Notes from “Valences of the Dialectic”

These are some jotted notes from my reading of Fredric Jameson’s “Valences of the Dialectic” – a fairly hefty book (both in size and density) published by Verso in 2009.

Part 1

The book is divided into a number of sections. In the first “The Three Names of the Dialectic” Jameson gives a basic outline of dialectics, divided into three sub-categories:

  • “The dialectic” is the philosophy developed by the followers of Marx, the marx-ism created by his inheritors (including Engels) that Marx may or may not have subscribed to.
  • “Many dialectics” is more broadly the use of dialectical categories and processes by a range of thinkers, and includes a useful development of the “base/superstructure” dialectic as historically contingent – that is needing to be understood on each occasion in its specific historic context rather than as an overarching law which is always the same in all situations.
  • “It’s dialectical!” is the need to express or explain dialectics themselves in a dialetical way, and how this can erupt in different areas of thought.

What I took away from this is a re-emphasis of Engel’s “Three Laws of the Dialectic” as remaining relevant:

  • The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa;
  • The law of the interpenetration of opposites;
  • The law of the negation of the negation.

But with a call to truly think through the complex implications each law brings, and in particular to avoid viewing things as separate but connected or proceeding through a neat sequence of thesis-antithesis-synthesis triplets. Instead it is a frame through which we can avoid thinking simplistically and try to see the complexity of cause and effect, change and progress.

Part 2

In the second part Jameson discusses Hegel directly, and in particular the relationship between ‘common sense’ knowledge (‘Verstand’) and more properly dialectical knowledge or ‘Vernunft’. The theme is that Verstand is a reifying vision of the world overcome by Vernunft.

Part 3

The third part walks through a number of modern critiques of dialectics.

First is a fascinating section based on Jacques Derrida’s “Spectres of Marx“. I am no fan of Derrida. But Jameson’s exposition is inspired, built around the idea of “spectrality” and it’s importance to dialectics generally and Marx specifically. What this means to Jameson is that any given moment in history, in time, is not fixed or given in isolation. The spectres of the past leak into it, are visible in it. Similarly the ghosts of possible futures can also be seen. Each point in time is then like a long exposure photograph capturing the movement from what was, to what is, to what will be. This is completely consistent with how Bertell Ollman describes Marx’s view in “Dance of the Dialectic” as studying history “backwards”.

I didn’t get so much from the section on Deleuze, so I’ll skip over that.

The next section on Lukacs is much more interesting, and I’ve written separate posts on Jameson’s use of the concept of totality to explain pluralism and the co-option of dissent in modern capitalism, and his rehabilitation of the influence of Lukacs’ thinking on class and class consciousness using ‘standpoint’ theory and the example of modern feminism. In general it seems to me that Jameson is sympathetic to Lukacs’ Hegelian Marxism, despite in general arguing against the retro-fitting of philosophical systems onto Marx’s thought.

There is then a long section on Sartre which contains some interesting material in particular on how groups come to coalesce under the influence of the ‘other’ or thirds and subsequently ossify into what Sartre describes as ‘practico-inert’.  Also a useful description of praxis. In general though I found this section to be quite dense, probably coloured by the fact that I don’t have much background in Sartre.

Part 4

Part 4 opens with a chapter on ‘commodification’ with a restatement of the importance of the dialectical nature of the commodity in Marx’s thinking before moving on to connect that to reification in Lukacs and the subsequent work of Adorno where:

“the practice and habit of consumption… gradually replace the necessity of ideological control.”

(Jameson 2009, p.266)

The remainder is a varied collection of essays bringing a dialectical analysis to subjects such as cultural revolution, Lenin, and ideological analysis. Throughout, Jameson is keen to assert that Marx did not create a philosophy, although there have been a number of attempts subsequently to bolt one onto it – including structuralism, existentialism, and a variation on Hegelian thought. Jameson rather describes Marx’s thought as demonstrating a ‘unity of theory and practice’ and compares it to psychoanalysis.

The chapter on “Persistencies of the Dialectic” brings out three characterisations of dialectical thinking: reflexivity of thinking; causality and historical narrative; and an emphasis on contradiction. Jameson reinforces a point I have often thought, that in Marx’s historical work there is none of the simplistic determinism and teleology that he is often accused of. Rather the dialectical process of his analysis delivers:

“a narrative which is at every point a perpetual and dazzling, sometimes bewildering, cancellations of previously dominant narrative paradigms.”

(Jameson 2009, p. 287)

A chapter on Lenin discusses dialectics as part of a revolutionary process, when society reaches the situation where “one cannot change anything without changing everything” (Jameson 2009, p.299). This is a thought that seems very relevant to today’s ossified society where the change that is visible in the economy and wider society seem stuck within a carapace of politics (both of left and right) which is stuck trying to resolve the problems of the previous era.

“one need not, in other words, slavishly imitate Lenin’s divisive, aggressive, sectarian recommendations for tactics, to grasp the ongoing value of strategy which consists in tirelessly underscoring the difference between systemic and piecemeal goals.. between revolution and reform.”

(Jameson 2009, p.300)

A final long section on ideological analysis draws out seven different theories that have been used to explain why ideology exists:

  • That it is required by Marxism to explain where there is resistance to its teaching;
  • Classical ‘false consciousness’ where it is used by the dominant as a means of control;
  • As reification, it is created without volition through the mechanisms of totality;
  • Through critical theory, as commodification driven by consumption;
  • Through the subsequent structuralist turn through language, via institutions which create, recreate, and enforce;
  • Following psychoanalysis (and particularly Lacan) as something which will always be needed to ‘map’ our understanding, even under socialism;
  • Finally as a derived from the priorities of ‘daily life’ displacing economic conflict (something I read as being a description of ‘identity politics’).

It is clear however that any ideology however derived cannot think beyond the confines of the social limits of it’s own period.

“the most fruitful way of approaching a utopian text or project lies not in judging its positive elements, its overt representations, but rather in seeking to grasp what it cannot (yet) think.”

(Jameson 2009, p. 361)

Part 5

The opening chapter covers the fall of “actually existing Marxism” and makes a number of fascinating points. Jameson discusses in depth the defeat of the Soviet Union and the changes wrought in capitalism at the same time. It is a fascinating essay which makes a number of points relevant to the modern world.

Jameson challenges the idea that social democracy is sustainable within a capitalist economy. For example on the welfare state its contradictions are “those of capitalism itself”.

“where it is in the process of being dismantled it will be important for the Left to seize and articulate the dissatisfactions of ordinary people… and not play into the hands of the market rhetoricians.”

(Jameson 2009, p. 382)

The alternative to this strategy from the left is a movement from the right:

“the great right wing movements… are essentially substitutes… that spring from rage and bitter disappointment at the failures of Utopian aspirations, and from the consequent, and deeply held, conviction that a more genuinely cooperative social order is fundamentally impossible.”

(Jameson 2009, p.387)

This strikes me as prescient for both Brexit and Trump (and the range of other rightist populist movements).

His key point is that Marxism was a product of the capitalism of its day, and therefore that “a postmodern capitalism necessarily calls a postmodern Marxism into existence over against itself” (Jameson 2009, p.409).

The final chapter in this section are two extensive essays on globalisation as both philosophy and politics.

Part 6

The final part is an extended discussion of narrative, time, and history. I found this hard to follow in places drawing as it does on Jameson’s background in literary analysis, and using as its basis the Poetics of Aristotle and their use in analysis by Paul Ricoeur in “Time and Narrative”.

The fundamental insight is that time is not a fixed eternal category that only works in one direction. Time is experienced on a number of different levels, and works both forwards and backwards. It is not as simple as the “present” endlessly and remorsely rolling always forwards leaving behind unchanging slices of itself as the “past”. As Slavoj Zizek says in “Less Than Nothing”:

“History only runs forward for those who look at it backwards; linear progression only in retrospect.”

(Zizek 2013)

The act of reading any narrative work (whether history or fiction) is then

“the momentary and ephemeral act of unification in which we hold multiple dimensions of time together for a glimpse that cannot prolong itself into the philosophical concept.”

(Jameson 2009, p. 532).

Jameson draws out three layers from the work of Fernand Braudel:

  • Geological
  • Institutional
  • Historical events

With a key dialectical insight in the relationships and interactions between the different layers. This is fascinating stuff, and is incredibly important for thinking about how we experience narrative and think about what is possible. As Jameson points out:

“the worldwide triumph of capitalism at one and the same time secures the priority of Marxism as the ultimate horizon of thought in our time.”

(Jameson 2009, p.607)

This is another theme that runs throughout the book. In a dialectical process, capitalism in all it’s changing incarnations brings its own opposition into being. The opposition will condition what we are able to think of as possible in the future.

Jameson, Fredric Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, London, 2009)

Zizek, Slavoj Less Than Nothing (Verso, London, 2013)

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One thought on “Notes from “Valences of the Dialectic”

  1. Pingback: Review: Valences of the Dialectic | A Very Marx Adventure

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