Fredric Jameson

by Douglas Kellner


Fredric Jameson (b. 1934) is generally considered to be one of the foremost contemporary Marxist literary critics writing in English. He has published a wide range of works analyzing literary and cultural texts and developing his own neo-Marxist theoretical position. In addition, Jameson has produced a large number of texts criticizing opposing theoretical positions. A prolific writer, he has assimilated an astonishing number of theoretical discourses into his project and has intervened in many contemporary debates while analyzing a diversity of cultural texts, ranging from the novel to video, from architecture to postmodernism.


In his first published book Jameson analyzed the literary theory and production of Jean-Paul Sartre. Written as a doctoral dissertation at Yale University, Sartre: The Origins of a Style (1961) was influenced by Jameson's teacher Erich Auerbach and by the Stylistics associated with Leo Spitzer, focusing on Sartre's style, narrative structures, values, and vision of the world. The book is devoid of the Marxian categories and political readings characteristic of Jameson's later work, but read in the context of the stifling conformism and banal business society of the 1950s, Jameson's subject matter (Sartre) and his intricate literary-theoretical writing style (already the notorious Jamesonian sentences appear full-blown) can be seen as revealing an attempt to create himself as a critical intellectual against the conformist currents of the epoch. One also sees him already turning against the literary establishment, against the dominant modes of literary criticism. All Jameson's works constitute critical interventions against the hegemonic forms of literary criticism and modes of thought regnant in the Anglo-American world.


After intense study of Marxian literary theory in the 1960s, when he was influenced by the New Left and antiwar movement, Jameson published Marxism and Form, which introduced a tradition of dialectical neo-Marxist literary theory to the English-speaking world (1970). Since articulating and critiquing the structuralist project in The Prison-House of Language (1972), Jameson has concentrated on developing his own literary and cultural theory in works such as Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist (1979), The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981), and Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). He has also published several volumes of essays--The Ideologies of Theory (vol. 1, Situations of Theory, and vol. 2, Syntax of History, both 1988). Two other books, Signatures of the Visible (1991) and The Geopolitical Aesthetic (1992) collect studies of film and visual culture, while The Cultural Turn (1998) presents Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998. . Studies of Theodor W. Adorno, Late Marxism (1990) and Brecht and Method (2000) continue his intensive work in Marxist theory and aesthetics.


No early/late dichotomy in Jameson's publications presents itself as a viable hermeneutical device for interpreting his works as a whole, other than the obvious distinction between his pre-Marxian text Sartre and his later writings. Rather, what is striking are the remarkable continuities in Jameson's works. One can pick up his articles or books from the early 1970s through the late 1980s and discover strong similarities in their concerns, style, and politics. Indeed, one gets the feeling in reading Jameson's two-volume collection of essays The Ideologies of Theory that they could have all been written yesterday, or in the recent past. Yet, as Jameson notes in the introduction to these essays, there is a fundamental shift of emphasis in his works that he describes as


a shift from the vertical to the horizontal: from an interest in the multiple dimensions and levels of a text to the multiple interweavings of an only fitfully readable (or writable) narrative; from problems of interpretation to problems of historiography; from the attempt to talk about the sentence to the (equally impossible) attempt to talk about modes of production. (Ideologies 1:xxix)


In other words, Jameson's focus has shifted from a vertical emphasis on the many dimensions of a text--its ideological, psychoanalytic, formal, mythic-symbolical levels--which require a sophisticated and multivalent practice of reading, to a horizontal emphasis on the ways texts are inserted into historical sequences and on how history enters and helps constitute texts. Yet this shift in emphasis also points to continuities in Jameson's work, for from the late 1960s to the 1990s he has privileged the historical dimension of texts and political readings, bringing his critical practice into the slaughterhouse of history, moving critical discourse from the ivory tower of academia and the prison-house of language to the vicissitudes and contingencies of that field for which the term "history" serves as marker.


One therefore reads Jameson as a (still open) totality, as a relatively unified theoretical project in which the various texts provide parts of a whole. Jameson has characteristically appropriated into his theory a wide range of positions, from Structuralism to poststructuralism and from psychoanalysis to Postmodernism, producing a highly eclectic and original brand of Marxian literary and cultural theory. Marxism remains the master narrative of Jameson's corpus, a narrative that utilizes a dual hermeneutic of ideology and utopia to criticize the ideological components of cultural texts, while setting forth their utopian dimension, and that helps produce criticism of existing society and visions of a better world. Influenced by Marxist theorist Ernst Bloch, Jameson thus has developed a hermeneutical and utopian version of Marxian cultural theory. (See Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and Marxist Theory and Criticism.)


Jameson's first three major books and most of his early articles involve the effort to develop a literary criticism that cuts against the dominant formalist and conservative models of New Criticism and the academic Anglo-American establishment. Marxism and Form can be read as an introduction to the new versions of Hegelian Marxism that began to appear in Europe and the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Yet as Jameson presents some of the basic positions of Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Bloch, Georg Lukács, and Sartre, one finds his own concepts and positions emerging from the analyses. In particular, he makes clear his attraction both to Lukácsian literary theory and to his version of Hegelian Marxism, an allegiance that remains with Jameson in his later works.


Lukács's work on realism and on the historical novel strongly influenced Jameson's way of seeing and situating literature. While Jameson never accepted Lukács's polemics against modernism, he appropriated key Lukácsian categories, such as reification, to describe the fate of culture in contemporary capitalism. The Hegelian markers of Jameson's work include the contextualizing of cultural texts in history, the broad historical periodizing, and the use of Hegelian categories. Dialectical criticism involves the attempt to synthesize competing positions and methods into a more comprehensive theory, as Jameson does in The Prison-House of Language, where he incorporates elements of French structuralism and Semiotics, as well as Russian Formalism, into his theory. In The Political Unconscious he draws on a wide range of theories, applying them to concrete readings that relate texts to their historical and cultural context, analyze the "political unconscious" of the texts, and depict both ideological and utopian moments of texts.


Dialectical criticism for Jameson also involves thinking that reflexively analyzes categories and methods, while carrying out concrete analyses and inquiries. Categories articulate historical content and thus must be read in terms of the historical environment out of which they emerge. For Jameson, dialectical criticism thus involves thinking that reflects on categories and procedures, while engaging in specific concrete studies; relational and historical thinking, which contextualizes the object of study in its historical environment; utopian thinking, which compares the existing reality with possible alternatives and finds utopian hope in literature, philosophy, and other cultural texts; and totalizing, synthesizing thinking, which provides a systematic framework for cultural studies and a theory of history within which dialectical criticism can operate. All these aspects are operative throughout Jameson's work, the totalizing element coming more prominently (and controversially) to the fore as his work evolved.


During the 1970s Jameson published a series of theoretical inquiries and many more diverse cultural studies. One begins to encounter the characteristic range of interests and depth of penetration in his studies of science fiction, film, magical narratives, painting, and both realist and modernist literature. One also encounters articles concerning Marxian cultural politics, imperialism, Palestinian liberation, Marxian teaching methods, and the revitalization of the Left. Many of the key essays have been collected in The Ideologies of Theory, which provide the laboratory for the theoretical project worked out in The Political Unconscious and Fables of Aggression. These texts, along with his essays collected in Postmodernism, should be read together as inseparable parts of a multilevel theory of the interconnections between the history of literary form, modes of subjectivity, and stages of capitalism.


Jameson's theoretical synthesis is presented most systematically in The Political Unconscious. The text contains an articulation of Jameson's literary method, a systematic inventory of the history of literary forms, and a hidden history of the forms and modes of subjectivity itself, as it traverses through the field of culture and experience. Jameson boldly attempts to establish Marxian literary criticism as the most all-inclusive and comprehensive theoretical framework as he incorporates a disparate set of competing approaches into his model. He provides an overview of the history of the development of literary form and concludes with articulation of a "double hermeneutic" of ideology and utopia--which critiques ideology while preserving utopian moments--as the properly Marxian method of interpretation.

Jameson employs a Lukács-inspired historical narrative to tell how cultural texts contain a "political unconscious," buried narratives and social experiences, which require sophisticated literary hermeneutics in order to be deciphered. One particular narrative of The Political Unconscious concerns, in Jameson's striking phrase, "the construction of the bourgeois subject in emergent capitalism and its schizophrenic disintegration in our own time" (9). Key stages in the odyssey of the disintegrating bourgeois subjectivity are articulated in George Gissing, Joseph Conrad, and Wyndham Lewis, a story that will find its culmination in Jameson's account of postmodernism.


Indeed, Jameson's studies on postmodernism are a logical consequence of his theoretical project. He presented his first analysis of the defining features of postmodern culture in an essay "Postmodernism and Consumer Society" (a 1982 lecture), published in Hal Foster's collection The Anti-Aesthetic (1983). Eventually, he synthesized and elaborated his emerging analysis in the article "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," which more systematically interprets postmodernism in terms of the Marxian theory of capitalism and as a new "cultural dominant" (Postmodernism 1 ff., expanded from the essay by the same name).


Within his analysis, Jameson situates postmodern culture in the framework of a theory of stages of society--based on a neo-Marxian model of stages of capitalist development--and argues that postmodernism is part of a new stage of capitalism. Every theory of postmodernism, he claims, contains an implicit periodization of history and "an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today" (Postmodernism 3). Following Ernest Mandel's periodization in his book Late Capitalism (1975), Jameson claims that "there have been three fundamental moments in capitalism, each one marking a dialectical expansion over the previous stage. These are market capitalism, the monopoly stage or the stage of imperialism, and our own, wrongly called postindustrial, but what might better be termed multinational, capital" (35). To these forms of society correspond the cultural forms realism, modernism, and postmodernism.


The important essay "The Existence of Italy" (in Signatures of the Visible) further develops this problematic, as does the conclusion to Postmodernism  and the studies in The Cultural Turn. Jameson emerges as a synthetic and eclectic Marxian cultural theorist who attempts to preserve and develop the Marxian theory, while analyzing the politics and utopian moments of a stunning diversity of cultural texts. His work expands literary analysis to include popular culture, architecture, theory, and other texts and thus can be seen as part of the movement toward Cultural Studies as a replacement for canonical literary studies.


Douglas Kellner



Notes and Bibliography


 See also Marxist Theory and Criticism: 2. Structuralist Marxism and Postmodernism.


Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method (2000), The Cultural Turn (1998), Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist (1979), The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (1992), The Ideologies of Theory: vol. 1, Situations of Theory, vol. 2, Syntax of History (1988), Late Marxism: Adorno, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic (1990), Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (1971), The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981), "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," New Left Review 146 (1984), Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism (1972), Sartre: The Origins of a Style (1961), Signatures of the Visible (1990).


Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations (1991); Critical Exchange 14 (1983, special issue on Jameson); diacritics 12 (1982, special issue on Jameson); William C. Dowling, Jameson, Althusser, Marx: An Introduction to "The Political Unconscious" (1984); Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (1983); Sean Homer, Fredric Jameson, Marxism, Hermenuetics, Postmodernism; Douglas Kellner, ed., Postmodernism/Jameson/Critique (1989); New Orleans Review 11 (1984, special issue on Jameson); Michael Sprinker, Imaginary Relations: Aesthetics and Ideology in the Theory of Historical Materialism (1987).