Jameson, F. (1992): Reification And Utopia in Mass Culture


Nuran Yıldırım

Middle East Technical University

Generally speaking, in ‘Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture’, Frederic Jameson attempts to examine the notions of high and mass culture and to rethink the opposition between these two concepts. He pays particular attention to explain reification and he characterizes the Frankfurt School as the extension and application of Marxist theories of commodity reification to the works of mass culture. Whilst he considers the Frankfurt School’s analysis of the commodity structure of mass/high culture of the greatest interest, he proposes a different way of looking at the same phenomena. In this context, Jameson does not simply contemplate criticizing the analysis of the Frankfurt school as being wrong but rather he tries to read high and mass culture as ‘objectively related and dialectically interdependent phenomena, as twin and inseparable forms of fission of aesthetic production under the late capitalism.’ (133)

Since Fredric Jameson is one of the most important followers of Althusser, it is worth recalling Althusser by focusing on the concept of ideology in particular. Briefly, Althusser argues that conditions of the society are not only reproduction of material existence but also reproduction of itself ideologically and he emphases that this reproduction of itself ideologically comes in variety of forms which are different from each other.

Jameson picks up what Althusser left and he further argues, ‘The works of mass culture cannot be ideological without at one and the same time being implicitly or explicitly Utopian as well.'(144) Therefore, Jameson elaborates the idea of a dialectic between ideology and Utopia and his article ‘Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture’ explores this dialectic in terms of popular culture (Fitting, 1998). In order to demonstrate the mechanisms of manipulation, diversion, degradation in mass culture and in the media, Jameson deals with three commercial films: Jaws and the two parts of the Godfather. By readings of these three films, he interprets the artistic manipulation as a method of mass culture for offering some genuine social and historical content as a fantasy bribe to the public about to be manipulated. According to Jameson, in the case of Jaws[1], the film has a capacity to absorb social and political anxieties and fantasies in a successful harmony by the vocation of a symbol the killer shark.  Similarly, the two parts of the Godfather[2] are more than typical gangster films, they are actually a virtual textbook illustration of how cultural manipulation can establish in a genuine shred of content. Jameson therefore argues that the power of these three films can be measured by their twin capacity to perform an ideological and Utopian fantasy at the same time.

Thus, in a sense, drawing on Althusser, Jameson’s engagement with the very concept of Utopia can be seen as unique and contributing in terms of defining all contemporary works of art whether those of high culture and modernism or of mass culture and commercial culture are not mere of ideological manipulation but also of Utopian dimension. Throughout the article ‘Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture’, he examines utopic dimensions of the films, Jaws and the Godfather, but still there is something he has ignores and never mention: ‘emancipatory utopian dimensions’ of the films. In this context, the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch developes a method of cultural criticism which expands conventional Marxian approaches to culture and ideology and provides ideological criticism discerns emancipatory utopian dimensions even in ideological products. For Bloch, since ideologies are rhetorical constructs that try to persuade and to convince, they must have a relatively rational and attractive core and thus often contain emancipatory promises or moments (Kellner, 2010).

Since Jameson points out variety of aspects which are sort of related with each other, another point that comes to mind throughout the article is Jameson’s eclectic way of thinking. Although this eclecticism may cause some concepts to stay not well-explained, most of the concept are further developed by an article or even a book written by Jameson. For example, the concept of artistic manipulation is analyzed very detailed by his work namely Signatures of the Visible which collects eight essays on film.



Fitting, P. (1998). The Concept of Utopia in the Work of Fredric Jameson. Utopian Studies, 9(2), 8-17.

Kellner, D. (2010). Ernst Bloch, Utopia and Ideology Critique. Illuminations: The CriticalTheory Project. Retrieved from: https://pages.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/Illumina Folder/kell1.htm


[1] Jaws is a 1975 American thriller film directed by Steven Spielberg and based on Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel, it centers around the island of Amity, which finds itself terrorized by a killer giant white shark.

[2] The Godfather is 1972 an American crime film directed by Francis Ford Coppola based upon the novel of Italian American author Mario Puzo and it is mainly about a mafia family in New York.