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Fredric Jameson's Critical Theory Applied to Carol Ann Duffy's Poetry by Mohamed Kamel Abdel-Daem

Fredric Jameson's Critical Theory Applied to Carol Ann Duffy's Poetry by Mohamed Kamel Abdel-Daem

The present article is partly intended to pinpoint the critical theory laid by Fredric Jameson. In fact, his dialectical critique is nothing but a re-writing or a development of the hypotheses based upon the work of earlier philosophers such as Hegel, Adorno and Althusser, treated inside a Marxist frame. Then, the study aims at criticizing Carol Ann Duffy's poetry from a dialectical point of view, as put by Jameson. The applied part of the study will mainly depend upon analyzing certain collections by Duffy: Standing Female Nude (1985), Mean Time (1993), The World's Wife (1999) and Rapture (2005). The study examines the impact of Duffy's context on her verse, how her dramatic form reflects an ideology, and the repressed facts in her poetry revealed by her symbolism and psychologizing; since dialectical criticism assesses the works of a writer as one whole text, references to other poems will be inevitable.

Fredric Jameson's Critical Theory Applied to Carol Ann Duffy's Poetry
Both Fredric Jameson (1934 -  ) and Carol Ann Duffy(1955 - ) have had anti-Capitalist beliefs; Jameson has absorbed Marxist formulae, and Duffy's work matters for Marxist criticism as her  poetry often criticizes the capitalist climate of contemporary Britain, and ''articulates her frustrations with a nation that has traded its traditional values for 'Mo-ney. Pow-er. Fame' ''( Duffy,2004   121). Also, Marxism matters for us today as  the recent ( present-day) world financial crisis has led to a compulsive questioning of capitalist globalism and created '' fertile ground for the growth of interest in genuine socialism and Marxism''*

As founded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Marxism, in its traditional form views that capitalism has led to the oppression of the proletariat, or the poor majority, who work for the benefit of the bourgeoisie, or the higher class in society. Marxism advocates a proletariat revolution which may implement reforms for the good of their class. The working classes form a society's economic base. The upper classes form a superstructure which has political and legal power. The base complies with the social consciousness, and it controls the superstructure and the social consciousness. The base decides the superstructure, in the beginning, and remains the support of a form of social organization which then can act again upon both parts of the base and superstructure, whose relationship is dialectical, not literal (Marx   265-9).

According to M.H. Abrams, Marxist criticism is based on certain rules:
1)      the evolving history of humanity, of its social relations, of its institutions, and of its ways of thinking are largely determined by the changing mode of its ' material production' – that is, of its overall economic organization.
2)      historical changes in the fundamental mode of production effect changes in the social class structure, establishing in each era dominant and subordinate classes that engage in a struggle for economic, political, and social advantage.

"The Great Implosion". Socialism Today. Issue 122( Oct 2008): 6 secs  *
3)      human consciousness is constituted by an ideology – that is, the beliefs, values, and ways of thinking and feeling through which human beings perceive, and by recourse to which they explain, what they take to be reality. An ideology is the product of the position and interests of a particular class. The dominant ideology in a certain era embodies, and serves to legitimize and perpetuate, the interests of the dominant economic and social class
(Abrams 241).

The present study tries to highlight Fredric Jameson's critical theory based on the  concept of dialectical criticism, and use it to assess Carol Ann Duffy's verse. Fredric Jameson belongs to the Post-Althusserian    ( or Neo-) Marxist critics who reject the '' so-called vulgar Marxist view that works of art are wholly determined by socio-economic forces and argues that they have relative autonomy and are overdetermined ''   ( Newton    241). In his literary criticism, Jameson has '' pursued such politically oriented cultural work – the disengagement of the seeds of the future from the present both through analysis and political praxis" ( Davis  372). The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines dialectic as:

1.      the art of formal reasoning, especially the procedure of seeking truth through debate or discussion; 2. the reasoning or logical structure that holds together a continuous argument or exposition; 3. the interplay of contradictory principles or opposed forces, as understood in the European tradition, a philosophy influenced by W. F. Hegel and including Marx and Engels. Some schematic versions of dialectical philosophy speak of a unification of opposites in which the thesis is opposed to by the antithesis but united with it in a higher synthesis
(Baldick 62).

Fredric Jameson's theory assumes that all kinds of critique are used, as tools, or aids to a comprehensive Marxist framework of literary judgment. A dialectical critic can explore and interpret all sides in a work of art: gender, race, class, character, myth, symbol. He can put all this on a Marxist ground by virtue of having historical and socio-economic totality. Jameson sees that commercialist capitalism has controlled the cultural and literary arena during the 20th century and afterwards. He has embedded many critical trends into his unconventional theory: structuralism, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, formalism. He makes use of a twofold meaning of ideology and utopia in order to lay focus on the ideological aspects in a literary work, which look forward to a utopian world, and thus help in criticizing the contemporary capitalist society. This is provided by different types of artistic work: realistic, imaginative, popular. Jameson's canon urges a critic to contextualize a literary text in history, i.e., to show its historical and cultural background. Jameson thinks that literary categories may well reflect their historical or political environment. The capitalist environment in which a literary text is created imposes on the writer, intentionally or unconsciously, ' hidden history ' or ' buried narrative ' that clashes with his surrounding reality. The missed parts may be evident through literary form or style, or the artist's treatment: subjective or objective. Dialectical theory, then, has enabled Jameson to bring together hardly harmonious critical methods in a co-operative whole (Best 182-4).

The French Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser, has had a big influence on Jameson. Althusser avoids the traditional Marxist ( or Hegelian) terms such as 'social system' and 'order' because they suggest a structure with a centre which determines the form of all its findings. Being attracted by structuralism and post-structuralism, he regards the 'social formation' as a 'decentered structure' which has no governing principle, no originating seed, or overall unity. The various elements (or levels) within the social formation are not treated as reflections of one essential level (the economic level for Marxists); the levels possess a 'relative autonomy'. The social formation is a structure in which the various levels exist in complex relations of inner contradiction and mutual conflict. This structure of contradictions may be dominated at any given stage by one or other of the levels, but which level it is to be is itself determined ultimately by the economic level, only in the last instance. Althusser refuses to treat art as simply a form of ideology. He locates art somewhere between ideology and scientific knowledge. A great work of literature does not give us a properly conceptual understanding of reality but neither does it merely express the ideology of a particular class. Following Engels, Althusser declares that art ' makes us see, for a distance, the ideology from which it is born … , from which it detaches itself as art, and to which it alludes'. He defines ideology as    ' a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence' (Selden  39).

The imaginary consciousness helps us to make sense of the world but also makes or represses our real relationship to it.  A dominant system of ideology is accepted as a commonsense view of things by the dominated classes and thus the interests of the dominant class are guarded. Art, however, finds an imaginary distance from the very ideology of the writer. In a Marxist viewpoint, Althusser treats the text as a ' production ' in which a number of different sources are worked over and changed in the process, rather than as a 'creation' or a self-contained artifact. The text has an 'unconscious' which works the pre-given materials that are not consciously used to create a controlled and unified work of art. When that state of consciousness (or ideology) enters the text it takes on a different form. Ideology is normally lived as if it were totally natural, as if its fictional and smooth discourse gives a perfect and unified explanation of reality. Once it is worked into a text, all its contradictions and gaps are exposed. The realist writer intends to unify all the elements in the text, but the work that goes on in the textual process inevitably produces certain lapses and omissions which correspond to the incoherence of the ideological discourse it uses: 'for in order to say anything, there are other things which must not be said '. The literary critic is not concerned to show how all the parts of the work fit together, or to harmonize any apparent contradictions. Like a psychoanalyst, the critic looks into the text's unconscious to find what is unspoken and inevitably suppressed (Held 35-6).

Hegel's dialectic has been a guide to Jameson. To Plato, dialectical method is dialogue between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject, who wish to establish the truth of the matter by dialogue, with reasoned arguments (Jowett 37). Hegelian dialectic is usually presented in a three-fold manner: a thesis, giving rise to its reaction, an antithesis, which contradicts or negates the thesis, and the tension between the two being resolved by means of synthesis. Hegel used a three-valued logical model that is very similar, but his most usual terms were: 'Abstract – Negative – Concrete', or 'Immediate – Mediated – Concrete'. To describe the activity of overcoming the negative, Hegel used the term  ' sublation' or 'overcoming', to conceive of the working of dialectic. For him, the purpose of dialectic is '' to study things in their own being and movement and thus to demonstrate the finitude of the partial categories of understanding''. A Marxist dialectical criticism always recognizes the historical origins of its own concepts and never allows the concepts to become outdated or irrelevant to the requirements of reality. We can never get outside our subjective existence in time, but we can try to break through the hardening shell of our ideas into a more brilliant awareness of reality itself. A dialectical critic aims to uncover the inner form of a genre or a whole of texts, and proceeds from the surface of a work inward to the level where literary form is deeply related to the concrete reality (Fox 32-43).

The ideals of the Frankfurt School – pioneers: Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse – have had a far-reaching influence on Jameson. Inspired by Marxian and Freudian thought and rejecting realism, they regard the social system, in Hegelian fashion, as a totality in which all aspects reflect the same essence. Their analysis of modern culture has been influenced by fascism. In America, they have found a similar ' one dimensional' quality in the mass culture and the commercialist penetration into every aspect of life. Art or literature does not have a direct contact with reality; its detachment gives it its special significance. This helps Modernist writings to have a power of criticizing reality. Adorno argues that art cannot simply reflect the social system, but acts within that reality as an active rebel that produces an indirect sort of knowledge: 'art is the negative knowledge of the actual world'. Literary form is not simply a unified and compressed reflection of the form of society, but a special means of distancing reality and preventing the easy re-absorption of new insights into familiar and consumable packages. The Frankfurt school's work has much of the authentic Hegelian subtlety in dialectical thought. In Hegel's opinion, dialectic is seen as '' the development which arises from the resolution of contradictions inherent in a particular aspect of reality''. The commercial exploitation of artistic techniques in popular art forces the writer to respond by producing a shattered and fragmented art, in which the very grammar of literary language is denied (Bernstein 208).

It has been an important event that a major Marxist theorist, Fredric Jameson, could appear in America where the labour movement has been partially corrupted and totally excluded from political power. Jameson believes that the Hegelian Marxism could adapt itself to the post-industrial monopolistic capitalism. Based on Hegel's philosophy, it shows: 'the relationship of part to whole, the opposition between concrete and abstract, the concept of totality, the dialectic of appearance and essence, the interaction between subject and object'. For dialectical thought, there are no fixed and unchanging 'objects'; an object is integrally  bound up with a bigger whole, and is also related to a thinking mind, as well as an individual artistic work, which is always part of a larger structure ( a tradition or a movement) or part of a historical moment. Therefore, dialectical criticism does not isolate individual literary works for analysis. The dialectical critic has no pre-set categories to apply to literature, and he is always aware that his chosen categories ( style, character, image, etc.) must be ultimately understood as an aspect of the writer's own historical situation. Jameson suggests that society imposes a strategy of repression on both art and history. Literary texts offer solutions which are merely symptoms of the suppression of history. Inspired by A.J. Greimeas' semiotic theory and by Georg Lukacs' work on the realistic historical novel, Jameson discusses in ideological literary texts strategies of containment which appear as formal patterns; a number of banned human relations (sexual, legal, etc.) are applied to a text's strategies to allow the analyst to discover the possibilities which are not said. This ' not said' is the 'repressed history'(Selden 44-6).

In Jameson's  opinion, all interpretations of literature are necessarily transcendent and ideological; we have to use ideological concepts as a means of transcending ideology. He takes from Freud the essential concept of 'repression' but applies it to the collective level rather than the individual. Ideology represses 'revolution' and both are aided by a 'political unconscious'. To analyze a work of art, we need to establish an absent cause (the 'not revolution'). Jameson proposes a critical method which includes three 'horizons': a level of immanent analysis, a level of social-discourse analysis, and an epochal-level of historical reading. Broadly, Jameson accepts Althusser's Marxist view of the social totality as a 'decentered structure' in which various levels develop in 'relative autonomy' and work on different time-scales. This complex structure of discordant and unexplained modes of production is the heterogeneous history which is mirrored in the heterogeneity of texts. He shows that the textual heterogeneity can be understood when it is related to social and cultural heterogeneity outside the text. Marxist criticism is valued more than all the other interpretative modes, by containing their positive findings within a political interpretation of literary texts. The repression by ideology of the contradictions of history into the depths of the political unconscious makes the content of this repressed history as the collective struggle to extract moments of freedom from a realm of necessity.  Jameson advises the Marxist critic to allegorically rewrite the literary text in such a way that the text may be seen as the reconstruction of a prior historical or ideological subtext – that is, of the text's unspoken, because repressed and unconscious, awareness of the ways it is determined not only by current ideology, but also by the long-term process of true history (Arac 261-79).

As for Carol Ann Duffy, her context is apparent in her poetry. She was the daughter of Roman Catholic Scottish parents who lived in one of the poor slums of Glasgow, and who had Irish roots. Then her family moved to England. She has described her upbringing as '' left-wing, Catholic, working-class''. Her father was a parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party. Her mother, May, wrote anecdotes and songs for children. Carol studied philosophy at Liverpool University; she has learned about Ludwig's Wittgenstein's philosophy of language, and the futility of language to convey meaning. There, she met the poet Adrian Henri and lived with him until 1982. This unlawful relationship (and others) has a great effect upon her verse. She said, '' he gave me confidence … he was great. It was all poetry,… very heady, and he was never faithful. He thought poets had a duty to be unfaithful''. In 1999, she was nominated as Poet Laureate but lost the position because of the gay life she has led. Refusing this appointment, Duffy declared that she '' will not write a poem for Edward and Sophie (referring to the 1999 marriage of Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones) … no self-respecting poet should have to write about royal weddings'' (Savage  12). She thought that Laureateship compels her to write poems for royal events, funerals and various state occasions. She calls herself a ''poet of the family'' and sees the history of the royal family as entwined with British national identity. But in 2009, she accepted the post both to achieve her daughter's wish, and to create a feminist presence in a male-dominated world of poetry: ''I took on it as a recognition of the great woman poets we have writing now. I've decided to accept it for that reason''. She thinks that '' it's good to have someone who's prepared to say poetry is part of our national life'' (Preston 14). When asked to write a poem for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middelton, Duffy has escaped the specified occasion by celebrating the rings found in nature. Duffy cannot be put under a certain category of poet: feminist, political or romantic (Rees-Jones 2).

Most of Duffy's poems are based on autobiographical (or contextual) experiences. She thinks that ''each poem had to be personally honest, and have some kind of autobiographical element in it, whether it had happened to [her] or whether it was an emotional or intellectual truth''( Viner 21). Duffy's childhood experiences are recollected in poems such as ''Litany'' and ''Stafford Afternoons''. Her imprudent behaviour is evident in a big number of her poems; however her earlier love poems (written in the 1980s) depict the beloved as someone whose gender is not mentioned. She did not start writing about sexual relationships until her 1993 collection, Mean Time (DiMarco 25). This has coincided  with  the beginning of Tony Blair's regime, whose government, Duffy thinks, was '' brought to power by Peter Mandelson and introduced civil partnership''; this has been Blair's '' cool Britannia'' Duffy exemplified( Godwin  1-22). '' Little Red-Cap'' is about a young girl who tries to write poetry, and is seduced by a ' wolf-poet'. The Way My Mother Speaks'' is about the role played by Carol's mother in the poet's life and verse. In ''Valentine'', she deplorably resorts to rejecting romantic love that leads to marriage. There cannot be a clear break between the poet's personality and her poems; in The World's Wife, Duffy implicitly expresses her own views in the voices of imaginary characters ( from myth or history but in a postmodern frame). Thus her ideological context is always behind her poems. ''Anne Hathaway'' describes the nature of her long, gay relationship with Adrian Henri:

The bed we loved in was a spinning world
Of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas
On these lips; my body now a softer rhyme
To his, now echo, assonance; his touch
A verb dancing in the centre of a noun.
I hold him in the casket of my widow's head
As he held me upon that next best bed.

Duffy mostly uses dramatic monologues ( sometimes sonnets), expressed in simple diction. She often speaks about degraded persons, prostitutes who sold their chastity.  This form reflects an ideology: the poet's view of the bad effects of capitalism on society; she sees contemporary Britain as a woman who sold her values for capitalist or materialistic benefit. The dramatic monologue is a poetic form reputably used by R. Browning, where " a single speaker is talking to someone, if only himself … the sense of the presence of an audience is extremely important" ( Grosskurth  13). This genre allows the poet to declare her own ideology, i.e. to ''give facts from within''( Langbaum  78). Dramatic monologues allow Duffy to trade places with the perpetrators of consumerism in order to demonstrate her intolerance with the capitalist social climate associated with the former Tory government of Margaret Thatcher and John Major( Evans  6). In ''Frau Fraud'', for example, the poet creates a modern voice for a historical character. Robert Maxwell is Jewish man who survived the holocaust, and moved to England. The capitalist atmosphere in modern Britain allows this cunning person to be wealthy:

What was my aim?
To change from a bum
To a billionaire.
Poverty's dumb. Take it from me
Sunny Jim.
Then there's Him –
From whom
I paid for a butch and femme
To make him come.

This previously vulnerable character is hardened by time. The tone changes throughout the poem. This is due to the use of various styles: direct and factual, rapid, slangy curse words, ellipsis. The changeable voices show the character's negative attitude towards English life. In ''Havisham'', Duffy uses a literary persona (taken from Dickens). Miss Havisham feels anguished and lonely after she is deserted by her lover who has been about to marry her:

Not a day since then
I haven't wished him dead. Prayed for it
So hard I have dark green pebbles for eyes
Ropes on the back of my hand I could strangle with
Beloved sweetheart bastard

Miss Havisham symbolizes the British people who have been shocked by the 1990s' capitalist laws that reduce the role of governments to look after people's affairs. In ''Mrs Faust'', a couple show their desire for material wealth, ambition and power. Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus sells himself to the devil, but Mrs Faust and her husband are gradually corrupted by their materialistic status. They lose their morality, love for each other and conscience. The poem is as fast and abbreviated as a short business telephone conversation. In ''Education for Leisure'', Duffy explores the mind of an unbalanced person who plans to commit murder. He/She has finished education, but can find no work, or even enjoy a joyful holiday. In a capitalist atmosphere, job opportunities are not easy to get, so boredom affects people's sanity. 

The sonnet could be also used for political comment. The structure of the Italian sonnet allows the possibility of an argument. The octave displays a proposition or a problem, and the sestet presents a resolution. The ninth line create a 'turn' or 'volta' which marks the change from proposition to resolution; it may also signal a change in the tone or vision of the poem. In English sonnets, the 'volta' occurs in the third quatrain, while Shakespeare usually creates the turn in the couplet to summarize the theme of the poem or introduce a fresh look at the theme( Fuller   xxv-xxix). Duffy does not adhere to conventional rhyme or metre of the sonnet. In ''Cold'', for example, the speaker loses the feeling of warmth after her mother's death. Her permanent feeling of coldness symbolizes a loss of emotion, and a person who cares. In the ninth line, the speaker tells us why she always feels cold:

my mother's voice calling me in
From the cold

This instinctual sense of belonging to a family and a cosy home makes her feel safe. Capitalist life has distorted the family relationships, and set people apart from each other. The couplet presents some illumination when the speaker becomes exposed to the life of practicality:

in the Chapel of Rest where my mother lay, neither young, nor old,
Where my lips, returning her kiss to her brow, knew the meaning of cold

Duffy often uses symbols in her poems. She also presents psychic characters who often speak in ironic tones. This technique creates a repressed history in her poems; it forms a resistance strategy that indirectly attacks the political and social system in her country and the western world. The dominating ideology in capitalist England has imposed on her to use symbolism, rather than directly criticize capitalist leaders. In ''Stealing'', Duffy displays a strange person who likes stealing everything or anything; whether he needs it or not, whether he can use it or not:

One time, I stole a guitar and thought I might
Learn to play. I nicked a bust of Shakespeare once,
Flogged it, but the snowman was strangest
You don't understand a word I'm saying, do you?

When he feels bored, he steals a snowman in order that he may take the children's feeling of pleasure. But ironically the snowman melts and he cannot get rid of his sense of boredom. Duffy sees that in a capitalist society, theft becomes inevitable or it becomes a lifestyle. The bourgeoisie often deprive the proletariat from happiness. Having a Leftist upbringing, Duffy often lampoons the powerful and gives voice to the oppressed, and ''it is perhaps this tendency, rather than her sexuality, that lies at the heart of the Poet Laureate controversy [what made Tony Blair prevent her from gaining the title in 1999]'' (Evans 12).

Following his Marxist examples*, Fredric Jameson sees that a literary work is marked by its resistance to capitalist commercialism. A work of art opposes society by means of indirect disapproval; it ''refuses to engage in direct reflection of social surface; it does not want to duplicate the fa├žade of reality, but makes an uncompromising reprint of reality while at the same time avoiding being contaminated by it", creating '' a negative sense of reality'' (Adorno 28-36). On this ground, Carol Ann Duffy – who writes less sophisticated, less difficult poems than those of the avant-garde poets such as Eliot and Pound – is relevant to be evaluated by Marxist rules. Marxist critics reject modernist fragmentation and difficulty for they miss the real banalities of daily life (Hardt 123-48).

Hints: * Majorie Perloff, "The Aura of Modernism,'' Modernist Cultures, Vol.1, Issue 1, Spring 2005


Primary Sources
1.       Duffy, Carol Ann. Standing Female Nude. London: Anvil Press, 1985.
2.       ---------------------. Mean Time. London: Anvil Press, 1993.
3.       --------------------. The World's Wife. London: Picador, 1999.
4.       -------------------- . New Selected Poems – 1984-2004. London: Picador, 2004.
5.       -------------------. Rapture. New York: Picador, 2005.
6.       Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971.
7.       ----------------. The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism. Princeton: PUP, 1972.
8.       ----------------. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.
9.       ---------------. Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. DurhamNC: Duke University Press, 1991.

Secondary Sources
1.       Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 6th ed. Orlando: Harcourt & Co., 1993
2.       Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. C. Lenhart. London: Routledge, 1984.
3.       Arac, Jonathan. "Fredric Jameson and Marxism". Critical Genealogies. New YorkColumbia UP, 1987.
4.       Baldick, Cris.

Mohamed Kamel Abdel-Daem, from Egypt, is a lecturer in English literature at Shaqra   University, Saudi Arabia. He got his M.A. in English literature, in 2010, at South Valley University, Egypt. His main interests feature: English poetry, comparative studies, translation and theology. His publications are: “A Brief Survey of Contemporary English Poetry”(textbook), " The Panegyric in Old and Early-Middle English Poetry", and " Translation of Present-Day Egyptian Slang into English" .

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