Old Materialism

I'm just finishing a piece on the work of Fredric Jameson, a process that has been challenging on a number of levels. Aside from the rather lurid if mundane biographical fact of the apprentice confronting the master (he was the chair of my PhD committee), it's been difficult for me to wrangle the Jamesonian corpus not simply because of its formidable size and breadth but also because of Jameson's tendency to suspend direct, generalizable claims about his positions and methods. Of course he wrote various treatises on method -- see in particular the early essay “Metacommentary” and the book The Political Unconscious, which remains, shall we not admit, his most important volume -- and most of Jameson's writings contain at least a choice sentence on method, if not a paragraph or two, provided we know how to identify them. But overall, like the dialectic itself that he so reveres, Jameson shuns the process of actualization in favor of a kind of perpetual dis-actualization (the Hegelians might prefer to call it externalization) in which the suspension of discrete claims forms the basis for an entire theoretical project, one which despite its Hegelian hue can, I think, be properly labeled Marxist.

Much has already been said about Jameson's writings on utopia, art, dialectics, allegory, history, and totality, and I don't particularly want to repeat all that. Instead I've been thinking about Jameson in the context of the ontological turn, not so much New Materialism as “old” materialism (and proudly so).

Like many Marxists, Jameson tends to avoid discussions of essence, existence, presence, and other ontological topics. In an echo of Louis Althusser's distinction between theory and philosophy, if not Karl Korsch's assertion in Three Essays on Marxism that “Marxian theory constitutes neither a positive materialistic philosophy nor a positive science” (65), Jameson typically shuns the kinds of grand systemic claims made by philosophy. “Marxism is not an ontology,” he stated flatly in a 1995 interview with Xudong Zhang (still the definitive Jameson interview), “there is not a philosophical system of Marxism that you can write down. [...] Marxism is not a recipe.” On the one hand, ontology and metaphysics devote themselves to the most fundamental questions of existence and presence, organizing their discourse into a coherent system of being. “Theory,” on the other hand, “makes no such systematic or philosophical claims” (Hegel Variations, 52).

So stands the record. But it's a partial version of the story, of which there is much more to be said. Being so thoroughly influenced by Hegel's dialectic and the representational logics of cultural Marxism, Jameson indeed promulgates a very specific ontological structure, if not in word then in deed. We can make the argument explicitly: Jameson is an ontological thinker; he proposes a specific structure of being.

The key lies in Jameson's critique of method. Ostensibly against method, in that he denies the existence of any kind of pre-given Marxist method perfected and honed for all circumstances, Jameson defines Marxism instead in terms of a material condition. In other words, there exists no Marxist method as such, yet there exists a material condition that structures the horizon of interpretability for all society and culture. The outlines for such a position were laid down early by Jameson: “the political perspective [is] the absolute horizon of all reading and all interpretation” (The Political Unconscious, 17).

What is this “absolute horizon”? Where does it reside? And why is it absolute? History is one part of the answer, materiality another, the social yet another. And while Jameson's fundamental Freudianism is sometimes overlooked in the secondary literature, the unconscious is still another way of thinking through the problem of the absolute horizon.

The absolute horizon refers to the determining nature of the material conditions of existence. The horizon thus inflects and sculpts all things taking place within it. (Sorry, all you liberals, Marxism is a determinism; there's no getting around it.) And inside such a structure is forged a fundamental relationship of correspondence: the “realities of social class and of the unconscious” condition the everyday life of individuals; the “determinate historical situation” conditions social relations and cultural production.

Or, in the punchiest line from The Political Unconscious, "[h]istory is what hurts" (102). An evocative expression meaning two things at once. First, when history is reified or mystified it sets real limits on individual or collective practice. Yet at the same time history is the badge people wear designating the struggle or hurt endured.

“[I]f there is an ontology of Marxism,” Jameson observed once, breaking the implicit taboo against thinking Marxism in terms of ontology, “it lies in that, through praxis and its determinate failures, one confronts the very nature of Being itself (provided you grasp Being as a historical and changing, evolving process)” (“On Contemporary Marxist Theory,” 128). Three points are important to underline in this observation. First is the fundamentally Hegelian conception of being as historical evolution (“historical...changing...evolving”). Second is the importance of the dialectic, unnamed but clearly evident, as the primary structure and mediating apparatus of the world (“praxis and its determinate failures”). Third is the notion of a confrontation with being in which, through the dialectic, being is revealed (“one confronts nature...one grasps Being”). Taken together these points describe a structure of representation in which a world is revealed to an individual attempting to confront or grasp it.

Essentially unclassifiable and irreducible to other concepts like form, figuration, or historicity, the dialectic is something like a physical law in Jameson, something akin to the normal physics of the world. It plays roughly the same role in Jameson that the machinic plays in Deleuze or the process of revealing in Heidegger. Yet there is nothing grandiose about the dialectic, and likewise nothing so humble or insignificant as to be overlooked by it. The dialectic keeps the world humming along, like the vibrations of atoms or the gravitational pull of the Earth and planets.

Here the Young Hegelian from Durham is on full display. So influenced by Althusser in other ways, Jameson has willfully ignored one of his master's central tenets. Hegel should not be exorcised from the annals of modern thought like some unwelcome spirit. How foolhardy to wish to expel the spirit of the spirit doctor himself. The problem with modernity is not Hegel; Hegel is modernity. Or rather, only Hegel provides the philosophical tools with which to think the fundamental contradictions of modernity. (But on this point, let it be known, I am not a Jamesonian.)

In one of the most eye-opening chapters from Jameson's recent Valences of the Dialectic, even that most odious site of hyper-capitalism, Wal-Mart, is read dialectically in terms of its utopian potential. That such an unlikely institution might provide important insight into the logic of utopia might strike some as counter-intuitive if not altogether misguided, casting doubt on the very utility of the dialectic with its many contortions. Still, those scandalized by such an approach might be surprised to learn that Jameson has been doing this all along -- Peter Sloterdijk's cynical reason is utopian, Gary Becker and the Chicago School are utopian, Hollywood popcorn movies are utopian, and so on. Indeed, with the dialectic “the most noxious phenomena can serve as the repository and hiding place for all kinds of unsuspected wish-fulfillments and Utopian gratifications” (Valences of the Dialectic, 416).

Which brings us to the problem of postmodernism, and the vexed question of Jameson's relation to it (is he or is he not). Admittedly Jameson's method sometimes appears to align with postmodernity, to the extent that postmodernity, that steadfast foe of method, can ever claim to have one. Still, in my reading I see Jameson ultimately as a thinker of the foundation, of the ground, of the condition of grounding, so much so that we may say of him what Irigaray said of Heidegger, that his metaphysics “always supposes, in some manner, a solid crust from which to raise a construction” (The Forgetting of Air, 2). Thus in a discussion on periodization, a perennial theme for him, Jameson characterizes periodization in terms of absolute beginnings and first instances: it is “an absolute historiographic beginning, that cannot be justified by the nature of the historical material or evidence, since it organizes all such material and evidence in the first place” (A Singular Modernity, 23). How frequently Jameson uses the expression “as such.” How frequently he ends an idea with “in the first place.”

He thinks like a modern. It's often overlooked in discussions on Jameson. For every mention of spatiality or postmodernism's “spatial turn,” there is an even greater attention to temporality and history, those classic modern categories. Or recall how central the logic of period and break remain in his work (a kind of anagnorisis updated for today's world). Not to mention the fact that his theory of knowledge is almost identical to the mode of critique invented by Kant and Marx.


“Postmodernity” is not so much a word to describe a series of years or decades, beginning in the 1970s or what have you, but rather the name of a condition of stylistic overdevelopment in which the modernist break no longer obtains. Such a condition can appear and reappear at various points in history, a kind of motile Mannerism or Rococo, in the same way that the modern break itself has reappeared in any number of historical guises, from the Socratic break, to the Galilean break, to the Duchampian break, and on and on. Postmodernity, then, is better understood as a kind of depressive state, a psychological Thermidor in which the militant break becomes well-nigh impossible on the existential plane. (It is no surprise, then, that the greatest thinker of militancy in our times, Alain Badiou, emerged in the anglophone world precisely at the point when postmodernity outgrew its utility, Badiou's project formulated on the basis of a reinvigorated modernism in which all subjects are militants of some form or another.)

“We’re all idealists, all materialists” -- Jameson has said, a hyper-Hegelian stance that only a dialectician can appreciate -- “and the final judgment or label is simply a matter of ideology, or, if you prefer, of political commitment” (Jameson on Jameson, 2). Still, such commitment remains key, and it helps to differentiate Jameson's Marxism from those other modes of though (empiricism, realism, pragmatism) in which the world is described for what it is. Marxism is not that. And, following Jameson, I suspect that the future of dialectical criticism, or if you like “old” materialism, will rest not on the changing winds of commitment, this ideology or that, but an unvarnished appraisal of the conditions of all ideologies, and an encounter with that absolute horizon that, so far, has been eclipsed from view.