Monday, January 7, 2008

Story of the New

Jameson, Frederic. A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present. Verso, 2002.

I have just finished a rather quick reading of Frederic Jameson’s A Singular Modernity (2002). Modernity and modernism aren’t terms that I’m especially committed to or that even excite me much, so it perhaps isn’t surprising that the book didn’t move me deeply. Still, it’s almost always worth reading Jameson. There are excellent commentaries here on Foucault, de Man and Althusser, as well as the relationship between Weber and Lukacs. Lots of Heidegger. Forced to summarize, I’d say that the main point of the book is that ‘modernity’ and also ‘modernism’ should be understood as narratives rather than concepts. They are also, to be sure, empirically existing historical realities. However, so many different things fall under these names that one cannot, according to Jameson, come to an empirical finding about their common traits. Rather, they are ways of narrativizing, and as such are always available. Indeed, the larger ‘political’ point seems to me that we (meaning, one supposes, progressive people of the world) should continue to fight to establish our own definitions of modernity, and consequently modernism, over and against the current hegemonic definition which revolves largely around the market.

What I appreciate about this is the effort made to conceptualize the various temporalities as mutually interdependent. The commonsense view might have it that the past determines the present to a certain degree, which itself determines the future within certain limits. Not so. Since the meaning of the past always depends on the narrative within which it is framed, and this narrative, made though it is in the present, always betrays a certain attitude towards the future, we can see that none of the temporal divisions (this can’t be the right way to say it) makes sense without the others. I find this view congenial—also, to a certain degree, commonsensical. It meshes well with the over-theorized temporalities of Gary Wilder’s talk, but seems somehow less self-concerned.

Probably this will go on my syllabus of ‘historical approaches to the literary’ because indeed it is extremely sensitive to these issues. Perhaps I’ll read some of Jameson’s more recent stuff.

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