by Robert T. Tally Jr, author of Fredric Jameson: The Project of Dialectical Criticism
At age 80, Fredric Jameson is certainly not slowing down. Just as I was finishing my study of his career, Jameson published The Antinomies of Realism, which (depending on how you count them) is his twenty-first book and which has just been awarded the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His next book, The Ancients and the Postmoderns, is already available for pre-order, and he has announced two other forthcoming works, on allegory and myth, respectively, that will complete his six-volume project on The Poetics of Social Forms. Already the recipient of the prestigious Holberg Prize, as well as the Modern Language Association’s Award Lifetime Scholarly Achievement, Jameson remains one of the most significant literary and cultural critics in the world today.
In Fredric Jameson: The Project of Dialectical Criticism, I suggest that Jameson’s career could be viewed as a cultural cartography of the world system, an attempt to map figuratively the totality of social relations as they may be disclosed through a variety of forms of narrative. Jameson’s work has involved “a continuous and lifelong meditation on narrative, on its basic structures, its relationship to the reality it expresses, and its epistemological value when compared with other, more abstract and philosophical modes of understanding,” which is actually how Jameson characterized the career of Georg Lukács in Marxism and Form (1971). Across more than twenty books and hundreds of articles, Jameson has been remarkably consistent, maintaining his particular project of dialectical, Marxist criticism while continually assessing ever new cultural, intellectual, and social phenomena. The result is a curious mixture of the absolutely avant-garde and the seemingly old-fashioned. Jameson has found himself near the center of the most current cultural and critical controversies of the day, moving with remarkable agility through the theoretical thickets of existentialism, structuralism, poststructuralism, postmodernism, and globalization. Yet, throughout all of these post-contemporary interventions, Jameson has been among the more resolutely traditional Marxist theorists and critics.
While engaging in inquiries ranging from narrative fiction and critical theory to film and television, architecture and art history, music, philosophy, and so on (“nothing cultural is alien to him,” as Colin MacCabe once put it), Jameson has held that Marxism is not just the best, but the only theoretical and critical practice capable of adequately comprehending the narratives by which we make sense of, or give form to, the world. Jameson’s dialectical criticism analyzes and evaluates the cultural landscape with an almost up-to-the-minute calibration, while always situating these interventions in a consistent yet flexible and complex system through which may be glimpsed that totality that ultimately gives meaning to each discrete element within it. In this way, Jameson seems to be a hip, ultra-contemporary postmodern theorist and a traditional, almost nineteenth-century thinker, all at the same time.
Additionally, Jameson has remained committed to a properly literary critical project, even when he ventures into other disciplinary fields. In a somewhat post-literary age, with media theory and cultural studies usurping the roles previously played by literary criticism and literary history, Jameson’s criticism and theory, especially in its attention to narrative, form, genre, and tropes, appear to represent an almost perversely Luddite perspective. Even when he has ventured into architecture, film, visual arts, or media criticism, Jameson has always done so as a literary critic, paying closest attention to the forms and functions normally associated with narrative fiction. Despite his remarkable breadth of cultural inquiry, Jameson in some respects remains the student of Erich Auerbach, his teacher in graduate school at Yale University in the 1950s, and of the great philological tradition of the early twentieth century. From his earliest writings to his most recent, Jameson has been concerned above all with the ways in which individual expressions—sentences, in fact—relate to forms, which in turn derive their force and significance from the totality of social, political, and economic relations at work in a given mode of production. For Jameson, the critical perspective peculiar to literary criticism enables a properly Marxist critique of the world system.
In this, Jameson has at times been criticized, as some have justifiably wondered how an innovative analysis of a nineteenth-century French novel or the articulation of a hermeneutic theory can possibly further a Marxist agenda. But this literariness, in fact, comports with Jameson’s Marxism and his overall project of dialectical criticism. In Jameson’s view, the existential condition of personal and social life in societies organized under the capitalist mode of production necessarily requires a form of interpretative or allegorical activity, which ultimately means that the task of making sense of one’s world falls into the traditional bailiwick of literary criticism. Literary texts come to the reader as already constructed objects, situated in a complex literary and social history, and therefore cannot necessarily be read literally even if that is the preferred approach, since even a “literal” reading will involve some forms of interpretation. Just so, our interpretation of the social text—that is, the world in which we live—will also require a kind of metacommentary, to invoke another famous Jamesonian concept. As Jameson explains in The Political Unconscious (1981),
no society has ever been quite so mystified in quite so many ways as our own, saturated as it is with messages and information, the very vehicles of mystification (language, as Talleyrand put it, having been given us in order to conceal our thoughts). If everything were transparent, then no ideology would be possible, and no domination either: evidently that is not our case.
Because narratives are form-giving forms by which individual and collective subjects make sense of the world, the project of the literary critic coincides with that of other sense-making systems, such as religion, philosophy, and science. Yet, as Jameson’s own dialectical criticism makes clear, the literary critic is professionally attuned to the presumption of mystification or, to put it differently, to the need for interpretation, in advance.
Marx’s famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach—“the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”—is a well-taken caveat to those who would rest easy in merely reading the present, without adequately striving to understand the past or to project alternative visions for the future. However, none knew better than Marx the value of critique, which necessarily involves analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. Indeed, even before his “Theses on Feuerbach” and decades before he refused to provide recipes for the cook-shops of the future, Marx explained to Arnold Ruge that “constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair”; rather, “it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” Within the cultural sphere, broadly conceived, this “ruthless criticism” has been and is the ongoing project of Jameson’s career.
Jameson’s utopianism is directly tied to this literary critical project in what he famously referred to as the dialectic of utopia and ideology, since any future-oriented utopian project must necessarily confront the mystified or reified social relations of the present. In the end, the old tension within Marxism between voluntarism and determinism, between the activity of the class struggle and the structural form of the mode of production, or perhaps more simply between politics and history, likely must remain in some sort of productive tension in the labors of the Marxist critic. Any attempt to formulate a radically different future must first and always come to terms with the scarcely representable system in which we find ourselves. Jameson summarizes the problem and its constantly evolving solution in Valences of the Dialectic (2009), where he demonstrates the utopian impulse animating the critical endeavor itself:
A Marxist politics is a Utopian project or program for transforming the world, and replacing a capitalist mode of production with a radically different one. But it is also a conception of historical dynamics in which it is posited that the whole new world is also objectively in emergence all around us, without our necessarily at once perceiving it; so that alongside our conscious praxis and our strategies for producing change, 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.
The project of dialectical criticism, therefore, involves the patient, meticulous, and attentive reading of the situation in which we find ourselves, but in this analytic and interpretive activity also lie the revolutionary forces of current and future struggles. Cultural theory cannot replace revolutionary theorizing any more than cultural practices could replace revolutionary praxis. However, to modify Marx’s great dictum and apply it to the present age of globalization, critical theorists must somehow find a way to interpret the world if they have any hope of changing it.
Reading Jameson’s multifaceted criticism will not amount to a satisfactorily utopian political practice in its own right, but it may well allow us to gain some new understanding of the world system, to apprehend our present situation in such a way as to discern the indistinct, but nevertheless real, signs of the radically different forms emerging at the edges or the seams of its shifting spaces. We may thereby descry in Jameson’s project of dialectical criticism some promising vista into the past, as well as a glimmer of a future form, embedded in the all-too-present situation in which we find ourselves. If anyone has earned the right to rest on his well-earned laurels, it is Jameson, yet his tireless and joyful labors themselves offer an instructive example to Marxists engaged in their own ruthless critiques of all that exist.
Robert T. Tally Jr. is an Associate Professor of English at Texas State University. He is the author of Utopia in the Age of Globalization (2013), Spatiality (2013), Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel (2011), Melville, Mapping, and Globalization (2009) and the editor of Geocritical Explorations (2011). His new book, Fredric Jameson: The Project of Dialectical Criticism has just been published by Pluto Press.