Allegorical mappings

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Map of a landscape and seashore

Fredric Jameson, Allegory and Ideology (London and New York: Verso, 2019). 432pp., £19.99 pb., 978 1 78873 043 3

A concern with allegory as a mode of interpretation rather than as a literary historical description of a moribund genre has been a leitmotif in Fredric Jameson’s thought from Fables of Aggression (1979) and The Political Unconscious (1981) to Brecht and Method (1998) and A Singular Modernity (2002). In Allegory and Ideology – announced as the second volume of the ‘Poetics of Social Forms’ series – Jameson returns to concepts and arguments that will be familiar to many of his readers. There are the Greimas-inspired diagrams; the discussions of totality, cognitive mapping, Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Paul De Man and science fiction; and the defence of Marxist criticism as an expansive approach that makes of the literary work an act in history rather than reducing texts to an expression of economic relations. This latter claim recalls Jameson’s Althusserian suggestion in The Political Unconscious that history is understood as an ‘absent cause’ in literary texts, and that it can only be apprehended through effects which set ‘inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis’. Yet Jameson’s latest account of allegory as a dynamic and multidimensional system of reference and signification also allows for rich and varied reflections on the ways in which the construction of the modern subject entails the transformation of ‘named emotions into feelings that challenge language itself’.

Likening his dialectical materialist approach to that of a scientist in a laboratory, Jameson also reframes some of these ideas through new readings of Dante, Spencer, Shakespeare and Goethe, and a rethinking of his controversial 1986 essay on Third World Literature. To develop these readings, Jameson takes the three-level model of allegory that he adopts from mediaeval philosophy via Northrop Frye, recasting it as a dynamic and transversal mode of historical interpretation. This approach is distinct from the argument he makes in The Political Unconscious, where Frye’s allegorical method is reframed in terms of three horizons of interpretations, and the collective and the subject/body swap places, so that ‘the imagery of libidinal revolution and of bodily transfiguration once again becomes a figure for the perfected community’. Drawing together this previous work on Frye and the Greimas square with Félix Guattari’s concept of transversality, Jameson argues that the fourfold scheme of allegorical reading involves ’perpetual dissolution and recombination’ in a way that also ‘scrambles the levels’ of allegorical analysis.

If this approach seems rather too poststructuralist for a Marxist thinker such as Jameson, it is perhaps worth considering some of the examples he invokes. At one point during the response to critics of his Third World Literature essay (‘Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism’ (1986)), Jameson turns to the globalisation of men’s professional football, both in respect of the transfer of players and of capital between top league clubs in Europe and Latin America, and in the take-over of such clubs by oil tycoons and oligarchs. For Jameson, it is the circulation of foreign national football players that characterises ‘the mapping problem of the world system today’; this football player, he adds, ‘caught between his [sic] origins, his home team, and his national representation, is only the most dramatic figure for the multidimensionality of globalisation evoked and presupposed in the essay on national allegory’. One might well take exception to the exclusion of women’s professional football from Jameson’s analysis, the perfunctory account of football club ownership and sports washing, and the exclusion of fan’s voices from the way that many elite clubs are run. Yet this allegorical football player does, in a certain way, help to clarify, if not personify, some of the key points that Jameson’s critics missed in their response to his essay on national allegory: that the nation refers to a national bourgeoisie that mediates between multinational corporations and local extraction industries; and that allegory is a much more complex and multidimensional form of reading than Jameson’s critics have allowed.

Critics of Jameson’s Third World literature essay have tended to focus on his ’sweeping hypothesis’ that ‘all Third World texts are to be read as national allegories’ – a hypothesis that seems both reductive and generalising. For Aijaz Ahmad, the difficulty with Jameson’s theory is that it ‘is inseparable from the larger Three Worlds Theory which permeates the whole of Jameson’s own text’. Such strident critiques tend to overlook the precise way in which Jameson understands allegory and allegoresis. As Imre Szeman argues in a careful re-assessment of ‘Third World Literature’ published in South Atlantic Quarterly in 2001, Jameson offers a dialectical approach to ‘third world’ literary texts as complex objects that imagine the nation as a utopian horizon for political change. By tracing the conceptual trajectory of ’national allegory’ in Jameson’s work from an earlier reading of Wyndham Lewis through to his more recent critical reflections on globalisation, Szeman challenges what he calls the wilful misreadings of Jameson’s essay. As he puts it:

… the claim that Jameson makes about third world texts (‘by way of a sweeping hypothesis’) cannot help but distract from his broader aim, which is not to pass aesthetic judgment on third world texts, but to develop a system by which it might be possible to consider these texts within the global economic and political system that produces the third world as the third world.

Szeman’s re-assessment is indispensable for clarifying the ways in which ‘Third World’ texts are indeed ‘complex objects’. Yet it is important to emphasise as well that Jameson does not explicitly reference the four-fold model of allegory that he formulates in The Political Unconscious when he is discussing Third World literature. Had he done so, Jameson might have been able to clarify how these ‘complex objects’ are also often anti-systemic, in the sense that they variously mobilise the political energies of decolonisation and the dynamic resources of anti-colonial thought in order to imagine a concrete utopian idea of an alternative world. The revolutionary optimism of much postcolonial thought in the 1950s and early 1960s, and the utopian idea of a ‘Third World’ alternative to capitalism and Soviet communism, may now seem like a distant memory. As Jameson acknowledges in a recent response to Ahmad, ‘the concept of a Third World can no longer have the same currency today in a world in which some of the countries in question have evolved into industrial and manufacturing centers, China become the second-greatest world power, the former Second or socialist World has disintegrated, most of it enjoying a dubious “transition to capitalism”.’ And yet the remnants of pre-capitalist cultures in contemporary postcolonial literary and visual artworks stand as a powerful reminder that the spectre of decolonisation has not been completely subsumed by the logic of commodity fetishism, and may yet return in another form. As Neil Lazarus puts it in a bold critical assessment of Fanon’s thought, ‘throughout Africa and elsewhere in the colonial world, precolonial social, cultural and ideological forms survived the colonial era meaningfully. Indeed, they continue to survive meaningfully today, in the “postcolonial” present’.

Such concerns lie beyond the purview of Jameson’s analysis. Instead, Jameson’s transversal rethinking of allegory is developed further through readings of Hamlet, Mahler’s Sixth, Spencer’s Faerie Queen, Dante’s epic poetry, Goethe’s Faust II, and the fiction of Lu Xun, Ousmane Sembene, David Mitchell and Tom McCarthy. What emerges through these readings is an account of how classical allegory is replaced by allegoresis, which entails a rethinking of how personification is transformed into reification; and an understanding of how a collective sense of affect (or disaffection with the contemporary world economic system), which Jameson compares to Lévi-Strauss’ idea of pensée sauvage, may also provide the utopian resources for changing the world in the wake of anthropogenic climate change. This concern with affect is developed in a Lacanian reading of Hamlet, where Jameson traces how different moods or affects – such as ‘melancholia, euphoria, eagerness, fury, indolence, disdain’ – ‘course through the senses’ in ways that exceed any one particular character. The playing out of these affects serves to highlight both the allegorical and the pedagogical significance of Hamlet, which uses the representation of a father ‘who does not know he is dead’ as a vehicle to dramatise the inability of an ‘old order’ to acknowledge ‘their obsolescence’ and realise ‘that they are dead’. ‘Perhaps’, Jameson adds in a tantalising aside, ‘our own moment of late capitalism is in a similar situation, of denial and rebirth’.

Aside from the somewhat perfunctory readings of Lu Xun and Sembene, one might well object that most of the texts Jameson selects for these allegorical readings are taken from a rather narrow European and American literary canon that offers little sustained account of the multidimensional allegorical significance of literary texts from the global South. And yet, Jameson’s re-assessment of Lévi-Strauss’ account of pensée sauvage offers a thought-provoking account of the allegorical structures of indigenous thought that are germane to the decolonisation of allegory. In a move that both recalls and extends his commentary in The Political Unconscious on Lévi-Strauss’ analysis of Caduveo face painting in Structural Anthropology, Jameson argues that pensée sauvage is ’something like a perceptual science’, ‘a set which is part of itself, the name of a specific leaf doing double duty as the name of leaves in general’. Jameson’s clarifying note that the English translation of pensée sauvage as savage mind ‘fails to render the adjective with its natural and spontaneous overtones, as in grève sauvage, or wildcat strike’ makes clear how this term is a constitutive part of modern radical political thought. This intriguing observation implies something radical about indigenous thought as a dynamic allegorical system of knowledge that is also immanent to the modern capitalist world-system. In Dene stories about tar sands extraction in Athabasca or West African narratives of fossil oil imperialism, for instance, allegorical figures from indigenous thought are mobilised to question the devastation of indigenous ecologies and societies. Jameson does not pursue this line of inquiry. Instead, by subordinating the rethinking of Lévi-Strauss to an allegorical reading of canonical western literature, Jameson misses the opportunity to develop the more detailed and sophisticated rethinking of allegory and indigenous thought in ‘Third World literature’ that his work enables.

The distinctive contribution of Allegory and Ideology lies not merely in its account of how allegoresis allows for a multidimensional mapping of the totality of the world economic system, but also in its painstaking and rigorous reconstruction of the Utopian truth content of modern allegory. Jameson’s concluding gesture to the reinvention of the terraform after the anthropocene certainly reframes some of the concerns he raised about the salutary value of failed utopias in Archaeologies of the Future; but it also prompts further questions about how allegoresis can shed further light on the ways in which cultural narratives from the global South both register and contest the uneven ecological devastation that capitalist modernity has left in its wake.