Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Michael Wood reviews Fredric Jameson’s The Antinomies of Realism

Fredric Jameson. The Antinomies of Realism. London: Verso, 2013. 432  pp. Hardcover $34.95. 

Reviewed by Michael Wood

Tell and show, narrate and describe, the named emotion and the elusive skitter of unlabeled feelings: these are among the slightly worn antinomies Fredric Jameson restores to life or rather reveals in the intensity of their best quarrels.  They define realism in the novel as he understands it.  More: in a long, crowded motion starting in the 1840s and ending late in the same century, they give rise to realism, allow it to flourish, and kill it off.   Jameson offers magnificent readings of Zola, Tolstoy, Galdós, and Eliot in support of this claim, and he has a tremendous sweep of allusion that allows formal events in Wagner and Mahler, for example, to join those of the novel–the troubles of the récit and the end of the aria, the excitements and abatements of prose and of orchestration–as pieces of historical evidence.  All this, close and far, is what Jameson means by “scrutiny, that is to say, historicization” (p. 163). Sartre and Lukács are the presiding ancestors, the first as a political phenomenologist, the second as the grand master of formalism as material history.   We should question Jameson’s recurring use of the word affect as the sparring partner of meaning. It seems wrong in all kinds of ways, brings up a trail of distracting associations.   But then we should also question our questioning.   What would be the right name for what can’t be named, for what enters language only to undo its refined analytic capacities?