Frederic Jameson’s famous “Third World Lit” thesis

We may or may not talk about this in class today, but at some point soon I’m likely to make reference to one of the most famous (and, of course, contentious) seminal essays about postcolonial literature and how it works: Frederick Jameson’ “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Social Text 15 (Fall 1985): 65-87.  It didn’t end up on our syllabus but is worth a read, if only because so many other critics of African literature have found it productive and/or necessary to respond to this argument in one way or another.  Ousmane Sembene’s Xala, which he discusses, is a really important Senegalese post-independence novel, and the author – also a screenwriter – turned it into an amazing film which is worth a watch (we may watch the first few minutes of it the week that we turn to Fanon and Ngugi’s Petals of Blood).

I thought I would reproduce Jameson’s thesis here, as it’s often quoted and discussed on its own – sometimes unfairly, but actually this articulation of his argument gives a pretty good sense of what he’s trying to say as well as why some critics (most notably Aijaz Ahmad) totally freaked out over this essay.

All third-world texts are necessarily, I want to argue, allegorical, and in a very specific way: they are to be read as what I will call national allegories, even when, or perhaps I should say, particularly when their forms develop out of predominantly western machineries of representation, such as the novel. 

… the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society. (69)

If you’re like me, the “All” at the beginning of this excerpt immediately got your shackles up – don’t we implore undergrads to never make generalizations this grand, and don’t our mentors even now caution us that even the most thoroughly researched dissertation would do well to steer clear of such claims? Read the full article for a better sense of how and why Jameson supports his contention (hint: Marxism!), and Ahmad’s response (“Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the ‘National Allegory’,” Social Text 17 (Autumn 1987): 3-25) for pushback, but I also invite you to test this hypothesis out for yourself in the novels we look at.  A few of you are already asking versions of this question in your posts: what is the relationship between the novel and the nation (in the case of Things Fall Apart, the nation that has not quite yet come into being)? How do we read various elements of the text – tales, constructions of masculinity, mythic schema of fate and spirit-children – into our sense of this novel’s intervention into colonial discourse and an anticolonial politics?

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