KEEPING THE NEGATIVE ALIVE
The foundation of Fredric Jameson’s revival of Hegel is the idea that we find ourselves in a moment where the distinction between economics and culture has been effaced: “that everything, including commodity production and high and speculative finance, has become cultural; and culture has equally become profoundly economic or commodity oriented.”
Jameson propels us back to the 1960s, a period whose hopes and dreams were born from the fire of the Cold War in Vietnam, and dashed by Watergate, the oil crisis and – most crucially – the “loss of Saigon.” This was a period in which cultural production distanced itself from the original text – think of all those “anti-theatrical” interpretations, where Shakespeare is dragged into a setting at odds with what we come to expect from “a Shakespeare play” – and exploded into the present day, where the division between art and life is wiped out. It became accepted that “theatrical performance was also a form of praxis,” that performance would, by its integration into real life, change the reality of life.
This erasure of the distinction between culture and politics rested on the realisation that this very distinction was based on a falsehood: culture and politics were always mutually complicit. A play really could stop the war in Vietnam, because the institutions which propped up and fed culture were complicit in nourishing the ideology behind the war.
It follows that Hegel’s notion of “the end of art” may be of interest to us when we look back at the 60s, and when we move forwards to the present day. Hegel calculated that the engine of history is “the movement towards that absolute of ‘objective spirit’, as it passes through the three stages of religion, art and philosophy.” Art’s own internal dynamics, he says, will prove to be its very undoing – its lot will be “the abolition of the aesthetic by itself and under its own internal momentum” and its transformation into “philosophy itself, the historical self-consciousness of an absolute present”. It is at this moment, according to Marx’s (albeit materialistic) reading of Hegel, when mankind escapes the parameters imposed by nature and markets, and creates its own destiny.
Jameson attempts to turn this very abstract view of history is something more identifiable. In the beginning, before religion, humanity is “collectively conscious but only unconsciously self-conscious.” It conceives of the world in rudimentary images, unaware of its own place in that world. In the next stage, those images or forms are infused with spirit, or consciousness (albeit a consciousness which man alienates from himself) – as religious icons, they take on the physical and spiritual garments that we cannot bring ourselves to wear. But in the next stage – that of Greek / classical art – “figuration is as it were distracted in its ultimate mission and destiny [that of complete abstraction] and mired even more dangerously within matter and the body itself.” The human body itself becomes fetishised, identified with objectivity, the “fountainhead of political philosophy” – and one might think this a suitable conclusion to the historic journey of mankind.
What we get instead is Christianity, the moment of which Jameson sketches dazzlingly in a footnote:
Christ’s body as transition: this is the point at which Hegel tries to think modernity. It is thus imagined – the modern – as the moment in which the individual body is somehow no longer fully meaningful on its own terms. If you think modernity scientifically, then, it is the moment of Copernicus: we (the human body) are no longer the measure, the centre of things. If you think it technologically, it is the moment when the tool, the graceful prosthesis and adjunct to the handicrafter’s body, is transcended towards the machine, of which the individual body is itself the adjunct. If you think, finally, in economic terms, it is the moment in which commerce, grasped as a quintessential and profoundly human activity, is transcended towards a system – capitalism – in which money has a logic of its own and the cycles of the economic largely outstrip in their incomprehensibility the simple meaningfulness of good or bad luck, good or bad fortune, fulfilling a characteristic human destiny for good or ill, as opposed to suffering the seismographic shocks of systemic processes that can no longer be grasped or even represented in human categories.
Far from seeing astronomy, industry or capitalism as refutations of Christianity, Jameson invites us to see the depiction of Christ as the overture to these revolutions. Christ decentres us and leads us, via the Reformation, to the classical German philosophy of Hegel and his contemporaries.
It goes without saying that, according to Hegel’s schema, this is when art ends and philosophy takes over. Yet, as Jameson points out, “few historical prognoses have been so disastrously wrong. Whatever the validity of Hegel’s feelings about Romanticism [whose sublime inclinations represented, for Hegel, the dying breaths of a “sorry aesthetic”], those currents which led on into what has come to be called Modernism are thereby surely to be identified with one of the most remarkable flourishings of the arts in all of human history.”
Moreover, Hegel is often seen as the last great systematic philosopher, with all subsequent theory (not least Marxism) merely digressing from or distilling his ideas. So what happened? Why didn’t philosophy replace art, as Hegel forecast it would?
Jameson quotes Adorno: “philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realise it was missed.” If we follow this argument, philosophy missed its chance; philosophers turned to forms of positivism, and the task of explaining absolute systems fell to (Modernist) art; yet, since its work was not really done, theory (and specifically critical theory) was called forth “as a way of keeping the negative alive in a period in which praxis, the unity of the negative and the positive, itself seems suspended”.
What was it about Modernist art which allowed it to “lay peremptory claim to a unique mode ‘of apprehending and representing the Absolute’”? What did Modernism preserve and discard, so that it, rather than philosophy, could claim to be “the ‘highest mode in which truth manages to come into being’”? Here we must turn to the notions of the Beautiful and the Sublime. “Modernism,” says Jameson, “aspires to the Sublime … insofar as it … believes that in order to be art at all, art must be something beyond art.” Modernism discards the Beautiful, which nevertheless persists under the radar “without any claim to truth or to a special relationship with the Absolute.”
Fast-forward to the 1960s, the early days of Postmodernism, and the age in which art and the world became as one. We suggested earlier that this was the era in which art ended. But perhaps what ended was merely the pre-eminence of the Sublime, and the Modernist project to represent the world; perhaps this project has been commandeered by something else; perhaps the auteurs of Modernism, gripped as they were by narration and creativity, have been usurped by the auteurs of Theory, with their new concerns of abstraction and critique. This is Jameson’s suggestion: that “Theory emerged from the aesthetic itself, from the culture of the modern, and it is only in the dreary light of the old anti-intellectual distinction between the critical and the creative that the movement from Mayakovsky to Jakobson will seem a downward curve, or that from Brecht to Barthes, or from Joyce to Eco, from Proust to Deleuze.” One may, at this point, stop to think where this leaves Jameson himself, the last survivor of the theoretical auteurs…
So the Sublime is appropriated by Theory. Where does this leave Beauty? This, says Jameson, is the other cultural symptom of Postmodernity: in lieu of its pursuit of absolute truth, Art achieves what Jameson waspishly calls its “culinary status,” busying itself with decoration and indulging our hedonistic impulses. The supremacy of Theory/Sublime and Art/Beauty has shifted in recent years: in the 1970s the former was dominant, in the 1980s the latter reigned supreme.
The last two decades have seen us suspended somewhere between the two, with both the Sublime and the Beautiful naggingly out of reach. The cybernetic revolution (which for Jameson, in a point I will develop in a subsequent post, makes the circulation of capital and information un-representable) has eased “the immense expansion of culture and commodification into all fields,” so that Debord’s society of the spectacle exists even more in our own time than it did in his. Jameson advises against taking a moral position on this colonisation of culture. The supersession of mass culture over canonical art is something to be neither deplored nor celebrated; “but the return of the Beautiful in the postmodern must be seen as just such a systemic dominant: a colonisation of reality generally by spatial and visual forms which is at one and the same time a commodification of that same intensively colonised reality on a worldwide scale”.
If all of this seems somewhat unmaterialistic, that is because, in a sense, it is. Jameson’s essay – ‘End of Art’ or ‘End of History’ – is a reflection upon Fukuyama’s contention that late capitalism is the moment in which human self-knowledge and freedom reach their peak. Elsewhere (particularly in the essay Culture and Finance Capital), Jameson analyses the base of late capitalism – the succession of productive investment by finance capital – and he clearly finds Fukuyama’s claims wanting and illogical. However, somewhat in his defence, Jameson offers an alternative interpretation of Fukuyama’s “end of history”, saying that it “is not really about Time at all, but rather about Space.” The end of history as Fukuyama describes it is the symptom of a general anxiety about
the entrance of capitalism into a new third stage and its consequent penetration of as yet uncommodified parts of the world which make it difficult to imagine any further enlargement of the system. As far as socialism is concerned, a different Marx (that of the Grundrisse rather than that of Capital) always insisted that it would not be on the agenda until the world market had reached its limits and things and labour power became universally commodified. We are today far closer to that situation than in the time of either Marx of Lenin.
Jameson’s point, which he expands upon in Culture and Finance Capital, is that we have reached the point where it is impossible economically (not to mention ecologically) to imagine the sorts of compound growth which are needed to sustain a global capitalist economy (see also Harvey’s notion of “the limits of capital”). “The end of expansion and old-fashioned imperialism,” says Jameson, “is not accompanied by any viable alternative of internal development.”
Fukuyama’s point can be seen in this way: given the incapacity of expansion and imperialism in maintaining capitalist growth, the speculative finance markets are the only thing that can keep capitalism going. Only, a dose of Marxist economic theory and a quick glance at the newspapers reveal a similar incapacity within finance. We should not be complacent, for its removal will be messy, but it does seem as though capitalism may be screwed.