December 7, 2011

Fredric Jameson on the role of literary criticism

After spending a good deal of my own time with the likes of Benjamin, Bloch, and Lukacs, Fredric Jameson's thundering, dense treatment of those well-known twentieth-century critical theorists in Marxism and Form (1971) was a bit of a let-down for me. Since the 70s, Jameson's style has greatly improved; here, however, it is plodding, abstract, and disappointingly vague. The book ends with a five part, 120 page essay ("Towards Dialectical Criticism") that provides some moments of real analysis and clarification, but again I must confess that much of Jameson's critical positioning is lost on me. That being said, the essay ends with real gusto, offering something of a justification for literary criticism. Even forty years after it was written, his conclusion is almost rousing enough to make me believe in what I'm doing.
Even if ours is a critical age, it does not seem to me very becoming in critics to exalt their activity to the level of literary creation, as is loosely done in France today. It is more honest and more dialectical to point out that the scope and relevance of criticism varies with the historical and ideological moment itself. Thus, it has been said that literary criticism was a privileged instrument in the struggle against nineteenth-century despotism (particularly in Czarist Russia), because it was the only way one could smuggle ideas and covert political commentary past the censor. This is now to be understood, not in an external but in an inner and allegorical sense. The works of culture come to us in an all-but-forgotten code, as symptoms of diseases no longer even recognized as such, as fragments of a totality we have long since lost the organs to see. In older culture, the kinds of works which a Lukacs called realistic were essentially those which carried their own interpretation built into them, which were at one and the same time fact and commentary on the fact. Now the two are once again sundered from each other, and the literary fact, like other objects that make up our social reality, cries out for commentary, for interpretation, for decipherment, for diagnosis. It appeals to other disciplines in vain: Anglo-American philosophy has long since been shorn of its dangerous speculative capacities, and as for political science, it suffices only to think of its distance from the great political and Utopian theories of the past to realize to what degree thought asphyxiates in our culture, with its absolute inability to imagine anything other than what it is. It therefore falls to literary criticism to continue to compare the inside and the outside, existence and history, to continue to pass judgment on the abstract quality of life in the present, and to keep alive the idea of a concrete future. May it prove equal to the task!

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