Passing Bull 17 – Ripe Post-Modernist tripe

Fredric Jameson (born 14 April 1934) is an American literary critic and Marxist political theorist. He is best known for his analysis of contemporary cultural trends. He once described postmodernism as the spatialization of culture under the pressure of organized capitalism.

The beginning of this Wikipedia entry suggests that Frederic Jameson might be a mine of premium grade bullshit and a recent London Review of Books critique by Jameson of a book by David Wittenberg Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative (which itself suggests ripe bullshit) does not let us down.

It is probably not immediately obvious what interest a new theoretical study of science fiction holds for the mainstream adepts of literary theory; and no doubt it is just as perplexing to SF scholars, for whom this particular sub-genre of the sub-genre, is as exceptional and uncharacteristic of their major texts as SF itself is with regard to official Literature.  To be sure so-called alternative or counter-factual histories have gained popularity and a certain respectability…..

But where did the genre come from?  My own hypothesis is a very general one: namely, that the late 19th century invention of SF correlates to Walter Scott’s invention of the modern historical novel Waverley (1814), marking the emergence of a second – industrial – stage of historical consciousness after the first dawning sense of historicity so rudely awakened by the French Revolution.

***

I want to reinsert this problem into a philosophical context of far greater consequence, which is that of representation as such.  Increasingly, in the late 19th century, writers became aware that the world of newly emergent capitalism was an unrepresentable totality which it was nonetheless their duty and vocation to represent.  The great moderns – Mallarmé, Joyce, Musil et al – achieved this impossible and double-binding imperative by representing their inability to represent.  They earned their right to sublimity by using ‘picture-thinking’ against itself, and for them failure was success.  The postmoderns seem to have renounced this agonising mission by taking the impossibility of representation for granted and revelling in it (you will say that by now we know what the totality of capitalism is anyhow, representation or no representation).

But science fiction was not crippled by such representational doubts and scruples; or rather, it emerged as a genre at the very moment in which the representational dilemma began to make inroads into literature, and it was able to do so owing to its possession of a representational instrument rather different from those faltering in the hands of traditional realists.  Kant distinguished between two kinds of non-conceptual language: the symbol and the schema.  Traditional literature cleaved to the symbol and its ‘picture-thinking’ (thereby allowing Hegel to pronounce its supercession by philosophy as such, in his theory of the ‘end of art’).  But science fiction had the schema; and it is what we have been calling literality, the use of visual materials not to represent the world but to represent our thoughts about the world.  It is no accident that Deleuze celebrated Foucault’s work in terms of its schematism, something which in his own writing he called ‘the image of thought’ – as opposed, clearly, to its referential content. Virtually everything designated as structuralism and poststructuralism is marked, in its so-called spatial turn – indeed, in its synchronic tendencies – by schematism.  This is a kind of ‘picture-thinking’ very different from what Hegel understood as Vorstellung; nor does it fall under the anathema of representation since it does not represent.

***

History is then also a text, and we are its readers.  But to introduce the reader at this point will have even more momentous consequences.  Wittenberg, now following Shklovsky closely, has done what none of the currently fashionable celebrants of ‘reading’ have dared to do: he has theorised its structure, which consists in the positing (as Hegel might say) of fabula over syuzhet, that is, in the necessity of some prior ‘belief’ in the fabula which can alone enable our reception of the syuzhet.  ‘Reading for the referent’, the structuralists contemptuously called this; but it is surely true, and a better way of saying it than ‘suspension of disbelief’ or other ingenious attempts to ensure the difference of fiction from fact, to hold on to the old conventional notion of reality while ensuring a momentary grace period for the consumption of literary narrative.  But if everything is narrative, as we seem nowadays to believe, then this division no longer holds; and as for belief or disbelief, Rodney Needham long ago demonstrated the incoherence of this pseudo-concept in Belief, Language and Experience (1973) – though nobody believed him.  If, however, you like the word, let’s keep it (if only provisionally): so the new Wittenberg/ Shklovsky doctrine maintains the priority of a ‘belief’ in the fabula over the syuzhet (which nobody believes, it is nothing but literature).  Reading then involves what Wittenberg (following Kant’s example) will ingeniously and pertinently call ‘the fabula a priori’.  Even when reading those patently false narratives called novels, we still believe in something, namely the fabula; and this holds, as he demonstrates, for the so-called experimental or modernist novel fully as much as for the allegedly traditional kind.  But in that case, there is at least one term we can get rid of for good, and that is the word ‘fiction’: fiction is a fiction, if you prefer, and in a world where everything is narrative, we can eliminate it.  ‘Fiction’ was the now discarded theory that the fabula could be either true or false; whereas, if you want to put it that way, the fabula is always true.

That bullshit is unbeatable – and some taxpayers in the U S are funding it.

Poet of the Month: Yeats

Presences

This night has been so strange that it seemed

As if the hair stood upon my head.

From going-down of the sun I have dreamed

That women laughing or timid or wild,

In rustle of lace or silken stuff,

Climbed up my creaking stair.  They had read

All I had rhymed of that monstrous thing

Returned and yet unrequited love.

They stood in the door and stood between

My great wood lectern and the fire

Till I could hear their hearts beating:

One is a harlot, and one a child

That never looked upon man with desire,

And one, it may be, a queen.

That is nothing if not Celtic, but its mystery and magic remind me of the movie The Russian Ark.

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