Blog post

Losing Historicity

Kirk Boyle investigates Fredric Jameson's attempt to confront the challenges posed by the singularity of modernity in the latest instalment of our Jameson at 90 series.

Kirk Boyle10 June 2024

Losing Historicity

If one once read Fredric Jameson avidly, say, in graduate school and were now looking to rediscover the scope of his life’s work, there are worse places to begin than A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (2002). This slim volume “constitutes the theoretical section” of the fourth entry in The Poetics of Social Forms series, The Modernist Papers (2007), which Jameson calls a “kind of source-book” for Singular, while acknowledging that many of its case studies were filed prior to the prolegomena essay—a lack of linearity befitting not only the construction of The Poetics but also the dialectic. To begin again in medias res reflects Jameson’s method, and Singular has the benefit of exhibiting, with great efficiency, the dual aims of his fundamental project: to periodize the literary forms that accompany the stages of capitalism’s ascendency to the dominant mode of production, and to demonstrate critical theory’s sustained relevance through pedagogical exegeses of Western, or Late Marxists and analyses of High Theory’s ideological deviations and revisionisms.  

The first part of Singular engages in the latter effort, and would better be titled “The Phenomenology of Modernity” rather than the academic-analytical sounding “The Four Maxims of Modernity” for how it reveals first this theory of modernity and then that to be so many necessary illusions in zigging and zagging one’s way to a properly dialectical conception of modernity as none other than the totality of “worldwide capitalism” (although, for a contrasting view, see the conclusion of Christopher Prendergast’s perspicacious take in The New Left Review (2003) that Jameson’s “meta-theory on theories” is more a modernist collage than an “instance of the dialectic at work”). The second half of the book, picking up where Jameson’s famous volume on postmodernism left off (the fifth in The Poetics series for those counting), retroactively reads modernism as “essentially correspond[ing] to a situation of incomplete modernization.” Here, Jameson seeks to distinguish the late modernist canon formation of American ideologues and their reified notion of autonomous art from an earlier aesthetic pursuit of Absolute form—a poetics degree zero worthy of the utopian opening afforded by a politics degree zero. No surprise that works by Soviet painter Kazimir Malevich grace the covers of both Singular and The Modernist Papers.

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For my part, I returned to Singular after a few years of teaching in my university’s general education programme, the hallmark of which consists of four sequential courses originally organized as a history of Western civilization. The programme has become far less Eurocentric over the years with recently revised editions of our common anthologies prompting the first two courses to be retitled Global Humanities: Ancient Worlds and Premodern Worlds, respectively. The fourth course, now called Critical Perspectives on Contemporaneity, goes so far as to question whether History as such is a Western concept. Interestingly, the third course, which I teach, remains titled The Modern World: Mid-17th to Mid-20th Century, although our primary text is the Global Humanities Reader: Engaging Modern Worlds and Perspectives. I turn to the anecdotal here to highlight how, in the interest of diversifying the curriculum, the problem that prompted Jameson’s excursus into the modern persists, namely, the move to pluralize the world risks losing historicity itself, i.e., “the ontology of the present.” Jameson’s argument for a singular modernity by no means endorses this form of modernity; it simply acknowledges capitalism’s determinant role in shaping the past four to five hundred years of history. The modernization of non-Western places did not introduce alternative modernities or modern worlds so much as provide different particular instances of a universal order, different narrative plots of the selfsame allegory of capital. While Jameson acknowledges the existence of relatively autonomous national trajectories—because “there is no ‘basic’ historical paradigm, all the paths of capitalist development are unique and unrepeatable”—each joins a synchronic world system that subsumes them.

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To reckon with this singular modernity, it is far more effective to teach the mutual recognition of common cause among those it oppresses (e.g., the correspondence between W.E.B. Du Bois and B.R. Ambedkar and intersectional analyses before intersectional theory was a thing by the likes of Flora Tristan and Anna Julia Cooper), than it is to parse cultural distinctions in the modernizations of Turkey, Japan, and India. This is certainly no time to entertain fascism as an alternative modernity but to see it as colonialism boomeranging back to the metropole, as Aimé Césaire observed, and neoliberalism’s death drive defense of late capitalism, as Alberto Toscano suggests in his recent Late Fascism (2023). Difference relates, Jameson has preached, and, under the regime of the capitalist Behemoth, the idea of multiple worlds composed of particular peoples with diverse identities will prove to be as ideological as the modernist conception of autonomous art. Although primarily a literary critic, or perhaps precisely because he is one, Jameson returns to the modernism of an era of incomplete modernization to remind us that “to redeem and transfigure a fallen society” requires “striving after aesthetic totality or the systemic and Utopian metamorphosis of forms.” To overcome the tyranny of a singular modernity, we need to envision an alternative totality, not assume that alternative modernities already exist. To that end, modernism may be instructive but so is the Soviet Union, the utopian elements of which books like Susan Buck-Morss’ Dreamworld and Catastrophe (2000) and Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty (2010) salvage.

See all works by Fredric Jameson here. His new book, Inventions of a Present: The Novel in its Crisis of Globalization is out on May 7.

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A Singular Modernity
The concepts of modernity and modernism are amongst the most controversial and vigorously debated in contemporary philosophy and cultural theory. In this intervention, Fredric Jameson—perhaps the m...
The Modernist Papers
The Modernist Papers is a tour de force of analysis and criticism, in which Jameson brings his dynamic and acute thought to bear on the modernist literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centurie...
Inventions of a Present
A novel is an act, an intervention, which, most often, the naïve reader takes as a representation. The novel intervenes to modify or correct our conventional notions of a situation and, in the best...
Brecht and Method
The legacy of Bertolt Brecht is much contested, whether by those who wish to forget or to vilify his politics, but his stature as the outstanding political playwright and poet of the twentieth cent...
Ideologies of Theory
Ideologies of Theory, updated and available for the first time in a single volume, brings together theoretical essays that span Fredric Jameson’s long career as a critic. They chart a body of work ...
Late Marxism
In the name of an assault on “totalization” and “identity,” a number of contemporary theorists have been busily washing Marxism’s dialectical and utopian projects down the plug-hole of postmodernis...
In his most wide-ranging and accessible work, Fredric Jameson argues that postmodernism is the cultural response to the latest systemic change in world capitalism. He seeks here to crystallize a de...
Fables of Aggression
The novels of Wyndham Lewis have generally been associated with the work of the great modernists—Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Yeats—who were his sometime friends and collaborators. Lewis’s originality, how...

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