Review of Utopia: From Thomas More to Walter Benjamin

Utopia: From Thomas More to Walter Benjamin
by Miguel Abensour; translated by Raymond N. MacKenzie

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2017
Univocal Publishing
114 pp. Paper, $22.95 paper
ISBN: 978-1-945414-00-8

Reviewed by
Ana Peraica
September 2017

Miguel Abensour’s Utopia: From Thomas More to Walter Benjamin, although suggesting from its subtitle a historical narrative starting with More's concept of utopia and ending with Benjamin's revision, is actually not close to a historical overview (as for example Mumford's History of utopia). Instead of presenting a timeline with step-points marked by different conceptions of utopia, Abensour chooses to clash two the most radical approaches marking the XX century––utopia and catastrophe––by interpreting two key thinkers of utopia: Renaissance thinker Thomas More and Modernist thinker Walter Benjamin.

At the beginning of this small booklet, Abensour poses an intriguing question––do we know, at all, to how to read utopia? Demonstrating readings of two different conceptions of it, he also points to different perspectives. Suggesting readings may be paradoxically incompatible as the reception of Thomas More as a reactionary providing support to the Catholic idea of a monastery or who at the same time was a progressive giving birth to Socialist utopia. In contrast to simplistic readings of utopia as a scenario, Abensour points to the third one introduced by the editor of one of More’s editions, Prevost, who viewed utopia as cathartic rather than an illustrative tool. Any utopia is merely an example serving to teach how to detach from reality, he pointed out. Abensour goes even a step further, recognizing utopia on the level of invention of the fiction genre, referring to Strauss’ emphasis on the study of the literary question as a study of both society and philosophy as well as a study of their mutual relation. The utopia is read always by the personalization of it, including conquering of its hierarchy; readers necessary identify themselves as ones on the top of the political structure described, and that imagination inspires the quest for the better government in reality. Although many literary critics would not agree, Abensour consequently credits More as being the ‘’inventor of a new model narrative. The recital of an imaginary voyage upon returning’’ (pp. 30).

Similarly to More’s version of utopia, which while bringing up new values constantly reaffirms some old ones, Benjamin’s utopia reverberates the distant past, and it never manages to become free from it (and among distant pasts the classless society of pre-history stands as a certain paradigm of a ‘’golden age’’). Distant past in images of Arcadia, therefore, serves to detach from the recent past. So, new epochs are always sliding between phantasmagoria and utopia, each dreaming of the next one, in the unfinished promise, producing images of the new society as dream images but not yet ‘’awakened’’ as Benjamin defines dialectical image (in which past and present would meet, producing melancholia). The concept of the progress, to the other hand, is founded in the idea of catastrophe.

Starting at the beginning, Abensour seems to progressively think through the two philosophers analyzed, concluding on his own assumption. Although focusing on only two philosophers, this booklet is a concentration of different readings of their work, displaying an amazing amount of informational background and interpretative routes.

Short but an interesting eclectic reading, with critical insight and a great translation by Raymond N. MacKenzie, keeping the original richness of the language but adding clarity to it, this book surely is an enjoyable reading for theorists of politics and cultural studies.