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Fredric Jameson: An Examination of his Critical Theory

Lecturer: Liam O'Donnell

Originally Taught: Evening Sem 1 2018

Jameson is a cultural critic and theorist whose writings cover a diverse range of subject matter, from high literature to science fiction, from art cinema to horror movies, from philosophy to installation art. Behind Jameson's interest in all of these cultural phenomena lies one of his key theoretical questions: what is the relation between culture and history? And, how is it possible to connect them to each other without reducing culture to a mere reflection of material historical forces?

Jameson is arguably one of the leading Marxist cultural critics of our age. This course therefore aims to explicate how he reshapes the key concepts of dialectical thought. Our aim is also to bring out the systematic theoretical structure that underlies all his diverse writings. While Jameson's contribution to dialectical thought is uniquely his own, he is also a synthesiser of the thought of others. We will therefore be tracing his relation to other key thinkers both within and outside the Marxist tradition. These thinkers include Lukacs, Althusser, Heidegger and Sartre. One of the striking features of his work is that he attempts to subsume seemingly incompatible thinkers and modes of thought within his dialectic. Whether this process is successful or not will, of course, be a topic of discussion.

Jameson's writings are notoriously difficult to understand. The inherent complexity of the subject matter is one thing, but his style seems to mirror that complexity. His sentences are often long and convoluted, and he often uses striking imagery and metaphors which seem designed to disorient in order to produce an effect of “dialectical shock” in the reader. So a great deal of our discussion will be aimed at clarifying meaning, and establishing the underlying assumptions and claims of his thought. But, as the course unfolds, a critique of his work will also take shape. We will call into question his account of subjectivity, and we will call into question whether his thought can be truly dialectical given the limitations of his account of subjectivity.

This course is organised around the following four areas of Jameson's work:

1. His contributions to literary theory.

  • This will be examined mainly through a detailed analysis of his reading of two well known Joseph Conrad novels, Lord Jim and Nostromo, in The Political Unconscious.
  • There will be a focus on the relation between literary form, ideology, and history.
  • Jameson's debt to structuralist literary theory will be examined.
  • Jameson's method of literary interpretation will be compared to, and contrasted with, Sartre's approach to literature.

2, His theorisation of the postmodern.

We will approach postmodernism through the following series of guiding questions:

  • What sort of thing is postmodernism?
  • What are the characteristics of postmodernism?
  • Is an immanent critique of postmodernism possible?
  • What is postmodern subjectivity?

3. His theorisation of the utopian.

  • The utopian is Jameson's master concept. We will examine how his view of history and his critique of cultural phenomena are dependent on the utopian.
  • We will look at how the utopian is central to Jameson's epistemology, 'politics', 'ethics', and ontology.

4. His reshaping of the dialectic.

  • For Jameson, dialectical thought is the only thought capable of grasping our historical situatedness.
  • He insists that all experience and thought exists in relation to a deeper level of reality that shifts and changes over time, a reality that cannot be grasped in itself, but that can be grasped indirectly through the structures and forms of experience, and thought, that it makes possible. This is Jameson's concept of History as the Real.
  • We will examine the concepts of the “absent cause” and “structural causality.”
  • We will also examine Jameson's concept of totality.
  • And finally, we will examine the role of human agency within his view of the dialectic.

* Please note that it is not necessary to read all of the texts listed below, although reading the Jameson texts is recommended.

Lecture Schedule

Week 1: Introduction: Culture and Ideology

An overview of the structure of the course will be given. We will then examine the question of the significance of Jameson for contemporary theory, and the Marxist tradition, followed by a discussion of his understanding of the concepts of culture, ideology, and the aesthetic. A preliminary account of his concepts of History, and the utopian will also be outlined, for without these concepts, the overall structure of his thought cannot be grasped.


  • Althusser, Louis, “A Letter on Art in Reply to Andre Daspre.” In, Lenin and Philosophy.
  • Althusser, Louis, “Cremonini, Painter of the Abstract.”  In, Lenin and Philosophy.
  • Eagleton, Terry, Criticism and Ideology. Specifically chapter 3, “Towards a science of the text.”
  • Jameson, Fredric, The Political Unconsious, pgs 1-23, 58-102.

Week 2: Reification and Mediation

The unfashionable concept of reification is central to Jameson's understanding of history, and to his method of literary and cultural analysis. Reification is the process that characterises the historical shift from the premodern (precapitalist) to the modern. It is also the concept Jameson uses to mediate (connect) culture and the broader structures of history/society. We will examine the history of the concept, its underlying logic and assumptions, and Jameson's unique development of the concept.


  • Arato, Andrew, “Lukacs' Theory of Reification,” Telos, No. 11, Spring 1972. pgs. 25-66.
  • Jameson, Fredric, The Political Unconsious.
  • Jameson, Fredric, “History and Class Consciousness as an Unfinished Project,” in Valences of the Dialectic.
  • Lukacs, Georg, History and Class Consciousness

Week 3: Literary Form and history

For Jameson, literary form itself must be related to history. Form is not mere decoration for content, but rather it is form itself that reveals the underlying structural limits, as well as the degree of freedom, of experience and thought. Shifts and developments in literary form are closely alligned, for Jameson, with historical shifts in the form of subjectivity itself. A preliminary account of Jameson's theory of historical epochs will be given. 


Week 4: Jameson on Conrad's Lord Jim

We will examine a specific text, Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, in order to give a detailed account of Jameson's method of literary criticism. Our focus here will be on how he treats characters and themes within a text. His treatment of these two textual features borrows heavily from structuralist methodology which may, or may not, be compattible with a dialectical approach.


  • Conrad, Joseph, Lord Jim.
  • Jameson, Fredric, The Political Unconsious, Ch. 5.

Week 5: Jameson on Conrad's Nostromo

Jameson's account of Lord Jim and Nostromo supplement each other, and so both texts must be discussed. While Lord Jim is ultimately a text that is limited by the ideology of individualism, Nostromo is able to register the very logic of history itself. Or so claims Jameson. We will examine this claim, and we will question whether Jameson's method of literary criticism fully does justice to the nature of literature.


  • Conrad, Joseph, Nostromo.
  • Jameson, Fredric, The Political Unconsious, Ch. 5.
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul, “ A Plea for Intellectuals”.
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul, What is Literature?

Week 6: What is postmodernism?

Our discussion will have three key focal points. Firstly, what sort of a thing is postmodernism? Is it a style, a disposition, a phase of history? Secondly, we will look at Jameson's systematic account of the characteristics of postmodernity. Thirdly, we will look at what possible form a radical cultural politics might take within the postmodern.


  • Anderson, Perry, The Origins of Postmodernity.
  • Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Specifically chapters 1, 7 and 10.
  • Jameson, Fredric, The Geopolitical Aesthetic, Ch. 1.


  • Cronenberg, David, Videodrome.
  • Pakula, Alan J., All the President's Men.
  • Pakula, Alan J., The Parallax View.
  • Spottiswoode, Roger, Under Fire.
  • Stone, Oliver, El Salvador.

Week 7: An immanent critique of postmodernism?

We will examine some of the logical problems that arise for Jameson's totalising theory of the postmodern. How is it possible to epistemologically grasp the postmodern from within? And, on what normative basis can we critique the postmodern? Lastly, is there a specific mode of postmodern subjectivity?


  • Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Specifically chapters 7 and 10.  

Week 8: The Utopian – a Human Project, or the call of Being?

We will examine Jameson's master concept, the utopian. Primarily, we will attempt to work out precisely what he means by this elusive concept. This is the concept that grounds his cultural critique, and his politics. For better or for worse, in Jameson's hands the utopian seems to echo religious concepts of the transcendent.


  • Jameson, Fredric, The Seeds of Time. Ch. 2.
  • Jameson, Fredric, The Archaeologies of the Future, Part 1.
  • Kafka, Franz, “Josephine the Mouse Singer”.
  • O'Donnell, Liam A., “Preserving the Possibility of the Impossible”, In, Cosmos and History. (available online). 
  • Platonov, Andrei, Chevengur.

Week 9: A Utopian Mechanism of Transformation, or Politics and Ethics?

Here we will examine how Jameson's deep commitment to the utopian shapes his view of politics and ethics. A contrast will be made between Jameson's view on these matters and Sartre's in order to draw out two very different ways of understanding the dialectic. 


  • Jameson, Fredric, The Seeds of Time. Chs. 1 & 2.
  • Jameson, Fredric, The Archaeologies of the Future, Part 1.
  • Jameson, Fredric, An American Utopia. (Also available as a lecture online.)
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul, Critique of Dialectical Reason, Vol. 1.

Week 10: The Dialectic – Structural Causality, or the Absent Cause

We will examine how Jameson attempts to reconcile the claims of structural Marxism (Althusser) with an Hegelian Marxist dialectic. The key question we will be looking at is how we are to relate the parts of the social whole to the whole, or if there is, in fact, a social whole at all?


  • Jameson, Fredric, The Political Unconscious, Chapter 1.
  • Jameson, Fredric, Valences of the Dialectic, Part 1 & Part 6.
  • Jameson, Fredric, Marxism and Form, Chapter 4.

Week 11: The Dialectic – Structures and Praxis

The following questions will form the basis of our discussion: How does Jameson understand the relation between structures and praxis? How does historical change occur? What is the nature of freedom/agency?


  • Ricoeur, Paul, Utopia and Ideology.
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul, Search for a Method.
  • Yovel, Yirmiahu, “Existentialism and Historical Dialectic,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 39 (1979), 480-497.  

Week 12: Concluding Remarks and Discussion