The Jamesonian Unconscious: The Aesthetics of Marxist Theory

The Jamesonian Unconscious: The Aesthetics of Marxist Theory

by Clint Burnham


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Imagine Fredric Jameson-the world's foremost Marxist critic-kidnapped and taken on a joyride through the cultural ephemera, generational hype, and Cold War fallout of our post-post-contemporary landscape. In The Jamesonian Unconscious, a book as joyful as it is critical and insightful, Clint Burnham devises unexpected encounters between Jameson and alternative rock groups, new movies, and subcultures. At the same time, Burnham offers an extraordinary analysis of Jameson's work and career that refines and extends his most important themes.
In an unusual biographical move, Burnham negotiates Jameson's major works-including Marxism and Form, The Political Unconscious, and Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism-by way of his own working-class, queer-ish, Gen-X background and sensibility. Thus Burnham's study draws upon an immense range of references familiar to the MTV generation, including Reservoir Dogs, theorists Slavoj Zizek and Pierre Bourdieu, The Satanic Verses, Language poetry, the collapse of state communism in Eastern Europe, and the indie band Killdozer. In the process, Burnham addresses such Jamesonian questions as how to imagine the future, the role of utopianism in capitalist culture, and the continuing relevance of Marxist theory.
Through its redefinition of Jameson's work and compelling reading of the political present, The Jamesonian Unconscious defines the leading edge of Marxist theory. Written in a style by turns conversational, playful, and academic, this book will appeal to students and scholars of Marxism, critical theory, aesthetics, narratology, and cultural studies, as well as the wide circle of readers who have felt and understood Jameson's influence.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822316138
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 06/26/1995
Series: Post-Contemporary Interventions Series
Pages: 298
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.62(d)
Lexile: 1650L (what's this?)

About the Author

Clint Burnham is an independent writer living in Toronto.

Read an Excerpt

The Jamesonian Unconscious

The Aesthetics of Marxist Theory

By Clint Burnham

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-1613-8



virtual marxism

1 In The Words, Jean-Paul Sartre describes the origins of his writing (if not of his style): "The first story I completed was entitled For a Butterfly. A scientist, his daughter, and an athletic young explorer sailed up the Amazon in search of a precious butterfly. The argument, the characters, the particulars of the adventures, and even the title were borrowed from a story in pictures that had appeared in the preceding quarter. This cold-blooded plagiarism freed me from my remaining misgivings; everything was necessarily true since I invented nothing. I did not aspire to be published, but I had contrived to be printed in advance, and I did not pen a line that was not guaranteed by my model. Did I take myself for an imitator? No, but for an original author" (1969, 88).

2 In Neuromancer, William Gibson describes the commercialized version of cyberspace he calls "simstim" (simulation-stimulation), an entertainment version of "virtual reality": "Cowboys didn't get into simstim, he thought, because it was basically a meat toy. He knew that the trodes he used and the little plastic tiara dangling from a simstim deck were basically the same, and that the cyberspace matrix was actually a drastic simplification of the human sensorium, at least in terms of presentation, but simstim itself struck him as a gratuitous multiplication of flesh input" (1984, 55).

3 These two passages can stand, then, as markers for a reified version of Fredric Jameson's career—his work virtually stretches from the totalizing and unfashionable Sartre to the postmodern, simulated pop culture of sci-fi.

4 Virtual reality as reification: what is truly horrific to watch in the present-day uses and abuses of cyberspace is how Gibson's ideas (and warnings) about virtual reality in his novels—simstim as the crack of television, the cyberspace matrix as site for militaristic Platonism—have been transformed into that which he himself abhors. Gibson has said that virtual reality is like freebasing American television: "Just a chance operator in the gasoline crack of history, officer.... Assembled word cyberspace from small and readily available components of language. Neologic spasm: the primal act of pop poetics. Preceded any concept whatever. Slick and hollow—awaiting received meaning. All I did: folded words as taught. Now other words accrete in the interstices. 'Gentlemen, that is not now nor will it ever be my concern ...' Not what I do" (1991, 27).

5 A key problem throughout Jameson's work is how to imagine the future—the maligned Utopia—in a culture that doubly negates such imagination. First, the culture doubts the possibility of some "better place" than the undoubtedly excellent world of late capitalism (the "reality principle" Jameson refers to in his discussion of Herbert Marcuse in Marxism and Form). This is the "bad," or negative, or ideological, or neoconservative critique of utopia. Second, that culture characterizes itself as already nonrepresentational by doubting the possibility of representationalism (i.e., postmodernism). This is the "good," or positive, or utopian, or postmodern critique of utopia.

6 The response to all of this—here, as in Jameson's work—will be Hegelian. For Jameson, the world's postmodern fragmentation demands a totalizing response and virtually posits that totality in its nexus of fragments. The force of Jameson's work, then, is not so much that it estranges a certain text or problem—postmodernism, Alasdair Maclntyre, Chantal Akerman—but rather that it intervenes into the problematic. This is to read theory itself as incommensurable, the ultimate differend, a fantasy that possesses its own symbolic logic—to use terms that will come to be defined in the course of this introductory chapter.

why marxism (today)?

7 But first, this chapter offers what seems today a doubly redundant task: to formulate a Marxist theory for reading the works of a Marxist literary theorist. The double redundancy (and redundancies are, in the so-called real world of manufacture and industry, what lead to layoffs, downscaling, restructuring, and so on) seems redundant not only to those critics of intellectual leftism who see in the collapse of Marxist or Communist governments in Eastern Europe a ready subject for university courses or reason for beliefs to be dismissed in the West; for some years various theorists of what Dick Hebdige calls "the posts" have claimed that Marxism is redundant. Thus, or so runs the argument, Marxism constructs a metanarrative of emancipation, one that reflects bourgeois metaphysics even as it attempts to replace them, pursuing a "science" of inquiry that marginalizes the subjectivities of female and Third World subalterns and ends up not being Lacanian or discursive enough in its social theorization.

8 These various high-theoretical dismissals (or reformulations) all offer cogent and unavoidable criticisms of the Marxist tradition, but I would first like to address the more "topical" reasons many find to dismiss socialism and left politics in general, if only because these current events have rarely (thus far) been discussed in a literary-theoretical context. The collapse of state Communism in Eastern Europe does seem to offer a valid historical reason to finally bury Marxism as philosophy or critique. A continuing disregard for human rights, demand-economies that succeeded neither in meeting consumers' needs internally nor in maintaining the nations' economic statures internationally, and the continuing strain of militaristic and near-militaristic activities all led, finally, to a series of initially bloodless revolutions.

9 This hardly can be laid at the doorstep of one figure (be it Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev, or Lech Walesa): as, for example, attempts have been made in the press to connect some monolithic theory (and its present-day irrelevance) to Eastern Europe. In John Patrick Diggins's reductive argument: "[D]econstructionists may have declared the 'death of man' and showed students why the subject must now be seen as the object of history rather than its originator, but the chain of events in Eastern Europe took place because a man named Gorbachev desired to initiate change rather than impede it" (1992, 16). While it is attractive simply to point out the (academic) inadequacies of Diggins's statement (was Michel Foucault properly "deconstructionist" in his famous conclusion to The Order of Things, for example, and is not the subject-of-history-versus-the-object-of-history distinction really Louis Althusser's?), this technique would only impose on one field (to use Pierre Bourdieu's terminology)—journalism—the symbolic logic of another—the academy. In this case, the journalistic use of "deconstructionist" is sufficiently open to include both Foucault and Althusser; or, for Diggins, "deconstruction" means a vague and open body of thought. Nevertheless, the speed with which walls and governments fell made the continuing presence of Marxism in Western universities seem to some a little ironic. The taunt to leftists, "Why not go to Russia?" changed to "Marxism is dead—don't you read the newspapers?"

10 There is more than one way to analyze a historical event; relations between contemporary Marxism and state Communism are not direct, and the events in Eastern Europe are hardly cause to abandon a sophisticated theory of economic and historical analysis. First, Marxism has, in the past twenty or thirty years, relied for its moral legitimacy (for better or for worse) more upon progressive and liberation movements in the West (youth, ecology, feminism, antiracism) and the Third World (from Che to postcolonialism) than on Eastern Europe. Second, Marxism itself is more correctly "Marxisms" or "multi-Marxism." The various schools (structuralist, Frankfurt, Socialisme ou barbarie, existentialist, British Gramscians) and theorists (Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukács, Rosa Luxembourg, Raymond Williams) have differed in many ways in the past century of thought and activity. Thus, while there are undoubtedly Marxist philosophers who have continued to believe uncritically in the Soviet Union, those whose work contributes most directly to contemporary cultural Marxism (the field in which Jameson's work belongs) have maintained a more independent and skeptical attitude. Third, the revolutions in Europe demonstrate that Marxists are not at all naive or utopian to expect that the masses can opt to take control of their own destinies; and while the revolts are as much about consumer goods as they are about freedom, they also negate latent (or patent) fascist hopes that the masses can be ruled effectively. Finally, Eastern Europe's rejection of state Communism does not mean the abandonment of the Marxist or socialist programs of many Third World liberation movements, from the ANC to the FMLN; nor does it mean that Marxist analyses of the politics of the Third World (or of elsewhere) are suddenly irrelevant.

11 There are many autobiographical/anecdotal accounts of the resistances to Soviet-style communism from within the left since 1917, including Sheila Rowbotham's "Clinging to the Dream" (1990), Lynne Segal's "Whose Left? Socialism, Feminism, and the Future" (1991), and Angela McRobbie's "Revenge of the 60s" (1991). Alexander Cockburn also provides a simple, if brutal, indication of the importance of "freedom" in Eastern Europe versus the continuing oppressions in (to name only one area of U.S. hegemony) Central America, when he shows that U.S. interventionism led in the past decade to 100,000 deaths in Guatemala, 70,000 in El Salvador, and 40,000 in Nicaragua, whereas, resulting from Soviet imperialism in Europe, 7,000 Hungarians were killed in the 1956 uprising, 92 in the Prague Spring, 21 East Germans in 1953, and 689 in Rumania in 1989 (1990, 66). Indeed, James Rolleston has argued that with "the collapse of state socialism, criticism on the left clearly needs to reposition itself vis-à-vis 'bourgeois society.' Now there really is no outside" (1991, 87).

12 But to return to the central question posed by recent events in Eastern Europe: does the use of violence by Communist governments, and the end of various regimes in Eastern Europe, discount the validity of Marxism as either a political program or a theory? The fall of Communist states in Eastern Europe, while not without interest as a revamping of various ideologues' imaginaries, can be dismissed as a strong argument against Marxism because they nevertheless can be explained in Marxist terms. That is, the late 1980s revolutions are the result of historical changes in the world economic system (the growing globalization of trade that made it all the more incumbent for the last noncapitalist nations to join the late capitalist system) and of tendencies in the nations' domestic policies. To give just one example of domestic changes: Iván Szelényi (1991) argues that the nonresistance of many Communist parties to change was determined largely by what he calls the "intellectualization of the bureaucracy," where what Bourdieu calls "oblates" were replaced in the apparatus by new intellectuals: "As these 'Communist yuppies' replaced the old-line bureaucrats, the ethos of the Party apparatus changed. These young professional cadres, unlike those recruited from the working class and peasantry, did not depend exclusively on political bosses. Their personal fate is not tied to the future of the Party. If their Party job goes, they believe that with their marketable skills they can return to their professions and earn better salaries by working for multinational corporations than by working for the Party" (270). Again, the totalizing world system of late capital, it would seem, plays a decisive role. Finally, state communist violence, across the spectrum from Leninist pragmatism and Stalinist literary theory to the Moscow trials and various invasions of the 1950s and 1960s, should be addressed, but in the following problematic: does violence in the name of a particular ideology discredit that ideology?

13 The problem is that most world ideologies have benefited from violence of various kinds. Violence in the name of liberal Western democracies ranges from the maintenance of class systems and various economic inequalities at home to the international division of labor which sees various nations maintained in a feudal relationship (a multinational system that is enforced brutally by client states of the West which regularly use torture, assassination, death squads, and the genocide of aboriginal peoples with impunity). Christianity has an inglorious past (particularly in the cultural genocide and sexual abuse of First Nations peoples in Canada in this century), and in various present-day incarnations, ranging from the patriarchy of Catholicism to the extreme rightwing fundamentalisms. The response to these versions of reality falls into one of two categories: either to wish to put oneself "outside" of ideology—the pragmatism of Jean-François Lyotard or Richard Rorty, which will be examined below—or to examine the relationship between the violence and the "authorized/authorizing" ideology.

14 In brief, does violence "in the name of" socialism or democracy or Christianity invalidate that ideology? This is where, to begin, one can mark clearly the difference between fascism and socialism—a difference that has, since World War II, been blurred in the West for the purpose of discrediting socialism (the invention of the term "totalitarianism" is apposite). Fascism is based on violence as its means and end: it is about the exclusion of races and other "deviants," about the superiority of a genetic group, and about the societal and capitalist organization of terror and violence. Violence is not incidental or an unfortunate feature of fascism; it is its reason for existence. Violence is no more essential to socialism than it is to democracy; that is, while Leninist theories of revolution stress the need for a violent overthrow of the existing regime, the violence, like the state itself, is expected to wither away.

15 On the role of violence in socialism, and its relation to democracy, Lenin is quite explicit. Discussing Marx and the Paris Commune, he writes that the Commune "replaced the smashed state machine 'only' for fuller democracy: abolition of the standing army; all officials to be elected and subject to recall. But as a matter of fact this 'only' signifies a gigantic replacement of certain institutions by other institutions of a fundamentally different type ... democracy, introduced as fully and consistently as is at all conceivable, is transformed from a bourgeois into proletarian democracy; from the state (= a special force for the suppression of a particular class) into something which is no longer the state proper. It is still necessary to suppress the bourgeoisie and crush their resistance.... The organ of suppression, however, is here the majority of the population, and not a minority, as was always the case under slavery, serfdom and wage slavery. And since the majority of the people itself suppresses its oppressors, a 'special force' for suppression is no longer necessary! In this sense, the state begins to wither away" (1985, 42-43).

16 According to Lenin's scheme, violence is not necessary to maintain the proletarian state: since there is little of the rationalized division of labor characteristic of capitalism in general, the violence of an organized army or police force is unthinkable. That the Stalinist regime developed a powerful secret police, like democratic and fascist states, only demonstrates both how idealistic Lenin was and how nonsocialist the Soviet Union was already becoming. David McLellan has characterized Lenin's theories as not proto-Stalinist, but utopian: "Lenin's strong insistence on the withering of the state immediately after the revolution has libertarian or even anarchist overtones. His general view seemed to embody the classic socialist formula dating from Saint-Simon that the government of people could give way to the administration of things" (1983, 169).

17 There is also the question of what it means to do violence (or any other action) in the name of—and here one may fill in any theory. That is, what does it mean for the theory for an activity to be "authorized"? It is the question of authorization and legitimacy maneuvers in general that Lyotard addresses.

pragmatic objections

18 An elegant and influential argument against Marxism is outlined in The Postmodern Condition. Here Lyotard argues that the twin metanarratives of modernity—emancipation and enlightenment—have been discredited in the information explosion since World War II. Thus postmodernism is a period characterized by petits récits, or Wittgensteinian language games that only concern themselves with local conditions.

19 Lyotard's concern with the local is comparable to chaos theory and such examples of the latter as the "butterfly effect" (a butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing can cause a thunderstorm in New York), which show that scientific systems like meteorology and demographics are rapidly becoming aware of their own limits. In the case of meteorology, for example, most forecasts after six or seven days are worthless (Lyotard 1984, 58-60; Gleick 1987, 8-23).


Excerpted from The Jamesonian Unconscious by Clint Burnham. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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