Ernst Bloch


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GermanMarxist philosopher, social critic and utopianist. Bloch was born in the industrial town of Ludwigshafen. His father was an assimilated Jew of modest means who worked as an official on the railways. Bloch studied philosophy in Munich and Würzburg, before making a definitive move to Berlin where he was mentored by Georg Simmel (their friendship ended when Simmel spoke in favour of Germany's entry to World War I). In Berlin, Bloch also met and became a firm friend of Marxist literary critic György Lukács with whom he would later have very public disagreements concerning Expressionism, which he favoured and Lukács did not.

At the outbreak of World War 1, Bloch (declared unfit for military service) moved out of Berlin, first to Grünewald, and then to Switzerland, where he struck up a friendship with cultural critic Walter Benjamin. After the war, he returned to Berlin and was part of the large circle of intellectuals who were resident there in the heady Weimar Republic days—Theodor Adorno, Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler and Otto Klemperer. He moved back to Switzerland in 1933 (to escape persecution under the new race laws implemented by the Nazis) and subsequently to the US where he waited out the war. Interestingly, for reasons which aren't clear, and unlike many other German exiles from the same circle, Bloch was not given employment by Horkheimer's Institute for Social Research, and was forced to live a hand-to-mouth existence supported by his wife's job as a waitress. After the war he returned to the now divided Germany and initially lived in the socialist East Germany, but after falling out with the authorities there he moved to the West, and spent his remaining years at Tübingen. It was during his period in the US that he began but did not complete his magnum opus, for which he is best known, the three volume colossus Das Prinzip Hoffnung (1959), translated as The Principle of Hope (1986). A sprawling work that takes in virtually every cultural form of its time, The Principle of Hope argues that every historical age contains its own horizon, its Front over which what he calls the Not-Yet-Conscious spirit of utopia (or wish for change) flows. Thus even the darkest moments in history are said to contain elements of ‘Vor-Schein’ (pre-appearance or shining ahead), signs which point towards imminent transformation. Translations of Bloch's work into English have been inexplicably slow in coming, which has hampered appreciation of his thought in the Anglophone world. However it is now generally agreed that Bloch is one of the 20th-century's most important theorists of utopia. He transformed the concept from a weak idea associated with unfulfillable dreams into a strong concept connected to the material reality of everyday life.

Further Reading:

F. Jameson Marxism and Form (1971).

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.

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