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Topical Excerpts from Interviews
with Fredric Jameson


Jameson
On Marxist Criticism and Undergraduate Studies...

On Cultural Diversity versus Difference -- and Collective Action...

On Postmodernism...

On Ideology and Utopia...

On Politics in the Contemporary World...

On Marxism and Other Interpretive Codes...


On Marxist Criticism and Undergraduate Studies...

[Marxist] studies of "classical" texts are to be taken -- to use the fruitful Althusserian concept -- as an intervention in the standard university teaching of what is called the "canon." So at this point the question opens up into the more general problem of a Marxist pedagogy. I'm tempted to sketch a position on this last in terms of something like a practical double-standard, since I tend to make a rough distinction between the functions of graduate and undergraduate teaching in this respect....in undergraduate work one does not really confront the "text" at all, one's primary object of work is the interpretation of the text, and it is about interpretations that the pedagogical struggle in undergraduate teaching must turn. The presupposition here is that undergraduates -- as more naïve or unreflexive 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. This is not a particularly individual matter, and it does not make much difference whether one locates such interpretive stereotypes in the mind of the student, in the general cultural atmosphere, or on the text itself, as a sedimentation of its previous readings and its accumulated institutional interpretations: 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, which our tradition calls ideologies. The student's first confrontation with a classic, therefore -- with Heart of Darkness, with Jane Austen, with Vonnegut, or with Hemingway -- will never really involve unmediated contact with the object itself, but only an illusion of contact, whose terminus turns out to be a whole range of interpretive options, from the existential one (the absurdity of the human condition), across myth criticism and its more psychological form (the integration of the Self) all the way to ethics ( choices and values, the maturing of the protagonist, the apprenticeship of god and evil). These various liberal ideologies (and they obviously do not exhaust the field) all find their functional utility in the repression of the social and the historical, and in the perpetuation of some timeless and ahistorical view of human life and social relations. To challenge them is therefore a political act of some productiveness.

Diacritics, v.12, Fall 1982, Pp. 72 - 73.
Interview with Leonard Green, Jonathan Culler, and Richard Klein

With undergraduates, and in the sense that you're using the idea of liberation, the purpose [is] to restore to the very activity of cultural interpretation some of its urgency as being not a sandbox but a place in which the human struggle takes place. Also, I wanted to show that some of the other kinds of interpretations in the classroom in effect serve to paper things over and to harmonize where harmony is impossible. On that level I would want critical struggle to be more moralistic and to take a more combative position and try to restore a presence of social struggle to texts, some of which may be exceedingly rarefied. If what we are saying is true, then one would have to find class struggle in the purest segments of Mallarme. And indeed one can do that; Mallarme explicitly reflected on the relationship between language and money and was very interested in class struggle. But to be putting those things back is a very liberating thing, because it brings you back to reality and to your own situation.

Semeia, #59, 1992, p.235.
A Conversation with Fredric Jameson


On Cultural Diversity versus Difference -- and Collective Action...

Undoubtedly what is experienced, and ideologically constructed, as freedom, may not necessarily be freedom at all. But it does lead to a sense of difference. It's as if the era of mass production and mass culture has now yielded, not standardization, but a proliferation of difference, of otherness. Corporations don't advertise to a mass public anymore. It 's now niche advertising -- addressing the subtle differences between one consumer public and another, exploiting cultural fragmentation. Obviously, you need to get to a certain level of massification before this is possible. This is difference after massification, rather than the old style of 19th-century individualism and difference which strikes people here about postmodernism as its collectivization, anonymity, and systemic quality...There's a linguistic problem with this concept difference. The conceptualization of difference would not have been possible in situations of real difference. In an imperial system, where colonized peoples are really radically different from their metropolitan overlords, there's no great political merit in affirming those differences. The political, cultural concept of difference is paradoxically based on a conquest of a certain equality and identity among the social subgroups. It would not have been possible until the moment where there was less difference....Standardization, again, is both a good and a bad thing. And it makes me wonder how many illusions are present when, even if the logic of the system is differentiation, by producing difference it is producing a new form of standardization. Indeed, the whole logic of postmodernism is that: a new way of seeing identity as difference, which we wouldn't have been able to think or express very well in an older period....The politically positive aspect about what you've been describing is the fact that subgroups have been able to attain a certain collective existence that they didn't really have before. That clearly fits into a kind of cultural communication on the part of the industries that now have a new sub-market and now produce new things for it. But the crucial thing would not be those badges of cultural difference, it would be the fact of collectivity.

Marxism Today, September 1990, p. 30.
"Clinging to the Wreckage: A Conversation with Stuart Hall"

I always insist on a third possibility beyond the old bourgeois ego and the schizophrenic subject of our organization in society today: a collective subject, decentered but not schizophrenic. It emerges in certain forms of storytelling that can be found in Third World literature, in testimonial literature, in gossip and rumours and things of this kind. It is a storytelling which is neither personal in the modernist sense, nor depersonalized in the pathological sense of the schizophrenic text. It is decentered for the stories you tell there as an individual subject don't belong to you since you don't control them the way the master subject of Modernism would. But you don't just suffer them in the schizophrenic isolation of the first-world subject of today.

Flash Art, #131, Dec 1986/Jan 1987, pp. 70 - 71.
Interview with Fredric Jameson by Anders Stephanson.


On Postmodernism...

When talking about postmodernism, its more important to ask, what exactly were "classical modernism" and "high modernism"? I've found it useful to explore the idea that modernism was a response to a modernization in the West from, say, the mid- to late-19th Century until the Second World War. It was a response to modernization which was incomplete, and in which the modernized enclaves and forces themselves were still working against a background of older class situations, older forms of agriculture and, in some parts of Europe, even older aristocratic strata, which the Second World War finally disposed of. So the real difference between postmodernism and modernism is that postmodernism is a situation of tendentially complete modernization in which those older remnants have been removed...Modernism with its claims for the autonomy of art and its ideology of the genius and so forth still reflected a situation in which there were certain entrepreneurial possibilities. Certain oppositional or critical cultural forms emerge only when the economy is not yet too standardized and there's still room for both individual entrepreneurs and the same kinds of agents on the level of culture...That's mush less the case now. This is a period in which there is a genuine collectivisation of people's lives at either end of the economic and social spectrum: the great multinational corporations on the one hand and the collectivisation of all the oppositional groups on the other. So, for example, you no longer have that great North American notion of the "lonely rebel" who challenges society. There aren't any lonely rebels anymore because they're all organized in some way or another. They have mailing lists, they have their societies of lonely rebels. That in itself makes a difference in the way cultural production is felt and to the relative autonomy and systematic quality of this way of being secreted by the economic rather than being produced in opposition to it.

Marxism Today, September 1990, pp. 28-29.
"Clinging to the Wreckage: A Conversation with Stuart Hall"

My conception of Postmodernism is thus not meant to be a monolithic thing but to allow evaluations of other currents within this system -- which cannot be measured unless one knows what the system is...I want to propose a dialectical view in which we neither see Postmodernism as immoral, frivolous or reprehensible because of its lack of high seriousness, nor as good in the McLuhanist, celebratory sense of the emergence of some wonderful new utopia.

Flash Art, #131, Dec 1986/Jan 1987, p. 70.
Interview with Fredric Jameson by Anders Stephanson.


On Ideology and Utopia...

The "crisis in Marxism" is thus not a matter of the loss or discrediting of its instruments of analysis and of its unique explanatory power; it is rather a matter of crisis in Marxist ideology, a crisis in the properly Utopian conception of what a radically different society should be and of the nature of the new social relations that might be imagined in such a system. This is the effort for which I have reserved the term "Utopian," not in Marx and Engels' original debunking sense, but in the sense of a properly Marxian effort to debate alternate forms of social life -- something being done far more vigorously among feminists or in the environmental movement than among us, among other things because of excessive nervousness about "actually existing socialism" and excessive intimidation by the Gulag industry and post-Marxism generally.

Diacritics, v.12, Fall 1982, p. 85.
Interview with Leonard Green, Jonathan Culler, and Richard Klein

Issues of class interpretation versus universal validity are inevitably those of the opposition between ideology and utopia -- that is to say, how a text which is maimed and deformed and bears nasty marks and traces of its own class and gender and racial and other kinds of stances -- how such a text can then project a utopian appeal. And I think the answer is that a text can be both ideological and utopian, and our task is to figure out in these specific instances how that dialectic comes about...The mystery of how class works has to do ... not just with ideology and utopia but with the way ideology has to be utopian. The mystery is that it is by way of this often spurious, hypocritical, popular-front universalizing rhetoric that a group tries to make allies out of the other classes and secure power for itself. By way of the rhetoric authentic utopian visions are transmitted. Because whatever this group is and whatever its ultimate role means for people in reality, the very demand for universality is itself a utopian matter. Habermas described the French and American revolutions in terms of unfulfilled promises -- that is to say, that these are checks that were never honored. One must not lose either side of this mystery; that is, one must not allow the sociological demystification of the thing to become simple debunking and the transformation of these visions into mere rhetoric in the bad sense. On the other hand, one must not overlook the whole concrete sociological motives, because then it sails off into the most empty and idealistic form of visionary utopianism.

Semeia, #59, 1992, pp. 228 - 229.
A Conversation with Fredric Jameson


On Politics in the Contemporary World...

As far as "the political" is concerned, any single-shot, single-functioning definition of it is worse than misleading, it is paralyzing. We are, after all, fragmented beings, living in a host of separate reality-compartments simultaneously; in each one of those a certain kind of politics is possible, and if we have enough energy, it would be desirable to conduct all those forms of political activity simultaneously. So the "metaphysical" question: what is politics -- the seizure of power? taking to the street? organizing? talking socialism? resisting hierarchy and authority? demonstrating for disarmament or trying to save your neighborhood? fighting city hall? -- this question is only worthwhile when it leads to enumeration of all possible options, and not when it lures you into following the mirage of a single great strategic idea. Still, we have to talk about each of these forms of political intervention separately, so that there is a supreme misunderstanding to be avoided: namely the misconception that when one modestly outlines a certain form of political activity -- such as that which intellectuals in the university can engage in -- this "program" is meant to suggest that that is the only kind of politics that one should do. I would not want anyone to suppose that when above I suggested a certain kind of political intervention in the teaching of literature, I meant that this was all we should ever do.

Diacritics, v.12, Fall 1982, p. 75.
Interview with Leonard Green, Jonathan Culler, and Richard Klein

As a grand narrative, Marxism compensates for the fact that, as biological individuals, our own lifespans don't correspond to historical rhythms. Vaster historical movements are always astounding and unexpected, and yet from some larger systemic perspective after the fact, seem plausible again from what we know about the way the history of capitalism works. I'm convinced that this new post-modern global form of capitalism will now have a new class logic about it, but it has not yet completely emerged because labour has not yet reconstituted itself on a global scale, and so there is a crisis in what classes and class consciousness are. It's very clear that agency on the Left is not therein those older forms but the Marxist narrative assures us that some form of agency will reconstitute itself and that is the sense in which I still find myself committed to the Marxist logic.

Marxism Today, September 1990, p. 30.
"Clinging to the Wreckage: A Conversation with Stuart Hall"


On Marxism and Other Interpretive Codes...

I think it would be a mistake to defend the place of Marxism in the American university system on the basis of (an otherwise admirable) liberal tolerance and pluralism. There is a far more powerful justification to be made for the intellectual role of Marxism than this, and it has to do with what has been termed reification in an earlier section of this interview, namely with the increasing specialization and fragmentation of the disciplines. Many intellectuals deplore this irreversible development, by which increasingly small segments of reality become the provinces of specialized codes or private languages (whose jargon and lexicon are perhaps not even so forbidding as the sedimentation in each of them of voluminous disciplinary traditions -- both key texts and a history of key problems -- which no lay person has the time to master) The mainstream academic "solution" to this crisis has been, under whatever slogan, the notion of "interdisciplinary" programs, whose results have until now notoriously been disappointing indeed. Over against this, I think it is crucial to insist on the fact Marxism is the only living philosophy today which has a conception of the unity of knowledge and the unification of the "disciplinary" fields in a way that cuts across the older departmental and institutional structures and restores the notion of a universal object of study underpinning the seemingly distinct inquires into the economical, the political, the cultural, the psychoanalytic, and so forth. This is not a dogmatic opinion but simply an empirical fact.

Diacritics, v.12, Fall 1982, p. 89.
Interview with Leonard Green, Jonathan Culler, and Richard Klein

We all, from our various vantage points in society, and the kinds of things we know about, perform distinct interpretive acts. And we have our various interpretive codes or methods with which we interpret. The least interesting thing to do with an interpretive quarrel is to decide the one of them is right and the other one is wrong...Once one gets full-dressed interpretive acts on the basis of some kind of text, then it is more interesting to fond out the zones of validity of these various interpretive acts. No interpretive act of that kind can be completely wrong. Something in the text must have solicited even the most aberrant readings one can imagine. Therefore, there is a local zone of validity to be attributed to that reading. My question concerns coordinating all of those readings and of seeing finally how they are put together. In my view also there are horizons involved in every reading; there are larger and larger ranges of validity in interpretation. Since what is ultimately concrete is the life in society of people and their vision of collective life, those questions about the social and about class are somehow the ultimate ones. I do not really have to defend that position very violently; all I have to do is point out that most interpretations leave those levels out, although there are always a lot of other things that always get put in. If certain kinds of social questions are generally not asked in interpretations then it is at least minimally valuable to insist that after you are done with all of your other things -- your Freudian matters or your existential matters -- you might want to look into your class business finally, since nobody seems to do that. So that bears on the hierarchy of those interpretations. The most interesting thing is to see what all the interpretations are, and then to see how they can be put together, which is a rather different matter than disproving people.

Semeia, #59, 1992, pp.233 - 234.
A Conversation with Fredric Jameson



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