Ernst Bloch’s Teleological Paradox

Ernst Bloch’s Teleological Paradox:

The temporal tension in Bloch’s utopian philosophy

There is a tension in Ernst Bloch’s utopian philosophy between the ideas of the ‘Not-Yet’ and the ‘Totality’, which many critics have explored.  Throughout his body of literature, which documents his development of a utopian philosophy spanning the twentieth century (from Geist der Utopie in 1918 to Experimentum Mundi in 1975), Bloch uses a variety of figures to illuminate his idea of utopia – some of which are in contradiction with one another, and others of which may be used to elucidate different concepts at different times.  Partly, this was an attempt by Bloch, in his own Expressionistic writing style, to jolt his readers into a shock of recognition through his elliptical and enigmatic prose.  Through the political act of reading, engendered by a text that uses montage, ellipsis and formal experimentation, Bloch intended to ‘“shock” his readers into an awareness of their own inner needs so that they would break out of themselves and break down those reified conditions that prevent communication and collective action’ (Zipes, 1988: xxix).  Therefore, it could be argued that much of the paradoxical content of Bloch’s utopian theory is intentional, designed to bring his readers into an experience of utopian consciousness through a direct encounter with his works.

However, there may also be aspects of Bloch’s paradoxical writing that are less intentional, which critics have approached and interpreted from a variety of perspectives, each of which illuminates a different facet of the teleological as it is presented in Bloch’s philosophy.  Some consider that Bloch ‘stressed the teleological’ (Jay, 1984: 183), others that ‘Bloch’s philosophy is not teleological in a sense of a given goal’ (Boldyrev, 2014: 123).  Bloch himself, as late as 1964 in a discussion with Theodor Adorno, contended that, ‘In a non-teleological world there is no such thing [as utopia]’ (Bloch, 1988: 12), ostensibly suggesting that he fully intended his utopian philosophy to be interpreted in terms of its teleological assumptions and the figure of the ‘Totality’.  Yet, a reading of his philosophy, leading to an examination of his words on the subject elsewhere and at other times continues to reveal the implicitly non-teleological, particularly through the figures of the ‘Not-Yet’ and the ‘unfinished dream’.

The source of much of the tension between a teleological and a non-teleological interpretation of Bloch’s utopian philosophy lies in his unorthodox alliance between Marxism and mystical messianism.  On one level, Bloch’s deeply held Marxist conviction that ‘utopia’ would become manifest as a specifically socialist utopia gave him the sense of a teleological goal that was to be achieved by any means possible.  On another level, Bloch’s own philosophy and methodology cautioned against the assumption of utopian completion, maintaining a messianic perspective on the continued process of historical development.  However, these distinctions are further complicated by strands of teleological thinking that can be read through the various forms of mystical and religious messianism, and non-teleological strands of dialectical materialism and process philosophy that can be read through the various forms of Marxist commentary.

In this paper, I will begin to explore Bloch’s teleological paradox and the ways that it is manifested in the act of writing, specifically in Bloch’s own writing.  My initial focus will be on the various critical interpretations of, and responses to, Bloch’s teleological paradox.  This will be followed by an examination of the ways in which this paradox is made manifest in Bloch’s own literary style.


Two early Western commentators who engaged with Bloch’s philosophy in the 1980s were Wayne Hudson and Martin Jay.  At that time, both Hudson and Jay were exploring the specifically Marxist implications of his ideas, and their responses to Bloch’s teleological thinking reflect this.  For Jay, ‘[a]lthough Bloch endorsed Lukács’ view of the proletariat as the “we-subject” of history and agreed that the humanization of the historical process was progressive, he stressed the teleological power of its end rather than the genetic creativity of its beginning.’ (Jay, 1984: 183)  This idea of Bloch’s is summarised in The Principle of Hope, where he states that, ‘True genesis is not at the beginning, but at the end, and it starts to begin only when society and existence become radical, i.e. grasp their roots.  But the root of history is the working, creating human being who reshapes and overhauls the given facts’ (Bloch, quoted in Boldyrev, 2014: 36).  Here, though, in Bloch’s statement is the paradox itself: the true genesis is at the end, which necessarily becomes a new beginning in itself.  The end is not an end, only a further beginning, a moment of creative genesis placed into the continuous present tense of a ‘working, creating human being’.  It prompts the question of whether Bloch’s thinking here is determined by a totalising end-goal – which would be teleological – or whether that end negates itself and becomes the forward moving momentum of a continued present – which would be non-teleological.

Jay suggests that Bloch shared with Lukács ‘a fervent hope in normative totality as the end of all alienation and reification and a belief in the coherence of the process of history leading to that end’ (Jay, 1984: 195).  Indeed, Bloch’s Marxism did often lead him to this conclusion.  As stated above, Bloch’s utopian ideal was of a specifically socialist utopia, therefore he imagined the ‘normative totality’ of the end to be a time when the socialist ideal would be fully realised and ‘all alienation and reification’ would end – a concept he figured as Heimat.

At times, Bloch’s focus on the perfection of the telos engenders a call to radical action in the present moment that will bring about the desired goal by any means possible.  In relation to this, Hudson states that

As early as Spirit of Utopia Bloch held that it was necessary for the categorical imperative to carry a gun, and his acceptance of revolutionary violence was unequivocal in Thomas Münzer.  To the extent that he accepted an element of guilt as part of his endorsement of such violence, Bloch subscribed to the view that utopia could only be realised as an end if there was a temporary and partial renunciation of utopian means.  Where Bloch differed from the orthodox Marxists was in holding that such renunciation should be partial (Hudson, 1982: 42).

Clearly in this context the teleological is given precedence in Bloch’s thinking.  When the desired end becomes the focus, the means of accomplishing that end become secondary to its achievement.  In this specifically Marxist political context, the telos as the socialist utopia is the primary focus of utopian thought and action, justifying the ‘partial renunciation of utopian means’ that might be required to reach the goal.  Significantly, though, this prioritising of the telos has the reductive effect of negating a large part of Bloch’s own utopian philosophy – utopia as that which ‘is in the process of being’ – which further highlights the deep contradiction between the teleological and the non-teleological in Bloch’s thought.  If the utopian telos is the goal then all means can be made justifiable.  However, if utopia is always ‘in the process of being’, then utopia is the means, not the end; therefore any partial or whole ‘renunciation of utopian means’ becomes a renunciation of the utopian process itself.

Later commentators, such as Vincent Geoghegan in 1996, Peter Thomson in 2009 and most recently Ivan Boldyrev in 2014, have emphasised the non-teleological thinking present in Bloch’s philosophy, as embodied both by his messianism and his development of Engels’ ideas of dialectical materialism.  Peter Thomson states that ‘[the utopian] process would not follow any teleological path or head ineluctably towards some metaphysically or materially predetermined outcome, Bloch says.  Rather, it would be the product of the endless and contingent process of the creative and transformative activity of human labor and endeavor itself’ (Thomson, 2009: xviii-xix).  Evidence of this can be found in Bloch’s definitions of utopia as that which is ‘in the process of being’ (Bloch, 1988: 15) and his postulation of the ‘not-yet-conscious’ (Bloch, 1988: xxxi).  Bloch addresses the ‘endless and contingent process’ of the utopian moment in A Philosophy of the Future where he suggests that, ‘in order to assist the birth of tomorrow, his [mankind’s] thinking is deeply concerned with matters of the present moment’ (Bloch, 1970: 85).  In this construction, Bloch makes a connection between the immediacy of the present moment and the contingent process of ‘the birth of tomorrow’.  Rather than postulating a specific telos or utopian outcome, it is the process that is key here, making the utopian project non-teleological, despite its forward moving momentum.

Furthermore, Bloch’s own summarising formulation, ‘S is not yet P’ (cited in Harvey Cox’s 1970 foreword to Ernst Bloch, Man on His Own: 9) is more suggestive of the incompletion of a non-teleological world than the necessarily teleological world that Bloch himself advocates in the 1964 discussion with Adorno quoted above (Bloch, 1988: 12).  Similarly to Thomson, Boldyrev (2014) attempts to make sense of the paradox thus: ‘Bloch’s philosophy is not teleological in a sense of a given goal.  It is, rather, a philosophy of action organized around Marxist praxis and a philosophy of an unaccomplished universe’ (123).  This understanding works on Bloch’s sense of the perpetual forward momentum of the universe, which is governed by the creative action and engagement of the collective human subject and its interaction with the objective in a continually open developmental process, rather than a universe that is being ineluctably driven towards a specified telos, or end.

In Atheism in Christianity, Bloch writes:

It is the Not-there of each present Moment, which, still veiled to itself and seeking itself, truly “evolves” into being in and through World-process and experimental forms, for it is their primary stimulus and driving force.  …  Its place in human history is at the decisive front of the Experimentum Mundi, where man lies equally open to everything and nothing (Bloch, 2009: 205)

In this passage, Bloch emphasises the incompletion and experimental nature of utopia, which may yet result in everything or nothing: it is the role of ‘human history’ to act as seeker and experimenter and to determine the outcomes.  However, Bloch’s greater emphasis on the present moment, which in his writing is italicised and the ‘M’ of moment capitalised, suggests also that there will be no final and ultimate outcome, that it is the experimental process of ‘each present Moment’ that determines the outcome of the next present moment to continue its perpetual evolution.  Here, Bloch’s utopian theory is non-teleological in its focus on the present moment, the evolution of the world-process and the role of human history ‘at the decisive front of the Experimentum Mundi’.  It is also far more abstract and intangible than his ‘concrete’ ideas of an imagined socialist utopia: there is no specific goal or telos to achieve here, only the continuing experimentation of the process.


It is clear then, that in Bloch’s own words and their subsequent interpretation by commentators and critics, both a teleological and a non-teleological reading are possible.  Tom Moylan (1997) offers an illuminating insight into this paradox within Bloch’s philosophy.  Exploring the apparent inconsistency between Bloch’s staunch support of Stalinist Marxism and his open-ended utopian philosophy, Moylan locates the contradiction within Bloch’s conflicting approach to teleology.  His insights illuminate the paradox of teleological thinking in Bloch, and identify Bloch’s own ideological blind spot that was the weakness of his utopian philosophy.  However, having identified this blind spot, it becomes possible to engage with Bloch’s utopian philosophy with greater clarity and an understanding of where its limitations lie, rather than to dismiss his thinking as wholly contradictory and unfounded.  Moylan says,

On the one hand, [Bloch] adopted a tactical tolerance of Stalinism that resulted from his strategic belief in the power of the utopian telos to pull history forward.  …  On the other hand … he neglected the critical and negative aspects of the utopian function that could have challenged and subverted even the most apparently progressive of concrete utopias.  …  Here, then, is the dilemma of Ernst Bloch’s utopian politics and of his utopian method.  Although a long-range vision enables humanity to move beyond the darkness of the lived moment, unless that vision includes an immediate critique of the ideological appropriation  of the “utopian” achievements along the way, that vision itself can betray the very processes which are meant to lead toward it.  …  [U]nless both moments of the critical dialectic of the utopian function are maintained – unless the negative, denunciatory moment and the positive, annunciatory moment are both employed so that each challenges the limitations of the other – the utopian method will fail through an acceptance of the provisional “success” valorized by short-sighted ideology (Moylan, 1997: 110-111).

Moylan identifies the crux of the problem as Bloch’s own ‘short-sighted ideology’ which valorises the ideal of a Marxist, socialist utopia as the telos or end point that ‘pull[s] history forward’, and neglects the critical insights of Bloch’s own utopian philosophical methodology which clearly suggests that the utopian process is ‘unfinished’ (Bloch, 1988: 119), ‘not yet’ (Bloch 1988: 3) and ‘in the process of being’ (Bloch, 1988: 15).  Moylan makes clear that there is a critical dialectic at work in Bloch’s utopian philosophy at its best: ‘the negative, denunciatory moment’ is the perpetual ‘not-yet’ of the necessarily incomplete utopia; ‘the positive, annunciatory moment’ is the manifestation of that which was hitherto ‘not-yet-conscious’ (Bloch, 1998: xxxi) as the arrival of a partial utopian moment.  Both elements of this critical dialectic must be maintained ‘so that each challenges the limitations of the other’ in order for the ‘utopian method’ to succeed.  That is, for the utopian philosophical method to succeed there must be the recognition of that which was hitherto ‘not-yet-conscious’ along with the challenging recognition that that which is manifest remains ‘unfinished’.  Bloch’s critical blind spot here was his conviction that the telos of utopia would be a socialist utopia, a teleological understanding which is implicit within Marxist philosophy itself, leading him to conflate the ideological assumptions of his own time with the teleological end-goal of the historical process.

In short, ‘If the utopian goal is valorized at the expense of the utopian project, the method fails’ (Moylan, 1997: 111).  Thus, in relation to Hudson’s perception that Bloch ‘subscribed to the view that utopia could only be realised as an end if there was a temporary and partial renunciation of utopian means’ (Hudson, 1982: 42), it becomes clear that the one negates the other.  When the critical utopian dialectic is suspended, the utopian process itself recedes.  At the precise moment of the ‘renunciation of utopian means’ the relinquishment of utopia is also enacted.  As Moylan makes clear, to valorise the utopian telos ‘at the expense of the utopian project’ is to fail in the utopian method.  This process negates the immediacy of utopia as that which is ‘in the process of being’, that which is necessarily and perpetually unfinished in its nature, favouring the concept of a teleological end, which necessitates violence to become achievable.  According to Bloch’s own utopian philosophical methodology, however, utopia can never be accomplished as a teleological end goal – it can only ever be accomplished now, in the perpetual incompleteness of the present moment.  Therefore utopian means are utopian ends for so long as they continue in their movement towards the ‘not yet’; non-utopian means will never accomplish or lead to utopian ends because the methodology is broken, the dialectic is in suspension.

Moylan concludes:

The major methodological difficulty in Bloch’s philosophy of hope lies in his overemphasis of the traditional Western category of telos, the apparently powerful omega point at the end of history that pulls human emancipation forward.  To the extent that Bloch privileges this totalizing telos in the name of communism’s triumph he dilutes the subversive power of the utopian function as it wends its way through the cracks of everyday life (Moylan, 1997: 112).

This privileging of the ‘totalizing telos in the name of communism’s triumph’ may perhaps find its roots in a quotation from Karl Marx that Bloch often cited in his works: ‘Then it will become clear that since long ago the world has the dream of a thing and the world only has to have consciousness to really possess the thing’ (Marx, quoted in Bloch, 1998: 117).  On this basis of this, Bloch defines the utopian function as ‘the unfinished dream forward’ (Bloch, 1988: 119).  Here again is his paradox.  Bloch’s ‘unfinished dream’ remains necessarily unfinished, without a ‘totalizing telos’, and yet he takes from Marx the idea of communism to be ‘the dream of a thing’ and concretises this idea as ‘the thing’ to be ‘possess[ed]’.  Bloch’s philosophical insight is to categorise the utopian as that which is ‘in the process of being’, revealed in the creative daydreams of the ‘not-yet-conscious’, and perpetually ‘unfinished’ by virtue of its containing within itself the seeds of the ‘not yet’.  His political ideology, however, at times reduces utopia to a specified teleological outcome towards which the world is being pulled.

Yet, it is the ‘subversive power of the utopian function’ that Bloch most often seeks to embody through his own radical literary aesthetic and the methodological principles of his utopian philosophy.  Therefore, Moylan suggests that to read Bloch with an understanding of this critical methodological weakness is to be able to discern the moments where Bloch’s utopian radicalism opens into the subversive power of the utopian function, and where it collapses into the reduced ideological assumption of a socialist telos.  This, then, becomes a useful interpretive tool for reading Bloch’s teleological paradox.

Crucially, however, Peter Thomson also notes that in relation to paradox and our intellectual endeavour to interpret it, ‘the dualistic sterility of the “either/or” position disables our critical faculties and our ability to recognise that the contradictions within a situation carry within them the potential solution of that situation and that the surplus of one carries over into the corpus of the other’ (Thomson, 2009: x).  Therefore, whilst Moylan’s critical interpretation of Bloch’s ‘methodological difficulty’ provides an insightful and useful tool for reading the contradictory teleologies within Bloch’s utopian philosophy, it perhaps remains important not to attempt to draw too sharp a line between them, as this risks ‘disabl[ing] our critical faculties’.  In particular, as mentioned above, it is difficult to sharply divide the contradiction in Bloch’s utopian theory into a binary Marxist-teleological / messianic-non-teleological dichotomy.  There may be threads of the non-teleological that Bloch may have inherited from Marxism through the concepts of dialectical materialism and process philosophy, which he later expanded and altered for the purposes of his own utopian philosophy.  There may also be strands of the teleological in the various interpretations of messianism as a mystical or religious process.  These cross-pollinations make it difficult to formulate a dichotomy based on Bloch’s contradictory usage of the teleological in his philosophy, and are suggestive of Thomson’s recognition that the surplus generated by contradiction may be fertile ground for new exploration and understanding.

Moreover, it is important not to conflate the idea of the forward momentum of the historical process with the teleological movement towards a closed and determined end-goal.  Bloch figures both of these ideas within his utopian philosophy.  However it is possible for there to be forward momentum which does not lead towards a telos.  Bloch suggests that ‘[the content of the day-dream] is concerned with an as far as possible unrestricted journey forward, so that instead of reconstituting that which is no longer conscious, the images of that which is not yet can be phantasied into life and into the world’ (Bloch, 1970: 87).  This is the function of the ‘not-yet-conscious’, which Bloch postulates in opposition to Freud’s unconscious.  Whereas the unconscious of the night-dream is ‘a journey back into repressed experiences and their associations’ (Bloch, 1970: 87), the ‘not-yet-conscious’ of the day-dream journeys forward to bring back the images of the not-yet.  This forward momentum leads towards the not-yet, rather than towards a specified telos.  Bloch continues to say that ‘[t]his not-yet … remains unsatisfied in the before-us’ (Bloch, 1970: 92).  Here the forward momentum of the utopian process is not necessarily equal to the movement towards a utopian telos.  The not-yet that is the goal of the ‘as far as possible unrestricted journey forward’ continues to remain ‘unsatisfied in the before-us’, rather than taking on the specific dimensions of an accomplished fact.  Therefore, an exploration and understanding of the forward momentum and the teleological are vital for an understanding of the function of the teleological in Bloch’s utopian philosophy.  Each of these can be seen to be expressed in Bloch’s own radical utopian aesthetic.


Bloch’s radical utopian aesthetic

Jack Zipes, in exploring the radical utopian aesthetic at work in Bloch’s own writing, comments on Bloch’s conception of ‘[r]eading and interpreting [as] political acts of detection, pointing toward resolution while demonstrating how this resolution is related to the ultimate mystery that is still in need of illumination’ (in Bloch: xl).  This figures the act of reading as, paradoxically, both teleological and non-teleological.  In this formulation, reading both ‘point[s] toward resolution’ and ‘demonstrate[s]’ that no resolution is possible.  In its pointing toward resolution it is teleological, suggestive of the telos of a final resolution.  Yet in its demonstration of the relationship with the ‘ultimate mystery that is still in need of illumination’ it suggests that there can be no fixed and final resolution.  Similarly Ivan Boldyrev explores Bloch’s utopian aesthetic in terms of Bloch’s own utopian philosophy, suggesting that ‘Bloch’s thinking is constantly glimmering, dashing around … between denying the system altogether and realizing that the system is indispensable, between the necessity and impossibility of the absolute utterance’ (Boldyrev, 2014: 35).  It is the paradoxical ‘necessity and impossibility of the absolute utterance’ that both Bloch and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha seek to embody in their radical literary aesthetic.  Cha’s exploration of this paradox will be discussed in a future paper.  Bloch’s own utopian aesthetic embodies this paradox in its style, and in so doing, seeks to illuminate ‘the darkness of the immediately experienced moment’ (Bloch, 1988: xxxi) in order to bring readers into an experience of the utopian consciousness through the act of reading.  Furthermore, it is through an exploration of the realm of the ‘not-yet-conscious’ (Bloch, 1988: xxxi), or of that which is ‘not yet in the sense of a possibility’ (Bloch, 1988: 3), that Bloch proposes that the act of writing has the potential to energise the not-yet-conscious and to shape it ‘into images that deny ideology’s hold over humankind’ (Zipes, 1988: xxxii).  In this way, ‘literary activity becomes a special form of dream work’ (Gert Ueding, cited in Bloch: xxxiii).

For Bloch, utopian consciousness is likened to a kind of dream work, where the not-yet-conscious (Bloch’s forward-facing supplement to Freud’s backward-looking unconscious), can be accessed and made conscious, in order to be brought into being in the world.  Bloch suggests that it is made manifest as that which is ‘in the process of being’ (15).  For Bloch, the act of writing has the potential to make conscious the not-yet-conscious of the unfinished dream, illuminating its presence in the world and pointing the way towards its objective realisation, beyond the individual subjectivity of the writer’s imaginative agency.  However, it is in the nature of the unfinished dream to remain perpetually just out of reach, such that the realisation of that which was hitherto not-yet-conscious contains within itself the unfinished dream of something other, beyond itself.  Thus, it is the perpetually unfinished nature of the work of the writer that is necessary for the continual illumination of the not-yet-conscious, which contains within itself the anticipation of utopian possibility.

Vincent Geoghegan says of Bloch’s philosophy and aesthetic, ‘[t]he universe was unfinished; it was in need of completion, it was “not-yet”, and its future was decisively in the hands of an active humanity, and aesthetic radicalism was on the front line’ (Geoghegan, 1996: 30).  Geoghegan also cites Sándor Radnóti as saying, “Bloch is one of the first to give a philosophical basis to avant-gardism” ([‘Lukács and Bloch’ in A. Heller (ed.) Lukács Revalued, 1983, Oxford, Blackwell p71] Geoghegan, 1996: 54).  Bloch’s philosophical writings are an instance of ‘aesthetic radicalism’ at the very forefront of the utopian project to illuminate the darkness of the present moment, and to access the longing of the ‘not-yet-conscious’.  Bloch’s breathlessly sweeping statements, with their repetition and elision, are designed to engender an experience of anagnorisis, or ‘sudden recognition’ that ‘is the way out of darkness into light’ (Bloch, 1970: 94).  Bloch’s concern was for the illumination of the ‘darkness of the immediately experienced moment’ (Bloch, 1988: xxxi) that would provide the recognition of the self-encounter in the present moment: for it is the ‘Not-there of each present Moment’ which is the ‘primary stimulus and driving force’ of the utopian process (Bloch, 2009: 205).

For example, Bloch writes in Atheism and Christianity:

The topos of Way – and, even more so, End – is this same endless forward-looking openness, not the closed topos of the astral myth with its “eternal, iron laws”; it is the great topos of the Future, still full of objective and really available possibilities for birth, development and experimental forms of fulfilment; the topos where the X of the Beginning runs ever onward in the still immediate, unmediated, unobjectified, unmanifested Here-and-Now of each present moment.  Here alone, in this closest closeness and most immanent immanence, lies hidden the mystery, hidden even to itself, that there is a world, whatever may be its reason and its End (Bloch, 2009: 205).

This example is typical of Bloch’s literary style.  His lengthy sentences with their multiple use of semi-colons, commas and dashes, their embedded quotations and fluid mix of languages, the capitalisation of nouns to turn each into its own concept and the use of italicisation for emphasis can be found liberally throughout Bloch’s utopian philosophical writing.  Here, the capitalisation of certain conceptual nouns seems to indicate Bloch’s suggestion of a fundamental truth in the concepts being named, giving them an elevated status and suggesting that these are the ideas that Bloch wants his readers to recognise in the process of their anagnorisis.  Bloch designs this process to be assisted by the length, fluidity and elliptical content of the sentences themselves.  Bloch’s sentences carry the sheer emotive power of his own conviction – the momentum driving them, and us as readers, ever onward in the hope of an encounter with the utopian moment itself.  At the level of sentence construction, Bloch’s writing embodies an understanding of the utopian process as a non-teleological forward motion.  That is, Bloch’s sentences are full of a radical and vibrant forward momentum, and yet they are often eventually semantically inconclusive and elliptical, providing no teleological moment at which to alight.  Often the only option is to keep moving forward.  The forward motion in itself, in Bloch’s sentence construction, may result – through repetition and revision – in a partial return to previously stated ideas, but with new emphasis or as the starting point for a new direction.  The act of writing in itself, for Bloch, remains an unfinished task – as it perpetually seeks to engage with the immediacy of the present moment and to illuminate the utopian process at work.

In the passage above, Bloch’s definition of the topos of the End is ‘this same endless forward-looking openness … the great topos of the Future … the topos where the X of the Beginning runs ever onward in the still immediate, unmediated, unobjectified, unmanifested Here-and-Now of each present moment’.  In this passage, he describes the ‘End’ as, variously, endless, forward-looking, the place of the Future, the place of the ever present Beginning, and the ‘Here-and-Now of each present moment’.  Paradox is embedded within Bloch’s literary works at the sentence level, and this paradox continues to grow and shape his works at the wider level of each text.  Moreover, as Peter Thomson suggests,

Not-yetness, Bloch’s central operator, thus means that it is possible to move beyond a simplistic dualism of thought in which something is either true or it is not and to recognise that things can be both true and untrue at the same time.  …  [Bloch] sees the very impossibility of formulating the ultimate questions about what the future will look like as proof of the fact that we are nowhere near reaching it and that our systems of thought must therefore remain open.  The attempt to put the future of thought and thoughts of the future into the language of the past and present itself limits and strips away its openness’ (Thomson, 2009: xxix).

Bloch’s radical utopian aesthetic embodies the paradoxical through its ‘central operator’ the not-yet, to liberate the subversive power of the utopian in a syntactical construction that contains neither certainty nor completion.  Specifically, the utopian process itself eludes the very language with which we may attempt to communicate it.  Its inherent openness to the future demands ‘that our systems of thought remain open’, thus necessitating a radically new syntactical construction: a structure which will be able to bear the contradictions of paradox, ellipsis and incompletion.

Similarly, in the essay ‘Art and Utopia: The creation of the ornament’ (Bloch, 1988), Bloch describes the Gothic lines which arc and flow ever onwards into infinity.  It is these lines, he suggests, that provide the best metaphor for the utopian.  For Bloch, the eternal interweaving of the gothic line reveals the image of that which is ‘in the process of being’ (Bloch, 1988: 15) or becoming.  Figured in this way, the utopian process becomes a dynamic, living, ever-evolving space inhabited by limitless possibilities.  Unlike the will to death of the Egyptian stone, the Gothic line contains an ‘inner life’, which, ‘as it drifts toward itself, glows again even more strongly’ (Bloch, 1988: 91).  The living dynamic of the utopian process, the urge for ever-progressing possibility, is figured within the infinitely winding and coiling Gothic line: the endless dynamic of life unfolding.  Bloch’s own writing in this text, and others, embodies this process as it arcs and swerves, crosses and returns, moving ever forwards towards an indeterminate and endless end.  What Bloch sees in the Gothic line, as in the act of writing and the utopian process itself, is not a final destination, but an immediate, unmanifested and endless present moment of possibility.


In terms of a radical utopian aesthetic, Bloch’s literary style requires a fundamental shift from teleological narratological thinking in order to bridge the gap in the critical dialectic identified by Moylan and enable both aspects of the paradox to function.  When Bloch’s writing is at its most radical, at the levels of both text and syntax, it is designed to awaken readers to the utopian process as it is in the process of being.  This requires the use of paradox, contradiction, and a non-teleological forward momentum.  In such moments, Bloch’s writing may perhaps demonstrate that utopia is now or never, existing where and when it is in the process of being, but never in the form of a fully realised and finally teleological end goal.  Utopia is the process, not the completion: the means, rather than the end.





Bloch, E. (1970) [1963].  A Philosophy of the Future.  New York: Herder and Herder.

Bloch, E. (2009) [1972].  Atheism in Christianity: The Religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom trans. J. T. Swann.  London and New York: Verso.

Bloch, E. (1988).  The Utopian Function of Art and Literature Selected Essays, trans. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg.  Cambridge (Mass.)/London: MIT Press 1988, reprinted 1996.

Boldyrev, I. (2014).  Ernst Bloch and His Contemporaries: Locating Utopian Messianism.  London: Bloomsbury.

Cox, H. (1970).  Foreword.  In: Bloch, E. (1970).  Man on His Own: Essays in the Philosophy of Religion, trans. E. B. Ashton.  New York: Herder and Herder.

Daniel, J. O. and Moylan, T. (eds) (1997).  Not Yet: Reconsidering Ernst Bloch.  London: Verso.

Geoghegan, V. (1996).  Ernst Bloch.  London: Routledge.

Hudson, W. (1982).  Marxism and Utopia.  In: Hudson, W. (1982).  The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 21-67.

Jay, M. (1984).  Ernst Bloch and the Extension of Marxist Holism to Nature.  In: Jay, M. (1984).  Marxism and Totality.  Oxford: Polity, 174-195.

Moylan, T. (1997).  Bloch against Bloch: The Theological Reception of Das Prinzip Hoffnung and the Liberation of the Utopian Function.  In: Daniel, J. O. and Moylan, T. (eds) (1997).  Not Yet: Reconsidering Ernst Bloch.  London: Verso, 96-121.

Thomson, P. (2009).  Introduction: Ernst Bloch and the Quantum Mechanics of Hope.  In: Bloch, E. (2009) [1972].  Atheism in Christianity: The Religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom trans. J. T. Swann.  London and New York: Verso.

Zipes, J. (1988).  Introduction: Toward a Realization of Anticipatory Illumination.  In: Bloch, E. (1988).  The Utopian Function of Art and Literature Selected Essays, trans. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg.  Cambridge (Mass.)/London: MIT Press 1988, reprinted 1996.





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