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Fredric Jameson

Fredric Jameson

Book author: Adam Roberts

Fredric Jameson has been called ‘probably the most important cultural

critic writing in English today’. He has an extraordinary range of

analysis, which takes in everything from architecture to science fiction,

from the nineteenth-century novel to cinema, from philosophy to

experimental avant-garde art. This range, allied to a powerful and

penetrating critical intelligence, constitutes the most exhilarating thing

about reading Jameson.

This study aims to provide a compact though elementary

introduction to the work of Jameson, and explain why he is crucial to our

understanding of contemporary literature and cultural studies. If we want

a sense of why Jameson is important, and of the influence he has had on

literary-cultural studies, we need to hold two key terms in mind at once:

Marxism and postmodernism. For many, Jameson is the world’s leading

exponent of Marxist ideas writing today; and his work on postmodernism

has been the single most influential analysis of that cultural phenomenon.

Anyone working in these two fields will almost certainly find themselves

engaging with the ideas of Jameson.

Marxism is a system of beliefs based on the writings of Karl Marx

(1818–83) concerned with analysing and changing the inequalities and

injustices in the world in which we live. It has been extremely influential

in many areas of culture and thought, and has had a particular impact in

literary criticism and cultural studies, on the other

hand, is the term often used to describe the logic of contemporary culture

and literature. It is the ‘style’, or to some people the historical period, in which a great deal of art is currently being produced; a similar’ use of terminology sees ‘Victorianism’ used to describe the style of art produced during the later nineteenth-century, or ‘Modernism’ to

describe the work produced at the beginning of this century. There have

been a great many attempts to define ‘Postmodernism’ more precisely

than this, and Chapter 6 of this study explains these in more detail. In both

these crucial areas, Jameson’s work has been centrally and powerfully

engaged. His two most famous works are The Political Unconscious

(1981) and Postmodernism (the first part of which appeared in 1984): the

first of these is powerful elaboration of Marxist literary criticism, the

second a ground-breaking analysis of postmodernism that set the terms

of much of the debate. These two emphases of Jameson’s work do not

represent any shift in interest. As we shall see, Jameson’s penetrating

analyses of the postmodern are actually only the elaboration of his

lifelong Marxist attitudes.

There are a number of concepts and ideas derived from Marx that are essential

basics for any reader of Jameson, and these include:

• The materialism of the approach.

• The concept of ideology.

• The process of the dialectic.

• The complex relations between economic base and ideological superstructure.

Jameson’s approach to the postmodern condition

has always been thoroughly Marxist. Where previous theorists had

looked at postmodern poetry, or art, or architecture, as a style or a series

of styles, Jameson was the first to link it directly to socio-political

circumstances – to history, in other words. Just as realism was an

embodiment, in terms of literary form, of nineteenth-century capitalism,

and modernism was the expression of the reified, post-industrial

capitalism of the early twentieth century, so what postmodernism is (for

Jameson) is the expression on an aesthetic and textual level of the

dynamic of ‘late capitalism’. Clearly, late capitalism has a particular

economic logic, one which is different in various ways from the old

capitalisms of the nineteenth century (fewer workers have old-style

factory jobs, for instance; more are working in service industries; less

emphasis is placed on manufacturing actual things like tables and cars,

more on knowledge and the exchange of knowledge with TV and the

Internet). Just as capitalism has this economic logic, so it also has a

cultural logic, and the cultural logic of late capitalism is what we call

‘postmodernism’.

DEFINING THE POSTMODERN

It is very hard to define the term ‘postmodernism’ straightforwardly,

partly because it is a complex phenomenon and partly because different

critics refer, as we shall see, to different versions of it. At the most basic

level, the word ‘postmodern’ suggests a period that comes after the

modern. To begin with this was the sense in which word was used, a

recognition that the aesthetic project of modernism, which had seemed

so vital in the early years of the century, had become dissipated. A new

dominant in culture had been emerging since World War II, and had

achieved a high profile in the 1970s. As Jameson himself (among many)

has argued, modernism had emerged as a self-conscious reaction against

nineteenth-century realism, with writers trying deliberately to ‘make it

new’ and overturn what they saw as the outmoded artistic principles of

realism. Modernism constitutes an enormous and powerful body of writing

and art, and some critics – even, as we shall see, some critics closely

associated with postmodernism – refuse to accept that it has passed away.

Jameson, however, is unambiguous in pointing to ‘the waning or

extinction’ of’ the hundred-year-old modern modern movement’, or

more specifically to the ‘ideological or aesthetic repudiation’ of

modernism, as the place of birth of the postmodern.

Ihab Hassan’s complex and sometimes contradictory attitude to

his hybrid modernism–postmodernism rather muddies the business of

definition, but one obvious point is the radical difference between his

position and that of Jameson. Hassan is careful to separate out

postmodernism from politics and economics; Jameson sees

postmodernism as precisely the articulation on the cultural level of those

forces.

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