Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Easier to imagine the end of the world…

…than the end of capitalism.

This remark is often attributed to Fredric Jameson. The attribution is not entirely without reason as it is in Jameson’s oeuvre that the suggestion first* appears. In "Future City" in the New Left Review in 2003, the mot does not appear as an observation of Jameson’s own, however, but as the disavowed reported insight of "someone" whose identity has slipped Jameson's mind:

But cyberpunk is not really apocalyptic, and I think the better coordinate is Ballard, the Ballard of the multiple ‘end-of-the-worlds’, minus the Byronic melancholy and the rich orchestral pessimism and Weltschmerz.

For it is the end of the world that is in question here; and that could be exhilarating if apocalypse were the only way of imagining that world’s disappearance (whether we have to do here with the bang or the whimper is not the interesting question). It is the old world that deserves the bile and the satire, this new one is merely its own self-effacement, and its slippage into what Dick called kipple or gubble, what LeGuin once described as the buildings ‘melting. They were getting soggy and shaky, like jello left out in the sun. The corners had already run down the sides, leaving great creamy smears.’ Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.


Irony and false modesty aside,  is Jameson evading credit for a reason (other than a dig at Zizek)? Did someone in fact once say this? Not exactly. What Jameson imperfectly recalls here – a faint memory perhaps stirred up by the topic of J. G. Ballard and apocalypse – is almost certainly the Marxist militant and literary critic H. Bruce Franklin’s 1979 essay “What Are We To Make Of Ballard’s Apocalypse?” In it Franklin never suggests that "it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism" but observes that because of his condition within imperialism, white supremacism and capitalism – his position as white petty bourgeois intellectual in the core of a challenged and crumbling empire – J. G. Ballard is predisposed to "mistaking the end of capitalism for the end of the world". The type of thinking and ideological indoctrination which would characterize someone for whom it is "easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism" is fairly simply described:

Underlying the elaborate verbal structure of the late fiction are some fairly simple, in fact simple-minded, ideas about social reality. Indeed, the formal pyrotechnics disguise as much as they reveal of the ideational content. Clad in an elegant costume is the tired old idea that human nature is basically brutish and stupid, that people are inherently perverse, cruel, and self destructive, and that's why the modern world is going to hell. High-Rise, his latest novel, is virtually a parody of this notion. Such a vision, I believe, is merely a projection of Ballard's own class point of view, a myopia as misleading as the national and racial point of view in the earlier novels and intimately related to that narrow outlook.


The essay, much discussed at the time of its publication, concludes with a potent question that one must assume engraved it into Jameson's memory, though not so deep that a couple of decades couldn't obscure it:

Ballard's imagined world is reduced to the dimensions of that island created by intertwined expressways on which individuals in their cellular commodities hurtle to their destruction or that apartment complex in which the wealthy and professional classes degenerate into anarchic tribal warfare among themselves. And hence Ballard accurately, indeed magnificently, projects the doomed social structure in which he exists. What could Ballard create if he were able to envision the end of capitalism as not the end, but the beginning, of a human world?



One immediately notices how the revision accomplished by Jameson performs the same depoliticisation and idealisation of critical product that more deliberate misreadings and misrepresentations in the 80s and onward undertook in a more systematic way as a central part of the successful effort to eradicate Marxist practise and replace Marxism as a method of interpretation with the new post-structuralist flavours of liberalism/neo-liberalism. The transformation of H. Bruce Franklin’s Marxist analysis of the ideology of Ballard and his genre into Jameson’s vague quip in Hegelese regarding the disposition of some amorphous and unspecified Geist of the Zeit perfectly exemplifies the relentless, Orwellian cultural strategy which characterized the Reagan era’s political reaction in culture.



It’s not very surprising that this maximally vague observation that no one ever made, with its infantile solipsism resembling that of Ballard’s protagonists (while watching Independence Day , I of the imperial core petty bourgeoisie feel it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, therefore it is easier for everyone) and its occlusions (of class, of property relations, of the non-homogeneity of the material situation of all humanity) which match that of his novels, should become so popular an adage, at the same time that it becomes common for self-described radical critics of mass and pop culture to cease to regard the objects of their study as concrete products produced in definite historical conditions and encrusted with meanings accessible to interpretation and attribute to them instead the status of miraculous messengers of encrypted eternal, universal truths.


*The origin of the quip seems to be as Zizek's misquotation, in the early 90s, of Jameson's '89 text.

Jameson wrote:

Even after the ‘end of history’ there has seemed to persist some historical curiosity of a generally systemic – rather than merely anecdotal – kind: not merely to know what will happen next, but as a more general anxiety about the larger fate or destiny of our system or mode of production. On this, individual experience (of a postmodern kind) tells us that it must be eternal, while our intelligence suggests this feeling to be most improbable indeed, without coming up with plausible scenarios as to its disintegration or replacement. It seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; and perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.

I have come to think the word 'postmodern' ought to be reserved for thoughts of this kind.


The portrait of cultural and ideological 'postmodernity' is elaborated further on:

What we now begin to feel, therefore – and what begins to emerge as some deeper and more fundamental constitution of postmodernity itself, at least in its temporal dimension – is henceforth, where everything now submits to the perpetual change of fashion and media image, that nothing can change any longer. This is the sense of the revival of that ‘end of history’ Alexandre Kojève thought he could find in Hegel and Marx, and which he took to mean some ultimate achievement of democratic equality (and the value equivalence of individual economic and juridical subjects) in both American capitalism and Soviet communism, only later identifying a significant variant of it in what he called Japanese 'snobisme', but that we can today identify as postmodernity itself (the free play of masks and roles without content or substance). In another sense, of course, this is simply the old ‘end of ideology’ with a vengeance, and cynically plays on the waning of collective hope in a particularly conservative market climate. But the end of history is also the final form of the temporal paradoxes we have tried to dramatize here; namely that a rhetoric of absolute change (or ‘permanent revolution’ in some trendy and meretricious new sense) is, for the postmodern, no more satisfactory (but not less so) than the language of absolute identity and unchanging standardization cooked up by the great corporations, whose concept of innovation is best illustrated by the neologism and the logo and their equivalents in the real of built space, ‘lifestyle’ corporate culture and psychic programming.

The Antinonmies of Postmodernity (1989) republished in The Seeds of Time (1994)


Zizek (perhaps while drunk) took this to be nothing but "the old 'end of ideology'" rehashed (and endorsed the sentiment):

...as Fredric Jameson perspicaciously remarked, nobody seriously considers possible alternatives to capitalism any longer, whereas popular imagination is persecuted by the visions of the forthcoming ‘breakdown of nature’, of the stoppage of all life on earth – it seems easier to imagine the ‘end of the world’ than a far more modest change in the mode of production, as if liberal capitalism is the ‘real’ that will somehow survive even under conditions of a global ecological catastrophe.

The Spectre of Ideology (1995)

26 comments:

  1. Is this not the tip of a huge and ugly iceberg? How many other “wild rebel” authors and filmmakers over the past 30 years or so (i.e. my own formative years) have presented “outrageous” “courageous” “subversive” visions of decadent run down worlds whose final effect was to inspire a mood of total passivity in the reader?

    Best of all – from the ruling order’s point of view – is that, since these visions are presented as the “left” option, the alternative is to go back to the good old, reactionary “homestead” values.

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  2. great post, i was talking to someone about the attribution to this just the other day, since zizek has recently been claiming it as his own. but when we found the meme couched in "someone once said..." we were suddenly in the realm of folklore.

    question about this:

    "Jameson’s vague quip in Hegelese regarding the disposition of some amorphous and unspecified Geist of the Zeit perfectly exemplifies the relentless, Orwellian cultural strategy which characterised the Reagan era’s political reaction in culture."

    so long as he stays away from the '3rd world literature as national allegory' stuff i never feel while reading him that, like ballard, he isn't aware of communicating only to his own class, from his own class position of people who consume this stuff regularly. but you make it sound like he's somehow duped ("perfectly exemplifies"), devious ("relentless, Orwellian cultural strategy"), and accurate ("characterised the Reagan era's political reaction in culture," the overt subject of the essay) all at the same time.

    not to pick on you, but i've been thinking about these kinds of left reactions to people like jameson and baudrillard over sins of omission. it seems to me the criticism only holds if the writer is striving for a generality that isn't earned. i don't think that's the case with jameson in this essay (a frankfurt style interpretation of an elite auteur, albeit with typical jamesonian affectlessness), and (unlike say baudrillard or zizek, who want to be rock stars) not the case with most of his writing.

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  3. George, yes the tip of an ugly iceberg. And today there is a consensus of commodity dissidents now that not long ago there was a great white supremacist civilisation, peaceable and prosperous (though of course there are always exceptional imperfections), capitalist and democractic, and now it is decadent and this decadence is due to the uppitiness of the racial inferiors and their absurd demands and ridiculous attempts to mimic the truly advanced human beings.

    But I read something great recently; I can hardly believe it was good, I expected something fasho from the cover and the raves, but these teen novels by Suzanne Collins, Hunger Games and Catching Fire...here if it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism it is only because the ruling elite is so depraved and so powerful it will blow up the world before it accepts any diminution of its despotism and monopoly.

    and this is what the endless stream of prefab "imaginings" of the end of the world is meant to remind people I've no doubt, though the elite does not take responsibility directly but instead presents its own prepared response to revolt, even to the wish for revolt, as nature/act of God.

    But I think we can say that when people quote this "imagining the end of the world" they really mean "remembering a disaster movie I saw' but no longer can distinguish between passively remembering a movie and "imagining" something real. (and I mean real not 'real')

    Traxus: I didn't mean to criticise Jameson - it is a quip in Hegelese he is not advancing himself, but one he thinks somebody made once and he doesn't seem to have ever been on board with it as an assertion. (When I believed it must have been his remark somehow or other, I had always assumed he had advanced it as a description of the condition in an audience that it was the aim of cocaculture disaster films to create, to make it easier....etc) The memory of the actual source inspiration I honestly suspect is so distorted because over twenty years it was easy to forget that anyone ever wrote academically about this stuff in a genuinely marxist, and not idealist adornian hegelian, way.

    I don't mean to diss Jameson, as you know I never do, I think he's really important, a great literary critic, and impressively humble enough to take criticism about eurocentrism and stuff (from Spivak say) and learn and improve.

    Baudrillard on the other hand was a right wing crazy actually, a loathesome racist and amazingly ignorant of just about everything. Like Marshall McLuhan he was nonetheless observant about certain things considered in isolation. He watched a lot of television and was intuitive about his experience. A kind of idiot savant but not so savant really.

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  4. "devious ("relentless, Orwellian cultural strategy)"

    Sorry I meant to say there was a relentless orwellian cultural strategy - some of the practitioners of which were arguably devious - whose results Jameson's error of memory mimics exactly. Not because he meant to - but it's not an accident either. It's because of the success of this relentless strategy that such an error is so natural (for anyone).

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  5. Oh and I don't meant to say the remark is "accurate"...

    by the reagan era's strategy in culture I meant the assertion of the universalisality of the experience of the ruling class and then the presentation, as George notes, of this class' fears and fantasies as the most radical left dissident positions. an example is the nietzschean individualism that replaces its antithesis -socialism - but often takes the name, or presents itself as a 'radicalisation' of what it opposes and seeks to destroy. That is the reagan era's strategy in culture and ideology - like the adoption of the identity of libertarian individualism against big government and now it's refined to all the feminist bombings of afghanistan and the antifascist wars of extermination etc..

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  6. Deleuze's support for neoliberal financialisation and financial globalisation was presented as a " radicalisation of anticapitalism" - wiyth the universalisation of the capitalist corporation's experience and welfare (freeing capital to own and exploit everything is an increase in liberty in general).

    This is the position from which the quip is intelligible and perceived as "leftist" somehow (the way "It's not TV, It's HBO" actually counts as a Marxist analysis of culture commodities and media now).

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  7. kenoma1:40 PM

    Great post.
    From The Cultural Turn (1998, and extracted from 'The Antinomies of Postmodernity', 1989):
    “It seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; and perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imagination.”

    Not as appropriable as a slogan obviously - and Jameson obviously miscalculated in 2003 by thinking that the 'weakness in our imagination' bit would go without saying.
    His meaning is pretty clear I think: the best contemporary bourgeois ideology can up with is a rehashing of a mythology which is literally as old as Genesis: but what distinguishes bourgeois ideology from mythology is its ability and eagerness to treat these old yarns as the latest must-have things.

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  8. But even there he is paraphrasing someone else's (some generic postmodernist) position-

    Even after the ‘end of history’ there has seemed to persist some historical curiositt of a generally systemic – rather than merely anecdotal – kind: not merely to know what will happen next, but as a more general anxiety about the larger fate or destiny of our system or mode of production. On this, individual experience (of a postmodern kind) tells us that it mist be eternal, while our intelligence suggests this feeling to be most improbably indeed, without coming up with plausible scenarios as to its disintegration or replacement. It seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; and perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.

    I have come to think the word 'postmodern' ought to be reserved for thoughts of this kind.

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  9. "the best contemporary bourgeois ideology can up with is a rehashing of a mythology which is literally as old as Genesis: but what distinguishes bourgeois ideology from mythology is its ability and eagerness to treat these old yarns as the latest must-have things."

    yes. and it is really a bit startling how short the memories are now. of course, mass culture has been targeting teenagers for a long time and lots of things seem new to teens, since they are not educated yet. but now this teen hatchling wonder extends to people of 35.

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  10. curiosity
    must
    improbable

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  11. oh is 'someone once said' there a joke (because zizek was already claiming to have said this and then everyone was saying no it was Jameson? when Jameson never had said quite that?

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  12. Here 1996

    "Marxist critic Fredric Jameson writes that these days, it seems easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism."

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  13. "I don't mean to diss Jameson, as you know I never do, I think he's really important, a great literary critic, and impressively humble enough to take criticism about eurocentrism and stuff (from Spivak say) and learn and improve."

    ah. i didn't know you were you.

    and i had really thought that future city piece was the first appearance of the slogan. i'm not sure when zizek first started using it -- here's him attributing it to jameson in 1994:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=rAZ0A4QUMtEC&pg=PA173&lpg=PA173&dq="easier+to+imagine"+zizek&source=bl&ots=ATHGMC4zQh&sig=8FGlpUDX4nCEXKEap9tEXRSfNEs&hl=en&ei=DmP7SrXOHYXZnAfjqqmeBQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CBAQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q="easier to imagine" zizek&f=false

    but it seems we're back to folklore again.

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  14. it might be a joke on how everyone keeps using 'his' (misremembered) catchphrase.

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  15. ok, got it -- it's from "Antinomies of Postmodernism" which appears in Seeds of Time (94) and Cultural Turn (98).

    "it seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; and perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imagination."

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  16. sorry kenoma, didn't read the comments.

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  17. Anonymous3:20 AM

    yeah I think I knew that but forgot, now I seem to remember a prior discussion. But that essay is even closer to the Franklin in time and represents a kind of inappropriate abstraction that is in that hegelian direction, although in context it is not clear to whom "it seems that" and how wrong that perception can be assumed to be...

    But there is this one degree of mystification from Franklin's examination of the texts of apocalypticism and disaster and their ascendancy and how they express the conditions of their creation and specific reactions to them, to Jameson's inauguration of the slippage to the Geist or Jungian race/hive collective that these texts now serve as straightforwardly the thoughts of. Jameson never gets all the way there actually - he stops short of declaring mass culture products to be the spontaneous dreams of the Spirit of the West or whatever. But he takes a step away from Marxism back toward mysticism and Hegel. A small step, regretted, but this is why his work can be included (poorly understood) in all these conversations that sound like what you'd expect to overhear at video night at the masonic lodge. And how it happens that he has supplied jokes for the zizzz show.

    But I hope everyone will read the Franklin, it really lets you measure the stupidification that has taken place between the late 70s an the zizz era.

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  18. Anonymous3:32 AM

    so it seems though that the zizz is actually responsible for the transformation that performs the orwellian operations of the reagan era cultural practise. From remarks on the ideology of culture products and producers (both from Franklin and Jameson) to mystical revelations about the universal psyche.

    should have known!

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  19. Anonymous4:01 AM

    Also worth noting that "easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism" seems to suggest (it's ambiguous) that "the end of the world" appears to everyone to be the more likely and plausible near future. The quip is hyperbole in the vein of "hell freezing over" before people can have socialism. But Jameson's actual remark is simply that postmodern culture product suggests that its producers find it easier to picture in detail the process of environmental collapse than of transformation of property relations:

    "On this, individual experience (of a postmodern kind) tells us that it must be eternal, while our intelligence suggests this feeling to be most improbably indeed, without coming up with plausible scenarios as to its disintegration or replacement. It seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; and perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations."

    we can't produce the scenarios, he suggests. (another way of saying "we" don't have a revolutionary plan). That's not even convincing - that we have all these images of "end of world" from movies is true, but we don't have any plausible scenarios of these "end of world" futures that don't see capitalism end first. (what pop and mass culture have made it "easy to imagine" is that the end of capitalism causes the end of the world.)

    But it's a throwaway line. But when you think about it, it is part of that Reagan era cultural project; he's insisting on something that would be convenient for the US ruling class were it true but isn't actually true. He's trying to convince his readers that it is true without making a case; it's a pretty clear instance of using the attractions of literary and culture criticism to advance implausible weak cases regarding politics and economics. He's announcing the Fukuyamist end of history, but positioning himself as having a more sophisticated version with caveats. Evidence that is unavailable is substituted for with speculation and descriptions of fictions and art. And he's suggesting that it's not really his judgement, but the judgement of "postmodernism" - the whole discouse is justified by a goal of describing cultural postmodernism, so that the political case it pretends to make in the course of that descruiption is weak or wrong cannot be viewed as a flaw worthy of rebuttal - whose judgement is however irresistible somehow, like a epochal Geist.

    So I'm going to change my mind now and leave own the possibility that it really is part of this reactionary hegelianisation.

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  20. Antinomies of Postmodernity is really a great essay though.

    But most of all reading it now reminds one of how eager and hasty retained intellectuals were to surrender completely to the neoliberal counterrevolution. and it's easy to see clearly how the production and naming of a new epoch was in the service of closing a progressive and revolutionary one with a suggestion of historical necessity. (Something Habermas noticed a few years before Jameson wrote this.)

    The erruption of intellectual creativity on display in the declarations of unconditional surrender is truly astonishing.

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  21. Now this may be off topic but, a few posts back, someone mentioned the word “libertarian”. I’d love someone to explain what the fuck this word actually means. Chomsky seems pleased to use it to refer to himself. David Edwards of Medialens wrote a book – The Compassionate Revolution – where he tells us that Buddhism has vast “libertarian” potential. He then goes into great detail about Buddhism but tells us bugger all about libertarianism. But I’ve also read that Ayn Rand (!) was a libertarian. Curious – since Edwards’ compassionate revolution and Rand’s “philosophy” are, in fact, pure logical opposites. If “libertarian” can describe both then the term negates itself.

    So – is the L word a bullshit term that just muddies the waters to deflect everyone away from any genuine critical perspective? Or does it provide another instance of the old Nietzsche / Ballard manoeuvre i.e. that, within the realm of permitted discourse, it presents itself as the radical option but is really just a more glamorous version of business as usual?

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  22. libertarian - one who insists that individual liberty is a primary value and natural right (as deriving from human nature and human needs) so that the collectivity or the state has a very high threshhold of necessity to prove the acceptability of any restrictions. (restrictions on individual liberty are by no means ruled out, but the burden of justification is on those seeking to impose them, not those seeking to be free of them).

    the difference between right and left libertarianism is private property. left libertarians recognise that private property is power of people over other people, right libertarians basically see private property as power (acquired in competition by the fittest for the most part) over things not people.

    left libertarians (also called libertarian socialists and anarchists) do not accept private property in the means of social reproduction. so the idea is of an egalitarian society where competition is unnecessary but cooperation is voluntary, individuals are maximally free of coercion, and power is as widely distributed as possible.

    right libertarians posit private property in everything, accept and applaud immense disparities of wealth which they attribute to meritocratic results of competition, and therefore basically are advoicating the despotism of the rich with a special emphasis on the liberty of use of vast power over other people by individual members of the rich elite. their interest in individual liberty is to combat the fact that the rich are a minority and therefore seem threatened by the productive majorityt on democracries acting through the state. So they declare the state, insofar as it is the instrument or could be the instrument of a popular will, illegitimate, a despotism exerted by the majoirity against the individual and his property. they tend to be sympathetic - though not to advertise this - to the state actually when it is the instrumlenbt of the minority in a plutocracy, but as we see there was some 'grassroots' middle class objection to the bank bailout among right wing libertarians in the US (Ron Paul voices that point of view).

    So nietzsche is the most popular of all the right libertarian intellectuals and theorists, though ayn rand might be more typical of those who call themselves libertarians today.

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  23. I don't see the term as useless or confusing actually, although in the US especially it is used by people with very different political commitments and perspectives.

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  24. Thanks Qlipoth. I actually emailed David Edwards about this but he hasn't responded. I'm just wondering - would "libertarian" be more of an American word? i.e. more likely to be used by Americans? Certainly Ayn Rand doesn't seem so well known outside the states though, ominously, her books seem to be selling more here in Britain. Actually - I had a go at Atlas Shrugged but finally caved in after 100 pages when my brain imploded. It was like Ronald Reagan's wet dream.

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  25. Christo5:28 PM

    Re Ballard, I always thought that, yes, he does see the end of Capitalism as "the end of the world" but also that his characters find great transcendant joy in the end of the world, in the iconoclastic process.

    Anyway, I've got to read this Franklin article.

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  26. I've seen the remark attributed to Jameson and to Źiźek and am glad you made an effort to identify its origin. Thank you for this.

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