- Birthday, Books, Philosophy, Politics, Quotes, Reading, Writing

Fredric Jameson on History, Politics, and More.


Happy birthday, Fredric Jameson! 86, today! Here are some quotes from the literary critic, philosopher, and political theorist:


“Always historicize!”


“It’s true that we don’t have any ‘big ideas’ right now, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be looking for them.”


“Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.”


“It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.”


“History is what hurts, it is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis […]”


“[T]he serious writer is obliged to reawaken the reader’s numbed sense of the concrete through the administration of linguistic shocks, by restructuring the overfamiliar or by appealing to those deeper layers of the physiological which alone retain a kind of fitful unnamed intensity.”


“If we are unable to unify the past, present, and future of the sentence, then we are similarly unable to unify the past, present, and future of our own biographical experience or psychic life.”


“[T]he work or the text is not inserted into a genetic process in which it is understood as emerging from this or that prior moment of form or style; nor is it ‘extrinsically’ related to some ground or context which is at least initially given as something lying beyond it. Rather, the data of the work are interrogated in terms of their formal and logical and, most particularly, their semantic conditions of possibility.”


“The novel is…the anti-form proper to modernity itself (which is to say, of capitalism and its cultural and epistemological categories, its daily life). This means…that the novel is also a vehicle of creative destruction. Its function, in some properly capitalist ‘cultural revolution,’ is the perpetual undoing of traditional narrative paradigms and their replacement, not by new paradigms, but by something radically different. To use Deleuzian language for a moment, modernity, capitalist modernity, is the moment of passage from codes to axioms, from meaningful sequences, or indeed, if you prefer, from meaning itself, to operational categories, to functions and rules; or, in yet another language, this time more historical and philosophical, it is the transition from metaphysics to epistemologies and pragmatisms, we might even say from content to form.”


“[Barthes] taught us to read with our bodies—and often to write with them as well. Whence, if one likes, the unavoidable sense of self-indulgence and corruption that Barthes’ work can project when viewed from certain limited angles. The libidinal body, as a field and instrument of perception all at once, cannot but be self-indulgent in that sense. To discipline it, to give it the proper tasks and ask it to repress its other random impulses, is at once to limit its effectiveness, or, even worse, to damage it irretrievably. Lazy, shot through with fits of boredom or enthusiasm, reading the world and its texts with nausea or jouissance, listening for the fainter vibrations of a sensorium largely numbed by civilization and rationalization, sensitive to the messages of throbs too immediate, too recognizable as pain or pleasure—maybe all this bodily disposition is not to be described as self-indulgence after all. Maybe it requires a discipline and a responsiveness of a rare yet different sort….Maybe indeed the deeper subject is here: not pleasure (against whose comfort and banalities everyone from Barthes to Edmund Burke is united in warning us), but the libidinal body itself, and its peculiar politics, which may well move in a realm largely beyond the pleasurable in that narrow, culinary, bourgeois sense.”


“We’re all idealists, all materialists; and the final judgment or label is simply a matter of ideology, or, if you prefer, of political commitment.”


“[T]he only way to think the visual, to get a handle on increasing, tendential, all-pervasive visuality as such, is to grasp its historical coming into being.”


“If the ideas of a ruling class were once the dominant (or hegemonic) ideology of bourgeois society, the advanced capitalist countries today are now a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without norm. Faceless masters continue to inflect the economic strategies which constrain our existence, but they no longer need to impose their speech (or are henceforth unable to); and the postliteracy of the late capitalist world reflects not only the absence of any great collective project but also the unavailability of the older national language itself.”


“It would seem essential to distinguish the emergent forms of a new commercial culture—beginning with advertisements and spreading on to formal packaging of all kinds, from products to buildings, and not excluding artistic commodities such as television shows (the ‘logo’) and best-sellers and films—from the older kinds of folk and genuinely “popular” culture which flourished when the older social classes of a peasantry and an urban artisanat still existed and which, from the mid-nineteenth century on, has gradually been colonized and extinguished by commodification and the market system.”


“For when we talk about the spreading power and influence of globalization, aren’t we really referring to the spreading economic and military might of the US? […] Looming behind the anxieties expressed here is a new version of what used to be called imperialism […]”


“[S]ocialist revolution… is excessive of all form, out in advance of its own rhetoric. It is unrepresentable by anything but itself, signified only in its ‘absolute movement of becoming,’ and thus a kind of sublimity.”


“[T]he purpose of the theorist is to build as powerful a model of capital as possible, and as all-embracing, systemic, seamless, and self-perpetuating. Thus, if the theorist succeeds, he fails: since the more powerful the model constructed, the less possibility will be foreseen in it for any form of human resistance, any chance of structural transformation.”


“Insofar as the theorist wins, therefore, by constructing an increasingly closed and terrifying machine, to that very degree he loses, since the critical capacity of his work is thereby paralyzed, and the impulses of negation and revolt, not to speak of those of social transformation, are increasingly perceived as vain and trivial in the face of the model itself.”


“There is a tendency among the Left today—and I mean all varieties of the Left—of being reduced to protecting things. It is a kind of conservatism; saving all the things that capitalism destroys which range from nature to communities, cities, culture and so on. The Left is placed in a very self-defeating nostalgic position, just trying to slow down the movement of history. There is a line by Walter Benjamin that epitomizes that—though I don’t know how he thought of that himself—revolutions are ‘pulling the emergency cord,’ stopping the onrush of the train.”


“A]s organisms of a particular life span we are poorly placed as biological individuals to witness the more fundamental dynamics of history, glimpsing this or that incomplete moment, which we hasten to translate into the all-too-human terms of success or failure. But neither stoic wisdom nor the reminder of a longer-term view are really satisfactory responses to this peculiar existential and epistemological dilemma, comparable to the science-fictional one of beings inhabiting a cosmos they do not have organs to perceive or identify. Perhaps only the acknowledgement of this radical incommensurability between human existence and the dynamic of collective history and production is capable of generating new kinds of political attitudes; new kinds of political perception, as well as of political patience; and new methods for decoding the age as well, and reading the imperceptible tremors within it of an inconceivable future.”


“With undergraduates, and in the sense that you’re using the idea of liberation, the purpose [is] to restore to the very activity of cultural interpretation some of its urgency as being not a sandbox but a place in which the human struggle takes place. Also, I wanted to show that some of the other kinds of interpretations in the classroom in effect serve to paper things over and to harmonize where harmony is impossible. On that level I would want critical struggle to be more moralistic and to take a more combative position and try to restore a presence of social struggle to texts, some of which may be exceedingly rarefied. If what we are saying is true, then one would have to find class struggle in the purest segments of Mallarmé. And indeed one can do that; Mallarmé explicitly reflected on the relationship between language and money and was very interested in class struggle. But to be putting those things back is a very liberating thing, because it brings you back to reality and to your own situation.”


“Undoubtedly what is experienced, and ideologically constructed, as freedom, may not necessarily be freedom at all. But it does lead to a sense of difference. It’s as if the era of mass production and mass culture has now yielded, not standardization, but a proliferation of difference, of otherness. Corporations don’t advertise to a mass public anymore. It ‘s now niche advertising—addressing the subtle differences between one consumer public and another, exploiting cultural fragmentation. Obviously, you need to get to a certain level of massification before this is possible. This is difference after massification, rather than the old style of 19th-century individualism and difference which strikes people here about postmodernism as its collectivization, anonymity, and systemic quality…There’s a linguistic problem with this concept difference. The conceptualization of difference would not have been possible in situations of real difference. In an imperial system, where colonized peoples are really radically different from their metropolitan overlords, there’s no great political merit in affirming those differences. The political, cultural concept of difference is paradoxically based on a conquest of a certain equality and identity among the social subgroups. It would not have been possible until the moment where there was less difference….Standardization, again, is both a good and a bad thing. And it makes me wonder how many illusions are present when, even if the logic of the system is differentiation, by producing difference it is producing a new form of standardization. Indeed, the whole logic of postmodernism is that: a new way of seeing identity as difference, which we wouldn’t have been able to think or express very well in an older period….The politically positive aspect about what you’ve been describing is the fact that subgroups have been able to attain a certain collective existence that they didn’t really have before. That clearly fits into a kind of cultural communication on the part of the industries that now have a new sub-market and now produce new things for it. But the crucial thing would not be those badges of cultural difference, it would be the fact of collectivity.”


“As far as ‘the political’ is concerned, any single-shot, single-functioning definition of it is worse than misleading, it is paralyzing. We are, after all, fragmented beings, living in a host of separate reality-compartments simultaneously; in each one of those a certain kind of politics is possible, and if we have enough energy, it would be desirable to conduct all those forms of political activity simultaneously. So the ‘metaphysical’ question: what is politics—the seizure of power? taking to the street? organizing? talking socialism? resisting hierarchy and authority? demonstrating for disarmament or trying to save your neighborhood? fighting city hall?—this question is only worthwhile when it leads to enumeration of all possible options, and not when it lures you into following the mirage of a single great strategic idea. Still, we have to talk about each of these forms of political intervention separately, so that there is a supreme misunderstanding to be avoided: namely the misconception that when one modestly outlines a certain form of political activity—such as that which intellectuals in the university can engage in—this ‘program’ is meant to suggest that that is the only kind of politics that one should do. I would not want anyone to suppose that when above I suggested a certain kind of political intervention in the teaching of literature, I meant that this was all we should ever do.”


“Impotence is first and foremost that, the pall on the psyche, the gradual loss of interest in the self and the outside world, very much in formal analogy to Freud’s description of mourning; the difference being that one recovers from mourning (Freud shows how), but that the condition of non-productivity, since it is an index of an objective situation that does not change, must be dealt with in another way, a way that, acknowledging its persistence and inevitability, disguises, represses, displaces, and sublimates a persistent and fundamental powerlessness. That other way is, of course, consumerism itself, as a compensation for an economic impotence which is also an utter lack of any political power….I want to add that the way in which (objectively, if you like) this analysis takes on the appearance of anthropology or social psychology…is itself to be reckoned back into the phenomenon we are describing: not merely is this anthropological or psychological appearance a function of a basic representational dilemma about late capitalism…; it is also the result of the failure of our societies to achieve any kind of transparency; indeed, it is virtually the same as that failure. In a transparent society in which our various positions in social production were clear to us and to everybody else—so that, like Malinowski’s savages, we could take a stick and draw a diagram of the socioeconomic cosmology on the sand of the beach—it would not sound either psychological or anthropological to refer to what happens to people who have no say in their work: no Utopian or Nowhereon [sic] would think you were mobilizing hypotheses about the Unconscious or the libido, or foundationally presupposing a human essence or a human nature; perhaps it would sound more medical, as though you were talking about a broken leg or paralysis of the whole right side. At any rate, it is thus, as a fact, that I would like to talk about reification: in this sense of the way in which a product somehow shuts us out even from asympathetic participation, by imagination, in its production. It comes before us, no questions asked, as something we could not begin to imagine doing for ourselves. But this in no way means that we cannot consume the product in question, ‘derive enjoyment’ from it, become addicted to it, etc. Indeed, consumption in the social sense is very specifically the word for what we in fact do to reified products of this kind, that occupy our minds and float above that deeper nihilistic void left in our being by the inability to control our own destiny.”


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