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:
The chapters on Hegel seek to establish a different case for his actuality than the one normally offered (or rejected). The second of those chapters, and the succeeding ones, examine some of the contemporary philosophical classics from a dialectical perspective, and also to make a case for the renewed interest of Lukács and Sartre today. A series of shorter discussions then seek to clarify various themes in the Marxian tradition, from cultural revolution to the concept of ideology; followed by a series of political discussions, which, while documenting my personal opinions on topics ranging from the collapse of the Soviet Union to globalization, nonetheless claim to demonstrate the relevance of the dialectic for practical politics. In a long final section, which confronts Ricoeur’s monumental study of history and narrative, I supplement this work by supplying the dialectical and Marxian categories missing from it, without which History today can scarcely be experienced.footnote2