Fredric Jameson (b. April 14, 1934) is a Marxist political and literary critic and theorist. He is best known for the analysis of contemporary cultural trends; he described postmodernism as the claudication of culture under the pressure of organized capitalism. Jameson's best-known books include Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, The Political Unconscious, and Marxism and Form.
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Life and works
Jameson was born in Cleveland, Ohio. After graduating from Haverford College in 1954, he briefly travelled to Europe, studying at Aix-en-Provence, Munich and Berlin, where he learned of new developments in continental philosophy including the rise of structuralism. He returned to America the following year to pursue a doctoral degree at Yale, where he studied under Erich Auerbach.
Erich Auerbach would prove to be a lasting influence on Jameson's thought. This was already apparent in his doctoral dissertation, which would be published in 1961 as Sartre: the Origins of a Style. Auerbach's concerns were rooted in the German philological tradition; his works on the history of style analyzed literary form within social history. Jameson would follow in these steps, examining the articulation of poetry, history, philology, and philosophy in the works of Jean-Paul Sartre.
Jameson's work focused on the relation between the style of Sartre's writings and the political and ethical positions of his existentialist philosophy. The occasional Marxian aspects of Sartre's work were glossed over in this book; Jameson would come back to them in the following decade.
Jameson's dissertation, though it drew on a long tradition of European cultural analysis, differed markedly from the prevailing trends of Anglo-American academia (which were empiricism and logical positivism in philosophy and linguistics, and New Critical formalism in literary criticism). It nevertheless earned Jameson a position at Harvard University, where he would teach for during the first half of the 1960s.
Research into Marxism
His interest in Sartre led Jameson to intense study of Marxist literary theory. Even though Karl Marx was becoming an important influence in American social science, partly through the influence of the many European intellectuals who had sought refuge from the Second World War in the U.S., the literary and critical work of the Western Marxists were still largely unknown in American academia in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Jameson's shift toward Marxism was also driven by his increasing political connection with the New Left and pacifist movements. His research focused on thinkers such as Gyorgy Lukács, Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse and Sartre, who viewed cultural criticism as an integral feature of Marxist theory. This position represented a break with more orthodox Marxism-Leninism, which held a narrow view of historical materialism.
While the traditional Leninist view of ideology held that the cultural "superstructure" was completely determined by the economic "base", the Western Marxists critically analyzed culture as a historical and social phenomenon alongside economic production and distribution or political power relationships. They held that culture must be studied using the Hegelian concept of immanent critique: the theory that adequate description and criticism of a philosophical or cultural text must be carried out in the same terms that itself employs, in order to develop its internal inconsistencies in a manner that allows intellectual advancement. Immanent critique had had been highlighted by Marx in his early writings, but later Soviet Marxism had not developed the practice.
Analysis of structuralism
At the same time, Jameson studied the main current alternative to Marxist analysis, as it was taking shape in Europe: the structuralist theory of language and literature. After moving to the University of California at San Diego in 1967, Jameson published Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (1971) and The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism (1972).
Both these books attempted to engage with features of mainstream literary and academic life that Jameson perceived as tending toward detachment from reality. Enshrining the work of art as an object completely separate from the context of its production through the humanist praise of the artist, and the anti-historical formalism derived from a restrictive interpretation of structuralist method, were both criticized. Jameson saw both trends as failures to perceive the key elements of the contemporary production and consumption of artistic objects. At the same time, Jameson held, as in previous works, that cultural objects must be understood according to cultural rules; he argued that careful and detailed analysis of cultural practices would reveal art and culture to be grounded in economic realities.
Jameson's work during the 1970s continued in this direction. It combined a multi-layered appraisal of literary texts, including genres and authors intensely modern but then scarcely treated by academic studies, ranging from science fiction to Raymond Chandler, with theoretical discussions of ideology, modernism and literary history.
Narrative and history
History came to play an increasingly central role in Jameson's interpretation of both the reading (consumption) and writing (production) of literary texts. Jameson marked his full-fledged commitment to Hegelian-Marxist philosophy with the publication of The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981). Rather than developing new theories for the analysis of literature, The Political Unconscious set out rigorously to ascertain the relation between the historical circumstances of a text and its content.
The book's argument emphasized history as the focal point of literary and cultural analysis. It borrowed notions from the structuralist tradition and from Raymond Williams's work in cultural studies, and joined them to a largely Marxist view of labor (whether blue-collar or intellectual) as the focal point of analysis. Jameson's readings exploited both the explicit formal and thematic choices of the writer and the unconscious framework guiding these. Artistic choices that were ordinarily viewed in purely aesthetic terms were recast in terms of historical literary practices and norms, in an attempt to develop a systematic inventory of the constraints they imposed on the artist as an individual creative subject.
Jameson's establishment of history as the key factor in this analysis, which derived the categories governing artistic production from their historical framework, was paired with a bold theoretical claim. Jameson's book claimed to establish Marxian literary criticism, centered in the notion of an artistic mode of production, as the most all-inclusive and comprehensive theoretical framework for understanding literature. The groundwork laid out in this book would serve as a basis for another of Jameson's best-known works.
The critique of postmodernism
"Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" was initially published in the journal New Left Review in 1984, during Jameson's tenure as Professor of Literature and History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This controversial article, which would later be expanded to a full-sized book, was part of a series of analyses of postmodernism from the dialectical point of view Jameson had developed in his earlier work on narrative. Jameson here viewed the postmodern "skepticism towards metanarratives" as a "mode of experience" stemming from the conditions of intellectual labor imposed by the late capitalist mode of production.
Postmodernists claimed that the complex differentiation between "spheres" or fields of life (such as the political, the social, the cultural, the commercial, etc.) and between distinct classes and rôles within each field, had been overcome by the crisis of foundationalism and the consequent relativization of truth-claims. Jameson argued, against this, that these phenomena had or could have been understood successfully within a modernist framework; postmodern failure to achieve this understanding implied an abrupt break in the dialectical refinement of thought.
In his view, postmodernity's merging of all discourse into an undifferentiated whole was the result of the colonization of the cultural sphere, which had retained at least partial autonomy during the prior modernist era, by a newly organized corporate capitalism. Following Adorno and Horkheimer's analysis of the culture industry, Jameson discussed this phenomenon in his critical discussion of architecture, film, narrative and visual arts, as well as in his strictly philosophical work.
Jameson's analysis of postmodernism attempted to view it as historically grounded; he therefore explicitly rejected any moralistic opposition to postmodernity as a cultural phenomenon, and continued to insist upon a Hegelian immanent critique. His failure to dismiss postmodernism from the onset, however, was perceived by many as an implicit endorsement of postmodern views.
Jameson's later work has dispelled the perception that he is sympathetic to postmodern thought. He turned to Adorno again in search of a contemporary theoretical framework for Marxian dialectics. He supplemented his critique of postmodernism with additional material, appearing first in a casebook compiled by Douglas Kellner in 1989 under the title Postmodernism/Jameson, Critique and then in the extended version of the 1984 article, published in book form as Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism in 1991. This book earned him the Modern Language Association's Lowell Award.
During the 1990s Jameson further developed this line of thought in the 1994 Seeds of Time, in his Wellek Library lectures at the University of California, and in the 1998 Brecht and Method. This last was an analysis of the political and social context surrounding Brecht's political commitment.
Jameson, Fredric (1961). Sartre: The Origins of a Style. New Haven: Yale University Press. . Jameson, Fredric (1971). Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories f Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press. . Jameson, Fredric (1972). The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. . Jameson, Fredric (1979). Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist. Berkeley: University of California Press. . Jameson, Fredric (1981). The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. . Jameson, Fredric (1988). The Ideologies of Theory. Essays 1971–1986. Vol. 1: Situations of Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. . Jameson, Fredric (1988). The Ideologies of Theory. Essays 1971–1986. Vol. 2: The Syntax of History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. . Jameson, Fredric (1987). Postmodernism and Cultural Theories. Lectures in China (Houxiandaizhuyi he Wenhualilun). Xi'an: Shanxi Teacher's University. . Jameson, Fredric (1990). Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the Dialectic. London & New York: Verso. . Jameson, Fredric (1990). Signatures of the Visible. New York & London: Routledge. . Jameson, Fredric (1991). Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. . Jameson, Fredric (1992). The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. . Jameson, Fredric (1994). The Seeds of Time. The Wellek Library lectures at the University of California, Irvine. New York: Columbia University Press. . Jameson, Fredric (1998). Brecht and Method. London & New York: Verso. .