In the time of theory, the timeliness of modernism: Response to Neil Levi
Is Modernism timely now? Does periodization, which assigns to all the modernisms of the early twentieth century their entrances and exits on the stage of literary history, and leaves them, in a later act, merely to putter in the backgroundthere to serve, like Prufrock’s “attendant lord,” to “swell a progress, start a scene or two, / Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool” in the hands of some postmodern Hamlet-undercut their timeliness? Neil Levi argues that Fredric Jameson’s periodization of Modernism (that is, of its own, ironic periodization of itself, as an age committed to subjectivity, irony, and style, from the perspective of a late modernism) leads to just this disenchanting possibility for Modernist scholars.1 And perhaps Jameson would wryly aﬃrm our resulting boredom as a symptom of the deﬂation of Modernist escapism, of our desire to “make it new” in a specialist idiolect. Yet to muddy the issue, there is Levi’s further suggestion that Jameson, notwithstanding, actually cherishes varieties of modernism; that he regularly draws upon modernist names and texts in the articulation of his utopian project. Levi reads this inconsistency as a symptom of the periodization dilemma that Jameson himself strikingly identiﬁes in his historicist approach to Modernism, and whose contradictions Jameson allows necessarily to persist in his own work. I will not here follow the path opened up for Levi by this dilemma, which is
an invitation to supplement Modernist periodization with notions of a persistence and authenticity of modernist “events” beyond period breaks. It may be worth noting Jameson’s own answer to the dilemma in his ﬁrst major study of Modernism, posed in the ﬁery language of Wyndham Lewis: canonical modernists are but paper radicals, puppets of a capitalist empire they cannot escape except in sublime or tortured extrusions of new forms of personal language and style, new expressive ﬁgures that become the ascetic, verbally imprisoned, yet consubstantial phantoms of a liberal culture only too easily tethered to the justiﬁcation of violence and oppression; and yet, to the extent modernists know this, and can like Lewis boundlessly (dialectically) self-satirize, they may teach us a still timely truth-if an ugly one, yet unresolved-of our own intellectual and artistic institutions in the world at large.2 This dialectical truth, and the ambivalent politics of its expression and reception-one utopian wingtip lifted to the beyond, the other pinioned in the mire-also reﬂects a more enduring pattern.
Jameson treats all texts before, during, and after Modernism as dialectical structures in which utopian and repressive forces inhere. One might productively wonder why modernisms attract his faintest enthusiasm, and so make a rhetorical rather than logical question of their utopian timeliness as opposed to regressive lure. I would like to focus on something rather diﬀerent from the politics of the
“subjective” in which this dilemma of timeliness and modernism is enmeshed, and turn the problem around to another of its sides: narrative. Throughout Jameson’s work, which has charted the “political unconscious” of literary history from the age of chivalric romances (and earlier, if we count his sketches of archaic oral literature) to a postmodern present, past writers are folded into a grand narrative, a self-conscious, Marxian romance of market growth, state transformation, geopolitics, and class struggle. Narrative has always been Jameson’s key formal concept for the mediation of past writing and the situations of the present-day Left. History as structural narrative, not local content, allows us to grasp the timeliness of symbolic acts. If this narrative is characterized by periods and period breaks, as Jameson says it must be, then the consequence for timeliness is that past writers are timely insofar as they illuminate, not ﬁrst and foremost their own colorful episode, but as necessary joints and segments, the total story relevant to us today. We have heard something like this before: