Reading the Imperceptible Tremors of an Unimaginable Future

By Mark Fisher, 11 May 2010

Must anti-capitalism necessarily involve dialectical thinking? Mark Fisher engages with Fredric Jameson's monumental effort to resurrect discredited dialectics

‘If there is one thing that Anglo-American analytic philosophers and their Continental cousins agree on, and there probably is only one thing,' Benjamin Noys wrote in his review of Fredric Jameson's Valences of the Dialectic for The Philosophers' Magazine, ‘it is that the dialectic is as a dead as a dodo.' From a certain Deleuzean perspective, dialectics was the very model of authoritarian philosophy, combining obscurantism with teleological totalisation in equal measures. Appeal to the ‘dialectical' was condemned as obfuscatory, a way not only of wriggling out of any impasse or inconsistency, but of turning these failures into virtues. And one of the repeated riffs in Valences of the Dialectic turns out to be the idea that cultivating a dialectical sensibility involves developing an attentiveness to the way that failure reverses into success, and vice versa. (Deleuze, meanwhile, is upbraided for his impatient corralling of his readers into dualistic, rather than dialectical, oppositions.)

My own aversion to Hegel, I have to confess, is more about style than content. What irks and frustrates is the pompous dramaturgy, the laborious terminology, the fetid and antique secular-theological atmosphere in which everything seems to be soaked. Jameson wants to rid us of this image of Hegel. The task that he sets himself in this monumental work is nothing short of refurbishing the dialectic for a postmodern era characterised by its deep scepticism towards totalising thought. But Jameson concedes no ground to this scepticism, even as he argues that the dialectic can be aligned with the very theories - such as those of Deleuze - which had done most to decry it. Žižek - one of the two great dialecticians Jameson invokes early on in the book, the comedian to Adorno's tragedian - attempted something similar in Organs Without Bodies, but Jameson's project here is both more sustained and more diffuse. Valences is a collection of essays, the earliest of which dates from the early '90s.

It is as if Jameson sets out to prove Foucault's famous anxiety - that lurking behind every anti-Hegelianism was the smirking figure of Hegel himself - is well-founded: ‘We have to determine the extent to which our anti-Hegelianism is possibly one of his tricks directed against us,' Foucault worried, ‘at the end of which he stands, motionless, waiting for us.'i And indeed, who should be found dialectically wanting in Jameson's lengthy introductory essay, if not Foucault? The problem with Foucault, Jameson tells us, is that he is both too dialectical and not dialectical enough. Take Foucault's celebrated analyses of medical, incarceral and educational institutions. Foucault famously disabuses his readers of the assumption that the 19th century reforms of hospitals, prisons and schools were ‘humane', locating in them instead the stealthy spread of a power which now penetrates into the interstices of the body itself. ‘[W]hat is left out of the characteristic Foucauldian narrative here,' Jameson argues,

is the passage from positive to negative which very precisely characterises the dialectic as such, or, in other words, the unity of opposites. Foucault attributes the positive valorizations of the Enlightenment to his deluded bourgeois readers and positions it as an error which the new narrative of paranoia and conspiracy is to correct, whereas from a dialectical perspective both narratives are correct and both are equally in error.ii

(I note here parenthetically that the phrase ‘as such' is something of a Jamesonian linguistic tic: perhaps a scholar could one day produce a study of what function this obsessively, but seemingly unconsciously, repeated phrase has for Jameson.)

Jameson rejects the ‘stupid old stereotype according to which Hegel works, according to a tripartite and cut-and-dried progression from thesis through antithesis to synthesis', although he does maintain that the dialectic involves three moments.

[T]here is a tripartite movement in the Hegelian dialectic ... : stupid first impression as the appearance, ingenious correction in the name of some underlying reality or ‘essence'; but finally, after all, a return to the reality of the appearance.iii

He illustrates this movement via Žižek's analysis of Fritz Lang's Woman in the Window. The film is about a professor who becomes embroiled in murderous intrigue, only to wake up and, in the clichéd way, find that these misadventures were only a dream. Žižek's ‘dialectical' intervention consists in his rejection of the ‘ingenious correction' and to return to a version of the ‘stupid first impression': what the film is really about, Žižek argues, is not a kindly professor dreaming that he is a murderer but a murderer dreaming that he is a harmless professor. Perhaps Marxism itself makes a similar threefold movement in respect of capitalism. The ‘stupid first impression' is that capitalism is the product of human effort; the ‘ingenious correction' is that capitalism is a vast network, abstract and impersonal, which makes a mockery of any human agency; but the ‘reality of the appearance' is that capitalism is indeed nothing more than a human production, but a production that human beings must recognise as their own work in order to exert any control over it. As Jameson puts it, in one of the moments of theory-poetry to which the book builds as it nears its end:

We have indeed secreted a human age out of ourselves as spiders secrete their webs: an immense, all-encompassing ceiling of singularity which shuts down visibility on all sides even as it absorbs all the formerly natural elements in its habitat, transmuting them into its man-made substance. Yet within the horizon of this immanence we wander as alien as tribal people, or as visitors from outer space, admiring its unimaginably complex and fragile filigree and recoiling from its bottomless potholes, lounging against a rainwall of exotic and artificial plants or else agonising amongst poisonous colours and lethal stems we were not taught to avoid.iv

The question of how far it is possible for us to ‘appropriate' this human but alien world as our own handiwork, to recognise this ‘forbiddingly foreign totality' as our own praxis, brings us to the one of the most urgent issues in Valences: namely, the relation of the dialectic to anti-capitalism. Is there some essential relationship between anti-capitalism and the dialectic, or was Marxism's embedding in dialectical philosophy a (more or less unfortunate) accident of history, a consequence of the fact that the young Marx emerged from a milieu dominated by Hegelianism? Jameson, evidently, believes that anti-capitalism must be dialectical, yet I remained unconvinced.

It's clear that anti-capitalism can sometimes gain traction from exploiting/ exploring certain paradoxes and tensions that could be construed as dialectical, but I found the idea that anti-capitalism must necessarily take a dialectical form to be unproven. The Communist Manifesto, Jameson argues, very much appreciated the way in which capitalism itself was a ‘unity of opposites'.

The Manifesto proposes to see capitalism as the most productive moment of history and the most destructive at the same time, and issues the imperative to think Good and Evil simultaneously, and as inseparable and inextricable dimensions of the same present of time. This is then a more productive way of transcending Good and Evil than the cynicism and lawlessness which so many readers attribute to the Nietzschean program."v

Anti-capitalism always goes wrong when it reneges on Marxism's appreciation of capitalism's awesome deterritorialising power, when it reclines into the hay-bales of some archaic agrarianism, imagining utopia in terms of what Marx and Engels in the Manifesto called the ‘idiocies of rural life'. If such an appreciation is ‘dialectical‘, then Deleuze and Guattari's analysis of capitalism in the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia would indeed be eminently dialectical. But even though such an awareness of the potentials opened up (yet simultaneously inhibited) by capital's immense capacities seems to me essential to anti-capitalism, it is not clear that the ‘dialectical' mode of thinking will always yield the most effective strategies or conceptual orientations.

Still, Jameson is at his most formidable and persuasive when he is seeking to encourage in us a style of thinking that can extract the utopian potentials from what seems to be the most dystopian cultural phenomena. One of the most exhilarating essays in Valences is ‘Utopia as Replication', previously published under the more suggestive title of ‘Wal-Mart as Utopia'. Here, Jameson performs a stunning reversal of the leftist common sense which casts Wal-Mart as irredeemably evil. The glum judgement of one CEO that Wal-Mart has ‘killed free enterprise in America' goes some way to indicating what Jameson is getting at here: anti-capitalism can come from unexpected directions. ‘The dialectic', Jameson writes,

is an injunction to think the negative and the positive together at one and the same time, in the unity of a single thought, there where moralizing wants to have the luxury of condemning this evil without particularly imagining anything else in its

Wal-Mart creates the very poverty which its own low prices ameliorate and make liveable. It is a fabulously streamlined operation that satisfies new desires, using innovative, highly sensitive modes of distribution. Surely, goes the scandalous suggestion, any post-capitalist system must more closely resemble Wal-Mart than some pastoral idyll? The (very considerable) problem is how we decouple Wal-Mart's streamlined organisation and its systems of distribution from the banal immiserations of capital.

Reading Jameson can sometimes seem like passing through a mist. It is not uncommon to experience frustration and confusion; as you read, you find yourself frequently in a state of uncertainty as to where a particular line of argument is going or what the point of a certain digression will end up being. Yet Valences is as compulsive as it is demanding, as rewarding as it is exacting. Just like passing through a mist, Jameson's writing leaves a definite residue. And it will send you back to familiar sources - Sartre, Rousseau, Lukács, Marcuse - with a much reinvigorated enthusiasm. There are many moments of brilliance in Valences, but for me the highlight is perhaps the essay ‘Actually Existing Marxism', a work of extraordinary diagnostic lucidity and prophetic power all the more remarkable because it was originally published in 1993. Written in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet empire - whose collapse, Jameson acerbically notes, prompted a kind of ‘wishful regret' in certain quarters - ‘Actually Existing Marxism' was already alive to the implications of a newly globalised capitalism. Globalisation means that

a shoe factory operating in a perfectly successful way in some isolated village and province whose needs it is there to meet, is suddenly transfixed as a virtually unworkable anachronism when, absorbed by a more unified system, it has to meet the standards of the metropolis.vii

‘Actually Existing Marxism' is as moving as it is intellectually stimulating, for what Jameson outlines here is an existential situation that is deeply tragic -

human time, human history, is out of sync with socioeconomic time, and in particular with the rhythms of cycles - the so-called Kondratiev waves - of the capitalist mode of production itself [...] [A]s organisms of a particular life span we are poorly placed as biological individuals to witness the more fundamental dynamics of history, glimpsing this or that incomplete moment, which we hasten to translate into the all-too-human terms of success or failure. But neither stoic wisdom nor the reminder of a longer-term view are really satisfactory responses to this peculiar existential and epistemological dilemma, comparable to the science-fictional one of beings inhabiting a cosmos they do not have organs to perceive or identify. Perhaps only the acknowledgement of this radical incommensurability between human existence and the dynamic of collective history and production is capable of generating new kinds of political attitudes; new kinds of political perception, as well as of political patience; and new methods for decoding the age as well, and reading the imperceptible tremors within it of an inconceivable future.viii

Here Jameson approaches, from another angle, some of the questions that have been raised recently by speculative realist philosophers: what are we to make of the radical difference between lived phenomenological experience and the various Reals (scientific, objectal, pre-human) which cannot be accommodated within this subjective framework? Jameson also implicitly points to the inadequacies of what two theorists influenced by speculative realism, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, have recently called ‘folk politics': an anthropomorphic politics which continues to project political possibilities and entities on the basis of a delusory image individuals have of themselves. As Jameson counsels,

It is crucial to undercut the use of private or personal analogies - one's own monthly income and budget, ‘spending beyond your means,' etc. - for the understanding of national debts and budgets. The problem of paying interest on an enormous national debt is a problem of the world monetary system as a whole, and should be thought of in those terms and analyzed as such.ix

Furthermore, Jameson argues, what purchase can categories such as ethics, attacked a number of times throughout Valences, have on the abstractions of capital?

The essay is also highly perspicacious on the way a populist anti-intellectualism has operated against the left. The rejection of Marcuse's distinction between ‘true and false desires' - a distinction that neoliberal populism has indeed taught us to regard as fustily archaic - is exemplary of a reactionary moment posing as something emancipatory (a description that could apply equally well to the whole of neoliberalism, in fact): ‘the repudiation of Marcuse at once takes a political and an anti-intellectual form (who is the philosopher-king appointed to adjudicate between the true and the false in these matters, etc.?).'x There's something perversely stirring about Jameson's anticipation of the ‘abstinence from commodities' that the shift to post-capitalism must entail, even as he warns of ‘how difficult it may be to renounce and relinquish the compensatory desires and intoxications we have developed in order to make the present livable.'xi

20 years on, we are still hooked on those compensatory intoxicants, but the financial crisis has created possibilities that were unimaginable in the high pomp of neoliberalism, and which are, I believe, yet to be fully appreciated, let alone exploited. (Given the crisis, Jameson's frequent calls throughout Valences to attend to the way that the moment of greatest triumph can also be the moment of disaster have an eerie prescience.) Valences ends with another flash of theory-poetical brilliance. If the old teleological vision of a locomotive of history heading ineluctably towards communism must now be abandoned, how then can we imagine another world now? What we need, Jameson argues, are the ‘languages and figurations of physics - the conceptions of closed worlds and a multiplicity of unconnected, yet simultaneous universes.' ‘It would be best,' he concludes

perhaps, to think of an alternate world - better to say the alternate world, our alternate world - as one contiguous with ours but without any connections or access to it. Then, from time to time, like a diseased eyeball in which disturbing flashes of light are perceived or like those baroque sunbursts in which rays from another world suddenly break into this one, we are reminded that Utopia exists and that other systems, other spaces, are still possible.xii

Mark Fisher <k_punk99 AT> is the author of Capitalist Realism and the editor of The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson (both Zer0, 2009). He teaches philosophy at the City Literary Institute, London and he is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. His weblog is at


Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic, Verso, 2009


i Michel Foucault, ‘Discourse on Language',in The Archæology of Knowledge, New York: Pantheon, 1972, p.235.

ii Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic, Verso, 2009, p.52.

iii Ibid., p.57.

ivIbid., p. 608.

v Ibid., p.551.

vi Ibid., p.421.

vii Ibid., p.400.

viii Ibid., p. 369-70.

ix Ibid., p. 382.

x Ibid., p. 384.

xi Ibid., p. 384.

xii Ibid., p. 612.