Fredric Jameson’s Essay: The Theory of Everything

Jameson’s essay requires that readers bring with us a great deal of cultural literacy, if nothing else. I understood his allusions to Munch’s The Scream, the “Faulknerian long sentence,” Freud, Stravinsky and Wallace Stevens, but they were swimming in a greater sea of off-hand references that repeatedly sent me to the dictionary and the Internet for further illumination. In today’s psycho-babble parlance, I don’t find his essay particularly accessible.

Aside from that quibble, I did connect well with his discussion of “pastiche,” or the “random cannibalization of all the styles of the past” (28), which to me so accurately describes popular culture and seems to be central to his argument on postmodernism. These observations are particularly telling as he relates them to postmodern architecture, which, he says, “randomly and without principle but with gusto cannibalizes all the architectural styles of the past and combines them in overstimulating ensembles” (28). We see the result in buildings encumbered with classical columns and Chippendale pediments (that one is okay, I guess) or of McMansions in the suburbs that feature turrets, oversized Palladian windows and porticoes, and multiple hip roofs. What are these people thinking???

Also, I found Jameson’s discussion of the “historicist” version of events interesting, especially as I could see that this inevitably results in the representation of an event that becomes “factual” to the viewer or reader. Thus, the historical novel, from Walter Scott’s Waverley to Leon Uris’s Exodus, or TV and movie “dramatizations” of real events, become to us “how it happened,” even if it didn’t happen that way at all. Is that a manifestation of postmodernism, however? How would the tradition of folktales, ballads and epic poems, many of which build on “real events,” fit into the theory? Are some of our oldest literary traditions, if they are harking back to a previous history or even a pastiche of histories, “postmodernist,” too? Am I missing something here?

Overall, Jameson’s main thesis, if I understand it at all, argues that today’s art, literary criticism, architecture, philosophy and psychoanalysis, not to mention pop culture, are all the result of the overwhelming economic force known as capitalism (which, one can infer, is bad in Jameson’s book). Bran Nicol in his introduction refers to this as “totalisation.” It’s a sort of “theory of everything” where all roads lead to a society that is defined by “class history,” by an American postmodern culture that is explained by “a whole new wave of American military and economic domination through the world” (23). Now, wait until capitalism reaches China, Mr. Jameson. Oh wait, it already has.—Trish Higgins


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2 thoughts on “Fredric Jameson’s Essay: The Theory of Everything”


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    pensivefix says:

    You know, I too have been wondering how much of these supposedly “postmodern trends” and philosophies or tendency is, in reality, anything particularly singular to our day and age or culture. I am not going venture the presumption that technology and media have not had ANY differing influence on society from that of previous eras, but much of what at least Jameson points to seems to merely be the recycling of societal tendencies, mediated in slightly different ways by the technology and overall mindset of those eras, but still, essentially no different from the way in which humanity has always acted. The now-cliched phrase “nothing new under the sun” comes to mind with poignant appropriateness, it seems to me. Jameson carried on and on about our understanding of history coming only from writings and media versions of history and that this somehow means we lack a personal or real connection with our historical past. But how, exactly, did the generations BEFORE us learn about their history? And how were their oral and written histories so much more connected to them than ours?
    In one respect only, at this point in my pondering this subject, am I willing to concede a key difference. Since we are so inundated by the media/entertainment industry and grow so accustomed to fictitious “reality” or the “realistic” way in which fiction is portrayed through movies, television, and so forth–not to mention the constant assault of the news, which is meant to portray “reality” but which we either view with cynicism or grow used to images of real violence and injustice, hardly connecting the events portrayed on television as any more real than the fictions we consume–I do think that to some extent, real-life news does indeed become a sort of fictitious reality. (So was that a Faulknerian long sentence? 🙂 Sorry, if that was hard to follow…) I think it is harder to read/see stories of actual events without feeling a certain disconnect between the actuality of those events and our perceiving them as actual and real.


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    Professor Sample says:

    As I implied in class, Jameson seems overly nostalgic for a time when history did have context. Susanna wonders, “But, how, exactly, did the generations BEFORE us learn about their history? And how were their oral and written histories so much more connected to them than ours?”

    I can’t answer for Jameson, but I imagine that he would find something about oral storytelling, in which an audience is connected deeply and personally to the source of the story, to be an antidote to decontextualization of history.

    Keep these ideas in mind as we read White Noise — there is actually a lot of in-novel storytelling going on, and it’s worth paying attention to.

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