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Close reading with Fredric Jameson

The Modernist PapersThe Modernist Papers by Fredric Jameson

Reviewed by Eric Bulson
Times Literary Supplement

Close reading. These are not words that usually come to mind when one hears the name Fredric Jameson. He has a reputation for being the kind of theorist who deals only in abstractions. The text, be it architectural, cinematic, literary, urban, so his critics claim, is more of an occasion, something that his master theory, Marxism, can gobble up and spit out.

The same critics who complain about Jameson's reading habits are usually the first to attack his complicated style. The term Jamesonian is, in some hands, the derisive shorthand for opaque academic prose (a happy coincidence perhaps that it sounds a lot like "Jamesian"), and it sounds better than the other options (Spivakian, Butlerian, or Bhabhaian). In 1996, Jameson won the third annual Bad Writing Contest (sponsored by the journal Philosophy and Literature) for "the most stylistically awful passage found in a scholarly book". When issuing their verdict, the judges explained that Jameson "finds it difficult to write intelligibly and impossible to write well". Contrary to what his opponents might say, Jameson's theoretical divagations on culture are eminently grounded in the texts he is reading (if sometimes the connection is more explicit than others). Theory, for Jameson, is not a way to distance himself from the text. Rather, it is theory that makes close textual interpretation possible, it is a mode of intellectual engagement that allows us to think about the dialectical relationship between the social, political and economic system and the text.

Theory, in other words, is not incompatible with cultural interpretation, of which literature is a part. For Jameson, it renders transparent the ideological forces that lie waiting in the form and content of every work we read.

Considering the impact of works like The Political Unconscious (1981) and Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Jameson hardly needs an apologist for his style or substance. The publications of his articles and books are intellectual events, and he has that unique power to change the terms of the discussion. His writing is unapologetically difficult and resists quick and easy consumption. And that is precisely the point: Jameson's densely packed sentences with their asides, corrections and elaborations have the effect of slowing readers down and making them think. Reading Jameson makes you aware of the fact that if sentences are, strictly speaking, linear, then thought, the motor behind them, is not. He has made a career out of writing what he calls "dialectical sentences". And as he explains elsewhere in a discussion of Adorno and Hegel, you can't think dialectically without writing dialectically.

In Marxism and Form (1971), Jameson was already on to the idea that "quick reading" is a side effect of modernity. The mass production of the written word from the mid-nineteenth century onwards has generated a distracted mode of reading that can be aggressively undialectical. Words and images are consumed like candy and then forgotten. Siegfried Kracauer, in his analysis of Weimar cinema, argued that capitalism thrives on this kind of "distraction": when people are distracted, they tend not to think about the problems caused by capitalist modes of production, or their own position in the machine. Jameson's density is best understood as a deliberate attack on the distraction that comes with capitalism. It is an expression of intellectual intransigence that serves as "a warning to the reader of the price he has to pay for genuine thinking". Always historicize! This, of course, is the rowdy slogan that opens The Political Unconscious. It is as familiar to literary scholars as "Start Me Up" is to fans of the Rolling Stones. The exclamation mark has always caught my attention because it is such a rarity in academic writing (and I would be willing to bet that this is the only work of literary criticism ever to begin with one!). When the book appeared, the exclamation mark signified an alarm bell that was meant to wake up Marxist critics (and anyone else willing to listen) who needed to reflect on their own methodological assumptions. If a Marxist approach to cultural analysis had any hopes of providing an "objective" (or totalizing) interpretation on cultural production in the future, then it needed to interrogate its embedded presuppositions. The effect was almost immediate. Jameson got critics, regardless of their theoretical allegiances, to think about how their ideas, categories and concepts are mediated by "interpretive traditions". He drove home the idea that every text is "always-already read", and every textual encounter always already mediated "by sedimented reading habits and categories". Jameson’s interests are eclectic to say the least. He is as comfortable addressing architectural theorists and film historians as he is sci-fi junkies, and Lacanians. But over the years, modernist writers like Joyce, Proust, Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams have been a constant frame of reference for him. The Modernist Papers, a collection of twenty essays written between 1963 and 2006, documents his lifelong love affair with Modernism. Each essay is like the ring on a massive tree trunk marking a year in Jameson's incredibly productive life.

More than half of the essays in The Modernist Papers have been published before. By bringing them together with some original, unpublished pieces, Jameson is not simply clearing his desk. Rather, he is demonstrating how his own forty-year engagement with theory has been shaped all the while by the modernist literature he has been reading. The Modernist Papers can certainly be enjoyed on its own, but Jameson imagines this collection as a "source-book" for A Singular Modernity, his "theory of the modern", which was published five years ago (reviewed in the TLS, January 31, 2003).

The essays here are not arranged chronologically. It is also puzzling to discover that, with a few possible exceptions (Joyce and Proust, Katsume and Natsume Sòseki), there doesn't appear to be any organizational logic at all (not generic, thematic, historical, national, theoretical). Mallarme is thrown together into a separate section with Gertrude Stein; Wallace Stevens shares space with Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Yeats and Cezanne; Celine rubs elbows with William Carlos Williams, and so on. Is this structural disorganization a coded modernist attack on linearity? A critique of progress? Possibly. Nevertheless, I think that since this is a book about the evolution of one man's ideas, it would have been useful to present them in the order in which they were written (or published).

Jameson belongs to a long tradition of Marxist critics (Brecht, Lukács, Bloch, Adorno, Marcuse and Benjamin), who have argued both for and against the value of modernist literature. For the "late" Lukacs, the formal experimentation of modernist literature was an escape from, not a confrontation with, reality. There's no hope for revolution when art only reflects an alienated experience. Lukacs believed in the revolutionary power of social realism, and he saw the historical novel, in particular, as the ideal literary form that would make it possible for individuals to see themselves moving history instead of being mown down by it.

Adorno, another influence on Jameson, was committed to modernist art, especially when it came to figures like Franz Kafka and Arnold Schoenberg. For him, formal experimentation in modernist art is an expression of fragmented human experience under capitalism. If you want to understand how capitalism crushes the subject into submission, then you examine, dialectically of course, the form itself: this is the place where the contradictions of capitalism can be found like the faded ink of tattoos on an aging body. A "healthy" artistic form is only possible if the concrete conditions in the real world change. Adorno, especially after his exile in sunny California, did not seem optimistic that they ever would, but the idea of the utopia remained a necessary precondition for the dialectic to take place at all. Without it, there is no way to construct what Jameson calls "an ontology of the present". Every essay in The Modernist Papers is an occasion for Jameson to examine how, in a more general way, the global spread of capitalism has affected the way that texts have been written and read for the past century and a half. As he sees it, the literary-historical categories of realism, modernism and postmodernism correspond with the stages of capitalism (from pre-Fordism to flexible accumulation). Jameson's entire project has been an attempt to explain how the abstract social experience that comes with capitalism becomes absorbed, without the artist even knowing it, and then reflected in the form of the work itself.

For Jameson, modernist techniques of representation were adapted to accommodate shifts in human experience at the beginning of the twentieth century. "What drives modernism to innovate", he writes in a chapter on Williams's Paterson, "is not some vision of the future or the new, but the rather deep conviction that certain forms and expressions, procedures and techniques, can no longer be used, are worn out or stigmatized by their associations with a past that has become conventionality or kitsch." Becoming modern, then, was itself an uphill battle looking backwards. It's not that modernists did away with realism. Instead, they made realism modern by deforming form itself.

Stéphane Mallarme is a central figure in Jameson's narrative about Modernism. He functions much in the same way that Charles Baudelaire did for Walter Benjamin, as the avant-garde artist fiercely antagonistic to, and yet complicit with, an emerging bourgeois commodity culture. "Mallarme Materialist" is a dazzling essay, and Jameson's talents as a close reader are very much on display here. He keeps his eye on the textual detail without losing track of the big theoretical question about the effect of capitalism on literary form. Jameson has been working on "Mallarme Materialist" for as long as he has been writing criticism. The date appended to the end of this essay, 1963-2006, is striking: either he's admitting to a protracted bout of writer's block, which is highly unlikely, or he's acknowledging that Mallarme has been a constant companion, someone who, by refusing to be outmoded, has helped him to theorize his own moment in the history of modernity. Whatever the reason, Jameson believes that this poete maudit deserves a "postcontemporary reinvention", one vital to the moment we are living in now.

Jameson takes a materialist approach to Mallarme's Divagations and shows just how much experiments with the Livre (capital "L") were attempts to convey an alienated social experience. Commas, prepositions, blank spaces, paragraph breaks, conjunctions: the punctuation and syntax of every line are symptomatic of Mallarme's struggle to express himself. To understand just what this struggle involved, you concentrate on the sentence, the de facto unit of analysis for Jameson. The sentence (like the poem) is a constructed totality, one with the power to bring disparate objects and ideas into an associative relationship. "So strong is the power of the sentence", Jameson explains, "that we fail to notice the heterogeneity of its contents or the arbitrariness with which they are placed in relationship." Through this deformation of the textual apparatus Mallarme exposes the "power" that language and syntax have to make even the most arbitrary relationships appear natural.

In "Modernism and Imperialism", an early and influential essay in this volume, Jameson explains that formal experimentation at the beginning of the twentieth century was a response to the emergence of an "imperial world system". Novelists like Forster, Woolf and Joyce experimented with techniques of spatial representation (and time) precisely because spatial experiences had changed so dramatically. With the expansion of the British Empire, London's economic reach was truly global. Londoners, who wanted to imagine "home", needed to confront the reality that they were connected to colonies, many of them thousands of miles away. For Joyce, it was the reverse. In Jameson's mind, his representation of the colonial city was a way of displacing the metropolitan centre and turning "the imperial relationship inside out". Jameson finds Empire everywhere in the modernist texts he reads: the casual reference to Java in Stevens, the mysterious omission of an episode in Proust, and the fragmented bodily sensorium in Rimbaud. Gertrude Stein is an interesting test case as well. Jameson argues that she conceived of literary form and the history of imperialism in the same dialectical terms of "inside" and "outside". How a text can ever be closed or completed, in other words, is not unrelated to the problem of how the British Empire could, as Stein put it in her Lectures in America, "have everything inside \[it\] all at once". Stein's enormous novel, The Making of Americans, is a manifestation of this dialectical problem: at once a reflection of American spatiality and an expression of the limits of a form unable to contain it.

Though so many of Jameson's ideas about Modernism are anchored in a canonical collection of European writers, he is not afraid to venture off into areas he is considerably less familiar with. Like Roland Barthes before him, he has developed a fascination with Japan. Two of the essays here, one an introduction to Kojin Karatani's The Origins of Japanese Literature, the other an analysis of Natsume Soseki's unfinished novel Meian (1916), challenge more conventional understandings of Modernism as a singular Western phenomenon. Particularly exciting for Jameson are the ways that the delayed modernization of Japan, which began with the Meiji era, disturbs some of our most trusted theories about Western modernity and cultural production. For some, this idea of cultural analysis from afar is impossible: it can only breed critical charlatans. But for Jameson, it's an absolute necessity for anyone who sees modernity as a supranational force with the world in its grip.

There is an unfinished quality to The Modernist Papers (perhaps this is Jameson's modernist tribute to the absent architecture of Mallarme's Divagations?). The essays have been edited, in some cases revised and rearranged, but there is no real arc to the organization and there is certainly no closure. But in light of Jameson's ongoing critical project, one that has gone on for almost half a century, that seems appropriate. This book is not finished precisely because modernity is still very much in progress. Fredric Jameson, no doubt, will continue to add more papers in the future. In the meantime, he has left us with more than enough to work with, and has given us another useful slogan: Always read closely!

Eric Bulson is the author of The Cambridge Introduction to James Joyce and Novels, Maps, and the Spatial Imagination, 1850–2000, both of which appeared in 2006.

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