Thinking Blue Guitars

Slogans stifle thought.

Tag: fredric jameson

The Concept of Totality in Lukács and Jameson

For anyone who’s interested in the work of György Lukács or Fredric Jameson, I’ve just uploaded a draft version of a paper I gave 18 months ago at the Historical Materialism conference in London. Here’s the abstract:

This paper sets out the implicit and explicit theories of “totality” in the work of György Lukács and Fredric Jameson. It begins by asking to which problem the proletariat is a solution in the work of the early Lukács. It suggests that this problem is not only historical, but also literary in nature. In the second section, I offer a brief explanation of Lukács’ theory of realism, as found in the Marxist aesthetic debates of the 1930s, and as it relates to his concept of totality. Finally, I outline Fredric Jameson’s problematisation of Lukács’ theory of totality and spell out two key innovations in his use of the term.


Fredric Jameson: The Antinomies of Realism (Excerpt)

For anyone who is in any way passionate about the work of Fredric Jameson, this will be an absolute treat: an excerpt from his forthcoming book, The Antinomies of Realism. It’s a photocopy of a section of the manuscript, and like the modernist that at heart he remains, it is typed on a type-writer with handwritten alterations interspersed throughout (rumour has it that he has a specialist manufacture the type-writer ribbon since it is no longer commercially available). Longer quotations taken from other works are photocopied and then cut and pasted into the manuscript. If anyone has ever enquired into the stylistic mechanics of Jameson’s prose, this will offer a rare glimpse “under the hood”.

Fredric Jameson on Marx’s Capital

Fredric Jameson is to publish a book on Marx’s Das Kapital, entitled Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One. It is to be released in February 2011.

For a foretaste, here is a lecture (audio only) Jameson gave at the 2009 Historical Materialism annual conference in London. A useful critique of Jameson’s lecture is given by the up-and-coming Gramsci scholar, Peter Thomas, here. Thomas’s book, The Gramscian Moment, is certainly one to look out for.

Review: Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear

To understand the first volume of Javier Marías’s trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, it strikes me that habitual categories of interpretation are insufficient. The first such category is plot; if asked the inevitable ‘So, what’s it about?’ of Fever and Spear, you’d be hard pushed to string together more than: ‘It’s about some Spanish guy with strange interpretive powers, who’s separated from his wife, and who goes to a dinner at Oxford at the home of some old timer and then ends up working for a weird MI6-like organisation, deciphering random people’s speech and body language.’ And even that description belies the decidedly uneventful feel of the novel.

But plot is not the only category which doesn’t seem to fit this work: character is also a dubious one. Yes, we read a lot about various people, and, yes, the narrator is supposedly extremely gifted at immediately intuiting the very essence of people he meets, but one never feels involved with these characters; we don’t really care about them. They have no flesh and blood – and even when flesh is bared (I’m thinking of the mildly titillating ‘scene with the armpit’ in the office) it is so over-cerebralised that any libidinal investment we might have made is dissipated through the course of a two-page, compulsively paratactic, synonym-generating sentence-cum-analysis. (For more on Marías’s style, see my comparison of him and Proust). Any talk of plot or character just won’t suffice.

So what’s left? The usual tactic at this point is to start talking of a ‘novel of ideas’, as if entertaining, plot-driven novels were somehow magically devoid of them. If this really were a ‘novel of ideas’, what would those ideas be? Firstly, no matter how well you think you know someone, no matter how close they are to you, nor how much they say they love you, there is always the possibility that tomorrow they will betray you: you can see their face today, but you cannot foresee their face tomorrow:

How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing, and which you will only show me when I am least expecting it?

(Even in a sentence as short as this, note the will-to-synonymy). Secondly, to tell someone anything, to entrust to them a confidence is to lower your shield and offer them a spear which will sharpen in the forge of Time, all the better to pierce you with when the clock strikes darkness. But beyond these two main ideas there is not much more to say.

So what is the novel really ‘about’? In order to answer that question we have to consider three aspects which are intertwined. The first aspect, as far as I can see, is an attempt to ‘win back the rights of subjectivity’ (a phrase taken from Fredric Jameson’s early book on Sartre – an interesting symptom in itself). In order to contextualise what I mean by this, let me quote from a paper I wrote last year on Adorno, in which I outline the basic thesis of Dialectic of Enlightenment (and which touches upon what I wrote in my Birkerts post):

If enlightenment reason liberated the mind from the bondages of myth, then this same reason has since become a form of bondage in its own right. The rational subject was once a force of emancipatory disenchantment, but now he mistakes his quantifying omnipotence for freedom and has re-enchanted himself into a dogsbody of the status quo: ‘The spell cast by the subject becomes equally a spell cast over the subject’. The only form of objectivity which remains is that bought at the cost of the subject voluntarily reducing himself to the contentless point of universality; like an imperial tragic hero, in attempting to grasp all he brings himself to nothing.

In other words, since gloriously enthroning scientific rationality, human subjectivity has become enslaved to scientific, quantifiable standards of truth, thereby diminishing itself to a mere organ of biased ‘point of view’. As a catchphrase for the upshot of this process, we might quote that infuriating relativistic phrase: ‘Yeah, but that’s just your opinion.’ Marías’s narrator counteracts this by continually verbally articulating the normal processes of our everyday consciousness; he does so in such a manner that our consciousness comes to seem superhuman, thus shocking us into the realisation that it really does possess that objective potency which we had long thought lost. And this is also important politically, since, as Adorno points out in Negative Dialectics, every age plagued with subjective relativism is at the same time an age of objective absolutism (i.e. totalitarian oppression of one sort or another).

Hence the power, as I see it, of Peter Wheeler’s explanation to Jacobo, which is the crux of the entire first volume:

“Listen, Jacobo, according to Toby, you had the rare gift of being able to see in people what not even they were capable of seeing in themselves, at least not normally…It’s a very rare gift nowadays, and becoming rarer, the gift of being able to see straight through people, clearly and without qualms, with neither good intentions nor bad, without effort, without any fuss or squeamishness.”

So much is at stake here! If Wheeler has about him the tone of a no-nonsense, Daily Mail columnist (‘Yet more PC madness!’), then that can only be because of a bizarre historical predicament: what is happening here (today? now?) is that a project of winning back an objectivity for the disenfranchised Geist, originally initiated by Husserlian phenomenology, then continued by Sartrean existentialism and a certain Adornian negative dialectics, is overlapping with a British commonsense empiricism which ‘calls a spade a spade’. If Adorno’s claim is correct that relativism and absolutism are two sides of the same coin, then what we have here is a bizarre corollary: a subjective absolutism being put to work in aid of a vague objective Big Brother.

And the nature of this Big Brother is the second unsettling aspect:

I gave them my answers, expanding on them and making comments and observations, identifying and summarising, inevitably going too far. I didn’t know what they did with it all afterwards, if it had any consequences, if it was useful and had any practical effect or was merely fodder for the files…everything – for me at least – came down to that first act dominated by my ideas and a brief interrogation or dialogue…And so, for a long time, I never had the feeling or the idea that I could be harming anyone.

Kafka drawing

In Kafka’s The Trial K. is ensnared in a dark, deeply oppressive legal system of which he compulsively seeks the centre and means of escape. If Javier Marías’s Jacobo is anything to go by, then today we are just as ensnared as K. was, but without the desire to disentangle ourselves. He has no idea who he is working for, what they do, or why they do it, and yet nonetheless he goes to work, does his job, and goes home. When I read this passage I was instantly reminded of Mark Fisher’s description (in Capitalist Realism) of our current Weberian ‘iron cage’ nightmare – from which we are not even struggling to wake up. Do not all multinational corporations have the structure of this anonymous intelligence agency? We all go to work, give our best, and go home, ignorant of the vast networks of hidden tentacles along which my well-intended actions transform into acts of viciousness I could never have dreamed of in my little office, with the Monet reprint on the wall, the photo of my wife and daughter on the desk, and my favourite Hay Festival mug on the lever arch file.

And now for what I really really think the novel is ‘about’. These two previous points are important but accidental. Their essence lies in that they presented Marías with what I can only think to call a ‘framework-machine’ for producing those notorious sentences and mini-narratives. Everything points to this conclusion: the impersonal aura of the characters, the over-intellectualised nature of the whole text, the vague omnipresence of the intelligence agency, which means that literally anyone anywhere can become the trigger for a barrage of Javier’s finest phrases, the acts of interpretation which the narrator is called upon to perform: all of this is what the Russian formalists would have called the ‘motivation of the device’, the structure which gives Marías the excuse to produce those potentially limitless sentences (limitless because trying to mimic exactly the movements of consciousness in language is like trying to capture the whole of one’s head when stood between two mirrors – impossible and infinite). The framework he has developed is nothing short of miraculous. Almost nothing happens; a single simple event (the mopping of a bloodstain, for example) can last fifty pages – all because ‘what happens’ is simply a receptacle designed to provide some wafer-thin semblance of formal design where, in reality, none exists. It strikes me as no great exaggeration to say that Marías was forced to develop the ‘plot’ simply as a reason to stop writing those sentences, to escape that apartment in Madrid and get out in the fresh air for a while.

Of course, all of this is based on the first volume alone; it will be of great interest to see how my observations endure, mutate or self-eviscerate in the course of the other two.

Morality and Style

Here is one of my favourite aphorisms from Adorno’s Minima Moralia:

“Morality and Style – A writer will find that the more precisely, conscientiously, appropriately he expresses himself, the more obscure the literary result is thought, whereas a loose and irresponsible formulation is at once rewarded with certain understanding. It avails nothing ascetically to avoid all technical expressions, all allusions to spheres of culture that no longer exist. Rigour and purity in assembling words, however simple the result, create a vacuum. Shoddiness that drifts with the flow of familiar speech is taken as a sign of relevance and contact: people know what they want because they know what other people want. Regard for the object, rather than for communication, is suspect in any expression: anything specific, not taken from pre-existent patterns, appears inconsiderate, a symptom of eccentricity, almost of confusion. The logic of the day, which makes so much of its clarity, has naively adopted this perverted notion of everyday speech. Vague expression permits the hearer to imagine whatever suits him and what he already thinks in any case. Rigorous formulation demands unequivocal comprehension, conceptual effort, to which people are deliberately disencouraged, and imposes on them in advance of any content a suspension of all received opinions, and thus an isolation, that they violently resist. Only what they do not need first to understand, they consider understandable; only the word coined by commerce, and really alienated, touches them as familiar. Few things contribute so much to the demoralization of intellectuals. Those who would escape it must recognize the advocates of communicability as traitors to what they communicate.”

– Theodor W. Adorno

9/11 – A Defence of Logic

(Originally written a year ago)

Last night I had a conversation with friends on politics and cultural theory. The subject matter drifted towards the 9/11 terrorist attacks, whereupon I proposed a view that struck me as fairly self-evident: 9/11 did not happen in a historical vacuum; whilst it was a deeply horrific act which was morally unjustifiable, it was also a logical response to and reaction against, amongst other things, US imperialistic foreign policy. Having expressed this view, my friends, whom up to this point I had considered to be generally likeminded, castigated me for having described the attacks as ‘reasonable’ and ‘logical’. Shocked by their immediate reactions, I took heart in the idea that in defining my terms a little more precisely I might make myself clear. ‘Reasonable’, they rightly pointed out, has a semantic tinge of ‘justifiable’, or ‘emotionally valid’. Henceforth, I tried to stick to the cold light of ‘logic’,[1] but unfortunately their disagreement went deeper than terminology: their fundamental belief was that in insisting that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a logical reaction to a very particular historical and socio-economic context, I was somehow endorsing the attacks. The purpose of this article is to combat such reactionary folly, and let us be absolutely clear about this: folly is precisely what it is.

Indeed, Terry Eagleton has shown that by invoking the ‘explanation is exculpation’ mantra, you actually de-ethicize terrorist acts:

In the so-called war against terror, ‘evil’ is used to foreclose the possibility of historical explanation…In the disparagement of rational analysis which it suggests, it reflects something of the fundamentalism it confronts. Explanation is thought to be exculpation. Reasons become excuses. Terrorist assault is just a surreal sort of madness, like someone turning up at a meeting of the finance committee dressed as a tortoise. Like the sublime, it lies beyond all rational configuration…On this somewhat obtuse theory, to explain why someone behaves as they do is to demonstrate that they could not have acted otherwise, thus absolving them of responsibility.

The truth is that unless you act for a reason, your action is irrational and you are probably absolved of blame for it. A being who was truly independent of all conditioning would not be able to act purposefully at all, any more than an angel could mow the lawn. Acting for a reason involves creatively interpreting the forces which bear in upon us, rather than allowing them to smack us around like snooker balls; and such interpretation involves a degree of freedom. It is inadvisable to caricature your enemy as crazy or spurred on by bestial passion, since morally speaking this lets him off the hook. You must decide whether you are going to see him as evil or mad. Unless we can propose some reasons for why people act as they do, we are not speaking of specifically human behaviour at all, and questions of innocence or guilt become accordingly irrelevant. Moral action must be purposive action: we would not call tripping over a stone morally reprehensible, or wax morally indignant over a rumble in the gut. Reasons may be morally repugnant, but actions without them cannot be.[2]

He who begins as a liberal transforms himself, through his denunciation of the proposed act of comprehension, into the very fundamentalist his flawed politics attempts to refute.

Beyond the realm of logic, there are further manifestations of such reversals. In order to understand them, we must first understand one or two unique characteristics of the current historical epoch. Frederic Jameson points out in his Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism that one of the results of multinational capitalism is that we are no longer able to create effective ‘cognitive maps’. What he means by this is that in less capitalistically developed or in pre-capitalist society people used to be able to carry around in their minds the totality of which they were a part as an articulated ensemble: a cognitive map in which they could visualise their place in the world. Today, it has become increasingly common and increasingly impossible to imagine our real place in the world. Take the term ‘post-industrial’, for example, which is used by many First World commentators to describe our current historical epoch; what they forget – or choose to forget – is that just because industrial production has gradually disappeared from the West does not alter the fact that it’s now moved to places like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. (Indeed, one might be tempted to argue that the first step towards becoming genuinely geo-politically conscious would be to take a look at the labels in one’s clothes and have a think about how they got there.) In other words, part of the problem with my friends’ argument is that it willingly forecloses the possibility of producing a cognitive map in which global interactions and our place within them would make sense. For them, these attacks come from literally nowhere: their perpetrators are ahistorical phantoms from outer space.

Related to this is a second problem. Slavoj Žižek makes a distinction between subjective and objective violence.[3] By subjective violence he means violent acts committed by concrete individuals or groups of individuals who are clearly identifiable agents. Objective violence, by contrast, is systemic, and is no longer attributable to single agents and their ‘evil’ intentions. The mistake that most people make is to use the latter as a neutral background in front of which to view the former. He gives as an example the outbreaks of violence in pre-revolutionary Russia, whereby the liberals simply could not understand the reason behind these seemingly irrational outbursts. What they failed to perceive was that their ‘neutral background’ of imperial Russia, the socio-economic formation on which their relative prosperity was founded, was itself an objective, systemic violence which gave rise to these outbreaks. The same holds true for 9/11. If you perceive those aeroplanes launching themselves into the Twin Towers as a subjective act of violence on a neutral background, then you cannot hope to understand it. If, however, you realise that your intellectual safety blanket – the ‘neutral background’ of US foreign policy and multinational capitalism – is in fact a profoundly violent system, then you have more hope of understanding where these attacks came from and why.

Indeed, it never ceases to amaze me how blind liberals actually are. They are the political equivalent of small children; they haven’t quite grown out of the habit of seeing their nation (usually Britain or the US) as ultimately good. “Yes,” they say, “we know the ruling powers make mistakes, we know they are capable of horrible things, but deep down Daddy loves us.” Well, know this, my child: Daddy doesn’t love you. Daddy loves himself. But if you ever want to kick your habit of subliminal paternal affection, might I suggest a less violent substitute: Noam Chomsky. Unlike the majority of post-9/11 muddleheaded commentators, just seven days after the attacks Chomsky gave a brief, carefully worded radio account of why they had happened.[4] Here are the principal reasons:

  • First we must remember that Bin Laden was a Saudi-Arabian millionaire who rose to prominence as an Islamic military leader in the war to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. He was one of many religious fundamentalists recruited, armed, and financed by the CIA and their allies in Pakistani intelligence with the aim of carrying out maximum carnage on the Soviets.
  • Once the Russians had been driven out, these soldiers then joined the Muslim forces in the Balkans: the US did not object, since this enhanced its particular geo-political aims at the time.
  • Bin Laden and his “Afghanis” turned against the US in 1990 when the Americans established a permanent base in Saudi-Arabia – from his point of view, it was a counterpart to the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, but far more significant because of Saudi Arabia’s special status as the guardian of the holiest shrines.
  • Remember, however, that Bin Laden loathes the corrupt and repressive regimes of the region – especially that of Saudi Arabia – which he views as ‘un-Islamic’. Bin Laden despises the US’s longstanding support for these regimes.
  • He also despises the US for their constant support of Israel’s brutal military occupation, now in its 42nd year: Washington’s decisive diplomatic, military, and economic intervention in support of the killings, the harsh and destructive siege over many years, the daily humiliation to which Palestinians are subjected, the gross violation of the Geneva Conventions, and other actions that are recognized as crimes throughout most of the world, apart from the US, which has prime responsibility for them.
  • Bin Laden also contrasted these crimes against humanity with the US-British decade long assault against the civilian population of Iraq, which caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and ultimately strengthened Saddam Hussein – who was a friend of the US and Britain during the period of his worst atrocities, including the gassing of Kurds.
  • The US supported anti-democratic regimes throughout the region and imposed barriers against economic development by propping up oppressive regimes. It is not surprising, then, that among the great majority of people suffering deep poverty and oppression bitterness was rife and led to fury and despair. It is from this source that arise suicide bombers.
  • Finally, Bin Laden was praying for large-scale attacks on Muslim states by the West because he knew – correctly, in hindsight – the result would be that fanatics would flock to his cause.

This was the runway from which those aeroplanes took off, not some ahistorical black hole. Not to understand this is to render yourself impotent in the task of preventing more innocent people from being butchered. Well-meaning liberals are subjectively lovely people, but if they refuse to accept that 9/11 was a logical act, thereby divesting themselves of the need to seek its true causes, then at the objective level they mirror the violence that the 9/11 terrorists committed at the subjective level.

[1] They’ve since informed me that this ‘cold light’ was more of a ‘heated inebriation’ on my part, so for that I apologise.

[2] Terry Eagleton, Holy Terror (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 116-117.

[3] Slavoj Žižek, Violence (London: Profile Books, 2008)

[4] What follows is not verbatim citation, but nonetheless draws heavily on Chomsky’s wording. The transcript can be found here:

%d bloggers like this: