Sunday, September 5, 2010

From Fredric Jameson, "History and Class Consciousness as an Unfinished Project"

Sometimes when I'm reading Jameson on Georg Lukács, I feel like I may be the only one agreeing with him on Lukács's continued relevance and even necessity. Jameson opens this 1988 essay with a challenge which has yet, I think, to be taken up: "The actuality of Georg Lukács has in recent years always seemed to founder on two concepts: the defense of literary realism and the idea of totality. When one considers that these are virtually the two most important and central conceptual achievements of his life's work, no little discouragement tends to surround the project of 'reviving' him" (Valences of the Dialectic 201). And indeed, the task of re-introducing the concept of totality and the view of literary realism as a strategy of resistance to (and not a practice of submission toward) market society is at least daunting if not dispiriting. Very few people want to hear the Lukács side of the Brecht-Lukács debate anymore, and, as Jameson quickly but cogently lays out, very few people want to bother with dissociating the notion of totality from an intimidating ensemble of bad things which have, under postmodernism, come to be seen as inseparable:
these positions [of postmodern intellectuals]… conflate intellectual authority (the subject that knows totality), social relationships (a totalizing picture of society that represses difference, or differentiation), politics (a single-party politics, as opposed to the pluralism of the so-called new social movements), ideology or philosophy (Hegelian idealization, which represses matter, the Other, or Nature), aesthetics (the old organic work of art or concrete universal, as opposed to the contemporary fragment or aleatory "work"), and ethics and psychoanalysis (the old "centered subject," the ideal of a unified personality or ego and a unified life project. In the koiné of contemporary theoretical debate, the name Lukács has become interchangeable with those of Hegel and Stalin as the word that illustrates the enormity of all these values by uniting them in a single program. It would be frivolous, but not wrong, to observe that the undifferentiated identification of these distinct positions with each other is itself something of a caricature of what is generally attributed to "totalizing thought" at its worst. (Valences 210)
Jameson's objective in this essay is to show how these two obstacles to "reviving" Lukács, literary realism and the totality, are in fact crucially linked across Lukács's corpus. In this regard, the essay feels a little truncated; Jameson moves on too quickly in demonstrating this connection, and I would have liked a more in-depth reading of Lukács's writings on realism to show where the totality persists in these later works (I should say I haven't read Jameson's essay on Lukács in Marxism and Form yet; perhaps I will find more there).

But Jameson does something else which is, on its own terms, extremely interesting; he takes a problem many people have with Lukács, his workerism, that is his belief in the epistemological priority of the proletariat in understanding capitalism, and puts it in plain terms which are easily translated into many other projects of emancipation or resistance: he argues that Lukács's point about the working class is a more general truth, namely, that the exploited always understand exploitation better than the exploiters. He proceeds to connect this directly to standpoint theory in feminism (e.g. Nancy Hartsock, Sandra Harding, Alison M. Jagger) by saying, "one has the feeling that the most authentic descendency of Lukács's thinking is to be found, not among the Marxists, but within a certain feminism, where the unique conceptual move of History and Class Consciousness has been appropriated for a whole program…" (Valences 215)

Jameson extends this argument in a very remarkable way for the rest of the essay; taking as his presupposition that what feminism (and, he will argue later, black and Jewish identities) have in common with Lukács's prioritization of the class consciousness of workers is that, "owing to its structural situation in the social order and to the specific forms of oppression and exploitation unique to that situation, each group lives the world in a phenomenologically specific way that allows it to see, or, better still, that it makes it unavoidable for that group to see and to know, features of the world that remain obscure, invisible, or merely occasional and secondary for other groups" (Valences 215-216). That emphasis on the unavoidability of this seeing and knowing is crucial, I think, and Jameson should perhaps have emphasized it even more.

The truly valuable addition that Jameson makes to this not-entirely-original (but often contested) point about collective experience comes when he considers the historical contribution of Jews to Marxism:
Meanwhile, particularly since George Steiner has so often complained of the suppression of the specifically Jewish component in Marxian and dialectical literary tradition—if not from Marx himself, then at least from Lukács all the way to Adorno—it seems appropriate to say a word about this specific social and epistemological situation as well. We are in fact often tempted, as intellectuals, to stress the obvious formal analogies between the Talmudic tradition and its exegetical relationship to sacred texts and the intricacies of modern dialectical reading and writing. But these analogies presuppose a cultural transmission which remains obscure, and which may well be very problematic indeed in the case of assimilated urban Jews whose interest in the tradition (one thinks of Walter Benjamin) was purely intellectual and a development in later adult life. The moment of truth of the Central European Jewish situation seems to me very different from this… This is not first and foremost the formal and aesthetic stress on pain and suffering, on dissonance and the negative, everywhere present in Adorno; but rather a more primary experience, namely that of collective fear and of vulnerability… [T]his experience of fear, in all its radicality, which cuts across class and gender to the point of touching the bourgeois in the very isolation of his town house or sumptuous Berlin apartment, is surely the very moment of truth of ghetto life itself, as the Jews and so many other ethnic groups have had to live it: the helplessness of the village community before the perpetual and unpredictable imminence of the lynching or the pogrom, the race riot. Other groups' experience of fear is occasional, rather than constitutive: standpoint analysis specifically demands a differentiation between the various negative experiences of constraint, between the exploitation suffered by workers and the oppression suffered by women and continuing on through the distinct structural forms of exclusion and alienation characteristic of other kinds of group experience. (Valences 220)1
Jameson caps this insight off by directing it toward an "unfinished project" which is consonant with (if it does not in fact coincide with) the unfinished project of History and Class Consciousness:
What emerges form the feminist project, and from the speculations it inspires, is an "unfinished project": namely the differentiation of all those situations of what I have tried neutrally to characterize as "constraint," which are often monolithically subsumed under single-shot political concepts such as "domination" or "power"; economic concepts such as "exploitation"; social concepts such as "oppression"; or philosophical concepts such as "alienation." These reified concepts and terms, taken on their own as meaningful starting points, encourage the revival of what I have characterized as an essentially metaphysical polemic about the ultimate priority of the political, say (the defense of the primacy of "domination"), versus that of the economic (the counter-primacy of the notion of "exploitation").
What seems more productive is to dissolve this conceptuality once again back into the concrete situation from which it emerged: to make an inventory of the variable structures of "constraint" lived by the various marginal, oppressed, or dominated groups—the so-called "new social movements" fully as much as the working classes—with this difference, that each form of privation is acknowledged as producing its own specific "epistemology," its own specific view from below, and its own specific and distinctive truth claim. It is a project that will sound like "relativism" or "pluralism" only if the identity of the absent common object of such "theorization" from multiple "standpoints" is overlooked—what one therefore does not exactly have the right to call (but let it stand as contradictory shorthand) "late capitalism."
That absent common object is also, of course, the reintroduction of the notion of "totality."

What remains left out of this project, however, is the whole question, once again, of the connection of the totality to literary realism, and, of course, to the very vexed question of the connection between the realist novel and the bourgeois or middle class audience to which it is generally directed. I need to do a lot more reading in Lukács to begin to understand how these two connections relate, but what interests me for now is how far we might push Jameson's quickly-abandoned comment that "collective fear and vulnerability… cuts across class and gender to the point of touching the bourgeois in the very isolation of his town house or sumptuous Berlin apartment"—in other words, to what ends does fear cut across class lines, and would pursuing this unfinished project of differentiating forms of constraint among the middle class or (more particularly) among the professional/managerial class be a continuation or a deformation of this project as it is carried out among "the various marginal, oppressed, or dominated groups?" What terms are being changed and to what degree when we turn the tools of this project onto analyzing a (self-consciously) bourgeois realist novel like, say, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, which so nakedly begs for precisely this kind of inventorying of forms of "constraint?" All I can say is stay tuned…

1Paul Gilroy actually quotes part of this passage in The Black Atlantic, and I heard Cornel West make basically this point in a lecture given right after 9/11: white Americans, many of them for the first time in their adult lives, were experiencing the sort of miasmic, enveloping fear that characterizes an existence subject to random violence and injustice—in other words, the day-to-day experience of many African-Americans.

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