A roundtable essay on Allegory and Ideology

This piece is on the latest book by one of the greatest living theorists of our time. Allegory and Ideology by Fredric Jameson (Verso, 2019) is a book that I’ve been thoroughly looking forward to discussing. It is perhaps the seminal American thinker’s major reflection on literature, or at least his most major reflection on literature since his last major reflection on literature. Is there a student of literature, a literary studies academic, an Anglophone Marxist theorist, an intellectual or a pseudo-intellectual of the last forty years that has not at the very least stumbled upon the idea that literature articulates the world’s political unconscious, or that postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism? These immensely influential ideas are Jameson’s, of course. But has he come up with equally powerful and compelling concepts in his new book, or is he simply rehashing his greatest hits, as it were, in the style of many other greatest living theorists (a certain eccentric bearded gentleman from Slovenia comes to mind)? What’s the verdict?

To approach this crucial issue, I have decided to go beyond my own customary wisdom, and invite three others to take part in a roundtable discussion of Allegory and Ideology. In these difficult times, however, when, due to the interference and exigencies of a very nasty virus, one is reduced to having only one’s cat (and only when the said cat feels sociable) for company, I have found it difficult to connect with the other members of our intelligentsia to stage a conversation apropos Jameson’s new tome. So, I’ve resorted to taking a leaf out of the late great English historian Norman Hampson’s utterly wonderful 1974 biography of the notorious French Revolutionary leader, The Life and Opinions of Maximilien Robespierre, and, well, invent my own interlocutors. Is this decision a symptom of my incipient mental breakdown? Perhaps. But I should hope that you, dear reader, will not be too flummoxed upon meeting these imaginary characters with whom I shall engage in a robust debate about the merits of Jameson’s new book.

So, without further ado, allow me to introduce you to: Alain, the philosopher; H (Hilda), the poet; and Rosa, the revolutionary Marxist. Ladies and gentleman, thank you for joining the conversation!

Alain: Bonjour, Ali.

Rosa: Good day, comrades.

H: [Looks awkward, shy, and doesn’t speak. She smokes her cigarette quietly, in the corner.]

Me: Ok, let’s first ask each of you what your expectations were upon approaching Mr Jameson’s new book. Could I please start with you, Rosa, seeing as you seem most enthusiastic to speak?

Rosa: Yeah, sure. Look, I have nothing against literature and culture and those sorts of things, right? Marx himself published poetry before becoming a militant, and, like Marx, I also really appreciate those great 19th century novels that exposed the machinations of class society. So, yes, literature can be radical, it can help us with the fight against the bourgeoisie. Possibly. But can someone really call themselves a Marxist if all they do is sit on their pampered little arse and pen pretty little poems or comment on pretty little poems? Seriously?

H: [Sneers dismissively, mumbles a smartarse comment that no one else hears, coughs.]

Rosa: Listen. Writers must be a part of the class struggle, not just distant observers of it. Now, I’ve gotta admit what’s always interested me about Jameson is that in the academic cultures of the Western world, especially in the English-speaking world, where revolutionary Marxism has been betrayed by cohort after cohort of intellectuals obsessed with bourgeois nonsense like postmodernism, poststructuralism, posthumanism – and don’t even get me started on postcolonialism, with its race reductionism and race fetishism – Jameson has been one of the only defenders of the Marxist tradition. It’s a bit hard to describe just how terrible things were for us Marxists, back in the 70s and 80s, when neoliberalism became the order of the day, working class movements were crushed in the West, Marxism became associated with the evils of Stalinism, and identity politics eroded class politics. So, yeah, Jameson’s intellectual interventions were most welcome, but they were still only intellectual interventions. But then came his 2017 essay, a call for the creation of what he calls the universal army. Now, we know that in capitalist societies the army is institutionally created to augment ruling class hegemony, but Jameson’s call for us to get mobilised, like real fighters, was pretty damn refreshing. So, yeah, I was looking forward to his new book.

Me: Ok, thank you, Rosa. Let’s hear from the others on the panel. Hilda … sorry. H, did you want to speak next? No? Ok, Alain, over to you. How does a philosopher approach Fredric Jameson’s new book?

Alain: Très bien. The first thing for us to consider is the book’s title. Allegory comes from the Greek allēgoria. Allos means ‘other’ or ‘different’, and goria means ‘speaking’, usually in a public, argumentative way, in the sense implied by agora. The agora was, of course, the space in an ancient Greek city state where the citizens gathered to debate issues that affected them collectively, and it was crucial to the life of the polis and to what we came to understand as politics. Therefore, allegory is an inherently political signifier. But what does it signify, precisely? Let us consider the implication of the prefix, allos. Firstly, it would seem as though the otherness of political address simply denotes speaking politically, or speaking as a political animal – to use Aristotle’s famous designation of the socialised human – as a kind of indirect or differentiated discourse, as a way of speaking about the polis without speaking about the polis directly, or without using the same register and tenor of speech as the language used at the public assembly of citizens. So, par exemple, a poet may say something about a great, dangerous forest, but actually mean to say something about the city in which the poet lives or perhaps something about the conditions under which –

H: …poets don’t … like … trade in clichés.

Alain [bemused by H’s interjection]: Oui, bien sûr. But that is, as I said, what would appear to us initially. If, however, we were to interrogate the allos, the Otherness of the word allegory, as an indication of a more profound alterity, along the lines developed by modern philosophers, particularly philosophers since Kant and Hegel, then we may conclude that all speech, all language, poetic or otherwise, is allegorical. The world-in-itself is not available to direct linguistic representation, and all we have at our disposal, all we can draw upon and express poetically or otherwise, is the appearance of the world, and not its absolute objectivity that resides well beyond our subjectivity. Furthermore, all speech, any linguistic performance of any kind, is staged for – and perhaps, also, by – an Other, an audience, a reader, or, if you like, a master. Remember Rimbaud’s famous line: Je est un autre.

H: … I is an other …

Me: In the interest of brevity, can I say, Alain, that you think there really isn’t such a thing as allegory, as a genre or kind of writing, but allegory is a theory, a way of looking at things? For example, I may talk about a novel in a realist sense, by saying something about what it teaches us about, say, class relations, or exploitation, or things like that –

Rosa: And there’d be nothing wrong with that.

Me: Please don’t interrupt.

Rosa: You interrupted Alain! Which was a good thing.

Me: Please. I’m only trying to facilitate this discussion. So, Alain, would you agree with that? That allegory is a prism, or a perspective, which allows me to say about the same hypothetical novel that it says things indirectly, that even if it’s explicitly about something like capitalism or social problems or whatever, it’s actually, allegorically, about an other thing, say, the deeper, hidden ideas, desires, tendencies, repressed feelings?

Rosa: You can be so bourgeois, Ali.

Alain: Pourquois pas? I agree with some of what you say. It is certainly possible now, in the post-Enlightenment milieu, to generalise the trope of allegory and make claims along the lines you have suggested. That is certainly the direction taken by psychoanalysis. We may even find something somewhat similar to this in Nietzsche’s famous espousal of the Dionysian contra the Apollonian.

[H’s ears prick up at hearing references to Nietzsche and to ancient Greek gods. Rosa shakes her head with disappointment.]

But, if so, then allegory is only a condition or – to use your term, a prism – available in the arts, or in the artistic modes of language such as poetry and fiction. Now, if you permit me to address the second part of the title of Jameson’s book, ideology, I will only say, very briefly, that I find many of the contemporary takes on the concept quite problematic. To be sure, ideology, as Marx says, can be seen as the amalgamation and systematisation of the ideas of the economic ruling class, but what does that mean, precisely? We know that no ruling class – neither the modern bourgeoisie nor any other – preaches an ideology unapologetically. In the Middle Ages, for example, the Crusaders did not simply tell the European peasantry whom they wished to enlist in their wars against the Muslim caliphate that what the knighthood wanted was direct access to the economic sources in the Levant, the trade hubs, potential markets for Europe’s products, and so on. In fact, it seems unlikely to me that the Crusaders would have been particularly conscious of such imperatives. Non. What they transmitted to the peasantry was a message of religious liberation, salvation, etcetera.

Rosa: So far, so good.

Alain: But – and this is a major but – this account of ideology does away with subjectivity. This has led many a Marxist philosopher to grant ideology the power – and, indeed, a will – which for Hegel could only be found in Reason. So herein lies the aporia: the very same approach that permits us to say that dominant ideas at a given time are those of a domineering ruling class also inevitably leads us to the conclusion that these ideas are inherently reasonable, and therefore not the inverted, fetishistic camera obscura that Marx had in mind.

Me: Hmmm …

Rosa: Can I respond to that?

Me: Let’s hear from H first.

H [after a long pause, with reluctance]: … to ask a poet to talk about ideology … it’s, like … asking a bee to talk about royal jelly …

Rosa [chuckles]: That rhymed!

Hilda: … or a whore to sermonise about sex …

Me: Oh dear …

H: I’m, like, totally confused about what you want from … artists. If you’re saying that all we’re doing is … what? Lyricising the dominant culture? If that’s what you’re saying … I think you don’t get poetry. I had to study Jameson like everyone else when I was at uni … well … I didn’t really wanna go to uni, I just wanted to write … but, like, how the fuck am I supposed to feed myself, without a degree, and the only thing a degree is good for is getting a job teaching at a uni … as a casual underpaid serf, if you’re lucky … so what do I think of him? I liked his book on Brecht … most people don’t get Brecht, but Jameson does … like he says, Brecht had method …

Me: Very good. I think it would be good to now move on to the book itself. In the book’s preface, Jameson says that he sees ideology as the “intersection between the biological individual and the collective which is at stake in thinking, in literary expression, and of course in language itself.” The word intersection suggests that ideology can’t be extended to the entire being of the biological individual, nor can it summarise the entirety of the ways in which the collective is brought into the fields of language and literature. Ideology is only that space where one’s consciousness of oneself overlaps with literary and linguistic expression. A bit of an odd definition, wouldn’t you agree?

Rosa: The focus on language and literature does annoy me, but, to be fair, that’s where Marx and Engels begin, in The German Ideology. Most of the socialists of that time, in the mid-19th century, had a fairly vulgar view of the actuality of society. They saw classes in pretty simplistic ways, in terms of obvious, clear-cut social relations. So, if someone worked for a living, then that person could be seen to automatically have the interest and the capacity to rise up and topple the exploiters. All that person had to do was build a barricade, climb up and wave a red flag!

H: … aren’t you into that sorta thing?

Rosa: Sure, comrade. I’d rather die on the barricade then sit through one minute of one of the poetry readings where you and your hipster friends congratulate each other for saying clever things. Any day! But the great uprisings of the early 19th century didn’t bring about a just, classless society. They gave us more authoritarianism, more imperialism, more capitalism. I see that Jameson is basically trying to address the same dilemma. A part of the biological individual, which I’m very happy to call, after the young Marx, species essence, is not covered by language and narrative and things like that, but a part of it is covered by words and stories, and that’s what’s ideological.

H: … your hatred of poetry … so intense … it blinds you to what he’s really saying … only the intersection between human consciousness and the arts is ideological, not the entire world of art and poetry … I like what he says when he says … like … it’s through coming in contact with poems and stories that the individual can think collectively … so maybe it’s us poets who are the true collectivists, true communists …

Rosa: I very much doubt that.

Me: Alain?

Alain: Two points. Firstly, Jameson is not demonising ideology, precisely as our poet friend says. Secondly, he is giving literature a very prominent role in ideology. But, very importantly, he is not letting literature off the … holder? What’s the English idiom?

Rosa: Off the hook.

Alain: Exactement. He’s not letting literature off the hook so easily. He’s not authorising a romantic naiveté that automatically valorises all poetic or literary expression as the absolute embodiment of truth. 

Rosa: [contemplates sticking her tongue out at H, but thinks better of it, and simply nods.]

Me: Indeed. And that seems to be where allegory comes in, a hook to hang literature on, so to speak. Although Jameson seems to prefer the metaphor of the ladder, in the book’s first chapter. He begins this chapter, which is an amazing history of the various theories of allegory in Western art and philosophy, by saying that in the ancient world it was generally assumed that in a poetic figure of speech like the simile there were two levels of meaning. In an image from Virgil’s poetry, for example, we have Trojan warriors attacking the Greeks “like wildfowl”. Jameson argues that to make sense of this image we either have to assume that the Trojans have qualities akin to angry birds, which means the birds become merely ornamental, or we have to assume that the Trojans are essentially wild, angry forces of nature, and that it’s their human characters in a banal historical drama which is inessential and secondary. And Jameson goes on to say that, put simply, we often make the mistake of collapsing one of these levels on top of the other in our understanding of allegorical forms of cultural production. So, to prevent this from happening, he proposes that we move in between the levels, as though we’re using a ladder (although, frankly, stairs or an escalator may have been better) to, in his words, have a movement “between the particular and the universal and a narrative reinvention of some kind of quasi-mystical journey from one to the other”.

Rosa: He’s using an allegory to talk about allegory. Bloody theorists. I think I might take a nap now. Do let me know when he starts talking about class struggle and revolution, instead of mystical journeys.

Me: Will do. What do you make of this, H?

H: … sounds ok … I mean, sometimes when I look at a poem I’ve written, it’s not clear to me if my poem’s about the actual subject matter of the poem … like … a sea violet … or Helen of Troy … or if I’m talking about something else … like human nature … or gender … yeah, I’m cool with that … like … I wrote a poem earlier today about my cat … can I read it out –

Me, Rosa and Alain [in unison]: No!

H: … fine …

Me: In the book’s second chapter, Jameson makes a very interesting claim, by saying that allegory is underpinned by a system of named emotions, or by the words that we use to signify emotions, which differ from culture to culture. So, for examples, ‘love’ is not included among the seven emotions in traditional Chinese medicine, but is found in classical Hindu aesthetics.

Alain [seeming somewhat perturbed, for the first time]: Alors, Monsieur Jameson has embraced what the Americans call Affect Theory. I must say, I am a little troubled by that.

Me: Well, he criticises Affect Theory too. His aim is to advance a new definition of allegory, to argue that allegory should be understood – or at least allegory in the modern world should be understood – as that which, whilst itself being “a first sign and symptom” of “radical cultural differences” in the naming of emotions, it also “seeks to reconcile Judaic, Roman and many other mentalities and to invent transcoding systems capable of accommodating them.”

Rosa: I really was going to keep my mouth shut until we return to talking about politics and ideology, but, seriously, is Jameson now pimping globalisation and cosmopolitanism?

Me: Well, that would seem to be the case, especially when he ends this chapter by advocating what he calls “a postmodern Malthusianism, in which it is the immense and inconceivable proliferation of otherness in our now unrepresentable ‘globalized’ species population which takes precedence over and indeed subsumes all these other undeniable developments.”

Rosa: Good god!

Alain: I would like to defend him, briefly, if I may. The phrase postmodern Malthusianism does not strike me quite as egregious as it sounds. It seems dialectical. Malthusianism as such posits that populations are representable, or knowable, and therefore subject to biopolitical interventions by the sovereign, things many of us would, in agreement with Marx, find rather deplorable. Bien sûr. But the adjective postmodern here – which, I must admit, I find rather meaningless – is meant as a negation. The negation of what? Precisely the dimensions or implications of Malthus’s thought which would depend on representability and particularity.

H: … an oxymoron …

Alain: Exactement! Now, one may argue that we already have a much better word for what Jameson is struggling to name – universality.

Me: But is that really what he’s getting at? For Marx, our universality is connected with our species essence, founded in the radical recognition that we’re all humans, that we have the same needs, even if we go about satisfying these needs in very different ways. But here, Jameson is talking about us humans seeing each other as others, as inconceivable. And he’s not saying that we should reject radical universality and settle for postmodern Malthusianism. Not at all. He’s saying that we should call a spade a spade, that we should call the ideological totality that subsumes us by its proper name.

Alain [not convinced]: Peut-être.

Me: From chapter three on, he focusses on specific works of art and literature. He says that to understand Hamlet allegorically, we need to look at it through the lens of Lacanian psychoanalysis. And, if we do this, we might discover that the play is really about

a father who does not know he is dead. On the appropriate level of allegory – that of the anagogical, or world history – the analogy would be that of an old order incapable, as the Stuarts were, of acknowledging their obsolescence, of realizing that they were dead. Perhaps our own moment of late capitalism is in a similar situation, of denial and rebirth.

H: … that’s … cool … we’re all dead … and don’t know it … but I don’t know if I agree that Hamlet is an allegory of politics in, like, such an obvious way …

Me: I don’t think Jameson says that the analogy is so obvious. He comes to this conclusion after many pages of both refuting existing readings of Hamlet and also using Lacanian theory to dig deeper and deeper into the play.

Rosa: I like this too, although not for the same reasons as H. Capitalism is certainly in denial of its obsolescence, so if a play like Hamlet makes us realise that, or to at least realise that the ruling classes, now or in Shakespeare’s time, were too deluded to see their own death, then, sure, I’m all for this analysis. But what does he mean by rebirth? Is he saying Hamlet celebrates the rebirth of the same dying political system?

Alain: Non. Not the very same political system, but, also, oui, a new, renewed political system not so unlike it. Let us not forget that the word revolution, as different to both revolt and also to conservation, is, indeed, both of those things. It suggests, in the first instance, a 180-degree shift away from an initial position – such as a political system, like that of the Stuarts – and then another 180-degree shift to the initial point, as may be seen in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 after the revolt and civil war which first ousted the Stuarts.

Rosa: So, all revolutions end up where they started, huh? In tyranny and oppression. Gosh, Alain. That’s a pretty fucking conservative thing to say, don’t you think?

Alain: Mais non. You would be right, my friend, if by revolving we meant solely a spatial movement. But Earth does not revolve around the sun to return to its initial place and resume being exactly what it was before its revolution began. Certainly not. The passage of time here is crucial. That is why we understand the revolution of Earth in primarily temporal terms, and call it a year. A lot can change in a year, non?

H: … can we, like, not just talk about politics? Poets aren’t propagandists. Does Jameson say anything about poets other than, like, canonical ones, like Shakespeare … how about contemporary writers?

Me: The book’s fifth chapter, written in two parts, is about, among other things, the infamous 1973 novel Xana by the late Senegalese writer Ousmane Sembène. The first part of the chapter was first published as an article in 1986, and, at the time, it caused something of a minor controversy. Jameson’s basic claim that novels like Xana, even though they are, on the surface, about non-political, deeply personal and private matters – this novel, which is actually quite hilarious, and luckily available in English translation, is, putatively, about a man trying to get an erection on his wedding night – they’re allegorically about the struggles faces by the political elites of Third World or Global South countries.

H: … did people get upset with … what … Jameson writing about erections?

Me: I’m sure some did. But the main objection – other than a point made by another Marxist at the time, Aijaz Ahmad, about Jameson’s rather wholesale reduction of so much literature from so many parts of the world to the same allegorical function, a critique that I mostly agree with – was about Jameson’s race. Many an emerging postcolonial theorist denounced Jameson as a White person who should have no right to talk about non-White writers.

Rosa: The same acolytes of capitalism and globalisation who use the fact that Marx was European to reject Marxism in the name of fighting Eurocentrism. Sanctimonious, insincere, bourgeois pseudo-intellectuals.

Me: Jameson himself does describe some of his opponents as “the various adherents of race, ethnicity, and gender (identity) politics who found [Jameson’s article] a useful vehicle for attacking socialist and Marxist positions.” However, he takes the criticism from fellow Marxists like Ahmad more seriously, and in the second part of the chapter, he provides a new commentary, more than thirty years after the publication of his original essay, in which he says that he never intended to say that “everything is allegorical, but, even more, that all allegory is utopian!”

Alain: Yes, I could foresee that this would be the conclusion he would be making with this book. I will not say anything about what I personally take utopia to mean. I take it that Jameson sees utopia as a place – or perhaps a non-place – from which one can expose and critique ideology. Here, he is obviously showing loyalty to his true master, who is neither Marx nor Lacan, but is Louis Althusser. It was Althusser who – admittedly, in the spirit of a comment made by Marx in the Grundrisse – first suggested that art operates at a distance from ideology. Monsieur Jameson’s utopia is, in short, this distant place, a place from where we may view the contradictions and, if you like, the obsolescence of ideology. But I remain unconvinced – also pace Althusser – that a recognition of the allegorical, and a celebration of a utopian distance that such a recognition may entail, could also entail a refutation of the logic of ideology. Ideology remains, in this account, the condition of Reason. For me, the point of philosophy should be to discover consistent, operative truths, not to point out, however insightfully, the ways in which ideology functions.

Me: So that would be your final assessment of Allegory and Ideology, then?

Alain: Not a final assessment, but an invitation to continued assessment.

Me: Ok, not sure what that means. But I take your point. Rosa?

Rosa: I actually agree with Alain. I think Jameson could’ve done more to show how allegory helps us with breaking with ideology. I mean, this is definitely a very thorough expansion of Jameson’s original project, to critique ideology and make us sceptical about the rubbish the ruling classes are always trying to shove down our throats, in books and films and all that. Sure, that’s good. But, as a good materialist, Jameson should also know that the capitalist modes of production are constantly changing and evolving, and I find it hard to accept that the allegorical framework is as relevant today as it was when Jameson first started writing this stuff, fifty years ago.

Me: I’m surprised you’re not accusing him of being an insufficiently radical Marxist, an armchair, Ivory Tower intellectual.

Rosa: He can be that too, which does annoy the shit out of me, but I can definitely see that his allegorical model, as a mode of inquiry, can be pretty useful. I mean, hey, we’re not about to start a revolution and topple capitalism anytime soon, unfortunately, so, in the meantime, we might as well analyse books and see if we can raise political consciousness by doing that. 

Me: Indeed. And you, H?

H: … yeah … I liked the book too … so many people dismiss poets as irrelevant, airy fairy fantasists … but, like, if, like what he says, what we writers do is … creating the works, the poems and books, that make the world visible … a world that’s dominated by, like, injustice and stuff like that … yeah … that’s ok …

Me: Just ok?

H: … he’s still, like, just a theorist … with all the jargon, all the isms … but … he might be one of my favourite theorists … if I had to have favourite theorists …

Ali Alizadeh

Ali Alizadeh's latest books are Towards the End and Marx and Art. He's a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies at Monash University.

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  1. remember structuralism, and all the important roundtables that took place in paris, until the structures took to the streets: bodies first (and minds second) placed on the line

  2. no takers? oh, well, press on … it would be a mistake too to try and make the claim that the comment above allegorises black lives matter scenarios, because each different political situation is sui generis, and i may be wrong, but isn’t that the problem with allegory, the tendency to link different political situations and scenarios in order to make overall and overriding total interpretations and summations, as with the quadratic roundtable linkage (and as i am doing here is a sense); also allegories can be expressed and impressed through non linguistic materialities and modalities, all different ways of seeing and being in the world, which is not to say i didn’t enjoy the article, i did and do still, immensely

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