Utopia in Rousseau: Some Jamesonian Reflections
It is easy to forget the extent to which the modern world is a product of
utopian imaginings. The dream of something better, that "each generation
should live better than the last" (to quote a recent advertising campaign for
a major bank) has made a crucial contribution to the drive for scientific and
technological innovation, revolutionary and reformist politics, and the desire
for constantly renewed commodities. As 1will argue, these utopian imagin-
ings and aspirations have been accompanied from the outset by their ap-
parently reactionary opposites. The desire for simplicity, to live more "natu-
rally", in harmony with each other and our environ ment, has been an ines-
capable counterpart and companion to the progressive utopia of continuous
The case of Jean-Jacques Rousseau will be used to demonstrate the
inescapable mutual implications of imagining, on the one hand, a utopia of
scientific, social and moral progress, and on the other, a utopia of escape
from ail that in a return to our "natural" origins. 1will argue that this appear-
ance of a utopian aporia can actually give rise to a third moment of utopian
imagining, utopia as the inspiration for adopting a critical attitude to the
present. Reading Rousseau in the light of Fredric Jameson's recent study
of utopia, 1will make a case that Rousseau was the first to combine utopia
and Enlightenment, not as aspiration, but as critique, not as a dream of a
better world awaiting us in another place, another time, but as inspiration to
work on ourselves, here and now.
COLLOQUY text theory critique 14 (2007). © Monash University.
Utopia in Rousseau 59
Rousseau stands at a utopian crossroads. On the one hand, the
Enlightenment introduced a faith in the necessary unfolding of history to-
wards a kind of perfection in which error and darkness would be replaced
by reason and truth; injustice and the arbitrary exercise of power by
enlightened constitutions; scarcity, poverty and debilitating manual work by
the abundance promised by scientific progress. On the other, and in some
ways in reaction to that prospect, "romantic" utopians imagined natural
communities of the unsophisticated, whose simple and honest encounters
with each other, and intimate and tender relationships with their environ-
ment, would guarantee their happiness. While most commonly associated
with the latter vision, Rousseau in fact had a foot in both camps. Not just
any natural community will do. Rather, the utopian republic of The Social
Contract 1 requires the intervention of an enlightened "Iawgiver", the indi-
vidual fit for utopia in Emile 2 requires that of an enlightened tutor. In this
essay 1will be concerned less with trying to establish which of these repre-
sents the "real" Rousseau, as with trying to understand the nature and
status of the various utopian imaginings in his work.
Rousseau presents us with three distinct utopias, one each in The
Discourse on Inequality3, Emile and The Social Contract. From the outset
they were each attacked as incoherent and impractical 4 . Rousseau antici-
pated these attacks and, in Emile, goes so far as to insist that the impracti-
cality of the educational arrangements he recommends 5 , their great unlike-
lihood on many different grounds, not least the difficulty of finding an ap-
propriately virtuous tutor 6 , in no way tells against the central thesis he is
proposing. Far from encouraging his readers to adopt the arrangements he
presents, as so many recommendations, he asks instead that they be
taken as a provocation to reflect on what is, not what might be. Similarly
with the other two utopian visions, Rousseau recognises their impracticali-
tl and acknowledges at least the appearance of incoherence, yet insists
that this does not detract at ail from the power of the utopian imagining he
This should remind us of some of Jameson's reflections on utopia. For
Jameson has long maintained that the power of utopian vision and writing
does not lie in the actual worlds and social arrangements imagined, that
they should not be read as recommendations to change the world in any
specific way. Rather, he argues that it is precisely the failure of utopian pro-
jects and imaginings that lends them their strength. For Jameson, it is the
very impracticability and incoherence of utopian works that lends them
whatever cultural and political power they may have. 8
1wish to approach Rousseau in the light of this insight using a frame-
work proposed by Jameson in Archaeologies of the Future. He suggests
60 Keith Redgen
that there are two ways of seeing and presenting utopias, depending on
whether the ideal situation depicted is a development of already existing
elements in this world, or whether the imagined utopia represents a break
with the present requiring an external stimulus or catalyst. Jameson recog-
nises the dilemmas in both approaches 9 . Ultimately, these dilemmas guar-
antee that any given utopian dream or text must fail. They must either be
impractical, requiring a break that cannot be expected and would in any
case not be a utopia for us, but only for those fortunate "others" on the
other side, or be incoherent, both the "same" as this one, yet so different as
to be unrecognisable. 10
For Jameson this is sim ply the starting point for what he sees as valu-
able and necessary in utopian works. On his account, utopia is a powerful
reminder that the world, here and now, is far from perfect, but that it can
and should be changed. Jameson is convinced that without utopian provo-
cations to imagine the world differently we are unlikely to develop the politi-
cal and personal energy to act for a better world. He is des pondent about
what he sees as the necessary conservatism, on the left and the right, of a
world that has forgotten how to dream of an ideal. 11
If we read Rousseau's utopian visions in this light perhaps we can dis-
pel some of the traditional concerns about their practicality and coherence,
and move beyond debates about whether Rousseau can be claimed for ei-
ther the liberal or totalitarian camps 12. Claims on either side will simply stop
making sense if we abandon strategies that resolve the alleged incoher-
ence one way or another.
The Discourse on Inequa/ityand The Social Contract as
1will focus primarily on the Discourse on Inequality (or Second Dis-
course) and The Social Contract, although Emile will be drawn upon where
it is particularly pertinent. 1will try to identify features of each that render
them both incoherent and impractical. 1will argue that these should not be
revised to render them coherent and practical, which tends to make them
amenable to exploitation or dismissal as either liberal or totalitarian. Nor
should they be seen as symptoms of Rousseau's incoherent or impractical
mind. There can, of course, be no definitive hermeneutic discovery of their
true or truly intended meaning. But by applying the analytical framework set
out above 1 believe we can fruitfully approach them as imagined utopias
serving to provoke more than to recommend.
Utopia in Rousseau 61
Firstly, let us note the fundamental incoherence of the Second Dis-
course. For Rousseau simply fails in his attempt to show what "man", hav-
ing left his animal state definitively behind, but not yet become "social",
must have been like. Rousseau acknowledges this within the text itself,
precisely in his discussion of the characteristics "proper" to "man" in transi-
tion from animal to social being. 13 The question of the origin of language
Rousseau admits to be an impossible question, yet one crucial to the whole
issue of the "state of nature":
Frightened by the increasing difficulties, and convinced of the almost
demonstrated impossibility that Languages could have arisen and
been established by purely human means, 1 leave to anyone who
wishes to undertake it the discussion of this difficult Problem: which
is the more necessary, an already united society for the institution of
Languages, or already invented languages for the establishment of
Language and society are each other's prerequisites, rendering the ques-
tion of their origins in the other insoluble. And the solution is crucial to the
task Rousseau set himself. For if language existed before society, that is, in
the state of nature, then it would be a very different state than if it had not.
A whole chain of paradoxes is thus opened up concerning different phases
within the state of nature, which Rousseau sim ply cannot allow to corrode
his principal thesis requiring that "natural man" not be amenable to devel-
opment. These paradoxes relate not just to language but to a whole series
of questions about what precedes, exists within, and comes after the "natu-
rai" state. Rousseau frequently acknowledges these difficulties but ploughs
on as if they have been resolved and the exact features of the state of na-
ture thereby established. 15
Rather than solve these puzzles, Rousseau latches on to three fea-
tures which he insists must have been "proper" to "man" in the state of na-
ture. The first is "amour-de-soi,,16, the kind of care for the self crucial for
"natural man" to survive and enjoy life. The second is "pity"17, the faculty
that ensures that we do not wantonly allow, or cause, a fellow creature,
human or animal, to suffer. Now, neither of these is distinctly human, since
Rousseau insists that animais share them, and neither survives the state of
nature, being replaced by "amour-propre" when social man usurps natural
man. 18 Finally, Rousseau notes that, alone of the animais, "man" pos-
sesses a capacity for "perfectibility", the ability to change and improve by
the exercise of his freedom. 19 But this perfectibility is only latent in the state
of nature, and comes to be exercised only after the birth of the "social".
62 Keith Redgen
The incoherence of this account threatens to render the whole notion
of a state of nature worthless. Rousseau fails to establish a c1ear border
between the animal and the natural human or between the natural and the
social human. Moreover, the state of nature, which should be stable, must
have a history. There cannot have been a sudden emergence from the
animal state followed some time later by a sudden dawning of the social.
Rousseau acknowledges this with respect to language and much else be-
sides. But he also needs the state of nature to be a stable state where only
the distinctly pre-social human exists. If it is a state of change and devel-
opment, particularly towards the social, then not only is the border neces-
sarily porous, but he is left with the problem of deciding which point along
the way is the "most natural".
Rousseau has two strategies for dealing with these dilemmas. On the
one hand, he ignores the "pre-social", takes society as a given and devel-
ops an imaginative history of humanity in society, in which change and de-
generation occur gradually, largely as the result of a series of accidents, or
catastrophes, the consequences of which are the corruption of otherwise
stable, happy and simple communities. The dilemma here is weil brought
beginning Society and the already established relations among men
required in them qualities different from those they derived from their
primitive constitution; ... the goodness suited to the pure state of na-
ture was no longer the goodness suited to nascent Society; ... al-
though men now had less endurance, and natural pitY had already
undergone some attenuation, this period in the development of hu-
man faculties, occupying a just mean between the indolence of the
primitive state and the petulant activity of our amour propre, must
have been the happiest and most lasting epoch .... he must have left
it only by some fatal accident which, for the sake of the common util-
ity should never have occurred. 20
His other strategy is simply to ignore the problem and present an imagined
state of nature, or at least, once he has acknowledged its incoherence, to
continue writing as if he had not.
ln The Social Contract, the major coherence issues concern the con-
cept of freedom. Rousseau is happy to acknowledge he has set himself a
paradoxical task. Freedom is necessary to be truly human, and not to be
free is the worst possible state for any person: to "renounce one's freedom
is to renounce one's quality as man, the rights of humanity, and even its
duties .... to deprive one's will of ail freedom is to deprive one's actions of
ail morality.,,21And yet, The Social Contract is a defence of the loss of free-
Utopia in Rousseau 63
dom necessary to establish a civil and especially a political society. His fa-
mous declaration that "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains" is
followed by the question: "What can make it legitimate?" He announces
that the text will answer precisely this question. 22 Little wonder that it
abounds with paradoxical formulations that have inspired a wide variety of
readings and interpretations. Thus each person must alienate ail of his
rights to the collective, yet "obey only himself and remain as free as be-
fore.,,23Or, equally famously, Rousseau insists that "for the social compact
not to be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the following engagement
which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the
general will shall be constrained to do so by the entire body: which means
nothing other than that he shall be forced to be free.,,24 Such formulations
can be multiplied almost at will.
The general will itself, what should and must be required and willed,
exists independently of what any, or indeed every, individual happens to
choose freely.25 ln fact the collective, the government, has not only the
right but the dutY to override the free choices of individuals, to remake them
according to its own model:
While it is good to know how to use men as they are, it is much bet-
ter still to make them what one needs them to be; the most absolute
authority is that which penetrates to man's inmost being, and affects
his will no less than it does his actions. Certain it is that in the long
run peoples are what governments make them be. 26
And yet governments, for Rousseau, must always be secondary to the
general will as expressed by the sovereign people, and never try to over-
ride that will. Indeed, they should be little more than mere administrators of
the laws demanded by the general will. 27 These paradoxes seem to require
a deeper philosophical or theoretical approach to the concept of freedom.
Yet Rousseau, perfectly conscious of this, insists that this is not what he in-
To the preceding one might add to the credit of the civil state moral
freedom, which alone makes man truly the master of himself; for the
impulsion of mere appetite is slavery, and obedience to the law one
has prescribed to oneself is freedom. But 1 have already said too
much on this topic, and the philosophical meaning of the word free-
dom is not my subject here.
ln other words he is happy to let the paradoxes stand, just as he was in the
64 Keith Redgen
The impracticality of the Second Discourse is a given: from the outset,
we are told that the state of nature "no longer exists, ... perhaps never did
exist, [and) ... probably never will exist.,,28 Rousseau says both that it is ir-
retrievable, that once we have entered the social state there is no going
"back", and that since we have now entered the social path, the path of on-
going "perfectibility", we have gained much that could never have existed in
the state of nature. That is, no matter how grotesque the reality of the pre-
sent social world, without it there could be nothing of what we value about
being human, no virtue, no justice, no citizenship or "patriotism", in short,
none of the "freedom" that can only be exercised once we have left the
state of nature. 29 It would seem, then, that questions of practicality simply
should not arise when dealing with an imagined world we are emphatically
told is neither possible nor desirable.
And yet there is no doubt that Rousseau intended his work to have a
practical effect in the contemporary world. He was accused of wanting
people to give up the "advantages" of culture and science, to revert to the
lives of "savages" in the forest. He could not make it c1earer that he is argu-
ing for no such thing, both in the Discourse itself and especially in his re-
plies to critics. What he does demand is that we stop living outside our-
selves "solely in the opinion of others" and ask of ourselves what we are
"forever as king of others", the question of "what we are". 30Here we see the
genuine "impracticality" of the Second Discourse. The state of nature is lost
forever, so that we are left with what society has made us. But Rousseau
seems to ask that we step outside of our socially constructed subjectivity to
examine ourselves, while insisting that no such outside is available.
He is also adamant that there is no available path to bring about the
utopia he constructs in The Social Contract. Once a given society is too far
gone, it is beyond ail hope of cure: "once customs are established and
prejudices rooted, it is a dangerous and futile undertaking to try to reform
them.,,31 Even in a society amenable to redemption, the steps needed to
convert corruption into a capacity to find and act on the general will are
unlikely or impossible to take. At the very least, they would require a "law-
giver" so uncorrupted and disinterested that a fallen society could not pos-
sibly produce one. 32 We will return to this paradox when we consider the
contrast between the solitary "Socratic" individual and the ideal citizen
modelled by Rousseau on the example of Cato. 33
Utopia in Rousseau 65
The inside and the outside
As Jameson observes, however, incoherence and impracticality may
not be weaknesses but rather essential characteristics of utopian works.
Rousseau was himself highly conscious of these features of his work, yet
quite untroubled by them. To try to extra ct either coherence or practicality
from them is thus to run up against the problem of whether the kind of
change they are demanding relies completely on what is already "inside"
the "real world", or instead must await the kind of fundamental break that
can only come from the "outside". For Jameson, to take these demands for
coherence and practicality seriously is to run up against the twin dilemmas
of "reformism" or "revolution", building on "what is" from the inside, or shat-
tering it by bringing to bear an "outside" not subject to the laws or judge-
ments of the present. The former case is ultimately conservative whilst the
latter not only carries the typical revolutionary danger of the suspension of
the law, the perpetuai "state of exception", but tends to reduce "what is",
our present, to the unworthy, to be abrogated and replaced. 34
the ideals of Utopian living involve the imagination in a contradictory
project, since they ail presumably aim at illustrating and exercising
that much abused concept of freedom that, virtually by definition and
in its very structure, cannot be defined in advance, let alone exempli-
fied: if you know already what your longed-for exercise in a not-yet-
existent freedom looks like, then the suspicion arises that it may not
really express freedom after ail but only repetition; while the fear of
projection, of sullying an open future with our own deformed and re-
pressed social habits in the present, is a perpetuai threat to the in-
dulgence of fantasies of the future collectivity. 35
Rousseau has been read in both ways, often simultaneously. From Burke 36
to Talmon 37 to Crocker 38 , he has been seen as an exponent of revolution
and a harbinger of its totalitarian implications: if the people are misguided, if
their culture blinds them to their true interests, if they will poorly because of
what society has made them, then they must be corrected by those who
can see the true will of the people, who are untainted by the corruptions of
a depraved society. With equal passion he is feted as the true founder of
modern theories of freedom, democracy, and liberalism. 39 Scholars in this
camp have little trouble reading the very passages used to condemn him
as a totalitarian manqué as little more than admonitions to virtue and dutY
which urge the responsibility to adjust anti-social selfishness to the demand
66 Keith Redgen
for the liberty and rights of ail.
Even if we accept a reading of Rousseau, not as an advocate of par-
ticular solutions to contemporary social ills, but as presenting utopian vi-
sions to provoke our critical capacities, we still must recognise that he re-
mains tom between two strategies of criticism, alternatives that threaten to
rupture utopian thought and imaginings as such. For Rousseau raises the
question of the nature of the self that is being provoked, and therefore the
nature of the freedom to be exercised.
It is a commonplace that Rousseau saw humans as bifurcated be-
tween "man" and "citizen", social being and solitary, contingently limited
member of a fatherland and universal instance of the "idea" of mankind.
The Social Contract is the work in which the rights and duties of the citizen,
the member of the "fatherland", the sacrifice of individual private interest to
the general will, are stated clearly. The Second Discourse is usually seen
as the work in which "man" is represented as completely separate from his
fellows. On this reading, the two halves are imaginatively combined in
Emile: first, a person is brought up as c10sely as possible to the state of na-
ture; then the fact of society is unavoidably encountered, not least in the
person of the highly socialised tutor, which radically compromises the
"natural" status of the education; finally, the "artificially naturally" educated
individual is compelled to undertake the ail but impossible task of becoming
When dealing with the question of the individual, in contradistinction to
the social person, Rousseau appears to offer contradictory options. The in-
dividual, solitary, pre- or asocial natural person is fabricated by an imagi-
nary abstraction of each and every aspect of the human Rousseau consid-
ered attributable to life in society. He says his task is "to disentangle what is
original from what is artificial in man's present nature.,,40This leaves a be-
ing with almost no features save a love of self and pity, almost indistin-
guishable from the beasts, an empty space incapable of evil, but for the
same reason incapable of goOd. 41 Thus conceived man's freedom is so la-
tent that it cannot be exercised until after the natural state has been left be-
hind. 42 Rousseau seems tempted by the c1aim that such a being remains
the underlying substance beneath the social person, whose truly human
nature, simplicity and transparency, have been distorted and repressed by
amour-propre, the sophistication and opacity that accompanies constant
vain comparisons between individuals. On this reading his strategy for
dealing with the unfortunate and depraved consequences of amour-propre
is to look inside ourselves, to rediscover our repressed "essence" and, by
that rediscovery, to see through the debilitating consequences of social life.
This does not imply a return to the "savage" life of the state of nature. In-
Utopia in Rousseau 67
stead, Rousseau insists, we would be "freed" to recognise our corruptions
as caused by constantly looking outward to compare ourselves with other
and to compete with them. By looking inward to our true "nature" we should
be able to see the truly good and virtuous, not just what is esteemed by our
fellows, and act in accordance with that recognition. 43
But there is another dilemma here for Rousseau. If we were ever to
reach this underlying bedrock we would find neither the good and the virtu-
ous nor the freedom to act on them since these are social products. And if
there is a "good" amour-propre, it is surely not to be found by interrogating
the type of beings we would be without it. This dilemma seems to mirror the
failure to identify a state of nature beyond the purely animal, but not yet so-
Rousseau has another solution in tension with the first throughout his
work. Rather than looking for the repressed "natural" person beneath the
surface, it takes people as they are in their contingent reality. It does not
start out from some hidden, lost, and ultimately unreachable purity, di-
vorced from ail "outside" determination. Rather, any given society or "fa-
therland", just as it exists, right now, becomes the basis for the building of
the individual and the citizen. Rousseau thus recognises a type of "unwrit-
The most important of ail; which is graven not in marble or in bronze,
but in the hearts of the Citizens; which is the State's genuine consti-
tution; which daily gathers new force; which, when the other laws
age or die out, revives or replaces them, and imperceptibly substi-
tutes the force of habit for that of authority. 1speak of morals, cus-
toms, and above ail of opinion; a part [of the laws) unknown to our
politicians but on which the success of ail the others depends: a part
to which the great Lawgiver attends in secret, while he appears to
restrict himself to particular regulations which are but the ribs of the
arch of which morals, slower to arise, in the end form the immovable
We see repeated here the dilemma of the inside and the outside, the utopia
requiring a radical break with the present conditions as against that which
relies solely on what is already here and now. On the one hand, Rousseau
insists that always and everywhere people as they are must be the starting
point to be built upon. Sometimes he writes as if the contingent reality of
any society and community is to be celebrated as the basis of the "social
cement" of commitment to one's "fatherland", one's "civil religion,,46, and
one's acceptance of the responsibilities and duties of citizenship. His di-
lemma is how to square this with his thoroughgoing condemnation of al-
68 Keith Redgen
most ail societies as they are or have been.
Sometimes he writes as if whatever we are, here and now, must be
judged against some "higher" standard, to be brought from outside in the
shape of a "lawgiver", who will at best manipulate the actual contingent na-
ture of the people to shape an ideal world that only "he" can bring about. At
others, precisely the current cultural circumstances are valued in them-
selves. But in this latter case, how can Rousseau maintain a critical atti-
tude? From where can he bring values and standards with which to judge?
Not only is this precisely the dilemma of utopian thought articulated by
Jameson, it has also continued to be a central dilemma of ail post-
enlightenment thought and philosophy.
Rousseau presents very c1ear preferences for one kind of society over
another: Sparta and Rome, Geneva, Corsica and Poland are clearly pre-
ferred to ancient Athens or contemporary France. The preference relates to
the close identification of individuals with the collective, the resistance to
factions and, above ail, the willingness of individuals to sacrifice the self,
private and personal interests, for the good of the "state". Thus he cites
with admiration the example of Brutus, who put the needs of the state
ahead of the very lives of his children, along with the Spartan mother for
whom the victory of the state was much more important than the loss of ail
five of her sons in achieving it. 47 The societies he criticizes are character-
ised by a tendency for private interests to be preferred to the collective. Yet
who is this self with private interests distinct from the collective? There are
three options: either it is the underlying "natural" person; or the individual
created by cultural determination; or an individual able to step outside the
present, outside the contingent culture and society to identify with the tran-
scendent and eternal, at once both solitary and distant.
For reasons outlined above the first option is unviable. While the state
of nature may be a device to provoke Rousseau's readers to imagine
themselves differently, it does not "live on" as the repressed and violated
truth of the social person. This is not to say that the attractions of this view
are wholly absent either from Rousseau or from subsequent "Enlighten-
ment" thought. In particular they provide the foundations of theories of indi-
vidualism, being relied upon by individualists who support Rousseau, such
as Rawls and his followers, just as much as by those who attack him, like
Talmon and Crocker. But it seems impossible to square this with the Rous-
seau who values citizenship above ail else, and for whom the fatherland is
always prior to the individual.
However, Rousseau c1early does want to defend a view of the individ-
ual over against the citizen, as in the third option above. His failure to
square the human as citizen with the human as an individual is a conse-
Utopia in Rousseau 69
quence of this unresolved dilemma. Todorov, in his remarkable Frail Hap-
piness 48 , works through the implications of a deep divide between the citi-
zen and the solitary individual, arguing that Rousseau's position allows for
some reconciliation between them in the "moral individual". But such rec-
onciliation is always fragile, always subject to the tendency to succumb to
the attractions of the one or the other. In relying on Emile for the presenta-
tion of this "third way", Todorov tends to run together the solitary individual,
as the "natural" person, and the solitary, Socratic, individual, who has tran-
scended contingent social identifications through a more "metaphysical"
identification with humanity as such, the ideal and eternal. 49
Todorov's reading is authorised by Rousseau's own frequent running
together of the two distinct types of solitary individual. But when he keeps
them apart, as when he draws the contrast between Cato and Socrates, he
is not arguing that Socrates is close to the state of nature. On the contrary,
the "ideas" that guided Socrates' life and relationship with his fellow citizens
were a result of the kinds of ability to conceptualise and draw differences
that are unavailable to the type of person imagined in the state of nature.
Rousseau struggled ail his life to resolve this issue, finally giving up on
the social to concentrate on his own private story, ending with the solitary
existence of the isolated individual. 50 However, perhaps there was a solu-
tion which could overcome the chasm between the individual and the col-
lective, "man and citizen", which could reconcile them in a robust rather
than a fragile way.
Perhaps paradoxically, Jean Starobinski can help us think this recon-
ciliation in Rousseau. This may seem unlikely, since Starobinski is perhaps
the greatest interpreter of Rousseau to see his work as a desperate and in-
evitably doomed attempt to recover a lost nature. He writes:
Has the primai transparency really disappeared? Or has it been pre-
served in the transparency of memory and thereby saved? Has it
deserted us entirely, or does it still loom nearby? Rousseau cannot
choose between contradictory answers. At some point the myth
gives rise to two distinct versions. In one of these, the human soul
has degenerated; it has been deformed, totally transformed, and has
forever lost its primai nobility. In the other, however, what has oc-
curred is not a deformation but a kind of eclipse: man's primitive na-
ture persists, but hidden, veiled, shrouded in artifice - yet intact.
What we have, then, is an optimistic and a pessimistic version of the
myth of origin: Rousseau believes sometimes in one, sometimes in
the other, sometimes in both simultaneously.51
And yet, if Rousseau is not looking for a lost nature, but rather arguing that
70 Keith Redgen
what should be natural to social man is his capacity to exercise freedom,
then Starobinski is remarkably close to seeing Rousseau as the kind of
self-creator and self-transformer 1have been presenting. He writes: "Previ-
ously, transparency was possible because man existed naively under the
gaze of the gods; now transparency is an inward condition, a matter of
one's relation to oneself.,,52 For "transparency" we can perhaps read "free-
dom". He continues: "To restore goodness is therefore to rebel against his-
tory and, in particular, against the present historical situation. If Rousseau's
philosophy is revolutionary, it is revolutionary in the name of an eternal hu-
man nature rather than of historical progress."53 Again, "ete mal human na-
ture" must be seen as the permanent capacity for social man to exercise
freedom, and the rebellion against history as a kind of hermeneutic en-
gagement in which the self made by that history is risked and thereby
Personal reform comes at the moment when Rousseau becomes
aware of the incoherent character of his life and makes an attempt to
dominate that incoherence. He suddenly sees his changeability as
an inconsistency that must be eliminated. It becomes unbearable to
him that no invariable principles govern his conduct, his speech, or
his feelings ... Hence from the moment Rousseau sets himself in
opposition to false appearances in the world, inner conflict becomes
inevitable. The virtue in whose name he sets out to do batlle with a
perverse and masked society is a cruel master. It makes him aware
of an inner division, a lack of unity within his own mind. 54
The utopias of the state of nature, the state governed by the general will,
and the solitary individual remain in tension in Rousseau. While this tension
can be fruitful, it seems to leave him offering stark and irreconcilable
choices, between the life of the citizen and the individual, Cato and Socra-
tes. Jameson's utopia of the provocation to imagine outside the here and
now, allows us to read these utopias not as choices but as challenges to
the self. Todorov's moral individual emphasises that, while this self may be
divided, Rousseau's provocation should be seen as an impetus to perpet-
uai negotiation, never to be settled as a choice, of the border in us ail be-
tween the solitary and the citizen. Starobinski allows us to see the creative
and free subject as distinct from, yet bound to, the here and now, the de-
terminations of the citizen.
Utopia in Rousseau 71
This is perhaps the perfect reminder of just how hard the task is for
those who would insist that we find an "exit" from the cruelties and perver-
sions of our present without relying on any privileged access to knowledge
of a better condition to which we could aspire. For now, suffice it to say that
Rousseau provides an exemplary, if tragic case, of an attempt to find such
an "exit". Perhaps the "critical attitude" he helped inaugurate to restrain the
dreams of his contemporaries, by envisaging a world in which such dreams
could not simply be imposed, is some compensation for the cruelties of his
internai exile from an age not quite yet ripe for this "Enlightenment".
1 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "Of the Social Contract", trans. V. Gourevitch in
Rousseau: The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings, ed. V. Gourevitch
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
2 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile: or On Education, trans. A. Bloom (New
York: Basic Books, 1979).
3 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Ine-
quality Among Men or Second Discourse", trans. V. Gourevitch, in Rousseau: The
Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, ed. V. Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cam-
bridge University Press, 1997).
4 See Gourevitch's "Introductions" to his two collections of Rousseau's political
writings cited in the notes above.
5 Rousseau, Emile, pp. 2-3.
6 Rousseau, Emile, pp. 17-21.
7 For example, Rousseau, "Second Discourse", pp. 186-187; "Of the Social
Contract", pp. 70-71.
8 Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire ca//ed Utopia and
Other Science Fictions, (London and New York: Verso, 2005), pp. 211-233.
9 Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future, pp. 38-39.
10 Jameson, Archaeologies ofthe Future, pp. 48-49.
11 Jameson, Archaeologies ofthe Future, pp. 227-233.
72 Keith Redgen
12 On this debate see V. Gourevitch, ed., Rousseau: The Social Contract and
Other Later Political Writings, pp. xxxix-xl.
13 See for example Rousseau, "Second Discourse", pp. 144-149.
14 Rousseau, "Second Discourse", p. 149. Of course Rousseau returned to this
question at greater length, but essentially continued to leave the dilemma in its
paradoxical state in the Essay on the Origin of Languages.
15 If Jacques Derrida is the most renowned of those who identify this chain of
paradoxes, similar insights are also developed by scholars in more traditional phi-
losophy. See, for example, John Charvet, The Social Problem in the Philosophy of
Rousseau (London: Cambridge University Press, 1974), pp 5-35.
16 Rousseau, "Second Discourse", pp. 127, 153-154.
17 Rousseau, "Second Discourse", pp. 127, 153-154.
18 Rousseau, "Second Discourse", pp. 153-160.
19 Rousseau, "Second Discourse", pp. 141, 159.
20 Rousseau, "Second Discourse", p. 167.
21 Rousseau, "Of the Social Contract", p. 45.
22 Rousseau, "Of the Social Contract", p. 41.
23 Rousseau, "Of the Social Contract", pp. 49-50.
24 Rousseau, "Of the Social Contract", p. 53.
25 Rousseau, "Of the Social Contra ct", pp. 62-65.
26 Rousseau, "Discourse on Political Economy", trans. V. Gourevitch, in Rous-
seau: The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings, pp. 12-13.
27 Rousseau, "Of the Social Contract", p. 117.
28 Rousseau, "Second Discourse", p. 125.
29 Rousseau, "Second Discourse", pp. 185-187.
30 Rousseau, "Second Discourse", p. 187.
31 Rousseau, "Of the Social Contract", pp. 62-65.
32 Rousseau, "Of the Social Contract", pp. 68-72.
33 Rousseau, "Discourse on Political Economy", p. 16.
34 See especially the chapters "Morus: The Generic Window" and "Progress
versus Utopia, or, Can we Imagine the Future?" in Jameson, Archaeologies of the
35 Jameson, Archaeologies ofthe Future, p. 385.
36 Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France and on Certain So-
Gieties in London Relative to That Event (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969).
Utopia in Rousseau 73
37 Jacob Leib Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (London: Sphere
38 Lester Gilbert Crocker, Rousseau's Social Contra ct, An Interpretive Essay
(Cleveland: Case Western Reserve Press, 1968).
39 For example Robert Wokler, Rousseau (Oxford/New York: Oxford University
Press, 1995); Christopher Bertram, Rousseau and the Social Contract (London and
New York: Routledge, 2004).
40 Rousseau, "Second Discourse", p. 125.
41 Rousseau, "Second Discourse", p. 187.
42 Rousseau, "Second Discourse", pp. 141-142.
43 Rousseau, "Second Discourse", p. 187.
44 An excellent discussion of these issues can be found in Laurence D. Coo-
per, "Rousseau on Self-Love: What We've Learned, What We Might Have Learned",
The Review of Politics, 60.4 (Autumn 1998), pp. 661-683.
45 Rousseau, "Of the Social Contract", p. 81.
46 Rousseau, "Of the Social Contract", pp. 142-151.
47 Rousseau, "Of the Social Contract", p. 78; Emile, p. 40.
48 Tzvetan Todorov, Frail Happiness: an Essay on Rousseau (University Park:
Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001 ).
49 Todorov, Frail Happiness, pp. 55-66.
50 Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker (Harmondsworth: Penguin,
51 Jean Starobinski, Transparency and Obstruction, trans. A. Goldhammer
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 15.
52 Starobinski, Transparency and Obstruction, p. 19.
53 Starobinski, Transparency and Obstruction, p. 21.
54 Starobinski, Transparency and Obstruction, pp. 54-55.