The contingency of cheese

On Fredric Jameson’s The Antinomies of Realism

RP 187 () / Article

Fredric Jameson has been a busy man over the last decade. As well as two massive tomes on science fiction and modernism, combining republished essays with extensive new material, there has been a trilogy of books on Hegel and Marx which have sought to defend dialectical thinking from its discontents both internal and external to the Marxian tradition, amounting to a late burst of productivity that threatens to put if not Stakhanov then at least Slavoj ŽiŽek to shame. For the most part these books have tended to focus on the reiteration of already fairly well established theoretical claims. However, Jameson’s latest, The Antinomies of Realism, looks like something rather newer.*

The book is, if nothing else, timely, appearing in the context of a resurgence of both practices and discourses of ‘realism’ across the arts, from the much-celebrated tele-roman The Wire (about which Jameson has written elsewhere) to the late Allan Sekula’s photographic epics to, say, Lav Diaz’s extraordinary four-hour film of Filipino urban life and global capitalism, Norte, The End of History – in what I have described previously as a remobilization under changed historical circumstances of the totalizing and ‘connecting values of realism’. [1] Jameson makes little explicit allusion to such contemporary instances – for reasons that can no doubt be related to his unwillingness to relinquish that personal albatross which is the concept of postmodernity – and, apart from a final chapter on the historical novel and one brief excursus on Alexander Kluge, The Antinomies of Realism sticks pretty resolutely to the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, in terms of a contemporary academic discourse on realism, the book can certainly be read as a contribution to a wider attempt to begin undoing a caricatured ‘straw man’ version of the form and its association with a simple referential naivety – the transparent window on a stable world marshalled by some Führer-like ‘omniscient narrator’ – popularized in literary theory by the likes of Catherine Belsey and Colin MacCabe. [2]

Of course, if the most famous of Jameson’s existing problematics – postmodernism – was explicitly construed as a third, successive term to realism and modernism, then there is an evident logic in the writing of a big book on realism that would follow on from the work on postmodernism of the 1980s and 1990s, and the subsequent rereadings of modernism in the last decade: A Singular Modernity (2002) and The Modernist Papers (2007). More importantly, precisely as a hitherto ‘absent term’, it is this first moment that has, I think, often implicitly appeared to provide the principal frame for marking out a story of progressive loss in Jameson’s work. Realism, which still imagined (however mythically or precariously) that it could access some ‘perspective of totality’, and which was marked – as in its Urtext Don Quixote – by ‘the emergence of the secular referent’, is displaced in turn, first, by modernism (which experiences the loss of such totality and concreteness as loss, and hence as tragedy or avant-garde possibility) and then by postmodernism (for which ‘the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good’). Among other things, this tripartite narrative has had the advantage of placing Jameson’s own work within an eminent lineage, as the apparently rightful successor to Lukács and Adorno – the great theorists of ‘realism’ and ‘modernism’, respectively – while, at the same time, aligning all three with his notorious periodization of the three ‘stages’ of capitalism adapted from Ernest Mandel’s 1972 book Late Capitalism. If postmodernism is thus, according to such a schema, the cultural logic of ‘late capitalism’, realism would equate to a ‘classical or market capitalism’ – albeit at a fairly late moment – which will, Jameson writes in the Postmodernism book, ‘probably not involve problems of figuration so acute as those we will confront in the later stages’. Indeed, such problems will ‘only become visible in the next stage’ of modernism/monopoly capitalism, in what he defines precisely as a ‘crisis in realism’ generated by the ‘gap between individual and phenomenological experience and structural intelligibility’ present within an expanding imperial system and metropolitan life. [3]

Since the 1970s, Jameson has done his …