After so many groundbreaking variations on the theme, it will perhaps not come as a surprise that new material from Fredric Jameson offers yet another occasion to think about what it means to historicize.footnote1 Conceived as a further instalment in a series named The Poetics of Social Forms, the latest collection of essays expands upon a complex of problems that first came together in The Political Unconscious, which was the fountainhead of a whole body of work on the ideologies of narrative form. Building on his earlier summa of inter-war Marxist literary criticism, Marxism and Form, Jameson here took on board post-war intellectual formations that had long stood at a distance, and even in opposition to, this tradition—structuralism, formalism and hermeneutics, to name only a few. In the heyday of Theory, Jameson moved above the polemics that once divided its many schools, gleaning paradoxical ideological patterns that, in his view, only an absolute historicism was in a position to recognize.

While The Political Unconscious was still an exercise of literary criticism—semiotic analyses of the narrative ideologies of Balzac, Gissing and Conrad—the horizon of Jameson’s work had already turned outward to the cultural logic of a suddenly expanding world-system whose emblematic artefacts were more often architectural and cinematic than textual. The novel retained some of its previous significance, but increasingly in the form of writing far removed from the canons of French Studies and Comparative Literature. Driving this turn towards new cultural formations was an ambitious attempt to theorize the historical significance of a strange new aesthetics that seemed to confound an older opposition of modernism and realism, the once imposing alternatives of the Lukács–Brecht debate. In a climate of growing suspicion towards ‘totalization’, Jameson can be seen to have pulled off an improbable intellectual coup, establishing a broadly Hegelian-Marxist understanding of a widely, if inchoately, experienced postmodernism, while conjoining this mutation in the superstructure to a new phase of capitalist expansion and intensification. Older forms of narrative mimesis and their avant-garde negations were fading out, revealing a seemingly limitless global sensorium of simultaneity and juxtaposition. In this epochal light, we could see The Poetics of Social Forms as proposing a variation on Hegel’s historicist adage—‘Philosophy is its own time lifted to thought’—for our postmodern condition: theory is the unrepresentable limits of the world-system lifted to the level of a form-problem.

The opposition of form and content preoccupied an older generation of literary critics. The Marxists among them tended to conceive of this duo through some of the central paired concepts of historical materialism, ultimately in terms of the elusive relationship of consciousness—more precisely, categories of thought and experience—to the unsolvable predicaments imposed by different modes of social being. Jameson has never stopped exploring the interpretative possibilities of the intersection of Marxism and formalism that his own criticism has come to define: the world mapped by a novel, the virtual presence within it of an external world-systemic situation, the narrative schemes that mediate this inside-outside relationship, and the ideologies that manage the pivotal moments of incoherence and failure of this mediation. But whereas other essays of Jameson’s chart the topology of this exterior world—its intercalation of metropolitan, provincial and colonial zones, its hierarchical articulation of synchronic modes of production—those in Valences are more inclined to peer into the deep time of the world-system: its origins and ultimate passage towards some still unimaginable other form of society. If the latest collection could be said to have a literary preoccupation, it might be how an analysis of the narrative ordering of succession and simultaneity, futurity and retroactivity, inception and closure, parts and wholes can open out into new ways of thinking about what the historical once was, and the forms of its contemporary erasure and convolution.

Historicity remains the locus classicus of dialectical problems. In the concluding footnote of a long introductory chapter that explores some of the various ways in which the term ‘dialectic’ has been understood, Jameson presents a useful overview of the contents of the entire collection:

Across this topical diversity, the dialectic emerges as the name for the various ways in which we can think and experience what our categories seem to place out of reach, but which sometimes appear back to us in the form of obscure objects of contradictory predication. One example stands out as particularly illustrative of the mythical operations of the contemporary pensée sauvage. Globalization has made the world ever more homogeneous; on the contrary, it is a situation of unprecedented differentiation and hybridization. Our current spontaneous understanding of the world compels our assent to claims that would appear to rule each other out. In the broadest sense in which Jameson uses the term, dialectics then is a form of thought that accords a privileged significance to situations in which the logical pattern of our accounts of the world generate aporias, antinomies and, finally, outright contradictions. The Aristotelian axiom of non-contradiction articulates the fundamental premise of self-sameness in the ordinary experience of what is, as encountered in particular experiential contexts according to particular directions of concern. Its logical necessity is therefore subject to the strenuous conditions of human existence in this upright, coherent mode.footnote3 This might give us a better sense of why Marx thought that a contradiction-free account of the real premises, the conditions of possibility of a certain mode of existence could not be articulated by those who were compelled to reproduce these premises in their ongoing attempts to resolve the interpretative and practical problems that life in this form invariably poses. This is the reason why crises in the logical pattern of the relationship of words and things can disclose the specifically historical shape of the insoluble problems at the heart of a certain mode of life. The experience of such limit-situations might even allow us to pre-figure some determinate notional shapes of what lies beyond our immediate practical, generational or even epochal horizon. For Jameson, then, dialectic is an orientation that continually translates this experience of finitude back into upsurges of transcendence, taking the form not of the solution of already existing problems, but rather of the generation of new problems out of the partial neutralization of old ones.