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Allegory, or, Jameson’s Ideology

May 26, 2019.daysofsummer.1 Like.0 Comments

Allegory and Ideology was published a month after Fredric Jameson’s 85th birthday; this fact immediately tempts me into providing a biographical account of this latest work, potentially his last, a prediction supported by the occasional slippages into personal anecdote and well-nigh mystifying reflections, two aspects strikingly combined in the following paragraph:

A longevity (owed as much to late capitalist pharmacology as to Shavian will power and the life force?), which ought to have made me a more receptive registering apparatus for the historical than those with less exposure, has on the contrary begun increasingly to convince me of the phenomenological, the experiential relevance of Althusser’s famous sentence, “The lonely moment of the last instance never comes.” It is traditionally read as the evocation of a kind of raw epiphany in which production and the base would suddenly open up before us as before an abyss. I now think it means that we never have any direct or immediate experience of History, and that the moments in which it seems nearest or most dramatic— that moment in a Viennese hotel in 1956 when a child, peeking around a column timidly asked me, “Magyar?”; or when in June 1959 I passed among bearded men in the Havana airport and failed to find the Revolution in the crowds of its downtown streets and shops— reduce themselves to empirical detail, their objectivity quickly swallowed up in the subjective and assimilated to autobiographical anecdote. Memory doesn’t exist.

(2019, p. 334)

This temptation is only reinforced by the fact that it can be approached from an entirely different perspective, which views Allegoryーthe methodological proposal around which the work revolves-as a kind of closure in its own right, a “final word” on the Jamesonian system of literary exegesis. No doubt that approach has some validity, which can be exemplified by comparing two seemingly innocent comments, the first from 1981’s The Political Unconscious, the second from Allegory and Ideology:

In this respect, too, Conrad, as a merely emergent moment in such a strategy, has suggestive and emblematic things to show us, as witness the following supremely self-conscious art-sentence, whose Flaubertian triplication is a virtual allegory of manifest and latent levels in the text

(2007, p. 202)

We must not be too dogmatic on the matter of a philosophy of number. Certainly dualisms have often been signs of closure. But in this case it seems to me that the doublings encourage proliferation; while, if anything, Flaubertian or indeed Ciceronian triplication shuts a sentence down more irrevocably than any multiplication of dual alternatives ever would.

(2019, p. 94)

In the first instance, Jameson intimates that Flaubertian triplication is “virtually allegorical”; the “strategy” is that of modernist derealization, a process in which what had previously been envisaged as a fact of life (under realism) comes to be depicted as the sense-data of it, as mere impression; the triplication is the structure by which the sentence traverses different levels to convert its data into an ultimate unifying impression. In our second quote however “triplication” is to be read in the context of what Jameson has categorized as a “humanist” allegory, as seen when discussing the three levels of rhetoric used in Dennett’s Consciousness Explained (a book whose contents match the title, it being a non-narrative, scientific explanation of the workings of consciousness):

It is an ingenious if profoundly allegorical solution; and we therefore find in Dennett’s book yet another tripartite system in which the textual object— the undoubted existence of this mysterious thing called consciousness— is endowed with two parallel figurations: that of the media and that of the working collective, neither of which intersects, but whose “explanatory” combination, the tripartite allegory, confirms the essential humanism of this structure. (2019, p. 15)

At this point the “radicalization” of Jameson’s claim as to the nature of Flaubertian triplication becomes undoubtable: it is an allegorical structure, albeit one whose specific organization is revealing of its ideological commitments (no doubt though that Jameson’s methodology will explain Flaubert’s works according to the quadripartite scheme, the final anagogical moment being the one which unveils this deepest, most well-guarded ideological commitment of Flaubertianism).

And so it would be that Jameson’s work has tended toward this unveiling which now bursts into view, that his system has always been an allegorical one. Let us summarize this system, which he takes from a medieval schema:

terminologies of Ideology (the collective)

terminologies of Desire (the individual)

interpretive codes

textual objects

(2019, p. xvii)

The usual terms for each level being “literal”, “allegorical”, “moral” and “anagogical”; but Jameson appropriates this religious system which originally aimed to rewrite the Old Testament as an allegory of Jesus’ life, the moral level being the struggle of the believer toward redemption and the anagogical one the story of mankind all the way to the Final Judgment. Note that the relationship between the levels has changed between these two versions, the original one being more like a redoubled dualism (the literal expressing the allegorical, and the moral expressing the anagogical); meanwhile Jameson looks throughout the book for those “libidinal investments” (that Lyotardian term he likes so much) which work through the different levels, which he sees as always incomplete:

  The levels are not a collection of complete narratives superimposed upon one another. Rather they come at reality in an utterly different way, by a jarring and sometimes dissonant differentiation of their various dimensions.

(2019, p. 234)

The whole thing then begins to look rather like Deleuzo-guattarian strates, as the levels do not come into existence one after the other but rather are further levels of organization (of ralentissement)on the basis of one original chaos which in Jamesonese has no term other than the political unconscious. Methodologically he commits to Guattarian transversalité as a way of out of the problem posed by non-linear, non-hierarchical universal history:

That these four allegorical levels can harbor many more implicit narratives— those of the material institutions, for example— is unquestionable, particularly in a highly differentiated society like our own. That the levels interact with one another in what are sometimes surprising and unexpected ways must also be foreseen, and I have borrowed Felix Guattari’s term transversality to designate particular examples of this process. That the levels can change places, and the text shift position into that of its own commentary, while the commentary then becomes a kind of text in its own right— that is also to be expected in a secular society in which nothing is endowed with indisputable centrality, and a multiplicity of interpretive options is virtually guaranteed in advance, depending on what counts as an event, a reality, or a text. With transversality, then, Guattari rewires the loose ends of the Deleuzian rhizome.

(2019, p. xviii)

The Guattarian concept then serves as an expression of that Althusserian “structural causality” which Jameson holds so dear, which is to say it is the “absent cause” which cannot be seen but whose structuring effects are felt everywhere in society; this is none other than the mode of production itself (capitalism and whatever form it takes, which is today multifarious as attested by the numerous adjectives Marxologists like to stick before the dread C-word, from “emotional” to “platform” without forgetting the inevitable “affective”, which guarantee their card to the Marxologist Club, which as we know upholds academic nicety as its highest principle). Let me rephrase it in a more schematic matter: if the mode of production is the dark matter which keeps the various institutions and activities in tight collaboration, the political unconscious is the dark energy which invests those gaps which social life had left unthought and gives birth to all sorts of expressions, which are however always structured by the matter. This is not to say that the duo regulates every phenomenon within the structure; it, however, has a profound effect on how these phenomena are organized. Further, only those effects can be seen; we deduct that such matter and energy exist only because society would not be understandable without their hypothetical presence, but we do not know them in and of themselves, we cannot.

Yet our allegory here (I hesitate to term it a metaphor) is an essential spatial (cosmological, even) one, and this is the point at which the allegorical methodology intervenes: the allegorical levels are essentially temporal, and can be said to narrate the way in which the anagogical (supposedly the most secret level of all) is the memory of the present space which gives the raw material for the text’s literal level, which itself reveals this hidden memory which the present knows so well to obfuscate; meanwhile, the space in which the body of the moral or psychological level moves itself hides a whole history of emotions and affective forces which can be included in the anagogical level. But this characterization crucially omits the allegorical level or key, at which point we must ask: what does it mean for an allegorical system to have an allegorical level? Shouldn’t such a scheme invest all its energies toward the very discovery of the allegory any text supposedly holds, even secretly or unconsciously?

This question holds another one, which is that of whether “any” text truly is allegorical in some deep sense. But everything in time; let me first specify what that mysterious “allegorical level” may mean.

A first characterization comes in the Hamlet chapter, whose allegorical key is the Lacanian (or more generally psychoanalytical) content, in this case a “symptom” of the literal level which is the antinomy at the core of the late medieval system (in fact, Jameson himself acknowledges that his readings are fundamentally symptomatic (2019, p. 30); we may precise and say he is looking for the symptoms and aftereffects of History). There he gives us his definition of Lacanianism and its usefulness, which goes as follows:

I will for the moment argue against it by suggesting that “desire” in the Lacanian formulation has no content, and that a master interpretive code (normally the second line on our fourfold scheme, and in Christianity, the life of Christ) is constituted by the way in which it translates its objects or texts into this or that specific narrative content or demonstration about last things, metaphysical truths, the nature of reality, and so on— whether that be existential angst, the human condition, class struggle, the Oedipus complex, the self-designating structures of language, aesthetics itself as such— in short, any transcendental or extratextual thematization (of which religion is of course a fundamental paradigm).

(2019, p. 98)

That this characterization is generalizable can be shown by quoting the other instances of the allegorical scheme presented in the subsequent chapters:

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony (2019, p. 152)Goethe’s Faust (2019, p. 308)
ANAGOGICAL:conflict and modernity as war ANAGOGICAL: Germany, capitalism, Nature
MORAL: the couple, the impossibility of marriage MORAL: strong forgetting, guilt and innocence
ALLEGORICAL: the end of sonata form and of tonality ALLEGORICAL: style as such, historicism
LITERAL: music as the tension between temporality and an eternal present LITERAL: the search for bourgeois Myth, the transition from absolutism to the nineteenth century
Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas
(2019, p. 340)
McCarthy’s Remainder (2019, p. 343)
ANAGOGICAL: the cruelty
of the various historical regimes
ANAGOGICAL: the simulacrum
MORAL: the crushing of the
weak or the rescue
(tragic or happy endings)
MORAL: amnesia
ALLEGORICAL: the development
of the media
ALLEGORICAL: producing and directing
sequence of styles (pastiche)
LITERAL: the empty present

Suffice to say these allegories entertain very complex relationships between their different levels; however we can note that a type of language is indeed preserved for most levels: as arbitrary as the literal level may be (it being the textual object itself), the moral level does indeed have a consistently personal vocabulary, while the anagogical is where a Marxist historiography comes into view, as a study of modernity itself (he suspects this is a trait widely shared among philosophies of history, most paradoxically in Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, a kind of secret allegorical key if you will, which these works stage through their treatment of otherwise widely different textual material (2019, pp. 113–114). But the allegorical key is not so consistent, and the occasional difficulty (especially under postmodernity, as the interactions between levels become ever more complex along the multiplication of subject-positions) in determine which is the textual and which is the allegorical key attests to a kind of first great leap. However, I have already intimated that the literal key has to be materialist, and materialist in a specifically historical sense; so that the allegorical key is in fact the first effect of the narrative, and in fact the one we usually recognize see and whose allegorical value bad habits inherited from mass media criticism has made it so difficult for us to recognize as such; isn’t psychological depth the first quality high school teachers will bring up when defining what is timeless about Hamlet?

It is however worthwhile to note that the other aspect of this timelessness is Shakespeare’s style; in fact Hjelmslevian linguistics (a model as suggestive for Jameson as it is crucial to Deleuze and Guattari) offers a model not dissimilar to that of the semiotic or Greimas square, where binaries redouble themselves into quadripartite systems, an effect we must always keep in mind; for the allegorical system may be rewritten in similar terms: even if the noted terms of each key are content-oriented, expression is at least implicit in most of them; what’s more, Jameson considers style to be the materialist aspect of the artwork, in that it is the one which is bound to history (whereas substance may project historical contingencies fantasized as eternal), so that it may form a text’s raw material, of which content is the mere expression. And with this we have reunited those two “timeless” characteristics of Shakespeare’s, which are merely the two levels of the allegorical key, which has turned out to have both a form and a substance (which surely themselves have an expression and a content). The sheer complexity and overdetermination of Jameson’s scheme come into view at this point, but unfortunately (for myself!) I cannot do it justice here; I will only suggest this may be a path to pursue for those of us in search of a fuller Marxist poetics, which surely requires a great number of categories and differentiation (a first experiment is Hartley’s The Politics of Style, but I’ve for now delayed my confrontation with this book, given reservations I have about his criticisms of Jameson).

Let me briefly conclude on the allegorical key. If we believe, as Jameson seems to, that his system turns on the fundamental dualism between spatialization and difference (2019, pp. 330–333), and that the Greimas square expresses the first while the allegorical system stands for the latter, then it seems to me that it can be explained as an expansion of the typical definition of allegory (which is to say an excess of meaning in an individual narrative instance due to its evocation to a common register of imagery or meanings, chiefly political) to include in this spatial scheme some “trace” of history: what Szeman detected when he described National Allegory as a confrontation with “reified cultural forms” (Szeman, 2004, p. 55), a dialectical entangling between the spatial (logical) organization of the problem (in the space of the nation, in this case) and its temporal expression. But at this point the matter has become a little confused, owing to the immense complexity of Jameson’s criticism in which a wide variety of terms is deployed, none of which are quite equivalent, but all of which are deeply entangled in some way. The best approach, I can devise at the moment, which is nevertheless extremely provisional, would consist in trusting him to indeed have a system organized around a dialectic of space and history, and mapping out the different terms along those lines: Greimas square-allegorical system; expression of substance & content of substance-expression of form & content of form; and as the raw material of it all, globalization and localism. It may thus be convenient to formalize it as follows:

ANAGOGICAL: the conflict between a present which wishes to be perpetual (the capitalist status quo) and a history which tries to come back to life (the “real movement”); or, praxis
MORAL: Hjelmslevian linguistics (the individual “expression” of the artwork and its content)
ALLEGORICAL: the Greimas square and the allegorical system (as symptoms of their historical conditions and the primary “effects” of Jamesonian criticism)
LITERAL: the fragmentation of history into countless synchronous localities under the thrust of modernism

Here we see how each level is never quite complete on its own (see his use of Hjelmslev in the context of genre criticism (2007, p. 134), but rather necessitates the others to form itself. Here we dangerously approach something like a historicization of Jameson’s project, whose formalist (or Derridean) impulses are necessitated by an acute sense of the dilemmas of our present, the haunting absence of History which he exemplifies in the experiential account I quoted to start this piece (and we have also avoided the danger of an aestheticizing account of our present subject as a conclusion to Jameson’s personal narrative, by seeing its personal reflections as symptoms of a system which, as exemplified in the quiet valence between modernity and postmodernity present in the above formalization, presents an ever-transitory history). This is something he quietly acknowledges in a few moments where he writes that Allegory and Ideology’s very structure is allegorical; or, we could say, symptomatic of what it wants to achieve, which is essentially the same as what was The Political Unconscious’ goal: that is to say, rejoin praxis in the final instance, open up the possibilities and the creative instability of History from within the very locus of its repression (the artwork which wishes itself an eternal ode to our “condition”). So that we can divide it as such:

ANAGOGICAL: “9. Literary: Allegoresis in Postmodernity” (the present, now ready to reveal its history)
MORAL: “6. Poetic”; “7. Epic”; “8. Dramatic” (individual instances of allegory)
ALLEGORICAL: “3. Psychoanalytic”; “4. Musical”; “5A. Political”; “5B. Political” (examples which may not be immediately allegorical but who can be revealed as such with a historicist method)
LITERAL: “1. Historical”; “2. Psychological” (the raw material of history)

The individual chapters each stage a formalization which then extends across chapters to a historical narrative. And so, the form turns out to be consequent with the thesis. But now, many will have noticed that there is something like a gap in the book’s history; that it is discontinuous isn’t exactly interesting on its own, but the gap in the history it stages is more intriguing: leaving the chapters of the literal level aside, the works discussed can be divided in three stages where a gap is interestingly apparent: 1590-1832 (Faerie Queen, Hamlet, Faust I & II); 1906-1973 (Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, Lu Xun’s, Ousmane Sembène); 2004-2005 (Cloud Atlas and Remainder). On a linear level it may seem like no significant gaps are left, but this is an illusion when one considers that the transition is abrupt between the properly allegorical narratives of the first part and the “minor” works of Third World literature of the second (the less properly narrative form of Mahler’s symphony aside). The interest of this lack of discussion of any of the dominant forms of the “post-allegorical” period comes from a persistent underlining of Jameson’s part that historically, the symbol comes to replace allegory as the bourgeoisie comes to hegemony:

That symbolic fashion, however, turned out to be not merely an epochal change in taste, but also yet another allegory for class: for democratic equality, without the flourishes or the rhetoric.

(2019, p. 3)

This, in turn, I believe, directs our attention back to The Political Unconscious’ telling subtitle: “narrative as a socially symbolic act.” While it may be that this is coincidental, that work turns precisely on those narratives we have said were omitted from Allegory and Ideology: Balzac, Stendhal, as well as Gissing and Conrad; masters of the novels which built that so specifically capitalist form into what it is today are all discussed in much depth in Jameson’s 1981 classic. And so it turns out that, just as there is a content of style and an expression of substance, there is an allegory of symbol: there is a literature which is properly symbolic, which is the literature of those authors who confronted tremendous sociopolitical changes and were compelled, consciously or not (Jameson rarely attributes such intentions to any of the authors he touches on, except in a limited sense to Conrad), to register these movements of the social’s tectonic plates; and this fashion is specifically symbolic in that it also marks the emergence of the private, bourgeois democracy and the peculiar alliance it forms with capitalism as such.

To further explain this, I would like to discuss the central place of “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism”, which is chapter 5A of Allegory and Ideology. The presence of the essay is another element for romanticizing, given the sheer fame and deeply controversial character of the text, which made Jameson’s name a cursed word in virtually all American departments of postcolonial studies (Lazarus, 2004, p. 44); its absence from the few (but enormous) volumes of Jameson’s essays had been noted (until now it was only available in an external source, The Jameson Reader edited by Michael Hardt and Kathi Weeks), and it is now reprinted for this occasion; what is effectively Jameson’s most famous textーonly made available in what may be his very last work! The text was first made public as an oral intervention in 1986, five years after the publication of The Political Unconscious, and its main claim is that Third World literature is organized around national allegories which are attempt at symbolic resolutions to the antinomies which traverse the nation’s painful birth after it is decolonized. Certainly there is more to say about such a literature’s necessary confrontation with its outside (the world system of global capitalism into which it is brutally thrown), but the phase of nation-formation is essential an early-capitalist one, which in Jameson’s exegeses of Western literature has its closest approximate in Balzac, here symbolic as an irreducibly private narrative which however carries a public charge with it; modernism eventually breaks this all down, necessitating an immense release of creative energy in order to reorganize the system (this is in fact the original use of the national allegory, which described a strategy in Wyndham Lewis), often allegorical (and so it turns out that, due to its moment in history, the third world national allegory is in a tension between an impulse toward realism and the imposition of the reality which corresponds to modernism from the outside); and today, in full postmodernity, we come back to allegory as the space of identity within otherwise highly differentiated literatures.

At length we have reached a place of ambiguity, perhaps even of tension in Jameson’s vision of history. It can roughly be divided in three phases: realism, modernism, and postmodernism. These are however cultural phases, and their “base” reveals the extent to which these are unstable; there is, after all, only ever one capitalism, which is however constantly renewing itself, so that one cannot easily divide it in phases (even those apparently common-sense ones of postwar social democracy followed by neoliberalism, true as they are, tend to personalize the changes in the emergence of political actors who enacted the relevant reforms, thus ignoring the fundamental impulses of the system). There is here a difficulty in articulating clear phases from this, even cultural. In fact, in none of these works does Jameson ever mention any specific phase of capitalism; it always is what it is, with its fundamental tendency to multiplication, globalization and specialization. And this is perhaps the complex sense in which we must understand this emphasis of Jameson on those three “phases” of cultural production, to which he dedicated important books (The Antinomies of Realism, A Singular Modernity, and the one and only Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism); not quite as simple historical essences, but as specific instances of change and transition onto new stages of the world system; they are ruled by contradictions where the remains of the old fight the prophecies of the new.

At last, we are equipped to give our own “symptomatic” reading of Allegory and Ideology. Far from being a “sum”, its methodology is the more properly postmodern addition to that proposed in The Political Unconscious; both attempt to catch a History constantly in the process of vanishing, but where the second deployed an apparatus appropriate for the symbolic phase of literature as he identifies it, the first “frames” it around allegory. This is the sense in which one can provide an allegorical reading of Flaubert, with its implacable closures: as the repressed memory of this previous mode. Remember the ghostly description of Madame Arnoux in the early pages of L’Éducation Sentimentale: it is symbolic in the sense that it’s a purely private set of sense-datum, derealized as it were by this transformation of her appearance into its sheer image; but even this is, in some sense, the fading of the old literary modes in which the description of such beauty was believable; and its setting, on a boat, already hints at the grand voyage through the seas of imperial capitalism which will be so dramatically staged in Un Coeur Simple, when Félicité cries the departure of her nephew Victor after he’s become a sailor; tellingly, she fails to even see him off (a loss of center which is strikingly symbolized in the American parrot which she will cherish as her pet until its death). Derealization is a powerful word insofar as there is something which used to be realized, or realizable.

Perhaps it is only at this cost that literary criticism can be truly historicist; we know that essentialized periods tend to give way to rather arbitrary analyses, as Jameson himself notes when he explains how Flaubert can be a realist, or a modernist, or a postmodernist depending on who you ask. A period is only a transition to another. And now this explains the various saturnine passages of Allegory and Ideology; Jameson’s research was always done from the standpoint of the postmodern, which can be appropriately described as a period tugged between the final touches on a now almost perfect system of global capitalist domination and the sheer instability which that system carries with it; this contradiction which some like to mystify in Gothic imagery (which, however fulfilling it is, must be at once assigned its proper place in the contemporary system). It is thus no wonder that History would be such a fading thing for Jameson, despite its insistent presence. But we may reflect on the tripartite scheme at play here, and wonder why it is so, and if, given that he’s described even the Superstructure/Base schema as allegorical (2007, p. 17), it is not itself such a “bad allegory”. What I suspect, and this is for me the fundamental strength of Jameson’s system, the hypothetical fourth term is the future itself, or rather the “people to come”. Let me rewrite this: Jameson’s system is one made to think the global, but also capable of doing this from the local. This is, evidently, symptomatic of the moment in which he writes, where the multiplication of subject-positions can scarcely be ignored, while Marxism requires a thought of the global. This is also a point at which Jameson’s work can be said to rejoin praxis: culture registers both the lives of the groups and the histories of the classes, and this discovery at once stimulates our political imagination in the direction of a classless future.

With its two chief arms, the Jamesonian system, at its most skeletal level, looks something like:

I apologize for my laziness which resulted in this monster.

Spatialized like this, it appears that the edge of Jameson’s system is localism. I have said that his system is equipped to think it, and I do remain convinced by this, as after all, he has provided a shining example in his national allegory essay; still it carries a charge of ambiguity with it, which I think is consistent with the rather prudent attitude he’s had toward, for example, minority literature, never failing to acknowledge and yet scarcely ever analyzing it on its own terms. I suspect this is, in fact, the true reason why he “didn’t see” revolution in Cuba, or rather why he felt the need to write about it; this Jamesonian system, facing its final movements and outer edge at the end of a properly monstrous intellectual career, must express its difficulty in seeing lived history in motion, for the large events and system changes to which he’s dedicated his career are now over and, for better or worse, it is the minorities who are currently making history live (I think of the recent interest in the notion of mourning, notably from Judith Butler). So it may be that the hypothetical fourth term exists out there, not as a “symptom of the future”, but well and truly as living historical praxis, the kind which makes us want to take to the streets. Or, to put it in a perhaps facile but economic way: localism is the most global effect of late capitalism.

So it turns out that Hartley’s suggestive complaint that Jamesonian history lacks “subplots”, which has secretly led much of this argument, is not just an ethical complaint as to Jameson’s Americanism or whatever else; rather, it is a feeling that his system, after all those years, is “trembling on the verge” of a new possibility. It is my belief that the great dialectical systems have always been defined by their capacity for self-overcoming, and Jameson is far and away the best dialectician of the 21st century; there is no reason why, with a little help from dialectics, we could not make the system break through its last barrier; and I have tried to place hints in the implicit complexities of his system as well as the history of which it speaks (for instance, in historicizing the “symbolic act”). This is what, at any rate, I believe has to be done: critiquing Jameson from within Jameson, or as Ian Buchanan may have it, “reading Jameson dogmatically”. Replacing his system for more “open-ended” alternatives will not do, as they tend toward a liberal democratism which are both undialectical and have a more tenuous relationship to praxis (and one is tempted to say that the relationship Jameson has managed to create between his system, with all its formalisms, and praxis, is in fact its single most astonishing quality).

At long last, I can give a word or two of conclusion on Allegory and Ideology. The function of the and here is particular, as it’s not quite two poles but rather a dialectical relationship we’re talking about; allegory being the formal process by which ideology is revealed, and ideology being that surplus of history which exists in the otherwise formal process of allegory. This method, which is both historically determined and applicable to any text so long as history exists, is to be seen as an addition to the Political Unconscious which extends it historically as well as it further extends its means of analysis. In this perspective, it may be fruitful to see Allegory and Ideology as preceding the 1981 book. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but I suspect that this new work is the “public” face of his system, the one whose method is a means of revealing that matter I’d spoken of and which formally organizes a work; meanwhile The Political Unconscious centers on that more fundamental energy which allows historical investment in the first place, and remains the more properly Marxist strand of Jamesonian criticism. In other words, the political unconscious remains what we arrive at when pursuing Marxist criticism, and in fact touches on the most relevant historical material, the one which was birthed in those moments of intense transition which Marxism scans history for. Allegory and Ideology is no replacement for The Political Unconscious; it is, however, Jameson’s widest-ranging work since then, proposing what is no fundamental modification but an expansion of a system which must be intensified by a further pursuit of that ever-elusive political unconscious, whose full richness we will not grasp until we manage to understand it as a whole Marxist method for generating ideology where it is repressed. It may well be this energy which ultimately accelerates the revolutionary process.

NOTE (05.27.2019): I come back to precise one part of this piece which I fear may be phrased misleadingly. When I describe the allegorical key as an artwork’s “first effect”, it is no claim that it must always be that; this would be dogmatic and undialectical in spirit. Readers will surely notice that our first impression may well be with the ethical level, too. However, it seems to me that this is a political issue; or at least, an issue of which type of criticism has bled into the public life of thought, and the selection of this fashionable type is itself deeply political. In either case, it seems clear to me that the problem at play is the relation of this allegorical system to what the work “says”. Jameson is, as we should be, distrustful of what an artwork “conveys”; culture tends to repress history, which then can be only expressed in roundaboutーmystified? ーfashion. There is a level at which the work does mean what it says, then; but that is not its ultimate meaning or place in history. Jameson’s scheme, then, can be seen as a manner of relativizing, and, by the same token, politicizing what we often call “themes”, or in a more degraded manner “message” (which is always moralizing). In this case we call “allegorical” (and “ethical”, in a different manner) what is staged by the work, the phenomenon which is dramatized in the diachrony. This is no content per se, because even this dramatization may well be presented in a roundabout way; and in any case it always has to be derived from what we take to be the first material key, that is to say the literal one. In this article I have attempted to convey the tendencies of Jameson’s criticism and how they may apply, but his method is immensely difficult and there is simply no easy of applying it for oneself.

Let me give an example: Tawada Yōko’s Fuji no Yama (The Mountain that Never Dies 不死の山) is itself a deeply allegorical work; in this case, what is the allegorical key? It is impossible to find it in the work’s “story”, because this short stages an anonymous narrator recounting news and books about post-Fukushima Japan; she has family there, but no communicate or any plane has gone in or out of Japan since a few years now. She lives in Berlin. The whole thing is obviously, on the most simple of levels, an allegory for the ills of Japan, a society that failed to react to the tragedy properly; and it is obvious that Tawada has a few ethical positions on the matter. But since the text is in the future, it plays on its futurity, and in fact the astonishing possible future; it is allegorical not only of the present, but of the anxieties projected on the future. The result, and where we have to look if we want to understand the story and what key is “allegorical”, is not at the level of structure but rather of sentence-production; in fact, all the images of Japan are derealized, allegorized, rendered into unreliable rumor. The allegory then is not directly the “problem” at hand (Japan’s downfall or whatever) but the “irreality” of history, and the impossibility for it to happen at the level of the nation even after such a tragic event; significantly the story ends on a game Japanese people invented, where one makes the souls of the dead pass onto the next life; and the last sentence is “everyone had forgotten the meaning of victory”. History, with its narrative beats, has stopped. This also has a spatial dimension, where the narrator’s Japanese passport is a source of discrimination, an aspect of the story which politicizes globalization, and culture; the title for instance is a reference to Fuji, which falls from its place as a national symbol and into mere empty signifier. I would then summarize it as follows:

ANAGOGICAL: globalization as the end of (national) history and the collapse of the group as globalization distances its units from one another
MORAL: Japan’s failure to mobilize itself around disaster
ALLEGORICAL: the irreality of collective history
LITERAL: the impossibility of narrating tragedy from the inside

Note that this is not in Tawada a conservative position; rather it is something she feels from within her system, as someone who’s lived in Germany for many years, who in fact has a successful “second career” as an author in the German language (what a schizophrenic subject!), and has even devised the concept of “exophony” to describe writers who write in a language other than their mother tongue. The matter here is absolute not of going back, and besides the moral level is dramatized as Japan becoming a vast private company; if anything it is capitalist fragmentation which forbids the proper reaction, not some lack of national spirit.

Here we can clearly see that I do not place the obvious “context” anyone would detect with the allegorical key; this irreality is not at the level of the “story” itself, but rather with sentence-production, a displacement which seems to reflect this impossibility of history. What I wish to underline is that there is no dogma or secret to trick to “figuring” out any of the keys in advance; every work will have a different one, and the decision can only be helped by a general method which commits to materialism as its underlying drive. The only thing I am able to say is that, in some way, the relationship between the properly material and the poetic is at play, so that our two allegorical (and moral) level will be this poetic in some sense; maybe not “what is said”, but some effect which is dramatized in the narrative, and which should not be taken to be what the work really is to a historical materialist. With this, I hope my position is clear that there is no pre-established content for any key, but a method which has requirements that I have underlined (Marxist historiography for the anagogical being the most important), requirements which fully grasped can guide the decisions of what to assign to the various levels, decisions which will any case require the blackening of many pages. With this hopefully clarified, I will excuse myself.


 Jameson, F. (2007). The political unconscious: Narrative as a socially symbolic act. London: Routledge. London.

Jameson, F. (2019). Allegory and ideology. London : Brooklyn, NY: Verso. London : Brooklyn, NY.

Lazarus, N. (2004). Fredric Jameson on “Third-World Literature”: A Qualified Defence. In D. Kellner & S. Homer (Eds.), Fredric Jameson: A critical reader (pp. 42–61). Basingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan. Basingstoke.

Szeman, I. (2004). Zones of Instability: Literature, Postcolonialism, and the Nation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore.

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