Modernism and Imperialism by Fredric Jameson

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First published as a pamphlet by Field Day in 1988, "Modernism and Imperialism" is collected in The Modernist Papers — out in paperback this week.



This is a time in which, at least in part owing to what is called post-modernism, there seems to be renewed interest in finding out what modernism really was, and in rethinking that now historical phenomenon in new ways, which are not those we have inherited from the participants and the players, the advocates and the practitioners themselves. But this has also been a time, over perhaps an even longer span of years, in which the matter of what imperialism still is and how it functions has been a subject of intense debate and discussion among the theorists, and not only the economists, the historians and the political scientists. A range of very complex theories and models indeed — probably more incomprehensible than most forms of contemporary literary theory — have come into being which any serious discussion of this issue has to acknowledge.

Any discussion of the relationship of modernism and imperialism will therefore generally require, not one, but two lengthy preambles, before it reaches its topic. It is, however, important to be clear in advance of what that topic is: it will not, in the present case, involve what can be called the literature of imperialism, since that literature (Kipling, Rider Haggard, Verne, Wells) is by and large not modernist in any formal sense, and, emerging from sub-canonical genres like the adventure tale, remained “minor” or “marginal” during the hegemony of the modern and its ideology and values (even Conrad explicitly draws on more archaic storytelling forms).

The hypothesis to be explored here is both more formalistic and more sweeping than the affirmation that imperialism as such produced its specific literature and left palpable traces on the content of other metropolitan literary works of the period. [In what follows, the word “metropolis” will designate the imperial nation state as such, “metropolitan” then applying to its internal national realities and daily life (which are of course not exclusively urban, although organized around some central urban “metropolis” in the narrower sense).] I want in fact to suggest that the structure of imperialism also makes its mark on the inner forms and structures of that new mutation in literary and artistic language to which the term “modernism” is loosely applied. This last has of course multiple social determinants: any general theory of the modern — assuming one to be possible in the first place — would also wish to register the informing presence of a range of other, historically novel phenomena: modernization and technology; commodity reification; monetary abstraction and its effects on the sign system; the social dialectic of reading publics; the emergence of mass culture; the embodiment of new forms of the psychic subject on the physical sensorium. Nor is the relative weight and importance of the emergence of a whole new global and imperial system in this constellation of “factors” at all clear even in a speculative way. The present essay is limited to the isolation of this determinant alone, to the registration of the presence of a new space, which cannot be reduced to any of those aforementioned factors.

However extrinsic and extra-literary the fact of imperialism may at first seem, there is at least a chronological justification for exploring its influence. If we take, as the codification of the new imperialist world system, the emblematic date of 1884 — the year of the Berlin Conference, which parcelled Africa out among the “advanced” powers — a whole range of literary and artistic events spring to mind which at the very least suggest analogous breaks and emergencies: the death of Victor Hugo in the following year, for example, has often been seen as the inaugural moment of that whole new symbolist and Mallarméan aesthetic which his disappearance suddenly revealed to have already existed in full development behind his massive presence. The choice of such emblematic breaks is not an empirically verifiable matter but a historiographic decision; nor are chronological parallels of this kind much more at the outset than incentives to construct new and more complex and interesting historical narratives, whose usefulness cannot be predicted before the fact. But when, as we shall see, the parallel also seems to hold at the other end of such chronological series and the end of modernism to coincide with the restructuration of the classical imperialist world system, our curiosity as to possible interrelationships can surely only be sharpened.

For the emphasis on form and formal innovation and modification implies that our privileged texts and objects of study here will be those that scarcely evoke imperialism as such at all; that seem to have no specifically political content in the first place; that offer purely stylistic or linguistic peculiarities for analysis. One of the more commonly held stereotypes about the modern has of course in general been that of its apolitical character, its turn inward and away from the social materials associated with realism, its increased subjectification and introspective psychologization, and, not least, its aestheticism and its ideological commitment to the supreme value of a now autonomous Art as such. None of these characterizations strikes me as adequate or persuasive any longer; they are part of the baggage of an older modernist ideology which any contemporary theory of the modern will wish to scrutinize and to dismantle. But there is something to be said, in the present context, for beginning with the formalist stereotype of the modern, if only to demonstrate with greater force the informing presence of the extraliterary, of the political and the economic, within it.

But such is not the only restriction on the present topic: it also involves some restrictions that concern its other term — imperialism — which must also now be delimited. I take it, for instance, that only those theories of imperialism which acknowledge the Marxist problematic (in however heretical or revisionist a fashion) are of concern here, since it is only within that problematic that a coordination between political phenomena (violence, domination, control, state power) and economic phenomena (the market, investment, exploitation, underconsumption, crisis) is systematically pursued. Exclusively political theories of imperialism (such as Schumpeter’s) slip not merely towards moralizing, but also towards metaphysical notions of human nature (the lust for power or domination), which end up dissolving the historical specificity of the thing itself and disperse the phenomenon of imperialism throughout human history, wherever bloody conquests are to be found (which is to say: everywhere!). At any rate, if it is the link between imperialism and modernism that is in question here (and between imperialism and Western modernism at that), then clearly imperialism must here mean the imperialist dynamic of capitalism proper, and not the wars of conquest of the various ancient empires.

But even in the case of Marxist theories of imperialism, a further historical qualification now needs to be set in place: namely that the Marxist approach to imperialism was crucially modified and restructured in the mid-twentieth century. People generally remember that Lenin wrote a very influential pamphlet on imperialism during World War One; they probably suspect anyone who uses this word “imperialism” too frequently of being a Marxist; and if they have had any greater exposure to these discussions, they know that the term has something to do with the problems of Third World societies and with under-development, with the debt as well, with the International Monetary Fund and American investments and bases abroad, with support for dictators and anxieties about Soviet influence, and perhaps only ultimately — in the last instance! — with marines and gunboat intervention or with a formal colonial structure. What must now be observed is that the term “imperialism” when used in the so-called Marxian classics — in Marx himself, in Lenin, in Hilferding and in Bukharin, with a certain exceptionality for the work of Rosa Luxemburg — has none of these connotations. For the most part, the older Marxist theorists of imperialism followed Marx himself (in the famous letters on India) in assuming that capitalist penetration would lead directly to positive economic development in what are now known as Third World countries. The very widely held contemporary belief — that, following the title of Walter Rodney’s influential book, capitalism leads on the contrary to “the development of underdevelopment,” and that imperialism systematically cripples the growth of its colonies and its dependent areas — this belief is utterly absent from what may be called the first moment of Marxist theories of imperialism and is indeed everywhere explicitly contradicted by them, where they raise the matter at all. The point is, however, that they do not often raise the matter in that form for the good reason that during this period the word “imperialism” designates, not the relationship of metropolis to colony, but rather the rivalry of the various imperial and metropolitan nation states among themselves. It becomes immediately clear, then, that we risk all kinds of historical confusions and anachronisms if we ignore this usage and transfer our own contemporary sense of the word to contexts in the modernist period.

For it is in our time, since World War Two, that the problem of imperialism is as it were restructured: in the age of neo-colonialism, of decolonization accompanied by the emergence of multinational capitalism and the great transnational corporations, it is less the rivalry of the metropolitan powers among each other that strikes the eye (our occasional problems with Japan, for example, do not project that impending world-war-type conflict that nagged at the awareness of the belle époque); rather, contemporary theorists, from Paul Baran on to the present day, have been concerned with the internal dynamics of the relationship between First and Third World countries, and in particular the way in which this relationship — which is now very precisely what the word “imperialism” means for us — is one of necessary subordination or dependency, and that of an economic type, rather than a primarily military one. This means that in the period from World War One to World War Two the axis of otherness has as it were been displaced: it first governed the relationship of the various imperial subjects among each other; it now designates the relationship between a generalized imperial subject (most often the US, but frequently enough also Britain or France and Japan, not to speak of those new kinds of metropolitan centers which are South Africa or Israel) with its various others or colonies. That would be the historical way of putting it; but since (naturally enough) we think we have discovered some more basic truths about the dynamics of imperialism than our forefathers in Lenin’s time, one could also describe the displacement this way: in that older period, from 1884 to World War One, the relationship of domination between First and Third World was masked and displaced by an overriding (and perhaps ideological) consciousness of imperialism as being essentially a relationship between First World powers or the holders of Empire, and this consciousness tended to repress the more basic axis of otherness, and to raise issues of colonial reality only incidentally.

Culturally, the causes as well as the effects of this shift can be rapidly evoked. We think about the Third World in a different way today, not merely because of decolonization and political independence, but above all because these enormously varied cultures all now speak in their own distinctive voices. Nor are those voices any longer marginal ones, that we are free to overlook; at least one of them — Latin American literature, since the boom — has today become perhaps the principal player on the scene of world culture, and has had an unavoidable and inescapable influence, not merely on other Third World cultures as such, but on First World literature and culture as well. It would be easy to demonstrate a presence of other such voices in First World cultural situations outside the US as well, as for example in Britain today. Meanwhile, it is significant that in the US itself, we have come to think and to speak of the emergence of an internal Third World and of internal Third World voices, as in Black women’s literature or Chicano literature for example. When the other speaks, he or she becomes another subject: which must be consciously registered as a problem by the imperial or metropolitan subject — whence the turn of what are still largely Western theories of imperialism in a new direction, towards that new other, and towards the structures of underdevelopment and dependency for which we are responsible.

But in the modernist period this is by no means the case. The prototypical paradigm of the Other in the late nineteenth century — in Zola’s La Débâcle (1892), for example — is the other imperial nation state: in this case, the Germans, who are the quintessential ogres and bogeymen of childhood nightmare, physically alien and terrifying, barbarous, uncivilized, and still not terribly remote, as stereotypes, from the archaic “wild man of the middle ages,” who incarnates everything fascinating and frightening about the unbridled id for an agricultural or village society. Such “others” will then circulate in paler and more respectable forms in high literature during this period — as in the various foreigners who add an exotic note to high society in the English novel (E.M. Forster’s Germans, in Howards End, function to reverse this xenophobia in a kind of therapeutic liberal tolerance and self-critique); while the more radical otherness of colonized, non-Western peoples tends to find its representational place in that non-canonical adventure literature of imperialism to which we have already referred.

But this masking of one axis of otherness by a very different one, this substitution of rivalry for exploitation, and of a First World set of characters for a Third World presence, may be thought of as a strategy of representational containment, which scarcely alters the fundamental imperialist structure of colonial appropriation, or of what Jacques Berque has memorably called the “dépossession du monde” of the colonized peoples. Its effects are representational effects, which is to say a systematic block on any adequate consciousness of the structure of the imperial system: but these are just as clearly objective effects and will have their most obvious consequences in the aesthetic realm, where the mapping of the new imperial world system becomes impossible, since the colonized other who is its essential other component or opposite number has become invisible.

It is in this situation that modernist representation emerges: and this is indeed in general the relationship of formal and cultural change to what we have called its social “determinants,” which present a radically altered situation (new raw materials of a social, psychological or physical type) to which a fresh and unprecedented aesthetic response is demanded, generally by way of formal, structural and linguistic invention. But what the new situation of imperialism looks like from the standpoint of cultural or aesthetic production now needs to be characterized, and it seems best to do so by distinguishing its problems from those of an internal industrialization and commodification in the modernizing metropolis. This last seems most often (paradoxically) to have been lived in terms of a generalized loss of meaning, as though its subject measured the increase in human power negatively, by way of the waning of tradition and of religious absolutes, at the same time that the fact of praxis and production was only too susceptible to distortion by and concealment beneath the reifying logic of the commodity form.

What is determined by the colonial system is now a rather different kind of meaning-loss than this one: for colonialism means that a significant structural segment of the economic system as a whole is now located elsewhere, beyond the metropolis, outside of the daily life and existential experience of the home country, in colonies over the water whose own life experience and life world — very different from that of the imperial power — remains unknown and unimaginable for the subjects of the imperial power, whatever social class they may belong to. Such spatial disjunction has as its immediate consequence the inability to grasp the way the system functions as a whole. Unlike the classical stage of national or market capitalism, then, pieces of the puzzle are missing; it can never be fully reconstructed; no enlargement of personal experience (in the knowledge of other social classes, for example), no intensity of self-examination (in the form of whatever social guilt), no scientific deductions on the basis of the internal evidence of First World data, can ever be enough to include this radical otherness of colonial life, colonial suffering and exploitation, let alone the structural connections between that and this, between daily life in the metropolis and the absent space of the colony. To put it in other words, the former — daily life and existential experience in the metropolis — which is necessarily the very content of the national literature itself, can now no longer be grasped immanently; it no longer has its meaning, its deeper reason for being, within itself. As artistic content it will now henceforth always have something missing about it, but in the sense of a privation that can never be restored or made whole simply by adding back in the missing component: its lack is rather comparable to another dimension, an outside like the other face of a mirror, which it constitutively lacks, and which can never be made up or made good. This new and historically original problem in what is itself a new kind of content now constitutes the situation, and the problem, and the dilemma, the formal contradiction, that modernism seeks to solve; or better still, it is only that new kind of art which reflexively perceives this problem and lives this formal dilemma that can be called modernism in the first place.

Now of course one’s simplest first thought, faced with this problem of a global space that like the fourth dimension somehow constitutively escapes you, is no doubt to make a map: nor is Ulysses by any means the first, let alone the only literary work of the imperialist period that stakes its bet on the properties of maps. The very title of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, whatever other resonances it comes to have, is literally determined by the reference to cartography. But cartography is not the solution, but rather the problem, at least in its ideal epistemological form as social cognitive mapping on the global scale. The map, if there is to be one, must somehow emerge from the demands and constraints of the spatial perceptions of the individual; and since Britain is generally thought of as the quintessential imperialist power, it may be useful to begin with a sample of what looks like a relatively pre-modernist English spatial experience:

The train sped northward, under innumerable tunnels. It was only an hour’s journey, but Mrs Munt had to raise and lower the window again and again. She passed through the South Welwyn Tunnel, of tragic fame. She traversed the immense viaduct, whose arches span untroubled meadows and the dreamy flow of Tewin Water. She skirted the parks of politicians. At times the Great North Road accompanied her, more suggestive of infinity than any railway, awakening, after a nap of a hundred years, to such life as is conferred by the stench of motorcars, and to such culture as is implied by the advertisements of antibilious pills. To history, to tragedy, to the past, to the future, Mrs Munt remained equally indifferent; hers but to concentrate on the end of her journey, and to rescue poor Helen from this dreadful mess.


This episode, from the opening pages of
Howards End, is characteristic of Forster’s duplicities, and offers an amiable simplicity filled with traps and false leads. Pockets of philosophical complexity are hidden away beneath its surface, and they include reflections on nature and industrialization, on authentic and inauthentic existential time (Mrs Munt’s version of Heideggerian Sorge), and a firm but tactful consciousness of English class realities. The novel will then undertake to spell these out and to make sure that what the reader has been encouraged to overlook here becomes at length an unavoidable message, in terms of which we may then leaf back and gloss the present text in some detail. But it will remain a gloss on what is essentially a spatial representation and a spatial perception: the philosophical thoughts (which in any case involve space, as we shall see) will finally have been dependent on space, and inexpressible without it. This is of course a cinematographic kind of space, with its Einsteinian observer on a train moving through a landscape whose observation it alters at the very moment that it makes it possible. But what is most significant is not some possible influence of nascent cinema on Forster or on the modernist novel in general, but rather the confluence of the two distinct formal developments, of movie technology on the one hand, and of a certain type of modernist or proto-modernist language on the other, both of which seem to offer some space, some third term, between the subject and the object alike. Cinematographic perception is in that sense neither subjective nor psychological: there is nothing private or personal about it (and it was for that reason that I suggested, above, that characterizations of the modern as some inward turn were misleading). But it is not objective either in any conventional sense of realism or empiricism: nothing is indeed quite so perverse or aberrant for the truly postmodern person as the polemic expression “photographic realism” — as though photography, today so mysterious and contradictory an experience, had anything reassuringly trustworthy or reliable about it, for us a most unlikely guarantor of verisimilitude! This is why, although the category of style remains a fundamental one of the various modernisms, emerging with them and disappearing again when the psychic subject is notoriously eclipsed in the postmodern moment, it seems urgent to disjoin it from conventional notions of psychology and subjectivity: whence the therapeutic usefulness of the cinematographic parallel, where an apparatus takes the place of human psychology and perception. But this can most effectively be achieved by recoordinating the concept of style with some new account of the experience of space, both together now marking the emergence of the modern as such, and the place from which a whole bewilderingly varied set of modernisms begins to flourish.

Forster, at best a closet modernist, may seem an unlikely enough illustration of this process; but it was its tendential emergence that interested us, and not the full-blown thing itself. Meanwhile, if it is argued that England, the very heartland of imperialism, is also that national terrain which seems to have been the least propitious for the development of any indigenous modernism, then that is surely also relevant for our present topic.

Yet at least one moment in the present passage seems to hold all the possibilities of some properly modernist language, past and future, instinct within itself, from Baudelaire to Eliot: a figure which speeds by like Mrs Munt’s surroundings, only its false modesty drawing attention to itself (as always in Forster). It is “the great North Road...suggestive of infinity”, where the word “infinity” oddly disrupts the conventional description of the journey, seeming to open up some strange space outside the empirical world alongside it. Technology is of course the operator here, and in the light of Forster’s anti-technological bias (as in the SF story “The Machines Roll”) it is well to remember that modernism is not so much characterized by a position against or for technological modernity (think of the enthusiasm of the Futurists!) so much as by its inevitable inclusion. Here, indeed, it is perhaps less the train than rather speed itself which is included; and at first the Great North Road comes before us as the device by which that phenomenon is represented and indeed registered: the Eisensteinian parallel whereby a trajectory that cannot be visualized in itself is conveyed first through the indirection of its passing scenery, and then at length by the isolation of but one item in that changing scenery (an item that is therefore both still and in movement all at once), the cinematographic evocation of the great sweep and curve of the road as it both follows and diverges from the train tracks. Yet as Forster repeatedly uses his peculiar word “infinity,” we come to realize that this metonymic contiguity of the ancient highway with the modern railroad is not only a way of representing the latter, but rather a way in which the latter’s modernity can be pressed into the service of disclosing some third reality, which is neither traditional nor modern empirical space, but rather the pressure of something more transcendent, a kind of Kantian sublimity, against the here and now. That other, vaster, unrepresentable space stands to the nameable and perceivable physical objects as the abstract word “infinity” does to the conventional language in which it is embedded, as with the gesture of an afterthought or an insignificant aside (recalling, however, some of the other strange abstractions that punctuate the narrative language of this period, like the expression “material interests” in Nostromo).

Yet now the same duality reappears within the structure of this figure itself and it is undecidable whether the Great North Road is the tenor or the vehicle; whether the roadway is intended, as in analogous moments in Baudelaire, to concretize the nebulous metaphysical concept “infinity,” and by a momentary transfer of its visual properties to make that vague but lofty word a more vivid linguistic player in the textual game; or whether, on the other hand, it is rather the metaphysical prestige of the more noble idea that is supposed to resonate back on the banal highway, lending it numen and thereby transforming it into the merest promise of expressivity without having to affirm it as some official “symbol” of the conventionally mendacious kind. Modernism is itself this very hesitation; it emerges in this spatial gap within Forster’s figure; it is at one with the contradiction between the contingency of physical objects and the demand for an impossible meaning, here marked by dead philosophical abstraction. The solution to this contradiction, which we call “style,” is then the substitution of a spatial or perceptual “meaning” (whatever that now is) for the other kind (whatever that was, or might be in the future).

An even more articulated allegory of this process, whereby common-sense space perception is disrupted by the emergence here and there of a dawning sense of the non-perceptual spatial totality (Forster’s “infinite”), is to be found in Virginia Woolf’s far more overtly “modernist” text To the Lighthouse, where the interruption of a network of physical trajectories to and from the island takes the form of Lilly Bristow’s painting;

and so, lightly and swiftly pausing, striking, she scored her canvas with brown running nervous lines which had no sooner settled there than they enclosed (she felt it looming out at her) a space. Down in the hollow of one wave she saw the next wave towering higher and higher above her. For what could be more formidable than that space? Here she was again, she thought, stepping back to look at it, drawn out of gossip, out of living, out of community with people into the presence of this formidable ancient enemy of hers — this other thing, this truth, this reality, which suddenly laid hands on her, emerged stark at the back of appearances and commanded her attention.


Woolf’s confrontation with this non-empirical space beyond space, this unrepresentable totality, is far more dramatic in its personification and its evocation as an event, than Foster’s modest allusion, yet the aesthetic framework, which alone motivates the figural appearance of this new space, is at once what also threatens to undermine it, and to tempt the reader back into the conventional meanings of art or mysticism.

Yet Forster’s figure also turns out to have a more conventional “meaning,” as the rest of his novel instructs us: it will be perfectly proper to unravel it, provided we do not lose sight of its initial spatial and perceptual ground, and of the work of some new modernist language on our bodies and our sensorium that is its precondition. He goes on, indeed, to develop his ethos of place, as “the basis of all earthly beauty”, which he elaborates into something like a twofold salvational system, the twin paths of intimate human relations and of an immediate landscape. “We want to show him,” says Margaret about the wretched Leonard Bast, “how he may get upsides with life. As I said, either friends, or the country, some...either some very dear person or some very dear place seems necessary to relieve life’s daily grey, and to show that it is grey. If possible, one should have both.” The place is of course the country house itself, the Howards End of the title; and the “dear person” the late Mrs Wilcox, who begins to merge with her dwelling to the point of becoming almost literally a “genius loci.” Yet the representational dilemma remains, as in our earlier figure: Mrs Wilcox as a character draws her possibilities from that concrete place which is Howards End, while this last draws its evocative power from the spirit of Mrs Wilcox. The transformation of chance encounters (“only connect”) into a Utopian social community presided over by a woman who is its providential spirit in a virtually literal sense; and the recovery of a Utopian landscape orchestrated by the well-nigh Shakespearean glorification of an ideal (and an anti-patriotic) England in Chapter XIX — the combination, indeed, the identification of these two visionary constructions is Forster’s political as well as his aesthetic agenda in this novel.

Yet as he himself makes clear, it is not evident that the operation can be historically realized and completed (even though the novel itself gets written). For he will go on to suggest that the tendential conditions of modern civilization — “modernization” now, rather than aesthetic “modernism”! — are in the process of closing off one of these two avenues of personal and spiritual “salvation” (if that is not too lofty a word for it). Landscape is in the process of being obliterated, leaving only the more fragile and ephemeral safety net of the interpersonal behind it:

London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilization, which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone.


But what we must now add, and what now returns us to our starting point, is that London is very precisely that “infinity” of which we caught a glimpse on the Great North Road, or at least a “caricature” of it (Forster’s word). But now suddenly a whole set of terms falls into place and begins to coincide: cosmopolitanism, London, the nomadic, the stench of motorcars, antibilious pills, all begin to coalesce as a single historical tendency, and they are unexpectedly at one with “infinity” itself, which equally unexpectedly becomes the bad opposite of place, of Howards End, of the salvation through the here and the now (and incidentally of the regeneration of some older England that never existed, the Utopian England of Chapter XIX). But this is not simple romantic anti-urban or anti-modern nostalgia; it is not at all the conservative revulsion before the faceless industrial masses of
The Waste Land, the modern urban world. And that for a final decisive reason, a final identification in this linked chain of phenomena: for infinity in this sense, this new grey placelessness, as well as what prepares it, also bears another familiar name. It is in Forster imperialism, or Empire, to give it its period designation. It is Empire which stretches the roads out to infinity, beyond the bounds and borders of the national state, Empire which leaves London behind it as a new kind of spatial agglomeration or disease, and whose commercialism now throws up those practical and public beings, like Mr Wilcox, around whose repression of the personal Forster’s message will also play, taking on new forms we have no time to examine here:

In the motorcar was another type whom Nature favors — the Imperial. Healthy, ever in motion, it hopes to inherit the earth. It breeds as quickly as the yeoman, and as soundly; strong is the temptation to acclaim it as a super-yeoman, who carries his country’s virtue overseas. But the Imperialist is not what he thinks or seems. He is a destroyer. He prepares the way for cosmopolitanism, and though his ambitions may be fulfilled, the earth that he inherits will be grey.


With this identification — the coincidence of “infinity” with “imperialism” — we come full circle, and a component of the imperialist situation appears in human form, or in the representational language of a narrative character. Yet the representation is incomplete, and thereby epistemologically distorted and misleading: for we are only able to see that face the “Imperial type” turns inward, towards the internal metropolitan reality. The other pole of the relationship, what defines him fundamentally and essentially in his “imperial” function — the persons of the colonized — remains structurally occluded, and cannot but so remain, necessarily, as a result of the limits of the system, and the way in which internal national or metropolitan daily life is absolutely sundered from this other world henceforth in thrall to it.
 But since representation, and cognitive mapping as such, is governed by an “intention towards totality,” those limits must also be drawn back into the system, which marks them by an image, the image of the Great North Road as infinity: a new spatial language, therefore — modernist “style” — now becomes the marker and the substitute (the “tenant-lieu,” or place-holding, in Lacanian language) of the unrepresentable totality. With this a new kind of value emerges (and it is this which is generally loosely and misleadingly referred to as modernist aestheticism): for if “infinity” (and “imperialism”) are bad or negative in Forster, its perception, as a bodily and poetic process, is no longer that, but rather a positive achievement and an enlargement of our sensorium: so that the beauty of the new figure seems oddly unrelated to the social and historical judgement which is its content.

What I have tried to suggest about this “event” on the border or limit of representation might also have been shown for the representation of inner or metropolitan space itself, for the national daily life which must remain its primary raw material. Because in the imperial world system this last is now radically incomplete, it must by compensation be formed into a self-subsisting totality: something Forster uniquely attempts to achieve by way of his providential ideology, which transforms chance contacts, coincidence, the contingent and random encounters between isolated subjects, into a Utopian glimpse of achieved community. This glimpse is both moral and aesthetic all at once, for it is the achievement of something like an aesthetic pattern of relationships that confirms it as a social reality, however ephemeral: and the coincidence of the social (grasped in moral terms) and the aesthetic is then what allows other related works (such as those of Virginia Woolf) to refocus it by way of operations which look more aestheticizing than Forster’s. Here also the internal social totality will remain incomplete; but the internal social classes are nonetheless explicitly designated by their absence (thus, Leonard is carefully characterized as non-proletarian, as standing “at the extreme edge of gentility. He was not in the abyss but he could see it, and at times people whom he knew had dropped in, and counted no more”). This internal subsumption is sharply to be distinguished from the exclusion of an external or colonized people (whose absence is not even designated): the distinction would correspond roughly to that which obtains in Freud between repression (neurosis) and foreclusion (psychosis).

The hypothesis suggested here — between the emergence of a properly modernist “style” and the representational dilemmas of the new imperial world system — will be validated only by the kind of new work it enables: by some fresh (formal and structural) approach to the moderns able to formulate their historical specificity more adequately for us today than the descriptions we have inherited from their contemporaries. Yet there is also another way in which such a hypothesis might be “verified,” at least by way of an Einsteinian “thought-experiment”: this would be something like a principle of experimental variation or aesthetic falsifiability, in which this particular metropolitan or First World modernist laboratory experiment is tested against radically different environmental conditions. These are not, in this period, to be found in what will come to be called the Third World, or in the colonies: there the face of imperialism is brute force, naked power, open exploitation; but there also the mapping of the imperialist world system remains structurally incomplete, for the colonial subject will be unable to register the peculiar transformations of First World or metropolitan life which accompany the imperial relationship. Nor will it, from the point of view of the colonized, be of any interest to register those new realities, which are the private concern of the masters, and which a colonized culture must simply refuse and repudiate. What we seek, therefore, is a kind of exceptional situation, one of overlap and coexistence between these two incommensurable realities which are those of the lord and of the bondsman altogether, those of the metropolis and of the colony simultaneously. Our experimental variation, then, would presuppose, were it possible in the first place, a national situation which reproduces the appearance of First World social reality and social relationships — perhaps through the coincidence of its language with the imperial language — but whose underlying structure is in fact much closer to that of the Third World or of colonized daily life. A modernism arising in these circumstances could then be inspected and interrogated for its formal and structural differences from the works produced within the metropolis and examined above. But at least one such peculiar space exists, in the historical contingency of our global system: it is Ireland, and the uniqueness of the Irish situation will now allow us, as it were experimentally, to verify our argument up to this point. For it allows us to make a deduction, as it were, a priori from our hypotheses, and then to compare that deduction with the historical realities of Irish culture. If the thesis is correct, then, we may expect to find, in some abstractly possible Irish modernism, a form which on the one hand unites Forster’s sense of the providential yet seemingly accidental encounters of characters with Woolf’s aesthetic closure, but which on the other hand projects those onto a radically different kind of space, a space no longer central, as in English life, but marked as marginal and eccentric after the fashion of the colonized areas of the imperial system. That colonized space may then be expected to transform the modernist formal project radically, while still retaining a distant family likeness to its imperial variants. But this “deduction” finds immediate historical confirmation, for I have in fact been describing Ulysses.

For in Ulysses space does not have to be made symbolic in order to achieve closure and meaning: its closure is objective, endowed by the colonial situation itself — whence the non-poetic, non-stylistic nature of Joyce’s language. In Forster, the deeper reality of the encounter, the coincidence, the determinate meetings or the five-minute lag that prevents them from coming about, are played off against the metropolis, which “one visualizes as a tract of quivering grey, intelligent without purpose, and excitable without love; as a spirit that has altered before it can be chronicled; as a heart that certainly beats, but with no pulsation of humanity.” In Joyce, the encounter is at one with Dublin itself, whose compact size anachronistically permits the now archaic life of the older city-state. It is therefore unnecessary to generate an aesthetic form of closure distinct from the city, which in First World modernism must be imposed by the violence of form upon this last as compensation.

One wants, indeed, to go even further than this and to assert that what has been seen as the linguistic dimension of modernism proper — namely, “style” as such, as something like an absolute category of the modern canon — is also absent in Joyce. The spatial poetry that has been detected in Forster has, for one thing, no equivalent in Ulysses. “Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand?” is thrust back into Stephen’s consciousness, and marked as subjective. At the other end of the continuum, the great anamorphic spaces of the Nighttown chapter take place much too close to the eye, as it were, to be characterized in terms of images. A personal style, evolving towards the conventionally modern, can be detected in early Joyce, and may be identified by way of traces of Walter Pater’s mannerisms: all that survives of that in Ulysses is the self-conscious placement of crucial adverbs. Otherwise, style, as a category of some absolute subject, here disappears, and Joyce’s palpable linguistic games and experiments are rather to be seen as impersonal sentence combinations and variations, beyond all point of view (“Love loves to love love. Nurse loves the new chemist. Constable 14A loves Mary Kelly. Gerty MacDowell loves the boy that has the bicycle...” etc.): whence one’s occasional sense that (as with revolutionary modes of production) Joyce leaps over the stage of the modern into full post-modernism. The pastiche of styles in the Oxen of the Sun not merely discredits the category of style as such, but presents an enumeration of English styles, of the styles of the imperial occupying armies.

Even the matter of coincidence indeed — so crucial in Forster and Woolf — takes on a different meaning in Joyce, where such intersections are everywhere, but have little of the dubious providentiality they project in our other works (a partial exception needs to be made here for the father–son thematics). Leonard catches sight of Margaret and Mr Wilcox in Saint Paul’s at a climactic moment; Stephen catches sight of Mr Bloom in a more doubtful, but also more aesthetic moment; yet this last does not raise the same questions as the former. London (or the Manhattan of Manhattan Transfer) are agglomerations (and metropolises) in which such encounters are sheer coincidence; Dublin is a classical city in which they are not merely normal but expected. This is to say that a concept of the urban is present in Ulysses which contains and motivates those very encounters and intersections crucial to the modern, but lends them a different resonance. But Dublin, as we have said, remains classical because it is also a colonial city: and this “peculiarity” of Joyce’s narrative content now determines a certain number of other formal results. For one thing, encounters in Joyce are already (or perhaps I should say, still) linguistic: they are stories, gossip, they have already been assimilated into speech and storytelling while taking place, so that the demiurgic transformation of the modernist poet or writer — the need to invent a new speech in order to render the freshly revealed, non-linguistic contingencies of modern life — is in Joyce short-circuited. Meanwhile, this essential linguisticality of Ulysses — a book, as he said himself, about “the last great talkers” — is itself a result of imperialism, which condemns Ireland to an older rhetorical past and to the survivals of oratory (in the absence of action), and which freezes Dublin into an underdeveloped village in which gossip and rumor still reign supreme.

Meanwhile, history itself, which must elsewhere be imported and introduced by fiat, is here already part of the urban fabric: the occupying army is present, it is perfectly natural for us to encounter its soldiers, as it is to witness the viceregal procession; the spasmodic efforts at militancy — such as the assassination of the Invincibles — are still vivid in the collective memory, and the appearance of one of the survivors is a Proustian shock, no doubt, but perfectly plausible. It is normal for the British intelligentsia to visit this interesting cultural backwater; normal for the nationalist debates (very specifically including the one around the national language) to sputter on in pubs, bars and meeting places; while the very fact of the pub itself, of public space in which you meet and talk, is itself a happy survival of an older urban life, which will have no equivalent in metropolitan literature, wheremeetings between disparate characters must be more artificially arranged, by means of receptions and summer houses.

Even the one section of Ulysses which resembles a rather different modernist approach towards space — the Wandering Rocks, which is the direct inspiration of Dos Passos and his discontinuous literary cross-cutting — is the exception that proves the rule, since these palpable discontinuities are already mere appearance: we know already in fact that these disjoined characters are already connected, by acquaintance and history, and that a shift in perspective would at once cause the illusion of external chance and coincidence to vanish utterly away. The Odyssey parallel itself — which may superficially as an aesthetic design and allusion resemble the painting in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse — must also be rethought in the context of imperialism. It is of course the great formal pretext, whose setting in place then allows Joyce to elaborate the contingencies of his individual chapters without any deeper motivation (the other levels of the parallels, the colors, the tropes, the organs of the body, rather resemble Freudian “secondary elaboration” than genuine symbolism): but what must be stressed is that it is not the meaning of the Odyssey which is exploited here, but rather its spatial properties. The Odyssey serves as a map: it is indeed, on Joyce’s reading of it, the one classical narrative whose closure is that of the map of a whole complete and equally closed region of the globe, as though somehow the very episodes themselves merged back into space, and the reading of them came to be indistinguishable from map-reading. None of the other classical parallels in modern literature has this peculiar spatial dimension (think for example of the various subjects of Greek tragedy); indeed, it is as though this Third World modernism slyly turned the imperial relationship inside out, appropriating the great imperial space of the Mediterranean in order to organize the space of the colonial city, and to turn its walks and paths into the closure of a form and of a grand cultural monument.

— extract from Fredric Jameson's The Modernist Papers, out in paperback this week.

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