Perry Anderson in his Considerations on Western Marxism (1976) has pointed out that, because of the general debilitation of a Stalinized socialist culture in Russia and the absence of any significent working-class audience here, the most gifted of Western Marxist thinkers directed their attention away from class action and economic infrastructures to bourgeois superstructures, most especially to art.footnote1 All this materialistic interest in superstructure is being repaid now, if publishers’ catalogues are any indication, by some superstructural interest in materialism. The extent of this interest and its depth are matters that will no doubt be revealed in the fullness of time. And the possible reasons for the interest would at this point be equally conjectural. Whether we are dealing merely with a predictable return of history, a return made all the more energetic by years of New Critical and Deconstructive repression; or with a collective mid-life crisis of the Vietnam War generation of graduate students permanently traumatized by mendacious authority figures and their death-dealing abstractions (‘national honour,’ ‘self-determination’): or whether—perish the thought—the interest is simply a result of our having come to the end of yet one more method so that now only materialism remains to be enlisted and massively commodified to shock our poor brains, already reeling from overconsumption, back into action for yet one more book or article: or whether we genuinely feel that a society which, when it takes note of us at all, shows such unrelenting contempt for its intelligentsia that it surely can’t have managed to reach perfection yet—such questions are perhaps too involved to be answered on this occasion. But an interest there is, undeniably, whether we judge by the number and availability of Marxist texts, by the popularity of such events as the 1983 summer institute for the Marxist Interpretation of Culture in Urbana, Illinois, or by the spiritual centrality there, indeed in American criticism as a whole, of Fredric Jameson, formerly of Yale French and Comparative Literature, now of the University of California, Santa Cruz, History of Consciousness Program. Readers of nlr have recently had the opportunity to sample Jameson’s analysis of post-modernism, in an essay packed with critical ideas and insights.footnote2 It is not inconceivable, at this point, that Marxism, through culture criticism, could become an influential way of thinking among those who, as yet, are innocent of the slightest contact with Capital.

A more naturally charismatic figure than Jameson can scarcely be imagined. The word simpatico springs readily to the lips. He is the very genius of perfectly faded denim, of tieless informality and the bare forearm. He is also the chairman of the Marxist Literary Group and its benign father figure.

The origins of the Marxist Literary Group are to be found in the Louis Kampf era of the mla.footnote3 It was once a part of the Radical Caucus, which then split, with great noise and pain, along the faultline of theory and praxis, with on the one hand the Jameson group, constituted by a number of more patient, tenured members of high profile departments, addicted to the higher lucubrations of theory; and on the other the Radical Caucus remnant constituted by more imperilled inner city, community college activists, demanding more overtly disruptive tactics and abjuring the long-term as just another form of cooptation. One eternal characteristic of the Left in America is that no one ever gets along with anyone else, though recently the two groups have shown signs of a possible future reconciliation.

So when one sees him in this disorderly context, a patient and skillful teacher, who, like the other Yale Comparatists, seems to have read everything in every field and is ready to convey that work’s significance in a short paragraph, it is not difficult to account for his appeal. What makes him difficult to evaluate is the kind of Marxism he professes. I could not pretend here to summarize his whole body of work, which extends from Sartre, The Origins of a Style (1961) to studies in dialectical philosophy (Marxism and Form, 1971), to structuralism (The Prison House of Language, 1972), to fascism in modernist ideology (Fables of Aggression, 1979), to readings in the political flip-side of various novels (The Political Unconscious, 1981). I can only hope to review some of his most recent concerns as indicated by his recent lectures and articles, including that published in nlr 146.

Some may remember a dyspeptic essay by Lionel Trilling published in the early 1960s called ‘On the Modern Element in Modern Literature’.footnote4 In this essay Trilling finds it remarkable that the hair of his students at Columbia College did not turn grey overnight after they had encountered The Heart of Darkness. They had looked into the abyss with Marlow and nothing had happened. They were the same blithe spirits after their term papers on dread and alienation as before. Of course Trilling may have detected no more than the immutable superficiality of students. On the other hand, he may have noticed the first stirrings of the institutionalization of the subversive, the acculturation of the anti-cultural, the acceptance, in short, of modernism into the canon. In fact, this is precisely what he thought he was noticing, and it disturbed him. Modernism should be proscribed by the canon. For Fredric Jameson, too, this moment is of the greatest significance.footnote5 He dates it somewhat later than Trilling, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is the moment when Modernism as a cultural style begins to meet its squalid end, squeezed to death in the tweedy arms of English professors. Before the late 1950s, Jameson says, surveys stopped with Tennyson. Then when Lawrence, Gide, Proust, Conrad, and Mann became establishment literature, their scandalous qualities paled. More direct, more efficient means of shock must be devised when even the City of Big Shoulders buys a Picasso for a public square.