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Volume 5, No. 5 - July/August 1995 FOCUS: Theory and its Discontents   
Jameson & Son

By Scott McLemee

1. SOMETIME between starting to work on his dissertation and submitting the manuscript to Duke University Press, Clint Burnham underwent a metamorphosis or two. "I began to articulate myself in a more class- and sexuality-conscious manne r," Burnham writes, "notably, dressing in that complex of parodic and working-class youth codes sometimes designated as skinhead or grunge . . . made all the more complicated by my coming out and moving to Toronto's gay ghetto (where skinheads are as like ly to be Queer Nation activists or leather dykes as street kids or neo-Nazis). Other changes in my body I have initiated include an interest in body-piercing, recreational drugs, and bodybuilding...."

2. ENERGIZED, perhaps, by these extracurricular activities, Burnham completed the manuscript just published by Duke as The Jamesonian Unconscious: The Aesthetics of Marxist Theory.In it, the buffed-and-studded critic uses Fredric Jameson's dense, brilliant, and labyrinthine work in Marxist cultural theory as the key to interpreting Fredric Jameson's dense, brilliant, and labyrinthine work in Marxist cultural theory. Burnham's reflexive critical performance includes readings of Marxism and Form, The Political Unconscious, and Postmodernism, as well as Signatures of the Visible. As the book jacket relates, Burnham's study also "draws upon an immense range of references familiar to the MTV generation, including < I>Reservoir Dogs, theorists Slavoj Zizek and Pierre Bourdieu, The Satanic Verses, Language poetry, the collapse of state communism in Eastern Europe, and the indie band Killdozer."

3. EXACTLY how many members of the MTV generation are familiar withSlavoj Zizek is left unexamined.

4. ALSO unexamined is Late Marxism, Jameson's book on Theodor Adorno -- a Marxist cultural critic far more dense, brilliant, and labyrinthine than even Jameson himself. (The experience of reading Late Marxism might be compa red to what one imagines entering a black hole to be like.)

5. ADORNO'S Minima Moralia consists of numbered fragments ranging in length from a few sentences to huge paragraphs.

6. BURNHAM'S The Jamesonian Unconscious consists of numbered fragments ranging in length from a few sentences to huge paragraphs.

7. AN ALLUSION TO ADORNO? Possibly, though one might in addition detect here some trace of a lingering nostalgia for the Marxist tradition of writing numbered "theses" on political questions. (See, for instance, the documents of the Comm unist International, or Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle.)

8. ALSO, the technique permits Burnham to change the subject very quickly, and as often as he wants. The effect, at times, resembles a monologue by some well-read friend under the influence of certain recreational drugs. (See paragraph 1 ., above.)

9. AT SOME POINT in writing The Jamesonian Unconscious, Burnham had an epiphany. He realized that, while a graduate student, he had consumed "theory" as a sort of mass culture: "I had a voracious appetite for buying books, was alm ost a groupie in the classical sense of that term, and so on...." There is an irony in this, Burnham says. "I come from a lower-middle-class family -- my father is an officer in the [Canadian] military who rose up from the ranks, my mother was a bank tell er. This background was singularly lacking in cultural capital -- Reader's Digest Condensed Books, Hooked on Classics albums, and paintings of fighter aircraft are still the major cultural artifacts in my father's home." Immersion in poststructuralist th ought and postpunk music was, then, his own private equivalent of the Great Leap Forward.

10. BUT theorists just want to have fun. Burnham is a punster. Judged by the norms of bourgeois academic discourse, section titles such as Can the Skatepunk Speak? and Homhi Don't Play That would seem to be bad jokes.

11. MIGHT THEY NOT BE READ, though, as the emblems of some Canadian leftist-nationalist appropriation of the postcolonial theory of Gayatri Spivak or Homhi Bhabha?

12. WELL, MAYBE. But faced with a reference to "branch-Derrideans," the reader groans -- and not quite from jouissance, either.

13. THERE ARE MORE references to Louis Althusser and Gilles Deleuze than to Killdozer and Pavement in The Jamesonian Unconscious. Yet the proper names of both theorists and alternative bands pepper its numbered paragraphs. "By eli ding, methodologically, the 'difference' between high theory and low entertainment," Burnham explains, "I can receive the greatest possible returns on my investment of cultural capital."

14. FAR MORE memorable than the analyses of Marxism and Form or The Political Unconscious are Burnham's reflections on being a theory junkie. Digging Jameson and Spivak is not that different, he insists, from a devotion to PJ Harvey or Deep Space Nine. In paragraph 115, he describes the phases of commodity-packaging that theory has gone through over the past twenty years or so. The New Left Books of the mid to late 1970s, with their "covers with Robert Natkin paintings that looked like pastel burla p," were followed by the wave of volumes from Minnesota University Press and Routledge during the 1980s -- that "great era of . . . translations of every interesting or even uninteresting Continental theorist...."

15. SO, then, might we not seek to go beyond the Jamesonian reading of Jameson? Could we not turn Burnhamian analysis on Burnham -- to inquire about the status of The Jamesonian Unconscious as a 1990s theoretical commodity?

16. The Jamesonian Unconscious appears in the series known as Post-Contemporary Interventions.

17. THE TERM "POST-COMTEMPORARY" is puzzling. During a somewhat protracted attempt to find out from Duke University Press what it meant, I received a long answering-machine message from an editor. He said, among other things, that "post- contemporary interpretation seeks to place the present within a historical narrative, while recognizing that the contemporary is always already disappearing. Yet the present is, so to speak, always before us."

18. IT SURE IS. One has, nonetheless, a sneaking suspicion that "post-contemporary" may be not so much a concept as a brand name (or even a gimmick: the theory consumer's equivalent of Crystal Pepsi). The editor at Duke finally admitted that the chief criterion for a work such as The Jamesonian Unconscious appearing in the series is that the editors found it interesting.

19. AS IT HAPPENS, one of those editors is Stanley Fish. The other, remarkably enough, is Fredric Jameson.

Scott McLemee


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