The Moments of Realism

By Ben ParkerJuly 28, 2015

The Antinomies of Realism by Fredric Jameson

THE ODD THING about literary “realism” is that it is not a descriptive term at all, but a period: roughly 1830–1895, from Stendhal’s The Red and the Black to Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Many classics of 19th-century realism would be conspicuously ruled out if plausibility were any criterion. Balzac’s first successful novel, La Peau de chagrin, is about a gambler who purchases a magical, wish-fulfilling animal skin that shrinks with every wish granted; Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma is essentially a swashbuckling romp through Napoleonic Europe; Anna Karenina includes the interior monologue of a dog, long before Kafka; Flaubert’s works include a lurid, violent novel about the fall of ancient Carthage, and a play in which Saint Anthony confronts the Buddha, Isis, the Devil, and the Seven Deadly Sins in the desert. “Magical realism” is something of a pleonasm; 19th-century realism is already reliably outrageous, phantasmagoric, and credibility-straining.

The past tends to be evacuated of its specifics, and so realism becomes, in the folk vocabulary of everyday criticism, simply “the way that we used to do things.” The implication here is “... before we learned better,” where modernism, and most often Virginia Woolf, plays the role of pedagogue. By a curious twist, “realism” then becomes descriptive once again, as the term now encompasses a warehouse of discarded, seemingly ingenuous (but covertly ideological) techniques for the misguided project of grasping “reality.”

In her 2008 essay “Two Paths for the Novel,” Zadie Smith — in the same vein of condescension toward a hazy, credulous past — identified realism, specifically “the nineteenth-century lyrical Realism of Balzac and Flaubert,” as “a literary form in long-term crisis,” an archaic obstruction on the highway of literary culture. This realism was supposedly built on “the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.” Realism was a “bedtime story,” propagating the ideology that “the self is a bottomless pool,” and dating to a prelapsarian epoch when “novels weren’t neurotic.” All of this would come as a surprise, I think, to readers of Balzac and Flaubert: surely the latter is the most neurotic of novelists.

In fact, realism was never this way. Nineteenth-century realism was not a “bedtime story.” On the contrary, the prevailing idea that before modernism we all innocently believed in an essential plenitude of the self is itself a comforting fable by which to tuck in undergraduates. Even in as Masterpiece Theatre–ready a work as Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the heroine is crucially “absent” (narcoleptic, automaton-like) from her own attention at catastrophic, life-determining moments of rape and violence. Often in Charles Dickens’s novels — surely the main offender of the 19th century — the central actors are revealed to be no more than economic fronts: not persons at all, but hollow corporate fictions. Flaubert surely did believe in Smith’s “transcendent importance of form,” but any “fullness of the soul” to be found in Madame Bovary is, in Flaubert’s words, spoken only in clichés and in “the emptiest of metaphors.” Given Flaubert’s commitment to “absolute style,” he is perhaps the last author one would recruit for the proposition that language reveals any truth.

That the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson’s new book, The Antinomies of Realism, should take up the 19th-century realist novelists will strike some as inevitable. “Of course” Marxism would want to resuscitate realism: are they not both, after all, Victorian-era dinosaurs, grubbily smeared with coal dust? Indeed, The Antinomies of Realism belongs to a Marxist tradition of criticism of realism dating back to Marx and Engels’s admiration for Balzac, on through Lenin’s essay on Tolstoy, and Georg Lukács’s 1938 essay “Realism in the Balance.” To some readers, this confluence of “Marxism” and “realism” will probably suggest some dreary monochrome portrait of oppressed but triumphant workers and peasants, a combination of Italian neorealist film with Soviet propaganda art. Jameson’s goal is something else, however. His interest in realism is not in its (lapsed) virtues or the (unrecoverable) conditions of its emergence, but in its dissolution.


Realism does not have the same status in this book that “postmodernism” had in Jameson’s book of that name: it is not a “cultural logic.” Nor is it a genre, or a style with a set of requisite criteria and conventions. It is more like a compromise, an uncertain attempt to do two things at once. Realism is multitasking, with all the jostling and innovation and shortcuts that usually result. Those two things are, roughly, the prodding eventfulness of storytelling, as found in pre-novelistic forms like the Gospels, the epic, the medieval Romance — and simultaneously, the technologies of experience and sensation that modernism would go on to sunder from the chains of plot and the naturalist illusions of the Victorian doorstops. The interest of the book lies in Jameson’s tabulation, on one hand, of the price one has to pay on entering the compromise of realism, with all of the genius of its practitioners’ “creative accounting” — and on the other hand, of how realism’s holdings come to be dismantled and auctioned off when the compromise comes apart.

Jameson has a story to tell about realism, complete with origins, heroes, villains, contested inheritances, and spectral afterlives. But The Antinomies of Realism is not a history. Readers expecting a chronological survey of realism will be disappointed (and should turn to Georg Lukács’s collection Studies in European Realism to fill that need). It would be vulgar to complain that Jameson has not dealt with one’s pet favorite (“How could he leave out Stendhal! Hardy! William Dean Howells!”), since the object of study here is the way that realism fed on its own “problems” to keep going. The chapters dealing with single authors appear to have been organized solely for the purpose of frustrating the desire for a standard historical overview. So Jameson begins with Émile Zola, whose immense Rougon-Macquart cycle of 20 novels was churned out between 1871 and 1893. Unlike Balzac, whose Comédie humaine was a post hoc construction, an attempt to cobble together a Dante-like edifice for posterity, Zola’s cycle was planned from the start as the “natural and social history of a family during the Second Empire.”

We then move backward to Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869), apparently chosen in preference to Anna Karenina because it combines two of the topics Jameson addresses later: the historical novel, and war as a problem of representation. Then forward again in time, to the novels of Benito Pérez Galdós, whose Fortunata y Jacinta (1887) is at the core of Jameson’s analysis. Pérez Galdós was an astonishingly prolific writer, one of those one-man literary industries that flourished in the 19th century: like Balzac or Trollope or Dickens, the author of literally dozens of novels. So we all have some catching up to do, as not the least of Jameson’s tasks here is to shame us all for not having read them. From Spain we jump to England, and back another decade, to George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872), as though to anchor the entire sequence of realism in its most familiar instance.

The story that Jameson has to tell cannot just be overlaid on the above map/timeline. Jameson wants to dislodge the account of fiction’s history that we all learned, which runs from Jane Austen to Flaubert to Henry James to Joyce and Woolf as the reiterated lesson “show, don’t tell.” Jameson wants instead to rehabilitate the great “tellers”: Balzac, Tolstoy, Eliot — and in the process excoriate the usual winners of the 19th century, Henry James and Dostoevsky.

Whether to “show” or “tell” in literature is an old debate. Lessing’s 1766 treatise on the Laocoön already sketched the problem, and came down in favor of “show”:

When Homer wishes to tell us how Agamemnon was dressed, he makes the king put on every article of raiment in our presence: the soft tunic, the great mantle, the beautiful sandals, and the sword. When he is thus fully equipped he grasps his scepter. We see the clothes while the poet is describing the act of dressing. An inferior writer would have described the clothes down to the minutest fringe, and of the action we should have seen nothing.

The only writers who ever have decided that “telling” is best would seem to be the chatty tradition running from Henry Fielding to Anthony Trollope, and the Marxist critical tradition within which Jameson is working. Not the popular crowd. The great defense of telling is surely Georg Lukács’s 1936 essay “Narrate or Describe?” which systematically destroys Zola’s Nana by comparing its horserace scene to that of Anna Karenina. Although there is hardly a person alive who would disagree with that aesthetic judgment, the conclusion (“narrate!”) evidently has not been convincing.

Drawing on a broader and more theoretical tradition, Jameson introduces a whole vocabulary for this distinction: récit versus scene, event versus presence, and destiny versus affect. The last opposition is the most important one for Jameson’s argument, although each of these binaries gives a different schematic flavor. “Destiny,” these days, is all too redolent of Star Wars, but I imagine it as the black spot in Treasure Island, the turn toward sin in the confessions of Dante’s sinners, or Achilles’ heel — destiny is a message we have to receive, and the message only has one form: “So ye shall die.” Every Balzac story has such a moment where death is, as it were, negotiated in advance like a length of thread: paradigmatically, the pact that Lucien de Rubempré makes with Vautrin at the end of Lost Illusions, or the finite vital powers of the wish-granting skin of La Peau de chagrin.

“Affect” is a more academic term than “destiny,” and is not helpfully clarified when Jameson suggests that “intensity” might be substituted for it. I hear the term as denoting the passive observing and registering of consciousness and the body, in the manner of a bio-feedback loop. However, Jameson has no interest in the now-current seminar-room frisson of discovering that “affect is always already political.” Rather, in a move recalling Marx’s still-shocking aperçu that “the forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present,” Jameson attempts “to isolate and experimentally to observe” the body’s “emergence in language,” treating affect as a possibility of narration still in construction. He points to Boccaccio as an instance of pure storytelling.

What would an example of pure affect be? Here is a passage from Tao Lin’s Taipei:

Something staticky and paranormally ventilated about the air, which drifted through a half-open window, late one afternoon, caused a delicately waking Paul, clutching a pillow and drooling a little, to believe he was a small child in Florida, in a medium-size house, on or near winter break. He felt dimly excited, anticipating a hyperactive movement of his body into a standing position, then was mostly unconscious for a vague amount of time until becoming aware of what seemed to be a baffling non sequitur — and, briefly, in its mysterious approach from some eerie distance, like someone else’s consciousness — before resolving plainly as a memory, of having already left Florida, at some point, to attend New York University. After a deadpan pause, during which the new information was accepted by default as recent, he casually believed it was autumn and he was in college, and as he felt that period’s particular gloominess he sensed a concurrent assembling, at a specific distance inside himself, of dozens of once-intimate images, people, places, situations. With a sensation of easily and entirely abandoning a prior context, of having no memory, he focused, as an intrigued observer, on this assembling and was surprised by an urge, which he immediately knew he hadn’t felt in months, or maybe years, to physically involve himself — by going outside and living each day patiently — in the ongoing, concrete occurrence of what he was passively, slowly remembering. But the emotion dispersed to a kind of nothingness — and its associated memories, like organs in a lifeless body, became rapidly indiscernible, dissembling by the metaphysical equivalent, if there was one, of entropy — as he realized, with some confusion and an oddly instinctual reluctance, blinking and discerning his new room, which after two months could still seem unfamiliar, that he was somewhere else, as a different person, in a much later year.

The most surprising consequence of Jameson’s book may be that once you read Tao Lin in this way it is impossible not to see the same thing — the heaping up of sensory diagnosis — in the works of Émile Zola!

There is a politics behind these distinctions, especially when we reflect that another great Marxist, Raymond Williams, identified the same opposition within the single word “experience.” What Jameson calls “destiny,” Williams would call “experience past,” the sense in which a baseball team signs a veteran baseball player because he has experience. “Experience past” implies narrative: this same player we might expect to regale the clubhouse with many a barnstorming yarn. Williams associates this sense with the conservative philosopher Edmund Burke. On the other hand, there is “experience present,” for which Williams invokes the radical William Blake, where experience means a heightened subjective awareness. I think of Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall asking if a rock concert achieved “total heaviosity”: experience as an intensity that takes up the full space of the senses. The takeaway is that the valuation of one pole over another will always be ideologically motivated: are we oriented toward the cards that have been dealt us, the wreckage of past fates bequeathed us by history, and the failed hopes detected there? Or are we oriented toward internal states, duration, the awed absorption of flux, the authenticity of feeling, and the affirmation of impersonal forces?

For Jameson, the abandonment of “historical destinies” by serious fiction that follows from the dictum “show, don’t tell” is a catastrophe, and the main literary culprit is Henry James, whose baleful preference for showing is subsequently confirmed by Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction and Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction. (The overarching culprit is, of course, the abstractions and reifications of capitalism, but The Antinomies of Realism is skimpy on this linkage.) The reproach launched at “inauthentic,” dialogue-heavy literary fiction is quite damning: “It is not by adding a few metaphors, or interrupting these self-indulgent streams of consciousness with fragments of an alleged objectivity, that this historical situation and dilemma, which is that of contemporary literature, can be productively addressed.” Probably without intending it, Jameson has written a forceful riposte to James Wood’s How Fiction Works, the figural hero of which is free indirect discourse and its special privileges into consciousness. For Jameson, simply, free indirect discourse is “a facile practice of narrative mind-reading.”

For us, today, these are two roads diverging: destiny or affect, show or tell. The massive insight of Antinomies is that realism is a series of attempts to do both, to “have it all.” The old realist novels were “laboratory experiments,” unstable solutions — or, in a military language, realism consisted of a number of ambitious deployments and maneuvers to outflank the stalemated face-off between narration and description, story and scene. However, showing and telling are no longer two ways of looking at the same thing, as the writing workshop advice would have it. In the judgment of Lukács and Lessing, the inferior writer chose the wrong mode of presenting a horse race, or of showing a king outfitted for battle. After realism, showing or telling would seem to be part of the thing observed, representational strategies already bound up in prior choices, rather than different perspectives on or ways of approaching a neutral bit of life. For modernist poetry, there may be 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, but there is no way to get “outside” of, say, Tao Lin’s narcotized auto-reportage of consciousness, to narrate it in some other mode or genre. His affectless narration (which is, in a dialectical reversal, the apotheosis of the narrating of affect) is not one perspective on events. The very thing to be represented vanishes once the mode of representation shifts. If one excised all of the reflections, memories, and evaluative perceptions from an emblematic modernist text like To the Lighthouse, what would remain would be sentences like this:

“You won’t finish that stocking tonight,” he said, pointing to her stocking. That was what she wanted—the asperity in his voice reproving her. If he says it’s wrong to be pessimistic probably it is wrong, she thought; the marriage will turn out all right.

“No,” she said, flattening the stocking out upon her knee, “I shan’t finish it.”

The entire book would be around 25 pages long.

Certain things in the world only exist for showing. No, that’s not quite right. Certain things in our world exist only for showing. The 20th-century explorations of the psyche and the new technologies and vocabulary for describing it (literary and otherwise) also produce narrative “experiences” that simply didn’t exist before. (Previous such technologies were Christianity and Romanticism.) To invent a language for an experience is also to invent that experience. Jameson, in an earlier essay, elaborated how Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain was engaged in just such “form production,” so that the entire novel can be seen as a “symptomatology” that not only detects and zooms in on illness, but also incites and encourages the flourishing of every latent morbidity, complacently translating them into “a specific style of awareness of the body in which perception consists in a narcissistic and hypochondriac flattering of the organism’s velleities.” But this means losing the thing (illness) and transforming it “into sheer representation” — i.e., The Magic Mountain is a factory of techniques and refinements for showing, but these new instruments aren’t for taking out into the world to acquire an objectively precise measure of external reality. The point of the novel is rather to draw everything inside of itself. There simply is nothing to “tell” because the thing-to-tell-about is a mere effect and result of “showing.”

If we are long past this parting-of-ways, then, what is realism today, and what are our options? On one hand, survivals of realism are everywhere around us, but “degraded into mass-cultural forms,” an incoherent mishmash of melodrama, italicized introspection, the descriptive “master shots” pioneered by the 19th century and carried over into film, and the groping for a “panoramic” view of society evident in acclaimed television serials. On the other hand, realism has been thoroughly deconstructed and defamiliarized by modernism and postmodernism: we can no longer do it seriously, only by an ironic virtuosity or as overearnest reclamation.


In Part Two of Antinomies, “The Logic of the Material” (the first part of the book is also called “The Antinomies of Realism”), Jameson addresses the cognitive problem of capitalist modernity — that certain facts of the world don’t exist for telling — by way of sketching out a number of responses and horizons in realism’s dissolution. The upshot of these problems of representation will be well known to readers of Jameson, whose signature concept is “Utopia” — as he defines it in 1981’s The Political Unconscious, “the anticipation of the logic of a collectivity which has not yet come into being,” i.e., the projection of a classless society. Realism’s antinomies are parsed in terms of three such unrepresentable projections: providence, war, and “staging our own present as historical.” All of these are untellable visions, but they have in common the collective that Utopia gropes to construct. Also, the titanic stature of Tolstoy’s War and Peace can be accounted for anew, as a book that tries to straddle all three straits: to be a historical novel about war, capped by a theory of historical causality.

If Jameson’s canon of realism strikes one as eccentric and gappy, his literary “picks” for our present moment, the works that draw these unrepresentable collective futures back into formal innovations, are just as unlikely to win ungrudging universal acceptance: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction novels (Antinomies is dedicated to Robinson, a former student of Jameson’s), and three approaches to the historical novel: Alexander Kluge’s untranslated Chronik der Gefühle, David Albahari’s Götz and Meyer, and Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World. Hardly a comprehensive survey of “new directions” for contemporary realism!

Perhaps it is all as well. Questions of what authors should write, to qualify as “realists,” to win a Marxist stamp of approval, to circumvent the traps of ideology, are embarrassing not only because they have never helped anyone and have only led to bad art, but also because they are finally questions of analysis, hermeneutics — for the novelist, this can only mean working backward. Thus Bertolt Brecht wrote of Lukács’s essays on realism as valuable only in their negative points: “But then we come to the positive and constructive postulates of Lukács’s conception. [...] Here specific instructions dwindle into an indistinct murmur. That his proposals are impractical is obvious.”

Until now, we have been dealing with literary fiction as the bearer of realism, but Jameson’s definitions point to another domain (although he does not go there), so long as we understand realism not as a descriptive term but as marking an antinomy between event and present, fate and affect, as well as the contours of collectivities on the edges of representation. Cinema was always the heir to 19th-century realism, Eisenstein tells us in his essay on D.W. Griffith and Charles Dickens. But this lineage has usually been thought of in terms of either technique or melodrama, or the ready adaptability of classic works to screen. Alternately, “realism” in film has been applied to the observational or documentary style of Italian neorealism as theorized by André Bazin. The terms of realism found in The Antinomies of Realism recast this story entirely. To briefly propose a survey of “antinomistic” realist cinema: Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, Dreyer’s Ordet, the Henry Fonda western Warlock, Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, Dassin’s The Law, Malick’s Days of Heaven and Badlands, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and Haneke’s The White Ribbon. The test here is if you can engagingly tell the “story” of the movie, and simultaneously discover new techniques of bodily sensation and the intensities of image; bonus points were awarded for stories of human destinies that opened out onto the terrain of the social.

12 Years a Slave is not going to count as a “realist” work for most people; I’ve never heard it described as such. But is this not precisely a story premised on a unique mark of destiny? The very title promises an astounding and unrepeatable tale, what Goethe calls an “unheard-of event.” But then the film itself, the languorous cinematography taking in all the hues of sunset and the unbearable duration and strain of flesh and ligaments, is structured as a registration of affects — recall that director Steve McQueen’s previous films were named Shame and Hunger. The film is realist, by Jameson’s definition, in that it does both things, as well as conjuring the fraught exigencies and traps awaiting African-American collectivity, but his definition also lets us observe what is awkward and poorly stitched together in the film. The events themselves are flush with the source material’s Victorian melodrama, tableaux primed for engraved illustration and abolitionist broadsheets. What is “beautiful” in the filming therefore belongs to another, more knowing, perspective — an art-house eye that remains fundamentally ironic.

Jameson’s two poles of realism, the registering of affect and the unique destiny, suggest another (unmentioned) recent work: Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. All of the techniques of Scientology represented — the wall-touching, the unblinking confessional, the various tests of endurance, the states of inebriation — are certainly apparatuses of bodily specification and the discrimination of intensities; while the religious cult and its insertion into a thoroughly “periodized” (Hopper-esque) Americana evoke all of the problems of a collectivity (“The Cause”) and its emergence. The Master ignites all of these Jamesonian nodes — by way of L. Ron Hubbard’s own authorial proclivities, one could even make a connection to science fiction!

But even as I write these synopses, I feel myself itching to slip into a mode that Jameson pointedly does not pursue in The Antinomies of Realism: ideological analysis. Jameson has quipped of The Antinomies of Realism: “Where is the marxismo?” One looks in vain not only for “politics,” but also for the anticipated dimension of explanation, even in so crude a way as the causality of base acting on superstructure. When opening a new Jameson book, one expects to be confronted with all manner of diagrams sketching out the boundaries of thought and “transcoding” the limits of our “conjuncture.” Not much of that here. This is especially odd because these theoretical fireworks were precisely Jameson’s solution to the problems that contemporaneity posed to the earlier Marxist critics, Lukács and Adorno. Lukács saw modernism as an infantile, subjective fit, suggesting that the old model of 19th-century realists was still viable, while Adorno’s contempt for mass culture and preference for the most difficult and inward-looking modernist authors was just what postmodern tastes exploded. Jameson’s hermeneutics, however eclectic, were his way to keep Marxism in the game of culture.


To observe the absence of explanation or sociological causality in this book is therefore to return to our question: what is realism today and what are our options? Now we see what is missing: explanation, or better perhaps, motivation. Motivation has vanished from some literary genres wholesale, although it survives in the detective mystery. The great ideological project of our present moment is to dissolve motivation and reason-giving into data, and neurological-genetic micro- localizations. An appalling irony can be noted in how this emptying-out of “the subject” continues, for quite different ends, the radical “anti-humanist” thought of Foucault, Althusser, and Derrida. But this was also the signal feat of much modernist writing, however it seemed to be enriching and delving into the self. The more entirely narration is situated within the flow of the inner self, ensconced in the richness of an interior perspective, the less explanatory and determining the strictures of the outer world. What Jameson calls the “swollen third person” of free indirect style, and its successor, the stream of consciousness, make questions of motivation impossible to consider. (The flipside, or dialectical opposite, of modernism’s trick of erasing motivation can be seen in the invariably pseudo-fascist flavor of the bad guy in contemporary Hollywood movies.)

Motivation is inherently a political concept, because it at once means causation (why did this happen?), demand (the pressing needs of the situation), and persuasion (rhetorically inciting to do something). “Motivation” names, for instance, the entire gamut of Marxism’s relation to the working class. It is something we should not lose, whether in the sense of an entirely de-motivated, lazy affectlessness, or in the sense of demographically automatic “studies show ...” explanations. But motivation was also the achievement and domain of realism. Why does Isabel Archer go back to Rome and her toxic marriage to Osmond at the end of The Portrait of a Lady? Why does Heathcliff, so virile and menacing, fade into a crepuscular shade in Wuthering Heights? Why does Raskolnikov murder the old pawnbroker in Crime and Punishment? Hell, why does Napoleon invade Russia in War and Peace? The same question (“why?”) can be asked of the best films in recent memory: Why does Erika Kohut flip out when confronted with her own perversities in The Piano Teacher? Why does the daughter in A Separation choose to remain with the parent she has chosen in the divorce proceedings? Why does the protagonist want to kill himself in A Taste of Cherry?

These are hard questions of motivation, almost putting us back into a Chekhovian mode of realism. I mention the films above to indicate that there is no “going back.” We cannot, for instance, unlearn psychoanalysis. But there is something unnerving about a contemporary novel like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle where “what happens next” seems to follow the logic of channel-surfing the narrator’s past, living back into experiences of passive shame and miscommunication. The title, you will gather, is an enormous joke. If there is to be, in Jameson’s phrase “realism after realism,” it will have to mean reclaiming motivation and decisions and the tracing of explanations, in whatever mode available, which will probably have to be invented.


Ben Parker received his PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. His research focuses on novel theory, especially the work of Georg Lukács.

LARB Contributor

Ben Parker received his PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. His research focuses on novel theory, especially the work of Georg Lukács.


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