Jameson, Fredric

Assigned: Jameson, Fredric. From The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Preface; from Chapter 1. “On Interpretation: Literature as a Socially Symbolic Act”(1734-57); “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” (1758-71). Also read the editors’ introduction (1731-34).

From The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981)


1. On 1734-35 (“Always historicize! This slogan…”), in our anthology, Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best (Leitch 2603-19), advocate a “surface reading” that avoids interpretation of what lies beneath the surface of a given text. By contrast, what interpretive practice does Fredric Jameson propose? How does he describe the two paths cultural interpreters face? Which one does he choose? How do you understand his term “metacommentary” and his remark that “[i]nterpretation is here construed as an essentially allegorical act…” (1734)? Finally, what are Jameson’s apparent intentions towards the “interpretive codes” (1735 top) to which he applies his Marxist master code? Since he is not trying to invalidate these subsidiary codes, what does he propose to do with them? (1735)

2. On 1735-37 (“Because of the peculiar focus of…”), according to Jameson, what should readers not expect from The Political Unconscious? In what manner does he propose to engage with “the traditional issues of philosophical aesthetics” (1735 bottom) and with the genre of literary history? (1736) To what extent does he consider his kind of reading politically efficacious? (1736) To what sources does Jameson pay tribute regarding the element of narrative analysis in his work, and what does he consider to be the relative standing of narrative in human affairs? (1737)

3. On 1737-38 (“Last but not least, the reader…”), how does Jameson explain the relative absence of “attention to issues of interpretive validity” in a book that devotes so much time to “the interpretive act…” (1737)? Why is he less than enthusiastic about what he calls “the positivistic conception of philological accuracy” (1737) in interpretation? How does he propose to deal with what he calls the unavoidable “dilemma of all cultural study today” (1738 top); namely, the “uneasy struggle for priority between models and history, between theoretical speculation and textual analysis…” (1738)?

From Chapter 1. On Interpretation: Literature as a Socially Symbolic Act

Section III

4. On 1738-39 (“At this point it might seem…”), Jameson offers an initial brief description of his three-part interpretive scheme grounded in Marxist theory as “an ultimate semantic precondition for the intelligibility of literary and cultural texts” (1738). How does he gloss each of these three “concentric frameworks” or “semantic horizons” for interpretation?

5. On 1739-41 (“We must now briefly characterize…”), Jameson explains in more detail what is involved in interpretation in accordance with the first of his three “semantic horizons”: the “narrowly political horizon” (1739). In this first operation, what does the critic examine? To what extent does the “object of study” (1739) overlap with an individual literary or cultural text? According to Jameson, how does his claim that the individual text is treated as “a symbolic act” (1739) differentiate the examination of it from traditional textual analysis, or explication de texte? What debt does Jameson acknowledge for this first phase of interpretation to “the readings of myth and aesthetic structure of Claude Lévi-Strauss…” (1739 bottom)? How does that author’s reading of the graphic art made by indigenous Caduveo women help Jameson illustrate the method he seeks to apply?

6. On 1741-42 (“Lévi-Strauss’s work also suggests…”), according to Jameson, how does the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss testify to the existence of what Jameson himself calls “a political unconscious” (1741) at work in human affairs? In what sense, according to Jameson, do modern societies’ imaginative attempts to resolve the contradictions that confront them daily amount to something like a “pensée sauvage”? (1741; before responding to this question, research the connotations of the French term since the English phrase “savage thought” is not an adequate translation.) Finally, how does he address the issue of “contradiction” (1742) as central to Marxist analysis of any kind, and in particular to the three phases of interpretation he is explaining?

7. On 1742-43 (“Still, we need to say a little…”), how does Jameson address “the status of […] external reality” (1742) in connection with the interpretation of literary texts? In what sense is interpretation a kind of “rewriting of the literary text” that attends to what he calls a “prior historical or ideological subtext…” (1742 bottom)? How does he explain the “paradox” (1743) of the subtext? According to Jameson, what two key errors of overemphasis must a Marxist critic avoid in interpreting a literary text as a symbolic act? (1743) If these errors are not avoided, what will be the result?

8. On 1743-44 (“Still, this view of the place…”), what “supplementary distinction between several types of subtext to be (re)constructed” (1743) does Jameson say is necessary to deal adequately with the fact that narrative, on its own, cannot directly conceptualize the social contradictions that may be driving it? What is the role of the category of aporia or antinomy in this regard? (1743 bottom) How does this newly introduced category help Jameson to “reformulate [… the necessary] coordination between a semiotic and a dialectical method”—that is, between a study of sign systems and the Marxist dialectic that works through the analysis of contradictions? (1744)

9. On 1744-46 (“We may now leave this first…”), Jameson moves on to discuss the second or “social” horizon of interpretation. When does this horizon come into view? (1744) How does Marxist analysis understand and represent “class, and how does this kind of analysis differentiate itself from “conventional sociological analysis” (1744) as practiced by non-Marxists? How does Jameson invoke Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of dialogical discourse in the service of class analysis? (1745) In what new way can a Marxist analyst, using this notion of the dialogical, see social or class-based contradictions? How, according to Jameson, does such reading necessarily move beyond and indeed undermine the “illusion or appearance of isolation or autonomy which a printed text projects…” (1745 bottom)?

10. On 1746-47 (“This is the framework in…”), Jameson considers the “reconstruction of so-called popular cultures…” (1746). What examples does he offer of how this reconstruction is accomplished and what insights it may afford into “marginalized or oppositional cultures…” (1746)? In addition, how, according to Jameson, can a critic “reread or rewrite the hegemonic forms [of culture] themselves” as “a process of the reappropriation and neutralization, the co-optation and class transformation, the cultural universalization” (1746) of the cultural production of certain subgroups within the larger society? What examples does he offer of this kind of reappropriation, this absorption and repurposing of the creativity of subgroups for the benefit of a hegemonic class?

11. On 1747 (“Still, this operation of rewriting…”), Jameson writes that it is necessary to connect one’s analysis at the level of the “class horizon” with a “larger class discourse” on the order of Ferdinand de Saussure’s langue (broad linguistic system) as opposed to parole (individual utterance). He suggests that this discourse is “organized around minimal ‘units’ which we will call ideologemes.” How does Jameson define and further characterize ideologemes? How much importance does he attribute to them?

12. On 1747-48 (“This focus or horizon, that of…”), Jameson transitions to the third and final framework or horizon of interpretation, the “historical” horizon that is organized around Marxist concept of the “mode of production” (1748). What are the seven fundamental modes of production as Jameson lists them in accordance with classical Marxism? (1748) Moreover, what is the “form of ideological coding specific to each mode of production” (1748)?

13. On 1749-50 (“Before we can determine the…”), Jameson notes that “the horizon of modes of production” comes with a few “methodological problems…” (1749). The first of these problems has to do with the possibility of treating the Marxist “mode of production” concept in a purely synchronic manner that ignores the possibility of diachronic change. How does Jameson elaborate on this methodological problem and the negative implications it bears for Marxist analysis? How does he apparently believe the problem can be dealt with, or at least mitigated by proper appreciation and implementation of his tripartite method of analysis? (1750)

14. On 1750-51 (“The theoretical problem with…”), Jameson further considers the main problem with the “synchronic systems” of analysis he has been discussing—potentially “totalizing” theories put forth by Max Weber, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard and others (1750). Into what two main groups does he divide such theories, and what are the characteristics of the theories belonging to each group? (1750-51) Despite their differences, in what sense do theorists in both groups see the world towards which “world capitalism” (1750) is moving as anything but classically socialist? Moreover, what “Marxian injunction” (1751) do theorists from both groups generally deny? How does Jameson attempt to counter both theoretical camps—what “precise equivalents” for them (1751) does he suggest already exist within Marxist theory, and what opportunity does the existence of those equivalents provide to the analyst concerned with modes of production? (Briefly research the two key terms that Jameson brings into play: capitalogic and disaccumulation: what do these two terms mean as they are used in Marxist discourse?)

15. On 1751-52 (“We must therefore now turn…”), Jameson addresses the second problem concerning the horizon of the mode of production. The problem, as he describes it, is that cultural analysis in this horizon will “tend toward a purely typological or classificatory operation…” (1751). Over against this issue, how does Jameson propose to “validate the horizon of the mode of production…” (1751)? Furthermore, how does he deal with “recent objections to the very concept of the mode of production” (1751)? In Jameson’s view, how does the fact that modes of production tend to overlap and coexist help overcome the objections he has been discussing with regard to modes of production? (1752)

16. On 1752-54 (“Yet we have still not characterized…”), Jameson turns to consider “the specific object of study” that is constructed by the third horizon, that of modes of production. He calls this object “cultural revolution” (1752). How does Jameson define this term, and what examples does he give to illustrate it? How is a cultural revolution broader than “such punctual historical events as the French Revolution or the Industrial Revolution…” (1753)? How can this broad concept, according to Jameson, “be expected to project a whole new framework for the humanities…” (1753)? Finally, how does Jameson address the old problem of the relation between synchronic and diachronic analysis? In what way does the concept of “cultural revolution” extend “beyond the opposition between synchrony and diachrony” (1754) and allow critics to understand literary and cultural texts, modes of production and periods of history in a more productive, accurate manner?

17. On 1754-56 (“We have, however, not yet specified…”), according to Jameson, what is “the nature of the textual object which is constructed by [… the] third horizon of cultural revolution…” (1754 bottom)? In this horizon, how is the “individual text or cultural artifact” re-understood or “restructured” (1755) as something other than an isolated, solitary thing? In what sense, according to Jameson, is the critic within the third horizon now studying “the ideology of form” (1755) in a way that understands form as a special kind of content, as something that carries messages all its own? How does Jameson distinguish the Marxist critic’s study of form in this manner from the studies made by more traditional “formalist” practitioners? How does his consideration of the relationship between Marxism and feminism help him show that a genuinely Marxist study of “the ideology of form” (1755) goes well beyond traditional formalism, and validate the feminist insistence that sexism and patriarchy cannot simply be subordinated to purely economic considerations? (1755-56)

18. On 1756-57 (“With this final horizon, then, we…”), Jameson ends with a reflection on the status of history in Marxist theory. What does he suggest about the debate between Marxists and non-Marxists over the place of history in our attempt to understand human life? How can this debate best be resolved? In what sense does well-done historiography, according to Jameson, come at us “in the form of Necessity…” (1757)? How does he respond to those who say that Marxism provides only a “comic” or “romance” framework for understanding human affairs—in other words, a narrative that we know will deliver a happy ending? (1757) What is Jameson’s final explication of what he means by “history” at this point in his text? In the end, why does he believe that “History as ground and untranscendable horizon needs no particular theoretical justification…” (1757)?

19. General question: In our selections from The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Fredric Jameson, like almost all of the major Marxist authors who have written in the wake of Marx & Engels, adapts and updates these two men’s original theories that so strongly influenced the course of history. (Other authors in this vein that we may have read can be found in the Norton Anthology’s Alternative Table of Contents under the heading “Marxism” at pages xxii-xxiii.) Overall, how would you describe the “update” that Jameson has made to traditional Marxism: in what way does Jameson’s revamped theory about “the political unconscious” suit the late-capitalist present, thereby allowing us to understand its workings to a greater extent than traditional Marxism could? Explain.

20. General question: In our selections from The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Fredric Jameson addresses the propensity of capitalism to “reappropriate” the cultural forms and dissensions that might otherwise threaten the socioeconomic order. (See question 13, 1749-50.) What evidence of this can you add to this claim—what observations have you made of contemporary or recent protest movements, political or economic demands, or cultural forms (art, dialect, fashions, etc.) that have been either neutralized or accommodated in some manner that only strengthens the prevailing socioeconomic order? Do you agree with the more pessimistic theorists that such co-optation or reappropriation is inevitable (“Resistance is futile!”), or do you think some types of resistance are more successful than others? Explain.

“Postmodernism and Consumer Society” (1988)

1. On 1758-59 (“The concept of postmodernism is…”), writing in the late 1980s, Fredric Jameson declares that “[t]he concept of postmodernism is not widely accepted or even understood today” (1758). He provides a brief list of poets, architectural styles, musical styles, films, and novels that would seem to qualify as postmodern. What two inferences does Jameson make based upon this list? With regard to the first inference, in what sense is postmodernism of any sort a reaction as opposed to a brand-new form of art? (1758) With regard to the second inference, how do postmodernisms partially erase the boundaries between high culture and popular culture? To what extent does Jameson also connect literary theory with this tendency? (1759)

2. On 1759-60 (“Now I must say a word about…”), how does Jameson explain what he considers the correct use of the word “postmodernism” (1759 bottom)? What is the “function” of this concept in revealing the correlation between certain forms of art and the “new economic order” (1759 bottom) that came into play just a few years after the end of World War II in the United States and much of Europe? In what sense, according to Jameson, were the 1960s a “key transitional period” in the development of postindustrial or multinational capitalism and the culture it fostered? (1760)

Pastiche Eclipses Parody

3. On 1760-61 (“One of the most significant…”), having already declared that postmodernism “expresses the inner truth of that newly emergent social order of late capitalism” (1760), Jameson goes on to discuss the first of what he calls postmodernism’s “significant features”: the technique of pastiche. How does he differentiate pastiche from the more commonly understood technique of parody? What assumption, according to Jameson, does a parodist make about language that a practitioner of pastiche does not? (1760) In sum, in what sense is pastiche “blank parody,” or “parody that has lost its sense of humor…” (1761)?

The Death of the Subject

4. On 1761-62 (“But now we need to introduce…”), what thoughts does Jameson offer regarding the so-called “death of the subject” that has been so much theorized since the 1960s? What was the relationship between modernism and “the conception of a unique self and private identity…” (1761)? What two positions does he explore regarding the loss of this sense of a unique self? In what sense is the second position more radical than the first? (1762) In Jameson’s view, what effects has the “death of the subject” had upon artistic creation in the postmodern age? How does “pastiche” again assert itself in the unique, autonomous subject’s wake? (1762)

The Nostalgia Mode

5. On 1762-63 (“As this may seem very abstract…”), what examples does Jameson offer of what he calls “the nostalgia mode” in film, which he describes as a form of pastiche in the area of mass culture? Since he brings up George Lucas’s 1977 blockbuster Star Wars, what is it about that film that adults of a certain age—that is, adults who remember the old Buck Rogers space films of the 1930s-1950s—can enjoy just as much as children and adolescents who, in 1977, are processing Star Wars as something entirely new? In what sense is such a film, in Jameson’s terms, metonymically nostalgic? (1763) How does that differentiate it from another kind of nostalgic film, the same director’s 1973 film American Graffiti?

6. On 1763-64 (“Now let me discuss another…”), Jameson examines another “interesting anomaly” (1763) in the area of the nostalgia film. This time, the anomaly consists of the 1981 film Body Heat. Even though this film is set in the time of its making, the early 1980s, what does Jameson suggest is nonetheless odd or anachronistic about it? What effect does the film’s small-town setting along with the “ambiguous” (1764) style of the lead actor William Hurt have on the viewer’s sensibilities? Finally, how does Jameson, with reference to the novelistic work of E. L. Doctorow, answer the question of why “nostalgia film or pastiche is to be considered different from the older historical novel or film” (1764)? How do Doctorow’s novels Ragtime and Loon Lake give readers the sense, according to Jameson, that “cultural production has been driven back inside the mind, within the monadic subject…” (1764)?

Postmodernism and the City; The Bonaventure Hotel

7. On 1765-66 (“Now, before I try to offer…”), Jameson addresses “the originality of postmodernist space” (1765) in architecture. What effect does he suggest certain postmodern buildings have on those who experience them? What two claims are often made, according to Jameson, in defense of postmodernist buildings against those who prefer modernist architecture? How does John Portman’s Los Angeles, California Bonaventure Hotel satisfy the first of these claims but not the second? What observations does Jameson offer about the Bonaventure’s deployment of space and of the hotel’s relation to human beings and to the city that surrounds it?

8. On 1766-68 (“This diagnosis is to my mind…”), Jameson sets forth some additional observations about the features of the postmodernist Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, California. What does he suggest about the perceptual and psychological effects of the building’s remarkable “glass skin” (1766)? (View an online image of the Bonaventure if you have never seen it in person.) In what sense, according to Jameson, are these glassy walls “not even an exterior” (1766)? What is the apparent effect of the building’s escalators and elevators on the people who ride them? How, as Jameson experiences them, do they end up invoking “the autoreferentiality of all modern culture…” (1767)? As for the Bonaventure’s lobby, why, according to Jameson, is it “quite impossible to get your bearings” (1768) there? What final, overarching point about the postmodernist qualities of the Bonaventure Hotel—its invocation of “postmodern hyperspace” (1768) in particular—does Jameson make?

The New Machine

9. On 1768-69 (“But as I am anxious that…”), Jameson compares the strange, alienating experience of space in the Bonaventure Hotel to the motion-oriented quality of Michael Herr’s 1977 Vietnam War memoir Dispatches. How, according to Jameson, does Herr deal with the all but un-recountable “first terrible postmodernist war” (1769)—a war which sees “the breakdown of all previous narrative paradigms” and of “any shared language through which a veteran might convey such experience…” (1769)? How does Herr describe his feelings about the almost ubiquitous American “choppers” that transported him around the war zone, and what point about postmodernist portrayal of space and time does Jameson draw from that description?

The Aesthetic of Consumer Society

10. On 1769-71 (“Now I must try very rapidly…”), Jameson concludes with a reflection on the ties between postmodernist “cultural production” and American “social life” (1769) in the late 1980s. How does he respond to the challenge that the “postmodern” qualities he has examined are nothing new, that modernist art manifested the very same qualities? How might the key to maintaining the distinction between modernism and postmodernism have to do with the “scandalous” or openly defiant quality that modernist art once had, but no longer does, and that—according to Jameson—postmodern art has never had in the first place? In his view, what does the latter point suggest about the relationship between postmodernist art and “the logic of consumer capitalism” or postindustrial, multinational capitalism? (1771)

11. General question: In “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” Fredric Jameson explores the correlation between postmodernist art forms as rooted both in a reaction against high modernism and an expression of late capitalism. What is your own experience of postmodernism in at least one area of the arts (or, for that matter, in postmodern or post-structuralist literary theory)? Do you find it a satisfying and productive encounter? Do you favor postmodernism, or do you prefer earlier art forms and periods, such as modernism, realism, surrealism, and so forth? What features do you think account for your preference, if you have one?

12. General question: In “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” Fredric Jameson points out that a key operative assumption of postmodernism seems to be “the death of the subject” (1761), a phrase which implies that we can no longer (without naiveté) consider ourselves to be authentic, autonomous individuals set over against other people and the world. Secondly, Jameson ascribes to postmodernism a considerable degree of alienation, a disorienting effect, as if the artist would inform or remind us that none of the old certainties (about reality, representation, morality, etc.) hold true anymore, if indeed they ever did. While Jameson posits a general consonance between postmodern art and literature and the imperatives of consumer capitalism, it is undeniable that a certain percentage of the public is distinctly uncomfortable with all things postmodern. Do the two qualities mentioned above account for this resistance to postmodern ideas, styles, and attitudes, or would you describe the resistance in some other way? Explain.

13. General question: towards the end of “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” Fredric Jameson intimates that in this postmodern era, “the very function of the news media is to relegate […] recent historical experiences as rapidly as possible into the past” (1771). Does that seem like a fair assessment of how contemporary journalism tends to function? Why or why not? To what extent does the media coverage you have seen or heard regarding the major issues of our time seem to be sustained in its focus and genuinely informative in its content? Do you find that journalists are in the main willing to tell the truth as they discover it and to pursue it over considerable periods of time, or are they mostly too afraid of being charged with “bias” to call out lies and inaccuracies, too afraid of losing “access” to the great and powerful to call them out when they err or do wrong? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake