‘A music made from contradictions’: Notes on Jameson’s Valences of the Dialectic


First, let me reproduce the prose poem of totalisation that serves as a kind of infinitely compacted crystal of Jameson’s multi-volume Poetics of Social Forms (which is being composed in a rather inscrutable order, in ways curiously analogous to Agamben’s Homo Sacer series):

‘We have indeed secreted a human age out of ourselves as spiders secrete their webs: an immense, all-encompassing ceiling of secularity which shuts down visibility on all sides even as it absorbs all the formerly natural elements in its habitat, transmuting them into its own man-made substance. Yet within this horizon of immanence we wander as alien as tribal people, or as visitors from outer space, admiring its unimaginably complex and fragile filigree and recoiling from its bottomless potholes, lounging against a rainwall of exotic and artificial plants or else agonizing among poisonous colors and lethal stems we were not taught to avoid. The world of the human age is an aesthetic pretext for grinding terror or pathological ecstasy, and in its cosmos, all of it drawn from the very fibers of our own being and at one with us in every post-natural cell more alien to us than nature itself, we continue murmuring Kant’s old questions—what can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?—under a starry heaven no more responsive than a mirror or a space ship, not understanding that they require the adjunct of an ugly and bureaucratic representational qualification: what can I know in this system? What should I do in this new world completely invented by me? What can I hope for alone in an altogether human age? And failing to replace them by the only meaningful one, namely how can I recognize this forbiddingly foreign totality as my own doing, how may I appropriate it and make it my own handiwork and acknowledge its laws as my own projection and my own praxis?’ (608)


I want to approach Valences of the Dialectic (VoD), and in particular the new essays that bookend it, in terms of two concerns whose interrelationship can, I hope, give us some purchase on what is at stake for Marxist cultural analysis in revisiting the dialectic: these are, first, the question of abstraction, understood as an intellectual, aesthetic and ‘real’ (or political-economic) matter; second, the question of the historically mutable disjunction between individual experience and cognition, on the one hand, and various levels of supra-individual totalisation and constraint, namely Nature, History and Capital, on the other.

To consider these two dimensions, and their own ‘dialectic’, is also think through the way in which dialectical theory and practice can serve to break through the situation, diagnosed under the name of ‘postmodernity’, in which change is both ubiquitous and unimaginable, where the restlessness of capital is equivalent to a supposedly inexorable ‘encagement’, understood particularly under the aegis of ‘total commodification’.

This is an epoch in which, in terms of its political-intellectual diagnosis, we are facing not so much the attack on Marxian solutions, but ‘the repression of the problems themselves’ (190). I think these are also questions that may allow us to probe some of the tensions and hesitations in Jameson, whether dialectical or otherwise, between the iron logic of economic necessity and constraint, and intimations of utopia, or indeed, under the name of Lenin, of politics. This is a tension we can read, for instance, in the telling oscillation between proposing that the dialectic is a kind of thinking that lies in our (non-capitalist?) future and suggesting that the dialectic withers away with the end of capitalism, as it becomes innervated into a new everyday life outside the domination of the commodity.

Within the dialectical panorama painted by Jameson, the first problem, that of abstraction, is to be understood through the relay or short-circuit between two critiques: (1) the Hegelian critique, or better sublation, of the cognitive stance of the understanding or Verstand, as that which separates, individuates and hypostasises experience into ‘mere’ abstractions without movement; (2) the Marxian (Lukácsian) critique of reification. In both we have a momentuous movement beyond Enlightenment condemnations of religious mystification and the illusions of human perception. Dialectics (to use a term poised between the dialectic and the plurality of distinct types of the dialectic which make up Jameson’s first two ‘names’) is in this respect above all the inquiry into ‘objective illusions’ – or, to use a related term from Sohn-Rethel, ‘real abstractions’.

This is why it is inescapably a mix of ‘theory and practice’, since – and this is I think the key demarcating feature between philosophy and theory, one of the recurrent themes in VoD – the emendation of the intellect is never sufficient to undo the falsities embedded in things themselves. As Jameson puts it elsewhere, with respect to problems of ‘cognitive mapping’: ‘in this situation [of universal commodification and commercialization] ideology is not false consciousness but itself a possibility of knowledge, and our constitutive difficulties in imagining a world beyond global standardization are precisely indices and themselves features of just that standardized reality or being itself’ (Signatures of the Visible, 27-8). Or, in VoD: ‘capitalism and its law of value are themselves profoundly contradictory; and their reality is a set of false appearances, which are, however, real and objective, and cannot be dissolved by mere analysis (and certainly not by moralizing denunciation’ (65).

The demotion of the contradiction into an ethical binary, in the guise of a Manichean confrontation between Good and Evil, or the transformation of an antinomy into some kind of moral incommensurability, say as in Lyotard’s differend, is one of the principal targets of Jameson’s critical acumen. The dialectic in this variant is a kind of anti-ethical thinking – though, as Jameson’s comments on revolutionary politics and antagonism suggest, it does make room for moments of drastic, inexorable opposition. Ethics – and, as the essay on Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative suggests, humanism too – is incapable of dealing with the analytical and political consequences of what Jameson terms the ‘“paradox” of objective appearance’ (money being a prime ‘case’ of this). As he writes, in what I think is a crucial passage: ‘This “paradox” is virtually constitutive of the dialectic as such, or may at least be seen as the unique situation and dilemma from which the very need to invent such a thing as the dialectic arises in the first place. We may dramatize the problem this way: can a true idea about a false society or a false reality be true? Or is it necessarily false, despite its accuracy? Or do we not confront in this opposition between truth and falsity another one of those binary oppositions which it was the vocation of the dialectic (and its unity of opposites) to overcome and transcend?’

From this vantage point, Jameson can also make critical forays into contemporary forms of post- or anti-Hegelian thought – for instance in the writing of Derrida and Deleuze (both of whom, symptomatically, began with heterodox dialectical arguments, Deleuze in trying to present a Bergsonised Hegel, Derrida criticising phenomenology from a dialectical standpoint). It is as if, in trying to undo the deeply embedded dominance of the metaphysics of presence, transcendence and representation – with all its more or less evident political counterparts in notions of power, authority, sovereignty, and indeed representation – the contemporary critics of Hegel, while continuing the critique of understanding/reification were providing an idealist, or indeed abstract, critique of the abstractions of the understanding, one incapable of fully, which is to say dialectically, grasping their embeddedness in social form, together with the fact that the vacillation between mechanism and vitalism, representational thought and messianism, is internal to the antinomies of bourgeois thought, which it is the task of the dialectic to tarry with rather than to declare a flight from.

In this sense the anti-dialecticians of the twentieth- (and early twenty-first) century can be read both as covert or unconscious dialecticians, inventing new modes of hunting down new forms of reification, and as insufficiently attuned to the paradox of objective appearance, or to the contradictory character of real abstraction under capitalism, as the wellspring of dialectical thought and the source of something like an impossibility of philosophy, in keeping with this declaration of Jameson: ‘the dialectic belongs to theory rather than philosophy: the latter is always haunted by the dream of some foolproof, self-sufficient, autonomous system, a set of interlocking concepts which are their own cause’ (59, also 483). (The irony here is that it is precisely this self-referentiality, as present in Hegel’s logic, which, according to the Kapitallogik school praised by Jameson, makes it possible to think through the internal dynamics of capital by way of a homology with Hegel’s dialectic.)

Jameson rightly proposes then that we read the works of contemporaries like Derrida and Deleuze not simply in terms of their manifest attacks on or reservations about the dialectic but as contemporary efforts to break with dogmatism and empiricism, which thus bear numerous affinities with Hegelian attempts to circumscribe and undermine Understanding, and, more importantly, as registering the attempt to rethink the question of (real) abstraction in the late-capitalist or postmodern present. One way of reading the surveys in VoD is as explorations of the different paths to undoing reification, and their possible pitfalls (idealism, reconciliation, ideology, wishful thinking, ethics, etc.). Jameson writes of the manner in which Derrida is not primarily preoccupied in Marx’s ‘spectral’ reflections on historical and social speculation by with ‘the dynamics of abstraction as such’. But the problem of abstraction here is not that of an intellectual abstraction doing injustice to empirical or material reality. Rather, ‘it is a [Stirnerian] question of how abstract ideas get replaced by real bodies: we are thus at an opposite pole to the problematic of Feuerbach and his speculations as to how images of the divinity are projected out of human potentialities, or that, even more linguistic, of Marx himself on the way in which Hegel hypostasizes properties and makes adjectives over into substantives. Here it is a matter of how the abstractions of the mind as it were illicitly become incorporated in their existential bodies’.

Jameson notes how in Marx – and once again we are plunged into the problem of real abstraction – it is a matter of cutting through this knot of bodies and ideas by moving to the question of social form, ‘by going around before the invasion of the cerebral and reified conceptual phantoms, and beginning again from the point of production’, rather than proposing the very undialectical recovery of a true individual or bodily reality against intellectual phantoms. It could then be argued that Derrida’s objection to Marx’s ontology – and his proposal of a ‘hauntology’ – is founded on a misunderstanding of the problem of real abstraction in Marx, and an all too straightforward attack on the German thinker for seeking a world of transparent reality against the objective appearances of capitalism. It is also worth noting Jameson’s suggestion than in attacking Marx, Derrida is really trying to confront a late capitalism which has tried to purge itself of the past and of spectrality, in the process of homogeneisation that recurs throughout VoD.

Turning to Jameson’s reading of Deleuze, I think it is immensely important that he frames his discussion of Deleuze’s dualism (another misfired dialectic, and an ethical temptation that Badiou had already noted, when he accused Anti-Oedipus of being a schizoid recasting of Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason) [1] in terms of Hegel’s suggestion in the Phenomenology that the problem of the moderns is not, as for the ancients, that of rising from the buzzing confusion of sensory life to universals, but of already starting in a world woven of abstractions. ‘If the Greeks transformed their sensory immediacy into universals, into what can universals themselves be transformed?’ (182) In Hegel’s words: ‘In modern times … the individual finds the abstract form ready-made’ and his problem is ‘to give actuality to the universal’, ‘to bring fixed thoughts into a fluid state’.

Both ‘Jamesonian’ Marxism and Deleuzianism are heirs, manifest and latent respectively, of this programme, but for Jameson – as the sections on commodification and ideological analysis corroborate – the first step is to dwell with the historically specific and systemic manner in which everyday life is colonised by abstraction, rather than to speed ahead to some nigh-on hallucinatory, inhuman encounter with the pre-individual and uncommodified being that allegedly courses under the impression of a parcelled out and mechanised world. If the collective problem, as set out by Marx in the Grundrisse, is to rise from the universal/abstract to the concrete, what are the possible paths and methods? How is one to dislodge the abstractions that dominate what Marx called ‘the religion of everyday life’?

For Jameson this is not a matter to be resolved philosophically, in terms of some kind of emendation of the intellect that would allow us to abandon our pernicious commodified habits of perception and cognition, and to grasp ‘things themselves’, the inner life of objects, the real-without-us, or indeed us-without-capitalism. Philosophical or ethical solutions are here irrevocably condemned as attempts to treat the falsity of the world as a user illusion rather than as a characteristic of things themselves. Unlike many of the contemporary critics of Hegel, Jameson does emphasise, albeit through the prism of narrative and the lens of an Althusserian theory of ideology (i.e. of cognitive mapping as the Imaginary resolution of the gap between individual experience and its systemic causes and constraints, as on page 578), the question of consciousness – primarily in the guise of its limitations and impasses. Despite, or perhaps in a complex way because of, his anti-humanism, Jameson refuses some kind of speculative position outside of the world of objective appearances, a kind of pure ontological gaze. Rather, the problem of the dialectic – as a cognitive habit, a key component in ‘cultural revolution’, and indeed as the possibility of reinventing politics outside of its idealist ‘autonomy’ – as the whole of the last essay suggest is precisely that of thinking through – in terms of questions of representation and figuration, rather than conceptuality (‘only a variety of possible narratives can begin to model the “absent cause” that underlies them all and that can never be expressed as such’, 402-3); that is of narrative and theory, rather than philosophy – about the gap between individual experience and cognition and systemic determination and necessity (it should be noted that there are times when, resonating with some of the more pessimistic forms of value-critique, Jameson treats the latter as monolithic rather than contradictory) [2].

One could fruitfully explore, I think, the various forms taken, both temporally and spatially, by the supra-individual in VoD, and especially in the last essay: the space and time of the cosmos, of nature, of history (capitalised or otherwise), of capital itself are all brought forward, and, perhaps opening onto a political-utopian horizon, also the space and time of a collective subject which ethical and humanist thought seems to foreclose (this in the shape of the generation, more than any more immediately organised social and political subject). This is the whole problem dealt with by Jameson under the rubric of cognitive mapping – which, in terms of VoD could be recast as the figurational or aesthetic problem posed by the need for thinking the relationship between real abstraction and commodification (primarily conceived as forms of flattening or destruction of experience), on the one hand, and the spatial dialectic proposed by Jameson, on the other [3].

One way of reproposing this abiding question in Jameson’s work would be to think about the relation between the idea of a situational representation of the world-system, or, making capital appear, and the notions, discussed in critical dialogue with Ricoeur, in the last essay, of making time and history appear. One key, if underexplored gesture, here is that of introducing the temporal and historical dimension of the collective to break through Ricoeur’s distinction between Augustinian and Aristotelian time, or with the distinction between a Heideggerian Dasein and the ontic time of science and calendars (since Ricoeur’s work founders on his ‘refusal to theorize agency on the level of the collective’). I think it is interesting to note here, once again in terms of Jameson’s proposal for a spatial dialectic, the fact that a temporal critique of reification (of the kind that we find in phenomenology, but also to an extent in Derridean notions of the trace) is insufficient, and risks dissolving the dialectic either into interiority or into a mere flux of impressions. (We could also remark that it is not entirely clear why Jameson wants to maintain the spatial, over against a ‘logical’ dialectic, from whence both time and space could be unfolded.)

Nevertheless, out of Ricoeur, Jameson draws out the problem of an experience (but also of a totality) which is not open to philosophical or speculative definition, and which thus needs narrative, or indeed ideology (in the sense that cognitive mapping is a reflexively ideological operation, perhaps something like the proposal of a different socio-economic imaginary). In terms of time and history (but is it the same for capital?), ‘absent presence’ (596) is to be grasped through a plurality of narrative operations – here Jameson borrows from Ricoeur’s reading of Aristotle’s Poetics: peripetia (reversal), anagnorisis (recognition/discovery), pathos (totality), eudaimonia (happiness) (‘recognition but also discovery, the identification of agents not yet fully visible, the reorganization and redistribution of the actantial field’, 579). The problem with Ricoeur, and with his humanism, is that he is ‘unwilling to entertain any possibility that human time has in late capitalism undergone a kind of structural mutation’ (494). Nevertheless, his approach to the uses of narrative allows us to think how, contrary to the false totalisations of the concept, figuration allows us to delineate or approximate an absent totality through the ‘intersection between several incommensurable representations’ (something which comes out vividly in Jameson’s oft-quoted and staggering passage from Sartre’s Reprieve on War as a totalisation without a totaliser, as well as in his remarks on a theory of intersections, 543).

Jameson’s encounter with Ricoeur seems to enrich the question of cognitive mapping, both by introducing a whole set of narrative categories, which open not just onto the totality, but onto collective agency, and by thinking of the relation between ‘system’ and ‘event’. In fact there is a sense that Jameson here is groping towards some thinking of how a dialectical cognitive mapping could relate to the ‘event’ of crisis: ‘Making history “appear”’, he writes, ‘is then dependent on this process of unification [that we call capitalism] whose vicissitudes alone can generate discontinuous situations in which such a glimpse is possible: which is to say that the “appearance” of History is dependent on the objective historical situations themselves’.

Here we encounter another (dialectical?) paradox, to wit that it is only that which seems to obliterate the historical (the plurality of pre- and capitalist times that marked the experience and aesthetics of modernism), i.e. ‘universal commodification’, which, in its contradictions, makes it possible for History to appear as a unified horizon. In this regard the event of crisis and systemic totalisation are both crucial if any cognitive mapping is to occur:

‘There is here a unity of theory and practice … according to which the cognitive (or representational) possibility of grasping the unity of history is at one with situations of praxis as well. Just as it is in revolutionary situations that the dichotomous classes are so radically simplified as to allow us to glimpse class struggle as such in a virtually pure form, so also only privileged historical crises allow us to “see” history as a process—and it is also in those crises that “history” is most vulnerable. The possibility of representation is then necessarily a political and a social possibility as well; and it is only by insisting on this objectivity that we can rescue the notion of pathos from aesthetic trivialization or, if you prefer, can endow the aesthetic with its appropriate political and practical dimension as well’ (588).

Crucially, the figuration/representation of totality is not that of an object (e.g. the world market) but of a contradiction (capital as a social relation, or value as a social form), which is why realism here is ‘something the writer does to the world, an intervention, a selection, and a shaping performed on it’ (502). The ‘event’ (or the crisis) is here an occasion to break through the opposition between ‘the blindness of the present and the deep breath of the deployment of temporal ek-stases’; the event is ‘a convulsion capable of transforming an older system as such and reaching through all the layers of the social totality’ (598). How such a cognitive event, breaking with the purely nightmarish burden of the totality, and perhaps permitting a practical or utopian change of valences, relates to the spatial dialectic broached in the first essay is not entirely clear (see also 576). The ‘enlargement of the field of ordinary consciousness’ is evident enough, but how the intensity of the crisis is linked to the extension of a spatial apprehension of capitalism in its numerous circuits, zones, cycles and so on, is not – or, to put it another way, the relation between the logical, historical and spatial dimensions of cognitive mapping still remains a theoretical and practical problem. Given the idea that the postmodern marks ‘a quantum leap in systematicity’ and is experienced in the guise of a ‘massive permanence’ (albeit in the register of frenzied turnover, displacement and permanent crisis), the epistemological and collective question becomes that of – without falling into a kind of technological pessimism – growing the new organs that will be capable of cognising the scale and speed of the system, showing that such a scalar transformation (i.e. globalisation) does not render human (collective, political, economic) agency derisory.


[1] ‘Dualism is, I believe, the strong form of ideology as such, which may of course disguise its dual structure under any number of complicated substitutions. This is so, I want to assert, because it is the ultimate form of the ethical binary, which is thus always secretly at work within ideology’ (198). See also the remarks on taking sides in the essay on Ricoeur.
[2] Consider Jameson’s statement on ‘microscopic registering and recording instruments, capable of detecting the tremors of History in the existential itself, in the individual experience whose life span is disproportionate to the great, well-nigh geological rhythms of history itself’ (587).
[3] It ‘is only at the deeper level of our collective fantasy that we think about the social system all the time, a deeper level that also allows us to slip our political thoughts past a liberal and anti-political censorship’ (The Geopolitical Aesthetic, 9).

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