Frederic Jameson critic and Marxist political theorist.

Robert Tally’s study provides a crisp and coherent guide to the thought of a figure future generations, hopefully, will look back on as one of the prophets of their utopia writes Sean Ledwith

The Project of Dialectical Criticism

Fredric Jameson: The Project of Dialectical Criticism (Pluto, London, 2014) 208pp., £16.99 pb

In a neatly dialectical contradiction, the pre-eminent cultural theorist in the world’s hegemonic capitalist state is currently an avowed Marxist. Writing from the academic heart of the beast of American capitalism, Fredric Jameson has sustained a decades-long engagement with the most avant-garde elements of bourgeois social theory while maintaining his own unyielding commitment to a recognisable version of historical materialism. Almost single-handedly, he has carried the flag for Marxism in the rarefied environments of literary and cultural studies departments of the US. Apart from his resolute defence of dialectical thinking in a hostile environment, Jameson’s formidable reputation also rests on the astonishing range of topics he has covered in his written output. As Robert Tally notes in his illuminating study,

‘Given the breadth of his interests and the omnivorous tastes in literature, the encounter with Jameson’s writings often seems like a trip through a well stocked, perhaps utopian library … Kantian philosophy, French psychoanalysis, urban geography, popular music, the Homeric epic, pulp science fiction and horror movies’ (12).

In light of this dazzling diversity of topics, two of the obvious difficulties facing the new student of Jameson are trying to grasp the totality of his concerns and also to identify a suitable place to commence engagement with his oeuvre. Tally has provided a valuable service by addressing these two issues in his study of the figure he justifiably refers to as ‘the world’s most prominent Marxist critic’ (2).

He adopts a useful chronological framework for Jameson’s work, opening with his PhD study of Sartre, published in 1961, concluding with his most recent studies of Hegel and Marx’s Capital, published in this decade. Crucially, the author underlines the importance of viewing Jameson not just as a cultural critic of the highest calibre but also as a perceptive commentator on the contours of late capitalism who can help us identify pathways towards overthrowing the system. Tally approvingly quotes from Jameson’s 2009 book Valences of the Dialectic (reviewed 2010): ‘Marxist politics is a Utopian project for transforming the world and replacing the capitalist mode of production with a radically different one’ (quoted on 165).

Tally opens his account of Jameson’s development with a revealing memory of being a student in one of the theorist’s lectures at Duke University in 1989. The author recalls how Jameson wrote Sartre’s name on the board and then proceeded to construct a rhizomatic diagram that included virtually everyone who is anyone in the pantheon of critical theory: ‘Eventually now more distant but with bigger letters, the names Nietzsche, Freud and Marx loomed over even the initial Sartre with various lines criss-crossing the whole, connecting various thinkers, or curiously juxtaposing one with another’ (1).

Tally recalls how this pedagogical tour de force inspired him to find out about the thinkers alluded to by Jameson, and how the anecdote reflects the intellectual fertility of the critic’s investigations over the past few decades. Many of the names assimilated in Jameson’s presentation were those of thinkers who were only marginally studied in the Anglophone world before he paid them significant attention. Figures such as Benjamin, Adorno and Lukács are familiar now to students on cultural theory courses in higher education but Tally reminds us that Jameson merits considerable credit for translating and explicating these works in the 1960s when they were little known outside France and Germany.

The tradition of Western Marxism, as it would be labelled by Perry Anderson, was largely unknown to English-speaking readers until Jameson turned his critical attention to it. The author reminds us that if modern students are inclined to take this theoretical transfusion for granted, it represented a considerable academic risk for Jameson at a time that US culture was dominated by Cold War hostility to Marxism and recollections of McCarthyist witch-hunting of leftists were fresh in the memory (35).

Jameson is fully conscious of his role as an almost exclusive academic port of entry for many of the ideas that would otherwise have struggled to make an impact on American intellectuals: ‘The crucial fact about the United States then and now is the utter absence of anything like what we would come to call western Marxism later on; my own contribution was … to make that tradition known’ (quoted on 41).

One of the few shortcomings of Tally’s study is the absence of any indication of the factors in Jameson’s biography that led him to gravitate to a set of ideas that were so far outside the mainstream of US culture at the time. His subsequent ascent to the pinnacle of academic authority appears to us now as the inevitable elevation of an exceptional intellect, but the spectacle of a self-proclaimed Marxist critic presiding over American literary theory remains a remarkable and paradoxical phenomenon.

In the 1970s, Jameson’s theorising became even more explicitly committed to Marxism, revolving around an allegiance to Sartre’s famous definition of the theory as the ‘untranscendable horizon’ of modern thinking, an outlook that cannot be surpassed until a new mode of production has been inaugurated (59). Tally speculates that the hardening of Jameson’s world-view was a response to the popularity of non-Marxist European frameworks that were emerging in US academia at the start of the decade. The thinker ‘doggedly maintained a sort of Hegelian Marxism that even among Marxist critics seemed terribly old fashioned, while at the same time also demonstrating a veritably gymnastic conceptual dexterity in grappling with … each new novel interpretative system as it entered the arena’ (60).

During this period of his career, Jameson demonstrated his trademark willingness to engage with ideas that would usually be regarded as outside the interest of a more conventional left-wing thinker. In the 1930s, for example, the novelist and poet, Wyndham Lewis, was dismissed by critics on the left as little more than a fascist fellow-traveller and proponent of crude biological determinism. In Jameson’s more nuanced mode of analysis, Lewis becomes a progenitor of radical modernism, worthy of comparison with more accepted figures of subversive literature such as Joyce and Kafka.

Jameson’s reputation as a critic of the first order has been constructed on his bold project of sustaining the Marxist focus on the historical context of an author’s output, while integrating recognition of the centrality of stylistic factors. This mode of analysis was famously labelled by Jameson as unearthing the ‘political unconscious’ present in the output of an author; in other words, the way in which certain creative figures are capable of implying revolutionary perspectives despite operating with an explicitly reactionary agenda. In Lewis’ case, ‘the anti-progressive, fascist, oppositional intellectual is twisted into a kind of apologist for, or at least a tacit endorser of, a Marxian vision of history’, as Tally puts it (64).

He terms this critical skill on Jameson’s part a ‘dialectical reversal’ (64), and defines it as the ability to avoid the crude reductionism characteristic of some earlier Marxist literary criticism, and the development of a more refined version that looks beneath the face-value of a text in order to discern radical elements of which even the author may be unaware.

Jameson’s 1981 study, The Political Unconscious, fully utilises this method of analysis. Its reputation as the modern ‘touchstone’ of Marxist cultural theory, as Tally calls it, is founded on this sophisticated blending of political commentary, rooted in historical materialism with recognition of the formalistic brilliance of writers not usually classified as left-wing such as Balzac or Conrad (64). The political unconscious as a method of literary analysis has a clear connection to the Freudian notion of repression, which Jameson is equally committed to as suitable for adaptation by Marxism. Tally helpfully encapsulates this way of thinking: ‘The aim of this theory of a political unconscious is ultimately to disclose the unseen or repressed historical dimension of both lived experience and the representations of reality in literary and cultural texts’ (68).

Another of Jameson’s seminal conceptual innovations succinctly explained by Tally is ‘cognitive mapping’. The deceptively simple definition provided by the author is ‘representing a seemingly unrepresentable reality through allegorical means’ (88). If this initially seems rather opaque, Tally refers to Jameson’s well-known deconstruction of the Al Pacino movie, ‘Dog Day Afternoon’, made in 1977. In the film, Pacino plays a reluctant bank robber, forced into desperate measures by poverty. Apart from the sympathetic portrayal of a law-breaker and his co-conspirators, the other notable aspect of the narrative, Jameson argues, is that the white-collar bank staff are portrayed as no less alienated than the criminals apparently inflicting an appalling trauma on them. As the film progresses, a shared empathy unexpectedly emerges between the two sets of characters, founded on a common detestation of the bank’s senior management and the faceless plutocracy who run the entire financial system. For Jameson, the surprisingly subversive sub-plot of what initially appears to be a conventional bank-heist movie reflects the contemporary evolution of a new form of late capitalism, in which the working and middles classes are increasingly forced to fight together in the face of a hostile and remote ruling class (88-9).

Jameson’s signature device of assimilating a diversity of cultural references within a Marxist paradigm is also displayed in probably his most influential work Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). In contrast to the intellectual figureheads of the eponymous movement, such as Foucault and Baudrillard, who sought to evade social and historical contexts (or grand narratives as they christened them), Jameson roots the cultural tendencies of late twentieth-century thinking firmly in the framework of an analysis of developments within the capitalist mode of production. Tally explicates Jameson’s celebrated analysis of the architecture of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, in which conventional aspects of design such as entrances and exits, inside and outside are subverted by an intentional desire to disorientate and bewilder the visitor; in the same manner that commercialised postmodernity reduces the citizen to an anonymous unit of consumption (96).

Postmodernism contains another seminal Jamesonian dichotomy, the distinction between parody and pastiche. The critic contends that the cultural exhaustion of capitalism now leads the system to be incapable of dynamic innovation and instead the ruling class is condemned to revisit its former selves in the guise of nostalgia and retro fashions. The cultural subversion that can be delivered by parody is supplanted by the anodyne distraction of pastiche. As an illustration ,Tally refers to how ‘seemingly historical productions, like period pieces, do not really attempt to represent the historical conditions as they were but rather depict our present images of what it must have been like’ ( 93). The curious success of ‘Downton Abbey’ on both sides of the Atlantic would not be a mystery to Jameson.

Tally contends the thinker owes his elevated status not only to the perspicacity of his examination of the cultural trends of globalised capitalism but also to his stoical refusal to abandon the conviction that one day the system will meet its nemesis in the form of a rejuvenated revolutionary movement. Jameson is sober about the immediate prospects of such a transcendence occurring. Tally vividly conveys the seemingly ineluctable nature of the current stranglehold exerted by the elite over the masses: ‘We live in a world in which the very sources of power are now entirely disembodied, circulating around the planet via fibre-optic cables and computerized data transmissions’ (141).

For Jameson, however, in a characteristically bravura deployment of dialectical reversal, the omniscience of 21st capitalism is the potential source of its downfall. He detects amid the revived wave of interest in the science-fiction genre, both in cinema and literature, a stirring of the utopian impulse across the world for epochal transformation that used to be part of the language of the left. In many leftist circles, the concept of utopia has fallen into disrepute as an obstacle to credibility. In contrast, Jameson exhorts us to regard the current hegemony of capitalism as actually the prelude to a revolutionary epoch we cannot currently envisage. In Valences of the Dialectic, he draws an analogy with Virgil’s Aeneid, in which the apparently calamitous defeat and exile of the Trojans at the hands of the Greeks is, in reality, the catalyst for their triumphant revival in the form of the Roman Empire (153). This image may lack strategic specificity, but as an antidote to the habitual pessimism that beleaguers the left, it serves as a rousing call to resistance.

Robert Tally’s study provides a crisp and coherent guide to the thought of a figure future generations, hopefully, will look back on as one of the prophets of their utopia.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

Tagged under: