Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism

(London: Verso, 2014)

Jameson’s The Antinomies of Realism is primarily concerned with questions of literary form, yet the readings it offers invite rethinking the politics of the novel—and how the novel might be political. Does the 19th-century bourgeois novel represent collectivity—as opposed to the bourgeois individualism that, at least since Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel (1957), we assume to be at the core of the novel as a literary form? Can the novel’s vocation be to make History—the “collective struggle to wrest a realm of Freedom from a realm of Necessity” (as Jameson put it in The Political Unconscious)—visible?

Antinomies argues that the late 19th-century European realist novel—in particular, novels by Émile Zola, Leo Tolstoy, Pérez Galdós, and George Eliot—is animated by the tension between two opposing representational impulses. The narrative impulse, which also goes by the name récit (or tale), predates both realism and the novel. By récit Jameson means (following André Gide) “the tale of a unique personal existence or destiny” (17). Unique, personal, destiny: the narrative impulse of late 19th-century realism tends to be an individuating impulse committed to the irrevocability of events and the temporality of “past-present-future” (25). The impulse of affect, by contrast, entails the representation of bodily sensation in language, scenic description rather than narrative plotting, and the appearance within narrative fiction of a kind of eternal present of non-individuated, impersonal consciousness.

Antinomies may be read as a reworking of Georg Lukács’s 1936 “Narrate or Describe?”There Lukács offers a political critique of the tendency toward scenic description in naturalist novels (Émile Zola’s in particular). Lukács claimed that before the bourgeois counterrevolution of 1848, bourgeois novels narrate; after, they describe. Novels that narrate, according to Lukács, are novels where characters are active participants in the unfolding of historical events. In novels that describe, by contrast, characters are passive observers—“mere spectators” (116)—of historical events. The shift from narration to description is for Lukács owing to the development of capitalism (“the continuous dehumanization of human life” [127]), and it reflects a fundamental pessimism in novelists about the emergence of an agent capable of contesting capitalism. Zola’s description, Lukács writes, “debases characters to the level of inanimate objects” (133).

For Jameson, Zola is “the novelist who offers some of the richest and most tangible deployments of affect in nineteenth-century realism” (45). Jameson presents lengthy quotations from Zola, demonstrating how his scenic descriptions work. “Zola imagined himself to be documenting the multiplicity of destinies played out on his immense social stage, each destiny with a specific and unique content of its own,” writes Jameson; yet in Zola’s scenic descriptions “individual destinies” are “transformed into the abstract fever-charts of affects and intensities rising and falling; and Zola’s narratives are what happen to individuals and their destinies when their récits [their specific, unique plots] fall into the force-field of affect and submit to its dynamic” (76). Thus, Zola’s realm of affect spells the de-individuation of individual characters: “his people begin to exist as bodies first and foremost, despite their identification as characters in the older sense. Zola’s novels are immense accumulations of bodies in movement and intersection…” (76). The representation of affect within realism thus names the tilt toward inter- and extra-subjective forces. This makes sense when we turn to the chapters on Tolstoy, Galdós, and Eliot, where affect emerges more in plot than in scenic description. “Tolstoy’s characters,” Jameson writes, “are…contaminated by the other in one way or another, and…inner life will not uniquely distinguish any one individual figure, will not in other words serve as a psychologically distinguishing trait or individualizing characteristic” (84). In Tolstoy, the ‘contamination’ of characters by other characters becomes the narrative itself.

While for Lukács Zola’s description tends toward “subjectivism” (140), insofar as it renders characters monads amidst the swirl of things and events to which they have become passive observers, for Jameson “subjectivism” is found in other formal techniques of the realist novel. One tradition of criticism—the one extending from Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction (1921) to James Wood’s How Fiction Works (2008)—has celebrated point of view and free indirect discourse as great aesthetic achievements, but Jameson takes a different tack: for him, point of view and free indirect discourse, especially as developed by Henry James, “reflect that more general emergence of the subject of consciousness which we call individualism on the social level, as well as on the ideological one; and their codification as literary norms is then equally ideological” (181). With Henry James, according to Jameson, “the uniqueness of the individual destiny” becomes a law of fiction matched by “the requirement of point of view as the form in which the individuality of each character should be framed” (182). According to Jameson, discernible point of view and free indirect discourse are the antinomies of affect:  like the narrative impulse and unlike the scenic descriptions Jameson finds in Zola, these formal developments are committed to the individuation of individuals. Jameson celebrates Zola for having yet to figure out—and Tolstoy for refusing to kowtow to—discernible point of view and free indirect discourse.

At times Jameson endows the realm of affect with specific political content. It may index utopian socialist tendencies (in Tolstoy) or bourgeois egalitarian ones (in Galdós and Eliot). Yet the realm of affect in late 19th-century realism is not given defined political content in Antinomies. Realism’s affect does not necessarily entail for Jameson a view of how collective processes and struggles might or should unfold over time, because it is by definition stuck in a perpetual present. Jameson thus realigns with Lukács, for whom all sense of history evaporates from the bourgeois novel after 1848. “Description,” Lukács writes, “contemporizes everything” (130). So, too, does realism’s affect according to Jameson. Jameson’s point is not that affect alone is the way forward. Instead, he is waging a historical argument: late 19th-century realism is defined by a tension between narrative and affect, and later novels dissolve this tension by offering a form of fiction—what Jameson calls “realism after realism”—dominated by a “a conjuncture of point of view, style indirect libre and the loosely named stream of consciousness” (184). According to Jameson, this form of realism, which dispatches the impersonal present of earlier realism, is committed to absolute individuation—and thus it is the perfect complement to “a late-capitalist and consumerist present eager to persuade us that nothing is irrevocable and that everything is possible” (184).

Certain 19th-century novels may overcome—rather than dissolve—realism’s antinomies. Jameson offers Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-96), Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-53), and Eliot’s Middlemarch as examples of “providential realism.” Providential here is secular: it names the “redemption” and “salvation” of individuals and collectivities in secular time. Jameson sets the stage for his discussion of these novels by invoking “the well-known alternative within the Marxist tradition between voluntarism and fatalism” (200) as an inflection of the antinomy between free will and predestination in religious thinking, and he seeks to delineate a mode of narration that transcends this antinomy. Providential realism is a form of fiction wherein the plot trajectories of seemingly disparate characters are revealed to be part of meaningful, redemptive ‘plans,’ ‘plans’ which are themselves produced by individual and collective actors as they engage with and thereby transform their historical circumstances. What we find in providential realism, then, corresponds to “the overcoming of Menshevist fatalism and Bolshevist voluntarism when both are recognized as symptomatic of their “insufficiently developed political situation” (201). Wilhelm Meister, Bleak House, and Middlemarch might not seem to speak to contemporary leftists, but this is precisely what Jameson has them do.

If “the problem of the representation of collectivity” (280) is at the heart of Lukács’s 1947 The Historical Novel, so too is it the focus of Jameson’s concluding inquiry into the possibility of the historical novel today. Jameson disagrees with many of The Historical Novel’s readings of individual novelists and novels, yet he agrees with Lukács that the essence of an historical novel is that it “will let History appear” (264), and that the novel must incorporate “individual characters into a greater totality” (267). For Jameson, Science Fiction might be the form in which a genuinely historical novel is to be found today, insofar as SF’s representations of the future make the present visible as a part of History. Antinomies ends with a celebration of David Mitchell’s 2004 Cloud Atlas, which Jameson says is an instance of “ideological analysis” (308) in its own right. On Jameson’s reading, this novel suggests that an alternative to our late capitalist present requires us to deconstruct the politically debilitating opposition of capitalist ‘civilization’ and savage ‘barbarism.’ What’s more, Cloud Atlas keeps alive the “revolutionary Utopian” impulse (312). It demonstrates that such impulses coexist in history with counter-revolutionary ones. This is all that the historical novel—and the aesthetic sphere more broadly, in Jameson’s view—can or should do today.

Antinomies is a dense, allusive, challenging book. Given the territory it tries to cover and the size of its claims, gaps remain, as Jameson fully acknowledges. The book may not sufficiently flesh out how the formal developments it traces are refractions of economic and political circumstances. Yet it promises to incite debate about late 19th-century realism, the category of realism more broadly, contemporary historical fiction, and SF. And it promises to stimulate inquiry into the ways that literary form does work on and for History.

Reviewed by Joe Shapiro
Southern Illinois University-Carbondale


1. In Lukács, Writer and Critic, and Other Essays. Trans. Arthur D. Kahn. New York: Universal Library, 1971, 110-148.

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