The death of criticism

Jameson had feared that, under the conditions of global capitalism, the possibility of “critical distance” from the zoological monstrosity (Nietzsche’s term) of capital has been abolished: “the prodigious new expansion of multinational capital ends up penetrating and colonizing those very precapitalist enclaves (Nature and the Unconscious) which offered extraterritorial and Archimedean footholds for critical effectivity”. Like Lyotard and Deleuze, Jameson had offered criticism the gift of a single possibility: that thought should be possible in the space of a local representation within the unrepresentable totality of capital of the unrepresentability of that totality (there is no paradox here but, rather, a strict typology). For Lyotard, for example, this possibility arises in the form of a single question: Is it happening.

There is evidence, however, that criticism can no longer, in good faith, accept the hope that Jameson offered and perhaps it is here that Jameson’s utopianism parts ways with Deleuze: there is no exterior to capital (Deleuze’s acceptance and even affirmation of this proposition constitutes his essential Nietzscheanism). But rather than saying that capital creates its own exterior, it is more interesting—and horrifying—to see that its most important function is to create its own interior.

But what has escaped sufficient attention is that essence of capital consists not only in desiring-production but in its mute consumption of criticism (that results in something much like the cytopathic effects of viruses on healthy cells): even the unjust, the ugly, or the banal can become objects of consumption with the proper “will to enjoyment”.

Although not really in a position to speak on the matter (though interesting precisely for that fact), Miley Cyrus recently said, commenting on a recent infamous cultural episode, that “it should be harder to be an artist”. Whereas the previous generation of critical theory had feared the commodification of art—and the attendant reactionary tendencies of bourgeois art that provided critical art with its image in a counterfeit double—we now see the ontological collapse of art into capital. In these studios that provide, for a modest fee, petite-bourgeois philistines with the opportunity to display their cultural vulgarity under the guise of liberal-democratic aspiration,* we might think that capital has finally delivered a less-than-merciful coup de grace.

*Although, as a final insult, these studios declare their commitment to “music, not the pursuit of fame”.

But the real danger is not the death of art but the impossibility of criticism. We have known for a long time that capital is oblivious to intentions, yet the ironists persist in their failure to recognize their own self-contradictions. The latest product of these music factories has apparently earned its customer at least $20K not despite but precisely because of its ineptitude—and this is the ironists’ final victory. What we should mourn is not the death of art—which is now simply the outsourced product of mechanized labor just as the shoes we wear—but the helplessness of criticism in the face of it. And the proper vocabulary of such mourning is silence, to which criticism now seems to be reduced.

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.

A question about method (Reflections while reading The Modernist Papers)

1. Either: form. The oldest (western) tradition in speaking of form holds that it is either the principle or product of determination. “Indeterminate form” or “formlessness” (i.e., matter) already contains a (teleological) reference to form. The genius (genie, demiruge, creator, poet) is the one who imposes form (Plato, gnosticism, Genesis, etc). In the romantic version of this thesis (up to and including Hegel), this means the sensuous unity of form and content in the aesthetic consciousness (whether this unity is prior to the work or not is irrelevant). Alternatively, the baroque and classical ideals of form were constitutive of art, and art is nothing other than a thus “purely intentional object”. None of this prevents us from speaking of a “natural history” or “social production” of form, for these kinds of notions are predicated on an idea of form either as morphe or eidos, which ultimately manifests in a geometric conception of lines (whether in painting, music, dance, and so on) and their morphology (the line is thus conceived as a limit—viz., it is not included in the content that it makes possible). Boulez helpfully reminds us that, conceived thus, it is more proper to speak of form as the structuring of local structures (i.e., content). One sees this in nature in, e.g., biological rhythms, equilibria in dissipative structures, fractal geometry, etc.

2. Or: per-form. It is a convenient accident of our language that we cannot use “perform” as a noun (instead we must say “performance”). All form is per-form; all form is performed (mutual implication of work and nature, work and subject, subject and nature). This may be equivalent to what Deleuze calls “consistency”.

3. Method. The creation of new forms (e.g., serialism), then, is co-extensive and simultaneous with the variations in their matter to which these new forms give rise (something like a “hermeneutic circle” of form or the “circle of the origin”). Modernism is not, for example, the attempt to give expression to “new ways of being-in-the-world hitherto inconceivable in human experience”. The “crisis of representation” in modernity (Simmel, Adorno, Jameson) is more than either an abstract formalism (according to which all content is flattened or reduced into the bidimensionality of the plane) or a Hegelian materialism (according to which the crisis in form results from the disaffection and dislocation of the subject in the world such that either artistic form becomes the enslavement of the subject to instrumental totality or the highest expression of an individuality stripped to its barest contingency—the nothingness at the heart of its being that is the essence of human freedom [Sartre]). The crisis of representation is the reflective moment in art where form folds back onto itself toward the form of the form (the limit case in Plato, for example), even if the form of the form is itself the product of reflection.

Yet it was not only Lyotard who thus wondered how we can say that there is anything called “post-modernism” if constitutive of modernism itself is the “rewriting” of modernity. This is not, primarily, a historical question but a methodological one: how is it that the content of the form is “dialectically presupposed” in the form of the content (ideology)? Jameson gives the name of “Utopia” to precisely this dialectical movement according to which form and content refuse to be identified with each other into either a purely abstract formalism or the totality of self-referential content (both of which are equivalent to communism in political terms). But it seems that the persistence of the Absolute in this case consists in its consistent absence, deferral, or subtraction (which is not to say a negation). Does this not point the way to the futurity of per-form(ance) instead of the presence of form? The question is: what is the temporality of form? Is the choice always that between dialectics and history on the one hand and anarchy and ana-chrony on the other?


In the final volume of the Poetics of Social Forms, Jameson has again (as if we were not convinced previously) demonstrated that there is apparently nothing he has not read and, more importantly, nothing he could not fail to illumine. AF is more than the application of the critical functions previously developed to a particular genre, as certain reviewers (friendly as they may be) would have us believe. AF is itself a certain poetics, just as the genre it treats constitutes a certain poetics.

In speaking of Friedman, I take one key insight from AF (while doing some neglect to the critical method developed therein): that utopianism is not the goal of SF (science fiction) narrative but is a function of it. Is this not precisely what is revealed at the end of Friedman’s Coldfire triology? In the human encounter with the fae–with the unconscious power of life, of production, of immanence–Friedman posits the encounter with nihilism and presents a startling alternative to Zarathustra in Tarrant: the redeemed Messiah, the tragic Christ who brings God to man but in so doing debars himself from ever seeing His face. When the patriarch of the Church unites humanity under the sign of the Go(o)d–thus foreclosing the possibility of magic–he does so precisely by giving birth to the modern man–the divided psyche (Freud), the sovereign separated from nature (Comte or any number of others), the Ulysses bound to the mast (Adorno): Erna becomes the Earth from which the colonists had left.

And here the narrative ends. Utopia is signified by the absence of any détente or dénouement but in the smile “at the dawn of a new world”.

This new world is not a project (Heidegger) or a program (Saint-Simon, Fourier, etc). Friedman indicates nothing other than possibility itself–but a possibility marked by the burden of guilt (sacrifice), responsibility (the withdrawal of God), and freedom.