This installment of the early-career research spotlight series looks at the work of John-Patrick Schultz, currently an adjunct in the Ethics Program at Villanova University who will be starting a full time position at Pierce College in February. Schultz received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Villanova University in 2014, where he wrote about revolutionary temporality with reference to Marx, Bloch, and Benjamin. He specializes in social and political philosophy, critical theory, and 19th and 20th century German philosophy. He has published several articles and received several awards, including the Harvey Teaching Award and the Assistantship for Interdisciplinary Study in Philosophy and Theology.
Much of your work seems to be framed around understanding the spatial and temporal qualities of revolution. What experiences did you have that led you to these topics, and what conclusions have you reached?
There were two main experiences behind my interest in space, time, and revolution.
To start: I saw first-hand the ways that movements can warp the space and time of capitalism. By now it’s become common knowledge that in neoliberal capitalism, it’s harder than ever to imagine radical social change. The forces shaping society seem too powerful or natural to do anything about. This experience has both a temporal and a spatial aspect. We seem to live in a futureless present, and this takes the form of spaces—buildings, squares, homes, highways, cities—filled with things we can’t genuinely reshape. But the Global Justice Movement, Black Lives Matter, etc. challenge both attitudes. They drag a very different, utopian future into the present, and they do this by turning spaces like highways and squares into utopian experiments in alternatives.
Second: I started looking for theoretical tools to make sense of these experiments and to add to them somehow. Critical theory seemed like the natural place to start. But I found that much more should be said about space and time in capitalism today, and about the ways recent social movements transform them.
These experiences sparked two basic questions for me: “What’s the value of recent, utopian struggles against capitalism? And what can theory contribute to those struggles?” One basic conclusion so far is that upheavals don’t just happen in space and time. Since capital’s space and time aren’t neutral—they are parts of its domination—experimenting with other space-times becomes both a condition for and a goal of struggle today. This means that understanding how space, time, and revolution interact is essential for understanding social change. Another conclusion has been that utopianism—like in Occupy and Black Lives Matter—is crucial in fighting for social change. If we are part of a present that seems to have no future, utopianism can be a crowbar for wrenching the present open to something else and revealing a wider field of possibilities than might be otherwise visible.
Your dissertation takes up the work of Marx, Bloch, and Benjamin, and some of your more recent work uses ideas from contemporary Marxists like Jameson. While there are significant similarities in the approaches these philosophers have, there are also notable differences. Where do you locate your own philosophy in the panoply of figures you discuss?
My basic project is to help create a concrete utopian social theory for the 21st century. This project is built on a critique of Ernst Bloch’s theory of utopia under very new conditions, and so I’ll concentrate on my relationship to him here.
Bloch—beyond even Walter Benjamin—is groundbreaking in his work on the ways revolution transforms space and time. He has also been very influential on the way a great deal of social theory sees utopia and utopianism. But in my dissertation, I look at the limits of Bloch’s work. In his writing Bloch often falls back on the idea that space and time are natural dimensions that we can’t change, and so he doesn’t really embrace his own radical insights.
More recently, in “Social Acceleration and the New Politics of Time” (forthcoming in Radical Philosophy Review) I show that Bloch is also deeply limited by his context. Even his most important ideas have to be rethought in light of the present. One of his key contributions is that utopia can be “concrete”—not just an abstract and impossible dream. We can spot in capitalism real possibilities for radically different ways of life, so I can not only dream of a better world, but (if I see the world right) I can also help create it. But Bloch’s utopianism embraces an inadequate ontology of history: true utopianism means, for him, seeing history as an unfolding, long-term process we can influence. This ontology applies less and less.
Bloch wrote at a time when societal change in the West happened at relatively slower rates, and this encouraged a view of history as a future-oriented process. But our world is moving faster and faster. The future takes the shape of sudden, often unpredictable developments (which still keep power structures more or less the same, of course). More and more, time stops looking like a process and starts looking like the closed present I mentioned above. This is one reason why movements are tending to use a “prefigurative” politics that immediately experiments with the future in the present. So when not only Bloch but also his heirs insist history is a process, they’re using an idea that needs to be rethought.
I see in movements like the Global Justice Movement and 15-M a utopianism that escapes Bloch. Those movements—under very different conditions—challenge capitalism through prefigurative utopian “misuses” of capital’s products that collapse the alternative future into the present. We see this in the ways Black Lives Matter takes over highways. Roads become zones of radical equality and solidarity, basic building blocks of change for BLM. This strategy becomes more and more central since it’s a reaction to the increasingly closed present. But it seems important also because we don’t yet have the kinds of solidarity and plans we need to make a new world. Prefiguration is a kind of laboratory for developing those under new conditions. In the meantime, movements are also showing us that our world can’t be reduced to process and is open to other liberating (mis-)uses.
(Prefigurative politics obviously isn’t the only thing movements do, and of course there’s still an important place for a politics of long-term change. But process is being subordinated to prefiguration.)
Because things have changed since Bloch’s time, we need a view of history and utopia for the 21st century that can inform left theory. The primary goal can’t be to trace history’s process from past to future, as it was for Bloch. Instead, I think a critical and utopian theory should, first of all, explore present possibilities for a utopian “misuse.” This suggests a different ontology: the present no longer appears first and foremost as a moment of a long-term process. Instead, it appears as a site surrounded by radical alternatives that we could experiment with here and now. This is a kind of inversion of the usual idea of utopia. Traditionally, utopia has been seen as an island. For More, it’s a literal and spatial one somewhere in the present; for Bloch, it’s a figurative, future one. In light of the present, we need to frame the existing society itself as an island surrounded by alternative, even utopian, possibilities. This kind of view is, I think, helpful as a way of being attuned to not only what new movements are doing but also the new conditions they face. And it is an approach that can contribute to the utopian imagination too.
You have been involved in non-academic publishing that tries to spread philosophical ideas to actual political movements (like Occupy). Can you tell us something about the work you’ve done and how it has helped inform your scholarship?
I’ve been part of a few activist theory projects over the past several years. For example, with some colleagues and friends (including Çetin Gürer and Gabriel Rockhill) I co-created Occupy Philly during the Occupy days. It was a magazine growing out of a local journal for aesthetic and political theory here in Philadelphia called Machete. Around that time I also worked with a free community lecture series (“Dissecting Capitalism,” created by Çetin Gürer, Cindy Milstein and others). More recently, I was part of The UnConventional Times (the brainchild of Laura Evangelisto, Jack Grauer, Judas Lee, and Suzy Subways, and others too I think); it was an activist paper (featured on the Democracy Now! website) that critiqued the racial, economic, and environmental policies of the democratic party during the DNC in Philadelphia. Right now I’m part of Villanovans Against Sweatshops, which does a fair amount of writing for university outlets.
I wouldn’t describe myself as spreading philosophy to people who don’t have it. I found that social movements are deeply philosophical in a broad sense, which is probably just an inevitable part of their practical tasks: managing, questioning, and creating ways to interpret the world. Oftentimes there are more “properly” philosophical conversations happening, too. We can see this kind of “immanent theory” in the flood of things Occupy wrote (Occupy Philly; Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy; The Occupied Wall Street Journal; etc.)
Since movements are always doing philosophy for themselves, my work with them raised a major question for me: “What can academic theory offer movements?” Obviously the task of the professional thinker isn’t to “lead” these movements, even to lead them in thinking (for lots of reasons). Instead, the academic can (a) help create spaces for movements to work out their own theory (as we tried to do with Occupy Philly). At others times, it can (b) add to the chorus of activists and others that are clarifying and critiquing key ideas and tendencies. It can also—and this is the aim of my academic work on utopia—(c) help develop the dreams of another world and the rejection of the “closed present” that are sometimes tacit in struggles.
You reference the value and importance of utopian thought quite a bit. I have heard a number of thinkers say such thought is misguided, as it ignores the reality of the situation and demands more than humans are capable of. Some utilitarians argue that utopian thought wants perfect happiness without any pain, and even John Rawls, in Law of Peoples, argues that our vision of utopia should be “realistic.” How do you respond to, or situate yourself in relation to, these responses?
There are many kinds of critiques of utopianism, and many are opposed to others (e.g., the Marxist, anarchist, and liberal varieties). Instead of focusing on one of these, I’ll talk about a familiar anti-utopianism most of us already know about.
This is the “common sense” understanding I mean: (a) utopianism is a blueprint for a future, much better, perhaps “perfect” world; (b) it’s impossible (i.e., unrealistic) to create that world, given certain unchangeable or natural features of society/nature; (c) as a result, attempts to create that world will almost certainly lead to a totalitarian dystopia; (d) and so we must reject utopianism. This all assumes (e) that our current society is a stable, “realistic” one that’s desirable over the (likely doomed) utopian project. Karl Popper’s is one of the best-known statements of this.
We can see a couple of problems already. Utopianism is hardly limited to blueprints for perfect people or happiness. In fact, it’s best to see it primarily as a desire for a much better world. It can give rise to blueprints, but it can also work without blueprints to critique society (Adorno does this), to sell products, and so on. Levitas’ Concept of Utopia says a lot more on this point. And as a desire, utopianism saturates our world in the form of media, advertising, etc. In this sense it’s hard to see why utopianism should be unilaterally rejected. Also, the “blueprints” for a left political utopia that dominate today are different than the kind that Fourier and Plato created and that a critique like Popper’s has in mind. Today, the movements inspired by left utopian ideas don’t emphasize either perfect people or perfect happiness, but the need for a radically democratized, environmentally sustainable society, and they try to embrace these ideals now to some degree. It’s unclear how this vision is more likely to lead to a nightmare than our current society.
This brings me to the idea that utopia isn’t realistic, since the structures of this world won’t allow radical social improvements. But we need to flip this argument on its head. Our own society (neoliberal capitalism) can’t be considered “realistic,” stable, or desirable, since it systemically relies on domination and growing inequality, constantly sparks crisis and discontent on a large scale, and is hurtling towards global environmental catastrophe. In other words, we’re living in a world that’s headed towards a dystopia for some, and for the rest it already is a dystopia. Žižek says something similar. Reforms might be a salve for a time, but dreaming of and fighting for a radically better world is probably the most pressing and “realistic” social task we have.
Also: we should recognize that anti-utopianism typically ignores the ways our perception is shaped by our social context—neoliberal capitalism—which can hide from us all but a narrow range of possibilities. Utopianism is invaluable because it can help reveal the limits of our perception, question them, see their contingency, and consider the wider field of possibilities a situation contains. Utopianism can be “concrete,” to quote Bloch.
Take, as a very minor example, a utopian idea that’s been floating around for some time: a universal basic income (I’m borrowing from Ruth Levitas’ Utopia as Method). Of course, this idea could also be put to dystopian use (as an excuse to eliminate many social services). But in its stronger form it points up some of the most basic assumptions of neoliberal capitalism (“meritocracy,” the inherent good of work, etc.) and it can be a powerful way of thinking about the limits of our current world, pointing out that there might be other, very different ways of organizing things. The kind of anti-utopianism I’m critiquing, then, misses important parts of “reality”—its own limits and social alternatives. And utopianism shows us parts of the world we didn’t see before and that make change—even radical change—possible. Demanding the “impossible” means we’re being realistic.
You can ask John-Patrick Schultz questions about his work in the comments section below.
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