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Ulf Schulenberg, Universität Bremen

Translation as Mediation -
American Neo-Marxism between Critical Theory and Poststructuralism

The poststructuralist, deconstructive, and postcolonial attacks on Marxist thinking, confronting the latter with the massive aporias, undecidabilities, indeterminacies, and decenterings of contemporary theory as well as with the general critique of any kind of metaphysics of presence and the strong emphasis on relativism, are well known: hopelessly totalizing/totalitarian, teleological ('utopian'), archeo-teleological (Derrida), humanist, reductionist, essentialist, axiomatic, preferring identity and clôture over difference, alterity, and play etc. The intervention by the American literary and cultural critic Fredric Jameson in the postmodernism debate in the 1980s can, from today's perspective, be read as a defense of the Marxist discourse and materialist aesthetics against such attacks. Contrary to many European defenders of the Marxist tradition, however, Jameson's reading and mapping of the dialectical tradition has always aimed at establishing a platform for discussion with other literary and cultural theories. In view of the fact that the most glamorous cutting-edge post-Marxisms in the U.S. since the 1970s have been rather hostile toward the 'old left humanism', which can be traced back to the late William Dean Howells (who very often is astonishingly close in his thinking to the Hungarian Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács, the Lukács of the so-called 'middle period') and the vulgar materialism of the theoreticians of the 1930s (e.g. Michael Gold, Philip Rahv, and Wallace Phelps), this kind of discussion has never been easy. Presenting the idea of panfictionality and the textualization or semiotization of what was formerly known as reality as well as the disappearance of the dividing line between the ontological realms of 'reality' and variously produced fictions as somehow 'glamorous' in his latest novel Glamorama, Bret Easton Ellis, for example, makes the use of the traditional instruments of ideology critique and the analytical methods of materialist aesthetics appear somewhat obsolete - 'Spare me!' as Ellis's protagonist Victor Ward would presumably put it.
Confronted with the textualized spatiality and glamorous panfictionality of Ellis's text it is certainly difficult for a contemporary Marxist discourse to present itself like some kind of cool knowledge.

Marxism and postmodernism; Marxism and the politics of difference and/or the politics of identity; materialist aesthetic theory and poststructuralism or deconstruction; categories such as commodification, reification, class struggle/consciousness, mode of production, social totality on the one hand, and the emphasis on the absolute necessity of theorizing the various subject positions in today's United States in a non-essentialist, non-reductionist, and non-totalizing way on the other hand. These are some of the highly problematic dichotomies still partly dominating contemporary theory. Instead of trying to deconstruct this by now obsolete binary thinking, one could choose the more promising way of mediation between these allegedly incompatible positions. Since the publication of his study Marxism and Form in 1971, Fredric Jameson has tried to mediate between his own Hegelian Marxism and various other cultural and philosophical discourses such as Russian formalism, New Criticism, Lacanian psychoanalysis and Deleuze and Guattari's micropolitics of desire, structuralism, Althusser's structuralist Marxism, poststructuralism, American deconstruction (e.g. Paul de Man), and New Historicism (e.g. Walter Benn Michaels).

The emergence of an open and mostly undogmatic Marxist discourse is the result of his understanding of dialectical criticism (which is clearly opposed to Anglo-American philosophy as a 'thought-asphyxiating' mixture of logical positivism, empiricism, and political liberalism; in this context Richard Rorty's obvious problems with analytic philosophy also come to mind). American neo-Marxist theoreticians such as Jameson, Douglas Kellner, and Steven Best have constantly tried to work through other philosophical and theoretical positions in order to prove the efficacy of the Hegelian Marxist model, but they have done this without ignoring the insights of other ways of thinking. It has been their wish to translate these insights into the Hegelian Marxist discourse, thereby adapting it to the complexities of late capitalism and its cultural logic. Jameson explicitly speaks of his own discourse as a 'translation mechanism' which is capable of translating and subsuming other theoretical perspectives within an overarching Marxian framework. Whereas most critics argue that Jameson, stressing the importance of concepts such as 'History', 'Utopia', totality, and class, has negotiated in good faith with the demands of poststructuralism and deconstruction and that he has really tried to acknowledge and incorporate the severe critiques of ontology, teleology, interiority, and historicism, some of these critics also suggest that this American theorist actually is still very uneasy with this way of thinking and sees no reason to question the value of the Hegelian Marxist model.

In my paper, I will discuss whether the afore-mentioned process of translation as mediation always leads to satisfying results. Concentrating on texts by Jameson, Kellner, and Best, I focus especially on the dialectics of totality and difference as mirrored in con-temporary American Marxism. It would of course be presumptuous to claim that the impact of the Frankfurt School's Critical Theory and of French poststructuralism on American neo-Marxism will be completely clarified in my necessarily short paper. Thus, this apparent complexity has to be reduced to one important aspect. Trying to elucidate the dialectics of totality and difference, special attention will be given to Jameson's and Best and Kellner's reading of Adorno. Whereas Jameson's analysis of Adorno's writings is very problematic insofar as he desperately tries to turn the thinker of non-identiy into a thinker who longs for an adequate theorization of totality, Best and Kellner point out that Adorno vindicates otherness or alterity, difference, non-identity, and particularity as consistently and vehemently as for example Derrida. Although Adorno should of course not be labeled a deconstructionist avant la lettre, his understanding of the concept of totality has prefigured many poststructuralist critiques. The impact of the poststructuralist reading of totality on American neo-Marxism will be the second aspect of my discussion.

In my conclusion I wish to emphasize that the open and mostly undogmatic American neo-Marxism, still holding on to the indispensable instrument of dialectical critique, as practiced by Jameson, Kellner, and Best, probably has all the necessary tools for under-standing something as opaque as globalized and spatialized late capitalism and as stimulating and at the same time irritating as its cultural logic. The attempt to combine Marxist and poststructuralist or deconstructive, as well as other contemporary, positions, with an emphasis on the subtle use of mediation (or 'transcoding'), is very valuable and desirable. But it has also to be seen that this translation as mediation, this process of aiming at some sort of inter-discursivity, does not, and cannot, always work. The totalizing gesture of Jameson's cultural theory, for example, which tends to mute other voices of resistance, does not leave enough room for other narratives, and which sometimes ignores non-Marxist subject positions, repeatedly becomes obvious in his writings. The question whether the American neo-Marxist discourse is an important voice of today's stimulating theoretical polylogue, and whether it will function as such in the future, will hopefully be clarified in the ensuing discussion.


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