Notes about Accumulation(s)

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Accumulations II [and literature]

Our times are times of the novella. Isn’t it that day by day we question how is it that things have come to this? At the same time reality is coming closer to the durée of “the novel”, since we lived fascinated by the aesthetic contradiction between past and future. If all of this is true, what place would “the novel” hold? For some, like Fredric Jameson, the postmodern is fading away and in its place is now occupied by writing of “itemisation”, the withdrawal (or renouncement) of the attempt to ‘estrange’ “our daily life and see it in new, poetic or nightmarish, ways” (“Itemised”). Karl Ove Knausgaard, Emmanuel Carrère and Valeria Luiselli would be just some items of this list. Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive (2019) captures in a nutshell what the current status of (Latin-American) fiction in early XXI century is. Yet, one should hesitate to simply take Jameson’s ‘itemisation’ of writing for granted. In a long passage in Luiselli, the main narrator of the novel states that “No one has quite been able to capture what is happening or say why. Perhaps it’s just that we sense an absence of future, because the present has become too overwhelming, so the future has become unimaginable. And without future, time feels like only an accumulation (Lost Children 103). The narration then enlists all of those things accumulated (months, days, natural disasters, television series, terrorist attacks, divorces, mass migrations, birthdays, photographs, sunrises). The digression happens after the main narrator is asked by one of her children about what, how and when to take a photograph. The fact that, to explain the kid when to photograph, the narrator has to enlist both the emptiness of life, and the failure, of photographing in general when capturing or depicting our experience of time and life, illustrates an impossibility that the narration is aware of. The latter would be that “our ways of documenting the world have fallen short” (103) and consequently as much as experiences and other things are accumulated, the future seems unimaginable, undecidable. 

This moment could à la lettre describe what Jameson’s sees in Knausgaard’s sixth book of My Struggle (if not in all the books of the series). Itemisation would be the shift from the aesthetic to the ethical, abandoning the first so that one can as Knausgaard or Luiselli contemplate a “solution to the problem of what to do with [oneself] and [oneself’s] life” (“Itemised”). Hence, for Jameson writing of itemisation is, somehow, the end of the duration of the novel. Since the contemporary novel, as a genre, has to renounce to conjugate the past (what has happened) and l’avenir (what is going to happen), the novel now can merely register a list of items that tentatively would become rereadings, returns to duration. Yet, the novel is hardly a renunciation. In Luiselli, the narration bets for an opening to the future, while hoarding the previous items, “You have to find your own way of understanding space, so that the rest of us can feel less lost in time” (103), tells the mother to the kid so that he would start shooting photographs. There is no duration, but a two folded direction that moves forward in the same direction.

It is not that things have not changed for the novel. Neither it is that the “postmodern” is slowly fading away (if it ever was fully holding sway all over the world). For once, it is true that the novel as “all life is a process of breaking down”, would say Fitzgerald. Something broke in the sphere of the novel, and in the one of the literary. The novel was the genre that better held the hybridity of the new subjects that emerged from the process of so-called primitive accumulation at the dawn of capitalism. While the vogelfrei were attached to their necessity to sell their work in the market, their will was always fugitive. In a same manner the novel was (is) a living contradiction, namely between the writer and their context, the original and the translation, the new and the new. Only the novel knew how to pile together a contradiction. If novellas are cartographies of lines of flight, novels are diagrams of spheres whose functioning lie in opposing semiospheres. To this extend, if the emergence and popularization of novellas (ending of XIX century- and early XX century) marked the shift from industrial accumulation in capitalism and its acceleration, switch and cohabitation to and with algorithm accumulation in the current state of capitalism that we live today, we are not only witnessing the novellation of history, but also the novellation of the novel. If this is true, the contradiction, the main mechanism of the novel, is blurring. The itemisation is not a renouncement, neither the re-disjunction or re-conjunction of duration, “but only a line of flight in the process of being drawn, toward a new acceptance, the opposite of renunciation or resignation —a new happiness?” (Deleuze and Guattari 207), and yet another process of hoarding, a new redirection of accumulation. And still, an opening for heaping history and the novel anew.

Notes on Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991)

At the end of Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) it is stated, as many times in the book, what a possible definition of postmodernism might be: “The postmodern may well in that sense be little more than a transitional period between two stages of capitalism, in which the earlier forms of the economic are in the process of being restructured on a global scale, including the older forms of labor and its traditional organizational institutions and concepts” (417). From this perspective, postmodernism is also a form of interregnum, since both share a level of uncertainty, at least when it comes to naming what or who is the new ruling name in town. In a way, Jameson’s book offers a continuation of what the Political Unconscious inaugurated, that is, a task of constantly historizing. Not surprisingly, this is precisely what Jameson states in the “Introduction”, since he writes thinking for an age that has forgotten how to think historically (ix). The task, then, for a postmodernism thinking is to realize how much of the past has persisted while at the same time acknowledging that commodity critique became another form of mere consumption. This means, of course, that the ultimate form of capitalism (Jameson’s post-industrial capitalism, aka, third stage of capitalism) is able to melt in the everything, that critique is just another object of consumption in a pure form, since “postmodernism is the consumption of sheer commodification as a process” (x). 

As much as the book seeks to theorize, or, at best, illustrate, what postmodernism might be, it also constantly returns to modernism. If postmodernism is supposed to be understood via historicity, there is no other way than learning the past of that form that could be anywhere. This means that since postmodernism is a “cultural dominant: a conception which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate features” (4), it hardly is foreseeable whilst also it is always present. Modernism, as an aesthetic form and content, might have challenged the ways and means of production, in the other hand, postmodernism emerges as a form of production that integrates into commodity production the aesthetic. It could be said then that postmodernism is (third stage) capitalism’s craving for the past, present and future, without clearly being able to produce its own historicity. 

Postmodern products (novels, films, buildings and so on) resist interpretation. For instance, about the postmodern novel, Jameson would say that it not only resists interpretation but that it “is organized systematically and formally to short-circuit an older type of social and historical interpretation which it perpetually holds on and withdraws” (23). Without, saying it, Jameson’s suggests that the postmodern is a discourse constantly hesitating, something that needs to cut with the old while sustaining it. Postmodern, in its own expression, has a level of undecidability —as much as Jameson refuses to use the deconstructive term (Cfr. Chp. 7). What is at stake when analyzing postmodern art, is not only its form but the way it also depicts the mode of production that produced it, namely a machine that is obsessed with the process of processes of reproduction. Art no longer holds together a monumental enterprise (if it ever did) but now it “reshuffles the fragments of preexistent texts […] in some new and heightened bricolage: metabooks which cannibalize other books, metatexts which collate hits of other texts” (96). Postmodernism ultimately is the addition of dispersed elements, a summatory of things that are distant in time and yet close to our senses. Living in postmodernism times is living distracted, eternally gone in-between the “wrapping shells” of non-centered spaces that demand our centrality and linearity as subjects of production-distribution-consumption. 

While it could be argued that Jameson too easily totalizes the production of culture in the late capitalism, it could also be said that this is not the project of postmodernism, or at least not the postmodernism that Jameson’s proposes. Jameson is aware that he must avoid auto-reification: “Permanent revolution in intellectual life and culture means both that impossibility and the necessity for a constant reinvention of precautions against what my tradition calls conceptual reification” (401). To this extend, thinking about postmodernism might, at best, open the possibility of reading literature (and history) as a series of movements and strategies. Thus, against reifying postmodernism, it should be thought beyond it. That is, if modernism was the movement and formation of monuments and its attractive force; postmodernism would come to be as an affective movement that brakes and disperses while sustaining what cuts. It might be said, then, that our current times (or even after the 60’s which are the times that Jameson analyzes the most), could be catalogued as a suspension and (another) regression (and return), from the brake of the postmodern and the fascination of the modern. We are not living the times of the “effacement of the traces of production” (314), as in postmodernism times we certainly did, but the times were scars are too visible, when what is effaced still accumulates, when non-subjects still matter and the global suspends the monad. And yet, the suspension (or stasis) of our times replicates more than nothing all that past that was supposed to be meted in the air, but somehow found us via partial summing ups.

Notes on Marxism and Form. Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (1971) by Fredric Jameson

Some of the main ideas of Fredric Jameson’s Political Unconscious (1981), as we are reminded several times by Jameson himself, were already presented in Marxism and Form. Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (1971). To that extend, without Marxism and Form, we hardly would have read in The Political that the task of critique was to unmask “cultural artifacts as socially symbolic acts” (The Political 20). Marxism and Form introduces some of the main critical works of dialectical Marxism on the arts and culture of the XX century. Jameson presents his readings of T.W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Ernst Bloch, Georg (György) Lukács and Jean-Paul Sartre. While Adorno, Lukács and Sartre have chapters on their own, Benjamin, Marcuse (read along Schiller) and Bloch are grouped in a chapter called “Versions of a Marxist Hermeneutic” (Marxism 60). The book finishes with a chapter that could bridge Marxism and Form and The Political Unconscious, “Towards Dialectical Criticism”. In this chapter we read that our “estrangement” or fascination towards literature is an affect related directly to the way art form is worked, since what our senses experience are “but manifestations in aesthetic form and the aesthetic level of the movement of dialectical consciousness as an assault on our conventionalized life patterns […] an implicit critique and restructuration of our habitual consciousness” (374). The Adornean sense of this affirmation is the same frame that will circle the canvas where the political unconscious will seek its task for unveiling myths and to give back, at least, a glimmer to consciousness and the real substratum (the formless of existence) that moves the engines of history. 

Marxism and Form not only presents but also challenges some of the main postulates of the authors reunited in the book. Yet, the challenge is more a comparison. As it is written in the “Preface”, the book intension is to present to the American reader the fact that when analyzing German and French dialectical literature one cannot but “take yet a third national tradition into account, I mean our own: that mixture of political liberalism, empiricism and logical positivism which we know as Anglo-American philosophy” (x). Thus, more than three perspectives we face two, that of the Anglo-American philosophy and that of the Franco-German dialectics. It is not surprising that at the end of the book, Jameson illustrates the importance of a dialectical method for analyzing literature with an analogy of the missile development and atomic research competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. With this example Jameson makes transparent how useful and accurate may a dialectical hermeneutics be. If dialectics is the method that glimpses the dominant categories that trigger the movement of history, in the 70’s what a better way of making a living than to learn how to read the board and the clock of the twilight struggle. 

It is not that Jameson is capturing dialectics and then surrendering it to the “American Imperialism”, but his argument is that dialectics as a tool for understanding reality is already caught up in American Imperialism. If Academia as Jameson pictures it, following C.Wright, is a system who endorses pleasure under capitalism, as something that “is simply the sign of the consumption of an object: it is thus relatively extraneous to the object’s structure or use, since it can attach to any kind of object, and is at the same time gratuitous to the degree that it serves no collective function beyond that of encouraging further consumption and making the system operate at top capacity” (395). Jameson, then, agrees with Adorno that in order to stop/sabotage capitalism’s jouissance dialectics must be “unpleasurable in the commodity sense” (395).  Criticism becomes a task that, as Jameson puts it in the eloquent closing of Marxism and Form, must “compare the inside and the outside, existence and history, to continue to pass judgement on the abstract quality of life in the present, and to keep alive the idea of a concrete future” (416). While in 1971 the idea of a concrete future was still foreseeable, in the following years of that decade that idea melted and both concreteness and future dispersed in the air. Did dialectics did too? That is yet one of the questions to ask.