It may seem odd to recall that Fredric Jameson—who has been justly lauded in the Anglosphere and beyond for a body of notably original cultural theory, written in prose of minatory richness—set out with a desire, as he put it, ‘to popularize’.footnote1 Born in Cleveland in 1934, Jameson became a Francophile during a period when, he has said, the whole French intelligentsia was ‘Marxist in orientation’, and spent time in Munich and Berlin just as the members of the Frankfurt School were returning from wartime exile. His first book, published in 1961, a study of Sartre’s style adapted from a dissertation supervised at Yale by Eric Auerbach, reflected these allegiances more in subject matter than method. But starting in 1967, he produced a series of more technically ambitious essays for the journal Salmagundi on Adorno, Benjamin and Lukács, which, together with accounts of Bloch, Marcuse and Sartre, and a lengthy conclusion, were collected, with revisions, as Marxism and Form (1971). The essays offered, he wrote, ‘a general introduction’, but one conducted crucially not as simplified sketch, journalistic survey, or anecdotal narrative, or even the patient unfolding of concepts and their expression, in the manner of its predecessor, but as a sympathetic internal analysis that aspired to replicate what it represented.footnote2 If Jameson was seeking to impart dialectical thinking, a system he recognized as ‘remote, complex and forbiddingly technical’, to an American readership raised on liberalism and empiricism, and consequently blinded by ‘anti-speculative’ and ‘anti-Communist’ bias—anti-Germanic too—he was obliged to offer a more tailored exhibition, a richer sampling, of its uses and its charms than ‘intellectual attitudes seized from the outside’.footnote3

Although he was content to make claims for the ambition of his approach, Jameson presented Marxism and Form as no more than ‘a preparation’ for criticism. But he was already beginning to pursue his own interpretive practice.footnote4 Like his parallel effort to popularize, it was rooted in his voracious passion for existing models. In the manifesto-like ‘Metacommentary’ (1971), Jameson argued that interpretation needed to proceed dialectically, by applying its strategies to itself: ‘The starting point for any genuinely profitable discussion of interpretation therefore must be not the nature of interpretation, but the need for it in the first place . . . every individual interpretation must include an interpretation of its own existence, must show its own credentials and justify itself.’footnote5 Introducing his own translation of Dilthey’s 1900 essay, ‘The Rise of Hermeneutics’ (which he called a ‘false start’), he wrote that any ‘successful theory of understanding must . . . begin after the fact, in the presence of an understanding or an interpretation already realized.’footnote6

Jameson’s decisive contribution during this period was the idea that works of literature possess a ‘political unconscious’, revealing traces of collective history even as they seem to tell stories of personal romance and destiny. An essay called ‘L’inconscient politique’ appeared in a French book on the novel in 1975, and the idea surfaced in his first author study, Fables of Aggression (1979), on Wyndham Lewis, but an elaboration of its premises didn’t arrive until The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, which was published in 1981, and established him, Terry Eagleton wrote in nlr, ‘as without question the foremost American Marxist critic, and one of the leading literary theorists of the Anglophone world’.footnote7 In the same article, Eagleton said that the book also prompted the question of how a Marxist-structuralist analysis of a minor novel of Balzac would help to shake the foundations of capitalism. Jameson had noted at least one of the reasons why a Marxist intellectual might choose, or need, to write about the literary and cultural sphere. History can only ever be ‘an absent cause’ and so narrative—in this case, the novels of Balzac, Gissing and Conrad—serves to manifest and reveal in textual form the fate of the bourgeois subject under capitalism, the crisis of the social totality, and the reification of daily life, as well as dramatizing or allegorizing the stubborn faith in forms of life untouched by such processes.footnote8 The Political Unconscious was an attempt at developing a Marxist hermeneutic that rejected class-based analysis of the old—empiricist—‘reflectionist’ model in favour of a psychoanalytic emphasis on, as Jameson put it in ‘Metacommentary’, ‘the distinction between symptom and repressed idea’.footnote9 Gissing’s late-Victorian novel The Nether World is read not for its documentary account of Victorian slum life, but for its insight into middle-class narratives about the lumpenproletariat and the fantastical search for solutions that help to manage or repress guilt.

Central to the approach was Jameson’s long-standing conviction that we never confront a text immediately but through what he now called ‘sedimented layers of previous interpretations’, or at least ‘sedimented reading habits and categories’.footnote10 In the chapter on Conrad, he offered a ‘historical and dialectical reevaluation’ of, among other interpretive modes, the ‘mass-cultural reading’ of Conrad as a writer of adventure tales; ‘stylistic analysis’ of his ‘impressionist’ tendencies; the ‘myth-critical’ account of Nostromo as an archetypal story of buried treasure; ‘ethical’ consideration of themes like heroism and honour; the post-structuralist belief, promoted by Edward Said and J. Hillis Miller, that Conrad was dramatizing the impossibility of narration. The twist in the tale was that Jameson’s seeming ecumenicalism served in reality as a means of paying tribute to the explanatory force of Marxism, the only body of thought that can give us, he averred, ‘an adequate account of the essential mystery of the cultural past, which, like Tiresias drinking the blood, is momentarily returned to life and warmth and allowed once more to speak, and to deliver its long forgotten message in surroundings utterly alien to it’. In an earlier essay, he wrote that ‘it is difficult to escape the conclusion that all exciting criticism is written . . . as though some privileged order of explanation existed’.footnote11 Now he asserted that Marxism was ‘the “master-code” within which literary texts are to be rewritten by criticism’, an ‘untranscendable horizon’ that assigns other critical operations what he called a ‘sectoral validity’, pertinence to this or that facet of a text.footnote12

Even the psychoanalytic paradigm, Jameson’s second favourite, is tarnished by sectorality, being a response to a particular phenomenon within the history of nineteenth-century capitalism, the product of the ‘psychic fragmentation’ caused by quantificatory and instrumentalizing tendencies. So The Political Unconscious is not just the application of a pathbreaking interpretive mode but his most dedicated attempt to rid cultural analysis of anything that smacked of empiricism, marking the union of his roles—never far apart—as ‘popularizer’ and theorist-critic. By the mid-1980s, Jameson claimed that Marxist thought possessed a significance calculated to astonish a time traveller from the 1960s. He said his work on behalf of this tradition was ‘a service that I’m still rather proud of’.footnote13 But he has also been keen to note the stubborn persistence of caricatures he views as ‘idiotic’.footnote14

To a later generation of academic critics, Jameson’s work acquired a different, narrow set of associations. The Political Unconscious has been re-defined by one sentence, its first and best-known, ‘Always historicize!’, and a reading practice which, in a formulation adapted from Ricoeur, writing about Freud, Marx and Nietzsche, became known as a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’. The feminist theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who was a professor at Duke, where Jameson has taught since 1986, invoked both of these shorthands in the introduction to an edited collection of queer readings, Novel Gazing (1997):

Always historicize? What could have less to do with historicizing than the commanding, atemporal adverb ‘always’? It reminds me of the bumper stickers that instruct people in other cars to ‘Question Authority’. Excellent advice, perhaps wasted on anyone who does whatever they’re ordered to do by a strip of paper glued to an automobile! The imperative framing will do funny things to a hermeneutics of suspicion.footnote15