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  • The Desire Called Jameson
  • Steven Helmling
Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. xviii + 214 pages. $22.95.

Fredric Jameson’s new book revisits problems treated in earlier work, with results suggested in the titles of its three chapters. The first, “The Antinomies of Postmodernism,” queries whether the venerable Hegelian-Marxist problematic of the “contradict ion,” which the historical process (“the dialectic”) will resistlessly “resolve,” must now (or again) be rethought as “antinomy,” a static, self-reinforcing overdetermination, a “stalled or arrested dialectic,” Jameson calls it, whose apparent lock on the future complements its erasure of the past (except as commodified nostalgia), to produce an “end of history” in which all difference and otherness, including that of the once-Utopian future itself, homogenizes into a tepid, entropic, indifferent conditio n of always-already-more-of-the-same. Where “permanent revolution” was, there shall “permanent reification” be—except that we must scratch that future tense: there (here) permanent reification now appears always already to have been, and promises (or th reatens) always forever to remain. Jameson has evoked this anxiety before; in the tortured prose of Postmodernism (1991) it underwrote a thematic as well as a practice of “the sublime”; but here he is much more explicit about the terms of th e predicament, and as various therapeutics (including Jameson’s own “homeopathy”) would have predicted, “explicitation”—the making conscious of this particular (political) unconscious—has helped to lower the temperature.

“Utopia”—the authentic desire versus the marketable simulacrum—is a leitmotif throughout chapter 1; it becomes the main theme of chapter 2, “Utopia, Modernism, and Death,” in which an extended discussion of an only recently published early-Soviet text, Andrei Platonov’s “great peasant Utopia,” Chevengur (1927–8), reprises the “anxiety of Utopia” considered in the “Conclusion” to Postmodernism. For me, the most interesting feature of this chapter is Jameson’s speculation that it may now at last be time to credit modernism’s Utopianism, rather than dismissing it as “ideological.” (Jameson’s anti-modernism, like most academic anti-modernisms of the last two decades, was an animus more against academic appropriations of modernis m than against modernism itself, as if in despair of even the possibility of a critique that might extricate modernism’s ambitions and accomplishments from their domestication in an institutionalized “aesthetic ideology.” Can we yet entertain the challen ge of Adorno’s observation that, authorial allegiances notwithstanding, modernist art was de facto left wing? Jameson here indicates what a reconsideration of modernism in such a light might mean now.)

The last chapter, “The Constraints of Postmodernism,” is to me the least satisfying of the three: a discussion of several contemporary architects (the cited texts include manifestos as well as buildings and drawings) from Venturi, Koolhaas, Eisenman and Rossi to “deconstructionists” and “neo- (or “critical”) regionalists,” as if seeking in their differences some sort of contestation of what “the postmodern” might yet mean or become. Jameson apparently wants to test whether the complacent, I’m-OK,-you’re -OK “diversity” of a postmodern now might not already be reimaginable, as if in some future retrospect, as something more vitally conflicted “in the seeds of time” than has yet appeared.

I should say here, however, that my more or less obligatory attempt, as book reviewer, to provide a sketch of the “contents” of Seeds of Time is, as would be the case with any Jameson book, a futile undertaking. What Jameson has to say can’ t be summarized, because of the complication of his way of saying it. The interest of his work cannot be localized to any particular problems it takes up, solutions it offers, or positions it fortifies and defends. On the contrary: Jameson mobilizes his oft-noted “encyclopedic grasp of modern culture” not to find or propose a solution to every problem, but on the contrary, to problematize, as richly—as problematically—as possible, every possible solution; likewise his relation to any possible “positio n” is wary in the extreme, and most acutely so of those that might offer or impose themselves as his own. Like Apeneck Sweeney, who’s gotta use words when he talks to you, Jameson must...

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