Sunday, November 28, 2004

The Question of Modernity Pt.I

Fredric Jameson
A Singular Modernity
Verso 2002
250 pages

Jameson is an American literary theorist of the Marxian (Jameson’s own use) school. He deliberately situates himself as a postmodernist and allies himself with the post-structuralists. He is using as well the methods of Marxian ideology critique and his work although explicitly about literature extends from literary theory into cultural criticism and thus into the political. He is particularly concerned, in this text and others, with the infiltration and colonization of both life and art by capitalism and the way in which capitalism represents itself as different ‘events’ while continuing the same trajectory and project.

Put simply this book is a deconstruction of modernity, an “ideological analysis, not so much of a concept, as of a word”(13), that Jameson carries out through an analysis of artistic and cultural modernity. In Jameson’s view he fight over modernity is a ‘discursive struggle’ with great political and ideological import (9). Further, modernity itself is a narrative category; “’Modernity’ then, as a trope, is itself a sign of modernity as such”(34). This pattern of recapitulation is noted at multiple places by Jameson and seems to act as a thread that weaves throughout the book as evinced in one of the central ideas of the book; that all attempts to escape the narrative of modernity step back into modernity, indeed all attempts to escape narrative lead back to narrative itself. Recapitulation and attempts to escape it are just alternate descriptions of the typologic/cyclic pattern that Jameson notes, a relationship that takes the various forms for Jameson of,

typologic/cyclic = period/break = continuity/ rupture = identity/difference

For Jameson this very relation is mirrored once again in the modern/postmodern formation so any understanding of modernity thus requires some reckoning with post-modernity as such. This idea is included in Jameson’s four maxims of modernity that read as follows;

Four Maxims of Modernity:
1. One cannot not periodize
2. Modernity is not a concept but rather a narrative category.
3. The one way not to narrate it is via subjectivity (thesis: subjectivity is unrepresentable). Only situations of modernity can be narrated.
4. No ‘theory’ of modernity makes sense today unless it comes to terms with the hypothesis of a postmodern break with the modern.

From these four maxims Jameson proposes three guiding rules meant to perform therapy on the method of framing any discussion of modernity.


Methodological Correctives:
1. Periodization
2. Narrative
3. Depersonalization

With these four maxims and three methodological correctives in hand Jameson proceeds to re-view the modernist movement and those that followed in its wake through the particular framework his ‘therapies’ offer. What Jameson finds in this exploration that “modernity is always a concept of otherness” (211). He finds that modernity is useful for performing archaeology on the past, for producing “alternate historical narratives” (214). On the other hand Jameson believes that “Radical alternatives, systematic transformations, cannot be theorized or even imagined within the conceptual field governed by the word ‘modern’.” (215) All of these points taken together lead Jameson to posit, as the final statement of the book, that “ontologies of the present demand archaeologies of the future, not forecasts of the past.” (215)





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