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Dan Latimer

Jameson and
Post-Modernism

Perry Anderson in his Considerations on Western Marxism (1976) has


pointed out that, because of the general debilitation of a Stalinized
socialist culture in Russia and the absence of any significent working-
class audience here, the most gifted of Western Marxist thinkers directed
their attention away from class action and economic infrastructures to
bourgeois superstructures, most especially to art.1 All this materialistic
interest in superstructure is being repaid now, if publishers’ catalogues
are any indication, by some superstructural interest in materialism. The
extent of this interest and its depth are matters that will no doubt be
revealed in the fullness of time. And the possible reasons for the interest
would at this point be equally conjectural. Whether we are dealing
merely with a predictable return of history, a return made all the more
energetic by years of New Critical and Deconstructive repression; or
with a collective mid-life crisis of the Vietnam War generation of
graduate students permanently traumatized by mendacious authority
figures and their death-dealing abstractions (‘national honour,’ ‘self-
determination’): or whether—perish the thought—the interest is simply
a result of our having come to the end of yet one more method so that
now only materialism remains to be enlisted and massively commodified
to shock our poor brains, already reeling from overconsumption, back
into action for yet one more book or article: or whether we genuinely
feel that a society which, when it takes note of us at all, shows such
unrelenting contempt for its intelligentsia that it surely can’t have
managed to reach perfection yet—such questions are perhaps too
involved to be answered on this occasion. But an interest there is,
undeniably, whether we judge by the number and availability of Marxist
texts, by the popularity of such events as the 1983 summer institute for
the Marxist Interpretation of Culture in Urbana, Illinois, or by the
spiritual centrality there, indeed in American criticism as a whole, of
Fredric Jameson, formerly of Yale French and Comparative Literature,
now of the University of California, Santa Cruz, History of Conscious-

1
Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism, London 1976, p. 52 ff.; p. 76 ff.

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ness Program. Readers of NLR have recently had the opportunity to
sample Jameson’s analysis of post-modernism, in an essay packed with
critical ideas and insights.2 It is not inconceivable, at this point, that
Marxism, through culture criticism, could become an influential way of
thinking among those who, as yet, are innocent of the slightest contact
with Capital.

I. The Marxist Literary Group

A more naturally charismatic figure than Jameson can scarcely be


imagined. The word simpatico springs readily to the lips. He is the very
genius of perfectly faded denim, of tieless informality and the bare
forearm. He is also the chairman of the Marxist Literary Group and its
benign father figure.

The origins of the Marxist Literary Group are to be found in the Louis
Kampf era of the MLA.3 It was once a part of the Radical Caucus, which
then split, with great noise and pain, along the faultline of theory and
praxis, with on the one hand the Jameson group, constituted by a
number of more patient, tenured members of high profile departments,
addicted to the higher lucubrations of theory; and on the other the
Radical Caucus remnant constituted by more imperilled inner city,
community college activists, demanding more overtly disruptive tactics
and abjuring the long-term as just another form of cooptation. One
eternal characteristic of the Left in America is that no one ever gets
along with anyone else, though recently the two groups have shown
signs of a possible future reconciliation.

So when one sees him in this disorderly context, a patient and skillful
teacher, who, like the other Yale Comparatists, seems to have read
everything in every field and is ready to convey that work’s significance
in a short paragraph, it is not difficult to account for his appeal. What
makes him difficult to evaluate is the kind of Marxism he professes. I
could not pretend here to summarize his whole body of work, which
extends from Sartre, The Origins of a Style (1961) to studies in dialectical
philosophy (Marxism and Form, 1971), to structuralism (The Prison
House of Language, 1972), to fascism in modernist ideology (Fables of
Aggression, 1979), to readings in the political flip-side of various novels
(The Political Unconscious, 1981). I can only hope to review some of his
most recent concerns as indicated by his recent lectures and articles,
including that published in NLR 146.

II. The Fate of Modernism

Some may remember a dyspeptic essay by Lionel Trilling published in


the early 1960s called ‘On the Modern Element in Modern Literature’.4
In this essay Trilling finds it remarkable that the hair of his students at
Columbia College did not turn grey overnight after they had encoun-

2
Fredric Jameson, ‘Post-modernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, NLR 146.
3
Richard Ohmann, English in America, New York 1976, p. 25 ff.
4 Irving Howe, ed., Literary Modernism, New York 1967, pp. 59–82.

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tered The Heart of Darkness. They had looked into the abyss with
Marlow and nothing had happened. They were the same blithe spirits
after their term papers on dread and alienation as before. Of course
Trilling may have detected no more than the immutable superficiality
of students. On the other hand, he may have noticed the first stirrings
of the institutionalization of the subversive, the acculturation of the
anti-cultural, the acceptance, in short, of modernism into the canon. In
fact, this is precisely what he thought he was noticing, and it disturbed
him. Modernism should be proscribed by the canon. For Fredric
Jameson, too, this moment is of the greatest significance.5 He dates it
somewhat later than Trilling, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is the
moment when Modernism as a cultural style begins to meet its squalid
end, squeezed to death in the tweedy arms of English professors. Before
the late 1950s, Jameson says, surveys stopped with Tennyson. Then
when Lawrence, Gide, Proust, Conrad, and Mann became establishment
literature, their scandalous qualities paled. More direct, more efficient
means of shock must be devised when even the City of Big Shoulders
buys a Picasso for a public square.
When Modernism lost its power, a whole set of cultural coordinates
disappeared below the horizon of relevance. Gone, says Jameson, is the
‘emotional ground tone’ we have come to associate with the modernist
period. That is for Jameson the tone epitomized by Munch’s painting
‘The Scream’—the loss of significant connection with others, the
anxiety deriving from this radical solitude, the ‘wordless pain, the
windless solitude, of the monad’. The loss of this kind of artistic
affectivity is the first of the modernist coordinates to disappear. But the
end of Modernism is also a matter of losing affectivity in general:
Jameson calls this moment the waning of affect.
The hermeneutical method of experiencing art changes, too. Jameson
illustrates the old method by taking a look at Van Gogh’s painting of
the peasant shoes, iconographical since Heidegger’s treatment of that
work in his ‘The Origin of the Work of Art.’6 For Jameson the shoes
constitute ‘the whole object world of agricultural misery, of stark rural
poverty, and the whole rudimentary human world of backbreaking
peasant toil . . .’ For Heidegger the shoes illustrate the activity of art in
general: as the mediating entity between the wordless chthonic powers
of Nature and the civilized realm of the human and the historical that
Heidegger calls ‘world’. Implicit in both Jameson’s and Heidegger’s
readings is the assumption that Van Gogh’s work is the segment of an
enormous circle, a hint of some vaster reality which allows us to
reconstruct the whole; or to use a different figure, inside the work of art
are, in proportion, all the elements of outside. This is the depth model of
5
The main references for Jameson in this paper come from two papers distributed at the Institute for
the Marxist Interpretation of Culture, University of Illinois, Urbana, in the Summer, 1983 term; and
from the series of lectures given by Jameson under the title of ‘Modes of Production and the Spatial
Text’. The papers are entitled ‘Theories of Post-Modernism,’ and ‘Post-Modernism and Consumer
Society’. Some parts of this body of work have become available since this paper was written. See Hal
Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic, Essays on Postmodern Culture (Port Townsend, Wa.; Bay Press, 1983), pp.
111–125. Jameson’s essay in NLR 146 summarized or elaborated most of the ideas presented in the
foregoing.
6
Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter, New York 1971, pp. 33–4.

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interpretation, and Jameson identifies in Modernism at least four
versions of it: the dialectical model of essential and apparent, the
Freudian model of latent and manifest, the existential model of authentic
and inauthentic, the semiotic model of signifier and signified. These
disappear with the end of Modernism. Jameson calls this second
moment the disappearance of the depth model.
Related to both the withdrawal of affectivity and the cave-in of depth is
the loss of the third modernist coordinate, historicity. Gone is the old
modernist obsession with time that we know in the elegiac compositions
of Proust and Mann, who troubled themselves with time’s mysterious
nature, its loss and eventual recovery in art, the destructiveness of its
inexorable passage. Think of the emotion generated by the Castorp
baptismal bowl in The Magic Mountain during the grandfather’s Ur-litany
of family lives. Now there has been, says Jameson, a fundamental
‘detemporalization of the culture’, ‘a loss of any vital imaginative sense
of the past’, a ‘virtual incapacity to imagine historical difference . . . to
entertain some vital relationship with a radically different past and also
with a radically different future’, a situation, one would think, especially
troubling for a Marxist.
If not affect, depth, or time, then what? How are we to imagine the
replacement of this old familiar cosmos of dread and elegy and Left
Bank bistros with intense people blowing smoke in each other’s faces
and gratuitously stabbing their hands with knives? No need to imagine
it: it is here. It is the Postmodern. Replacing the ‘Peasant Shoes’ on the
screen of the mind now should be Andy Warhol’s ‘Diamond Dust
Shoes’. No longer do we feel the neolithic, stupefying toil of the peasant
or hear the silent call of the earth. The slippers—are they 1950s dancing
pumps?—hang in the show window, sunken, drained, and dead as
parsnips. The mind struggles among hermeneutical possibilities. But
the mass-produced shoes don’t point to any particular context where
they would be at home. Not only do we have the advent of what Rilke
called ‘Schein-Dinge’, ‘dummy things’, but also their celebration in art.
The painting has no grand emotional resonance. Compared with Van
Gogh’s painting, it is flat and superficial. What the painting may have,
if one is attuned to it—consider the title and the twinkling of the gilt
sand with which Warhol has sealed the surface—is a kind of giggling
euphoria which for Jameson is the emotional ground tone of Postmod-
ernism itself. So the painting is not entirely without affect, but it is the
affect of the drug trip, so to speak, a hallucinogenic hilarity draped over
an object from the outside, not in fact a property of the object itself.
Related to the culture of euphoric surfaces is the decentred bourgeois
subject, the storm-tossed monad, formerly angst-ridden, nauseated by
contingency, fear and trembling. In fact for a while now it has been
fashionable to proclaim the death of this subject, the end of individual-
ity. Lacan has declared that, when as children we learn language and are
penetrated by the discourse of culture, a ghostly self takes shape around
the alien words and names. But it is a self which has entered us, not a
self which we are. This other non-linguistic self, inarticulate and sullen,
lurks in the gaps between words. This self, perhaps, is the old modernist
self, looking out through the bars of language, forever alienated and
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unhappy, translating its deepest longing into the sleazy discourse of its
time.7 For Jameson now, even the glib, convivial, cultural, externally-
constituted self is in trouble in Postmodernism. It is figuratively, if not
clinically, schizophrenic. Since it is constituted by the functions of
language, any breakdown in the signifying chain breaks down the self
as it breaks down meaning. Personal identity depends on the interrela-
tion of past and future with the present moment of consciousness.
When the signifying chain snaps, then everything becomes for the
schizophrenic ‘an experience of pure material signifiers . . . a series of
pure and unrelated presents in time.’ Of each of these pure presents one
could say, quoting the James Brown song beloved of Dick Hebdige, ‘It
is what it is, that’s what it is.’8 And that’s all it is. But Jameson finds
Lacanian schizophrenia adapted everywhere as a postmodern cultural
style. He mentions the dissolution of linear narrative, John Cage’s
music (chords followed by prolonged intense silences), the school of
Language Poetry (Bob Perelman’s ‘China’), textuality, the ‘Pop’ move-
ment in architecture (Robert Venturi).
This diachronic disorientation, this disappearance of the thematics of
time, brings Jameson to what he calls the ‘privileged terrain of the
struggle of Postmodernism’, architecture (and ultimately to Henri
Lefebvre, the Marxist theoretician of space9). Architecture is the art
form best suited for a synchronic culture, one dominated by categories
of space, as modernism was dominated by time. If the great modernist
buildings, those of Gropius, Le Corbusier, Wright, or Mies, lift
themselves fastidiously out of the plastic neon schlock of American
culture, great glass boxes soaring priapically beyond the Golden Arches,
Postmodern architecture is less elitist, deploring the sculptural monu-
mentality that dissociates itself from its surrounding context, even
degrading that context further. Detroit’s Renaissance Center, designed
to renew the battle-scarred urban jungle of Jefferson Avenue, has
accomplished precisely the opposite. For Jameson this structure is a
post-modern phenomenon, but the failure of Brasilia’s heroic neo-
fascism seems a more appropriate parallel to Detroit, with the latter’s
surrounding concrete bunkers, visually impenetrable glass skin (a detail
which reminds Jameson of the Big Brother power move of reflector
sun glasses) and the confusedly milling ‘hypercrowd’ inside, carefully
filtered of unclean precipitants from the street below. Theoretically
Postmodernism in architecture abjures the authoritarian and celebrates
the people’s will. For it is presumptuous to say the people do not know
what they want. It is clear what they want. They want billboards, neon,
fast-food, and the disposable plug-in everything. If the voice of the
people calls for the exuberance of the Las Vegas strip we learn from
that and put neon sculptures in our new airports and libraries. We
design our cities, like Ricardo Bofill’s Valpineda Plug-in, of clip-on,
discardable units that look much like the Lego compositions of our
children. These allusions and quotations are forms of architectural
7
Jacques Lacan, The Language of the Self, trans. with notes and commentary by Anthony Wilden,
Baltimore 1968. See also Tony Tanner, Adultery in the Novel, Baltimore and London 1970, pp. 93–96.
8 Dick Hebdige, ‘Pop Taste, Popular Taste’, read at the conference on ‘Marxism and the Interpretation

of Culture,’ 11 July 1983, Urbana, Illinois. See also Dick Hebdige, Subculture, New York 1979.
9 Henri Lefebvre, Le droit à la ville, Paris 1974.

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textuality, if you like. They are ‘complacent’, and not judgemental.
They are designed to efface the distinction insisted on in Modernism
between Popular and High art. ‘Postmodern buildings’, says Jameson,
‘. . . celebrate their insertion into the heterogeneous fabric of the
commercial strip and the motel and the fast food landscape of the
post-superhighway American city.’ In modernist Joyce or Mahler, who
quoted the popular in their works, there was still a breath of condescen-
sion. No longer.
Important to this celebratory flatness, this refusal of the Monumental,
popular architecture likes to disrupt one’s traditional bourgeois percep-
tion of space. As a modernist, one had wanted to know where one was,
as an isolated monad, in relation to one’s surroundings. In Postmodern-
ism one must no longer know where one is. One must be stripped of
coordinates. Our old modernist perceptions of mass must be under-
mined. The Bonaventura Hotel, says Jameson at the 1982 Los Angeles
MLA, shredded the psychic map of the American intelligentsia. Shopkee-
pers are selling nothing because no one can find them except by
accident. As for the new perception of mass, what better example than
the Crocker Center, atop Beacon Hill in Los Angeles, which from the
perspective of Broadway and 4th seems to be a free-standing, two-
dimensional sheet of windows. Neither of these new spatial experiences
is unequivocally unpleasant for Jameson, nor ought one to condemn or
avoid them. Within them are embedded seeds of revolutionary percep-
tion. They beckon to us to transcend ourselves, as do the Nam June
Paik roomfuls of television screens, entwined in their wreaths of kudzu
and recapitulating sequences of images at irregular, unsynchronized
intervals. The point is not to watch one screen (as is the self-protective,
merely modernist impulse) but all at the same time. The point is to
become David Bowie in ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’; to reach the
stage where the sensation of depthlessness is pleasant; where one prefers
to be lost in the new sense; where whatever is is fine since that’s what
it is; where bourgeois alienation, anomie, and anxiety have dissolved in
a rain of discontinuous orgasmic instants; where automobile wrecks
gleam with real beauty as now in the wonderful medium of photo-
realism; where the Newtonian laws of physics are broken, not out
somewhere at the brink of the universe at some breakneck speed, but
here and now on earth, where bees go on strike, procurists bicycle
through the clouds, and chancellors shoot dice with bums for the secret
fund.10
III. Beyond Good and Evil?

We cannot afford, says Jameson, the comfort of ‘absolute moralizing


judgements’ about Postmodernism. We are within it. We are part of it
whether we like it or not. To repudiate it is to be reactionary. On the
other hand, to celebrate it unequivocally, complacently, is to be Dick
Hebdige. We must begin to ‘disengage from the present the seeds of
the future’. It is the dialectic that teaches us that things are never either
this or that, but both at once, as Aufhebung of private property is not its
cancellation, as the translations of Marx have it, but its preservation as
10
Hans Magnus Enzensberger, ‘utopia’, in Gedichte Frankfurt 1962, p. 22.

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well.11 Jameson warns against the Left moralizing position of criticizing
capital. To do so suggests that we are in some way unimplicated in it.
Capital, said Marx in the Manifesto, is the worst and best thing to have
happened to mankind. Jameson’s postmodern Marxism would seem
best to coincide with the Marx of the Adolf Wagner notes, in which
Marx dismisses as ‘armchair socialists’ those who understand the
applicability of Capital to be essentially moral. Marx is not interested in
being another Proudhon or Lassalle, cringing sentimental ‘vulgar’
socialists, who imagine that the millennium can be ushered in by a
higher wage.12 The postmodern is also the proto-Nietzschean Marx,
momentarily visible during the attack on Eugene Sue in The Holy
Family: ‘Morality is “impotence in action”’; or in those pages from
Capital in which we see that, yes, the capitalist exploits, robs, brutalizes,
and degrades the worker but commits thereby no injustice.13 If ‘right
can never be higher than the economic structure of society’,14 then it is
‘fair’, as the bourgeois says, to exploit people by paying them only half
of what one can later realize by selling the products they have made on
the job. Morality is a phosphorescence of production relations. ‘Legal
relations arise from economic ones’, says Marx. The bourgeois revolu-
tion appeared Satanic to feudalism. The proletarian revolution will seem
equally Satanic to the bourgeois. That this ‘evil’ is actually ‘good’ is all
the more reason for the scientist of the economy to ignore the normative
dimension and concentrate on the contradictions of a system doomed
to an inevitable and ignominious collapse. We do not know, beyond
this collapse, what the future will be. To say we do is presumptuous,
not to mention prescriptive. Nothing we have now, not even our
miniature Californian communes, and certainly not the appalling étatisme
of Eastern Europe, in any way approximates utopian socialism. To say
the Revolution is ‘a hole in Being’—I borrow from Gajo Petrović’s
Heideggerian Marxism—is truer than to say the Revolution is anything
that has ever happened.15 Only Postmodernism can give us hints; what
is populist, joyous, communal, and egalitarian in it must be recognized
and separated from the decadent dross. But is there a fulcrum provided
for this job in the Marxist system, even in its more tripped-out
American permutations? We sit before this alien culture like Psyche
before her pile of seeds, waiting for our helpful swarm of ants,
wondering how we could have offended our Heinzelmännchen.
Jameson, too, I think, hesitates before the door of the future insofar as
it leads through Postmodernism. He knows the revolutionary potential
of capitalism as well as Gerald Graff does.16 He knows how the principle
11
Karl Marx, Frühe Schriften, ed. by Hans-Joachim Lieber and Peter Furth (Stuttgart: Cotta Verlag,
1963), pp. 593, 602–3, 632. See the Marx Engels Collected Works (New York: International Publishers,
1975 ff.), p. 3, pp. 302–3. Hereafter CW.
12 Karl Marx, Texts on Method, trans. Terrell Carver, Oxford 1975, p. 186. Marx Engels Werke (Berlin:

Dietz Verlag, 1961–66), 19, p. 382. Hereafter MEW. The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. by Robert C. Tucker,
New York, London 1972, p. 532, 535. MEW 19, p. 21. CW 4, p. 201.
13 Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I, introduced by E. Mandel and translated by Ben Fowkes (New York:

Vintage, 1977), p. 301. Hereafter Mandel-Fowkes. See CW 4, p. 201.


14 Tucker, p. 531. MEW 19, p. 21.
15 Gajo Petrović. ‘The Philosophical Concept of Revolution’, Praxis, 151–164. See also Petrović’s

Marx in the Mid-Twentieth Century, Garden City, N.Y. 1967, pp. 183–189.
16 Gerald Graff, Literature Against Itself, Chicago 1979, p. 2. See also Hans Magnus Enzensberger The

Consciousness Industry, New York 1974, pp. 90–1.

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of repressive desublimation works and that the Gang of Four rock
group could well be singing the Muzak of the future. Is bourgeois
anomie the last barrier standing between capital and the total coloniz-
ation of the mind? Jameson hesitates but finally plunges forward,
buoyed by the inevitable optimism of the dialectical telos, though
inevitable only is the self-destruction of capitalism, not necessarily the
triumph of socialism, even provided we knew what that would be.17
Meanwhile what Postmodernism could well give us is some way to
contemplate this last bewildering third phase of our economic devel-
opment, the phase that Jameson, with Ernest Mandel, calls the era of
‘multinational capital’.18 It was child’s play in the old days of phase one,
competitive capital, or phase two, imperialism, to understand how
things worked and to find metaphors for it all. Each phase had its
characteristic machines (steam-driven motors in phase one, electric or
combustion motors in phase two) and its characteristic literary super-
structure (realism in phase one, modernism in phase two). This third
phase with its electronic and nuclear-powered motors, the era corre-
sponding to Postmodernism, has been more difficult to map out. Its
most characteristic machine, the computer, has no emblematic power.
We can no more locate the heart of the computer than we can find the
heart of the multinationals. It is a decentred global network of
microcircuits and blinking lights. To imagine it, to deal with it at all we
have to rise to a state that Jameson calls, transcending Kant, the
‘hysterical sublime’. You will remember that the Kantian sublime
kicked in whenever the mind came up against the limits of its own
power of figuration. The result was a sense of speechlessness, of being
overwhelmed by the divine, or at least by the metahuman. One
underwent experiences of the sublime most often on the tops of
mountains or in contemplating the sea. Now Jameson recommends the
conceptualization of a sublime appropriate for individual subjects fixed
in some vast network of international business, blinking, clicking,
whirring incessantly to transmit, like transistorized Jedi knights, the
power of the Force. Whether this postmodern or technological sublime
will overcome its current fascination with machines and rise to some
exponentially powerful phase of critical thought or simply prove to be
the last nervous breakdown of bourgeois dread remains to be seen.
IV. Imperialism and Aesthetics
There is little space left to develop an adequate alternative to the
problem of multinational capital and the proposed solution of the
postmodern hysterical sublime.
Let us begin, arbitrarily, with an interlude in the Dominican Republic
directed by Lyndon Johnson in 1965 to prevent its citizens from
experimenting any more with pro-labour democracy.19 Ten years later
Juan Bosch said, ‘This country is not pro-American, it is United States
property.’ What did Juan Bosch mean? In part he meant that the
17
F. Jameson, ‘Interview,’ Diacritics 12 (Fall 1982) p. 80.
18
Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism, trans. Joris De Bres, London 1975. ‘Post-Modernism . . .’ p. 24 ff.
‘Theories . . .’ p. 26.
19
See Noam Chomsky and E. S. Herman, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, Boston
1979, p. 110–1 for Paraguay; p. 130 ff. for Timor and Indonesia; p. 246 ff. for the Dominican Republic.

123
largest private landowner in the Dominican Republic, in possession of
8% of all arable land (mostly sugar interests), is Gulf and Western, one
of whose impressive monuments and green sign we can see glimmering
across Broadway as we stand on the balcony of Avery Fisher Hall
sipping chablis between the acts. Gulf and Western’s annual sales are
larger than the gross national product of the Dominican Republic. The
company is the owner of a large resort complex, which was exposed on
one occasion to competition from a Mr M. Wayne Fuller, who wanted
to build a rival resort. In 1975 Mr Fuller’s property was abruptly
nationalized by government decree. Low wages (25–50¢ per hour)
provide excellent opportunities for business. Systematic police terror
has prevented the formation of effective union representation. In this
the police have enjoyed the cooperation of the local branch of the AFL-
CIO, some of whose leaders, namely the now lamentably deceased
George Meany and his associates Lane Kirkland and Alexander Barkan,
not to mention the president of the sheet metal workers, Edward
Carlough, are stockholders in the Punta Cana resort and plantation.
Or we could whisk off on our magic carpet of horror to Paraguay
where Indians are killed by machetes to save bullets, where a fundamen-
talist Christian missionary has been observed participating in Indian
hunts and then later selling the captives in his charge as slaves in a
country where ‘slavery is widespread and officially tolerated.’
Or we could mention the Philippines, so often in the news: the famous
400 families there who thoughtfully ‘reduce bottlenecks’, according to
an officer of Manufacturer’s Hanover Trust Bank, ‘that hamper . . . fast
economic growth’; the vast American-owned sugar and pineapple
plantations that supply the free world’s sweet tooth; the 6 billion-dollar
investment (1977 figures) from the American-controlled World Bank;
the CIA-trained police apparatus; reports from Amnesty International
on widespread torture; the paucity of doctors and nurses in the rural
areas where 85 percent of the population live—and sometimes die of
pneumonia and tuberculosis, while in Manila $608 million go into 14
hotels and a convention centre to impress Rex Reed while he attends
the international film festival sponsored by Imelda Marcos.20 Rex, try as
he might, could find no evidence of repression from his hotel room to
which Imelda sent tailors to fit him for local costumes. Even censorship,
he declared enthusiastically, was lifted so that the sex scenes so dear to
western tastes could be shown on the silver screen there.
It is in this kind of global context that President Reagan has propounded
his theory of the other system as a Zoroastrian ‘empire of evil.’ More
difficult than President Reagan to explain are those mainstream modern
critics who perceive in detail the most subtle configurations of aesthetic
organization but accept without murmur every policy interpretation of
their government representative; those who fly into raptures over a
metaphor but go stony cold at the suggestion that there may be some
connection between a government policy that encourages business and
the business end of that policy, where the apoplectic mayhem is so
noisy and ubiquitous. Those who go in search of profit will sometimes
20
Rex Reed in Gentleman’s Quarterly, May 1983.

124
use questionable methods. This is well known and less embarrassing
than the fact that hyperdevelopment of the aesthetic has little sympa-
thetic carry-over in neighbouring organs—in those which encourage
decency, for example, or even imaginative sympathy. With regard to
this, authors clamour to produce self-lacerating confessions. Thomas
Mann associated the artist with the confidence trickster and criminal,
building on a rich tradition extending to Cervantes (Gines de Pasa-
monte) and Petronius (Eumolpus). Anthony Burgess hints at the
inevitability of even more blood-curdling associations.21 However
interesting such talk may be to society people, it remains largely a
mystification of private neurosis and need not be taken too seriously.
The callousness of the exquisite surely has other, less exotic causes than
Satan. Nor could the aesthete’s tacit legitimation of the status quo have
been summoned forth by the social order’s overwhelming patronage.
The legitimation experts and engineers of consent are quite another
story, as are those traitorous intellectuals against whom Julien Benda
fulminated for selling out to vested interests in return for power, thus
betraying the high priestly calling of the clerk.22 The aesthete’s rewards
are not those of Maurice Barrès or Hans Morgenthau. I hope it will not
seem vulgar ressentiment to say that in some ways they are more meagre.
If art—its production or systematic consumption—is the reward for
silence, then the reward is beauty, the leisure to quaff undisturbed the
cordial Julep of the Muse. And beauty is not a meagre thing, a mere
matter of scanning dactyls. Beauty is an essential thing, whether one
produces it or assimilates it to the wider contexts of cultural history.
Why then does it seem so meagre? What is it that consumes its
devotees, attenuates their serenity? Why are their voices faint? It is
not, alas, their suspicion that beauty is obscene after Operation Rolling
Thunder. Such suspicion would be evidence of guilt, and there are
many alternatives to guilt. One of the most cherished alibis has been the
political ‘childishness’ of those both short and brown, the same sort our
armaments industry encourages in their efforts to thin each other out in
ever more efficient ways. It is not that some theoretical synapse has
formed between a privileged way of life and the fact that World Bank
investments and US battleships seem to be breathlessly chasing each
other all over the globe. What hollows the cheek of beauty for its
servants is beauty’s marginality, that the Great Way providing them
with what recondite pleasures they have, essentially has no use for what
they love or can provide in return. Christopher Lasch recently com-
plained that American business society, far from despising art, has
overvalued, even sanctified it, relegating it to an ethereal space of
leisure unconnected to the society’s organic life.23 There is some truth
to this: art is not so much a spiritual need now as a sign of affluent
consumption. But even this appeal is regionally limited to enclaves
awash in enough idleness and ennui to form arts associations. All over
the heartland, language departments are retooling for FLB degrees,
21
Anthony Burgess, ‘The Writer Among Professors’, Times Literary Supplement, 10 December 1982,
1357.
22 Julien Benda, The Treason of the Intellectuals, New York, London 1969. The volume was originally

published in 1927. See Noam Chomsky, Toward a New Cold War (1982).
23 Christopher Lasch, ‘The Degradation of Work and the Apotheosis of Art’, Harper’s, February 1984,

pp. 40–5.

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amalgamating with business schools simply in order to survive. There
is less and less talk of Baudelaire, let alone Marivaux. The massive
pressure on English departments toward ‘technical’ or ‘business writing’
has become almost irresistible. All the while the necks of legislators are
turning ever deeper shades of red at the mention of tenure of any kind.
One thinks of the composer of acrostics awaiting the barbarians; or,
since we have invoked both Baudelaire and the Empire, of a dazzling
courtesan,
Comme le sable morne et l’azur des déserts,
Insensibles tous deux à l’humaine souffrance,
lolling among her cattleyas, listening for a step on the stair, for a client
who never comes. How different from this perverse concubinage is
Marx’s dream of communal life and the social man, whose essential
being, nowhere reduced to its animal level, unfolds in its richness in a
setting where ‘a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form’ are comprehen-
sible to all.24 Perhaps it is part of the appeal of Fredric Jameson that he
articulates, at the very sophisticated level of discourse where this
inorganic intelligentsia is located, the possibility that life could be
different. It may be, too, that when the history of this period is written,
even the era of Deconstruction will be seen as part of the same appeal.
While Jameson urges upon us the cognitive functions of art and
criticism he neglects, or denies, their role in educating moral sensibility.
Yet surely it is here that the essential work is to be done.
V. Marxism and the Moral Alternative

Today one-fourth of us have the benefits of four-fifths of the world’s


income. Whatever his personal failings Marx, sitting on his carbuncles,
aimed to do away with such vampiric arrangements. To read him is to
come away doubtful that a course in the humanities can achieve very
much. Students today are devoured by the anxiety that they will be
weighed and found wanting in the scramble for the two-car garage and
the redwood hot tub. Derek Bok, the President of Harvard tells us that
eighty-eight per cent of future physicians, those self-regulating servants
of humanity, cheat in college—and no wonder when the stakes are
$400,000 a year in income.25 Marx in one of his notes for Capital quotes
a classically periodic sentence: ‘With adequate profit, capital is very
bold. A certain ten per cent will ensure its employment anywhere; 20
per cent certain will produce eagerness; 50 per cent positive audacity;
100 per cent will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300 per
cent, and there is not a crime which it will not scruple, nor a risk it will
not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged.’26 Surely it is
here, in providing alternatives for this type of bezerk obsession with
the bottom line, that Marxism can find its strategic leverage in the West.
And it is obvious that this leverage must rest on a sobering moral
alternative to the status quo, of the sort which Marx and his followers
have often appeared loathe to provide us.
24
Tucker, pp. 88–9.
25
Fred Hechinger, ‘New Attacks Are Made on Medical Education’, New York Times, 29 May 1984.
26
Mandel-Fowkes, p. 926.

126
Jameson, like Marx, swims in the wake of Hegel. History has a way of
vaporizing all that has seemed solid turning it into its opposite. Slavery,
oppressive from one point of view, was a salvation to those for whom
it was an alternative to being killed and eaten. Dialectical thought has
a spectacular appeal to intellectuals, who enjoy irony and paradox; it
has an aesthetic dimension that common sense cannot provide. But such
thought nevertheless can appear to deny real moral problems and abuse
the categorical imperative. It can also find progressive kernels in the
most unlikely material, such as the detritus of modern commercial
culture. Unfortunately it is easy to imagine our communality remaining
permanently in its degraded form of the football game, or worse—the
Panama City fraternity party where drunken crowds in unison chant
‘Breathe, breathe, breathe’ to drowned men.27
Jameson is relentlessly Hegelian. The consequences of this, though
genuinely brilliant and fascinating, must remain a phenomenon of the
superstructure’s outer reaches, even though Jameson makes every effort
to sweep up and process all expressions of popular culture as well.
Surely one can be forgiven for worrying that American life, which
Jameson diagnoses perfectly, with its decentred, superficial, amnesic,
consumptive desperation, might not turn out to be the primal soup of
unalienated communality after all. Can the seeds of the future sprout
from such an innutritive vacuity, far more interesting after Jameson
gets through with it than before? With regard simply to strategy, the
most effective tack to take with the ordinary student would be the
‘moralizing’ one from which Jameson holds himself aloof. We need not
worry that there is no basis for the strategy in Marx. Even after
excoriating Eugene Sue for his dependent, theological morality, Marx
admits the possibility of an independent morality based on the con-
sciousness of human dignity.28 The dialectical Engels, rightly sceptical
of ‘eternal truths’, speaks of the ‘really human’ morality which will
emerge from the end of class antagonism.29 Neither he nor Marx says,
of course, what this morality will be. But it will not be wasted effort for
us to imagine one which could be more than a cover for the
accumulation of private and corporate property. Meanwhile there are
all those, apparently unseduced by the beauties of Hegel, who are not
waiting for the ‘dialectics of development to work themselves out,’30
those who consider the normative level so important for Marxism that
they ask what reasons anyone could have to imagine that a socialism
lacking morality would be worth striving for.31 It would be incorrect to
assume that Fredric Jameson is indifferent to injustice and concrete
suffering. Quite the reverse. On Mya Schone’s horrifying photographs
of the Sabra and Chatilla massacres of 1982 and Ralph Schoenman’s
coldly furious accompanying text, Jameson quoted the usually loqua-
cious Karl Kraus, who, when confronted by an appalling phenomenon
27
Susan Weyant, ‘Rioting Students Ignore Drowning’, Opelika-Auburn News, 16 May 1983.
28
CW 4, p. 201.
29
Anti-Dühring, p. 132.
30
Ronald Aronson, The Dialectics of Disaster, London 1983, p. 211.
31
Norman Geras, Marx and Human Nature, Refutation of a Legend, London 1983, p. 102. See also Perry
Anderson, Arguments Within English Marxism, London 1980, pp. 97–8. Also Perry Anderson, In the
Tracks of Historical Materialism, London 1983, p. 84. And E. P. Thompson, William Morris, Romantic to
Revolutionary, New York 1977, p. 717 ff.

127
of his time, said: ‘Mir fällt zu Hitler nichts ein.’32 But we must find
words. Nothing is more important.
32
Kark Kraus, Die Dritte Walpurgisnacht (Munich: Kösel, 1952), p. 9.

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