Science Fiction Studies

#101 =  Volume 34, Part 1 = March, 2007


Neil Easterbrook

Rattling the Bars

Fredric Jameson. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. New York: Verso, 2005. xvi + 431 pp. $35.00 hc.

One topos of American academic literary criticism, at least whenever the name Fredric Jameson pops up, is to make grand, definitive pronouncements: “the world’s most famous American Marxist thinker ... the single most significant critic to have defined and explored ‘postmodernity’” (Roberts 152). Occasionally, this view is given an embarrassingly hyperbolic expression, as when Perry Anderson commented that “exploding like so many magnesium flares in the night sky, Fredric Jameson’s writings have lit up the shrouded landscape of the postmodern” (xi). Equally often, however, the phrase is repeated with weariness, as in Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s example of litotes from ten years ago: “Forever, it seems, Fredric Jameson has been described as ‘America's leading Marxist critic’” (213). My own view has always followed the form of what André Gide said of Victor Hugo, a phrase Samuel Delany modified to discuss Robert Heinlein (135): Who is our greatest critic of the postmodern? Fredric Jameson, alas!

Indeed, Jameson casts an imposing, intimidating shadow, having authored more than 23 books and an impressively long list of articles. One book won the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize, and Jameson has been showered with other accolades. For instance, in 2006 Jameson received the SFRA’s Pilgrim Award, given for lifetime achievement in sf scholarship. The MLA International Bibliography lists 531 essays, book chapters, and books that take his work as their principal topic. The foremost journal in American critical theory, Critical Inquiry, recently named Jameson—sandwiched between Jacques Lacan and Edward Said—as the seventh most significant critical theorist of the last 30 years (Stevens and Williams). As a lovely absurdity to bookend that recognition, Jameson also appears as one of David Horowitz’s “101 most dangerous professors” (unlike the ranked list in Critical Inquiry, Horowitz does not distinguish the more from the less “dangerous”).

Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and other Science Fictions has been widely reviewed—and not just by academic journals such as Radical Philosophy, MLN (Modern Language Notes), Literature and Theology or genre-related journals (Locus, Utopian Studies, The New York Review of Science Fiction) but also by widely-read book reviews such as The London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. (The New York Review of Books, when it comes to matters associated with literary theory and especially Marxist literary theory, remains stridently anti-intellectual and so silent on Jameson’s remarkable achievement.) With one clear exception, these reviews have been enthusiastic—not uniformly raves, but unequivocally positive assessments of the value of the book.

Archaeologies has two halves, each given approximately 220 pages. Named “The Desire Called Utopia,” the first half catalogs and interrogates the “Utopian impulse which infuses [both] daily life ... and ... texts” (xiv) and revolves around the attempt to articulate rigorously “the ... properly Utopian dialectic of Identity and Difference” (xiv). The second half (called “As Far as Thought Can Reach”) consists of twelve more or less discrete essays, eleven published previously. The most familiar of the reprints are five from Science Fiction Studies, including “Progress vs. Utopia, Or, Can We Imagine the Future?” (1982), and a very sharp essay on William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition from New Left Review (both 2003). Though some of these last essays feel tacked on, and one wonders why it would not have been more sensible to publish separate volumes, throughout all the essays Utopia is understood as “a specific [generic] subset” of sf (xiv).

Prolific and not infrequently profound, erudite and not infrequently engaging, Jameson’s new opus (it is hard to think of any of his books without invoking the word opus) is certainly worth careful, patient, rigorous reading. Every scholar in our field ought to read it—and like the influence of his important Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), it will likely exert considerable authority within the disciplinary discourse of the next ten to twenty years. I fear, however, that the book, either bought or borrowed, will go unread—or perhaps be sampled only for topics of passing interest, sampled much the way an undergraduate dips into an index and then reads only those pages that mention a specific text in the hope to find some quotable formulation suitable for a current paper. And Jameson is eminently quotable—such as his well-known depiction of Philip K. Dick as “The Shakespeare of Science Fiction” (345) or these others: “Utopia ... now better expresses our relationship to a genuinely political future than any program of action” (232); “colonial violence [is] inherent in the form or genre itself” (205); or “In SF ... religion is a kind of mediatory space; it is the black box in which infrastructure and superstructure intermingle and celebrate an enigmatic identity” (95).

But because Archaeologies is a very long, very dense text, it may well go unread even if bought, and especially if borrowed. Archaeologies is “the concluding volume” (15 n8) of an even longer, even denser series collectively called The Poetics of Social Forms. Verso’s website declares it a three-book sequence, along with Postmodernism and A Singular Modernity: An Essay on the Ontology of the Present (2002). However, a sentence in A Singular Modernity names it as the “antepenultimate volume” (indeed, “the theoretical section of the antepenultimate volume”), which means there are at least four volumes. Archaeologies’ dust-jacket says six, a number much more consistent with an idiomatic use of “antepenultimate” than three. The Seeds of Time (1994) is surely volume number four, and I conjecture that Signatures of the Visible (1990) and The Geopolitical Aesthetic (1992) are the others. Collectively, these books comprise 1880 densely interwoven pages.

Whether these six books form a single series, it would be impossible to assess: that’s beyond my assignment, beyond your tolerance, and much more significantly, beyond my skill. But at least two things should be noted. First is the consistent pattern that the obsession of the new volume—Utopia as a generic subset of sf—inscribes on everything else Jameson has written. Take Late Marxism (1990), a book given to thinking through Adorno, whom Jameson calls “my master.” There Jameson builds to a recognition of the connection between negative dialectics and Utopia. Following a position of Adorno’s, Jameson defines repression as violence and its absence as Utopia: “the mark of violence, whose absence, if that were possible or even conceivable, would at once constitute Utopia” (102).

Utopian sf, and sf more generally, often takes the form of romance, a topic that appears in The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981), probably Jameson’s most significant contribution to academic discourse. Halfway through this title, precisely at the point where the theoretical discussion gives way to a series of practical readings, we find that the transitional chapter is called “Magical Narratives: On the Dialectical Use of Genre Criticism” (136-70). It is an extended discussion of romance, that most bourgeois, apolitical, and naïve aesthetic form. One reason for this, of course, is that (Jameson’s) Marxism is itself structured as a utopian romance, possessing as it does most of the same central characteristics, especially a desire to redeem a degraded world through the intervention of a hero. If in Jameson that hero is conceptual or collective, this marks his Marxism as more Hegelian than any other materialist Marxist would publicly admit (which perhaps helps explain why many Marxist contemporaries such as Martin Ryle express frustration with Jameson). If by turns Marx or Adorno or Althusser is the abbreviated name of this romance’s hero, Jameson himself is the “eiron,” the sidekick, the trickster (though in a quite mirthless version)—what Northrop Frye, whom Jameson quotes at length, calls “the scheming valet” (172-78).

A second important observation coming from even a cursory survey of Jameson’s earlier books is that his project appears quite consistent across his career—in fact, remarkably so. Roland Barthes, for instance, had at least three major and rather distinct phases; conventional wisdom declares Michel Foucault had perhaps four. But while Jameson has qualified and clarified, his corpus seems coherently unified from then until now. And that central project can be given a general articulation: Jameson reads literature—its themes and genres, its motifs and landscapes—as an index of ideological and cultural tensions, overt contradictions, and unconscious conflicts best revealed by tracing structural opposition and narrative reversal, also his general strategy in Archaeologies. He conducts the analysis though a characteristic axial formalism concerned not with the forms themselves but with the meanings form makes: “the Utopian text is ... not to be seen as a vision or a full representation, but rather as a semiotic operation, a process of interaction between contradictions and contraries which generates the illusion of a model of society” (29 n17). Much of the text is given to categories and distinctions and charts, mixed with long expository development and illustrations from fiction. As in his previous books, dialectic is the structural principle: Jameson makes no attempt to present a tidy formula of the struggle that thought produces. As he remarks in Postmodernism, his project is “a genuinely dialectical attempt to think our present time in History” (46).

The Bad News. Let’s begin with the bad news. The first half of the Utopia section is very bad indeed; which is a real shame, because the second half is really quite good, almost in inverse proportion to its physical distance from the opening pages. The central reason that this first quarter fails is that it is simply three or six or ten times as long as necessary, with the great bulk of the prose given to a montage of any flitting thought that darts through the author’s head. While there are moments when I can tolerate such a thing, since I concede Jameson’s erudition and I concede Jameson’s perspicacity, Jameson isn’t Joyce and simply cannot claim style as his justification. Unlike Derrida, say, or even Eagleton, at the sentence level there is no joy, no wit, no pleasurable play that alternately edifies and entertains.

Most of Jameson’s sentences are tolerable, quotidian formulations that serve as sherpas to the dialectic. Others schlep along a little awkwardly, their shirt-tails hanging out while we wonder if the editor was off catching forty winks. But many others are absolutely inexcusable: “Meanwhile, this new version of the Platonic doctrine is then returned to a shadow of Freudianism by an Althusserian rewriting of the distinction of science and ideology in what are now Lacanian terms” (48). Unfortunately, obfuscation by accretion proves the rule rather than the exception; even if the sentence ultimately says something intelligible about the history of ideas, and I think it does, it actually says something more significant about the author’s inability or indifference to present those ideas in a usefully persuasive way. It also represents the sort of depthless pastiche he elsewhere rejects. And that marks it as representative of the very postmodern moment he has written to define and to disrupt.

I feel compelled to give another concrete example, and this one is a real doozie. Building on a discussion of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) that rightly distinguishes two textual modes of Utopian discourse—satire and travel story— Jameson offers this comment:

The exotic travel narrative, along with Rousseau’s near Utopian fantasies about closed spaces such as Poland or Corsica,13 develops on into various influential post-Utopian ideologies: most directly into the primitivism revived by Lévi-Strauss and renewed study of primitive communism or tribal society;14 as well as more indirectly into the closures of nationalism on the one hand, which very much vehiculates a geographical secession specified as a racial uniqueness; and into ecology on the other, reemerging from the closure of the planet itself. (18-19).

I hardly need add that the very next sentence begins: “Yet ...”

With its appositions and accretions masquerading as dialectical subtlety, this 83-word sentence is breathtaking in its studied incompetence. I can see how a sympathetic acolyte might parse the particular phrases and construct a coherence. But first, since these phrases make fundamentally simple expository points, there is no purpose in making the reader work hard here (maybe elsewhere, I agree, but not here). And second, these expository points are themselves misleadingly shallow, as in the instance of the reference to Lévi-Strauss; to say he revives and renews the study of tribal cultures may present a certain truth, but it also ignores or devalues the entire history of modern anthropology and ethnography. Footnote 14, like number 13 a bibliographic reference, usefully names books by Marshall Sahlins and Colin Turnbull, but so serves more to complicate than clarify the expository claim.

Of the phrase “very much vehiculates a geographical secession” I simply do not know where to begin. Geography cannot secede, no matter how much it has been vehiculated. And even if you happen to know that “véhiculer” is a rare nineteenth-century French verb that carries a “didactic” sense of one thing serving as a vehicle for something else (so says Dictionnaire Robert, citing 1856 as the original usage), or even if you look it up in the OED (where it appears), it is utterly unidiomatic in contemporary English and uncommon in French. And in the context, it is utterly unnecessary. Allow me to add that even within a science-fictional frame I cannot imagine what “the closure of the planet itself” could conceivably mean: even a planetary ecological collapse sufficiently catastrophic to wipe all life from the Earth would not constitute a “closure” of the “planet itself.” The planet itself will continue along, thank you very much, quite happily passing the approximately seven billion years until our Sun balloons into a giant red star hot enough to melt the rock we now walk on—at which point the history of the planet will close. Even then the planet itself will continue on, as a useless burnt cinder forever orbiting a toothless white dwarf. In this last clause of Jameson’s comment, it is not the exotic “vehiculates” where the sentence goes haywire, it is the idiomatic “closure”—both semantic and syntactical—that Jameson cannot control.

Various critiques of style have followed Jameson since the beginning of his career. Most of these, such as Dutton’s, have centered on semantic density and syntactic convolutions. Others have invoked how Jameson appropriates enormously diverse materials, often only providing allusive asides or cryptic quips that readers must patiently decode, then work though. The standard defense proffered both by Jameson and his defenders has been of the necessity of difficulty—that for readers to actually engage with authentically new thought, they must address the obdurate, the intractable, and the recondite—as in this frequently quoted passage from Marxism and Form (1972), where Jameson comments on Adorno’s style: “density is itself a conduct of intransigence: the bristling mass of abstractions and cross-reference is precisely intended to be read in situation against the cheap facility of what surrounds it, as a warning to the reader of the price he has to pay for genuine thinking” (xiii). For truly genuine thought, thought that rattles the bars of our culture’s unconscious infrastructures, this view makes considerable sense. And one need not appeal to Adorno or Derrida for a defense of difficult writing. In “Democratic Vistas” (1871), Whitman famously invoked difficult books as both desirable and required: “Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half sleep, but, in the richest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself” (523).

A dissonant, difficult style can reward attention or shock us into recognition of difference, keep us from superficial reinscription or wake us from dogmatic slumbers. Agreed. But the necessity and reasonableness of difficulty in some contexts and for some purposes ought not to constitute a get-out-of-jail-free card. Instead, we should examine individual cases: the utterly new and exquisite involutions of an innovative dialectic might require or even benefit from a syntax that tortures common, plain, communicative style—but certainly not for simple exposition. So the bad news is bad: the first quarter of Archaeologies of the Future is very tough going, largely because of Jameson’s obtuse indifference toward or contempt for his audience.

The Good News. The terrible shame of the bad news is that—beneath such agglutinations, such infelicities, such nonsense—at the core the book is very well worth reading. Archaeologies simmers with acute and occasionally profound insights into Utopia both as a mode of literary discourse and as a mode of thought. Despite the stylistic constraints and scholarly conceits—what, in “Making a Break” (2006), Terry Eagleton calls Jameson’s “bulldozer” (26)—one still occasionally feels the exuberance of a fan, an impossible-to-constrain enthusiasm for sf’s authentically intellectual engagements.

Most of the key observations center on the irresolvable antinomies of the Utopian “impulse” (that amorphous hope manifest in literary dreams and wishes), that is distinct from the Utopian “project,” the more concrete sphere of worldly politics. The first several chapters survey some of the central tropes and topoi of the utopian tradition; while these pages are neither chronological nor conceptually sequential—they are instead disturbingly digressive and elliptical—they offer an interesting account of various cardinal dichotomies of utopian, dystopian, and anti-utopian imagination: prediction/wish-fulfillment, science/ideology, fantasy/sf, progress/stagnation, resistance/replication, and depersonalization/identification. Scattered about are some excellent pages on Le Guin, on Dick, on Stapledon—even on Asimov. While admirably clear, the discussion of Lem provides little new for scholars who know either the primary texts or the secondary discussions. A.J. Greimas’s semiotic square pops up several times, and, I say this sincerely, at one point Jameson deploys it to great advantage (130-31). The principal observations of these pages derive, ironically, from style—though here understood as characteristic cognitive pattern. In “The Politics of Style” (1982), Eagleton argues that Jameson “is a master of coruscating connection and brilliant analogies, whose primarily [sic] intellectual habit is metaphor; his texts form a kind of immense combinatoire into which others’ ideas are fed only to emerge as strikingly novel insights of his own” (21-22).

With the exception of the first half’s final two chapters, the second half of the book, on the utopian aspects of sf, proves much more consistently useful and accessible. Perhaps the most important reason for this greater utility and coherence is that the chapters were not composed to cohere; each piece is a one-off. It begins with a chapter on Charles Fourier, but the others address individual sf writers: four on Dick, one each on Aldiss, Van Vogt, Le Guin, and Gibson, and two on the cognition of space. The book concludes with an excellent account of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (1992-96), certainly one of the most important sections of the book. A few of these items are weathered and wrinkled by the passing years and would have benefitted from some precise editorial botox. In “Progress vs. Utopia,” for instance, Jameson mentions a “new” development within semiotics, called “narratology” (281); narratology is hardly “new,” not even in 1982, unless by new we mean “unfamiliar,” though I can’t understand how any reader who makes it through the previous 280 pages would be the sort of reader unfamiliar with the insights or existence of narratology. Another essay refers to Dick’s “recent” (356) novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974). Such small problems could have been easily edited away with more-or-less transparent changes.

Together, the essays generally extend Jameson’s central strategy, examining how literature’s form indexes ideological tensions traceable through “the representational constraints which deform a text they enable in the first place” (13 n6). Unlike the instrumentalist approaches best called “symptomatic” reading—which conceptualize art-works as a catalog of contextual ideological pressure, and so the interpreter quickly drops the text to concentrate on history and politics—Jameson “historicizes” form. This tendency he elsewhere mocks as his “perversely formalist approach to Utopia as a genre” (85). As he does so, Jameson’s auguries often produce sharp, telling claims.

Take the chapter, first written in 2003, on Pattern Recognition, “Fear and Loathing in Globalization.” This chapter offers many acutely nuanced observations that cleverly render insights into the textual dynamics of the novel. For instance, he rightly says that the search for the maker of the mysterious footage isn’t the center of the novel; rather, it is the nested contradiction between the nameless and the named, the authentic passion and the commodified product:

Indeed, it is ... this very contradiction which is the deeper subject of Pattern Recognition, which projects the Utopian anticipation of a new art premised on “semiotic neutrality,” and on the systematic effacement of names, dates, fashions and history itself, within a context irremediably corrupted by all those things. The name-dropping, in-group language of the novel thus revels in everything the footage seeks to neutralize: the work becomes a kind of quicksand, miring us ever more deeply in what we struggle to escape. Yet this is not merely an abstract interpretation, nor even an aesthetic; it is also the existential reality of the protagonist herself, and the source of the “gift” that informs her profession. (389-90)

Here, of course, we find the essence of Gibson’s unmediated nostalgia for an unmediated real, a pure presence of the present, utterly authentic, outside all commodities—against the danger of “all experience having been reduced, by the spectral hand of marketing, to price-point variations of the same thing” (Gibson 341). Note how clear, concise, and direct Jameson’s argument is here. Most of the last three quarters of Archaeologies is quite good, and the final chapters of each half are splendid.

“The Future as Disruption” is the last and perhaps the key chapter of the book’s first part, both recapitulating the general argument and also offering its oxymoronic thesis. Noting that the “thought experiments” (230) of Utopia’s “critical negativity” operate to “demystify” ideological content (216), this chapter situates the difference between the older utopian tradition and newer, postmodernist developments. Older utopian texts “seemed to offer blueprints for change”—and so provided some single Absolute solution without full or subtle justification. The “new formal tendency ... is not the representation of Utopia, but rather the conflict of all possible Utopias, and the arguments about the nature and desirability of Utopia as such” that necessitates utopian discourse “to reorganize itself around the increasingly palpable fact and situation of ideological multiplicity and radical difference in the field of desire” (216). These new utopian arguments posit a preference for polyvalent multiplicity over older libertarian pluralisms (as, for instance, remains the preference of Robert Nozick, whom Jameson calls “neo-conservative” [220]). New utopias take the general form of an abandonment of the notion of an Absolute, any Absolute—absolutely (219-25). Remarkably, Jameson then embraces an ideal of conservatism—Federalism (224)—using “Canada and Spain” as “characteristic” contemporary models (225). Characteristic of Jameson’s own model is that such claims are immediately complicated, so he notes that such Federalist “islands,” whether feeble or fertile, omit “agency: the obligation of Utopia to remain an unrealizable fantasy” (227). How then can Utopia function as “a genuinely radical disruption” (229) of convention and privilege and such foundational notions as money (229-31)? But this question is precisely Jameson’s answer: Utopia operates as “the form such disruption necessarily takes” (231). Or, he concludes, “the Utopian form itself is the answer to the universal ideological conviction that no alternative is possible” (232).

This sort of “dialectical reversal” (Homer 16) has always been Jameson’s calling card: “that paradoxical turning around of a phenomenon into its opposite” (Marxism and Form 309). This is Jameson’s characteristic Verfremdungseffekt (the effect of distancing or estrangement that Jameson adapts from Bertold Brecht), and the central means he deploys to evade recent critiques of Marxist utopianism, of the sort here nicely articulated by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.: “Marxist sf theory may ... be at a point when it can no longer claim to be adequate for a radically fluid postmodern reality, or at the threshold of a synthetic view that will be useful for ‘mapping’ the social metamorphoses of cyborg science and the efflorescence of sf that attends it” (123).

Just as the argument of Archaeologies’ first part finds its central expression in its final chapter, so too in the second part, which culminates with “Realism and Utopia in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy.” Robinson was Jameson’s graduate student, and he completed his dissertation on the fiction of Philip K. Dick; since then, a certain amount of his own fiction, notably the ORANGE COUNTY series (1984-1990) and the Mars books, suggest something of a socialist utopian urge. In this chapter, Jameson’s reading focuses on the complex over-determination of (primarily scientific) realism and (primarily political) allegory (396) in Red Mars (1992), Blue Mars (1994), and Green Mars (1996). As in the other chapters, Jameson isolates imbrications and recursions, tracing their development and the resultant antinomies. In the MARS books, he argues, the characters exemplify a disruptive agency that “is the evocation of resistance” (397)—science transcodes to politics, realism to utopia (398). Tracing such conceits reveals the “dialectical construction” of our experience of reality (399) and, in turn, the political agency of sf to envisage an “ontological alternative” (402) that signifies a potential human praxis. That line of discussion leads Jameson to one of his most important, if most quotidian, claims: “The utopian text is not supposed to produce ... synthesis all by itself or to represent it: that is a matter for human history and for collective practice. It is supposed only to produce the requirement of the synthesis, to open the space into which it is to be imagined” (409; see also 416). Though the passive verb constructions also make this sort of claim quite troubling, here is a powerful articulation of literature’s utopian impulse, something that actually “acts out the coexistence of multiplicities, and heightens the existential shock ... of simultaneities” (411). Utopian discourse thereby presages a “political revolution” (412) of agency itself.
In these pages, Archaeologies resembles Jameson’s best work, especially Late Marxism and Brecht and Method (1998).

The Pomo Trope. Jameson remains a wonderfully oxymoronic figure: a utopian Marxist, a sophisticated yet occasionally utterly unreadable stylist, an innovator of the past, and an archaeologist of the future. Very like a whale, those postmodern clouds. But he also has something important to teach us, as he pronounces in what is clearly the book’s central claim:

Utopia ... serves a vital political function today which goes well beyond mere ideological expression or replication. The formal flaw—how to articulate the Utopian break in such a way that it is transformed into a practical-political transition—now becomes a rhetorical and political strength—in that it forces us precisely to concentrate on the break itself: a meditation on the impossible, on the unrealizable in its own right. This is very far from a liberal capitulation to the necessity of capitalism, however; it is quite the opposite, a rattling of the bars and an intense spiritual concentration and preparation for another stage which has not yet arrived. (232-33).

It seems to me that such antinomies and cruxes display, however erudite their forms or convoluted their manifestations, a crucially central dynamic that thought, Jameson’s thought—the eiron’s thought—tries to redeem from repression. And Jameson very rightly gives that thought a succinct, synecdochic name: Utopia.

An earlier version of this essay was delivered at the twenty-seventh International Conference on the the Fantastic in the Arts in March 2006. I want to thank Mark Bould, William Burling, and Stephen Infantino for their questions, comments, and qualifying corrections.

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