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Symptoms of Theory or Symptoms for Theory?

Fredric Jameson

The notion of an end of theory has been accompanied by announcements of the end of all kinds of other things, which have not been particularly accurate. Let me begin by outlining my conception of what theory is. I believe that theory begins to supplant philosophy (and other disciplines as well) at the moment it is realized that thought is linguistic or material and that concepts cannot exist independently of their linguistic expression. That is something like a philosophical heresy of paraphrase, and it at once excludes and forestalls a great deal of philosophical and systematic writing organized around systems or intentions, meanings and criteria of truth and falsity. Now critique becomes a critique of language and its formulations, that is to say, an exploration of the ideological connotations of various formulations, the long shadow cast by certain words and terms, the questionable worldviews generated by the most impeccable denitions, the ideologies seeping out of seemingly airtight propositions, the moist footprints of error left by the most cautious movements of righteous arguments. This is to say that theoryas the coming to terms with materialist language will involve something like a language police, an implacable search and destroy mission targeting the inevitable ideological implications of our language practices; it remains only to say that for theory all uses of language, including its own, are susceptible to these slippages and oilspills because there is no longer any correct way of saying it, and all truths are at best momentary, situational, and marked by a history in the process of change and transformation. You will already have recognized deconstruction in my description, and some will wish to associate Althusserianism with it as well. We can indeed formulate something like an aesthetic of such writing (provided aesthetic is understood as a rigorous canon of taboos and convenCritical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004) 2004 by The University of Chicago. 00931896/04/30020019$10.00. All rights reserved.



Fredric Jameson / Symptoms of/for Theory

tions): its fundamental law would seem to be the exclusion of substantive statements and positive philosophical propositions. All armative positions, in other words, are awed and ideological because they reect our own personal and class (and race and gender) standpoints. It is a mistake to assimilate this view of theory to relativism or skepticism (leading fatally to nihilism and intellectual paralysis); on the contrary, the struggle for the rectication of wording is a well-nigh interminable process, which perpetually generates new problems. As for the overall contradiction of theoryhow to advance the argument without actually saying anythingit has known a variety of solutions, which cant be enumerated here. The single example of the neologism may suce, the doomed attempt to outwit the heavy baggage of actually existing language by way of postnatural innovation. But theorys eternal enemy, reication, quickly absorbs and neutralizes the attempt. What we now have to register (Im slowly coming to the question of theory today) is the way in which this view of thinking and writing gradually annexes large areas of the traditional disciplines, that is to say, traditions in which outmoded practices of representationbelief in the separation of words and conceptsstill holds sway. I am describing the process of the expansion of theory in gures of war and domination and imperialism because theory is of course also yet another characteristic superstructural development of late capitalism and thus displays many of the same dynamics (although in a wholly dierent political valence). At any rate, what happens during the period in which theory spreadsand the classical story is well known: rst anthropology borrows its fundamental principles from linguistics, then literary criticism develops the formers implications in a range of new practices, which are adapted to psychoanalysis and the social sciences, the law, other cultural disciplineswhat happens in this process of transfer is what I would characterize (keeping to a linguistic mode) as wholesale translation, the supplanting of one language by another or, better still, by one kind of language of a whole range of very dierent ones. What is called the exhaustion of theory is generally little more than the completion of this translational appropriation for this or that disciplinary area. Now clearly there are many other ways of telling this story, which vary according to ones disciplinary perspective. I do feel that it has a modernist dynamic or telos, borrowed from that modernism in the arts that no longer
F re d r i c J a m e s o n is director of the Institute for Critical Theory at Duke University and a professor of French and comparative literature. Among his recent books are A Singular Modernity (2002), Brecht and Method (1998), and The Seeds of Time (1994).

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exists; in other words the dynamic of theory has been the pursuit of the new and, if not a belief in progress, then at least a condence that there always will be something new to replace the various older reied or signed theories that have been absorbed into and domesticated by the theoretical canon. Or is there such a thing as a theoretical canon? Is theoretical production not already postmodern in spirit? Can we distinguish between the modernist and the postmodernist theoretical production? For the moment, decisions on questions like this risk lapsing into sheer opinion. But I do think a brief review of the history of theory is in order, and this would be my version: a rst moment in which the inner structurethe inner gap or ssureof the concept as such is explored. This is the moment often identied as structuralism, in which it becomes clear that concepts are not autonomous but rather relationalboth internally and externallyand in which their materiality becomes inescapable; in which, in other words, it slowly begins to dawn on us that concepts are not ideas but rather words and constellations of words at that. In a second momentsometimes called poststructuralismthis discovery mutates as it were into a philosophical problem, namely, that of representation, and its dilemmas, its dialectic, its failures, and its impossibility. Maybe this is the moment in which the problem shifts from words to sentences, from concepts to propositions. At any rate, it is a problem that has slowly come to subsume all other philosophical issues, revealing itself as an enormous structure that no one has ever visited in its entirety, but from whose towers some have momentarily gazed and whose underground bunkers others have partially mapped out. Thus, the general issue of representation is still very much with us today and organizes so to speak the normal science of theory and its day-to-day practices and guides the writing of its innumerable reports, which we call articles. Now we come to a third moment, and it is this one that I believe to be new and imperfectly explored and the place in which original theory is still being done today. This is the area of the political, which has always been the property of the most retrograde academic disciplines and the most boring and old-fashioned kind of philosophizing. Suddenly these old texts and the academic frameworks in which they were being read found themselves transformed beyond recognition by the lightning bolt of a dierent kind of philosophico-theoretical opposition, namely, that between the universal and the particular: an opposition which is not in that form a problem (except for an older philosophical discourse) but which immediately shatters into all kinds of new ones, the particular reappearing variously in the form of the specic, the individual, the singular, and even the virtual, while a bad universalism hangs over everything like a doomsday cloud and gets


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identied with everything from the state to the commodity form, from repressive sexual norms to the identities of class analysis. This is then not some problem that can be solved, not an opposition that can be dialectically transcended, but rather a whole new theoretical coding system in which everything that went before must now be recongured. Under the tutelary deities of Machiavelli and Hobbes, and then of Spinoza and Carl Schmitt a whole new kind of discourse, a genuinely theoretical political theory, emerges, recast in the agonistic structure of Schmitts friend and foe and nding its ultimate gure in war. Or at least one should say that war is the ultimate gure in which the political is revealed; because the latter is also a construction, a defamiliarization, and a rewriting, a simplication of concrete life in the form of a new model, Im tempted to have recourse to Deleuzes notion of diagrammatization (which he develops on the occasion of Foucault). Yes, thinking politically means turning representation intodiagrams, making visible the vectors of force as they oppose and crisscross each other, rewriting reality as a graph of power centers, movements, and velocities. Such diagrams are the last avatar of those visual aids that mesmerized the rst structuralisms; they are the latest way to get out of ideas and into a new form of materialization. I am personally somewhat distant from this new moment, as I have always understood Marxism to mean the supersession of politics by economics; and I therefore want to forecast yet a fourth moment for theory, as yet on the other side of the horizon. This one has to do with the theorizing of collective subjectivities, although, because it does not yet theoretically exist, all the words I can nd for it are still the old-fashioned and discredited ones, such as the project of a social psychology. One wants to think of formulations (and indeed diagrams) for collectivities that are at least as complex and stimulating as those of Lacan for the individual unconscious. These structures have certainly been glimpsed in the various explorations of the social or collective Imaginary in recent years. One feels that the recent philosophical prestige of the Other and otherness is for the most part an ethical simplication of these realities (save, perhaps, for some suggestions in the Sartre of the Critique). Meanwhile, subaltern studies comes at all this from yet another direction, and Deleuze (or Deleuze and Guattari), resolutely post-Cartesian, oers a variety of new ways to map a whole range of collective phenomena. But it is in the nature of the beast (the human animal) to draw back from such openings; we still dont want to hear anything about social class; and new theoretical fashions like Giorgio Agambens idea of naked life are at once read as metaphysical or existential statements or at worst enlisted to provebeing a kind of zero degreethat the collective does not exist (instead of being grasped as the identication of a new col-

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lective planet or quark). But it is not very satisfying to talk about elds that do not (yet) exist. So let me turn in conclusion to literary criticism, something that has also been pronounced dead from time to time. If so, that may be because, on the one hand, we now have as many dierent methods and techniques as any object could possibly require or, on the other hand, because of the general volatilization of the old-fashioned work of art or if you prefer the death of literature itself. Even literary history has accumulated impressive quantities of research, which may largely suce for a time even though the historical reevaluation of this data remains as interesting a theoretical problem as all postmodern historiography. Meanwhile there ourishes a kind of insider trading on the most advanced textual sensations, from Memento to hip-hop; but these are all textual objects, and it is pernicious to distinguish between literature and cultural studies in the pejorative ways we are familiar with. On all such textual criticism I want to quote a recent writer, Cesare Casarino, who comments as follows on the old question, What is literary criticism? The question could have been posed dierently. As if inquiring after the health of a loved one who has been very ill for a long time, and who has been absent from ones daily life but all the more present because of it in ones daily thoughts, one could have asked: how is literary criticism? His answer, which I would be inclined to endorse, is what he calls philopoeisis, which names, he says, a certain discontinuous and refractive interference between philosophy and literature.1 But this also names theory, I believe. I want to come at the question a little dierently, however, and to defend the position that literary criticism is or should be a theoretical kind of symptomatology. Literary forms (and cultural forms in general) are the most concrete symptoms we have of what is at work in that absent thing called the social. But the idea of a symptom is often misunderstood as encouraging a vulgar-sociological or content approach to works of art. I suppose that at this point we could read all of Adornos aesthetic writings onto the record as the supreme illustration of the intent to coordinate inside and outside and to grasp the windowless monad of autonomous form as a social and historical symptom. It might be worth adding that as much or even more than content, form is itself the bearer of ideological messages and exists as a social fact. To be sure, the technical questions about such delicate and complicated coordinations are at the very center of literary theory itself. Suce it to say that works of the past aord all kinds of uniquely aesthetic
1. Cesare Casarino, Modernity at Sea: Melville, Marx, Conrad in Exile (Minnesota, 2002), p. xiii.


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openings onto their own moment; while those of the present include all kinds of coded data on our ownthat blind spot of the present from which we are in many ways the farthest. What we tend to neglect, however, are the utopian projections works of past and present alike oer onto a future otherwise sealed from us. But this account of the tasks of theory and criticism has so far left out the most distinctive feature of our own (postmodern) times, at least as far as the aesthetic is concerned. This is very precisely that volatilization of the individual work or text I mentioned earlier, a development that if taken seriously determines a considerable shift in perspective and in critical practices. For is it clear that the questions raised by literary method are not nearly so urgent or timely when signicant literature ceases to be produced or rather, putting it in a dierent way, when the center of gravity of some putative system of the ne arts moves away from those of language and displaces the ideal of poetic language that was central during the modernist period? This is why it has seemed to me that today, in postmodernity, our objects of study consist less in individual texts than in the structure and dynamics of a specic cultural mode as such, beginning with whatever new system (or nonsystem) of artistic and cultural production replaced the older one. It is now the cultural production process (and its relation to our peculiar social formation) that is the object of study and no longer the individual masterpiece. This shifts our methodological practice (or rather the most interesting theoretical problems we have to raise) from individual textual analysis to what I will call mode-of-production analysis, a formula I prefer to those that continue to use the word culture in something of an anthropological sense. Culture in that sense is the ideological property of Samuel Huntington and the people he has inspired. Indeed, the very war he inspired is the context in which I would defend this methodological proposal because I think that it is only in the light of the study of late capitalism as a system and a mode of production that we can understand the things going on around us today. Those things are not merely the acts of a fundamentalist reactionary group around an unelected presidentsomething that might at best be attributed to sheerest accident or national bad luck; they are part and parcel of our system, and understanding cultural production today is not the worst way of trying to understand that system and the possibilities it may oer for radical or even moderate change.