Fredric Jameson: refashioning literature definition
What, precisely, do we mean when we use terms like “literature” and “literary”? Few theorists concur that literary theory can be adequately defined and even fewer among those who make the attempt can agree on how to define it, in large measure because most people founder on the idea of the “literary.” It is not possible, in the present context, to pursue this question in any detail. Though the concept of literature is contested today by many theorists, it has had a long history as a term designating an art form devoted to the written word. From Aristotle to Heidegger, philosophers have recognized the value of literary art, and literary theory up until very recently has been strongly influenced by aesthetic theory. The aim of this article is to define literature by using Fredric Jameson methodology. The American theorist Fredric Jameson has been greatly influenced by the Frankfurt School. He explored Marxist theories of literature, especially with reference to their dialectical aspects, in his Marxism and Form. For Jameson, literature and culture only made sense if placed in the context of a grand narrative – Marxism. He sees literature as being very precisely tied in with historical changes in the structures of capitalism out of which ‘realist’ and ‘modernist’ writing gets produced. He returns, in fact, to a reconsideration of Hegel’s philosophy, in its investigation of the part to the whole. Any object is bound up in a larger whole, is part, for example, of a specific historical situation. The aspects of literature that a critic analyses must also always be seen in relation to the critic’s own historical situation. In The Political Unconscious, Jameson retains his earlier dialectic approach but also incorporates various other, often conflicting modes of thought, such as structuralism and poststructuralism. The influence of Althusser is also evident. Jameson sees ideologies as ‘strategies of containment’, providing acceptable explanations but suppressing contradictions. The solutions provided by works of literature also suppress historical truths. He believes that narrative is not just a literary form or mode but an essential ‘epistemological category’; reality presents itself to the human mind only in the form of stories. We can only understand the world in terms of stories. Scientific, cultural and historical accounts are all created narratives. Jameson took his title from Freud’s concept of repression which he extends from the individual to the collective level: ideology represses revolutionary ideas. Jameson regards the literature as the provider of ideological codes that can only be grasped by the critic capable of reading the text’s “political unconscious.” A dialectical criticism will seek to unmask the inner form of a genre or body of texts and will work from the surface of a work inward to the level where literary form is deeply related to the concrete. The heterogeneity of society is reflected in the heterogeneity of texts: literature is essentially a mirror of the society in which it is produced. All kinds of interpretative methods can be applied to literature, and will reveal something actually present in the text but each method of interpretation applied will also reveal something about the ideologies governing both the author’s and the critic’s worlds. Jameson’s ‘political unconscious’ takes from Freud the essential concept of ‘repression’, but raises it from the individual to the collective level. The function of ideology is to repress ‘revolution’. Not only do the oppressors need this political unconscious but so do the oppressed, who would find their existence unbearable if ‘revolution’ were not repressed. To analyse a novel we need to establish an absent cause (the ‘not-revolution’). He sees many texts as interesting and useful that a vulgar Marxist would simply dismiss as ‘false consciousness’, and he is thoroughly suspicious of overgeneralized or sweeping critical judgements.
Jameson took over the Freudian notion of the Unconscious and applied it to social and political contexts. Here we have another definition of precisely what ‘the political unconscious’ actually is: Jameson thinks of it as the Utopian impulse, which is in itself repressed by the social superego – we see why repression is so incompatible with Jameson’s ideas of Utopia. At the same time, Jameson is tentatively suggesting that the fractured, decentred, surface-fixated variety of postmodern literature can in its own way embody Utopia.
A contemporary critique of ideology like Jameson’s is less concerned with identifying ideology as right or wrong, he is interested in teasing out the ways culture and literature affect and even construct individuals’ sense of themselves.
For the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson literature is ethical, but ‘narrative as ethics’ is not an end in itself, but merely an ideologically generated screen for a deeper political content – class inequities and the resulting conflicts – that cannot be represented directly. According to Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, these macro-struggles are subject to ideological working that produces a representation not of classes, or of history, but of individuals. Worked in this way, a class conflict that is, because of its magnitude, inconceivable and (short of revolution) unresolvable shrinks, when cast into narrative form, into a simple choice between alternative values; politics takes on the diminished form of what Jameson calls ethics – the predominant code, he says, in which the question ‘What does it mean?’ tends to be answered. The ethical dimension of narrative is, for Jameson, the problem rather than the solution, the starting point for a critical project whose goal is the decoding of those narrative moments of individual decision in an effort to recuperate the deeper but distorted political content.
For Marx, ‘ideology’ was ‘false consciousnesses, a set of beliefs that obscured the truth of the economic basis of society and the violent oppression that capitalism necessarily entails. Various people believe various things: for instance that the fact that some people are rich and some people poor is ‘natural and inevitable’; or that black people are inferior. The purpose of these beliefs, according to Marx, is to obscure the truth. People who believe these things are not going to challenge or even recognise the inequalities of wealth in society, and so are not going to want to change them. For Marx, the task was clear: to disabuse people of their ‘false consciousnesses’ so that they could see the injustices of society for what they are – both appalling and curable. Subsequent Marxist thinkers have refined Marx’s original simple conception of ‘ideology’, and the term has become increasingly important in Marxist literary theory. Ideology becomes the system of ideas by which people structure their experience of living in the world; this is not something straightforwardly ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but rather a complex network of relations and attitudes. ‘Ideology’, then, includes both obviously ‘wrong’ systems of thought like racism, but also more complex aesthetic and cultural responses.
A contemporary critique of ideology like Jameson’s is less concerned with identifying right and wrong, and more interested in teasing out the ways culture and art affect and even construct individuals’ sense of themselves. In the words of Louis Althusser, ideology is seen more as ‘a “representation” of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence’. It is no longer possible simply to step outside ideology and see it as false; Jameson understands that all of the terms in which we understand our existence are ‘already soaked and saturated in ideology’. Whether we think of ourselves as family members (daughters, sisters, and so on), as ‘citizens’, as ‘workers’ (which is to say, whether it is our job that most importantly defines who we are for ourselves), as ‘students’, as ‘music-lovers’ or ‘sportswomen’, or whatever – in all these cases, and in any others we could name, these categories (family, work, leisure) have already been defined by ideology in a complex relationship with the economic dynamics of late capitalism. He sees many texts as interesting and useful that a vulgar Marxist would simply dismiss as ‘false consciousness’, and he is thoroughly suspicious of overgeneralized or sweeping critical judgements.