‘Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality’ reviewed by Tony Mckenna


Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality

Verso, London and New York, 2016. 96pp., £12.99 hb
ISBN 9781784782160

Reviewed by Tony McKenna

About the reviewer

Tony’s journalism has been featured by Al Jazeera, The Huffington Post, ABC Australia, New …

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The world of modern day literary theory is a strange and surreal place. It is a place where novels resonate with ‘diegetic centres’ where ‘object words’ give off ‘metonymic signals’, it is a place where a story does not so much amble to its conclusion but rather strives toward its ‘global narrative closure’. It is a place where ‘signifiers’ float across a myriad of ‘micro-episodic dimensions’. It is a world which has been strewn together from a hotchpotch of eclectic material: the linguistics of Saussure, the dense deconstructionism of Derrida, the tortuous discourse theory of Foucault, the convoluted post modernism which became a catch term for the evaporation of objectivity in an increasingly fragmented and atomized universe. It is a murky, mystical terrain overseen by a series of superstar academics who are at the same time its high priests; the gatekeepers whose rarefied talents allows them direct access to the sublime object, to tear away the veil, to decipher its mysteries and reveal its secrets.

But the obscurity which is at work in the language of much of modern literary theory is more than just the faddish, fashionable amour propre of a well-to-do and rather privileged set of radicals – those who enjoy their aesthetic theory à l’espresso with a whiff of continental sophistication and opaque exclusivity. It is, in fact, the expression of a deeper and more fundamental trend. One in which the contradictions of fundamental socio-historical processes – particularly those of class – are displaced into an transcendental realm which is then understood almost purely in terms of a linguistic, semiotic or psychoanalytical set of categories. Modern literary theory reached maturity and achieved global precedence from around the late sixties to the eighties; a timeframe roughly coextensive with a worldwide economic slump. And a concomitant decline or defeat of international working class movements, especially those located around industry, couldn’t help but have an effect on every aspect of culture, including university life.

As the revolutionary tide receded, the faith more radically inclined academics were able to espouse in the social agencies of the mass movement more broadly – the unions, the political groupings, the organs of community activism – was increasingly eroded, unconsciously, organically. The character of literary theory came to offer a palliative; the contradictions which underpinned class struggle in the wider world were ever less palpable, ever less visible, but in the rarefied realm of signs and signifiers these contradictions could be discerned once more, could be worked out to their full and radical potential without the need to participate in dour union meetings or attend the ever dwindling numbers of rainy-day rallies. As the effects of economic decline and political malaise sunk deeper into academic life, many came to understand that a revolution which called into question the socio-historical structures of capitalist oppression was not feasible, but a revolution which called into question the structures of language and even meaning itself – which reshaped it on a far more radical and innovative basis – was something which might be achieved.  

All of this might seem like a curiously circuitous way to begin a review of Fredric Jameson’s latest book on the writings of Raymond Chandler, but it is necessary in as much as I want to make clear that the copious criticism which follows is not anti-intellectual in origin – it is not the fact that Jameson uses obscure phrases or a technical, academic vocabulary (Aristotle, Kant, Hegel and Marx all do that) – but rather that the obscurity of many of the concepts deployed overlays a specific function: a special type of alchemy by which socio-historical contradiction is transmuted into an ahistorical essence which involves a preoccupation with the physical form and structure of the novel abstracted from its historical life. So, for instance, when Jameson considers what the literary plot does in general he provides a definition which is not only threadbare and purely formal, but also highly tendentious: ‘the detective story plot merely follows the basic tendency of all literary plots or intrigue in general, which is marked by the resolution of multiplicity back into some primal unity, by a return to some primal starting point’. (27) This seems to me to be demonstrably false. Much contemporary literature is very much concerned with fragmentation and the loss of the whole – consider Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, for instance.

But even if Jameson was able to somehow establish that the modus operandi of every ‘literary plot’ involves the attempt to dissolve multiplicity in a single ‘primal unity’ – even if we were to accept this – such an analysis would still have said relatively little, for it would have addressed the issue of form in isolation while the content would remain virtually untouched. The preponderance of form over content provides one of the abiding attributes of Jameson’s slim compendium. Consider, for instance, Jameson’s analysis of the first chapter of perhaps Chandler’s most famous work, The Big Sleep. Here Jameson reverts from a historical paradigm, shifting to a psychoanalytical-cum-semiotic model which is focused on the way in which four ‘characters’ in the scene – Marlowe, the butler, Carmen and the dead general in the painting – all stare out at each other. Jameson argues that the number of ‘looks’ exhibited is somehow key – ‘by way of the Look as a permutation space, a whole system is slowly cumulatively disengaged’. (34) Following the approach of Algirdas Julien Greimas, Jameson suggests that:

we will need at least four fundamental semes, or two fundamental oppositions, in order for this thematic constellation to emerge in the form of some genuine ideological system; the process of realization that in fact this opening chapter exhibits for our inspection not three pairs of eyes, not three characters (of very unequal diegetic importance), but rather four, since the whole encounter is seen through the eyes of Marlowe, a “peeper” and someone whose business is observation. (35)

A ‘seme’ is – apparently – a small unit of meaning, but why do we need ‘at least four’? What would happen if, god forbid, we only had three ‘semes’? Well, says the writer, without that extra ‘seme’ the ‘thematic constellation’ would never emerge in the form of a ‘genuine ideological system’. What a ‘thematic constellation’ would look like before its emergence in a ‘genuine ideological system’ is anybody’s guess, but now that our ‘semes’ have been counted and our ‘thematic constellation’ has indeed emerged, Jameson provides us with a diagram in which such a system is exhibited (much in the fashion of Greimas’ ‘semiotic square’). Briefly, The Dead General is connected to Marlowe by ‘The Public Codes of Honor History’, Marlowe is connected to The Butler by ‘Detachment Observation’, The Butler is connected to Carmen by ‘The Private Dishonour Sexuality’, and Carmen is connected to The Dead General by ‘Passion and Commitment’.

Such links are tenuous. Marlowe is connected to The Butler by something called ‘Detachment Observation’ for they are both in situations where they witness at close quarters the behaviour of others one would presume. But Marlowe does this as part and parcel of the basis of his profession, whereas in the butler’s case he is not supposed to linger when private intrigues or arguments among family members are being played out. Or is he? We don’t know. The specifics of their social roles are not examined. Having plucked this category – ‘Detachment Observation’ – from the ether, Jameson takes no pains to interrogate it. Carmen and The Dead General are linked by ‘Passion and Commitment’, but couldn’t Marlowe also be categorized as displaying passion and commitment – certainly in terms of his job at least. In fact, don’t most people at some point in their lives display these qualities?

What we have here is a series of extremely vague psychological categories, extirpated from an analysis of social-historical conditions; such categories are then syphoned through a jargon heavy, pseudo-scientific lexicon which seems to hint at some profound and esoteric revelation – the emergence of a ‘genuine ideological system’. But once the emergence of this ‘genuine ideological system’ has been ‘established’ by way of grafting these loose psychological categories to a black and white diagram, Jameson says very little about such a ‘system’ except to note that it involves an underlying contradiction ‘between “passion” and “self” and the public realm.’ (36) But exhibiting the diagram and then baldly asserting this contradiction seem to me to fall significantly short of a systematic and conscientious exposure of a ‘genuine ideological system’, whatever such a system might have entailed!

Elsewhere, Jameson uses this distinction between the private and public realms to underwrite a broader motif in Chandler’s fictional landscape:

The private, “unpresentable” areas behind the official reception rooms and “fronts” come to be considered little by little as more “real” than the areas designed for public appearance: it is in the backrooms then, and behind the scenes, that some more authentic activity takes place; and it is felt that only those who know such operations “from the inside”, that is to say, who know what goes on behind the counter and in the backroom, have any genuine knowledge (or know how). (40)

Jameson’s description here contains some truth. But at the same time, in privileging an almost generic ontological opposition between the private and public spheres, he misses the historicity and, in particular, the class dimensions which constitute such an opposition in Chandler’s novels in the first place. Marlowe is someone who knows such operations ‘from the inside’ precisely because he is a canny grafter: hardboiled, rough and ready in manner. The reason he is able to penetrate the ‘public appearance’ and into the backrooms is because he speaks the dialect of the petty criminals, henchmen, gamblers, gigolos and gangsters who inhabit that underground world. He is able to decipher their behaviour for he is, in fact, a more plebeian archetype whose work secures his livelihood on a day-to-day basis; like many of the people he encounters, he is implicated in a quite practical struggle for existence. This represents a significant break with the more classical detective – à la Miss Marple – who was nearly always from the upper classes, and pursued her mystery solving endeavours as a leisurely hobby on the part of a moneyed individual.

In his book on the crime story genre Delightful Murder, Ernest Mandel argues that such a shift in archetype was accomplished in an especially vivid way in the US crime fiction of the 1930s because of the particularities of American historical development. ‘When the Depression came, it gave fresh and frightening impetus to crime of all sorts … With the quantitative extension of crime came a qualitative transformation of it … The coming age of organized crime tolled the death knell of the drawing-room detective story … an abrupt break with the gentility of the classical detective story, especially with crime based on individual psychological motives like greed and revenge.’ (Mandel 1984, 31-5) With the development of increasingly systematic and endemic forms of crime, aesthetic consciousness is more and more compelled to go to the social roots of the phenomenon, to comprehend crime in society-wide terms: not simply the criminal in abstraction, but the links which spread out – from the rural bootlegger, to the local businessman who invests in him, to the mob outfit in the city who buy up their product, to the customs officials that criminal enterprise is compelled to bribe, to their corrupt affiliates in the police and broader state bureaucracy who are all in on the racket.

For those crimes which are more social and endemic in nature, and presuppose a systematic network of bureaucratic (class) corruption, a detective in the vein of a Miss Marple or a Lord Peter Whimsy is utterly inadequate to the task. One requires a more hardboiled, plebeian character who carries within themselves the tenor and character of vast swathes of people, who is himself a microcosm of the masses, and is able to navigate the underlying and veiled relationships of power and exploitation which open up behind the scenes and impact their lives. While Marlowe has the sense of justice, the moral purpose, of a Miss Marple or Father Brown (albeit cosseted behind a jaded exterior), the key to his literary power lies in the way he is able speak the language of the streets and thus penetrate their secrets (which is why, incidentally, dialogue is so important and so uniquely emphasised in Chandler). Marlowe is a particle of the very social mystery he inhabits; blemished, tainted, a soul of a soulless world.

Mandel conscientiously situates such a character development in the broader historical trajectory of prohibition, the increase in organized crime, the shift toward detecting as a large-scale organized profession, the collapse of bourgeois optimism which was brought about by the First World War and the crash of ‘29, and so on. When Jameson references such historical criterion at all, he does so fleetingly and tangentially, and his analysis of living history is nearly always swallowed up by the labyrinthine warren of ossified and formal concepts which undergird much of modern literary theory. So, having correctly elucidated the contradiction between the inauthentic and the authentic, between the façade and the ‘backroom’ world which Marlowe is able to move in, Jameson at once vanquishes the possibility of any historical insight by a laborious and formal consideration of how the opposition between the authentic and inauthentic manages ‘in a quasi-metaphysical way to reconfirm the idea of “reality” itself’. Pace Dean MacCannel, Jameson argues that such an opposition grasps:

hermeneutic activity (whether that of the textual interpreter or that of Marlowe and other detectives) 1) as a ritual, as an activity whose connotative meaning confirms and secures an ideology which greatly transcends its immediate denotative intent (the immediate solution to the enigma or problem); and 2) as a spatial form, that is, an activity whose fundamental material organization is to be found in space (rather than in cognitive categories) (40)

Indeed for much of the book Jameson focusses on notions of space:

“space” must be read … the reader may expect to pass through an initial period of programmation, through some inaugural entry chamber in which the appropriate decoding techniques are taught and learned. Even as far as the category of space itself is concerned it cannot be assumed to pre-exist the text either but must be projected by the latter as that “code” of space which the reader must learn to read. (31)

I leave it to the reader to decide how much of substance can be gleaned from passages of this type. But it is important to note how they carry within them the most abiding motif of Jameson’s analysis as a whole – the abrogation of a historical account by a static, formal set of categories imagined in spatial terms and increasingly abstracted from any fundamental social or class agency – ‘mapping space.’ While some may indeed find such an approach compelling, what surely has to be emphasised is that such an approach is in no way Marxist. It is not simply that Jameson fails to draw upon or even really reference the concepts which arise in the rich body of Marxist literary criticism. More than this, at the most fundamental level, Jameson’s book represents an abandonment of the historical method per se.

12 December 2016

References

  • Ernest Mandel Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story London: Pluto Press, 1984

11 comments

  1. I know to comment on a review of a text that one has yet to read is not very appropriate. But Tony Mckenna’s review is so highly critical and provocative that one cannot resist the temptation to say something. Mckenna’s main point is that in ‘Raymond Chandler’, Jameson focuses on the form of the literary work, whereas the right approach is to always read form and content together and relate them to history. The result is that Jameson’s textual analysis remains both superficial and misleading despite its high-falutin lexicon. It is for Jameson or one of his sympathetic readers to answer the charges. Mckenna has raised a primordial question within literary studies: How to interrelate text and context. I submit that a detailed formal and structural analysis of a literary work is
    necessary before or simultaneously with contextual analysis. It is hard to believe that Jameson was completely insensitive to the historical context of Chandler’s work and so betrayed his own oft-repeated theoretical proclamations. Jameson has been hailed (e,g, by Perry Anderson) as a brilliant
    Marxist critic. Does he deserve such a brusque dismissal?

    Sarban

  2. Thanks to Sarban for the comment, which gives me the chance to add one or two things. Its true that Jameson is not completely insensitive to the historical context of Chandler’s work, he makes some interesting observations on the way in which the blood soaked historical origins of California cast a shadow across the atmosphere in the Sternwood mansion in the first chapter of The Big Sleep. But such observations are really few and far between. They are almost incidental to the main methodological thrust of the analysis.

    To be clear, I don’t believe that Jameson’s textual analysis remains both superficial and misleading ‘despite its high-falutin lexicon’. I believe that the ‘high falutin lexicon’ is a product of the preoccupation with form. The need to understand concepts which are intended to describe and elucidate subtle social realities without having recourse to the genuine social relationships embodied in living history, means that one has to find some other way of allowing their concepts to interrelate.

    The absence of a genuinely social interrelation is amended by a physical one – for instance the fundamental problem of society is no longer constituted as one of class contradiction but instead becomes a question of ‘fullness’ (Mouffe, Laclau) or ‘over determination’ (Althusser), and so a whole world is called into being with its own ghostly, artificial life, a place where reality becomes ‘decentred’, society becomes ‘dislocated’ and meaning is understood in terms of signifiers which, rather surreally, tend to ‘float’. A whole array of artificial and empty concepts are constructed and deployed; a revolution in language is affected because the idea of a revolution in reality seems so remote. After all don’t we live in a post truth world, don’t we all live in an ‘information economy’ based on ‘immaterial labour’ and all that stuff about the working class taking power from Marx’s time – I mean really, isn’t it just, like, so retro, like…so passe!

    Hegel is difficult to read, a lot of the time, it’s true, but in Hegel and Marx there is something profoundly democratic in the body of their thought. It carries on that enlightenment tradition of the universality of reason, how reason belongs to everyone, only in Hegel reason isn’t an inherent, fully furnished product of the generic ego, but something which is constituted in and through the sweep and development of history, and the activities of vast swathes of human beings; its universality is actualised in and through the historical process. Marxism gains its power not from the brilliance of the individual Marx, but because that brilliance was only ever the most sublime theoretical expression of a living social agency which as a result of its historical trajectory is compelled to strive in order to restructure society in its own image.

    Now one might disagree with the diagnosis, but if you turn away from seeking revolutionary redemption at the level of socio-historical being, more and more, do you find the answers to history in the sublime brain of the privileged intellectual. This is what I really get from many of these figures, their perspective has a pronounced aristocratic tenor. The brilliant intellectual, working with the most esoteric, mystical and profound categories, tearing away the veil, and only a privileged few will ever manage to reach these heights. And of course an almost sacred aura develops around them.

    Jameson says that every literary plot most dissolve in a primal unity. Now if a first year university student wrote that on an English lit course, the teacher would probably, gently, remind them of all the examples of books which don’t even slightly adhere to that. And yet, in all the glowing reviews Jameson’s Chandler book has received – not one reviewer points it out. In the pre-production process, presumably, nobody even mentioned it. Perhaps because, from a certain vantage point, it is comforting to believe that the real key to history depends on a group of rather privileged set of middle class individuals who deign to let the rest of humanity in on the secret!

  3. I’m in Sarban’s position: I haven’t read this Jameson book, I haven’t read Chandler, and I probably won’t read either. And I agree with most of what Mckenna says about lit. crit. jargon. So I’ll keep this brief. I’d still like to ask: But isn’t Jameson’s point (in “Marxism and Form” and “The Political Unconscious”) precisely that the form of a literary work is symptomatic of its world-historical situation? since form, for Jameson, is always the dialectical transformation of content. And so, by analyzing the structure or form of a literary text, isn’t the critic, in Jameson’s terms, making a symptomatic analysis of the cultural dominant of that world-historical period, and taking an x-ray of those elements of the political unconscious which are obscured by mere superficial analysis of the current events that world-historical period? without thereby, of course, denying the importance of the world-historical horizon within which the work or text is generated. And then, after all, is it really fair to accuse Jameson of forgetting world-historical context, when that’s the context of the form he’s trying to elucidate by formalistic analysis?

  4. Dear Eric, I would recommend reading Chandler if not Jamieson though I look forward to Tony’s response to your comment.

  5. I agree with the idea that form involves the dialectical transformation of content. I haven’t read ‘Marxism and Form’ or ‘The Political Unconsciousness’. I am quite willing to accept that there is more of value in some of his other works, which I haven’t come across (apart from some brief background research for this review). Several thinkers whom I respect have told me so. But, the fact remains – Jameson’s book on Chandler is bad. Irredeemably bad. And it is bad for a particular reason.

    A formal analysis isn’t bad per se. Kant’s analysis of art, like his ontology more generally, was formal, and yet incredibly powerful and profound, like everything that great thinker wrote. The movement to Hegel in many ways wasn’t simply a rejection of Kant but the historicisation of him. Marx is a riff on the same theme.

    But Jameson’s book is bad because it demonstrates almost no real acquaintance with the history of philosophy and therefore no understanding of the need for a historical method which comes out of German classicist philosophy and underpins Hegel’s critique of Kant. Instead Jameson seeks to re-invent the wheel by drawing on many of the most spurious, fashionable concepts which act as a kind of master key for the anointed – the Jamesons, the Althussers, the Zizeks and so forth – to unlock the secrets of reality; Jameson high on the sense of his own profundity, brilliant such that he has long since ceased to make sense even to himself. Here he is on slang for instance:

    ‘The literary problem of slang forms a parallel in the microcosm of style to the problem of the presentation of the serial society itself, never present fully in any of its manifestations, without a privileged center, offering the impossible alternative between an objective and abstract lexical working of it as a whole and a lived concrete experience of its worthless components.’

    I find this kind of thing not just annoying but distasteful. Not only because it is anti-Marxist in the way I have pointed out in the review, transforming problems which are social historical in nature into some kind of structural fetish – ‘a privileged centre’. Not just because it is rambling and self-indulgent and pretentious and empty. But because there will be people who are coming to radical politics for the first time who will encounter this kind of thing and be demoralized and turned off. And this is why I think it is so important that people on the left do not give these figures the solemn reverence they feel they are entitled to, that we take them far less seriously than they take themselves. It’s healthy and necessary to point out that, sometimes, the emperor really isn’t wearing any clothes.

  6. Hi there. Well, I’m not going to read Jameson not merely on the basis of the review, but of the quotations from him in it and subsequently. I have read Chandler – several times. He is a much over-rated writer, and anyone who puts the effort in will see it.It would seem to me more profitable to read Hammett, who was both a former detective and a Marxist, and a better writer with more to say than Chandler by a very large measure.

    It also seems to me that whatever one may say about Marx, his writing was never so tortuous as these quotations from Jameson. He could be “technical”, but in most respects was quite a reasonable stylist. I’ve read more than half his collected works and have never had much trouble with comprehension. The quotation from Tony’s most recent response is ridiculous. Maybe Jameson teaches at a university or something and feels that impenetrability to the key to tenure.

  7. I think pondering this statement of Trotsky from ‘Literature and Revolution’ may be helpful:

    ‘The methods of Formalism, confined within legitimate limits, may help to clarify the artistic and psychologic peculiarities of form (its economy, its movement, its contrasts, its hyperbolism, etc.). This, in turn, may open a path – one of the paths – to the artist’s feeling for the world, and may facilitate the discovery of the relations of an individual artist, or of a whole artistic school, to the social environment.’

    Another point: some readers feel very uncomfortable with a certain style of writing, including the diction. Chmosky, for example, failing to understand Lacan declared him a charlatan. And all of us are aware what he recently said about Zizek: That what Zizek is saying in volume after volume can be summed up and explained to a 12 years old girl in equal number of minutes. We have heard about similar complaints about Derrida and many others. Mahatma Gandhi who was a very accomplished, even masterly, writer of English read and appreciated Marx’s Capital, but complained about its difficult style. And so on. This is a phenomenon that needs serious consideration. Does the problem always inhere in the writer or the reader’s own shortcomings and disposition. I am only making a general point, please.

    That Tony Mckenna has not read any of Jameson’s fundamental writings is discouraging. A book ought to be reviewed by someone who is thoroughly familiar with the writer’s works.

    Humbly,
    Sarban

  8. Okay Sarban, Ill try and unpick your comment, which, by the way, is a little less than humble.

    There is the paragraph about Chomsky and Zizek. I don’t agree with Chomsky’s idea that specialist writing should or can be immediately accessible to the general reader. I, personally, wouldn’t expect to understand a book on Lymphedema, having no medical background. It seems to me philosophy has as much need to enjoy a specialist vocabulary to adequately deal with its concepts as any science.

    But, of course, I went to pains to point that out at the very start of the review – where I said – ‘it is not the fact that Jameson uses obscure phrases or a technical, academic vocabulary (Aristotle, Kant, Hegel and Marx all do that)’. My problem, and Lacan is a perfect example of it, is that the often obscure and artificially-contrived vocabulary is a symptom of a regression to a more primitive ahistorical method – certainly the case in Lacan, whose notion of ‘the real’ is a reversion to a crude form of Kantianism, and in trying to create a ‘Lacanian Hegel’ Zizek also succeeds in breaking down the historical component in Hegel’s ontology, and blunting Marxism’s revolutionary edge thereby. (I give a brief description of Zizek’s Hegel and Marx here: http://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviewofbooks/reviews/2013/819

    Now you say that ‘A book ought to be reviewed by someone who is thoroughly familiar with the writer’s works’. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that whatever Jameson might have written in his other works would not have changed the review I wrote of this book, not by one iota. I know that Jameson’s book on Chandler is thoroughly un-Marxist, not because I am familiar with Jameson’s works but moreover because I am familiar with Marx’s own.

    More to the point, perhaps, when I was first commissioned to do this review, I was approached, not because of my knowledge of Jameson – but because of my knowledge of Marxist aesthetics and literary analysis which is the genre Jameson’s book falls under. I recently published a book Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective (Available from all good book shops now donchyhaknow!) and this year I also wrote a potted history of the detective genre: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03017605.2016.1173843

    I want to add one final thing. Sarban is doing everything he can to suggest that my critique of Jameson’s book is illegitimate because it does not sufficiently value a formal approach, or that it is hard to believe my account is true because Jameson wouldn’t have ‘betrayed his own oft-repeated theoretical proclamations’, or that it isn’t reliable because I have not read Jameson’s major works. Now just keep in mind here, Sarban is casting all these aspirations on the veracity of a review of Jameson’s book on Chandler – WITHOUT ACTUALLY HAVING READ JAMESONS BOOK ON CHANDLER! The fact that he is capable of calling me out, saying that I should have read more when he has not even read the very thing we are discussing hovers between delicious irony and bare faced cheek!

  9. Also, it is worth noting in passing just how methodologically confused Sarban is. He quotes Trotsky on formalism presumably as a way to better legitimate Jameson’s ‘formalist’ approach. Here Trotsky is talking about a school of art, closely connected with Russian futurism – i.e. Trotsky is talking about paintings or poems which are produced by artists known as formalists.

    Jameson however is not ‘a formalist artist’ for the simple fact he is not practising art, but is instead offering a conscious and deliberate ‘scientific’ analysis. The formalism which has certain advantages in the realm of art, is an entirely different entity when applied to the process of philosophical investigation.

    To elucidate. Let’s say Jameson was writing about Chandler, and half way through Jameson’s analysis of Chandler’s work – Jameson started banging on about clocks which turned to water or elephants with the heads of trombones. I, the reviewer, might be entitled to come along and point out that those clocks and those trombones perhaps don’t tell us a great deal about the true content of Chandler’s writing.

    At which point, presumably, Sarban would come along and say ‘Are you crazy? Haven’t you read some of the positive things Trotsky had to say about surrealism?’

    In other words, the notion that surrealism might provide a rich and fecund vein in aesthetic creation would by no means justify a surrealist approach in terms of aesthetic critique. The same is true of formalism which is why Sarban drawing attention to Trotsky’s appreciation of certain positive characteristics in formalist art, would have no bearing whatsoever on the merits of formalistic critique in social science. Sarban’s point, once again, is utterly redundant.

    But given that Sarban has chosen to introduce the Trotsky quote it is probably worth quoting what the great man says only a few paragraphs afterward and which outlines more generally Marxism’s relation to formalism:

    ‘But the formalists are not content to ascribe their methods to a merely subsidiary, serviceable, and technical significance…No, they go much further. To them verbal art ends finally and fully with the word, and depictive art with color. A poem is a combination of sounds, a painting a combination of color spots, and the laws of art are the laws of verbal combinations and of combinations of color spots. THE SOCIAL AND PSCYHOLOGICAL APPROACH, WHICH TO US, GIVES MEANING (my emphasis TM)… is, for the Formalists, merely alchemy’

  10. Tony is both impatient and harsh. I find this attitude regrettable.

    I have read quite a few of Jameson’s works starting with his ‘The prison-house of language’, which was inter alia a critique of formalism and structuralism. One does form a view, an image, of a scholar. after reading him over time. Hitherto, Jameson’s watchword has been ‘Always historicise’ ! That is how he analysed, e,g., postmodernism as an ideological reflection of late capitalism.

    Tony’s whole argument is that in his book on Chandler, Jameson just focuses on form to the neglect of both structure and history. Naturally, it is hard to believe that Jameson would totally betray his own convictions and not take into account either structure or history.

    It is true, an outstanding scholar may at times write a bad book — one contrary to his own professed views. Did Jameson commit such a folly? I do not know having not read his Chandler book. I only expressed my skepticism hesitantly and in all humility.

    Tony has come down heavily on me. I wonder if such violent reactions are called for. He has misunderstood me.

  11. I’m glad to have helped to provoke some constructive dialectics on the subject of Marxism and Form, but I regret if my questions spurred intellectual terrorism among the comrades. I’m turned off by academic jargon of the type Jameson indulges, although I will say that sometimes, after wading through the jargon, the critic arrives at some new ground worth discovering. I find Jameson’s article on postmodernism quite helpful, because he connects the stylistic tendencies of postmodernist art—pastiche, collage, fragmentation etc,—to the cultural dominant of the postmodern era, with its tendencies toward reification and fragmentation. But I quite agree that Jameson & Co. can go overboard with the scholarly word-slinging, and forget about the concrete problems of the contemporary world, which, I’m afraid, Western Marxist scholars and American academics sometimes play a role, not in solving, but in creating. On the other hand, I’m enormously more turned off by references to Stalinist henchmen and Old Bolsheviks as “The Great Men” [sic], when Bolsheviks like Trotsky were responsible for the wholesale massacre of, de minimis, tens of thousand (hundreds of thousands? millions?) of people during the Bolshevik Red Terror and the Russian Civil War. To stave off objections, I’m also aware that a case can be made that Stalinist terrorism is somehow necessary in the world-historical dialectical process, and the workers of the world need a Marxist/Leninist dictatorship to tell them what they’re really fighting for—a case that has recently been made again by Alain Badiou. But I don’t buy it. And when I picked up Badiou’s “Being and Event”—which may, I confess, be an important book for some people—and I read a sentence that extolled “Stalin, Lenin. and Mao”—who, between them, must be responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of peasant, kulaks, and intellectuals, including, by the way, Trotsky—as “The Great Masters,” I put down the book. And I don’t intend to pick it up again, even though I recently reviewed—positively, I think—Badiou’s Our Wounds Are Not So Recent, which has an excellent analysis of the contemporary international class system, although if I find Badiou’s Euro-centric dismissal of all Islamist radicals as “Islamo-fascists” offensive. Which, again, doesn’t mean I approve of the terrorist atrocities committed by the Islamic State or the Taliban, just that I think we have to understand what drives them to it if we ever want to stop it. But what’s the big difference between the Bolshevik Red Terror or Stalin’s, Lenin’s, and Mao’s atrocities and Islamist terrorism? All in the world-historical dialectical process, comrades!

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