24 May, 2019 • • 40.3Critical TheoryLiterary CriticismLiteratureUncategorized

Email This Article Print This Article


Philip Murray Wilson

Fredric Jameson 
Allegory and Ideology





Allegory is a profoundly untimely mode of literary criticism. It has suffered under realism, but its assassination began earlier, even sustaining a blow from Coleridge, who sneered that allegory is “but a translation of abstract notions into a picture-language which is itself nothing but an abstraction from object s of the senses”. Furthermore, it has been deemed a metonym for mystical obfuscation, detached from any firm (i.e., scientific) grasp of reality ever since Francis Bacon. On those grounds, perhaps ideology is a natural bedfellow for allegory, given its own, different sort of untimeliness. Althusser’s definition of ideology as “the Imaginary relationship of the individual to the Real conditions of his existence”, loaded as it is with capital ‘I’ and ‘R’ (a calligraphic trope of Lacan’s), is stamped firmly with the imprint of Western Marxist literary criticism with few accolades in the Anglophone academy, whose poststructuralism is newly vanished. Fredric Jameson’s latest book rejuvenates both ideology and allegory as tools of literary criticism through a clever juxtaposition, stripping them of their usual contexts and equating them as two critical strategies that simultaneously engage a reader’s individual inner life (here understood as aesthetic judgments) and their own latent sense of history. The synthesis is deliberately all the more powerful for its anachronism, as Jameson realises: “Just as in theology individual salvation is inseparable from collective salvation, so also for us today, despite the distortions inevitably developed by an individualist consumer society, the… destiny of the biological individual is inseparable from that of the future of the species, in whatever collective form one chooses to imagine that”.

Allegory and Ideology is a bold project, and one few would have expected. Allegory is a product of the Church Fathers’ attempt to reconcile their ingrained love of the pagan classics with Christian doctrine, and Jameson is no fan of Christian doctrine or the Classics. As he put it, shortly before commencing work on this book, in an article in the New Left Review: “Who will deliver us from the unexpected restoration of the reign of beauty and its disreputable ideology, aesthetic philosophy?” On the other hand, his own historiographic assumptions about postmodernism’s perpetual present and eradication of the past consign Catholicism as a whole thoroughly to the dustbin of history, let alone its strategies of literary criticism, except notably in the case of Liberation Theology—the most significant left-wing movement to sweep the New World in Jameson’s career. Consequently, his personal attitude on allegory in the abstract is, despite his Marxism, neutral-to-positive. His prefatory remark, that “there is no intellectual domain which is not ideological” followed, on the next page, by Marx’s maxim that “ideology has no history”, finger the book’s twin enemies. On the one hand, there are those who would downplay the ideological function of historical narratives by reading literature as a collection of personal, emotional responses to a shared human experience, translatable and transferrable, estranged from context. On the other hand, we have those who would err too far in the other direction, taking literary history as a history of ideological narrative itself, what we might call ‘intellectual history’ or the ‘history of ideas’. Jameson’s goal for this project is, in some ways, to reclaim the basic function of literature back from both of those perspectives, to cast narrative as a social-historical act, rather than either a purely intimate mode of emotional expression or a datapoint in a catalogue of detached philosophical abstractions.

That Jameson positions himself against emotional close-reading and intellectual history seems – at least to my mind – to be symptomatic of the fact that both are housed in academic departments that hold most firmly to the idea of a literary canon, an institution whose value Jameson himself has frequently called into question. Perhaps this is the reason why Allegory and Ideology focuses mainly on close readings of thoroughly canonical authors. This comes from a person who has remarked, of his earliest literary education, that he resented the old-school canonical English major, and its snowploughing through various combinations of Homer/Virgil/Dante/Milton – a sentiment that squares oddly with whole chapters on Dante, Goethe, and Spenser. But Jameson’s selection of these works is not steered by the myriad potential interpretations of high art. It is instead an explicit advocation of his historical materialism as the route to fruitful literary study, an emphasis on the ‘means of production’ of literature. And yet, a caveat is needed. For those who fear that this historical materialism would devolve into an inane printing press of readings with variations on a ‘Dante is bourgeois because…’, it is important to emphasize Jameson’s dogged application of Hegelian dialectics to the Marxist’s hunt for the material elements of literary production (or anything else). Marx’s Introduction to the Critique of the Philosophy of Right and its foundational dichotomy between ‘material’ and ‘ideal’, when read in the context of Marx’s thorough grounding in the Hegelian system, always charted more routes for the co-mingling of these opposites than intellectual historians have subsequently narrated. For Jameson, historical materialist literary criticism has always meant subjecting the means by which literature communicates to analogy with industrial inputs: syntax, emotional expression, leitmotifs, as variable capital, and criticism thereof as a pricing mechanism. Jameson’s refurbished, Hegelian Marxism is in full force here yet again: “the gaps between [the four levels of allegory] offer a convenient figure in the absence of figuration for the identification of incommensurables.”

In the end, Jameson advocates allegory for the same reason Augustine did: to advance the cultural hegemony of his ideology. Albeit a frighteningly totalitarian approach to some, given the caricature circulated by everyone from Baudrillard to the descendants of Cuba’s disinherited gentry of Marxism as a vicious ideology insensitive to human sentiment, retelling literary history with ideological motives was itself allegorically prefigured in a much more liberal-centrist vein. The last study of allegory to endow it with such vibrant potential was Auerbach’s Mimesis (1946), which, like many things published near the end of World War II, was both a total re-evaluation of all that had come before and a cautiously hopeful glance at what would come next. Indeed, people tend to forget that Jameson studied under Auerbach at Yale—a critic whose scholarship many faculties of literature would equate with the study of the Western canon itself. Auerbach’s own approach to medieval European literature, in turn, was thoroughly novel in its historiographic focus. To the philhellenic German academic tradition, Auerbach’s inclusion of the Romance countries within a shared European history of Latin literature was outright utopian: in one such study Auerbach remarked that that ‘Europe’ had not yet actually taken place in space and time, but that “it seems to me that European society is on the verge of its existence”. In other words, Auerbach was likewise at Yale with Jameson, and Marxism is not the only ideology to rest itself on idiosyncratic narratives about history. Auerbach’s study of allegory was an ideological attempt to root the peaceful united Europe for which he hoped in a new history of a peaceful and united literary community.

In a similar vein, then, in Allegory and Ideology, Jameson implicitly constructs and tackles his own version of a literary canon.  Out of nine chapters, three are dedicated to grand literary edifices wherein allegory is as an intentional structural device or a useful critical tool, such as epic. His conception of epic, and consequently his own notions of the orthodox patterns of literary criticism through which works of literature can or cannot be enshrined as epics, is eclectic, and relies on a rather old-school Marxist medieval historiography, with which he contrasts the epics themselves. That Marxist historiography, instituted particularly by Marx’s Grundrisse and Engels’ Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, labelled the medieval European and Mediterranean economy as ‘feudalism’, a static caricature of the patterns of labour and social domination uncovered by a century and a half’s subsequent historical scholarship. In the original context, Marx’s ‘feudalism’ was meant to bridge a narrative gap from chattel slavery to wage slavery by way of the fief, and to ideologically reduce nationalist, romantic concepts of European history to smithereens.  Perhaps for that latter reason Jameson eschews Vergil – the test case for patristic allegory of pagan literature – and instead focuses on less foundational texts like Dante, Goethe’s Faust II,and Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

More specifically, Allegory and Ideology is guided by an explication of how dynamic concepts of space interact with temporal narratives about the political community shared by these authors, creating narrative places such as the Church (in Dante) or the Manor (in Goethe), or China in “Third World” authors such as Lu Xhun. Jameson has long argued that such stories are essential to ideology, narratives which he famously called “the political unconscious.” The classic example of such narratives (supplied by Jameson, anyway) is racism, where the ideology derives its power not only from personal opinion about racial minorities but also from narrative stories that obviate the minority’s claims to personhood. That space relies on time to metamorphose into place, and that time relies on space to metamorphose into history, has been a historiographic orthodoxy ever since the early Annales School, and is not exactly Jameson’s point. Rather, he argues that these authors use space against history, against the territorial spread of historical developments they resented. For Goethe, that meant a flight into a “decaying feudalism” and its patterns of human geography against those of national capitalism. For Dante, the jurisdictional disputes of Pope and Emperor stood out in tragic juxtaposition to the universal moral imperative of the Church. For Spenser, depicting the dizzying visual experience of the New World was indelible to his project of, as Jameson describes it, “liquidating medieval narrative”. For Third World literature, imagining The Nation provides a route of resistance to slavery and subjecthood. And for the Marxist? We are left to answer that ourselves.

Methodologically speaking, a focus on how inchoate political space can upend political subjectivity is de rigueur in Marxist studies of globalization. Integrating Dante’s conception of Monarchia into theories like those of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, by analogy between theocratic power and the hegemony of post-nationalist empires of capital, certainly makes for entertaining reading. But the focus on space as an antonym of time springs deeply from one of the more fertile wells of Jameson’s own thought, mostobviously the historiographic polemic launched against Jean-Paul Sartre by Claude Levi-Strauss in ‘History and Dialectic’ (1962). There, the anthropologist claimed for his discipline “the duration of human forms in space’ against history and ‘the study of human forms in time,” and turned spatial historiography instead into an aesthetic manifesto and tool of critical analysis writ-large: “I accept [Sartre’s] characterisation of aesthete in so far as I believe the ultimate goal of the human sciences to be not to constitute, but to dissolve man”.  Levi-Strauss’ essay came out nearly the same year that Jameson arrived in France, and I suspect that his link between “the characterisation as an aesthete” and the deliberate dissolution of man can go a great length towards explaining the slightly peculiar situation of America’s lead Marxist critic delivering close readings of Dante and Spenser.

This interpretive range and irreverence towards disciplinary strictures will inevitably annoy some literary scholars. In the past Jameson has been criticized on the grounds that a (supposed) pretence to transcend either his own day-job or the ideological pollution of close-reading would be profoundly disingenuous. Richard Rorty remarked — in a subtweet avant-la-lettre – that the first generation of scholars reared under Jameson-Thought simply harboured “the desire to practice Ideologiekritik, and to provide a philosophical account of… the ‘bourgeois ideology’ of ‘late capitalism’. Belief in the utility of this genre has persuaded a whole generation of idealistic young leftists in the First World that they are contributing to the cause of human freedom by, for example, exposing the imperialistic presuppositions of Marvel Comics, or campaigning against the prevalence of ‘binary oppositions’”. Reading these criticisms, though, younger readers even further deprived of a canon than the one Jameson assumed we were in 1986 are hard pressed to isolate what is so uniquely “idiot” about the use of a word like ideologeme as opposed to any other technical term of literary study, like Motivübertragung or Quellenforschungen.

One does get the sense that Jameson’s frequent references to French semiotics – explained in a very helpful manner with glosses, citations, and even an appendix – might come at the expense of a more direct engagement with an ocean of studies on allegory and perspective produced by medievalists themselves. Medievalists have laboured throughout the disciplines in which they work under rosy assumptions about The Medieval—one of which being a crass application of Hegelian aesthetics. Andreas Speer, for example, is passingly dismissive of Hegelian aesthetics as unable to do justice by the variegation of medieval artistic production. Consequently, his work on “inter-artificiality” (the echoes of similar motifs across artistic media), could have provided Jameson a helpful antitype for his own neo-Hegelian theories of form. One smarts also at the absence of a more thorough discussion of Marxism’s unique relationship to theology. Jameson claims in his preface that his attempt to read allegory as ideologically selective memory is not an attempt to bash other critics for Wrong-Thought, that it is constructive, even utopian in its own right. Why then does he not more directly detail the nature of Benjamin’s embrace of theology (a particularly potent intellectual journey, given the occasional accusations against Auerbach of bracketing Jewish theology out of the “realism of the created” he celebrates in Figura)? Why no reference to Ernst Bloch’s Principle of Hope, or his writings on Scholasticism?

Despite these remarks, many objections to the present work on the grounds of an unfamiliarity with disciplinary orthodoxy would lead to the same arid conclusion – namely, that the disciplines which Jameson brushes to the side have their own requisite chronologies, chronologies founded entirely on points of style (regardless of medium – art history has the Baroque, literature has The Romantic, etc). His musical chapter on Mahler and the chapter on the emotions supply the rebuttal to such claims. Studying the narrative function in the movements of Mahler’s 6th Symphony, and the ‘infrastructural’ literary tropes in which personal sentiment and feeling might be translated into emotion, stem from that neo-Hegelian approach to the nature of “materialism” that I mentioned above. For Jameson, semiotic notions of tropes, syntax, and sentences are such ‘materialist elements’ of even so immaterial a thing as language. This conception of material as a mediating element in the manufacture of a product, as in ‘meaning’ in the case of language, pulls the rug out from under any literary critic who would purport to simply study art for art’s sake. For art to be intelligible to a collective of readers it has to undergo a process of exchange and valuation akin to that of any other commodity, to express its unique value (the literary artistry) by gradations in terms of a neutral abstract “value” as such (its place in a cannon). Humanists who would rather hold themselves aloft from the banal cruelties of exchange and commerce find themselves, on this account, all the more mercantile with every emotional close reading of poetry or stylistic commentary they publish.

Despite, or rather because of this polemical address to so many ingrained attitudes and orthodoxies of literary criticism, readers should pick up this book regardless of their position on the critical enterprise known as literary theory. Those looking for a way either of stretching their own more traditional literary educations with the vernacular of 20th-century Marxism and psychoanalysis, or of filling gaps in their awareness of key literary names and periods, will walk away with an orchestra of footnotes and further reading to pursue.  Likewise, those looking to simply get to know Jameson should start here rather than his earlier work. Regardless of our own individual literary preferences, however, the book has a more pressing question in general. If Jameson prefaces his work with a tacit endorsement of Freud’s theory of writing as wish-fulfilment, then what does it mean that a self-conscious piece of Marxist propaganda could so successfully conceal its wishes as an allegorical reading of the western canon?

Philip Murray Wilson will begin a PhD in Medieval Latin at Harvard fall 2019 after a masters at Oxford and a summer in his basement playing with Warhammer.