Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Fredric Jameson , Valences of the Dialectic (2009)

‘Valences’ in the sense of ‘different aspects of’ or ‘flavours of’ or, if we’re honest, in the sense of ‘bits and pieces that have occurred to me at odd moments about’. Valences of the Dialectic is a great wodge of book, two thirds of a thousand pages long, made up of many previously published essays, reviews and introductions to other philosophers. Written especially for this collection are the first section ‘The Three Names of the Dialectic’ [available online as a pdf] and the last ‘The Valences of History’—one of the best things here, actually. In between we have various things: a long, dense two-part section on Hegel (‘II. Hegel Without Aufhebung’), a rag-bag of essays (‘III. Commentaries’) on Derrida, Deleuze, Lukács and Sartre, a selection of shorter and sometimes entry-level essays on things like Commodification, Ideology, Lenin and the like (‘IV. Entries’), and four essays and a hundred pages on politics, globalisation and Utopia (‘V. Politics’).

There’s a lot here, and much of it is stimulating and rewarding. ‘Our only rule,’ we’re told at the beginning, ‘will be a strict avoidance of the old pseudo-Hegelian caricature of the thesis/antithesis/synthesis; while our only presupposition will be the assumption that any opposition can be the starting point for a dialectic in its own right’ [19]. And indeed Jameson’s various dialectics are supple and dextrous enough to generate a great many new perspectives. I liked his attempt to de-transcendentalize (as it were) Hegel in a way that isn't just materializing Hegel: ‘Absolute Spirit is not a concept of a phenomenon one can analyze, let alone understand; but it is [rather] a formal moment that can be grasped only as ideology or method’ [106]. And I liked the deliberate ‘immobilization’ of dialectal process that Jameson undertakes; a denial (in part) that dialectical motion is in any sense ‘a progress’ or a passage from a to b to c—his way of freeing Hegel’s dialectic from vulgarisation as a particular sort of linear narrative. (On the other hand, later in the book, coming at the same matter via Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative, FJ declares himself ‘at least postmodern enough to be willing to defend the proposition that everything is narrative’ [484]; but he means something particular by ‘narrative’ here—and anyway, one of the joys of immersing oneself in dialectical philosophy is that contradiction is always a symptom of productive negation, not conceptual muddle). The engagement with ‘materialism’ is also very promising, refusing to take this Marxist bedrock for granted to the point of asserting ‘the concept of matter as such is an incoherent one’ [7]. And from time to time the writing rises to a kind of pomo-poetry, a hectic elevation—like this passage from near the end, which has already been excerpted and quoted by several reviews and Theory blogs:
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? [608]
But this sort of thing, I have to say, is the exception rather than the rule.

So, yes, the style. The book is made out of strings of these great, chuntering Jamesonian sentences, a style which we Jamesonophiles have come to love and loathe in equal measure, in which conditional ‘might’s, ‘may be said’s and ‘could be thought’s frame a series of ringing assertions about what is always the case, what we must do (‘we must be able to imagine the world without the object form’ [258]) and what the absolute horizons of thought and action are. Benjamin Kunkel’s fluent and largely positive LRB review of the volume (‘Into the Big Tent’ LRB 22 April 2010, 12-16] makes this point about Jameson’s style, via a comparison with the other, son-less James (‘not often in American writing since Henry James can there have been a mind displaying at once such tentativeness and force’). That’s right, I’d say; although we can be more specific and say that the prose of Valences reads like late James, not least in the way it calls to mind Wilde’s H. G. Wells's famous characterisation of that style as a hippopotamus making a laborious effort, whatever the cost to its dignity, to pick up a pea. Kunkel’s review contents itself with broader brush assessments, and avoids getting tangled in the minutiae of Jameson’s various Valences theses—wisely, I think. For despite many moments of piercing analysis, and the sorts of mind-reorienting clarity that made Jameson’s name, much of this volume makes for wearying reading. Two thirds of a thousand pages is, frankly, too many for the arguments Jameson wants to make—involved and complex though some of them are. At one point he asserts that ‘if we could summarise the content of philosophizing in a page or two, we would not have to do it in the first place’ [86]—which seems to me wrong on its own terms (as if Nietzsche’s apothegms don’t trump the collected works of Husserl, or the brevity of Civilisation and its Discontents isn't better in every way to the coiling bulk of the Écrits) but also, worse, smacks of an already long-winded writer giving himself permission to extend his wind further. Žižek, with whom Jameson engages at some length in Valences, is often bonkers; but he is very rarely dull. The same cannot be said of Jameson’s new book.

A degree of repetition is inevitable, I suppose, in a book made up of previously published essays and reviews all of which treat the same broad topic. But Valences goes beyond inadvertency in this regard. In his reading of Hegel’s Logics FJ lays before us the heartsinking notion that a philosophical work, though it appears at first glance ‘turgid and laborious’, may actually best be read not ‘as an attempt to expound some idea which the reader then attempts ... to grasp’ but rather ‘like a piece of music, and its text a score, which we must ourselves mentally perform and even orchestrate’ [80]. Valences, in other words, is a book in which FJ has not only not attempted to smooth out the repetitions and superfluousnesses, but in which he has actively pursued them, as quasi-Wagnerian motifs and themes. I daresay I’m not the only reader who finds this strategy tiresome, and worse—self-indulgent, even self-deluding.

Anyway, I’ve no desire to tilt at the creaking windmill of The Jamesonian Style. It is what it is, and I’ve been reading FJ long enough to have grown rather fond of his succession of huge spooling sentences, interpenetrated by numerous holey-space-style parentheses and subordinate clauses. Indeed, in what after reading this volume I’m almost obliged to call a dialectical move, Jameson’s style is becoming simultaneously more arthritically cumbersome and more chirpy (one chapter is called ‘It’s Dialectical!’). The long periods cluttered with technical-philosophical German or superfine distinctions about modes of negativity are all present and correct, but, like raisins in the batter, here also are references to tins of peas, black holes in space and dancing tables. And there’s a kind of dialecticism of critical approach that is almost droll. Chapter 2, ‘Hegel and Reification’, quotes many drily unengaging sections from one of Hegel’s lesser-known productions, the ‘Logic’ chapter of Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse (1817). These quotations are sufficient to convey to the reader how tedious and often opaque Hegel’s Encyclopedia can be; but Jameson goes out of his way to spin a series of souped-up, even ecstatic interpretive riffs from them (it’s Beethoven! It’s a Modernist novel! It’s Dante! It’s ‘supremely active at the very heart of what seems to be sheerly empirical’ and so on). This is rather endearing.

And nobody could deny that FJ embraces the dialectical mode in this book wholeheartedly. No matter how common-sensical a notion might appear to be, he is prepared to assert its antithesis. Sometimes this works brilliantly: a chapter on ‘Utopia as Replication’ addresses the phenomenon of Wal-Mart from the standard left-wing point of view (‘a new Wal-Mart drives local businesses under and reduces available jobs; Wal-Mart’s own jobs scarcely pay a living wage, offer no benefits or health insurance, the company is anti-Union, hires illegal immigrants ... promotes sweat-shops and child labor outside the country ... exercises a reign of terror over its own suppliers, destroys whole ecologies abroad and whole communities here in the US, it locks its own employees in at night etc etc’ [420]). As Jameson drily notes, this is ‘unappetizing’; but he immediately undertakes a dialectical reading—‘this business operation, who capacity to reduce inflation and to hold down or even lower prices and to make life affordable for the poorest Americans is also the very source of their poverty and the prime mover in the dissolution of the American small town’—as a way of thinking through the antithetical revolutionary potential of this phenomenon: ‘the ultimate in democracy as well as in efficiency ... as admirable as the Prussian state or the great movement of instituteurs in the late nineteenth-century French lay education, or even the dreams of a streamlined Soviet system. New desires are encouraged and satisfied as richly as the theoreticians of the 1960s (and also Marx himself) predicted’. In sum, it is the very success of Wal-Mart as a Capitalist entity that dissolves Capitalism:
Wal-Mart is then not an aberration or an exception, but rather the purest expression of that dynamic of capitalism which devours itself, which abolishes the market by means of the market itself. [421]
This is very neat indeed, although Jameson slightly undermines the rhetorical impact with a whiff of smugness at his own cleverness (‘I trust that this proposal will be even more scandalous than Lenin’s celebration of monopoly...’); and the dialectical antithesis smacks rather more of wishful thinking than the hard-to-deny commercial reality of the thesis.

More, once committed to this strategy, FJ finds himself endorsing to some odd and even offensive positions. ‘“Big Government” should be a positive slogan,’ he tells us; ‘“bureaucracy” itself needs to be rescued from its stereotypes and reinvoked’ [382], to which we might want to reply, in Spongebob Squarepant’s chirpy words, ‘good luck with that!’ Less forgivably he tells his readers that ‘Stalinism was a success and fulfilled its historic mission, socially as well as economically’ [397] (really? Mightn’t we say the same thing about Hitlerism, on its own terms?). Or, again, quoting (oddly) ‘editors of the Economist’ as corroborating authorities, he praises one-party States in Africa as constituting ‘a useful path towards rapid industrialisation’. Events over the last month make this indulgence of African dictatorships look particularly wrongheaded, I'd say.

Jameson can hardly be blamed, in a book published in 2009, for not knowing about the radical changes currently sweeping across North Africa, of course; except that much of Valences is given over to deeper analyses of the contemporary state of the world (the project is nothing less than a reading of ‘late capitalism of the world system today and the place of Marxism within it’ 404); and we might be forgiven for thinking that, if these analyses had any explanatory power then things like the current upheavals would be at least foreshadowed.

But Valences is a work of political and cultural analysis that is very much bang not up to date. Partly this is because some of the pieces reprinted here date from the early 1990s; but then again, many were written in the noughties, and the book itself was published (after all) at the end of 2009; so it’s not as if FJ was not given the chance to revise in the face of more recent events. Yet Jameson’s political frames of reference are, broadly, twofold: 1968, and the surrounding political and cultural climate of late 1960s quasi-Utopian engagement on the one hand; and the bugbears of ‘Reagan and Thatcher’ on the other (‘what began to be visible with Reagan and Thatcher...’ [357]; ‘the crudest forms of ideology seem to have returned in Reaganism and Thatcherism’ [285]; injustice reached a ‘paroxysm in the Reagan years...’ [391]). The reader looks in vain for any reference to Blair, Sarkozy, Merkel, or even to George W. Bush. There is a difference between living with an awareness of history and living in the past, after all. It’s one thing to make positive noises about ‘the recent anti-World Bank and anti-WTO demonstrations’ in an essay published in 1998; it’s another to republish the same essay in 2009 and leave the word ‘recent’ unrevised. Things have happened between 1998 and today (you may have noticed) that render assertions that ‘Yugoslavia and Iraq’ represent ‘two countries that might currently seem to be outside that orbit [of Western imperialist domination]’ peculiarly mole-eyed. Would it have killed Jameson to blue-pencil that paragraph when the proofs arrived on his desk in 2009? (‘Currently’? Really?)

It’s at this level—a core one—of engagement with contemporary politics, history and ideology that Valences is most disappointing, I think. There’s a veritable angelic disco happening on the heads of some of the book’s pins—the consonance between Aristotle’s ‘kata’ and Mallarmé’s ‘selon’, for instance [477f.]; or the fundamentally anti-dialectical nature of Hegel’s Verstand [75-101]. But there’s very little, or nothing at all, on Counter-terrorism, Climate Change, or the Credit Crunch. There is, to be fair, a lengthy (but not especially productive) engagement with ‘globalisation’ [435-72], and from time to time FJ will step away from teasing out ‘the conceptual stalemates of the aporetic’ [530] to pronounce on more practical matters. For example he considers it ‘scandalous’ that right-wing governments ‘lower taxes so rich people can keep more of their money’ [285]. So do I, as it happens. But I’m not sure this level of analysis is really dialectical enough to merit inclusion here.

Another way of saying this is to mention one of the (Republican) elephants in Jameson’s ‘Dialectics’ room. Francis Fukuyama’s End of History is also, of course, an interrogation of Hegel; the German is praised in that book as ‘the first historicist philosopher—that is, a philosopher who believed in the essential historical relativity of truth. Hegel maintained that all human consciousness was limited by the particular social and cultural conditions of man’s surrounding environment—or as we say by ‘the times’. Past thought, whether of ordinary people or great philosophers and scientists, was not true absolutely or “objectively” but only relative to the historical or cultural horizon in which that person lived.’ [End of History, 62] Of course, Fukuyama has a much narrower understanding of ‘the dialectic’ as a historical process (basically: Hegel’s master-slave dialectic projected onto the big screen of the C20th Cold War), and of course FJ is orthogonal to FF in terms of political allegiance; but that doesn’t mean that his argument can be simply ignored, or treated as merely beneath contempt. (John Quiggin, of Crooked Timber—no neocon he—has a lot of time for the Fukuyama thesis, for instance).

Fukuyama steps into Jameson’s argument hardly at all, and when he does it is only to be sent away with a wave of the hand. ‘But is it certain,’ FJ asks, rhetorically-questioning in a rather clumsy way, ‘that all of human history has been, as Fukuyama and others believe, a tortuous progression towards the American consumer as a climax?’ [444] This isn’t as witheringly dismissive as it needs to be, not because FJ’s reservoirs of scorn are dry as far as the neocon ideology is concerned, but because the terms of abuse are weirdly complicit with FJ’s own project—after all, what is Jameson’s multivalent dialectic if not ‘tortuous’? Or more specifically: the main argumentative burden of FJ’s long, mazy, complex first three chapters is precisely that the ‘progression’ so blithely imputed by many to Hegel’s version of the dialectic is much more ‘tortuous’ than has previously been thought, to the point indeed of racking the notion of narrative progress entirely to a standstill.

But although FJ addresses ‘the dialectic’ from many angles, he doesn’t attempt any synthetic or coherence overall thesis (specifically disavows such an approach, indeed). Up to a point I can see the theoretical justification for this, although it makes the book rather frayed-at-the-edges and the experience of reading increasingly frsutrating: 'a coherent thesis' needn't be 'a totalising thesis', after all. (And anyway, in the Lukacs chapter FJ makes an interesting defence of 'totalisation'). Worse, Jameson doesn’t always follow the implications of his own approach all the way down the rabbit hole. This, I think, was the valence of this volume that surprised me the most; a sense of Jameson rather laboriously chugging around points an earlier version of himself might have lanced directly.

I'll give an example of what I mean. In the final chapter he quotes Althusser (‘ce que l’art nous donne à voir, nous done donc dans la forme du “voir”, du “percevoir” et du “sentire” ... c’est l’ideologie ...’) and adds:
This view endows art with a cognitive and constructional function consistent with its own specific mode of existence (and not imported from philosophy); and it suggests a useful way of grasping the nature of the operation of emplotment, now understood as the production of aporias, their demonstration before us (as one might demonstrate a new machine and put it through its paces), and thereby the modified status of their being (which the enigmatic word “catharsis” also seeks to convey). In other language, art’s business is to produce contradictions, and to make them visible. The formulation of Lévi-Strauss, that of imaginary solutions to real contradictions—or closer to home, “real toads in imaginary gardens” (Marianne Moore)—is satisfactory[.] [531]
The first sentence, quoted there, isn’t quite as diffusely baffling as it may appear, quoted out of context (it picks up on the earlier discussion of ideology, ‘emplotment’ and the complexities of Aristotelian catharsis); but the next two—though, obviously, more clearly expressed—seem to me to miss a trick. Jameson’s point hovers somewhere between on the one hand a rather banal notion of art as a kind of ideological ‘thought experiment’, or perhaps as a mode of 18th/19th-century ‘Sensibility’ whereby our empathy with the suffering of fictional characters opens us to an awareness of injustice and the possibility of change (this is the basis of FJ’s reading of ‘catharsis’)—and on the other something stranger and more suggestive, a kind of conceptual actualization that takes place in imaginary (or ‘ideological’) lives. There is, after all, an important difference between the Lévi-Strauss and the Marianne Moore; the latter’s “real toads in imaginary gardens” is a much more radical notion than the former’s “imaginary toads in real gardens”, not least because the garden is precisely where we find ourselves. I’m not sure that FJ follows this thought through.

I was disappointed, too, that there’s so little actual analysis of Marx here. The one chapter that looks like it might address Marxian dialectics directly (‘Marx’s Purloined Letter’) is in fact a reprinted review of Derrida’a Specters of Marx, and is much more to do with deconstruction than with Karl (in another sense, of course, Marx is immanent in the whole project; but I’d have liked some specific engagement with Marx himself nonetheless). I’m not sure I agree with FJ that ‘globalisation’ carries at its heart a dystopian ‘fear of multiplicity and overpopulation’ [427]: I’d say the motor is not the fear of sheer populousness, but the older demons of fear of the Other, largely still racially (or ‘culturally’) conceived. And I wondered at the blithe I-know-what-the-future-holds confidence with which he claims that ‘other languages will never come to equal English in its global function, even if they were systematically tried out’ [443]. From time to time I flat disagreed with assertions. ‘There is a way in which time and memory constitute alternate codes or conceptual languages for the same reality’ [483]. (Indeed there is ‘a way’ in which this is true. Sadly it is ‘a stupid way’). But, taken as a whole, this is a more rewarding read than the last FJ microwave-oven-sized collection of previously published essays, articles and reviews, Archaeologies of the Future. That book had an interesting thesis about ‘utopia’ (rehearsed again here in Valences), but packed it about with a great deal of expanded polystyrene. The texture of Valences is denser throughout: and some of it—the two Sartre chapters, for instance, or the first Hegel one—left me feeling like I’d just had an Indian Head Massage from Edward Scissorhands. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.


Andy said...

Thanks for this. I picked up a second-hand copy of The Prison-House of Language about six months ago and it's been sitting on my shelf, taunting me, ever since. You've inspired me to dive in. At least it's a nice, concise 220 pages or so.

Adam Roberts said...

The Prison-House of Language is a walk in the park!

Andy said...

Yeah, it appears so, though you still get bogged down in the occasional thicket.

Andrew Seal said...

Excellent review; your points about the book's untimeliness (and not in the Nietzschean sense) are very well taken, in particular.

I think I read it a little bit differently, however, though I must admit that our differences may be reducible to my being so much less familiar with the whole of Jameson's work than you are. But what I see as the purpose of the book is very much not innovation, or updating, or even revision. Instead, I believe that it is meant as a consolidation of Jameson's career, a one-volume condensation (or handbook, as one chapter is even titled) of all his major themes for easier access in years to come (and for students and scholars to come).

And possibly that means that it *must* be untimely, as Jameson may recognize that his moment was really primarily the 80s and 90s, and not the 2000s. That's not to criticize--Jameson's dominance over two decades is a daunting accomplishment of course. But being untimely here may be as much a mark of humility or (seemingly contradictorily, although I think it isn't) a desire to preserve in some measure intact the moment of his dominance or most intense relevance. Updating the text to account for Yugoslavia's breakup may have been a fairly simple editorial job, therefore, but it also would have effaced some very real history that we (scholars my age, that is) are anyway quite apt to forget or find hard to remember. Call it an estrangement effect, perhaps, haha.

davidrush99 said...

Thanks for this - really interesting review and I share your ambivalence about Jameson. Part of me loves him, part of me finds him immensely frustrating, but as with the scissorhands massage, that's not necessarily a bad thing...

Harpua said...

I've found the Deleuuze and Dualism piece unsatisfying. FJ writes we must start w hegel whether we like to or not. And we must go through Nietz I would add! But without addressin Mixed Regime of Del/Guat, its hard to dupe their numerology that FJ is unsatisfied with.

But I think its a bit sad to read a review like this of a self professed jamesonphile, or seemed 2 learn something from the book that cant seem 2 highlight more than a few nice thoughts that emerged for him.

There seems to be something to the insistence that method is FJ's point- he's not faking that. He is really giving a description of the method, the different positions that a thought goes through. For me as a reader, the passages about totalization were necessary. Considering Del/Guat's Capture. I didnt know Marx said metabolism but that made me smile