Why does Fredric Jameson’s interpretive method — his insistence that the political interpretation of texts constitutes the “absolute horizon” of all meaning — still call for defense in today’s academic scene? Despite being widely influential, the critical stance that Jameson represents has come under attack from a number of thinkers in the humanities in the past decade, from arguments about “surface reading” to Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s call to dethrone hermeneutics in favor of a concept of “presence.” But as the violent consequences of the world market begin to spill into the most isolated and affluent corners of the first world, it has become increasingly difficult to argue, with a straight face, that there are areas of life and culture that somehow fall outside politics and ideology—that there is such a thing as an unmediated relationship to art, culture, Being. As a result, Jameson’s insistence that ideology “subsumes everything else in culture and the superstructures, assuming the position religion once held for the first historians and cultural theoreticians of the West” becomes clearer every day.
Having constructed a critical apparatus out of the most disparate sources — blending Northrop Frye, Georg Lukács, Jean-Paul Sartre, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Louis Althusser — he remains, no doubt, our most astute cartographer of twenty-first century ideologies. Yet Jameson’s singular contribution to Marxist thought has been his persistent insistence on the centrality of narrative in the formation and maintenance of ideology. The bits and fragments of thought hovering in philosophy journals, New York Times editorial pages, and Twitter feeds are not isolated “opinions” or “ideas”; they are, rather, elements in a more complex and hidden totality. No single thought can be adequately understood without thinking its total environment, as well as its place in the history of class struggles. Our ideas are characters in the vast story that we tell ourselves in order to live. “These matters can recover their original urgency for us only if they are retold within the unity of a single great collective story,” he writes in The Political Unconscious (1981), “ . . . only if they are grasped as vital episodes in a single vast unfinished plot.”
The revolutionary implications of this notion have been remarked on by many. For the historian Perry Anderson, Jameson’s work marks the “complete consummation” of the Western Marxist tradition. Likewise, for literary scholar Terry Eagleton, reading Jameson is more than simply thought provoking: it is an aesthetic pleasure in itself (“I take a book of his from the shelf as often in place of poetry or fiction as of literary theory”). Such claims are hardly exaggerations: Jameson is one of the few critics writing in English whose entire body of work — he has been publishing for 58 years — remains alive, relevant, and startlingly prophetic. The world, it seems, keeps trying to catch up to Jameson, whose talent for dialectical unification still shines forth with radioactive power. After you’ve read him, it’s impossible to unsee what he’s shown you: his phenomenology of everyday life reveals the hidden architecture of the capitalist mode of produciton with the aesthetic aptitude of a modern novelist. In Jameson’s writings, the most disparate and seemingly unrelated surface phenomena — the structure of financial derivatives and the haut cuisine of the Spanish restaurant El Bulli, for instance — are brought together to reveal startlingly coherent meanings. Yet Jameson’s most important contribution isn’t so much his ability to tease out unlikely linkages or similarities in the present so much as to note how these linkages point towards (and long for) an unalienated future. The quakes and disintegrations occurring throughout the world system today are prefigurations of things to come. If “allegories are, in the realm of thoughts what ruins are in the realm of things” (as Walter Benjamin once said), Jameson reminds us that these ruins invariably contain a positive valence. The negative destruction of the earthquake is always the prelude to a positive reconstruction. The word for this reconstructive project is, of course, Utopia.
Yet there is, of course, a central tension at the heart of all of dialectical thought, as Jameson himself notes in Marxism and Form (1971): it is “as though you could not say any one thing until you had first said everything.” The source of the exciting energy in all of Jameson’s books is, paradoxically, their sheer repetition. Jameson at once manages to say something new with every book, while at the same time saying the same thing over and over again. This is no limitation, but the unique advantage of dialectical criticism: it releases the critic from the futile business of solving problems and points towards the far more manageable (and ultimately more fulfilling) task of articulating them. Only higher and higher levels of articulation can lead us out of our interpretive comforts and into what Jameson describes as “the restless anxieties of a more expansive knowledge.”
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that the twofold title of Jameson’s latest book, Allegory and Ideology (2019), harkens back to the critic’s perennial concerns. Yet those wary of yet another volume on what seem like old fashioned ideas would be wrong to turn away from this new book, which does far more than recapitulate the thesis of The Political Unconscious (1981). The explanatory power of historical materialism is still strong, and elaborations on what seem like old ideas continue to yield startling insights far more powerful than the fruits of the newest or flashiest philosophies. In Jameson’s idiosyncratic blend of narrative theory, literary criticism, and the explanatory tools of dialectical thought, allegory is a key tool for registering and understanding the otherwise imperceptible shifts in the material base. Like in all of his work, allegory does not seek some ultimate truth or meaning of an object, nor does it produce some static chart of equivalences (this means that) in the manner of the symbol or homology. Rather, allegory is a system, ever in flux, teasing out multiple meanings occuring at various levels within a given text. Jameson: “Allegory raises its head as a solution when beneath this or that seemingly stable or unified reality the tectonic plates of deeper contradictory levels of the Real shift and grate ominously against one another.” When read allegorically, even our most obscure concepts stand as masked elements in a hidden, unconscious narrative.
Yet what is new in Allegory and Ideology turns on another materialist theme. In this book, Jameson uses the notorious notion of population as a kind of limit concept: “the limits of our conceptuality,” he writes, “…are also not to be found in the size of the brain but rather in the sheer number of other people who coexist with us”. Population, here, adds a quantitive element to the vaguer notion of collectivity. The familiar dialectical transformation of quantity into quality rears its head in new and surprising ways, as Jameson develops an intricate argument about how literary form has responded and adapted to the perceived presence of population, from the ancients to the postmoderns. The symptoms of this transformation, according to Jameson, are to be found in an unlikely place: the history of emotions. As a society draws more people under its collective tent (whether welcoming or excluding these people), so too the available register of emotions exands. Consider the following: how did the distinct and limited systems of emotion which governed the aesthetic possibilities of, say, Greek tragedy (fear, anger, hate, triumph) transform, over the course of centuries, into the vapory flows of modern affect? In other words, how did emotion transform into the more slippery notion of mood? By charting this broad transformation from the static systems of Classical emotional infrastructure to the rise of the realist novel, in which objects and thoughts are held together by the sticky paste of prose, Jameson in fact charts an ideological shift. Emotions and feelings (as sedimented in formal structures) become allegorical for the structure of a given political community.
How? Readers of Jameson’s previous work will sense some continuity here. Allegory and Ideology is something of a prequel to the critic’s study on the rise of the realist novel and the waning of “named emotions”, The Antinomies of Realism (2013). The broad outlines of this transformation are given more detailed attention in this new work, which charts the dissolution of a key concept associated with allegory ( one that is twinned with the named emotions mentioned above): personification. Didn’t all those people and things in ancient stories used to mean something else? And–more to the point–why do we no longer consciously interpret stories this way, using a chart of equivalences so that characters, objects, or actions stand in for ideas? In the Greek city state, with its limited number of people allowed into social life, personification flourished; yet as the Greek city-states gave way (over the course of centuries) to the burgeoning population of the Roman Empire, so there occurred a number of corresponding form-changes. This general transformation from relatively autonomous and contained communities into the dispersed sprawl of Empire contains a transformation in the imagination of feeling: the pain and pleasure of Greek tragedy, enforced by rigid social hierarchy of the polis, is transformed into the individualized salvation and sin of late Empire drama and early Christian thought. The range of possible emotions becomes a mode of mapping the social system itself.
These ancient examples are by no means arbitrary: by tracking this gradual shift away from allegorical personification towards affect, Jameson draws his readers’ attention towards parallel developments in the world system today. The dissolution of so-called “national” cultures into the standardized sprawl of globalization echoes some of these ancient transformations; the emotional structures that are bound to emerge in this vast species-world of global population will accompany a new form of thinking. In this context it’s fitting that Jameson chooses to re-examine a controversial essay on national allegory in light of these developments. Originally published in the journal Social Text in 1986, “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism” was intended to supplement Jameson’s highly influential “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” (published two years prior in the New Left Review). While by no means parochial, the latter essay tended to focus on the literature and culture of the overdeveloped world without taking into account simultaneous developments in either the Soviet bloc or what was then called the “third world.” Hence, Jameson’s assessment of so-called “third-world” literature in this situation was a simple one: the rise of world-market and the emergence of a global division of labor had forced writers in subordinate nations to reconceive the very concept of nationhood itself. In this situation, all Chinese literature, for instance, would become an allegory for China’s place within the globalized system.
Jameson’s generalizations (subsuming the diverse and various national situations of the global south into a single “third-world” logic) attracted justified criticism. Its detractors noted that it ignored complexity and difference in favor of a bad unity. So why, despite these problems, re-animate this museum piece in the present volume? The national allegory essay turns out to serve a periodizing function within this new book, highlighting a further tectonic shift that has occurred since the essay’s original publication. In the relatively short period since the 1980s, the very concept of the “third world” has dissolved in the radioactive sunbeam of globalization (only to be replaced with the euphemistic concept of “the developing world”). And yet, as Jameson points out, the essentially allegorical situation of international politics remains with us. In conceptualizing this allegorical nature Jameson draws our attention to the significant problem in articulating any overarching view of the world system today: the incommensurability between class struggle in the various national situations and the overarching picture of the forces of capitalism operating on a planetary level.
Consider the essentially allegorical nature of football, or soccer, whose players stand as exemplary figures within this new situation. Jameson describes this example in a virtuoso passage that spans several pages. Since the game’s subsumption into the globalized marketplace, soccer players are forced to shift between various levels (local, national, global), calling for a new kind of fluid identity and making the notion of allegiances increasingly flimsy. “The soccer player, caught between his origins, his home team, and his national representation, is only the most dramatic figure for the multidimensionality of globalization evolved and presupposed in the essay on national allegory,” writes Jameson. Simultaneously operating within a specific national situation (replete with local rivalries which stand in allegorical relation to local class struggles) as well as on the more vertiginous plane of global competition, the situation of the soccer player highlights the difficulties of thinking the broader situation of the world system today.
For this is the central problem that reoccurs throughout all of Jameson’s work: how to represent the unrepresentable totality of the world system and its market? Further, how to conceptualize the unconceptualizable (and even unnamable) collectivity of planetary life that has been recently unified by this world market? Here’s another paradox in Jameson’s work: in highlighting the impossibility of visualizing collectivity, he shows his readers that the aspiration for such a collectivity is everywhere present, even in the most banal products of late capitalist social life. How, then, to name the kind of collective cohesion that the (still new) transformations of globalization are forcing upon the global population? The term Jameson proposes comes from the medieval Islamic philosopher Ibn Khaldun. Asabiyya, often translated as “group feeling” or “group cohesion” is an appealing term because it implies spontenaeity; it is not imposed from top down, nor does it serve a mediating function like the idea of “the nation”. In its ancient provenance lies the paradoxical promise of the radically new.
Yet the concept of asabiyya only makes sense if we see it as responding to the problem that Jameson takes as a starting point for this volume. The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has articulated this problem (unique to the era of globalization) as follows: “People today are not prepared to coexist consciously with a billion other subjects.” If the limits of our conceptuality are, as Jameson suggests in this new volume, “the sheer number of other people who coexist with us,” then the imaginative products churned out by the earthquakes of globalization will tell us something about our future community. More than a work of literary criticism, Jameson’s new book shows us that any positive political developments to emerge from globalization will demand a new form of conceptualizing this seemingly unimaginable collection of human beings.
James Draney is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in Public Books, Los Angeles Review of Books, Review 31, and Literary Hub. He is currently working towards a PhD in English at Duke University.