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The Antinomies of Realism

“Jameson thinks dialectically in the strong sense, in the way we are all supposed to think but almost no one does.” —London Review of Books

Winner of the 2014 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism

The Antinomies of Realism is a history of the nineteenth-century realist novel and its legacy told without a glimmer of nostalgia for artistic achievements that the movement of history makes it impossible to recreate. The works of Zola, Tolstoy, Pérez Galdós, and George Eliot are in the most profound sense inimitable, yet continue to dominate the novel form to this day. Novels to emerge since struggle to reconcile the social conditions of their own creation with the history of this mode of writing: the so-called modernist novel is one attempted solution to this conflict, as is the ever-more impoverished variety of commercial narratives—what today’s book reviewers dub “serious novels,” which are an attempt at the impossible endeavor to roll back the past.

Fredric Jameson examines the most influential theories of artistic and literary realism, approaching the subject himself in terms of the social and historical preconditions for realism’s emergence. The realist novel combined an attention to the body and its states of feeling with a focus on the quest for individual realization within the confines of history.

In contemporary writing, other forms of representation—for which the term “postmodern” is too glib—have become visible: for example, in the historical fiction of Hilary Mantel or the stylistic plurality of David Mitchell’s novels. Contemporary fiction is shown to be conducting startling experiments in the representation of new realities of a global social totality, modern technological warfare, and historical developments that, although they saturate every corner of our lives, only become apparent on rare occasions and by way of the strangest formal and artistic devices.

In a coda, Jameson explains how “realistic” narratives survived the end of classical realism. In effect, he provides an argument for the serious study of popular fiction and mass culture that transcends lazy journalism and the easy platitudes of recent cultural studies.


  • “Manifestly displays Jameson’s many virtues as a truly great critic ... It is not always easy to read the work of someone who just won’t sit on his laurels: but in this case it is worth it.”
  • “This latest installment in his epic ‘poetics of social form’ is vintage Jameson: no other critic has his range of reference in literature and theory, and no one dialecticizes their connections to politics and history with anything like his transformative energy. Not since Auerbach has ‘realism’ been so penetratingly analyzed or so radically rethought. With many surprises along the way – such as the new centrality Jameson affords ‘affect’ in the realist novel – the results are absolutely stunning.”
  • “Admirable ... Jameson thinks dialectically in the strong sense, in the way we are all supposed to think but almost no one does.”


  • Fredric Jameson: Universal Conscription and the Citizens' Army

    Fredric Jameson’s pathbreaking essay An American Utopia radically questions standard leftist notions of what constitutes an emancipated society. "If," Jameson asks, "business, the professions, religion, even the labor unions (let alone the post office or the Mafia) are inadequate vehicles for dual power, what can then be left in late capitalism as an already organized institution capable of assuming the parallel and ultimately revolutionary role on which alone radical social change depends?" 

    All books on our Emerging Futures Reading List, including 
    An American Utopia, are 40% off until Sunday, November 20th at midnight UTC. Includes free worldwide shipping and bundled ebooks where available.

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  • Real Qualities of the Microcosm: Raymond Chandler in Los Angeles, USA

    Fredric Jameson has been writing about Raymond Chandler since 1970. Raymond Chandler: The Detections of the Totality presents a "stereoscopic" perspective on the great American detective novelist in three essays synthesized from Jameson's writings on Chandler over the years. The post below is excerpted from the first.   

    A long time ago when I was writing for the pulps I put into a story a line like “He got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water.” They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn’t appreciate this sort of thing — just held up the action. I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was that the readers just thought they cared about nothing but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, the thing they cared about, and that I cared about, was the creation of emotion through dialogue and description.

    That the detective story represented something more to Raymond Chandler than a mere commercial product, furnished for popular entertainment purposes, can be judged from the fact that he came to it late in life, with a long and successful business career behind him.

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  • Fredric Jameson: Wal-Mart as Utopia

    Fredric Jameson's latest work, recently released as An American Utopia (which is currently 50% off), sees the renowned literary critic and theorist grappling with what the social basis for a new utopian project could, or should, be. In it he proposes the idea of a new citizens' army which will form an alternative power structure from the state. 

    But, this isn't the only time that Jameson has tried to think through this predicament. In this extract from Valences of the Dialectic, Jameson proposes the logistical-might of Walmart as the foundation for a new society.

    This is the point at which I wish to propose a model for Utopian analysis that might be taken as a kind of synthesis of these two subjective and objective approaches.

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