Failure and the Sublime: Fredric Jameson's Writing in the '80s
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Failure and the Sublime:
Fredric Jameson’s Writing in the ‘80s

“History is what hurts,” writes Fredric Jameson in an oft-quoted phrase that many readers seem to take as a motto for his work as a whole. If Jameson matters, it is to the presumably minority audience for whom the anodyne declaration of the “end of history” only exacerbates the abrasions it so officiously promised to soothe. For Marxists and other Left intellectuals still alive to the hurt of history (as well, of course, for many triumphalist conservative detractors), Jameson is a standard-bearer, “representative” of critical (unhappy) consciousness in a period that has seen the fortunes of the Left decline precipitously. “Representativeness” involves a by-now familiar problematic, but from at least Marxism and Form (1971) on, Jameson has prescribed for cultural critique a “dialectical writing” that should enact, perform, indeed, suffer the contradictions and predicaments of its subject matter—for only thus can critique participate in the dialectic of history itself.

Which raises the problem, how should critique be written, or, more pointedly, in what sense can critique be said to succeed, in a period when revolution itself is failing? This anxiety, a kind of “self consciousness,” agitates Jameson’s writing continuously, and his resourcefulness as a writer—the allusiveness and inventiveness of his “dialectical writing”—helps make his work “representative” in the sense of registering not merely the intellectual dilemmas of socialism in our period, but something of the experiential texture, the vécu of these disappointments and failures as well. The adviso that “History is what hurts,” for example, comes in the peroration to the opening chapter of The Political Unconscious—a passage that treats the difficulties of the revolutionary tradition as continuous with those of the critical and theoretical labor that would guide, critique, or even merely narrate it:

the most powerful realizations of a Marxist historiography... remain visions of historical Necessity... [and] of the inexorable logic involved in the determinate failure of all the revolutions that have taken place in human history: the ultimate Marxian presupposition... is the perspective in which the failure or the blockage, the contradictory reversal or functional inversion of this or that local revolutionary process is grasped as “inevitable”.... Necessity is not... a type of content, but rather the inexorable form of events; it is therefore a narrative category... a retextualization of History... as the formal effects of what Althusser, following Spinoza, calls an “absent cause.”

(PU 101–2)

Recall that the topic is not History, but rather “dialectical” critique of the type Jameson here both theorizes and attempts to write. The “vision” of “inevitable failure” here prescribed for critique is a “textual effect,” to be achieved in the writing, but also a motivation of critique generically—and to inscribe “failure” as the motivation of an enormously ambitious project, and the measure of its success, is to incur a peculiar difficulty: what Jameson calls, in “Architecture and the Critique of Ideology” (1985), a certain “textual determinism”:

the purpose of the theorist is to build as powerful a model of capital as possible, and as all-embracing, systemic, seamless, and self-perpetuating. Thus, if the theorist succeeds, he fails: since the more powerful the model constructed, the less possibility will be foreseen in it for any form of human resistance, any chance of structural transformation.

(IT2 48)

How to manage this predicament—exploit it? suffer it? dramatize it? but dramatizing also somehow (how?) the persistence of “human resistance”?—these are questions to which Jameson’s 1984 essay, “Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” offers a suggestive set of mediations—less an “answer” to these questions than an enactment of them.

The “Postmodernism” essay has too often been taken as a series of theses on, and even on behalf of, “the postmodern”—a reading that involves, most simply, an exultation over the grave of bad old modernism and a triumph (however qualified) of the generational revolts of the 1960s. Jameson, needless to say, has much sympathy with these values, but neither his repudiation of modernism, nor his embrace of the postmodern are so simple as many of his more excited readers have wanted to believe. He is...