The many valences of thinking: Jameson (Notes on reading Valences of the Dialectic)

1. Philosophy has always been impressed by the strangeness of thought—that there should be such a thing in an otherwise thoughtless, irrational universe. Behind the usual invocation of the “strangeness of reality” in the usual self-characterizations of philosophy (especially in the banality “why is there something rather than nothing?” which is, more accurately, a theological and not a philosophical question), the real interest of philosophy in thought is in thought itself, whether idealist (what is thought thinking?) or materialist (how does thought think?), immanent or transcendent. In the case of the latter duality, the interest of philosophy has always been the abrogation of the unthinkable (for the transcendentalist, the unthinkable is thought “as” unthinkable). Insofar as the domain of thought is thought itself (despite the bifurcations of reflexivity), the only “strangeness of reality” to which thought is exposed occurs through the experience of alienation: that there is reality at all. For this reason, Jameson rightly charges that philosophy “is always haunted by … a set of interlocking concepts which are their own cause. This mirage is of course the afterimage of philosophy as an institution in the world, as a profession complicit with everything else in the status quo, in the fallen ontic realm of ‘what is’”.*

*It is for this reason, Jameson says, that the dialectic belongs to Theory rather than to philosophy. In an unusual slippage of terms, what Jameson really means is not Theory but, rather, praxis. As he says much earlier than the passage cited, “these unities of theory [small “t”] and practice are … distinct from the implied autonomy of the philosophical concept and cannot in any sense be completed by philosophy but only by praxis”. And in this he is surely correct.

2. What would be a thinking whose substance is the unthinkable? This question is not yet dialectical, for the unthought is in itself negative (the unthinkable is simply the unthought or the not-yet-thought) but does not, for all that, simply throw us back into thought (the thought that there is something unthought). But neither can we simply say that the unthought is the (transcendental) condition for thinking, for this returns us again to the absolutism of thought (i.e., the familiar lesson of negation as the figure of thought). The dialectic, therefore, is not another figure of thought; the dialectic is not a concept (it has no essence that can serve as the object of a definition); neither is it a method or a logic. The dialectic is in a sense a “pure signifier”.

Contradiction functions as the expression of the dialectic or, perhaps, we might say that the dialectic is expressed by the torsion of contradiction; whereas the task of conceptual purity is to deactivate contradiction and to protect the integrity of the subjective utterance against the shock of a real contradiction. Mediation, then, operates in both directions: although the result of mediations, in contradiction the subject finds itself in an essentially reactive position such that “self-knowledge is not really a knowledge of the self, but rather a consciousness of its situations, a way of gaining and keeping awareness of precisely that multiplicity of situations in which the self finds and invents itself”, i.e., amidst a complex of forms of appearance which are produced and re-produced as thought. The dialectic, then, accounts for the possibility that there is a form of thought that is not yet thought: “a speculative account of some thinking of the future which has not yet been realized … a way of grasping situations and events that does not yet exist as a collective habit because the concrete form of social life to which it corresponds has not yet come into being”.

Jameson’s name for such a thought is, as he had already said in Archaeologies, “Utopia”, for which he will give at least two equivalent formulations: temporally, Utopia designates the fact that the dialectic, if successful, will no longer exist but, for that reason, can never be successful (in a teleological sense); spatially, the name “Utopia” designates not a place or an ideal but “it expresses Utopian desire and invests it in a variety of unexpected and disguised, concealed, distorted ways” (hence in Archaeologies Jameson finds the figure of Utopia in science fiction, i.e., in allegories** of transformed worlds: “violent ruptures with what is breaks that destabilize our stereotypes of a future that is the same as our own present, interventions that interrupt the reproduction of the system in habit and in ideological consent and institute that fissure, however minimal and initially little more than a hairline fracture, through which another picture of the future and another system of temporality altogether might emerge”).

**This word should be understood as Benjamin would say it. Benjamin and Barthes are pervasive throughout Valences, but always by their traces.

3. Topoi: Insisting against a temporal thematization of subjectivity, Jameson argues for a spatial dialectic (the result of which must be some form of what he has called “cognitive mapping”) whose function is not to subsume the concept under the category (Aristotle, Kant), nor to preserve the consistency of relations in the absolute (Hegel), nor to reduce history to the battleground of an objective praxis (bad Marxism). The dialectic maintains the disjunction between the One and the Two through the excess of the One—not a becoming or abundance of the One but negatively as a void that maintains the gap between incommensurables: “this kind of dialectic is therefore not so much dualistic as it is revelatory of some ontological rift or gap in the world itself, or, in other words, of incommensurables in Being itself”. More than parallax (Zizek) or complementarity (Plotnitsky), what Jameson offers is the possibility of a new form of sensibility such that out of the many objective forms of appearance, new subjectivities become possible as appearances without ipso facto simply falling victim to false consciousness. For this reason, the question remains for Jameson what it had for Adorno: how is truth possible in a false world? Only if truth is that which cannot be thought. But the possibility of such an event is neither subjective—and, obviously, not a matter of will or intention—nor objective (since the real is precisely what is not true nor, strictly speaking, that which is inaccessible to thought—this is why, while the dialectic can be thought, in some sense, along the old lines of sub/object, it is best to consider “the dialectic” a pure signifier. Yet this too is not quite right, since the dialectic is not a logical principle, particularly in the legal sense that is necessarily beholden to the abstract universality of law (Jameson himself is explicit on this point). At bottom, the dialectic remains what it always has been for Jameson: an aesthetic principle—one that, if we follow his thought to its necessary conclusion, calls for the articulation of a new “transcendental aesthetic”, which, if philosophy is to have a future, must be one of its paramount tasks.

4. Why Althusser is worth fighting for: The dialectic, then, is not a principle of thought but calls for thinking: more precisely, it calls for what philosophy since Hegel (or, arguably, Plato) has always posited: the possibility of thinking something else. As Althusser famously said, “if … contradiction is to become ‘active’ in the strongest sense, to become a ruptural principle, there must be an accumulation of ‘circumstances’ and ‘currents’ …”. What we need to understand is the unfortunate word “accumulation”: not as a mere aggregation of contradictions but the topological relations of contradictions themselves (even as contradictions mark the limits of spaces), which results in the inexistence of the real—the fact that the real should appear to us as strange or perhaps even as erotically intolerable. In the face of the real, Badiou and Lacan have offered us a logic; phenomenology a method. In addition to these, what Jameson has indicated, even if he may not say this himself, is a correlative aesthetic; and for this, he remains, perhaps even more than Badiou, the greatest avatar of the dialectic today.


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