an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 2, May 2005, ISSN 1552-5112




The Uses and Abuses of the Cultural Heritage:  Progress, Utopia and Nostalgia in Jameson's A Singular Modernity



Paul Stasi




            Time present and time past

            Are both perhaps present in time future,

            And time future contained in time past.

            If all time is eternally present

            All time is unredeemable.


T.S. Eliot




These lines present two distinct forms of temporality.  The first is one of continuity:  the future based upon both a present and a past that it somehow contains.  The second form is one of simultaneity:  the past and future both somehow present in the present, somehow coterminous, synchronic.  Simultaneity, though, presents a problem:  it forecloses the possibility of progress.  Time, in this model of temporality—or, perhaps better, non-temporality—cannot be redeemed.  Simultaneity thus requires, if one is committed to the idea of change as Eliot is, a notion of rupture:  redemption arriving in a kind of messianic moment not contained in the unredeemed present. 


And yet the more one examines these two models of temporality, the more they seem to collapse into one another.  The notion of the future’s continuity with the past and the present, or its presence within the past, can also be seen as a version of the synchronous.  What, then, is the relationship between the synchronic and the diachronic?  The two seem, necessarily, to depend upon each other—the notion of continuity suggesting that all three temporal orders somehow contain aspects of each other even as the idea of rupture depends upon something from which to break. 


Fredric Jameson argues along similar lines in his recent book A Singular Modernity.  The dialectic of continuity and rupture, Jameson argues, “cannot be arrested and ‘solved’ in and for itself, but generates ever new forms and categories.”[1]  The choice between the two is, then, “an absolute historiographic beginning, that cannot be justified by the nature of the historical material or evidence, since it organizes all such material and evidence in the first place” (SM 23).  The result of this realization is what Jameson calls the “first maxim of modernity”:  “We cannot not periodize,” for the critique of periodization would posit a theory of rupture that, in turn, becomes its own form of periodization. 


This conclusion is interesting on its own, but I raise Jameson because his book is concerned primarily with what its subtitle calls “The Ontology of the Present,” an ontology that he connects explicitly to the possibility of social transformation, a secular version of Eliot’s redemption.  “It is difficult to imagine how you can shape an attractive political programme,” Jameson writes, “if you have . . . excluded the dimension of the future and of radical change (let alone of ‘progress’) from your political thinking” (SM 8).  This is the point of his critique of modernity, which he designates a narrative category whose “essentially regressive” temporality creates a relentless search for origins that excludes the dimension of the future (SM 91).  And he interestingly clarifies what he means by the future:  not simply a “Utopian space of projection and desire” but rather a place from which the present is judged (SM 26).  With this understanding of the future in mind, then, we can begin to approach the volume’s ringing, Eliotic conclusion:  “Ontologies of the present demand archeologies of the future, not forecasts of the past” (SM 215). 


These lines are hard to understand on their own, but what they represent, I think, is an engagement with a key question of Marxist historiography:  of what use is the bourgeoisie cultural heritage for the construction of a future that would base itself on radically different principles?  The Marxist tradition offers at least two competing answers:  those of Lukács, on the one hand, and Adorno, on the other.  In this paper I want to track some of the implications of the differences between these two thinkers, reading Adorno’s work as a critique of Lukács’ to see if this history can help us better situate Jameson’s intervention.


   “It is . . . in your own interest,” Lukács argued in his 1919 “Speech to the Young Worker’s Congress,” “to engage in the cultural struggle, so that we can realize our own culture and determine which of the achievements of past centuries are still valid, which of them we can use and which of them are useless.”[2]  Lukács is speaking here from within a revolutionary moment, that of the short-lived Hungarian communist revolution, whose failure led him to advocate “a return to the bourgeois cultural heritage.”[3]


It in this spirit that Lukács took to his defense of the 19th-Century historical novel against the innovations of modernist literature.  The historical novel should, Lukács argued, present “the social and human motives which led men to think, feel and act just as they did in historical reality.”[4]  To this end, the historical novelist must portray “the great transformations of history as transformations of popular life. The effect of material and psychological changes upon people who react immediately and violently to them, without understanding their causes . . . ‘below’ is seen as the material basis and artistic explanation for what happens ‘above’” (HN 52).  And this is done, primarily, by the creation of “characters who, in their psychology and destiny, always represent social trends and historical forces” (HN 33). 


In these quotations we find a typical Lukácsian distinction – action is on the ground, knowledge is in the air – and this distinction is itself attributed to modernity and, specifically, the triumph of the bourgeoisie in 1848.  For in 1848, “the dialectical method was overthrown and with it the methodological supremacy of the totality over the individual aspects; the parts were prevented from finding their definition within the whole.”[5]  The historical novelist seeks to repair this gap, showing “convincingly and powerfully the irresistible course of social-historical development” (HN 169).  This development might, Lukács admits, be “an uneven process,” but it is one that “despite all fluctuation . . . does move forward” (HN 248).


Several concepts that are important for us to trace are here intertwined.  Lukács’ explicit goal is to return to the moment when the bourgeoisie was still a revolutionary class; he wishes to complete the failed revolution.  Connected to this desire is a belief in progress, which 1848 may have halted, but has not overturned.  And this progress is, further, connected both to the totalizing gaze of the historical novelist and to a kind of nostalgic organicism that imagines a pre-1848 moment when things were not so fragmented.


This kind of organicism is a common feature of Lukács’ work, not only in Theory of the Novel, but also in History and Class Consciousness, where capitalism is described as a “mechanical disintegration of the process of production into its components” (HCC 90) which destroys “every image of the whole” (HCC 103) as well as “those bonds that had bound individuals to a community in the days when production was still ‘organic’” (HCC 90).  It has been argued, by J.M. Bernstein, among others, that “Lukács’ concept of the epic”—and by extension his entire vision of the organic, unified, pre-capitalist world—“is a hermeneutical construct, an act of historical awareness from the perspective of the present by which that present can begin to come to self-consciousness of its historical situation.”[6]  Bernstein is, perhaps, thinking of the moment in The Historical Novel when Lukács addresses this question directly.  Asking himself “whether the past is knowable,” Lukács replies:


This question always depends upon the extent to which the present is known, the extent to which the contemporary situation can clearly reveal the particular trends which have objectively led to the present, and, subjectively, it depends on how and to what extent the social structure of the present, its level of development, the character of its class struggles, etc., further inhibit or prevent knowledge of past developments. (HN 200)


Now there is, obviously, some truth to Bernstein’s claim:  the view of the past depends, fundamentally here, on the present.  But then again the present itself seems to depend on the past, and not simply on the past as “hermeneutic construct” but rather on the “objective trends” of those “past developments” the historical novelist was meant to reconstruct.


It is this ontology of the past—with its concomitant interest in both progress and nostalgia, understood from the perspective of a totalizing gaze—that is the chief target of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment.  On first reading Dialectic of Enlightenment is a puzzling book.  It seems to shuttle uneasily between a kind of drastic re-periodization of the epoch of the bourgeoisie and a universalizing narrative of the destructive powers of reason.  So when we read that Odysseus is “the prototype of the bourgeois individual,” we are not sure whether to re-locate the origins of capitalism in Greece, or to understand Odysseus as the representative of some universal human spirit.[7]  This choice is, however, a false one.  Not surprisingly, these two aspects of the book are in a dialectical relationship with each other. 


The authors sum up their thesis quite succinctly in the volume’s introduction:  “Myth is already enlightenment and enlightenment reverts to mythology” (DE xviii).  Expanding upon this premise, they present the book’s animating paradox, offered up as a kind of empirical observation:  “Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters.  Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity” (DE 1).  Virtually the opening gesture of the book, then, is a critique of progress, for, as Adorno remarks in Negative Dialectics, “no universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.”[8]  What is not entirely clear at first, though, is Dialectic of Enlightenment’s equally strong critique of nostalgia.  The re-reading of The Odyssey in terms of capital must be seen as a polemical move, as a response to the idealizations of Greek culture that run the intellectual gamut; from fascism, through Heidegger’s shepherds of Being, to Lukács organic pre-modern past.  Adorno’s history is one of continuity, then, but a continuity not of progress, but of catastrophe, a continuity, we might say, of the ever-same.  What is important to notice, here, is that there is no ontological claim being made about Odysseus or about Greek society.  Rather, we have here a polemical use of the past that refrains from making “objective” claims about that past, not through an ahistorical belief that all history is text, but rather through an absolute emphasis on the historicity of thought itself.  Our apprehension of the past is necessarily conditioned by the historical situation of our present and this fact must be reproduced in our analysis of the past.  The cultural heritage, then, is not the repository of values to be sifted through and preserved—and where then would one find value in the movement from slingshot to atom bomb?—but in the present space of contestation; that of our present-day quarrels. 


Writing about commodity fetishism, Adorno argues that “the true ‘mediation’ between society and psychology” is to be found “in the commodity and fetish character itself.”[9]  And this fetish character is not “a fact of consciousness,” but rather “dialectical in character, in the eminent sense that it produces consciousness.”[10]  Our consciousness, then, is an absolute product of the social situation in which we exist.  Truth, for Adorno, emerges from a confrontation between this situated consciousness and its equally situated object, also articulated by Walter Benjamin:  “The truth is not a merely contingent function of knowing, but is bound to a nucleus of time lying hidden within the knower and the known alike.”[11]  Truth is not present in the cultural heritage, to be discovered by a free-floating intellectual gaze.  Rather, the truth of the past is constituted by the confrontation between the observing subject and the past this subject attempts to understand.  The past is not, for Adorno, objective; but this fact does not make it inaccessible. 


Progress too is not “ontologically refused us.”[12]  Rather, it remains the utopian horizon of Adorno’s thought, but one that cannot be contaminated by contact with the unfreedom of what exists.  “History,” Adorno argues, “promises no salvation,” for once progress is imagined as a concrete historical fact, rather than a concept by which one judges the world as it is, freedom has been betrayed.[13]  We can see this negative vision of utopia operative in Adorno’s view of the work of art.  In direct contrast to Lukács’ objective social forces, Adorno argues that art’s spirit “is concerned with what has not yet been socially approved and preformed.”[14]  Art thus exists as the “determinate negation” of the social world (AT 93), or what Adorno calls the “negative appearance of utopia” (AT 130), by which he means that in its negation of what exists, art preserves the utopian longings exiled from the world of unfreedom.


We find ourselves, here, at a kind of aporia.  Either we adhere to the notion of progress as continuity, as in Lukács, and face the possibility that our Utopian hopes will become compromises with the social order that is.  Or we have a vision of the future that in its absolute unspecifiability leaves us with no way to attempt to bring it into being.  For how can one act to create a world that is without any concrete content?  How can one act in a present that must, somehow, refuse to use its own heritage in the quest for a better future?


It is in this context that I’d like to return to Jameson’s closing line:  “Ontologies of the present demand archeologies of the future, not forecasts of the past” (SM 215).  Within A Singular Modernity, “forecasts of the past” refer to the narrative trope of modernity itself, the attempt to locate a moment in the past as the “origin” of a process that then continues ad infinitum.  In the terms of my argument, this is the Lukácsian option of a continuity with the past’s achievements, which Jameson here rejects.  What, though, is an “archeology of the future?”  The first thing we can note is that Jameson is here, explicitly, using a Foucauldian term, one which paradoxically signifies both historical rupture, as against continuity, and the specificity of historical periods, the consistency of their own internal discourse and the incompatibility of the discourse of one “epistemic regime” with that of another.  But Jameson’s Foucault is a radically re-functionalized thinker, and key sections of A Singular Modernity develop impressive dialectical re-readings of both de Man and Foucault that are in significant excess of their expressed intentions (of course, the author is dead).


Jameson is operating within what I have already suggested is the Adornian use of the past.  Situated and polemical, Jameson uses Foucault and de Man in his argument against the concept of modernity, and what is of value in both thinkers is the notion of rupture.  But this is a rupture that would, in a kind of willful act of periodization, separate the present from both the past and the future.  Rejecting “forecasts of the past” means rejecting not only Lukácsian continuity, but that of Adorno as well, for whom all of human history is the story of destruction.  Jameson’s aim, I think, is to restore the dimension of the future to our analysis—to interrupt the open-ended temporality of modernity and to confront it with something that is other, to open up a space from which to judge the present.  And yet he wants to do this by investigating the content of that future – that is to say, against Adorno, he wants a future that is concrete.  But unlike Lukács, it seems, Jameson wishes to find the seeds of this future not in the ontology of the past, but in the ontology of the present.  Here, though, we have stumbled upon a conceptual problem.  For how can we look for a future that is conceived, through the notion of rupture, to be absolutely distinct from the present?  There is, finally, another aporia here:  that between theory and practice.  Bringing an absent future into being requires a leap of faith, a movement into territory where theory, perhaps, can offer little guidance.  The risk of compromise is no doubt great, but it might just be a risk that any determined action against the never-ending world of capitalist modernity requires.  To put the issue another way:  the notion of totality cannot be used to negate contradiction.  Modernity may present itself ideologically as a smooth, orderly progression, but it nevertheless contains contradictions, whose relationship to the totality is not simply one of containment.  For these contradictions are what, ultimately, could push the present toward its own rupture. But this will not happen by itself; as Nietzsche once argued, “that which is falling must also be pushed.”


Jameson’s utopian hope, then, is to salvage the future from the never-ending present, to push past the ideological veil of modernity and discover its limiting contradictions.  And yet his account of the social world, what the title refers to as a “singular modernity,” seems to leave little room for such contradictions to exist.  It is as if the absence of Utopia in the never-ending world of modernity has forced it to go underground.  Absent from the world, it seeks refuge in the critic’s mind.



  an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 2, May 2005, ISSN 1552-5112




[1] Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity:  Essay on the Ontology of the Present (New York:  Verso, 2002), 23.  Hereafter referred to as SM. 

[2] Georg Lukács, Tactics and Ethics:  Political Essays, 1919-1929, ed. Rodney Livingstone, trans. Michael McColgan (New York:  Harper Torchbooks, 1972), 40.

[3] Michael Löwy, Georg Lukács—From Romanticism to Bolshevism, trans. Patrick Camiller (London:  New Left Books, 1979), 194.

[4] Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel, trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (Middlesex, England:  Penguin Books, 1969), 44.  Hereafter referred to as HN.

[5] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness:  Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge:  The MIT Press, 1997), 9.  Hereafter referred to as HCC.

[6] J.M. Bernstein, The Philosophy of the Novel:  Lukács, Marxism and the Dialectics of Form (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 47. 

[7] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment:  Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 2002), 14.  Hereafter referred to as DE. 

[8] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (New York:  Continuum, 1992), 320.

[9] Adorno’s letter to Benjamin of 5 June 1935, in Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin, The Complete Correspondence 1928-1940, ed. Henri Lonitz, trans. Nicholas Walker (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1999), 93.

[10] Adorno to Benjamin 2 August 1935.  ibid, 105. 

[11] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1999), 463. 

[12] Theodor W. Adorno,  “Progress” in Critical Models, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1998), 153. 

[13] Theodor W. Adorno, “Why Still Philosophy” in ibid, 17. 

[14] Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 93.  Hereafter referred to as AT.