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Fredric Jameson

(b. 1934)


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(1934–)

Marxist cultural critic. Born in Cleveland Ohio, Jameson was educated at Haverford College and Yale University. He is renowned for his landmark essay, ‘Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ (1984), which for admirers and detractors alike continues to serve as a focal point for attempts to define the nature of the contemporary situation. Few authors display Jameson's intellectual range, which encompasses a command of several languages and an encyclopedic knowledge of works in architecture, art, film, history, politics, and literature.

Reticent about allowing his work to be turned into something he disparagingly calls a ‘brand’, Jameson has held back from developing a singular method that could be easily emulated. His method, which he has variously called metacommentary, transcoding, and dialectical criticism, is, he insists, in a permanent state of incompletion. There is no one form of the dialectic, he argues, and neither can there be a final form, it must constantly adapt to meet the new challenges of a rapidly changing historical situation. Jameson has brought together his thoughts on his dialectical method in The Valences of the Dialectic (2009).

Jameson completed his doctorate at Yale in 1959. It was published in 1961 as Sartre: The Origins of a Style. Focused on Sartre's novels and plays rather than his philosophical writing, it established a template for future work by exploring the degree to which an author's style can be read dialectically as a symptom of their engagement with their political situation. In essence, as he articulates more directly in the work that follows, for Jameson all cultural works can be treated as allegories for which the master text is history itself.

In the succeeding decade, Jameson wrote a series of long essays on key thinkers of the Left, including Adorno, Bloch, Benjamin, Lukács, and Marcuse, which sought both to make these authors (whose works were not translated into English at the time) more widely known in the Anglophone academy and to examine their usefulness for contemporary cultural politics. These essays were brought together in Marxism and Form (1971), undoubtedly the most important book on Marxist aesthetics of the latter half of the 20th century. In a companion volume, The Prison-House of Language (1972), Jameson provided a critical account of Russian Formalism and structuralism.

In The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981), Jameson continued his investigation of the link between style and politics. Highly influential in literary studies and Cultural studies, the concept of the political unconscious adapts the psychoanalytic concept of wish-fulfilment to explain the unconscious social and political presuppositions of cultural works. Jameson's thesis is that cultural texts are symbolic solutions to real historical problems. They bring into existence in textual form a vision of society that society itself is incapable of realizing. Textual analysis, following this logic, tries to reconstruct (or reverse engineer) the historical sub-text or problematic driving a particular text by asking how it works. His key exhibit in this regard is the 19th-century's obsession with the notion of ressentiment (particularly in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Joseph Conrad), which, as he shows, served the ideological purpose of discrediting all forms of political action.

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Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies — Philosophy.


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