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Jameson on Jameson: Conversations on Cultural Marxism

by Ian Buchanan, Editor
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2007
296 pp. Trade, $79.95; paper, $22.95
ISBN:13 978-0-8223-4087-4, ISBN:13 978-0-8223-4109-3.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

Ever since the publication of his 1972 The Prison-House of Language (the companion volume of his book Marxism and Form of 1971), Fredric Jameson has been one of the leading intellectuals in the field of literary criticism and cultural critique. His later studies on the "political unconscious", first, and postmodernism, second, have made him one of the most influential writers worldwide. Gradually shifting from the domain of literary studies (Jameson’s formational years have been devoted to Sartre and his first studies were critical rereadings of the national canon, mostly in French, although his voice remains oddly ignored in France) to the broader field of culture (in the first place, mass culture, psychoanalysis, philosophy, film studies and architecture), Jameson has become a scholar with near universal interests, but whose work has always proven extremely focused and homogeneous thanks to his life-long commitment to Marxism (or to Marxist theory and criticism), which has for him a strong Utopian dimension, the critical analysis of the present as well as of the past being always closely linked to the hope for a different future.

Jameson is a difficult writer, despite the clarity of the stances he is defending, and this difficulty has to do with the broadness of his scope and interests (almost nothing is alien to him, except "science" in the hard sense of the word, and on which he has the modesty to confess his relative ignorance) and with the attention he pays to style and the craft of writing (moreover he is fluent in French and German, which offers him also a direct insight to various non US cultures, which is quite unusual for most of his monolingual colleagues). It was therefore an excellent idea to collect a certain number of important interviews that Jameson has been generously giving over the years. Jameson is a gifted interviewee, both in written and in oral form (some answers are so detailed and sophisticated that it is almost impossible to imagine that they are the output of an oral conversation), with a great sense of humour, always eager to correct and criticize his own ideas, but very keen also on using the interview form to make his viewpoints as clear as possible (generally, the interviewers refer to precise concepts and fragments of the many books by Jameson) and to tackle many other issues that come along. What strikes most, after the reading of these very lengthy interviews, is the exceptional coherence of Jameson’s thought, whose ideas on "Western Marxism" does not really change over the decades. The object of his reflections has been broadened dramatically, as well as the set of key concepts, yet the basic interpretation of the state of the world has not been transformed radically (neither after the collapse of Soviet communism nor after 9/11), for in a certain sense Jameson’s analyses had always already predicted, not these events in themselves, but the effects of these events on US policy and culture.

Jameson on Jameson is both a difficult and an easy to read book, and for this reason it is both extremely helpful and a little disappointing. It is easy and helpful for those who are already quite familiar with Jameson’s thinking, and those readers will find here very useful comments on the author’s state of mind on this or that problem or on this or that concept in this or that period of history. The very fact that the interviews cover more or less 25 years of intellectual activity (the first interview of the series was published in 1982, the last one was close the final editing of the book), on the one hand, and the fact that the interviewers are coming from very different geographic backgrounds (although it would be false to think that Jameson has been "following" the trend toward globalization: he started teaching in China in the mid 1980s and from the very beginning of the period covered in this book, we see him discussing with "globalized" interviewers), offer all necessary guarantees of a well-balanced survey of Jameson’s work. Nevertheless, I can imagine that the book is also difficult or even unattractive to readers who might come to it in the hope to find here a kind of general introduction to Fredric Jameson. Those readers will probably find the interviews much too complex, not at the level of the answers, but at the level of the questions asked by the interviewers, who often focus on very detailed and hard conceptual problems. Jameson’s gift for clarity and didactics will not always suffice to convince semi-initiated readers. If one has not read Jameson’s books oneself, the reading of Jameson on Jameson might remain a little frustrating, as will be demonstrated by the difficulties of using the final index (which could have been more detailed, and which will not always prove helpful when is looking for the exact meaning, if such a thing is possible of course, of concepts such as the "political unconscious"). For all the others, and one may hope that they will be numerous, this book will disclose all the qualities one can find in Jameson’s books: an exceptional mix of political commitment and erudition, of curiosity and stubbornness, of sophistication and clear-cut convictions.



Updated 1st March 2008

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