Life and times of Michael K and the use of the future as utopian strategy

Par Michael Green
Publication en ligne le 28 mai 2013

Texte intégral

But the Wise Perceive Things About to Happen

“For the gods perceive things in the future, ordinary people things in the present, but the wise perceive things about to happen.”
Philostratos, Life of Apollonios of Tyana, viii, 7.

Ordinary mortals Know what's happening now,
the gods Know what the future holds
because they alone are totally enlightened.
Wise men are aware of future things
just about to happen.

Sometimes during moments of intense study
their hearing's troubled : the hidden sound
of things approaching reaches them,
and they listen reverently, while in the street outside
the people hear nothing whatsoever.
C.P. Cavafy, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

We view the present trial as an interim affair. Somewhere in the future lies a date when black and white South Africans will take a second look at these moments of our history. They will evaluate afresh the events now in contention and our role in them. And since the privilege will belong to them, they will pass final judgement. We are convinced that theirs will be contrary to the present one. They will vindicate us.

1Patrick “Terror” Lekota, Popo Molefe, Moss Chikane, joint statement in the “Delmas” treason trial.1

... what strikes the random observer of the history of philosophy is the lack of attention given the future as such, as though there were something essentially frivolous in a consideration of that which does not yet exist, when so much exists already. In that the philosophers resemble M. Terentius Varro, 'most learned of all the Romans', who 'is supposed to have forgotten the future tense in the first version of his Latin grammar'.

2Frederic Jameson, quoting Bloch's Das Prinzip Hoffnung in Marxism and Form.2

3The round figure of a decade after its publications is a tempting point from which to engage with a work set in its near future. Coetzee's 1983 novel, Life and Times of Michael K, is a text which, along with a group of other South African texts from the early to mid-1980s, attempted a serious fictional deployment of the future. With present efforts to work through the cliché of the “New South Africa” as its background, this paper considers valid uses of the future in terms of Life and Times of Michael K's Utopian strategies.

4It would certainly be taking things too far to suggest that, of the Germanic characteristics retained in the English language, the reduction of the numerous tense and aspect forms of Indo-European verbs (preserved and added to in Latin, despite Varro's lapse) could be related to the anomalous position of works concerned with the future in our general text. English, solidly equipped with past and present tenses, may have no future tense, but non-tense systems within the language convey temporal meanings ; future time is easily evoked by use of modal expressions, usually reinforced or clarified by adverbs. In any event, a concern with units of expression as complex as narrative tends to Keep us in the past tense, regardless of deictics ; narration, after all, usually represents all experience linguistically as past experience, if only as a reflex of the rupture between the moment of narration and the material narrated.

5Yet a hint of suspicion remains regarding the slightly awkward conjuncture of tense and the future, prompting us at least to consider the ontological uncertainty surrounding the status of the future. Perhaps this may be traced back to the trope regarding tense of the narrative attitude, but what we should recognize is that, just as narrative tense is not a sufficient indicator of the temporal situation being treated, so grammatical mood in narrative does not necessarily reflect the actual manner of the statement made. The Utopian mode, to illustrate with an example which will concern us in this paper, is that of the implied subjunctive ; despite its surface grammatical tense (past) and mood (indicative), the Utopian form is ruled by the future tense and the subjunctive mood. We are involved here then with, to appropriate a prevalent contemporary term, the grammar of desire.

6I use this formulation partly to pick up on its origin in the Lacanian opposition of the “discourse of the real” and “the discourse of desire”, but I do not wish to push this too far. I mainly wish to shift the formally grammatical into the social space opened up by Lacan – and, with now-standard necessary disclaimers regarding ideology, the Althussarian reading of Lacan – where language becomes an image of the unconscious as the effect of social relations rather than a private realm “within”, and grammar becomes significant in terms of discourse.

7The grammar of desire involves a definite rhetorical shift from the past tense and indicative mood associated with history writing. As such, it suggests a deliberate strategy of running against realist expectations of reference. Yet the one case does not necessarily follow upon the other, and I need to establish for the textual analysis to follow that the deep future tense of desire has a vital role within the writing of history. Raymond Williams makes this clear in his distinction between the categories of science fiction and Utopian fiction. “It is tempting,” he writes,

to extend both categories until they are loosely identical, and it is true that the presentation of otherness appears to link them, as modes of desire or warning in which the crucial emphasis is attained by the elements of discontinuity from ordinary 'realism'. But this element of discontinuity is itself fundamentally variable. Indeed what has most to be looked at, in properly Utopian or dystopian fiction, is that form of continuity, of implied connection, which the form is intended to embody ?3

8A similar observation is found in Dominic Baker-Smith's essay, “The Escape From the Cave : Thomas More and the Vision of Utopia” :

At the centre of all Utopian writing is a concern with the mediating process between ideal forms and the inadequate provisions of experience… Whether it is Utopia or dystopia that we are considering, the separation from fantasy is absolute : both imply a reference back to the world of concrete acts and familiar experience which fantasy excludes. The central feature of Utopian writing is the effort to reconcile ideal possibilities with the recalcitrance of the Known. Even in the case of dystopian writing it is that emphasis on the obstinate features of a Known world which suggests desirable alternatives…4

9It is from this perspective that the Utopian mode makes available to us on positive terms the very logical grounds that A.C. Danto, in his Analytical Philosophy of History, uses for his ultimate rejection of any place for the future in history. “Philosophies of history attempt to capture the future without realizing that if we Knew the future, we could control the present, and so falsify statements about the future, and so such discoveries would be useless”, writes Danto.5 Far from being useless, this is precisely the logic behind the use of the Utopian mode – and the formally identical dystopian mode. It is not so much predictive as pre-emptive. Whether inspirational or admonitory, Utopias are explicitly interventionist. Thus we move from the overt indicative of the Utopian text, by way of an implicit subjunctive, to a new, or at least different, form of the indicative. Utopian projections declare their reference to the present just as historical meaning attaches itself in important ways to events to come beyond the present. Desire, in the sense of a process set in motion by the temporal differences represented here, writes the future into the past, the present into the future.

10These are the formal terms which indicate the integration of the future in the historical, but desire is more than simply a formal element. As we saw Baker-Smith insist, Utopian and dystopian forms 'both imply a reference back to the world of concrete acts and familiar experience' and it is finally on these terms that we must analyse fictions which make the future their subject. Apartheid was formally as Utopian a vision as anything proposed by its opponents, so it is the grounds of their social content that we must judge the category of text within which I would include Life and Times of Michael K – the category of “future histories”. These works seek to comment upon the past and present by projecting the implications of the past and the present forward in time. In this they invert the standard techniques of historical fiction, but remain directly related to them. Attempts to give meaning to the past involve an implied or explicit appeal to the future. Hence the term “future histories” ; it designates those fictional forms that explore the future in much the same way as the classical historical novel explores the past, investigating another time whilst retaining a serious commitment to particular and specific historical conditions.

11It is precisely such a dual commitment that makes Life and Times of Michael K, no less than To Every Birth its Blood, July's People, and A Sport of Nature, histories. The conviction these works carry can be measured by their ability to render the terms, if not the exact material conditions, of a fully realized society to reflect upon their own time. Upon this depends the sucess of their resistance to the crippling effects of the social system they resist. It is for this reason that we may ultimately call their projection into the future historical ; it is for this reason we may treat these texts of the future as legitimate uses of history.

12Invoking the future for any particular textualization of history brings into play a necessary yet potentially restrictive formal feature which governs the nature of the content represented. We may approach this feature through the significance Jameson gives the place of the future in the work of Ernst Bloch. If for Freud “comprehension consists of working back to origins”, Bloch's dialogue with Freud is precisely one of finding room alongside this for “an ontological pull of the future” – “an unconscious of what is yet to come” (Marxism and Form, p. 129). For Bloch, “the meaning of Being itself comes into being, if at all, only at the moment when the world passes over into Utopia, and when that final Utopian destination returns upon the past to confer direction upon it” (Marxism and Form, p. 131). These somewhat large metaphysical terms take on meaning for me in the way they capture a very real sense of how our understanding works. We need to posit a point of conclusion (not necessarily final ; this will prove crucial later) in order for what has come before to make sense ; it takes shape only in relation to an end point which then allows for the organization of that which preceded it. In so far as we allow for this before coming to a point of conclusion, this conclusion may be described as Utopian.

13The teleological implications here are consciously related by Jameson to their textual source and model : the “sense in which all plot may be seen as a movement toward Utopia, in its basic working through to some ultimate resolution of the basic tensions” (Marxism and Form, p. 146) is taken to the point where “the very time of the work may itself stand as a figure of Utopian development : "Every great work of art, above and beyond its manifest content, is carried out according to a latancy of the page to come, or in other words, in the light of the content of a future which has not yet come into being, and indeed of some ultimate resolution as yet unknown" (Marxism and Form, p. 149). For Jameson, such a perspective

may serve as an object lesson in some of the ways available to a Marxist hermeneutic to restore a genuine political dimension to the disparate texts preserved in the book of our culture : not by some facile symbolic or allegorical interpretation, but by reading the very content and the formal impulse of the texts themselves as figures – whether of psychic wholeness, of freedom, or of the drive towards Utopian transfiguration – of the irrepressible revolutionary wish (Marxism and Form, p. 159).

14And of the duties falling to literary criticism at the conclusion of Marxism and Form, pride of (last) place is reserved for “keep(ing) alive the idea of a concrete future” (Marxism and Form, p. 416).

15The terms of this Utopian model translate quite easily into the terms of what I have called “future histories”. These works, clustered around the early to mid-1980s, were created in a context of repression and represent attempts at “maintaining contact with the… sources of revolutionary energy in a stagnant time” (Marxism and Form, p. 84). At a time when the oppressive system in South Africa, although in difficulties, still seemed thoroughly entrenched and opposition was active but all too often stale-mated, the responsibility works concerned with the future carried became more than one of representing the time of oppression : it was also one of Keeping a creative way open to the future. Only in the light of a future hope could the struggle towards that future continue to literally 'make sense' in the form discussed above. In so far as these works are the product of a time of oppressive closure, that hope may be characterized in Utopian terms.

16The trouble with the formal logic deployed here lies, to use Paul Q. Hirst's distinction between Hegel's dialectic and conventional philosophies of history, in its too strict a use of the teleological – a use which blocks the dialectical, or open-ended, potential of the form. This is a distinction that it will be salutary for us to bring into our account of the Utopian use of teleology as it stands thus far. Hegel's dialectic, says Hirst,

explains a process but not its end… it is to use Althusser's phrase, “a process without a subject”… It differs from teleological realizations of a given end (Comte, Spencer, etc.) in this rigorous openness, or all but the form of its process to Knowledge 6

17Given this perspective, the concretizing of the future, no matter how positively, is always a risk ; instead of affirming the present, it all too easily becomes an attempt, as Jameson puts it, to “outsmart” it.7 The sense of an ending is most useful when it stresses process, not closure, strategic ends, not final ones. By way of example, the unconvincing representation of a social world in the inadvertently hollow ceremony that concludes A Sport of Nature – it is too brief, too thin and almost perfunctory in its utopianism to carry the weight the novel asks of it – makes it less of a success as a “future history” than the more personal, more tentative, but ultimately more effective conclusion to July's People.

18It is with precisely this risk in mind that J.M. Coetzee approaches the portrayal of the future. The trope of the dialectic itself, if it cannot finally be refused, must be resisted in the extreme minimalism of Coetzee's style. Stephen Watson has written of the “failed dialectic”8 in Coetzee's work, but Stephen Clingman has countered this with his illuminating claim that “it is more accurate to talk of a more principled "negative" dialectic in which Coetzee's work stands as the ostensible second term”. Reading Life and Times of Michael K against Braudel's concept of the longue durée, Clingman sees in Michael K's refusal to create a “rival line” of any Kind Coetzee's recognition of the ways in which resistance risks “duplicating in alternative form the dominant terms of power”.9 David Attwell reads a more paradoxical resistance into a similar formal apprehension ; in answer to those critics who accuse Coetzee of idealist strategies, he finds “in Coetzee's refusal to "complete" the historical trajectory of decolonization” evidence “of the very palpability of historical forces”.10 There is a sense in which these approaches complement each other, especially if read in relation to Foucault's challenge to the totalizing effects of all linear, progressive history. “Continuous history”, as Foucault calls it, be it Marxist, liberal, positivist, even empiricist, attempts to control or domesticate the past in the form of Knowing it11; “future history” in any continuous form would, of course, perform the same operation upon the future. It is for this reason that the true figure of the future – we are taken just far enough into the future to characterise Michael K as such – must constantly recede before attempts to Know it. The future itself must be taken by allegorical extension as a figure here, of course : a figure of the play of meaning, irreducible and Knowable only as difference. Thus Michael becomes Known only as “a great escape artist, one of the great escapees”.12 His drawing inexorably away from the pursuing medical officer/narrator is a prime illustration of Jameson's “History is what hurts, it is what refuses desire…”13

19Life in the camps is threatening to Michael specifically in terms of meaning :

Am I at last learning about life here in a camp ? It seemed to him that scene after scene of life was playing itself out before him and that the scenes all cohered. He had a presentiment of a single meaning upon which they were converging or threatening to converge… (Life and Times of Michael K, p. 122)

20It is difficult, however, to free Michael of the one important sense in which he becomes meaningful to the medical officer (the doctor diagnosing the symptom) :

“Your stay in the camp was merely an allegory, if you Know that word. It was an allegory – speaking at the highest level – of how scandalously, how outrageously a meaning can take up residence in a system without becoming a term in it”. (Life and Times of Michael K, p. 228)

21Michael himself must raise his right hand to this (see p. 229), and, in answer to the invitation Coetzee's work so often makes (critics on Coetzee consistently demonstrate the invitation in their response) we relate this to its extra/intertextual echoes ; in this case they are myriad, but let us select one from Roland Barthes that will also serve to bring us back to our theme :

Pigeonholed : I am pigeonholed, assigned to an (intellectual) site, to residence in a caste (if not in a class). Against which there is only one internal doctrine : that of atopia (of a drifting habitation). Atopia is superior to Utopia (utopia is reactive, tactical, literary, it proceeds from meaning and governs it).14

22We recognize Michael K as atopian, but the very fact that we are able to indicate this means that Life and Times of Michael K is not. It inhabits meaning, or meaning inhabits it, to at least this degree, and in its being “reactive, tactical” and definitely (if predominantly in its reactive and tactical form) "literary", it is also Utopian. Earlier we located the deep grammatical mood of the Utopian in the subjunctive, and the last eight pages of Part II of Life and Times of Michael K (the conclusion of the medical officer's narration) are, quite crucially, entirely in the subjunctive. Governed by “would” and infiltrated by “should”, the whole passage enacts its own grammar, the grammar of (frustrated) desire. It recounts, of course, the desire for Knowledge, for humble (no matter how humble, still threatening) mastery through meaning : "I was the only one who saw that you were more than you seemed to be." “I would have proceeded”, says the medical officer of “Michaels” (the cutting irony of the misnomer resonates through his certainty). Further, later :

'This is not my imagination', I would say to myself. 'This sense of a gathering meaningfulness

23(we remember what threatens Michael in the camp ; here is the logic of his escape)

is not something like a ray that I project to bathe this or that bed, or a robe in which I wrap this or that patient according to whim. Michaels means something, and the meaning he has is not private to me. If it were,

24he continues, lauching into the subjunctive in its hypothetical form within the subjunctive in its dominant form of desire,

if the origin of this meaning were no more than a lack in myself, a lack, say, of something to believe in, since we all Know how difficult it is to satisfy a hunger for a belief with the vision of times to come that the war, to say nothing of the camps, presents us with, [my emphasis]

25moving away from the past as originary, staying within the Utopian to counter the dystopian,

if it were a mere craving for meaning

26no meaning of course is ever this innocent, or incidental, hence Michael's insistent retreat before all this

that sent me to Michaels and his story


if Michaels himself were no more than what he seems to be (what you seem to be),

28the parenthesis returning us to reference, reminding the narrator and the reader of the overall subjunctive mood in which all this is couched

a skin-and-bones man with a crumpled lip (pardon me, I name only the obvious), then I would

29(a subjunctive conclusion within the subjunctive)

have every justification for retiring to the toilets behind the jockey's changing-rooms and locking myself into the last cubicle and putting a bullet through my head.' (Life and Times of Michael K, p. 226)

30The medical officer's desire is not legitimated or negated ; it remains unconsummated (' "Am I right ?" I would shout. "Have I understood you ? " ' (Life and Times of Michael K, p. 229)) in all respects except that noted above ('you are a great escape artist' ; Michael's escape confirms this much about him). Part III of the novel follows this and moves back into the authority of the third person or free indirect discourses, emphasizing Michael's escape from the medical officer's extended hypothesis, his return to himself ('the truth, the truth about me. I am a gardener' (Life and Times of Michael K, pp. 247-248)), but the novel itself concludes in the Utopian mood. The minimalist vision of Michael's capacity for survival under even the most limited circumstances is imagined (by Michael) in the subjunctive, the Utopian future : “And if… he, Michael K, would…” (Life and Times of Michael K, p. 250). Surely here Coetzee's prose takes on the strength George Steiner notes of the future tense :

Future tenses are an example of the more general framework of non- and counter-factuality. They are part of the capacity of language for the fictional and illustrate absolutely central powers of the human word to go beyond and against 'that which is the case'.15

31Few authors have avoided the present as a setting for their works as militantly and systematically as Coetzee (with the exception of the first part of Dusklands, but this is then not set locally, and the whole of Age of Iron, which seems specifically addressed to the lack of the present in his work until this time). Generally it has been the past which has served as his point of oblique reference to the present (in the second part of Dusklands, In the Heart of the Country, and Foe – even the atemporal and unlocalized Waiting for the Barbarians carries a preponderantly past sense), but in Life and Times of Michael K his use of the future approximates an impulse common to, in crucially different ways, all the texts I would call “future histories”. This impulse is concerned to define the terms upon which the present becomes 'meaningful' with reference to a future, no matter how minimal and hypothetical that future may be. The concluding vision of Life and Times of Michael K is couched, as I have noted, in what I have chosen to call a Utopian tense ; even in a story set in the future, it remains in the future. Yet as a social vision it holds convincingly before us the fundamental elements of survival : it is communal (in the most basic sense, it concerns Michael and an old man), creative (the old man is imagined from evidence), and ultimately (in the face of adversity) materially sustaining :

And if the old man climbed out of the cart and stretched himself (things were gathering pace now) and looked at where the pump had been that the soldiers had blown up so that nothing should be left standing, and complained, saying 'What are we going to do about water ?', he, Michael K, would produce a teaspoon from his pocket, a teaspoon and a long roll of string. He would clear the rubble from the mouth of the shaft, he would bend the handle of the teaspoon in a loop and tie the string to it, he would lower it down the shaft deep into the earth, and when he brought it up there would be water in the bowl of the spoon ; and in that way, he would say, one can live. (Life and Times of Michael K, p. 250)

32In his survival upon his own terms Michael K becomes a figure of – as befits Coetzee's aesthetic – the minimal requirements of resistance, and in this he exposes just how much is excessive in what is all too often considered indispensible for sustaining a meaningful existence. As a point of ultimate difference he stands against the domesticating power of the present, yet he is not ouside of history ; to the extent that he inhabits the future he does so in a Utopian sense, playing back upon the present the basic conditions of meaning that allow past, present, and future to (meaningfully) exist. 1993 in no way cancels this future vision of 1983 : if anything, Michael K still teaches us to look beyond the futures imagined for us so that we may interrogate them with the full weight of a history informed with an ever-reflexive utopianism.


1 Quoted in The Weekly Mail, 9 December to 15 December, 1988, p. 3.

2 Marxism and Form : Twentieth-century Dialectical Theories of Literature, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1971, p. 125.

3  'Utopian and Science Fiction' in Science Fiction : A Critical Guide, ed. Patrick Parrinder, London and New York, Langman, 1979, p. 54.

4  Between the Dream and Nature : Essays on Utopia and Dystopia, Amsterdam, Redopi, 1987, p. 8.

5 Analytical Philosophy of History, Cambridge, At the University Press, 1965, p. 284.

6 Marxism and Historical Writing, London, Boston, Melbourne and Henley, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985, p. 89.

7 See Marxism and Form, p. 320 :
The multiplication of 'theories of history strikes me... as the symptom of (a)... cultural illness : an attempt to outsmart the present, first of all, to think your way behind history to the point where even the present itself can be seen as a completed historical instant... ; to name and label the moment you are standing in even before it reaches its ultimate consecration sub specie aeternitatis in the history books themselves.

8  'Colonialism and the Novels of J.M. Coetzee', Research in African Literatures, 17, No 3, Fall 1986, p. 370.

9  'Revolution and Reality : South African Fiction in the 1980s' in Rendering Things Visible : Essays on South African Literary Culture,ed. Martin Trump, Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1990, p. 49.

10  See his 'The Problem of History in the Fiction of J.M. Coetzee' in Rendering Things Visible, pp. 94-133, especially p. 116.

11  The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith, London, Tavistock Publications, 1972 (1969). See p. 12 for the domesticating effects of 'continuous history'.

12  Life and Times of Michael K, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1985 (1983), p. 228.

13  The Political Unconscious, London, Methuen, 1981, p. 102.

14  Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard, New York, Hill and Wang, 1974, p. 49.

15  After Babel, p. 61. Quoted in Patricia Waugh, Metafiction : the Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, London and New York, Methuen, 1984, pp.121-122.

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