PRINT January 1995


Frederic Jameson’s The Seeds of Time

“WE ARE ALL TIRED OF IT.” This was Fredric Jameson’s peremptory reply when he was asked in the late ’80s about the post-Modernism debate he himself had done so much to initiate earlier in the decade. He was right, of course. The term, if not the concept, had degenerated into MTV lingo. But here he is, nonetheless, resurrecting the debate with a highly charged intervention.

What has propelled him to do this? Primarily, I think, the geopolitical collapse of virtually all antisystemic resistance to late capitalism and global Americanization. In Jameson’s book, this is also the victory of post-Modern culture and so cause for reassessment. He now asks “how it is possible for the most standardized and uniform social reality in history, by the merest ideological flick of the thumbnail, the most imperceptible of displacements, to reemerge as the rich oil-smear sheen of absolute diversity and of the unimaginable and unclassifiable forms of human freedom.” The question is not meant to be rhetorical. It is indeed “easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism.”

Post-Modernity, then, is a kind of blockage of our political imaginary, the impossibility of conceiving alternatives to the present because we cannot even represent, totalize, it. Jameson’s seminal theorization ten years ago ended with that failure in our “cognitive mapping.” Now, when his erstwhile diagnosis is looking a good deal more prophetic than he would have wished, he probes the blockage further. The basic idea (taken from Hegel) is that by recognizing a conceptual limitation one is drawing a line, a line that then changes the limitation itself by becoming part of it, thus in turn making possible further change. The diagnosis, in short, is a protopolitical act.

The text derives from the Wellek Library Lectures in Critical Theory, given at the University of California, Irvine, in 1991, but is here much extended and reworked. The result reads very little like a series of lectures and lends itself not at all to summary. Stylistically it is quintessential Jameson, a well-nigh Wagnerian composition of dense and tangled sentences, punctuated by epigrammatic clarity (as he himself might have put it)—not everyone’s cup of tea but, dare one say, always original. As usual, the method is Freudian symptomatology, the theory Marxist concepts of class and modes of production: in both cases depth models and no apologies offered. Jameson’s work falls into three disparate parts. The first is an attempt to delineate a series of undialectical “antinomies” within post-Modernist theory and turn them into something more contradictory. The second illuminates what is always omitted in post-Modernism discussions, namely second-world culture and the historical existence of culture that is not commodified. The particular exhibit here is Andrei Platonov’s recently discovered idea of a peasant utopia, discussed in an essay written in the late ’20s. The third “movement” marks a return to the kind of structuralist method that Jameson laid out in The Political Unconscious (1981), his mature theoretical statement about Modernism. Greimasian semiotics is now applied to architecture, specifically to the three exemplary figures of Rem Koolhaas, Peter Eisenman, and Kenneth Frampton, sympathetically treated for their complicated relation to Modernism and post-Modernism alike.

Ingenious and powerful though it is, I shall leave the Platonov essay largely aside. Jameson himself says it “sticks out like a sore thumb,” and it does. The format prevents the kind of sustained analysis of Soviet culture and politics necessary to make it work as an argument. It ends abruptly, after dark and brooding reflection on utopia and death, the theme itself expressive of deepening pessimism while at the same time being a defiant gesture. I shall also have to ignore, for lack of space, much of the fascinating architectural discussion in order to focus on the initial and more controversial theoretical move.

First, then, the nondialectical oscillations, “the paralysis of postmodern thinking by the structure of the antinomy.” Jameson makes a blistering (variously incisive, dogmatic, and funny) attack on the ur-antinomy of the last decade, Identity and Difference, through which the bracketing of context and history so characteristic of post-Modernity has been engineered. These two nondialectical “sorting systems” combined “have the advantage of seeming to offer virtually no content in their own right, no smuggled philosophical contraband, as neutral and value-free as technology or the market.” Meanwhile, late capitalism itself has achieved the form of “sheer speculation, something like the triumph of spirit over matter, the liberation of the form of value from any of its former concrete or earthly content.” Post-Modern discourse in that sense has ended in “technocratic positivism and experiential nominalism.”

The territory is then clear for the unceasing play of antinomies within “a kind of conceptual freeze-frame.” Four symptomatic antinomies are diagnosed. The first has to do with time and space: change turns into stasis, so that “everything now submits to the perpetual change of fashion and media image,” but “nothing can change any longer.” This is Alexandre Kojève’s end of history, a perpetual game of masks and roles without substance. Putting an end to change itself thus becomes the only radical change conceivable. The antinomy is paralytic.

Post-Modern time, a perpetual present of perpetual change, thus turns into space, a homogeneous space where multinational capitalism “reigns supreme and devastates the very cities and countryside it created in the process of its own earlier development.” Yet—and this is the second antinomy—this homogeneity is experienced as heterogeneity because we are given to imagine the second-world city as a drab Other. The capitalist city can thus be sold as “a well-nigh Bakhtinian carnival of heterogeneities, of differences, libidinal excitement, and a hyperindividuality that effectively decenters the old individual subject by way of individual hyperconsumption.”

This leads to the question of Nature and the twin desire to erase all notions of it but also to see it ecologically preserved. To the former side belong antifoundationalism and antiessentialism, two theory staples of the ’80s. Antifoundationalism Jameson gleefully interprets “as a strategy that replicates the dynamic of late positivist capitalism,” the post-Fordist “drive to liquidate inventories as such.” The post-Fordist vision of plurality, in short, “seems peculiarly consonant with the more intellectual mobility and strategic erasure of an antifoundational ideal, in its vision of a mind unfurnished with first principles that can grapple with the business at hand directly, in an unmediated and technocratic way, without prejudice or mental inventory or cumbersome ideological stock.” Politically, this is then coupled with a compensatory return to ethics in the form of formalist systems without content, articulating a need to find nonfoundational foundations for one’s being toward the world.

The post-Modern market, then, stands as the great global analagon here; but the market is in actual fact “both an essentialism and a foundationalism,” so what is in fact conjured forth is “the spectacle of a whole post-Modern metaphysic.” This brings out Jameson’s last antinomy: the antiutopian arguments that turn out to be utopian. The current “boom industry” of political antiutopianism, the reaction against every attempt at collective control of our conditions of existence, finds its companion here in the post-Modern critiques of the Modernist hubris of totality and transcendence. But the market in whose name this antiutopianism is launched actually serves the purpose of a classic utopian machine, the machine that absorbs necessity and releases freedom at large, indeed freedom as a kind of post-Modern delirium. Antiutopian “market fantasies” are in fact best categorized together “with other glorious Utopian thought-experiments.” What remains by way of opposition? Not much but the existential choice of class solidarity. Lukács and Sartre, as always, lurk in the background. For the moment, then, the best Jameson can hold out is a certain stoical wisdom, as opposed to resignation, until the world has been so completely standardized that new and unexpected solidarities can once again emerge: the unknown seeds of time that are now being sown.

I want also to say a brief word about Jameson’s stimulating digression on cyberpunk and “dirty realisms,” inspired by Liane Lefaivre and attached to the analysis of Koolhaas. A century ago, Modernist depictions of the lowly Other were marked by an unmistakable distance. Cyberpunk illuminates one of the fundamental “structural features of post-Modernity,” namely, “the weakening if not the outright disappearance of just this category of otherness and terrifying specieslike difference.” For in the post-Modern ’90s, “you can return from the lower depths.” What marks the collective space of dirty realism (a “plebeian” one) is precisely this lack of clear boundaries, the erasure of “inside and outside” that is symptomatic of the whole unmappable system at large. “Dirty” here, then, means a collective no-man’s-land, defined by neither private property nor public law, permeated by violence. For Jameson this particular post-Modern intensity is profoundly prophetic.

These rich and acute reflections are, theoretically, a work on the way to somewhere else. Jameson has a marvelous eye for trends and the subversive capacity to move against, to force issues. Always historicize!, the opening banner imperative of The Political Unconscious, was supremely timely; the systematic theorization of post-Modernism likewise so. Here Jameson has begun a polemical attack (now less a “homeopathic” treatment than a frontal assault) on some of the antidoxological doxa of the recent epoch. It has shortcomings, even if one accepts, as I do, much of the frame. “Symptomatology,” for one thing, all too easily brackets content (ironically enough) and nearly (ironically enough) falls into the mode of endless Foucauldian/Kantian analyses of the “conditions of possibility” for saying this or that. To dismiss antifoundationalism as epistemological post-Fordism is not to dismiss its theoretical claims. Nor does Jameson's position allow any particular room for the state. In Jameson's world there is economy and culture; political institutions and the state are epiphenomena. Politics becomes a question (at times obsessively so) of the utopian/libidinal. So what next?