Fredric Jameson(1934-); Biography and famous works

Fredric Jameson(1934-) is a famous Marxist cultural critic. He was born in Cleveland Ohio, and was educated at Haverford College and Yale University. He completed his doctorate at Yale in 1959. It was published in 1961 as Sartre: The Origins of a Style. Focused on Sartre’s novels and plays rather than his philosophical writing, it established a template for future work by exploring the degree to which an author’s style can be read dialectically as a symptom of their engagement with their political situation. In essence, as he articulates more directly in the work that follows, for Jameson all cultural works can be treated as allegories for which the master text is history itself.

He is renowned for his landmark essay, ‘Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ (1984), which for admirers and detractors alike continues to serve as a focal point for attempts to define the nature of the contemporary situation. His method, which he has variously called metacommentary, transcoding, and dialectical criticism, is, he insists, in a permanent state of incompletion. Jameson argues that there is no one form of the dialectic, neither can there be a final form, it must constantly adapt to meet the new challenges of a rapidly changing historical situation. He has brought together his thoughts on his dialectical method in The Valences of the Dialectic (2009). Later Jameson wrote a series of long essays on key thinkers of the Left, including Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Gyorgy Lukács, and Herbert Marcuse, which were brought together in his book Marxism and Form (1971), undoubtedly the most important book on Marxist aesthetics of the latter half of the 20th century. In a companion volume, The Prison-House of Language (1972), Jameson provided a critical account of Russian Formalism and Structuralism.

In his book The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981), Jameson continued his investigation of the link between style and politics. Highly influential in literary studies and Cultural studies, the concept of the political unconscious adapts the psychoanalytic concept of wish-fulfilment to explain the unconscious social and political presuppositions of cultural works. According to Jameson, cultural texts are symbolic solutions to real historical problems. They bring into existence in the textual form a vision of society that society itself is incapable of realizing. Textual analysis, following this logic, tries to reconstruct (or reverse engineer) the historical sub-text or problematic driving a particular text by asking how it works. His key exhibit in this regard is the 19th-century’s obsession with the notion of ressentiment (particularly in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Joseph Conrad), which, as he shows, served the ideological purpose of discrediting all forms of political action.

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In 1982, Jameson gave a talk at the Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art entitled ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society.’ A revised version of this talk was published in 1984 in New Left Review with the new title of ‘Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’. It quickly became one of the most discussed and cited articles of the decade. Jameson rejects the idea that we have entered a post-industrial age in which the internal contradictions of capitalism have at last been resolved and argues instead (adapting Ernest Mandel’s argument in Late Capitalism (1975) in the process) that the present should be understood as the age in which capitalism has finally permeated every aspect of life, including consciousness itself. Culture, for Jameson, is thus both a response to and registration of the underlying economic and political forces of the mode of production itself.

An extended working out of the implications of his thesis is presented in book form in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). The postmodern situation, Jameson argues, is conditioned by two historical drivers: (i) the so-called ‘Green Revolution’, or the industrialization of Third World agriculture, which had two powerful effects on the one hand, it massively increased food production, thus enhancing food security, but it is also put millions of peasants out of work, forcing them to move to cities in search of employment; (ii) the refocusing of the First World economy around tertiary enterprises (i.e. knowledge and information) rather than primary and secondary enterprises (i.e. agriculture, mining, and manufacturing). These changes took effect in the 1950s, but in Jameson’s view it wasn’t until the 1970s that they began to be recorded in what he terms the political unconscious of global culture. Examining a wide range of texts across all the arts, Jameson identifies five symptoms of the cultural shift toward full-blown postmodernism- the waning of affect; pastiche; hysterical sublime; geopolitical aesthetic; and a mutation in built space interfering with our ability to produce a cognitive map of our situation.

Jameson’s subsequent books, The Geopolitical Aesthetic (1992), The Seeds of Time (1994), and A Singular Modernity (2002) have extended this discussion further by examining in more detail the problem of what came before postmodernism and inquiring into its continued significance. For Jameson, the crucial measure of any form of thought and indeed work of art is whether or not it enables us to imagine a future different from our present, even if it is brought about by cataclysm. For this reason, Jameson has nurtured a lifelong interest in modernism and science fiction, which in his view offer the most important examples of this type of utopian thinking. Two recent books, both of which collect essays written over a 30-year period, are devoted to precisely these topics: The Modernist Papers (2007) and Archaeologies of the Future (2005). Jameson was awarded the prestigious Holberg Prize in 2008.

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