Mae Saslaw is a contributor to and friend of The Corresponding Society.
“An aesthetic of cognitive mapping—a pedagogical political culture which seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system—will necessarily have to respect this now enormously complex representational dialectic and invent radically new forms in order to do it justice. This is not then, clearly, a call for a return to some older kind of machinery, some older and more transparent national space, or some more traditional and reassuring perspectival or mimetic enclave: the new political art (if it is possible at all) will have to hold to the truth of postmodernism, that is to say, to its fundamental object—the world space of multinational capital—at the same time at which it achieves a breakthrough to some as yet unimaginable new mode of representing this last, in which we may again begin to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spacial as well as our social confusion. The political form of postmodernism, if there ever is any, will have as its vocation the invention and projection of a global cognitive mapping, on a social as well as a spatial scale.”
-Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism
What I love about Jameson’s writing is the way his logic carries and keeps momentum. For Jameson, every argument deserves space to match its complexity; it is not worthwhile to begin an exploration, discover that it takes you someplace mired and unpleasant, and then back out of the fight. The paragraph quoted above could not abide any part of it replaced with ellipses, and I regret not having the patience nor real estate to post a full two pages of his text. That said, this paragraph describes a compelling challenge, and it’s one that I have decided to take on. I’m currently in the very (very) early stages of my first novel after writing short fiction for several years. As I start the project, I’m taking as much time as I need to think about what I’m doing and why, less in the sense of plot and more in the sense of politics. Writing after Jameson requires at least two objectives:
1)Regarding content, of course I must produce something that answers his questions: Is the new political art possible? And, how does one achieve a “breakthrough” beyond postmodernism without resorting to futile hybridization or, worst of all, pastiche?
2)Aesthetically, it is not an option to be anything other than exhaustive. We have seen before what exhaustive fiction looks like—and it can be incredibly beautiful in the right hands—but what do I mean by “exhaustive”? The purpose of describing, to the last, every chink in the wall is a transparent one; the critical reader immediately recognizes the familiar tack and takes the cue to start reading for line work and watching out for the buried, devastating clauses. But what I am talking about is something else. The details are allowed to get exhausted, drawn out, perhaps boring at times, but what is vital is that the story itself, its characters, leave out nothing. This is a fine line. The added difficulty here is to stay clear and concise at the same time. Perhaps the breakthrough we seek has something to do with an abandonment of writerly distance.
But the goals themselves are not yet clear. It may be obvious that the duty of a certain kind of writer is to be ambitious beyond one’s influences, to attempt a dreadful and (I imagine) totally unsatisfying form of transcendence in which one kills one’s heroes and teachers. I don’t believe that is the best approach, and it is not entirely mine. My own duty, as I see it, is to answer for my particular historical moment, to bring to light its products and lay bare its every intricacy. (I’ve been thinking a lot about generational issues, how one generation unfailingly criticizes its successors for their ignorance, their lack of taste, etc. Perhaps a side effect of this age-old social phenomenon is that it fuels the art of the so-called ignorant, who, for their own self-centered psychological reasons, must prove their parents wrong. I mean, duh?) That said, Jameson’s articulations of exactly what my particular historical moment entails and implies about my country’s chronic amnesia and about our cultural future provide a compelling set of questions that can only be answered in art. Criticism has great potential, and I practice it just as much as fiction, but at a certain point, someone must make something to be criticized. Perhaps this is the breakthrough, the direction in which art must go.
It’s almost easier to think of beginning a novel in the shadow of theory, as opposed to the shadow of my favorite authors. It’s easier because I don’t have to worry as much about imitating voice, about coming off as derivative, about “paling in comparison” if that means anything. It’s harder because the framework is far boggier: I don’t know what Jameson wants in a protagonist, or a plot line, or how heavy-handed he wants his politics. I know that I don’t want to write science fiction for my own personal, admittedly snobbish reasons, though most non-writers I talk to express some confusion as to why I don’t write science fiction (to which I have been known to take vocal offense). The last question is the hardest to answer: Jameson points out, time and again, that postmodern art fails (and this is, sometimes, one if its defining characteristics) when it becomes somehow politically apolitical, meaning that the argument we see on the surface goes no further, addresses no problems beyond itself. This is the “tampon in the teacup” category of artwork, which so many people think about first when they consider art today, and which us intellectual wankers complain about because such bad art ruins our reputation. (What we deserve to acknowledge at such times is that we are, on some level, concerned for our reputation; we long for an aesthetic universality that a few artists actively work against, and perhaps we deserve to be commended for that. Of course, who would care enough to commend us? Poor us.) I recognize immediately artwork from the above category, which may be called political art for the sake of political art, as opposed to art for the sake of politics. Who among us (I’m still talking about intellectual wankers) didn’t get aroused—perhaps even physically—the first time we heard the Godard bit about “The point was not to make political films, but to make films politically”?
Writers today simply don’t get to make books politically, at least not in the sense Godard meant. For Godard, the political film was one that explicated its means of production, that worked against Hollywood glamor, that exposed Hollywood fantasy for its expensive and deceptive escapism. As for myself, I have spent the past several years considering the ways in which means of production and distribution of fiction intersect with its political goals, but I have not yet understood what it means to write politically. It is important to acknowledge the origins and presentation of a work of fiction—who brought it to the public and why—especially given the recent state of the publishing industry and the work that has been done by so many to circumvent the challenges of publishing new and challenging works to a wide audience. Ultimately, though, we are all going to sit at our keyboards and write, and the political difference between writing a novel in a public library and on one’s own expensive laptop does not quite compare to what Godard was after with political film. In other words, fiction is not capable of exposing its material means of production in the same ways. So, if I wish to be a political writer, then the fiction itself must contain its own politics. This is the problem.
If Jameson has taught me anything so far (disclosure: I have not yet finished his book), it’s that the problem must be allowed its space to breathe, to mutate and grow branches, to loom overwhelmingly. He acknowledges the potential for critical theory to drive its practitioners to dead ends, namely in his description of Adorno’s ultimate “winner loses” paradox, in which he who comprehends the problem must also comprehend the fact that it is hopelessly unsolvable. (An analogue in common adage: “If you’re worried, it’s already too late.”) But what would it look like to consider, and to attempt to overcome, such a paradox in fiction?