The Space and Time of Utopia


Reflections around the concept of utopia, on the 500th anniversary of Thomas Moore’s Utopia, reflections that echo earlier thoughts on the time and space of revolution.

In revolution, everything happens incredibly quickly, just like in dreams in which people seem to be freed from gravity.

Gustav Landauer


“It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” (1) And utopias are nothing. We of course owe the name to Thomas Moore, who combined the general negative Greek ou, transliterated into the Latin u, with the Greek topos, place, to construct utopia. In early correspondence with Erasmus, both had referred to it as nusquama, from the Latin adverb meaning “nowhere”. (2) And Guillame Budé, another of Moore’s contemporaries, and addressing himself to Moore in a letter, had understood “utopia” to be called udetopia, or “neverland”, from the Greek for “never”, a temporal reference that would be captured in the 19th century term uchronia, meaning no-time. (3) Beyond both place and time, how then could “utopia” be any-thing? And what is this no-thing that can be imagined, spoken of, celebrated and vilipended, belonging to some to the very nature of the human,(4) and at the same time, to others, being the source of our greatest modern political tragedies (totalitarianism, death camps, gulags and the like). (5) And in this last instance, it is utopia’s very nothingness that is held responsible: “All the evil comes, whether it has to do with the classical forms of utopia or its contemporary manifestations, from utopia’s refusal of the human condition, its flight beyond history, its negation of time.” (6)

How strange then that so much grave weight would seem to rest upon something which is nowhere and in no time. In fact, if this is so and contrary to appearances, it is because utopia, or to speak more correctly in the plural, utopias, are, have been and perhaps will continue to be. What is of terrible interest then is to understand how they are. Martin Buber, writing of what seems to be common to all historical utopias, says that they are pictures, “pictures moreover of something not actually present but only represented.” (7) They are, Buber continues, fantasy-pictures grounded in a wish, a wish for something that “should be”. (8) No mere child of instinct or self-gratification, utopia is “the longing for that rightness which, in religious or philosophical vision, is experienced as revelation or idea”; a vision that is “inseparable from a critical and fundamental relationship to the existing condition of humanity.” (9) It is this vision that subsequently gives birth to a picture of utopia, according to Buber.

Wishes, pictures, visions: where and when do they engender utopias? Geographically and historically, “the fabrication of utopian societies and the expeditions [by Europeans] to new lands ran parallel.” (10) Utopias were projected into imaginary spaces and times, following along “the general path of actual conquests, discoveries, and explorations.” (11) And once the “whole face of the earth was covered”, the utopian imagination soared into “outer space”, or over “many of the great historical societies”, what would in their diversity become the many matrices for models of ideal societies. (12) Our “conception of utopia draws its documentation from ‘extraordinary voyages’, moon-travellers reports, fanciful descriptions of lost worlds in a state of nature, optimum constitutions, advice to princes on the most perfect government, novels built around life in a ‘proper’ utopian society, millenarian prophecies, architectural plans for ideal cities.” (13)

Such historical readings of utopias however confine us to the “history of ideas” and thereby leave us blind to their spatiality and temporality, as well as ignorant of their promise and the danger that surrounds them. In Walter Benjamin’s words, to “articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” (14) The danger in this instance lies in the appropriation and domestication of pasts, in the rendering of pasts as mere chronicles and compendiums of moral lessons, fit only for metaphorical contemplation or erasure. (Is this not the fate of almost all utopian pictures today, consequence of an exhaustion of space and time?) In opposition, utopian pictures may be apprehended, to speak with Benjamin, as images, as moments of profane illumination when subjects/agents fuse with a social reality in the making (Buber’s vision of revelation or ideas). (15) Such images crystallise space, time, and intentions in a now-time (“jetztzeit”) and a here-space that breaks with, ruptures, the continuum of indifferent space and empty time. (16) Utopias then are not just pictures of desired for fantasies, they are rather ways of seeing and being in the world. But to so grasp, and to be possessed by, utopias, it is necessary to unveil their intrinsic spatiality and temporality.


We perhaps owe to Karl Mannheim the first conceptual reflection on the temporal structure of utopia, something that called for a movement away from the study of literary utopias to that which he called the “utopian mentality”. For Mannheim, “mentalities” have to do not only with representations, but encompass forms of experience, action and outlook. In other words, they shape our relations to each other, individually and socially. (17) The utopian mentality is then but one possible perspective on society, contrasted by Mannheim with the ideological and the scientific. The details of this analysis may be set aside here, for what interests us is the utopian mentality as such and the manner in which, according to Mannheim, it orders events temporally.

The utopian state of mind is, for our author, one that “is incongruous with the state of reality within which it occurs.” (18) “This incongruence is always evident in the fact that such a state of mind in experience, in thought, and in practice is oriented towards objects which do not exist in the actual situation.” (19) But not every state of mind that is incongruous with and transcends existing social life is utopian. (Indeed, it is relatively rare for any state of mind, of any kind, to correspond fully “to the concretely existing and de facto order”.) (20) Only those mental perspectives are utopian which, “when they pass over into conduct, tend to shatter, either partially or wholly, the order of things prevailing at the time.” (21) To so experience, think and act though assumes a sequencing, ordering and evaluation of single experiences-events. The utopian wish therefore “even moulds the way in which we experience time.” (22) Stated differently, the utopian mentality does not merely experience and register the passing of events. It meaningfully identifies and organises them in time, and in this sense defines them as events, in a way consistent with its perspective on social reality. Giving form to future and past, utopian time generates history, the filter through which events in social life are comprehended and interpreted. (23)

It is against the backdrop of different constructions/experiences of time within the utopian mentality that Mannheim classifies distinct types of the same mentality, in modern times: the absolute now-centred presentness of the Chiliastic, the future orientation of the Liberal-humanitarian, the backward, past looking of the Conservative, and the totalising time (embracing simultaneously the three dimensions of past-present-future) of the Socialist-Communist. (24) Again, the details of the differences we need not attend to. What is of significance is Mannheim’s perception of the intimacy between the utopian mentality and its self-constitution through a temporal sequence of past-present-future. Without the latter, any radical departure or change in existing social conditions would be inconceivable. The present would be extended without dissonance into the future, and the past would be domesticated as being already the present. As Mannheim wrote, whenever “the utopia disappears, history ceases to be a process leading to an ultimate end.” (25) And equally, inverting the sentence, which is to affirm part of our thesis, whenever history ceases to be a process leading to an ultimate end, utopia disappears. The meaning of social events, our understanding of them and our ability to act with or against them is thus profoundly affected. “The frame of reference according to which we evaluate facts vanishes and we are left with a series of events all equal as far as their inner significance is concerned. The concept of historical time which led to qualitatively different epochs disappears, and history becomes more and more like undifferentiated space.” (26) The utopian mentality loses its ground, is enveloped in a “sceptical relativist point of view” or worse, succumbs to a passive nihilism.

The disappearance of utopia brings about a static state of affairs in which man himself becomes no more than a thing. We would be faced then with the greatest paradox imaginable, namely, that man, who has achieved the highest degree of rational mastery of existence, left without any ideals, becomes a mere creature of impulses. Thus, after a long tortuous, but heroic development, just at the highest stage of awareness, when history is ceasing to be blind fate, and is becoming more and more man’s own creation, with the relinquishment of utopias, man would lose his will to shape history and therewith his ability to understand it. (27)

Theodor Adorno, towards the end of his life, could state that the “idea of utopia has actually disappeared completely from the conception of socialism.” (28) Devoid then of any content, socialist politics is reduced to instrumental means elaborated towards an end that is no longer known or comprehended. (29) Does not socialism, the “left”, or any radical oppositional thought and practice, then die?

World events and the Zeitgeist militate against a utopian spirit – and have for decades. If not murderous, utopianism seems unfashionable, impractical and pointless. Its sources in the imagination and hope have withered. The demise of radicalism affects even the unpolitical and the unconcerned, who viscerally register a confirmation of what they always intuited: This society is the only possible one. (30)

The words are Russell Jacoby’s, and they echo the melancholia of many late 20th century radical intellectuals before a totalitarian capitalism that races towards the abolition of time. (31) Victor Hugo called utopia “the truth of to-morrow.” (32) Yet what if the highest expression of capitalism, the domination and alienation of human creativity through primitive accumulation, exploitation, spectacle, debt driven bondage, renders tomorrow unimaginable, indeed, collapses time into a seemingly eternal present for the repetition of the same happy horror? What time then, or space, is left for utopia?

Jacoby speaks at times, as others did before him (e.g. Jacob Taubes), (33) of the need of an act of will that pushes thought to “vault beyond … immediate prospects.” Failing that, it can only “surrender its raison d’être.” (34) But if the will or the decision that projects thought, subjectivities, agencies through time itself presupposes-creates the temporal dimensions of past-present-future, then the obliteration of the future brings with it the loss of both past and present, and with it, also, the loss of the potentially autonomous subject that creates and defines itself in the present (thereby making the present) by holding the past and future momentarily at bay. (35) (This is only “momentarily” the case because autonomy calls upon a degree of self-possession that is unsustainable over any significant period of time and is never exhaustive of subjectivity). The dissolution of utopia in the grey timelessness of the spectacle of interchangeable commodities held fast by fetters of labour and debt is thus paralleled by the erasure of a subject capable of imagining, or even willing to imagine, any world other than that which is. The thoughtlessness of an Adolf Eichmann, the thoughtlessness of being unable to think beyond himself, his present and his function within the Nazi regime, as analysed by Hannah Arendt, becomes a universal of the contemporary human condition, coalescing simultaneously with a generalised superfluousness of potentially all individuals, once the exclusive privilege of Eichmann’s victims. (36) No act of will can save us then. Nor is it clear what dissident thought or action is possible. What therefore remains of utopia?


“The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique.” (37) Reconstruction and technique, Adorno’s words, are what animate the utopias designated by Mannheim as liberal-humanitarian, conservative and socialist-communist. They conceptualise/fantasise a future, or a past, or a past pregnant with a future, within the unfolding of linear time. I do not believe that much remains of such utopian forms of thought (except in violent paroxysms) and contemporary capitalism has abandoned any future redemptive justification. It can only promise more of the same; indeed, we are all increasingly either condemned to a spectacle of repetition, or death.

What then is the “standpoint of redemption” that Adorno speaks of? What counter-temporality can it call upon, if any? If thought, agency, is increasingly incapable of projecting itself into a future, before an omnivorous present, what then is there still of subjectivity, of utopia?

Arendt, reflecting upon thinking, describes it as an activity disruptive of everyday bustle, as something that renders one a stranger to the normal course of events, as a withdrawal or removal from what is present and close to hand. (38) We do not thereby escape from “this” world into another different, parallel reality. But this does mean, for Arendt, that “the reality and existence, which we can only conceive of in terms of time and space, can be temporarily suspended, lose their weight and, together with this weight, their meaning for the thinking ego.” (39) Thought frees us from specific, local space, places us in a “region of nowhere”. (40) It remains however bound to and is creative of time, for Arendt, a linear, sequential time within and through which are elaborated “thought-trains”. (41) Thought, in other words, carves out a presence-present against and within a past and a future, giving rise then to time, history and subjectivity. This time sequence is not that of ordinary life (lived as a mere numerical series of “nows” and a consequence of our everyday business, the business of labour and work). (42) The time of past-present-future depends on thinking subjectivity and the acts that flow from it, a subjectivity that suspends the everyday and opens up a gap, the gap of the present between past and future that severs the flow of indiscriminate nows and through which the world makes itself present to us. (43) This time gap, according to Arendt, is a nunc stans, the “standing now” born in the activity of thinking “as a fight against time itself.” (44) The nunc stans of thinking however is not to be confused with the nunc stans of medieval philosophy, where it served as a model and expression of eternity in the created world. (45) The timelessness of thought “is not eternity; it springs, as it were, from the clash of past and future.” (46)

Following upon this, what I wish to suggest as the second part of our thesis, and to employ Arendt’s language, is that thought itself is swept away by the reign of labour and work, of everyday activities so pressing, so constraining, that a “standing now” as a “standing against” time becomes impossible. Yet it is precisely in the eternalised present of capitalist social relations that another “standing now” shows itself. It is that which Benjamin spoke of as expressive of “Messianic time”, as the “Messianic cessation of happening”, (47) in which chronologies and narratives laid out over linear time, as well as the empty time through which mechanically flow undifferentiated nows, are blasted open. (48) In the explosion, “chips of Messianic time”, Benjamin’s images, are called forth, saved from oblivion, awakening new constellations of thought across time. (49) If the time of Capital is finally a leveled out time colonised entirely by the present, Benjamin’s messianic time unveils the past as past, but as a past that is present, that remains a present possibility. But such a possibility must be sustained, fought for, because for the power that reigns, all attempts will be made to condemn this past-present event as lost to an irretrievable past, or have it marked as irrelevant in the flow of repeated, identical events. Messianic time then is a “standing now” that both re-animates a past (as past and therefore different from the tyranny of serial nows) and reveals that past as what can and does still resonate in the present (a resonance which shatters homogeneous time as the element of repeated, indifferent events). The awareness of the possibility of, and the making of ways of life through, the messianic opening to the fullness of an agent’s past, in the present, is Benjamin’s (and perhaps Adorno’s) “redeemed mankind”. (50)


The anarchist Gustav Landauer conceptualised utopia as a point of passage between topias, the constituted regimes of power and control and the children of past utopias and topias. Topias are spatial moments of “authoritative stability”, a current state of community embodying the utopian aspirations that preceded it, in organisation and institutional form, and previous topias. (51) Whatever stability topias possess is however but relative and it gradually changes until “a point of labile balance is reached.” (52) And what change occurs is “caused by utopia.” (53) Utopia is an expression of individual life. It means for Landauer “a combination of individual and heterogeneous manifestations of will that unite and organise in a moment of crisis to form a passionate demand for a new social form: a topia without ills and injustices.” (54)

The perfection aspired to in the utopian imaginary will of course never be attained. “As a consequence, a utopia is followed by a topia that differs in crucial points from the former topia.” (55) Thus topias follow utopias, to be broken by further utopias, with no end to the process imaginable and no beginning conceivable. The shattering of a topia by utopia, Landauer calls “revolution”, “the period of transition that lies between the old topia and the new utopia.” (56) Revolution or utopia is thus a permanent feature of social life. (“Revolution is always alive, even during the times of relatively stable topias.”) (57) And far from imagining this along the lines of a storming of the Bastille or the Winter Palace, Landauer sees revolution as first born in individuals. They sum up, in other words, an ethical transformation that resonates through a social body, a resonance in part made possible by the fact that each “utopia contains the passionate memories of all former utopias.” (58) This living past, the phantom of former revolutions incarnated in the revolution of the present calls upon not a past that one merely looks back on, sealed in an immunising narrative, but a past that lives in the present. Revolution-utopia is the passionate apprehension of that past in thought and action in the present, in what Benjamin called messianic time.

With Landauer, we may state that utopia is revolution and that in revolution an animated past makes itself felt in a messianic present, where rebellious ancestors become our contemporaries, and where the borders of sovereign and functional spaces are transgressed. Utopia is nowhere and at no time, but these are precisely the space and time, like thresholds between contending realities, that allow for the creation of new spaces and times. And it is borne today by subjectivities that have themselves become nothing, mere points of passage in semiotic and commodity flows. Yet in having become nothing, in no place or time, to paraphrase Fernando Pessoa, we can make real all of the dreams of the world.

Bibliographial References

1. SMITH, Patti. M Train. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, p. 3. ISBN 978-1-101-94667-1.

2. MANUEL, Frank E. and MANUEL, Fritzie P. Utopian Thought in the Western World.  Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979. 1. ISBN 0-674-93186-6.

3. Ibid., pp. 1, 4.

4. ABENSOUR, Miguel. Utopiques II – L’homme est un animal utopique. Paris: Sens & Tonka, 2013. ISBN 978-2-84534-215-6

5. ABENSOUR, Miguel. Utopiques I – Le procès des maîtres rêveurs. Paris: Sens & Tonka, 2013. 67-71. ISBN 978-2-84534-204-0.

6. Ibid., p. 71 (translation mine).

7. BUBER, Martin. Paths in Utopia. (Translated by HULL, R.F.C.). Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1958. 7. ISBN 0-8070-1577-6.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. MANUEL, Frank E. and MANUEL, Fritzie P. Utopian Thought in the Western World. 22-3.

11. Ibid., 21.

12. Ibid., 22, 23.

13. Ibid., 7.

14. BENJAMIN, Walter. “Thesis on the Philosophy of History”, in Illuminations. (Translated by ZOHN, Harry). New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1968. 255, thesis VI. ISBN 0-8052-0241-2.

15. BENJAMIN, Walter. “Surrealism”, in Reflections. (Translated by JEPHCOTT, Edmund). New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1978. 191-2. ISBN 0-8052-0802-X; BENJAMIN, Walter. “Thesis on the Philosophy of History”. 255, thesis VI.

16. BENJAMIN, Walter. “Thesis on the Philosophy of History”. 261-2, theses XV-XVII.

17. MANNHEIM, Karl. Ideology and Utopia. (Translated by WIRTH, Louis and SHILS, Edward A.). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960. 188.

18. Ibid., 173.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., 175.

21. Ibid., 173.  It is in this confluence of analyses, that we may describe Benjamin’s “profane illumination” as essentially utopian. BENJAMIN, Walter. “Surrealism”. 179.

22. Ibid., 188.

23. Ibid., 188-9.

24. Ibid., 190-222.

25. Ibid., 227.

26. Ibid., 228.

27. Ibid., 236.

28. “Something’s Missing: A Discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno on the contradictions of Utopian Longing”, in BLOCH, Ernst. Utopian Function of Art and Literature. (Translated by ZIPES and MECKLENBURG, Frank). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988. 12. ISBN 0-262-02270-2.

29. Ibid., 13.

30. JACOBY, Russell. The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in the Age of Apathy. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999. 179-80. ISBN 0-465-02001-1.

31. “… time is itself the measure of utopia, while “totalitarianism” begins by abolishing time by prescribing to history, and the conflicts which underlie it, a linear finality.” (translation mine) Louis Janover, “L’utopie, une question au present”, in ABENSOUR, Miguel. Utopiques I – Le procès des maîtres rêveurs. 19.

32. Cited in BUBER, Martin. Paths in Utopia. 14.

33. TAUBES, Taubes. Occidental Eschatology. (Translated by RATMOKO, David). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-80476-029-4.

34. JACOBY, Russell. The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in the Age of Apathy. 180.

35. This is the central argument of Maurizio Lazzarato’s The Making of the Indebted Man.  That is, expansion and intensification of debt bondage under contemporary capitalism collapses time into the present of current debts, or stated differently, projects the present of debt into indefinite future, therefore assimilating the future to the present.  Within such capitalist time, the imagining of other, possible futures is radically compromised.  See: LAZZARATO, Maurizio. The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition. (Translated by JORDAN, Joshua David). Los Angeles CA, Semiotext(e), 2012. ISBN 978-1-58435-115-3.

36. ARENDT, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1994. ISBN 0-14-01.8765-0.

37. ADORNO, Theodor. Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life. (Translated by JEPHCOTT, E.F.N.). London: Verso, 2005. 247. ISBN 978-1-84467-051-2.

38. ARENDT, Hannah. The Life of the Mind. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1978. 197-9. ISBN 0-15-651992-5.

39. Ibid., 199.

40. Ibid., 201.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid., 205; ARENDT, Hannah. The Human Condition. 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998. ISBN 0-226-02598-5.

43. ARENDT, Hannah Arendt. The Life of the Mind. 206.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid., 210.

46. Ibid., 211.

47. BENJAMIN, Walter. “Thesis on the Philosophy of History”. 263, theses XVII, XVIIIA.

48. Ibid., 261-2, theses XIV, XV, XVI, XVII.

49. Ibid., 263, thesis XVIIIA.

50. Ibid., 254, thesis III.

51. LANDAUER, Gustav. “Revolution”, in Revolution and Other Writings: A Political Reader. (Translated by KUHN, Gabriel). Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2010. 113.

52. Ibid., 113.

53. Ibid.

54. Ibid.

55. Ibid.

56. Ibid.

57. Ibid., 116.

58. Ibid., 115.

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