The Persistence of Utopia: Plasticity and Difference from Roland Barthes to Catherine Malabou


  • Jennifer A. Wagner-Lawlor Pennsylvania State University



utopia, plasticity, difference, generative, persistence


The theorizing of utopia is a persistent theme throughout several generations of the French continental tradition, and alongside the process theory of Alfred North Whitehead to a large degree recuperates the concept of utopia from its supposed dismissal by Marx and his intellectual descendants. Most recently, attention to the notion of plasticity, popularized (relatively speaking) by Catherine Malabou, extends speculation on utopian possibility.  Compelled to answer to Marx’s denigration of utopia as fantasy, the tendency was (still is, for many) to compensate for the absence of a programmatic politics by stressing what is “useful” about utopian dreaming, and therefore where or how exactly a utopian text reveals or creates political drive, or motivates political action. In this essay, I argue that theorists have overlooked the use of utopia as not only the reproduction of difference, or what Malabou calls positive plasticity, but also as, therefore, a disruption; Malabou might prefer the term accident here. Tracing the concept of plasticity from Roland Barthes to Malabou, with a nod at Miguel Abensour, this essay teases out the links between a contemporary notion of plasticity to argue, simply put, that utopia is plastic. This plasticity of the concept ensures its political force. These links, obscured in the essay “Plastic,” Barthes makes only later in his writing. But for Malabou, plasticity underlies a principle of futurity and/as generativity, such that new forms, new meanings, new concepts emerge through difference. Utopia’s horizons of potentiality depend on difference, and on non-achievement. Finally, I argue that the persistence of utopia (Abensour) as a form of thinking is the most important, and political, effect of utopian plasticity.

Author Biography

Jennifer A. Wagner-Lawlor, Pennsylvania State University

Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor is Professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Penn State University.  She has published dozens of articles on 19th-21st-century literature. Her most recent monograph is Postmodern Utopias and Feminist Fictions (Cambridge, 2013).