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  • Theory’s Hubris
  • Andrew Timms
Review of: Helmling, Steven. The Success and Failure of Fredric Jameson: Writing, the Sublime, and the Dialectic of Critique. Albany: SUNY P, 2001.

While Fredric Jameson’s status as Marxism’s leading theorist of postmodernity is secure—and his influence on many arts and humanities disciplines undeniable—his work, when considered as a whole, has provoked comparatively little secondary literature.1 There are several possible explanations for this situation, not the least of which is the fact that Jameson is still a very active writer. Recent years, for instance, have witnessed the production of a theoretical study of modernity and modernism (A Singular Modernity), as well as the publication in the New Left Review of several important articles (“Globalization and Political Strategy,” “The Politics of Utopia”) covering issues that have long awaited an extended Jamesonian treatment. Significantly, this recent work has tended to add something new to the critical mix. One suspects that Jameson’s theoretical position is not yet completely unfurled, which makes it hard for the critic to treat his oeuvre in terms of any finalized trajectory. But it is surely the sheer difficulty of Jameson’s writing that has discouraged critics from engaging with it at length. Steven Helmling’s excellent recent study, The Success and Failure of Fredric Jameson, is not the first book devoted to Jameson, but it is the first to capture and address the peculiar nature of this difficulty, which Helmling recognizes as arising not merely from the complexity of Jameson’s ideas but, to an even greater extent, from the special qualities of his style. Helmling gives this difficult style of writing a convincing theoretical exegesis and defense, one that grows out of Jameson’s own work in a manner that is intensely enjoyable. The result is a study that should set the tone for future treatments of Jameson, whether or not one agrees with its final evaluation.

Helmling’s Success

What Helmling latches onto first of all is the extraordinary degree to which, in Jameson’s work, style is written into the very textures of the ideas that it carries. As anyone who has ever tried to summarize Jameson’s seminal text on postmodernism will know, the attempt leads only toward an unsettling and wholly unsatisfactory scholarly asymptote. If you condense or restate a passage from Jameson, you seem to lose all its meaning, its force, its gestural value. As with other figures in the Western Marxist tradition—most notably Theodor Adorno—the very notion of secondary literature thus becomes intensely problematic: the critic must manage to acknowledge the inconsumable nature of the text while at the same time consuming it for his or her own purposes. And, as also with Adorno, no thoughtful reader can deny, even in the midst of these obstacles to paraphrasis or assimilation, the formidable agitation, depth, insight, and provocation of the writing. Indeed, the underlying appeal of Jameson’s work, at a time when synchrony and surface predominate—a time, in other words, that no one has theorized more adequately than Jameson himself—might well be one final glimmer of the essential redemptive promise of Marxist culture-criticism. Somehow, almost despite itself, each one of Jameson’s books tempts the reader even while inevitably proving too testing, too damn high-handed, too beautiful for its own good.

No doubt this all sounds faintly ridiculous to analytical Anglo-American ears. Straight-talking—the markets hate uncertainty—can surely get the job done. What place might Jameson’s texts, packed full of qualifiers, pitfalls, reversals, subordinations, find in the world of just-in-time delivery? The answer is: a rather small one. To those who have no time for Jameson, one can only reply, with heavy heart, that Jameson’s writing might at least inform them why they have no time for it; certainly one can agree with Helmling when he says that the “smallest of Jameson’s detractors—the ones, say, who establish a ‘bad writing’ contest for the express purpose of annually awarding him the first prize—need not detain us” (143). It seems more appropriate to acknowledge Perry Anderson’s assessment of Jameson: “we are dealing with a great...

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