Saturday, 1 May 2010
In Praise of Fredric Jameson
I take the title of this entry from the front page of the current issue of the London Review of Books (vol 32, no 8), where it points us to a substantial review by Benjamin Kunkel of Frederic Jameson’s latest tome, Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, 2009), and indeed of Jameson’s entire career as our leading Marxist critic and theorist. We have so much to be grateful to Jameson for: an inspirational survey of Western Marxism in his Marxism and Form, stunning accounts of modernism in his Wyndham Lewis book and The Political Unconscious, that magisterial evocation of postmodernism as the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’ in his 1984 New Left Review essay and later book on the topic, and wonderfully complex celebrations of utopianism and dialectics in his more recent writings.
What we have not yet had from Jameson, alas, is an extended engagement with the work of William Morris, though there are many suggestive asides about Morris in his writings which it would certainly be worth totting up. Morrisians will therefore have to stage this intellectual encounter for themselves: I remember a fine, rigorously argued paper bringing together Jameson and News from Nowhere by Michelle Weinroth at the 2005 London Morris conference (which has not yet, as far as I know, seen the light of print), and I shall have a stab in the same direction in my own contribution to the 2010 Delaware Arts and Crafts conference in September. Jameson has often insisted that what is important about utopias is how they fail, an emphasis that does not sit easily with our own immediate sense of the cheery, sunlit, achieved socialism of Morris’s magnum opus.
Early in Valences Jameson floats another unnerving possibility: that the word ‘socialism’ may now be so tainted by the Soviet experience that it is for us politically counter-productive; and he suggests instead that we ‘deploy a language whose inner logic is precisely the suspension of the name and the holding open of the place for possibility, and that is the language of Utopia, which neither rules out the eventual return of the language of socialism nor offers a positive alternative … which might then be appropriated in an altogether different and manipulative way’ (p.12).
And this surely exactly defines the importance of William Morris to us today; for he can indeed be inflected, through News from Nowhere, to general questions of utopianism when we need him to be, while always remaining a militant socialist when we can once more return, unabashed, to that kind of political language and project.