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Fredric Jameson on the Reserve Army

Matt McGregor (mcgma709 [at] lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he works as a teacher.

Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One (New York: Verso Books, 2011), hardback, 176 pages, $24.95.

In the opening pages of The Limits to Capital, published in 1984, David Harvey jokes that everyone who reads Marx’s Capital seems bound to write a book about it. In 2012, we might well ask: Just one? Last year, many of the long-standing academic Marxists unleashed new introductory works, including Terry Eagleton, David Harvey, Eric Hobsbawm, and, unsurprisingly, Fredric Jameson. In Representing Capital, Jameson has written the best of the bunch: a surprising, energetic, and concise representation of the “totality” of capital.

The nature of this totality, familiar from The Communist Manifesto and every piece of Marxist writing since, is that capital is both hero and villain. On the one hand, it unleashes productive power such as the world has never seen; on the other hand, it produces stupendous degrees of ruination and suffering. To use a more contemporary vocabulary, the “externalities” of GDP growth necessarily include the general degradation of life itself. Specifically, Jameson argues that the reproduction of capital increasingly produces “bare” or “wageless life,” to use Mike Denning’s phrase, those legions of the interminably unemployed who ring the great cities of what Mike Davis calls “the planet of slums.”

And yet, Representing Capital is not in any obvious way a book about bare life: it is about the nature of Marx’s imposing Ur-text. It is a trope of all introductions to Capital to attempt the sublime—capitalism is always dizzyingly complex, profoundly creative, infinitely layered, impossibly dynamic—and Jameson indulges this trope as much as anyone. When reading Jameson, one expects pithy statements of both intuitive simplicity and brow-knitting complexity; it is only fitting that he sees the same in Marx himself. For Jameson, Capital is a series of riddles, riddles which, like the commodity, retain their riddle-ness even after they are solved, riddles whose solutions propose yet more riddles—riddles upon riddles upon riddles!—until we are confronted by the riddle of riddles itself, which is nothing more than the inexplicable existence of such a cruel and wondrous system as capitalism. Jameson is especially good at linking these movements of Capital to the movements of capital as such: we see the moments of unity and dissolution, the apparent totalities blown apart into “multiple reproductions of dizzying length and dimensions,” “the [again] dizzying rhythms of circulation,” the “frightening multiplicity of cycles.”

The opening volleys of Representing Capital—on the form of Capital and the so-called “Play of Opposites”—threaten to lapse into that old chestnut of graduate English, the travesty of a wide-eyed “literary” reading (how it invites an endless hermeneutic and possesses within its web many coequal “interpretations”). For Jameson, this “relativist” multiplicity is irredeemably idealist. A book may appear to have endless interpretations, but some interpretations clearly meet the sociopolitical needs of their moment more than others. Some readings are, as they say, urgent.

This means that one will take different questions to Capital, depending on where and when the book is read. The classic modernist “takeaways” from Marx—alienation, reification, and monopoly—suited their times; Jameson argues that they do not quite suit ours. To these takeaways, Representing Capital adds a fourth, one which is less surprising than Jameson imagines: unemployment. In a system whose primary characteristics are “crisis and breakdown,” a system which “cannot know laws in any ordinary sense,” he concludes that unemployment is the only guaranteed social fact. The dominant tropes of exclusion in the humanities—including bare life and risk society—privilege the political; for Jameson, economic exclusion is prior to political exclusion, and one’s exposure to the political violence of the law follows the more basic exposure to an economy that refuses to meet one’s needs.

For many in the humanities—and surely most graduate students—the only experience of Capital is those often excerpted opening passages on money, exchange, and the commodity. Precisely what one does with these sections, which contain banal calculations on the exchange of coats, some Hegelian flourishes, and a few “literary” sections, has never been obvious. For Althusser, it was irrelevant enough to skip. For Jameson, this opening satellite introduces the basic assumptions of Marx’s materialism, which he sees as “less a philosophical position than a commitment to the living and working body.” Here, the Althusserians in the audience might wrinkle their brows: Is not the fundamental thesis of Althusser and Balibar’s Reading Capital that Capital is not about people at all, but a book about a system? And they, Jameson will argue, are right: Marx is less interested in celebrating, like some “biopolitical” writers, the wondrous singularity of lived experience, than in pointing out how capital makes that experience impossible. Hence, the great chapter on “The Working Day” is “not about work at all: it is about the impossibility of work at the extremes, and about the body on the brink of exhaustion.”

The primary work of Part One, then, is to present “an immense critique of the equation as such.” That is, Part One can be read as an argument against the familiar assumption that two entities—coats and buttons, for example—are in any way “the same.” The assertion for sameness, as Jameson points out, runs against “a collectivity that sets its own priorities on the basis of its own needs and requirements.” This smooth common sense of equivalence also masks the temporal experience of the body—the laboring, living body—whose life is never quite saturated by the abstract calculations which govern its movements.

From the destruction of the subject, Jameson pivots to the subject’s utopia, of education and the expansion of the subject’s potentialities. This introduces the problem of “what is to come?” (read: socialism) and it is here that Jameson rehearses the familiar arguments against social democracy (that it works, ultimately, for a better capitalism, capitalism with a human face, etc). Against the common liberal celebrations of the promise of the “good” capitalism of Scandinavia, with its effective proportional democracies and appearance of parliamentary progress, Jameson returns to the basic fact of the planet of slums, a global “bare life” of astonishing proportions. A planet washed in capital is unarguably a planet of near-general destitution. The islands of prosperity—in both the “nice” and “liveable” cities of Europe, Canada, and Australasia, with their bike lanes and thriving inner cities, and the gated communities of the rest of the world—should not distract us from this basic truth.

At the same time, this is less a work of journalistic polemics than of good old fashioned High Theory. The figures who haunt Representing Capital are the same as those who haunted The Political Unconscious—that is, Deleuze, Althusser, Balibar, Heidegger, Sartre, and, occasionally, Derrida. As in The Political Unconscious, Jameson’s polemical target is the commonsense boogiemen of poststructuralist thought, such as totality, determination, and the real world. For Jameson, the sexy concepts of poststructuralism—“multiplicity,” “excess,” “singularity,” “the open”—are the very reasons why we need dialectics. They are neither an ahistorical “thinking of thinking” nor merely one “tool” in the theoretical toolbox, but something closer to “one tool to rule them all,” a tool which can enable us to transcend the intellectual hardware store tout court. Dialectics are not a “thinking of thinking,” but a “thinking of capital,” that dizzying system which produces the rhizomatic multiplicity and excess in the first instance. Here, Jameson’s response is simple and practical: “The conclusion to draw here is not that, since it is unrepresentable, capitalism is ineffable and a kind of mystery beyond language or thought; but rather that one must redouble one’s efforts to express the inexpressible in this respect.”

But this is not to say that Deleuze is wrong. Sublation, after all, is not rejection or denial, and his many contemporary acolytes will find plenty of respectful citations, including now-standard (and standardized) terminology like “lines of flight” and “rhizome.” This terrain of high theory is where Jameson is most at home. This means that, if you want to understand capitalism as such—and not just Capital—you might want to read David Harvey first. Yet Jameson’s method yields its fruits, as when his reading of temporality in Heidegger—not really a standard reference point for most Marxists—allows him to articulate the “dialectical plight” of contemporary accounts of the future, which “alternate between images of regression or dystopian collapse, and conceptions of progress which account to little more than the perfecting of what is already there.” Ask many professors, after a drink, about the future of higher education, and you will see this hypothesis confirmed.

Capital is oddly singular; and it is this singularity which must be asserted, against the liberal economists who see it as the natural expansion of the generic “tribe” exchanging goods at its borders, and who see the basic bookkeeping elements of this most social system even in the isolated slave economy of Robinson Crusoe. Jameson’s method, as always, is to introduce a concept—reification for example—and spiral forward, addressing contradictions and debates in throwaway clauses, at once explaining and enlarging, as he builds to his dialectical, momentary conclusion. The liberal economist, then, might argue that humans have always made the world in which they live—as do ants and apes and all kinds of natural animals. For Jameson, the “dialectical discovery will have to do with their helplessness in the face of what they have made.”

The other major provocation of this book is that Capital is not political; and that, less convincingly, politics can only be found by expanding on Marx’s use of figuration, and by addressing his more literary asides. By way of example, Jameson spends some time on the slippage from “representative” to “bearer.” The former, he argues, implies that capitalists are conscious members of their class, voluntarily embarking on their historical mission. The latter suggests that they “bear” the logic of the system of capital as an impersonal imperative, one which they must follow or else fall, like all capitalists unwilling to accumulate and expand, into the economic dustbin.

Capital, then, is a system. The philosophical dualism that is usually shepherded into the breach—free-floating agent or determined cog?—seems to leave us no room for political action. This problem, awkwardly known as that of “praxis,” is the problem of history as such. In his third chapter, Jameson navigates this impossible terrain, of what he calls “the embarrassment of the philosophy of history,” with its “first times,” its boundaries and “radical breaks,” which, as he puts it, “can be false but never true.” To ask the question of capital’s beginnings and ends is both necessary and necessarily embarrassing; yet while there may be no right answer, what matters for Jameson is, as with Heidegger, “not the answer of the question, but rather the intensity with which it is asked and remembered; or indeed retrieved and retrieved again, after it has been forgotten and repressed.”

This book is both an introduction to and an intervention in the history of Marxism. At times, Jameson’s whirling dialectic syntax might be said to resemble that old rule of television drama, where the most tired scripts are always paired with the most bombastic of musical scores. Do the Marxian arguments against anarchism and social democracy really bear repeating? The underlying assumption of Representing Capital, and the dialectical materialist method as such, is yes. These are not arguments to be memorized by flashcard; they must be rearticulated and renegotiated anew, for the simple reason that a book like Representing Capital is not written to score points in the world of ideas, which would be academic in the worst sense of the word. Besides, many of Jameson’s points already have been scored, albeit with less sophistication, by other writers. The point, of course, is to contribute to material change in the world.

Jameson saves his interpretative fireworks for the most philosophical—that is, Hegelian—sections of Capital; when Capital becomes more technical, Jameson does little more than paraphrase what has been paraphrased countless times before. But even when discussing the duller sections, he does his best to impose the drama of Marx’s method. Temporality, we learn, is “unleashed” by Marx’s analysis; it “springs out like a hobgoblin.” As in all his books, one waits for Jameson to open the dialectical spigot, and then we find ourselves carried away, in a tumult of allusions, analysis, and asides. If the moral is not, in the end, surprising—and it is not, at all—one is nevertheless glad that he has written it, because it remains the case that no one in the academy has quite the same energy as Fredric Jameson, and that no one writes books with sentences quite as forceful as these.

2012, Volume 63, Issue 11 (April)
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