(50MIN READ) In this paper, Damian Borovsky reflects on the nature of utopia, specifically as a practice nominally engaged with the future but which nonetheless deeply impacts and works within the present. Damian considers a number of specific formulations by writers and philosophers which entangle and complicate our reading of utopian thinking, including the trace, contemporaneity, latency, and the Nuclear, in a meditation given urgency by the force of the futures yet to come.

“Ontologies of the present require archeologies
of the future, not forecasts of the past.”1

Utopias often appear as plans and closed wholes, blueprints for the harmonious articulation of every aspect of a society, a culture, or even the individual districts of a city or wings of a building. They are overwhelmingly-political literary forms, aesthetically smoothing over the antagonisms of the present. Yet even as the most ideological wish fulfillment—from return-to-nature agrarianisms to Jetson-esque science fictions—utopias are ruminations on radical social difference and otherness, the imaginary construction of a system or totality, turning, as it were, around whatever obstacles the present faces within itself.

        Yet what role can utopian thinking fulfill in the age of globalized politics planetary-wide crisis, from global financial collapse to ecological devastation? How can it engage any historical “solution” to the world market, to capitalist social relations, and to an ecology we seem to have discovered in time only to see it vanish before our eyes? Even when the most prescient issues of the present determine the future so dramatically and at such enormous scales, and especially when any attempts at utopian enclaves hidden from the cruel world must face up to the pressures of post-industrial globality, the total rethinking of society’s fundamental mechanisms must be everywhere reaffirmed.


Utopia arrives as precisely the literary genre—harkening back to Thomas More’s 1516 political satire Utopia—and collective wish fulfillment where such radical social rethinking takes place, and the difficulties in thinking radical difference are constantly rehearsed; and this all the more so when belief in discovering some alternative to global capital has ultimately waned. As the world-system—integrated by planetary-scale infrastructures and financial structures—becomes inextricably connected materially, financially, and culturally,  “one cannot imagine any fundamental change in our social totality,”  Fredric Jameson writes, “which has not first thrown off Utopian visions like so many sparks from a comet.”2

    These sparks are peculiar entities indeed, and not merely grab bags of good ideas—taken all at once, they illuminate, by way of the frictions of the present, the collective impulse to construct the future. Utopian thinking is a rumination taking place, narratively speaking, from the position of the future itself, transforming the present into its own past; in turn the present is estranged, emptied of its moral contents and historical baggage and set as a stepping stone for some redemptive system yet to come. If the utopian think tank is to stake a claim on its intimate knowledge of the future, it needs to make a claim for its futural ontology and remove itself from a present it necessarily works within and therefore out of; it will, that is, need to assert itself as an archaeology of the future, mining the present for the traces of what’s to come.


traces of
the future

This reverse archaeology of utopian thinking—the conceptual framework for Jameson’s analysis of science fiction—eschews any nostalgia for the potsherds of the past, and instead waves a Geiger counter over the present’s ruins, testing this-or-that program or intuition for any radioactive longevity. Utopian thought therefore has a peculiar visionary ability: it can register, within the present, the insistence of the future, burning with an invisible flame of urgency only the passage of time could otherwise reveal. In other words, the future is now—hidden, but looming with enormous and powerful energy.

    Utopia is not in any future at all, but saturates the present with an invisible hum. Jameson remarks that this makes it philosophically analogous:

“to the trace, only from the other end of time. The aporia of the trace is to belong to the past and present all at once…and [is] thereby mildly scandalous for analytical Reason. Utopia, which combines the not-yet-being of the future with a textual existence in the present is no less worthy of the archaeological paradoxes we are willing to grant to the trace.” 3

    The production of these paradoxes, rather than foreclosing the legitimacy of utopian thinking, makes utopian thought a proper archaeology of the future. But in the first case, how do we begin to understand this ontology of the trace, or of pastness contemporaneous with the present? In Bergsonism, Gilles Deleuze notes a particular paradox of the trace and of memories: that the prerequisite for the trace is not its existence in the past, but in the present. “The past,” he says, “is “contemporaneous” with the present that it has been…The past would never be constituted if it did not coexist with the present whose past it is.”4 In order for the past to be past—that is, in order for the trace that continues through time to be understood as a trace, or a memory of what once was present, for the trace to retain something of its original virtuality so as to distinguish it as a trace, and not the present—it must be past immediately, it cannot wait to be past. “Not only does the past coexist with the present that it has been, but […] it is the whole, integral past; it is all our past, which coexists with each present.”5

     This is the logic of the past inscribed in the ontology of the trace, the ever-constant face-to-facedness with history. In between the present and the past, in the dash, the infra-thin space that occupies no space, is the trace, the referential potentiality mediating the past as such and its continuation into the present. For Bergson and Deleuze, the past is not something that has ceased to be: “Useless and inactive, impassive, it IS, in the full sense of the word: It is identical with being in itself”6; “the past is pure ontology.”7 For otherwise, how would a new present come about if the old present was not already past? How could we deal with the bifurcation of the present into its being-in-the-world and its own potentialities? 

If the past in general, the whole of the collective past, is rethought in terms of being itself, then ironically “the entry point to the present necessarily takes the form of an archeology,”  an archeology of the present.8 This is an archeology of latency and different from the archaeologies of the future at hand. Latency, unmoored and hijacked from Paul Riceour’s Memory, History, and Forgetting, is the ontology of virtualities which persist through time and develop, affect, and repeat under particular material conditions.  A disease can remain latent in the body until ecological or metabolic conditions alter slightly, turning a benign situation into one of life-or-death. In a similar way, architectures like factories and palaces which reify particular regimes of permanence contain the traces of a revolution they always microscopically promised, an inversion that can happen in an instant. The latent is what is unlived in the present. And the present, Giorgio Agamben continues, “is nothing other than this unlived element in everything that is lived…The attention to this “unlived element” is the life of the contemporary. And to be contemporary means in this sense to return to a present where we have never been.”9

     So, turning back around towards the future, what could it mean to assert utopia as the trace from the other side? If the past is “pure ontology” in all its impassive inactivity, then the future and futural traces might be aptly described as pure potentiality. I want to suggest that this framework for thinking utopia as the trace of the future cuts most cleanly through the weary arguments against utopia that are, at best, mere wish fulfillment and are, at worst, the ideological justification for history’s most ruthless social experiments. Utopia is not the resurrection of dread ontologies from their crypts, but the narrative category in which traces of the future are revealed through the desires of the present. As Karl Marx wrote in a letter to Arnold Ruge: “It will then turn out that the world has long dreamt of that which it had only to have a clear idea to possess it really”—in other words, the conceptualization of radical social change is at once its revelation. Within a sort of endless revolution of the lived day-to-day, and against the sterile language of liberal progress and development, lie the countless headwaters of radical social change the utopian thinker need only parse out to install their engine upon.

The Present’s

Far from mere logical inconsistency, Agamben relates temporal synchronicity (the collapse of the past and future into the present) to the necessary condition for seeing the present’s real urgencies. One must have a “singular relationship with one’s own time,” he writes, “which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it… that adheres to [time] through a disjunction and an anachronism.”10 One must adhere to the present moment, but with timidity, for those who adhere too closely to the visible present cannot reach into the far reaches of its virtuality.

     For Agamben, to “be contemporary” is precisely to rest within this temporal disjunction; to see the present as a time traveler would. In an extraordinary passage, Agamben relates the experience of being contemporary to seeing invisible light from the cosmos:

“In the firmament that we observe at night, the stars shine brightly, surrounded by a thick darkness. Since the number of galaxies and luminous bodies in the universe is almost infinite, the darkness that we see in the sky is something that, according to scientists, demands an explanation… In an expanding universe, the most remote galaxies move away from us at a speed so great that their light is never able to reach us. What we perceive as the darkness of the heavens is this light that, though traveling toward us, cannot reach us, since the galaxies from which the light originates move away from us at a velocity greater than the speed of light. To perceive, in the darkness of the present, this light that strives to reach us but cannot—this is what it means to be contemporary.”11

    Thus, in a universe of infinite stars, infinite points of light, our night sky (the present) remains overwhelmingly dark, even as that lost light (the virtual) travels through the void “toward” us. Being contemporary means seeing that lost light and bringing it into our sky; that is, wresting possible worlds from the social current of the present, focalizing imminent points of departure, measuring the hidden luminosity. Far from a turn away from the present, being contemporary means gazing at the present “so as to perceive not its light, but rather its darkness,” the difficulties and incongruities of the present, the dilemmas which are simultaneously the location of that invisible light.12 Agamben therefore turns “being contemporary” around to a logic of critique, to the exposure of darkness by way of the hidden light that will delineate the present by way of negation. In a sense, it is the present itself which requires negating, for it is the present itself which keeps the future merely latent as a trace and not instantiated as the new present.13 When the contemporary subject encounters the darkness of the present, they encounter hidden forces bubbling out from the whole of the past and the future, grasping for their own traces in the present, and it is then that they can make, as Andrew Culp says, “the whole world stand still,” such pauses being “the only way to think the present in any significant sense.”14 To this end, utopia is the premiere narrative category for the display of the present’s “darkness”, for it is only with utopian thought that the present is put to the task of constructing new worlds wholesale, which in their total otherness and radical difference demand of the present its total attention. Here, even failed utopias or utopic fantasy productions are just as, if not more, useful than the “successful” ones, provided they fail comprehensively enough.

    Comprehension here is key. When speaking about otherness and radical difference—which is to say, utopia’s representational dilemmas—the ontological status of utopia clearly shifts to include the limit of thought itself, the alterity any given culture could feasibly incorporate into its imagination. In the Strugatsky brothers’ infamous science fiction  novel Roadside Picnic (1972), aliens visit Earth (presumably, for no-one sees them come or go) and then, for reasons unknowable, leave behind various artifacts. These artifacts are inexplicable and supernatural, and for all their danger could be the alien equivalent of rubbish tossed from the car window during a road trip, left for the local fauna to timidly prod. Around these enigmas of the Other, the “darkness” of the present is truly on full display, for their lack of moral and political guidance runs readers through the gamut of political intrigue, criminal activity, conspiracy, and the like. If the central problematic of the trace is that of memory, utopia encounters intelligibility as the sound barrier for its wildest speculations and announcements, “for the more surely a given Utopia asserts its radical difference from what currently is,” Jameson writes, “to that very degree it becomes, not merely unrealizable but, what is worse, unintelligible.”15 At the present historical juncture, where the material effects of the present so obviously determine the “deep-time” of the future, constructions of the contemporary emerge as the laboratory wherein the limits of our imaginations can be tested—not merely the perfect societies of our invented utopias, but the collapse of that imaginary ability against the concrete reality of the present.


It is here that I turn to the issue of nuclear waste storage and to Michael Madsen’s documentary film Into Eternity (2010) in particular, in which one of these laboratories has been constructed. Nuclear waste is a “darkness of the present,” requiring immediate, practical resolution. At the same time, the “deep-time” which the half-life of radioactive decay forces us to consider pushes the imagination into futures altogether unimaginable. It is an awkward moment where both, as Gabriella Schwab notes, “a quotidian perspective of the practical tasks at hand, and a deep history and philosophical ethics that address the large-scale implications of storing nuclear waste” simultaneously insist.16

    At the same, what might be tentatively termed “the Nuclear”—the cultural construction and register of atom-splitting, from its inception in H.G. Wells’s novel The World Set Free (1914) on through its utopian promise in the atomic age on both sides of the Iron Curtain and into its status as weapon of mass destruction and destroyer of worlds—is also the site of the invisible lights of which Agamben speaks. The Nuclear is the scene of some of the last century’s largest investments and anxieties. It is the invisible stuff of stars and the trace of a radioactive future. Its energies have carried into the twenty-first century as both problem and promise.17 Madsen’s film touches on a number of these themes by spelunking in the under-construction waste facility of Onkalo, Finland, which is to be filled and sealed off for 100,000 years, or the time required for the waste to properly decay. As Madsen narrates in the film’s opening:

“Once the repository waste has been deposited and is full, the facility is to be sealed off and never opened again. Or so we hope, but can we ensure that? And how is it possible to warn our descendants of the deadly waste we left behind? How do we prevent them from thinking they have found the Giza pyramids of our time, mystical burial grounds, hidden treasures? Which languages and signs will they understand? And if they understand, will they respect our instructions?”


Waste infrastructures clawing at that timescale do not simply index the best and most practical technical capabilities we have for dealing with such a problem but signal the thorny, tripartite issue of practical urgency, the availability of technology and resources, and imaginative ability. On one hand, the infrastructural form is allegorical of speculative and conceptual failures to both imagine the effects of the waste and to deal with it practically; on the other hand, as technical objects, infrastructures themselves constitute their own futures and make their own impressions upon those futures, into horizons much closer to today than the half-lives they contest with. Who will maintain these infrastructures? How will the significance of their existence be translated into inconceivable futures? Will we need to dig even deeper?

     Theoretical discussions of the Nuclear often emphasize its relationship to the spectrality of the trace. As Esther Peeren says, the nuclear specter is “both revenant, that which returns from the past, and arrivant, that which is to come.”18 This arrivant/revenant duality signifies that the present, viewed from a certain angle, does not belong to itself in a way similar to Agamben's contemporaneity. A determining force has not only set the future, but gone back and redetermined the past to ensure its own future. The threat of imminent global nuclear death haunts us as a ghost of the past, as a mistake that won’t stop persisting/insisting upon the future. Like Slavoj Zizek’s ghost that not only exists but insists (“although what I did not do does not exist, its spectre continues to insist”19), the nuclear destruction of the world refuses exorcism. The Nuclear also, then, borrows all the strangeness and problems of the spectral, its uncanny compression of time and history. The double haunting of the past and future within the present renders contemporary expressions of nuclear culture an antinomic politics of ghosts.


Towards the end of Into Eternity, the film examines several solutions to the deep-time questions/problems of nuclear waste. Experts are divided, with some arguing that knowledge about the waste should be archived, others that it should be sealed and forgotten entirely. While the latter camp would see the land (re)used as residential development or a national park, the former invokes all sorts of scrambling solutions to make sure future humans, at the very least, know what they’re dealing with, via information centers, monuments, and archives, which very carefully and explicitly outline what exists underneath all that rock. It is to this archival approach that we finally turn, for even these straightforward examples run aground on the most preliminary problems (that of language, for instance). More immediately, an entire politics regarding control over, and the management and succession of, this archive of information, about which no laws currently exist, arises.

Given the practical barriers of language and political succession to Onkalo’s design, the solution is to aesthetically deter human activity on the site through, for example, overly-aggressive architecture or symbols we take to be universal for “don’t go there,” such as the classic skull ‘n’ bones. Even Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream is suggested, which one Onkalo employee assures us is a symbol of universal horror. In so doing, the idea of infrastructural literacy delivers us into a new and greater problem for speculative representation that, rather than reformulate the present, attempts to quite literally impress a degree of intelligible determinacy into the future—the concept of the Symbolic itself. Put another way, it’s the question of whether or not Onkalo can be understood as anything other than the ideological expression of the contemporary.

     What I want to suggest about these tentative and ultimately disappointing solutions and imaginations for the future of Onkalo is not merely that the dilemma they address is epistemically inconceivable. The inconceivability of the present is its own representational problematic of the present age, felt and experienced in new and equally inconceivable dilemmas. These dilemmas, like climate change and the energy crisis, do not threaten a future we hoped we could have, but a future which we are finding in our heart of hearts to have been always-already opaque. In other words, it is an epistemic roadblock that allows narrative to test the limits of the present. And it is most surely that narrative category called utopia which  is the underlying conceptual economy or drive at work at Onkalo and Into Eternity. To follow Jameson, once we recognize that the speculative imaginary—anticipated as the affectual formulation bubbling from a “vaster collective sub-text” or movement of a culture—is registered in properly narrative categories, we can see that “closure or the narrative ending is the mark of that boundary or limit beyond which thought cannot go”. And while science fiction can “dramatize this contradiction on the level of plot itself,” futural archaeologies we tell about the next 100,000 years at Onkalo are also “clearly the places in which our own ideological limits are the most surely inscribed.”20


All of this is not to discredit the conceptual work of the Onkalo site as a failure, but to reconsider the construction of the Onkalo site as the outcome of a properly utopian practice, especially when these conceptual practices fail, for it is in their failure that they emerge as proper archaeologies of the future, both open to historicization and steeped in the artifacts to come. I insist upon this contradiction of utopian thought, its impossible practice and irresolvable temporal dynamics, because it is within the contradiction that ontologies of the present are most surely inscribed. Alenka Zupančič writes that, for Jacques Lacan, the philosophical rejection of contradiction was far more problematic than the contradiction itself, which these philosophies were necessarily a part of: “[t]hat is why, by simply abandoning these notions, we are abandoning the battlefield, rather than winning any significant battles.”21 Nested into the deep-time, epistemic problems of Onkalo are the tools for sketching a future at the limit of thought itself. The ability to articulate the contradictions of the present (for instance, building 100,000 year-old infrastructure), and the gap between the utopian break and the practical and political transitions it heralds, is the rhetorical and political strength of the utopian expression “in that it forces us to concentrate on the break itself: a meditation of the impossible, on the unrealizable in its own right.”22 Rather than flee from the contradictions of utopian thought, utopian thought must be everywhere embraced as the narrative condition for articulating the contradictions of the present. We have no choice but to go as far as thought can reach.


1︎︎︎ Fredric Jameson, Ontologies of the Present.

2︎︎︎ Frederic Jameson, Archaeologies, p. xii

3︎︎︎ Frederic Jameson, Archaeologies, p. xv-xvi

4︎︎︎ Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism

5︎︎︎ Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, pp. 58-59

6︎︎︎ ibid., p. 55

7︎︎︎ ibid., p. 56

8︎︎︎ Giorgio Agamben, p. 51

9︎︎︎ ibid., p. 51

10︎︎︎ Giorgio Agamben, “What Is an Apparatus” and Other Essays, p. 41

11︎︎︎  Agamben, p. 46

12︎︎︎  ibid., p. 44

13︎︎︎  This homogenous totality of the present moment, the visible “light,” gets in the way of real contemporaneity, for one can become “blinded by the lights of the century.” Contemporaries must avoid this blinding and “so manage to get a glimpse of the shadows in those lights, of their intimate obscurity” (Agamben 45). For a further discussion on the blinding lights of modernity, see Susan Buck-Morss, “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered.”

14︎︎︎  Andrew Culp, Dark Deleuze, p. 23

15︎︎︎  Jameson, p. xv

16︎︎︎  Gabriella Schwab, Radioactive Ghosts, p. 203

17︎︎︎  Even now France prepares for a “Nuclear renaissance” despite a thirty-year low in nuclear energy production: https://www.ft.com/content/ce27b34a-b6d3-4bb3-840b-f4b1c8436641

18︎︎︎  Esther Peeren, The Spectral Metaphor, p. 14

19︎︎︎  Zizek, Welcome, p. 22, cited in Schwab, p. 22

20︎︎︎  ibid., p. 283

21︎︎︎  Alenka Zupančič, What is Sex?, p. 2

22︎︎︎  Jameson, p. 232


(coming soon)


damian borovsky is a research master's graduate in cultural analysis at the University of Amsterdam. their academic research is in intermodal aesthetics and the ontologies and political economy of maritime infrastructure. thinking through aesthetic practices and mediums, their academic and photographic work examines the deep time and flows of planetary infrastructures, alongside the myriad new materialisms opened up in the ecological frontiers of these infrastructures. they live in amsterdam and like fishing but haven't gone in a long time.

Utopian Thinking in the dark times – Season 2: Autumn/Winter 2022 – Research Capsule by Neo-Metabolism – Editors: Georgia Kareola, Lynn Gommes, Oskar Johanson – Contributors: Damian Borovsky, Olly Bromham, Camila Chebez, Shreya De Souza, Torben Koerschkes, Max Kuwertz, Christopher Michael, Liminal Vision, Zach Whitworth, Rue Yi – Paintings: Eric L. Chen – Design: Clint Soren, dolor~puritan, Ghikhan – Published: October 2022