Saving the world and parsing an ism

A Singular Modernity
March 21, 2003

When a new book by Fredric Jameson appears you should drop what you're doing and read it. All right, that is an exaggeration - but a disquisition on modernism by America's leading literary and cultural critic is one of those things you should get round to, isn't it?

Mind you, reading Jameson does not come easy. This is what he considers to be a "crudely tangible" point: "namely that that subtle and untheorized construction - radically specific in the unique language-situation of each true 'modernist' writer - of what Deleuze politicized as the emergence of a 'minor' language, but which I have preferred to identify more generally as the differentiation of a non-Euclidean linguistic realm and logic, has here, in the situations of the late moderns, been materialized as the brute fact of the confrontation with another language altogether: for Nabokov of American English, for Beckett of French." Phew! This may very well be right, but it is not well said.

In case you are starting to reach for your gun let me urge restraint, for, like a modernist work of art, this book is difficult in proportion to its insights - from the general: modernism is more about taboos than discoveries - to the specific: the relationship between Pozzo and Lucky in Waiting for Godot is an allegory of the relationship between Britain and Ireland. And some of these are memorably phrased: "Modernism is an aesthetic character and realism is an epistemological one." So there is plenty to ponder in these pages, not least what we mean by modernism.

The term has already accumulated a considerable literature around it, making it more mythical than real. What can Jameson offer? He argues for the revival of the utopian moment of modernism, especially now that the subversive energies of theory have evaporated and history, we are told, has come to an end. Modernity itself began in the 5th century AD when Pope Gelasius used the Latin term modernus , meaning "now", to distinguish the Christian from the classical world. But there are those who will disagree with that. Surely Descartes is a better starting point? Or the Enlightenment? Or the French revolution? And what were, or are, the ingredients of modernity? A sense of the new. But what about industrialisation, technology, labour unions, suffrage and bureaucracy? And then we have to consider the philosophical issues: the split between subject and object, the death of God, and the emergence of the historical sense.

Jameson is alert not just to the many elements of modernity and the difficulties of pinpointing its beginnings - do we conceive it as a break with, or even a fulfilment of, what went before? - but also to the ambiguous status of the term. Is it a description or an explanatory category or "a trope that signifies itself"?

Then we have to distinguish high modernism from late modernism, which emerged during the cold war, and also understand that postmodernism, which shares modernism's commitment to innovation, is in fact a reaction against the later rather than the earlier manifestation of the movement.

Despite Jameson's erudition - does this guy ever go for a Bud? - I am not as convinced as he is that a formal and ideological analysis of modernism is the best way to make the world a better place. If you want to do that, read Michael Moore's Stupid White Men . It tells you far more about America and what to do about it than Jameson, who does not even mention September 11.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present

Author - Fredric Jameson
ISBN - 1 85984 674 2 and 450 2
Publisher - Verso
Price - £40.00 and £15.00
Pages - 250

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