Fredric Jameson’s new book, The Antinomies of Realism (Verso, 2013), seemed tailor-made for nonsite’s interests. Marxism and affect theory, contemporary politics and Realist aesthetics–a set of problems at the center of our concerns. We invited a range of scholars and specialists in art history, French literature, English literature, comp. lit. and Marxist aesthetics to engage with Jameson’s book. Here you will find responses to Jameson by Goran Blix, Danielle Follett, Fabio Akcelrud Durão, Marnin Young, Danielle Coriale, and Kevin Chua.
Editor’s note: for Jameson’s response to the tank, see Jameson Responds.
Goran Blix: Story, Affect, Style
It’s clear from Jameson’s latest book that a great deal remains to be said about the emergence and dissolution of the classical realist novel. Concepts like Auerbach’s mimesis and Bakhtin’s dialogism have hardly exhausted the problem, nor have more strictly historical accounts seeking to situate this hybrid form along a spectrum of modes and genres running from romance and epic to melodrama and modernism. Moreover, as Jameson recalls, discussions of realism sadly tend to get bogged down in narrow-minded aesthetic partisanship—realism, for or against?—as if the form could somehow intrinsically reinforce the dominant ideology through its apparent reification of existing reality, or, on the contrary, necessarily point toward the future by capturing the clashing forces working to undermine the status quo. Refreshingly, Jameson here tries to steer clear of any normative assessment and seeks to understand realism instead as a unique and fragile aesthetic constellation that flared up briefly within a larger dialectical movement, which then also ended up dissolving the form.
It would be impossible to do justice in this brief space to the subtlety of the dialectic Jameson outlines. Suffice it to say that he grasps realism as the historically bounded outcome of a diachronic tension between two overlapping forms: “story” (or telling) and “scene” (or showing). Story is intended to capture an immemorial tradition of narrative that might include novellas, ballads, and folktales, and which, at the deepest level, might find its roots in some vaguely universal “narrative impulse.” Indeed, novels do tell stories, if nothing else, and certainly inherit the narrative schemes of a vast and heterogeneous literary tradition. Scene, on the other hand, would be a disruptive element that breaks the seamless continuity of the story and introduces a heterogeneous “present” irreconcilable with the linear temporality in which the events take place. Terms like description, ekphrasis, tableau, or Genette’s formal pause (when narrated time stops) come to mind here, but I think that what Jameson has in mind is a more abstract phenomenon, the emergence of an undetermined present floating freely above the fateful sequence stringing the characters along their predestined paths; he calls this moment an “impersonal present,” or a “present of consciousness,” and describes it as a strange empty consciousness that would no longer retain the trappings of any empirical personality, despite the presumed realization of this consciousness in the reader . The freedom of this temporality might then redeem, or at least inflect somewhat, the oppressive impression of fate and closure that haunts the social trajectories of the novel’s characters. What is distinctive about realism, in fact, for Jameson, would be an unresolved tension between pure story-time and this extraorbital present, which ceaselessly challenges the tale’s smooth, narrative logic like an intrinsic Verfremdungseffekt.
I find this scenario very appealing; it gets at the hybridity of the realist novel and accounts for the unstated clash between social prescription and utopian possibility that strains its internal machinery. This dialectic also elegantly turns the origin of the realist novel—the disruptive weight of “scene” bearing down on “story”—into the very force responsible for realism’s eventual dissolution. Indeed, Jameson suggests that the gradual intensification of the “present of consciousness,” as we move into the twentieth century, finally overpowers the narrative impulse altogether, at which point plain old narrative would once more find its autonomy in mass market fiction while an austere impersonal present would come to dominate the elite sphere of modernist prose. Presented in outline, in this fashion, the story of the realist novel’s birth and demise from a single cause would seem rather neat, perhaps too neat, on the whole, and my own inclination is to regard all such meta-narratives skeptically, however much light they shed—or especially when they shed plenty of light. Isn’t there something too teleological about this productive clash of story and scene, which in the end simply reframes the classic rise-and-fall narrative in dialectical terms, reducing literary evolution to an impersonal conflict of metapoetic forces?
However, Jameson’s dialectic is immensely useful on condition that we don’t mistake it for a totalizing explanation and suppose that every novel from the last two centuries must somehow be plotted along its curve. Not only does the sharp focus on Zola, Galdós, James, and Eliot leave some far less pliable material out of the account (such as Hugo’s and Huysman’s novels, which, while hardly “realist” in the strict sense, nonetheless occupy an important place in the canon of nineteenth-century novels), but Jameson’s chronological framework would itself require a great deal of explanation. Why does the formal impulse he calls “scene” burst forth ex nihilo in the 1840s? And what would make it overpower the narrative substrate in less than a century? The implicit answer, of course, would be history, and the development of capitalism, but it’s not clear what precise logic connects economics to formal aesthetic concerns, especially if one grants that the sphere of aesthetics achieves partial autonomy in the course of the nineteenth century. Jameson points suggestively to the centrality of “affect” in this development and argues compellingly that the driving force behind the scenic disruption of narrative (the emergence of an impersonal present) is the text’s historically novel inscription of affect. And affect, as theorized here, would be something like an unnamed emotional state that discourse has not yet captured and reified within a grid of socially recognized passions. The most innovative writers would somehow have been attuned to these uncanny and nameless affects, hence “the new affective styles invented by Flaubert and Baudelaire” in response to the “historic emergence of the bourgeois body” (42). The rise of the body’s unruly and amorphous affects in the well-policed edifice of narrative, then, seems to be the overarching story Jameson tells here.
Let me say again that this clash between affect and narrative continuum is an extremely fruitful idea, and Jameson puts it to ingenious use here to diagnose a set of symptoms in the evolving realist novel: what he calls the “codification of affect,” for instance, in Zola’s novels, in which the overabundant sensory onslaught of Paris would seem to overwhelm the organizing power of language; or the fading into the background of the lead characters who used to carry the story-line in Galdós and Tolstoy, in favor of minor, episodic characters, alien to the narrative logic; or the triumph of point of view and the style indirect libre in James and Flaubert, who each, in their own way, undo the signifying monopoly of the omniscient narrator, opening the texture of their works to the play of affect. A very suggestive treatment of Eliot highlights the progressive liquidation of melodrama within realism, showing how the moral category of evil on which melodrama depends loses its pertinence within the aesthetic regime of affect; since affect is an internal state, and not a judgment imposed from without, it technically knows no evil; it is possible to act in bad faith, Jameson argues, but phenomenologically it would be impossible to feel oneself to be evil.
The downside of this dialectic, however, as an explanatory force for realism, is that its chief terms, story and affect, are so broad that their presence could no doubt be detected anywhere. With what justification can one claim that the “bourgeois body” emerged historically in the 1840s? Or that this body, however defined, would somehow be a precondition for the emergence of affect? And if affect is instead taken to be a universal phenomenon, which the realists simply tuned into for the first time, why did this happen just then? It would seem more plausible to me to say that affect—if defined as emotion that exceeds any historically given taxonomy of passions—has always existed, and that its shadow presence could be discerned in texts throughout history. There are other problems with the role affect plays in this argument as well: for one, why should new and unnamed passions, like ennui, spleen, and so forth (which the period after all does baptize), prove more disruptive to narrative order than the long list of discursively codified passions? Or inversely, how does the ability to name a passion, Phèdre’s fury, for instance, or Achilles’ wrath, automatically immunize the textual order against its potential ravages? Naming isn’t a guarantee of order; and classified passions don’t necessarily become obedient subjects. Finally, affect, if it does indeed disrupt narrative logic, is not in any obvious way connected to the impersonal consciousness that Jameson has situated above the plane of narrative destiny. How does affect give rise to this consciousness? Are they in fact coterminous, phenomenologically speaking? And if so, how does an unnamable physical sensation give rise to an impersonal form of awareness? The idea of an “impersonal consciousness” is both intriguing and promising, but I would have liked to see it fleshed out in greater detail.
As for the other term in this dyad, story, similar questions could be asked. Was earlier narrative fiction always so narrowly narrative, so impervious to interruption, Verfremdung, and shattered temporalities? What about Jacques le fataliste? And is it fair to claim that the famous closure of classical narrative—the texte lisible that Barthes once opposed to the more modern, open texte scriptible—always has such unambiguously oppressive effects? Jameson resorts here to Sartre’s well-known critique in La Nausée of the unstated teleology that governs the classical novel, which, from its opening pages, surreptitiously presupposes its end, and thus teases the reader with a mystifying illusion of freedom. Two things should be said here: first, that the alleged closure of form—whether it takes a generic form, as in tragedy or comedy, or is produced in some other fashion through plot, ideology, or metaphysics—often leaves great internal room for the play of contingency, and that even the most brutally vectorized text could be radically undermined by countless internal counterforces. Second, it’s by no means self-evident that the destiny Jameson identifies in the “past-present-future” form of narrative inevitably reinforces society’s dominant ideology. It can, and does, no doubt, often do just that, but can we really say that the narrative weave of past-present-future is intrinsically conservative? It can be a way to make sense of existence in time, to impose meaning retrospectively, to propose model trajectories, and to account historically for a current state of the world, etc. But the chief function of narrative in all such cases is to make sense, not necessarily to justify, reify, and impose; to understand isn’t inevitably to pardon; and description isn’t always prescription. Moreover, the causal chains plotted chronologically by narrative are not always forged by necessity, no more so, I would argue, than the writing of history is inevitably a theological discipline: to say what happened, and how and why, isn’t to say that it had to happen, at least outside of lab conditions. If this seems obvious for realist narrative, in which chance plays such a preponderant role, the same could probably be argued for almost any narrative universe, perhaps even for tragedy.
With these caveats in mind, let me return to affect, and suggest that to Jameson’s list of narratological and structural mutations provoked by affect, one might add a crucial and rather obvious element which quite possibly registers the subterranean impact of affect more finely than any of them: style. Style is obviously not Jameson’s primary concern here, and it is true that it lends itself poorly to the dialectical and metapoetic process he has outlined; it is also true that, as Buffon had it, style has been taken to convey the individual’s signature (le style, c’est l’homme) and could thus in theory be dismissed as the very antithesis of the impersonal consciousness that affect is said to have ushered into modern literature. And yet style, it strikes me (as I look at everything Jameson is able to do with affect) has perhaps been misread too quickly as the much-sought-after personal stamp that the period’s writers longed to imprint on the language. What if style were instead, unwittingly and ironically, the very trace of an impersonal affect? Could style possibly be read as the delicate seismic chart of a period’s unnamed tremors, as these become diffracted through the writer’s sensations, impressions, and internal soundscapes? Style would still be signature, but only adventitiously, insofar as each recording device differs superficially, but in its deepest stratum the cadences, rhythms, and phonic patterns of style might be thought to offer a shadowy sonogram of the period’s affective landscape. It would in that case be possible to imagine a form of stylistics that had nothing to do with the cult of the author, but which, on the contrary, sought to map the inaudible collective soundscape of affect and in so doing to offer a glimpse at the nameless forces still tunneling towards the future.
Danielle Follett: Is the Cheese Meaningless? The Distension of Dialectics in Jameson’s The Antinomies of Realism
It is strange to see Jameson jumping on the affect theory bandwagon in his recent book, The Antinomies of Realism, in which he offers a wide-ranging discussion of realism, defined as a dialectic between storytelling and affect. Although these poles are considered to be “the two chronological end points of realism” (10), they are said to operate simultaneously within the text itself and it seems that they should not be confused with the activity of the writer and that of the reader. Rather, they are respectively aligned with récit vs description, telling vs showing, linear time vs the perpetual present, destiny vs existential being, determinism vs contingency, closed vs open forms, arias vs chromaticism, meaning vs meaninglessness (“unassimilable to meaning” ), and named things vs namelessness and a general “resistance to language” (31). And, leading the list, as the general binary under which these rather classical Western antinomies are subsumed, is the polarity of named emotion vs affect. Jameson states that he follows Rei Terada in differentiating emotions from affects in that the former are defined as conscious states and the latter as bodily sensations; “language is here opposed to the body” (32).1 The role of language and meaning in these various binaries may thus help explain the recourse to the central antinomy of emotion vs affect as a theoretical vehicle in the discussion of realism, as this pair seems to parallel the linguistic/anti-linguistic schema set out in some of the other binaries.
The idea of a resistance to language, common to one pole of each of these binaries, may help explain the presence of affect in this theory of realism, but does not seem to justify it. In this reduction of a wide series of literary/philosophical elements to a polarity of emotion vs affect, we witness the danger of a distended dialectics, an expansion and proliferation of dualisms, a slippage between various somewhat similar oppositions which are then lined up under the heading of a rather arbitrary antinomy. For what seems at times to get lost in this theorization is realism itself, or the specificity of realism. It is perhaps true, even convincing, that realism exists as an aesthetic product at the crossroads of telling and showing, plot and description, destiny and existence, causality and contingent singularities. But does “affect” really summarize the latter terms of each of these dualities? In this theorization, affect seems to function as a placeholder for all possible terms on the existential/phenomenological side of the equation. Even more oddly, the determinist/linguistic side reduces to named emotion, although this element is mentioned less often. As a placeholder, the concept of affect necessarily lacks precision. The notion of affect is far from being synonymous with namelessness, which has taken many aesthetic forms throughout history (and well before the mid nineteenth century, such as in the theory of the sublime), and it is unclear why the appeal to affect here is warranted. Similarly, one need not have recourse to the idea of affect to appreciate synesthesia and the importance of the senses, and especially that of smell, in mid to late nineteenth-century literature, including but not limited to realist literature (“Odor…seems everywhere, from Baudelaire to Proust, to be a privileged vehicle for isolating affect and identifying it for a variety of dynamics…” ), and it is unclear what this concept brings to the discussion of smell. If affects are defined as “bodily feelings” (32), smell certainly may be seen to fall into that category, but this categorization, in the context of this discussion, does not bring us closer to understanding the olfactory experience and its role in aesthetics. Nor is the concept of affect necessary or especially helpful when focusing upon the eternal present, existence, intensity, singularity, experience or contingency (36-37), all recurrent concepts in nineteenth and twentieth-century aesthetics, which lose some of their specificity and force when lumped under the (rather arbitrary) heading of affect. One of the book’s longer examples of the functioning of affect revolves around music and especially Wagner’s chromaticism (38-41)—which is, let it be said in passing, an aesthetic form quite far from realism; chromaticism, like affect, waxes and wanes in intensity and nuance, and “would seem the most essential, but also the most obvious, way of characterizing everything that is proteiform, metamorphic, shimmering and changeable-ephemeral about affect itself…” (40). These are fine descriptions of Wagner’s music in itself, but the concept of affect neither helps explain chromaticism nor is explained by it. Affect as a theoretical vehicle in the discussion of realism seems to lack specific explanatory force; it may thus be helpful here to apply the principle of Ockham’s razor.
Jameson’s thesis is also historical: around the 1840s, affect began to emerge in creative production, entering as a force of liberation from récit and the determinism of named emotions. He describes the “multiplicity of ways this new element can pervade nineteenth-century realism and open up its narratives” (35). Henceforth, affect and narrative will intermingle in a tense dialectic, giving rise to realism. Before this time, emotions and sensations, and other described details, function in literature as signs: “In Balzac everything that looks like a physical sensation—a musty smell, a rancid taste, a greasy fabric—always means something, it is a sign or allegory of the moral or social status of a given character…” (33). As an example, Jameson cites the description of the “stuffy, mouldy, rancid” smell of the Vauquier salon in the beginning of Le père Goriot, which “is not really a sensation, it is already a meaning, an allegory” (33), a sign referring to the qualities of the people who inhabit the salon. On the other hand, like the descriptive details evoked in Barthes’ “L’Effet de réel,” affects have no signifying value, no narrative function, and “cannot be present in the regime of the récit” (35). Jameson refuses Barthes’ reincorporation of such literary “non-meaningful, non-symbolic objects” into the realm of signification and semiotics by making them signs of realism itself, and thus maintains a strict duality between allegory and the body, between meaning and affect. In this context, “affect” is a rather weighty word with a certain baggage, making it unwieldy when used to refer to a variation of the reality effect, for many descriptive details have little to do with the “bodily feelings” which are said to define affect. Again, smells may be said to approach such feelings, but it is difficult to see how for example the barometer in the Aubain house in “Un coeur simple,” cited by Barthes at the beginning of his famous essay as a primary example of a narratively insignificant detail, should be considered a bodily feeling.2 Perhaps the apparently meaningless presence of such an object is related to raw, contingent existence which in turn evokes the phenomenological experience of existence, an experience which is necessarily embodied and therefore, by a series of slippages, brings us to bodily feelings. But this logic is quite slippery and the raison d’être of affect in the argument is unclear as it does not help us to grasp the particularity of the realistic detail.
Beyond the question of the terminology of affect, however, the historical argument is somewhat overstated, for it posits an opposition where in many ways there should be seen a continuity and an evolution. Against Balzac’s overdetermined, allegorical details, Jameson contrasts Baudelaire’s, Flaubert’s and Zola’s indeterminable objects, “unassimilable to meaning.” After discussing the mustiness of the Vauquier salon and its signposting of the moral and social qualities of the characters, Jameson turns to Baudelaire’s mustiness:
Dans une maison déserte quelque armoire
Pleine de l’âcre odeur des temps, poudreuse et noire…
As the first literary example given of “this new element” (35), this passage deserves some attention. Jameson states that “the musty smell of time drifts in indeterminable synesthesia across the grimy tactility of the armoire. These unnamable sensations have become autonomous […] they no longer mean anything: states of the world, they simply exist” (34). When taken out of context, things can indeed seem like autonomous singularities; but nothing in “Le Flacon” justifies this interpretation of the autonomy of sensation. To show this it is necessary to put Baudelaire’s mustiness back in its context:
Il est de forts parfums pour qui toute matière
Est poreuse. On dirait qu’ils pénètrent le verre.
En ouvrant un coffret venu de l’Orient
Dont la serrure grince et rechigne en criant,
Ou dans une maison déserte quelque armoire
Pleine de l’âcre odeur des temps, poudreuse et noire,
Parfois on trouve un vieux flacon qui se souvient,
D’où jaillit toute vive une âme qui revient.
Through metonymy, the mustiness of the armoire is linked to the perfumes that penetrate glass and to the memory/soul contained within the old flask. The armoire is related to the Oriental chest and the flask; in each case, a container is opened and a smell or a memory is released. Just as the soul is held within the flask, the flask is held within the armoire or the chest. The poem goes on to evoke the thoughts/memories/vertiginous feelings which escape, fly and disturb the subject, as rotting Lazarus and a rancid love awaken from the grave; thus, after the poet’s own death, he (and presumably his poems) will be like an old discarded flask, containing memory/perfume/poison. The mustiness of the armoire is thus not autonomous; it participates in a complex metonymic web of smells and memories. Nor is this smell especially nameless: although “âcre,” “poudreuse et noire” are imprecise, just as are the other epithets attached to the odors and memories in the poem, these words and the poem itself constitute an attempt at naming a complex psychological reality.
As for the claim that these sensations “no longer mean anything,” it simply does not do justice to the poem. It may be difficult to pinpoint what exactly the sensations mean, but they are not meaningless, autonomous singularities. Far from creating a rupture with signifying, Baudelaire’s objects and sensations are used to bring forth new means of signifying through metonymic and synesthetic correspondences. Baudelaire would quite disagree with the statement, “it is allegory and the body which repel one another and fail to mix” (37), for Baudelaire himself conceived of his poetic method as a continuation of the long poetic tradition of allegory and long spiritual tradition of correspondances, modernized and applied to the romantic embodied subject.3 Baudelaire did not clearly distinguish between allegory, symbol, analogy, and correspondence; what is certain is that his sensations are not singularities but participate in such signifying dualities, or rather metonymic chains. A citation from Les Paradis artificiels (1860) suffices to show that Baudelaire’s relationship with allegory is strong and complex:
Nous noterons en passant que l’allégorie, ce genre si spirituel, que les peintres maladroits nous ont accoutumés à mépriser, mais qui est vraiment l’une des formes primitives et les plus naturelles de la poésie, reprend sa domination légitime dans l’intelligence illuminée par l’ivresse.4
Here, allegory and the body are explicitly joined in drunkenness, ivresse. Baudelaire seeks significant relations between the sensory and the intangible, attempts to portray the ideal within the real, and his poetics of correspondances may thus be seen as an evolution out of, and not a break from, Balzac’s more direct and societal allegorizing. Baudelaire’s allegorizing can even at times be more classical than Balzac’s, such as in “Le Cygne.” Baudelaire was a great reader of Balzac, and Balzac himself mentions synesthesia several times. One cannot separate allegory and synesthesia, or allegory and the body, in Baudelaire, for their mixture produces his poetics of correspondances.5
Thus there is more continuity than rupture between Balzac and Baudelaire. But there are differences, of course, and Jameson is correct in identifying the appearance of something new in the mid nineteenth century, toward the beginning of modernism, something which he unhappily terms affect. Baudelaire modernizes the tradition of allegory; this is here understood in the sense in which he defines modernity (“La modernité, c’est le fugitif, le transitoire, le contingent…”).6 Among the list of terms Jameson associates with affect—namelessness, meaninglessness, synesthesia, eternal present, existence, intensity, singularity, experience, contingency—the last of these seem in our opinion most to describe “this new element.” Here the risks of proliferating dialectics and the collapsing of non-synonymous terms become clear: while singularity and meaninglessness are not operative as new elements, as we have seen, contingency is. Indeed, to generalize, post-1850 aesthetics, both realist and symbolist, may be understood partly as the fusion of contingency and meaning, resulting in an abundance, perhaps an overabundance, of contiguous signifiers and related non-necessary signs, stretching older aesthetic forms toward abstraction. This is true of Wagner’s chomaticism, impressionist dabs of paint, symbolist synesthesia and realist description. The story of these developments can be told without recourse to the notion of affect, which needless to say should not be confused with contingency.
This brings us back to Jameson and realism. Jameson continues to insist upon the idea of meaninglessness in Zola’s abundant descriptive lists; in referring to the copious description of the cheeses in the shop in Le Ventre de Paris, he speaks of “their veritable liberation from meaning in all their excess” (62). The pungent cheese passage indeed shows a “delirious multiplicity” (62), but the cheeses are far from being meaningless or “autonomous” (59). For what does it mean when it is said that an element of a literary work is meaningless? Can it be true that multiplicity or excess leads to meaninglessness? Or that the moment something exists in the bodily realm, it does not signify? These are quite strong claims which would imply a very limited conception of meaning as belonging only to something non-embodied which exists in a reasonable quantity. We should rather take a more supple view of meaning, in the optimistic theoretical perspective that there is no element of a text that is “meaningless,” by the very virtue of it existing in a composed and authored text. Again, we may not be able to ascertain the meaning(s) definitively or simply, but nothing justifies the pessimistic view, and it is our job as textual analysts humbly to make the attempt and not flee the task by invoking a postmodern celebration of delirious meaninglessness.
Here, saying that the cheeses are liberated from meaning seems to say that Zola’s objects do not signify in the same determinate way as Balzac’s. But not signifying like Balzac’s objects is different from not signifying altogether. As we have seen with Baudelaire, proliferation of variation, invitation to contingency, abundance of contiguous and non-necessary signifiers, hyperbole of sensation, are part of modern aesthetics, here taking the form of realist description. They may function here as a commentary or reflection on the role of facts and lists in a newly statistical age, or on the newly expanding commodification of produits de terroir provoking a loss of particular provincial origins and a nausea of oversaturation. The list of cheeses may also serve a structural function in the context of the novel, creating a moment of suspense as the interruption in the gossip between the shopkeepers is prolonged excessively. Certainly the many metaphors within the passage, especially those relating to rot, sickness and wounds, bring it a richly layered symbolism; and above all, the framing of the list of stinking cheeses within a conversation about stinking moral judgments upon the stinking acts of others carries an allegorical meaning that is not very far afield from Balzac’s use of clearly determined objects to depict character traits. Jameson clearly recognizes and amply describes this allegorical element but he seems frustrated to see Zola add “quite unnecessarily” that it seemed as though it was the conversation which smelled so awful (64). Necessary or not, this addition exists in the text and conveys a part of the meaning of the passage; this seems to be frustrating to Jameson as he describes the “semi-autonomous symphony” of the cheeses, which “assert their individuality” (63), as though they were liberating themselves from plot and thus from meaning. But copious presentation, excessive multiplicity of description in itself, does not translate into “autonomy” from the other elements of a text, especially when the interdependence between textual elements is emphasized by the author in such an interpretive commentary. This addition seems to highlight the similarity and not the rupture with Balzac’s methods of creating meaning (the allegorical factor would not be difficult to accept if the multiplicity of the long descriptive passage were replaced by a simple “le fromage puait”). This is where Jameson writes: “But what is also crucial here is not so much the allegorical function of the cheeses as their veritable liberation from meaning in all their excess, so that they come to know their own temporality, in which even the silences of the body play their role” (64). It is strange to see Jameson admit an allegorical function of the cheeses and still assert that they are liberated from meaning (we will not attempt to understand how cheese can know its own temporality or which body is intended here). In brief, it is difficult to ground the claim that the cheese is meaningless.
The issue of meaningless elements, so central to Jameson’s argument about post-1850 aesthetics, makes one wonder what really is at stake here, if there is a hidden interest in such “autonomy” from signifying structures. Jameson writes, “the literary representation of affect… has as its function to replace the opposition of mind and body” (73); but it is a common contradiction in postmodern thinking to defend a monism of mind and body, while simultaneously banishing the mind (alongside meaning) and so focusing on the body that the dualism necessarily returns.7 Jameson has formulations like “[these elements] must not be allowed to become symbolic…” (65). What does the “autonomous unfolding of sense data” (59) really mean? It is assumed that the sensations are autonomous from meaning; but again, there is no foundation for the claim that any element of a text is meaningless. It would be impossible to analyze in this short space the reasons for the postmodern fear of mind and meaning, but one may say that Jameson’s concept of affect comes down to another variation on the postmodern “unassimilable,” another trace, another inexpressible, another other, what Lyotard called “l’inaccordable” and others have called by a host of other names.8 This is a late romantic position, critical of reason, mind and language as it is feared that they will dissect/murder, reduce or reify, a perspective that seeks a return to nature in the form of namelessness, pure existence and the “perpetual present”—showing well that we are (unfortunately) still in the romantic age.
Fabien Akcelrud Durão
Reading Fredric Jameson is a singular experience. Very few critics have managed to create a kind of writing that carries their signature in almost every sentence, and Jameson’s is unmistakable. Many commentators have noted the breath-taking character of his textual universe, the broad scope of his references; indeed, it is hard to find another thinker who is able to combine an Auerbach-like erudition, an utter familiarity with the Western literary tradition as a whole, with an openness to mass-produced cultural artifacts, the blockbuster, the science fiction novel or TV series. Unlike the old philologists, however, familiarity with such an immense textual body does not translate into mere explication or comparison of works; on the contrary, one of the most exciting aspects of Jameson’s criticism is its inventiveness, the way it manages to propose original ideas and counter-intuitive theses. To all that one should add Jameson’s greatest merit, namely his willingness to engage theories from other, often antagonistic, camps without surrendering his political and philosophical position. This is no small feat, especially when viewed from a place like Brazil (where I live) where intellectual fields seldom interact – our Anti-Oedipus, for instance, is de-marxized, our Freud or Lacan rarely brought to bear on society, our Marxism largely endogenous and self-feeding.1 More than an interpretative strategy, metacommentary is a form of comportment.
It is with all this in mind that one can say, paraphrasing Hal Foster, that this book is vintage Jameson. Here we find the enormous scope of references, the desire for totality, and the creative, thought-provoking propositions, but now confronted to a different, if not wholly new object (chapters 3, 4 and 5 of The Political Unconscious already dealt with Balzac, Gissing and Conrad). After his pathbreaking volume on postmodernism and the twin volumes on modernity and modernism,2 a text on realism seemed almost a logical necessity. But more than just a new book, this monograph is a propitious place to reflect on the mixture of achievements and problems of Jameson’s writing, which I believe is symptomatic of the North-American intellectual milieu today.3
The Antinomies of Realism has a clear underlying dialectic hypothesis. It confines realism to the novel and proposes to grasp it “as a historical and even evolutionary process in which the negative and the positive are inextricably combined, and whose emergence and development at one and the same time constitute its own inevitable undoing, its own decay and dissolution” (6); in this sense, then, “what brings a phenomenon into being also gradually undermines and destroys it” (7). The poles of this opposition will be, on the one hand, a narrative impulse of story telling, the concatenation of events on a temporal continuum that organizes past, present and future, and, on the other, the withdrawal from temporality as such by means of affect. Realism would thus emerge from the tale through an investment in affect, which in turn would corrode it from the inside in modernism and later on in postmodernism, conceived as the apotheosis of affect, the death of narrativity and the waning of any sense of temporality. It is interesting to note how this innovative idea deviates from a more traditional (perhaps old-fashioned?) understanding of realism espoused by some Marxist critics, who defined the concept according to its potential to reveal social truth. Following this view, Kafka’s nightmarish works, for example, would describe the truth of an insane and inhuman society, something that would not be possible to achieve within a narrow idea of realism. More than the style of a period or a genre, realism would then be something like a function of veracity.4 One could here ask if Jameson would not be losing in social diagnosis what he gains in terminological accuracy, in a well-delineated construction of the object, for in this framework the link to society has to be drawn, not from the formal aspects of individual works in relation to specific class configurations,5 but from the politics of affect in its historical unfolding. Rather than a weakness this may indicative of the vantage point from which Jameson deals with his corpus, for the horizon within which he moves is the broadest one and encompasses a long history of forms. And yet, he rejects the kind of quantitative analysis undertook by Franco Moretti, who approaches the novel from above, relying on maps and statistics; Jameson’s option for close reading is thus both exciting, because it shows the presence of his arguments in the minutiae of texts, and strained, because it demands from the reader that he fills in the gap between the individual case and the immense universe the particular work is aimed at explaining. This is particularly troubling when too much stress is laid on single works, as in the case of Alexander Kluge’s Chronik der Gefühle, which exhibits the logically central category of a “realism without affect” (187), but “has no parallels elsewhere in the world and is scarcely a paradigm for some generalized theory of the return of narrative or storytelling” (188). In sum, one may feel a lingering suspicion that the vast horizon of inquiry is not reconciled with the exemplarity of single works, and that as the former recedes in particular analyses, what remains is mostly praise for the latter.
The book is divided into two main parts, with no concluding remarks. The first one is titled “The Antinomies of realism” and has nine chapters. The first of them works out the opposition already mentioned of récit and roman, the tale and the novel. The privileged example of the former is the ninth tale of the fifth day of Boccaccio’s Decameron. It is the “purest form of récit” (but how can one be sure of that?), a tale “that needs no ‘showing’, no scene, no present of narrative at all […] The anecdote not only needs no dialogue and no point of view […]. [T]he tale cannot exist in the present, its events must already have happened” (24). The novel will emerge as the insertion of the now in the tale, of both liberty and destiny. It is in the second chapter that the concept of affect in introduced, for the perpetual present of postmodernism “is better characterized as a ‘reduction to the body’, inasmuch as the body is all the remains in any tendential reduction of experience to the present as such” (28). Affect is distinguished from “named emotions”, or the passions (anger, sadness, joy etc.) of ancient rhetoric. This is an important and in itself ambiguous part of the book, for the association of “the rise of affect with the emergence of the phenomenological body in language” (32) is a brilliant insight, whereas the way the opposition between emotion and affect seems not to be handled dialectically enough. The latter is dealt with as inherently superior to the former, which is seen as too limited and restricted; in the classic rhetorical tradition, however, the passions were far from stable entities, for not only were their boundaries blurred, but they were also liable to be manipulated by the writer/orator to achieve specific aims.
Chapters 3 to 6 deal with particular authors. Zola’s work is characterized as the first – as opposed to Balzac’s – in which affect enjoys a new level of autonomy: “What look like the unique individual destinies of so many récits are in fact now transformed into the abstract fever-chart of affects and intensities rising and falling; and Zola’s narratives are what happen to individuals and their destinies when their récits fall into the force-field of affect and submit to its dynamic, in a situation in which the two forces [i.e. named emotions and affect – FAD], the two temporalities [past-present-future vs. atemporal present of affect], are still for one last moment more or less equal in their power and influence.” (76) In Tolstoy Jameson identifies this tension in the opposition between scene and plot, “the chronological continuum and the eternal affective present which, realized in quite distinct ratios in the various great realists, nonetheless marks out the space in which realism emerges and subsists, until one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration.” (83) The scenes, however, are made possible by an expansion and deployment of affects in singular characters, while the multiplicity of characters enables the unfolding of the plot. Chapter 5 reads the Spanish novelist Pérez Galdós in order to claim that in him one witnesses “a deterioration of protagonicity, a movement of the putative heroes and heroines to the background, whose foreground is increasingly occupied by minor or secondary characters whose stories (and ‘destinies’) might once have been digressions but now colonize and appropriate the novel for themselves.” (96) The pages devoted to George Eliot are among the most daring in Jameson’s book. Here it is argued that Eliot’s moralizing style is “a strategy for weakening the hold of ethical and values as such, and ultimately […] a move consistent with modern denunciations of the ethical binary very much in the spirit of Nietzsche or Sartre.” (120) Mauvais foi, or bad faith, is the key to this: as a means of self-deception, the attribution of a trait to consciousness, which necessarily lacks any content whatsoever, it is considered a narrative technique that “exists in order to undermine the ethical binary and to discredit the metaphysical and moral ideologies of evil at the same time that the latter’s uses in plot formation and construction are replaced with at least some rough equivalent.” (137)
The next two chapters are more theoretical and generic. The first investigates the overcoming of realism, as already mentioned, through its own momentum. Here Jameson tackles brilliantly traditional issues such as the Bildungsroman, melodrama and naturalism, which he conceives as itself a genre of realism. In its fight against romance, against the fixed patterns of melodrama, in short against reified form, the realist novel becomes “realism’s ultimate adversary” (162). The last chapter of the first part of the book approaches the thorny issue of the realist narrator. First person narration acquired here a dramatic character as a “form of acting, of posing, feigning, taking up positions, before that spectator who is the reader” (169). This kind of showing, very easily adopted as tool for demystification, will be rejected by modernism and free indirect discourse, which “seems to evade precisely that theatricality from which the modernizing novel would like to turn away” (177). A very interesting discussion of irony follows, leading to the conclusion that “what alone authentically survives the weakening of all the joints and joists, the bulkheads and leadbearing supports, of narrative as such, of the récit on its point of submersion … [is] affect as such, whose triumph over its structural adversary is that bodiliness that alone marks any singularity of the everyday, and which now turns to engage its new literary adversary in lyric and language” (184).
The second part of The Antinomies of Realism is called “The logic of the Material” and comprises three chapters. The first is devoted to the relationship between realism and providence, or existence and meaning. From what has been exposed so far, it will have become obvious that realism resists being absorbed by providence and will have to cope with it, rejecting any external, teleological form of ending. Jameson identifies four logical possibilities in the combinations of these terms: transcendental immanence, transcendental transcendence, immanent transcendence, and immanent immanence. In “War and Representation”, Jameson argues that war is irrepresentable, that abstraction and sense-datum “are the two poles of a dialectic of war, incomprehensible in their mutual isolation and which dictate dilemmas of representation only navigable by formal innovation […] and not by any narrative convention” (256). This is important because war stands for other collective experiences, which inherently “tempt and exasperate narrative ambitions, conventional and experimental alike” (257). The last chapter faces the historical novel, whose very possibility the gist of the book squarely denies. The argument proceeds by unfolding the logical possibilities of the opposition of names and events. The most surprising part is the very end, when Jameson finds the survival of the historical novel in the future, for he asserts that “the historical novel of the future (which is to say of our own present) will necessarily be Science-Fictional inasmuch as it will have to include questions about the fate of our social system, which has become a second nature” (298).
Of course, his summary of the argument of The Antinomies of Realism, as almost any other one could think of, makes violence to the text, since it fails to take into consideration the multitude of analytical insights present throughout the book. The richness of the material and the originality of the composition are both exhilarating and exasperating. Exhilarating because of the novelty of connections and the learning involved in them; exasperating because of the near impossibility of mastering the whole textual universe mobilized by Jameson. Also, the other side of his ingenuity is the sense that his object of study does not preexist analysis, that it is constructed in the same gesture as it is presented. This would explain the peculiarity of Jameson’s connectives, his “meanwhiles” and “buts”, as well as his argumentative flash-forwards, “as we shall see” etc. Be it as it may, this exposition of The Antinomies of Realism should suffice to support one criticism, namely, that its core concepts, those of story telling and affect, could have been worked out less solidly. To be sure, their configurations are complex enough, but their status as tools is never questioned. In other words, the book would profit if affect had also and at the same time be taken to be a sign or symptom of social configurations. Otherwise narrativity and affect run the risk of being taken as atemporal, quasi-Kantian, categories. But perhaps this is the price to be paid for a kind of writing that, being faithful to itself, never ceases to be stunning.
Marnin Young: The Antinomies of Time
As the first two chapters of Fredric Jameson’s book make clear, the antinomies of realism can be understood as the dialectical interweaving of “the narrative impulse” and what is called “affect.” 1 This interaction ultimately rests on an equally dialectical relation of “destiny”—or, the “chronological temporality of the récit” (10)—and an “eternal present.” “Realism lies at their intersection,” Jameson writes (26). The choice of the word “affect,” defined here at one point as the “autonomization of the sensory” (55), is both surprising and deliberate. No doubt it will prove contentious. It is significant, however, that “affect” replaces the word “description” in the conventional, or conventionally dialectical, understanding of the emergence of realism. While Georg Lukacs famously twinned narration and description in his analysis of the realist novel in order, following Friedrich Engels, to denigrate the work of Emile Zola in favor of Honoré de Balzac, Jameson reverses the evaluation and asserts that with Zola we see the very “codification of affect.”2 Passages from Le Ventre de Paris (1873), among others, demonstrate the difference between the allegorical nature of description in Balzac and what might be more persuasively called the “representation of affect” (76) in the focalized (“point-of-view”) descriptions of the bodily “sensations” of characters in Zola. The consequent “liberation from meaning,” the prying apart of description from its place within a narrative unfolding predetermined by genetic and environmental determinism, moves these passages into “their own temporality” (64).
This temporality, as Jameson repeatedly suggests, has something profoundly to do with painting. Indeed, a “significant, experimental moment in Zola’s approach to affect” can be found in his use of the character Claude Lantier’s “painterly eye” to organize the central character Florent’s perception of the array of food on display at Les Halles (56). Zola himself later defined description as “la peinture nécessaire du milieu.”3 Parallel to this literary investment in affect and its temporality, Wagnerian chromaticism and the painting of Édouard Manet led to later “pseudo-scientific experiments with perception” that released a “flow of affect” (41). Ultimately, and importantly, “Time is thus famously eternalized by Monet’s impressionism, as the latter painted his haystacks or cathedrals at every moment of the day from dawn to dusk, seizing each shade of light as a distinct event which the surfaces in question are but a pretext for capturing” (41). And in turn, “This new ‘pure present’ of the visual data of paint and painting in reality harbors new kinds of narrative movement and awakens new trajectories in the movement of the eye and new conceptions of the visual event and its new temporalities” (41). Like painting in the “era of Zola’s defense of Manet and of nascent impressionism,” Le Ventre de Paris unleashes “sensory onslaughts” that “suggest whole new forms of temporal organization” (65).
As these artistic references imply, the anti-narrative “present” which Jameson explicitly identifies “as the realm of affect” (10) has been more consistently associated in the history of art with “realism’s dissolution, which we always seem to call modernism” (8-9). Indeed, as Michael Fried has argued in Manet’s Modernism; or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s, “pictorial realism in the West has often involved a tacit or implicit illusion of the passage of time, of sheer duration.”4 This tendency has followed one of two means of representing time in painting: that which is “keyed to the persistence, essentially unchanged over time, of easel paintings as material objects.”5 In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, following Fried’s account of the anti-theatrical tradition, this mode was consistently found in paintings whose characters are so absorbed in their own thoughts or actions that they effectively deny the beholder’s presence in front of the canvas.6 Jameson quite convincingly brings this understanding of anti-theatricality to bear on a number issues, including notably the persistence of melodrama in Zola’s work. Yet, he does not note that, in tandem with the very emergence of the term “realism”—“with Duranty and the supporters of painters like Courbet” (10)—absorption in its Diderotian conception started to unravel. In the work of both Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet, the longstanding artistic drive to compel conviction—to make paintings that appear uncontrived, natural, real—demanded more and more extreme forms of absorption and temporal duration, culminating ultimately with the “reversing or liquidating” of the entire absorptive tradition in the painting of Manet.7 With this turn, Fried argues, a second pictorial temporality came to dominate: “instantaneousness.” What he also has called “presentness” flows from the perception that the surface of a canvas can be “taken in all at once, ‘as a whole,’ in a single immeasurably brief coup d’oeil.”8 The latter mode subsequently came to dominate in modernist aesthetics, but the interrelation of the two has long been understood as complex.9
Even Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, whose 1766 Laocoön canonized the conventional notion of such temporal limitations—“the single moment in time to which art must confine itself”—was concerned to underline that artworks are “created not merely to be given a glance but to be contemplated—contemplated repeatedly and at length.”10 Following Aristotlean theories of unity, however, academic theory in the mid-nineteenth century came to insist that, “in painting, the setting is immutable, the time indivisible, and the action instantaneous.”11 As avant-garde painters sought to evade the limitations of such narrative confines, pictorial duration and instantaneousness were, in turn, increasingly intensified.
For their part, realist painters of the 1840s and 1850s endeavored to sustain their representational fictions by harnessing a durational temporality in both form and content. Paradigmatically, the After Dinner at Ornans showcases Courbet’s “consistent eschewal of instantaneousness in favor of effects of duration, of slow or repetitive or continuous actions, the very perception of which is felt by the viewer to take place over time.”12 Here the continuous violin playing of Courbet’s friend Alphonse Promayet on the right buoys the subdued but persistent absorption of Adolphe Marlet, lighting a pipe with his back to the viewer; Urbain Cuenot on the far side of the table; and the painter’s father on the left of the canvas. A dog lies curled beneath Marlet’s chair, asleep, unmoving. For many long minutes, the beholder must imagine, the scene has endured exactly like this; nothing indicates it will change anytime soon. The painting calls up “an almost palpable temporal duration.”13
In the decades that followed, however, the modernist painting that emerged in the work of Manet, with its “striking” and emphatic foregrounding of the flatness of the painted surface, saw a pendulum swing in pictorial temporality. A canvas such as The Execution of Maximilian—however much it suggests a contradictory and narrow “temporal extension”—can be said to function within “the framework of a thematics of instantaneousness, keyed to the flame and smoke issuing from the muskets.”14 Fried summarizes the extraordinary temporal self-consciousness of the production: “It’s hard to think of another picture in all Western art that so determinedly draws attention to the inevitably aporetic nature of the fiction of instantaneousness even as it appeals to that fiction for its basic structure.”15 That Impressionism could be understood only a few years later to represent “movement’s elusive, fugitive, instantaneous quality”16 or “the impression of the first coup d’oeil”17 flows directly from Manet’s innovations. By the late 1870s, when The Execution of Maximilian was finally shown in public, the motif, the rendering, and the experience of avant-garde painting all suggested not duration but what was then called, for the first time, “instantaneity.”18
As Fried suggests, however, and as I have argued elsewhere, the earlier durational temporality associated with the painting of Courbet persisted into the early 1880s.19 Indeed, the artists most closely associated with Zola’s literary innovations—naturalism is what he called the painting of Jules Bastien-Lepage for instance—were consistently pulled between a durational time built on a thematics of absorption and an instantaneousness associated not only with impressionism but increasingly with photography.20 In key instances, a double-structure of duration and instant fueled the distinctive pictorial concerns of later realist painters such as Gustave Caillebotte or the early James Ensor.21 That the former’s 1875 Floor Scrapers appears on the cover of The Antinomies of Realism ultimately begs the question, then, of the relation between the “painterly eye” of the novelist and the painting of the same period. Is the “intersection” of temporalities in the realist novel the same as that found in later realist painting?
That Jameson is the first to situate the emergence of a parallel temporal double-structure in Zola’s novels should not surprise anyone who has followed his longstanding concern with modernity’s shifting “conceptualization of time and temporality” (9). Following Arno Mayer’s broad historical revisionism, Jameson has more than once called attention to the “uneven development” of the temporal ordering of European culture.22 Before World War I, he has indicated, only a small segment of the population would have felt the rigors of measured, clock time as decisively undoing an older, natural view of time. For reasons that remain fully to be explained modernism in fact came to embrace the forms of temporality most closely associated with a still-emergent modernity—in the visual arts, instantaneity most obviously—much in advance of society as a whole. The artistic productions of the late-nineteenth century, and by extension the “affective” temporalities of the realist novel, thus emerged from a visceral and ongoing cultural tension between older and newer temporalities. As Jameson himself puts it in an earlier essay, “the protagonists of those aesthetic and philosophical revolutions were people who still lived in two distinct worlds simultaneously; born in those agricultural villages we still sometimes characterize as medieval or premodern, they developed their vocations in the new urban agglomerations with their radically distinct and ‘modern’ spaces and temporalities. The sensitivity to deep time in the moderns then registers this comparatist perception of the two socioeconomic temporalities which the first modernists had to negotiate in their own lived experience.”23
Something like a temporal bilingualism—experienced time persisting side-by-side with measured time—characterizes the cultural ground from which new artistic productions emerged in the 1870s. The representation of instantaneity in impressionism, for example, could have been comprehended by its historical audience only in as much as it was distinguished from the duration and slowness found in earlier paintings, such as those of the realist generation that preceded, and within the broader economic and social structures that lagged behind or resisted the temporal reorganizations of capitalism. The representation of affect in Zola’s novels, then, sought to match the aesthetic unity of this emergent modernism, but given its intersection with other more literary temporalities, it should be understood ultimately as one hybrid and transitional solution, among others, to modernity’s broad and ongoing restructuring of the very conception and experience of time.
See also Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood” (1967), in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 167: “it is by virtue of their presentness and instantaneousness that modernist painting and sculpture defeat theater.”↑
On the painting’s “temporal extension,” see John Elderfield, Manet and the Execution of Maximilian, exh. cat. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2006), 125.↑
Danielle Coriale: Existential Eliot
Apprehending realism is like looking for the burning filament in an incandescent bulb: it ends in our turning away, eyes seared with the residual image we couldn’t quite make out when staring directly into the light. The filament eventually appears, but only belatedly, after we have stopped looking for it. According to Jameson, most studies of realism are reluctant to confront their subject directly: they have charted its rise and fall, and described its opposition to other –isms (modernism is a favorite), but they have not yet apprehended its constitutive dynamics, the struggling forces within realism that, paradoxically, enable it to flourish. By contrast, Jameson’s new book, Antinomies of Realism, studies its subject directly, drawing on Hegelian dialectics to reconstruct the oppositional temporalities and other structuring antinomies that animate realism from within. In works by different novelists, he discerns a struggle between the récit (a term that refers to both the tale and its telling) and affect, which resists the onrushing temporality of the récit: in Tolstoy, it is the rapid succession of moods; in Zola, it is the streets, crowds, animals, and objects that appeal to the senses; in Galdós, it is the disappearance of protagonicity. In George Eliot’s novels, the récit resurges in the form of melodrama, which ‘menaces’ the increasingly democratic form of her novels.1
The persistence of melodrama in Eliot’s fiction is a fascinating subject and one that has received considerable attention.2 But Jameson is the first to turn to existentialism to explain why, as one early twentieth-century critic observed, “there is rarely a hero, never a villain” in Eliot’s novels.3 Jameson’s careful readings of Adam Bede, Romola, and Middlemarch demonstrate that Eliot endowed her would-be villains with a surprising degree of psychological complexity that disturbs conventional notions of them as “represented evil.”4 She did this to accomplish what many agree was her most pressing formal imperative: the democratic redistribution of narrative attention across a network of thinking, feeling characters.5 In place of evil archetypes, then, Eliot presents weak, fallible characters that are dimly aware of their wrongdoings and search for ways to justify their actions to themselves. But it is in these justifications, Jameson argues, that Eliot anticipates existentialism, for they are examples of mauvaise foi, or bad faith.
Mauvaise foi occurs when a person lies to himself; he convinces himself that he does not know what he must know; he chooses to believe (falsely) in a story he has told himself so he can avoid the truth of his own freely chosen actions. Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir organized a new ethical system around the recognition of mauvaise foi, arguing that one is neither good nor bad, but more or less willing to acknowledge one’s free choice. Sartre and Beauvoir describe mauvaise foi in complicated and often contradictory ways, in part because bad faith is situational and plays out differently in each case and, as Beauvoir would argue, for different subjects.6 Perhaps this is why George Eliot recognized mauvaise foi long before the existentialists. As a novelist, she was accustomed to granular particularity, an expert at tracing the minute processes that each mind undergoes (or refuses to undergo!) while performing an action or reflecting upon one. And so, Jameson finds case after stunning case of mauvaise foi avant le lettre in Eliot’s novels, a discovery that aligns her with existentialist ethics.
One of the most compelling cases Jameson examines is that of Arthur Donnithorne, who seduces and abandons a pregnant Hetty Sorrel in Adam Bede. That Arthur should or ought have known better than to seduce Hetty is irrelevant; what matters is that he did know better, but persuaded himself to believe otherwise—this is mauvaise foi. And as I discovered by reading period reviews, Eliot’s contemporaries discerned its peculiar presence in Adam Bede. Writing in 1861, one reviewer described Arthur’s mind as “at crosspurposes with itself… a mind resolving on good,” but paradoxically “content to fail, wishing and longing to fail, even while it resolves.”7 Thus in Arthur, the reviewer writes, “We see the whole process of self-debate and self-deceit,” a process that is prone to embarrassing and revealing interruptions. The reviewer refers to one such interruption, when Arthur is divested of “all screening self-excuse for an instant, and he stood face to face with the first great irrevocable evil he had ever committed.” The reviewer responds to this passage with outrage: “Then?—not till then!—then?—only for an instant!”8 Jameson’s argument is borne out beautifully, if proleptically, in this exclamatory response: it confirms that what is most outrageous about Arthur is not so much his failure to behave morally; it is his refusal to think authentically.
Authenticity is not as easily achievable as one might think for either Eliot or Beauvoir, both of whom saw that certain subjects are discouraged from realizing their inborn human freedom. As Toril Moi argues, Beauvoir’s understanding of mauvaise foi was complicated by the fact that “sexist society encourages women to take up positions of bad faith—that is to say, to hide their freedom, their status as subjects, from themselves”—a point that often escapes readers of the philosophically impoverished English translation of The Second Sex.9 But even in her early ethical writings, Beauvoir was interested in the obstacles that inhibit Sartrean freedom. In her 1947 book, Pour une morale de l’ambigu?té (The Ethics of Ambiguity), Beauvoir explains that “l’ignorance, l’erreur sont des faits aussi ineluctables que les murs d’une prison” (ignorance, error are facts that are as unavoidable/inevitable as the walls of a prison).10 Ignorance and error present a particularly pressing problem for existentialist ethics because they inhibit freedom, which is a precondition of authenticity. One must first be liberated from the bonds of ignorance in order to fully comprehend conditions as they exist, including truth of one’s own freedom. Only then can one either choose mauvaise foi or resist its lures. But where is the line between mauvaise foi and l’ignorance? How can we possibly discern if one is acting in genuine ignorance or feigned ignorance (hence bad faith)? Eliot’s granularity is helpful here, particularly the case of Hetty Sorrel, which Jameson leaves tantalizingly unexamined.
Seduced and abandoned by Arthur Donnithorne, Hetty might seem more like the imperiled victim of melodrama than one of its cruel villains. But when she buries her baby alive at the base of a nut tree, she threatens to become “the coldly villainous woman…the witch and evil sorceress who kills her own offspring (Medea).”11 Realism, Jameson argues, is intent on “dissolving these archetypes” and appropriating their plots “for new acts of freedom,” too. And Eliot does liberate Hetty from her role as Medea. But as with the cases Jameson discusses, the fascination lies in how Hetty exonerates herself, how she permits herself to believe what she knows not to be true—that her baby may survive. This moment reveals one of Eliot’s most fascinating insight into existentialist ethics. This is portion of Hetty’s prison-cell confession to Dinah Morris:
I don’t know how I felt about the baby. I seemed to hate it – it was like a heavy weight hanging round my neck; and yet its crying went through me, and I daredn’t look at its little hands and face. But I went on to the wood, and I walked about […] I came to a place where there was lots of chips and turf, and I sat down on the trunk of a tree to think what I should do. And all of a sudden I saw a hole under the nut-tree, like a little grave. And it darted into me like lightning – I’d lay the baby there, and cover it with the grass and the chips. I couldn’t kill it any other way. And I’d done it in a minute; and, O, it cried so, Dinah – I couldn’t cover it quite up – I thought perhaps somebody ‘ud come and take care of it, and then it wouldn’t die […] I thought it was alive…I don’t know whether I was frightened or glad…I don’t know what I felt. I only know I was in the wood and heard the cry. I don’t know what I felt till I saw the baby was gone.12
On the surface, this might appear to be a clear case of mauvaise foi: Hetty convinces herself that somebody might find the baby: “I couldn’t cover it quite up – I thought perhaps somebody ‘ud come and take care of it, and then it wouldn’t die.” And later, at the end of her confession, she returns to this point: “when I’d put it there, I thought I should like somebody to find it, and save it from dying.”13 She admits during the confession that this was the only way she could bear to kill the baby, so her desire to believe that ‘somebody would come’ is bad faith. But the repetition of phrases beginning with “I don’t know” or “I didn’t know” is peculiar; it stresses Hetty’s not knowing at every turn, calling attention to her ignorance—she does not know her own feelings, her senses, her motives, or even the baby’s state of being.
Hetty’s case requires a more nuanced understanding of what bad faith decisions are and compels us to contemplate the larger forces that make it more or less difficult to recognize one’s freedom. In this way, Eliot anticipates Beauvoir as much as Sartre. Like Beauvoir, she understood the paradox of authenticity: that one can only achieve it if one can comprehend its promise. Hetty, we discover, is poorly equipped for such comprehension. The narrator explains that, “She was too ignorant of everything beyond the simple notions and habits in which she had been brought up, to have any more definite idea of her probable future than that Arthur would take care of her somehow, and shelter her from anger and scorn.”14 Hetty’s “simple notions and habits” do not supply her with enough awareness to understand her predicament and its probable outcome. Eliot helps us to see that the line between mauvaise foi and l’ignorance is blurry, particularly when a person’s habitus damages her ability to comprehend the knowledge she does not have or the authenticity she is not well enough positioned to choose.
George Eliot, ever the novelist of exemplarity, could not leave off without providing an example of bonne foi, especially in Middlemarch, but the character she chooses may surprise anyone who expects a morally perfect exemplar. For existential Eliot, the exemplary character is not Dorothea, but Rosamond. Known as the selfish, unreflective, callous character whose vanity and disregard for others make her an unsympathetic outlier, Rosamond Vincy is the novel’s existential heroine. This becomes clear at the end of the novel, after Will Ladislaw accuses her of misrepresenting the relationship between them to Dorothea. In the famous exchange between Rosamond and Dorothea, Rosamond feels compelled to tell her the truth—that Will loves Dorothea and cares nothing for her (Rosamond). She is “urged by a mysterious necessity to free herself from something that oppressed her as if it were blood-guiltiness.”15 Rosamond’s feeling of oppression stems from a guilt that she refuses to conceal from herself. Instead, she confronts it directly and chooses to stem her guilt by acting in good faith. The narrator observes that this is new to Rosamond, who “had delivered her soul under impulses which she had not known before. She had begun her confession under the subduing influence of Dorothea’s emotion; and as she went on she had gathered the sense that she was repelling Will’s reproaches, which were still like a knife-wound within her.” Rosamond struggles valiantly against what Jameson calls (channeling Sartre) the “trauma of my image in other people’s eyes which I am powerless to modify.”16 But her struggle ends in truth-telling rather than self-deceit; whereas Rosamond could choose to lie to herself about that trauma and give herself over to mauvaise foi, she refuses to succumb to a false consciousness and chooses authenticity instead.
We are meant to see Rosamond’s momentary triumph over mauvaise foi as heroic, a good faith effort to confront her guilt and override her more venal inclinations. And crucially, Rosamond is not good: she is, as Lydgate moodily reflects in the finale, “a plant which had flourished wonderfully on a murdered man’s brains.”17 But she refuses to be unhappy, at least not through her own bad faith gesture. While moralists might find it perverse, Middlemarch delivers a new kind of heroine in Rosamond, for she achieves a rare moment of authenticity when her own dispositions and inclinations were working against her. Thus Jameson is right about existential Eliot: the dialectical forces operating within her realism help to neutralize the heavy-handed moralism that Nietzsche famously ridiculed her novels for exemplifying. But it may be that Middlemarch only replaces morality with a new metric of ethical value: authenticity. It has been suggested, a French scholar writes, “that the only prescriptive content of existentialist ethics is the injunction to avoid bad faith.”18 Perhaps this is true of Eliot, too. This is one of many lines of inquiry that Jameson’s new book provokes, to say nothing of the other antinomies we may discover elsewhere in realism’s vast expanses.
Kevin Chua: Jamesonian Affect, or the Lower Depths
Advocates of “new” theories don’t always integrate their theories with older, existing ones; the blazing of “new” trails often ends up retreading familiar ground. This seems particularly true of affect theory, which, in its rush towards newness,1 has displaced, and largely forgotten, issues and problems that have been worked out in neighboring fields and para-disciplines such as media theory,2 science studies,3 cultural technique,4 psychoanalytic criticism, infrastructural criticism,5 and post-formalist art history.6 The disciplinary displacement or overcoming that is affect theory resembles the problem of affect as such: while affects, as pre-personal and pre-conscious intensities7 that are ontologically prior to feelings and emotions, have the potential to destabilize our common understandings of consciousness, agency, and politics, they pose serious questions with regard to causality and empirical observation. A gap or lacuna haunts Fredric Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism,8 which has to do with the space between affect and the dialectic: can affect ultimately be subsumed into the dialectic – is affect, at the end of the day, dialectical? My main point is this: Jameson mistakes the autonomy of affect for the autonomy of the Marxist dialectic.9
Overall, Jameson’s book rests on a series of oppositions: récit/roman, god-like narration/subjective point of view, telling (or the reciting of events)/showing (or sheer presence), meaningful sensory experience/meaningless sensory experience, rational/irrational, referentiality/autoreferentiality, (conscious) emotions/(unconscious) affects. Generally, the move from the former to latter term – which governs the entire text – is also the historical turn to affect that takes place from Balzac to Flaubert and after. Writers like Zola and Galdós all variously adhere to the latter set of terms.
A characteristic passage is as follows: “At this point, then, a parting of the ways becomes unavoidable. The ‘serious’ writer – that is, the one who aspires to the distinction of literature – will keep faith with what alone authentically survives the weakening of all the joints and joists, the bulkheads and loadbearing supports, of narrative as such, of the récit on its point of submersion: namely affect as such, whose triumph over its structural adversary is that bodiliness that alone marks any singularity in the everyday, and which now turns to engage its new literary adversary in lyric and language. Its fate is henceforth the fate of modernism, and no longer has any place in this particular story.” (184) Affect is given a transcending power, with the rhetoric of weight in the passage enabling a corresponding elevation and escape. And yet the potentiality of affective intensities is just that – a potentiality. Pre-conscious affects do not automatically or necessarily succeed into conscious emotion and meaning. In fact the very ‘power’ of affect paradoxically comes from its not converting into something higher.
Jameson uses the phrase “lower depths” several times (eg. 45, 148), but not only, it seems, to describe the proletariat. The phrase serves as a metaphor in his text, and points to his assimilation of affect into a Freudian, depth model of the unconscious. Affect is endowed with a rupturing power – much like Hegelian spirit – with the unconscious always on the verge of breaking through the surface of consciousness, as it were (eg. 76). So Jameson equates the movement of affect from lower to upper levels to the movement ‘up’ the dialectic.10 If Brian Massumi found the radical “autonomy” of affect, paradoxically, in its capture and closure “in” the body,11 for Jameson, autonomy lies in affect’s forward-moving, transcending power, capable of bringing narrative into non-narrative, subjects into pure abstract form. But, as Ruth Leys has convincingly shown, the avowed gap between affect and cognition in affect theorists like Massumi contains a logical fallacy: affect still falls under the purview of a larger intentionality, and the opposition between mind and body is less firm than we might at first think.12 Jameson gives affect too much of a structuring or destroying-creating power, and this determinism ironically robs affect of its specific, non-signifying force.
The chapter on genre (“Realism and the Dissolution of Genre”) is a good instance where we find Jameson’s dialectical model breaking down under the weight – or better, unbearable lightness – of affect. That there are so many exceptions to his postulated rule of genres canceling and succeeding into higher versions of themselves, all but proves that the dialectic does not apply, or apply very well. At times, too, Jameson wants to have it both ways: genres supposedly cancel and succeed into modernist synthesis (of non-genre and non-narrative), and yet – as though to secure his point – he says that this is nothing but a “reversion to beginnings,” for the novel is “an omnibus form cobbled together out of heterogenous materials.” (153)
The inadequacy of dialectics for an explanation of affect also manifests in the occasional clichés that crop up in Jameson’s text. For example, “enlightenment secularization” (143): here he assumes the “autonomy” of the secular enlightenment over older, and supposedly more naïve, religious myths and mysticisms. Yet recent studies have all but overturned this cliché of an enlightenment characterized by “demystification” (173) and the triumph of the secular over the religious.13 Another cliché: “older ideologies, such as vitalism.” (71) Vitalism was long seen to have indulged in a mysticism of the body (the body as governed by a metaphysical inner force). The assumption in Jameson’s phrase is of the autonomy of the rational mind over the body, in all its supposed intractability and opacity. Yet recent work has emphasized how different and strikingly non-metaphysical at least 18th-century vitalism was from the cliché of mystical vitalism (which was itself a critique mostly made by Marxists in the 19th and early-20th centuries, who were arrogating power and autonomy for their own mechanical and ‘secular’ philosophy).14 A few Eurocentrisms also nag Jameson’s text – this from a scholar who has done so much for global literary criticism. For instance, his reference to an “export model” of literary transmission (179) propagates the misleading notion that ideas were flowing unidirectionally from one (Western) culture to a (non-Western) other. Autonomy here relates to the tired Eurocentric notion of the superiority and historical (a)priority of Western culture over the cultures of the non-West. (One thinks here of Perry Anderson’s trenchant account of how the term “postmodern” first arose outside the West, and was only later adopted, however critically, by theorists like Jameson.)15 The “export model” also privileges the sender and disseminatory context rather than the receiver and place of uptake; new scholarship in communication and media theory has, however, problematized this sender-receiver model that took hold between the 18th and 20th centuries, which borrows its root metaphor from the postal system and telegraphy.16 Communication, even in the 18th and 19th centuries, happened more instantaneously, and more para-contextually (think of the so-called “butterfly effect”), than any linear import-export model. Affect was there: before the railway, before late-19th century globalization, before non-Western culture came to be thought of as “backward” and primitive (Teresa Brennan interestingly points out that the model of the impermeable self – which certain strands of affect theory have tried to overcome – is a construction that began in the West, with the beginnings of manners and civilization after the Medieval era.17 Affect might allow more conceptual parity between Western and non-Western cultures.)
Some of the most revealing moments in Jameson’s book occur in passages that he finds in Zola, Tolstoy, and Galdós. And if there was a novelist to whom affect theory could apply, it would be Zola. Passages in Le Ventre de Paris (1873) and Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) are not just marvels of miniaturist description; here it is as though phenomenology turns in on itself – what’s visualized ‘outside’ seems to correspond to movements ‘inside’ the living body (in the case of Le Ventre de Paris, literally the belly of the city). Yet these passages (eg. on 53-54 and 57-58), rich and interesting as they are, do not tell us much about affect (affect in the strict sense of pre-conscious intensities). They seem more about the unrelenting ‘mereness’ of sensations: what if affects are just ‘there,’ and not so easily swept up into the dialectic? Nor does Jameson’s analysis – shuttling between the poles of unification and multiplicity, mastery and loss of control–18 surpass Susan Harrow’s arguments in her trenchant book Zola, the Body Modern.19 What would be a heteronomy of affect, with intensities morphing or branching into other intensities? One solution, perhaps, is to describe the circularities that obtain between affect and cognition, intensity and meaning. That might be one way to avoid a depth model of the unconscious, and move instead towards a topological model of the self, and of the body and its milieu.
Ultimately, the peculiar temporality of affect seems insufficiently explained by the dialectic, which – in Jameson’s use at least – remains linear.20 Perhaps the non-linearity of affect was already there in Deleuze: he alone saw the Hegelian dialectic as something limiting, and sought out a more expansive and non-reducible temporality.21 What would be an affect that is truly anachronic,22 and how would we describe it? Though Antinomies of Realism is a mighty book on affect in 19th-century European literature, I suspect the great book on affect is yet to come.