The persistence of the old regime: Late modernist form in the postmodern period
Throughout his extraordinary oeuvre, but perhaps most clearly in A Singular Modernity, Fredric Jameson’s views on artistic and particularly literary modernism display profound ambivalence. Put simply, the idea of modernism usually arouses Jameson’s antipathy, yet his work is rife with appeals to and defenses of the legacies of individual modernists. This ambivalence points to a larger tension. On the one hand, Jameson has a strong and well-known commitment to timeliness or even temporal propriety; without it he could not begin A Singular Modernity, with his denunciatory chapter on the “Regressions of the Current Age.”1 On the other hand, he wants to ﬁnd a past that can, in Walter Benjamin’s phrase, “blast open the continuum of history” (Benjamin 2003: 396). This persistent tension in Jameson’s thought produces in his arguments a
strange, oscillating movement that lacks the cohesive force of the dialectic. The opening lines of A Singular Modernity evoke all that a postmodern consensus denounces in modernism: asceticism, minimalism, authoritarianism, aesthetic teleology, the cult of the genius, and a lack of concern for pleasure. Jameson endorses this denunciation as a “healthy movements of disgust and revulsion” for an unusable past; these healthy movements Jameson contrasts with the apparently unhealthy resurgence of such traditional ﬁelds of inquiry as aesthetics, ethics, and theology. Such rhetoric already gives an indication of the extent to which Jameson’s own thinking reveals a kind of modernist, but perhaps more precisely avant-gardist tendency: the rhetoric of health, disgust, and purging echoing, no doubt self-consciously, the manifestoes of the Futurists and Vorticists. Yet, Jameson is more historically responsible than Marinetti and Lewis, and points out that the postmodern denunciation misses its target. He argues that what postmodernism perceives as the undesirable features of modernism are actually the features of the ideology of modernism, where ideology is understood both pejoratively, as “false consciousness,” and descriptively, as the theory of the practice (Jameson 2002: 197). The ideology of modernism appears in the theories of Clement Greenberg and the literary practice of such late modernists as Nabokov and Beckett. Postmodernism imagines itself to break with high modernism, but it is actually, according to Jameson, breaking with late modernism (Jameson 2002: 210). Jameson does not, however, rescue “classical modernism” from postmodernist
incomprehension; classical modernism too has its distinctive features, and they
too have become obsolete and must be disavowed. Jameson’s magnum opus, Postmodernism, already teaches that many of the characteristics of the postmodern emerge when modernism becomes impossible: we get them when we can no longer share, for example, the Futurists’ excitement about the machine, or when psychic and linguistic fragmentation make Expressionist anxiety and alienation “no longer appropriate in the age of the postmodern” (Jameson 1991: 14). In other words, with a period break comes a normative decision about what does and does not belong in the realm of art and culture.