Frederic Jameson: Vanishing Mediator

Key Concept

Frederic Jameson coined the term ‘vanishing mediator’ in an article from 1973 called “The Vanishing Mediator: Narrative Structure in Max Weber”. In that article, he used the vanishing mediator in his analysis of Max Weber and Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.1Frederic Jameson, ‘The Vanishing Mediator: Narrative Structure in Max Weber’ (1973) 1 New German Critique 52, 78 Etienne Balibar explains that the vanishing mediator is, essentially,

the figure (admittedly presented in speculative terms) of a transitory institution, force, community, or spiritual formation that creates the conditions for a new society and a new civilizational pattern – albeit in the horizon and vocabulary of the past – by rearranging the elements inherited from the very institution that has to be overcome.2Etienne Balibar, ‘Europe: Vanishing Mediator’ (2003) 10(3) Constellations 312, 334.

When the transition to a new society has occurred, then the figure mediating that transition vanishes as a result of the transition it inaugurated. Jameson uses the vanishing mediator in two ways. The first is that he argues that a vanishing mediator is central to Weber’s theory of that transition from feudalism to capitalism, from mysticism to rationalism. Second, Jameson then adopts the vanishing mediator in Weber’s work to explain, through a complex psycho-structural analysis, that Weber’s interests in producing a value-free political account of capitalism depend on Weber creating himself as a vanishing mediator for an objective account of values. Although scholars like Balibar, Žižek and others have reiterated the concept of the ‘vanishing mediator’,3Ibid; Slavoj Žižek, For They Known Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (Verso, 1991) 183; Jodi Dean, Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive (Polity, 2010) 26-8. this short piece attempts to bring some attention to this concept by explaining, in a simplified manner, how Jameson employs it and why, in brief, it remains a useful concept.4See Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Routledge, 1983) ix.

According to Jameson, Weber sought to promote Wertfreiheit, a “value-free” sociology of political and historical movement, which he used throughout his works, like The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.5Jameson (1973), 52-3.   According to Jameson, Weber claimed that his value-free account of politics as a mover of history (even a partial one), where Protestantism transformed feudalism into capitalism, undercuts Marxist analyses that uphold the economy as the primary transformative force of history. Jameson argues, however, that Weber’s conceptualization of Marxism was a false target, a ‘vulgar’ conceptualization of Marxism, which would embrace of a naive linearity that suggests ‘increasing rationalization of infrastructure, with the increasing economic organization, first of ends and then of means themselves’ gives rise to a new, modern and capitalistic world.6Jameson (1973), 73. Under Jameson’s approach, when Weber identifies a political transition from feudalism to capitalism that is more complex than a vulgar Marxist conception of history, it is consistent with a ‘genuine’ Marxist account. Jameson makes this argument by isolating the vanishing mediator in Weber’s work and then explaining that Weber is a vanishing mediator for a scientific approach to values. The significance, for Jameson, is that both Weber and his vocational projects were products of particular times and historical stages that are consistent with Marxist theory, which explains modern anxieties.

The first vanishing meditator arises within Weber’s work, as exemplified in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In Jameson’s retelling of Weber’s narrative, four historical stages explain the transition from the medieval world through Protestantism—which has two stages that are represented by Martin Luther and John Calvin—to modern society. The first stage is a medieval world where Catholic monks practiced asceticism in monasteries, an ‘enclave of rationalization within a tradition-oriented world’, which separated monks from the common and daily means of life to concentrate and focus on religious ends (the Beyond or Heaven).7Jameson (1973), 77; see Slavoj Zizek, For They Known Not What They Do, 183. It separates daily means from religious ends (in Jameson’s terms ‘ordinary daily secular life in general’ or ‘innerworldly thisworldliness’ from ‘monasteries’ or ‘institutional sanction of otherworldliness’). In the second, Luther remains ‘an essentially medieval figure’ who ‘actualized or thematized what was already implicit in the medieval system’. That is, from within the monastery, he ‘strikes down the artificial isolation of monastic life’ with its sequestered ends-focused orientation.8Jameson (1973), 77. Where medieval Europe separated means from ends, Luther’s criticisms, his calls for a truer religion, destroy the continued possibility of sequestered monastic life. At this point, the vulgar Marxist—Weber’s target, according to Jameson—would see that this leads to ‘the immediate secularization of means’ because Luther made it impossible to pursue ends in institutions that ‘sanction withdrawal from the daily world of work’.9Jameson (1973), 74. Such a view would fail to explain how Luther’s call for truer religious practices leads to greater secularization.

In Jameson’s retelling of Weber’s account, there are two additional stages. Faced with Luther’s ‘separation of ends from means so absolute that the ultimate end or value of life’ becomes unknowable, Calvin finds that common and daily life is ‘a testing place, trial and preparation, for the drama of salvation’.10Jameson (1973), 74. In the third stage, every Christian must embrace monkish asceticism (‘otherworldly thisworldliness’), a business-like approach to daily life that rationalizes the means of living. It transforms the ‘entire world into a monastery’.11Jameson (1973), 76. When the process of rationalizing the means of life is complete and rational economic subjects arise, then, in the fourth stage, concerns for religious ends associated with pre-Protestant monasticism vanish. In contract to a vulgar Marxist approach where Luther’s critiques led to a secularization of means, the Protestant ethic arising through Luther and then Calvin is a ‘dialectical reinforcement’ of ‘two antithetical positions’, the ‘rationalization of ends’ and the ‘religionalization of means’. The effect of the vanishing mediator is that ‘the means now becom[e] more rather than less religious, even while the ends grow ever more secularized’.12Jameson (1973), 75. Protestantism mediated the transformation from mysticism to rationality and then vanished.

Weber sought to show that religion, particularly Protestantism, lead to modern society and economic ordering, which inverts the vulgar Marxist thought that religion is ‘some mere reflect of infrastructural [substructure or base] change’.13Jameson (1973), 74. While Weber’s narrative may be ‘irreconcilable’ with vulgar Marxism, Jameson argues that Weber’s inversion of vulgar Marxism is ‘perfectly consistent with genuine Marxist thinking and is, indeed, at one with the model proposed by Marx himself for the revolutions of 1789 and 1848’.14Jameson (1973), 78. Although Jameson’s analysis of Marx’s argument is far too quick (he does not cite, discuss or analyse Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonapart), he asserts that the French Revolution of 1789 ‘played the role of the vanishing mediator’, when it functioned as the ‘Calvinistic guardian’ to universalize egalitarian ideals like freedom, brotherhood, and equality.15Jameson (1973), 78. My purpose here is not to show that Jameson’s reading of Marx is correct. The Revolution’s ‘guardianship’ of those ideals vanished in the Thermidorian reaction, which arose ‘when the practical victory of the bourgeoisie is assured and an explicitly monetary and market system can come into being’.16Jameson (1973), 78.  The 1848 Revolution was then a ‘parody of 1789’ when ‘under the cloak of the traditions and values of the great revolution, and of the empire which followed it, that the new commercial society of the Second Empire emerges’.17Jameson (1973), 78.

Jameson believes that Weber has shown what Marx already argued. For both Weber and Marx, and to the extent that ends are associated with superstructure and the means constitute the infrastructure (base), ‘the superstructure may be said to find its essential function in the mediation of changes in the infrastructure along the lines we have characterized’.18Jameson (1973) 78-9. Understanding how the vanishing mediator operates is an ‘escape’ from the prison that Jameson calls the ‘false problems of priority or of cause and effect’ maintained by vulgar Marxists and idealists.

In dialectical fashion, Jameson’s second argument against Weber is to demonstrate that Weber is, in fact, a vanishing mediator for a vocational and scientific approach to value. If Jameson’s projects were Wertfreiheit, value-neutral and objective, then it could not ‘influenced by the element in which it originates and by the use to which it is put’.19Jameson (1973), 53. However, Jameson argues that Weber’s interest in a developing value-neutral method, and his psychological breakdown, are not only responses to social-political developments he saw as undesirable but are understandable as products of a psycho-structural historical moment.

In a tradition-oriented society that pre-dates Weber, ‘the techniques for achieving a given end are themselves sacred, are therefore performed for their own sake and in their own right’.20Jameson (1973), 58  Historicizing Weber aids in explaining how ‘the realm of values becomes itself problematical and can be isolated and contemplated independently’.21Jameson (1973), 59. Through the historical stages that separated means from ends, discussed above, a pre-existing and ancient feeling that presupposes a rift between intentions and acts gives rise to ennui, which stems from the performance of purely technical acts that are without value and purpose.22Jameson (1973) 60.

As an objective actor, Weber needs to account for his subjective origins and interests (why he is interested in value), and a paradox that arises in valuing what is a supposedly value-free, but he cannot. His embodiment of objective rationalization produces a subjective expression of ennui. This explains how Weber ‘sublimates’ religious value by transposing it to a ‘“higher” level, in which the type of relationship entertained with the object is no longer that of belief, but rather that of scientific interest’.23Jameson (1973), 86. (For Jameson, it also explains Weber’s temporary psychological paralysis).24Jameson (1973), 54-55, 85-7. Jameson argues that Protestantism and Jacobinism are vanishing mediators, which he likens to a ‘mother’ and ‘father’ giving rise to the individual (Max Weber) who cannot account for his own origins but ends up reproducing the role of the father (Oedipal complex) – he produces a value of ‘value-free’ objectivity. He ‘objectifies his own private situation by projecting it into that of the alienated modern man in a purely technical universe, that of the disappearance of the older traditionalistic and charismatic forms of social life’.25Jameson (1973), 87. In short, when Weber posits a so-called ‘rationality’ in place of a mythic account of values for his presupposed and value-laden subjects, Weber creates himself as a vanishing mediator for rationalization, the vocational ability to study value as a science objectively. Weber made ‘the growth of bureaucracies, the influence of the charismatic individual and his function in political institutions’ into ‘an autonomous field of study which may then be examined in relative isolation from questions of economic development’, which, for Jameson, requires a historicized dialectical analysis.26Jameson, (1973), 54.

Rather than undermining Marxist theory, Jameson argues that both Weber and his project were products of particular times that gave rise to our modern anxieties. This is why the vanishing mediator remains particularly useful today. In 1973, Jameson noted that ‘[t]he problem is familiar to us from the industrialization in our own time of the Third World, as well as from the stereotypical colonial image of a pre-capitalist “native” population as lazy, untrustworthy, alcohol-prone, and in general innocent of the European sense of linear time and’ the inner belief that labor must ‘be performed as if it were an absolute end in itself.27Jameson (1973), 71, citing Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York, 1958) 61-2. Furthermore, Weber’s scientific study of values and politics continues to displace critiques of capitalism, which for Jameson, is a tool for rethinking how that continually occurs. It remains useful for thinking about what an objective project could look like, critiquing those who claim to be engaged in objective projects, why calls for ‘truer’ and ‘renewed’ forms likely will not work as anticipated, and why it remains essential to historicize our subjects/objects.

Stephen M Young is a lecturer in law at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. @steveisinotago

CLT would like to thank for their editorial comments on this piece.

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