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?" 

    This is the moment to mention a final candidate, the only subsystem left which can function in so truly revolutionary a fashion. It is a thought that must have first come to me many years ago, inspired by an image by one of our greatest political cartoonists. I think it must have been during the first year of the Eisenhower presidency, if not still during the campaign, when the last vestiges of the New Deal still survived in Truman’s ill-fated campaign for socialized medicine on the English and the Canadian model. Ike, presumably in full military regalia, perches informally on the edge of the desk in the Oval Office and observes conversationally, “Well, if they want socialized medicine, they have only to join the Army as I did.” This is indeed very precisely the strategy I propose, the recipe for a new form of dual power.

    Below, we present an excerpt from Jameson's revised and expanded version of the essay included in 
    An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, a collection edited by Slavoj Žižek that features responses to Jameson by Jodi Dean, Saroj Giri, Agon Hamza, Kojin Karatani, Kim Stanley Robinson, Frank Ruda, and Kathi Weeks. An American Utopia is currently 50% off. To redeem the discount, click on the link here.

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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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  • Best of Verso 2015: download our free ebook!

    FREE VERSO EBOOK! We bring you a compilation of extracts from books we've published this year - brought together for the first time in this ebook collection, and available for free download!

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