J.M. Coetzee reviews 'The Modernist Papers' by Frederic Jameson

J.M. Coetzee reviews 'The Modernist Papers' by Frederic Jameson

The Modernist Papers

by Frederic Jameson

Verso, $59.95 hb, 426 pp, 9781844670963

J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee is a South African novelist, essayist, linguist, translator and recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. He


Though by profession a scholar of literature with a specialism in French literature, Fredric Jameson (born 1934) has made his mark as a cultural historian and even as what used to be called an historian of ideas. His chef d'oeuvre, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), provides one of the more persuasive cognitive maps we have of the evolution of culture in the West in the period from the mid-twentieth century to the present day. His achievement is all the more notable in that he is by conviction a Marxist, hostile to Anglo-American empiricism, the anti-theoretical theory that reigns supreme today.

More specifically, Jameson is a Western Marxist, that is to say, an heir of Georg Lukács (though he does not share Lukács's moralistic disapproval of modernist art), of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno (though he does not share in Adorno's pessimism), and of Louis Althusser. Among contemporary cultural critics, he has picked up most from Jean Baudrillard. For his first model of how the three stages of capitalism – market capital, monopoly capital, global capital – relate to the three great cultural-aesthetic movements of post-Enlightenment times – realism, modernism, postmodernism – he drew on the economist Ernest Mandel. To cope with the increasing abstraction of global capital, he has since then supplemented Mandel with Giovanni Arrighi (The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times [1994]). But for all his revisionism, he has not let go of the basic Marxian duo of base (economy) and superstructure (consciousness, ideology), though in his later writings he is adamant that the superstructure never merely reflects or replicates the base (the so-called vulgar-Marxist position) but that, on the contrary, a variety of superstructures respond creatively to a 'socio-economic, infrastructural situation' not of their own creation. For an historian of his kind, he believes, the fundamental task is to discern and describe the dialectic, past and present, between the two levels. In the words of Schelling, whom he likes to quote: 'That person incapable of confronting his or her own past antagonistically really can be said to have no past; or better still, he never gets out of his own past.'

Such, in a nutshell, are the principles underlying Jameson's historiography. Where his heart lies is less easy to detect. Though he is clearly dismayed by the ahistorical and anti-utopian tendencies of postmodernism, and certainly does not share in the architect Charles Jencks's satisfaction at the spectacle of 'countless individuals ... communicating and competing with each other [in the arts] just as they are in the banking world', he holds back from lamenting its triumph. In his early writings he can be scathing about the élitism, the rightist politics and the obscurantism of much of high modernism, but he remains too fine a literary critic to misrecognise the achievements of such exemplary modernists as Kafka, Joyce and Proust. About literature before the nineteenth century, or about writers from outside the United States and Western Europe, he has little to say (an exception must be made for Japan, whose history and literature he has studied in some depth). One oft-repeated complaint about Jameson is that what he calls postmodernism is in fact no more than the lifestyle choice of a particular segment of the Western intelligentsia.

A more telling criticism is that the dialectic he posits between economy and culture is more often declared than demonstrated. Thus, for instance, while his claim that the blankness ('loss of affect') typical of relations between human beings nowadays is connected to the spread of digital technology seems intuitively right, the fact is that he gives no account of how that connection works itself out in detail, nor even a hint of what such an account might look like.

Frederic JamesonFrederic Jameson

In 2002 Jameson published A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present. In this short but dense book, he tries to pin down what it means to speak of an historical age, with a beginning and an end. His eye is of course on the modern age, and particularly on the putative break or epoche between the modern and the postmodern. As a strict non-idealist, he is not interested in any periodisation in terms of subjectivity (one that posits a modern versus a postmodern Zeitgeist, for example). He is more welcoming to a definition of modernism as the ideology of innovation, economic and artistic, but he prefers Adorno's variant of this theory: modernist artists are driven to 'Make it new' (Ezra Pound's clarion call) not necessarily because they have some vision of a better future but because they operate under the principle that artistic forms and techniques wear out with use, and when worn out must be discarded (in Adorno's term, tabooed) and replaced with new ones. (In this account, the postmodernist revolution consists in pronouncing all taboos taboo!)

As one might expect, A Singular Modernity, as an attempt to specify the beginning and the end of the modern, is a recognisably postmodern document. Jameson may indeed be right when he says that the very concept of the modern betrays a modern way of thinking (the ancients may not have thought of themselves as ancients, but they did not think of themselves as moderns either); but in its self-reflexive turn this insight itself is postmodern. In more than one sense, the postmodern defines the modern. As Jameson puts it in the last of his four 'theses of modernity': 'No "theory" of modernity makes sense today unless it comes to terms with the hypothesis of a postmodern break with the modern.'

Jameson's new book, The Modernist Papers, is offered as a companion piece to and source-book for A Singular Modernity. It consists of some twenty essays, most of them on individual writers, together with a not very demanding introduction in which Jameson sketches his current theoretical position.

'His chef d'oeuvre ... The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), provides one of the more persuasive cognitive maps we have of the evolution of culture in the West'

The oldest of the essays, on Mallarmé, dated 1963–2006, reads like fragments of an uncompleted project herewith being abandoned. The most impressive are the most recent: those on Kafka, on Joyce and Proust, and on Gertrude Stein. But the reader new to Jameson might be well advised to start with two essays from the 1980s, on Baudelaire and Rimbaud, which are more obviously pedagogical than the later work, and are written with considerable suasive verve.

Baudelaire's sixteen-line poem 'Chant d'automne' is built around a single sense-datum: the sound made by a log dropped in a stone courtyard. This poem, says Jameson, marks the moment in the history of France when society has undergone such a degree of fragmentation that the poet can no longer assume that everyone shares his repertoire of remembered sensory experiences. From this moment onward, the poet must begin to find ways to convey unique experiences to people who have never had them, and a new kind of poetry is born. In the Rimbaud essay, Jameson presents a distinctly shakier thesis. Using Lenin as his guide to history and Lukács as his guide to the historical novel, he argues, first, that in his move from Europe to Africa Rimbaud embodies the transition from market to monopoly (imperialistic) capital; and, second, that precisely because he no longer stands for any recognisable social type, Rimbaud the poet-gunrunner of Djibouti also marks the moment when realism – a mode of storytelling in which individuals can still be used to represent strands in the social fabric – gives way to modernism. Thus we can see base and superstructure moving in concert within a single destiny.

These two essays show Jameson as teacher doing his best to persuade us that identifying key literary texts and reading them with the closest attention to their language and in the fullest social context will reveal seismographic traces of deep-lying historical disturbances. Less attractive among the essays of his early years are projects in demolition directed at certain high modernists and high-modernist schools of criticism. Wallace Stevens fares worst: his poetry, says Jameson, comes out of a simplistic epistemology and an impoverished experience of the world. Surveying Joyce scholarship, he dismisses the entire school of myth criticism as 'bankrupt'. 'For us,' he loftily proceeds, 'any art that practises symbolism is already discredited and worthless before the fact.' Jameson returns to Joyce in an essay dated 2006. One of Flaubert's greatest achievements, he suggests, was to perfect the chapter as the unit of composition in narrative: in effect, the life of the protagonist becomes a sequence of chapters. In Ulysses, Joyce does something comparable but more radical when he asserts the day as the unit of lived experience. (In this respect, Joyce is confirmed by Freud, for whom the night's dreamwork consists in retelling and epitomising the day's experience.) By employing the day, and whatever the day may contain, as his master unit, Joyce is able to sweep aside all queries about what might or might not find a place in his book.

Proust has a different way of foreclosing such interrogation. In Proust, it is the paragraph that is the unit of thought. The fact that each paragraph is so masterfully finished off means that additional closed and complete paragraphs can be inserted into the text indefinitely.

To extend his commentary on these twin giants (or giant twins) of the modern novel, Jameson calls upon Roman Jakobson's classic six-part scheme of the communicative act. Both Proust and Joyce, he suggests, deform Jakobson's scheme. In Proust, the external receiver is replaced with a simulated internal receiver, as if the narrator were speaking to himself alone, or some version of himself. The effect is to turn the present time of the narrative into the time when the narrative is spoken. The conventional view of Proust – that in Proust the past exists outside of time, whence it is the task of the poet to triumphantly recover it – thus cannot stand up to scrutiny. Moments of involuntary memory in the Proustian text are opportunities not for recovering the past but for opening it up like an alternate space within the space of the current present. To Proust, we never experience anything for the first time: only in the present of recomposing (writing) the event do we 'really' know it.

Joyce, by contrast, eliminates the enunciator (the pole of subjectivity) from the communicative scheme. The effect of this move is to create the illusion that language is speaking itself.

In his essay on Kafka, dated 2005, Jameson turns his attention to the mysterious Law that hangs so menacingly over Kafka's protagonists. Using old-style structuralist narratology of the kind pioneered by Vladimir Propp, he explores the logic by which Kafka constructs his narratives. From a single initial premise (e.g., a man wakes up and discovers he is an insect), he suggests, everything in a Kafka story develops by a rigorous bifurcating process of identifying and testing optional next steps. The Law presiding over the Kafkan universe is therefore no more and no less than the method by which the Kafkan story gets told.

The essay on Gertrude Stein, also dated 2005, brings to our attention two little-known writings of Stein's: her Lectures in America (1935), whose historical perspective Jameson finds surprisingly up to date, and her Four in America (1947), which he calls 'an unknown masterpiece at the very heart of [her] work'.

These recent essays of Jameson's are pieces of more or less pure literary criticism with little ideological thrust. (The Kafka essay does, however, conclude with some odd remarks on the story 'Josephine and the Mouse People': by giving the tribe of mouse people a collective voice, says Jameson, Kafka proves his historical and political greatness.)

'These recent essays of Jameson's are pieces of more or less pure literary criticism with little ideological thrust'

The cultural revolution in the United States in the latter half of the 1960s was, among other things, an uprising among students in the humanities in the name of curricular reform. Brought up on movies and pop music, finding philosophy too difficult, foreign languages too much of a slog, and history a bore, these students enrolled, faute de mieux, as English majors. The English curriculum, however, informed as it was by the high-Modernist, poetry-oriented practices of ivory-tower East Coast New Criticism, proved uncongenial. So they demanded, and got, a new, more accessible one, with old texts and old masters thrown out in favour of previously marginal materials and writers. Where the old masters survived, they were as a matter of course given an antagonistic reading.

In this reductive and essentially vulgar-Marxist account, which for the sake of simplicity ignores the parts played by French post-structuralism, post-colonial theory and feminism in the reformation of the curriculum or the canon (Americans tend not to distinguish between the two), the literary culture of postmodernism – more specifically, academic literary culture after the demise of Modernism – came into its own during a boom time in education when universities were being flooded with first-generation students in quest of the bachelor's degree that had become a prerequisite for a well-paying white-collar job. Postmodernism was thus brought into being by the shift in the American economy away from manufacturing industries toward service industries.

As a lifelong academic, Jameson takes seriously – perhaps too seriously – what goes on within the walls of the university. What makes literary culture different from the classroom study of literary texts is difficult to say, particularly in the United States, with its cohort of twenty million tertiary students. But if one is happy to identify the canon with the university curriculum, then – as long as one is not required to show how the determinations work in detail – it is not hard to come up with materialist explanations, such as the above, for why there should have been a shake-up in literary fashion in and after the 1960s. What is not so obvious, what we need the assistance of the historian to understand, is why departments of English, in which overwhelmingly monoglot bodies of students gathered to read products of fancy written in their mother tongue, were ever called on to act as an accrediting agency for entry into the middle class.

To maintain its proper dignity, 'English' has always needed to think of its business as larger than providing instruction in elocution and grammar, as being part of some greater civilising or liberalising or radicalising enterprise. The two pivotal moments in the prehistory of 'English' are clear enough: the moment when the study of classical (Greek and Latin) philosophical and literary texts replaced the study of religious texts; and the moment when the study of native-language texts replaced the study of classical texts. The third moment, the moment of what now looks like the eclipse of the ideal of a literary education, is more obscure, but it seems to have coincided, more or less, with what Jameson calls the end of modernism. Whether, in the reduced form in which it survives in the academy of postmodern times, 'English' will have any worthwhile social role to play we must wait to see.

Published in May 2008 no 301