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Susan Buck-Morss' Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West


Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West

Susan Buck-Morss. Cambridge: MIT, 2000. 432p, $45.00, hardcover. ISBN: 0262024640.

<1> The subject of utopianism has been absent from the political and academic agenda of late, and some critics on the left have been attempting to redress the balance. Buck-Morss' new book can be considered to be a response to this, since it examines how collective utopian dreams have been jettisoned in favour of mass consumerism and political cynicism. Her approach can be firmly situated in the Western Marxist critique of instrumental rationality, and her book starts with the premise that the end of the Cold War signalled the death knell for notions of mass utopia. These utopian dreams are supplanted by regressive psychic states, such as the collapse back into a primary narcissism diagnosed by Adorno, and the extinguishing of the Marcusean dream of overcoming scarcity [1 ]. In Dreamworld and Catastrophe Buck-Morss invokes the Benjaminian concept of the "dreamworld" to articulate her ideas, since it refers to a collective mental state inextricably linked to the reenchantment of the world. If these dreamworlds can be redeemed from the structures of power that have seized control of them, then the dialectic of History may be put into motion once more. Ultimately, Buck-Morss' intention is to argue that the socialist project is so deeply imbricated in Western thinking that its defeat has subverted the entire Western narrative of progress; this necessitates salvaging the fragments of utopian thinking that were employed to justify this narrative in the first place.

<2> The first section, entitled "Dreamworlds of Democracy," is split into two separate segments -- the first segment contains the main body of argument on the function of power in modern democracies, while the second is a kind of "hypertext" running parallel to the first segment, providing useful contextualization to the Cold War and Bolshevism. This enables a less dogmatic argument which rests upon the unresolved dialectical tension between an approach which is very speculative and theoretical, and another which is stylistically more factual. This facilitates an occasionally confusing but flexible understanding of her principal argument. Buck-Morss argues that both the liberal democracies and totalitarian states employ a "wild zone of power" in ensuring control, which is an invisible space of aggressive co-optation that legitimates their influence. In this way, violence and the state are inextricably linked. In both cases, the communist state and the liberal democracy cannot provide an adequate basis for legitimate social action; both employ violence, demonstrating a non-correspondence between the aims of the state and those of the people. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to invoke the notion of "law" to mediate between state violence and popular sovereignty. Buck-Morss puts it succinctly: "the class nature of the state may explain its violence, but not its legitimacy; the democratic nature of the state may explain its legitimacy but not its violence" (6). The legitimacy of the "wild zone" comes from the ability of power to designate a common enemy, and the potential threat of mobilization -- this gives the state "the right" to wield violence and terror. Here, Buck-Morss chooses to focus upon the liberal democracy. The democratic sovereign calls the collective into being, defining it against the enemy; any challenge to this sovereignty constitutes an enemy act. Therefore, democracy is fundamentally undemocratic, since the violence implicit in this "call to arms" is what calls the people into existence. The practice of violence against the enemy, located both inside and outside the country, is what underpins this claim of legitimacy ("the will of the people") practiced by liberal democracy. It is from this convoluted illusion that the "wild zone" of power is engendered.

<3> Buck-Morss then introduces the theoretical term "the political imaginary," coined by Valerii Podoroga, to deepen the analysis of the "wild zone" and its tactics of legitimation. The political imaginary is a topographic term, describing a visual political field, a landscape of power. Buck-Morss goes on to define three central icons of the political imaginary: "the common enemy, the political collective, and the sovereign agency that wages war in its name" (12). The enemy is simultaneously part of and a threat to the political imaginary. According to Buck-Morss, both socialist and capitalist states conjure this enemy into existence, but the manner in which they do so is radically different, since one operates through a political imaginary of warring classes, while the other functions via a political imaginary of antagonistic nation-states. The system of independent nation-states, separated by the common goals of war, is dominated by the "wild zone" of power, which renders utopian dreams defunct and part of the rubble of the political imaginary. Fascism can be considered to be the terminal point of this political imaginary, in the way it seeks to destroy the "nonidentical." In communism, it is the party, not the state, which takes possession of the "wild zone" of power; in nation-states, the political parties become the state, whereas communism constructs the state.

<4> The political imaginary may be considered to be a visual representation of the political, and Buck-Morss examines the way in which war is waged within its boundaries. For the nation-state, space is the most prominent feature of the political imaginary, since through the ownership of territory a specific national identity may be formed. For communism, the most salient feature of the political imaginary is time, largely understood through the notion of class warfare. Conversely, progress for nation-states is understood spatially, in the form of the expansion of the "free world." To recapitulate, the nation-state favours national identity, while the communist state favours class, since nations are conceived to be in transition and a temporary phase to be overcome. In both cases, the nonidentical (ethnic variation) is denied; for the nation-state, ethnicity is dangerous to boundaries, while for communism, ethnicity is a retrograde step that slows down time. Sovereign power is attained through this annihilation of difference, which enables a kind of consensus supported by the "wild zone." Buck-Morss explains that in the nation-state, the nation and the state are coexistent in the political imaginary -- a good example of this is how the army effaces difference within its ranks, such as colour, in engaging with a common foe. For communism, the group with the legitimate justification to wage war is the Party, but war is fused with the quotidian in the form of "class war." In both cases, war is employed as a means to legitimate the sovereign power of states. The French Revolution can be considered to be an ur-form of this model of sovereign power, since the people, fused with a utopian egalitarian politics, function in this fashion. The problem with the enemies designated by society is that in the last instance war cannot be justified on both national and class interests. This exposes internal contradictions in both models of sovereign power, since the "wild zone" cannot comfortably be deployed in the interests of both nation and class; there is always a problem of legitimation that foments dissent. There are also other problems, since the nation-state and communism are subverted internally through their own sources of legitimation, not because of the actions of some enemy "other." For example, the global economy has a tendency to accelerate out of control, escaping space, and undermining the nation-state, while the problem for communism is that it is meant to represent the most advanced economy, but lags behind the West in terms of industrial development. In each state, the political imaginary is out of step with socio-economic reality. Ultimately, Buck-Morss' intention is to illustrate how both communism and capitalism share subtly distorted objectives.

<5> In the second section, "Dreamworlds of History," Buck-Morss commences her analysis of historical dreamworlds by looking at Lenin's desire for an authentic socialist art, which involved the move from the contrived history of the nation-state to the formation of a more universal heritage. Initially, Bolshevik art demonstrated a high degree of utopianism, best exemplified by the Russian translations of Western scientific romances, the work of Gorky, and the science fiction of Aleksandr Bogdanov. However, these utopian dreams were soon subsumed by the demands of the Party, which held a more totalizing conception of art. The avant-garde desired a release from time, whereas the fusion of Proletcult with the objectives of the Party meant an overall shift to the historically contingent terrain of "everyday life." Lenin objected to the leaping progress of proletarian art, instead favouring matters considered socially expedient, such as mass literacy. Through this shift, the monopoly on time falls into the grasp of the Party, and the utopian view of time espoused by the avant-garde is stifled. In turn, this shift generates significant political consequences -- is the avant-garde an anticipatory revolutionary art or merely bourgeois decadence? This artistic struggle prefigures the conflicting temporalities that will categorize the actions of the Party. The affective aesthetics of avant-garde time valorizes the irruptive power of art to break out of History, whereas the Party seeks to keep within a limited conception of History by suppressing a plurality of time. Buck-Morss cites the work of Malevich as an exemplary art that seeks a reconciliation between people and their emergent social environment, while for Lenin, the only valid dreamworlds are those that lead to political mobilization and the actualization of History. For the Party, this is a useful way to separate "true" proletarian art from "false" bourgeois art -- in the process, History becomes a dreamworld and from this point onwards political violence is always imminent. History can function as an alibi for oppression and a means of rechanneling utopian longing. This idea is important to Buck-Morss in delineating her post-Marxist stance, but she still holds out the option of a critical Marxism that can redeem this betrayal by History.

<6> The solution for Buck-Morss is the Benjaminian liberation of this disparate rubble of dream-images. Through the contemplation of discarded and inert utopian dreams, something can be salvaged and pressed into a new constellation of ideas. It is in the latter half of this section that Buck-Morss undertakes such a task, through the juxtaposition of varied fragments of time. Anecdotal, historical, and artistic fragments on Lenin are arranged loosely together alongside images of a dismantled Soviet culture, Malevich's polemical artistic statements on time, and the vicissitudes of the modernist square. This constellation of ideas provides a non-dogmatic and equivocal statement on the co-optation and dialectical struggle of Soviet art. I have some misgivings about this approach, since while this unconventional "negative dialectics" may be a way of avoiding a reductive synthesis, it could merely prove to be an incoherent and aimless argument for many readers. Another problem is that to speak of utopia, or utopian desire, may preclude the possibility of ever attaining such a state. Jean Baudrillard explains, "there cannot be a model of utopia, nor a utopian function, because utopia repudiates the inscription of every finality, whether it is in the unconscious or class struggle" (2001: 59). However, Buck-Morss clings to a utopian possibility, and despite her post-Marxist criticism of the dialectic, in the last instance she is a believer in History. Buck-Morss states, "dreamworlds are not merely illusions. In insisting that what is is not all there is, they are assertions of the human spirit and invaluable politically" (238). Buck-Morss possesses an unregenerate belief in dialectical utopia, and holds out the possibility of these dreamworlds eventually being converted into reality. In the transition to a universal capitalism there has been a loss of "revolutionary transcendence," but speaking like a true unreconstructed Marxist, Buck-Morss annexes this utopian change to an indeterminate future point. The problem with Buck-Morss' approach is that ultimately she has no substantive interest in utopia; her book criticizes the dialectical finalities of an ideological conception of History only in order to affirm the existence of the dialectic. Baudrillard explains:

In the topics of the sign, utopia is this gap, this fault, this emptiness which passes between the signifier and signified and subverts all signs. Utopia passes between every thing and its model, annulling their respective places. It displaces politics without end, and in so doing annuls is not what overcomes contradictions dialectically; rather, utopia transgresses them in their own terms (2001:59).

For Baudrillard, a true utopian politics is one that is associated with the ambivalence and spontaneity of symbolic exchange, not with a rehabilitated commitment to dialectics.

<7> The third section, "Dreamworlds of Mass Culture," examines cultural artefacts of Soviet modernism in order to shed light upon the present. These constellations of ideas are reinforced by a detailed matrix of footnotes. This section opens on Buck-Morss' ruminations on physiology and art, in an attempt to draw together sensory cognition and the avant-garde. Following this introduction, Buck-Morss turns to the neurological aspects of shock, analysed by Benjamin, linking this to the "Americanization" of production. The worker is inured to his/her labour by the process of production, and these principles of Taylorization are absorbed by Soviet art. In this way, Soviet art could not be considered as something totally removed from Western experience. However, this idea is dialectically explored through the phenomenon of "shock work," as practiced by the rural Soviet worker that was forced into the "five year plans." This labour process involved a more disorganized struggle that is somewhat different to the Americanized Promethean turn in Soviet practice. These ideas are investigated through the example of the Soviet drive for a "green city" that would produce a compensatory space outside production; this program is antithetical to Marx and Engels' desire to efface the difference between town and country. If anything, the notion of a "green city" resembles the bourgeois ideal of suburbia, and eventually even this was dispensed with by Soviet communism, as the general Promethean turn meant that such endeavours were not considered practical or expedient. Buck-Morss then turns to the "early" Marx's desire for reconciliation between nature and culture, which would enable a sensual appreciation of the world. Initially, this desire was shared by the Soviet avant-garde, not in the Western sense of a commodified sexuality, but in the utopian possibilities of organic life. Unfortunately, these possibilities were never realized, as the utopian potential of the "green city" was rejected in favour of Americanization through asphalt. However, Buck-Morss remains hopeful, seeing utopian possibilities in the Niederfinau ship-lift; the Nazi machine utopia stifled these utopian dreams. The "coffin works" of Vadim Sidur are the corollary of these shattered potentialities.

<8> In the following section Buck-Morss switches her focus, considering how a culture for the masses [2 ]has followed a similar trajectory of possibility and waste. The cinema was seized by both capitalism and communism as a means of motivating the masses through the production of virtual worlds; the Soviet model operates through the production of culture heroes to mobilize the masses, while in the West, the cinema was important in the process of mass assimilation through archetypal loners embodied in the Hollywood movie star. The Hollywood star provides a universalized concept of humanity via plastic surgery and artful direction, while the Soviet cinema provided this conception of a universal humanity by interpellating its audience as workers. These twin systems produce results in reality, with the monumentality of Soviet construction reflecting Stalin's presence, while in the West, the consumer acquires a fungible status. Buck-Morss concludes this section by indicating how Soviet industry was heavily reliant upon American technical knowledge and the sale of Russian art objects seized from the bourgeoisie.

<9> It is difficult to do full justice to the subtlety of Buck-Morss' argument here, since in attempting to reproduce it something of its delicacy is lost. The nuances of the constellation of ideas Buck-Morss has assembled are lost in briefly running over her book, and violence is done to the eloquence of her argument. Also, one inevitably produces a synthesis of ideas in a review such as this, which goes against her whole theoretical angle. If Buck-Morss employed a more conventional academic approach, her analysis in the following section that compares the movie poster for King Kong to the "Palace of the Soviets" would seem facile. King Kong is seen by Buck-Morss as associated with a desire to see the masses as an uncontrollable brute force -- she conceives of the film as a means of taming social dissent via culture industry romance and adventure, culminating in a beaten working class. Similarly, the "Palace of the Soviets" is a sublime object, demanding a sensory disengagement in favour of the symbolic representation of the collective -- this is best exemplified in the notorious "Stalin Cult." This comparison allows Buck-Morss to see the ghetto and the gulag as interchangeable; in both instances, a dreamworld of happiness is used to conceal them from the view of most people. Domestic space functions in a similar fashion in East and West -- it is seen by Buck-Morss as a concession granted to the worker/consumer, to mollify exploitation. Dreamworlds of happiness are seized by the culture industry to disguise the fundamental misery of domestic space. However, Buck-Morss bizarrely concludes this section by calling upon the unrealized collective desires of the socialist dream.

<10> The final section is largely anecdotal, consisting of an attempt by Buck-Morss to expose the historical processes beneath the experience of intellectuals in the midst of the thawing Cold War. Buck-Morss muses that the Soviet Union may have discovered postmodernism avant la lettre, and she refuses to limit the concept to a "cultural logic of late capitalism." Buck-Morss explains:

In terms of postmodern culture there were ways one could argue that the Soviet Union was in advance of the rest of the world, having attained this new historical stage before the capitalist West. Political cynicism, anti-utopianism, distrust of all totalizing discourses -- were not these characteristics of postmodernity already well established in Soviet dissident culture as part of the intellectual legacy of de-Stalinization? (232-233).

This seems to me to be a somewhat limited conception of postmodernity, and Jean Baudrillard is curiously absent from this particular constellation of ideas. Buck-Morss' argument also lacks the ludic, pataphysical dimension employed by Baudrillard, instead focusing on earnest critique and "real" world phenomena. I think the most troublesome aspect of Buck-Morss' argument is this ultimate commitment to "the real," despite her distrust of dialectical syntheses; her argument remains resolutely dialectical when she calls for the redemption of "revolutionary transcendence" inherent in both capitalist and socialist dream forms. Opposed to this, Baudrillard suggests, "each man is totally there at each instant. Society also is totally there at each instant" (1975: 166). Following Bataille, Baudrillard feels that all societies are "always already" there, and that the dialectical finalities referred to by Buck-Morss, even though couched in post-Marxist discourse, are an alibi for social domination. It is through this deception that we become complicit in our misery, by accepting the notion of a dreamworld in the first place. Buck-Morss continues, calling for a materialist metaphysics that will enable the "cognitive body" to criticize social oppression. This position is very similar to that of David Harvey, who feels the poststructuralist return to the body necessitates a renewed belief in the sensuous capacity of the human senses explored by the "early" Marx of the "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844)." This moral critique of capital sits rather uncomfortably with some of Buck-Morss' post-Marxist claims, and her invocation of the body as a means of fighting domination has not been thought through. Baudrillard makes the interesting point that in our own society, the body is seen as the ultimate referent, and its adornment is necessary in abjuring symbolic castration, whereas in precapitalist symbolic societies, the body is epiphenomenal to the play of signs. The body does not exist as a natural referent, and body adornment is used to attest to a fundamental symbolic castration, not ward it away [3 ]. The poststructuralist rediscovery of the body discloses the unsavoury possibility that desire has been stripped of its ambivalence and channelled as a productive force. From the perspective of Baudrillard, Buck-Morss is valorizing a social process that colludes with the aims of capitalism.

<11> However, the problems with her theoretical stance only begin with the omission of Baudrillard; space precludes a fuller analysis, but in order to retain a commitment to what is essentially a theory of modernity, she has also omitted a broad swathe of other significant theorists. For example, it is ironic that Buck-Morss ignores the vast psychoanalytic tradition, considering the importance of Freud to the Frankfurt School. Psychoanalysis was important to the Frankfurt School in understanding the psychic processes that function in ideology, and without this it is difficult to provide a plausible explanation of how the culture industries operate upon popular consciousness. Also, Buck-Morss does not seem cognisant of more recent Lacanian analyses of ideology, not to mention Zizek's own resurrection of Hegel, which could be fruitfully contrasted to the work of Buck-Morss. It could be argued that Buck-Morss' book constitutes an esoteric ideological fantasy, assembled to occlude the terrible jouissance that is the shortcomings of the dialectic, the gaps in its logic (the nonidentical) that Buck-Morss cannot tolerate. More alarmingly, Nietzsche is conspicuous in his absence from this book; the aristocratic Nietzschean tradition [4 ] has played an important role in repudiating Reason, and it is worth considering that the hostility Adorno felt towards the dialectic is largely due to the influence of Nietzsche. Because Buck-Morss cannot acknowledge the irrational, her book remains unaware of large chunks of everyday life, which feed directly into utopian thinking. It is perhaps significant that Buck-Morss' book lacks any analysis of Surrealism and Dadaism, and the conventional Marxist view held of these aesthetic movements.

<12> Buck-Morss concludes with some thoughts on the "problem of evil," and sees it as a Marcusean "forgetting of pain." The problem with this approach is that I wonder if her whole project is merely a hypermoralistic resurrection of an unreconstructed Marxism, thinly disguised by a patina of Walter Benjamin and negative dialectics. The world we inhabit today has a surfeit of morality, and we need the powers of reversion that evil possesses [5 ]. The power of evil lies in the alterity and ambivalence of symbolic exchange, the theatre of cruelty we seek to suppress. There is much to commend in Buck-Morss' book, and it demonstrates a high degree of intelligence and astute social comment, but ultimately there is a world of experience that she conveniently chooses to ignore, since it cannot be comfortably circumscribed by dialectics.

Liam McNamara


[1 ] cf. Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society. Baudrillard rejects the Marxist notion of scarcity, since societies that practice symbolic exchange enjoys the limitless wealth of reciprocal social relationships. [^]

[2 ] The term "the masses" has become pejorative in the current academic climate, but since Buck-Morss is locating her ideas in this Western Marxist tradition, she seems to have little choice but to use it. [^]

[3 ] See Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, p.92-98. [^]

[4 ] Famous exponents of the aristocratic Nietzschean tradition are theorists such as Henri Lefebvre, George Bataille, and Jean Baudrillard. [^]

[5 ] Hence the persecution of paedophiles, the moral panics surrounding pollution and disease, and the fulminations of the West against terrorism. [^]

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. The Consumer Society -- Myths and Structures. London: Sage Publications, 1998.

---. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981.

---. The Mirror of Production. St. Louis: Telos Press, 1975.

---. The Uncollected Baudrillard. London: Sage Publications, 2001.

Buck-Morss, Susan. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1989.

---. The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute. Hassocks: Harvester, 1978.

Harvey, David. Spaces of Hope. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.

Marx, Karl. "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844)." Early Writings. London: Penguin Books, 1975.