Into the Big Tent
- BuyValences of the Dialectic by Fredric Jameson
Verso, 625 pp, £29.99, October 2009, ISBN 978 1 85984 877 7
Fredric Jameson’s pre-eminence, over the last generation, among critics writing in English would be hard to dispute. Part of the tribute has been exacted by his majestic style, one distinctive feature of which is the way that the convoy of long sentences freighted and balanced with subordinate clauses will dock here and there to unload a pithy slogan. ‘Always historicise!’ is one of these, and Jameson has also insisted, under the banner of ‘One cannot not periodise,’ on the related necessity (as well as the semi-arbitrariness) of dividing history into periods. With that in mind, it’s tempting to propose a period, coincident with Jameson’s career as the main theorist of postmodernism, stretching from about 1983 (when Thatcher, having won a war, and Reagan, having survived a recession, consolidated their popularity) to 2008 (when the neoliberal programme launched by Reagan and Thatcher was set back by the worst economic crisis since the Depression). During this period of neoliberal ascendancy – an era of deregulation, financialisation, industrial decline, demoralisation of the working class, the collapse of Communism and so on – it often seemed easier to spot the contradictions of Marxism than the more famous contradictions of capitalism, and no figure seemed to embody more than Fredric Jameson the peculiar condition of an economic theory that had turned out to flourish above all as a mode of cultural analysis, a mass movement that had become the province of an academic ‘elite’, and an intellectual tradition that had arrived at some sort of culmination right at the point of apparent extinction.
Over the last quarter-century, Jameson has been at once the timeliest and most untimely of American critics and writers. Not only did he develop interests in film, science fiction, or the work of Walter Benjamin, say, earlier than most of his colleagues in the humanities, he was also a pioneer of that enlargement of literary criticism (Jameson received a PhD in French literature from Yale in 1959) into all-purpose theory which made the discussion of all these things in the same breath established academic practice. More than this, he succeeded better than anyone else at defining the term, ‘postmodernism’, that sought to catch the historical specificity of the present age.
This was a matter, first, of cataloguing postmodernism’s superficial textures: the erosion of the distinction between high and pop culture; the reign of stylistic pastiche and miscellany; the dominance of the visual image and corresponding eclipse of the written word; a new depthlessness – ‘surrealism without the unconscious’ – in the dream-like jumble of images; and the strange alliance of a pervasive cultural nostalgia (as in the costume drama or historical novel) with a cultural amnesia serving to fragment ‘time into a series of perpetual presents’. If all that now sounds familiar, this owes something to the durability of Jameson’s account of postmodernism, first delivered as a lecture in 1982 and expanded two years later into an essay for New Left Review: a 40-page sketch that caught the features of the fidgety sitter more accurately than many longer studies before and since.
Jameson’s description of the mood and texture of postmodern life had, in its almost tactile authority, few rivals outside the work of DeLillo, Pynchon and (more to his own taste) William Gibson. And, as in their novels, local observation in Jameson was complemented by an implacable awareness of what he called the ‘unrepresentable exterior’ enclosing all the slick and streaming phenomena in view. In the novelists, however, allusion to the great ensphering system often took the form of paranoia. As a Marxist, Jameson was calmer and more forthright: he simply called the system late capitalism, after the book by Ernest Mandel, the Belgian Trotskyist, which provided the base, as it were, to his own cultural superstructure. Mandel’s Late Capitalism (1972) had offered a magnificently confident and pugnacious argument about the nature of postwar capitalism, but he regretted ‘not being able to propose a better term for this historical era than “late capitalism”’. In Mandel’s usage, ‘late’ simply meant ‘recent’, but the term naturally also suggests obsolescence. This implication of an utterly misplaced Marxist triumphalism probably had consequences for the reception of Jameson’s theory (and Mandel’s). Who could believe in 1991, when Jameson published Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, that capitalism was on its last legs?
In fact, Jameson didn’t think it was either. His actual claim was more like the opposite: with the postwar elimination of pre-capitalist agriculture in the Third World and the last residue of feudal social relations in Europe, with the full commodification of culture (no more Rilke and Yeats and their noble patrons) and the infiltration of the old family-haunted unconscious by mass-disseminated images, humankind had only now embarked, for the first time, on a universally capitalist history. Late capitalism was the dawn, not the dusk, of a thoroughgoing capitalism. It constituted a ‘process in which the last surviving internal and external zones of precapitalism … are now ultimately penetrated and colonised in their turn’. This thesis can only have been reinforced by the advent of China as the workshop of the world and the channelling of so much of intimate life by the internet. My shoes are sewn under the supervision of the CCP, and Gmail fills the margins of my private correspondence with ads.
And yet if Jameson owed to Marxism the special freshness of his insights, it was the same Marxism that made his work so untimely. He seems to have achieved notoriety as America’s best-known Marxist in the years of the Soviet Union’s death throes, when Marxism of any kind was held to be empirically disproved and indelibly tainted with mass murder. Moreover, his particular commitments went considerably beyond an axiomatic materialism in which economic conditions necessarily carve out whatever room for manoeuvre artists and writers enjoy; that much Marxism any liberal citizen might have accepted or even, under postmodernism, found impossible to deny. Far more suspect, during a period when Utopia has been considered a euphemism for the Gulag, Jameson has also insisted time and again on the (usually unconscious) utopian element in all culture and politics, no matter how commercial the artefact or noxious the movement. The last words of Valences of the Dialectic maintain that ‘Utopia exists and that other systems, other spaces, are still possible’.
Jameson’s defence of the procedure he likes to call ‘totalisation’ has been in a similar vein. Totalisation might be defined as the intellectual effort to recover the relationship between a given object – a novel, a film, a new building or a body of philosophical work – and the total historical situation underneath and around it. To contemporary ears, the term inevitably calls up associations with totalitarianism, and there is no denying that the method derives explicitly from the work of the Communist Lukács and the fellow-traveller Sartre, whom Jameson also failed to disown. Anathema to conservatives, the recourse to ‘totality’ was no more endearing to a cultural left whose slogans included difference, heterotopia, nomadism etc. This left seems to have faded from the American scene in recent years, but orthodox anti-Marxism looks unbudging. ‘Outside of a few university comparative literature departments,’ Anne Applebaum wrote recently in the New York Review of Books, ‘Soviet-style Marxism itself is not a living political idea anywhere in the West.’ (It’s in ‘Soviet-style’ that the real malice lies.) A few weeks later, a prominent science writer declared in a letter to the New York Times that ‘Marx’s philosophy, put into practice, killed 30 million people through state-sponsored famines alone.’ The US remains a society in which Marxism can be advocated only a little more respectably than pederasty, and lately accusations of socialism erupt from the Republican Party more frequently than since McCarthy’s heyday.
In Late Marxism (1990), his book on Adorno, Jameson wrote of Dialectic of Enlightenment that ‘the question about poetry after Auschwitz has been replaced with that of whether you could bear to read Adorno and Horkheimer next to the pool.’ With Jameson the question has been whether you could avoid reading him on a university campus, or continue reading him outside one. In Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001), Chip Lambert, a former associate professor of literature in his thirties, decides to purge his library of Marxist cultural critics in order to raise some funds with which to indulge the yuppie tastes of his new girlfriend, Julia. Each of these books, Chip recalls, had once ‘called out’ to him ‘with a promise of a radical critique of late capitalist society’. And yet: ‘Theodor Adorno didn’t have Julia’s grapy smell of lecherous pliability, Fred Jameson didn’t have Julia’s artful tongue.’ Unburdened of his Marxist texts and their ‘reproachful spines’, Chip proceeds to buy Julia a fillet of ‘wild Norwegian salmon, line caught’ for $78.40 at an upmarket grocery store Franzen calls the Nightmare of Consumption, a name to suggest that faced with the brazenness of yuppiedom (as by the 1990s it was no longer even called; it was just the way that almost anyone who could afford to be, was) all satire or cultural criticism met defeat. Jameson’s Postmodernism had concluded with a call to ‘name the system.’ Ten years later, the system seemed to reply cheerfully to any ugly name you might call it. Hi, I’m the Nightmare of Consumption. Nice to meet you!
The Corrections, as well as being a far better novel than Jameson’s stricture on an ‘exhausted realism’ would suggest it could be, is a central instance of the literary populism that we can now recognise as one of the main trends of the American novel over the past decade or so. Franzen had no wish to be an obscure or difficult artist in the way that Adorno might have approved, and wasn’t likely to mention Jameson without being able to trust that a good number of his readers would have some idea of who ‘Fred’ was. Similarly, in Sam Lipsyte’s new novel, The Ask, the forty-something narrator recalls that in college he learned about ‘late capitalism. And how to snort heroin.’ Interestingly, Lipsyte deals with the mediocre university where his narrator works in the same spirit of harassed literalism and defeated satire we can see in Franzen’s Nightmare of Consumption: he calls the institution the Mediocre University. (Years ago, Jameson noticed a similar cynicism, operating from the other side, in the motto of Forbes magazine: ‘The Capitalist Tool’.)
In both Franzen and Lipsyte the invocation of ‘late capitalism’ – a term most people encountered in Jameson, not Mandel – is a mark of immaturity, an outworn college creed. The thing itself may grow old with us, but the term can’t be used by middle-aged grown-ups participating in the real world (that is to say, the surface of the earth, minus college campuses). The same may go for ‘postmodernism’, a word which by now provokes the weariness it once served in part to describe. What, then, of the writer whose own name is indissolubly linked to these terms? Jameson’s latest book is about the dialectic, the unwieldy and now perhaps antique philosophical instrument invented by Hegel and handled back to front – a socialist tool – by Marx. A basic feature of dialectical thinking is the liability of subject and object to turn into each other, for the way a thing is looked at to become part of the look of the thing. Certainly that has been the case with Jameson himself and postmodernism: he became a landmark in the territory he had done so much to survey. The status of landmarks is ambiguous. Does a statue confirm the living influence of a man, or only that he belongs to the past?
It may not be too dialectical a characterisation of the dialectician to say that Jameson’s almost impossibly sophisticated variety of Marxist cultural criticism always wore the double aspect of a retreat and an advance. On the one hand, it appeared only to confirm the rout of the left that America’s most famous Marxist was not a militant, a union boss or an economist, but a professor of literature and the author of learned and anfractuous prose whose essays contained untranslated blocks of French and bristling semiotic diagrams known as Greimas rectangles. What did anyone have to fear from Marxism if what had once been ‘a unity of theory and practice’ was now chiefly a recondite species of book and movie criticism? Asylum in the literature department was surely just a prelude to an overdue extinction.
On the other hand, the Marxist tradition received in Jameson’s work about as profound a vindication of its interpretative mission as could be imagined. It was one thing for him to insist – first in The Political Unconscious (1981) – that Marxism was the hermeneutic code that subsumed all others, that only in light of Marx’s concept of the successive modes of production (hunting and gathering, early agriculture, feudalism and so on down to late capitalism) could the significance of any cultural or intellectual artefact be fully apprehended. But Jameson backed up the methodological boast in two ways.
First, with reserves of synthesising energy that simply outstripped anyone else’s, he was able to house within his own capacious and flexible scheme, like one of those skyscrapers that can bend in the wind, a remarkable number of newly important bodies of thought, including structuralist semiotics, longue durée history of the Annales variety, Frankfurt School Kulturkritik and the Marxian investigations of finance capital carried out by Giovanni Arrighi and David Harvey. One trait of postmodernism unmentioned by Jameson was the special difficulty critics and thinkers of recent generations have experienced in conveying their thoughts except through the medium of someone else’s; intellectuals today tend to offer their commentary on the world by way of comments on another’s commentary. Jameson has been unique, however, in his extremes of inclusion or ventriloquism. He seems to have detected some aspect of the truth in virtually any body of work he’s discussed, and so to have recruited more, and more various, thinkers into the march of his own thoughts than any rival theorist. (Which means, among other things, that when he speculates about the fortunes of the great synthesiser Hegel in the years to come, it’s equally the survival of his own way of thinking that’s at issue.)
Second, starting in the early 1980s, Jameson produced what remains the most imposing account of the culture we all still inhabit. Postmodernism, he argued, did not spell the end of ‘metanarratives’, as Lyotard had claimed. It was better understood as the recruitment of the entire world into the same big story, namely the development of global capitalism. (This marked a slight shift from his earlier claim that human history was already unified by the successive modes of production.) As for the self-referential quality of so much postmodern culture – language about language, images of images – this confirmed rather than contradicted the intimate relationship of culture to the heavy machinery of material production. The self-reflective idiom of postmodernism merely showed that specialisation and the division of labour had seized the arts just as much as anything else; if culture increasingly talked about itself, this was because it talked increasingly to itself. In some ways, this was Max Weber’s old insight, later elaborated as a logic of ‘differentiation’ by the German systems theorist Niklas Luhmann, another writer often cited by Jameson: the apparent autonomy of various cultural activities or ‘value spheres’ in reality reflected an increasingly unified and interconnected world. For Weber and Luhmann, modernity was the driver of this rationalisation and differentiation. For Jameson, modernity, like postmodernity, was just another name for an evolving capitalism. (Marx himself had of course observed in Capital ‘how division of labour seizes upon, not only the economic, but every other sphere of society’.) So did every weightless postmodern artefact in fact testify to the specific gravity of the fully capitalist planet it only appeared to float free of.
The wrinkle in this logic of differentiation was that, under postmodernism, there was also a lot of de-differentiation going on, as witness the merger of high and low culture, the mixing of styles within a given work, and even the tendency of ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ to blur into one another. On this last point, Jameson has sometimes suggested that, given the patent fancifulness of the financialised economy – so much ‘fictitious capital’ (as Marx called it) as disconnected from the ‘referent’ of reality as the most delirious products of postmodernism – and the obvious subordination of contemporary culture to the bottom line, ‘the economic could be observed to have become cultural (just as the culture could be observed to become economic and commodified).’ Theory as we’ve come to know it clearly offers another case of de-differentiation, in the breakdown of disciplinary boundaries between literary criticism, history, philosophy, anthropology and so on. With this in mind, Jameson has proposed a sort of homeopathic role for theory: intellectual de-differentiation countering the cultural/economic variety. At any rate, it shouldn’t be too surprising to find so much differentiation and de-differentiation taking place side by side. You might draw an analogy with business practices, which shift between vertical integration, or doing everything within one company, and subcontracting, in which tasks are farmed out.
All together, the sophistication of Jameson’s work and the breadth of his references had a dual effect. He wrote stirringly of the vocation of ‘dialectical philosophy and Marxism’ to ‘break out of the specialised compartments of the (bourgeois) disciplines and to make connections among the seemingly disparate phenomena of social life generally’, and clearly his own work belonged to and even crowned this Western Marxist lineage. Behind his project lay the understanding that social life is ‘a seamless web, a single inconceivable and transindividual process, in which there is no need to invent ways of linking language events and social upheavals or economic contradictions because on that level they were never separate from one another.’ And yet for Jameson to shepherd so many other theories and so much of contemporary culture into the big tent of his own theory could only be the task of a rare intelligence singularly devoted to the project. Such de-differentiation, in other words, was the fruit of a profound differentiation; all this totalising had to be purchased at the expense of what Marx called that ‘all engrossing system of specialising and sorting men, that development in a man of one single faculty at the expense of all others.’ Intellectually, Jameson was central. Socially, such a figure can hardly have been more marginal and ‘elite’, something that has become truer with each passing decade.
For Jameson has been a professor mostly at Duke, toniest of southern colleges. And you could say that American higher education itself suffered a dialectical reversal somewhere around 1980 – to date, the high-water mark of class mobility in the US – as the universities went from being among the main vehicles of egalitarianism to being the primary means of reproducing class privilege. Everyone talks, with good reason, about the runaway costs of healthcare in the US, but if healthcare inflation since 1980 has exceeded 400 per cent, the price of a university education has risen, on a recent calculation, by an incredible 827 per cent. Jameson’s Marxism might have been rare enough in any circumstances, but forces beyond his control also had the effect of making it seem outrageously expensive. Jameson recognised the problem: ‘What is socially offensive about “theoretical” texts like my own,’ he said in an interview, is ‘not their inherent difficulty, but rather the signals of higher education, that is, of class privilege, which they emit.’ But of course he couldn’t solve it.
The dialectic, Jameson explains in the new book, has among its main tasks the recovery of the common situation binding together thoughts or realities that seem on the face of it to have nothing in common – just the operation that he has often defended under the name of ‘totalisation’. He illustrates the idea with a famous example from Hegel: ‘Thus, the Slave is not the opposite of the Master, but rather, along with him, an equally integral component of the larger system called slavery or domination.’ This is a simple instance, since no special ingenuity is required to see that you can’t have slaves without masters or vice versa. It’s perhaps not much harder to grasp the idea of Fredric Jameson and someone like Sarah Palin as two faces of the same coin, figures truly as absurd as their opponents make them out to be, but only because the system itself is utterly cracked. So intellectual debility becomes a badge of populism, and socialist learning a hobby of rich people’s children.
Common, probably, to most favourable and unfavourable impressions of Jameson has been the image of him as an author of forbidding treatises, massive salt-licks of theory. Undeniably, many of the books are thick, including Valences of the Dialectic, a doorstop of some 600 pages. As with Jameson’s previous book, The Ideologies of Theory, the title alone brandishes two words that, in the US at least, can hardly be used in polite – which is to say, anti-intellectual – company. Reading Valences of the Dialectic on the subway I felt more sheepish than I had since bringing Gregor von Rezzori’s (ironically titled!) Memoirs of an Anti-Semite onboard.
The impression of Jameson’s erudition was never wrong, nor the sense that he could be a difficult writer. But it was a mistake to perceive him as the architect of colossal tomes. The longest of his books are in reality sheaves of essays; his original pages on postmodernism, though they would later be inserted into a great silver-blue volume ten times as long, show a pamphleteer’s provisional and exuberant spirit. But the postmodern age hasn’t been a pamphleteering one, and the left-wing journals in which Jameson’s articles have mostly appeared address an even narrower audience than the cultural studies section of an independent bookstore. Still, it’s more accurate to see Jameson as a writer of long essays than of long books. And the essays themselves regain their polemical sharpness and definition when considered in isolation and not as the chapters of so many books.
Two new essays, freshly composed for the occasion, bookend Valences of the Dialectic; in between are mainly reprints of pieces many of which don’t concern or exhibit dialectical thinking much more (or any less) than the rest of Jameson’s work in the years since he published ‘Toward a Dialectical Criticism’ (in Marxism and Form) in 1971. Of the bookends, the first offers a provisional introduction to the dialectic. That neither it nor the volume as a whole is meant to stand as definitive is made clear by a slightly comic footnote in which Jameson, regretting the lack of ‘the central chapter on Marx and his dialectic which was to have been expected’, promises two future volumes, on Hegel and Marx respectively, to ‘complete the project’. Meanwhile (a favourite Jamesonian transition, as if everything was present in his mind all at once, and it was only the unfortunately sequential nature of language that forced him to spell out sentence by sentence and essay by essay an apprehension of the contemporary world that was simultaneous and total), it may further correct the idea of him as a tome-monger to point out that such a mood of provisionality or hesitation runs throughout his work. For all the consistency of his commitments, he has not produced worked-out arguments and scholarly findings so much as a tissue of hints, hypotheses, recommendations and impressions. It would be easy to find many sentences in Jameson starting like this one: ‘Now we may begin to hazard the guess that something like the dialectic will always begin to appear when thinking approaches the dilemma of incommensurability …’ Such accumulated qualifications – and yet ‘always’. The effect here may approach self-parody, but that is a hazard no truly distinctive stylist avoids. Not often in American writing since Henry James can there have been a mind displaying at once such tentativeness and force.
Jameson’s preference for a conditional over a declarative mood is a token of the necessarily speculative quality of what he does. It’s far easier to be sure that culture is indeed mediating the economy than to establish in any given case how such mediation works. In Valences of the Dialectic, at any rate, one of the most striking suggestions made in the introductory essay is that Hegel, who articulated his omnivorous philosophical logic at a time when industrial capitalism was hardly more than a local English affair, may have been seized by an intimation of the ultimately global logic of capitalism: capitalism too is forever enlarging itself, and bringing under one rule the most disparate people and places. So does creative destruction on the economic plane resemble the dialectic’s refusal to freeze or reify its concepts and stand pat. Dialectical thought, then, would be at once the mirror of capitalism and (in Marxist hands) its rival: the totalising imperative that is the dialectic confronting the totality that is capitalism. From this it follows that the dialectic, despite the musty air of the word, may be set to come into its own only today, with the universal installation of capitalism. The thought may be less outrageous than it appears. After all, it was an explicitly Hegelian formulation – the end of history – that captured for the public imagination the meaning of the collapse of Communism in Europe. Jameson’s reiterated Marxist reply is simply that the disappearance of the Second World and the elimination of pre-capitalist arrangements in the Third marks in fact the beginning of a universal history: ‘History, which was once multiple, is now more than ever unified into a single History.’ In characteristic Jamesonian fashion, the stray hints and speculations gather themselves, towards the end of Valences, into a stark and audacious proposition: ‘The worldwide triumph of capitalism … secures the priority of Marxism as the ultimate horizon of thought in our time.’ How’s that for dialectical?
The particular ‘dilemma of incommensurability’ preoccupying Jameson in the long concluding essay of Valences concerns the disjunction of biological or existential time (one’s threescore and ten) with the differently experienced time of History. By History, Jameson means the succession of the happy or unhappy destinies of whole peoples and classes within the ‘single vast unfinished plot’ – as he put it almost 30 years ago in The Political Unconscious – of humankind’s existence. Of course individual experience and collective fate consist in the same living substance, but the sensation of their identity, ‘a recognition of our ultimate Being as History’, is a rare and fleeting glimpse into the demographic sublime – all those suffering persons dead, living and still unborn – too dizzying and appalling to be sustained.
Jameson has argued for years that the intersection of existential and historical time has become particularly rare in postmodern times. In spite of the obvious historical novelty of our present way of life, the past tends to fall rapidly away into oblivion or else to be taken up by media representations that serve as ‘the very agents and mechanisms for our historical amnesia’. The result, as he put it in his great essay ‘The Antinomies of Postmodernity’ in The Seeds of Time (1994), was that ‘for us time consists in an eternal present and, much further away, an inevitable catastrophe, these two moments showing up distinctly on the registering apparatus without overlapping or traditional states.’
No one, it seems to me, has better conveyed the oddly becalmed quality of recent decades, the sense of a ‘locked social geology so massive that no visions of modification seem possible (at least to those ephemeral biological subjects that we are)’. It was in the light of the feeling of a windless postmodern stasis that Jameson wanted to stick up for utopianism, especially in Archaeologies of the Future (2005), his appreciation of Utopia as a subgenre of science fiction and an immortal human desire: ‘The very political weakness of Utopia in previous generations – namely that it furnished nothing like an account of agency, nor did it have a coherent historical and practical-political picture of transition – now becomes a strength in a situation in which neither of these problems seems currently to offer candidates for a solution.’ The dialectic, Adorno said, would renounce itself if it renounced the ‘idea of potentiality’, and it was just this dimension that Jameson meant to preserve amid the deadly consensus as to the unsurpassable virtues of liberal capitalism.
In ‘The Valences of History’, the concluding essay of the new book, Jameson argues that when the fitful apprehension of history does enter the lives of individuals it is often through the feeling of belonging to a particular generation: ‘The experience of generationality is … a specific collective experience of the present: it marks the enlargement of my existential present into a collective and historical one.’ A generation, he adds, is not forged by passive endurance of events, but by hazarding a collective project. That this too is uncommon enough can be deduced from Jameson’s example of the process: ‘Avant-gardes are so to speak the voluntaristic affirmation of the generation by sheer willpower, the allegories of a generational mission that may never come into being.’ So the small sect crystallises the would-be universal – an ironic and possibly dialectical contradiction, and a fitting suggestion for a Marxist professor to make amid a near unchallenged global capitalism.
The theme of generations recurs from time to time in Jameson, whose work in any case proceeds less by straightforward argumentation than by a kaleidoscopic rotation across a consistent set of problems. In ‘Periodising the 60s’ (1984), he noted that ‘the classification by generations has become as meaningful for us as it was for the Russians of the late 19th century, who sorted character types out with reference to specific decades,’ and in that essay and elsewhere this rigorously non-confessional writer has hinted at the decisive importance of the 1960s in his own formation. Jameson’s fellow Marxist critics Perry Anderson and Terry Eagleton (with some cosmic design evidently at work in the similarity of all three names) have already testified to his eminence in such a way as to give some sense of his importance to their own generation. It is a generation in which a younger person notices, though not especially among the Marxists, a widespread and not infrequently pathetic tendency toward serial intellectual and cultural faddism, which makes it the more impressive and even inspiring – to Jameson’s peers as well, it may be – that he has stayed so true to the utopian stirrings of the 1960s while remaining open to so much of what’s come since.
Jameson once likened the goofy eclecticism of certain postmodern architecture to the recipes inspired by ‘late-night reefer munchies’, and it may be an observation to bridge the gap between his generation, steeped in the 1960s, and my own to say that reading Jameson himself has always reminded me a bit of being on drugs. The less exceptional essays were like being stoned: it all seemed very profound at the time, but the next day you could barely remember a thing. Indeed there’s no other author I’ve frequented or admired to anything like the same degree so many of whose pages produced absolutely no impression on me. And yet the best of Jameson’s work has felt mind-blowing in the way of LSD or mushrooms: here before you is the world you’d always known you were living in, but apprehended as if for the first time in the freshness of its beauty and horror. One of the trippier as well as more affecting passages in Valences of the Dialectic is a sort of aria on the condition of living, through global capitalism, in a totally man-made world, one in which even the weather patterns and the geological age (the Anthropocene, it was recently declared) are human productions:
We have indeed secreted a human age out of ourselves as spiders secrete their webs: an immense, all-encompassing ceiling … which shuts down visibility on all sides even as it absorbs all the formerly natural elements in its habitat, transmuting them into its own man-made substance. Yet within this horizon of immanence we wander as alien as tribal people, or as visitors from outer space, admiring its unimaginably complex and fragile filigree and recoiling from its bottomless potholes, lounging against a rainwall of exotic and artificial plants or else agonising among poisonous colours and lethal stems we were not taught to avoid. The world of the human age is an aesthetic pretext for grinding terror or pathological ecstasy, and in its cosmos, all of it drawn from the very fibres of our own being and at one with every post-natural cell more alien to us than nature itself, we continue murmuring Kant’s old questions – What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope? – under a starry heaven no more responsive than a mirror or a spaceship, not understanding that they require the adjunct of an ugly and bureaucratic representational qualification: what can I know in this system? What should I do in this world completely invented by me? What can I hope for alone in an altogether human age?
In such a passage it’s possible to see a few things. One is as much evidence as a few lines could offer for placing Jameson among the important American writers of the age tout court. Another is his special way of being one of those (to vary what Henry James said) by whom nothing is abandoned: the apprehension of the alienness of the world is the signature experience in Sartre’s Nausea, whose author was the subject of Jameson’s PhD thesis and first book; the ‘human age’ alludes to the trilogy of novels by Wyndham Lewis, subject of another book-length study by Jameson; and the situation described here, of humanity confronting its own handiwork as something alien and exterior, is very much that of Marx’s alienated labour, in which the worker is dominated by the product of his own hands, his estranged ‘species-being’ ranged against him in the form of someone else’s capital. But the reader’s impression of tremendous intellectual power is accompanied by one of political paralysis. Who is this collective human ‘I’, in a world ‘completely invented by me’? Nobody at all, of course. Again, the analogy with drugs: perceptual journeys across the universe, confined to the couch.
My impression is that it’s this combination of hypertrophied theory and atrophied ‘praxis’ in Jameson that causes his name to provoke as many smirks as sighs of admiration. But from the point of view that he has so imposingly established and defended it would be a bit moralising, individualistic and certainly undialectical to judge whether it was good or bad that Marxism has taken the form it does in his work. The most intelligible Marxist account of individual greatness in a writer or artist is that it belongs to the figure who opens himself unreservedly to the sociohistorical forces in play. ‘The intervening individual subject,’ Adorno wrote in Aesthetic Theory (1970), ‘is scarcely more than a limiting value, something minimal required by the artwork for its crystallisation.’ Jameson’s tremendous cultural and intellectual receptivity would alone seem enough to certify his achievement. In what rival body of work is there more of the contemporary world to see? And how can he be taxed with failing to formulate a political programme not on offer anywhere else? It is already a substantial feat to have preserved and extended the legacy of Marxism for a generation of intellectuals in which it might otherwise have nearly expired.
What now? The near consensus that obtained for a quarter-century on politics and economics, leaving culture as the real terrain of battle, seems to have faltered over the past few years. What does this do to Jameson’s work? One threat to his legacy is that it’s hard to imagine any of his inheritors excelling him in sophistication. Perry Anderson has hailed Jameson as the culmination of Western Marxism. In literary history, culminations – of, say, the psychological novel in Proust, or Romanticism in Yeats, or a certain modernism in Beckett – often look like dead ends. And why would going further be necessary? Jameson himself has suggested that in light of the obvious instability and injustice of global capitalism, a perfectly vulgar Marxism might now do just as well.
And yet the relative neglect of strictly economic questions in Jameson (and in Western Marxism generally) may now look like a liability. After all, the recent implosion of the markets, and efficient market theory with them, hasn’t induced a stampede in the direction of Marxism. The crisis revived interest in Keynes and Minsky, but it will apparently take until the next convulsion, or longer, for the same to happen to Marx the economist, and the writers from Hilferding to Harvey who worked out a Marxian theory of finance.
Of course it would contradict Jameson’s account of how culture works if his own writing didn’t reproduce some of the blind spots he detects in the world at large, where material production seems somehow to be hidden from view and where social transformation looks like a dead letter. Still, the weak point, it seems to me, in Jameson’s strongly Marxist account of recent culture has been his relatively thin description of the economy, the mode of production. It is too easy to read much of his work and conclude that a given film, say, could indeed be read as a blind allegory of ‘late capitalism’, without late capitalism meaning anything much more distinct than ‘the economy’ or ‘the system’. In such cases it has been far easier to accept his Marxism in an axiomatic sense – a product of late capitalism will necessarily be about late capitalism too – than to see how the axiom could be embodied in persuasive local analyses of this or that cultural artefact or tendency.
And yet it isn’t as if Jameson can’t do that too. Some of his strongest essays, for instance ‘The Brick and the Balloon’ (1998) or ‘The End of Temporality’ (2003) – about, respectively, postmodern architecture and the waning contemporary sense of past and future – analyse these phenomena the more convincingly and illuminatingly for doing so in the context of the bodiless and instantaneous transactions of finance capital. It would only have enriched Jameson’s work if he had directed his attention to the cultural fallout of other novel features of the latest stage of capitalism: Mandel mentioned not only computerisation and the rise of the service industries, themes Jameson has occasionally taken up, but also accelerated turnover time for fixed capital (i.e. a shorter period in which to recoup one’s investment), and the replacement of the gold standard by floating currencies. It’s not hard to imagine these transformations of the base percolating up through the superstructure. The mass introduction of women into the paid workforce, the expansion of advertisable space, the displacement of cash by credit cards and digital transactions: these are a few of the other economic changes in recent decades that come to mind as having suffused the superstructure too. Perhaps the outstanding virtue of David Harvey’s Condition of Postmodernity (1989) was his correlation of sped-up cultural change with a general ‘space-time compression’ operating in contemporary capitalism across such disparate features as a casualised labour market, expanded international trade, shorter-term investment and so on – though it should be added that Harvey’s work along these lines followed Jameson’s and might not have been possible without it.
Jameson has often written of a given stage of capitalism setting the ‘conditions of possibility’ within which a writer or artist has to work. It might equally be said of his own work as a critic that it established the conditions of possibility for a Marxist cultural criticism at least as often as it offered an example of such a thing. Here, then, is another of Jameson’s contradictions: sighing with cultural belatedness, his essays have also seemed like preludes, prolegomena, to work yet to be done. Whether this work will use the word ‘postmodernism’ doesn’t seem very important. In fact it’s probably worth remembering Jameson’s ‘therapeutic’ recommendation, at the end of A Singular Modernity (2002), that capitalism might be substituted ‘for modernity in all the contexts in which the latter appears’, and extending the suggestion to postmodernity too. That would place us squarely in the midst of a capitalist or (to periodise a bit more) neoliberal culture, waiting to see what comes next. It would also place us in Jameson’s debt.