Readers not yet familiar with Fredric Jameson’s corpus will find this collection of his theoretical essays a useful introduction to the major themes and methods that have dominated his work for two decades.footnote From the groundbreaking programmatic text, ‘Metacommentary’ (1971), to his more recent writings on postmodernism (represented here by ‘The Politics of Theory’ [1984] and ‘Architecture and the Critique of Ideology’ [1985]), virtually the full range of Jameson’s interests can be gleaned from these two volumes. And even though the title correctly identifies their overarching concern with theory, one finds here also what remains Jameson’s most engaging side: his considerable ingenuity as a reader of literary texts. The essays on RobbeGrillet and Thomas More, for example, whose ultimate topics are theoretical (modernism and utopian discourse, respectively), offer splendid original readings of individual texts (Jealousy and Utopia). The collection also includes a provocative introduction by Neil Larsen situating Jameson’s project in relation to certain critiques it has elicited both from within and beyond the Marxist camp.

Confronted by such a rich and heterogeneous body of texts, one is hard-pressed to give a fair account of their underlying methodological coherence. It is as if when finding ourselves baffled by the apparent eclecticism of Jameson’s enthusiasms—puzzled how he can with almost equal ease commend the procedures of Roland Barthes’s S/Z or Max Weber’s diagnoses of the passage in the West from religion to rationalization alongside Marx’s dicta on the universality of class struggle in history—we must seek to reconcile these conflicting research programmes, to synthesize them in that ‘totalizing explanation’ which Jameson holds to be Marxism’s signal claim to ‘formal superiority over all the other partial kinds of accounts.’ (Vol. 1, p. 133). We tend to be reassured when we pronounce Jameson’s Marxism as just old-fashioned Hegelianism, or an updated version of Lukácsian mediation theory, confident that we already know what all that means and what its blindnesses and theoretical weaknesses entail.

Bearing in mind Jameson’s own cautions in this matter, presented in the separate introductions to each of the present volumes, I shall nonetheless hazard the label ‘Hegelian’ as the most adequate description for Jameson’s critical procedure, but only on the understanding that (1) Hegel’s method in philosophy founds a particular practice of scientific inquiry; and (2) Jameson’s own relationship to this Hegel has altered over the years, so that the once fairly orthodox acceptance of the imperative for historical materialism to produce scientific knowledge has gradually been displaced by a different task: ‘the elaboration of a properly Marxist “ideology”’ (Vol. 1, p. 110).

In the introduction to Aesthetics, Hegel characterizes his method as follows: ‘Philosophy has to consider an object in its necessity or external ordering, classification, etc.; it has to unfold and prove the object, according to the necessity of its own inner nature.’ In the case of art, however, the difficulty of producing scientific explanations is enhanced by the numerous particular or accidental properties which individual works exhibit, so that Hegel is compelled to assert further that ‘it is only in relation to the essential inner progress of its content and means of expression that we may refer to [the individual work’s] necessary formation.’ Jameson’s earliest formulation of his own methodological protocols reproduced Hegel’s concept of a scientific method: ‘the process of criticism is not so much an interpretation of content as it is a revealing of it, a laying bare, a restoration of the original message, the original experience, from beneath the distortions of the censor’ (Vol. i, p. 14). Works of art exhibit structures of contradiction, as Jameson will put it some years later apropos of Corneille, and while these structures are visible ‘in the very bones and marrow of literary form itself’ (Vol. i, p. 136), their ultimate causality lies elsewhere: in the historical specificity of the Fronde, whose struggle as a class fraction against the power of the absolutist state produced artefacts like Cinna, with its imaginary resolution of the real contradiction in the Fronde’s political-ideological situation. As Jameson flatly declares in ‘Metacommentary’: ‘it is axiomatic that the existence of a determinate literary form always reflects a certain possibility of experience in the moment of social development in question’ (Vol. 1, p. 9).

The principles of this method are never entirely abandoned in Jameson’s critical practice. No matter how much space he devotes to the formal intricacies of a specific text or the theoretical subtlety of an author’s corpus, Jameson inevitably returns to the text’s or author’s socio-historical moment to show how the apparently idiosyncratic or personal was in fact a necessary and determinate response to a given set of conditions in the real world. In the essay on Max Weber, for instance, Jameson refers the apparently unique circumstances of Weber’s psychic crisis, with its immediate origins in his own family situation, to the ‘plane of social history’. The conflict between maternal and paternal values, which crystallized in Weber’s expulsion of his father from the family home and his subsequent breakdown six weeks later, can be seen as one between distinct class fractions of the nineteenth-century German bourgeoisie, reproduced in Weber’s own theory by the irreconcilable, but equally unavoidable, alternatives of ‘value-free science’ and the charismatic hero (Vol. 2, p. 34). Or in the essay on Robbe-Grillet (really a long review of Jacques Leenhardt’s book on that author), the programmatic refusal of the referential dimension in fictional events that is the nouveau roman’s ostensive carte d’identité is itself hypothesized as one variation within a broad historical movement (modernism) whose aesthetic imperative is most accurately described ‘as an effort to repress that referential content [of colonialism] and to defuse the implications of its raw material’ (Vol. 1, p. 178), and whose ‘ultimate evaluation. . .is thus at one with the diagnosis of the new “société de consommation” itself’ (Vol. 1, p. 177).