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