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Mohammed Jhilila

The Political Unconscious

"Narrative as a socially symbolic act"

From the outset, Frederick Jameson, in the preface, shows his adherence to what he

calls the imperative of all dialectical thoughts which is always historicise. Historicism, for

Jameson, as a method of working on the narrative, follows two path; firstly, the historicity of

the final product. Secondly, the historicity of the concept through which the things are brought

into consciousness. So, the product consciously apprehended in the aftermath of its

production. Literary texts, for Jameson, are understood through the second path; that is to say

through the interpretive master code or what he calls hermeneutics. Being transhistorical, the

text, also bearing in mind inter-textuality, is never confronted as a “brand-new”. Thus, it is as

we read from this quote:

“We never really confront a text immediately,

in all its freshness as a thing in itself. Texts

come before us as the always- already-read”1

That’s why Jameson’s call, in Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, is to historicise for

interpretation as well as for the text under study for:

“We apprehend them through the sedimented

layers of previous interpretation, or-if the text

is brand-new through the sedimented reading

habits and categories developed by those

inherited interpretive traditions”2.

Frederick Jameson, The Political Unconscious,( London: Routledge, 1989) p: 9.
Ibid., P.9.
Mohammed Jhilila

interpretation, thenceforth, is conceived of as an allegorical act which is to be put under study

rather than the text, as car him it is –hermeneutics- merely an act of rewriting the same text

according to the aesthetics of a given trend be it ethical, myth-critical, semantic or

whatsoever. For him, the Marxist interpretative approach is the horizon of all readings which

is marginalized simply because “the authority of … methods springs from their

faithful consonance with this or that local law of a fragmented social life….


The text for Jameson is a reflection of the social, historical as well as the political

sphere it emerged from. Yet, for Jameson it needs to be interpreted through a politically

focused lens as this is the most important Linchpin of the fabric of the tapestry of the body of

interpretation. This is to be done likely because of the role the scrutiny bourgeois played in

the emergence of the Academia, literature and even the interpretive critical approaches. This

is justified by Jameson’s hint to “class struggle in theory” which makes of Marxism the most

suitable theory that provides the hermeneutics with the historical as well as the political

vantages which enriches interpretation. Alluding to the politics of pleasure or what he

insinuates to elsewhere by the by-product of literature, Jameson probes also the philosophy of

the aesthetics which Guy Debord calls “the society of the image or of the spectacle” 4.

Jameson’s main goal, I deem, is to provide an ideology-oriented school of interpretation,

where the reader, instructed and immuned of ideological discourses, finds tactics through

which s/he unmasks the social and political feed-back of the text under study. The reader is

required to know that history is not the contemporaneous history; it is a cobweb and a

relationship of antiquarian and modern times; without asserting the pastness of the past and

the presentness of the present. For him the task of the reader is to fathom the impact of “the

Frederick Jameson, The Political Unconscious, (London: Routledge, 1989) p: 10.
Ibid., P.11.
Mohammed Jhilila

cultural past” upon “the culturally different present”5 . To prove the

connection between the past and the present, Jameson, prescribes the Marxist paradigm and

philosophy as one among other possible schools but as the most adequate. It is considered like

one because it incapacitates the interpreter to find out that texts reflect a “collective

struggle to wrest a realm of freedom from the real of necessity”6.

The Political Unconscious in its core for Jameson investigates the uninterpreted and

the repressed reality; that which entices to maim the individual’s as well as the group’s

thinking way besides the whole sphere surrounding them the most important of which is

History. The realm of necessity stands as the linchpin around which the aesthetics, expressed

through words, revolves. Language thenceforth is considered as a vehicle of mystification of

the world. The reader’s charge is to demystify the codes and read not only the text but also

everything that contributed in its making. This can be read from the following passage in

which Jameson suggests:

“The only effective liberation from such

constraint begins with the recognition that

there is nothing that is not social and

historical- indeed, that everything is, in the

last analysis, political”7.

This said then makes the political, ideological and the social mechanisms both the

breakthrough and the end of all readings. The political, the social and the ideological

conscious lead to “the unmasking of the cultural artefact as socially

symbolic acts”. In Jameson’s viewpoint, the political poses no problem of

Ibid., P.18.
Frederick Jameson, The Political Unconscious, (London: Routledge, 1989) p: 19.
Ibid., P.20.
Mohammed Jhilila

meaning, solely the problem of use [for him] the unconscious

represents nothing but produces. It means nothing but it works”8 (P:

22). The task, then, is to dismantle and to demonstrate the inadequacies of the interpretive

schools to, hopefully, arrive at a new and an adequate hermeneutic which bears in mind the

continuity of the past in the present and inter-relationship between the two and the text as

history comes before us only textualized. For Jameson, the Althusserian Marxism is more

structural Marxism. It is considered so because Althusser conceives of history in terms of

forms of casualities; transitive and expressive.

• Transitive or analytical Effectivity or Casualty: mechanistic and reviewed as outmoded

by the indeterminacy principles of modern physics. For Jameson it is discredited in

cultural studies since it is concerned, have validity, only sketchily with local cultures. In

so far as literature is concerned this kind of casualty has brought internal modifications to

the novel format and critique forms. In Jameson’s view, the transformations introduced an

impression of mystification to the text. By so doing the critics relied only effectively

upon "the internal dynamics of purely formal change”. Applying

intrinsic aperture to study cultures remains scandalous for Jameson who believes that the

cultures of a given people do not change according to internal interactions but because of

outern factors.

• Expressive Casualty: considered by Jameson as the most critical of all kinds of

effectivity; the one that is deeply related to cultural analysis and criticism. Jameson

argues that this type of effectivity, as it relies on totalization, slips towards periodizing

cultures in terms of time. Althussers alleges that every phenomenon expresses a truth or a

cultural aspect particular to the age it emerges in. that is to say that a given culture is

fatherless and sonless; has nothing to do with the past nor with the future; that it has
Ibid., P.22.
Mohammed Jhilila

nothing to do what precedes it not with what pursue it. Criticising Althusser, Jameson

draws on the shortcomings of the totalization the former speaks of which for the latter

turns out to be selective and isolative as it starts from aspect deprived of other dynamics

that makes culture which for Jameson are the social, the economic and the political

factors. In Jameson’s viewpoint, selectiveness raises some to a privileged status at the

expense of discarding the rest and at the same time it becomes the basis of foreshadowing

instead of observing them. Another aspect that Jameson probes in the Althusserian

expressive casualty is that, in relationship with cultural scrutiny, which is, for Jameson,

not satisfactory, it is synchronic. Frederick Jameson distinguishes between diachronism

and synchronism while studying cultures and cultural texts. For him, synchronism makes

of the period idealistic and total by itself whereas synchronism unveils history before the

reader as a linear, continuum and a succession of moments dependent of the previous

stages. For him, the form and the significance of the text are derived from its historicity,

while Althussers asserts that "History is a process without Telos or a

subject"9. This kind of study implies that the New-Testament has nothing to do with the

Old-Testament whereas for Jameson the latter is a rewritten replica of the previous one.

Rewritten texts for Jameson are allegorical connotation to the previously written ones.

They are rewritten because of their openness to be so in new forms in new books.

Jameson in The Political Unconscious suggests a deeper reading of the narrative as well

as the interpretive master codes which for him are inter-related in the process of history,

from Primitive Communism to the Capitalistic/consumerism and Communism proper, in

order to grasp the history of ideologies. In The Ideologies of Theory, Jameson points out

to the politics and the ideologies of postmodernism and poststructuralism, whose artifacts

are considered as paraliteratures; gothic science fiction or fantasy novel through which

they mystified the essentially political affirmation. For him these modes of production are

market-oriented or what he called in the same book “Nostalgia Art” (la mode retro)
Frederick Jameson, The Political Unconscious,( London: Routledge, 1989) p:29.
Mohammed Jhilila

seeking, as their tenet in commercialism, to achieve stylistic pastiche at the expense of

the subject. Elsewhere in Criticism and Ideology, Terry Eagleton accuses the pretty

bourgeois of constructing and reconstructing values, forms and discourses from the

beginning of academia. For this latter, scrutiny bourgeois did not only reshape the

aesthetic regions of ideology it has substituted them. Eagleton, however, says:

"The science of the history of criticism is the

science of the historical forms which produces

those criticism- criticisms which in turn

produces the literary text as their object, as

the text-for-criticism"10

The aesthetic becomes questionable as they are considered the vehicles through which the

ideologies are passed this can be read from the following quote:

"It is not that the aesthetic becomes the

dominant region of the ideology; it is rather

that it is foregrounded as a privileged

bearer of the themes over which that

formation broods"11

Jameson tackling the same issue does not make an exception for Marxist; for him during the

stage of primitive communism the privileged social class produced the whole staff in a

cobweb to maintain its position; it produced religion, culture, aesthetics tastes, academia

literature and the interpretive codes. For him the actual schools are descendents of the same

Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology A Study in Marxist Literary Theory,(London: The Thretford Press
Limited, 1978) p:17.
Ibid., P.20.
Mohammed Jhilila

genealogical tree. This is why the slogan of The Political Unconscious is “always

historicise”; that is one must not assert the pastness of the past or the presentness of the

present. For Jameson:

"If the modern reader is bored or

scandalized by the roots of such texts send

them down into the contingent

circumstances of their historical time, this is

surely testimony of his resistance to his own

political unconscious and to his denial … of

the reading and the writing of the text of

history within himself."12

The political conscious would make the reading of the text, being an allegorical insinuation

to the society’s classes, cultures and ideologies, an epitome of the “pensée sauvage”.

Jameson’s stand towards history is striking; it is never present to us it is

"approach[ed]… only by way of some textualization or narrative

(re)construction"13. History’s presence is only through written mediums that’s why it

is believed with a kind of political unconsciousness. Criticising the Althusserian conception

of historicism, Jameson indicates out to its reversed structure. For him Althusser overturned

Marxian conception of levels; this has made him more a structuralist, since he legitimizes

structures and strata that Marxism fights, than a Marxist. This can be read from the

subsequent passage:

"If therefore one wishes to characterize

Althusser’s Marxism as a structuralism, one

Frederick Jameson, The Political Unconscious, (London: Routledge, 1989) p: 34.
Frederick Jameson, The Ideologies of Theory Essays, (London: Routledge, 1988) p: 150.
Mohammed Jhilila

must complete the characterization with the

essential proviso that it is a structuralism for

which only one structure exists"14

Althussere’s conception of the text and culture is meticulously considered by Jameson as

epiphenomenon of ad hoc economic structure or levels. This after being criticised, for

Jameson, is a representation of the repressive apparatus of the social classes. Marxism is

deemed of as an interdisciplinary paradigm that trespasses the other interpretive master codes

which, for Jameson, are antagonistic to the pluralism of the factors trying to be concerned

with form or content per se. Expressive casualty, for Jameson, totally opposite to Althusser,

plays the role of mediation between the social feed-back, political state and the economic

roots that go hand in hand in a literary or cultural text. Mediation says Jameson " is

understood as a process of transcoding as the invention of a set of

terms… [That] can be used to analyse and articulate two distinct types of

objects or texts"15. For Jameson, what, for Althusser, semi-autonomy separates relates at

the same time. The structure of the levels provided by Althusser serves to determine the

relationship of domination and subjugation of the other; be it a social group, a culture or a

political entity. Homology stands as a tacit tactic mediating the production of language and

that of economy. The text becomes a vehicle of alienation and misappropriation. The concept

also becomes a misleading medium as well, when it comes to the Lacanian "material

signifier" which is ahistorical and only temporal. Homology, being a linchpin of tapestry of

semiotics, is regarded static and synchronic by Jameson. In this latter’s viewpoint, in

Umberto Eco’s as well, Homology entrenches logical but permanent structures that are

secluded, unmodifiable and ahistorical. It is one of the strategies of containment working

through the binary oppositions which Marxism targets for breaking up. Marxism in its core,

Frederick Jameson, The Political Unconscious, (London: Routledge, 1989) p: 36.
Frederick Jameson, The Political Unconscious, (London: Routledge, 1989) p: 40.
Mohammed Jhilila

though Utopian, designates a dialectical criticism of level and hierarchies; its main aspiration

is a study of the text in its historical and ideological contexts. The text then is viewed as a

whole in which the repressed/repressor, the past/ present, and the realm of freedom/the realm

of necessity are all stakeholders.

The Althusserian reading of Heglian and Marxian dialectics are not a break up with them, for

Jameson, it is, instead, a mutation of their fabric. Jameson suggests six major key-

components to achieve a critical reading of the Althusserian conception of the text which are

the following:

• The problem of representation which ignores history as a process and deals with it

as synchronous stages or periods.

• Problem related to the status of the social classes as represented in the collective

historical narrative.

• Taking structure as a praxis which results in many amplifications such as


• The problem of periodization and mediation.

• The problem of totality which is conceived of as a structure.

After criticising Althusser, who for Jameson conceives of the text as always schizophrenic

and seeking unification, Jameson targets at poststructuralism which, for him, substituted

totalization by difference and dissemination which seeks to "bite(ing) its own tail, to

deconstruct itself". The concept of totality in Althusserian viewpoint, as it is criticised by

Jameson, relies on the interference of levels that seek unification. The cultural text, for

Althusser, is necessarily schizophrenic.Criticising poststructuralism and postmodernism,

Jameson asserts that all texts are rewritten texts. What is important, though, is the method

through which this is statement is to be proved. Jameson’s stance is to decenter the subject as

for him rewriting came to mystify the world like it has never been. For Jameson
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poststructuralism’s basis on language isolated from other realms serves in limiting

interpretation. for him this made”language as a thing in itself”. It helped to make language


Speaking of the reification of one component, which is a tactic of many critical

approaches, Jameson criticises also psychoanalysis for its limitedness. The “desire”, upon

which Freud bases his interpretation, remains isolative in Jameson’s viewpoint. Freud tries to

autonomise a constituent of the whole body of the construction of the text/culture. For

Jameson the psychoanalysit emphasised only on the inner factors discarding the outern ones.

Wish-fulfilments are symbolic systems but not fundamental mechanism. They are regarded

by Jameson as metaphysical variants seeking to abstract the reality and the experiences of

modern life. Psychoanalysis is criticised because it isolates also the individual. The Freudian

wish-fulfilment becomes then an ideology which is rewritten by successive psychoanalysts

like Georges Bataille, Norman O.Brown. Jameson’s stand towards psychoanalysis can be

read from the following passage:

"From the point of view of interpretation,

what this means is that desire is always

outside of time, outside of narrative it has

no content; it is always the same in its

cyclical moment of emergence and the

event in question on historicity only to the

degree that the context of the explosion, the

nature of that particular and historical

repressive apparatus, knows specification"16.

Frederick Jameson, The Political Unconscious, (London: Routledge, 1989) p: 68.
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For Jameson, Myth-criticism and Psycho-analysis share some similarities which make

one confused with what kind of approach is applied, if he is not told ahead of time, but the

most salient feature common to both of them is their basis on the political unconscious.

Talking about Northrop Frye, Jameson criticises him in the point in which he says that "a

particular context determines a particular type of interpretation"17. For

Jameson, Frye privileged some archetypes at the expense of the others while at the same time

he pigeonholes a kind of hierarchy in structuring levels of importance. Having said that,

Jameson moves to stricturing Frye in his conception of the end of history-apocalypse. For

him what Frye had conceived of became a culture reproduced by and recontained in other

writer’s works like Blake’s. Psycho-analysis is of a crucial importance for Marxists because

of its libidinal orientation; it is also important but does not only represent the individual’s

inner and unconscious but as a substitute the whole society’s subconscious. To his mind, the

libido or anagogy of the individual is a reflection of the whole communities’ sexual aspect;

"the unity of the body must once again prefigure the renewed organic

identity of associative or collective life"18 . After criticising the other hermeneutics’

master codes, Jameson moves to demonstrate the points of strength of Marxism, which for

him subsumes all their vigour and devoid of their deficiencies. For him Marxism is “the

horizon of all readings”, it is furthermore a precondition necessary for a better understanding

of texts and cultural texts. Reading a text for Jameson entails a reading of its historical,

cultural and ideological circumferences. The text is an allegoric and a symbolic act that might

coincide with a lap of time or a stage, but that is deeply rooted in history; it is a context or a

subtext in which is, crisscrossly, is underpinned all dimensions be they cultural economic or

social. For Jameson, reading is a twofold act; it ranges the reading of the text under study to

arrive at a semantic stage in which one studies the texts’ cultural and social feedback. The

text is an ideologeme that is as it is best mentioned:

Ibid., P. 71.
Frederick Jameson, The Political Unconscious,( London: Routledge, 1989) p: 74.
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"The smallest intelligible unit of the

essentially antagonistic discourses of social


The text for the Marxist is read as an ideologically loaded form; that subsumes the struggle of

the classes in its core or expresses its year-to-year political and social statuses. It is

thenceforth, a chronicle of the relationship between the classes in the society it does not only

unveils or symbolises the contradictions found in the society but goes beyond that to reveal

the cobweb founded by the ruling minority to subjugate the ruled minority. The text divulges

the ideologies, the textual ones, which are made use of to hegemonize through the

bibliography of the elite. The tradition of rewriting has created a culture of criticism and at

the same time a criticism of culture. This latter is viewed as in conflict; a conflict between

popular and elite cultures. Approaching criticism, Jameson, through his slogan of always

historicize, unfolds the stages through which literature was created by the pretty bourgeois,

then the creation of ally literary critical approaches, that benefited from the political

unconscious to mystify the world and appropriate it. For him this started from the time of

primitive communism arriving at the Capitalist/consumer or communism proper in a

ceaseless chain of thoughts and ideologies.

Ibid., P. 76.
Mohammed Jhilila