- The Antinomies of Realism by Fredric Jameson
Nothing seems more unproblematically immediate and frustratingly intractable for scholars of literature than realism. Simultaneously the form that conveys the straightforward and given nature of sociological, political, historical, economic, and even psychological reality, realism is also that thing which, the more you look at it, the more it starts to look like something else. Such is the global contention of Fredric Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism, and few (if any) critics writing today are better situated than he is to delve into the hidden density and difficulty of this important topic. This book, the latest in Jameson’s series The Poetics of Social Forms, offers a thorough and always engaging explication of the topic at hand. It features, in Part One, chapters on Zola, Tolstoy, Galdós, George Eliot, and an informed and highly original chapter on Alexander [End Page 874] Kluge, before turning, in Part Two, to a somewhat more diffuse but equally compelling set of issues that, while tangential to the primary thesis of Antinomies, will be of equal importance to scholars of modernism and, indeed, postmodernism.
The Antinomies of Realism takes up a topic hinted at in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). In the earlier work, Jameson sources what he calls “an attenuation of affect” as a characterizing aspect of postmodernism: “The end of the bourgeois ego, or monad, no doubt brings with it the end of the psychopathologies of that ego—what I have been calling the waning of affect. But it means the end of much more—the end, for example, of style, in the sense of the unique and the personal” (15). The corollary of this claim is that, at some anterior historical moment, affect was at its fullest, and we were all living lives of at least moderately greater engagement and immanent connection to the world around us. But that is not the quality of life that Jameson denotes by affect in Antinomies. Here, it is not the opposite of ennui or emotionlessness, but it is used to denote a kind of nascent social force that hovers over and around realist narrative, showing itself where meaning begins to break down—where telling gives way to showing, or scene (one of Jameson’s antinomies), and where realism is forced, not always unwillingly, away from reality and into pastures that seem to border the real while also clearly exceeding it (another antinomy). So, even where literary realism seems to be engineered by and for a class that was fully committed to the bourgeois subject as monad, the form itself, according to Jameson’s convincing thesis, exceeds this calling nearly from its inception by incorporating affects that disrupt the social order, which is organized around forms of bounded and discrete subjectivity. Affect, by this reading, risks becoming overloaded—a cypher of all manner of intangible, inchoate, or difficult-to-describe literary and social phenomena. It appears, at times, ubiquitous, as if anything that can only be conjured up through its structural antinomy is, perforce, affect. A bit more rigor in the description and deployment of this central concept would have been beneficial.
Jameson’s central thesis is as compelling as it is contentious: that new ways to think and talk about the body emerge in European literature in the 1840s (as a concomitant of the spread of capitalism among the newly politically central bourgeoisie), and that this new mode—crystallized within, but also in some ways averse to, literary realism—comes to dominate our understanding of the condition of embodiment henceforth. In this, it hardly needs to be emphasized, Jameson is articulating a place of prominence for literature as perhaps the space for social and political reflection and change. While not absent from his previous writings, this concept is now both more obvious and more strident: without literature, he argues, we do not have sustained reflection on key social and subjective forms that have become constituent of modern life.
This is a grand claim, and many other grand claims derive from it. The grandest, and easily the...