The Rising Fortunes of the Contemporary and the Challenge of Periodization
I begin this paper by noting two symptoms of the contemporary: a surge in interest, in my field of literary and cultural studies at least, of the question of the contemporary; and a proliferation of projects aimed at naming it. These developments suggest an emerging structure of feeling that something fundamental has changed, rendering obsolete the reigning dominant and effective name for the contemporary, postmodernism. Inescapably, such projects take the form of periodizations, and the most significant contemporary theorist of periodization, Fredric Jameson, also happens to be the figure most prominently associated with postmodernism, especially through his influential formulation of postmodernism as the cultural logic of contemporary, or late, capitalism.
In the first part of his 2002 book, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present, Jameson outlines what he describes as the four “maxims of modernity.” I argue that these need to be understood as also serving as the absolute presuppositions or axioms of any periodization. My three most recent books—Life Between Two Deaths, Periodizing Jameson, and Shockwaves of Possibility—all offer experiments in periodization on a variety of scales and taking up very different objects. Moreover, all explicitly begin with Jameson’s presuppositions. However, in so doing, I have tended to give less attention to Jameson’s third maxim: “The one way not to narrate it is via subjectivity (thesis: subjectivity is unrepresentable). Only situations of modernity can be narrated” (94). Transcoding this thesis into an axiom of periodization, I now want to suggest that Jameson means by it to stress that the “contemporary” likewise cannot be narrated, as the contemporary is unrepresentable. However, Jameson further notes that this “pessimistic third maxim does not leave us in the midst of some Wittgensteinian silence in which nothing can any longer be said. On the contrary, it merely excises a certain number (a rather considerable number!) of ‘cultural critiques’ which prove to be ideological through and through and whose intents, when more closely examined, are almost always very doubtful indeed. But this does not mean that we cannot tell the narrative of modernity at all” (56). Similarly, I want to argue that this third axiom of periodization rather than rendering narratives of the contemporary impossible is meant both to increase awareness of the limitations of many treatments of the contemporary and point toward an alternative strategy of narration, the most significant features of which I will elaborate in my paper’s final section.
Phillip Wegner joined the UF faculty in 1994. He received his BA from California State University, Northridge (1986), where he was named the recipient of the Wolfson Scholar Award for 1986; and his PhD from the Literature Program at Duke University (1993), where he was a Mellon Fellow in the Humanities. He was the Coordinator of the Graduate Program from 2009–2012 and the Associate Graduate Coordinator from 2005-2009. He was appointed a University Research Foundation (UFRF) Professor in 2010 and the Marston-Milbauer Eminent Scholar in English in 2012. He spent the 2012–2013 academic year doing research in Uppsala, Sweden.
Professor Wegner is the author of Imaginary Communities: Utopia, the Nation, and the Spatial Histories of Modernity (University of California Press, 2002); Life Between Two Deaths: U.S. Culture, 1989-2001 (Duke University Press, 2009); Periodizing Jameson: Dialectics, the University, and the Desire for Narrative (Northwestern University Press, forthcoming 2014); and Shockwaves of Possibility: Essays on Science Fiction, Globalization, and Utopia (Ralahine Utopian Studies at Peter Lang, forthcoming 2014). He is also the editor of the republication of Robert C. Elliott’s The Shape of Utopia; the collection, Darko Suvin: A Life in Letters; and a special issue of ImageText, “Animé and Utopia”; and the forthcoming, The Next Generation: Emerging Voices in Utopian Studies. He has published nearly 50 essays on topics including contemporary literature and film, twentieth-century culture, genre theory, utopian fiction, literary theory, cultural studies, Marxism, spatial theory, globalization, and science fiction, in journals such as Arizona Quarterly, CR: The New Centennial Review, Diacritics, ImageTexT, New Literary History, Genre, The Minnesota Review, and Rethinking Marxism, as well as in a variety of edited collections. Two of his essays were the recipients of the Battisti Award for Best Essay published in volumes of Utopian Studies. Some of his recently published essays include “The Ends of Culture; or, Late Modernism, Redux.” (Literary Materialisms [Palgrave Macmillan]) “Lacan avec Greimas: Formalization, Theory, and the ‘Other Side’ of the Study of Culture” (Minnesota Review); “Hegel or Spinoza (or Hegel); Spinoza and Marx” (Mediations); “Greimas avec Lacan; or, From the Symbolic to the Real in Dialectical Criticism” (Criticism); and “The Beat Cops of History; or, the Paranoid Style in American Intellectual Politics” (Arizona Quarterly). He is at work on number of new projects, including on the film genre of the comedy of remarriage, the Swedish crime novel, the global geographies of late modernist culture, and literary and film representations of John Brown, as well as a larger on-going work on what he describes as the “evental genres.”
Professor Wegner was the co-organizer of the Society for the Study of Narrative Literature International Conference held in Gainesville in 1997, the organizer of the Florida American Cultures Symposium in 2008, and the program chair for The Society for Utopian Studies conference in 2001 and 2007. He is the faculty advisor for the graduate student Marxist Reading Group. He is the President of the U.S. Society for Utopian Studies, a two-time regional delegate for the Modern Language Association, and a member of the advisory boards for the Ralahine Utopian Studies book series, the Blackwell Encyclopedia of the Novel, Criticism, Electronic Book Review, ImageTexT, The Minnesota Review, Modern Fiction Studies, and Utopian Studies.
He received the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Teacher of the Year Award in 1996 and 2000. His recent graduate seminars include “Appearance in the Court of History: Representing Revolution,” “Bridging the Pernicious Chasm: Utopia, Dystopia, and Science Fiction,” “Toward an Ethics of the Real: Reading Lacan with Badiou,” “The Persistence of the Dialectic,” and “Modernism and Revolution: Literature and Culture in the 1920s.” He has taught a wide-range of undergraduate classes in such areas as twentieth century British literatures, the fiction of Joseph Conrad, Scottish literature, Irish literature, the literature of empire, post-9/11 literature and film, the contemporary. American historical novel, late-nineteenth-century American literatures, science fiction, cultural studies, literary theory, genre theory, and the fantastic in modern world literature.