Fredric Jameson Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fredric Jameson 1934-

American critic and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Jameson's career through 1999.

Jameson is widely recognized as being among the most influential Marxist literary theorists in America. As such, he is credited with having introduced much European thinking to American academia. A proponent of dialectical criticism, Jameson continually impresses his peers with the breadth and variety of his fields of reference. Jameson analyzes literature, seemingly not for its own sake, but to uncover its social and political underpinnings. As an interpreter of both modern and postmodern culture, he applies a rethinking of Marxism to his work. Jameson's unique brand of Marxist literary theory, however, is firmly grounded in a belief in the importance of history.

Biographical Information

Jameson was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 14, 1934. He attended Haverford College, where he earned his B.A. in 1954, and then Yale, where he received his M.A. in 1956 and Ph.D. in 1960. In 1959 Jameson began working as an instructor at Harvard, where he was later promoted to assistant professor. From 1967-76 he taught at the University of California at San Diego, first as an associate professor and, later, as professor of French and comparative literature. Jameson then returned to Yale, where he served as a professor in the university's French department. In 1983 he accepted a position as professor of literature and history of consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz. In 1986 he again left California, this time to be appointed William A. Lane, Jr. Professor of Comparative Literature and Director of the Graduate Program in Literature and Theory at Duke University. Jameson currently holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at Duke and continues to direct the literature graduate program, in addition to the university's Center for Cultural Theory. Jameson's honors have included a Rotary fellowship for study at the University of Aix-Marseille, a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, a Fullbright fellowship to study in Munich and Berlin, a Humanities Institute grant, two Guggenheim fellowships, the William Riley Parker prize from the Modern Language Association (for his 1971 PMLA article “Metacommentary”), and recognition of his work by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Jameson is co-founder of the Marxist Literary Group and he has served as co-editor of Social Text, contributing editor to the Minnesota Review, and editorial board member of the South Atlantic Quarterly.

Major Works

Jameson has distinguished himself as a dialectical thinker, and at the heart of Jameson's thinking lies his loyalty to Marxism. (“Dialectic,” broadly speaking, refers to the examination of conflicting arguments or forces and the resulting transformation or resolution of those contradictions. Dialectic forms an essential part of the works of the philosophers Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx.) Jameson's Marxism, however, is not the kind that the majority of the public is accustomed to, namely Soviet Marxism, but rather Western Marxism, or Hegelian Marxism, in which the role of history is emphasized. Dialectic is reflected in Jameson's writing style, which can be, depending on his goals, either direct or intricate. In his first book, Sartre (1961), which began as his doctoral dissertation, Jameson examines the effect of writing style and attempts to locate Jean-Paul Sartre within the context of literary history. While Marxist analysis is relatively absent from his first book, it would form a great portion of his next work, Marxism and Form (1972). This book, notably, says little about form, and instead considers literature as a reflection of social and political thought. Jameson argues that literature should be seen not in a narrow literary sense, but rather as symbolic of social and political institutions; form, in turn, should be viewed as having historical and dialectical relevance. Through a Marxist analysis of Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason, Jameson again makes the French philosopher the foundation for his book. Marxism and Form goes on to discuss (and in some cases introduce to North American readers) such dialectical theoreticians as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, and Georg Lukács; with these other writers, Jameson shares an enthusiasm for restoring the religious, or utopian, side to Marxism. In the final part of the book Jameson argues that dialectical criticism must constantly reflect on itself, embodied in his concept of “metacommentary.” In his next work, The Prison-House of Language (1972), Jameson examines the methodologies of Russian formalism and French structuralism, including the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Louis Althusser, and Jacques Derrida, in an effort to synthesize such theory for an Anglo-American audience. The Political Unconscious (1981) takes modernism as its subject and modernism's attendant greatnesses: “great realisms,” “great theorists,” and “great souls,” as Jameson puts it. Here, the author provides a dialectical criticism involving both broad theory and minute observation to examine the apparent contradiction between the greatness exhibited by modernism and the leveling force of modernist technology. Jameson here looks upon religion as a positive force, one capable of pointing to a Utopian future.

More recently, Jameson has tackled modernism's offspring, postmodernism. In Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), he argues that capitalism has entered a multinational stage (multinationalism having succeeded industrialism and imperialism, the first and second stages, respectively, of capitalism). Multinational capitalism, Jameson maintains, has homogenized the world to an extent far greater than its predecessors. The cultural space of multinationalism, in turn, is postmodernism. Among the characteristics of postmodern culture, Jameson asserts, is an aesthetic preference for pastiche and a tendency toward the superficial rather than the profound. In this work, Jameson (in a manner that is very much postmodern) offers examples for his argument from a diverse selection of cultural sources: architecture, visual art, fiction, and film. In opposition to critics who find postmodernism to be a merely passive acceptance of current social structures, Jameson uses examples from these various art forms to demonstrate that postmodernism, through its signaling of the end of the individualistic bourgeois ego, actually furthers the Marxist struggle for freedom. In addition to several studies focusing on individual writers—Wyndham Lewis in Fables of Aggression (1979), Adorno in Late Marxism (1990), and Bertolt Brecht in Brecht and Method (1998)—Jameson has published collections of essays, including The Ideologies of Theory (1988), Signatures of the Visible (1990), and The Seeds of Time (1994). He has also served as editor and contributor for several volumes of criticism, including Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature (1990), The Cultures of Globalization (1998), and The Cultural Turn (1998).

Critical Reception

Jameson's position as the preeminent Marxist literary theorist in North America was signaled by the enthusiastic reaction of critics to his first major work, Marxism and Form. Praised for its commanding presentation of the twentieth-century Marxist tradition, as well as its insightful attention to Lukács, the Frankfurt School of Marxists, and Sartre, the book is considered one of the more distinguished and important works of literary theory from the 1970s. The book's concluding essay, “Towards a Dialectical Criticism,” in which the author promotes dialectical thinking and metacommentary, has been noted for its deftness and subtlety. Jameson, however, was faulted for not keeping himself at an appropriate distance from his subject matter. (Such criticism would be leveled against future work by the author.) Jameson's major work, The Political Unconscious solidified his top rank within the realm of Marxist literary criticism. Lauded for displaying an outstanding combination of substantial argument with a sense of urgency, the book was received as an ambitious reconsideration of Marxism in view of such competing contemporary theories as psychoanalysis and poststructuralism. The book demonstrates traits that have become characteristic of Jameson, namely the sophistication of his intelligence and the extensive range of his examples. Clearly conscious of the need to establish a vital connection between his preferred theory of Marxism and postmodernism, Jameson wrote Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. While the work has been called one of the more elucidating books on the subject, Postmodernism was also found to exhibit some serious flaws. Jameson was criticized for his unquestioning faith in the relevance of Marxism, in particular the extent to which he attributes significance to economics at the expense of the roles of such social factors as race and gender. Perhaps the most relevant criticism delivered against the book was its failure to precisely explain how “late capitalism,” or multinationalism, could generate a cultural space such as postmodernism. The book's apparent failure to mesh Marxism with postmodernism, however, did not appreciably weaken the author's reputation as one of the leading Marxist literary theorists of his generation.