Archaeologies of the Future

Fredric Jameson has registered faintly on my radar for years, but I’ve never followed his trajectory. But a title like Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and other Science Fictions demanded a look as I tick off titles with the f-word in them.

It’s an undeniably impressive piece of work, which would demand deep study to deal with properly. Full of stimulation, occasional obscurity, and provocative comments on significant SF authors. My immediate, probably superficial, reaction is that putative future readers of a Rough Guide to the Future probably don’t require a summary of his amazingly erudite history of utopias. But a couple of the key chapters/essays yield interesting points I do want to explore.

Boiling these down so far that all that is left is a sticky residue, they seem to be that
a) utopias are inherently political because they keep alive the idea that things (the social order) could be different than they are – we have not reached the end of history. Interesting because it underlines that the future, and the present read as a precursor of the future which will become real, is political.

and b) science fiction’s alleged efforts to imagine the future succeed only in demonstrating that we cannot really imagine anything radically different from past or present because they all basically depict societies which are composed of recognisable elements of the one the author lived in at the time of writing, or has studied, albeit not usually dominant elements. This sounds pretty similar to the plausible argument that SF is supposedly preoccupied with aliens but constitutively incapable of depicting convincing aliens because we cannot imagine them – they are always somewhat like creatures or entities we already know about, and could not be otherwise. If they were not they could not be described at all. You can of course generalise the argument to ideas and entities of all kinds. Nothing new under the Sun…

That reduction of Prof J seems to produce a contradiction, but I take it from passages like the following…

“Perhaps… we need to develop an anxiety about losing the future which is analagous to Orwell’s anxiety about the loss of the past and of memory and childhood”

He points up beautifully how Marge Piercy’s Women on the Edge of Time is built around the tension of time-travellers from a more liberated future desparately worried about the politics of the novel’s present obliterating their particular history.

Elsewhere he puts it a little less pithily, but still quotably…

“the most characteristic SF does not attempt to imagine the “real” future of our social system. Rather its multiple mock futures serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come.”

And we need the simplification, or artificial coherence, of fiction to do this because… “ It is this present moment – unavailable to us for contemplation in its own right because the sheer quantitative immensity of objects and individual lives it comprises are untotalisable and hence unimaginable and also because it is occluded by our private fantasies as well as of the proliferating stereotypes of a media culture that penetrates every remote zone of our existence – that upon our return from the imaginary constructs of SF is offered to us in the form of some future world’s remote past, as if posthumous and as though collectively remembered”.

I’m still trying to unpack this formulation, and not sure I entirely agree, but there is something here which is important, I reckon, and it does seem to be one of the ideas at the heart of the book.

It would be good to spent more time with Archaeologies, and the two volumes which precede it in Jameson’s trilogy on modernity, politics and culture, but I don’t have a couple of months to spare just now. Anybody read him more closely?

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One Comment on “Archaeologies of the Future”


  1. […] THE, Marx & Philosophy, Goodreads1, 2, Google1, 2, Politics and Culture, Posthuman Destinies, The Future – a Rough Guide, Cosmos & History, Charles LaBelle, Paris Review, Oxford Journals, Locus […]


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