Jameson’s preference for a conditional over a declarative mood is a token of the necessarily speculative quality of what he does. It’s far easier to be sure that culture is indeed mediating the economy than to establish in any given case how such mediation works. In Valences of the Dialectic, at any rate, one of the most striking suggestions made in the introductory essay is that Hegel, who articulated his omnivorous philosophical logic at a time when industrial capitalism was hardly more than a local English affair, may have been seized by an intimation of the ultimately global logic of capitalism: capitalism too is forever enlarging itself, and bringing under one rule the most disparate people and places. So does creative destruction on the economic plane resemble the dialectic’s refusal to freeze or reify its concepts and stand pat. Dialectical thought, then, would be at once the mirror of capitalism and (in Marxist hands) its rival: the totalising imperative that is the dialectic confronting the totality that is capitalism. From this it follows that the dialectic, despite the musty air of the word, may be set to come into its own only today, with the universal installation of capitalism. The thought may be less outrageous than it appears. After all, it was an explicitly Hegelian formulation – the end of history – that captured for the public imagination the meaning of the collapse of Communism in Europe. Jameson’s reiterated Marxist reply is simply that the disappearance of the Second World and the elimination of pre-capitalist arrangements in the Third marks in fact the beginning of a universal history: ‘History, which was once multiple, is now more than ever unified into a single History.’ In characteristic Jamesonian fashion, the stray hints and speculations gather themselves, towards the end of Valences, into a stark and audacious proposition: ‘The worldwide triumph of capitalism … secures the priority of Marxism as the ultimate horizon of thought in our time.’ How’s that for dialectical? ...I posted this in part just because I wanted another excuse to link to Kunkel's essay, which is excellent in all the ways a review essay on Jameson can be. The great danger of such essays is that they tend either to ignore or to mystify the aporia at the heart of Jameson's work: the ultimate and ever-more-urgent requirement for praxis it seems to impose (and explicitly demand) and its increasingly limited and trivialized realization. Kunkel, by contrast, addresses this issue directly--and the occasional incoherence of his account should not count against him, given how thorny this issue really is.
Jameson has often written of a given stage of capitalism setting the ‘conditions of possibility’ within which a writer or artist has to work. It might equally be said of his own work as a critic that it established the conditions of possibility for a Marxist cultural criticism at least as often as it offered an example of such a thing. Here, then, is another of Jameson’s contradictions: sighing with cultural belatedness, his essays have also seemed like preludes, prolegomena, to work yet to be done. Whether this work will use the word ‘postmodernism’ doesn’t seem very important. In fact it’s probably worth remembering Jameson’s ‘therapeutic’ recommendation, at the end of A Singular Modernity (2002), that capitalism might be substituted ‘for modernity in all the contexts in which the latter appears’, and extending the suggestion to postmodernity too. That would place us squarely in the midst of a capitalist or (to periodise a bit more) neoliberal culture, waiting to see what comes next. It would also place us in Jameson’s debt.- Benjamin Kunkel, "Into the Big Tent," LRB, April 22, 2010
My sense, however (and I have not read Valences, so a great deal of salt is appropriate here), is that Jameson is not aware of the implications of his work and Kunkel does not point us in the right direction. The implication one should draw from the fact that capitalism has now won completely and irrevocably (until something different, perhaps more capitalistic than capitalism, comes along instead) is not that "other systems, other spaces, are still possible"; that interpretation is as banal and meaningless as its cliché counterpart, "You could be hit by a car tomorrow and die!". All the critical force of Jameson's first conclusion is blunted by the cowardly attempt to salvage criticism by hiding it in the shameful sock-drawer of "Utopia."
Two decades ago, at the height of the cultural-studies boom, Meaghan Morris attacked the propensity of cultural-studies scholars to read criticism and subversion into everything, and to impose on their helpless "dominated" objects of study a covertly ideological idea of their consumption practices. This kind of language (and the language I've used in describing her) is now largely irrelevant to academic life, as are, most glaringly, the works of Baudrillard. But in many ways Jameson seems to continue to belong to the tribe of scholars for whom every cultural process needs to resolve into the "utopia nexus" or be meaningless. (This is, of course, appropriate, since it was Jameson's article on "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture" that started the utopia boom in the first place.)
To put it with the traditional specious cleverness, the work of Jameson provides the all-encompassing cash-nexus logic of a triumphant capitalism with its theoretical counterpart, the logic of utopia. Unfortunately, the parallel seems unlikely to hold--if nothing else, because talking about talking about utopia is distinctly less satisfying from an escape-valve point of view than other utopian practices. I suspect that the word will disappear from academic discussions roughly when Jameson stops publishing.
I'll put it another, starker way. The triumph of capitalism is good because utopia is dead. (This is perhaps not a recent phenomenon. To quote the immortal Jeffrey Lebowski: "Your revolution is over! The bums lost!") Whether or not this actually destroys the possibility of effective political praxis is an open question, of course--but in any case politics today and tomorrow will take place within an environment in which enjoying the fruits of mass culture and informatization (as well as all the properly mediated and commodified human relationships we can get our grubby hands on) is all we have left for joussiance. The end of the road is not Marx or even the Paris Commune or even Richard Stallman, but Google. I still await the theoretical text that confronts, and forces us to confront, these questions with sufficient depth; but in the meantime responses to Jameson will have to do.