Fredric Jameson’s controversial essay ‘Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism’ (1) sets out his theory of what he calls ‘third-world literature’, positing it as a form of national allegory.
Since its publication in 1986, this essay has taken centre stage in the debate about postcolonial and world literatures and their relationship to the traditional Western canon. Many critics, notably Ajaiz Ahmad (2), have criticised Jameson for his reductionist views of this kind of literature, pointing out the problematics of the three world theory on which his argument rests, and the issues in his use of it (namely that his descriptions of the first and second world rely on political conditions i.e. capitalist/socialist, whereas his description of the third world is purely experiential; nations that have experienced colonisation).
What is ‘Third-World Literature’?
By Jameson’s definition, “third-world literature” is simply and inescapably the literature produced by writers from post-colonial nations. While in his essay, Jameson does wrestle with this term, finding it unsatisfactory, he nevertheless proceeds with it to make his argument.
This argument rests on the idea that all “third-world” literatures are nationalistic in a way that has been surpassed in the West with its ‘global American postmodernist culture’. And that this nationalism can be problematic for Western readers as it has a ‘tendency to remind us of outmoded stages of our development.’ (Jameson, 1986, p65).
In spite of this less than flattering depiction of “third- world” literatures as somehow “backward”, Jameson’s heart was in the right place in the writing of this piece. His intention was to draw the attention of Western readers to wider literatures, and to begin to suggest ways in which these literatures could be approached and read profitably. In positing the reading of “third-world” literatures as a form of “national allegory”, he provides a familiar route in to unfamiliar texts.
What is National Allegory?
Jameson’s definition of the “third-world” national allegory is that ‘the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society‘ (p69). In a national allegory then, the personal is the national. An example of this is Saleem Sinai in Salman Rushdie’s Midnights Children. Born on the stroke of midnight on the eve of India’s independence, Saleem’s fate is tied to that of post-independence India. The novel follows his life, as it does India’s national story.
The connection Jameson emphasises between the personal and the national/political in “third-world” texts is problematic for two significant reasons. Firstly, that in the case of “third-world” literature, this politicisation is inescapable: ‘Third-word texts, even those which are seemingly private and invested with a properly libidinal dynamic– necessarily project a political dimension’ (p69). And secondly, that for “first-world” texts, this politicisation is denied. As Ahamed and others have observed, this dichotomy does not hold in the face of examples, such as the highly political novels of American postmodernist Thomas Pynchon, whose novel Gravity’s Rainbow is as much an example of national allegory as any of the “third-world” texts Jameson discusses.
Despite these restrictions on narratives of the “third-world”, Jameson is keen to distinguish the national allegory of these literatures from the traditional Western conception of allegory as ‘an elaborate set of figures and personifications to be read against some one-to-one table of equivalences’ (p73). The national allegory of the “third-world” is, for Jameson, far more complex. Through use of examples, Jameson shows ‘the capacity of allegory to generate a range of distinct meanings or messages, simultaneously, as the allegorical tenor and vehicle change places’ (p74). Through this distinction, Jameson hopes to show the merits of “third-world” literature, though whether he succeeds in the context of the rest of his essay is a subject for debate.
(1) Jameson, Fredric (1986) ‘Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism’ Social Text No.15, pp65-88
(2) Ahmad, Aijaz (1987) ‘Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the “National Allegory”‘ Social Text No.17, pp3-25