- Marxist professor of comparative literature at Duke University and leading radical cultural critic
- Believes “Americans created bin Laden during the Cold War,” and claims 9-11 attacks are “a textbook example of dialectical reversal”
Born in 1934, Frederic Jameson is an unreconstructed Marxist, a longtime professor of comparative literature at Duke University, co-chair of Duke’s “Marxism and Society” studies program, and an admirer of Mao Zedong.
Jameson is a person of national and international intellectual influence. His work is a mainstay of university literature departments. Among the more influential is his 1971 book, Marxism and Form, credited by some observers with resurrecting the then-moribund study of Marxist literary theory.
Jameson’s writings on criticism are embraced with equal ardor by practitioners of radical theory. His seminal work in this regard is his 1981 tome, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Art. Therein, Jameson took the forthrightly “extreme position” that the task of a literary critic is to impose a narrow political framework on a given work. With this end in mind, he mounted the argument that “the political perspective” is “the absolute horizon of all reading and interpretation,” and urged students to approach literary texts not as works of intrinsic merit but rather as “socially symbolic acts.”
This same theme runs through Jameson’s courses, most of them on literary history: namely that literary works, far from stand-alone achievements, must be regarded as vehicles of disparate postmodern theories. Emblematic are such signature Jameson courses as “Theories of Temporality” and “Paradigms of Modern Thought.”
Jameson’s conception of literary works as essentially activist—indeed revolutionary—endeavors has also given rise to several courses at Duke. A writing course called “Novel Visions,” offered at Duke in 2001, was expressly founded on Jameson’s claims. Students taking the class were urged to understand “writing as a social and political practice,” a message reinforced in the course description: “This class will think seriously about how novels, in different historical moments, provide views on the social world or ‘visions’ for meaningful change.”
Another class, “Globalization and Literature,” draws on a comprehensive array of Marxist theory, including Jameson’s 1991 work, Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, wherein he bewailed the “baleful” spread of global capitalism and called for a “political form of postmodernism” to counteract it by stimulating the “capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralised by our spatial as well as our social confusion.”
Prior to Jameson’s arrival in 1985, Duke’s comparative literature program was largely traditional. Under Jameson’s leadership, it has been transformed into a nursery of “critical theory” and Marxist cultural criticism.
Jameson’s influence at Duke extends to the university’s publisher, Duke Press, on whose faculty board Jameson served for five years. Beyond publishing two books through the press, Jameson, who reportedly had a close relationship with the editors, played a prominent role in influencing the kinds of writing and research accepted by the publisher.
Jameson is active in a number of campus causes. Most prominent among these is his involvement in Duke Divest, an anti-Israel group of students and professors. Jameson is one of 40 faculty members in the organization, which, under the pretext of resisting “Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestinian lands,” demands that Duke divest from all companies with military ties to Israel. A petition drafted by the group, and signed by Jameson, professes to be “appalled by the human rights abuses against Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government,” and denounces the “continual military occupation and colonization of Palestinian territory by Israeli armed forces and settlers.”
When, several weeks after 9/11, the London Review of Books convened a scholarly symposium on the terrorist attacks, titled “Reflections on the Present Crisis,” Jameson joined 29 other radical scholars in attendance. After asserting that “the Americans created bin Laden during the Cold War,” Jameson concluded that the attacks were “therefore a textbook example of dialectical reversal.”
Although Jameson evinced no sympathy for the victims of the attacks, he did not hesitate to condemn “the nauseating media reception,” raging at the “cheap pathos” that “seemed unconsciously dictated” by the “White House.” The real explanation for the terrorist attacks, according to Jameson, was the “absence of any Left alternative means that popular revolt and resistance in the Third World” could pursue. In Jameson’s view, this meant that the Islamist ideology of bin Laden and his acolytes had “nowhere to go but into religious and ‘fundamentalist’ forms.”
In the spring of 2002, Jameson published an article in the Duke academic journal, The South Atlantic Quarterly, contending that the “history of the [American] superstate is as bloody as anyone else’s national history,” despairing that a “minority president [Bush] has been legitimized,” and bemoaning the “sinister extension of the surveillance state … in the name of a universal revival of patriotism…”
In April 2003, Jameson stepped down as chair of Duke’s Literature Program, a title he had held for eighteen years. In tribute, Duke hosted a four-day conference celebrating his work. The event was well-attended by scores of radical academics who turned up to lavish praise on the guest of honor.