Frederic Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic

(London: Verso, 2010)

Over the course of a nearly fifty year career, Frederic Jameson has maintained his devotion to dialectical thinking in the face of rejections of Hegelianism and Soviet-style Marxism from the Left and Right. Perhaps because of this, he is often associated with a particular brand of Western Marxism: erudite, but a bit old-fashioned, better suited to lumbering through the halls of academia than marching in the streets.  Much about Valences of the Dialectic will confirm such assessments. Like many other works in Jameson’s bibliography, Valences is a grand, imposing book, clocking in at nineteen chapters and 600+ pages. It is not a unitary text, but rather a collection of essays on topics ranging from Hegel to Wal-Mart; much of this material has been previously published, with some essays from as far back as the early 1990s. The writing style is typical of Jameson: ideas are at times startling in clarity and incision, sometimes nigh-impenetrable in the density of jargon, always forcefully and intricately pursued. At its best moments, Valences offers a powerful demonstration of the power of dialectical thinking as a tool for political critique and revolutionary action.

Each of the six sections of Valences collects a handful of essays, loosely related by their participation in some aspect of the dialectical process, as Jameson sees it. The first section and its sole chapter share the title of “The Three Names of the Dialectic.” This long essay serves as a rough guide to the overall organization of the volume at hand, as an intensive introduction to dialectics, and as a demonstration of Jameson’s dialectical thinking in action. One of the two original sections of the volume (the other being the final section, discussed below), this chapter is also one of the strongest (the other, again, being the final section). Because the rest of Valences follows loosely upon the intellectual narrative Jameson sketches here, the “Three Names” also serves as a useful vehicle for addressing the book’s overall strengths and weaknesses.

The three “names” of the dialectic are in essence three different stagings of its definition, formed by altering seemingly inconsequential parts of speech. The first two names come from the definite and indefinite articles of the noun form: the dialectic, and a dialectic – or in the plural, as Jameson uses it, many dialectics. The third name shifts into the adjectival: It’s dialectical! is the upbeat title of the corresponding section. Jameson’s approach through this act of close reading is a conceit both clever and insightful, embodying the assertion that dialectical criticism can take root in and cut through even the simplest of situations, providing startling insights in unexpected locations.

The dialectic indicates a totalizing system, universal and teleological. It is this notion of dialectics, traditionally associated with Hegel and Marx, that has been associated with teleological and totalitarian thinking. Jameson’s response to the problem of determinism is typically dialectical, if a bit precious: while rejecting systematic dialectical materialism articulated by Engels for commodifying dialectics in the form of law, he concludes that “it would therefore be profoundly undialectical to exclude this patently undialectical description of the dialectic” (15). For Jameson, the notion of a monolithic dialectic offers something like a deconstructive manifesto: “I believe that theory is to be grasped as the perpetual and impossible attempt to dereify the language of thought” (9). “Theory” here stands in metonymically for dialectics, and in Jameson’s construction, its aims inevitably turn the critical gaze back on itself and against the institutionalizing of any single “language of thought” or ideological notion of dialectics.

The internal contradictions thus revealed unfold into the multiplicity of many dialectics: localized operations of opposition and reinscription that do not cohere into a complete ideology or theoretical edifice. Thinking dialectics as a formal mechanism that can operate at the smallest of scales, Jameson finds even in anti-dialectical thinkers like Nietzsche and Deleuze moments in which “incommensurables” are held together in thought, transforming the action and nature of thinking itself. Jameson incorporates the insights of structuralism and deconstruction and argues that the simple unit of the binary opposition demonstrates how “any opposition can be the starting point for a dialectic in its own right” (19). Here Jameson demonstrates an ecumenical approach to anti-dialectical thinkers that is typical of his work as well as dialectical criticism more generally. He engages with particular moments in philosophical texts that otherwise reject dialectical systematization as part of his overall theoretical project to disrupt “ordinary habits of mind” (50).

So the many dialectics give rise to dialectics not as a subject but a predicate: “It’s dialectical!” As the exclamation point suggests, surprise is the cognitive state Jameson imagines here. It is as if one had stumbled upon a paradox and shouted out “it’s dialectical!” upon realizing that “the problem itself becomes the solution, and that the opposition in which we are immobilized like a ship in the ice must itself now become the object of our thinking” (51). This third name of the dialectic emphasizes paradox, or to use the term employed by Žižek, one of Jameson’s interlocutors in this section, “parallax.” The idea of dialectics as an effect or trait, instead of either a system or a formal operation, emphasizes dialecticity as a “perspective … to make us suddenly conscious not only of our own non-dialectical obtuseness but also of the strangeness of reality as such” (50). And this, I think, is the core objective of Jameson’s book and the essence of his dialectical approach: the ability to occupy a position in which multiple, contradictory narratives illuminate the “strangeness of reality.”

The name for this position in Jameson’s lexicon is Utopia, another concept he has held to despite its rejection, most famously by Althusser, as just another ideological illusion. For Jameson, who was an early champion of science fiction in the academy, utopian thinking is essential to any truly revolutionary politics, for without the ability to imagine something completely other than the present, one cannot engage with the injustices of the now. In the final section, “Valences of History,” Jameson elaborates on the critical task of constructing such a position under the injunctions to make time and history “appear.” In this book-length essay, Jameson engages in a lengthy critique of Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative, a rather obscure and difficult text in its own right. By “make time appear,” Jameson means an active engagement with moments of what Aristotle termed peripeteia, or “reversal of fortune,” in order to uncover within the present the dialectical reversal of perspective which suddenly opens us to unexpected possibilities. A prime example comes from an earlier chapter, “Utopia as Replication,” in which Jameson offers Wal-Mart as the basis for utopian thinking: the global capitalist machinery that supports Wal-Mart also contains within itself the potential for the revolutionary upheaval of capitalism as a model for large-scale collective action. The point, Jameson is careful to note, is not “to celebrate Wal-Mart, let alone to forecast the emergence of anything good and progressive from this astonishing new post-monopoly institution” (433). Rather, it is to grasp the potential within the present for a different sort of future than the one that appears to common-sense, to understand any individual event as part of a larger historical situation that cannot be fully known or predicted.

Jameson’s arguments in these first and last chapters of the book are striking in their ambition. However, it should also be clear that this book’s strong suit is theory rather than praxis. Jameson’s dialectical approach is persuasive and powerful, and I believe that he makes the case for the practical and revolutionary potential of dialectical (and utopian) thinking. Such application, however, is left largely to others. There are other weaknesses to the text as well. For a book on dialectics, there is little enough said about Marx (the chapter “Marx’s Purloined Letter” is a reprinted review of Derrida’s Specters of Marx), a strange absence that Jameson acknowledges (and corrects in his 2011 Representing Capital, a similarly weighty volume devoted to the dialectics of Marx).The chapters on Sartre are reprints of Jameson’s introductions to the Critique of Dialectical Reasoning, and as such feel thin for such a weighty and ambitious tome. And besides the fact that most of it has been previously published, many essays in the central sections of the book are dated in their subject matter. The “contemporary anti-Hegelians” Jameson interrogates – Derrida, Deleuze, and Blanchot – are hardly contemporary, even if some of them are still posthumously publishing. And apart from the chapter on Wal-Mart, Jameson’s engagement with “current events” remains stuck in the last century, targeting the likes of Reagan and Thatcher rather than Bush or Blair.

In sum, Valences of the Dialectic provides a dense, powerful explication and demonstration of Jameson’s dialectical methods. Readers looking for explicit engagement with current politics are likely to be disappointed; admittedly, Jameson’s erudition often leads him into lofty, abstract realms of critical theory. But those willing to work their way through his difficult prose will find elaborated here a powerful intellectual tool for the radical critique of global capitalism and the articulation of revolutionary political aims.

Reviewed by Ryan Singh Paul
English Department
Texas A&M-Kingsville
ryanspaul@gmail.com

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