Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One

(New York: Verso, 2011)

Fredric Jameson’s career as a literary critic and social theorist has been defined by the exchange between his political and intellectual commitment to Marxism, and his engagement with a series of more recent (and often competing) approaches to critical theory. The most famous of these encounters is his dialogue with postmodernism and poststructuralism in the 1980s and 1990s. Jameson’s idiosyncratic combination of Marxism and eclecticism has attracted some opprobrium over the years, but it has also produced a sustained and original meditation on the philosophical implications of Marxism and its place in today’s world. The two imperatives that have defined Jameson’s career are in full evidence in Representing Capital. As its subtitle states, this short book presents Jameson’s interpretation of Marx’s Capital, Volume I; yet the interpretation itself is deeply marked by his engagement with contemporary aesthetic and social theories.

In three chapters that comprise roughly the first half of the book, Jameson reads Capital I in sequence. Remaining close to Marx’s text, his interpretation highlights a number of widely-recognized turning points in the analysis: Marx’s entry into “the hidden abode of production” in Chapter 6; Chapter 10, “The Working Day”; Chapter 15, “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry”; the general law of capitalist accumulation. Jameson also displays nuance where others often have not: Drawing attention to Chapter 13, “Co-operation,” for example, he adds greater subtlety to the reading of Chapter 15’s well-known analysis of industrial manufacture, underscoring the distinction between the collective nature of modern production and its specifically capitalist form. He also presents persuasive evidence that the concept of alienation, which does not appear by name in Marx’s “mature” works, nevertheless plays a decisive role in Capital. Surveying the development of Marx’s argument as a whole, Jameson suggests that Capital is organized into three broad “movements”: the introduction of the problem of value and the theory of money in Part 1; the abandonment of such false or incomplete conceptual contradictions for the analysis of production that occupies the body of the book; and a historical “coda,” in the form of the discussion of primitive accumulation in Part 8.

What is most distinctive about Jameson’s reading of Capital is the contention that Marx’s analysis, like all ostensibly empirical analysis, cannot really be understood apart from the language and concepts through which it is expressed. This is the significance of the concept of representation that appears in the book’s title, which Jameson apostrophizes in terms that echo the Communist Manifesto: “The problem of representation today eats away at all the established disciplines like a virus…” (4). Following Georg Lukács, Theodor Adorno, and others, Jameson holds that it becomes increasingly impossible to make sense of life in the modern capitalist world, as system and society grow beyond the frame of experience of any situated group or community, and as the logic of the market reifies the social and symbolic resources that humans depend on to think, communicate, and act. The larger part of Jameson’s work in comparative literature and criticism has been to demonstrate that the principal solution to this problem is to depart from the precision of concepts in favor of literary figures such as metaphor and allegory, and formal experimentation. The problem or “dilemma” of representation is that such rhetorical strategies may allow the mind to confront new realities by suggesting a comparison with the familiar or by giving form to confusion; but they are nevertheless ambiguous and imprecise, and always mark a failure of understanding in the first place. Accordingly, Jameson’s “representational” reading of Capital traces the piecemeal strategies that allowed Marx to accomplish his epochal work, and seeks to distill their unique success.

Representing Capital is rarely more rewarding than when Jameson remarks on Marx’s “great Whitmanesque delight in enumerations” (24, 112), or on the aptness of musical analogies to the grand sweep of his argument (54, 72-3). Noting the “outbursts of figuration” that occur at critical points in the analysis, Jameson pictures Marx both at the limits of his expressive powers, and beyond the brink of invention (39). “[M]odulation into the figurative,” he writes, is “always the sign that Marx’s text has risen to a certain consciousness of itself, has reached a height from which for a moment it can look out across the totality of its object and of the system as a whole…” (68). Jameson’s sensitivity to the texture of Marx’s argument leads him to distinguish carefully between what is explicit in the text of Capital and what has been inferred or implied. Against the assumptions of a majority of readers, Jameson suggests (“scandalously,” he acknowledges) that it “is not a book about politics, and not even a book about labor: it is a book about unemployment…” (4). Nor, he argues, is Capital a book about history. Not unlike Louis Althusser, Jameson finds that Marx’s theoretical advances result in large part from the self-limitations of his approach. Attempting to capture the permutations of an alien and inhumane system, Marx sets aside questions of politics and history, etc., to picture capitalists and laborers not in their full humanity, but only as representatives or “bearers” (Träger) of systemic functions and imperatives (40, 114). Hence the structure of Capital in which, as Jameson sees it, Marx limits his treatment of extraneous questions to the beginning and the end of the book, so that they resonate in, but do not define, the main body of the text.

The negative sensibility that Jameson attributes to the mature Marx emerges as a principle in its own right in Representing Capital, and it may constitute the book’s most significant contribution to Jameson’s work as a whole. In Jameson’s telling, Marx’s genius is not to circumvent but, if only tacitly, to accede to the dilemma of representation: Because language cannot express the experience of labor in a manner consistent with a rigorous analysis of the system, it can only appear in Capital by way of absence. Chapter 10 on the working day becomes an analysis not of labor itself, but of “the impossibility of work at its extremes [–] not the linguistic articulation of factory work but rather the account of its misuse (in the official reports) and the impossibility of framing laws capable of preventing that” (113). Capital, in turn, becomes a book not about the working class per se, but about the exhausted, the unemployed, and the dispossessed—all of those who are denuded by the system, yet essential to its functioning. This emphasis on negativity, absence, and loss proves surprisingly fertile: To claim that Capital is not about wage labor but only its inevitable detours, not only evokes Marx’s own conclusions, but also preserves his relevance for the many intellectuals and activists today who have located the most vital revolutionary energies across or beyond class boundaries. Similarly, the terminology of the negative that Jameson elicits from Marx’s analysis—terms such as subtraction (81), separation (81-3, 109-10), extinction (93-4)—gives rare substance to Adorno’s conception of a negative dialectic, and suggests fruitful compatibilities with contemporary post- and non-Marxist theorists from Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida to Alain Badiou.

But neither, of course, is Capital a book of theory. Jameson increasingly abstracts from Marx’s text in the second half of Representing Capital, in order to systematize what he considers the distinctive features of Marx’s approach, and to appropriate them for his own work. He characteristically attributes Marx’s genius to a transformation of the Hegelian dialectic, which manifests in a philosophically-sophisticated understanding of space and time that uniquely enables him to grasp the nature and complexities of capitalism. This is an extension of an argument that Jameson made previously in Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, 2009), that the critical force of Marxism inheres in a materialist, “spatial” dialectic that surpasses the “idealist,” temporal theories of Hegel, Heidegger, and others.

Yet the subtle tensions that have sustained Jameson’s study seem to waver at this point, and there is a break from the careful, qualified exposition of earlier chapters. Capital does not fit the pattern of his theory as neatly as he might wish, and Jameson’s attempt to generalize Marx’s method is not well anticipated by the analysis that precedes it. The arguments that he makes in these chapters—for example, regarding the ontological uniqueness of capitalism and the priority of exploitation over domination—are unlikely to find their mark with readers who are not already convinced of his case.

Reviewed by Sean Saraka
Independent scholar
Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts

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