On Fredric Jameson

Jameson writes from an immense sense of engagement with the world around him, and with faith in what that engagement might accomplish.

David Foster Wallace, in his essay “Authority and American Usage,” cites Fredric Jameson by name as one of a group of critics whose “English is deformed” and “prose is appalling — pompous, abstruse, claustral, inflated, euphuistic, pleonastic, solecistic, sesquipidelian, Heliogabaline, occluded, obscure, jargon-ridden, empty: resplendently dead.”

Wallace hasn’t been the only one to take this view; as he notes, the opening sentence to Jameson’s collection of film criticism, Signatures of the Visible, won first prize in a notorious World’s Worst Writing contest in 1997. It rings a bit odd, however, that Wallace would do this in an essay that became famous for its argument that “issues of English usage are fundamentally and inescapably political” — one of Jameson’s most persistent themes.

Although Wallace wouldn’t say it, both he and Jameson, each on his own terms, direct most of their creative energy at the same general project: making sense of the ways in which the world was being remade around them toward the end of the twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first, and trying to make peace with how the language they inherited failed to communicate an experience of those changes.

In Signatures, Jameson wrote of film as a way to grasp a part of contemporary culture that had not always been so strong: the dominance of visual knowledge over other kinds of memory and experience. Wallace grappled with his world through novels and stories, and early in his career told an interviewer that he thought “a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves . . . I strongly suspect a big part of real art fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it.”

When reminded of his comments in 2003, he explained them this way:

When I’m reading something that’s good and that’s real, I’m able to jump over that wall of self and inhabit somebody else in a way that I can’t — that we can’t — in regular life. . .There’s a tremendous reassurance about that kind of communion and empathy. . .It just seems like a form of magic to me. . .Probably most kinds of art have this sort of magical thing of, for a moment, there is a kind of reconciliation and communion between you and me that isn’t possible in any other way.

Like Wallace, Jameson writes from an immense sense of engagement with the world around him, and with a colossal faith in what that engagement might accomplish. Only thirty or so pages into the same book that brought the bad-writing prize and a large part of his difficult reputation, Jameson lucidly illustrates the driving force of his work in a way that suggests a closeness between Wallace’s stories and his own.

“All contemporary works of art,” he writes, placing fiction in this category, “have as their underlying impulse — albeit in what is often distorted and repressed unconscious form — our deepest fantasies about the nature of social life, both as we live it now, and as we feel in our bones it ought to be lived.”

Both writers find ways to challenge isolation and solipsism, and attack the hiding places of exploitation and boredom. And both hint that the fuzzy, almost shapeless anxieties they name — a pervasive loneliness, entrapment, complacency, the surprising ways alienation can sneak up on them — are the emotional resonance of a much larger contradiction, an echo of changes in the world that have outpaced the techniques for describing them.

Jameson’s criticism, once it takes aim at a work of art or literature, sets out to pull the qualities from that work to explain how, at exactly that moment, it came to be — and why it might resonate beyond itself.

One of the central arguments of Jameson’s long career has been that literature — which he defines so broadly as to include not only fiction and film but architecture, visual art, and music, if not creative work in general — is a social act, “an operation we perform on reality.” In his past work, Jameson has characterized this process, and those artifacts that execute it most successfully, as “imaginary resolutions to real contradictions,” for the ways they address the seemingly irresolvable social conflicts that order our lives. The classic depiction of how this frustrated social energy is released appears in Tristes Tropiques, when Claude Lévi-Strauss recalls his anthropological fieldwork among the Caduveo in Brazil:

[T]hey were never lucky enough to resolve their contradictions, or to disguise them with the help of institutions artfully devised for that purpose. On the social level, the remedy was lacking . . . . but it was never completely out of their grasp. It was within them, never objectively formulated, but present as a source of confusion and disquiet. Yet since they were unable to conceptualize or to live this solution directly, they began to dream it.

Such dreams are what Jameson has in mind as something like the nucleus of any cultural artifact; the pleasures of culture are moments of imaginative resolution in an unending sequence of problems and solutions. Jameson reminds his readers that today’s sources of “confusion and disquiet” are what literature and other interventions in culture are uniquely positioned to think through. Yet he does not approach these “real contradictions” so that he can resolve or eliminate them. Instead, Jameson seeks a way of putting contradiction to use.

In the past five years, Jameson has completed a three-book project that reorients the tools of cultural criticism to address the changes wrought by life under globalization. These volumes — Valences of the Dialectic (2009), The Hegel Variations (2010), and Representing Capital (2011) — come on the heels of a collection of interviews with Jameson as well as an expanded edition of The Ideologies of Theory, assembling essays published across more than thirty-five years. Jameson’s writing career itself now spans half a century (his first book was published in 1961) and roughly overlaps with the period in which capitalist development and the free market effectively completed their worldwide expansion.

His books and essays have chronicled an increasingly global awareness of the onset of a human-made world, in which experiences that used to be separated by great distances of time and space have grown subtly interconnected, and the idea of a natural wilderness has been eliminated from distant shores as surely as from mental and personal life.

Globalization has included the expansion of a market economy not only around us, but within us, stamped onto our experience of internal life — and one of Jameson’s strongest talents is the ability to point out just how strange this process has been without dislodging our ability to recognize ourselves in it. Leisure has become as commodified as work; vacations often planned and organized more rigorously than the office workday.

“Experience” itself, Jameson notes, is widely discussed “as a kind of spiritual private property,” the more easily to be quantified and compared. The strength of this grip on both individual and public consciousness registers with special force in his comments from the 1990s on environmentalism and the relatively recent growth of concerns around industrial pollution: “it seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.”

The remark demonstrates not only how aggressively economic and political realities had reached into daily life, but how indirectly they are experienced there. It retains its edge today, as the housing crash and subsequent recession provided a brief moment for economists and legislators to warn that something close to the breakdown of late capitalism may have been very close indeed, only to then rally every resource against imagining its particulars.

Slavoj Žižek drew a similar lesson from the speed with which TARP was established to staunch the 2008 credit crisis. Can one imagine, Žižek proposed, if $700 billion — the sum Congress authorized over only a few weeks to stabilize the credit markets, citing a global emergency — could in such short order be organized and directed at fighting AIDS, or hunger, or water shortages, or climate change?

Žižek raised the question not as a practical matter of directing policy, but rather to demonstrate the silent strength of the forces that keep such ideas from entering public conversation and being legitimized there. These absences are the product of a very active process; at their sharpest, they whisper which types of catastrophes have been deemed unacceptable, and which types have not.

Jameson is not the first to propose that structures of such an immense scale (the mechanisms of a national or global economy, of the natural world; of race, sexuality, gender, class) are not experienced directly. But he departs from what many readers might expect as the next step: a conclusion that the absence of direct experience is the absence of significant experience at all.

Instead, he furnishes his attention to the ways in which what appears inaccessible is rerouted through more pedestrian passions, desires, fears, and daily fantasies, and how these provide access to cultural knowledge. His work is an exploration of the conduits through which larger social forces influence the stories we tell about ourselves and the world around us, and the limits to what we can imagine about them both.

Valences of the Dialectic, the centerpiece of Jameson’s recent project, bears a title unlikely to attract a very large readership. Jameson seems to know this: near the book’s midpoint he concedes, not without a touch of hostility, that “the word ‘dialectical’ is still unfashionable,” and that criticism explicitly taking ideology as an object of interest, as his always has, “has fallen on hard times.” One of the main tasks of Valences is an evaluation of vocabularies, jargons, and sublanguages like these that may have once clarified a specific historical moment, but no longer fit quite as they did. It requires a peculiar sort of translation, rendering new terms from the language of a past world that has only partially disappeared.

Jameson first laid out a way of thinking about life under globalization in 1981, with the publication of The Political Unconscious. In that book, Jameson was primarily interested in “History” (the capital H was his) — the way certain stories about the past dominated explanations of how today’s world came to be. In the intervening decades, many of those stories, about the growth of industrialization and modernity, have come to look like a single history of capitalism expanding across a nation, then an empire, then the world — but from the perspective only of those in control of the capital.

In the second half of the last century, a heterogeneous assortment of movements — second-wave feminism, decolonization, and the advances of civil rights — allowed people whose experiences had been left out of capital-H History to have their claims on the past heard more widely, introducing what at times seemed to be irreducibly different narratives about human life. They began to reveal the latent limitations of history as an intellectual project, and the subtle blindnesses it has sometimes called for. “The discipline of history,” Dipesh Chakrabarty, a specialist in South Asian history at the University of Chicago, has written in a partial response to The Political Unconscious, “is only one among many ways of remembering the past.”

Jameson can’t quite break free of History, this understanding of the entirety of our doings and sufferings as a species pinned onto an impossibly unified, single narrative, but he’s come to use it as a necessary fiction whose failures illuminate other explanations. He strives to situate any single event as a frozen instance of forces always in motion. Each concrete “situation,” such as the unspooling of TARP funding after the 2008 credit crisis, is an opportunity to see the historical forces in cross-section.

But apprehending something as abstract as history from within a single moment can only be done indirectly; it becomes visible in the ways it rearranges the material world. “No one has ever seen a social institution — such as a law or a kind of power or authority,” Jameson writes, “so it is already a ‘reification’ when social scientists give us a picture of these as things.”

To understand how one of these “institutions” comes alive or flickers away — a social institution like history, as Chakrabarty pointed out, or like literary storytelling in an increasingly visual age — one must look to the marks it leaves. What kind of work is it being asked to do? What “problems” is it being asked to solve?

Valences directs this question at contemporary phenomena such as the revival of religious fundamentalism, the virtually unmatched business success of Walmart, and the expansion of finance capital.  He approaches each in the same way that for so many years he has approached literature: as a creative act that contains within it an explanation, an argument about social life, and that presents a way of knowing how one could live.

Additionally, each emerges on the level of culture — that is, across and between individuals, rather than from the effort of any single mind at work — and Jameson argues that it is a mistake to evaluate a phenomenon without also understanding its relationship to the social circumstances where it first arose, what he calls its “original polemic situations and . . . . the conceptual targets [it was] devised to undermine and replace.” Understanding how a phenomenon gains wide entrée to a culture requires knowing what “confusion and disquiet” that phenomenon has the ability to soothe or sublimate.

An approach to literature that takes it as one more social act, more operation than artifact, requires the ability to recognize within it not only questions from the past, but also the more contemporary obsessions that help any given work resonate today. Once, explaining how he teaches literature to university students, Jameson described this kind of personal investment as indivisible from social life itself:

[I]n undergraduate work one does not really confront the “text” at all; one’s primary object of work is the interpretation of the text. . . . The presupposition here is that undergraduates — as more naïve or reflexive readers (which the rest of us are also much of the time) — never confront a text in all its material freshness; rather, they bring to it a whole set of previously acquired and culturally sanctioned interpretive schemes, of which they are unaware, and through which they read the texts that are proposed to them . . . the task is to make those interpretations visible, as an object, as an obstacle rather than a transparency, and thereby to encourage the student’s self-consciousness as to the operative power of such unwitting schemes . . . the working attitudes and forms of the conceptual legitimation of this society.

Jameson calls these schemes “ideologies” — a loaded term nowadays, and surely another point at which the more defensive reader might step away. But its attention to ideology is another of Jameson’s major accomplishments in Valences: he is able to demonstrate that navigating and interpreting these “schemes” is a way of situating oneself in the world. The ways we make sense of our circumstances illuminate the map of our relationships not only to the outside world, but also to the worlds inside ourselves. That these explanations often arise “unwittingly,” and push people to align with or oppose one another, offers a way of understanding how the guiding forces of history and culture exist within us all.

Jameson confronts the problem of how one draws this map, how to locate history and culture within oneself, most directly in “Ideological Analysis: A Handbook.” This essay first appeared as a pamphlet in 1981, was revised but not republished around the time Jameson was completing Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), and then updated again for inclusion in Valences. It clarifies and sharpens Jameson’s categorical rejection of the understanding of ideology as “false consciousness”; that is, as a form of social manipulation obstructing individuals from the freedom and clarity to act in their own rational self-interest.

“From a political standpoint,” Jameson argues, that understanding of ideology, as simply a veil to be lifted through better information, “leads to the notion . . . . that political change and progress are a matter of rational persuasion, for example, that the electorate, if properly educated and informed, will automatically make the right choices.” Political persuasion in practice today, however, is clearly another matter. The motives that entice people to act against their interests are more complicated, and much more difficult to separate cleanly.

Jameson finds them “not in opinions or errors . . . . but in the very processes by which daily life is systematically reorganized on all its levels . . . . the body and the senses, the mind, time, space, work process, and leisure.” This is a richer but more difficult model, one that understands ideology as part of the texture and structures of everyday life in a specific time and place; something that may develop self-interest as much as hinder it. It is where the social and individual worlds meet.

Ideology so conceived presents an entry point for thinking about the imaginative, figurative, and even literary tools put to use in everyday social experience: in how we groom and care for ourselves, how we organize our time. It provides a sense that how we do things now is not the way they have always been done. Valences of the Dialectic is an effort to present tools for apprehending our experiences as we know them, in our bodies and our senses and our bones, as historical. Jameson has called the recognition that one lives in historical time “the moment of intersection. . .the radical interference with such private experience, as what breaks into it from the outside and renders it vulnerable.”

At these moments, one can glimpse how the stories we tell about ourselves have been working alongside the stories we withhold, or for which we lack the language. These competing narratives — the explanations that everyone seemingly knows, as well as the ones that might appear only in a flash, are the “valences” of the dialectic.

And adapting dialectical thought for use today is the task of Jameson’s book, if not of his career. For Jameson, this means developing a way to think through an ambivalent and ambiguous, uneven social system that he most often calls history, but others have called social life, culture, or human civilization. His work generates tools for recognizing the undersides of dominant narratives and bringing them to light, whether these are the pillars of a global history, or a personal one. It shows how history — and any narrative — has been shaped by what it excludes.

But making the valences appear means, perhaps above all, a personal commitment to developing the ability to see them. In past work, Jameson has written that “we need to train ourselves to be vulnerable in some new and original sense,” to cultivate an exploratory openness to obstacles, to the forces we habitually resist or reflexively reject outright.

“Alongside our conscious praxis and our strategies for producing change,” he writes, “we may also take a more receptive and interpretive stance in which, with the proper instruments and registering apparatus, we may detect the allegorical stirrings of a different state of things, the imperceptible and even immemorial ripenings of the seeds of time, the subliminal and subcutaneous eruptions of whole new forms of life and social relations.”

While literature was one of the earliest modern instruments put to use for this sort of “detection,” nurturing the ability to imagine other worlds is part of all contemporary thought and cultural work, especially the branches that have borrowed from literature and adapted its tools. The languages of psychology, ethnography, and economics, for example, have been able to express relationships and parts of the world that the traditional genres of literature can do only with much greater difficulty.

If Jameson has treated history preferentially in his own work, it is at least in part to make it a counterweight to the era in which he writes, one focused on immediacy, that he characterizes as dominated by an accelerated capitalism fixated on short-term results and consumer choice; in which commodification — the transformation of relationships into objects, into things — has become, in his words, “the logic of social life today.”

Capitalism encircles not just the globe but also the imagination, encouraging a strictly economic idea of prosperity and transforming the social world into a series of discrete commodities to be possessed, whose internal contradictions and latent interconnectedness have been largely papered over — a kind of toxic fetishism.

Detecting the counter-stories that globalization has repressed is a step toward finding a way out of its most distorting consequences. The lessons Jameson seeks to impart in Valences of the Dialectic are of finding the other worlds within this one, “isolat[ing] specific features in our empirical present so as to read them as components of a different system.” He turns to history to demonstrate not only that different worlds are possible, but that they have already existed, and to keep alive the potential for them to exist again.

Though Fredric Jameson has been called the most important cultural critic writing in English, many would-be readers step away because he describes himself as a Marxist. But what that means today isn’t entirely clear. Despite a more or less singular image in the popular imagination, numerous Marxisms have emerged in history, not all of them mutually compatible: Lenin, Che, Althusser, Mao, and Brecht, for example, each lived in and responded to different permutations of capitalism, if not different historical situations entirely. It might be less useful to think of their work as items dropped into a single box than as points in a constellation called Marxism or Marxist thought; the addition of a single new star to the group will alter the shape of the constellation as well.

Additionally, for much of the twentieth century, Marxism was one of the few systems for imagining an alternate world that refused a globally-creeping capitalism as the obvious end to all history. (Jameson has suggested that, in the gap left since the widespread fall of communism in 1989, religious fundamentalism has been vying to take this position, if not as explicitly.) Like Marx himself — if unlike any number of Marxists, and certainly against the popular image of what a Marxist should think — Jameson writes from the position that “capitalism is at one and the same time the best thing that has ever happened to the human race, and the worst.”

This stance is echoed in Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One, one of the two slim works rounding out the three-book Valences project, where he describes capitalism as “the most productive as well as the most destructive force we have so far encountered in human history.” Representing Capital and The Hegel Variations, the other books in the trilogy, focus on works composed at a time when a new world was falling into place around their authors: Hegel completed The Phenomenology of Spirit as Napoleon marched across Europe, and Marx published the first volume of Capital during the first age of major industrial production.

“Both were indeed social-revolutionary periods of history,” Jameson writes, “in which the window into a radically different future was, however slightly, pushed open.” Capital and The Phenomenology explore the riddle of how humans have played a large part in creating what they like to think of as the outside world, though both refuse to solve it. These books share a fascination with the ways those “seemingly external laws” — of economics, of the state, of society in general (perhaps today, even of nature and the lived environment itself) are “something I myself have brought into being” and “[signify] my reconciliation with the social order and my discovery and acceptance of my own complicity with it.”

For Jameson, this streak of social thought represents “a wholly new sense of recognition: not that of the enigmatic other as a human like myself . . . . but rather a recognition of myself in the object world and its social institutions, a recognition of these as my own constructions, as the only temporarily alienated embodiments of my own activity.” Capital and The Phenomenology of Spirit began the tradition of figuring out how to imagine resolutions to the real contradictions of history and experience, where the free citizens of modern life found themselves ensnared. This brought not only the realization that so many of their freedoms had, in part, unwittingly aided in what restricted them, but also an awareness of “their helplessness in the face of what they had made.”

Jameson also chooses these books as reference points for his project because they are polemics waged against the dominant ideologies of their times, at what he calls “a conventional form of thought and language.” His reading of Capital refreshes some of the contradictions Marx had first raised, today so normalized as to be largely dismissed without discussion: How can one object be the equivalent of another one? And, assuming two to be equals, how can one possibly make a profit on the exchange of objects of equal value? Finally, “how can money turn into capital, and why are these two entities distinct and even opposite things?”

Hegel, even more than Marx, wrote explicitly against the kind of thinking that reflexively avoided contradiction. He “provides a key to ‘disalienation,’” in Jameson’s words — to a way of articulating a connected totality from the isolated fragments of our experience, and for “the translation of the world into consciousness.”

It is undoubtedly a mission for which there is still a great need. Jameson is not the only critic who has tried to build a mode of “disalienation” that might work today, of course. Deconstruction is now more or less integrated into criticism in general, while Harold Bloom is beatified anew with the publication of each book. But leaving the reader in mute awe — whether before a duly canonized Literary Genius or the aporetic abyss — is not Jameson’s project. Jameson’s sentences capture something essential about the experience of navigating a globalized, human-made world, one immersed in what he once famously described as postmodernism.

It is worth remembering that Jameson introduced that concept – some thirty years ago, now — as a reorientation towards the past, as much as a distinct period in its own right. And, like the Valences project, as a way to understand one’s place in history during an age when it was no longer second nature to think in such terms, or even to remember that it once had been.

“The concept, if there is one,” he wrote in Postmodernism, echoing Hegel’s preface to the Phenomenology, “has to come at the end, and not at the beginning, of our discussions of it”; it must be reworked each time it is deployed. Determining how the present might rework itself in history, and imagining what possibilities the effort of “disalienation” could open, has been a cornerstone of Jameson’s project since its earliest days. In a passage not far from the start of his career, he instructed:

We must try to accustom ourselves to a perspective in which every act of reading, every local interpretive practice, is grasped as the privileged vehicle through which two distinct modes of production confront and interrogate each other. . . If we can do this . . .we will no longer tend to see the past as some inert and dead object which we are called upon to resurrect, or to preserve, or to sustain, in our own living freedom; rather, the past will itself become an active agent in this process and will begin to come before us as a radically different life form which rises up to call our own form of life into question and to pass judgment on us, and through us on the social formation in which we exist. At that point, the very dynamics of the historical tribunal are unexpectedly and dialectically reversed: it is not we who sit in judgment on the past, but rather the past . . . which judges us, imposing the painful knowledge of what we are not, what we are no longer, what we are not yet.

We would be well served to let Jameson’s work — not only the Valences project, but the books and essays that have led up to it, and those that will undoubtedly follow — stand as a guidepost on the way to such a reckoning with what we might one day be able to call our advancing post-postmodernism, wherever its pieces may be found.

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Alex Carp is on the editorial staff of Guernica and New York magazine, and an editor of the McSweeney’s "Voice of Witness" book series.

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