To get a grasp of Fredric Jameson, we're recommending that, like Winnie the Pooh, you go to your "Thoughtful Spot," because Jameson is no slouch. In fact, he's a Marxist critic—and one to contend with. Even if Marxist cultural theory is not your jam, and even if you do everything you can to avoid studying it, you will still hear Jameson's name getting tossed around pretty regularly. He's that big, so you may as well surrender and get his gist.
We'll start with three words: Marxism, late capitalism, and postmodernism.
Take a few deep breaths.
Ready? Okay, let's go.
Here's Jameson's gig: he's all about understanding the relationship between postmodernism (including film, architecture, literature, paintings—you name it) and the historical and economic period in which it was produced. He's also obsessed with modernism (the period between 1900 and 1945, roughly) and late capitalism (including post-1945 globalization, multinational corporations, and lots of greed and oppression).
Where does Jameson stand on these fancy concepts? Modernism? He wonders why everyone thinks it's so great. Postmodernism? He's pretty ambivalent. Late capitalism? He thinks it's villainous. More on that later…
When Jameson goes for a workout, he historicizes (translation: he puts everything in its historical context). He's not like traditional Marxists, who are primarily concerned with the working class, structures of power, and the "mode of production" (translation: what human labor was involved in making that work, and how many people were oppressed in the making of it?).
No—Jameson is a Marxist literary critic, which means he primarily looks at literature. According to him, in order to understand literature, one must understand its history and the context in which it was produced. He has written on James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Stephen Mallarmé, Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams, as well as German-language writers like Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka.
But he doesn't read these books in order to interpret things like the symbolism of the cockroach (Kafka) or Molly Bloom's underwear (Joyce) or perverse protagonists (Mann). Jameson looks at modernist literary forms: the epic, the anti-narrative, the radical language experimentation, the unconventional poems, the fragmented texts, and so on. Jameson wants to know what form can tell us about these works' historical context.
As a Marxist literary critic, Jameson asks: If (as they claimed) modernists were more obsessed with the style and form in which they wrote than with the actual content, what does the style and form then tell us about their historical moment? To Fred, there is still something to be found in "the content of the form." As he said, even if modernists claimed to be producing "pure forms," their works "still bear the traces of the marks of the content they tried to extinguish" (source). We're telling you: you can't hide anything from this guy.