Reinhold Martin | Utopia, Again

By Reinhold Martin

Originally intending to title these comments “Utopian Realism, Again,” I’ve opted instead to emphasize the timeliness of utopian thought and action while also emphasizing their inherent untimeliness. The fact that, in Thomas More’s original, Utopia is a settler colony should be enough to warn us off unmediated recuperation. Whereas a while back, the 13/13 group spent a year reading and discussing the work of modernity’s pre-eminent philosopher of untimeliness, Friedrich Nietzsche, who could hardly be called a utopian. My awkward construction then, of something like a timely untimeliness, is meant to suggest just how difficult—and therefore how necessary—it really is to think and act in a manner that comprehends the world as it is, when the point is to change it.

Some years ago, in a commentary on the politics of contemporary architecture, I suggested “utopian realism” as a name for that difficult necessity.[1] The context was a critique of the anti-critical ideology that underwrote proposals made by a number of architects for what was symptomatically called the “rebuilding” of Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and in the early stages of what would become known as the “forever wars.” This was a time when architecture mattered far more in the cosmopolitan public sphere than it does today. To be sure, the triumphalist opportunism on display at Ground Zero contributed in no small part to discrediting whatever claims that architects and their apologists may yet have had on genuinely utopian thought. Equally important, however, has been the effective ban on such thought that continues to govern the spheres—both public and counterpublic—in which architecture is typically discussed and produced, beginning with the transnational academy in which we reside. Hence my immense gratitude to Bernard Harcourt for the occasion.

I’m emphasizing thought rather than praxis for practical reasons. I’m also using the language of Utopia advisedly, first in the sense signaled by Harcourt in his opening comments on the Utopia 13/13 series, which translate the utopian “nowhere” or “no-place” into a Foucauldian heterotopia (an “other” space) that offers up societal norms and protocols for inspection in a potentially—but only potentially—critical and more rarely redemptive manner. Recall that the cemetery was among Foucault’s paradigmatic “éspaces autres.” Recall also how those fourteen acres in Lower Manhattan have been designated as sacred ground despite the intense commercialism concentrated there. So much so that in 2011, and although the truly heterotopic Occupy Wall Street encampment was located immediately adjacent, there was to be no Occupy Ground Zero to contest the ongoing imperial slaughter.

Manfredo Tafuri, modern architecture’s most trenchant critic of ideological capture, ended the penultimate chapter of his Architecture and Utopia (1973) with the World Trade Center as an apotheosis of administrative rationality governed by the cybernetic circulation of empty signs—at the height, we must add, of the US war in Vietnam.[2] But although Tafuri could not have anticipated the manner in which the twinned signifiers would fall, even less did he anticipate the furious demand for re-enchantment that followed, which came not on behalf of the alienated masses but on behalf of a wounded US imperialism. In the wake of which New York’s Ground Zero was transformed into another kind of heterotopia—what Louis Marin might have called a “degenerate utopia”[3]—built with public subsidies to real estate developers and investment banks, who were incentivized to rebuild or relocate on or near this now “sacred” ground. On and in the ground itself, and despite the overriding pathos, the water pouring down the commemorative voids was nothing if not a soul-cleansing stand-in for the oil in which the “forever wars” were soaked. In opposition to this spectacle, I argued at the time for a “utopian realism” capable, in effect, of de-realizing the real by reclaiming Utopia’s ghost from amid the symbolic ruins of capitalist imperialism. In the event, the farce that Tafuri had recognized in the doubled-up towers gave way to the tragedy not only of the lives lost in and around them, but of the hundreds of thousands more claimed elsewhere in deliberately misdirected retaliation. So far as architecture goes then, think of New York’s Ground Zero as a dystopian monument to the Washington Consensus, masquerading as a sacred, heterotopic interruption in the city fabric and in the public sphere more generally.

Setting aside this darkness for a moment, I refer also—as Tafuri did—to Utopia in the sense taken up by Marx and Engels in their critique of the utopian socialists, of an illusory ideal that purports to resolve historical contradictions in a manner that transcends social conflict. Here, my response may veer temporarily off course from Harcourt’s clarion call to assemble actually-existing “concrete” utopias, however partial, in place of familiar all-or-nothing abstractions. Since first I want to respond to Étienne Balibar’s comments, in Utopia 1/13, on “lines of flight (or escape),” exodus, or secession as paradigms of utopian practice, a paradigm that, as Felicity Scott has shown in vivid detail, has left deep architectural marks. Of the several catastrophes identified by Balibar that loom over our historical present, and despite the ongoing apocalyptic possibility of all-out nuclear war, it is the climate crisis that sets the starkest limits on the exodus paradigm by its very nature, simply because (as Balibar also observes) there is no opting out from planetary warming. Instead, given the profoundly uneven consequences of anthropogenic climate catastrophe, we find ourselves face-to-face on the one hand with a cold, Darwinian life-and-death calculus that grows more transparent by the day, and on the other hand, with the dawning realization that we are stuck on this planet together, in a kind of Sartrean hell with no exits in sight, forced to figure it out rather than (one must hope) fight it out.

In his opening comments to the Utopia 13/13 series, Harcourt also refers to the sociologist Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias (2010), and it is with another aspect of Wright’s work that I want to frame the problem of conjuring Utopia’s ghost in architecture. Here, I have in mind Wright’s affiliations with what is sometimes called analytical Marxism, as a member of the “No-Bullshit Marxism Group” (NBSMG) which also included the British-Canadian philosopher G. A. Cohen. For orientation, we can locate the NBSMG more or less on the side of Alan Sokal, the perpetrator of a cynical publishing hoax aimed at what he and others perceived as obfuscation practiced by certain types of critical social theory. Be that as it may, like Wright’s frankly stated program, Cohen’s version of a positivist Marxist science is worth returning to, not in place of anti-positivist, hermeneutically inclined critical theory but alongside it.

In his landmark 1978 account of Marx’s philosophy of history, Cohen elucidated and defended—up to a point—a form of determinism driven by the technological development of the means of production and their eventual proletarian seizure.[4] The limit of which being the potential exhaustion of life-sustaining resources before the revolution is consummated, a risk already identified by an environmental movement not yet aware of global warming. In his 1996 Gifford lectures, Cohen was more direct. There he returned to the classic distinction between the “scientific socialism” of Marx and Engels, which elicited fundamental change from a detailed understanding of capitalism’s internal, material contradictions, and the “utopian socialism” of their predecessors, who sought to impose that change from without by way of a regulating ideal. Where earlier Cohen may have been inclined to give capitalism’s contradictions the time they needed hypothetically to mature, the mounting ecological crisis now suggested that time was running out. What is more, the definitive collapse of actually-existing socialisms and the consolidation of neoliberal globalization suggested potential flaws in the scientific hypothesis itself. “Capitalism,” Cohen wrote in a telling paraphrase of Marx, “does not produce its own gravediggers.”[5] His response was to accept the need for a normative political philosophy of the sort that scientific socialists disparagingly associated with their utopian predecessors. This, however, did not mean a wholesale return to the object lessons taught by intentional communities along the lines of Robert Owen’s humanitarian cotton mill or Charles Fourier’s libidinally impassioned phalanstery. Rather, it meant rethinking Utopia’s place in the Marxian system.

Analytically, Cohen stipulated that no comprehensive technological alternative to fossil fuels—no “nuclear fusion gun” or any other—appeared to be forthcoming soon enough, an assumption that thus far has proven correct.[6] The remaining option, it therefore already seemed, was to radically reduce production along the lines of the “degrowth” scenarios inspired by André Gorz and others that were discussed in Utopia 4/13. Applied indiscriminately, such scenarios freeze in place monumental socioeconomic, racial, and gender inequalities. But as Cohen pointed out, the new realism did not exactly evacuate the traditional Marxist predication of radical equality on the growth of an industrial proletariat, which was in turn predicated on resource abundance; rather, it converted that predication into a demand. As Cohen put it in 1996, “We can no longer sustain Marx’s extravagant, pre-Green, materialist optimism.”[7] This recognition effectively displaces the egalitarian engine from the material to the ideological level on which utopian thought tends to reside, about which Marx and his scientific followers were pessimistic as a vehicle of structural transformation. Taken seriously at the planetary scale, however, climate change focuses attention like never before on the social and ideological norms by which distributive justice is to be established and regulated in the political superstructure (if we can still call it that), in an era of anthropogenic material scarcity.

Which returns us finally to the question of architecture and utopia. It has long been a staple of architectural myth that the modernist utopian project, of which Marx’s anti-utopianism was a dialectical extrapolation, came to a symbolic end in 1972 with the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St. Louis which—as history would have it—had been designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the ill-fated architect of the World Trade Center, which—as if a cosmic Nietzschean joke—opened in New York the following year, in 1973. Soon to be coupled with an end-of-history master narrative, the name for this end-of-Utopia project was postmodernism. A century earlier, in 1872 (the year, uncannily enough, that Nietzsche published The Birth of Tragedy), Engels had mocked bourgeois reformers preoccupied with what he took to be the superstructural “housing question,” a question that has continued to perplex architectural reformers and architectural radicals alike.[8] We can therefore allow the housing question to stand here for the more general question of distributive justice under ecological limits (sometimes called “planetary boundaries”) governed by the categorical imperative of decarbonization.

G. A. Cohen died in 2009, a year into the great, global recession triggered in no small measure by the collapse of mortgage-backed financial securities, which brought the longstanding planetary norm of housing insecurity to the gated American suburbs. Since well before Pruitt-Igoe, of course, housing has been an instrument of fierce racial and class apartheid. What architects call “typology,” or the art and science of building types on which Anthony Vidler has written with unmatched authority, has delivered mass-reproducible templates of heteronormative social discipline and of unpaid, feminized domestic labor to a global clientele of technocrats and real estate speculators. No wonder then, that even in the aftermath of several crises, it has been so difficult to pose the housing question in a manner that at least rattles these structures if not demolishes them. And yet already, millions of climate migrants and refugees daily pose that very question as a matter of distributive justice with renewed urgency. Housing the world’s majority entails—another contradiction—metabolizing considerable material resources, democratically socialized and redistributed. Crippled not by the Marxian but by the postmodernist injunction against Utopia, architects, urban planners, and even activists meanwhile continue to speak the neoliberal language of “affordable” housing, “sustainable” design, and “humanitarian” aid, rather than join with these millions in demanding—through their work—housing as a non-negotiable political and material right.

Here then is the exodus; here are the lines of escape: from vast zones made exponentially unlivable by fossil-fueled lives lived elsewhere. And here too can still be architecture’s utopian project, scaled back from the horizon of revolution to what prison abolitionists and others call “non-reformist reform”: housing as a political right, articulated in the superstructure by the arts and sciences of the built environment in a realistic fashion that, under current conditions, cannot help but appear unreal. Think, for example, of how difficult it remains to reclaim the historically concrete project imprinted upon Pruitt-Igoe of public or social housing, tainted as that project is with its statist, segregationist past—but which has yet been a hallmark of actually-existing socialisms the world over. Or if that’s too much we might at least consider, in an even more untimely fashion, winding the clock back to 1972 to undo the betrayal by which what remained of Utopia, which has haunted the housing question in all of its contradictions, was demolished, disguised, and displaced onto Pruitt-Igoe’s historical twin, the World Trade Center, to be monstrously conjured there not once but twice as an avatar of imperial shock and awe. Either way, and despite this betrayal, Utopia’s ghost stands ready—if we are willing—to re-enter the historical stage at a time when nothing less will do.


[1] Reinhold Martin, “Critical of What? Toward a Utopian Realism,” Harvard Design Magazine 22 (Spring/Summer 2005): 1-5.

[2] Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development [1973], trans. Barbara Luigia La Penta (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1976), 166ff.

[3] Louis Marin, Utopics: The Semiological Play of Textual Spaces, trans. Robert A. Vollrath (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1984), 240.

[4] G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978).

[5] G. A. Cohen, If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 200), 112; on scientific socialism and utopian socialism, 42-57.

[6] Cohen, If You’re an Egalitarian, 113, and 203, n18.

[7] Cohen, If You’re an Egalitarian, 114.

[8] Frederick [Friedrich] Engels, The Housing Question, ed. C. P. Dutt, Marxist Library vol. XXIII (New York: International Publishers, n.d.); first published as three articles in Der Volkßtaat, Leipzig, 1872–1873.