Into the Big Tent

Jameson_f_valences-of-the-dialectic_c Benjamin Kunkel reviews Fredric Jameson's Valences of the Dialectic in the LRB:

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.