Marxist theory has always had a strangely intimate relationship with the arts. As Hal Draper has pointed out, Marx’s criticisms of Eugene Sue’s novel Les Mystères de Paris formed a key moment in his development of the theory of proletarian self-emancipation. Lenin famously refused to listen to Beethoven during the Russian Civil War, claiming its beauty would sap him of the necessary resolve. EP Thompson, known for his virtual invention of ‘history from below,’ wrote his first and last books on William Morris and William Blake, respectively. Indeed, the closeness of this relationship, combined with its durability throughout the long trek of Marxist theory across the twentieth century, has served to obscure its strangeness. To appreciate the incongruity of the relationship, it’s helpful to try and imagine schools of literary study springing from Marxism’s intellectual or political rivals. Is an anarchist literary theory even conceivable? Who would be interested in a Weberian reading of Ulysses? Yet Marxist theorists have founded entire schools of criticism with scarcely a hint of embarrassment over the apparent mismatch between their intellectual pursuits.
Fredric Jameson’s Marxism and Form is, among other things, an attempt to explain this relationship. Jameson argues that even though Marxist criticism in the English speaking world has focused overwhelmingly on content, for dialectical thinkers the privileged moment in the form-content opposition is in fact form. To illustrate this point, Jameson takes the reader on a tour of the most important works of Western Marxism. Through an examination of theorists from Adorno to Sartre, Jameson shows how the work of each has been an attempt to locate in the form of various texts the traces and deformations of society as a whole.
If today that thesis appears original, but not earth shattering, it must have appeared as a jolt from the blue in the intellectual landscape of American literary theory in the early 1970s. While today any reasonably clever liberal arts student can tell you the thesis of Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in 1971 Marxists were only beginning their re-entry into the academy after the McCarthyite purges. Indeed, at the time the hegemonic theory was still New Criticism, whose explicit rejection of historical categories in criticism was as far from Jameson’s Marxism as can be.
For this reason, there is a third vital layer of Marxism and Form, beyond the argument for privileging form and the tour of Western Marxism. This is the layer of pedagogy. Marxism and Form is, perhaps first and foremost, a manual for dialectical thinking. This layer explains, I believe, most of the noteworthy aspects of the text. For while Jameson’s insistence on the primacy of form is an interesting argument, it hardly seems suitable to the conjuncture in which he intervened. Such a novel argument seems directed towards a field which is filled with Marxist critics who focus only on content, not the formalist and technocratic field of American criticism. Looked at from this perspective, Jameson’s argument can only appear misplaced. But judged according to the criteria of pedagogical potential, the argument about form fulfills its purpose beautifully, providing ample opportunity to illustrate the power of dialectical thought.
For Jameson, the argument that form is the privileged object of dialectical theories of literature does not stem from Marx, but from Hegel. For it was Hegel who first formulated the opposition between form and content in its modern guise. Prior to Hegel, the Aristotelian pairing of form and matter, in which the latter was but the passive raw stuff of the former, had dominated philosophical thinking about form. Hegel’s insistence that content itself carried its own logic, which in turn determined the form. In his system, this insight meant that the progress of the Absolute Spirit could only be expressed in certain forms along the way. His ranking of types of knowledge, from art to theology to philosophy, is a history of forms which themselves are determined by the progress of human knowledge.
In Marx’s hands, the opposition of form and content becomes not a means to understand the history of knowledge, but to understand history itself. Marx’s iconic images of historical transformation, the integuments bursting asunder, the throwing off of fetters of production, are precisely images of a content seeking an appropriate form. Without Hegel’s redefinition of the problem of form, Jameson argues, the key Marxist distinction between forces and relations of production is impossible. It is this parallelism between the key Marxist concepts and the key concepts of aesthetics that, for Jameson, explains the affinity between Marxism and art.
Hegel’s animation of content is also the driving force behind Jameson’s argument that form holds primacy in dialectical analysis. For it is precisely form’s determination by content which makes it such a valuable optic into our society. As Jameson argues, “inasmuch as the cultural is far less complex than the economic, it may serve as a useful introduction to the real on a reduced, simplified scale” (10). This formulation hints that for Jameson, the content of literary form is not so much the abstract story as society itself. Thus it is precisely because of form’s determination by content that the former holds the privileged place in dialectical criticism. For it is by reading form that we may come to see the material traces of content, which is to say society as a whole.
With this as Jameson’s central argument, it is not difficult to see why he argues that “[t]he basic story which the dialectic has to tell is no doubt that of the dialectical reversal, that paradoxical turning around of a phenomenon into its opposite” (309). The way Hegel’s subordination of form to content allows the former to stand as the privileged category of analysis is Jameson’s central example of this reversal. From this, we can begin to see its suitability not only as a worthwhile line of investigation in its own right, but also as a an example of how dialectical analysis works.
Jameson’s privileging of form carries with it some baggage, however, in his relative laxity when it comes to addressing content, or history, itself. On one level this makes an appearance with his rather loose acceptance of theories of “postindustrial society,” which often posit the disappearance of the working class (it must be said that Jameson was undoubtedly aided along this route by his endorsement of certain Maoist theorists who argued for the non-revolutionary character of the Western working classes). Forty years later, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, it is as clear as ever that the proletariat has not been absorbed into the bourgeoisie on any level.
At another point in the text, Jameson argues that Lukács faced a contradiction in his diagnosis of modernism as a symptom of a morbid capitalism, and his strident condemnations of modernist writers. Jameson reads this conflict between objective and subjective modes of analysis as internal to Marxism itself, as illustrated by Lenin’s voluntarism in attempting revolution in a more or less pre-capitalist country. As elegant as this symmetry may be, it is essentially dependent upon a Menshevik analysis of October. In endorsing this analysis, Jameson gives credence to the grossest voluntarism of all, that of bourgeois liberalism, which held that force of good ideals could create a third way between the revolution of the Bolsheviks and the barbarism of the White generals.
Unfortunately, it is this kind of disregard for history which has come to dominate literary studies today, not Jameson’s call for a Marxism of form. Indeed, his approach of reading texts as symptomatic solutions to the problems of society has not spread in the way he undoubtedly hoped. Although figures like Benjamin and Adorno (though not Sartre and Lukács) are now firmly part of the cultural studies pantheon, they now bare little resemblance the Hegelian figures Jameson presents. Indeed, the vision of totality which animates Jameson’s entire book is often the polemical target of textual readings today. In the ideologies of textualism, a work is not determined by the problems of society which it attempts to answer, but instead appears as an unstable congeries of criss-crossing discourses, none of which attains primacy.
The hostility of today’s academy to Jameson’s totalizing Marxism helps explain why even forty years later Marxism and Form remains, above all, an exciting read. In a final dialectical reversal, Jameson’s failure (and of course it is not his alone) to organize a generation of American dialectical critics has ensured that his manual for dialectical thinking retains all the urgency with which it was originally written.