Bloch talk at HM conference on The Dialectics of Contingency

What are the dialectics of contingency and how do they relate to Bloch?


One of the themes that has made a great deal of impact over the last few years is that of what Quentin Meillasoux calls the necessity of contingency, as he calls it in the second part of the title After Finitude. Post-modernism too, to the extent that it still dominates intellectual debate, also fixed onto the idea of contingency, radical contingency, in which the desire to do away with the grand narrative and with ideology leads to the positing of a fractured reality in which there are only contingent events which are not necessarily linked in any necessary way. Alain Badiou in his work Logics of Worlds counters this contention by maintaining that while there are indeed only events – and famously he maintains that one should demonstrate fidelity to an event – there is also truth.


The debate which we encounter around these issues is therefore one of how we can demonstrate what the truth of the matter is. What is the truth of history? How can we discerned that what we see in history is indeed true? The reason that Bloch becomes important here is that he wasn’t interested in any attempts to demonstrate this truth through any reductionist or economistic logic. For him, Marx’s economic analysis was a given truth, what he also maintained however was that Marx had only just begun to scratch the surface of an understanding of the truth of history with that economic analysis. What was far more important for Bloch was to understand the way in which ontologically we exist in what he called “the darkness of the lived moment” in which the truth of any particular situation could not be discerned in the moment of its appearance. Indeed, it was quite likely that we would not even recognise the truth when it came up and slapped us in the face.


Our individual ontic existences are faced constantly with contingencies which we have to order and understand in order to make any decisions about what to do next. This is obviously the case in any revolutionary situation, which take on dynamics of their own which push the revolution in certain directions depending on the reaction to those contingent situations. This also applies to our everyday lives as well of course. We make decisions all the time based on inadequate information about the present-the darkness of the lived moment-but filtered through our experience of the past and our desires for the future. This means that contingent events do indeed make history, but to paraphrase the theme of this conference, they do not make them just as they please. Contingency is not merely a linear process of unconnected events but each event in itself is based upon the contingent outcome of all the previous events. The point that Bloch makes, however, is that these contingent moments of process do not remain simply reified and fixed moments in time but carry within them a latency, tendency and potentiality. It is the interaction between latency, tendency and potentiality, an ongoing and productive interaction which gives rise to the next stage of the process. This is the dialectics of contingency, a constant interpenetration of that which is with that which might become. However, the effect of past contingent events remains a part of that process.


Bloch calls this non-simultaneity or Ungleichzeitigkeit in which the tendencies and latencies and potentials within events which appear to have been lost actually continue to work on the present. This is because Bloch’s fundamental operator is the Not Yet, or to put it more precisely, the ontology of not yet being.


Slavoj Zizek has written a foreword for the book which I have edited with him and which will be coming out with Duke University press next autumn called the privatisation of hope (cat and Johan and I have chapters in it as well – available in all good bookshops), in which he takes precisely this theme of the ONTOLOGY OF NOT-YET-BEING and retrospective teleology to point out that although each contingent event is its own Telos, the actual way in which those processual teleological moments develop and unfold are not themselves teleologically determined in an a priori fashion but have to be retroactively redeemed. As Zizek puts it “one can give to this logic of retroactive redemption also a decisively non-teleological twist: it means that reality is »unfinished,« not fully ontologically constituted, and as such open to retroactive restructuring.”


The not yetness of history is therefore not that we have not yet attained a pre-existing endpoint but that reality itself has not yet been fully formed. The attempts to create reality along the way remain behind as constant reminders of failure, but those moments of failure then themselves become moments that guarantee the eventual emergence of something different. As you can imagine, Zizek uses the example of Alien 4: Resurrection: in which “the cloned Ripley enters the laboratory room in which the previous seven aborted attempts to clone her are on display – here she encounters the ontologically failed, defective versions of herself, up to the almost successful version with her own face, but with some of her limbs distorted so that they resemble the limbs of the Alien Thing – this creature asks Ripley to kill her, and, in an outburst of violent rage, Ripley effectively destroys the entire horror-exhibition.”

But all of those failed attempts to replicate her were absolutely necessary to arrive at the point of creating a replicant (and I realise I am mixing my films now) which is not even fully conscious that it is a replicant. This is the absolute example of the oft quoted epigram from Samuel Beckett: fail again, fail better. The dialectics of contingency is precisely the unfolding of failure as a precondition for the creation of something new and potentially better.


As Bloch puts it, exists only as “an unfinished process of matter. Precisely those areas which have hitherto been kept furthest apart: Future and Nature, Anticipation and Matter––come together in the long-overdue thoroughness of historical–dialectical materialism. Without matter there is no ground for (real) anticipation and without (real) anticipation, the horizon of matter cannot be discerned.”[1]

In other words, that which is gives birth to that which might be and that which might be gives birth to that which is. This is of course the historical materialist development of an old Aristotelian model of the relationship between kata to dynaton and dynámei on in which real sensuous human activity has to be injected into the process for it to become fully realized. And the mistakes made along the way are an essential part of that process. Sometimes, like Ripley Vietnamese villages and socialism, it is necessary to destroy something in order for it to survive.


So reality and Nature without humanity are in essence non-existent and human nature in turn is something which is constantly in the process of becoming. For Bloch we are human becomings rather than human beings and other evolutionary becoming is precisely determined by our ability to adapt to and overcome contingency. Like evolution, however, the end point of human historical development, however, is not pre-given. We invent stories about our development and about our place in nature which rest on various different philosophical and theological models, but which are all essentially about the creation of a metaphysics of contingency. And in this sense, under the influence of human intellectual consciousness and intervention, that which is gives birth not only to that which might be alongside it to a story about that which had to be. The dialectics of contingency are shifted around so that they appear to show that that which is had to become as it is. Potentiality is turned into inevitability and process is turned into the unfolding of truth rather than the creation of truth.

Adorno said that Bloch had restored honour to the word utopia but the way in which he did this was to present utopia precisely as the outcome of the process rather than the achievement of a pre-given program. As Fredric Jameson points out, however, the utopia Bloch envisaged was one which would emerge out of a hermeneutical process of becoming and was “an allegorical process in which various utopian figures seep into the daily life of things and people and afford an incremental, and often unconscious, bonus of pleasure unrelated to their functional value or official satisfactions.”[2] That is a pretty good description of religion, I would contend.

And this brings us to the other reason why Bloch is important at precisely this point in history, and why Zizek in his foreword tells us that he (Bloch) is more a contemporary of our times than his own, and that is the role of religion in contemporary society. For Bloch, as an atheist and a Marxist, religion was essential to human development because it was the means by which the dreams of utopia, of exodus, of escape and liberation had been kept alive as potentialities in precisely those times when they were not possible as realities. But beyond the fiction of reality there is the reality of fiction. In other words, one does not have to believe in something to recognise that it’s true. But true in the materialist sense that matter itself is an incomplete process.


Understanding religion – and also all other forms of human culture – is therefore a precondition of understanding what it was that human beings want from their future. It takes decoding but it can be found all around. Religion in general and the Abrahamic religions in particular – and when it comes down to it for Bloch and Zizek, Christianity – therefore represented not merely forms of false consciousness or delusion but carried within them the glimmer of a possible universalist future utopian society.

Just as socialism can only emerge out of an exhausted capitalism which itself carries within it its own constantly present glimmers of a post-capitalist future, so human liberation can only emerge out of an exhausted religious impetus. This is because both religion and capitalism exhaust themselves precisely the point at which they can no longer offer any answers to the real sensuous problems of human existence. Christianity is the last phase of this development for Bloch as well as for Zizek, precisely because it is based on a recognition of the death of God, a God who has forsaken his only son. This is why Bloch said that only an atheist can be a good Christian and only a Christian can be a good atheist.

Religion carries within it constant glimmers of the future. In fact it is based on a desire to overcome the darkness of the lived moment and to escape the inevitability of entropy and death. The word Bloch used to describe this glimmer was Vorschein––literally pre-appearance or pre-illumination ––and it makes his Utopia concrete in that it is therefore always already around us and, in Žižek’s words, simply needs to be looked at awry in order for us to recognise it fully.[3] Bloch’s work is rich in the unbearable nearness of utopia, its anticipation in life and love and religion and art and culture and music and sex and adventure and revolution: in all those moments in which we seem to go outside of ourselves and to get a glimpse of the person and the world which we could become.

But this presence of utopia through its absence is neither a Kantian Ding-an-sich, nor a Platonic or Aristotelian eidos. It is not a pre-existing noumenal ideal form existing either outside or within phenomenal existence. On the contrary, Utopia in Bloch is also concrete precisely because it doesn’t yet exist at all, but will be the concrete result of the autopoiesis of its own becoming. Concrete here is used in the form that Hegel uses it, which is, as we might expect, precisely the opposite of what we usually taken to mean. Concrete is taken from the Latin con crescere or growing together. It is processual and unfixed and is therefore the conceptual expression of precisely the ontology of not yet being. It is merely a tendency and latency, the existence of which we only know of because we glimpse its promise in the here and now. In Bloch’s materialist process philosophy, the dialectic of ontology and the ontic, of quantity into quality and the general and particular, the small glimpses of a future utopia which we find in the everyday, thus start to add up to a transformative desire to change the world, married to the objective possibility of doing so. It is the merging of Aristotle’s dynámei on––or what might be possible in the future––with kata to dynaton––or what is possible at the moment––in which all things, including both the human species and matter itself, will be changed into something which cannot yet be determined precisely because, ontologically, it does not yet exist.

And yet we seem to know what it is that it will be. We carry those pre-illuminations with us and they motivate us because we recognise them from our own past. In fact however, what we recognise from the past are our own dreams of the future, translated into memories. Memory is of course notoriously unreliable and at least since Freud we have realised that it is a reconstruction of present desire. I have written about this elsewhere, but, for example, Ostalgie – the East German nostalgia for the past – is not actually nostalgia for a past which existed but for an unrealised future which existed in the past but which was never realized because, as Brecht put it, the conditions were not right. As Bloch puts it at the end of The Principle of Hope:


Humanity lives everywhere still in pre-history, indeed each and everything is waiting for the creation of a just world. The true Genesis is not at the beginning, but at the end, and it will only start to come about when society and existence become radical, i.e. take themselves by their own roots. The root of history, however, is the labouring, creative human, engaged in reshaping and overcoming given conditions. Once he has grasped himself and that which is his, without alienation and based in real democracy, so there will arise in the world something that shines into everyone’s childhood, but where no one has yet been: Home.[4]

In other words, as Bloch also put it, things have to be changed INTO all recognition.


[1] Ernst Bloch, Das Materialismusproblem, seine Geschichte und Substanz, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972, 13.

[2] Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future, London: Verso, 2005, 5.

[3] See Slavoj Žižek, Parallax View, Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2006.

[4] Ernst Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung, Vol. 3, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1959, 1628.


3 Responses to Bloch talk at HM conference on The Dialectics of Contingency

  1. grizoo2 says:

    You successfully weave Zizek’s ontology into our personal and political continuum in a way that we can meet today with hope, determination, a clear message to communicate, strenghthened rather than guilt ridden by past “failings,” and a way forward with those trapped in despair or ideological closure.
    Thanks for the preview. I am looking foreward to reading “The Privatization of Hope”. In the mean time I expect I’ll be rereading this piece several times.
    The requisite attitude for “Living in the End Times”!

  2. jackr541986 says:

    I was very pleased to come across this. I think these notions of contingency and necessity are the most compelling ideas in Zizek’s work. His discussion of contingency, necessity, retroactivity and vanishing mediators in For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (probably my desert island Zizek book) has been hugely influential on my own thinking about these issues.
    A couple of questions: 1) I haven’t read much Bloch (I’ll have to remedy that soon) but from your account the parallels between his work and Benjamin’s seem quite striking (of course, they were more or less part of the same circle so this is natural, but nonetheless..). What are the key differences between the two? Or, if that’s a huge question, perhaps you could point me in the direction of some good lit comparing them?
    2) Are all events, in principle, potentially redeemable from a future position? If so, are we still able to condemn them or is every condemnation premature?

    Finally, I’ve made my own tentative contribution concerning these ideas and in particular their bearing on ideology:

    Any thoughts/queries/comments are appreciated!
    Many thanks.

    • Peter Thompson says:

      Hi, and thanks. I often look at your site and like it very much. Re Bloch Benjamin then I guess the main difference (and this goes for all the other Frankfurt School writers too) is the almost complete absence of cultural pessimism in Bloch. For him everything contains sparks of the better life, no matter how apparently dreadful.

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