Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Polar Night

"That was a tradition whose major monuments were in one way or another, secretly or openly, all affected by a deep historical pessimism. Their most original and powerful themes - Lukács's destruction of reason, Gramsci's war of position, Benjamin's angel of catastrophe, Adorno's damaged subject, Sartre's violence of scarcity, Althusser's ubiquity of illusion - spoke not of an alleviated future, but of an implacable present. Tones varied within a common range, from the stoic to the melancholy, the wintry to the apocalyptic. Jameson's writing is of a different timbre. Although his topic has not been of comfort to the Left, his treatment of it has never been acrimonious or despondent. On the contrary, the magic of Jameson's style is to conjure into being what might be thought impossible - a lucid enchantment of the world." (76)
Borrowing a device from Gregory Elliott - using Anderson's characterisations of Fredric Jameson as self-characterisations - here is another case. This is why, as Elliott insists against a veritable litany of complaint, "pessimism" is not the best characterisation of Anderson's work, but political "realism". That said, the comment that Jameson creates "a lucid enchantment of the world", does not, for me, fit Anderson's writing. I would argue that it tends more to a quasi-Weberian dis-enchantment (also in line with Marx's own cynicism, in fact).

What is particularly interesting is the lack of interest that Anderson has in an "apocalyptic tone" (cf. Mike Davis), although he certainly does veer towards the "wintry". In fact it may well be possible to make a distinction between the "apocalyptic" and the "wintry" - and this point is inspired by my luckily having an advanced reading of Dominic Fox's Cold Worlds (forthcoming 2009). If the apocalyptic takes a certain jouissance in the very apocalypse it traces the wintry would take a distance from jouissance itself. Hence the "coldness" here is not so much a revelling in the loss of human "warmth" (a quality I find myself often sceptical about), but a blank indifference.

To return to Anderson this "wintry" indifference might seem to lead back to the usual charges. In particular it could easily run into the Lacanian objection "the non-dupes err", or other variants of the "clean hands" / "beautiful soul" argument. First, in the case of Anderson he has repeatedly taken political positions that "err" (the internal NLR documents demonstrate an admirable quality of self-critique). Instead of the usual "Olympian" objection*, we might well argue for an effect of being disabused that has, precisely, come through engagement.

The abandonment of the project begun in Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (1974) and Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974), would not simply be a sign of intellectual "failure" but of lucid recognition of an historical and political impasse. After all how many thinkers have abandoned such a project, or made significant shifts in their stance in relation to self-recognised failure?

* First made in 1964 by Peter Sedgwick, who wrote of the 2nd New Left (including Anderson) that they comprised: "an Olympian autogestion of roving postgraduates that descends at will from its own space onto the target-terrains of Angola, Persia, Cuba, Algeria, Britain ..." (where do I sign up?)

Anderson, Perry (1998) The Origins of Postmodernity. London and New York: Verso.
Elliott, Gregory (2008) Ends in Sight: Marx / Fukuyama / Hobsbawm / Anderson. London and Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press and Toronto: Between the Lines.

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