‘Always historicise!’ With this resounding imperative, Frederic Jameson opens his third major work of Marxist literary theory, of which the precursors were Marxism and Form (1971) and The Prison-House of Language (1972). No recommendation could be more scandalous to conventional criticism. For though literary studies are awash with ‘historical’ accounts, ‘background’ information and biographical jottings, what resists historical explanation are the very categories of thought which govern this whole enterprise. Absolutely anything may be ‘historicised’ except literary studies themselves: Spenser or Swift may be set against their ‘backgrounds’ (the static, distancing connotations of the term tell its own story), but not, say, orthodox criticism’s belief in something called ‘the imagination’ or ‘the rich textures of immediate experience’. Literary criticism has been nowhere more perversely ingenious, never more cunningly resourceful, than in its flight from history into a whole gallery of celebrated substitutions: the creative mind, the author, the autonomous artefact, the racial unconscious or (more recent candidates, these) ‘deep structures’ and language itself.
The Political Unconscious is not concerned with placing literature against its historical ‘background’, a tediously positivist gesture if ever there was one. Its aim is to grasp history – understood as the struggle against material scarcity, forms of political domination, the warring of antagonistic groups and classes – as, in