Saturday, January 24, 2009
Fredric Jameson: A Singular Modernity (2002)
“Radical alternatives, systemic transformation, cannot be theorized or even imagined within the conceptual field governed by the word ‘modern’. This is probably the case with the notion of capitalism as well: but if I recommend the experimental procedure of substituting capitalism for modernity in all the contexts in which the latter appears, this is a therapeutic rather than a dogmatic recommendation, designed to exclude old problems (and to produce new and more interesting ones). What we really need is a wholesale displacement of the thematics of modernity by the desire called Utopia. We need to combine a Poundian mission to identify Utopian tendencies with a Benjaminian geography of their sources and a gauging of their pressure at what are now multiple sea levels. Ontologies of the present demand archeologies of the future, not forecasts of the past." The idea of Jameson writing a book on modernity and modernism is exciting, but the work he has produced here is consistently frustrating. This is largely because Jameson avoids putting forth a "substantialist" theory of modernity or modernism (that is to say, he doesn't go ahead and explain what he thinks these terms mean). Instead, he engages in "the ideological analysis, not so much of a concept, as of a word," "a formal analysis of the uses of the word ‘modernity’ that explicitly rejects any presupposition that there is a correct use of the word to be discovered, conceptualized and proposed." So for most of the volume, Jameson traces how others have used the words modernity and modernism, summarizing their historical usage as well as the arguments of major theorists of modernity and modernism. Yet even here, Jameson's goal is neither comprehensiveness nor (chrono)logical clarification, and the arbitrariness of his examples and indulgence in long digressions (I still can't figure out why twenty pages on de Man were needed) undermines the text. The first chapter, "Regressions of the Current Age," however, does work nicely. In that chapter, he points how that in "full postmodernity," everyone thought they knew what the modern was, since its supposed attributes (asceticism, phallocentrism, authoritarianism, teleology, etc.) were all the negative ideals that postmodernity claimed to have broken with. Jameson is surprised, then, that the modern has recently become again quite popular, from the return to traditional philosophy (could Jameson have foreseen speculative realism when he comments, "can metaphysics be far behind"?) to ethnocentric theories of economic modernization (which might include the equation of neoliberalism with modernity, though this means focusing on the "neo" and not the "liberalism," which is not new). Jameson concludes the chapter by hinting that modernity is simply capitalism, and in particular the standardizing of the world market, but he doesn't expand on how this would link modernity with a capitalist conservatism until his final chapter. In the first half of the book, he argues that modernity depends upon/produces the idea of a break, but that break ultimately leads to a form of periodizing, which while not desirable, also isn't avoidable (his maxim: "We cannot not periodize."). The new always "finds itself embedded within a ground that lends it a semblance of narrative form and continuity." The word modernity therefore serves different "rewritings" of history, rewritings that can serve conservative or critical ends (Pick a random element, date, technology from the past, label it the birth of modernity, and then begin re-writing your grand narratives. Jameson demonstrates a reserved admiration for how Luhmann does this with "structural differentiation"). The last half of the book discusses (artistic/aesthetic) modernism and "ideologies of modernism." Jameson posits a distinction between (classical) modernism and late modernism (postmodernism, acting in good modernist fashion, breaks with late modernism). Late modernism, simply assuming "the autonomy of art," "transforms the older modernist experimentation into an arsenal of tried and true techniques, no longer striving after aesthetic totality or the systemic and Utopian metamorphosis of forms." Late modernism and its ideology of modernism re-make modernism into a middlebrow canon, ready for consumption by college students and their professors. In the conclusion to the book, Jameson draws from Vincent Descombes the distinction between "ontologies of the present" and "discourses of and on modernity." He argues that modernity serves a useful but limited function of "generating alternate historical narratives," but that we should instead focus on ontologies of the present, those Archeologies of the Future that are described in his next book.