Meta-theory on theory

Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present

Verso, 250pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781781680223

reviewed by Marc Farrant

Fredric Jameson, now 78, is undoubtedly the leading Marxist critic in North America, and has carried this mantle since at least the publication of The Political Unconscious in 1981. Arguably, however, Jameson is most well-known for the publication (originally in essay form) of Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke University Press, 1991). Jameson's theorisation of postmodernism as the lived experience of late capitalism - of the time of a ‘perpetual present’ - has had enormously far-reaching ramifications, opening up the critical ground for the study of the late twentieth century from film studies to philosophy. A Singular Modernity, originally published in 2002, has recently been re-published by Verso as part of its seventh Radical Thinkers series, and offers the opportunity to re-evaluate not only the durability of Jameson's postmodern hypothesis, but also the relevance of the postmodern debate of the 1980s and 1990s to our own time. Before doing so, however, it is worth considering the book's place in what is somewhat elusively alluded to in the book as an ongoing project entitled The Poetics of Social Forms. The project, so far, includes Archaeologies of the Future (Verso, 2007) and The Modernist Papers (Verso, 2007), and will constitute a general history of aesthetic forms that at the same time will seek to show how this history can be read in conjunction with a history of social and economic formations. A Singular Modernity constitutes the theoretical tome of what will undoubtedly be an awe-inspiring, if not truly unique, study of social and aesthetic forms.

Fredric Jameson has done rather well trading off his standing as one of the world's premier theorists, commentators and prosecutors of postmodernity (a term he has largely made his own). It is surely bad for business then, that there has arisen an almost unanimous critical consensus to the idea that, while it had a good run, postmodernism has indeed come to an end. Similarly, 'modernity' - or at least as Jameson configures it - is also at a critical juncture. (I take my critical license from Christopher's Prendergast review of the original publication, printed in the New Left Review in 2003: ‘the term has been used to peddle so many meretricious panaceas of late that the commercial metaphor for once seems apt’). The demise of postmodernity in both academic and non-academic discourse is seen in conjunction with an increasing willingness to re-cast the spectral concept of modernity. Modernity thus becomes the cornerstone of Third Way neo-liberal politics, of modernising pretensions of freedom through free trade and the global marketplace. As Oskar Lafontaine laments: ‘If you try to figure out what the people called “modernisers” today understand under the term 'modernity', you find that it is little else than economic and social adaptation to the supposed constraints of the global market.’

Can we salvage 'the modern' from such a debilitating fate? After all, the structure of modernisation and modernity, in general, is intricately bound to a history of utopian machinations and revolutionary socialist formations; a structure fundamentally orientated towards a future, rather than a perpetual present. However, it is not Jameson's mission statement to set about a rescue operation. Instead he remains adamant throughout that ‘the only satisfactory semantic meaning of modernity lies in its association with capitalism.’ Instead, this current ‘abuse’ of the term, as Jameson puts it, requires a diagnostic series of historical and theoretical discriminations that would seek to re-evaluate the various instantiations of the term (in the varying guises of modern, modernisation, modernity and modernism) in order to better understand our present state. Indeed, a key theoretical feature of the book is the ongoing theorisation of a political form of narratology first inaugurated in The Political Unconscious. Thus, in formulating a critique of the postmodern and its reliance on modern categories such as the 'new', and its failed repudiation of grand narratives (since to espouse such a view involves a certain narrativisation itself), Jameson arrives at a methodological imperative ‘to search out the concealed ideological narratives at work in all seemingly non-narrative concepts, particularly when they are directed against narrative itself.’

Consequently, Jameson is not concerned with providing any account of ontological or conceptual fixity to the term modernity. Modernity is thus rendered so as to avoid being subsumed under the metaphysical question par excellence: 'What is?' Instead, Jameson proposes ‘Four Maxims of Modernity’, the second of which is: ‘Modernity is not a concept but rather a narrative category.’ As Prendergast elucidates, ‘governed by various, more or less self-conscious tropes, discourses and ideologies, modernity is the stories we tell ourselves and others about it.’ To this end, Part 1 of the book is an exploration of these various, often contradictory narratives. The question of 'is' is thus displaced by the question of 'when', for which Jameson provides 14 different narrative starting points (and hints at more). The problematic status of 'when' is echoed in the first maxim, ‘We cannot not periodise.’ This cautionary note contrasts vividly to the former injunction of The Political Unconscious, with its notorious exclamatory formulation: ‘Always historicise!’

No doubt this reflects an increased methodological awareness and self-consciousness on Jameson's behalf, albeit one necessitated by the privileging of the dialectic in the analysis. The dialectic permits a vision of the summation of the whole, allowing us to comprehend the intricate relationships between the various modernist tropes of separation, autonomy and break. As Jameson observes, ‘the dialectic comes into being as an attempt to hold these contradictory features of structural analogy and the radical internal differences in dynamic and in historical causality together within the framework of a single thought or language.’ Quite to what extent Jameson embodies such methodological harmony is, however, very much up for debate.

Jameson's third maxim is: ‘The one way not to narrate it is via subjectivity (thesis: subjectivity is unrepresentable). Only situations of modernity can be narrated.’ The cemented bond between modernity and subjectivity (introduced through an evaluation Descartes' cogito) is explored through the aesthetic category of modernism. Modernist subjectivity is thus seen as less a transformation of subjectivity itself through the splintering and unveiling of new forms, but as a crisis of subjectivity itself through representation. The outdatedness of modernity as a category is re-iterated in Jameson's fourth maxim: ‘No “theory” of modernity makes sense today unless it comes to terms with the hypothesis of a postmodern break with the modern.’ Whereas the postmodern, for Jameson, is also divorced of any future orientated promise - instead referring solely to our own immediate present - modernity is definitely of the past; configured as a category whose usefulness is only registered as a means of understanding or narrating the past. For Jameson, it serves a historiographic use: ‘when applied exclusively to the past, “modernity” is a useful trope for generating alternate historical narratives.’

This qualified recuperation of modernity disguises an inability to totally exorcise the term from our theoretical present, as reflected in the term’s somewhat confusing capacity to lend itself to appropriation from an almost infinite number of sources. This allows Jameson's theses to swerve and jolt from thinker to thinker or from fine art to politics, at a speed that is both discomforting and disarming. The very subject matter allows Jameson's prose to spiral into a level of difficulty that the complexity of his arguments do not merit. Arguably, these methodological and stylistic problems arise from Jameson's disciplinary position and focus; of what might be called the problem of the cultural studies approach. Peter Osborne delineates this problem in Jameson as that which ‘displaces philosophical with rhetorical analysis’, and the problem is named by Jonathan Arac, in reference to The Political Unconscious as ‘the deliberate scandal of Jameson's method.’

Jameson's consideration of 'narrative' is similarly restrictive. This operation paradoxically limits itself to the exploration of what is alluded to as a potentially boundless source of different narratives (compared on the level of content, essentially as stories). What is subordinated is a thorough analysis of exactly how these narratives might be constituted formally and structurally, risking a dangerous and almost postmodern relativism. The dialectic, of course, is introduced precisely so as to avoid this, yet, as Prendergast argues, this is more gestured towards than put into practice. Only with Jameson's analysis of other philosopher and thinkers do we get a glimpse of the dialectic in action as Jameson performs ‘meta-theory on theory’.

One cannot disentangle what I have highlighted as predominantly methodological problems from the very argument being espoused. Nevertheless, the value of the assertion of the link between modernity and capitalism should not be underestimated. It could, however, be clarified with a keener distinction between the three terms modernity, modernism and modernisation - a clarification conducted in the work of Perry Anderson and Marshall Berman. This might allow a more positive affirmation of the inescapability of the general notion of the modern which Jameson sees as ‘unavoidable ... [and] unacceptable’. He suggests that, in order to understand our contemporary situation, ‘what we really need is a wholesale displacement of the thematics of modernity by the desire called utopia.’ This leads to an opaque, enigmatic concluding sentence: ‘Ontologies of the present demand archaeologies of the future, not forecasts of the past.’

However, the utopian imperative rallied against modernity seems to ignore the political potential of modernity when configured as modernism, a potential revealed in Jameson's emphasis on subjectivity. The link between modernity and subjectivity isn't merely configured as a crisis of representation in modernist art and literature, instead modernism proper embodies a subjective experience of this crisis with the potential of creating a critical subjectivity. In terms of narrative this is seem simply as the possibility of rupture and of non-linear constellations, yet this already displaces the issue. The modern should first and foremost be treated as a categorical term within the philosophy of time. Thus, Rimbaud's proclamation (also the title of Jameson's conclusion): ‘il faut être absolument moderne’, is, in Theodor Adorno's words, ‘neither an aesthetic program nor a program of aesthetes: it is a categorical imperative of philosophy.’

The modern is thus envisaged as the possibility of an action that refuses to negate the necessity of temporal succession, thus casting a radical doubt on all foundational thinking; a vital task for any emancipatory project. And although emancipation might seem an archaic figure of the enlightenment, it is ‘unavoidable’ to the extent that it is interminably necessary. As Jacques Derrida states, ‘nothing seems to me less outdated than the classical emancipatory ideal.’ Modernity is unavoidable in the sense that it is incomplete, but not in the Habermasian sense. Its structural incompleteness is what provides the very ground for action, the possibility of change and the very possibility of a truly democratic politics. Can we still be modern, today? Yes, and more importantly, our future depends on it.
Marc Farrant is an editor at Review 31.