Fredric Jameson. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.
Notes by Steven J. Venturino, aprofessorintheory.com
On dialectic and genre (chapters 1 and 2):
“[The problem is one of] transcending the categories into which our existence as individual subjects necessarily locks us and opening up to the radically distinct transindividual perspectives of collective life or historical process.” (116)
Generally speaking, Jameson argues that much criticism merely “rewrites” selected texts into a form that (unselfconsciously) reflects a critic’s own aesthetics and concepts of language (17). The result is an exercise in allegory, in which the text is simply recoded in an already accepted and recognized narrative. Jameson does not intend to simply expose this process as wrong or insufficient, but he wants to exploit examples of the process itself by demonstrating how they are inevitable and how any given “local” instance of reading a work requires “‘strategies of containment’ whereby [the interpretive master codes] are able to project the illusion that their readings are somehow complete and self-sufficient” (10).
“If interpretation in terms of expressive causality* or of allegorical master narratives remains a constant temptation, this is because such master narratives have inscribed themselves in texts as well as in our thinking about them; such allegorical narrative signifieds are a persistent dimension of literary ad cultural texts precisely because they reflect a fundamental dimension of our collective thinking and our collective fantasies about history and reality.” (34)
- * “Expressive causality” is how Althusser describes a Marxist perspective by which the various elements of society (including literature) are seen to reflect or express a distinct “spirit of the age,” period, or world view. As Jameson explains, Althusser critiques the idea that all social elements must tend toward a single narrative, yet Jameson himself wants to show how Althusser’s more pluralistic theories (which remain extremely influential in contemporary criticism) will still confirm Jameson’s own view of a single (though non-totalizing and dialectical) political unconscious at work in narrative.
This “political unconscious” works through all texts as destabilizing force that reveals a disjunction between a text’s meaning (as defined by any given interpretation) and “the repressed and buried reality” of the “fundamental history” of class struggle (20). Another way to think of this key term is to consider that all texts are fundamentally “bothered” by the historical reality that allows them their very expression, since it is a historical reality based on exploitation (often hidden), violence, and self-alienation. Any narrative, therefore, can be analyzed (as in a psychoanalytic situation) as the “socially symbolic act” of a subject that can only speak (knowingly or not) in a language that is always social and always historical.
On chapter two:
Genres are like “speech acts”: they not only express, but bind the work and the reader together in a kind of interpretive contract, or set of expectations (106).
“Dialectical thinking can be characterized as historical reflexivity, that is, as the study of an object (here the romance texts) which also involves the study of the concepts and categories (themselves historical) that we necessarily bring to the object.” (109)
Note Jameson’s remark on the depiction of scenery in “functions normally reserved for narrative ‘character’” (112-13). How might this compare with Their Eyes Were Watching God or any work in which character’s “lives” do not seem to be the ultimate determining feature of the narrative. And note Jameson’s reference to Trickster figures at 113 for a comparison with Gates.
On typological or “story-level” narratology:
The dilemmas of earlier narratologists such as Propp and Greimas “result from projecting later categories of the individual subject back anachronistically onto narrative forms which precede the subject’s emergence.” The resulting narratological approaches, in other words, do not self-consciously account for the “ideological categories” that delineate a particular form of capitalist subjectivity and are “produced and projected” by later forms of narrative, particularly the nineteenth-century novel. Individual point of view, for example, or “the position of an individual storyteller” do not clearly emerge in the fairy tales and myths chosen to ground such narrative studies, yet these categories are crucial to establishing any relevance for narratological theories attempting to bring past texts in contact with the present. (124)
As for contemporary (for the 1980s) interest in theorizing the “decentered subject,” Jameson writes, “For Marxism, indeed, only the emergence of a post-individualistic social world, only the reinvention of the collective and associative, can concretely achieve the ‘decentering’ of the individual subject called for by such diagnoses; only a new and original form of collective social life can overcome the isolation and monadic autonomy of the older bourgeois subjects in such a way that individual consciousness can be lived—and not merely theorized—as an ‘effect of structure’” (125). Consider material social conditions since the publication of this book (1981)—do you see any subsequent literary “symptoms” of social change?
– Steven J. Venturino