Fredric Jameson

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Denis Donoghue (review date 16 November 1973)

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SOURCE: “Phonetic Shadows,” in New Statesman, November 16, 1973, pp. 739-40.

[In the following review of The Prison-House of Language, Donoghue commends Jameson's contribution to Marxist criticism, though expresses some reservations about his view of historical truth and determinism.]

I wish I could claim to have discovered Frederic Jameson, but his name meant nothing to me until a couple of years ago when I read one of his essays, on Walter Benjamin, in the little magazine Salmagundi. Since then I have been keeping my ear fairly close to his ground, convinced that messages of exceptional value would be audible. Belatedly, I have read his first book, Sartre: The Origins of a Style (Yale 1961) where he presents his credentials as a literary critic and incidentally reveals the latitude of his interests. The essay on Benjamin makes a chapter of Mr Jameson’s second book, Marxism and Form (1972), where it is accompanied by essays equally distinctive. I have taken elaborate notes from this book and intend to regard it as an object available for grand larceny on my part. The third and most recent book is The Prison-House of Language, a critical account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism.

It is my understanding that we find the centre of Mr Jameson’s gravity in an early chapter of the study of Sartre. Mr Jameson has been describing the moment at which, according to the rhetoric of Sartre’s works, the possibility of authenticity arises, and he says that it is at this point also that most of those works stop,

with the emergence of freedom at the end of The Flies, of the social solidarity of Lucifer and the Lord, with the promise of a theory of values at the end of Being and Not-Being … For here, the problem of individual life can no longer be isolated from the society in which it is to be lived, and is suddenly subordinate to history and the problem of social change.

Mr Jameson’s concern as a literary critic is given in this sentence with nearly all the terminology he needs: the problem he describes is the ground of his entire work, unless I am grossly mistaken. As a programme for literary criticism, it is magnificent, though I find the word ‘subordinate’ in that sentence blunt if not repellent and I wish Mr Jameson had shown some misgiving in using it at all. I think it will be a bad day for all of us, Marxists included, when individual life is declared subordinate to history or to any other category. I am not sure that Mr Jameson has given the human imagination its due as an available form of freedom.

But I should not accuse a man upon a single word. In his recent books Mr Jameson has proposed a dialectical criticism with the following object:

to reconcile the inner and the outer, the intrinsic and the extrinsic, the existential and the historical, to allow us to feel our way within a single determinate form or moment of history at the same time that we stand outside it, in judgment on it as well, transcending that sterile and static opposition between formalism and a sociological or historical use of literature between which we have so often been asked to choose.

In another version he speaks of opening again ‘the approaches to time and to history itself’ and of reconstructing ‘a truth in process upon the ruins of a never-ending ideological formation’. At the end of The Prison-House of Language he invokes a genuine hermeneutics which, by disclosing the presence of codes and models and...

(This entire section contains 1900 words.)

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by observing the participation of the linguistic analyst, would ‘reopen text and analytic process alike to all the winds of history’. I am content with that as a programme, though in its practice I think Mr Jameson would lean too far in one direction and I in another. Still, the last word of his book is ‘reconciled’, and I take this as a friendly gesture.

Marxism and Form consists of a sequence of essays on Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse, Bloch, Lukács, and Sartre: these meditations are then offered as prologomena to a definition of dialectical criticism, work for a Marxist future. In the several essays Mr Jameson’s method is what Dryden and other critics called ‘metaphrase’, a fairly strict translation of the original text. Mr Jameson allows his authors to speak at length in their own voices before he says anything on his own behalf. He metaphrases Adorno on music, for instance, letting the warmth of the original suffuse his account of it; then, with justice done, he suggests some further variations which a dialectical critic might play upon Adorno’s theme. It is very beautiful. In the essay on Bloch, Mr Jameson meditates upon the themes and relationships proposed by the original texts: hope, astonishment, futurity, religion, form as Utopia, Freud, Heidegger, Goethe. Then he gives a few pages on Proust to show what might still be done under Bloch’s auspices: these pages are ravishing in their perception. Writing of Marcuse, Mr Jameson establishes a network of relations with Schiller, Marx, Hegel, Freud, memory, negation, and again Utopia. I thought at one moment he was going to speak of pastoral, and I wish he had done so, but it is characteristic of him to leave some thinking to be done by the reader. Silently, the reader is invited to do what Mr Jameson has done, to think for himself by thinking about others.

I am sure a dialectical critic hopes to find dialectical readers, so I will say that Mr Jameson’s essay on Lukács left me edified but not convinced. The method is the same as in the other essays, in this case the network of relations includes Lukács with description, narration, history, the novel, Balzac. Mr Jameson knows that there is much to be said against Lukács’s criticism, and he undertakes to say a little in that way; he is judicious on the whole. But he says in favour of Lukács everything that can be said with reason and a few additional things that can only be said, it seems to me, by putting reason in abeyance. He metaphrases a passage from History and Class Consciousness, for instance, about the privileged nature of the worker’s consciousness: it still seems to me nonsense offered in the dungarees of sense.

A more general point: Mr Jameson is alert to the tendency of Marxist critics (Sartre on Valéry, as a case at hand) to translate the specific work into an abstract idea by recourse to concepts of class which are just as Platonic and timeless, he says, as anything in German Geistesgeschichte. But he himself writes on occasion as if the only truth were history, as if the truth of history could at any moment be known, and as if history, like metaphysics, could be prescribed if not predicted. In practice, though I assume not in principle, history is invoked in Mr Jameson’s pages as if it were, like substance in the old days, beyond question. Perhaps I do him wrong; or more probably, perhaps I am inordinately haunted by those structuralists, like Foucault, to whom history is, as Mr Jameson himself says, ‘merely one form of mind among many other equally privileged forms’. I hope Mr Jameson is proved right and M. Foucault wrong. I have an interest in maintaining history as that which stands over against mind, resisting it almost successfully. But I wish to God I could establish its indissolubility.

I shall not quarrel with Mr Jameson; his heart and his brain are in the right places. If it is a question of voting, he votes Marxist, but if it came to a choice on some painful occasion between Marxism and intelligence, he would go for intelligence. He is a Marxist in the following allegiances. He assumes the primacy of the act, and thinks of language (in Trotsky’s phrase) as the act’s phonetic shadow. Society is understood at any given historical moment as ‘that preexistent and indeed preformed raw material which ultimately determines the abstractness or the concreteness of the works of art created within it’. History rather than Nature now constitutes ‘the privileged object of human knowledge’. It is the part of wisdom to exert itself in a dialectical relation between form and content, essence and phenomena, being and consciousness. The appropriate idiom features process and change, pointing toward a congenial future tense, ‘the irrepressible revolutionary wish’.

That programme is enough to be going on with. In The Prison-House of Language it prompts Mr Jameson to examine ‘the relationships possible between the synchronic methods of Saussurean linguistics and the realities of time and history itself’. In the best of all possible worlds it would be feasible to reconcile the apparently incommensurable demands of synchronic analysis and historical awareness, ‘of structure and self-consciousness, language and history’. Mr Jameson’s strategy is to describe the Anglo-American empirical tradition in linguistics as it culminated in the Ogden and Richards Meaning of Meaning, and then to set against it the diverse procedures of Russian Formalism and of French Structuralism. The Russians are chiefly Shklovsky, Propp, and Tynyanov; the French Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Althusser, Greimas, Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Todorov, and the Tel Quel group of critics.

In Mr Jameson’s account, the distance between Moscow and Paris is shorter than my sense of it, mainly because the Russians, and especially Eichenbaum in his commentary on Lermontov, sound more French than the French in their repudiation of diachromy. Mr Jameson is pretty hard on the French, and rightly so, for they are pretty easy on themselves. He does not metaphrase them with the generosity offered to Marxists who write in German, and he insists on moving into the discussion with an appropriate word of warning. He says, for instance, that to appeal to the linguistic model

is to have recourse to the Zeitgeist, if not to changes in fashion; and it seems more honest to admit that the notion that everything is language is as indefensible as it is unanswerable.

Worse still: Mr Jameson warns that if we are to acknowledge ‘our possession by language, which “writes” us even as we imagine ourselves to be writing it’, then we must also admit that we are possessed by bad language as well as good, by the bestseller and the advertising slogan, not just by Joyce and Husserl. We are not released by Language from an alleged bourgeois subjectivism.

Indeed, Mr Jameson’s book has made me suspect that Structuralism may turn out to be merely the latest form of neopositivism, its recourse to Language being just as insidious, because just as reductive, as the old-fashioned positivism based upon a putative primacy of objects. Piaget’s argument for the validity of the perceiving subject, renewed in his Structuralism (1968), seems to me a timely admonition. Of course it is possible that structuralists propose their tropes as heuristic rather than as imperative or even indicative acts; I hope so, a touch of modesty would be a nice import from France. Meanwhile Mr Jameson has stated a case which I hope will be given serious consideration not only in Paris but wherever there are readers to whom such questions matter. Some of the evidence is contained in his two earlier books: the three together make a remarkable achievement.

Jonathan Culler (review date July 1974)

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SOURCE: A review of Marxism and Form, in Modern Language Review, Vol. 69, No. 3, July, 1974, pp. 599-601.

[In the following review, Culler offers a positive assessment of Marxism and Form.]

Marxism and Form is the most important work of critical theory to appear in English since Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, and if it is less ambitious than Frye’s Anatomy, less animated by a desire to systematize and less informed by a particular programme for criticism, it is perhaps the reflection of a more penetrating intelligence which is willing to pursue difficult problems as far as it can and anxious to undertake the larger tasks of exploring possible connexions between literary form and the process of history itself. The difference between the two works lies in the fact that Frye’s static pattern of archetypes is fragmented and set in motion by constant awareness of both historical change and the power of thought to transcend itself. As Jameson observes, typologies such as Frye’s ‘are always the sign of historical thinking arrested halfway, a thought which, on the road to concrete history, takes fright and attempts to convert its insights into eternal essences, into attributes between which the human spirit oscillates’.

Marxism and Form is not so much a programme for criticism (though it does contain numerous indications of what criticism should be) as an essay on dialectical thinking in general and a demonstration of the ways in which this type of thinking, as exemplified by a series of theorists whose work he examines, enables us to perceive relationships and to overcome obstacles by taking the existence of the obstacles as the object of thought. Because it does not offer a synthesis or a programme, it is a difficult book to summarize, but one might start by saying that its several chapters include masterly essays on Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Friedrich Schiller, Ernst Bloch, George Lukács, and Jean-Paul Sartre, each of which sets out one moment of dialectical thinking and prepares the ground for a long concluding essay, ‘Towards Dialectical Criticism’.

Dialectical thinking, as Jameson is fond of saying, is thought to the second power, thought which turns back upon itself in a movement of self-transcendence and, reversing itself, finds that what at one level was thought a limitation or deficiency becomes at a higher level a strength or advantage. Dialectical thought thus produces a spiral movement in which one returns to an object of thought and finds that one’s first judgements are both taken up and denied by a second judgement. One might start, for example, by saying that Proust shows little talent for ordinary narrative of events: his preference for long scenes and expository analysis leads to a static organization. But if one then considers the terms in which this judgement is made, one can see that this deficiency in the Proustian imagination is both a failing and a positive advantage. For if a dislike of narration leads to a failure in the portrayal of time, it also leads Proust to connect scenes by topics (places, etc.) rather than by temporal movement and thus makes possible ‘a more complex rendering of the passage of time than had previously been possible in conventional linear narration’. The first judgement is not rejected; it is taken up, transcended, and effectively reversed by a judgement which considers it and its premises.

This kind of dialectic is a familiar component of thought, as when we say that what is generally called hatred involves, at another level, both hatred and love. And one can treat this dialectical movement as a kind of rhetorical figure or trope, through which the language of analysis organizes itself and its objects. It becomes especially interesting and valuable in cases where it serves as the fundamental analytical device and permits an unfolding of the full complexities of an object or situation. For Jameson the classic case is Ernst Bloch, whose work constitutes a hermeneutic of reconversion and whose dialectic draws out the positive concealed in every negative, the future prefigured in every judgement. Even despair intends a future, and anxiety becomes, at another level, a positive anticipation that includes an awareness of its own frustration. Read by these lights, literature comes to signify especially by what it does not or cannot say, and it is here that the work of Walter Benjamin is particularly important. Although at one level we could set out to interpret symbols and to reconstruct a positive meaning which they intend, we can also spiral back over the work, asking what is the significance of its symbolism as a phenomenon, and find, as the negative implied by the work’s positive meanings, that the symbol implies a loss of natural meanings and a despair which underlies the attempt to create meanings.

Such readings become possible, Jameson would argue, only in a perspective which recognizes the primacy of history, the dialectical relation of one moment or situation to the next. Marxism, in fact, emerges as a particular style of thought rather than an explicit theory of society. It can be treated as a series of tropes designed to hold together in a single form incommensurable realities. The fact of interrelationship—between the artistic and the social, the philosophical and the economic, the individual and the collective—becomes prior to any causal analysis. This sophisticated (some might may ‘metaphorical’) Marxism is represented in its clearest form by Adorno, the master of ‘a kind of stylistic or rhetorical trope through which the new historical or dialectical consciousness comes to its truth’. When Adorno writes that the Viennese origin of mathematical techniques in music and of logical positivism was no accident, that the popularity of chess in Viennese coffee houses, the technical and financial sophistication of high capitalism and the lack of centres of material production, are phenomena whose coexistence is no accident, he is not offering a causal analysis, and for that reason his observations seem questionable. But we must ask ourselves why we seek a causal analysis here, what leads us to believe that the construction of uni-directional causal series is the proper type of explanation, and why the perception of interrelationships among phenomena which can act upon one another in a cycle of reinforcement should not take priority?

For a Marxism of this kind the relationship between literature and society is not one of reflected content (the content of a work reflects the state of society) but of formal homology. Whatever its subject, the literary work will bear in its form the traces of the most significant features of contemporary reality. The prevalence of narrative in fiction reflects a world in which action is possible and causality need not be thought problematic. Symbolism, on the other hand, indicates a feeling of separation from effective action, a sense of alienation from objects which are no longer perceived as the result of human praxis. Allegory bespeaks a need to impose by fiat, through external systems or ideologies, meanings which have been sundered from things. Or again, to take a specific example, we can say that the formal qualities of the Balzacian novel—the caricature, the pedagogic clauses, the Manichean grimace, the perpetual interpretation of descriptive detail—is the result of an attempt to order a world which could not yet be understood as that of nascent capitalism and whose chaos could only be subdued through an immense effort of will and the help of a range of interpretive systems, from phrenology to Swedenborgianism.

The role of theoretical models is, as Jameson says of Schiller and Marcuse, to provide ‘a set of transformational equations such that the intrinsic, purely literary statements made about the work of art … might be translated into the wholly distinct codes of the psychological or the political without impairment to the coherent and self-contained structure of any of these systems’. In so far as such models rely on historical distinctions, they tend to postulate a state of plenitude (political and psychological harmony, perfect fusion of form and content in literature) against which other moments are measured. For Adorno, Beethoven’s music represents the standard for historical judgement. Schiller charted the development of literature and society in terms of the loss of naïve imagination. Marcuse sees the modern society of abundance as having lost a sense of the negative itself. Benjamin’s nostalgia and Bloch’s utopia are not so much states as formal devices which enable one to structure present, past, and future. Sartre uses a formal concept of praxis which can never in fact end alienation but which allows it to be measured. Lukács appealed in his early work to the myth of a Hellenic golden age but later became a more orthodox Marxist so as to find in the narration of nineteenth-century realism the moment when concrete and abstract are reconciled and the world is treated as the result of human action.

But Jameson’s impressive analyses of these thinkers leave a major question unanswered. No doubt every act of judgement does imply a diachronic perspective: to describe the individuality of Flaubert is to show how he is no longer Balzac and not yet Zola. No doubt it is preferable to ground our distinctions on history itself than on an abstract typology of possibilities. But the various myths of history which Jameson’s theorists use indicate only too clearly that history is not something given, that on the local as well as the global scale dialectical thought produces its own time. Can we really say, for example, that Proust first preferred static scenes and then discovered a way of making his inability to portray time the source of a new portrayal of time? Should we not admit that this temporal distinction is in fact a rhetorical heuristic device? Should we not admit that the same may be true, on a larger scale, of a supposed temporal distinction between the world of Balzac and the world of Flaubert?

Jameson is aware of these problems but does not suggest how they are to be resolved. Presumably the dialectical answer is to use myths of history while remaining aware, at another level, that they are myths. Thus the production of diachronic distinctions, the process of historical thinking, should itself be included in the ‘dialectical Rhetoric’ which Jameson imagines: a rhetoric ‘in which the various mental operations are understood not absolutely, but as moments and figures, tropes, syntactical paradigms, of our relationship to the real itself, as, altering irrevocably in time, it nonetheless obeys a logic that like the logic of language can never be fully distinguished from its object’. Dialectical thinking is not a critical method as such but a set of mental operations which includes an awareness of their own nature. Jameson offers no particular programme for criticism, but his book, so replete with insights, vivid examples, and questions, does more than most works of critical theory to indicate the scope and importance of the problems which criticism must face.

Brian J. Murray (review date Summer 1980)

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SOURCE: A review of Fables of Aggression, in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer, 1980, pp. 307-10.

[In the following review, Murray offers a negative assessment of Fables of Aggression.]

In his Prologue to Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist, Fredric Jameson suggests that one of the most “extreme” of Wyndham Lewis’ “experimental texts,” The Apes of God, is “virtually unreadable for any sustained period of time” (p. 5). Alas, so too is Fables of Aggression.

Jameson’s often digressive study is not itself “experimental,” although it is the result of what Jameson calls a “methodological eclecticism”—a bit of narrative analysis here, a lot of psychoanalysis there, with some “modern approaches to ideology” and a dash of Marxist sermonizing thrown in for good measure. The de rigueur jargon of contemporary criticism also flourishes here and is often encased in a prose style not unlike that of a sociology textbook. Hence: “Where hegemonic modernism finds its ultimate ground in the body itself and everything inexpressible in the physiological infrastructure of the monad, this countertrend [“the dialogical tradition”] strikes out in the direction of the collective, which however it strategically recontains, freezing it over and reifying it in the mirage of what is today widely termed ‘intersubjectivity’” (p. 40).

Admittedly, the reader who has learned by heart the argot of modern linguistics and is not uneasy with current literary theorizing is likely to find Fables of Aggression dazzling—a kind of tour de force of academic name-dropping. Adorno, Althusser, Barthes, Bakhtin, Deleuze, Guattari, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Propp, Sarraute: all these and more are solemnly acknowledged in the text and in numerous footnotes.

Along the way, Jameson does volunteer that Lewis was “among the most richly inventive of British writers” whose works “merit unapologetic rediscovery and can sustain enthusiastic reading as well as the closest critical scrutiny” (p. 6). But elsewhere, Jameson, who sees “new and as yet undeveloped forms of protofascism” mustering on the horizon, insists that poor Lewis suffered from a “deep misogyny” and a “violent anti-Communism” which combine to make him less than “attractive” to “the unfamiliar reader” (p. 5).

The curious may puzzle out for themselves Jameson’s distinction between fascism and “protofascism,” the term by which he attempts—in part—to define the Lewis canon of fiction. But let “the unfamiliar reader” be aware of the fact that, in the final analysis, Lewis was no hater of women. Indeed, one can find Lewis speaking out against the social wrongs done to women in a number of places. In Rude Assignment (1950), for example, he states bluntly: “The economic injustice imposed on women by barbarous laws must, in a period obsessed by problems of social injustice, be ended.” In Hitler (1931) Lewis writes: “Being a ‘feminist,’ I believe that women should have freedom so long as it is not destructive of non-feminine freedom.” Too, for decades, Lewis denied being a fascist over and over again. In Blasting & Bombadiering (1937) he proclaims: “I am not one who believes that communism or fascism are [sic] in themselves solutions to anything.” In fact, in Rude Assignment, an exasperated Lewis savages those who had continued to set him up as literary modernism’s answer to Benito Mussolini. “The cheapjack political journalist, or ‘salonard’ with his little stock of coarsely-coloured ideas (that come in the mail to him from the ‘Avantgardiste’ mail order house) must not be allowed to get away with the charge that I preach a power-doctrine,” he wrote. “I am—after my fashion—all the time upon the side of the ruled.

One must also take some exception to Jameson’s bald assertion, in his Prologue, that “the first books on Lewis are still the best introductions.” Since those excellent books on the Enemy by Porteus and Kenner, a number of critics—including John Holloway, Timothy Materer, Robert T. Chapman, and E.W.F. Tomlin—have done much in books and in essays to begin the “rehabilitation” of Lewis’s reputation by sorting out his often contradictory philosophical preoccupations and by examining his novels as novels and not as political tracts.

James Naremore (review date Fall 1980)

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SOURCE: A review of Fables of Aggression, in Criticism, Vol. XXII, No. 4, Fall, 1980, pp. 390-4.

[In the following review, Naremore offers a positive assessment of Fables of Aggression, which he concludes “is the best piece of criticism we have” on Wyndham Lewis.]

“I do not think I had ever seen a nastier-looking man,” Ernest Hemingway once said of Wyndham Lewis. “Under the black hat, when I had first seen them, the eyes had been those of an unsuccessful rapist.” Lewis’s self portrait, leering from the cover of Frederic Jameson’s new book [Fables of Aggression], confirms that impression—as do the violence, misogyny, and fascist rhetoric in much of his writing. He was a mean customer, and partly for that reason he is the least read of the so-called classic moderns. Critical studies like Jameson’s (or Hugh Kenner’s earlier work, Wyndham Lewis) are quite rare. Lewis is one of those leopards who has not yet become part of the ritual in the academic temple, and when he is pulled out of his relative obscurity he can be made to seem as sensational and radical as modernism itself once was.

Jameson makes a point like this in the introduction to his book, which of the two volumes under review [the other being Vortex: Pound, Eliot, and Lewis, by Timothy Materer] is easily the more complex, demanding the closer description. It is a small book with a remarkable theoretical ambition, trying not only to reclaim Lewis as an object of attention, but to resolve a couple of the oldest problems in Marxist criticism. First is the longstanding debate over modern art, represented on one side by the followers of Georg Lukács, who see modernism as a decadent, escapist retreat from social realism, on the other by the followers of the Russian Formalists and the Tel Quel group, who see it as a complex, often contradictory type of revolutionary praxis. Second is the debate over Freudian interpretation, which seems to be a “materialist” method, but which has a tendency to subordinate the political to the personal. Freud gives a useful model for the understanding of history and myth, but he is easily diverted to ahistorical or purely individualistic concerns, and for that reason Marxists have always had an ambivalent attitude towards him.

Wyndham Lewis is a good subject upon which to focus these problems. He is an obsessive, pathological type whose work invites Freudian analysis, but as Jameson points out he is also an overtly political writer, rather like a Bernard Shaw grown up in a “Dostoyevskian social world.” A determined opponent of bourgeois democracy, he might have become a fascistic mirror-image of Shaw, except that he shares the modernist need to reinvent language and narrative form. Within modernism, however, he takes up a contentious position, placing himself in opposition not merely to nineteenth-century ideas of progress and realistic representation, but to the twenties fascination with la durée and private, impressionistic styles. According to Jameson (and Kenner before him), Lewis has an “expressionistic” style similar to the early Brecht, and can therefore be exempted from the charges of escapism and abstraction Lukács once levelled against the modern novel. As for Lewis’s racism and sexism, these are part of what Jameson describes as the “grinding contradictions” in his work; they have at least the virtue of being presented openly, “as unbound impulses released from the rationalizing censorship of a respectable consciousness intent on keeping up appearances.” In plain talk, the man was no wishy-washy liberal.

Jameson’s book seems to me to accomplish a good deal of its purpose, which is a workable synthesis of ideological interpretation, narrative analysis, and psychoanalysis. He borrows freely and eclectically from the whole range of French post-structuralist theory, and despite his tortured language he often makes brilliant points about Lewis. Ironically, however, he is most persuasive when he approaches Lewis’s ideology quite directly and traditionally, showing the contradictions and buried wounds of social class behind writings like Hitler and Time and Western Man. As stylistics and psychoanalysis the book has a good deal to offer, but it is somewhat weakened by a tendency to overstate Lewis’s difference from the other moderns, and by a slight evasion of the tensions between Marxist and Freudian theory.

Jameson is concerned to show that Lewis’s novels are “decentered” and destructive of what recent French writers call the “humanistic paradigm.” Lewis’s prose breaks down the “illusion of an autonomous, centered ‘self’ or personal identity,” and according to Jameson it should be contrasted with writers like Joyce and Woolf, whose internal monologues are part of a “subjectivising and impressionistic” tendency within modernism. Of course Lewis was also a vigorous proponent of the strong individual, and in a passage Jameson does not quote he once claimed that “the Absolute would be the individual of individuals, the self that has never broken down … reality is to be sought in the self or the person.” Jameson argues that such notions are in vivid contradiction with Lewis’s fiction, and he reads that fiction as if it were a prefiguration of Lacan’s revolution. In Lewis’s work, Jameson says, notions of the “self” or of “character” are shown to be merely an “effect of structure.” Meanwhile Jameson assigns the other moderns to the place Lukács put them years ago: the realm of bourgeois individualism, where the cult of private personality is followed to its logical extreme.

Repeatedly Jameson holds up Joyce and Woolf as Lewis’s opposites—artists preoccupied with depth psychology, the mot juste, and realistic characterization. In fact, however, the internal monologue, like art for art’s sake, was always more advertised than practiced, and by the late twenties it had begun to disintegrate in the very pages of its best authors. Virginia Woolf attacked the early chapters of Ulysses precisely because they were centered in a “damned egotistical self,” and The Waves is surely one of the most sustained demonstrations in literature of the illusory nature of individual identity. As for Joyce, he began to dispense with interior monologue and realist characterization midway through Ulysses. (Jameson seems to me quite wrong when he claims that the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses “serves to reconfirm the unity of the psyche.”) Finnegans Wake, which is not centered in any consciousness, and which replaces traditional characters with Beckett-like “pseudo-couples” such as Shem and Shaun, has recently emerged as the ultimate post-structural text. See, for example, Stephen Heath’s articles in Tel Quel, or Colin McCabe’s, new book, James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word—both of which champion Joyce for having virtually the same qualities Jameson has assigned to Lewis.

On the level of psychoanalysis, Jameson proposes a method that will circumvent the vexed relation between Freud and Marx. Lewis’s perverse ideas, he says, should not be analyzed as if they were “familial or archaic,” nor as if they were located in the “inaccessible” regions of the “private, biographical individual”; instead they should be placed in the “objective configurations of the political history of pre-1914 Europe.” He never tells us why the history of the private individual should be any more “inaccessible” than the presumably “objective” history of the continent, but he does offer vivid illustrations of how Lewis’s art, like psychoanalysis itself, was affected by political and economic changes.

One of the most impressive instances of Jameson’s skill at merging psychoanalysis and ideological interpretation is his penultimate chapter, “How to Die Twice,” which demonstrates a contradiction between Lewis’s belief in the “gifted individual” and the satire he constructed to defend that belief. Beginning in 1928, in the series of books entitled The Human Age, Lewis devised a genre described by Jameson as “theological science fiction,” in which he violently satirized the puppet-slaves of modern society and ruthlessly killed them off, preserving their “souls” in an imaginary afterlife, where their squashed and maimed bodies were displayed in special containers. Because these were such obvious puppets, Lewis was to some degree absolved of any guilt he might have suffered for imagining their deaths; the genre itself gave reassuring proof that they had somehow survived, and since they were not “personalities,” they could not be subject to real death anyway. In the later volumes, however, Lewis began to imagine a sort of Auschwitz-Hell, where the resurrected victims and the angelic citizens of the afterworld could die once again, and this time for good. This “second death” was a necessary feature of Lewis’s imaginary system, because a more “real” death had to be constructed in order to preserve the notion of individualism. On a deeper level, however, Jameson suggests that Lewis’s vision of Hell was an enactment of Freud’s “death wish.” Drawing on Lacan’s interpretation of Sade, he describes the fantasy of second death as “an index of the way desire, exasperated by the unsatisfactory immediacy of its nominal fulfillment in the here-and-now, seeks perpetually to transcend itself, and to project the mirage and the ‘beyond’ of a fuller imaginary satisfaction.” Nor is this fantasy peculiar to Sade and Lewis; Jameson claims it is felt in the attempt of modernism as a whole to construct what Barthes has called a “miraculous stasis,” a still-point of genuine Experience, which will relieve the tensions of the libido in some ultimate way.

At this point Jameson pauses to observe that the psychoanalytic framework he has been using is “ahistorical.” “However that may be,” he adds, “it is clear that such dynamics are peculiarly intensified by that process of reification which differentiates our social life from that of every other social formation … and which is uniquely specific to capitalism.” I have italicized one of his phrases because it opens his argument to some important qualification. If Freud’s Thanatos is present in all social situations, then “reification” could be determined as much by it as by capitalism. Furthermore the cult of Experience and imaginary stasis, which Jameson and Barthes claim are historically specific to modernism, are well-known themes of the Romantic movement; indeed one of the major problems of Fables of Aggression is that it makes the obsessions of Wyndham Lewis sound a great deal like the obsessions which recur in English literature from Wordsworth to Virginia Woolf.

In raising these objections I do not mean to discount Jameson’s argument as a whole. His book is the best piece of criticism we have on Lewis, and will certainly revive interest in his work. More than that, it is a valuable, sustained demonstration of post-structuralist method, addressed to real political issues.

Betty Abel (review date June 1981)

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SOURCE: “A Marxist Literary Map,” in Contemporary Review, Vol. 238, No. 1385, June, 1981, pp. 331-2.

[In the following review, Abel provides a summary of Jameson's analysis in The Political Unconscious.]

In The Political Unconscious, subtitled ‘Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act’, Frederick Jameson provides a comprehensive introduction to the method and practice of Marxist literary criticism. Where all intellectual activity is viewed as historically situated and class-based, literary analysis is essentially a social science, drawing much of its terminology from the other social sciences, sometimes directly but more often by analogy. Thus, the classical Freudian model of the unconscious mind is the exemplar for Dr. Jameson’s proposal of a ‘political unconscious’: no neo-Freudian clinical suggestion is implied in which a moment of ‘cure’ might be possible, a moment when the dynamics of the unconscious would be brought to the surface and integrated in an ‘active lucidity’ about ourselves, our desires and behaviour. As psychoanalysts distinguish between their theoretical map of the mind and their therapeutic procedures, so the Marxian critic differentiates literary analysis from literary prescription. A writer and his readers share insights into aspects of their present, historically-determined experience, and can do no other if the continuity of human communication is to be sustained.

To propose narrow and schematic concepts of literary realism is no part of the enterprise: indeed, the abandonment of ‘genre’ criticism is foreseen as the natural result of reading novels and other texts in the light of wider, cross-disciplinary cultural debate. Some recently popular critical methods such as structuralism and its successors ‘have known the re-emergence of meditation on hitherto marginalised types of discourse: legal language, the fragment, the anecdote, autobiography, Utopian discourse, the fantastic, novelistic description …, the preface, the scientific treatise, which are increasingly conceived as so many distinct generic modes.’

But the systematic undermining, from sheer exuberance, by modern writers of traditional literary forms does not lessen the central significance of narrative, and particularly of the fully developed novel. For it is through his readings of Conrad’s, Balzac’s and George Gissing’s novels that Dr. Jameson most clearly brings out his theme of literature as a socially symbolic act. In interpreting their plots, devices and ideologies he looks at the nature of interpretation in general, assessing the importance and limitations of American, German and French aesthetic traditions. His textual analysis is close, detailed and at the same time broadly based. Its foundation is that history is a single, collective narrative linking past and present: that our comprehension of literature is determined by the concepts and categories we inherit from our cultural traditions: and that Marxist criticism alone reveals the unity of that continuous narrative. It reveals it, of course, in Marxist terms, presupposing the upward progress of collective society. But suppose that, having outgrown the ethics, ideologies and Utopias of former generations, we also outgrow this? Perhaps the dialectical process easily accommodates such a possibility.

David Punter (review date Fall 1981)

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SOURCE: A review of The Political Unconscious, in Criticism, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, Fall, 1981, pp. 362-64.

[In the following review, Punter offers a favorable assessment of The Political Unconscious, but takes issue with several aspects of the work.]

In The Political Unconscious, Fredric Jameson has produced another vital contribution to cultural study, packed with solid argument yet glittering with energy and urgency. There is a long theoretical chapter, followed by studies of Balzac, Gissing and Conrad; but the real structure of the book is more complex and more closely interlocking than this, and hinges on a polemic defence of the concept of interpretation. With post-structuralists playing quasi-Edenic games on all sides, these could be seen as hard times for Jamesonian “metacommentary,” which is here refined in various ways. It is seen as a method for focusing textual study in such a way as to provide a continuous pretext for engagement with other literary-critical methods; as a device for ensuring movement between various “horizons” of attention, from the local and stylistic to the world-historical; and, I believe most interestingly, as a way of adapting certain structuralist perceptions, through a process of “radical historicisation and problematisation,” and pressing them into service as a politically subordinate technique, but one peculiarly appropriate for laying bare the mechanisms of the static and frozen world of ideology. The instrument of which Jameson is fondest is Greimas’ semiotic rectangle, which he puts to brilliant use in his analysis of Lord Jim and Nostromo.

The polemic takes place athwart the axis of Althusserianism, for Jameson is attempting to show that although, with Althusser, we have to agree about history as actual absence, history nonetheless returns to us, exclusively in the form of narrativization, collective fictions about the past which are susceptible of interpretation and can be made to yield contents within the political unconscious. One of the features of these fictions is that they are always tidier than the Real; following Poulantzas, Jameson uses this as a starting-point for a sophistication of the debate about the historical succession of modes of production, arguing for “overlay and structural coexistence” (p. 95) of different modes as the repressed historical truth; and, in parallel, he argues against the current dismissal of the diachronic, using the suggestive model of the X-ray to demonstrate how the changing forms of history may be apprehended through observation of the sediment, the fossils and remains thrown up by subterranean burrowings through time.

And there is very much more: Jameson’s by now customary, but still instructive, emphasis on the theological as ideological model and as source of thinking about technique; his subtle insistence on the need for a continuous rereading of Hegel; a flexible diagnosis of authorial strategies of containment; and a ready provision for a plurality of working methods, provided this is always accompanied by commentary on historical limitation. But he would be the first to agree that cultural criticism cannot proceed by admiration and circumspect paraphrase, and it seems worthwhile to mention, albeit very briefly, four problems. The “construction of the bourgeois subject in emergent capitalism and its schizophrenic disintegration in our own time” (p. 12), for instance, is a faulty, if current, slogan: within the eighteenth century, a correctly historical interpretation can detect the shapes of disintegration from Defoe to the Gothic, citing some variant of schizophrenia as part of the original repressed subtext beneath the pressure to synthetic rewriting. And although the Althusserian emphasis on totality of structure as a replacement for homological simplicities is welcome, Jameson cannot entirely avoid “expressive causality” in, for instance, his adaptations of Hjelmslev and, more particularly, his comments on Conrad’s use of the visual as an alternative to Jamesian “point of view” (pp. 99, 231). His process of historicizing cultural categories is, perhaps of necessity, incomplete: in his analysis of “magical” narrative, he stops short at the formalist concept of the “donor” as an essential position within story (p. 126), without noting the economic content of the hypocrisy and lying which often accompanies the “gifts” of fairy story and legend. Finally, and most significantly, a principal argument of the book is that narrative is not reflection but symbolic act, a transformation of prior materials; this is a valuable emphasis, but Jameson tends to slide into asserting that the particular act at stake is always one of attempted resolution of contradiction. Again, this may often be the case, but there seems to be a danger here of reifying and fixing the “literary” into a specific location within a revised “total structure,” whereas the functions devolved onto the literary may be more various than that. Indeed, this appears to be the suspicion which prompts the closing comments on the relations between ideological and utopian functioning, but these are too brief to carry the weight of the rest of his arguments.

If radical historicization of concepts and categories is the process through which criticism has its life, then perhaps a few comments on the political unconscious of The Political Unconscious would be useful, and here again Greimas’ rectangle can serve a purpose. My suggestion, which cannot be here developed fully, is that the ideological closure cited within this book turns on the terms “exhibit,” “display,” “scandal” and “propriety” (used almost always adverbially as in “a properly Marxist analysis”). Jameson, I think, would want to see these oft-repeated categories as the scheme of an ideological antinomy; and the antinomy seems to me to be about the possibility of offending against critical and political acceptances in a world of liberal collusions (correctly connected by him with a contempt for the reality of political difference). This, however, lies on the first, stylistic horizon of interpretation; moving to the second, in which the shape of modes of production can be revealed, we can mention two opposing features of the text: first, its evident fascination with the theory of schizophrenic writing, as exemplified in the work of Deleuze and Guattari; second, the insistence within The Political Unconscious on Jameson’s own previous work (“I have suggested elsewhere that” is a key phrase). This, certainly, can be made to reveal a dislocation within the literary mode of production; there is a sense in which Jameson appears to wish the continuity of his own work to stand against the fragmented nature of imaginative and critical process in the late twentieth century. And perhaps we can press this contradiction a little further, and assign it to the realm of economic disjunction between the monopoly assimilation represented in the multinational corporation and discreteness and fragmentation of the world of objects implicit in manic consumerism—to use the historical terms in which he frequently frames his own argument. The mode of interpretation here advocated would require for its completion in this particular instance an engagement with the third, global horizon at which the overall destiny of man makes its reappearance; that, perhaps, should not be essayed in a review, but the thought of its possibility, and of its compatibility with a rigorously historical Marxism, is a stimulus challenging enough to make The Political Unconscious an essential work.

Michael Wilding (review date October 1982)

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SOURCE: A review of Fables of Aggression, in Modern Language Review, Vol. 77, No. 4, October, 1982, pp. 944-45.

[In the following review, Wilding offers a positive assessment of Fables of Aggression.]

Fredric Jameson’s study of Wyndham Lewis [Fables of Aggression] is a stimulating and rewarding approach not only to ‘surely the least read and most unfamiliar of all the great modernists of his generation that included the name of Pound and Eliot, Joyce, Lawrence and Yeats’ but also to that whole strand of modernists from Lewis through Lawrence and Henry Miller to William Burroughs, about whose work traditional formal criticism has had little to say. Though focused on Lewis, this approach, using the ‘coordinates’ of ‘ideology, psychoanalysis, narrative analysis’ provides a way into the work of those writers who offer ‘a deliberate provocation of the reader fully as much as they challenge a ritualistic cult of belles lettres or high style’. Professor Jameson is able to see the ‘“flaws”’ as ‘only confirm[ing] the immense and liberating energies of Lewis’s style’. Indeed, the very mention of ‘Lewis’s often hastily composed works’ and ‘sloppy writing’ stands out as residual from a mode of reading and judgement already superseded by Jameson’s approach: just as, discussing Self Condemned, he remarks how ‘even in the most advanced mode of production, there is a layered sedimentation and persistence of types of alienation specific to more archaic modes: thus the commodity reification of capitalism does not supersede, but is rather laid over and coexists with the power systems of precapitalist societies—as, for instance, in machismo and sexism’.

Professor Jameson sees the ‘sheer proliferation’ of Lewis’s sentence production, the multiplicity of ‘subcodes or idiolects’ as relating not in ‘their hierarchy but rather their sheer multiplicity, their jealously respected inconsistency with one another’; ‘The words, unable to go together properly, end up projecting the warring planes and angles of a cubist painting’. He distinguishes this from the aesthetic of modernism that has become enshrined by the academy. ‘The great sentences of Lewis have therefore little enough in common with that Flaubertian aesthetic of the “mot juste”, of which Joyce, with his “artfully” placed adverbs and his trace of Paterian unction, is the hegemonic modernist realization.’ ‘Collage-composition’ is Professor Jameson’s descriptive term for Lewis’s method; the literal collages of Lawrence in Kangaroo and of Burroughs’s cut-ups are clear analogies; and he extends the pattern from the detail of the sentence to the larger blocks of narrative in a central passage that needs quotation at length.

The dialectic of innovation in the art of capitalism is best initially grasped, not in terms of formal invention, as the apologists of modernism have generally described it, but in terms of the exhaustion of the content of older forms, which, given paradigmatic expression in the great realistic novels, is thereby at once institutionalized, reappropriated and alienated. … The modernist renewal must be effectuated within the confines of dead storytelling conventions which remain massively in place, in a world already overinfected with culture and dead forms and with a stifling weight of dead ideas. In this situation the novelist is less a creative than a performing artist. His primary text, his ‘book’ or script, is given him from the outset, in the form of the banal situations and stereotypes of a degraded everyday life, gossipy women, impecunious Bohemia, a dreary sentimental entanglement; while his ‘composition’ of these scenes proves in reality to be an interpretation of them in much the same way that an actor’s voice restores vitality to a faded text.

(pp. 64–65)

Professor Jameson is insightful, too, on various recurrent narrative structures in Lewis’s fiction. The pseudo-couple he sees as ‘a structural device for preserving narrative as such’: ‘The empty stasis of Baudelairean ennui can be retrieved for narrative time by the co-presence of the pseudo-couple of Waiting for Godot.’ He sees the device as ‘the reimposition of a framework that allows powerfully anti-narrative tendencies to be safely renarrativized’, though he stresses that the result is ‘binary opposition, not genuine dialectical contradiction’. Such static opposition is seen as a characteristic of Lewis’s work, and Professor Jameson explores it in terms of the national allegory of the war of the nation-states that ‘constitute the very backdrop and organizational framework of the works written before World War I’. ‘Lewis’s narrative is locked into this static binary opposition in much the same way that his national allegory is paralysed by the conception of nation-states (rather than the more genuine historical dynamic of class antagonism) as the equivalent subjects of a history which can thus only end in catastrophe.’

This is an important essay in its elucidation of models of approach that positively help in our appreciation of the texts examined. If at times the critical language seems to draw attention to itself in the mandarin way of so much semiotic and post-structuralist critical writing, none the less this particular study offers, as Professor Jameson writes of Lewis, ‘the exhilaration that unexpectedly takes the place of the more predictable pathos that such an experience of the breakdown of social language ought logically to inspire’.

Patrick Parrinder (review date January 1985)

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SOURCE: A review of The Political Unconscious, in Modern Language Review, Vol. 80, No. 1, January, 1985, pp. 106-08.

[In the following unfavorable review of The Political Unconscious, Parrinder calls Jameson's writing pedantic and his literary analysis unconvincing.]

If I were to name a single work of commanding distinction in the field of literary theory published in America in the 1970s it would be Fredric Jameson’s Marxism and Form (1971). Its author combined a majestic overview of the twentieth-century Marxist tradition, focusing on the Frankfurt school, Lukács, and Sartre, with a concluding hundred-page essay in theoretical polemic entitled ‘Towards Dialectical Criticism’. Professor Jameson’s Hegelian advocacy of dialectical thinking and ‘metacommentary’ was of a piece with the lofty elegance of his manner, and with an adroitness and subtlety of argument which once and for all refuted the prejudice that Marxist criticism must necessarily be crude and reductive.

Jameson’s own Marxism, perhaps appropriately in an American academic context, remains somewhat muffled. Evidently he regards it as a theology and himself as a scholastic theologian rather than a propagandist of the Church Militant. The only institutional commitment declared in his works is, I think, that to the ‘countercultural movement’ of the 1960s and its successors; but he has yet to offer any dialectical reflections on this commitment. One of his principal tasks as a theorist has been to familiarize Anglophone readers with the utopian hermeneutics associated with Ernst Bloch. Such a positive hermeneutics—the reading of ‘the very content and formal impulse of the texts themselves as figures … of the irrepressible revolutionary wish’—is, for Jameson, the proper accompaniment to the negative or deconstructive mode of interpretation. Deconstruction, in the Marxist tradition, consists, of course, of a polemical unmasking of the ideologies hidden in the text. Ideology and utopia (the words being used in an explicitly non-Mannheimian sense) are the two poles of what, in the present book, Jameson calls the ‘political unconscious’ of literary works.

The Political Unconscious comes offering to fill the empty space that Marxism and Form left for a ‘dialectical criticism’. In the intervening decade Professor Jameson has produced an influential critique of structuralism, The Prison-House of Language, as well as a short study of Wyndham Lewis. He has also won widespread recognition, both in Marxist and in conventional academic circles. He has moved from a chair at La Jolla to a chair at Yale and then back to the University of California, Santa Cruz. His book thus raises very high expectations, and it is indeed an inimitably Jamesonian work. Certain tendencies of Marxism and Form are taken very much further on this occasion.

In the preface to the earlier book he mounted a strategic defence of the difficulty of dialectical criticism:

In the language of Adorno—perhaps the finest dialectical intelligence, the finest stylist, of them all—density is itself a conduct of intransigence: the bristling mass of abstractions and cross-references is precisely intended to be read in situation, against the cheap facility of what surrounds it, as a warning to the reader of the price he has to pay for genuine thinking.

The density is greater, the price to be paid is higher, in The Political Unconscious even though (to my judgement) it does not contain as much ‘genuine thinking’ as Marxism and Form. As with the American near-namesake to whom he amusingly refers as a ‘minor nineteenth-century man of letters’, it may yet be necessary to distinguish between the early and the late Jameson. The poised formality of his earlier style now shows a tendency to sprout into thickets of baroque, transatlantic pedantry. The very sentences in which he condemns reification and repression are made up of squads of passively-mooded, heavily-subordinated clauses devoted not to the statement of things as they are but to the tortuous articulation of a point of view. That point of view (though the term is, as Jameson shows, a loaded one) incorporates an unusually strenuous determination to assert the critic’s mastery over the throng of texts and their interpretations. Divergences as violent as that between Althusser and E.P. Thompson, or for that matter between Nietzsche and William Morris, are all smoothed over in the light of Jamesonian reason. He offers Marxism itself as an ‘interpretive master code’, which subsumes all other interpretive modes or systems while losing nothing of their semantic richness. His own writing, in fact, is a classic instance of Hazlitt’s observation that the political imperatives of social relationships and of textual composition are utterly distinct.

In its structure, The Political Unconscious consists of a long introductory chapter outlining the ‘three phases’ of political interpretation, followed by a theoretical account of the romance genre, and three case-studies of works by Balzac, Gissing, and Conrad, which Jameson offers as representative of the transformations of the political unconscious under high capitalism. Of these, the chapter on Conrad represents Jameson at his most opaque and is an example of the sort of dazzlingly speculative and disconcertingly schematic performance expected of ‘avant-garde’ theorists. It is an interpretation, certainly, but scarcely the interpretation which subsumes all the others. The short chapter on Gissing, by contrast, suggests to me that the author has ‘got up’ this subject to prove his point. It contains some notable factual mistakes and evasions, and neither here nor in his account of romance does Jameson inspire total confidence as a literary historian. (To be fair, he says of literary history that The Political Unconscious should not ‘be taken as paradigmatic work in this discursive form or genre’. I should think not!) But observations like this are perhaps beside the point. The Political Unconscious can be read, and indeed requires to be read, quite differently.

While I am myself in favour of the political interpretation of texts, I do not see that its priority or mastery over all other forms of interpretation can be proved. Any attempt at proof would lead to an infinite regress. The beauty of dialectical criticism and deconstruction is that they can always be turned back on their expounders—hence there is no ‘master code’, only the decision to assert a particular interpretation which is, as Jameson remarks, ‘an essentially allegorical act’. We all turn the texts we discuss into allegories and our allegorization always has, to borrow de Man’s formulation, the blindness of its particular insights. Jameson offers a certain political reading of the texts in front of him, but not of his own position as their interpreter. The inclusion of the interpreter’s self-consciousness within the interpretation is not part of his practice of dialectical criticism. The strength of the hermeneutic method that he outlines—a method which looks for the ‘ideologemes’ which betray the text as individual parole within the langue of collective or class discourse—is revealed in some unexpected ways. I can only give some preliminary and perhaps superficial findings here.

The libidinal impulse behind classic realism, Jameson suggests, is ‘one which is not to be satisfied by … easy solutions … but which on the contrary seeks to endow itself with the utmost representable density and to posit the most elaborate and systematic difficulties and obstacles, in order the more surely to overcome them, just as a philosopher imagines in advance the objections his triumphant argumentation will be summoned up to confute’. It would be difficult to find a better description of the elaborately defensive and eclectic procedure of The Political Unconscious. Against whom is such a defence deployed? Althusser’s work, he says, ‘cannot be properly evaluated unless it is understood that it has—like so many philosophical systems before it—an esoteric and an exoteric sense, and addresses two distinct publics at once’. Althusser’s ‘esoteric’ public is, of course, that of French Communist Party intellectuals. Jameson’s text, also, shows many signs of being addressed to an esoteric public, one, moreover, which scarcely existed when Marxism and Form was written. This public consists of the readers of journals such as Diacritics and New Literary History—primarily, teachers and students of literary theory in American graduate schools. These readers have little taste for political polemic—asides on the worthlessness of American culture and society, such as were found in Marxism and Form, would be well and truly lost on them—but they do appreciate an extraordinarily wide-ranging and deferential mode of reference to other contemporary thinkers and systems of thought. Jameson appeals to his graduate-school constituency by saying, as it were, ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’—in order the more surely to exert mastery over them.

The choice, then, is between discipleship (and I do not think any reader could get to the end of The Political Unconscious without becoming to some extent Jameson’s disciple) and a hermeneutic reading, following Jameson’s earlier definition of hermeneutics as a discipline for the ‘revival of the living idea beneath the layers of dead language’. The hermeneutic reading, I would suggest, might begin by taking notice of T.E. Hulme’s crude but effective principle, and looking at Jameson’s conclusions. (It will be evident, from this, that I do not see Jameson as an outstandingly perceptive critic of authors such as Balzac, Gissing, and Conrad—more as a theoretician and theoretical mediator.) The conclusions to his later chapters give some idea of the ‘rewriting’ of the authors he discusses, and of the critical task itself, which would satisfy him. Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment, or the rancour of slaves whose impotence forces them to ‘preserve themselves from harm through the exercise of imaginary vengeance’, is offered as a key to both Gissing and Conrad. Ressentiment is ‘among all human passions, the most deeply driven by bad faith of the Sartrean type’—though in Gissing it has a certain authenticity. Those freed from ressentiment should be the actors in history, but Jameson’s discussion of Conrad’s active heroes (he greatly idealizes Decoud, to my mind) closes by evoking the spectre of historical irony: ‘History uses their individual passions and values as its unwitting instruments for the construction of a new institutional space in which they fail to recognize themselves or their actions and from which they can only, either slowly or violently, be effaced.’ Finally, there is his insistence that ideological and utopian readings of a text must be simultaneously present in any truly Marxist reading. Does not all this amount to an injunction to avoid inauthentic rancour, to see both sides of the question and, above all, not to let oneself be used, which is the very formula and rationalization of the presence of a Marxist intellectual in the American liberal academy? Not as a thorn in its flesh, but as a magisterial adept at playing its game? One could go much further, of course; but it is to be hoped that Professor Jameson himself will do that. For if a negative reading of his texts might concentrate on the ‘ideologeme’ of quietism, a positive, Utopian reading would express the hope that he himself will address the analysis of American society and the role of intellectuals within it. Such an analysis may be part of the unconscious of The Political Unconscious; but, as Wells said of James’s The American Scene, ‘How much will they get out of what you have got in?’.

Daniel T. O'Hara (review date Fall-Winter 1988-1989)

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SOURCE: A review of The Ideologies of Theory, in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 16, Nos. 2-3, Fall-Winter, 1988-1989, pp. 270-1.

[In the following review of The Ideologies of Theory, O'Hara acknowledges Jameson's important place in contemporary literary theory, though finds shortcomings in his assertions.]

Of the seventeen reprinted essays in this collection of occasional pieces of America’s leading neo-Marxist theorist [The Ideologies of Theory], only five—two essays in volume one and three in volume two—can be considered still important and undated. These are: “The Ideology of the Text,” “Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan” (the best single explanation of this difficult revisionary psychoanalytic theorist), “The Politics of Theory: Ideological Positions in the Postmodernism Debate,” “Beyond the Cave: Demystifying the Ideology of Modernism,” and “Periodizing the 60s.” Long, comprehensive, sometimes provocative and intellectually exciting, these essays would have made a significant single volume. Scattered amidst the disposable pieces over two volumes, they are almost lost.

Jameson’s importance, which these essays underscore, lies in his theory of the political unconscious, which is most fully elaborated in his 1981 book of the same name. By this, Jameson means the unthought totality of ideological significance that one can read from the aesthetic or formal distortions, gaps, or contradictions in extended prose narratives, and especially in novels. In these essays in particular we see him either in the process of developing this theory or of applying it to other areas of modern culture or even to entire periods in cultural history. The way Postmodern, in contrast to Modern, architecture arranges space, for example, speaks to him volumes about the repressed political dimension of twentieth-century high and popular cultures. Similarly, the theoretical positions of critics, such as the abstruse poetics of Stevens, also betray the political unconscious. This allegorization of what remains unsaid or unthought in a text or a cultural event often proves to be insightful and provocative, a necessary corrective to the generalizations of New Critical and other formalist approaches.

The problem with this particular ritual of allegorization goes beyond the ultimately routine predictability of any allegorization. Despite the historical orientation of his neo-Marxist theory, Jameson rarely demonstrates concretely the connections that he asserts between one textual level and another, or one cultural area and the economy or an entire society. An assumed and all-too-easy homology between the fields of analysis does the critical work of mediation for him in advance of his elaboration. For example, Jameson claims of Stevens that his “poetic ‘totality’ begins to trace a ghostly mimesis or analogon of the totality of the imperialist world system itself, with [its] third world materials in a similarly strategic, marginal, yet essential place. … [Stevens’s] very unconscious replication of the ‘real’ totality of the world system in the mind is then what allows culture to separate itself as a closed and self-sufficient system in its own right: reduplication, and at the same time, floating about the real. It is an impulse shared by most of the great high modernisms, as has been shown most dramatically in the recent critiques of architectural modernism, in particular of the international style. …” Whether or not this is true of Stevens, it reads like a blueprint of Jameson’s own conscious method of producing the political unconscious as a ghostly simulacrum of the “real” totality from the texts under discussion. Jameson does not so much argue and exemplify as slip and slide, associatively, from one claim to another, rarely bothering to demonstrate or even fully to articulate them. In part, this is a failure in “style”—Jameson’s, is notoriously lumbering. But it is also a failure of knowledge. It is not that Jameson knows too little. It is how he knows. He thinks solely in categories and blocks of knowledge, in types and stereotypes. In this failing he can be rightly called the radical intellectual’s Northrop Frye. Despite these problems, however, his is an influential position no critic of twentieth-century literature and culture can afford to ignore.

David Bromwich (review date 19 February 1990)

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SOURCE: “The Professor of Necessity,” in The New Republic, February 19, 1990, pp. 34-9.

[In the following review of The Ideologies of Theory, Bromwich finds contradictions in Jameson's “master narrative” concept and criticizes his unsubstantiated critical readings and “curiously messianic” exaltation of postmodernism.]

“I must create a system,” said Blake, “or be enslaved by another man’s.” The vanguard slogans of the human sciences today have a rather different sound. To be ensnared by any number of systems, in succession or all at once: that is the favored stance.

Fredric Jameson, who has published studies of Sartre and Wyndham Lewis, came to be widely known in the early 1970s, with two books of a different kind. Marxism and Form surveyed a tradition of critical and utopian speculation generally associated with Adorno and the theorists of the Frankfurt School. The Prison-House of Language canvassed the structuralist theories of the sign, with a polemical argument for their relevance to literature. Both of these books successfully combined the format of an advanced primer with the subject matter of the history of ideas. As primers, their appeal derived from the unusual fact that the author himself had a point of view. A Marxist who disclaimed the reductions of “vulgar Marxism,” he was seeking to learn what he could from the European schools of anthropology, social theory, linguistics, and psychoanalysis. In the decade and a half since, Jameson has come to be identified with the thesis that the production of modern works of art is linked to “the political unconscious” of capitalism. Many of the essays in these two volumes allude to the thesis, or treat it as an accepted premise.

Some inveterate traits have become more marked in Jameson’s recent work. Broad if obscure assertions (“Style is a middle-class phenomenon”) mingle freely with casual dicta. There are frequent calls for a show of rigor, appeals to confer on literary study “the dignity of a science.” At the same time, sentence after sentence resorts to a cozy patter of “kind ofs” and “something likes” and other formal tokens of intimacy, and the prose throughout betrays the common symptoms of position-taking writing. Why this curious blend of moods? The reason may be that Jameson’s work now reflects an acute consciousness of being read by intellectual consumers a good deal younger than himself.

These readers, he observes in a preface to The Ideologies of Theory, have come to expect “theoretical codes of all kinds,” and their demands “are henceforth a fact of life of our intellectual space.” But the same readers will want to sample a variety of moralizing attitudes toward the codes. Anyway, to speak fluently about “situations of theory” (the title of Jameson’s first volume) or “the syntax of history” (the title of his second) is often a puzzling experience, “closer to the learning and practice of foreign languages” than to any earlier training for a scholarly discipline. Henceforth, to address the strangeness of this experience, a new class of scholars is called into being, whose aim is to translate and broker among the available languages, to convey up-to-date instructions on what to think and how to think, and to sustain a labor force that now absorbs and discards in record time the jargons of a profession.

The Ideologies of Theory can be read profitably as an expression of the outlook and current morale of the new class of scholar-brokers. But within that class, Jameson’s politics are an anomaly: “Now that we have come to understand counterinsurgency warfare and neocolonialism not as freely chosen options of good or evil political leaders, but rather as deeper and more ominous structural necessities of the American system … now that we have learned the facts about American responsibility for the beginnings of the cold war …” Even in the audience he writes for, whose refinement has often placed them beyond much concern with facts, few will have begun by sharing anything like these opinions. Jameson elsewhere exhibits a strong relish for parahistorical coincidence (of the it-is-no-accident type), as when he announces that “the introduction of television” and “the beginning of the cold war” took place suspiciously in the same year (1947). Against the terrible tidings of that year, certain happy memories are to be cherished—for example, the memory of Maoism and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a legacy concerning which any doubts are “part and parcel of the larger attempt to trash the '60s generally.”

A satisfying measure of submission is offered, in short, to all more thuggish pieties of the Marxist left, past and present. What is hard to capture with quotations is the texture of Jameson’s polemical writing, in the rapid fire of random causerie and conspiratorial skirmish. The following excerpt from a typical longer sentence will give some sense of the atmosphere:

Paradoxically (yet in a peculiar replay of the belated and peculiarly French ideological function of romanticism itself, in the 1820s) it is now the conservatives who are the modernists (a stylistic slogan that reduces itself to a kind of internationalist and pro-American celebration of California-type modernization), while the Socialists are symmetrically positioned within a dreary “realism” to which a range of old-fashioned and outmoded attitudes are attributed …

The chief function of such a passage is not only to adopt a wised-up, hard-left stance but to suggest, with inverted commas, attributed attitudes, and jeering parentheses, that everyone is in on some fix. An impression is thus created of an always-earned distrust, with a rasp and thud of insinuation that has no end.

The already converted will know what they are getting, and will not recoil from the smallest particle of the analysis. But Jameson is unlikely to be read with comparable effects by those who come to him without a settled view of international politics. For such readers, I suspect, his work will serve instead to confirm a pronounced distaste for all political engagements, on the ground that all are equally contaminated by a universal bad faith. And yet this cynical conclusion itself fits in with Jameson’s larger project: the displacement of worldly politics by “the politics of interpretation.”

Here, it must be said, he covers so wide a field that his writing promises a tremendous advance of understanding. He deals, sometimes allusively, sometimes extensively, with Sartre, Lacan, Barthes, Foucault, Althusser, Lévi-Strauss; Marx, Nietzsche, Weber, Freud; Heidegger, Adorno, Benjamin; with ambitious recent books by Hayden White, Alasdair MacIntyre, Louis Marin, and others. Read in long doses, these essays are, in their way, extremely useful. They show what the intellectual history of the 20th century may look like when one views it through the dominant trends of literary theory in the last 20 years.

A persistent loyalty to two theorists, Georg Lukacs and Herbert Marcuse, stands out as a constant emphasis, though Jameson is able to incorporate their thinking only in foreshortened versions: Lukacs, minus the belief in a class whose objective knowledge of the world coincides with the mission of changing it; Marcuse, minus the belief in the work of art as a paradigm of human autonomy and non-repressive sublimation. These are, in both cases, essential beliefs. But “knowledge,” “class,” “autonomy,” and “the human” are ideas that Jameson looks on with feelings ranging from skepticism to extreme contempt. What remains, then, to fortify his own quest as a revolutionary Marxist, and as a utopian theorist in the late 20th century?

The answer—which emerges gradually over the course of his writings—is the sheer romance of vast impersonal forces. This becomes quite clear in the latest and most ambitious of his essays, with their developing theory of modernism and postmodernism. Modernism, for Jameson, is a catastrophe, or at best a diversion. Postmodernism, by contrast, he describes as an apocalyptic liberation. But it will be well to approach these entities slowly, along the path Jameson himself has followed, and start, like him, with the building blocks of a general theory of aesthetic and social phenomena.

Four elementary components or “blocks” are discernible in most of these essays. Without going as far as Jameson, who presents a variety of technical diagrams and grid analyses and occasionally assigns positive and negative valences to the “politically progressive” and “politically reactionary” drift of rival thinkers, we may, for convenience, number the blocks and treat them as separable propositions.

1. A substantial historical reality forms the object of critical practice. This reality is not merely the sum total of positive facts. To speak of it is not, therefore, merely a pragmatic device that gives consistency to our discussions. The reality exists outside ourselves—indeed, very far outside. It is constituted by a striving for domination that is beyond the influence of individual human agency. (In an earlier phase, it was also partly constituted by a striving for the conquest of nature, but that process is now complete.)

From works of social theory in the tradition of Hegel and Marx, we come to know the deep laws of reality. From the discoveries of empirical science, we come to know certain of its surface phenomena. It follows that one cannot in any circumstances make sense even of one’s “physical body” without taking into account the “social body” in which it participates. In the study of literature, formalism corresponds to the mere data of empirical science. Marxist historicism, on the other hand, corresponds to “the point at which a specialized discipline is transcended toward reality itself.” By this means alone “the techniques of literary criticism find their ultimate ground in historical reality.”

2. Everything in the realm of art or thought can finally be reduced to a “text,” except history. Books, paintings, films, dreams, everyday chatter, grand theories, personal fantasies and most group fantasies: all share the status of texts, and have the relation to reality of an effect to a cause. We can bend all these phenomena any way we like without being wrong about them, so long as the result shows a tight conformity to the historical reality by which they were produced.

This relation of history-as-cause to text-as-effect is not to be confused with the notion of an economic base that generates and determines a superstructure of idealisms. For texts are capable of reacting again upon the culture that produced them, and in that way yielding secondary effects of their own. Meanwhile, apart from the text, and opaque to every common effort of the will, stands history. It decides in advance the thoughts and the dreams that are conceivable at a certain time and those that are not.

3. Like people, works of art are possessed of an unconscious, and by analyzing that unconscious we bring to light their implication in history. The deep ideological structure of a given historical moment may be understood by analogy with the unconscious in psychoanalysis. It throws up on the surface, in the form of texts, symptomatic expressions that are the necessary mask for repressed materials. Under questioning, a text can be made to yield up those materials, and the analyst will be led back to the concealed origin of the text in history. “Ideology,” Jameson explains, “does exist objectively, but not in the form of a text; like the unconscious, it is therefore not directly accessible to us, but only insofar as we have reconstructed it in what has today come to be called ‘textual’ form, with which the literary text can be placed in an active relationship of reaction, transformation, reflection, repression, or whatever.”

It is a plain disadvantage of the analogy, which the historical critic must agree to live with, that no text can deliver as “active” a response as a patient can. On the other hand, the method itself embraces a certain imprecision. Jameson suggests that not only individual texts, but whole periods of literary or cultural production, may share a single “unconscious.” Sometimes this collective unconscious is transferred to quite short periods, known chiefly to the political historian—1830, 1848, 1871—or to famous decades like the 1930s, the 1960s, or whatever.

4. The relationship of text to historical reality is generalized, and enters the understanding of a culture only by means of some master “narrative.” Nietzsche’s story about the way that Christianity transformed pity into a unique virtue, so that the classical world could be conquered by a slave morality, is an example of such a narrative. Another is Marx’s story about the change in the relations of production from feudalism to entrepreneurial capitalism to monopoly capitalism. Evidently, a narrative of this kind serves to mediate between the “accident” that is a text and the “essence” that is historical reality. Just what truth-value that implies for narrative-as-such, Jameson never makes clear, though he now and then demotes a persuasive but noxious narrative to the category of myth. In any case, the interpreter is always free to alter a particular narrative—a freedom he does not enjoy in his relations with history.

Jameson’s work contains many warnings, in the usual Marxist vein, against the idleness of moralism. Commonly, he will invoke a “historical, rather than an ethical, perspective.” Those perspectives are supposed by many thinkers to be far from incompatible, but a reason for the warnings will now be apparent. In the making of a theoretically true but unchecked narrative, he needs to claim the liberties of an aestheticism without restraint.

Points 1 and 2 represent an anti-humanist purification and updating of 19th-century doctrines of scientific historicism. If they were all of Jameson, he would command interest only as a summarizer (which is what he is in any case, over large tracts of his writing). But his theses concerning the flexible uses of a general narrative, and the transfer of the psychoanalytic unconscious from the individual to the society, can seem to poise the historical critic on the brink of a vast new field of exercise, and to place nearly within his grasp discoveries of a more than intuitive character. Both of these ideas, however, bring with them peculiar dangers.

Jameson shows what they are very vividly in an essay on “The Ideology of Modernism,” when he charges modernist writers with recounting private truths of a sort “that no longer engages the fate of a nation.” What sort of narrative does engage the fate of a nation? Or rather, what sort will a nation compel, when it looks on artists as instrumental to its fate? The argument verges here on a call for propaganda. Just a few lines earlier, in keeping with the same demand, Jameson has denounced the writings of Hemingway and Faulkner for their “tourist or magnolia exoticism”—a phrase with an interesting history, for it is not just trash, it is Stalinist trash, an exact transcription of the language reserved in The New Masses 50 years ago for modernist “escapism.” But it remains a delicate business here to distinguish the needs of a Communist narrative from those of a fascist narrative. Both of those “collective projects” point to the sort of national allegory that Jameson wants. Both, too, are adept in excluding those who do not belong, implicitly and without controversy. Finding, in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, a discussion of just such acts excluding the delinquent members of a community, Jameson emphatically assents to their necessity, and concludes that they are part of the tacit knowledge “that essentially defines community.”

Thus it would be wrong to suppose that a master narrative, as Jameson understands it, is bound to be a liberating narrative. It would be wrong for the same reason to think that his protocols for interpreting the unconscious are aimed at the enlightenment of art. It must be admitted from the first that the “insights” into which his analysis flows are apt to have about them something spurious or anti-climactic. Here, for example, is what it looks like when we get to the bottom of the political unconscious of Cubism:

The fact remains that Cubist paintings also have content, and that content is, if you will, simply the painter’s garret, the bateau lavoir, “ma jolie,” Paris 1900, and the situation of the artist himself in it, his patrons among intellectuals and aristocracy, the collectors and the dealers, the Americans, the Third Republic, and ultimately the entire cultural and historical moment itself as it leaves its concentrated trace in the round stain of a wine glass on a deal table.

Back to earth with a slow release of breath and a low whistle, one comes to see that nothing really has been said here, nothing beyond the level of a few readily accessible landmarks and clichés. (The style is a ghastly-fancy pastiche of Rod Serling.)

But this is to jump ahead. In the essay from which the words above were drawn, “Modernism and Its Repressed,” one can glimpse Jameson in a sustained act of deciphering a text’s unconscious. The text is Robbe-Grillet’s novel Jealousy. The inference to be made, slightly implausible on the face of it, is that Robbe-Grillet will turn out to have been writing an anti-colonialist narrative. Two initial problems confront the interpreter. Problem one: this novelist, in his theoretical work, has heaped scorn on the very idea of political interest in fiction, since he regards it, like most other kinds of interest, as an antiquated sentimentality. Problem two: the novel, very promisingly from the unconscious point of view, is set in a colony, but it does not portray the natives either in a positive or a negative light, for it does not portray the natives at all.

In solving these difficulties, Jameson goes to work quickly and expertly. It happens to be known that Robbe-Grillet is a Cartesian purist about “sight.” His aim as a novelist is to detach things from their customary pathos. “What if,” asks Jameson, the sense of strange detachment in the prose, instead of being part of an aesthetic program, “were rather the vehicle for something like a will to power over the external world?” Where the external world is a colony, and a will to power means colonial domination, could this perhaps imply that “the apparently purely formal disembodied compulsion of the gaze across the fields has genuine political and economic content … and this despite the fact that we are never given to witness any overtly oppressive act committed by the ‘narrator’ against the native population, and, indeed, in the virtual absence of the field workers themselves”?

Despite the fact and indeed, in the virtual absence of most things are possible in criticism. The next step is to assert that when not only the proper constituents of the interpreted scene, but the scene itself, is absent from the work in question, that is because it stands at the very center of the repressed unconscious of the work. This step Jameson actually takes in his 1988 lecture “Modernism and Imperialism,” which marks an afterthought to the related essays of The Ideologies of Theory.

Here it is asserted that Howards End has got to be about imperialism on the grounds that (a) it is about England, and (b) in the years before the First World War, the prime novelistic subject just was the status of the Empire. The problem is that the subject is simply not in the book. There are no colonized, there is not even one proletarian type; even Leonard Bast “is carefully characterized … as standing ‘at the extreme edge of gentility.’” What now, asks Jameson, if we try to read this absence itself as a kind of presence, as an “internal subsumption” of the colonial subject, as a way of dramatizing the “representational dilemmas of the new imperial world system”? Pretty plainly, the analysis advances one notch, and anything said about a detail of the novel will now count as an observation on Forster and the colonial subject.

Notice how irresistibly this logic may expand. If A talks about X with B, but B thinks that A should have been talking about Y, a sufficient cause for the omission may be adduced, without any risk of challenge, in the theory that A was enacting the internal subsumption of a representational dilemma about Y. Anything I seem to say is only a deceptive covering for the thoughts I do not dare to think. “He that believes this, may believe more”: one would like Dr. Johnson’s comment to suffice. But in a successfully politicized culture of the arts, where critic B wields institutional authority over novelist A, argument along these lines might easily take on rather unpleasant practical overtones.

Still, for Jameson, analysis of the political unconscious is only a means to an end. Let us take him at his word, and estimate his value as a theorist by his own master-narrative, concerning the transition from modernism to postmodernism. A distinct advantage of Jameson’s method is that he works with familiar counters. His modernists are people like Joyce, Beckett, Kafka, and that invaluable composite personage “Cubism.” His postmodernists are people like Cage, Venturi, Doctorow, and a choice half dozen of the top 20 on the MTV hit parade. None of the argument is made to depend on the judgment of a modernist whose fame is less than general, or a postmodernist so esoteric that a whole body of new work requires to be introduced. The digestibility of the story comes from the sharpness of a stereotype.

We have to reconstruct the broad features of Jameson’s argument from passing statements in a number of essays: “Architecture and the Critique of Ideology,” “The Politics of Theory,” “The Ideology of Modernism,” “Periodizing the Sixties,” and “The Ideology of the Text.” I will also draw on his 1984 New Left Review essay “Postmodernism”—advertised here as one of three book-length projects now getting ready for press. In the end, however, the richness of these materials proves disconcerting, for they offer two contradictory accounts of what modernism was, and they come to rest in two contradictory attitudes toward postmodernism in culture and society.

Modernism One is the name of an evasion—something important that did not happen. Modernist art, on this view, never separated itself from the commanding aesthetic of 19th-century realism. The characteristic productions of high modernism must accordingly be read as the texts of a “canceled realism,” a mere “stylization” of realism. To come to know a novel like The Castle means to discern, under the shocks and discontinuities, which are so much waxwork, the bones and the animating organs of an older realism. “And this,” Jameson announces, “is a type of reading utterly unlike anything hitherto known in the history of literature.”

In fact, what he has described is simply a conventional procedure of allegorical substitution: the Book of Jonah was in this sense the canceled realism of Jeremiah. But for Jameson the implications of his discovery run deep. Recall the absolute primacy of his belief that in the study of literature, we can reach down and touch the bedrock of historical reality. All readers who grant this “in their heart of hearts … know that John O’Hara’s novels still give a truer picture of the facts of life in the United States than anything of Hemingway of Faulkner.”

To judge by such verdicts, the “hither-to unknown” therapy of reading hardly differs from the conventional routines of middlebrow reviewing in the year 1950. But things warm up considerably when we come to Modernism Two. Here are “irony, complexity, ambiguity, dense temporality, and particularly, aesthetic and utopian monumentality”—in short, everybody’s modernism. It may represent only “an aestheticizing reaction against the sordid realities of a business civilization.” But presiding over all its works stands the figure of the artist, an internal exile dedicated to life in the “symbolic” realm, who has found a way of “resolving contradiction by stylistic fiat.”

Modernism here exhibits a marked shift—whether politically progressive or reactionary—from earlier methods of representation. The very existence of such works suggests the possibility of an alternative life, beyond the reach of mass practices and without any interest for the engineers of the soul. Finally, this modernism offers an ideal of pleasure apart from the pleasure of commercial satisfactions. Modernism One could not last because it never actually came into being. By contrast, Modernism Two had to end because it succeeded too well. The bohemian withdrawal of the artist has been thoroughly assimilated as a style of life and therefore nullified. The alternative culture of the avant-garde has been so generalized by imitation and absorption in the general life that it has lost its distinct identity.

This prospect of a “gray tastelessness” and a technological uniformity brings us in sight of Postmodernism One. So far, it looks a great deal like the world of Marcuse’s one-dimensional man, and the view we are urged to take is correspondingly grim. “High modernism,” which peaked and blew out in the 1960s, “was oppositional and marginal.” Postmodernism is “no longer at all ‘oppositional’ in that sense; indeed, it constitutes the very dominant or hegemonic aesthetic of consumer society itself and significantly serves the latter’s commodity production as a virtual laboratory of new forms and fashions.”

For Jameson, the 1960s mark a unique terminus, for in that decade the avant-garde, both in society and in the arts, flared up in one last collective promise before all was lost, “the last vestiges of non-commodified or traditional space … now ultimately penetrated and colonized.” (The last outposts of resistance were, of course, “the Third World” and “the unconscious.”) It is a picture of unrelieved bleakness. And yet, reflects Jameson, “all of this can also be said in a different way”:

With the eclipse of culture as an autonomous space or sphere, culture itself falls into the world, and the result is not its disappearance but its prodigious expansion, to the point where culture becomes coterminous with social life in general. … In the society of the spectacle, the image, or the simulacrum, everything has at length become cultural.

So the coming to total power of an aesthetic morality of leveling, de-individuation, and the successful engineering of mass experience is seen as possibly fortunate after all. How can that be?

It turns out that every evil that we deplore in Postmodernism One can be re-described as the look-alike or uncanny “double” of some utopian good. The anti-human processes of mass technology may suggest a revival of collective vitality after the “private languages” and “fragmentation” of high capitalism. The tastelessness of a culture where everything has become cultural perhaps signifies a principled revolt against the invidious hierarchies of money and power. Even the leveling power of television can be seen as a commendable turn against elitism: everyone is famous for 15 minutes.

The shift from Postmodernism One to Postmodernism Two has been almost imperceptible, but we have now tipped well over to the other side, and are ready for Jameson’s celebration of “free-floating intensities of feeling,” “a peculiar kind of euphoria,” and, in a stunning phrase, “superficiality in the most literal sense.” Modernism lived against its contradictions, in tension with mass culture. We have now got to accept “a postmodernism that simply ratifies the contradictions and fragmented chaos all around it by way of an intensified perception of, a mesmerized and well-nigh hallucinogenic fascination with, those very contradictions themselves.” I can only read this as a judgment that under postmodernism, the revolutionist has become indistinguishable from the conformist. And this is so, Jameson says, not because the masks have become more deceptive, but because the two persons are now one and the same.

In a long and inventive essay on Max Weber, easily the most interesting thing in these two volumes, Jameson praises Weber for his “heroic cynicism,” and describes the stance as follows. In the late 19th century, “We are faced with the peculiar impression that life becomes meaningless in direct proportion to people’s control over their environment and a humanization of the world goes hand in hand with a spreading of existential despair.” In such a situation, Jameson goes on to say, “the most original thinkers … choose and will the very experience of meaninglessness itself, and cling to it as to some ultimate reality.” However tendentious this may be as a historical portrait of Weber, it makes an extremely apt description of Jameson’s own stance as a postmodernist. And as he pursues the characterization of Weber, it grows harder and harder to pick out the differences between the peculiarly modernist crisis and the peculiarly postmodern one.

Both are identified by Jameson with a final “colonization” of nature by the human. Both alike are a total condition, an ultimate reality. We have already seen why, if Jameson’s modernism is nothing but canceled realism, the name itself ceases to have any practical worth for a historian. The same goes for his postmodernism. If it amounts only to one more “final” humanization of the world, one more experience of “meaninglessness itself” as the “ultimate reality,” it might as well be called a continuation of modernism by other means—“contenting itself with eliminating the affective charge of pathos, of the tragic, or of anxiety, which characterized the modern movement.” We are confronted in that case with a long century and a half of “superficiality in the most literal sense.”

The truth is that as a historian of modern culture Jameson has yet to make a start. Others besides him have argued that the old descriptions will not serve the world of the multinationals and the mass media, and the ethic of rapid exchange and total participation that both induce. As an expositor of postmodernism, Jameson is remarkable chiefly for his stress on the alien character of the new life and its necessity. But as his attacks on modernism have grown coarser and more predictable, his embrace of the postmodern has become in proportion curiously messianic. His latest essays carry gnostic overtones of a wish for destruction that must go all the way, for the sake of some later creation that will break up our exhausted intuitions about human nature. If, in modernism, humanization and desacralization of the world went hand in hand with enlightenment, in postmodernism the same process will continue until its meaning is reversed. We may thus look forward to a world that is inhuman, resacralized, unenlightened—and obedient to necessity. Maybe this is what has to become of Marxism, or any other historicism, once “the humanist component” has vanished.

Michael Ferber (review date 15 October 1990)

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SOURCE: “The Turn of the Screw,” in The Nation, October 15, 1990, pp. 425-7.

[In the following positive review of Late Marxism, Ferber praises Jameson's analysis of Theodor Adorno and dialectical thought, but finds Jameson's prose often hampered by excessive qualification.]

Fredric Jameson’s Late Marxism is the most philosophically sophisticated and searching study of Theodor Adorno to appear in English. Until recently, Adorno was best known in America for his part in the collaborative study The Authoritarian Personality (1950) and for a few essays on the arts, of which two in particular are famous, or infamous: a dismissive essay on jazz that appeared in English in 1946 and a searching philosophical response to Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, published the same year as the play (1958) and available in English a few years later.

He was also known as the “musical adviser” to Thomas Mann while Mann was at work on his great novel Doctor Faustus and both were living in exile in Los Angeles. Mann’s well-publicized exchange of letters with Arnold Schoenberg, who accused Mann of stealing his theory of the twelve-tone row, brought Adorno into the picture as Mann’s “informer,” Adorno having learned the theory while studying with Alban Berg in Vienna. Mann’s own account of the writing of the novel is full of praise for Adorno. After reading his Philosophy of Modern Music in typescript, Mann knew “this was my man,” the one he needed for both technical and philosophical advice on the music of the novel’s hero, the composer Adrian Leverkühn: “An American singer who works with [Adorno] said to me: ‘It is incredible. He knows every note in the world.’” Early in the novel Leverkühn’s teacher Kretschmar plays through Beethoven’s Opus 111 piano sonata while analyzing it aloud, just as Adorno had done for Mann. Near the end of the sonata, Mann writes: “With the motif passed through many vicissitudes, which takes leave and so doing becomes entirely leave-taking, a parting wave and call, with this D G G occurs a slight change, it experiences a small melodic expansion. After an introductory C, it puts a C sharp before the D, so that it no longer scans ‘heav-en’s blue,’ ‘mead-owland,’ but ‘O-thou heaven’s blue,’ ‘Green-est meadowland,’ ‘Fare-thee well for aye,’ and this added C sharp is the most moving, consolatory, pathetically reconciling thing in the world.” It is one of the finest musical descriptions in literature, and it contains a little salute to Adorno, for “meadowland” is Wiesengrund, Adorno’s middle name.

With Herbert Marcuse’s popularity in the 1960s came a new interest in Adorno, not only because Marcuse often cited his former Frankfurt School colleague but because he taught a generation of young American scholars the relevance of Hegelian Marxism, of dialectical thought, of “negation” as the preserve of utopian possibility and of such key concepts as the “reification” not just of commodities but of reason itself into “one-dimensional” instrumental calculation. Translations of Adorno began appearing more frequently, with the journal Telos leading the way. Most of the major works are now in English, though the distinction between major and minor, for this lapidary stylist and master of the aphorism, may not hold. In his new study of Adorno, Jameson concentrates on the two large volumes, Negative Dialectics and Aesthetic Theory, though he draws heavily on Dialectic of Enlightenment (which Adorno wrote jointly with Max Horkheimer) and—the most attractive and accessible book—Minima Moralia. However incomplete the translations (and despite serious mistakes in some of them), Adorno is a presence, again, in England and America two decades after his death.

Some consider Adorno the greatest German philosopher of the century, with the possible exception of Wittgenstein. His other serious rival for this honor, Heidegger, was the object of fierce attacks by Adorno over many years. Heidegger’s “jargon of authenticity” (the title of another of Adorno’s books), his search for clues to the primordial and immediate ground of being in Greek philosophy, German etymologies, Hölderlin’s poetry or peasants’ tools masked their social and historical character and brought reason to a halt. For Adorno the limits of reason, even reason’s repressive character—insofar as it corrals unique particulars under universal concepts—cannot be cured by abandoning reason, by positing something prior or deeper and then standing in awe before it. Only by working through reason, by playing concept off against concept and setting each concept against its ideological distortion in capitalist and totalitarian societies, only by what Jameson nicely calls “stereoscopic thinking,” can one keep faith with what does, in the end, elude reason: nature, the unique object, the experiences of the body, suffering, the good life. In this, perhaps, Adorno is more truly philosophical than Heidegger.

As a man of the left who saw the revolutionary hopes of his generation collapse under Stalinism, as a German Jew who survived the pulverization of fascism (and for whom all was changed “after Auschwitz”), as an uncomfortable guest in the capitalist United States with its Hollywood and other forms of mass manipulation, Adorno (unlike Marcuse in the sixties) saw little hope on the horizon for a genuinely liberatory socialism, found no “revolutionary subject” capable of carrying out the almost unimaginable changes needed to prize us free of the pervasive powers of the total system of reification combined with state terror. He is known for his strategy of “hibernation,” a preservation of the life of the mind, at least, in wintry times. But he also remained loyal to the ideal of a redeemed life, which he forbade himself to describe more than glancingly, though it is implicit everywhere in his work as a standard to measure the damage of contemporary life; it sounds in his work not unlike the consolatory “meadowland” motif that takes its farewell before the coming frost.

At about the same rate that Adorno’s reputation has been growing in the English-speaking world, in a kind of echo of his wartime exile, it has been shrinking in West Germany, to which Adorno returned in 1949 to help re-establish the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. This shift, Jameson suggests, is due not just to the usual delays of translations and assimilations but, in a dialectical irony of the kind that Adorno was himself a genius at describing, to the recent triumph of Anglo-American analytic philosophy in Germany and its simultaneous exhaustion in England and America.

French poststructuralism, of course, has been a factor on both sides. Its refusal of systematic or “totalizing” thought, including dialectics, has helped to promote German interest in analytic methods, while its interrogation of logic as a form of social power and the self as a construction of language has attracted Anglo-American interest as part of a general turn toward Continental philosophy (or “theory,” as poststructuralists prefer to call it). Jameson, no mean dialectician himself, points out that Adorno’s own meditations on the falsehood of the totality, the limitations of any concepts, the origin of reason in the preservation of the self and reason’s inevitable recolonization of the self it made possible anticipate most of what is useful in poststructuralist thought while avoiding most of its paradoxes and self-refutings. Preserving critical or “negative” concepts of totality, subject and even truth, Adorno also remains in the end a Marxist, Jameson argues, and his “late Marxism” may be just what we need in today’s world of triumphant “late capitalism.”

(I don’t think Jameson means to suggest a second meaning of “late” in his title, but the massive changes that rolled through Eastern Europe right after he finished the book may expose it to sneers. He explains that it is a translation of Spät-marxismus, a term in common use in German, but spät, I believe, cannot mean “deceased.”)

Jameson has very little to say about music, the subject of about half of Adorno’s writings, and without giving a reason he proposes a ban on musical analogies for other aspects of Adorno’s thought (happily, he lifts this ban occasionally to offer some striking parallels). Nor does he dwell long on any of Adorno’s discussions of particular works or artists. Instead he goes right for the central and most abstract concepts Adorno deploys, including “concept” itself, identity, the “identity of identity and non-identity,” totality, mimesis, reification and the “dialectic of enlightenment.” It is heavy going much of the time, less an introduction (though someone seeking help would eventually find it) than an intervention in an ongoing dialogue among Adorno’s interpreters. Those who remember Jameson’s luminous and exhilarating chapter on Adorno in Marxism and Form (1971) may be disappointed with this much drier, argumentative and self-conscious study. Jameson is known as one of the finest stylists among Marxist scholars, but here, except for moments, the American master of the “dialectical sentence” gives us few aerobatic displays. He stays close to the ground, weighed down by parenthetical asides and a kind of tentative toe dipping (to change the metaphor) before Adorno’s cold forbidding sea. There are too many clauses like “as will be shown below,” “it seems worthwhile at this point” and “what must now be affirmed”—one on nearly every page in the first part of the book. Yet it is hard to blame him. What Jameson calls “the dialectical maelstrom of oppositions” in Adorno’s thought; Adorno’s way of holding in one sentence, sentence after sentence, the spirit of an entire essay; and his notion that thought must somehow replicate in its shape what it cannot grasp in its concepts raise very acutely before any interpreter the problem of how to represent that thought. To explicate key concepts systematically is to betray a body of thought whose characteristic theme is thought’s systematic betrayal of its objects. Jameson’s habits may be less the tics of daunted self-consciousness than a deliberate highlighting of the problem, faced just as much by Adorno himself, of writing dialectically.

When he gives himself full throttle Jameson can be quite wonderful to read:

In fact, what Adorno called positivism is very precisely what we now call postmodernism, only at a more primitive stage. The shift in terminology is to be sure momentous: a stuffy petty-bourgeois republican nineteenth-century philosophy of science emerging from the cocoon of its time capsule as the iridescent sheen of consumerist daily life in the Indian summer of the superstate and multinational capitalism. From truth to state-of-the-art merchandise, from bourgeois respectability and “distinction” to the superhighways and the beaches, from the old-fashioned authoritarian families and bearded professors to permissiveness and loss of respect for authority (which, however, still governs). The question about poetry after Auschwitz has been replaced with that of whether you could bear to read Adorno and Horkheimer next to the pool.

Though such passages are too rare, the book as a whole is a powerful and persuasive study. Jameson has a gift for bringing to bear an unusual parallel and for collocating scattered passages that illuminate one another. He also has Adorno’s gift for giving the dialectical screw one more turn, for rotating the object of discussion so that what appears to be a problem from one angle, say a dissonance in Wagner, becomes from another a mirror or index of a solution in a very different (social or economic) sphere. His major argument, that Adorno was always a Marxist, then, is not only corrective but dialectical; not only a quarrel with other interpreters who take him as a post-Marxist or “Young Hegelian” or even a postmodernist and poststructuralist but a claim about what is most living and pertinent in his work. The “tyranny of the concept,” the repression of objects by abstract thought, is not just accidentally similar to the permeation of exchange value and the suppression of use value. And while pursuing the most recondite detail of artistic technique or the most negligible gesture of everyday social life Adorno may detect the hollow echoes of reification under capitalism and the still air of the totally administered society.

Jameson concludes by arguing that the 1990s may be Adorno’s decade. With capitalism now nearly universal and opposition movements in all three worlds quiescent, his “bile” at existing society may be the “counter-poison” we need as we hibernate without sacrificing our intellects. I don’t know. I agree about the efficacy of the medicine. I take a good dose of Adorno from time to time to awaken my mind to possibilities it keeps forgetting, to “de-reify” it so it can think more stringently, subtly, honestly; and I recommend him to anyone with such needs. But I’m not so sure the 1990s will be wintry. Since Jameson finished his book Eastern Europe has transformed itself. That means, to be sure, its immediate colonization by capitalist institutions, but it also means the end of the cold war and the collapse of at least one set of ideological mechanisms that contained social movements on both sides of the divide. Pressures to disarm, although they have been temporarily stalled by the Persian Gulf crisis, are growing. And nature itself may be on our side, as we approach the physical limits of global growth. Capitalism may plan itself into socialism in order to survive, though it may take a few more horrors to prod it forward. (Jameson points out that the Frankfurt School, alone among Marxisms, is one of the philosophical ancestors of the ecology movement.) Perhaps my stupid American optimism can’t fully absorb Adorno’s (and Jameson’s) Central European gloom. But Gramsci’s slogan “pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will” would not be a bad compromise as we try to take the measure of this great thinker.

Stephen Howe (review date 15 March 1991)

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SOURCE: “LA Lore,” in New Statesman & Society, March 15, 1991, p. 34.

[In the following review, Howe offers an unfavorable assessment of Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.]

Fredric Jameson is a cool operator. Like the last (and therefore first) man to wear flares, he knows when it’s smart to buck the trend. Being a Marxist, a dialectician, and a historicist right now does not exactly place you in the front ranks of the intellectual beau monde. Yet carry the stance with enough style and dexterity, enough sheer bravado—with any criticism already incorporated into your own scheme—and you emerge ahead of the game.

So postmodernism is supposed to herald the death of all “grand narratives”, with Marxism top of the hit-list? With one huge theoretical leap, courtesy of Hegel, you can surround that notion with a new totality. You can celebrate diversity, pastiche, kitsch and consumerism as ardently as any postmodernist; and yet confidently place them all as little pieces in your big picture. So sceptics complain that you can’t stand simultaneously inside and outside postmodernism like that? Another jump, sanctioned by Heisenberg, gets you clear: the observer or analyst is always inside and outside the object observed.

You’re suspected of escaping on the forged pass of a pure theoretician? Well, show them your breadth of empirical reference; how you can work from allegory to utopia, Diego Rivera to Nam June Paik, Tarkovsky to Thatcher. Only on music is there dead ground: a pity, since it would be fun to read Jameson on Harry Parteh or the Butthole Surfers. While the doubters rub their eyes and catch their breath, Jameson is off again, running free, tossing lapidary judgments behind him like a paperchase as he goes: catch as catch can!

The claims to novelty from all sides of this argument are pretty shaky. The postmodern idea may sometimes seem very new, so rapidly has it colonised almost every area of thought. It isn’t, of course. The word was being used about history by the awesomely unfashionable Arnold Toynbee in the 1940s. Its current association with Parisian thought, with Lyotard, Derrida and Baudrillard, is a rare example of the Anglo-Saxon world being colonised, and then seeing its primary products sent back to it after processing elsewhere.

Maybe the first use of the label to denote a new total condition came from American poet Charles Olson. And before that, you can go to Melville and Pound and William Carlos Williams. Postmodernism runs right through the American grain; and if it has a home, then it is Los Angeles. So Jameson, not only as American as they come (unlike almost every other major US critic of recent times, he’s not an immigrant or the child of one) but also a longtime Angeleno, is the perfect apostle for it.

Yet Jameson’s attack comes from an odd angle, in just that respect which a Marxist should regard as most fundamental. His designation of postmodernism as the expression on the cultural (“superstructural”) level of a transmutation within capitalism, not beyond it, rests mostly on Ernest Mandel’s analysis in his Late Capitalism. This is oddly incongruent with almost every other attempt to ground postmodernist critique in economic logic. The usual, and more plausible, move is to derive postmodern culture from new “post-Fordist” production systems. Jameson’s efforts at tracing the connection are gestural, a matter of brief passing phrases.

In the absence of a more serious attempt to map a cultural logic onto an economic one, the link with Marx becomes an act of faith; or else an affirmation, as in Theodor Adorno, that the dialectic is all one needs in order to retain affiliations with a political project of liberation. Jameson’s method may indeed be dialectical, but it’s not very materialist. At worst, it’s a cheap magician’s trick, in which the dialectic becomes the fairy wand that transmutes all oppositions into some grand but misty totality.

That would be an ungenerous response to what Jameson is trying to do; not only because his local insights are so often remarkably acute, his prose beguiling, his command of varied cultural fields impressive; but because, in the end, he’s on the side of the angels. He’s against all the really bad stuff in his (our) culture, like racism and sexism and exploitation. The cultural critique is informed by a social awareness that is far more than gestural.

Even as he celebrates the dizzying new towers of Babylon, burning on the horizon of Los Angeles County, he remembers the homeless sleeping in their car-lots and the crack gangs rampaging in their shadow. In the same movement with which he celebrates architects’ houses in Santa Monica and experimental video in Chicago, he bows to the struggle in the third world. He is quite genuinely, if too self-consciously, the Compleat Radical Scholar.

Yet a grumbling old ghost, stubbornly undialectical, rises up to haunt him. Give the ghost two names: the least a dialectician deserves. One might be Karl Popper, asking simply whether Jameson has ever said anything you could prove wrong. The other? Jameson himself, speaking back in 1983 in Illinois: “I don’t think I have yet even proposed a politics, any more than I have really proposed an aesthetics.” Postmodernism, for all its dazzle and vertiginous intellectual excitement, still coyly refuses to deliver either.

Reed Way Dasenbrock (review date Spring 1991)

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SOURCE: A review of Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 371-72.

[In the following review, Dasenbrock offers an unfavorable assessment of Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature, citing Jameson's contribution as a “dismal failure.”]

Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature is a reprinting of three pamphlets published by Field Day in Northern Ireland. These pamphlets differ from others published in the series because the three authors—Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, Edward Said—are all well-known literary theorists who are neither Irish nor critics particularly expert in Irish literature. The collection therefore represents an effort at connecting a specific project in Irish culture to both the explosion of postcolonial literature in English and the recent ferment of Marxist political criticism.

Of these two connections, I think the first is quite important, and both the study of modern Irish literature and the study of postcolonial literature can only benefit from stressing this connection. The Irish Literary Revival is the prototype for the explosion of the new literatures in English around the world and can itself be understood best in such a context; but we have not been waiting for Fredric Jameson and Edward Said to point this out: Raja Rao’s preface to Kanthapura, Chinua Achebe’s first novel Things Fall Apart (1958), and the poetry and plays of Derek Walcott all establish this connection; and later critical work by Lyn Innes, David Lloyd, Colin MacCabe, myself, and others has made the connection explicit. Jameson and Said cite none of this work and do not seem at all conversant with the relevant secondary literature; a greater problem is that the specific points they make about the connection seem largely off the mark.

Jameson tries to argue for a link between modernism and imperialism based on a reading of a paragraph from E.M. Forster’s Howards End, hardly a central modernist text in any account of modernism with which I am familiar. He then presents Joyce as an exception to this, implicitly lining up his anti-imperialism with postmodernist writing from the postcolonial world. Now clearly, modernism is involved in the center-periphery relations of imperialism, for all the important modernists in English were from outside England; but Joyce thus is no exception in the way Jameson presents him, and Jameson’s account of the relation between modernism and imperialism strikes me as exactly backward.

Said’s essay “Yeats and Decolonization” is even less impressive. Most of the specificity of Yeats’s writing and political commitments is lost in this version of Yeats as a proto-Frantz Fanon in his “celebration and commemoration of violence in bringing about a new order.” Said is responding to an aspect of Yeats’s work, but it is highly debatable whether the violence Yeats approved is always revolutionary. This is one of the points made in Conor Cruise O’Brien’s important essay on Yeats’s politics, an essay deserving of more consideration than the part of one sentence Said devotes to it. Said’s reaction to Yeats’s fascist sympathies is so casual (“his arrogant but often charming espousal of fascism”) as to be chilling. The Yeats who in 1939 endorsed John Mitchel’s “prayer,” “Send war in our time, O Lord,” was not talking about colonial liberation; he was looking forward to the Nazi blitzkrieg, and Said’s failure to distinguish between the two indicates both inadequate scholarship and a political vision few readers will find attractive, if they reflect upon it. Ireland has had enough intellectuals urging revolutionary violence, and so has the postcolonial Third World.

Given the dismal failure of Jameson’s and Said’s attempts to situate Irish writing and politics in any meaningful or acceptable way, the best essay of the three is Terry Eagleton’s “Nationalism: Irony and Commitment.” Eagleton admits space between the Irish writers and political and cultural nationalism, a space he labels irony. For Synge, for Joyce, for Flann O’Brien, that space is a good deal wider than irony, but Eagleton at least sees that the writers who matter rarely fit with any ease into ideologies advocated by political (or literary) intellectuals. This is just as true of the non-Western world as it is of Ireland, and if we read non-Western literature in search of writers who fit Said’s ideological straitjacket, we will either misread the writers to make them fit—as Said misreads Yeats—or reject them—as Said rejects Naipaul and the Ayatollah rejected Rushdie—because of their criticism of murderous political ideologies.

The body of literature and the questions these critics are exploring are extremely important, but they deserve better and more responsible treatment than what is on display here. The battle in the “Cyclops” chapter of Ulysses between the Citizen and Leopold Bloom, between troglodytic revolutionary violence and responsible civic humanism, continues today. This is not a battle between Right and Left but between different versions of the Left. It is unfortunate that, of the three critics in Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature, only Eagleton seems clearly on Bloom’s side. The Irish writers are so important not just because they are the first postcolonial writers, but because they diagnose so much of what can go wrong in the postcolonial situation. A criticism responsive to that diagnosis could not talk blandly about celebrating violence from the tranquillity of an endowed chair in a wealthy American university. Yeats wrote “Easter 1916” in the tranquillity of Oxford; so perhaps Marx was right in saying that history always repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Michael Rosen (review date 24 May 1991)

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SOURCE: “Thoughtful Experience,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 24, 1991, p. 29.

[In the following review of Late Marxism, Rosen regards Jameson's book as “thorough and well-informed,” though finds his anticipation of a “Hegelian revival” unconvincing.]

“In the Winter Semester”, wrote one of Theodor Adorno’s graduate students, “we would read Kant and say that Hegel was right. In the Summer Semester Hegel and say Kant was right.” Hardly surprising, then, that Adorno should have left behind a reputation as a kind of philosophical butterfly, flitting from one epistemological vantage-point to another but never remaining in one place long enough to be pinned down.

To several recent interpreters the elusiveness is deliberate, part of a rhetorical strategy in the deconstructive spirit which aims not so much to refute the claims of traditional philosophy as to reduce its defenders to a kind of despairing acceptance of the hopelessness of their project. There is at first sight something plausible about this picture. Adorno vehemently rejects Descartes’s goal of a “first philosophy”; there are, he believes, no unquestionable first principles from which a philosophical system might be developed—indeed, he describes his major philosophical work, the Negative Dialectics, as an “anti-system”. The starting-point for philosophy cannot be, as Descartes had thought, “What can I know for certain?” but “Is philosophy possible?”

Yet, as Fredric Jameson makes compellingly clear in his thorough and well-informed book [Late Marxism], the apparent resemblances to post-structuralism’s global scepticism about philosophical discourse are the result of isolating the Nietzschean elements in Adorno’s thought from the neo-Marxist framework which surrounds them. In fact, for Adorno the theories and problems of traditional philosophy are far from being meaningless or artificial. On the contrary, their full significance can only be appreciated when philosophy itself is set in a wider context.

What unifies Adorno’s philosophy is his commitment to a wide-ranging and unusual conception of experience. In most philosophical writing the word appears as one pole of an opposition—thought and experience, language and experience, experience and theory, for instance. In other words, it is used to designate the perceptual or intuitive element of the mind’s encounter with reality.

Adorno’s criticisms of traditional philosophy take this simple picture as their starting-point. The idea of the mind as a kind of agency which imposes order on an essentially heterogeneous raw material is a philosopher’s model which has its roots in social reality, he believes. In the course of Western society’s long process of secularization an epistemological gap has opened up between mind and the world; thought itself has become less and less mimetic, more and more instrumental. But what is to be done about it? Adorno’s incessant criticisms of the impoverishment which comes from “identifying thought” suggest a romantic yearning for a form of experience which would bring the mind into contact with things not indirectly, through the medium of concepts, but directly, as they are in themselves.

Read in this way (as many commentators have noticed) Adorno comes perilously close to his archenemy Heidegger’s rejection of rationalism in favour of the supposed pre-conceptual revelation of Being. It is perhaps the chief merit of Jameson’s account that it clearly, firmly and in detail refutes this interpretation. What he draws attention to is that when Adorno says that philosophy should direct itself towards experience this does not (as it might be natural to assume) imply a turn away from conceptual thought. For Adorno, conceptual thought is itself a form of experience, not something opposed to it; although the purely instrumental use of concepts may be dominant in our society there is the prospect (however practically remote) of non-instrumental reason to set against it. It is this which gives philosophy its possibility and purpose. The new form of philosophy which Adorno advocates aspires, as he himself puts it, to “unreduced experience in the medium of conceptual reflection”.

This is a point of fundamental importance not just for Adorno’s philosophical writing, narrowly construed, but for his sociological and aesthetic work too. It helps Jameson to explain, for example, why Adorno and Horkheimer’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment is something more than a crypto-conservative lament at the inevitable development of modernity and to make it clear why it should be aesthetic theory—not art itself, that is, but art interpreted—which bears Adorno’s hopes for intellectual resistance to the “oversocialised society”.

Yet, while Jameson succeeds in giving an interpretation which captures Adorno’s intentions, he fails in his wider aim of showing that Adorno provides an intellectually defensible form of contemporary Marxist theory, for he does not deal adequately with the obvious objection to Adorno’s claims. Having been presented with the problem that conceptual thought cuts us off from the world, it seems hard then to credit the claim that philosophy can take us, as Adorno puts it, “through the concept beyond the concept”. Is this not a very convenient rabbit for the philosopher to find in his top-hat? Where, one must ask, does this mysterious capacity for “conceptual reflection” come from?

It is at this point that Adorno turns to Hegel, as providing the model for the kind of philosophy which deals adequately with the non-identical. Indeed he goes so far as to claim that it is only if Hegel’s philosophy can be shown to contain elements of genuine cognitive value, independent of the idealistic system in which they are embedded, that philosophy can survive as an independent discipline. But this is just what Adorno himself fails to establish and Jameson fails properly to address.

In discussing Hegel’s significance for Marxism, Jameson quotes Jürgen Habermas’s opinion (with which I agree) that the chief result of the extensive debate which took place in Germany in the 1970s on the relationship between Hegel’s Logic and Marx’s Capital has been to establish the illegitimacy of applying the concepts of the former to the latter. He comments that:

In the postmodern period it is not generally effective to seek to argue on the basis of acquired momentum; for example, to assert that this or that having been effectively disproven once and for all, we can now go on to something else … [Since] the postmodern eschews tradition and a canon, nothing of this kind can ever be taken for granted in it; no one will admit that anything has been proven or disproven once and for all; and as the movement of theory has to be recreated at every moment, it cannot in this traditional way “acquire momentum”.

But Habermas is not, it goes without saying, “arguing on the basis of acquired momentum”—far be it from him to claim that what refutes the Hegelian interpretation of Marx is the mere fact that a sufficient number of people now believe that it has been disproved. If there are “postmodernists” who will not admit that “anything has been proven or disproven once and for all” then it is certainly not for Marxists—who maintain, after all, that their approach to society is in some sense or other scientific—to join them. And yet Jameson himself does just that. “I also happen to think”, he writes, “that Habermas’s prognosis of the Zeitgeist (or the ‘spiritual situation of our time’) is simply incorrect: any number of straws in the wind point to an impending Hegel revival.”

It is a sign of Marxism’s desperate intellectual plight that an author of such obvious intelligence should be reduced to arguing in this miserable way. Whether Jameson is right or wrong about the impending Hegel revival (and I see little evidence that he is right), speculations about future academic fashion are no substitute for reasoned justification. Argument ad verecundiam will not be enough for Marxism to pull itself up its epistemological bootstraps, however “dialectical” may be the elastic from which they are made.

Reed Way Dasenbrock (review date Winter 1992)

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SOURCE: “Fredric Jameson and the Dilemmas of Late Marxism,” in Raritan, Vol. 11, No. 3, Winter, 1992, pp. 117-30.

[In the following unfavorable review of Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Dasenbrock criticizes Jameson's “old-fashioned Marxism” and “totalizing definition” of postmodernism, citing his selective treatment of contemporary culture and lack of attention to the Third World.]

I should begin by admitting that for me, as perhaps for other readers, the subject matter of Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is not of consistent interest. Some of the work Jameson discusses is quite familiar to me, some of it quite unfamiliar. His discussions of the postmodern cultural artifacts I know about don’t seem to me particularly compelling; he is not remarkably good at characterizing and evoking works for readers who don’t already know them. Furthermore, he does not write particularly well, and Postmodernism is far too obviously an attempt to bring together a number of often obscurely related essays written over the past several years.

But of course each criterion evoked in the previous paragraph is one that Jameson’s work has challenged. For him, the value of any piece of writing has little to do with what it is “about,” at least in any straightforward realist sense, and nothing to do with its elegance, clarity, or organization. For him, any literary text or cultural artifact is representative not of its explicit content but of larger cultural, social, and political implications. These are never explicitly laid out, and no text should ever be taken on its own terms. So if we are to respect the spirit of Jameson’s own work, we need to interrogate it demandingly. Why has he shifted his attention to the mélange of contemporary videos, architecture, and cyberpunk fiction discussed in Postmodernism? What is he deflecting attention away from? What does Postmodernism not say? What larger social and discursive formations is it part of? And of what are these formations in turn representative or symptomatic?

These questions are interrelated, and it is easiest to answer them in reverse order. Jameson’s work receives so much attention at least partially because he is, as the back cover of Postmodernism declares, “one of America’s foremost Marxist intellectuals.” This is a description of some importance, since the 1970s and 1980s have seen such a remarkable efflorescence of Marxist criticism in the English-speaking world. The very two decades in which the star of Marxism has risen so quickly in American intellectual circles have, of course, witnessed its considerable diminution as a political force in most of the world. But Marxism never was much of a force in the United States, a fact that makes its current prominence even more remarkable. I doubt that anyone would deny that Marxist intellectual discourse now has more influence on the teaching and study of literature in America than ever before. I must confess that I would love to hear Jameson’s thoughts on this development. He is eloquent in his criticism of what—following Stuart Hall—he calls the “delegitimation” of socialism in the West, but he is silent about those areas in which “legitimation” has been the order of the day. What does he make of the spectacular success of Marxism in literary theory and critical practice under Reaganism? He once made (and has recently reprinted) a sardonic remark about how “the streamlined Hegelianism of the Frankfurt School” is attractive to American intellectuals because of “its capacity to provide a Marxist theory without a Marxist practice,” but this also seems an accurate description of Jameson’s own work and that of the new academic generation it has helped to form. If, as he has insisted, there is ultimately a link between his abstract theorizing and some kind of Marxist praxis, why is this Marxism found so predominantly in and so well received by socially elite institutions supported by the very forces of capitalism it attacks? Jameson’s own professional apotheosis as the holder of an endowed chair at a private university extensively funded by that purveyor of death, the tobacco industry, is illustrative, and the present role of Marxist theory in the American academy calls out for a self-reflective Marxist analysis that to my knowledge Jameson has never publicly engaged in.

Surrounding this silence is the even larger silence in his work about the concrete political experience of the Marxist states. He has been eloquent about the failures of the capitalist world but silent about the failures of the socialist world. I read Postmodernism with a good deal of curiosity to see if there was any acknowledgment, however oblique, of the momentous shifts in the position of Marxism in the world. There are some, but as in the reference to delegitimation above, Jameson acknowledges such shifts primarily when complaining about others’ defection from the one true faith:

Sweezy reminds us that capitalism failed to catch on in a number of places before it finally arrived in England; and that if the actually existing socialisms go down the drain, there will be other, better, ones later on. I believe this also, but we don’t have to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What I find dismaying about such a passage is not the by now somewhat quaint belief in the ultimate historical triumph of Marxism. One might actually want to praise Jameson here for at least sticking to his guns, not tacking and shifting in an opportunistic fashion. (This restatement of his unmodified belief is not an isolated moment in Jameson’s recent work; comparable passages can be found in his recent collected essays, The Ideologies of Theory.) What is more remarkable and harder to admire is the subtle but unmistakable implication that “the actually existing socialisms” are worth fighting for, clearly preferable to the existing state of things in the West. By this, it should be noted, he means the Marxist states of the now dissolving Soviet bloc, not any form of social democracy, the existence of which he does not seem to recognize.

This is by no means the only moment in Postmodernism where Jameson makes such a gesture. My favorite such moment is a remarkable passage in which he describes the recent wave of immigrants to the United States in disparaging terms and as being “driven out of the Third World by our own counter-insurgencies, and lured out of the Second by our media propaganda.” I always wondered why so many citizens of the “Second World” could have wanted to flee the “worker’s paradise” and come to the West, and I’m glad to know that our “media propaganda” was the cause. Why then wasn’t there a reverse immigration when they discovered what life in the West is really like? Can Jameson really believe this? This must be a high watermark even for him in its utter lack of any engagement with concrete reality, and it is surely not a good sign for a critical method that is supposed to be oriented towards sociopolitical reality that it has flinched so noticeably from it.

This point has been made about Jameson’s work before, and Jameson refers in Postmodernism to Wlad Godzich’s having reproached him for his ignoring in his other work the “Second World and in particular the Soviet Union.” He goes on to say that he will “make amends by exaggerating in the other direction.” The brief paragraph that follows, no heavy emphasis in a book of 400 pages, simply focuses on how Jameson regards the “failure of the Khrushchev experiment” as a missed opportunity for a “renewal of Marxism.” Nothing in this section or elsewhere in Jameson’s work suggests that he has developed or even feels the need to develop a critique of the historical record of Marxism. The Gulag is mentioned only to criticize the “Gulag Industry,” and the remark is part of a general pattern of obliquely acknowledging problems in the history of Marxism only to criticize those who use them as an excuse to “delegitimate” Marxism. So I am afraid Godzich’s critique has not been answered here, and this paragraph, in its palpable failure to fill Jameson’s silence about the “Second World” and about his own position in history, shows how deafening that silence is, particularly in someone who so relentlessly insists on positioning the discourse of others.

So deafening that if we stop there, we miss something. For at a much more abstract level, Postmodernism can be read as one long meditation on the place of Marxism in contemporary culture, and it is at that level that I find it most engaging, if still not ultimately convincing. Jameson’s full title, to reintroduce it, is Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, and the partial parallel between post and late in the title carries a good deal of the argument. Through all discussions of postmodernism runs the question posed inevitably by the name: what relation is there between modernism and postmodernism? Does postmodernism represent a break with, a continuation of, a development from, or a culmination of modernism? And Jameson has a cogent summary of this debate in his second chapter, “Theories of the Postmodern.” The late capitalism of the subtitle introduces a related debate in contemporary Marxism about the relation between the capitalism of today and that analyzed by Marx. It is clear enough that the economic forms of contemporary capitalism have diverged substantially from the nineteenth-century forms analyzed by Marx. But if capitalism has changed, how strong are the connections and how strong the discontinuities between nineteenth-century and contemporary capitalism? The concept of late capitalism introduced by Ernest Mandel and found in Jameson’s subtitle finesses this question in much the same way that the term postmodernism does, establishing both schism (hence the late or post) and continuity with what has come before. It is made clear enough in Postmodernism that Jameson sees a parallel between the transformation of contemporary culture culminating in postmodernism and the transformation of economic forms culminating in late capitalism. He in fact says that it was Mandel’s theorizing about late capitalism as a distinct stage that led him to see postmodernism in the same way.

At first glance, there is something wrong with this parallel, as late capitalism opposes itself to the early or classical capitalism of the nineteenth century, whereas postmodernism opposes itself to the modernism of the earlier twentieth century. But the parallel involves three terms, not two. By the turn of the century, Lenin and others had already seen that capitalism was transforming itself into something different from the classical capitalism analyzed by Marx.

For [Lenin] set the example of identifying a new stage of capitalism that was not explicitly foreseen in Marx: the so-called monopoly stage, or the moment of classical imperialism.

Late capitalism or multinational capitalism is what takes shape after imperialism, in the postcolonial world, and it thus can be presented—as it is by Mandel and Jameson—as the third stage of capitalism.

Jameson takes this tripartite scheme for granted, as a kind of grid, and a good deal of his work, not just Postmodernism but also his essay “Modernism and Imperialism” in Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature and much of the work collected in the two volumes of The Ideologies of Theory, can be seen as a detailed mapping of the history of culture onto this grid. Jameson sees a parallel between culture and economics in these three stages: the realism of Balzac, say, as comparable to classic capitalism; modernism as a reflection of imperialism; and now postmodernism as a reflection of late capitalism. In the first volume of The Ideologies of Theory, he writes:

These three moments can be enumerated as the classical or national market capitalism known to Marx, the moment of monopoly capital or the stage of imperialism (theorized by Lenin), and the permutation, finally, after World War II, into a global form of “multinational” capitalism which has as yet received no adequate designation in its own right (but is the object of an ambitious theorization by Ernest Mandel in his pathbreaking book Late Capitalism). To each of these systemic moments “corresponds” … the appropriate cultural moment of realism, modernism and postmodernism respectively.

It is the final parallelism between late capitalism and postmodernism that Jameson works at length to develop in Postmodernism, but this parallelism finds its ground and logic in the other parallels.

Now, it is important to recognize that this parallelism is not in Jameson’s work the basis for a critique or an easy put-down of the postmodern as complicit with capital. There are occasional moments of “vulgar Marxist” ideological labeling in Postmodernism, but Jameson also discusses at length why he neither rejects nor endorses postmodern art. For him, the proper response is modeled in Marx’s response to capitalism, which was to see how capitalism contained progressive tendencies in spite of itself. Jameson admires this attempt to think dialectically, and though there is much he disapproves of in postmodernism, he nonetheless sees in its historical inevitability some positive consequences and attributes. And although his analysis certainly seems committed to a rather old-fashioned Marxist way of thinking about the relation between cultural and economic formations in which the economic base is constitutive of the cultural superstructure, that doesn’t explain why this dialectical response is so important for him.

The third term that needs to be brought into this analysis is Marxism, for the evolution of Marxist thought offers a much closer parallel to the evolution of capitalism as Jameson portrays it than the evolution of culture does. Just as he is working with a model involving three periods, he is working with a parallel that also has three terms, and bringing Marxism into the picture helps cement the parallel between the three cultural and economic stages. If capitalism had its classic period as analyzed by Marx, so too did Marxism, in those very analyses, and the preferred esthetic form of that Marxism was the very Balzacian realism we can call classical. If capitalism then reconstituted itself in the late nineteenth century into imperialism or monopoly capitalism, in response to this reconstitution so too, after a natural lag time, did Marxism.

I find the analogy between imperialism and modernism the weakest connection of Jameson’s entire scheme, but introducing Marxism into the discussion helps a little here as well. The key figures in this postclassical, second stage of Marxism for Jameson were not so much Lenin or Gramsci as Adorno (the subject of another new book by Jameson) and the Frankfurt School, whose work can clearly be aligned with a strain within modernism. Finally, the very concept of late capitalism comes to us from the contemporary reworking of Marxism in the face of capitalism’s mysterious failure to collapse according to earlier Marxist predictions. Jameson makes it clear that his use of the term late capitalism does not entail a continuing prediction that capitalism is in its last hours. On the contrary, the term refers to capitalism’s remarkable ability to re-form itself and continue. As he says, the qualifier “late”

rarely means anything so silly as the ultimate senescence, breakdown, and death of the system as such (a temporal vision that would rather seem to belong to modernism than postmodernism). What “late” generally conveys is rather the sense that something has changed, that things are different.

In the same spirit, contemporary Marxist thought ought surely to be called late Marxism, to show its continuity with, but also its development beyond, the work of Marx and Engels. If Marxism must grope for an explanation of the puzzling vitality of contemporary capitalism, so too anyone confident of an easy demise to Marxism must grope for an explanation of the contemporary intellectual vitality of Marxism. Reports of the demise of capitalism and Marxism alike seem to have been greatly exaggerated, and the third or late stage of each is the stage in which the predicted senescence gives way to a new and (for some) puzzling upsurge of energy.

So the parallel Jameson draws between economic structures and cultural formations can be seen to extend to Marxism, the source of his insight into both. All three have moved from a classic phase through a modernist/imperialist one to a late phase in which we are now situated. We might in Jamesonian terms depict this graphically:

1830–1880 the classical period
1880–1940 Imperialism Modernism Lenin-Frankfurt School
1940–1990 Late capitalism Postmodernism Late Marxism

Such a scheme underlies a good deal of Jameson’s work, I think, and grasping this as the underlying scheme also enables us to understand why he is so anxious not to condemn postmodernism. If we are to think dialectically, we will find the good and the bad in all these phenomena. We will not write off capitalism, strangely forced to do good in spite of itself; we will not write off the culture of capitalism, no matter how complicit it may seem with capitalism; and by the same logic, we should not write off Marxism. I think his own form of late Marxism is what Jameson finally wants to defend in his long exposition of postmodernism and his specific urging of us to think dialectically. Virtually everything that postmodernism has been criticized for—its dense theorizing, its abandonment of traditional and modernist modes of representation, its coterie nature, its refusal to face concrete social and political situations—late Marxism, in particular its Jamesonian variant, could also be criticized for. And Jameson’s tactic here is not so much to defend postmodernism as to assert its inevitability, to show that we have no vantage point from which to attack it. “History is Necessity,” he says at the beginning of his essay “Periodizing the 60s,” which means that for him “the '60s had to happen the way it did.” This is true of everything else as well, and this assertion of historical necessity becomes an indirect defense of his own reading of history. We are all postmodern and cannot eliminate our own commerce with the postmodern; according to the same cultural logic, we are all post-Marxist and cannot eliminate our commerce with Marxism either.

This simply doesn’t work for me, as a claim about the place of either postmodernist art or of Marxist theory in our culture. History may be Necessity, but this doesn’t mean that we need to regard every historical narrative as if it represented Necessity. I frankly fail to understand why the project of “periodizing” is so important for Jameson; it strikes me as one of the weaknesses of Marxist cultural theory he has not been able to escape. But leaving aside the question of why he needs to essay what he calls a “totalizing definition” of postmodernism, his account simply omits too much for me to regard his history as at all determining. Wlad Godzich was only half right when he pointed to Jameson’s silence about the “Second World” as the real silence of his work. Given that the subject of Postmodernism is contemporary culture, there are good reasons for Jameson to avoid spending a lot of time on the “Second World,” for he would then have to face the fact that the only vital cultural production of that world has been oppositional, opposed to the Leninist state system he defends. But what is truly remarkable about the book is that virtually nothing gets said about the Third World. A more pointed way of putting this is that Postmodernism is entirely about white culture. Jameson’s postmodernist novelist is Claude Simon, not Salman Rushdie or Gabriel García Márquez, his exemplary theorists are Paul de Man and Walter Benn Michaels, and his chapter on video focuses on experimental art video, which allows him, except for a passing reference or two, to bypass the world of music video. His analysis of postmodern culture, focusing on the image and on visual representations, seems largely tone-deaf, as he completely ignores the world of contemporary popular music, and this reinforces the whiteness, the Eurocentricity, of his portrait, since contemporary popular musical culture stems largely from non-Western musical cultures.

Nor does this seem an accident of Jameson’s sampling. He talks a good deal about the 1960s in Postmodernism, making the acute point that the “delegitimation of the 1960s” has been a key topos of political reaction in the past decade. Yet it must be said that for someone committed to “defending the '60s” or at least to opposing its delegitimation, Jameson spends a fair amount of time criticizing what emerged from the 1960s. His primary target here is what he refers to as the “new social movements” or “the ideology of groups,” which I take to be a coded reference to feminism, to movements based on ethnic or racial questions and issues, to any movement deriving its unity from something other than a class base. (This analysis, one might note in passing, owes more than a little to that developed in The Art of Being Ruled by Wyndham Lewis, who is the subject of Jameson’s Fables of Aggression.) Jameson is generally dismissive of and sarcastic about attempts of this kind to move beyond class politics.

What is sometimes characterized as a nostalgia for class politics of some older type is generally more likely to be simply a “nostalgia” for politics tout court: … to describe this feeling as “nostalgia” is about as adequate as to characterize the body’s hunger, before dinner, as a “nostalgia for food.”

There is a curious parallel between Jameson’s dismissal of a “politics of groups” as not even constituting politics and his dismissing the cultural production of these groups as not even part of his subject, contemporary culture. In not being able to see the production of non-Western cultures or of minority groups in the United States as relevant to the defined subject of Postmodernism, contemporary culture, Fredric Jameson seems to join hands with William Bennett and Allan Bloom in walling off Western culture from the rest of the world, a resemblance that should appall everyone concerned.

This dismissal is not ignorance. Jameson has written about non-Western literature in his essay “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” which stresses how the esthetic and political presuppositions of Third-World literature is quite distinct from postmodernism, hearkening back to “outmoded stages of our own first world cultural development.” What is interesting is that Jameson has to overstate his case wildly to make this argument, as in fact much of the cultural production of non-Western countries could be considered modernist and postmodernist. Even within his selected set of examples, he has to misread his authors to see them as so many belated Dreisers and Sherwood Andersons. He discusses the work of the Senegalese writer and filmmaker Ousmane Sembene at some length, and a writer further in spirit from Dreiser and Anderson (or premodernist Western realism in general) is hard to imagine. What he misses above all in his distinction between realist, modernist, and postmodernist is the possibility that non-Western artists could be drawing on their own cultural traditions or combining them with Western forms in a different way; ignoring these possibilities, he sees the non-Western world as esthetically lagging, in a precise recapitulation of the concept of underdevelopment that he claims to deplore. So there is something very odd going on here. One might have expected Jameson to overstate the “postmodernness” of this material, in order to make his “totalizing definition” of postmodernism cover as much of contemporary culture as possible. Instead he understates it in “Third World Literature” and ignores the entire topic in Postmodernism, which has the effect of walling off the “pure” postmodernism of the European world from other varieties of contemporary culture around the world.

I’m the more disappointed by Jameson’s myopia here because elsewhere in Postmodernism he gives us some useful tools for seeing better. He has always been interested in utopianism and utopian art, and he has valued the power of imaginative literature to show us possible alternatives to the present order. This theme surfaces in Postmodernism in a discussion of science fiction and also in a discussion of the multinational corporation. Here, thinking dialectically, Jameson praises late capitalism in its multinational form for breaking down national barriers in ways that image—if in degraded form—a genuine human community. For Jameson to find the cultural forms constructively breaking down national barriers, he would have to look outside the Euro-American postmodernism which he focuses on in Postmodernism.

The thesis of “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism” is that non-Western literature is characterized by “an obsessive return of the national situation itself,” something Jameson finds quite absent in the United States. It strikes me that the truth of the matter is quite the reverse. If capitalism has become transnational in the postcolonial era, so too has the cultural production of the postcolonial world. Much of this work is stylistically consonant with the categories of the postmodern advanced in Jameson’s study, but much of it is not, hearkening back to modernism or premodernist realism in some cases, in other cases to esthetic norms of non-Western traditions. Wyndham Lewis wrote as long ago as 1946 in his prophetic essay, “Towards an Earth Culture,” that the artistic period after modernism, the one we are now in, was likely to be characterized by the construction of a world culture and consequently the absence of a single dominant period style in the older sense. Wyndham Lewis, not Jameson, was right in claiming that no single form—no single period concept—can capture the complexity of this development and of the era in which we find ourselves. Jameson’s assertion of a period style of postmodernism is only possible as long as he walls out and misreads what is being produced by the postcolonial cultures of the world.

For me, this is where the whole scheme falls apart. Other readers may have problems with what Jameson says about the postmodern works he discusses; my problem is with what he doesn’t discuss. Or, rather, it is with the fact that Jameson is discussing just one aspect of contemporary culture yet claims he is defining its totality. But one aspect is all it is, as the juxtaposition of the work discussed in “Third World Literature” with that discussed in Postmodernism would surely show. Readers with different interests will feel Jameson has neglected other aspects of contemporary culture. The specific omissions may not be as important as how they point to a central tension in the project, which is that a highly selective tour of some aspects of contemporary culture is being presented as a “totalizing definition.” Jameson must be aware of this selectivity since he has betrayed his awareness in “Third World Literature” that postmodernism does not define contemporary culture. But he cannot admit to it, nor can he give an explicit and coherent rationale for his exclusions, because his version of postmodernism would no longer seem historically inevitable if it were presented as just one aspect of contemporary culture, not an all-embracing totality. He wants it to seem inevitable because of the analogies he draws among economics, culture, and Marxist theory and the role this analogizing plays in his defense of Marxism: if we are all late capitalists and postmodernists, we are also all late Marxists.

The conclusion I would draw from the failure of Jameson’s argument, to return yet once more to the full title Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, is that postmodernism is not the logic of late capitalism. His attempt at a totalizing definition of postmodernism is ambitious and worthy of the attention of anyone trying to define the complex moment in which we live, but I find the failures of the attempt to be the most instructive aspect of his project. I don’t think that any adequate theory of our present moment can exclude the non-Western world so completely as Jameson does here or subsume it so entirely under Western categories as he has elsewhere. The problem, here as elsewhere, is Jameson’s adherence to a Marxism—and a quite old-fashioned Marxism at that—that simply cannot make sense of the non-European world. A fair incorporation of the rest of the world means that no neat label such as postmodernism will suffice. We live in an age of postmodernism, perhaps, but we do not live in the postmodern age, and we are not therefore all ineluctably postmodernist and post-Marxist. The world is not a simple place, certainly not as simple as the picture Jameson presents.

Susan E. Hawkins (review date Winter 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 38, No. 4, Winter, 1992, pp. 1003-5.

[In the following review of Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Hawkins finds Jameson's work caught “between insight and contradiction.”]

In the recent history of Anglo-American theoretical discourse, particularly postmodern theory, Fredric Jameson’s 1984 essay, from which this volume takes its title, stands as a stubbornly influential text. With the publication of this book, Jameson consolidates his reading of postmodernism and his position as America’s leading Marxist cultural critic.

Not surprisingly, the organization of [Postmodernism] exhibits certain postmodern tendencies, for instance, the re-appropriation of earlier statements into newer versions of the term in question: a short introduction is followed by the post-modernism essay alluded to above as well as Jameson’s other oft-reproduced 1984 essay on ideological positions within the postmodernism debate. The book then presents seven additional chapters, three of which have not been published before, and ends with a 130 page conclusion that, like the introduction, allows the writer considerable revisionary space in which to answer his critics and re-frame the issues. In between, Jameson subjects an entire range of postmodern cultural production—architecture, film, nouveau roman, visual arts, economic and literary theory—to his distinct brand of “formal and historical analysis.”

For Jameson, postmodernism functions as a “cultural dominant” which must be periodized despite current theoretical opposition to such a move as totalizing and bracketing. To situate postmodernism historically is to define it as far more than a “style” or a “moment.” “Postmodernism is the consumption of sheer commodification as a process.” Hence the definitive features Jameson finds peculiar to postmodernism, especially the conflation of “culture” and the economic, contain profound, perhaps formative, influences on postmodern subjectivity. In following Ernest Mandel’s economic model (Late Capitalism, trans 1975), Jameson traces three expansions of capitalism since the nineteenth century: market; monopoly (or imperialist); and multinational (or late). He further agrees with Mandel’s strikingly original thesis that late capitalism, rather than constituting an economic situation beyond the predictive capacities of Marx’s analytic frame, constitutes instead “the purest form of capital yet to have emerged.” Multinational capital has succeeded in perhaps “a new and historically original penetration and colonization of Nature and the Unconscious,” effected, in large part, by its continuous advertising and media saturation. “VISA. It’s everywhere you want to be!”

Jameson chooses to see postmodernism as a unique break with modernism rather than, as does Habermas for instance, a modified but still identifiable continuation. The modernist period coincides with monopoly capitalism and the actualities of modernization while modernism functions as a complex of artistic, social, and cultural responses to the demands and pressures of the modernization process. Perceiving itself as the age of the New, modernism still retains versions of older notions, for instance the idea of progress and telos in art as well as in history. Think of the anarchic but transformative focus of the avant-garde, the reality of the Russian revolution, the Utopian desire manifest in various socialist movements. “Make it New” also foregrounds the power of the “unique style” which marked the “so-called centered subject” and made parody possible. A classic modernist moment for Jameson occurs in Rilke’s “Archaic Torso” when the figure “warns the bourgeois subject”: “You must change your life.” In short, although alienated, the modernist subject is capable of psychic depth, of emotion. Time and Nature exist if only to be represented as full aesthetic objects. Although not necessarily apparent from my brief summary, Jameson’s conception of modernism, like that of postmodernism and Marxism, contains no gender or race categories and depends upon a decidedly white, masculinist perspective.

“Postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good.” With nature evacuated and time transformed into an ever-present Now, postmodern culture—reproduced everywhere through capital—replicates itself, an endless array of multifaceted surfaces, a Baudrillardian extravaganza of simulacra, Disneyworld/MGM studios Playland a paradigm of American “reality.” Given such a reality the postmodern subject suffers a “waning of affect” and resembles, in extremis, nothing so much as a schizo-screen experiencing and reflecting continual channel switching. Videotext, spatial and simultaneous, replaces the linear narrative. In fact, space, or the “spatialization of the temporal,” emerges as the primary experiential dimension in postmodern art and culture. History, lost to any of its traditional definitions, becomes “historicities,” irruptions of the fragmentized past. This “libidinal historicism,” or pastiche, defines not only a good deal of postmodern architectural design, but emerges in Jameson’s analysis, as the dominant formal practice across an entire spectrum of artistic and cultural production. Unlike parody, which must rely upon an “original,” pastiche works through “the random cannibalization … of dead styles.”

Jameson’s conceptualization of pastiche, an “original” contribution, along with the other constitutive features enumerated here, has become, in the last decade, one of the definitive discourses about postmodernism. As such it has received numerous critiques: his theory is “totalizing,” it’s sexist, elitist, hopelessly contradictory, and barely Marxist. While some of these criticisms are “truer” than others, given the necessity of space limitations, I will deal with the latter two.

“Always historicize,” Jameson urged at the beginning of The Political Unconscious in 1981, and in his own way he has attempted to do that here. But, and the qualification is enormous, how does one do that facing the end of time and history? Temperamentally and politically a modernist, Jameson nonetheless lives in a postmodern America, a place in which drive-by shootings and car-jackings, cyberspace, Donald Trump and thousands of homeless all coexist on the Big Screen; and all of them are made possible through the only totality that exists for Jameson, the totality of capital. Postmodernism as a term is “not merely contested, it is also internally conflicted and contradictory,” and he cautions “against … conceptual reification” of the term itself. He is an always capitalized Marxist and dialectician who finds himself theorizing a culture and theory that are “always already” incapable of synthesis. Caught in a two term dialectic, Jameson shuttles between insight and contradiction, precluded from ever arriving at a resolution.

K. M. Newton (review date April 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, in British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 32, No. 2, April, 1992, pp. 180-1.

[In the following review, Newton offers a positive assessment of Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.]

Fredric Jameson is generally regarded as one of the major opponents of post-modernism, viewing it from a Marxist perspective as the product of ‘late capitalism’. Linda Hutcheon in her book, A Poetics of Postmodernism, sees him as ‘inimical’ to it. But, as this book [Postmodernism] shows, to classify Jameson as a critic who attacks post-modernism from a typical Marxist position is an extremely crude characterization of his approach to it. It is true that Jameson does interpret post-modernism as a cultural phenomenon that cannot be understood unless one sees it in relation to ‘late capitalism’ and one is used to this phrase being employed by Marxists to condemn various aspects of late twentieth-century Western culture. Jacques Derrida has been critical of the term ‘late capitalism’ and by implication of modern Marxists for using it. He argues that it is an empty phrase that has no analytic content. In his introduction Jameson defends the term and spends several pages implicitly refuting Derrida by spelling out in detail what it means. He stresses particularly the emergence of new forms of capitalism, such as multi-national companies, which have changed the capitalist system in a fundamental way. Other features that he mentions are ‘the new international division of labour, a vertiginous new dynamic in international banking and the stock exchanges …, new forms of media interrelationship …, computers and automation, the flight of production to advanced Third World areas …, the emergence of yuppies, and gentrification on a now-global scale’ (p. xix).

Whereas the use of the term ‘late capitalism’ by most Marxists almost invariably is accompanied by a tone of disapproval or condemnation, such connotations are virtually absent from Jameson’s use. For him it is a descriptive term that is a tool for understanding late-twentieth-century cultural phenomena. With many Marxist critics, even those such as Terry Eagleton who have tried to go beyond ‘vulgar’ Marxism, one feels that for them the literature or art that they discuss is fundamentally flawed by the fact that it is the product of a culture underpinned by the capitalist economic system. Such literature or art ought to be ashamed of existing since it collaborates with such a system. But Jameson is not this moralistic kind of Marxist. Marxism for him is rather a means of understanding a society and its products and he does not convey the impression that it would be better if such products did not exist. What comes across strongly in this book is that Jameson is enthusiastic about post-modernist art. His work on post-modernism is often linked with that of Eagleton, who has discussed post-modernism in somewhat similar terms, but in contrast to Jameson Eagleton’s whole approach is much more negative. Post-modernism for Eagleton is so flawed at source that little or anything can be said in favour of any art associated with it.

Jameson rejects moralistic discussion of post-modernism, whether negative or positive: ‘a genuinely historical and dialectical analysis of such phenomena … cannot afford the impoverished luxury of such absolute moralizing judgments’ (p. 62). In contrast he attempts ‘to assess the new cultural production within the working hypothesis of a general modification of culture itself with the social restructuring of late capitalism as a system’ (p. 62). In Jameson’s earlier book, The Political Unconscious, it was clear that he had been strongly affected by Walter Benjamin’s assertion that ‘There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’ and he re-affirms that view in this book: ‘the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror’ (p. 5). Works of art must be interpreted with this in mind but he does not suggest, like most Marxist critics, that these works ought to have been otherwise or that the triumph of Marxism as a system will lead to the emergence of an untainted art. Jameson values Utopian thinking but not because Utopia can be achieved but rather because it creates ideals that allow critique to operate and can thus bring about change. His interest is not in judging works of art in relation to an ideal that they should have attained but rather in interpreting them in such a way that they further what he sees as the fundamental project of Marxism, which he defines in The Political Unconscious as ‘the collective struggle to wrest a realm of Freedom from a realm of Necessity’.

Whereas critics who are antagonistic to post-modernism tend to see it as irresponsibly playful or as passively accepting existing social structures, Jameson believes that it can be seen as furthering the struggle for freedom which for him underlies the Marxian conception of history. He sees it, for example, as signalling the end of the belief in a self-sufficient ego, which is liberating though he does not disguise the fact that this leaves one with a new dilemma: ‘The end of the bourgeois ego, or monad, no doubt brings with it the end of the psychopathologies of that ego’ but such ‘liberation … from the older anomie of the centered subject may also mean not merely liberation from anxiety but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well’ (p. 15). Post-modernism is not in his interpretation an escapist or decadent form of art but inherently connected with the Marxian problematic. Jameson does not merely assert this abstractly but demonstrates it persuasively by detailed discussion of post-modernist works of various types and by looking at post-modernism as it is manifested in a variety of different spheres.

Readers of Jameson’s Political Unconscious, one of the most difficult books of modern criticism, may feel reluctant to tackle a book that is about twice the length of the earlier one. Though Jameson’s writing cannot ever be said to be easy, I found this book more accessible, even if some of the chapters are over-extended. The book would have been more powerful if Jameson, like ordinary mortals who write critical works, had been restricted by a word limit. Some of the chapters also deal with topics that seem only peripherally related to post-modernism, such as his discussions of New Historicism and the work of Paul de Man, even if he has interesting things to say about these subjects. Despite these drawbacks, this is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and illuminating books on post-modernism yet published.

Ralph Flores (review date Spring 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 459-60.

[In the following review, Flores summarizes Jameson's concerns in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.]

At the outset we are advised that “it is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten to think historically.” Does that proverblike paradox apply to Postmodernism? Does Fredric Jameson attempt to do what the age is said to have forgotten? Working in a slippery environment, his text seems provocatively tentative and its range of enthusiasms virtually unlimited. Some features of Jameson’s topic (and his style) might be listed: the way in which a range of discourses coalesce, the disappearance of master narratives, the possibility of finding “symptoms” anywhere, the loss of depth and of affect. Jameson confronts the ensuing problems of interpretation and Utopia in a series of chapters entitled “Culture,” “Ideology,” “Video,” “Architecture,” “Sentences,” “Space,” “Theory,” “Economics,” and “Film.”

Postmodernism begins by contrasting van Gogh’s famous painting of a pair of shoes with Andy Warhol’s, noticing a ghostly inversion in the later piece. Here as elsewhere, Jameson’s discussions of esthetics are also of culture and politics. The paintings of David Salle, for instance, are described in images of “culture spill” or a “logjam of the visual,” whose empty organization precludes demystification or definitive interpretation.

Jameson takes contemporary theory to be a facet of postmodernism and gives extensive accounts of theories of postmodernism as well as of his use of the term late capitalism. He offers photographs of recent sculptures and videos as well as of the Frank Gehry house. He also gives intriguing readings of texts by Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benn Michaels, and the New Historicists. Few readers are likely to accept, however, the classification of de Man as an “apolitical … high-modernist aesthete.” Jameson reads de Man’s early anti-Semitic journalism as irony, claiming that the irony has been “disastrously misunderstood.” Irony (as de Man noted) often provides no privileged point of view from which it might be assessed or grounded. Jameson’s reading, moreover, though courageously unusual, is arguably relevant to postmodernism.

In such readings Jameson’s study may attest to a wistfulness for master narratives or master concepts. Throughout the book we meet with the frequent adjective great (“the great modernist thematics,” “Marx’s … great analysis”), even as we are told of the disappearance of “the Great Writer.” Hegel, as Jameson recalls, wrote of the end of art, but only as a herald of something greater. With its exuberant sense of greatness, Postmodernism may be more Hegelian than it knows. In implying a new start, of the as yet unknowable, Jameson’s text may seem to make promises.

Stephen Regan (review date January 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, in Modern Language Review, Vol. 89, No. 1, January, 1994, pp. 168-69.

[In the following review, Regan offers positive assessment of Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.]

Fredric Jameson’s critique of postmodernism is salutary reading for anyone who might blithely assume that Marxist criticism lies in ruins with the Berlin Wall. It is precisely because Jameson’s vigorous political intelligence resists any simple celebration or easy disavowal of postmodern culture that we are given a book of such enormous intellectual ambition and theoretical complexity. Like Raymond Williams, whose presence in [Postmodernism] is strongly marked, Jameson approaches culture not just as a set of styles but as ‘lived experience’. For both writers, questions of culture are deeply implicated in questions of economic production and organization. Without abandoning the classical Marxist concepts of base and superstructure, Jameson is able to construct an elaborate thesis which recognizes postmodernism as the dominant cultural form of multinational capitalism. If realism was appropriate to an earlier market capitalism and modernism corresponded to the later monopoly capitalism underwritten by imperialism, then postmodernism is the cultural logic of a third stage of capitalist enterprise, dominated by a new global network of corporate wealth.

While accepting that postmodernism is fraught with contradictions and inconsistencies, Jameson attempts to outline its constitutive features. A prominent characteristic of postmodern culture is its apparent depthlessness; it is essentially a culture of the image or ‘simulacrum’, manufactured and promoted by a whole new technology. An obvious consequence of this superficiality is the eclipse of historicity, so that while postmodernism flaunts an eclectic ‘history’ of styles it nevertheless denies any genuine experience and understanding of the past. The temporal experiments of modernism have given way to a new concern with spatial relationship, typified in this book by the postmodern hyperspace of the Western Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles. The bewildering sense of space in such buildings aptly conveys the individual subject’s disorientation within ‘the great global multinational and decentered communicational network’ (p. 44).

One of the unnerving contradictions of postmodernism is that while it partakes of a populist rhetoric, seeming to break down distinctions between high culture and mass culture, it abandons the oppositional tendency and political potential of earlier modernist art. While Van Gogh’s painting of the peasant shoes, A Pair of Boots, directs attention to its social context, Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes elicits a different kind of hermeneutical response, appearing to revel in its own decorative exhilaration. What Jameson observes here is ‘the waning of effect’ in postmodern culture, a seeming indifference towards emotion or feeling and a resulting loss of critical awareness. Similarly, while Edvard Munch’s The Scream displays a modernist aesthetic of anxiety and alienation, postmodern art seems to exist beyond ‘expression’ and shows little regard for the psychopathologies of the individual self. Jameson’s analysis of postmodern culture, however, is not simply dismissive. While acknowledging the diminished social and political function of the new art forms, he is clearly impressed by the sheer exuberance of experimental video. There are many excellent and detailed examples of the new aesthetic at work in architecture, painting, literature, and film, though some of the chosen artefacts (the videotext AlienNation, the Frank Gehry House in Santa Monica, and Claude Simon’s novel The Conducting Bodies) might lead one to think that postmodernism reached its zenith in the 1970s. Jameson is an engaging and companionable guide, and his own prose style is replete with the exhilarating rhythms and buzz words of contemporary American culture, with its ‘roller skates and multinationals, word processors and overnight unfamiliar postmodern downtown high rises’ (p. 367).

The energy and intensity of Jameson’s remarkable study are generated by an enduring concern with problems of interpretation and value. There is throughout this book a reassertion of the cognitive and pedagogical dimensions of art and culture in the face of a growing form of image addiction. Jameson recognizes at the same time, though, that moral disapproval of postmodernism has somehow become ‘unavailable’ or untenable and that criticism must make its way through ‘some effective contemporary cultural politics’. What this involves in the first place is learning how to contend with the world space of multinational capital, so as to ‘regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as our social confusion’ (p. 54). What Jameson proposes is an aesthetic of ‘cognitive mapping’, a new form of spatial awareness which will enable a better understanding of our bewildering contemporary world system. From a British Marxist perspective, Jameson might appear to give too little attention to questions of social class; it is difficult to see how his call for a new spatial awareness might issue simultaneously in a new class consciousness. Welcome as it might be, there is a lack of historical specificity in his summoning of ‘a class consciousness of a new and hitherto undreamed of kind’ (p. 410). But if Jameson’s political thinking is utopian, it is utopian in the best sense: not a species of romantic idealism but a clear-sighted realization of our desperate need to imagine something else, ‘a crucial test of what is left of our capacity to imagine change at all’ (p. xvi).

Wendy Kozol (review date June 1994)

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SOURCE: “Questions of Looking,” in American Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 2, June, 1994, pp. 276-89.

[In the following excerpt, Kozol offers a positive assessment of Signatures of the Visible, despite finding several shortcomings in the work.]

In recent decades, interdisciplinary studies of the popular world have brought forth new research on photography, film, and television.1 In the study of visual media, questions arise about how images encode meanings as well as about the complex social experiences of looking. Moving beyond analyses of visual media as transparent reflections of the social world, cultural theories provide methods for examining factors such as the interactions between narrative and visual experience, or studying the social contexts in which visual media are consumed.

Consider two examples that challenge American studies scholars to address the social context, ideological meanings, and political contestations of visual culture. According to Walter Benjamin, capitalism transforms the prostitute into a commodity through the fashions and makeup that package her as an identifiable figure. This interest in the visual signifiers that mark the prostitute belongs to Benjamin’s expansive project in which he reads the commodities of nineteenth-century industrial society as historical records of cultural change. Benjamin’s theories of mass culture, and in particular his interest in visual artifacts, have been tremendously influential for later critics who analyze the ways in which cultural forms express social desires and conflicts. For instance, Fredric Jameson introduces his 1991 volume on film with the following comment: “The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination. … Pornographic films are thus only the potentiation of films in general, which ask us to stare at the world as though it were a naked body” (1). However much Jameson’s definition obscures the differences among various ways of looking, his emphasis on the visual echoes Benjamin’s concern with visual images; Jameson examines not only how film objectifies the world but also how it shapes the experience of viewing.

These two examples indicate some of the theoretical issues that visual images pose for scholars: namely, how do we analyze the visual experience, an experience embodied in a cultural but nonlinguistic moment? American consumption of films, videos, and photographs necessitates attention not only to visual culture but also to the critical methods that translate the visual experience into linguistic analysis. The three books under review—Susan Buck-Morss’s The Dialectics of Seeing, Pierre Bourdieu’s Photography: A Middle-brow Art, and Fredric Jameson’s Signatures of the Visible—all offer important and provocative theoretical approaches for the study of the popular visual world as they variously explore the cultural meanings and social conditions that mediate production and reception. …

Fredric Jameson shares with both Bourdieu and Benjamin a compelling fascination with the social functions, legitimizing forces, and utopian dreams embedded in visual images. Signatures of the Visible, a collection of essays written over the last decade, explores how films struggle to articulate cultural identities within the terrain of power relations and social desires. These essays develop and expand upon the ideas of Benjamin and the Frankfurt School; they also draw upon semiotics and deconstruction to present a rich and complex analysis of the political meanings in popular and alternative film traditions. Jameson explores cinematic representations of historical relations in essays that range from analyses of popular films such as The Shining (1980) to critiques of such directors as Hans-Jurgen Syberberg and Alfred Hitchcock. Like Benjamin, Jameson attempts to understand the historical role of cultural commodities. Of course, Benjamin’s and Jameson’s views of capitalism are not identical since, despite certain continuities, capitalism has not remained static. Writing in an age caught between National Socialism and Stalinism, Benjamin hoped to encourage the emergence of class consciousness by demystifying false consciousness and revealing utopian social desires. Writing in the very different cultural moment of postmodernism, Jameson’s interest in late capitalism addresses the different possibilities that arise from advances in communications technology. He uses poststructural theories to decenter consciousness and, thus, to move Marxist criticism away from the more instrumental assumption that demystification can uncover a new class consciousness. Jameson challenges conventional notions of agency and causality by examining how political ideologies operate at unconscious levels among the social collective. In this volume, he analyzes the ways in which films structure what he calls the “political unconscious” to account for historical changes in mass culture.2

The volume begins with “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” in which Jameson argues that although mass culture’s capitalist processes “reify” cultural expression into commodities, they must at the same time address utopian hopes and dreams in order to appeal to audiences. Even the most degraded forms of mass culture, he argues, retain a critique of the social order. Therefore, mass culture acts not merely as a distraction or false consciousness “but rather as a transformational work on social and political anxieties and fantasies which must then have some effective presence in the mass cultural text in order subsequently to be ‘managed’ or repressed” (25). Jameson’s argument that popular culture’s dialectical nature contains the struggle between commodification and transcendent hopes has been tremendously influential in its challenge to a generation of popular culture scholars to think about culture as a site of contestation.3

This essay shares with all of the articles in this volume Jameson’s insistence on locating cultural production in its historical context. As he writes, “the only way to think the visual … is to grasp its historical coming into being” (1). Moreover, as he explains in “Allegorizing Hitchcock,” this historical perspective must examine not only internal developments in filmmaking but also how film as a cultural apparatus responds to developing stages of capitalism. Most important, Jameson argues that by reintroducing historical considerations in questions of perception, cultural theorists can “reground more abstract discussions about the construction of the subject” (126). For instance, he points to developments in Western history beginning in the eighteenth century in which a growing reification of sight and the fragmentation of the bodily sensorium coincided with a new hierarchy of the senses that culminate in the twentieth century when the visual becomes culturally dominant. This historical focus enriches our understanding of the role of visual media in the development of capitalist culture.

Jameson’s analysis of the popular 1975 motion picture Dog Day Afternoon, in “Class and Allegory in Contemporary Mass Culture,” demonstrates how this historicizing argument enhances film criticism. Using the concept of figuration to show how class becomes visible in storytelling, Jameson examines how this film about a bank robbery represents historical developments in late capitalism, including the rise of multinational corporations, governmental surveillance, urban decay, and neighborhood conflict. Jameson discusses American colonizing power both in terms of how Hollywood appropriates the Other and how films about American social conflicts in turn articulate global politics. Jameson’s contribution is strongest in his discussions of the ways in which narrative exposes the “political unconscious” in film. His emphasis on narrative, however, points to some problems that his method presents for analyzing visual images.

“Class and Allegory,” like other essays in this volume, relies heavily on literary techniques to analyze the narrative which in turn often treats visual signifiers as if they were literary tropes. The limitations of this approach are evident in his analysis of Dog Day Afternoon. He concludes that while the film explores a renewed class consciousness, the film is ultimately not a political film because the class system is only implicit and can as “easily be ignored or repressed by its viewers as brought to consciousness” (52). While his concerns about the ambiguities of class consciousness are important, his focus on the narrative dimensions of class differences limits our understanding of political struggle. Although Jameson discusses how homosexuality aligns in this film with other forms of marginalization in opposition to dominant culture, he does not examine the visual representations of gay men in the context of gender politics and homophobia in Hollywood and among American audiences. Notably, there is no analysis of the competing or contradictory messages offered by the camera. For instance, in Dog Day Afternoon, how does the camera’s gaze signify the relationships between the bank robber lovers? Do these gazes reinforce or undermine sexual tensions and ambiguities? And, most important, why are not these tensions and ambiguities considered political struggle? Similarly, in the introduction when Jameson frames the experience of looking in pornographic terms, he accepts the gendered nature of viewing since pornography is predicated on the desire to look at the gendered body. Yet, he does not directly explore the forces and implications of gender politics. Moreover, he does not identify the gender of either the naked body or the viewer, much less how factors such as race or ethnicity shape this experience of looking. While Jameson discusses general developments in perception, he does not carry this through to the level of visual analysis often enough. The resulting plot-driven analyses in discussions of popular films such as Jaws (1975), while fascinating studies of the narrative construction of political ideologies, often miss the dialogic (and political) nature of the visual in its engagement with the narrative.

The extended last chapter, “The Existence of Italy,” is an original essay written for the volume. It traces the historical developments leading from realism to modernism to postmodernism. Jameson analyzes the relationships among narrative, specularity, science, and rationalization in order to demonstrate how aesthetic realism functioned as a component of the bourgeois cultural revolution. With regard to modernist film, he discusses 1950s filmmakers’ interest in what he calls the psychic subject, or the psychological motivations of the subject, which are visualized through the camera’s gaze. In Hitchcock, for instance, voyeurism motivates the looking that in turn generates the narrative. Regarding postmodernism, Jameson focuses on nostalgia films, such as The Godfather (1972), which envision history as specific moments that call upon viewers to fill in the gaps and leaps with preexisting historical stereotypes. He argues that nostalgia films often evoke the conflicting ideals of aristocratic wealth in the 1920s and class struggle in the 1930s. Films such as Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) or Coppola’s The Godfather act as symbolic articulations of the historical transition between feudalism and capitalism. As Jameson comments: “If this is, as the form assures us, for the moment the only topic in the world, then it must necessarily be called upon to include all those other repressed obsessions and interests within itself … and to offer a privileged occasion for the restaging of the historical trauma” (228). This richly textured discussion analyzes the political implications of nostalgia, which is such an important component of certain postmodern forms.

Jameson’s goal in this article is to present only a historical outline, not the fully developed theory that he elaborates on elsewhere.4 Notably, this aesthetic history, which concludes with the description of the historical trauma in nostalgia films, attempts to identify the “cultural dominant” of postmodernism. Jameson argues that with the shift to postmodernism, the psychic subject disappears altogether, hence “postmodern specularity needs no motivation since it has become its own reason for being: a subject obsessed with looking does not have to be ‘constructed’ since there are no longer any centered subjects of that sort in the first place” (217). This effort to find a definitive narrative needs to be examined further in relation to the polysemic images produced not only in alternative film traditions, as Jameson suggests, but also in Hollywood films. Although he considers in richer depth the role of the camera, especially in his analysis of Third World films, his discussion of Hollywood nostalgia films does not explicitly examine their film strategies. Without visual analyses of the films, it remains unclear why the decentered postmodern subject’s obsession with looking does not have to be constructed or why specularity now lacks motivation. Moreover, when Jameson refers to the postmodern subject, he does not address the position of that subject. Although postmodern filmmakers may no longer visualize a singular subject, they often explore subjectivity through representations of multiple social, ethnic, and class positions. In Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989), for instance, subjectivity does not disappear; instead, characters constantly negotiate their subject positions in relation to other characters. A fuller analysis of individual films and their visual strategies would enrich readers’ understanding of the complexities, contradictions, and ambiguities of postmodernism.

Whether or not one agrees in full with Jameson’s analysis of postmodernism, he poses important challenges to readers in these incisive and provocative critiques of contemporary popular and alternative films. These extraordinarily erudite analyses demonstrate why Jameson has been one of the most influential scholars in cultural studies. In particular, his insistence on historicizing cultural production is tremendously important to analyses of popular culture and social change.

In making crucial theoretical contributions that American studies scholars will find invaluable, these three books offer compelling arguments about the social and political meanings of popular culture, especially in the areas of class relations and class consciousness. As the authors variously demonstrate, when we consider the act of looking, we need to consider the politics of our looking. But, these politics are formed through the interactions between the multiple positions of both those represented and those who do the looking. Through historical analyses of the political and cultural processes that define and constrain social groups, American studies scholars can offer important modifications to these cultural theories. For all of the strengths of these theoretical works, they often ignore how certain power relations shape the production and reception of visual imagery. In learning from these theoretical approaches, therefore, we must extend them to include considerations of how historically located social positions of dominance, difference, and marginality inform visual experiences.


  1. Among influential recent studies on visual culture, see for example Peter Hales, Silver Cities: The Photography of American Urbanization (Philadelphia, 1984); Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics and Cinema (Bloomington, Ind., 1984); Tania Modleski, ed., Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture (Bloomington, Ind., 1986); Robert C. Allen, ed., Channels of Discourse: Television and Contemporary Criticism (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1987); and Patricia Mellencamp, Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Bloomington, Ind., 1990).

  2. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, N.Y., 1981).

  3. For an analysis of this article’s influence on cultural studies, see Michael Denning, “The End of Mass Culture,” International Labor and Working Class History 7 (Spring 1990): 4–40.

  4. See Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, N.C., 1991).

Anders Stephanson (review date January 1995)

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SOURCE: “A Stitch or Nine,” in Artforum, Vol. XXXIII, No. 5, January, 1995, pp. 15-6.

[In the following review of The Seeds of Time, Stephanson discusses Jameson's analysis of postmodernity.]

“We are all tired of it.” This was Fredric Jameson’s peremptory reply when he was asked in the late '80s about the post-Modernism debate he himself had done so much to initiate earlier in the decade. He was right, of course. The term, if not the concept, had degenerated into MTV lingo. But here he is, nonetheless, resurrecting the debate with a highly charged intervention.

What has propelled him to do this? Primarily, I think, the geopolitical collapse of virtually all anti-systemic resistance to late capitalism and global Americanization. In Jameson’s book [The Seeds of Time], this is also the victory of post-Modern culture and so cause for reassessment. He now asks “how it is possible for the most standardized and uniform social reality in history, by the merest ideological flick of the thumbnail, the most imperceptible of displacements, to reemerge as the rich oil-smear sheen of absolute diversity and of the unimaginable and unclassifiable forms of human freedom.” The question is not meant to be rhetorical. It is indeed “easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism.”

Post-Modernity, then, is a kind of blockage of our political imaginary, the impossibility of conceiving alternatives to the present because we cannot even represent, totalize, it. Jameson’s seminal theorization ten years ago ended with that failure in our “cognitive mapping.” Now, when his erstwhile diagnosis is looking a good deal more prophetic than he would have wished, he probes the blockage further. The basic idea (taken from Hegel) is that by recognizing a conceptual limitation one is drawing a line, a line that then changes the limitation itself by becoming part of it, thus in turn making possible further change. The diagnosis, in short, is a protopolitical act.

The text derives from the Wellek Library Lectures in Critical Theory, given at the University of California, Irvine, in 1991, but is here much extended and reworked. The result reads very little like a series of lectures and lends itself not at all to summary. Stylistically it is quintessential Jameson, a well-nigh Wagnerian composition of dense and tangled sentences, punctuated by epigrammatic clarity (as he himself might have put it)—not everyone’s cup of tea but, dare one say, always original. As usual, the method is Freudian symptomatology, the theory Marxist concepts of class and modes of production: in both cases depth models and no apologies offered. Jameson’s work falls into three disparate parts. The first is an attempt to delineate a series of undialectical “antinomies” within post-Modernist theory and turn them into something more contradictory. The second illuminates what is always omitted in post-Modernism discussions, namely second-world culture and the historical existence of culture that is not commodified. The particular exhibit here is Andrei Platonov’s recently discovered idea of a peasant utopia, discussed in an essay written in the late '20s. The third “movement” marks a return to the kind of structuralist method that Jameson laid out in The Political Unconscious (1981), his mature theoretical statement about Modernism. Greimasian semiotics is now applied to architecture, specifically to the three exemplary figures of Rem Koolhaas, Peter Eisenman, and Kenneth Frampton, sympathetically treated for their complicated relation to Modernism and post-Modernism alike.

Ingenious and powerful though it is, I shall leave the Platonov essay largely aside. Jameson himself says it “sticks out like a sore thumb,” and it does. The format prevents the kind of sustained analysis of Soviet culture and politics necessary to make it work as an argument. It ends abruptly, after dark and brooding reflection on utopia and death, the theme itself expressive of deepening pessimism while at the same time being a defiant gesture. I shall also have to ignore, for lack of space, much of the fascinating architectural discussion in order to focus on the initial and more controversial theoretical move.

First, then, the nondialectical oscillations, “the paralysis of postmodern thinking by the structure of the antinomy.” Jameson makes a blistering (variously incisive, dogmatic, and funny) attack on the ur-antinomy of the last decade, Identity and Difference, through which the bracketing of context and history so characteristic of post-Modernity has been engineered. These two non-dialectical “sorting systems” combined “have the advantage of seeming to offer virtually no content in their own right, no smuggled philosophical contraband, as neutral and value-free as technology or the market.” Meanwhile, late capitalism itself has achieved the form of “sheer speculation, something like the triumph of spirit over matter, the liberation of the form of value from any of its former concrete or earthly content.” Post-Modern discourse in that sense has ended in “technocratic positivism and experiential nominalism.”

The territory is then clear for the unceasing play of antinomies within “a kind of conceptual freeze-frame.” Four symptomatic antinomies are diagnosed. The first has to do with time and space: change turns into stasis, so that “everything now submits to the perpetual change of fashion and media image,” but “nothing can change any longer.” This is Alexandre Kojève’s end of history, a perpetual game of masks and roles without substance. Putting an end to change itself thus becomes the only radical change conceivable. The antinomy is paralytic.

Post-Modern time, a perpetual present of perpetual change, thus turns into space, a homogeneous space where multinational capitalism “reigns supreme and devastates the very cities and countryside it created in the process of its own earlier development.” Yet—and this is the second antinomy—this homogeneity is experienced as heterogeneity because we are given to imagine the second-world city as a drab Other. The capitalist city can thus be sold as “a well-nigh Bakhtinian carnival of heterogeneities, of differences, libidinal excitement, and a hyperindividuality that effectively decenters the old individual subject by way of individual hyperconsumption.”

This leads to the question of Nature and the twin desire to erase all notions of it but also to see it ecologically preserved. To the former side belong antifoundationalism and antiessentialism, two theory staples of the '80s. Antifoundationalism Jameson gleefully interprets “as a strategy that replicates the dynamic of late positivist capitalism,” the post-Fordist “drive to liquidate inventories as such.” The post-Fordist vision of plurality, in short, “seems peculiarly consonant with the more intellectual mobility and strategic erasure of an antifoundational ideal, in its vision of a mind unfurnished with first principles that can grapple with the business at hand directly, in an unmediated and technocratic way, without prejudice or mental inventory or cumbersome ideological stock.” Politically, this is then coupled with a compensatory return to ethics in the form of formalist systems without content, articulating a need to find nonfoundational foundations for one’s being toward the world.

The post-Modern market, then, stands as the great global analagon here; but the market is in actual fact “both an essentialism and a foundationalism,” so what is in fact conjured forth is “the spectacle of a whole post-Modern metaphysic.” This brings out Jameson’s last antinomy: the antiutopian arguments that turn out to be utopian. The current “boom industry” of political antiutopianism, the reaction against every attempt at collective control of our conditions of existence, finds its companion here in the post-Modern critiques of the Modernist hubris of totality and transcendence. But the market in whose name this antiutopianism is launched actually serves the purpose of a classic utopian machine, the machine that absorbs necessity and releases freedom at large, indeed freedom as a kind of post-Modern delirium. Antiutopian “market fantasies” are in fact best categorized together “with other glorious Utopian thought-experiments.” What remains by way of opposition? Not much but the existential choice of class solidarity. Lukács and Sartre, as always, lurk in the background. For the moment, then, the best Jameson can hold out is a certain stoical wisdom, as opposed to resignation, until the world has been so completely standardized that new and unexpected solidarities can once again emerge: the unknown seeds of time that are now being sown.

I want also to say a brief word about Jameson’s stimulating digression on cyberpunk and “dirty realisms,” inspired by Liane Lefaivre and attached to the analysis of Koolhaas. A century ago, Modernist depictions of the lowly Other were marked by an unmistakable distance. Cyberpunk illuminates one of the fundamental “structural features of post-Modernity,” namely, “the weakening if not the outright disappearance of just this category of otherness and terrifying specieslike difference.” For in the post-Modern '90s, “you can return from the lower depths.” What marks the collective space of dirty realism (a “plebeian” one) is precisely this lack of clear boundaries, the erasure of “inside and outside” that is symptomatic of the whole unmappable system at large. “Dirty” here, then, means a collective no-man’s-land, defined by neither private property nor public law, permeated by violence. For Jameson this particular post-Modern intensity is profoundly prophetic.

These rich and acute reflections are, theoretically, a work on the way to somewhere else. Jameson has a marvelous eye for trends and the subversive capacity to move against, to force issues. Always historicize!, the opening banner imperative of The Political Unconscious, was supremely timely; the systematic theorization of post-Modernism likewise so. Here Jameson has begun a polemical attack (now less a “homeopathic” treatment than a frontal assault) on some of the antidoxological doxa of the recent epoch. It has shortcomings, even if one accepts, as I do, much of the frame. “Symptomatology,” for one thing, all too easily brackets content (ironically enough) and nearly (ironically enough) falls into the mode of endless Foucauldian/Kantian analyses of the “conditions of possibility” for saying this or that. To dismiss antifoundationalism as epistemological post-Fordism is not to dismiss its theoretical claims. Nor does Jameson’s position allow any particular room for the state. In Jameson’s world there is economy and culture; political institutions and the state are epiphenomena. Politics becomes a question (at times obsessively so) of the utopian/libidinal. So what next?

Barry Schwabsky (review date 29 May 1995)

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SOURCE: “Shut Up and Listen,” in The Nation, May 29, 1995, pp. 762-4.

[In the following review of The Seeds of Time, Schwabsky commends Jameson's intellectual range and subject, but faults his writing as condescending and overly evasive.]

Fredric Jameson is indeed, as both Terry Eagleton and Hal Foster call him on the back of his new book’s jacket, America’s foremost Marxist critic, and he may well be too, as the publisher’s flap copy has it, this country’s leading Marxist theorist. But of what is he a critic, and what is his theory? Those are hard questions to answer, and The Seeds of Time does not make it any easier. Although he is a professor of comparative literature, only the second of the book’s three chapters is on a literary subject—it is an extended reading of Andrei Platonov’s novel Chevengur (1927–28)—while the first, treating two pairs of “Antinomies of Postmodernity,” namely space and time, identity and difference, would be more likely to be judged philosophical; and the last deals primarily with architecture and urbanism. Yet philosophy, literature and architecture are of merely symptomatic interest to Jameson.

Early in his career Jameson learned from T.W. Adorno the lesson that, as Jameson put it in Marxism and Form (1971), “every theory about the world, in its very moment of formation, tends to become an object for the mind and to be itself invested with all the prestige and permanency of a real thing in its own right, thus effacing the dialectical process from which it emerged.” A theory, in other words, is something like a reification of thinking, its hardening into a fetish. Jameson’s solution to this problem, as set forth in the important 1971 essay “Metacommentary,” derived from the poetics of Mallarmé: “For the poet has devised his sentences in such a way that they contain no tangible substances or objects which we can substitute for the work itself, not even as a mnemonic device. … We must apply to the problem of interpretation itself the method I have suggested for the interpretation of individually problematic works: not a head-on, direct solution or resolution, but a commentary on the very conditions of existence of the problem itself.”

Twenty-four years later, Jameson’s approach remains a Mallarméan Marxism that glides just above the clutter of the empirical, lucidly and accurately swooping down to isolate chosen particulars of cultural data for placement in an intricate and unexpected critical “syntax.” Jameson takes Adorno’s warning seriously enough to avoid producing anything like a quotable or consumable theory, choosing instead to present three chunks of difficult-to-paraphrase, at times near-indigestible thinking about the situation he has already done so much to define in his last major undertaking, Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). The present volume follows immediately on the trail of Postmodernism, insofar as it is based on the Wellek Library Lectures Jameson delivered at the University of California, Irvine, the same year. But it will disappoint anyone to whom the idea of a lecture suggests the possibility of direct address to the listener/reader or of a haute vulgarisation of ideas worked out in greater detail elsewhere. Jameson remains heedless of trendy appeals for politically minded academics to remake themselves as “public intellectuals,” and the ideal reader for these chapters could only be their author himself—if only because few others share his range of interests. Those who can keep up with his opening reflections in pure theory, for instance, may have little patience for the close reading of Chevengur, or else may lack the energy to parse the differences among far-flung manifestations of postmodern architecture (especially given the book’s distinctly unhelpful illustrations).

One of Jameson’s peculiarities as a critic is his apparent lack of interest in the direct experience of works of art. Theories, programs and interpretations seem more refreshing to him, and while he is capable of generating original readings, they almost always emerge from the confrontation between previous interpretations and the central text. Jameson can elicit the embedded ideological or polemical bent in the most chastely aesthetic or contemplative text; and even pleasure is, as he once wrote, a demand that must “also be able to stand in as a figure for the transformation of social relations as a whole.” This ideological register presumably shines forth more perspicuously when, just as the passage of many hands polishes the formerly ornamented surface of an ancient statue, the friction of commentary rubs away the merely aesthetic minutiae to reveal the underlying ideological form. Jameson’s avoidance of firsthand, first-order reaction rubs against the grain of literary taste, and is all the more annoying because it usually leads him to an astute judgment. In a typical move, Jameson borrows the term “dirty realism” from former Granta editor Bill Buford by way of architecture critic Liane Lefaivre, in the process transmuting the designation into something its originator would hardly recognize, essentially a synonym for cyberpunk. Jameson bases his refusal of the designation to the writers of “low-rent tragedies” for whom Buford coined it not so much on their fiction as on Buford’s description of it. And why not? Jameson is right to characterize Buford’s dirty realists as engaged, mostly, in a sentimentalization of contemporary life. As usual, Jameson’s casual observations are stimulating even where there is something suspiciously thirdhand about the process by which they have been framed.

Jameson’s relatively comprehensive reading of Chevengur—a work that lacks an extensive secondary literature, although Joseph Brodsky, for one, has compared its author favorably to Joyce, Musil and Kafka—may seem to be an exception to the rule. It’s true that this chapter, whose author admits that it “stands out like a sore thumb,” is altogether slower in pace, more concentrated in feeling and more traditional in method. But then what Jameson manages to do with Platonov’s peasant utopia is to turn it into a kind of critical text itself, a device for estranging more familiarly Western forms of modernist writing in order to show their properties more clearly. Rather than fulfilling his promise to use Chevengur as the type of an emergent, now foreshortened “Second World” culture, Jameson’s reading finds in it “a zero-degree and a virtual suicide of modernist irony” hardly identical to yet surprisingly premonitory of the degree-zero writing Roland Barthes described some forty years ago. The reading culminates in considerations on the “essential” relation between utopian desire and death that will serve to illuminate a canonically though ambivalently “Western” or “First World” text, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse People.” Jameson takes Kafka’s story as a fable, not so much of the artist and the community but of his key terms of difference and identity as such, of how “difference is effaced by the identity it was alone able to reveal for an instant.”

Jameson’s method of, as he once put it, “coordinating a series of pregiven, already constituted codes or systems of signifiers, of producing a discourse fashioned out of the already fashioned discourse of the constellation of ad hoc reference works” can seem condescending, not only to the artists and thinkers he cites (however admiringly) but to his readers as well. Right from the first sentence of the first lecture, we know how intellectually primitive we are compared with Jameson: “It is conventional to distinguish an antinomy from a contradiction, not least because folk wisdom implies that the latter is susceptible of a solution or a resolution, whereas the former is not.” I’d love to meet a representative of the presumably Appalachian throwbacks whose “folk wisdom” concerns the distinction between antinomy and contradiction; if you thought the possession of such a distinction was in itself to have access to a valid analytical tool, well, just shut up and listen.

Jameson’s condescension is worth putting up with not only because his intellectual reach really is almost as masterful as he thinks it is but also because the implicit subject of The Seeds of Time is timely indeed: our collective failure of historical imagination. It has become, as Jameson remarks, “easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism.” But does Jameson’s intervention help render the imagination more capable or is it one more stumbling block? Before any attempt to address so broad a question, we should wonder how well posed Jameson’s statement of the predicament really is. In fact, our situation may be even grimmer than Jameson lets on. The apparent triumph of capitalism seems to have engendered an ever deepening crisis, and we can all—its admirers perhaps even more than its opponents—imagine a collapse all too easily. It’s the favorable outcome of that breakdown that has become less thinkable. Capitalisme ou barbarie? Today the alternative to an incredibly fragile world system has been defined, in imagination at least, by Hobbes rather than by Marx. Fear is the great disciplinarian. And yet the system’s fragility may also be a source of hope. In any case, it puts a rather different light on that postmodernity that Jameson portrays as an achieved “obliteration of difference on a world scale.” If the difference between modernity and postmodernity is, as Jameson plausibly maintains, simply one of the tendential completion of a process of the reduction of difference, so that “‘modern’ must now be rebaptized postmodern (since what we call modern is the consequence of incomplete modernization and must necessarily define itself against a nonmodern residuality that no longer obtains in postmodernity as such—or rather, whose absence defines this last),” then Jamesonian postmodernity might be defined as a point of arrival that can never quite be met since its approach must trigger a fatal crisis to a system that only apparently takes the form of “Parmenidean stasis” but can only be sustained through expansion.

Jameson’s text thrives on melancholy, since to take everything as already known is a source of intellectual power but only as compensation for a thoroughgoing pessimism. And The Seeds of Time is more a modernist than a postmodernist text, whose aspiration toward what Jameson calls, with reference to Platonov, “scriptural status” is hardly disguised by an ostentatious brandishing of references, presumably meant to tweak academic sensibilities, to such low-cultural forms as science fiction. Jameson has commented elsewhere on the sense of arbitrariness and disposability engendered by poststructuralist metacommentary. This is something he evades to the extent that his signifiers do not quite float freely but are distanced by a Marxism that amounts to a sort of regulative idea, and for Jameson seems to consist, at minimum, of the determinate relation of economic base to cultural superstructure. Yet his “telling of the future, with an imperfect deck,” as a form of disciplined commentary tends to take things as manipulable givens; such an approach always threatens to reduce itself to an essentially bureaucratic or managerial balancing of the ideological books. The more virtuosic Jameson’s shuffling becomes, the greater our itch to replace the whole deck. Jameson’s resistance to the anti-politics of contemporary critiques of “foundationalism,” “essentialism” and “totalization” is bracing indeed. If only he would risk reifying his thinking enough to venture a criticizably global theory of his own—rather than simply an ingenious method that seems to know everything in advance.

Linda Hutcheon (review date Winter 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of The Seeds of Time, in Clio, Vol. 25, No. 2, Winter, 1996, pp. 212-6.

[In the following review, Hutcheon judges The Seeds of Time to be at once “a startlingly insightful work and an irritating mix of generalization and assertion.”]

The three chapters in this, Jameson’s latest engagement with the postmodern, were originally delivered as lectures in the Wellek Library Lecture series at the University of California, Irvine, in 1991, but his style of writing betrays none of this oral context. Jameson’s density of prose has always been the price to pay for his density of thought, and The Seeds of Time is no exception:

Getting rid of the old names, of all those abstractions that still reek of universalism or generality, cleaving with even greater determination to the empirical and the actual, stigmatizing the residual as philosophical in the bad sense, which is to say as sheer idealism, without thereby lapsing into a materialism equally occult and metaphysical—these are the postmodern watchwords, which were once a guide to a kind of Wittgensteinian witch-hunt in the name of the health and purity of the language, but now circulate through the economy as effortlessly as the deliveries at your corner supermarket.


Would that the comprehension of this “reduction” and its “current hegemony” were as effortless. Alternately frustrating and stimulating, Jameson’s cryptic telegraphic mode of relating complex ideas assumes an audience familiar with not only fifteen years of general debates about the postmodern but also his own position on the central issues.

This book is his extended meditation on one aspect of those debates: what he sees as the destruction of the utopian impulse in the postmodern challenges to both modernism and the “master narrative” of Marxism. The first essay, “The Antinomies of Postmodernity” traces the consequences of the re-emergence in postmodernity of “two large and crude sorting systems”—“Identity and Difference” (6). Antinomies are, by definition, non-dialectical; they turn “effortlessly” into one another in contemporary theory, Jameson argues, and therein lies their intellectual danger. For example, on the level of the temporal, Jameson outlines the paradox of unparalleled mutability and unparalleled standardization: everything changes constantly on all levels of social life and yet everything is the same. It is this kind of change/stasis antinomy that spells “paralysis of thought” for Jameson, as does, on the spatial level, the Difference/Identity antinomy configured as variety and heterogeneity, on the one hand, and the homogeneity and commodification that result from global capitalism, on the other.

The antinomy model is used in a more complex fashion in the analysis of the new “ethical doxa” of antifoundationalism and antiessentialism. Nature, Jameson argues, is seen as the enemy in both these “misguided” “slogans,” and despite their challenges to “the natural,” we are also witnessing today the concurrent rise of another kind of nature. The postmodern may obliterate the “natural” in the name of the “constructed,” but ecological concerns are, for him, the return of the repressed (even if, one might well argue, on a somewhat different level). They also mark another of the postmodern repudiations of the modern, one grounded in defeat and disillusion. Jameson’s sympathies have always been with modernism/modernity, but here that position leads him to attack the repression of desire and the self-policing of the postmodern “ecological ethic” (48) in what feels like a politically odd, but logically necessary, step here. When the modern is associated primarily with “Promethean Utopianism” (48) and the postmodern with “the free play of masks and roles without content or substance” (18), the dice may be a bit loaded, however.

Jameson’s construction of modernity is in one important way consonant with his construction of Marxism: both are the models for the utopian and both are seen as the opposite of the postmodern and “the market.” This book is his response to what he sees as the boom industry in the “critique and diagnosis of the evils of the Utopian impulse” (53). Moving from a stunning undoing of the utopia/dystopia pairing, Jameson makes a leap that perhaps not all his readers will be willing to make so easily: all (not some, but all) utopian mechanisms, he asserts, “conform to Marx’s political program in Capital” (58). If that is your starting point, then anything anti-utopian can indeed be read as anti-socialist. And perhaps it helps if you are from the United States, with its Cold War history of anti-socialism; I am not. As a Canadian who has lived (happily) in a province run (well) by a socialist government, I come at both socialism and the utopian from perhaps a different kind of political experience and ideological formation: the obvious benefits of state-supported health care and post-secondary education prevent any easy rejection on my part of anything “public” or institutional, a rejection that Jameson sees, on the contrary, as being at the heart of the postmodern in the United States (though the place is often silently universalized).

In his second chapter, “Utopia, Modernism, and Death,” Jameson presents a version of the utopian that he thinks has “vanished from the postmodern scene” (but arguably was never part of it in the first place): the peasant utopia of Andrei Platonov’s 1927–28 novel, Chevengur. Part of the general modernist project deemed “glorious and admirable” (80), this work is offered as an example of “genuine socialist culture” from the Second World. What Jameson calls “properly” utopian literature can come, he states, only from a non-market, non-consumer-consumptive society, and only such a literature can intimate “some far future of human history the rest of us are not in a position to anticipate” (74). While finding this assertion somewhat “facile” (to use Jameson’s favorite word of criticism of other positions), I also found I could both admire the astute, complex analysis of the dialectical stages of how one finds a way to begin imagining a socialist utopia in Platonov’s work and nevertheless question some of the assumptions and even tools of that analysis. From the critic who came out so very strongly against the postmodern deployment of irony for its undecidability, its ambiguity, its triviality (in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism [Durham: Duke UP, 1991]), we here are faced with the claim that “we postmoderns” find irony “unacceptable and intolerable in high modernism” because it is undecidable. Wanting, this time, to claim “Irony” (with a capital I) as a distinctively high modernist category, Jameson then, in the next chapter, sees it as something postmodern architects borrowed from the modern but forgot that “irony itself was traditionally a sign fully as much a weapon of just those condescending upper classes from which we were supposed to escape” (143). That irony can be (and has been) used to legitimate or to undermine any political position is a matter of record—not to say of our daily experience. Irony is transideological and always has been. Alan Wilde’s fine analysis of the differences between modern and postmodern irony in Horizons of Assent: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironic Imagination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1981) goes considerably further than Jameson’s cursory and, in fact, contradictory remarks in sorting out the aesthetic and political consequences of what is here seen as an “ultimate life stance and moral and political metaphysic” (115).

The third chapter, “The Constraints of Postmodernism,” focuses on postmodern architecture (particularly the work of Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenman), using as a theoretical grid Greimas’s model of the semiotic square. Though he has used this model elsewhere as well, here he does so in a more complicated and, in the end, less effective way than in The Political Unconscious. As an explanatory device for presenting a complex argument, the model confuses, perhaps, more than it helps (especially since the interpretive rules are typically assumed, not explained). The utopian concerns of the other chapters reemerge here in the context of the two characteristics of high modernism that Jameson sees as “scandals” to the postmodern: totality and innovation. The core of the chapter and of the book, in some senses, is his strong position taken against the postmodern denigration of totality or totalization, which he feels has been misunderstood by the postmodern (here, really, by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe). When you have equated the Marxist and the utopian (and live in the United States), you can perhaps more easily see the postmodern as anti-Marxist and as pursuing “targets that it claims to identify with state power (if not with the economic system) but that are in reality the now disorganized forces of a repudiation of late capitalism and of a Utopian intent to continue to imagine radical alternatives” (149). But being a woman (as well as a Canadian) suggests to me that there has been some competition in recent years for claiming the moral high ground on the basis of utopian imagining: various feminisms are the most obvious serious competitors.

The Seeds of Time is often at one and the same time a startlingly insightful work and an irritating mix of generalization and assertion (where one yearns for particularity and argument). The brilliant discussion of cyberpunk as the sequel to naturalism contains within it such typically apocalyptic assertions as that of the “wholesale liquidation” of “civil society” in the contemporary United States. His acute and detailed analysis of the role of innovation in modernism is in some ways based on a simplistic and generalized contrast with some generic “postmodern” historical novel “with all its false chronologies and made-up chronicles and genealogies” (182). There is no doubt where Jameson stands; there never has been. And this position affects his mode of presentation: when discussing the modern, he is meticulous, expansive, detailed; when it comes to the postmodern, he is often much more cryptic, relying alternately on insinuations and statements of firm opinion. But in written essays more than in oral lectures, perhaps, assertion is rarely an acceptable substitute for argument, and superficial generalizations are rarely satisfying alternatives for convincing argumentation. For example, in the discussion of architecture, the bald and bold assertion of “the alienated poststructural and postmodern dehumanization of space” begs to be countered with the much more extensive and convincing proof offered by Jane Jacobs (in Death and Life of Great American Cities [New York: Vintage, 1961]) and many others that it was modern (and not postmodern) architecture that could be so characterized and that this is precisely what postmodernist architecture was reacting against in modernism.

For Jameson, here as in his earlier writings, the postmodern is “roughly synonymous” with late capitalism and with post-Fordism; the postmodern valuing of pluralism and difference is too closely related for him to the “deeper internal dynamics” of late capitalism itself (204). In Jameson’s construction, it is this kind of implication that the elitist, purist ideology of the modern—with its “scandals” of totality and innovation—escaped, and its utopian urges helped it do so. It is this same utopian ability to imagine a better future that the modern is said to share with the Marxist. But at the end of the book, for me, the larger questions still remain unanswered: are these utopian imaginings as innocent (and for everyone) as they are presented here, and are they the only ones possible?

Geoffrey Galt Harpham (review date Summer 1996)

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SOURCE: “Late Jameson,” in Salmagundi, No. 111, Summer, 1996, pp. 213-32.

[In the following review, Harpham provides an overview of Jameson's writings and intellectual development and offers an unfavorable assessment of The Seeds of Time, which he views as a “softening” and capitulation of Jameson's Marxism for an ineffectual postmodern perspective.]

Forever, it seems, Fredric Jameson has been described as “America’s leading Marxist critic.” Since the appearance of the challenging and sternly magisterial Marxism and Form in 1971, nobody else has had a shred of a claim to this title, certainly not now, when to be the foremost Marxist might seem a bit like being the leading manufacturer of typewriters, turntables, or four-wheel roller skates. The stature of Jameson, a Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at Duke University, has survived the dissolution of that perennial embarrassment and drag on theory, “actually existing” socialism; it has survived, too, the general (if premature) decline of interest in Marx himself as a writer and theoretician. Jameson might even come to be regarded as the foremost, the greatest, the leading Marxist critic during the entire period of its influence in the academy. He may even be seen, some day, as having “transcended” Marxism itself. So powerful is his claim to preeminence that it is difficult to imagine it as contested, difficult even to name those struggling back in the peleton, difficult to construct the pyramid whose capstone he is. He is a singularity: Mount Jameson, thrusting up solemnly, majestically, out of a range of modest foothills.

He has, to be sure, been linked in various ways with Edward Said, the leading exponent of colonial and post-colonial literary and cultural studies, and with Terry Eagleton, the leading British Marxist literary critic and theorist. But such a grouping immediately suggests, once again, Jameson’s distinctive style of preeminence. Alone in this group of prodigiously knowledgeable, influential, and prolific “political” critics, Jameson has not been consistently identified with any particular political cause, except that of the left generally, or of the even more general idea of a “Utopian” alternative to the culture of “late capitalism.” Unlike Said, he does not appear on Nightline to smite his enemies; nor is he possessed by anything like the furious passion that so manifestly drives Said as he battles with Zionists in the public press and earlier “Orientalists” in his scholarship. Jameson has his critics, but he does not characteristically respond to them by accusing them of gross and unforgivable failures of perception, nerve, honesty, competence, or morality, as Said does with immense energy and relish. Replying to Jewish scholar Robert Griffin in Critical Inquiry in 1989, Said declares him to be “Griffin,” an “ideological simulacrum.” “As you read this,” Said informs his readers, “every minute there are Palestinian women and children who are being beaten with clubs or shot with plastic bullets, their houses invaded, their lives tampered with, their loved ones killed or maimed. And ‘Griffin’ has the gall to speak of Israel not penitently or apologetically but in the brassy, hectoring tones of war criminals like Rabin or Ariel Sharon. … he speaks not only as a hypocrite but, given his pages of utter rubbish, as a knave.” He concludes by inviting Griffin “(if he is a human being)” to clear out of “a discussion he has degraded.” With respect to the immediate political arena, nothing is more alien to Said than accommodation or compromise, nothing more natural than conflict. On the other hand, his literary judgments are characteristically nuanced. He treats the work of Yeats, for example, as a “major international achievement of cultural decolonization” despite the poet’s “arrogant if charming espousal of fascism.” Kipling receives a carefully measured respect as a man of highly conditioned and passive understanding but immense novelistic power. And the Conrad of Heart of Darkness solicits Said’s interest because of a “tragic limitation” that inhibited Conrad from drawing the appropriate political conclusions from his clear understanding of the brutality and injustice of imperialism.

For Jameson, by contrast, nothing seems more natural than dialectic, nothing more alien than a nasty, abusive public ad hominem dispute about some contemporary issue. Marxism means, for him, chiefly a body of theoretical and critical discourse; his “interventions” are intellectual and pedagogical rather than directly activist. To read Balzac differently is, he points out, to tamper not just with the canon but with the university as an “ideological state apparatus” and, at a great distance, with the legitimacy of the superstate. Said’s Third World is filled with directly inflicted suffering and intimate combat; Jameson’s seems more ideal and decidedly more linguistic. The West, he argues, might learn from Third World cinema and literature how to reinvigorate its degraded language, since, in the Third World, “eloquence in the older sense, the word as such, retains a prestige and a power that it has lost in late capitalism.” Jameson’s judgment of literature can be harshly political. He is capable of dismissing Yeats, along with Pound and Eliot, as “true reactionaries of the blackest stamp.” But this is a single, almost off-handed comment, made without energy, detail, or real conviction. More characteristically, his literary criticism documents the evaporation of political content. His Conrad serves, in The Political Unconscious (1981), as an instance of the masking, containment, and disappearance of politics rather than its disorderly and unresolved manifestation. Nor is Jameson especially keen to capitalize on the opportunity to score political points. In the wild debate that ensued in the discovery of Paul de Man’s “wartime journalism,” Jameson was a non-factor: initially silent, he eventually commented, in the middle of a very long essay in a very long book (Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism [1991]), that de Man had always seemed a good liberal to him, and his “ingenious” youthful scribblings bore every trace of a young man “altogether too smart for his own good.” In the same passage, he confessed to a “sneaking admiration for Heidegger’s attempt at political commitment,” declaring it “aesthetically preferable to apolitical liberalism (provided its ideals remain unrealized).”

If Jameson is not as engaged as Said, he is not as engaging as Eagleton. We will not see a play sparkling with Jamesonian wit on the boards in the near future, on the model of Eagleton’s Saint Oscar; nor are audiences likely to hear him preface a lecture with a song of Irish independence, or indeed any song at all. Never accused of being a winning stylist, Jameson makes no concessions to the popular taste he anatomizes; he does not josh, pun, popularize, preen, or seduce. Where Eagleton is always cutting to the chase, anecdotalizing, putting the matter in plain English, Jameson is relentless in his highmindedness. Marxism and Form begins with a salute to the density and obscurity of the German philosophical tradition from Hegel to Adorno as an admirable “conduct of intransigence,” and a bracing “warning to the reader of the price he has to pay for genuine thinking.” And where Eagleton is invariably concerned to bring out the political valence and force of philosophical ideas, Jameson is just as invariably interested in the structural, formal, or conceptual content of political ideas. While the edges of Eagleton’s politics, or at least his political rhetoric, have become markedly beveled over the years, he has from the very first given the impression of being a good fellow to have a drink with, a popular man of the crowd. Eagleton is amused by the world, and manifestly at ease in it; Jameson is not.

Both Said and Eagleton are attuned to the present moment, and to their presence in it, and this often produces a frazzled sensitivity to the question of how, exactly, they are faring in any given forum or debate, a sensitivity that makes them seem, despite their outsized records of accomplishment, like unusually focused, productive, or convinced versions of recognizable human types. They respond to the strictly personal aspects of intellectual dispute, and for them the “personal” includes ethnic identity and affiliation. In this respect, they top out below the timber line. Jameson seems not only indifferent to controversy and insensible of criticism, but—at least in print—a stranger to envy, paranoia, gloating, vanity, irritation, or vindictiveness as well. When an interviewer tried to goad him by bringing up Eagleton’s brotherly comment that it was hard to see how Jameson’s Marxist reading of a minor Balzac novel in The Political Unconscious was going “to help shake the foundations of capitalism,” Jameson simply refused to rise to the bait. “Read carefully,” he replied, “Terry’s question is not so much a critique addressed to my own work as such, as rather the expression of an anxiety which everyone working in the area of Marxist cultural studies must feel.” Not only do Jameson’s works suggest no sense of urgency or threat, they seem to issue from a center of consciousness unconnected with, unimplicated in, any kind of neighborly community. His first books appeared starkly without dedicatees, and, with the exception of his very first, in which he thanked his dissertation advisor, without the customary list of friends and colleagues and institutions who made it all possible. He has continued this practice, with the exception of a single mention, in his new book The Seeds of Time, of a Chinese scholar—who is named as “an old friend” and then immediately converted into a sign of “the immense heterotopia of China itself.”

Jameson’s charisma is based not only on the sense of personal, or impersonal, invulnerability his work communicates, but on the distinctly inhuman scale on which his arguments are constructed. His subjects, faithfully retained from book to book, are vast—History, Form, Modernity, Ideology, Collectivity, Utopia, Totality, Necessity, Freedom—and his erudition almost, it seems, without limit in its scope, if not always impeccably thorough from the specialists’ point of view. His “official” field (at the beginning) was French, but his sensibility and sentences seem Germanic, and his range of reference, especially when the subject is postmodernism, global. Despite his repeated argument that “ideological commitment” is “first and foremost a matter … of the taking of sides in a struggle between embattled groups,” it is often unclear exactly which embattled group Jameson himself has sided with. He seems somehow too capacious for favoritism, too big to fit on one side. He reserves his most evocative and dramatic voice not for appeals for justice or revenge in this or that case, but for indictments of “History itself as one long nightmare,” or of “the foreign bodies of business and profit,” or, in one remarkable passage, of work: “The more existential versions of this dizzying and properly unthinkable, unimaginable spectacle—as in horror at the endless succession of ‘dying generations,’ at the ceaseless wheel of life, or at the irrevocable passage of Time itself—are themselves only disguises for this ultimately scandalous fact of mindless alienated work and of the irremediable loss and waste of human energies, a scandal to which no metaphysical categories can give a meaning.” The fact that some people are happy just to have jobs is, for Jameson, part of the scandal, considering the character of “alienated” work, its failure to deliver meaning in the same abundance as it delivers the goods.

Even when Jameson takes up issues that would inspire in most people a wealth of local or personal associations, he makes them not just largely strange but strangely large. His account of the 1960s, for example, does not begin with Sputnik, the Kennedy presidency, or the “long, hot summers” of urban violence in Detroit or Watts, but with “the great movement of decolonization in British and French Africa.” The 60s are, for Jameson, not the era of the Supremes, Lyndon Johnson, the Beatles, Neil Armstrong, the Manson family, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon, Bob Dylan, Stokely Carmichael, Eugene McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, or indeed anybody else; they are a “decisive and global chapter in Croce’s conception of history,” an illustration of Hegel and Marcuse, and above all a phenomenal incident in the even more phenomenal history of global capitalism. Jameson, one suspects, is just not interested in what most people mean by politics, or in most people as people at all, but in the “deeper content” that determines them.

One way of explaining the amorphousness of Jameson’s politics might be to point out that his genre is literary, philosophical, or cultural criticism. But another, perhaps more pertinent factor might be a reaction, partly principled and partly phobic, to the whole idea of the individual who might make judgments, commitments, or decisions, the person who might take sides. Jameson adds to the French Marxist Louis Althusser’s sense of history as a greyish “process without a subject” a certain tang of disgust or contempt, as when he warns against the dangers of “contamination … by categories of individual action,” or the “taint of … individual experience”; or contends that “identity is not an option but a doom”; or scorns the whole idea of “my personal reading of an individual text.” Against the grain of a massive cultural fetishization of the individual, whose history is lovingly detailed in narratives, whose image is earnestly inscribed in film, television, and advertisements, and whose interest is relentlessly courted and cultivated everywhere in contemporary culture, Jameson argues that the individual is an historical calamity.

At the heart of Jameson’s commitment to collective psychic, social, and political identity is, then, a virtually somatic distaste for the idea, the ideology, of the single person. Jameson sees the individual not only as a tainted, but as a mutilated thing, a kind of bleeding amputee wailing in the darkness, keening for its lost limbs, its authentically collective being. What’s wrong with capitalism? Not its injustice, crassness, indifference, or inequity, but the way in which it “maims our existence” by chopping us up into individual units. The very notion of a distinct realm of “art” reflects, for Jameson, the capitalist “reification and privatization of contemporary life,” a violation of normative social existence in which the formerly integrated “individual subject” is wrenched from the pre-capitalist polis and banished to a life of solitary confinement in the prison-house of the merely “individual.” Jameson makes this fragile distinction theoretically productive by taking on the City Halls of modern culture, including reason, desire, narrative, and ethics, all of which he criticizes as discourses of the maimed, methods of repressing and stigmatizing solidarity and class cohesion. “The need to transcend individualistic categories and modes of interpretation,” he writes, “is in many ways the fundamental issue”; the task of our days is “transcending the ‘ethical’ in the direction of the political and the collective.”

All of Jameson’s affirmative energy converges on this radiantly unrepresentable entity, the collective. For liberal and conservative thought alike, collective life impinges on the freedom of the individual. For Jameson, on the other hand, the individual constrains the collective. Jameson rarely says much about the details of collectivity, for reasons that will emerge in a moment. But he is specific on the time, or times, proper to it. Life was collective in the deep past, and may be so again in the unspecified future. Jameson seems to understand Adorno’s dictum that “Society precedes the subject” not as a logical but as an historical statement. The culture of the individual—“fallen culture,” as Jameson insistently puts it—obliterated an older way of life that has, nevertheless, left “spoors and traces” that may be tracked like luminous bread crumbs leading home as we struggle towards some undefined futurity. To stress collectivity is not, then, simply to affirm a particular ethos, but to resurrect History, to reawaken “the essential mastery of the cultural past, which, like Tiresias drinking the blood, is momentarily returned to life and warmth and allowed once more to speak, and to deliver its long-forgotten message in surroundings utterly alien to it.” Only if we recover a lost sense of totality so that we may see “the human adventure” as a single thing rather than as the sum of innumerable discontinuous private destinies can we grasp the contemporary pertinence of ancient philosophical, theological, or social disputes; only if we retell all the tales of the past as incidents in “a single great collective story” unified by the “fundamental theme—for Marxism, the collective struggle to wrest a realm of Freedom from a realm of Necessity”—will the point and coherence of history and everything in it become clear. As a concrete historical home for pre-individual existence, the past thus acquires a powerful moral status, which Jameson evokes in a startling image in the 1979 essay “Marxism and Historicism,” where he envisions the past not as an inert object of nostalgia, a passive object to be judged, but as “a radically different life form” that “rises up to call our own form of life into question and to pass judgment on us.”

Future collectivity, in one sense the restoration of some original, forgotten, virtually extinct mode, takes no such lurid forms; indeed, it takes no form at all. It summons us as the destination towards which history ought to be tending, but which is nowhere realized or configured in the present. Jameson has taken the Marxist slogan that anybody who has a plan for the future is a reactionary, and has given this principled cluelessness the name of Utopia. This ancient concept has always been charged, for Jameson, with thoroughly contemporary, if idiosyncratic, meanings. Absent from his dissertation, which became the 1961 book Sartre: The Origins of Style, Utopia began to appear in Jameson’s work after the 60s, as he assimilated the writings of Ernst Bloch, and of his UC San Diego colleagues Herbert Marcuse and Louis Marin. The latter’s Utopiques: Jeux d’espaces, which defines “the Utopian event itself” as a “revolutionary fete,” was, Jameson notes, “elaborated in the very eye of the hurricane during Marin’s Nanterre seminar in May 1968.” To this quintessentially 60s formulation Marcuse added the warning that Marxism “must risk defining freedom in such a way that people become conscious of and recognize it as something that is nowhere already in existence.” Returning to the theme of Utopia in nearly every one of his books, Jameson always stresses both its value as a revolutionary concept and its obdurate resistance to figuration, narrativization, concrete imaginings of any kind. Anything we can think of must be nonUtopian, since we do our thinking as “private” individuals. In a fallen culture, whatever is—even in our dreams—is wrong. And so while other Marxists were discomfited by actually existing socialism, Jameson had conceived a much vaster antipathy to actually existing anything.

He was, however, insisting that the future was not altogether remote, that slender wires were strung between now and then, if only we could find them. They are not in the obvious places, or in the places we might wish to spend much time looking. But if we could tolerate extended stretches of ennui, we might turn them up. For the proper literary, or pre-literary form of pre-capitalist life was loosely connected, repetitive chains of episodic incidents, to which the only possible response for most moderns is boredom. Jameson is always interesting on the subject of modern boredom, which he sees as indicative of the distance we have traveled from the collectivist past, of a loss of the capacity to invest ourselves in anything but formed narratives about individuals, but most important, as a “precious symptom of our own cultural limits” and therefore a signal that a radically different form of social organization is still possible. Jameson takes from Adorno and Horkheimer the principle that all class consciousness bears within it the kernel of the future; he accepts, too, their claim that even certain repugnant ideas such as anti-Semitism are, as he puts it, “profoundly Utopian in character” because they constitute a “repressed recognition” of the Utopian impulse. But he extends these ideas even further by arguing the Utopian character of all collectivity. Even Fascist organizations qualify as Utopian on these generous grounds, as does the Klan, The White Patriot’s Party, the Michigan Militia, the Nation of Islam, Aryan Nation, Dow Chemical, the PLO, the Khmer Rouge, the JDL, the Republican Party, the NRA, the studio audience of Family Feud, the State Legislature of Louisiana, the LAPD, the Cincinnati Bengals, Serbia, K-Mart Shoppers—anything at all that exceeds and enfolds the individual. Expressions of class privilege, class arrogance, class complacency, class envy, or class hatred—all this is “in its very nature Utopian.” While, in a fragmented social life in which all groups struggle against all others, no form of class consciousness can be immediately universal, all without exception are universal in essence because, he claims, all herald the transformation of the present into the post-individual future. Only the most doggedly “ethical” perspective, he asserts, could bother itself about such questions as which kinds of class consciousness are “good” and which “evil.”

I have dwelt at such length on this system of arguments and claims for three reasons. First, it has endured, with variations in emphasis, for thirty-five years; even those texts in which it does not appear do not contradict it. Second, it is extraordinary. The prominence of Jameson notwithstanding, these ideas have, as far as I know, no other prominent sponsors, even among Marxists. One does not hear, in the corridors or meeting rooms of academic conferences, earnest discussions about Utopia, or angry denunciations of the culture of the individual or lamentations about the horror of work. And third, it poses an interesting question about the relation between Jameson’s stature and his message. What can we say of the fact that an argument about the poverty of the individualist present as compared with the glories of an undefinable but hopefully collectivist future has produced, from the moment of its inception, virtually no effects in the academic or even the broadly intellectual community other than a mass of rewards, honors, and distinctions for Jameson himself? To reply smoothly that one’s private position in the world is unconnected to one’s public convictions is simply to reprise a classic “liberal” mistake that Jameson himself has condemned. On the other hand, to explain the matter by assigning message to the “base” and reputation to the “superstructure” only aggravates the question, since, for Jameson as for Marx, the superstructure has no genuine autonomy, no history of its own.

How to think about this relationship, this problem? Is it a “contradiction,” or perhaps an “antinomy”? Jameson begins his new book, The Seeds of Time (hereafter SofT), the texts of the Wellek Library Lectures in Critical Theory at UC Irvine in 1991, by taking up precisely this distinction, which, for him, is far from idle or scholastic. A cleaner form, an antinomy goes nowhere: two statements stand in stark opposition and that’s that. But a contradiction—ah, that’s another thing altogether. Contradictions might represent two perspectives on the same object, or two moments in a process, or two merely apparently incompatible statements, which can still, with some determination, be harmonized or reconciled. In SofT, Jameson analyzes a series of “antinomies of postmodernity” by which contemporary thought is paralyzed, and attempts to convert them into contradictions, thawing them out, enabling them to mingle with their opposites, and making conceptual, and therefore social progress possible once again. The question of whether the conjunction of Jameson’s singular and hierarchical stature and his collective values constitutes a contradiction or an antinomy, then, is really a question about whether his work can be considered kinetic, forward-looking, and politically progressive, or whether it cannot.

It may not, in other words, always be the case that contradiction is preferable to antinomy, but Jameson is committed to the contradiction for other reasons. Understanding the status of the contradiction takes us, indeed, directly into the internal gearing of his thought and provides one way of understanding its form and its history. Few other major critics are as explicit about their methodology, and few invest method with such importance. Everything, for Jameson, begins with contradiction. Sometimes he analyzes the contradiction between the world and our (necessarily ideological) thoughts or opinions about it; more typically, he discovers internal or formal contradictions in a work, a discrepancy between kinds of energy or different “modes of production.” In classical Marxism, capitalism is doomed to self-destruction because of its contradictions. But in all cases, contradictions disclose an incoherence, and therefore a dynamism, an instability that suggests a movement towards a state in which the contradiction is overcome, the discrepancies harmonized. In short, contradiction propels us to the future, to necessity, and to truth.

An excellent, highly concentrated example of the Jamesonian contradiction in action can be found in his 1977 discussion of “Class and Allegory in Contemporary Mass Culture: Dog Day Afternoon as a Political Film,” which is included in Signatures of the Visible, his 1992 collection of essays on cinema. According to legend, Jameson wrote this tightly argued piece during a chaotic New Year’s Eve party, off in a corner with an Olivetti on his lap; in any event, it has the force and feel of an insight that cannot be denied, party or no party. Sidney Lumet’s film, he begins, seems to belong to two distinct genres. It gestures towards the neo-realist or documentary presentation of social fact, but the virtuoso “splendor” of Al Pacino’s performance “irreparably condemns” the film “to remain a Hollywood product.” Thus we have “that unresolvable, profoundly symptomatic thing which is called a contradiction,” an entity that can be “focused in two quite distinct ways” that suggest two separate moments of cultural consciousness. Form becomes content by disclosing an “uneven development,” a condition in which residues of the collective past are mixed up with the psychologizing, ethicizing, aestheticizing rule of capitalism. Registering the signs of a frustrated class consciousness struggling for expression within “the present multinational stage of monopoly capitalism,” Jameson concludes that the film is a “pre-political” work, a symptom of a cultural circumstance in which the experience of totality, “the truth of our social life as a whole,” is foreclosed or precluded. But behind the contradictory form of Lumet’s film, we can catch a glimpse of an “external face,” a radical otherness that cannot be directly perceived, “some new, so far only dimly conceivable, collective forms which may be expected to replace the older individualistic ones.” What Jameson expects from the contradiction, then, is nothing less than a premonition of the post-individual, postcapitalist, and, as he has taken to saying, “post-contemporary” future; and what he expects from criticism that interrogates contradiction is a small shove in that direction.

The Church Ladies of Marxism have found Jameson’s lingering at the “premonition” stage highly convenient because it eliminates the need for spelling out the specifics of the “radical alternative,” much less for committing oneself to action in pursuit of it. Despite professing an untroubled commitment to Marxism as a theoretical discourse, Jameson has never been exactly right with the Left, as his very choice of subjects indicates. He has been consistently drawn to those figures whose relation to Marxism is aberrant, conflicted, or partial, such as Walter Benjamin, Sartre, or, Lukacs. He reserves his deepest intellectual admiration for Adorno, despite Adorno’s skeptical view of the Utopianism of the 60s, which Jameson describes as “a sympathy not a little tarnished by the deathless shame of having called the police into the University.” And, too, he has always had an appetite for those figures who have either no relation to Marxism or a hostile one, such as Conrad, Gissing, Balzac, or Wyndham Lewis, not to mention the artists and architects he has been discussing since the early 80s. A keen interest in the exotica of the far right runs like a streak of scarlet through Jameson’s Marxism.

One of the most curious signs of this “comprehensiveness” or “inclusiveness” is a persistent friendliness towards religion, which makes a remarkable appearance at the end of The Political Unconscious as a “symbolic affirmation of the unity of a given tribe,” a profound expression of “nostalgia for the collective and the Utopian,” and an “anticipatory foreshadowing” of Marxism itself. Jameson’s understanding of the future seems to be modeled on that of the Book of Revelation; and his hermeneutical principles seem to be drawn from Augustine, who imagines a time when the “canopy of skins” separating heaven from earth will be drawn back, and we can enjoy a “face-to-face” intimacy with God, or Totality. And like Augustine, Jameson figures this moment as a return to an earlier condition, a restoration of a prelapsarian immediacy. “The works of culture come to us,” he says, “as signs in an all-but-forgotten code … fragments of a totality we have long since lost the organs to see.” In older cultures, works carried their own interpretations, and fact and commentary were welded together, as was everything in the social gestalt. If we must now wander in the wilderness, searching for traces of a “concrete social subtext” that might serve as signs of a “concrete future”—if “thought asphyxiates” for sheer lack of concreteness—this is because some virtually theological disaster has befallen us.

Jameson does not add that this disaster came about precisely because our post-Edenic ancestors did in fact entertain a lively vision of a radical alternative, and produced modernity and capitalism as a consequence. But his argument is not, as he would say, “properly” scriptural, but more generally religious, or sub-religious. What really excites Jameson about religion is not just its collectivity, and not, of course, its doctrine, but the discipline associated with the religious or monastic order. He is alive, in fact, to the possibilities for mortification wherever they may arise. One of the first Americans to promote the work of Jacques Lacan, Jameson stressed an aspect of Lacan’s thought that has gone largely unnoticed by subsequent commentators. His Lacan is not a wild new theorist of postmodern carnival, a dazzlingly unpredictable narcissist, an inventor of conceptual drolleries. He is, rather, a displaced Marxist, whose realm of the “imaginary,” alienated within “the symbolic,” corresponds to Jameson’s deep collective past, mired in modernity; whose “Real” can be refigured as “History”; and whose vision of the “decentered subject” constitutes a call for “a renewal of Utopian thinking.” But this is just the beginning. The most profound value of Lacan, for Jameson, lies hidden in Lacan’s exposition of the “discourse of the analyst,” which Jameson describes as

a position of articulated receptivity, of deep listening (L’écoute), of some attention beyond the self or the ego … [a means of] hearing the Other’s desire. The active and theoretical passivity, the rigorous and committed self-denial, of this final subject position, which acknowledges collective desire … may well have lessons for cultural intellectuals as well as politicians and psychoanalysts.

The “analyst,” whom Jameson morphs into the “cultural intellectual,” must evacuate himself so he can hear the voice of the Other, and all the Others. A pronounced “receptivity” to ascesis informs Jameson’s discussions of other thinkers as well. He appreciates de Man, we might speculate, despite the latter’s indifference to every one of Jameson’s preoccupations, because de Man is constantly wrestling with the “resistance to temptation” or “critical self-denial.” And he quotes Paul Ricoeur at length in the conclusion to The Political Unconscious because Ricoeur’s retrograde commitment to “categories of the individual subject” was at least based on a congenial program of purification, on a “willingness to suspect, willingness to listen: vow of rigor, vow of obedience.” It is in terms of such vows that we must understand such Jamesonian epigrams as “History is necessity,” “History is what hurts,” and “Always historicize!,” with “history” serving as a token of impersonality and rigor. Jameson clearly has no interest in pleasure as such. He concludes a long discussion of Roland Barthes in a 1983 article on “Pleasure: A Political Issue” with an earnest formula for “the proper political use of pleasure.” To be properly political, pleasure must not be permitted to gorge or wallow; rather, it must be understood as “the figure for Utopia in general … [and] for the transformation of social relations as a whole.”

If (mere) pleasure provokes disapproval, pain stimulates articulation. In postmodernism, he says, cultural identity is subordinated to the global system, “and lived as a constraint and a domination about which intellectuals and artists are lucid.” Much of Jameson’s own work can be considered under the general heading of “lucidity about domination”—not only the domination of one group over another, but also the domination of other minds over his own. The extraordinary consistency of his thought, the durability of his major themes and concerns, is perhaps the most conspicuous source of his intellectual power. But another, largely unremarked, factor is his equally extraordinary plasticity. Jameson engulfs his subject like a mighty python, taking on its shape in the way that a python, having swallowed a piglet, looks like a piglet. Late Marxism, his book on Adorno (“my master”), is Adorno-esque not just because of its immense tracts of quotation or its generally approving tone, but also because of a certain quality in the prose. Jameson expresses the hope that his translations of Adorno might be “the occasion of forging a powerful new Germanic sentence structure in English”—his own English. His book on modernity, The Political Unconscious, is itself modern in Jameson’s own terms—oracular, prophetic, and large in scale; while Postmodernism is decisively postmodern, a depthless, decathected, and decentered pastiche that seems, by comparison with its predecessors, to have suffered a “waning of affect.” Early and late, Jameson’s work takes the form of a reduplication of its objects. In 1971, Jameson counted as a strength the malleability of dialectical thinking, which, because it depended so closely on the “habitual everyday mode of thought which it is called on to transcend,” could “take a number of different and apparently contradictory forms.” But twenty years later, when he was widely being taken for a “postmodernist” rather than a Marxist, this malleability had come to seem an annoyance. “If I may indulge in a personal note,” he says in Postmodernism, “it has happened to me before to have been oddly and comically identified with an object of study.” The incident was the 1972 appearance of The Prison-House of Language, when, he recalled, some readers “addressed me as a ‘foremost’ spokesperson for structuralism, while the others appealed to me as an ‘eminent’ critic and opponent of that movement.” The identification of dialectical thought with its subject produces, it seems, a general uncertainty about the angle or thrust of the message—and, in Jameson’s case, a general conviction of the eminence of the messenger.

This identification is surely why The Political Unconscious remains Jameson’s greatest work: its subject is modernism, or greatness as such. Jameson’s modernism is an era of giants, of Great Writers and “great souls”; it is a time of “great realisms,” great “cultural monuments,” “great forces of nineteenth-century history,” “great theorists,” the “great narrative and aesthetic dilemmas of high capitalism,” and “great Proustian glimpses” of steeples. Looking backward, all this greatness must, Jameson argues, seem out of synch with the democratizing thrust of modernist technology and rationalization. Greatness is a “residual” force lingering on in a predominantly anonymous or “Fordist” mode of production, an “uneven development” that signals modernist culture’s dynamic disequilibrium, in which unalienated but elitist forces coexist with alienated, but egalitarian ones. The Political Unconscious is itself out of synch, seeming to deplore the very phenomenon of greatness, but itself inescapably great throughout. Jameson’s heart, one can tell, is with titans such as Balzac, Flaubert, Conrad, Stein, or Duchamp. “Despite Tolstoy,” he comments, “I think we still do admire the great generals (along with their counterparts, the great artists).”

The cultural formations that have replaced modernism elicit, by contrast, a temperate rhetoric of suspicious appreciation, and to move from The Political Unconscious to Postmodernism or SofT is to experience a drop in altitude. Now that culture is more “in phase” with itself, we have, according to Jameson, eliminated some of the most egregious forms of modernist inequality, but we have also lost the stimulus for thinking of a future radically different from the present. History has gone missing, and has taken Economics with it. In fact, Jameson defines postmodernism generally in terms of lack and negation. Postmodernism is not only depthless and without passion; it is also formless, anti-oracular, and anti-visionary. In SofT, Jameson deploys his most durable visual aid, the “semiotic rectangle” borrowed from Greimas, a way of charting transformation according to which each initial term in a conceptual opposition generates its own logical negation, inversion, or cancellation, so that the terminal state is the initial state turned inside out. Thus Modernism’s “innovation” and “totality” become, in our time, “replication” and “part” or “element.” But perhaps most pertinently, and most generally, Jamesonian postmodernism inverts or cancels High Modernism’s very positivity, its massive confidence in the substantiality and density of its own huge but coherent projects.

Reading Jameson, one begins to suspect that postmodernism does not exist, or at least that no limits can be set to it. Not just a set of high-cultural monuments, postmodernism represents the “cultural logic” of “late” or multinational capitalism. Global, popular, and decentered, postmodernism might be anything or anywhere. The “four distinct antinomies” with which SofT begins represent a first attempt at mapping this murky, amorphous, and indistinct thing. Jameson is admirably, even acutely sensitive to the possibility that his categories may only be private inventions or fantasies that map nothing at all. He seems close, at times, to saying that postmodernism is a cultural circumstance in which it becomes impossible to say whether discourse is determined by the object or by the subject. Instead, however, he says that since he himself is part of the Zeitgeist, his cognitive habits must be postmodern. It is, in any event, difficult to test his hypotheses by looking at postmodernism “itself”; and with such little resistance from the “object,” his distinctions are, as it were, free to pursue their own projects, their own fates, their own desires. And what they desire, it seems, is to marry, to merge, to form families. Thus the four distinct antinomies form, upon mature consideration, two pairs; then those in the first pair are seen to “[fold] back into each other”; and then, within a few pages, the third and fourth do the same. The argument of SofT’s long first chapter takes the form of a series of demonstrations that what had been taken to be an opposition is not: postmodern time just is space, postmodern identity is difference, an unparalleled rate of change constitutes standardization, market society has become nature, homogeneity is heterogeneity, and arguments against utopia are in fact utopian. The thawing out of antinomies into contradictions has an entropic, Dali-esque effect, like softening a wristwatch, and the political—or indeed the conceptual—payoff of this analytical softening, or SofTening, becomes difficult to articulate in positive terms. In fact, all Jameson can claim for his work here is that it “is not a self-defeating exercise in futility or nihilism but is bound to have unconscious results.”

For whom? Much of SofT reads like a “Jamesons Wake,” an unfiltered dream-monologue composed of endless sentences in which all manner of odd or unsorted things float around, occasionally bobbing to the surface:

Meanwhile, the Zeebrugge Terminal, like the helmet of an immense cosmonaut, part plastic part metal, ‘a cross between a ball and a cone’ (El Croquis, 80), includes, in the same nonspecifiable way, whole former structures, such as a hotel and an office building, along with the rose des sables of the on- and off-ramps, as delicately interlaced as the great Figueroa grade crossing in downtown Los Angeles: allegories, perhaps, of that other intestinal necessity of the modern building about which Koolhaas has frequently complained, that of the pipes and wiring, the ‘services’ (‘it is unbelievable how a component that amounts to one third of the section of a building and may represent 50 percent of the budget is in a way inaccessible to architectural thought’ [13]), whose problematic he elsewhere dramatized, as an opportunity rather than a dilemma, in his ‘theory’ of the elevator (discussed in Part One), where the existence of such a central mechanism seemed to offer a way of concentrating everything heterogeneous and external together in a governable fashion.

Perhaps “unconsciously,” Jameson seems to be describing his own sentence, with its vast “intestinal necessities” as it creeps along through its typologies and quadrants, its “pipes and wiring” inaccessible to syntactic design, its manifest will to enclose a world “in a [barely] governable fashion.” The clotted and yet strangely airy feel of a prose in which Zeebrugge, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Las Vegas, “the Congrexpo in Lille,” “the Convention Center in Agadir,” “the Romeo and Juliet box” (“more complex,” we are assured, “than anything since Schoenberg’s Klangfarbenmelodie”), “Venturi’s Gordon Wu building at Princeton,” “Rossi’s Hotel Il Palazzo at Fukuoka,” “the Sainsbury center of 1978”—all these things emerging momentarily, mentioned but only rarely described or pictured—coordinates with Jameson’s account of postmodernism itself, which becomes once again an account of his own cognitive style. What’s more, the suspicion that gathers around much of postmodern culture—is this style or a failure of style?—also hangs over this book. Has Jameson really gone over this material? Why do the illustrations have no captions, so that one is often uncertain what one is looking at? Why is the index so reliably wrong or inadequate? Why has no kind—or unkind—editor intervened?

The most serious problem with which Jameson must grapple, however, is the fact that the unprincipled movements of capital have produced a version of “actually existing” totality more comprehensive than any that socialism, either actual or theoretical, was able to come up with. Late capital has made its way in the world through an apparently pliant responsiveness to local concerns, local values, local practices, local prejudices: it sells its totalities without insisting on totality as an abstraction. While Jameson has argued that experience should be seen as simultaneously specific and a figure for totality, multi-national corporations have sought to reassure consumers that “We do it your way,” so that every consumer can say, while consuming, “I did it my way,” without a thought for totality. Late capitalism’s totalizing strategies are, in short, effective to the extent to which they can pass themselves off as a resistance to totality itself.

Can capital’s “unconscious” totality be effectively resisted, or must we all, in the end, get on board? Jameson devotes many worried pages to “Critical Regionalism,” an architectural practice that represents itself as an anti-Marxist “flight from the realities of late capitalism,” only to conclude that it is just more late capitalism after all. Here in New Orleans, the immediate environment offers two more effective resistances to totality and capital. The first is figured in the fate of the Piazza d’Italia, designed about twenty years ago as a strange, metallic reference to ancient Roman civic architecture. Once, perhaps, a diverting commentary on public space and historical memory, it has become a contemporary pseudo-Roman ruin, littered with trash, broken glass, and syringes. A terrible place to visit, some people actually seem to live there. It resists totality, however, and has, in its current state, achieved a certain independence from late capitalism, which wants nothing to do with it. It stands now as a sign of the power of public indifference to the designs of the cultural elite.

The site of the second resistance is situated just a few feet away in the open, unfinished hulk of what was to be the world’s largest land-based casino. Of course, it is not the casino itself I am thinking of; casinos represent one of the most nakedly deracinated forms of late capitalism, of what Jameson might describe as “the hysterical sublime,” or “the exhilaration of the gleaming surface.” For that matter, gambling also provides revealing allegories of the complicity with capital of “Critical Regionalism” in the riverboat casinos that have surrounded the city in the last couple of years, some of which have promoted themselves with a “Cajun,” “Bayou,” or old-time riverboat theme. The true resistance to the interests of capital is to be found in the “disappointing” revenues of these riverboats, as well as of the “temporary” casino operated by Harrah’s near the French Quarter while a “permanent” casino was being built. Throughout 1995, boats were failing, employees were being laid off, tax projections were being recalculated, moguls were being inconvenienced, and office furniture was being seized by creditors. This partially amusing spectacle was climaxed in November, 1995 by the sudden and spectacular bankruptcy of the temporary casino, and the abrupt cancellation of construction on the permanent one. As I write, it is bad all around, except in the city’s legal profession, which has entered on a new Golden Age. But from the very beginning of casino gambling in New Orleans, in May, 1995, a certain trend had troubled even the most hysterical, the most exhilarated: the temporary casino was attracting local African-Americans, while white gamblers were taking busses to the casinos on the Mississippi Coast. A combination of spontaneous self-segregation and a structurally depressed economy is now on the very brink of accomplishing what liberal moralists could not—throwing the scoundrels out, sucking the blood of the bloodsuckers, preserving, without really intending to, the fragile “character” of the city. Call it Uncritical Regionalism.

How should we think of “late Jameson”? There are two possibilities. The first can be charted with the aid of the semiotic rectangle itself. Marxism and Form and Prison-House—we might say—betray a pair of interests, in literary form and the classless Utopian society. From here we pass through The Political Unconscious and end up, at least for now, with the replacement of literature by “culture” more broadly defined, and with the dominance of capitalism over Utopia. Another way of thinking of Jameson’s decade-long meditation on postmodernism would be as a final, dramatic sacrifice, a willed surrender of his work’s greatness out of a scholarly respect for the character of his subject. Jameson has fashioned a critical style appropriate to postmodernity, and has, in the process, surrendered his “modernist” status as charismatic Master. It is not just difficult but inappropriate to be a prophet in a world that bestows the mantle of “greatness” on the Figueroa grade crossing in downtown Los Angeles. Jameson has, we might say, renounced renunciation, and the magnitude-effect that accompanied it; he has surrendered the pain that made his work so bracing, the outraged sense of the intolerable injustice of domination that had previously occasioned his lucidity. In so doing, he has become—it goes without saying—our preeminent postmodern theorist.

Barbara Foley (review date February 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of The Seeds of Time, in Modern Philology, Vol. 94, No. 3, February, 1997, pp. 422-6.

[In the following review of The Seeds of Time, Foley finds Jameson's commentary useful despite its failure to address historical causality, praxis, and the relationship between utopia and communism.]

In The Seeds of Time, Fredric Jameson’s large imagination and insistent dissatisfaction with things as they are move us toward new insights into the nature of our postmodern malaise and new zones of cultural critique. In the first chapter, “The Antinomies of Postmodernity,” Jameson pursues the project of “cognitive mapping” proposed at the end of his Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, N.C., 1991). Arguing that “the age is clearly more propitious for the antinomy than the contradiction” (p. 2), Jameson outlines four symptomatic oppositions within which postmodern thought oscillates without resolution: between “absolute change” and “stasis” (p. 19); between a “global commodification” resulting in “spatial homogeneity” (p. 27) and a market-driven “individual hyperconsumption” resulting in “a well-nigh Bakhtinian carnival of heterogeneities” (p. 29); between a “profoundly formalist” (p. 43) philosophical antifoundationalism and a “passionately ecological revival of a sense of Nature” (p. 46) combined with a “recrudescence” of “older ideologies of human nature” (p. 49); and, finally, between an anti-utopian “celebration of late capitalism” and the “Utopian discourse” that it presses into service (p. 60).

In the second chapter, Jameson discusses Andrei Platonov’s Chevengur, a Communist utopian novel of the late 1920s published in Russian only in the late 1980s. Analyzing the novel’s engagement with violence, death, and change, Jameson argues that the text’s deployment of irony for utopian purposes reveals a definitively “Second World” consciousness, one that repudiates the “radical devaluation of personal experience” (p. 118) passing for irony in the First World and that reflects the relatively noncommodified culture of a “non-consumer-consumptive society” (p. 74). In the final chapter, Jameson delves into the architectural criticism begun in his famous commentary on the Bonaventure Hotel in Postmodernism. Viewing self-critically his own earlier celebration of “illimitable pluralism” (p. xiv), Jameson here stresses the political and epistemological limits within which the seemingly infinite variety of postmodernist architecture is in fact contained. Even Critical Regionalism, the tendency of which Jameson most approves, is dogged by “the EPCOT syndrome raised to a global scale,” leaving him to wonder, in his closing query, “Is global Difference the same today as global Identity?” (p. 205).

The Seeds of Time advances a welcome line of Marxist critique at a time when an idealist post-Marxism and a depoliticized New Historicism—not to mention various modes of revived conservative criticism—shape much contemporary cultural commentary. Jameson proclaims the superiority of dialectic (presumably a discredited term) over antinomy and invokes Georg Lukács’s “dialectical nonformalism” as against the antifoundationalism of Jürgen Habermas and Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. He sharply criticizes various reactionary ideas enjoying widespread currency—the notion that “human nature” is innate and depraved, for instance, or that societies based upon planning rather than markets are necessarily monolithic and repressive—and reveals their roots in the ideological imperatives of contemporary capitalism. He insists that totality has nothing to do with totalitarianism, and that totalization is the only path to both epistemological and political coherence. Moreover, he repudiates the proposition that all there is to be remembered of “actually existing socialism” is empty store shelves, arguing that some works of “Second World” art bring us closer to utopia than practically anything produced in the West without sacrificing any of the complex irony held to be the principal modernist legacy.

It is precisely because Jameson works within the Marxist paradigm, however, that he should be held to a Marxist standard. In this context, there are three zones of argument in The Seeds of Time that I find problematic. To begin with, the class struggle—a term out of fashion, but hardly beyond relevance—simply does not figure in Jameson’s analysis. One consequence of this absence is that his discussion of historical causality, for all its presumed awareness of dialectics, smacks of what the old-style Marxists used to call “mechanistic materialism.” When Jameson examines the encroachment of global capitalism on both land usage and cultural tradition in previously peasant economies, for example, this homogenizing and dehistorizing process appears to be simply the consequence of objectively shifting modes of production, rather than a development in which both winners and losers often fought with considerable ferocity and political awareness.

A second and related consequence—and one of greater significance for his project—is that Jameson is unable to offer, indeed to imagine, a praxis that would enable us to break free of the epistemological and political stranglehold of the late-capitalist antinomies that he so incisively describes. While he champions Lukács for his “dialectical nonformalism,” Jameson omits any mention of the historical agency at the core of Lukács’s epistemology—namely, his political designation of the revolutionary proletariat as the “identical subject-object of history.” The Seeds of Time posits a “blockage” within the antinomies of postmodernism, envisioning our situation as one of “waiting with a kind of breathlessness, as we listen for the missing tick of the clock, the absent first step of renewed praxis” (pp. 70–71). Jameson is of course under no obligation to view the contemporary proletariat as the agent of this renewed praxis. But as a Marxist he should at least confront the terms and conditions of its potential historical role. Lacking any analytical engagement with the actual situation within late capitalism of the working class and its allies, Jameson’s stance, alternately one of pathos, tragedy, and stoicism, historicizes but essentially retains the Derridean aporia. This historicization becomes a relatively empty gesture, however, if history is deprived of agency. Indeed, even the decision to be a Marxist at all in one’s approach to postmodernity would seem to be grounded in will, or faith, rather than in a perception of necessity.

Another feature of Jameson’s text that is somewhat troubling from a Marxist point of view is its lack of any formulated relation between utopia and communism. Jameson quite rightly argues that utopia entails more than providing the “blueprint for a communal life” (p. 123); his discussion of the stark confrontation with death in Chevengur rests on the provocative statement that it is by “removing the artificial miseries of money and self-preservation” that utopia, if anything, “exacerbates … the tensions and unresolvable contradictions inherent both in interpersonal relations and in bodily existence itself” (p. 110). But if it is classlessness—that is, communism—that enables this existential confrontation, why not say so? Jameson has of course previously raised hackles when he posited, in The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, N.Y., 1981), that all class consciousness—even fascist class consciousness—has a utopian component. But even if Jameson wishes to define utopia in such a way that it is not equated exclusively with a collective, classless form of society, the view of Utopia as actually achievable communism is clearly central to the Marxist tradition and, in particular, to the project of socialist construction represented in Chevengur.

Jameson’s remarks on Chevengur are, however, frustratingly abstract, even ahistorical. Platonov’s novel, we are told, was written in the late 1920s, before collectivization, and treats a period between 1917 and sometime “after the implementation of the New Economic Policy in 1923” (p. 82). Jameson does not tell us, however, how or whether the novel’s dystopic finale—the village is “destroyed by counterrevolutionary bandits” (p. 82)—is in fact linked with the New Economic Policy. Nor does he indicate how the very short period of time containing the Bolshevik revolution, wartime communism, the civil war, and the beginnings of NEP would have been sufficient to engender—in either its characters or its author—a consciousness free from the influence of commodity fetishism. (Indeed, if tracing this consciousness is Jameson’s primary concern, it is curious that he did not choose a Soviet novel from the 1940s or 1950s, one which, while carrying the baggage of several decades of flawed socialist construction, would also presumably articulate ways of thinking and seeing free from many more aspects of market-based social relations than would a novel from the late 1920s.) My point is not that Jameson should have written a disquisition on Soviet history. But his admirable decision to address the representation of utopia in a Second World imagination is vitiated by his reluctance to anchor that representation in concrete historical circumstances: utopia’s relation to irony and death seems more compelling to him than its relation to social organization. Not only is utopia what cannot be acted upon in our present; even past attempts to anchor utopia in communism remain shrouded in mystery.

Jameson’s reticence regarding the relation of utopia to communism clearly relates to his reluctance to discuss historical agency. What both omissions reflect—and here is my third complaint—is not just the political crisis of late twentieth-century academic Marxism but also a fundamental problem in Jameson’s epistemology. Despite his elevation of antinomy over contradiction, Jameson never discusses the crucial dialectical principle of the negation of negation—that is, the process by which one pole in an opposition engages dialectically with its opposite and, through a process of struggle, supersedes it. The postmodern condition would seem to require that we oscillate perpetually between bad and partial categories; the totality of which we strive to get a glimpse is an “unrepresentable exterior” (p. xiii). Thus Critical Regionalism, aspiring to articulate “the national-regional culture as a collective possibility in its moment of besiegement and crisis,” is beset not only by “the danger of idealism in all cultural nationalism” but also by the tendency of “global American Disneyland-related corporations” to profit from pseudolocal “authenticity” (pp. 202–4). Lodged immovably in the very structure of postmodern life, Jameson’s antinomies cease to appear as ideological symptoms of deeper historical contradictions and become, he complains, all that we know. But because the totality that would expose these antinomies’ ideological status is also by definition unknowable, even unimaginable, we are unable to jettison the fetishized oppositions between which we bounce back and forth. Idealist epistemology is inseparable from political impotence.

To offer these criticisms of The Seeds of Time is not, however, to deny the power of Jameson’s latest commentary on our postmodern condition. Indeed, it is precisely because Jameson has articulated his frustration with “waiting” and “blockage” so eloquently and has outlined our dilemma so lucidly that one is prompted to probe more deeply for ways to get beyond it.1


  1. For much of this discussion I am indebted to conversations with my friend Gregory Meyerson.

Richard Gott (review date 26 February 1999)

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SOURCE: “It's Irony, Guv,” in New Statesman, February 26, 1999, pp. 55-7.

[In the following excerpt, Gott discusses Jameson's analysis of postmodernity in The Cultural Turn.]

Everyone now recognises that we live in a postmodern world. In architecture and design, in film and music, in art and fiction, in poetry and literary criticism, even in politics, postmodernity is everywhere on display: cynicism and levity, irony and pastiche, nostalgia coupled with historical amnesia, and decoration replacing substance. So obvious and widespread has the phenomenon become that people use this shorthand word with relaxed ease to describe the world around them.

This was not always so. Writing only ten years ago, the American critic Fredric Jameson noted that “the concept of postmodernism is not widely accepted or even understood today”. Yet so pervasive has been its influence and so rapid its popular assimilation, that Jameson’s latest book of essays has been given the stirring title of The Cultural Turn, suggesting that the arrival of the postmodern was not just another stage in the seamless development of culture, nor a mere kink, but a definitive change of direction that requires a more radical explanation of its emergence and future implications.

A critic and professor of literature at Duke University, Jameson has been worrying away at the meaning of postmodernism since the early 1980s, and is now one of its most intelligible and accessible gurus. His contributions to the debate about the nature of contemporary culture have always been witty, succinct and immensely readable. In this collection he looks at the debate about “the end of history” in the light of the earlier debate about “the end of art”, and reflects that “all beauty today is meretricious”—a notion that some readers might find initially disturbing before eventually recognising the essential truth. Yet what gives Jameson’s work its particular political charge is the emphasis he places on the close link between culture and the evolving development of global capitalism. …

What marks out both books [The Cultural Turn and Perry Anderson's The Origins of Postmodernity] is their ambition to give an economic and political edge to what has hitherto been a largely cultural discussion. During the past decade, there has been an underlying, if ultimately unhelpful, debate over whether postmodernism is a right- or left-wing manifestation. In America, some aspects of postmodernism—in particular the trend towards relativism and the downgrading of the cultural canon—have been considered dangerously radical, and have been savagely attacked by the political right, ever in search of new enemies after the collapse of the cold war, though weakened by its loss of official patrons. In parts of Europe, notably in some of the writings of Habermas, postmodernism has been perceived by the left almost as the cultural harbinger of some new variant of fascism.

A more useful distinction might be made between the attitudes of young and old. The young, politically unengaged, relish the collapse of the defining line between elite and popular culture, much as an earlier generation celebrated the erosion of the stratifications of class. The old, of both right and left, have been less enthusiastic, even forming a tactical alliance to proclaim their disquiet at the apparent decline in principles and standards—“dumbing-down” in the argot—to which both once tacitly adhered in the days when we still had a semblance of a common culture.

Jameson’s mission is to understand the motivation for such change; but it hardly needs a Marxist critic to suggest that the dramas of postmodernity will have a cultural manifestation. For Anderson, if postmodernism is indeed the logic of late capitalism, it is a capitalism characterised by complacency rather than conflict. The successful culture of this period had fed on this complacency, pandering to it rather than confronting it. For those brought up under modernism, this fawning complicity with the status quo has been one of the least attractive aspects of postmodernism.

Classical modernism was originally combative, critical, oppositional, subversive, underground and utopian. Its avant-gardes had a radical prospectus and a purposive agenda. Yet today it appears that there was something inevitable about its eventual decline. Modernism, Jameson points out, “had something to do with the arrogance of city people over the provincials”, both peasant and colonial. It was only “modern” in comparison with the rural or pre-capitalist past. Once the economic modernisation project had been completed—today there are, in effect, no peasants and no colonies—cultural modernism lost its bearings. The implicit superiority of modernism over what had happened before, or else-where, was no longer self-evident. The city, for example, once a favoured topic of modernist intellectuals, was no longer a definable or meaningful construction, since the environment against which it defined itself—the countryside—had effectively disappeared.

The real importance of these books lies in their focus on the politics of postmodernism. Jameson begins by announcing that he has no wish “to denounce the complacencies of postmodernism as some final symptom of decadence”, nor “to salute the new forms as the harbingers of a new technological and technocratic utopia”. Yet he, like Anderson, clearly believes that postmodernism must be captured for the left, and that its arrival is too important to be ignored or derided, a position reinforced by Anderson’s paean of praise for Jameson’s work. …

The achievement of Fredric Jameson, he [Anderson] argues, has been to recover the concept “for the cause of the revolutionary left”, securing it through “a prodigious display of theoretical intelligence and energy”. This is a victory gained “against all the political odds, in a period of neo-liberal hegemony when every similar landmark of the left appeared to sink beneath the waves of a tidal reaction”.

Both Jameson and Anderson emphasise the economic shift behind the “cultural turn”, yet both have difficulty with the timing. Jameson, in 1982, had described postmodernism as “the cultural logic of late capitalism”, yet “late capitalism”, a phrase coined or given currency by Ernest Mandel in the 1970s, has a precise definition, referring to the period of consumer capitalism in the years after the second world war. If postmodernism is supposed to be the cultural expression of those changing times, how come it didn’t show up until the late 1970s?

The developments of the past decade complicate the picture further. A historian a century hence might well look back at the 1990s and consider this to have been the postmodern decade par excellence. He or she might reflect on the extraordinary changes that computers and globalisation have wreaked on the economic substructure, concluding that the postmodern culture being exhibited globally in the final decade of the century should be considered as the natural and umbilical accompaniment of the new systems being put into place, even if such an obvious linkage does not fit well with the actual chronology.

This is a pity, since postmodernism’s connection with contemporary capitalism seems undeniable. Maybe we shall be forced to conclude that while the long waves affecting the economy are indeed accompanied by cultural long waves, these latter formations will not necessarily operate in mechanistic tandem but have a connected yet independent rhythm of their own.

If you are in a fog or a state of depression about the state of contemporary culture, but have vaguely come to understand that its curious and often unappetising characteristics may have something to do with the prevailing economic and political climate in which they appear to thrive, then these two little books may give you a helping hand and, with a sense of optimism, enable you to participate in the battles ahead.

Volker Gransow and Pia Kleber (review date Summer 1999)

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SOURCE: A review of Brecht and Method, in Modern Drama, Vol. XLII, No. 2, Summer, 1999, pp. 286-9.

[In the following review, Gransow and Kleber offer a positive assessment of Brecht and Method.]

The nineties have brought an increase in both the quality and the quantity of Brecht studies in general, although improved archival access has so far not led to a new Brecht biography worth the name. Among the vast recent Brecht literature one book is outstanding: Fredric Jameson’s Brecht and Method. Professor of Comparative Literature at Duke University in North Carolina, Jameson is the author of many works, including the classic Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism and The Cultural Turn. Even before Brecht and Method was published, Fredric Jameson was regarded as one of the leading Marxist critics writing today. This book demonstrates amply that once again he has new insights to offer to Marxists and non-Marxists alike by exploring the connections between drama and politics. Jameson regards Brecht as important not because of his greatness or his canonicity but, rather, for his “usefulness” in a post—Cold War situation even more anti-Communist than in the good old days.

Jameson wants to show that Brecht’s “proposals” were more on the order of a method than a collection of facts, thoughts, convictions, first principles, and the like. The object of study and characterization is not so much Brecht as the Brechtian. Sketching this “idea of Brecht” is as important as his individual texts, “or perhaps—to be somewhat more measured—that is distinct from them all (all the while including them)” (29). In order to do so he offers a prologue in which he “triangulates” Brecht. Language, thought, and narrative practice are layers of a specifically Brechtian method. Accordingly, the study is divided into three parts: doctrine, gestus, and proverbs. In what follows, we wish to demonstrate the specific usefulness of Jameson’s study for a discussion about the relationship between social theory and a theory of the theatre. The book’s first part on “doctrine” offers an unusual reading of the Lehrstücke or learning plays (deliberately communist and collective plays of the late twenties and early thirties). Partially following Reiner Steinweg, Jameson dismisses the usual interpretation of these plays as an apologia for Stalin’s purge trials to come. He stresses instead their character as a sort of “master class”: “Specific to the Lehrstücke … was their exclusion of the public and, at the same time, a rotation of the actors throughout the various roles. In other words, it is what in the theatre is called a master class, but one which does not necessarily have a master director present either; even though we must imagine Schiffbauerdamm as one continuous master class, to which a paying public is invited only on selected occasions” (63).

Thus, it is a theatrical practice which gets as close as possible to Brecht’s social utopia—not because the public is excluded as such, but because the actors are part and parcel of the learning process. The passage of the various actors through all the roles necessarily creates a multidimensionality, which implies “that the text and its performance slowly blur and disappear into enlarged discussions. … [I]f something like the idea of a ‘master class’ is adopted for such a strange new process-entity, one feature it makes clear is the inseparable presence of so-called theory within the larger ‘text’ itself” (64). Drawing on the Berliner Ensemble’s production of Coriolanus and its four-year rehearsals in which no gesture was considered too insignificant, Jameson concludes that “the text includes all commentaries on the text. … [T]he final performance is also a pretext for all the theoretical inquiries that necessarily precede it in practice, and ought then to follow it in theory” (113). Following Darko Suvin, Jameson characterizes the “theatre as an institution microcosmic of society as a whole, and thereby of the symbolic and utopian allegories it offers as an experimental space and collective laboratory” (11). This seems to be especially important in a historic situation in which “the very disappearance of the idea of the party” (113)—we might add, at least in the understanding of Marx, Lenin, and Gramsci—puts the question of the relationship between capitalism and oppositional organizations back on the Marxist agenda.

Jameson rejects the interpretation of Brecht’s Gestus as an assumption that everything in Brecht is plagiarism in one way or another. On the contrary, “the Grundgestus also suggests the uniqueness of some Brechtian ‘mode of production’ in which there is always a pre-existing raw material that requires a reworking based on interpretation” (105). In that sense the author reads in particular Brecht’s Hamlet interpretation as paradigmatic of his “textual production.” Brecht’s Hamlet turns out to be a patchwork of tensions between the new peaceful commercial ways and the survival of the bloodiest archaic habits of feudalism (cf. 106).

The third part of Brecht and Method has an especially interesting chapter on the representability of capitalism in various plays from St. Joan to Arturo Ui and the Tuis. It is not surprising that Jameson doesn’t regard Brecht’s Marxism as “vulgar.” He argues that “modern revolution and modern reconstruction of social production is possible only after the thorough development and exhaustion of capitalism (as a saturation of the fulfilled world market)—but also of what is and was intended, what can be remembered, and what once was ‘almost’” (160).

Jameson explains this “almost” in a brilliant analysis of the Chalk Circle: Azdak’s rule was a brief golden age—almost. “Yet what ‘almost’ hesitates before in one long pause is not the quality of the righteousness; it is the span of time, and the utopian regret that tinges contemplation of a ‘golden age’ that lasted but a season” (161–62). Unfortunately, the obvious parallel to Ernst Bloch is not explored.

Jameson is clearly influenced by Brecht’s Me-ti, das Buch der Wendungen, a book which so far has not been translated into English. Nevertheless it is confusing to find references to it variously as “Book of Twists and Turns” (dust jacket), “Book of Changes” (29), “The Book of Shifting Ways” (107), “The Book of Turns” (111), and “The Book of Turning Ways” (111). There are some minor problems with quotations from German, such as “fehte” instead of “fehlte” (20), and misspellings of the “Buckow elegies” (6), “Phänomenologie” (30), and “Joe Fleischhacker” (150). We don’t agree that there was an “underlying Maoism” (16) in Brecht’s thought in general, although we regard Jameson’s thoughts on the “Chinese persona” in Brecht as highly stimulating. So are his observations on a Balzacian Brecht, the Brecht-Hegel relationship, Brecht and Lukács, Northrop Frye’s impact on narration theory, and Brecht’s “theatricality,” to mention just a few.

In sum, this book contains a highly recommendable, elegant dissection of Brecht’s method, from estrangements to allegory and beyond. It stresses both actuality and historicity. One of its greatest merits is the demonstration of the intimate connection between theatre and theory—in general, not only as a theory of theatre.

Jameson leads us to the theoretical importance of theatrical and social praxis. He deals rightly with the learning plays and the rehearsals at the Berliner Ensemble as social microcosms. We suggest, however, adding another historical phenomenon to this complex image: Brecht’s master disciples. In his last years Brecht taught, at the Berlin Academy of Arts, master disciples who participated in the productions of the Berliner Ensemble. These disciples were, inter alia, Vera and Claus Küchenmeister, Egon Monk, Peter Palitzsch, and Manfred Wekwerth. They are all still around and available for interviews.

And there are not only the Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble archives, but also the archives of the Academy of Arts. It would be of more than just historical value to compare systematically the productions of the learning plays, the Berliner Ensemble, and Brecht’s classes at the Academy.

Another area where we would suggest going beyond Jameson is the analysis of the work of theatre practitioners who are influenced by Brecht but who are not “Brechtians” in the sense outlined by Jameson in Brecht and Method. One of the most prominent examples would be Robert Lepage, who clearly acknowledges his debt to Brecht. In an interview (June 1997) he stressed Brecht’s relevance for today by referring to Brecht’s awareness of the relationship between a cultural and a technological revolution. “The website, for instance, changes our culture,” Lepage stated, “and people behave as if nothing is happening. Brecht’s early awareness is crucial for us today.” Lepage’s 1998 production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest adopted many structural elements of Brecht’s theatre, but his interpretation of the play can be considered ideologically neutral, demonstrating that historical processes perpetually repeat themselves without change.

Robert Wilson directed Brecht’s Ozeanflug at the Berliner Ensemble in 1998. The directorial art of both Lepage and Wilson poses the question of whether Jameson’s understanding of Brecht’s method is only one possibility among many.

Peter Berger (review date 20 August 1999)

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SOURCE: “In the Faculty Club,” in Times Literary Supplement, August 20, 1999, p. 8.

[In the following review, Berger criticizes The Cultures of Globalization, which he finds “one-sided” and reflective of insular “faculty-club culture.”]

The Cultures of Globalization is a collection of papers delivered at a conference held in 1994 at Duke University. It is part of a series co-edited by the literary theorist Stanley Fish, and is dedicated to Edward Said. One notes these signifiers (if that is the correct term) with apprehension. And as one labours through almost 400 pages of the text, it becomes clear that the apprehension was justified.

It is not, of course, that the book’s topic is unimportant. The concept of globalization refers to a central reality of the contemporary world—the increasing dominance of a global capitalist system, which has immense consequences beyond its immediate economic facts. The political and social consequences have been in the forefront of both public and scholarly attention for some time: consequences such as the relative weakness of national governments in confronting global capital, or the fact that the global market generates winners and losers both between and within nation states. It is also clear that globalization has important cultural consequences. It is these that the present symposium addresses. It does so, however, in a consistently one-sided manner, which inevitably distorts the reality of the phenomenon.

Most serious analysts, of whatever political persuasion, agree that globalization has had both positive and negative consequences, culturally and otherwise. The authors of the symposium focus almost exclusively on the negative ones. Alberto Moreiras, in a paper on current trends in Latin American studies, quotes an article about Jennifer Harbury, an American lawyer who went to Guatemala and identified passionately with the guerrillas in that country: “She was there to tell their story. She made no pretense of objectivity. She did not see gray and did not want to.” Moreiras concludes his paper with a call for a new, politically committed approach to Latin American studies, and ends with these words: “In this, as in other things, we do not see gray, and we do not really want to.”

The symposium could be summarized as a collision between a reality which, for better or worse, is always grey, and a mindset which refuses to see the greyness. The conference at Duke University was an international gathering of people with monotonously identical views. Their approach is shaped by a particular mixture of neo-Marxism and so-called literary theory, which began as an intellectual fashion in France and has become a dreary orthodoxy in American academe. There was not a single dissenting voice. This makes for exhaustion in any reader not already committed to this approach.

The view of globalization propounded here is neatly summarized by Leslie Sklair, who explains that a new “global system theory” must pay attention to three components of this system—the transnational corporation, a still evolving transnational capitalist class (which constitutes a global political elite) and the culture-ideology of consumerism. The first two components are understood in terms of classical neo-Marxist dependency theory; the third component is seen as being under the control of the first two, designed to encourage mindless consumption and thus “to ensure that the global capitalist system goes on forever”.

It is not possible here to enter into a critique of this view of the world situation. It must only be noted that culture is understood solely in terms of its relation to the alleged global constellations of economic and political power. Some of the authors have seen the difficulty of placing themselves in this picture: is a conference such as this one also part of the ideological control apparatus of the transnational capitalist class? Or, as was evidently the hope, can it be a foco of resistance? Given the alleged power and sophistication of the global system, it is not surprising that the hope seems rather forlorn.

Most of the authors come from literary disciplines, but the language that has become de rigueur in these disciplines has spilled over to others. The language defies both description and satire; it can only be quoted. In his preface, Fredric Jameson, co-editor with Masao Miyoshi, after casting doubt on all exercises of definition, does attempt a definition of globalization: “an untotalizable totality which intensifies binary relation between its parts”. Enrique Dussel expresses some hope that there are limits to the power of global capitalism: “the globalizing world-system reaches a limit with exteriority of the alterity of the Other, a locus of resistance from whose affirmation the process of the negation of negation of liberation begins.” And Liu Kang, discussing current debates about modernity in China, attempts a definition of nationalism: “an ensemble of discursive practices, functioning through interaction between historically changing fields of struggle and habits of discrete dispositions, in which ideologies are legitimized and delegitimized”.

One does not use such language innocently. It corrodes one’s sense of reality. It becomes a self-enclosed dogma, immune to empirical refutation. This self-enclosed approach accounts for the authors’ failure to perceive highly significant components of cultural globalization. Leaving aside their one-sided understanding of these, they have correctly identified two relevant elements—an emerging transnational elite (this is the group to which Samuel Huntington, who is as far from the Duke consensus as anyone can be, has given the felicitous name “Davos culture”) and transnational popular culture. But they fail to perceive any popular movements that do not fit into their category of resistance. The only reference to the immense movement of Islamic renaissance is in the paper by Sherif Hetata, billed as “one of the prominent figures of the left-wing movement in Egypt”, who characterizes it as being simply the other side of the coin of the movement towards a capitalist global culture—a monumental failure of perception that goes a long way in explaining the helplessness of progressive intellectuals in the face of Islamic movements. Nowhere in the book is there any mention of what is arguably the most powerful global popular movement—the international upsurge of Evangelical Protestantism, especially in its Pentecostal form. But, most significantly, the book fails to perceive another important component of cultural globalization: the transnational intelligentsia. Putting this differently, the authors fail to perceive their own role in the drama they purport to analyse.

There is not only one global elite in the making. There is indeed the “Davos culture” (though the authors, captive to their own neo-Marxist frame of reference, exaggerate both its cohesion and its power). But there is also what could be called the “faculty-club culture”, essentially a globalizing Western, mainly American intelligentsia. It has its own institutional structure, through NGOs, foundations, academic networks and national and international agencies that have come under its aegis. Its relations to the “Davos culture” are complex. Sometimes the two cultures are in opposition, but they also interact and influence each other, and at times one co-opts the other. And the faculty-club culture, like the Davos culture, has its effects at the level of popular culture. Thus, for example, large numbers of ordinary people in the Muslim world or in Latin America “consume” American feminism and American health cults, as they also consume American fast foods, clothing and music. The faculty-club culture, though not as rich as the other globalizing elite, has at its disposal large financial resources, through which it seeks to project its influence and, yes, its power into remote corners of the world. In the language of the old dependency theory, it has its metropolitan centre, most of it in the United States, and on the periphery it has a comprador class that does its bidding. In both elite cultures, knowledge and proper use of the in-language is an important marker of belonging.

In a book of this size, it might be expected that one would find some useful information. Thus, for example, there are interesting observations about recent African literature in Ioan Davies’s paper. Liu Kang gives an instructive summary of current debates over modernity and tradition in China. And Barbara Trent’s account of her problems in producing films that attack American foreign policies has an eerie fascination of its own. (Anti-Americanism is an important commodity exported by the globalizing American intelligentsia.) All the same, the reader looking for insights into the cultural dramas of today will be frustrated. There are useful insights into the current condition, however, of one significant segment of the American-dominated global intelligentsia.


Principal Works


Further Reading