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Symptoms of Theory or Symptoms for Theory?

by Fredric Jameson The notion of an end of theory has been accompanied by announcements of the end of all kinds of other things, which have not been particularly accurate. Let me begin by outlining my conception of what theory is. I believe that theory begins to supplant philosophy (and other disciplines as well) at the moment it is realized that thought is linguistic or material and that concepts cannot exist independently of their linguistic expression. That is something like a philosophical “heresy of paraphrase,” and it at once excludes and forestalls a great deal of philosophical and systematic writing organized around systems or intentions, meanings and criteria of truth and falsity. Now critique becomes a critique of language and its formulations, that is to say, an exploration of the ideological connotations of various formulations, the long shadow cast by certain words and terms, the questionable worldviews generated by the most impeccable definitions, the ideologies seeping out of seemingly airtight propositions, the moist footprints of error left by the most cautious movements of righteous arguments. This is to say that theory—as the coming to terms with materialist language—will involve something like a language police, an implacable search and destroy mission targeting the inevitable ideological implications of our language practices; it remains only to say that for theory all uses of language, including its own, are susceptible to these slippages and oilspills because there is no longer any correct way of saying it, and all truths are at best momentary, situational, and marked by a history in the process of change and transformation. You will already have recognized deconstruction in my description, and some will wish to associate Althusserianism with it as well. We can indeed formulate something like an aesthetic of such writing (provided aesthetic is understood as a rigorous canon of taboos and conventions): its fundamental law would seem to be the exclusion of substantive statements and positive philosophical propositions. All affirmative positions, in other words, are flawed and ideological because they reflect our own personal and class (and race and gender) standpoints. It is a mistake to assimilate this view of theory to relativism or skepticism (leading fatally to nihilism and intellectual paralysis); on the contrary, the struggle for the “rectification” of wording is a well-nigh interminable process, which perpetually generates new problems. As for the overall contradiction of theory—how to advance the argument without actually saying

decisions on questions like this risk lapsing into sheer opinion. then literary criticism develops the former’s implications in a range of new practices. the doomed attempt to outwit the heavy baggage of actually existing language by way of postnatural innovation. in which it becomes clear that . I do feel that it has a modernist dynamic or telos. which are adapted to psychoanalysis and the social sciences. that is to say. The single example of the neologism may suffice. and this would be my version: a first moment in which the inner structure—the inner gap or fissure—of the concept as such is explored. traditions in which outmoded practices of representation—belief in the separation of words and concepts—still holds sway. What we now have to register (I’m slowly coming to the question of theory today) is the way in which this view of thinking and writing gradually annexes large areas of the traditional disciplines. which vary according to one’s disciplinary perspective. borrowed from that modernism in the arts that no longer exists. This is the moment often identified as structuralism. I am describing the process of the expansion of theory in figures of war and domination and imperialism because theory is of course also yet another characteristic superstructural development of late capitalism and thus displays many of the same dynamics (although in a wholly different political valence). if not a belief in progress. what happens during the period in which theory spreads—and the classical story is well known: first anthropology borrows its fundamental principles from linguistics. What is called the exhaustion of theory is generally little more than the completion of this translational appropriation for this or that disciplinary area. in other words the dynamic of theory has been the pursuit of the new and. Now clearly there are many other ways of telling this story.anything—it has known a variety of solutions. better still. But theory’s eternal enemy. At any rate. which can’t be enumerated here. other cultural disciplines—what happens in this process of transfer is what I would characterize (keeping to a linguistic mode) as wholesale translation. quickly absorbs and neutralizes the attempt. then at least a confidence that there always will be something new to replace the various older reified or signed theories that have been absorbed into and domesticated by the theoretical canon. But I do think a brief review of the history of theory is in order. by one kind of language of a whole range of very different ones. the law. reification. the supplanting of one language by another or. Or is there such a thing as a theoretical canon? Is theoretical production not already postmodern in spirit? Can we distinguish between the modernist and the postmodernist theoretical production? For the moment.

that between the universal and the particular: an opposition which is not in that form a problem (except for an older philosophical discourse) but which immediately shatters into all kinds of new ones. in other words. This is the area of the political. emerges. and a rewriting. and its dilemmas. which has always been the property of the most retrograde academic disciplines and the most boring and old-fashioned kind of philosophizing. from repressive sexual norms to the identities of class analysis. it is a problem that has slowly come to subsume all other philosophical issues. a genuinely theoretical political theory. its failures. the individual. in which. Thus. that of representation. In a second moment—sometimes called poststructuralism—this discovery mutates as it were into a philosophical problem. namely. it slowly begins to dawn on us that concepts are not ideas but rather words and constellations of words at that.concepts are not autonomous but rather relational—both internally and externally—and in which their materiality becomes inescapable. not an opposition that can be dialectically transcended. which we call articles. Or at least one should say that war is the ultimate figure in which the political is revealed. and then of Spinoza and Carl Schmitt a whole new kind of discourse. but from whose towers some have momentarily gazed and whose underground bunkers others have partially mapped out. the general issue of representation is still very much with us today and organizes so to speak the normal science of theory and its day-to-day practices and guides the writing of its innumerable reports. because the latter is also a construction. Suddenly these old texts and the academic frameworks in which they were being read found themselves transformed beyond recognition by the lighting bolt of a different kind of philosophico-theoretical opposition. its dialectic. This is then not some problem that can be solved. and its impossibility. from concepts to propositions. recast in the agonistic structure of Schmitt’s “friend and foe” and finding its ultimate figure in war. a defamiliarization. and even the virtual. the “particular” reappearing variously in the form of the specific. the singular. a simplification of . Now we come to a third moment. Maybe this is the moment in which the problem shifts from words to sentences. At any rate. but rather a whole new theoretical coding system in which everything that went before must now be reconfigured. revealing itself as an enormous structure that no one has ever visited in its entirety. and it is this one that I believe to be new and imperfectly explored and the place in which original theory is still being done today. namely. while a bad universalism hangs over everything like a doomsday cloud and gets identified with everything from the state to the commodity form. Under the tutelary deities of Machiavelli and Hobbes.

all the words I can find for it are still the old-fashioned and discredited ones. rewriting reality as a graph of power centers. Meanwhile there flourishes a . and I therefore want to forecast yet a fourth moment for theory. One wants to think of formulations (and indeed diagrams) for collectivities that are at least as complex and stimulating as those of Lacan for the individual unconscious. offer a variety of new ways to map a whole range of collective phenomena. These structures have certainly been glimpsed in the various explorations of the social or collective Imaginary in recent years. resolutely post-Cartesian. I’m tempted to have recourse to Deleuze’s notion of diagrammatization (which he develops on the occasion of Foucault). such as the project of a social psychology. something that has also been pronounced dead from time to time. Yes. we still don’t want to hear anything about social class. I am personally somewhat distant from this new moment. movements. and new theoretical fashions like Agamben’s idea of naked life are at once read as metaphysical or existential statements or at worst enlisted to prove—being a kind of zero degree—that the collective does not exist (instead of being grasped as the identification of a new collective planet or quark). Meanwhile. as I have always understood Marxism to mean the supercession of politics by economics. One feels that the recent philosophical prestige of the Other and otherness is for the most part an ethical simplification of these realities (save. If so. and velocities. that may be because. But it is not very satisfying to talk about fields that do not (yet) exist. Such diagrams are the last avatar of those visual aids that mesmerized the first structuralisms. on the other hand. because it does not yet theoretically exist.concrete life in the form of a new model. This one has to do with the theorizing of collective subjectivities. for some suggestions in the Sartre of the Critique). because of the general volatilization of the old-fashioned work of art or if you prefer the death of literature itself. we now have as many different methods and techniques as any object could possibly require or. perhaps. they are the latest way to get out of ideas and into a new form of materialization. as yet on the other side of the horizon. Even literary history has accumulated impressive quantities of research. on the one hand. although. which may largely suffice for a time even though the historical reevaluation of this data remains as interesting a theoretical problem as all postmodern historiography. thinking politically means turning representation into diagrams. making visible the vectors of force as they oppose and crisscross each other. So let me turn in conclusion to literary criticism. But it is in the nature of the beast (the human animal) to draw back from such openings. and Deleuze (or Deleuze and Guattari). subaltern studies comes at all this from yet another direction.

kind of insider trading on the most advanced textual sensations. It might be worth adding that as much or even more than content. which I would be inclined to endorse. As if inquiring after the health of a loved one who has been very ill for a long time. To be sure. and who has been absent from one’s daily life but all the more present because of it in one’s daily thoughts. But this account of the tasks of theory and criticism has so far left out the most distinctive feature of our own (postmodern) times. from Memento to hip-hop. I believe. But the idea of a symptom is often misunderstood as encouraging a vulgar-sociological or content approach to works of art. putting it in a different way. Suffice it to say that works of the past afford all kinds of uniquely aesthetic openings onto their own moment. form is itself the bearer of ideological messages and exists as a social fact.”1 But this also names theory. Cesare Casarino. he says. while those of the present include all kinds of coded data on our own – that blind spot of the present from which we are in many ways the farthest. who comments as follows on the old question. This is very precisely that volatilization of the individual work or text I mentioned earlier. but these are all textual objects. are the utopian projections works of past and present alike offer onto a future otherwise sealed from us. is what he calls philopoeisis. “a certain discontinuous and refractive interference between philosophy and literature. however. Literary forms (and cultural forms in general) are the most concrete symptoms we have of what is at work in that absent thing called the social. a development that if taken seriously determines a considerable shift in perspective and in critical practices. the technical questions about such delicate and complicated coordinations are at the very center of literary theory itself. one could have asked: how is literary criticism?” His answer. What we tend to neglect. For is it clear that the questions raised by literary method are not nearly so urgent or timely when significant literature ceases to be produced or rather. What is literary criticism? “The question could have been posed differently. On all such textual criticism I want to quote a recent writer. however. I want to come at the question a little differently. at least as far as the aesthetic is concerned. I suppose that at this point we could read all of Adorno’s aesthetic writings on to the record as the supreme illustration of the intent to coordinate inside and outside and to grasp the “windowless monad” of autonomous form as a social and historical symptom. when the center of gravity of some putative “system of the fine arts” moves away from those of language and displaces the ideal of poetic language that was central during the modernist period? . and it is pernicious to distinguish between literature and cultural studies in the pejorative ways we are familiar with. which names. and to defend the position that literary criticism is or should be a theoretical kind of symptomatology.

our objects of study consist less in individual texts than in the structure and dynamics of a specific cultural mode as such. beginning with whatever new system (or nonsystem) of artistic and cultural production replaced the older one. in postmodernity. Indeed. Marx. Those things are not merely the acts of a fundamentalist reactionary group around an unelected president—something that might at best be attributed to sheerest accident or national bad luck. they are part and parcel of our system. and understanding cultural production today is not the worst way of trying to understand that system and the possibilities it may offer for radical or even moderate change. . the very war he inspired is the context in which I would defend this methodological proposal because I think that it is only in the light of the study of late capitalism as a system and a mode of production that we can understand the things going on around us today.This is why it has seemed to me that today. 1. a formula I prefer to those that continue to use the word culture in something of an anthropological sense. 2002). Culture in that sense is the ideological property of Samuel Huntington and the people he has inspired. This shifts our methodological practice (or rather the most interesting theoretical problems we have to raise) from individual textual analysis to what I will call mode-of-production analysis. Modernity at Sea: Melville. It is now the cultural production process (and its relation to our peculiar social formation) that is the object of study and no longer the individual masterpiece. xiii. p. Cesare Casarino. Conrad in Exile (Minnesota.