Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Marxism, Morality, and the Politics of Desire: Utopianism in Fredric Jameson's the Political Unconscious

Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Marxism, Morality, and the Politics of Desire: Utopianism in Fredric Jameson's the Political Unconscious

Article excerpt

It will always be a fault not to read and reread and discuss Marx--which is to say also a few others--and to go beyond scholarly "reading" or "discussion." It will be more and more a fault, a failing of theoretical, philosophical, political responsibility. When the dogma machine and the "Marxist" ideological apparatuses (States, parties, cells, unions, and other places of doctrinal production) are in the process of disappearing, we no longer have any excuse, only alibis, for turning away from this responsibility. There will be no future without this. Not without Marx, no future without Marx, without the memory and the inheritance of Marx: in any case of a certain Marx, of his genius, of at least one of his spirits. For this will be our hypothesis or rather our bias: there is more than one of them, there must be more than one of them. (13)

-- Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx

As Derrida reminds us here, there are as many spirits of Marx as there are Marxisms, and it is our responsibility to read and discuss them. This essay contributes to that discussion by examining Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious, a text which holds a key position in contemporary Marxist theory and which remains central to literary critical study. Here, Jameson develops an interpretive method which operates through a dialectical understanding of ideology, which he takes to be a dual force both negative and positive in nature--the former he terms ideology, the latter Utopia. It is this Utopianism which constitutes the moral thrust of Jameson's Marxist hermeneutic and which will be the focus of this essay.

My discussion of utopianism in The Political Unconscious will, first, examine Jameson's reconfiguration of the "ethical" with respect to traditional Marxist critiques and to contemporary literary criticism and, second, demonstrate the ways in which Lacanian psychoanalytic theory makes this reconfiguration possible.(1) Only by understanding this reconfiguration, as well as Jameson's claim for its necessity, can we appreciate the utopian elements in his hermeneutic, which remain always in tension with ideology. In Jameson's working through of it, the traditional vocabulary of the ethical question gets displaced and rewritten into the Jamesonian lexicon which understands the ethical as a particularly modernist discourse invested in and limited by "the individual." This distinction, in turn, effects his conception of the utopian in that it is no longer a category whose meaning is "filled" by ideals of the just, the moral, or of equality as laid out in descriptive utopias; instead, the utopian comes to be equated with a form of thinking--the collective--which has been effectively shoved to the netherside of our (political) unconscious.

The final section of the essay takes the form of a response to Cornel West's critique of The Political Unconscious, which becomes an illustrative point of contrast for examining Jameson's utopianism.(2) After a closer examination of West's critique, I discuss what I will call Jameson's "ontological utopianism" (a characterization I borrow from Clint Burnham) by way of contrasting it to West's secular utopianism, where utopianism comes to be understood as a code word for Marxism itself in the two forms represented by Jameson and West respectively. That is to say, it rings as a truism in the ears of anyone who studies the body of work now commonly referred to as Marxist theory (the adjectivization somehow conveying this very point) that there are as many spirits of Marx as there are Marxisms. This multiplicity is visible not least in considering the differences between these two leading figures of American Marxism, whose interpretive battle centers, finally, around their differing conceptions of the relationship of hope (utopian theory) to time (praxis).

The very choice by Derrida of the word "responsibility" invokes the ethical dimension of Marxist thought which above all is the attempt to conceive of a future which is somehow better, more equitable than our historical present. …

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