English 7800 – Jameson “On Interpretation” and the Historical Problem of Abstraction

Fredric Jameson’s chapter “On Interpretation: Literature as a Socially Symbolic Act” from his The Political Unconscious returns often, and surprisingly, to the Middle Ages. As he argues that all literary interpretation is allegorical rewriting, and that the best interpretation requires reading texts as allegories of class conflict, Jameson offers medieval Biblical exegesis as an early master framework of interpretation. Without, of course, arguing that the classic fourfold model of medieval exegesis should be preserved, Jameson nonetheless still clearly admires it. He observes:

The medieval system may perhaps most conveniently be approached through its practical function in late antiquity, its ideological mission as a strategy for assimilating the Old Testament to the New, for rewriting the Jewish textual and cultural heritage in a form usable for Gentiles. The originality of the new allegorical system may be judged by its insistence on preserving the literality of the original texts: it is not here as a matter of dissolving them into mere symbolism, as a rationalistic Hellenism did when, confronted with the archaic and polytheistic letter of the Homeric epic, it rewrote the latter in terms of the struggle of the physical elements with one another, or of the battle of vices and virtues. On the contrary, the Old Testament is here taken as historical fact. (29)

Jameson gets at the basic fact of medieval Biblical interpretation, and likely all exegesis that insists of the reality of the text, namely, that the literal is the foundation of all interpretation. This point is of course necessary to Marxist cultural interpretation, like Jameson’s: literary characters, and, behind them, the textual object, and behind that, the social systems that enable the production of textual objects all really exist, and they exist, presumably, with greater reality the closer the interpretator gets to the fundamental reality of class conflict over access to natural resources.

Unlike interpretative modes that aim to be purely allegorical — the hunt for Jungian archetypes, or the conspiratorial paranoia of QAnon — Marxist interpretation and medieval Biblical exegesis each insist on the reality of what they aim to explain. For each of them, explanations do not simply dig behind the surface to discover the truth; they don’t explain away; instead, each of them, instead, aim to help us understand what is really there. And that’s, presumably, why Jameson finds himself attracted to what would otherwise seem an outmoded hermeneutic for any critic committed to secularism, human-built heavens — or hellscapes — and our inescapable responsibility to work with what’s available to us here, immanently.

The classic Latin tag for the fourfold system of medieval interpretation is:

Litera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria,

Moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia

[The letter teaches events; allegory, what you should believe; morality, what you should do; anagogy, where you should aim. translation, David Wallace, much better than what’s available on Wikipedia]

In other words, scriptural interpretation can be divided into literal interpretation, which summarizes and explains what is happening in the story; allegorical (or the tropological) interpretation, which discovers how every passage in scripture encodes what a Christian should believe; moral interpretation, which helps guide us to right action; and anagogical interpretation, which points to the future, to God’s ultimate plan for us and the world. A reading of the Biblical Book of Jonah, for example, might explain who Jonah was in his historical context, why the sailors were so reluctant to fling him overboard, and so on, while also explaining, tropologically, that Jonah’s in the whale’s belly is like Christ in the tomb, and morally how we ought to obey God’s commands and be forgiving, and anagogically, how we ourselves can expect ‘rescue’ from the ‘whale’ of this world in the final coming resurrection.

Underlying this elaborate scheme is a more fundamental one, namely, the split between the literal and the spiritual. That is, the fourfold scheme overcodes a binary division between fleshly — that is, historical — interpretation, and spiritual, abstract interpretations. When reading medieval exegesis, I find it easy to identify the literal level; distinguishing sharply between the allegorical, moral, and anagogical often proves more difficult. I’ve long thought this is because most exegetes were not devoted to the formula of classic fourfold interpretation, but now I’m thinking the issue is that the other three, higher interpretive levels are all, collectively, joined in their rendering the base historical material of scripture into something more abstract.

Abstraction is important to Jameson. He suggests that that the proliferation of new critical approaches in the second half of the nineteenth century — the emergence of psychoanalysis, or the work of Nietzsche or Weber — might be a symptom of “the increasing abstraction of experience in modern society” (65). It’s a fascinating suggestion, but one that I ultimately don’t find convincing.

First of all, it relies upon a certainty, or, at least, an unexamined hunch that prior to the abstractions of modernity, we — whoever ‘we’ are — experienced a less abstract relation to things. That feels true, for some of us. We experienced and suffered political power more directly; we worked with our hands on things we exchanged for other things made by hands (whether this narrative of a lost, past immediacy explains the experience of enslaved people is no minor issue). In a properly historical interpretation, one that understands that all human activity is a reflex of existing class relations, only the increasing financialization of the economy could have produced Freud, Nietzsche, and so on. This idea works only so long as we retain the barely disguised nostalgia for unmediated, medieval experience Jameson’s intellectual/historical narrative requires, and only so long as we ignore the basic imperative to abstraction in the very fourfold interpretation model to which Jameson so often refers.

I am convinced, with Jameson, of the basically allegorical character of at least most literary interpretation. Many academic works of literary criticism, however ably they’re constructed, have a certain windup quality to them. I recently read a work of feminist ecocriticism committed to resisting “western ontologies,” and every text it treated passed through that interpretative, which to say, that allegorical framework. The introduction predicted the whole book. However, I am not, as yet, convinced that the increasingly abstract character of modern finance has anything directly to do with the development of interpretative abstractions in textual or social criticism. Right now, I’m convinced that all explanation is interpretation and that all interpretation tends towards abstraction, then as now, because all interpretation requires reencoding the material at hand into some explanatory system. I’m wondering, then, about this fundamental character of explanation as abstraction as a limit to Jameson’s call to us to “always historicize.” Does abstraction, at least in interpretation, actually not have a history?