‘Valences of the Dialectic’ reviewed by Robert T Tally Jr

Valences of the Dialectic

Verso Books, London, 2009. 625pp. £29.99 hb
ISBN 9781859848777

Reviewed by Robert T Tally Jr

About the reviewer

Robert T. Tally Jr. is a Professor of English at Texas State University. His books include …


‘Is the dialectic wicked, or just incomprehensible?’ (102) This playfully asked question might serve as an epigraph to Valences of the Dialectic, a sometimes didactic, sometimes polemical, exposition of dialectical thinking in our era of globalization. Fredric Jameson has often seemed a lone voice in the wilderness when it comes to his persistence in defending and promoting dialectical criticism, during an epoch in which Hegelianism has been rejected by Anglo-American positivist and pragmatist philosophers, by a postmodernist tradition, and by critics on both the political right and left. Some, detecting in the concept of totality a whiff of the totalitarian (not least of which coming from the Leninist or Maoist invocations of dialectical materialism), reject dialectical thought as ‘wicked.’ While others, particularly in the wake of post-war identitarian movements, as well as the rise of poststructuralist critiques of les grand recits of modernity (à la Jean-François Lyotard), reject the ‘negativity’ and teleology of Hegelian theory, not to mention the perceived stuffiness of classic dialectical works written largely by ‘dead white European males’ (forgetting, of course, C.L.R. James’s brilliant Notes on Dialectics, a text curiously absent here). Poking fun at their fears, Jameson’s gentle taunt is aimed at those who would prematurely consign dialectical thought to the ash-bin of History.

Jameson is one of the few thinkers who still imagines History with a capital ‘H,’ and Valences of the Dialectic surveys his own thoughts on such ‘history’ over many years while also introducing new material aimed at capturing the present moment and imagining future alternatives. As with The Modernist Papers and Archaeologies of the Future, Valences contains a number of previously published essays, and collecting them in one volume would be worth the price of admission. However, although parts or all of 14 chapters have appeared elsewhere, Jameson also provides for the first time a lengthy essay on ‘The Three Names of the Dialectic,’ two fascinating chapters devoted to Hegel, two lectures (so they ‘sound’ to me) on commodification and on cultural revolution, and an entire book-length tour de force, ‘The Valences of History,’ which ranges from Aristotle’s Physics and Poetics to Derrida’s critique of Heidegger, and, along the way, performs a thorough analysis of Paul Ricoeur’s monumental Time and Narrative, before closing with a typically magisterial meditation on Utopia. This final 140 page chapter would be an important book in its own right. Hence, the re-presentation of Jameson’s earlier work on the dialectic is really a bonus, as Valences also offers over 250 pages of entirely new theory and criticism.

Valences is divided into six parts, and each forms its own mini-volume, although they also work well in advancing Jameson’s overall argument for dialectical thinking as both method and weapon, or as a means of both understanding the world and transforming it, to recall Marx’s famous eleventh thesis. Jameson himself provides a nice précis of the overall project in a footnote. After pointing out that the first chapter ‘may serve as an introduction to the volume as a whole,’ Jameson lays out the plan of the rest of the book:

The chapters on Hegel seek to establish a different case for his actuality than the one normally offered (or rejected). The second of those chapters, and the succeeding ones, examine some of the contemporary philosophical classics from a dialectical perspective … and also to make a case for the renewed interest in Lukács and Sartre today. A series of shorter discussions then seek to clarify various themes in the Marxian tradition, from cultural revolution to the concept of ideology; followed by a series of political discussions, which, while documenting my personal opinions on topics ranging from the collapse of the Soviet Union to globalization, nonetheless claim to demonstrate the relevance of the dialectic for practical politics. In a long final section, which confronts Ricoeur’s monumental study of history and narrative, I supplement this work by supplying the dialectical and Marxian categories missing from it, without which History today can scarcely be experienced. (69–70)

Thus, Valences manages to be wide ranging and yet coherent, combining close, careful readings of individual texts with broadly historical and philosophical discussions that draw in diverse views and traditions. Jameson jokes that, with no chapter devoted to Marx’s own dialectic, this book is like ‘a Hamlet without the prince,’ and promises to rectify this with future work (including his forthcoming Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One).

The long first chapter of Valences lays out Jameson’s three ‘names’ of the dialectic, in which ‘parts of speech offer so many camera angles from which unsuspected functions and implications might be seized and inspected’ (4). Thus, ‘the dialectic’ (with the definite article) suggests something monolithic or universalizing, associated with Hegel or Marx, and tending toward singularity and totality. Whereas ‘many dialectics’ (the dialectical counterpart to the definite article being an indefinite article) allows Jameson to consider and to grapple with those anti-dialectical thinkers – Nietzsche, Bergson, Deleuze, and so forth – as having dialectical moments that alter our thinking by projecting alternative universes. (As in his later chapters on Derrida and Deleuze, Jameson’s view is that many such anti-dialectical thinkers wind up being dialectical without knowing it.) Finally, in its emphatically adjectival form (‘It’s Dialectical!’), in ‘rebuking your perplexity before a particularly perverse interpretation or turn of events,’ dialectical thought can overturn ‘heavy-handed common sense and hidebound conventional logic’ in order to ‘propose a startling new perspective from which to rethink the novelty in question, to defamiliarize our ordinary habits of mind and to make us suddenly conscious not only of our own non-dialectical obtuseness but also of the strangeness of reality as such’ (50). In the chapter’s conclusion, Jameson reiterates Henri Lefebvre’s call for a spatial dialectic, ‘a thought mode that does not yet exist’ (67), but with increased urgency under the conditions of globalization.

In the essays that follow, Jameson blends an almost ecstatic apprehension of the dialectic (images proper to science fiction, with space- and time-travel, abound) with a cool rehearsal of, or return to, classics of dialectic thinking (Hegel, above all, but also Marx, Lenin, Lukács, Sartre, and so on). Because Valences combines startling new analyses with older essays, the reader sometimes experiences a sort of Verfremdungseffekt, thrust into the moldering debates of the 1980s (Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History,’ for instance) at one moment, then invited to consider the most pressing twenty-first century topics (like the radical transformations of global production-distribution-consumption relays made possible by Wal-Mart, which were almost unimaginable at the time some of these chapters were originally published). The consistency and flexibility of Jameson’s positions over the years are remarkable, as his arguments for a dialectical criticism, dating back to 1971’s Marxism and Form if not earlier, can be read in Valences as well, but with a freshness and novelty that makes them seem all the more relevant today.

A possible weakness of the book stems from this diversity and apparent eclecticism. For example, the chapters on Sartre – originally published as ‘Introductions’ to The Critique of Dialectical Reason, volumes I and II – have a rather introductory feel, and do not add as much as some readers might desire. However, the chapter on Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, first published in 1988, strikes me as still quite fresh, and makes a persuasive case for the continuing relevance of that most old-fashioned of yesteryear’s Hegelian Marxists, showing especially how Lukács’s insistence on ‘totality’ can be supplemented with other categories to better analyze the postmodern condition.

Throughout his career, Jameson has always managed to utilize, if not assimilate, non- or even anti-Marxist elements to suit his purposes, which partly explains his success in engaging with postmodernism or poststructuralism when many other Marxists eschewed them (perhaps rightly!) as fashionable nonsense. In this, Jameson might be said to follow Marx, who drew so heavily from strategic enemies like Hegel or Ricardo or Proudhon. This occasionally makes for some astonishing conceptual fireworks in Valences. I am thinking in particular of a chapter called ‘Utopia as Replication,’ in which Jameson – only somewhat tongue-in-cheekily – makes the case for Wal-Mart as the model for utopian thought today. The bold assertion actually follows from Jameson’s earlier uses of national allegory or the conspiracy film (in The Geopolitical Aesthetic, for instance) as means of representing collectivity and totality in a bewilderingly complex world system, but here Jameson grounds his conceptual model with the technical aspects of global finance and distribution of commodities, including a brief analysis of the development and transformative effects of bar codes (422). Jameson’s talent for seeing the germ of a global totality in such pedestrian minutiae of everyday life exemplifies his approach to the dialectic, and comports well with his philosophical and cultural critique of ‘late’ capitalism.

The problem with such a view, some would argue, is that Jameson – in locating the seed of utopia in the expansive developments of the capitalist machinery – could appear unduly optimistic, even complacent, during a time of right-wing retrenchment and the general immiseration of the working classes. Moreover, one might argue that Jameson’s view leaves little room for a Marxist praxis, since the thing against which workers must struggle (say, multinational capitalism) is the very thing that will, by a twist of the dialectic, make their ultimate victory possible. If Wal-Mart style capitalism is effectively (and ironically) forcing workers of the world to unite, then what is there for Marxists to protest against?

Jameson’s response, though measured, is also highly polemical, as he views the arguments of ‘moralizers’ (even those with which he has great sympathy) as somewhat wrongheaded. As he puts it at one point, but the idea reappears through Valences, ‘The dialectic is an injunction to think the negative and the positive together at one and the same time, in the unity of a single thought, there where moralizing wants to have the luxury of condemning this evil without particularly imagining anything else in its place’ (421). Jameson insists that ‘the dialectical union of opposites is then a social rebuke as well as a political lesson’ (41), inasmuch as the ‘victories’ or ‘defeats’ of a given moment must be understood as moments in a larger historical ensemble who interpretations cannot really be understood in advance. This lesson ought to be valuable for the left or the right, as what often seems a positive from one point of view leads to a negative, and vice versa. (One example Jameson supplies is how the generally leftist, Soviet-style policies of Nehru in India produced the institutes of technology that made possible the spread of global capitalism, outsourcing, and so on.)

Several times in Valences, and elaborated in its own subsection of the long ‘Valences of History’ chapter, Jameson invokes the Aristotelian concept of peripeteia, the ‘reversal of fortune’ or (as Jameson prefers) the ‘dialectical reversal’. Unexpectedly, but perhaps not so surprisingly in Jameson’s militantly eclectic approach, a model for our own time comes from Virgil’s Aeneid, in which the tragic defeat of the Trojans leads to the triumphant founding of Rome; as Jameson sees it, this may be Virgil’s subversively subtle warning to the great powers of Augustus’s Golden Age: ‘you Roman victors, never forget that you are also the miserable losers and refugees of defeat and of the loss of your city and country!’ (40) Of course, the same can be said for the U.S. empire and those triumphalist cheerleaders of globalization. Such are the valences of the dialectic.

At certain moments, Valences of the Dialectic can seem a bit dated (e.g., would Deleuze’s Cinema books really count as contemporary anti-Hegelianism today?), but Jameson, here as always, wields the power – the power of the dialectic itself, perhaps – to bring together disparate thinkers, texts, concepts, times and places, enfolding them in an alternative narrative that, like Hegel’s Aufhebung, cancels, preserves, and elevates all of this stuff, ultimately leading to the next stage of Jameson’s spectacular and protean critical theory of the world system, where ‘from time to time, like a diseased eyeball in which disturbing flashes of light are perceived or like those baroque sunbursts in which rays from another world suddenly break into this one, we are reminded that Utopia exists and that other systems, other spaces, are still possible’ (612).

4 January 2011

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