Museum of Difference

Fredric Jameson's ongoing, collective story


Fredric Jameson, Allegory and Ideology.
London and New York: Verso, 2019

In the last two years of his life Karl Marx took over a thousand pages of notes concerning world history. In ill health, unable to finish the promised third volume of Capital, and (according to the recent Gareth Stedman Jones biography) unpleasantly aware that he still had not quite resolved whether the rule of capital was ending or where it was tending, he turned instead, and compulsively, to the more or less distant past—in large part to periods before capitalism was ever thought of. No doubt Marx was on the lookout for alternatives to capitalism that had the extra virtue of having been tried and tested. Stedman Jones ends his book with one of them: Marx’s growing curiosity about traditional villages that owned property in common and didn’t regret it. But that interest was only one source of his eccentric end-of-life determination to master the whole story, and not just its upheavals, recent or imminent.

Reading Allegory and Ideology by Fredric Jameson, who is routinely described as the foremost Marxist critic in the United States, it is hard not to think of Marx’s late-blooming, almost perverse desire to take the longest possible view. As Colin MacCabe once remarked, nothing cultural is alien to Jameson, and here as elsewhere, Jameson is unafraid to add outlandishly antiquarian items to his political agenda. Whatever the urgency motivating a given inquiry, he is ready to pull back, bringing to bear on it as much of the cultural past as possible, whether or not the additional materials have anything directly to do with capitalism.

Antagonism to the rule of capital is probably the least misleading way we have of defining Marxism. But there is a great deal of Jameson’s by now monumental oeuvre that this definition would miss. A sort of academic Susan Sontag, Jameson won an early reputation by discovering and expounding difficult European thinkers, leftist and not, many of them not yet translated. Unlike Sontag, he sometimes needed translation himself. He did talk more about capitalism. (He became known for the proposition that global capitalism is sublimely unrepresentable—which may be true but is not the worst thing one could say about global capitalism.) Like Sontag, he seemed omnivorous, and he could successfully play tastemaker because he made the reader who didn’t get the references want to be the sort of person who would get the references.

Whatever the urgency motivating a given inquiry, Fredric Jameson is ready to pull back, bringing to bear on it as much of the cultural past as possible.

Jameson became more widely known in his fifties, with several distinguished books under his belt, for a 1984 essay called “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” As its title suggests, that essay was antagonistic to capitalism. The capitalism Jameson optimistically called “late” was the new post-Bretton Woods variant, whose almost invisible string-pulling by floating currencies and high-speed financial flows aligned neatly, he argued, with some of postmodernism’s characteristically cool, disorienting, and morally questionable effects. Among them were effects celebrated by French poststructuralism, or “theory,” to which Jameson was also offering some readers a skeptical if backhanded introduction. Coming from a self-declared Marxist, the equation postmodernism = poststructuralism = late capitalism was not an unpredictable kind of analysis. What won Jameson such unusual popular renown was the extraordinary range of examples his essay synthesized (from architecture, painting, poetry, punk, theory, therapy, photography, and so on) and the way his diagnosis made sense, in Marxist terms, of a queasiness that many outside the left were also feeling.

Part of the magic of Jameson’s critical performance may also have been the fact that his indignation at postmodernism was not unequivocal or unappreciative. In spite of his disapproval of the pastiche, the cult of surfaces, the waning of affect, and all the rest, Jameson seemed willing to admit that the damned thing works. And if it works on me, then . . .

The Latest Story Ever Told

Jameson had recently consolidated his standing among academic critics with his 1981 book The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. In appearance an account of nineteenth-century realism, with long and brilliant chapters on Balzac, Gissing, and Conrad, The Political Unconscious was really about narrative: narrative considered as a universal by which humans made meaning for themselves, and thus also—in the academy, this was the real payoff—narrative as a critical methodology. Critics, Jameson argued, tell stories too. Those stories are neither true nor false. Interpretations are nothing but stories about stories.

This elevating of the status of narrative might be seen as Jameson’s reluctant concession to postmodernism (as in “nothing is real, everything is narrative”). Less dramatically, it could be taken as the price a Marxist had to pay for working in a literature department. But he knew literature professors would not be so easily won over. If interpretations are nothing but stories about stories, they would ask, what makes some stories better than others? In order not to fall into postmodern relativism, Jameson needed an answer. And he had one, though it was not an answer anyone would have predicted. The answer was allegory. In Marxism’s name, he embraced the fourfold scheme of allegorical interpretation developed by the early Fathers of the Catholic Church. What for the Jews was a literal descent into Egypt and then a liberation from bondage (level 1, the historical event) becomes, according to that model, a story of Christ’s descent into Hell after his crucifixion (level 2: allegory), followed by his resurrection. Which then becomes (level 3: the ethical or, later, the existential or psychoanalytic) a story applicable to the struggle of the individual soul to achieve salvation (or health, or happiness, or authenticity). Which then foreshadows (level 4, the anagogical or highest stage) the Last Judgment, or the collective destiny of the human race.

The premise is that in order to tell the best, richest, fullest stories, or (what amounts to the same thing) in order to offer the best possible interpretations, you have to lay the object you are interpreting next to human history as a whole, or as much of it as you can manage, and stretch it to see what new shapes it assumes. The best story is the most inclusive of other stories, other histories. This principle has a certain persuasiveness even if you are not totally sure that the most inclusive story deserves to be thought of, by analogy with Freud, as society’s political unconscious.

For Jameson, it is the ability to see big stories hidden away in small ones that is Marxism’s secret selling point. Narrative on the usual small or private scale is temporally provincial, comfortable only in or near its own narrow present. And to many readers those are the only stories that feel real. But reality is larger than that. If humankind is going to understand what it is capable of becoming, it needs a better sense of what it has been. Only Marxism, Jameson writes in The Political Unconscious,

can give us an adequate account of the essential mystery of the cultural past, which, like Tiresias drinking the blood, is momentarily returned to life and warmth and allowed once more to speak, and to deliver its long-forgotten message in surroundings utterly alien to it. This mystery can be reenacted only if the human adventure is one; only thus . . . can we glimpse the vital claims upon us of such long-dead issues as the seasonal alternation of the economy of a primitive tribe, the passionate disputes about the nature of the Trinity, the conflicting models of the polis or the universal Empire, or, apparently closer to us in time, the dusty parliamentary and journalistic polemics of the nineteenth century nation states. These matters can recover their original urgency for us only if they are retold within the unity of a single great collective story; only if, in however disguised and symbolic a form, they are seen as sharing a single fundamental theme—for Marxism, the collective struggle to wrest a realm of Freedom from a realm of Necessity.

In 1981, the idea of a collective struggle to wrest a realm of Freedom from a realm of Necessity could only be taken as an in-your-face rejoinder to Jean-François Lyotard’s declaration two years earlier, in his manifesto-like The Postmodern Condition, that the grands récits, or big stories, of enlightenment and emancipation were definitively washed up. On the other hand, Jameson was offering something less than a ringing endorsement of Marx’s activist aphorism about changing the world rather than merely interpreting it. The passage from The Political Unconscious addresses interpreters first, and activists only later if at all. It gives off a distinct aroma of resignation. It’s as if Jameson conceded that the goal of restoring belief that humanity is living a single great collective story, and the habits of interpretation grounded in that belief, were not doing so well, and the issue was therefore less a matter of revolution than of preservation—preserving what the world otherwise seems set to lose, including both the memory of its receding past and the hope that the future can be different. In Allegory and Ideology, Jameson quotes Walter Benjamin’s chastened figure of revolution as the emergency brake that can stop history’s runaway train.

In spite of his disapproval of the pastiche, the cult of surfaces, the waning of affect, and all the rest, Jameson seemed willing to admit that the damned thing works.

On closer inspection, the “single great collective story” paragraph looks even darker. The reference to Tiresias in the underworld suggests that the “long-dead issues” of the cultural past are, in fact, dead. Otherwise they would not need to be reanimated. The reference is a roundabout way of acknowledging, at least as a fear and perhaps as more than a fear, the possibility that the past is not alive for us politically—that the past as seen from the present is fundamentally amoral and apolitical. To put this another way, it’s the possibility that the passage of time has an inexorably subversive effect on the taking of sides. Taking sides for something and against something is the fundamental gesture of politics, and not just Marxist politics. Is this enterprise still relevant as one moves further and further into the past, encountering situations harder and harder to line up with our own passionately held commitments? Or does it become silly, even absurd? Does it apply to the Trojan War? Who, reading Dante, really wants to take sides between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines?

Irreconcilable Differences

When Levi-Strauss launches a frontal assault on Sartre in chapter nine of La Pensée sauvage in 1962, his argument is the absurdity of thinking, as Sartre does, that history is a play in which, at any given moment, the modern spectator can and must choose a side. Jameson, in some respects an unrepentant Sartrean, refers to La Pensée sauvage in his new book, but he does not reply to Levi-Strauss’s critique. That’s because he won’t take sides on the taking of sides. Sometimes he writes as if taking sides is politically necessary. More often, he writes as if it is undialectical, childishly moralistic, a habit of dividing the world into good guys and bad guys that the experience of history should have taught us to outgrow. And yet doesn’t narrative itself inevitably trade in heroes and villains? It’s a point that Jameson makes himself.

Writing here about the “horrendous” monsters and villains of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Jameson declares, “it is [Spenser’s] allegory that needs them, and not his sensibility: for the reading of this allegory—of all allegory perhaps?—is absolutely dependent on the ethical binary, the distinction between good and evil.” This binary way of thinking, which as he says can be traced back to “stereotypical expressions of visceral loathing and hatred,” is almost always a matter of visceral loathing to Jameson himself. What is he to make, then, of a past (and a literary tradition) that is so very full of that binary? Is it enough to reply that politics won’t work without villains?

The strain of holding on to what appear to be two irreconcilable positions is one possible explanation for Jameson’s style, which David Foster Wallace famously denounced, in a witty parody, as “appalling—pompous, abstruse, claustral, inflated, euphuistic, pleonastic, solecistic, sesquipidelian, Heliogabaline, occluded, obscure, jargon-ridden, empty: resplendently dead.” (It’s perhaps not strange that, for others, Jameson’s long sentences, which have been compared to those of Proust and Faulkner, can be read for literary pleasure, which is to say ignoring the content of the ideas.) On the other hand, the same irresolution also helps explain Jameson’s productivity, his unpredictability, and his magnanimity to the objects of his commentary, however politically various those objects may be. “I am not interested in passing judgements,” he writes in one of the book’s appendices (on Daniel Dennett’s theory of consciousness). Those who expect political criticism generally and Marxism in particular to involve a lot of ideological finger-pointing will be disappointed with Jameson, who shuns this gesture as scrupulously as the most decadent of aesthetes. Even when he can’t avoid going in for the kill, as in a delicious take-down of Knausgaard in The London Review of Books, it’s done with dialectical delicacy. As an interpreter, Jameson’s signature move is a leap of inventive appreciation that brings out hidden virtues in supposed ideological enemies. The interpretive generosity is also a logical consequence of the conviction that nothing and no one can be left out, and of an allegorical method that finds room for everyone and everything in the single great collective story, even if it’s not always the room they thought they had reserved.

Serenity Now

As Jameson says, allegory and ideology are both unfashionable terms, inside as well as outside the university. If he were more willing to please the crowd, he might have called this book The Naming of the Emotions. Looking at the table of contents and noting chapters on Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Goethe, you might expect a more or less fresh commentary on the Great Books of the Western tradition, all of them by males, a commentary oblivious to the differences—differences of gender, sexuality, race, and so on—that over the past decades have made the traditional canon and the singleness of the human adventure seem less and less plausible. What you get, as it turns out, is a book about how to deal with difference, which is also a book about the history of the emotions.

In the Iliad, what interests Jameson is those early readers who, in an attempt to overcome the sheer gruesomeness of Homer’s “interminable hand-to-hand combats,” turned the “senseless slaughter” into scenes of education in which the real clash was between personified passions. It’s a sort of double origin story in which the birth of the emotions coincides with what may be (for the West) the birth of allegory. Allegory translates slaughter into emotion. Is allegory here a whitewashing of historical violence, or a step toward greater civilization? For Jameson, it seems to be both at once. You have to bite that dialectical bullet, it seems, or you don’t get to imagine happy endings, as Marx did (inspired by the bourgeoisie’s success story) and as Jameson does, too. The happiness is never unalloyed.

Jameson’s history of the emotions, laid out in chapter two but also a thread pulling the subsequent chapters together, carries with it the developing story of modern self-consciousness. This history unfolds under the worst social conditions and is never unmarked by them, and yet for Jameson it nevertheless belongs to a metanarrative of both emancipation and enlightenment. In the Greek polis, for example, anger has no binary opposite. The place of that missing opposite (the appendix on “the Greimas square” is about the why and the how-to of tracing missing opposites, another of Jameson’s signature interpretive moves) is filled by the absence of all emotion, Stoicism’s apatheia or ataraxia, which will later be pathologized as melancholy. For Jameson, it is not a pathology at all, but rather a desire for utopian serenity that cannot be satisfied within the suffocating and non-stop emotions of the polis. Where can the desire be satisfied for a peace beyond anger, which is to say beyond politics?

Here the argument goes back, conveniently, to those “conflicting models of the polis or the universal Empire” that Jameson had mentioned in the “single great collective story” passage almost forty years earlier. His point, in crude summary, is that both allegory and emotion undergo a hugely significant turning at the moment of transition from the Greek city-state to a Christianizing Roman Empire. Christianity, universalizing itself within the Empire, is something like a mode of imperial surveillance, introducing sin and guilt as it demands that otherness be internalized. Greek virtues are thus paired with new, made-up vices. As this happens, the subjects of Empire are forced to bend to the imperative of self-scrutiny. A new self-consciousness thus comes into being, and it does so as an effect of Roman imperialism. It’s the central allegory of the book.

Imperialism is of course an especially alienating context in which to place the history of self-consciousness or the emotions, both of which are so intimate that even scholarship, let alone the ordinary person, prefers not to think of them as historical at all. Empire generates welcome opportunities for indifference or apatheia that were not available within smaller social structures, but it is obviously no utopia, and history here does not look much like a series of intentional acts, still less acts informed by good intentions. On the other hand, it seems clear that Jameson, quietly polemicizing against Nietzsche and Foucault, is doing a makeover of their militantly Greek-positive version of the Greek-to-Christian transition, and is doing so precisely so as to credit early Christianity with good intentions—specifically, with the intention to liberate those it was both conquering and converting. The intention to liberate is not illusory. The readings of Dante, Shakespeare, Spenser, and Goethe that follow are in effect replays of this ambivalent dynamic, all of them about the emergence of self-consciousness within a power-laden society that is anything but utopian.

It’s in this sense that, appearances to the contrary, Jameson’s book has been about difference all along. Allegory is a way of dealing, within an empire, with “radical cultural differences as it seeks to reconcile Judaic, Roman, and many other mentalities.” In other words, it is a mode of coexistence—an unequal mode, of course, as one would expect from an empire, but deserving of historical respect and even perhaps a source of practical wisdom. The difficulty that collective identities have with each other in the present overlaps with the difficulty that the present as such has with the past. Both are problems of how to face difference. Allegory is Jameson’s solution to both.

Critics, he argued, tell stories too. Those stories are neither true nor false. Interpretations are nothing but stories about stories.

Allegory, for Jameson, is less a means of overriding difference than a means of preserving it. To look at history and find a great deal of allegory, as this book does, is to find in history, amidst all the destruction, an impulse to preserve and a large quantity of successful preservation. To put this more precisely, allegory is a tool for retaining difference, including the difference of other cultures, but it retains difference without making difference sacred. The charge that Jameson deals with difference by absorbing it into his own larger historical scheme—a charge that is not entirely unfounded—could also be seen as a (more questionable) assertion that if difference is not treated as sacred, there has necessarily been a violation of it. After all, what harm does it do you to imagine that your particular adventure is also part of a larger collective adventure?

Allegory and Ideology is announced as the penultimate volume in the now six-volume project entitled “The Poetics of Social Form.” The only volume that remains unwritten is the first one, which is supposed to be on narrative. I can see why the volume on narrative would have been left for last. Is everything really narrative? The word “ideology,” less prominent in the body of the book than in its title, seems there to ensure that the book is not taken as saying so—that material constraints get their due. It keeps us in the vicinity of orthodoxy, which is also common sense: we make our own history, but not under circumstances of our own choosing. The difference—perhaps too subtle to count for much—is that Jameson is here presenting our entanglement in ideology or unfreedom with a certain exuberance and even delight, as if what mattered most about unfreedom was the perverse guarantee it offers that we are truly and genuinely connected to a single great collective story.

Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. His most recent book is  The Beneficiary.

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