In the Place of Utopia

Affect and Transformative Ideas

by Warwick Tie (Author)
Monographs X, 289 Pages
Open Access

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • Preface
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • 1 Utopia: ‘What is to be done?’
  • 2 Mapping utopia
  • The ideological function of utopia
  • The utopian function of ideology
  • On the limits of utopia and ideology
  • Toying with limits
  • 3 Beyond the discursive space of utopia
  • The strange object of differentiation
  • The limitations of normal integration
  • Behind the time of differentiation
  • 4 Back toward totality
  • On truth, totality, and singularity
  • On truth, totality, and multiplicity
  • On truth, totality, and spatial movement
  • The seductions of knowing
  • What, then, of the subject?
  • 5 The psychic life of ideas
  • The lures of metalanguage
  • The Uncanny and the refusal of any tricks to make it go away
  • On truth, knowledge, and science
  • The signifier, subjectivity, and transformative ideas
  • Ideas in movement: the Four Discourses
  • The limits of the Four Discourses
  • 6 The seeds of times future
  • Oedipus on social order
  • The Four Discourses talk
  • Modernity as the Four Discourses
  • Not less fantasy but more
  • 7 For the love of water
  • A local history of freshwater
  • Contemporary commentary on the RMA
  • The special case of the NPS on Freshwater
  • Amplifying the significance of context
  • From methodology to subjectivity
  • 8 The subjectivising effects of discursive spaces
  • Technologies of self-knowledge
  • The subjectivising effect of the text
  • Toward an alternative subjectivisation
  • 9 Anxieties of the utopian urge
  • The challenge of financialisation
  • The subsumption of subjectivity
  • Amplification of the metabolic rift
  • On the productivity of underdevelopment
  • 10 The sublime object(s) of utopia
  • On the objects of knowledge
  • The objects of the sublime: the sublime as object(s)
  • Bibliography
  • Index

1Utopia: ‘What is to be done?’1

For those seeking to rejuvenate something like a politics of equality – an audaciously singular pursuit in these post-utopian times – the emergent instabilities of the world-system present a troublingly pleasurable paradox. Productively, the idea of a ‘world-system’ enables a mapping to be undertaken of the various logics and practices through which the governance of people presently occurs: both of those logics’ geo-political distributions and their trajectories. To this end, the various forms which capitalism now takes,2 and the bio-political administrations of populations3 – including the co-ordinates of life itself4 and of death5 – can be charted. Moreover, that mapping can canvas the variable degrees of sedimentation which those logics have achieved within different geopolitical territories,6 in addition to the historical movement of those logics across geo-political spaces.7 Productively, also, the identification of instabilities within those logics provides a dynamic means by which to envisage potential portals through which transformative reflexes might open within the world-system as a whole. And to this end, a range of crises that appear organic to the world-system provide considerable ma ← 1 | 2 → terial upon which critical analyses can gain traction in the envisioning of alternative social and political trajectories. As Slavoj Žižek writes, the defining characteristic of such issues is that they are “problems for which no clear solutions are guaranteed by the logic of evolution”.8 Emblematic of these crises are the instability of a now financialised, global economy,9 the fragility induced within ecological processes as a consequence of industrial/consumption practices,10 and the subsumption of identity by the logics of capital and of post-political administration.11

Within this constitution of the world-system by an emergent set of crises, the possibility arises that elements of the system which have not hitherto assumed transformative significance now begin to count. So suggests Immanuel Wallerstein.12 Where instability comes to define the operation of the system as a whole, such that crises become organic to the structure rather than being merely episodic in character,13 actions performed at the margins of that system have the potential to reconfigure the logics of capital and of social administration:

We are living in the transition from our existing world-system, the capitalist world economy, to another world-system or systems […]. We know that the period of transition will be a very difficult one for all who live it […]. Not paradoxically, it will also be a period in which the ‘free will’ factor will be at its maximum, meaning that individual and collective action can have a greater impact on the future structuring of the world than such action can have in more ‘normal’ times, that is, during the ongoing life of an historical system.14 ← 2 | 3 →

During such periods of organic instability, human agency thereby begins to really matter. To this end, protests held against the various administrators of those logics begin to gain an address that reaches beyond the sites immortalised in their occurrence – of Seattle, Cancun, Tahrir Square, Place des Droits de l’Homme, Puerta del Sol, Wall Street, Tiananmen Square, and so on. To summarise the point, resistance and the construction of alternative modes of political organisation have come to carry an unprecedented weight of meaning in this period of accumulating organic crises: they herald futures that run oblique to the forms of organisation sown within modernity, to the various processes of capital expropriation and of bio-political administration which have come to shape intrahuman, inter-species, and species-ecological relations.

Less straight-forward than the historical significance that human agency appears to presently be obtaining, however, is the matter of the ends to which such action might now be put. Here the allure of troubling pleasure bites. The issue is not that action to re-establish a politics of equality finds itself occurring within a normative vacuum. It is not that the institutions of modernity provide insufficient normative visions and ethical frameworks to give people traction on the matter, to ground their value-judgements. It is not that the conduct of affirmative relationships cannot thereby be guided. Rather, the issue is that such visions and frameworks proliferate. There exists a state of ‘too much’ rather than ‘too little’. A plethora of normative modalities accosts the subject who seeks ethical-political guidance, such that people must negotiate a normative (mine-)field populated by various species of political and philosophical pragmatism, by pluralistic reflexes towards social difference and multicultural tolerance, by a range of proto-nationalist, linguistic, and religious sectarian injunctions, by resurgent Marxisms; not to speak of exotic synthetic accretions such as liberation theology, eco-feminism, queer-ecology, and so on.

The appearance of normativity as, now, a field in a state of rampant proliferation, suggests that the question of what ought to now be worked for is not, simply, in and of itself a normative one. It has, rather, the form of an ideological problem. The issue of normativity now concerns the constitution of transformative ideas and the movement of transformative thought. More particularly, the problem concerns the form which ideas might now take when they are made to convey normative impulses, when they are asked to carry the anticipation of better futures. ← 3 | 4 →

In the process of presenting some or other ethical vision, such ideas persistently show themselves to fail, in part at least. With recurring monotony, they demonstrate an inability to secure a correspondence between the utopianism of the concrete plans being put forward and the limiting effects of the actually-existing social conditions within which that expression is being enabled. The recent subsumption of the socialistic (‘anti-austerity’) vision of the incumbent President in France to the logic of ‘the markets’, in his act of proffering neo-classical economic solutions for the country’s financial challenges (tax credits to the corporate sector; an increase in sales tax; cuts in State spending), suggests yet again the power of those actually-existing social conditions. Utopian ideas too readily appear idealistic and unrealistic in the grim face of ‘reality’.

Fuelling that failure is the difficulty which transformative ideas appear to exhibit in building into, and of sustaining within themselves, the material impulses of the contexts in which they spawn. This had been Jacques Derrida’s quarrel with that most momentous of normative visions, the American Constitution: the political performativity which had enabled the writing of the Constitution was, upon the scripting of the text, immediately subsumed by the ‘legal’ demand for the document itself.15 The emergence of a constitutional state (the United States of America) thereafter eclipsed the radical character of that particular act of writing. No subsequent juridical interpretation, in Derrida’s mind, could reconstitute the necessarily unlicensed intent performed in the scripting of the great text.

No stronger statement exists on the contemporary predicament of ideas, in relation to the matter of normative vision, than Louis Althusser’s first thesis on the relation between ideology and ideological state apparatuses (the ISAs): “ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”.16 As with the field of normative vision, no limit exists to the production of ideologies: each individual is capable of generating a representation of the relation between their lives and the material conditions which sustain them. Moreover, the individual can only ever do so. They must undertake this work of ← 4 | 5 → establishing their relation to the world if they are to continue in the task of reproducing their lives day by day. Chillingly in this vein, Althusser writes, “individuals are [thereby] always-already subjects”.17

Moreover, the one element which all individuals share in common – and by which they might gain some leverage on the social forces that they routinely encounter – remains obdurately inaccessible. That object emerges in the work of Althusser as being ideology itself. Drawing upon an explanation of infant socialisation found in the early work of Jacques Lacan, Althusser explains the esoteric character of this element in the following way. That object, of ideology, emerges in relation to the processes of learning by which the infant child becomes a social being. More particularly, Althusser associates this object with the state of elemental “misrecognition” (méconnue) by which the human subject is constituted in those processes of early socialisation.18 The material facts of human socialisation indicate that the infant is born into a state of anticipated subjectivity, one which pre-exists their arrival. Stated baldly, it is routinely expected that the infant will be a person, will play social roles, will feel emotions, and so on. Additionally, each individual needs help becoming a subject, for this is no spontaneous act of autonomous agency. Thankfully, for the reproduction of social bonds, resources for the construction of personal ideologies swarm about us, as social practices and processes of thought by which the ideological apparatuses of State operate: of family life, of religious observance, of educational attainment, of legal argument, of scientific method, of political representation, of collective decision-making, and so on. Through the act of being ‘hailed’ by these various agencies and their practices of social cohesion, the individual comes to misrecognise themselves as being a coherent ‘I’. As a consequence of that misrecognition, the messages from those apparatuses enact a recurring effect: the subject is made knowable; to themselves, and to others.

What is not available within this profusion of practices, apparatuses, and emergent ideologies, however, is ideology ‘itself’. And without ‘ideology itself’ no possibility exists for ‘normativity itself’. For Althusser, there exists no way by which the human subject can step outside the production of the ideologies by which it imagines its relation to the reali ← 5 | 6 → ty of its own existence. What cannot be obtained in the construction of ideologies is, therefore, that quality of knowledge which would guarantee any given representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence. All that exists, alternatively, is the operation of ideology.

Famously, within Althusser’s argument – or infamously for those, as anticipated by Wallerstein, who would seek to dismantle the machinery of domination by dint of their own (collective) agency – not only does the subject never appear but it does not exist. It is not that the operation of ideology prevents the generation of subjectivity, as if the very possibility of human agency routinely finds itself extinguished by the overwhelming power of social structure. Rather, for Althusser, the problem runs deeper than this. There exists no condition within subjectivity that can guarantee the place from which ideas are spoken, no possibility of the morally autonomous self. Without that capacity, the subject remains forever reliant upon social practices and institutions to supply it with a place from which they can speak, with a symbolic mandate. And, to this end, Althusser is able to indicate with regard to the generation of the subject, that “(t)here are no subjects except by and for their subjection”.19

Notwithstanding the apparent non-existence of the subject, the processes of subjectivisation as mapped by Althusser unexpectedly generate a potentially productive condition within subjectivity. That condition is a state of overdetermination, of psychical surplus. The productivity of that condition lies with the manner in which it eludes integration at the levels of both the individual and the ISAs through which subjectivity is fuelled. The persistence of that element emerges in conjunction with a general sense which the subject gains, as an on-going legacy of its social formation through that state of ‘elemental misrecognition’: that the world indeed makes sense. This gives rise to a social effect whereby “the vast majority of (good) subjects work all right ‘all by themselves’”.20 That experience is not illusory, insofar as no alternative modes of experience exist that are capable of condemning such feelings of coherence to the dustbin of false consciousness. That said, the various cliché-filled declarations of rightness which abound within popular culture – which suggest ← 6 | 7 → to the individual that a reasonable fit indeed exists between the narratives they compose about themselves and the situations in which they live – do not suggest, either, that individuals are routinely attaining a generalised state of wellbeing. The issue does not thereby turn upon the simplistic question as to whether the individual is experiencing success or failure. Rather, the declarations indicate that a condition of surplus is being generated at the level of the individual: “This phrase which registers the effect to be obtained” – such as, in the French context in which Althusser was writing, “so be it!” – “proves that it [wellbeing] is not ‘naturally’ so”.21

By way of an indication that this element cannot be integrated into subjectivity itself, Althusser names this surplus “the Subject”.22 The Subject forever outstrips the flesh and blood of subjects. Moreover, it is this supra-semblance of subjectivity, alone, which guarantees existence for the subject. Indicating, further still, the formative role which this inassimilable figure plays with regard to subjectivity, the semblance remains capable of enacting its congealing effects only as long as flesh and blood individuals “freely accept their subjection to the Subject’s ‘commandments’”.23

Despite the apparent promise being signalled here, that adherence to the Subject’s superego-like commandments will produce a sense within the individual subject of an intrinsic self, there exists no way by which the subject can integrate into its own functioning the overweening presence of the Subject. Blocking that ability, for Althusser, is the structuring effect upon subjectivity of “the reproduction of the relations of production and of the relations deriving from them”.24 The logic of capital, as one of the most powerful mechanisms to emerge within modernity for the realisation of human potential, thereby stands as an unerringly persistent obstacle to that realisation.

The subject who thus emerges under the ISAs of liberal-capitalist societies – under modernity’s interpenetrating logics of capital and of administrative governance – is not thereby beset by a condition of lack and deficit. Rather, it is plagued by an unbearable condition of psychical ← 7 | 8 → surplus, a surplus that Jacques Lacan playfully called ‘enjoyment’ (jouissance). This situation births, from within the work of Althusser, a predictive hypothesis: the formation of subjectivity under the logics of modernity creates a surplus within subjectivity which the subject cannot integrate back within itself. We need look no further for contemporary evidence of this state of inordinacy, Žižek suggests, than the emergence under the pressures of late capitalism/ bio-political administration of various collectivised attempts to rid the social of this tacitly shared dislocatory presence; most painfully, in the global resurgences of racism and raw violence as recurring forms of popular political expression in the face of the (ethnic) other. Driving the phenomenon, Žižek suggests, is a simple characteristic of subjectivity within late modernity: “The hatred of the Other is the hatred of our own excess of enjoyment”.25 It is within this context – of subjectivity in a state of overdetermination, as arises with a thorough-going dislocation to the field of ideology – that negotiations within liberal-capitalist spaces over the meaning of normativity, and the hope of utopia, now occur.

The new social movements which sit on the margins of political organisation – from Los Indignados, to Occupy Wall Street, to elements of the Arab Spring – provide a potential site for such a negotiation to be attempted; of the surplus generated within subjectivity by the present non-availability of ideology. Moreover, the audaciously direct gesture which Lenin made towards questions of normativity – “what is to be done?” – provides a readily-accessible lure, as befits the no-nonsense pragmatism of our liberal-capitalist spaces, for the scripting of such a negotiation.26

While clear differences exist between the new social movements involved – in both their historical conditions of emergence, the classes and status-groups involved in each, and the organisational forms they have come to take – a shared dearth of directed reform agendas releases within ← 8 | 9 → them the normative energies found brawling within Lenin’s provocation. While the absence of programmes for transformative change might be readily interpreted as a failure of movements such as Occupy – a sign of political inconsequence – a cleft which that absence introduces into the question of ‘what is to be done’ might productively lever the consideration of utopia into a potentially fertile discursive space. More particularly, the absence of fixed agendas may release the normative pulsion of Lenin’s question from the various analytic imperatives – which can all so quickly demand political allegiance – as interpretations brew of the geopolitical contexts in relation to which such movements find they speak. In the context of the Occupy Movement in Aotearoa/ New Zealand, for example, where I live, the interpretations of the global economic crisis held by participants were able to productively remain in a state of fluidity without congealing into a singular clotted condition that could then have been so easily discounted by entrenched social interests (as being no more than anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, pro-environmentalist, and so on, rants). In this way, openings might be found emerging in and around the new social movements, between the substantive analytic content which Lenin’s question implies and the performative urge staged by the very asking of such a question. It is within these openings that, as Žižek puts it, people might come to find “the questions to which they have (or, rather, are) the answer”.27

For those of us living in neoliberal political communities, the slow but distinctive waning of Northern exceptionalism provides durability to this emergent kind of critical political engagement; of a diminution in the capacity of prevailing Northern nation-states to act as if separate from, and thereby emboldened to act upon, other communities and ecosystems. That waning surely now occurs as the gravity of global economic activity shifts from the Anglo-American economies to those of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.28 Being highlighted in this shift is a reliance which the operations of the Northern economies have had upon the externalisation of costs. These costs have arisen in association with the ← 9 | 10 → privatisation of economic surpluses, in conjunction with the production and consumption of commodities, and of a subsequent projection of those costs onto classes, populations, and ecological systems with insufficient resources to resist that projection in anything like a sustained manner.29

The progressive decline of the Northern economies highlights this reliance upon practices of externalisation. This is not the case, however, because the emerging centres of economic activity necessarily present preferable models of political economy (such as the so-called Asian model of capitalism).30 Rather, the decline highlights the extent to which Northern exceptionalism had come to depend upon an horizon of development that had emerged out of its own functioning: out of a sense of given-ness which Anglo-American economic and demographic administration has come to embed within its own national cultures and to projected on those made dependent upon Northern economic-military power.31 The capacity to assume such an horizon has thereby enabled a hegemonic belief to emerge – relating to the normality of capitalist organisation and liberal-parliamentary management – within which that very same horizon has needed only to be assumed in order to function.

The ability of transformative ideas to inhabit the current moment of normative opening, as conveyed in the Leninist provocation, pivots upon a particular element of this same late modernist condition. It turns upon ← 10 | 11 → the cognitive muscle by which, variously, the capitalist appropriation of wealth, the externalisation of costs, and associated systems of political organisation, have operated; that element being the production of knowledge.

A stunted version of Lenin’s question can be seen at work in the processes of knowledge development which augment the neoliberal regimes of economic governance. It is not a version which productively loosens empirical observation from set normative impulses, as the new social movements might do; nor does it strategize for an alternative image of shared social life, as Lenin’s own work sought. Rather, the form of knowledge at work orients action, in a pragmatic manner, towards the horizons of possibility that are simultaneously gestured towards, and masked by, the common-sense of liberal-capitalist management. Illustrating the point is the fiscal strategy, during 2011–2013, of imposing austerity-based solutions upon those members of the Eurozone facing unsustainable levels of sovereign debt: the capacity of administrators to abstract the social effects of financialisation from the logic of financialisation itself (as had occurred to Eurozone societies during the period 1980–2008) has popularised criticism of those societies for the social costs they now bear (the Greeks being ‘unproductive’, ‘lazy’, ‘too accommodating to immigration’, and so on).32 In a similar manner, that same logic enables the ecological effects of financialisation to be separated off from questions about economic form.33 The experience of limitless growth in virtual wealth, that has become synonymous with securitisation practices in finance and the trading of financial derivatives, cuts across the scientific understanding that natural eco-systems have material limits. The very idea of ‘limits’ bears no resemblance to the absence of ← 11 | 12 → limitation being witnessed in the private accumulation of wealth. A further effect can follow: the scientific idea of ‘natural limits to growth’ becomes contestable on the (naïve-empiricist) grounds that lived experiences of the investor classes in the knowledge economies of the North suggest otherwise.

Moreover, it is not only the fields of economic organisation and political administration which operate through an asthmatic expression of the Leninist question. It is to be anticipated that popular concerns about ‘what is to be done’ might also mutate in this manner, in keeping with the vague angst now spawned by the tectonic shifts dislocating the globalised landscape of political economy. To this end, limited visions of change are to be expected as people attempt to map themselves relative to this historical transition in the constitution of capitalism, and in the absence of experiences in their personal orbits which could comprehensively explain to them the nature of those changes. The opening words of C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination tellingly bespoke our current time:

What ordinary men are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live; their visions and their powers are limited to the close-up scenes of job, family, neighbourhood; in other milieu, they move vicariously and remain spectators. And the more aware they become, however vaguely, of ambitions and of threats which transcend their immediate locales, the more trapped they seem to feel.34

Under such conditions, the question of what is to be done comes under the sway of one or other regressive form of discourse. Fodder for the media industries, in this regard, is the plethora of conspiracy theories which find expression in popular fiction, journalism, and Hollywood film. As Fredric Jameson disparagingly notes of such theory:

Conspiracy is a poor person’s cognitive mapping in the postmodern age; it is a degraded figure of the total logic of late capital, a desperate attempt to represent the latter’s system.35 ← 12 | 13 →

Adding to the regressive profusion of popular conspiracy narrative are a variety of other phenomena: the proliferation of spontaneous and direction-less violence as an expression of protest;36 the fundamentalist pursuit of identification through attachment to religious and/or nationalist icons;37 popular complicity with programmes for social renewal that reduce those same people to objects of scientific administration;38 and so on.

The politically limited (and limiting) character of such platforms is best approached not with strident criticism but, rather, with the same ear for utopian longing which Marx brought to his understanding of religion:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation […].39

Attempts, such as these, to resist forces which impinge upon the self, symptomatically reflect the impossibility of the situation. They suggest a condition in which individuals are finding themselves overdetermined by instabilities in the world-system for which daily experience provides insufficient analytic traction.


Considerable socio-political change has re-configured the discursive space once occupied by ‘utopia’. Within the cultures of late capitalism and the organisational matrices of bio-political administration, that space is no longer animated by images of idealised states that are yet to come, or by a sense of simple failure in the production of those same states. Rather, it is overdetermined by a condition of differentiation in the representation of reality. The origins of that differentiation of representation appear to lie deep within the modernist project. In the Place of Utopia explores how that condition of representation might be animated anew by the discursive circuits through which modernity has come to operate, so as to enliven the ability of transformative ideas to lever change from within a range of organic crises current to the world system: the financialisation of global capitalism; the subsumption of worker subjectivities to the logic of capital; the broadening of the metabolic rift through industrial-capitalism. Central to this animation of transformative ideas is the relationship between language and the body.


X, 289
ISBN (Softcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2014 (April)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 289 pp.

Biographical notes

Warwick Tie (Author)

Warwick Tie lectures at Massey University, New Zealand, where he teaches Sociology. He convenes that institution’s Sociology programme and was the inaugural director of the university’s Centre for Justice and Peace Development. His work in Sociology has led to studies in the politics of conflict resolution and in the state of contemporary knowledge. He obtained his PhD in Sociology from Massey University.


Title: In the Place of Utopia