‘The Ancients and the Postmoderns: On the Historicity of Forms’ by Fredric Jameson reviewed by Conrad DiDiodato

Reviewed by Conrad DiDiodato

About the reviewer

Conrad DiDiodato is a retired secondary school teacher with an interest in Philosophy …


Beginnings can always be very problematic especially if the project – or one project among many – is to trace postmodernism to an ‘Our’ Classicism moment. More problematical still if by that term Fredric Jameson means a specific identification of the Baroque with a significant flowering of artistic production in ‘the first secular age’ (3). The ‘first secular age’ marks the putative beginning of Jameson’s work, and with good reason. Cultural production dating from the Baroque will be one littered with interesting binaries (such as aria and Leitmotif, Wissen and Sinnen, emotion and affect, among others). As certainly as would a similar reading of contemporary drama and film that started from ‘postwar structuralism’ (76).

But is that ‘Our Classicism’ moment enough? Postmodernism is not to be read as the beginning (and continuation) of a moment in time – an overgeneralization of the term, to be sure! – and the role of the postmodernist critic won’t be that of chronicler of facts. And yet history must furnish the materials. To locate the materials of his study in the Baroque and offer this as a platform for a study of the complexes of religious, architectural, artistic and musical expressions that follow from it is sound historical sense. It’s in the new cultural complexes that ‘narrative bodies’ (as he develops that term in the first chapter) will displace erstwhile traditional hegemonic narratives, and a ‘narratorial’ as opposed to a work’s episodic personality will give them voice (86), as in his third chapter.

In other words, history transmuted into historicism reveals a contradiction. Tensions create a contradiction whenever the putative origin of forms is to be seen as ‘a determined set of limits in which a logical permutation scheme is implicit’ (76). It’s the fate of every narrativizing impulse or ‘aspiration to totality’ (76) of cultural productions in general, past and present, to be compelled to reveal the ‘constitutive’ contradiction that is the rise of industrial society itself; to assume that the end has been already foreordained in the ‘many possible outcomes’ (78) that the scheme has set in motion. Historicism is, as any of its manifestations make evident, a contradiction bred primarily of two conflicting senses of time – the time of contingent events and sequences and that of the ‘eternal present’ (112) – and one whose resolution lies somewhere and somehow in that sense of the inevitability of espying the ‘eternal present’ (mostly the present in which we live) of any temporal age. The best Jameson seems able to do is to liken time to ‘ocean currents’ (117) and see the artistic work, starting from any ‘Our Classicism’ origin, as a Deleuzian fluid body that both moves and does not move forward, a ‘momentum’ in which it’s never possible to give accurate historico-cultural coordinates.

Jameson’s reading is both critique and prefigurement, obviously. But, for all that, he perhaps still faces the charge of an overgeneralization. What do we make of this primary historicist tension with which the reader is faced already in a subtitle? Or of the intention of assimilating the ancients to a prevailing postmodernity characterized solely by tensions? What do we make of seeing cultural forms as a lying-in-wait of industrial capitalism? I don’t believe the goal is to make temporal history complicit in capitalism. Jameson doesn’t prefer tensions to organizing principles since a study like his involves both. Artistic forms in the postmodernist age seem to work as unwitting accomplices in capitalist thievery rather than as neatly evolving actors in a Kulturkampf drama. That capitalism has always already been disclosed in the era of the Baroque and post-Baroque (or of ‘postwar structuralism’) may be to simplify things or perhaps to state the obvious.

So Jameson has something even more troubling than the fact of ‘contradiction’ to deal with. He’s tasked with naming the thing itself. And he is not happy with the typical postmodernist way of ‘straddling the fence’ (97) between origins and the pre-capitalist developments they’ve let loose by resorting to terms like ‘Irony’ and invoking the fashionable strategies of ‘bourgeois intellectuals’ (97). If we don’t make the effort to name the unrepresentable here, there is the threat of a real petitio principii. Let’s range over – he seems to say – a field of discrete artists and their œuvre, all happily arrayed, feted and publicized according to the usual conventions of the day, and let the tensions play out, beginning with the one between the Baroque and life in the ‘realm of differentiation’ (3).

What do we get in the postmodernist retelling of painting, music and film if not, to begin with, the rise of secularism as well as the gnawing sense that the very best models have already become too acutely self-conscious of intentions and the materials of their craft? As if we didn’t already know that. Art and deconstructive reading begin – or indeed have always begun – the dance of the ‘low-level Baroque narrative painting’ of, say, a Caravaggio (15), and the sleep of Sampson in Rubens in chapter one; of Wotan and Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring and the emotion and affect dynamics it signifies in chapter two; of the shift in Mahler from ‘continuities to a kind of perpetual present’ (65) or, even better, that from ‘some already recorded score’ (66) to énoncé in chapter three; or in contemporary cinema, ‘the temporal continuity of the long take’ (129) in Angelopoulos and the ‘action or episode’ its designed to create in chapter four; and of the questioning of adaptation of literature to film in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts in chapter eight (199) so that the film can look essentially nothing like the Raymond Carver original. In the discussion of Altman Jameson introduces ‘genre’ as a way to reconcile the antinomy of film production and interpretation (and its accompanying language of ‘rhymes’, ‘cognates’ and ‘themes’).

Again, film will never been seen to arise from music nor music from painting if capitalism – as the hors-texte of Jameso’s reading – is only the shrunken visage of Ozymandias lying partially hidden in the sands, the product always of reading temporality into those artistic moves whose aim is to separate the ‘possibility of some new birth’(76) from the classical strictures, ‘our old habits, our traditional modes of hearing, our old perceptions, our old spatial senses’ (78). How could it be if ‘narrative bodies’ are everywhere and at all times always slowly being engulfed by the overarching ‘bourgeois body’ in the age of Biedermeier (69), where the tensions between consumers and appropriated forms are all that remain; where, in short, only the ‘momentum of the modern as such’ (70) is all that’s ever been in play. That ‘momentum’ is in Jameson’s work formally the equivalent of what, in his analysis of Mahler in particular, he calls the ‘perpetual or eternal present’ (82) and ‘infinite motion’ (84), the counterpoint – if that’s a fair expression – to the sequential and ‘the complete and intelligible “sentence”’ (84) of a work’s temporal form. Here is, again, the tension inherent always and everywhere in the encounter of modernist works with a ‘Our Classicism’ beginning.

In Mahler there can be an unexpected turn to more familiar orchestral moves (of drum rolls, strings and horns) that stand seemingly apart as discrete items under a general ‘Indecision’ category (88) or, in other words, an advanced Modernist principle by which to formally designate things like the confusion and lack of coherence of his later work. But in keeping with the tenor of the discussion of ‘affects’ and Wagner’s Ring, ‘Indecision’ means a discarding of the forms that preceded (like the aria, sonata) and the introduction of a ‘succession of distinct moods’ (93) that makes Mahler a distinctively Modernist figure. Again, it’s not so much an opposition as a tension. The essential discreteness of symphonic work and performance is what prefigures the capitalist age, ‘a new kind of momentum’ (89) that is a deliberate kind of musical energy; it’s what prefigures at the same time Adorno and the rise of mass culture; Baudrillard and the simulacrum, and so on. It’s the Indecision as the ‘our Classicism’ beginning that, among the others in Jameson’s repertoire, prefigures always the work’s ‘not-yet existence as genuine art’ (91).

As conscious as they are of themselves as artistic forms – as they will necessarily have to be if we’re to move beyond the troubling binaries and escape circularity – music can be called things like Brechtian gestus (94) to separate it from its beginnings in ‘base feelings and effects’ (97) or even an Adornian ‘dialectical sentence’ (100) or ‘belief in unbelief’ (100), or perhaps even ‘transcendence’ itself (106). There is something in ‘transcendence’, for example, that leads from classical music to movie soundtrack or to any of its manufactured audience ‘emotions’ instead of ‘affects’; from Mahler to Schoenberg and Kandinsky. To offer a name for the artistic equivalent of capitalism that Mahler anticipates is Jameson’s difficult task and its difficulty is at its most acute in the chapter, the longest in the book, that he’s devoted to Mahler.

Of course, anything after the ‘Modernist’ narrative is bound to be doubly paradoxical. The Postmodern is every bit as rooted in a ‘Our Classicism’ moment that really isn’t one; every bit as bewildered by the terrible binaries of an englobing consumerism that is itself no longer nameable. The problem of ‘representation of the unrepresentable’ (148) will only be intensified. In Modernism the pressure and tensions of the interior landscapes of painter, musician and film director can signify still the stifling closure of bourgeois culture; there’s still a language of ‘affects’ and ‘gestus’ or ‘perpetual present’ for it. The Postmodernist, however, can only fall back on itself, unable to advance the narrative without reintroducing magic and romance back into the text.

The late Wagner’s treatment of ‘spiritual purity’ and ‘courtly love’ in Tannhäuser and Parsifal (174-5) would be an example of the Postmodernist dilemma. The solution would be the 2009 Danish production of Tannhäuser, directed by Kasper Bech Holton. Regieoper (postmodernist staging) is what attempts to keep Wagner significant still as a contemporary text through its insertion of competing artistic media like the writer (graphomane), painter and acrobatics rather than relying on traditional libretto, opera and ballet. Eurotrash or ‘mass-cultural tastelesness’ (180) is the name for a postmodernist Wagner; the name for the postmodernist text as a willful reassembly of its most visual parts. But isn’t this the same lying-in-wait of capital industrialism trope employed throughout Jameson’s work?

But if the ‘Our’ Classicism moment is a problematic beginning, just where then does the discussion of the ‘historicity of forms’ properly end? I have reviewed just enough of Jameson’s materials – ranging from the Baroque to Eurotrash – to feel certain that his text won’t ever reach a point where no progress can be made because, after all, more of it can be written. As long as it continues to be written, cultural productions will also reveal the menacing lying-in-wait of capitalist conditions that actually push it forward. And as long as the Jameson reader sees that, like Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, Jameson’s work is a very much the connective synthesis of ‘schizzes-flows’ and well worth the pains to read it.

1 December 2019

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