Presidential Lecture Series
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Fredric Jameson Portrait
Over the last three decades Fredric Jameson has developed a richly nuanced vision of Western culture's relation to political economy. Emphasizing the connections between the arts and the historical circumstances of their creation and reception, Jameson charts their stylistic and ideological movement from realism through modernism and into postmodernism, a sequence, he argues, that parallels capitalism's successive mutations from mercantilism and industrialism into its later monopoly and global or speculative stages. Jameson's guiding premise is that cultural artifacts are oblique representations of their historical circumstances, whose concrete social contradictions they variously distort, repress, and transform through the abstractions of aesthetic form. The principal responsibility of the critic is not--as most humanists typically assume--to enhance our appreciation of a work's aesthetic qualities but to lay bare its roots in political and economic conditions and to explain how and why these roots have been obscured.

Jameson's thought builds on the foundation of Western Marxism, a predominantly Hegelian, non-Stalinist strain which has evolved in Europe since the 1920s. But he does not confine himself to this tradition. Jameson seriously engages numerous non-Marxist approaches to art, identifies their local validities, and deftly adapts their insights to his own purposes. This inclusiveness produces an intellectual method that both revitalizes classical Marxism's core concepts and revolutionizes our understanding of the politics of artistic practice since the nineteenth century.

Jameson's achievement is all the more remarkable since the academic world in which he trained routinely segregated aesthetics from politics and economics. Born in Cleveland in 1934, he graduated from Haverford College in 1954, before taking a doctoral degree at Yale in 1960. His first book, Sartre: The Origins of a Style (1961), rejected the "empiricism and logical positivism" that have long dominated universities in this country and England. In contrast to the "bankruptcy" Jameson found in this "Anglo-American philosophy," Sartre's existentialism provided a completely different "model of the political intellectual."

During the early 1960s Jameson's interest in Sartre shifted to the philosopher's Marxist theory. The culmination of this move was Jameson's second book, Marxism and Form (1971), a pioneering account of Western Marxism's major thinkers from Georg Lukacs and Ernst Bloch through the central figures of the seminal Frankfurt School -- T. W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse -- concluding with the later Sartre of Search for a Method and Critique of Dialectical Reason. Not only were these writers largely unfamiliar to most English-language readers when Marxism and Form first appeared, but their mode of dialectical thinking was also the very antithesis of Anglo-American empiricism. Acutely self-reflective, deliberately anti-systematic, rigorously anti-metaphysical, and relentlessly totalizing, dialectical criticism emerges from Jameson's book as a radical alternative to the kind of humanistic thinking habitual to the English-speaking academy.

While Marxism and Form emphasizes Marxism as a manner of critical thought, Jameson's next major work, The Political Unconscious (1981), focuses on it as the "single great collective story" of humanity's "struggle to wrest a realm of Freedom from a realm of Necessity." This narrative and its themes Jameson traces in the works of Balzac, Gissing, and Conrad, though they operate, he argues, in concealed ways in every cultural artifact. To detect their presence he proposes three distinct and successively broader strategies of interpretation, each of which first dismantles the work's aesthetic unity and then rewrites its contents in different ways. The narrowest of these frames is the political. Here the individual work is reconstructed as a symbolic act that invents imaginary or formal solutions to tensions unresolvable in its own particular historical moment. The next level is the social, where the artifact's language and themes are connected to the dialogue between classes, these elements now appearing as "ideologemes" or "collective characters" in class conflict. The third and most inclusive horizon is the mode of production, which resituates the work within its general social formation, rereading it for the contradictory messages that arise in it from competing economic systems.

Almost a decade before in The Prison-House of Language (1972), Jameson had prepared the way for this scheme and its bold claim that the "political perspective" constitutes "the absolute horizon of all reading and all interpretation." This earlier book critiques Marxism's principal rivals -- the various anti-historical formalisms that have dominated the humanities since the 1950s, including Claude Lévi-Strauss's structuralism, Roland Barthes' semiotics, Michel Foucault's post-structuralism, and Jacques Derrida's deconstruction. The common source of all these approaches, Jameson argues, is the synchronic paradigm of language proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure in 1916. This linguistic model, because it abstracts language and knowledge from temporal change, fundamentally distorts thought's relation to social experience and disastrously severs humanity's connection to its own past and future.

In addition to exposing the regressive aspects of anti-historical formalisms, The Prison-House of Language also foregrounds their unique insights. Some of these concepts Jameson then uses in constructing the historicizing scheme of The Political Unconscious. This paradoxical recuperation of ideologically alien ideas is a local expression of a general premise in Jameson's thought. He considers all ideologies and their cultural vehicles -- whatever their political valences -- to contain utopian elements, which it is the critic's obligation to rescue and remobilize as part of humanity's collective legacy of hope.

It was in this spirit that Jameson began in the early 1980s to concentrate on contemporary society. The utopian impulse he brought to this project had, however, taken its shape from his studies of 19th-century realism and early 20th-century modernism. These styles flourished during historical periods when the economic, political, and cultural realms remained semi-autonomous, enabling contradictions within and among them to act like mental wedges, keeping open the social space in which to imagine change and assert resistance. But beginning in the mid-20th century and crystallizing in the early 1970s -- Jameson argues -- the global marketplace and speculative finance become capitalism's dominant forms, displacing its earlier industrial and monopoly stages. This change marks the virtually complete commodification of both physical and human nature -- a triumph of capitalism's logic so total that modernity's divisions among social spheres collapse. The cultural becomes economic, and the economic and political are turned "into so many forms of culture." This effacement of borders is among the inaugural signs of postmodernity.

Jameson maps this landscape of drastic "dedifferentiation" in a succession of books, beginning with Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), which collects his earlier essays on the topic. The volume's title chapter is one of Jameson's first and may still be his most famous formulation of postmodernism as the cultural representation of multinational or finance capitalism. Analyzing examples of contemporary art, architecture, and film, he here identifies postmodernism's principal features. These include: the disappearance of the individual subject with a corollary waning of personal feeling and style; the emergence of schizophrenic consciousness that conflates past and future into a perpetual present; a crisis in historicity which reduces the collective human record to empty images of nostalgia; the stylistic triumph of pastiche, which randomly cannibalizes past cultures, processing their substance into sheer simulation; and the rise of the hysterical sublime, where technology images the otherwise inconceivable, all pervasive -- and menacing -- world economic system.

Jameson continues to explore these themes through widely different subjects and emphases in Late Marxism (1990), Signatures of the Visible (1990), The Geopolitical Aesthetic (1992), The Seeds of Time (1994), and The Cultural Turn (1998). Together these books show postmodernity to be a world of mesmerizing surfaces, seductively addictive but depthless. Here contradiction's dialectical tensions are displaced by the static, interchangeable poles of antinomy -- and "the utopian vocation" inexorably withers. Though Jameson often "mourns" this loss, utopian longing remains indispensable to his thought. Its horizon has, however, been foreshortened: no longer daring to imagine a revolutionary future, it now takes aim at the existing "social totality itself," seeking to glimpse, fleetingly and only by indirection, the "invisible limits" that "interpose themselves between us and the future."

Jameson's efforts to expose these "walls around our minds" draw on a dizzying range of sources. Adorno's negative dialectics, popular American movies, suppressed Soviet novels, exotic Philippine films -- each is probed for clues to our new and otherwise unrepresentable "being-in-the-world." But more crucial than any of these cultural texts and providing the very possibility of their illumination is the uncompromising rigor of Jameson's own mind. His description of Hegel's thought applies equally to his own:

Imagine models floating above each other in distinct dimensions: it is not their homologies that prove suggestive or fruitful, but rather the infinitesimal divergences, the imperceptible lack of fit between the levels -- extrapolated out into a continuum whose stages range from the pre-choate and the quizzical gap, to the nagging tension and the sharpness of contradiction itself -- genuine thinking always takes place within empty places, these voids that suddenly appear between the most powerful conceptual schemes. Thinking is thus not the concept, but the breakdown in the relationships between individual concepts, isolated in their splendour like so many galactic systems, drifting apart in the empty mind of the world.
"Genuine thinking" -- the liberation of its practice is Jameson's signature achievement, and the humanity of its vision his indispensable challenge to the American academy today.

By William McPheron

(c)1999, Stanford University

Fredric Jameson pages edited by William McPheron, William Saroyan Curator for American and British Literature, Stanford University,


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