What use is a promise? Fredric Jameson, sociology and human emancipation

Posted: December 3, 2013 by Admin in Alienation, Capitalist ideology, Commodification, Cultural studies, Economics, Intellectuals
Fredric Jameson

Fredric Jameson

by O’Shay Muir

The sociological project can be described as an attempt to uncover a hidden logic that runs throughout society, in order to construct a narrative that best mirrors the actual social reality (Seidman 1991). But what is the point of a project that attempts to ‘tell it all’, unless it can help everyday people for the better?

Through this essay I will show that this very question lays at the heart of the sociological project. It is the essence of the promise of the Sociological Imagination. A promise that begins with C. Wright Mills, is called into question by Foucault and is redefined for the better by Fredric Jameson.

C. Wright Mills

C. Wright Mills

Born in 1934 in the United States, Fredric Jameson is a contemporary Marxist literary critic. In 1961 during his time at Yale University he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the literary style of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre; Sartre: The Origins of a Style. Although this book could not be described as ‘Marxist’, compared to his later works, it still can be seen as a critical attempt to distance himself from the conformism of the Anglo-American academic world (Kellner 2006). It was this original critical approach to literary theory that lead him to study Marxian literary theory throughout the 1960s. Motivated by the New Left and the antiwar movement, in 1970 Jameson introduced a dialectical style of Marxist literary theory to the English-speaking world with his book, Marxism and Form (Kellner 2006).

But what use does a literary critic have for those involved in sociology, one might ask.

Jameson’s ideas are important to the Sociological Imagination, because he is able to show us how cultural production is not only a reflection of our lived social experiences, but also how our social reality and its many manifestations in the forms of literature, art, film, architecture etc, are connected to historical stages of economic production.

On top of this in depth analysis of social life, Jameson is able to combine it with a utopian hope/vision for the future, thus fulfilling the promise that people can make a better world (Kellner 2006).

In order to truly grasp the depth of Jameson’s contribution to the sociological project, its imagination and its promise, it is important to begin with Mills and the connection he has to Jameson’s own ideas. For Mills the sociological project of trying to uncover a hidden logic that ran through society was of little importance unless it could be understood and used by everyday people to better their own lives and the world around them (Mills 1959).

For Mills this was the very promise of the sociological project. This promise put forward by Mills took the form of the Sociological Imagination. A quality of mind that enables everyday people to understand their own experiences and become aware of the possibilities that await them, by locating where they not only stand within the much wider social context, but ultimately where they stand in history (Mills 1959).

Like Jameson, Mills describes historical change in a dialectical fashion. Not only does history shape the lives of people, but the lives of people shape history (Mills 1959).  But, unlike Jameson, Mills believed that through an understanding of the relationship between changing global structures and private lives, we could construct a narrative that told it all.

For Jameson such ability for everyday people to fully understand the social totality was made impossible by Late Capitalism.

This is because the dominant mode of production of each historical period shapes a space that is unique to its place in time (Jameson 2000). The influence of the sphere of economics, such as the logic of capital, according to Jameson not only shapes people’s physical and social space, but also their perception of space (Jameson 2000).

This however creates a problem in Late Capitalism, as the ever-changing and enlarging totality of Capitalism is greater than people’s ability to perceive such a vast space from their limited subjective experiences (Jameson 2000).

All of this means that our perception of space, be it from a physical (urban), cultural or political viewpoint is an ideological mirage in the Althusserian sense: “. . . the Imaginary representation of the subject’s relationship to his or her Real conditions of existence” (Althusser 2004, p.693).

Jameson believed that this ideological mirage prevented people from fully grasping the social totality as the rapid pace of change under Late Capitalism would mean that something was always missing in people’s perception of space. This missing piece of the puzzle that is the social totality would not only influence where people currently stand, but also the changes that they face (Jameson 2000). Despite the impossibility for the sociological project to construct a narrative that told it all, like Mills, Jameson still believed in the promise of a Sociological Imagination that could be of help to everyday people.

This imagination for Jameson came in the form of ‘Cognitive Mapping’.

Jameson proposes Cognitive Mapping as a tool that would help people imagine the social totality in a way that best relates to its actual reality, although there will always be something missing. This tool, Cognitive Mapping, draws upon the dialectical relationship between Form and Content (Jameson 2000).  He argues that before we can understand the content or meaning of our social totality, we must first understand the form that it takes.

This task is performed through an understanding of the ‘Laws’ of Capital Accumulation (the logic of capital) (Jameson 2000). Once one understands the hidden logic of the dominant mode of production in one’s time, one is able to understand the impact that it has in shaping the space where it is present. This task combines the dialectical relationship of Form and Content with Temporality and Spatiality (time and space). However an understanding of the Form and Content of our present social totality is not enough if we seek change. We must also be able to imagine a new and better social totality. According to Jameson it is this utopian imagination that is needed most to motivate and drive people to seek a better world.

By the 1970s the sociological project of trying to uncover a hidden logic that ran through society, and of constructing a narrative that best mirrored this logic, came into doubt with the arrival of the Foucault moment. For Foucault, any claim to an ultimate ‘Truth’ was fallacious.  Instead, he argued that knowledge was constructed through social practices of power and these social practices could be seen as nothing less than strategic games of discourse (Foucault 2002).

At the heart of his critique, or better put attack, on the claim to truth held by western scientific thought was the subject itself and its centrality to knowledge. For Foucault, if the human subject is constructed through knowledge and if knowledge has no centre or claim to ultimate truth, then the subject itself also has no centre (Foucault 2002).

This decentering of the subject also calls into question the idea that such a fully formed subject ever existed in the first place.

For Foucault the idea that such a fully formed subject ever existed was little more than a myth constructed by western society. For him the subject was always a result of historical practices of power, an ever going struggle for domination that always prevented such a subject from fully forming in a concrete manner (Foucault 2002). This view of the decentered subject and the questioning of truth became a strong influence on postmodern thought.

Postmodernism saw an abandonment of the former sociological project of trying to construct a grand narrative and instead shifted its focus to understanding struggles for power on a micro level (Seidman 1991).

At the same time, however, and in an ironic sense, its proposition that there can be no ultimate truth lead proponents of postmodernism to claim that theirs was just a viewpoint amongst many despite the centrality of its influence in the social sciences and cultural studies (Jameson 1984). In Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson criticizes this notion that postmodernism is just one style of critique amongst many. Instead, he argues that postmodernism represents the dominant cultural logic of our time. As such, postmodernism needs to be understood within a historical context (Jameson 1984).

Jameson locates this historical context as a reflection of the latest stage of Capitalist production and the logic of capital itself. (Jameson 1984). Jameson is able to perform this task of historicism by arguing that the postmodern decentered subject is not a ontological priori, but the result of Late Capitalism preventing people from locating their place in time (Jameson 1984).

While recognizing Foucault’s position in a way, that subjects are formed through historical, social practices (Jameson opts for the labour process rather than Foucault’s arbitrary notion of ‘Power’ (Jameson 2000)),

Jameson however argues that the idea of the decentered subject is only applicable to our time. (Jameson 1984). For example, the Feudal peasant knows very well the space that they occupy in the social totality. As a result of this strong sense of spatiality and positioning in the social hierarchy, there is little need to question the meaning of their existence. It is simply to farm the land of their feudal lords and reproduce, so when they die their children can carry on the same tradition.

Van Gogh Shoes

Van Gogh Shoes

Such a brutal, yet simplistic meaning to life is used by Jameson when he takes the example of Van Gogh’s ‘Peasant Shoes’, to express the centrality that meaning and the role of the subject once occupied in history (Jameson 1984). In the centre of this painting lays a pair of tattered shoes against a backdrop of a scene depicting the harshness of rural living. ‘Fruit trees in this world are ancient and exhausted sticks coming out of poor soil; the people of the village are worn down to their skulls, caricatures of some ultimate grotesque typology of basic human feature types’ (Jameson 1984, p. 58). The picture is painted in such a way however that one notices that tattered shoes above all else. These shoes are representative of an absent woman for whom the misery of agricultural living is at the centre of her being. In contrast, Andy Warhol’s ‘Diamond Dust Shoes’ on the other hand offers the viewer neither little sense of depiction of time nor any sense of meaning (Jameson 1984). Instead there is simply a domination of space, occupied by glittering shoes without any one object drawing the viewer’s attention above all other objects. Jameson uses Andy Warhol’s painting to demonstrate the central role that space plays in postmodernism and how it has come to dominate over our perception of time. This domination of space over time and its impact upon subjectivity is understood as the cultural logic of Late Capitalism (Jameson 1984).

Warhol's Diamond Dust

Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes

In order to better understand how this ‘neo-Marxist’ idea works it is best to familiarize ourselves with classical Marxism through the ideas of Karl Marx himself, by looking at the dialectical relationship between the spheres of production and circulation. In volume two of Capital, Marx argues that although capital is always present within both spheres, Surplus-value, the essence of profit, can only be made in the sphere of production. This creates the need to speed up the time that capital remains in the sphere of circulation, so it can return to the sphere of production and continue its journey of augmentation (Marx 1956).

In Late Capitalism, capital invested in production in the form of technology, be it Fixed Capital or commodity goods, tends to be a reflection of the need to shorten the time that capital remains in circulation.

This is done through better tools of administration and increased consumption. As a result the most important produced machines in our time are not machines that produce, but rather machines that reproduce images that help speed up the process of circulation (Jameson 1984).

These are machines such as the computer with its administration capabilities and the television with its advertising capabilities (both latent and manifest). Today, however, the lines between technologies of administration and entertainment have been blurred. This all-encompassing, omnipresence of the image, allows for the ever-expanding commodification of all areas of life and being, to such a point where consumption for consumption sake becomes a pursuit in itself.

This comes to a point where image is everything and function is of second importance. This results in people finding themselves lost amongst a world awash with endless images where no original can be found (simulacrum) (Jameson 1984). This world of simulacra ends up creating fragmented, ‘schizophrenic’ identities, as the disappearance of originality and with it a sense of time provokes a meaningless search for meaning in a vast space of endless meaning (Jameson 1984).

Also keeping within the same postmodern tradition of Foucault is Seidman. Like Foucault, Seidman also dismisses the sociological project of trying to discover a hidden logic that runs through society and of constructing a narrative that best mirrors social reality (Seidman 1991). For Seidman, such claims to ‘Truth’ can never be universal as sociological theory is always a reflection of the locality where it is constructed (Seidman 1991). Seidman argues that instead of trying to speak ‘Truth’ and proclaiming to understand society as a whole, we should instead embrace the idea that our local and ethnocentric influences prevent us from knowing society in itself (Seidman 1991). Seidman, like Mills and Jameson, still believes in the idea that people should strive to make things better. Although Seidman believes that sociology should give up on hopes of global emancipation, he still believes that sociology in the form of ‘Social Theory’ can still be involved in local struggles for justice. For Seidman, Social Theory should seek to engage in local debates and must not shy away from moral issues (Seidman 1991). Jameson on the other hand takes a modernist approach. For him, there is such a thing as ‘Truth’ that transcends both local and ethnic boundaries. This ‘Truth’ takes the form of global Capitalism. ‘But let us be serious: anyone who believes that the profit motive and the logic of capital accumulation are not the fundamental laws of this world, who believes that these do not set absolute barriers and limits to social changes and transformations undertaken in it – such a person is living in an alternative universe…’ (Jameson 2000, p. 284). Because of Capitalism’s global nature, Jameson argues that local struggles for change will become isolated and sooner or later die out, unless they can be connected to a greater global struggle for human emancipation (Jameson 2000).

Such a proposition may sound utopian and impossible, but as mentioned before, it is this very utopian imagination that is needed if we want to make a better world (Jameson 2000).

The Sociological Imagination can be seen as a sociological project that not only seeks to uncover the logic of society, but also a project that seeks to describe this logic in such a way that it can be used by everyday people to understand the world around them, giving them the courage to struggle for a better world.

This imagination that seeks to leap from the ivory tower of academic theories and into the living experiences of everyday people has gone through profound changes, starting from the promise of C. Wright Mills, that such an imagination will be able to tell it all, to the road block of the Foucault moment that lead to the very questioning of such a claim to ‘Truth’. The Sociological Imagination through the likes of Jameson was in the wake of the Foucault moment able to steer into the abyss and come out of its baptism of fire all the much stronger. This is because in the same way that Marx was able to place the Hegelian dialectic on its feet and show that qualitative historical change was the result of class struggle rather than some idealist movement towards some eternal ideal, Jameson has been able to show us that the decentering of the subject pronounced by Foucault was not a condition of being throughout our very existence, but is an historical phenomenon that has arisen out of the cultural logic of Late Capitalism. Through Jameson’s return to Marx’s Political Economy in combination with the historicism of dialectical thought, he has been able to create a synthesis between critical and scientific Marxism.

This synthesis is composed by connecting a scientific analysis of the ‘Laws’ of Capital Accumulation, and of its impact upon social change, with a utopian imagination that motivates people to strive for change in the here and now rather than waiting for such change to unfold by itself.

In reflection of the promise of the Sociological Imagination put forward by Mills in the 1950s there was always a dual aspect to it. On one hand it was a promise that sought to tell it all and on the other hand it believed that by constructing such a narrative it could be used by everyday people for the better. For me, personally, it is this second aspect that is of most importance. The essence of Mills’ promise was that people lay at the heart of Sociology and that people have the ability to change the world for the better. It was this strong belief in the lives of people that separated Mills from the likes of Parsons, for whom society took the form of some kind of mechanical machine and people’s personal lives were mostly abstracted from the process.

But while placing strong emphasis on the importance of a Sociological Imagination that seeks to engage and better people’s lives, I still believe in the idea of ‘Truth’. However ‘Truth’ should be seen as a journey rather than a destination. It is an ongoing process, an object that is always out of our grasp because, as Kant says, we can never know the object in itself. But just because our limited subjectivity prevents us from knowing ‘Truth’ in itself we still should not give up on it. I chose Jameson because he best reflects these two positions; a Sociology that seeks to better the lives of people and a Sociology that is grounded in a strong belief in ‘Truth’. On top of this it is the position that Jameson takes on these two stances that is also of importance to me.

From the position of ‘Truth’ he views it through the logic of capital. This Marxist approach is of importance to me because as someone who has dedicated their own free time to read and study all three volumes of Capital, I am very critical of postmodern relativism. Capitalism does act in a similar way to the law of gravity and has a strong influence upon society. On top of this, whenever we analyze something as complicated as society we always start from some kind of vantage point, wherever we are aware of it or not. This makes the question of foundations important and some foundations are more important than others. From a Marxist perspective the foundation of economics are the most important and the reason is so very simple. If we do not eat we die.

From Jameson’s other position of trying to make a better world, his stance is also of importance to me. It is like the idea that trying to cure cancer with aspirin is obviously not going to work, but yet this is how many try to cure the ills of society through welfare and reformism. But if the cure involves a radical transformation of the underlying economic system then such a bold proposition relies on everyday people requiring an imagination that such a utopian position is possible. However, with all that being said, I still believe that Sociology cannot be entirely caught up in such grand narratives and there must still be room left to analyze society from a micro level, while also finding ways to make changes here and now for the better. But we also have to be strongly aware of the limitations of such changes especially when they disrupt the flow of capital in some form or another. Because of this, changes for the better in the here and now cannot be seen as the end process, but must be seen as stepping stones to a much grander vision of a better world.

All in all the Sociological Imagination through Jameson was able to hold onto the essentials of Mills’ promise; an imagination that was in the service of everyday people. While in the wake of the Foucault moment, this imagination may not be able to tell it all, but it still has the power to reveal the ‘Truth’ of the essence behind the appearance of our social totality. This ‘Truth’ or essence of our social totality is the logic of Capital and its ability to infiltrate all aspects of social space. Once one understands this ‘Truth’, change can no longer be a local struggle for justice, it must be a global project of human emancipation. However such a grand project requires a utopian imagination to motivate people to keep struggling for a better world.


Althusser, L. 2004. ‘Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses’, in J. Rivkin & M. Ryan (eds) Literary Theory: An Anthology (2nd ed.), Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp693 – 702.

Foucault, M. 2002. ‘Truth and Juridical forms,’ in J. Faubion (ed.) Power/Michel Foucault, London: Penguin, pp. 1-16.

Jameson, F. 1984. ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.’ New Left Review, 1/146: 53-92.

Jameson, F. 2000. ‘Cognitive Mapping’, in Hardt, M. and Weeks, K (eds), The Jameson Reader, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, UK.

Kellner, D. 2006. Fredric Jameson. Pages.gsesi.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/papers/JamesonJH.htm; viewed 26/10/2013

Marx, K. 1956 (1885). Capital. A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 2. Book One: The Process of Circulation of Capital. Progress Publishers, Moscow, USSR.

Mills, C. Wright. 1959. ‘The Promise’. The Sociological Imagination, Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 3 – 24.

Seidman, S. 1991. ‘The End of Sociological Theory: The Postmodern Hope’, Sociological Theory, 9 (2): 131 – 146.


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