If you thought my engagement with Hegel’s Philosophy of History took a long time, the next major work in my reading lineup for the utopias project is Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason. I only had time today to read the forward by Frederic Jameson, another thinker I need to read more of.
It’s a Sunday post, so I don’t exactly have a huge amount to say. Mostly, I want to talk about some of the preliminary thinking that went into the utopias project before I officially began it. In particular, I want to talk a little about what led to my suspicion that Sartre would be important for it.
One of the central political ideas in my ecophilosophy project is the critique of what is often called Edenic thinking. It’s also been called nostalgia thinking, and one of the cheekiest formulations is the oft-cited Phil Sandifer’s, Heritage Theme Park thinking. Environmentalist movements often involve a tendency of people to romanticize the pre-industrial, and sometimes the pre-human world. In a political discourse centred on the problems of industrial civilization, one should expect a skeptical attitude to industry. But sometimes this thinking became positively hostile to humanity’s existence. There aren’t too many openly mass-homicidal environmentalist movements, but the movement has a very pessimistic attitude about humanity’s potential. It’s sometimes to the point where people conclude that the world was better off without humanity. One of my goals in the ecophilosophy project is defending humanity’s existence from this critique.
Regarding the utopias project, the environmentalist vision of a perfectly harmonious world before the existence of humanity idealizes the past. Nature has always been cruel and harsh, and human industry isn’t causing the first mass extinction in Earth’s history, but the sixth (or seventh, depending on how you define 'mass'). So there’s a false vision of a perfect pre-human world. And I realized that the inaccessibility of the past let us create this vision. Similar utopian visions, except of the future, have motivated communist revolutionaries: an inaccessible time is idealized, allowing this imagined world to take precedent over the present world. This is the overall goal of the utopias project: utopian and revolutionary thinking that prioritizes an idealized inaccessible time over a devalued present are inherently dangerous.
You might ask where Jean-Paul Sartre fits into this? Right now, it’s just a suspicion, an instinct based on my knowledge of his personality, and my readings of his earlier work (some of Being and Nothingness, the Existentialism Is a Humanism lecture, but also his first novel Nausea, which was a touchstone for my existential argument in the ecophilosophy project). The Critique of Dialectical Reason was his massive and detailed engagement with the left-wing revolutionary concepts and movements of his time.
If the existential ideas he dealt with earlier see themselves written anew in criticism of those movements, they might help me supply a detailed conceptual groundwork for my broader contribution to utopian thinking that overcomes the problems of these time-shifting idealizations. Utopian thinking only functions in the present moment. And I think Sartre can help me make this point. Or at least score me a pleasant trip to Paris.