Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Jameson as Teacher

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I begin my review in this conflicted, confessional mode because both Tally and Wegner do; both foreground their personal relationships with Jameson, albeit with considerably more confidence and grace than I feel able to muster, situating his writing within the context of teaching within the university system to which he has dedicated his life. Jameson’s very public profile and reputation as “America’s most famous Marxist” actually makes him something of a rare exception in this regard: he is one of the leading members on the relatively short list of scholars who have been more influential outside their classrooms than inside them. For most of us the classroom is where the lion’s share of our work happens, however much our egos might prefer things to be otherwise. For most of us the classroom is the work.

I have a short review essay (weirdly personal by academic standards, at least by mine) about Jameson as thinker and Jameson as teacher, pegged to Robert Tally and Phil Wegner’s recent books on his career: “Doktorvater.”

This paradox returns us also to the question of what it means to be Jameson’s student, whether metaphorically as his reader or literally as his dissertation advisee. Early in Tally’s book he paraphrases other critics who see Jameson as “embrac[ing] all things—but, like a python, squeezing the life out of them” (20). What resists this totalizing enclosure in Tally’s treatment is Jameson’s foregrounding of the productive tension between history as a nightmare and the future as possible utopia, located in the present as a site of struggle—a critical perspective that remains vital and alive insofar as it is always both urgent and irresolvable. Wegner’s version of this same problem comes in his conclusion, where he quotes Evan Watkins’s observation that Jameson’s work is “an ‘anomaly’ among that of the ‘masters of theory’ for the simple reason that ‘you can’t follow this act.’” (Wegner 213). “Jamesonian” has simply never caught on as an adjective in the mold of Hegelian, Marxist, Freudian, Foucauldian, even Žižekian—even as many people (some of his many former students and dissertation advisees among them!) are clearly doing “Jamesonian” analysis. Rather than unfinishable, from this perspective Jameson’s project looks too finished, too complete: he ate the whole elephant, and left nothing behind for the rest of us. Wegner’s answer is to return to the question of fidelity and betrayal: to attempt to simply do Jameson is itself a betrayal of the Jamesonian ethos, and turn him into a “discourse of the university,” another kind of too-close, python-like suffocation. The alternative is to see Jameson not as a master or a mapmaker so much as, again, a teacher, who one day leads us to the gates of the school and then hurls us out into the world to find our own way. “Maybe you can’t do this for yourself,” Wegner quotes Watkins. “It’s not exactly clear what it might mean to ‘follow Jameson’s direction.’ But it is always possible to learn from his work how to do what you do far better and in more historically responsible ways” (qtd. in Wegner 213). As a conclusion to a two-hundred page exegesis, this is perhaps somewhat deflating—you mean this was all a dead end? a road to nowhere?—but for Wegner it seems something more like a rousing call to arms, a “joyful possibility” that speaks to Jameson’s “inexhaustible richness,” resulting in an exuberant final benediction: “May we prove equal to the task!” (213). Jameson’s very irreproducibility, his singularity, can become the engine for our own critical production, so long as we betray him right.

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