Excerpts from Reviews of
Books by Fredric Jameson
The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System. Bloomington : Indiana University Press ; London : British Film Institute, 1992.
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Among the topics covered are conspiracy films, Andrei Tarkovsky's magical realism, Taiwanese movies, works by Jean-Luc Godard and Kidlat Tahimiles "The Perfumed Nightmare". Jameson is interested in cinema's portrayal of the supranational nature of late capitalism that gives postmodernism its identity, in the ways in which the cinema's handling of space allegorizes not only our sense of ourselves as subjects, and, finally, in the total system of global commodification.
Jameson's dense, very allusive prose (with relatively few notes attached) assumes a great deal of erudition on the part of the audience.... Jameson's opening chapter on the conspiracy cinema is his most compelling, but it has only little bearing on the rest of the essays. ...A charge frequently leveled at Jameson's film criticism is that it is reductionist... [Yet] anyone familiar with Jameson knows that his Marxism is strongly inclusive and hardly vulgar. It seems to me that his work these days is perhaps not political enough.... [However], critics interested in the application of criticism to issues of social justice will continue to find Jameson useful.
Summer , 1993
[Jameson's readings] aim at, and usually succeed in, connecting detailed textual analysis to larger theoretical concerns...Even apparently commonplace works of mass culture are seen afresh; their aesthetic and (as Jameson insists) necessarily made visible. . the allegorical method constantly threatens repetition and reduction: the insight is always in the instance of reading, it may be less Jameson's specific claims concerning the postmodern than the brilliance of his interpretive practice which is convincing. It is just a measure of that brilliance that the concluding remarks of the Geopolitical Aesthetic sound
less like dogmatic Marxism and more like a common sense it would be foolish to ignore.
Times Literary Supplement
August 13, 1993
Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.
Durham : Duke University Press, 1991.
"[The author's] argument provides the occasion for a series of efforts at "a formal reading of the thing itself," and the "thing itself" is to be found in a diverse range of objects and contexts, from the disorienting groundplan of the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles to the finely wrought French syntax of Claude Simon's recent novels. This book will surprise many readers by its easy mastery of the vocabularies of so many expert cultures - architecture, philosophy, literary theory, political economy, film theory among them. . . What Jameson calls "postmodernism" is really a means of securing moments of resistant thinking within the turbulent, protean field of ideology. The task is ultimately to win back the aesthetic ideology's power to impact significantly on social and market forces. Jameson practices a kind of allegorical materialism that puts aesthetic forms into historical motion. This is a classic of late 20th-century Euroamerican critical thought.
In his ambitious new book, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson self-consciously takes on the role of high-wire performer, but one willing to risk gazing into the abyss beneath. Seeking to provide a "cognitive map" of the territory beneath him, anxious to discern the "cultural logic" underpinning the changing forms of its seemingly chaotic surface, he boldly assumes the high-altitude vantage point of the synoptic totalizer. Indeed, the much-maligned concepts of totality and totalization are ones he hopes to rescue -- rightly, I would argue -- from their currently debased status as the handmaidens of totalitarianism. Adding to the daring of his feat, he carries with him a load of seemingly heterogeneous theoretical baggage -- Western Marxism, latter-day Trotskyism, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, French poststructuralism. Luhmannian systems theory, and so on -- that would stagger a less adept performer. But perhaps most indicative of Jameson's status as tightrope artist par excellence is the sense of linear inexorability that drives his argument, for despite all his openness to alternative theories he remains a doggedly unrepentant Marxist, a loyal believer in the progressive, inidirectional trajectory ordained by historical materialism. Having always followed Georg Lukács in valorizing the grands rècits counseled by postmodernists like Jean-Francois Lyotard. But unlike those he dubs moralizing critics of postmodernism, such as Jürgen Habermas, who want to resist postmodernism in the name of a still uncompleted project of modernity, he insists that "the dialectic requires us to hold equally to a positive or 'progressive' evaluation of its emergence as Marx did for the world market as the horizon of national economics, or as Lenin did for the older imperialist global network." If theory is to be adequate to its object, Jameson reasons, there is no turning back to the safe haven of a modernist Marxism that resists all of the recent developments in critical and cultural theory. Only by bravely setting out on the dangerous journey across the tensely strung wire might it be possible to reach the other side, that post-postmodernist society that Jameson defiantly insists is still promised by the utopian prefigurations most postmodernists are too cynical to perceive...Jameson, however, is not content to remain suspended above the fray, slowly moving with his cargo of theoretical baggage along the narrative wire supplied by Marxism towards the utopian goal at the other side. Instead, he insists on descending into the maelstrom - the "force field" of what Raymond Williams called "emergent and residual" cultural forms - to explore its shifting contours from within. Transcendent critique is thus complemented by its immanent counterpart. Although distrusting the populist rhetoric of postmodernism, Jameson abandons the elitism of modern criticism for a less judgmental embrace of a culture that defies distinctions of high and low, esoteric and exoteric...[But] for all his remarkable ingenuity in decoding and transcoding the disparate cultural phenomena of our day, for all his admirable refusal to capitulate to the cynical reason of our fin-de-siècle intellectual climate, for all his theoretical energy in revitalizing the Marxist tradition, Jameson's own "political unconscious" proves to be sustained by beliefs as unreflected and untranscended as any held by ideologists of the market. The journey across this particular tightrope may thus go on forever as the utopian goal at the end looks more and more like a last instance that never will come.
History and Theory
Being a Marxist, a dialectician, and a historicist right now does not exactly place you in the front ranks of the intellectual beau monde. Yet carry the stance with enough style and dexterity, enough sheer bravado -- with any criticism already incorporated into your own scheme -- and you emerge -- ahead of the game. ...The claims to novelty from all sides of this argument are pretty shaky. . . . Jameson's method may indeed be dialectical, but it's not very materialist. At worst, it's a cheap magician's trick, in which the dialectic becomes the fairy wand that transmutes all oppositions into some grand but misty totality. That would be an ungenerous response to what Jameson is trying to do; not only because his logical insights are so often remarkably acute, his prose beguiling, his command of varied cultural fields impressive; but because, in the end, he's on the side of the angels. . . . The cultural critique is informed by a social awareness that is far more than gestural.
March 15 1991
The book begins with the rolling thunder of the title essay, with its difficult and often spectacular imaginative leaps, and its forceful organization of a crowd of disparate particulars into a coherent image of a "cultural dominant". The rest is, however, sporadic, becoming more personal, more loosely structured, less compelling; it concludes entropically with a 110-page essay that one feels might have gone on for ever, in which Jameson reflects on his involvement with Postmodernism, corrects some misconceptions, admits some shortcomings, and in a word puts paid to the whole enterprise. The most muscular of writers, Jameson seems in these final pages to lack an object appropriate to his powers.
Times Literary Supplement
June 28 1991
Geofferey Gait Harpham
Signatures of the Visible. New York : Routledge, 1990.
With the possible exception of Stuart Hall, Fredric Jameson is the most important Marxist critic of the Anglophone world. . . . [Some of these essays] like the by-now classic "Reification and Mass Culture" (1979), are well known. Others, like the 60-page meditation on Italian film and culture, "The Existence of Italy" (1988) are harder to obtain, hence relatively unknown. . . . Essential for all graduate institutions, and recommended to four-year colleges with an interest in criticism.
Jameson's writing displays all the narcissistic scholarly and writerly failings of his . . . mentor in critical theory, Jean-Paul Sartre.... Nevertheless, in spite of his rhetorical excesses and unexamined critical assumptions, Jameson is important for the study of film. For he brings to that activity a combination of skills too rare in an era of increasing specialization - a sensitivity to both history and aesthetics. The provocative, imaginative, and sometimes profound nature of his ideas lends a genuine intellectual dignity and worth to the activity of film criticism.
Late Marxism : Adorno, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic. London ; New York : Verso, 1990.
[This] is the most philosophically sophisticated and searching study of Theodor Adorno to appear in English....Jameson has very little to say about music, the subject of about half of Adorno's writings . . . Instead he goes right for the central and most abstract concepts Adorno deploys...It is heavy going much of the time, less an introduction (though someone seeking help would eventually find it) than an intervention in an ongoing dialogue among Adorno's interpreters . . . The book as a whole is a powerful and persuasive study. Jameson has a. gift for bringing to bear an unusual parallel and
for collocating scattered passages that illuminate one another... His major argument, that Adorno was always a Marxist... is not only corrective but dialectical; not only a quarrel with other interpreters who take him as a Post-Marxist or "young Hegelian" or even a postmodernist and poststructuralist but a claim about what is most living and pertinent in his work.
0ctober 15, 1990
To several recent interpreters [of Adorno] the elusiveness is deliberate, part of a rhetorical strategy in the deconstructive spirit which aims not so much to refute the claims of traditional philosophy as to reduce its defenders to a kind of despairing acceptance of the hopelessness of their Project ... Yet, as Fredric Jameson makes compellingly clear in his thorough and well-informed book, the apparent resemblances to post-structuralism's global scepticism about philosophical discourse are the result of isolating the Nietzchean elements in Adorno's thought from the neo-Marxist framework which surrounds them. In fact, for Adorno the theories and problems of traditional philosophy are far from being meaningless or artificial on the contrary, their fill significance can only be appreciated when philosophy itself is set in a wider context. ...Yet, while Jameson succeeds in giving an interpretation which captures Adorno's intentions, he fails in his wider aim of showing that Adorno provides an intellectually defensible form of contemporary Marxist theory, for he does not deal adequately with the obvious objection to Adorno's claims.
Times Literary Supplement
May 24, 1991
The Ideologies of Theory : Essays 1971-1986, with a foreword by Neil Larson.
Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1988
In all his essays, Jameson explores theoretical territory . brings back ideas, then unknown to most American critics, brings back ideas, explains and criticizes them, and does so both inventively and systematically. The "system" he helps to construct is a set of critical attitudes rather than a stale enclosure of interpretive rules, and those attitudes have changed the shape of American thought about literature and culture, not only in the academy but also in the literate press. Neil Larsen's splendid introduction is one that must be read. . . . Many of the essays are accessible to undergraduates, some are not, but taken together these represent a body of work that must be available in all college and university libraries.
The truth is that as a historian of modern culture Jameson has yet to make a start... As an expositor of postmodernism, Jameson is remarkable chiefly for his stress on the alien character of the new life and its necessity. But as his attacks on modernism have grown coarser and more predictable, his embrace of the postmodern has become in proportion curiously messianic. His latest essays carry gnostic overtones of a wish for destruction
that must go all the way, for the sake of some later creation that will break up our exhausted intuitions about human nature. . . . We may thus look forward to a
world that is inhuman, resacralised, unenlightened -- and obedient to necessity. Maybe this is what has to become of Marxism, or any other historicism, once "the humanist
component" has vanished.
February 19, 1990
The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act
Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, 1981.
Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious is a major work of critical theory, surpassing his earlier books in scope and subtlety of argumentation...The result of his effort is a compelling, forceful argument in favor of the primacy of Marxism over contending strategies of interpretation. Yet the book is neither a formal defense of or systematic treatise on revolutionary aesthetics nor a tendentious rejection of non-Marxist theoretical codes. Instead, Jameson posits Marxism as the totalizing horizon of literary criticism within those boundaries ample space is left for more formalist methods of interpretation...According to Jameson, Marxism does not reduce culture to economics, naively assume the reality of the referent, totalize without proper attention to the specificities of the superstructure. Marxism is not inconsistent with textualism of formalism, nor is it a simple theory of productivism. On the contrary, Jameson argues, Marxism is necessary to literary interpretation and wholly capable of benefiting from genuine non-Marxist advances.
Marxism and Form; Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature.
Princeton, N. J., Princeton University Press, 1972
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Marxism and Form is the most important work of critical theory to appear in English since Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism. [It] is not so much a programme for criticism (though it does contain numerous indications of what criticism should be) as an essay on dialectical thinking in general and a demonstration of the ways in which this type of thinking...enables us to perceive relationships and to overcome obstacles by taking the existence of the obstacles as the object of thought...Dialectical thinking, as Jameson is fond of saying, is thought to the second power, thought which turns back upon itself in a movement of self-transducence and reversing itself, finds that what at one level was thought a limitation or deficiency becomes at a higher level a strength or advantage . Dialectical thought thus produces a spiritual movement in which one returns to an object of thought and finds that one's first judgments are both taken up and denied by a second judgment...Marxism, in fact, emerges as a particular style of thought rather than an explicit theory of society. It can be treated as a series of tropes designed to hold together in a single form incommensurable realities. The fact of interrelationship - between the artistic and the social, the philosophical and the economic, the individual and the collective - becomes prior to any casual analysis...For a Marxism of this kind the relationship between literature and society is not one of reflected content ( the content of a work reflects the state of society) but of formal homology. Whatever its subject, the literary work will bear in its form the traces of the most significant features of contemporary reality.
Modern Language Review
This book is not a mere treatise on literary criticism but, first and foremost, a work on political theory. In fact, in coming to grips with late capitalism, Marxist categories themselves undergo a fundamental change resulting in a shift of emphasis from economics as the primary conditioning representative, to politics and culture as the new domains of class struggle. The decline of entrepreneurial capitalism and the rise of authoritarian states (mediated by welfarism whenever possible and fascism and Stalinism otherwise) collapsed the never too sharply separated "base" and "superstructure" in such a way that the cultural arena displaced the shop floor as the focus of Marxist theory. What in political practice presents itself as Maoism (the primacy of politics over economics), in political theory becomes, at least in the West, critical theory ( the primacy of cultural criticism over political economy). Thus Jameson's presentation ends up by covering the entire field of Marxist theory, notwithstanding his more limited avowed aims of merely dealing with aesthetics.
American Political Science Review