The thought of Giorgio Agamben has been often accused of being utopian. Antonio Negri, for example, branded Agamben’s core concept, “naked” or “bare life,” as a “utopian escape” and then identified in (State of Exception) a “feverish utopian anxiety.” Agamben has also been accused that his notion of politics of dissolves “into an eschatological, utopian vision of social life,” infused with strong theological and messianic overtones, which would make of it a particular version of political theology. But, what of the quite common unease for a political project that is deemed unrealizable, empty, even impolitic. Is it Utopia or Anti-utopia? The clue is provided for through Walter Benjamin.
At the end of his essay on Surrealism (Surrealism The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia), Walter Benjamin writes:
For what is the program of the bourgeois parties? A bad poem on springtime, filled to bursting with metaphors. The socialist sees that ‘finer future of our children and grandchildren’ in a society in which all act ‘as if they were angels’ and everyone has as much ‘as if he were rich’ and everyone lives ‘as if he were free.’ Of angels, wealth, freedom, not a trace – these are mere images.
In a piece written two years later, Der destruktive Charakter, he insists that a radical, revolutionary politics must renounce optimistic, metaphoric contemplation:
The destructive character sees no image hovering before him.
Benjamin does not employ the term utopia; it is clear nonetheless that a political project founded on mere – and optimistic – images of the future is the target of his harsh criticism. If political utopianism in fact originated – strongly influenced by world travels and discoveries of new lands – by situating a political alternative in a spatial displacement (a nonplace that is, however, another place), at least from the Enlightenment it assumed the character of a “better future” toward which a progressive politics should strive. If, following Benjamin, we define “utopia” as a political project construed around images of the future and rhetorically based on the syntagma “as if ” (als ob), then Agamben’s project exudes an intrinsic and intense anti-utopianism. It is true that there is no explicit attack on utopia in his work and even that, in the preface to (Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture), he defines the “philosophical topology” presented as his method as “constantly oriented in the light of utopia”; however, the messianism in which his philosophical project is steeped constitutes an implicit but evident rejection of utopianism.