Friday Books: Portrait of the artist as a critic

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The Independent Culture




FIFTEEN YEARS ago, when the American critic and theorist Fredric Jameson delivered a benchmark lecture on postmodernism, the term was "not widely accepted or even understood". Ten years ago, it was intimidatingly modish. Now, it seems almost quaint. Still, the appearance of books by players of the stature of Jameson and Perry Anderson quickly rouses one from the slumber induced by years of second-rate discourse-speak.

"Commentary," according to Jameson, "makes up the special field of postmodern linguistic practice," even in the absence of "the sacred text" - the essential work that usually generates commentary. Into this vacuum whooshed Jameson's book Postmodernism: or the cultural logic of late capitalism, in which he made this declaration. Effectively, this pioneering work was a commentary on its own existence, or at least on how the author's thought had evolved. The essays Jameson has collected in The Cultural Turn are further addenda to his magnum opus.

Perry Anderson's little book The Origins of Postmodernity was initially intended as an introduction to The Cultural Turn, but then it outgrew its brief. Within Anderson's own formidable work as a historian and cultural theorist, it takes its place as the final volume in a trilogy, after Considerations on Western Marxism and In the Tracks of Historical Materialism. In them, exactly as prescribed by Jameson, the task of commentary is raised to the level of primary intellectual exploration.

Since Jameson is the central figure in Anderson's book, it is also the latest instance of the sustained grapplings with writers or thinkers that feature in his magisterial collection of essays, A Zone of Engagement. In the past, "an element of resistance" was always an ingredient in Anderson's impulse to write about someone. Here, however, he lacks "the safety of sufficient distance".

Before celebrating Jameson's achievement, Anderson takes us through the genealogy of the idea of the postmodern. He displays the same breadth and depth of learning as he did in working through the background to Fukuyama's influential concept of the "end of history". Anderson locates the first usage of "postmodern" in the Hispanic world of the 1930s. Arnold Toynbee and Charles Olson also used the term in the 1950s, but it is not until Jean-Francois Lyotard's book's The Postmodern Condition (1979) that we get a sense "of postmodernity as a general change of human circumstance".

The foreword to the English edition was written by Jameson himself. He went on to make the crucial step of anchoring postmodernism "in objective alterations of the economic order of capital itself". Jameson linked the concept to "the saturation of every pore of the world in the serum of capital".

This fundamental intervention was followed by "a majestic expansion of the postmodern across virtually the whole spectrum of the arts". It is this totalising ambition, I guess, that has led Anderson to write about someone without his usual feeling of "significant dissent".

Does this absence mean that the book lacks some of his customary bite? Anderson's lack of resistance certainly exacerbates the reader's. My local objections generate more general ones. "Is there any contemporary critic with an even distantly comparable range?" he asks, of Jameson. Of course there is: John Berger. How come Anderson has never got to grips with him?

Having quoted Jameson's observation that, of the thinkers of Western Marxism, Theodor Adorno "was the supreme stylist", Anderson wonders "whether the description does not better... apply to [Jameson] himself." It might even better apply to Anderson himself. Anderson reckons that Jameson is "a great writer", but it seems to me that Anderson himself is the great writer. Jameson, on the other hand, is trapped in the prison-house of his peculiar idea of virtuosity.

Anderson admires "the spacious rhythms of a complex, yet supple syntax" but the flamboyant baroque of Jameson's prose is an irritating impediment to what is being said. If Jameson's influence is as extensive as Anderson suggests, then he must shoulder much of the blame for the torrent of discursive gabble that has fatally contaminated the field. Reading Jameson, I am reminded of those T-shirts on which "Dazed and Confused" is printed, deliberately indistinctly, so that the more sharply you focus, the more blurred the words become.

Is this just me being stupid? I think not, since Perry Anderson's prose, for me, has always had exactly the "compelling splendour" he finds in Jameson. If the obligation to look up words like "usufruct" or "exordium" is an inherent part of reading Anderson, that is because he is working at the cutting-edge of language. His exacting vocabulary is part and parcel of an impulse to present complex ideas without simplification but with the elegance of absolute clarity. In doing so, he reminds us of the inadequacy of confining the search for great stylists to fiction.

The reviewer's latest novel is `Paris Trance' (Abacus)