Friday, November 6, 2009

Three names

I've been wanting to write a post on Jameson for a while, since wading through his immense corpus is basically all I've been doing over the last month or two. This won't be that post. Rather, I just want to give a little review of a few chapters of his new book, Valences of the Dialectic, which came out Sunday, the first of the month.
The first essay or introduction (it borders on both), "Three Names of the Dialectic," is hard reading. Harder, I think, than Jameson usually is. Things get a much better in the two following chapters on Hegel, and the last chapter (or two) on Ricoeur is a masterpiece, over much quicker than you expected, like a good movie. That said, "Three Names" does excellently what many have tried and few have actually accomplished: a full-on characterization of what dialectic is about. This is, no doubt, why it is so tough, for Jameson is not concerned just with the Hegelian dialectic, but all of it--indeed, when he allows himself the luxury of just confining his analysis to just Hegel, things get more concrete (and that's saying something, as you'll soon see). Where Jameson particularly succeeds though is in showing, not how this diversity reduces to one particular thing we can clearly grasp--the dialectic, which is only the first name of the dialectic in this first chapter--but just how diverse this old thing really is. By spraying dialectic around, then sluicing it in certain directions--indeed showing us many dialectics (dialectic prefaced with the indefinite article is the second name) the whole thing seems much richer, more expansive, more exciting, than the old definitions we carried in our heads before picking up the book.

If this doesn't sound like what philosophy does, well, that's because this isn't philosophy. But that doesn't mean it is unhelpful, or that the account ends up being the lyric meditations of some novice (or that philosophers couldn't learn from the account). Jameson knows what he's talking about, as is evident from the chapters on Hegel, but chooses to do something different--something particularly Sartrean--with this knowledge. I'd characterize this as follows: Jameson gives an overbalance of reality to what otherwise would remain a knowable, but ultimately impoverished, conception. Many people (including me) are finding Sartre useful in particularly this way, and Jameson himself has long valued the Critique of Dialectical Reason especially (though of course he has fondness for all of Sartre) for this particular performance.

One shouldn't however, confuse this performance with the effects of style. And, as usual, Terry Eagleton's crassness has to be just as crassly rejected as it encroaches on this issue, for it causes him to do precisely this. His recent essay in the New Left Review, "Jameson and Form," starts off with some nice observations. Eagleton has always lived off of the supposed aptness or incisiveness of these: they're certainly the only reason, really, to read Literary Theory: an Introduction, even if you have to throw most of them away when you actually start thinking about the figures mentioned. Here, we find the following:

My own sense is that, as with all Jameson’s finest writing, these lines [he has quoted a passage in Jameson on de Kooning, as if, like a New Critical couplet, it could be concretely universal outside its context, or at least folded back unproblematically into that larger whole which is the sonnet analysis] stay just this side of too portentous an awareness of their own brilliance, unfurling with all the mounting drama and excitement of the great Proustian period yet with something of its tact and finesse as well, if not exactly its air of naturalness or civilized lucidity. One feels, as one does not with Proust, that there is a turbulent linguistic energy at work here which might breed some disturbingly frenetic effects were it to let rip...
-"Jameson and Form," NLR 59 (September-October 2009), p. 124

But we might say this is right, not because it is good stylistics--as Eagleton thinks it is--but because it starts to create that "overbalance" that Jameson too creates. The difference between pure style and style that functions, or that thickening we find in Sartre, should now become a bit clearer, and we can just dismiss the rest of what Eagleton tries to wring out of what is no longer an "apt" but a functional characterization. This is the following: because we can see Jameson has a style, and because this style resists the moral and even the political insofar as it resists the empirical or really simply is style (you can't talk about the facts if you have linguistic energy), Jameson's writing should therefore be deemed, alas, "problematic," while at the same time, alas, rewarding. Everything, as usual with Eagleton, gets tied up by that that nice New Critical bowtie that is irony or paradox: the sense that there is, in this whole, success only because it is fraught with conflicting parts, that there are benefits only because their are costs; essentially what Irigaray once mockingly called the use of the second law of thermodynamics in criticism, which only serves really to give the illusion of a stable system, to give us some notion there really is some whole at work here--a Jamesonian corpus as rich and varied and deep as "The Canonization," which, yes, exists (no "producing the concept" here, since there's production of the... empirical!). It's all basically a repeat of The Ideology of the Aesthetic, which was once somewhat illuminating but now gains its force only because Jameson actually has explicitly taken anti-empiricist and anti-moralistic stances.

These positions are indeed reiterated in Valences, because it is Jameson's conviction (following Hegel) that dialectic itself has, on the one hand, the function of destabilizing Verstand, commonsense understanding which would indeed suppose a non-totalized empirical world (just stuff, no system), and, on the other, the function of suspending empty moralistic condemnation where the analysis can be extended, a richer vision of things can be obtained by tarrying with the negative, and less superficial condemnations generated (this ultimately leads him to see Utopian elements in Wal-Mart in chapter 16 of this book--though he also says nothing good can come from this institution). Indeed, Jameson's reply to Eagleton regarding his corpus might be simply, "it's dialectical!" (the phrase he uses to give us the third name of dialectic, the adjective), something that would probably be lost anyway on someone who thought good Marxism means merely a commitment to empirical (as history itself: it's plain as day to Eagleton that Jameson's "always historicize!" is refuted by the question "Does this include geometry?"--and lest you think I'm joking, I quote directly page 135) and empty moralistic outrage (it's clear to Eagleton that Jameson's writing is "constructed... to distance personal feeling," 137--or rather, as I'd claim, to distance affective caricatures that some take for feeling).

So if we refuse this notion that what Jameson is doing is purely stylistic, what really is involved in this "overbalancing of reality," as I've called it? We might say it involves the "thickening" I mentioned earlier, by which Jameson takes a thought and turns it into what he likes to call a "thought-mode." Take--not a description out of context--but a simple remark at the end of a discussion of Hegelian "categories" (the various structures we find in the text, like Quality, Becoming, etc.):

As for Kant, not yet being a Habermassian or feeling the sway of any structuralist or postmodern doxa about the primacy of language and communication, he sticks to the mind itself and grasps the categories as so many "concepts of the understanding" which operate both judgments and those perceptions understood to be mental "syntheses of representations." Still, he disposes of some fairly recognizable traditional "space"--the mind--in which, as in Aristotle's "speaking" [just discussed], the categories can comfortably be housed and find their field of efficacy. Whatever Hegel thinks about mind or language, those are not the "places" in which his categories evolve: and to call this last Spirit or even Objective Spirit is to beg the question, insofar as it is precisely the space of the categories which will be called on to define Spirit in the first place. So they seem relatively placeless and disembodied (Valences, 78).

Basic stuff, yes (we're still at the beginning of the essay "Hegel and Reification"), and while there's a somewhat humorous remark to kick it off (which might be approached more accurately and more philosophically in terms of the history of philosophy), and some nice talk about "places," basically everything's just good old thinking (and good thinking) until we get to that last sentence. It is here that we find something thickening, just in this offhand remark: there's no real purpose except to explain, not even how we feel reading Hegel (he'll come to that later, on page 80-1), but the sorts feelings that shape the contours of Hegel's thinking when we follow it. In this seeming placenessness and disembodinedness there is something like the aesthetic projected by this aspect of Hegel, and pinpointing this aesthetic not only give us a better hold on him, but also shows what sort of field Hegel feels his conceptions work within. There is an effort, in short, to connect whatever is in question to experience--though not necessarily "our" experience.

Jameson then is able to seize on this, and perform, precisely, dialectical reversals:

...So they seem relatively placeless and disembodied: they are not the thoughts of a Mind, even a transcendental one (since for one thing, they are not yet even thoughts as such): Absolute Spirit may be, or however Hegel's combination of Substance and Subject may be understood, it is not an omniscient and anthropomorphized narrator of some sort. In fact, I tend to think it would be better to imagine the "space" of Hegel's categories in the absence of all such modern container notions of subjectivity or of element, in a kind of spacelessness. This makes the categories in Hegel far more situation- or event-specific; all the while acknoledging the evident fact that whatever "space" or "context" may be invoke, it will always also itself be precisely one of those categories it was alleged to have governed or contained. Thus once again here we confront the well-known paradox of the "class which is a member of itself," something "solved" by the attempt to imagine a state of things--or better still a type of discourse--itself free of such representational homogeneity, and able to accommodate a series of "events" without a frame or background. Add to this the characterization of these moments as somehow related to pensée sauvage in that the Logic effectuates the construction of local universals out of particulars in a situation in which universals do not yet exist, and we have an even more paradoxical approach to hegel opening up before us (Valences, 78-9).

The aesthetic, given overpresence I might even say, allows a certain leap by which we're able to say that we have to basically suspend our belief (and not disbelief, for once with Hegel!) in Absolute Spirit. All of which involves a project of seeing "Hegel's Marxism" (as Jameson puts it, 100), a project that he picks up back in "Three Names," rather than line things up in the regular order.

Indeed, back in "Three Names," we find positions Jameson has held for some time elaborated more explicitly: Verso's book jacket says Jameson moves towards the "innovation" of a "spatial dialectic," but this is old news, really. Jameson--and this is why, primarily, I like him (and why I like Derrida)--doesn't innovate. All his concepts are tied together and slowly grow, inflecting each other. Often (much more than in Derrida, who struggled for consistency much harder than was, for anyone other than him, productive) there are local eruptions of something completely new and weird, but then the rest of the web comes to meet it by stretching itself over some abyss. This is the work of producing closure that I've stressed was essential to understanding Jameson in a previous post (in which I basically tried to anticipate what Jameson might say in such an introductory chapter as this one)--and it's important to distinguish it on the other hand from the production of a system, which can be just as productive of "innovations." Indeed, this sort of language of what we might call the "theory industry" is parasitic on theory itself, and it is this structure--which I wouldn't say is necessarily organic, and rather involves something like what long durations of concept-formation can produce faster than thought (whether of advertisers or of lesser-experienced thinkers) itself, in a sort of short-circuit that "innovation" precisely misdescribes--that seems to resist such an industry. This is, at least, what I would add to how Jameson describes theory, which is indeed very concerned with the "theory industry:"

The persistence of the proper name in theory, indeed--as when we identify various texts as Derridian, Althusserian, or Habermassian--only serves to betray the hopelessness of the nonetheless unavoidable aim of theoretical writing to escape the reifications of philosophy as well as the commodifications of the intellectual marketplace today (Valences, 9).

Again, he's held this position for some time (see my old post from last year on this, though the position is even older). What is new is the presentation, and of course the particular "thickenings." We see an even more incisive characterization of Derrida in these pages ("it is as though the dialectic moves jerkily from moment to moment like a slide show, where deconstruction dizzily fast-forwardds like a film by Dziga Vertov," 26, a thickening of what has essentially become my view, which we find in Jameson's Archaeologies of the Future, that Derrida "unlike Adorno [...] refuses any positive or substantive concept of its own negative method, and indeed of method as such," 180), as well as a striking and more explicit take on what's wrong with Foucault (his thought is not non-dialectical but "too dialectical:" "Foucault attributes the positive valorization of Enlightenment to his deluded bourgeois readers and positions it as an error which the new narrative of paranoia and conspiracy is to correct: whereas from a dialectical perspective both narratives are correct and both narratives are equally in error," 52), and a thought-provoking characterization of Adorno and Zizek (the latter producing paradoxes not to undo the stupid first impression that it is indeed paradoxical, but rather "to undo that second moment of ingenuity which is that of interpretation [...]: the paradox is of the second order; what looked like a paradox was in reality simply a return to the first impression itself," affirming the "objective appearance," 59--and if this is true my reading of Zizek in that earlier post is faulty, but I still distrust Zizek more than Jameson does). What's also promising and somewhat more explicit than in previous works are the readings of Capital and some of its most visible dialectic moments--a subject Jameson will tackle more in a more focused manner in yet another book.

Also more explicitly formulated is the notion of "neutralization" as it relates to the dialectic, which was worked out perhaps most visibly in Archaeologies of the Future, but also has been around basically since Jameson began considering Greimas. Here, though, like everything else, it gets a bit more thorough treatment, due again to this clean though perhaps too formalistic presentation that divides up the dialectic into its three names: the dialectic, a dialectic (or many dialectics), and dialectical (it's dialectical!). The first makes the case that the dialectic, whether Marxist or Hegelian, has to be seen as not a claim to unity but a presentation that is an aspiration to totality (this mirrors the rejection of the Absolute Spirit we saw above). It passes over into its opposite, which actually is the most fruitful albeit complex section of this first chapter, where we see the dialectic at work in what were antinomies and binarisms of all sorts (the large thread running through this--again worked out more explicitly than in other works--is that structuralism is dialectical in a Sartrean sense, despite what Lévi-Strauss said at the end of La Pensée Sauvage; however many good and unexpected examples appear here). The basic move (which we saw in the analysis of Foucault, above) is made as explicit as it could be: Foucault's work, and anti-dialectical work like it (a topic picked up in the third chapter on "Hegel's Contemporary Critics"),

should seem to generate a situation in which power has no opposite (or is its own opposite). I believe that this seeming impasse can at least be clarified by the suggestion that this particular type of opposition is to be grasped as the superposition of at least two binary systems: a purely logical opposition between essential and inessential or center and margin. Here the "negation" lies in the differentiation between the initial equivalents, while its ideological investment--the very content of domination itself--derives from the way in which this second opposition reappropriates the first one. The force of negation is then transferred from the latter to the former (Valences, 21).

This is clean and openly didactic--more typical of this particular essay than most of Jameson's work. Nevertheless, it is indeed good to have out there when dialectical reversal is indeed harder to grasp for most people than it perhaps should be. Or so Jameson claims in the next section, where he considers the adjectival form (dialectical), and how (following Sartre) the dialectic "will always be its own illustration or example; that any exercise of it wil already be its own presentation," and thus is always difficult to grasp, since "you have to be grappling with a dialectical reality reality in order to be able to show" (and perhaps we might add see) "what the dialectic is" (50). We can close on this note, which brings us to the most essential aspect of the dialectic that--as I said in a previous--always has been the most imperative to bring into overpresence, or deepen:

[F]or the present it is the contagiation of the dialectic, rather than its structure, that we are out to catch a glimpse of: some essential restlessness or negativity that fastens onto our thinking at those moments in which we seem arrested and paralyzed by an antinomy--for, as has been observed above, the relationship between antinomy and dialectic is a crucial one in the contemporary period, where the antinomy has taken the place of the contradiction, expressing intractability rather than energy or construction (or indeed incommensurability rather than relationship).

What happens in moments like these--at least when the dialectic unexpectedly proposes itself, and when it suddenly crosses our minds that "it's dialectical!"--is that the problem itself becomes the solution, and that the opposition in which we are immobilized like a ship in the ice must itself now become the object of our thinking... (Valences, 50-51).

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