopia to be reconquered, which can give us back the courage to start. The utopian presents hold the chance to offer a forceful refusal of the idea that we are deprived of resources to build our future and invite us to “overcome the depressing idea of the irreparable divorce of the action and the dream.”[35] Therein lies the uncertain but adventurous promise of utopias from the first explorers of imaginary lands.

* This article was translated into English from the original French by Fonda Shen.


[1] B. BACKZO, ” Lumières et Utopie : Problèmes de recherches “, Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, n°2, March-April, 1971, p.359.

[2] K. MARX and F. ENGELS, Utopian Socialism and Scientific Socialism (1880), Paris, Éditions Sociales, 2021.

[3] M. ABENSOUR, L’histoire de l’utopie et le destin de sa critique, Paris, Sens & Tonka, 2016, p. 22.

[4] On purpose, we prefer to speak about “representation of the historical temporality” rather than “regime of historicity”, as François Hartog does in Régimes d’historicités. Présentisme et expérience du temps (Paris, Seuil, 2003) for reasons that would deserve further development, but which, within the framework of this analysis, are linked to the political, not heuristic, conception of historicity that will be defended.

[5] See Alexandre ESCUDIER’s discussion of Koselleck’s semantics: “Temporalisation” et modernité politique : penser avec Koselleck”, Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, vol. 64, n°6, 2009, p. 1269-1301.

[6] See F. Jameson’s analysis of the historical genesis of the utopian genre in “Morus: a window on the genre”, in Archéologie du futur. Le désir nommé utopie et autres sciences-fictions, Paris, Éditions Amsterdam, 2021.

[7] L. TOWER SARGENT, The three faces of utopianism. A very short introduction, Oxford, OUP, 2010.

[8] T. BOUCHET, Utopias, Paris, Anamosa, 2021, p.61.

[9] F. JAMESON, “Progress versus Utopia; Or, Can We Imagine the Future?”, Science Fiction Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, Jul. 1982, p. 153.

[10] E. BLOCH, ” L’aiguillon du travail ” and ” La chute dans le présent “, in Traces, Paris, Gallimard, 1998.

[11] F. JAMESON, Archéologies du futur. Le désir nommé utopie, Paris, Max Milo, 2007, p. 57.

[12] Ibid. , p. 60.

[13] B. BACKZO, art.cit, p. 372.

[14] M. ABENSOUR, “Persistance de l’utopie. Interview”, Vacarme, N°53, 2010, p. 35.

[15] A. BLANQUI, Audience of Auguste Blanqui of March 31, 1849. “Les Accusés du 15 mai 1848 devant la Haute Cour de Bourges – Compte rendu exact de toutes les séances avec les incidents,” in Oeuvres d’Auguste Blanqui, accessed online at <>

[16] “The revolution, first and always”, Declaration of the surrealists, L’Humanité, September 21, 1925.

[17] E. Bloch, Le principe espérance, t. I, Paris, Gallimard, 1976, p. 241.

[18] W. BENJAMIN, “Thesis IX”, Theses on the Concept of History, in Works, Volume III, Paris, Gallimard, p.440.

[19] T. ADORNO, Preface to the new edition, The Dialectic of Reason, Paris, Gallimard, 1969, p.10.

[20] A. BRETON, Les Vases Communicants, Paris, Gallimard, 1955, p.187.

[21] E. BLOCH, The Spirit of Utopia, Paris, Gallimard, 1977, p. 9.

[22] L. JANOVER, “Miguel Abensour. Memory of Utopia,” Lignes, N°56, 2018, p. 23.

[23] M. ABENSOUR, “Persistance de l’utopie. Interview”, art.cit, p. 34.

[24] See for example C. CHRISTOFFERSON, Les Intellectuels contre la gauche, L’idéologie antitotalitaire en France (1968-1981), Paris Marseille, Agone, 2014.

[25] F. JAMESON, Archéologies du futur. Desire named utopia, op.cit, p.21

[26] See H. LEFEBVRE, La fin de l’histoire, Paris, Economica, 2001, p. 178.

[27] Ibid, p.60.

[28] E. BLOCH, The Spirit of Utopia, Paris, Gallimard, 1977, p. 9.

[29] See J. DERRIDA, D’un ton apocalyptique adopté naguère en philosophie, Paris, Galilée, 1983.

[30] F. JAMESON, “Progress versus Utopia; Or, Can We Imagine the Future?”, Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 9, N° 2, Jul., 1982, p.151.

[31] J.-P. ENGÉLIBERT, Fabuler la fin du monde, Paris, La découverte, 2019, p. 11.

[32] D. BENSAÏD, Le pari mélancolique, Paris, Fayard, 1997, p. 37.

[33] See for example : J. RANCIÈRE, ” Sens et usages de l’utopie “, in Raison présente, n°121, 1st quarter 1997, p. 43-57.

[34] B. BACZKO, art. cit. p. 374.

[35] A. BRETON, Les Vases Communicants, Paris, Gallimard, 1955, p.198.