The albatross has landed

A new book by Fredric Jameson appears this month.

Which I *think??* caps off a cycle of books known as THE POETICS OF SOCIAL FORMS. There are six: POSTMODERNISM, SINGULAR MODERNITY, MODERNIST PAPERS, ARCHAEOLOGIES OF THE FUTURE, ANTINOMIES OF REALISM, and the latest, ALLEGORY AND IDEOLOGY. SM may just be a companion to MP or vice versa, so it may or may not count. The guy hasn’t been talking, and most of the info online seems out of date.

Which moved me to finally read his paper on postmodernism, as it ran in New Left Review (No. 146, 1984) (paywall, sadly). Jameson is best known for that work, and despite taking in a lot of his writing since I first read LATE MARXISM in early 2017, I was never drawn to the “cultural logic of late capitalism.” His early stuff, popularizing Western Marxism and the Frankfurt School (MARXISM AND FORM) for the Anglo-American public, or his short tutorials on formalism and structuralism (PRISON-HOUSE OF LANGUAGE) as well as his other monographs and critical essays, took up my attention.

The concept of “late capitalism” that he based his work on comes from the Trotskyist economist Ernest Mandel. Any third stage to the capitalist mode of production will be a revision of Lenin’s work on imperialism—I’ve probably said it before on here, but this posited third break is always hard to support beyond vague gestures toward globalization. The poli-econ aspect of Jameson’s presentation is the weakest and by now definitely shows its age. Mandel’s “late capitalism” era indeed may have ended before Jameson’s first book in the POETICS cycle was published.

But Jameson is always enjoyable to read because of his style (which may not be a popular opinion). He doesn’t have Eagleton’s spontaneous discourse; he writes technical theory that only the experts will follow. But he doesn’t have Williams’s will to hermetic abstraction, either. He simply writes compelling academic sentences that by turns engage in interpretive descriptions of aesthetic products and thrilling explanations of the material, or at least historical basis of these objects (“Metacommentary” is a must-read for anyone remotely interested in literary criticism). For example, one feature of postmodern culture for Jameson is the “waning of affect,” or how postmodernist art deconstructs the “expressionism” at work in high modernism.

The very concept of expression presupposes indeed some separation within the subject, and along with that a whole metaphysics of the inside and the outside, of the worldless pain within the monad and the moment in which, often cathartically, that ’emotion’ is then projected out and externalized, as gesture or cry, as desperate communication and the outward dramatization of inward feeling.

Maybe you don’t know what he means by the monad—and if you don’t, don’t feel guilty. But “worldless pain” doesn’t conceptually qualify the concept, but gives you a sense of how it’s subjectively experienced. You get the focus on “worldlessness,” or alienation, the “pain” of individuation. It’s very existential. Jameson’s style is mind-blowingly consistent across his career; it seemed to have emerged autochthonously from his graduate thesis. His interpretive school trades on a Sartrean, Hegelian-quasiMarxist notion of a horizon of interpretation, accepting all other non and even anti-Marxist procedures into its own project. Eclecticism, or properly militant? You be the judge.

Postmodernism for Jameson reflects postmodern-ity; it’s a historical category, not a style of art or thought. So he will not morally condemn postmodern ideology the way Eagleton did in his polemic from the 90s. But he does have some thoughts in that direction, like when he points out how theories of the postmodern “have the obvious ideological mission of demonstrating, to their own relief, that the new social formation in question no longer obeys the laws of classical capitalism, namely the primacy of industrial production and the omnipresence of lass struggle,” if only to explain why communist thinkers are so hostile to them. Later, he addresses charges of periodization or stageism (which have been strongly argued by Daniel Hartley in his recent book) by musing on the ironic nature of the attempt to describe a totalizing system.

What happens is that the more powerful the vision of some increasingly total system of logic—the Foucault of the prisons book is the obvious example—the more powerless the reader comes to feel. Insofar as the theorist wins, therefore, by constructing an increasingly closed and terrifying machine, to that very degree he loses, since the critical capacity of his work is thereby paralysed, and the impulses of negation and revolt, not to speak of those of social transformation, are increasingly perceived as vain and trivial in the face of the model itself.

This speaks to the inevitable tendency in postmodernism toward a cul-de-sac of petty bourgeois despondency and impotent liberal politics, impotent because postmodern styles of thought mobilizes support for the bourgeoisie while cloaked in libertarian rhetoric, at such a moment when the ruling classes’ progressive potential has depleted itself.

And before that, he seems to casually deliver the most decisive pronouncement on this global cultural situation, alluding to both Benjamin and Marx in the part in CAPITAL on primitive accumulation while doing so:

This whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death and horror.

Jameson’s paper is not a polemic but a critical exposition, and the main features of pomo as cultural logic that he identified have spread far and wide. They are: 1) depthlessness, emphasis on surface, the refusal of hermeneutics, or “depth models” of interpretation; the problem of the simulacrum; 2) weakening of historicity, the upshot of which is a swarming multitude of images and aesthetics in place of an authentic connection with the past; problems of schizophrenia and parataxis; 3) a new type of “emotional ground tone” better explained by discourses of the sublime; 4) the reality of a new technological world system; i.e. globalization; and 5) the return in art to didacticism and pedagogy.

He compares readings of Van Gogh’s PEASANT SHOES (1886) with Warhol’s DIAMOND DUST SHOES (1980) to underscore the first two features. The high modernism of the first piece has been transformed in the postmodern situation. Gone is the thrust against the conventional Victorian bourgeoisie, “for whom [modernist art’s] forms and ethos are received as being variously ugly, dissonant, obscure, scandalous, immoral, subversive and generally ‘anti-social.'” Picasso and Joyce are not ugly any more, Jameson says; they’re “realistic,” certainly real to us. The dissident petty bourgeois art movements are now centered in the academic canon, a set of “dead classics.”

As for the postmodern revolt against all that, however, it must equally be stressed that its own offensive features—from obscurity and sexually explicit material to psychological squalor and overt expressions of social and political defiance, which transcend anything that might have been imagined at the most extreme moments of high modernism—no longer scandalize anyone and are not only received with the greatest complacency but have themselves become institutionalized and are at one with the official culture of Western society.

If this thought seems outmoded due to the discussions of art versus the personal conduct of the artist and the emergence of sensitivity reading services, etc., the new situation may speak to the greater tendency Jameson is suggesting, that of the increasing subsumption of cultural production under fixed capital, a de-skilling of art. (The emblem of this for me has to be the startup copywriting gigs for producing all that SEO trash.) This point also speaks to Jameson’s starting-point for the postmodern being in architecture, both for the beginning of his own investigation and in the logic of its history: “Architecture is…of all the arts closest constitutively to the economic,” an unmediated relationship with land values (and in Manhattan and Brooklyn today, the AIR itself, pace Adam Smith).

Anyway, Jameson gives us two pictures of shoes, a high modernist and postmodernist treatment. Van Gogh has shoes on the floor; a whole situation and lifeworld is suggested by them. Warhol on the other hand has inert commodities hanging in space. His piece precludes a hermeneutics of restoration, that is, we can’t “restore” the shoes to their “larger lived context” through interpretation.

Plus the Warhol is aggressively flat. The layer of sparkly dust only reinforces the closed nature of the picture and its consumer culture superficiality. Jameson sees in Warhol a mutation of the world of objects into simulacra, a situation in which we can only relate to the (advanced metropolitan capitalist) world textually.

The subject in Van Gogh is alienated and anxious; in Warhol it is fragmented and gratuitous. Jameson marks postmodernism as a new social formation with a new “cultural pathology.”

The end of the subject as it was known means for him the end of style as we know it too, “in the sense of the unqiue and the personal, the end of the distinctive individual brushstroke (as symbolized by the emergent primacy of mechanical reproduction).”

Which brings us to a transition from parody to pastiche. Pastiche is a neutralized version of parody. (Parody here is not in the same sense as a spoof for entertainment, though that is an element of it; following Bakhtin here, it’s generally about “running parallel to” previous kinds of texts. Think of how novels absorbed the genres of premodern epochs like historical chronicle, biography, epic and tragic narrative, and romance—and these forms enter a process of dissolution through humor in both the old and modern sense.)

Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs: it is to parody what that other interesting and historically original modern thing, the practice of a kind of blank irony, is to what Wayne Booth calls the ‘stable ironies’ of the 18th century.

The point of the gloss on Booth is that parody and stable ironies had clearly outlined rhetorical projects and purposes. Pastiche and unstable ironies are the order of the day under schizophrenic postmodernism, naturally.

And so postmodernism cannibalizes all hitherto existing art styles, presents them “horizontally” as available to everyone all at once. There is no history here, but only historicity, signifiers of pastness. Walter Scott and Tolstoy are impossible here: now it is Pynchon and E. L. Doctorow: novels representing how we prefer to represent history, combining historiography with libidinal phantasy.

Here F. J. might have bent the stick too far by saying social hegemony stands to be dissolved under all these proliferating styles and codes.

If the ideas of a ruling class were once the dominant (or hegemonic) ideology of bourgeois society, the advanced capitalist countries today are now a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm.

If literary culture seems to have let itself go, from a conservative perspective, it’s due to “not only the absence of any great collective project” for the now wholly reactionary and decadent bourgeoisie, “but also the unavailability of the older national language itself.”

These are good observations but it clearly seems that capitalist society is manufacturing consent for the ruling classes’ rule as it has been doing before. We can’t forget that one upshot of all this hyperpluralism is another inverted universalism. Everyone in the “progressive” urban petty bourgeoisie has their own niche culture but they’re still voting blue no matter who.

Jameson uses more examples, like an engaging description of the Bonaventura hotel, and my favorite, “China” by Bob Perelman. Jameson’s descriptions helped me out once again. Postmodern poetry does verbally here what its ideology does in political practice, namely, Xtreme empiricism. Each and every object is disjoined, to be experienced as an intense and self-validating thing. “The isolated Signifier is no longer an enigmatic state of the world or an incomprehensible yet mesmirizing fragment of language, but rather something closer to a sentence in free-standing isolation.”

Isolated signifiers speak to our bewilderment toward our own sense of dislocation in both space and time, unable to get our heads around the new totality of multinational capital and its gratuitous phenomena; the “third machine age” of Mandel’s late capitalism. Jameson takes up the economists’s identification of electric and nuclear power as the paradigm of this machine age. Many revisionist or neo-Marxists in the academy in my experience would prefer the language of “cognitive capitalism.”

Jameson ends with a long and problematic passage on Althusser.

The second observation to be proposed is that a return to the Lacanian underpinnings of Althusser’s theory can afford some useful and suggestive methodological enrichments. Althusser’s formulation remobilizes an older and henceforth classical Marxian distinction between science and ideology, which is still not without value for us. The existential—the positioning of the individual subject, the experience of daily life, the monadic ‘point of view’ on the world to which we are necessarily, as biological subjects, restricted—is in Althusser’s formula implicitly opposed to the realm of abstract knowledge, a realm which Lacan reminds us is never positioned in or actualized by any concrete subject, but rather by that structural void called ‘le sujet suppose savoir’, ‘the subject supposed to know’, a subject-place of knowledge: what is affirmed is not that we cannot know the world and its totality in some abstract or ‘scientific’ way—Marxian ‘science’ provides just such a way of knowing and conceptualizing the world abstractly, in the sense in which, e.g. Mandel’s great book offers a rich and elaborated knowledge of that global world system, of which is has never been said here that it is unknowable, but merely that it was unrepresentable, which is a different matter. The Althusserian formula in other words designates a gap, a rift, between existential experience and scientific knowledge: ideology has then the function of somehow inventing a way of articulating these two distinct dimensions with each other. What a historicist view of this ‘definition’ would want to add is that such coordination, the production of functioning and living ideologies, is distinct in different historical situations, but above all, that there may be historical situations in which it is not possible at all—and this would seem to be our situation in the current crisis.

First of all, it’s a natural choice to work in Althusser’s method on ideology by way of Lacan. The latter Hegelianized Freud to re-tool the category of the subject. Jameson shows us here that both Lacan and Althusser are trading on a bourgeois epistemology: the hard split between theory and practice, between existential experience and abstract knowledge. Where could this leave us other than good old Hegelian speculative thought and Althusser’s theory as praxis? Ideology, the representations of imagined relations between individuals and material conditions, is here a mechanism for “articulating those two distinct dimensions with each other,” as Jameson says, but it is also an idealist double-image. The real and the thought remain radically segregated. This is irreconcilable with a materialist identity of thought and being. But Jameson tries to rescue the argument by making a distinction between unknowability and unrepresentability. And his final suggestion is that this whole mechanism may no longer apply under this social formation—seems more like a presentist than a historicist interjection.

This sort of conciliatory move reminds us that Jameson is closer to a great, (the greatest American) post-Heglian bourgeois asthete than to a genuine Marxist theorist of culture.

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