Archive for April, 2010

Tony Cliff once said that if you want to find the father of Stalin, you don’t look to Lenin, you look to the German socialists who murdered Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.  These men, like Friederich Ebert( who famously said “If the Kaiser doesn’t abdicate the social revolution is unavoidable. But I don’t want it, indeed I hate it like sin”), by directing all the forces of repression of the German state against those who sought to establish a socialist republic, ensured that workers’ democracy in Russia would remain isolated and impoverished.

Robert Minor provided a brilliant anticipation of Cliff’s insight in the early 1920s in this cartoon from The Liberator.  Minor, who before World War I had been the highest paid politcal cartoonist in the country, would go on to become a staunch Stalinist and important figure in the American Communist Party.  Here, however, he represents wonderfully the relation between the failure of revolution in Germany and the failure of revolution in the Soviet Union.

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The argument Jameson develops in Marxism and Form, brilliant as it is, contains a significant lacuna. If, as he argues, Marxism provides the key to understanding literary texts, as their forms are various solutions to the social contradictions of their time, what is the status of the numerous other critical programs which lay claim to primacy? This hole is all the more significant as its immediate answer would seem to be that, in their various evasions of history in the text, they are so many forms of critical false consciousness, exactly the model of ideology from which Jameson is at pains to dissociate himself throughout Marxism and Form.

The Political Unconscious is, among other things, an attempt to fill this void, by performing the same operation on literary theory that the first book performed on the text itself. There he argued that all texts, even those most apparently inconsiderate of the weight of history, ultimately yield on the level of form to determination by social content. If nothing else, the text’s form operates as a mechanism for repressing various historical truths, be they the violence of class society or reification and compartmentalization of social life. Here, Jameson argues that literary theories are constituted in a similar fashion, insofar as they contain similar “strategies of containment” for avoiding confrontation with history itself.

However, here he goes a step further, and ‘redeems’ these various theories by arguing that each of them retains a local validity once placed within the conceptual structure of historical materialism. His example of how these theories can be so assimilated centers on AJ Greimas’ semiotic rectangle. For Greimas, the semiotic rectangle is a tool for mapping how binary oppositions structure a given text. Greimas argued that any binary opposition actually involves four terms: the two primary contradictory terms as well as each of their contraries. Thus, the classic binary of American racial ideology, Black-white, also contains the terms not-white and not-black. Mapped on to Greimas’ rectangle, that opposition becomes

Thus in addition to the four starting positions, an additional four positions in the opposition arise. The first, between the two initial terms, would in our example be those persons of mixed-race heritage, once called mulattoes, who have been such a figure of anxiety for American racial ideology. The second, between the two contraries, would be those, from Jews to Asians to Latinos, who have failed to fit into the class scheme and thus been a cause of anxiety in their own right. The second two new positions, those of Black and not white and the inverse, are the positions of those subjects our racial ideology has always been most comfortable with: the Black brute and the pure white. By mapping the various permutations of the original opposition in this way, Greimas’ rectangle provides a tool for reading texts which operate around some such binary structure.

This model is open to some obvious objections. Most relevant for our purposes, however, is its opacity to history. The historical remarks I decorated the above exposition with rise not from the logic of Greimas’ system, but rather intrude in an extraneous manner, necessary to animate the analysis, but not springing from it. Moreover, the model itself is static, with no room for the traditional Marxist concerns with the way such binary terms interpenetrate and develop. Ellison’s famous metaphor of the paint factory, in which a drop of black paint is added to produce the brightest white, exposes the insufficiency of GreimAJ Greimas’ semiotic rectangleas’ scheme.

For Jameson, however, all this is not cause to reject it as a critical tool. Indeed, he argues that the model’s static quality is exactly what makes it most useful as a tool of ideological analysis. For Greimas’ inability to think through the oppositions he maps in a properly contradictory manner, his halting of the analysis at the level of antinomy, parallels the reified logic of ideology itself. Since the semiotic rectangle enacts the same kinds of closures as literary texts themselves, Jameson argues that it is in fact the privileged method for mapping the operation of ideological closure in a text. While Greimas developed this tool for understanding the texts themselves, Jameson reduces its scope to understanding the mechanisms of ideology within a text, rewriting the semiotic square as one moment of a dialectical criticism which seeks to map the relation between a text and history.

As this account suggests, what Jameson develops here is what Paul Ricoer has called a positive hermeneutic. While a great deal of Marxist criticism has focused on the negative side of the hermeneutic process, the demystification of ideology, Jameson tries to develop methods in which other critical traditions can be not simply dismissed, but absorbed into the conceptual apparatus of Marxism. As such, his entire project is vulnerable to the formidable critique of interpretation developed by Althusser and various postmodern thinkers. For this reason, the book’s first and longest chapter is a defense of the process of interpretation itself.

Althusser’s critique revolves around the familiar concept of the expressive totality. Here the tradition of Hegelian Marxism is condemned for reducing the whole to the essence of one of its parts. Versions of Marxism which held the superstructure to be the mere epiphenomenal expression of the economy made this critique rather easy for Althusser, who in turn insisted upon the relative autonomy between the various instants of society (economic, political, ideological). Lukács’ vision of totality, in which the social whole is primarily determined by material production through various mediations, was for Althusser one more instance of the expressive totality. It is not difficult to move from this critique to a general one of interpretive operations, which Althusser would argue simply rewrite the text so that all of its parts simply reflect the essence of one privileged term.

Jameson’s response is extensive and nuanced, but at its heart is the assertion that Althusser overhastily treats all mediations, all attempts to reconstruct the series of moves by which history exerts its influence, as homologies. Some Marxists, most notably Lucien Goldmann, have argued for a homologous vision of Marxism, in which the logic of text reflected “the everyday relation between man and commodities in general, and by extension between men and other men, in a market society.” However, homologies are only one way of relating the different aspects of society. As Jameson points out, mediation is not the assertion of identity, but rather “the invention of a set of terms, the strategic choice of a particular code or language, such that the same terminology can be used to analyze and articulate two quite distinct types of objects or ‘texts,’ or two very different structural levels of reality” (40). On this interpretation, mediation does not require that the two texts or levels operate with the same logic. Indeed, one of Jameson’s central arguments is that literary forms are various attempts to overcome the alienation and reification of modern life. An argument such as this can hardly be accused of being yet another instance of the expressive totality, as the texts are read as attempting to move against the grain of society.

Having carved out space for a certain type of hermeneutic operation, Jameson proposes his own interpretive machinery. It consists of three levels, or as he calls them, horizons, of analysis. The first horizon is the political horizon, in which the text is grasped as a symbolic act (Kenneth Burke’s term), an imaginary response to a real social problem. For example, Jameson reads Henry James’ development of the formal device of point of view as an attempt to recreate the subject. As the autonomous, individual subject of bourgeois ideology had increasingly been shown to be a fiction when faced with the crushing realities of Victorian capitalism, James insistence that texts be marked by a strong narrative point of view functioned as an attempt, on the level of form, to recreate what had been rendered unconvincing on the level of content by social development. The first horizon of analysis is thus concerned with understanding the symbolic acts through which a text responds to history.

The second horizon expands the viewing field, to include the class struggle as a determinant of the text. On this level the ideologies of the contending classes, not the various fissures of social life, form the prime determinant. Here the primary unit of analysis is not the symbolic act, but rather the ideologeme, defined by Jameson as “the smallest intelligible unit of the essentially antagonistic collective discourses of social classes” (76). For Jameson, the ideologeme is both narrative and concept, that germ of ideology which both makes a claim and tells a story. His prime example of this is Nietzsche’s “theory” of ressentiment, that process by which the slaves take revenge by pushing back upon their masters their own submissive morality. In Nietzsche’s exposition of the concept, Christianity is exhibit A, the means by which the slaves enervated the ruling classes of Europe by infecting them with the slave religion of submission. This ideologeme does a great deal of work for bourgeois ideology, as it attributes an envy to the lower classes which is easy enough to write off. At the same time, it licenses the renunciation of any social concern on the part of the bourgeoisie as the ethical equivalent of viral DNA. As both a concept and a narrative, the ideologeme is the building block of ideology.

The third and final horizon is that of mode of production, a concept which itself implies a series of such modes. Drawing on the Althusserian concept of social formation, Jameson argues that no actually existing society ever exhibits a pure mode of production. Instead, social formations are shot through with both residual and emergent social forms, forms which leave their footprints on literary texts. Jameson describes these footprints as ideologies of form, “symbolic messages transmitted to us by the coexistence of various sign systems which are themselves traces or anticipations of modes of production” (76). These ideologies of form are produced by what Jameson refers to as cultural revolutions, the immense process of reshaping of cultural forms which takes place in the transition from one mode of production to another.

This third horizon presents a number of problems absent from the first two levels of analysis. First and foremost, in the subsequent chapters of the book, where Jameson reads a number of authors through this framework, this horizon is largely absent. The occasions in which Jameson does call on it do some explanatory work reveal further weaknesses. For example, Jameson uses the idea of overlapping modes of production to, in his words, “short circuit” the debate between Marxists and feminists over the primacy of class or gender. Sexism, he argues is “the sedimentation and the virulent survival of forms of alienation specific to the oldest mode of production of human history, with its division of labor between men and women” (100). From this, Jameson concludes that there is no conflict between Marxism and feminism, since socialist revolution is about clearing away the vestiges of all the modes of production in which labor remains alienated. The weaknesses here are many. On an empirical level, Jameson simply ignores the large body of Marxist anthropology contesting the reading of present gender relations into pre-class society. On a theoretical level, Jameson’s argument supposes that sexism plays no active role in capitalism today, an assertion which is both politically disabling and blind to the role of women’s labor in the global economy.

A more useful way of conceptualizing archaic social forms would examine the ways in which they are made relevant, and indeed vital, to new modes of production. Religion, for example, was undoubtedly the most important institution of ideological dissemination in feudal society, yet it continues to play an important ideological role today. Its prominence is due not to something like historical inertia, as Jameson seems to imply, but rather to the efficiency with which it contributes to the reification of morality, the isolation and compartmentalization of ethical duty within the individual soul, even as it speaks to utopian desires for real sociality made impossible by capitalism.

As the example of sexism shows, Jameson’s attempt to develop a Marxist positive hermeneutic sometimes leads him to evade real debates in favor of a spurious assertion that the matter at hand is a “non-problem” once properly understood. Here Jameson displays the limits of any purely positive hermeneutic, in its inability to confront what his book is ostensibly aimed at foregrounding: the political itself.

Jameson’s problems with the third horizon of his analysis are, unfortunately, not easily confined to that horizon alone. His entire argument is crucially premised on the ability to place literary forms within the whole history of modes of production. Only in this manner, he argues, can we avoid the twin impulses which disable literary study today: the liberal humanist classicism, in which the texts of the past are mere antiques to be appreciated, and the postmodernist rewriting of the text in its own image (Jameson’s critique of literary theory here makes clear his appreciation of Lukács’ framework of archaeologizing and modernization). Seeing the social determinants of our own texts as a moment in the same history that shaped earlier texts is vital if we are to avoid this trap. Yet if his attempts to rewrite texts into this history fail, where does that leave the rest of his argument?

In my view, Jameson’s system is not fatally damaged by the underdevelopment of the third horizon. It seems to me that both his first and second horizons contain within them the theoretical tools to avoid the twin pitfalls identified above. His concept of literature as a socially symbolic act, intervening into a given situation, preserves the specificity of the text in a way the postmodernist rewriting cannot. At the same time, the second horizon, that of class struggle, resonates so strongly with our own time, riven as it is between the ruling class and the rest of us, that any kind of antiquarianism seems impossible. Ultimately, his attempt to write texts into the whole history of modes of production suffers from the very defect he criticizes others for seeing in Hegel: the premature establishment of identity between different terms. For as long as social life remains alienated, the attempt to establish a common thread between modes of production will be based on a shard lack, the similar crushing of freedom by necessity. Only in what Marx called the society of the free producers will the story of modes of production be held together by anything more than a wound.

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Back to the Future?

Georg Lukacs, in an interview from the late sixties, gives some excellent advice for Marxists today:

“We must be clear about this, however, that the problem is to begin anew; to use an analogy, we are not now in the twenties of the twentieth century, but at a certain sense in the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the worker’s movement slowly began to take shape in the wake of the French Revolution.  I believe that this idea is very important for theorists, for despair can very rapidly set in if the assertion of certain truths only finds a very weak resonance.”

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Marxist theory has always had a strangely intimate relationship with the arts. As Hal Draper has pointed out, Marx’s criticisms of Eugene Sue’s novel Les Mystères de Paris formed a key moment in his development of the theory of proletarian self-emancipation. Lenin famously refused to listen to Beethoven during the Russian Civil War, claiming its beauty would sap him of the necessary resolve. EP Thompson, known for his virtual invention of ‘history from below,’ wrote his first and last books on William Morris and William Blake, respectively. Indeed, the closeness of this relationship, combined with its durability throughout the long trek of Marxist theory across the twentieth century, has served to obscure its strangeness. To appreciate the incongruity of the relationship, it’s helpful to try and imagine schools of literary study springing from Marxism’s intellectual or political rivals. Is an anarchist literary theory even conceivable? Who would be interested in a Weberian reading of Ulysses? Yet Marxist theorists have founded entire schools of criticism with scarcely a hint of embarrassment over the apparent mismatch between their intellectual pursuits.

Fredric Jameson’s Marxism and Form is, among other things, an attempt to explain this relationship. Jameson argues that even though Marxist criticism in the English speaking world has focused overwhelmingly on content, for dialectical thinkers the privileged moment in the form-content opposition is in fact form. To illustrate this point, Jameson takes the reader on a tour of the most important works of Western Marxism. Through an examination of theorists from Adorno to Sartre, Jameson shows how the work of each has been an attempt to locate in the form of various texts the traces and deformations of society as a whole.

If today that thesis appears original, but not earth shattering, it must have appeared as a jolt from the blue in the intellectual landscape of American literary theory in the early 1970s. While today any reasonably clever liberal arts student can tell you the thesis of Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in 1971 Marxists were only beginning their re-entry into the academy after the McCarthyite purges. Indeed, at the time the hegemonic theory was still New Criticism, whose explicit rejection of historical categories in criticism was as far from Jameson’s Marxism as can be.

For this reason, there is a third vital layer of Marxism and Form, beyond the argument for privileging form and the tour of Western Marxism. This is the layer of pedagogy. Marxism and Form is, perhaps first and foremost, a manual for dialectical thinking. This layer explains, I believe, most of the noteworthy aspects of the text. For while Jameson’s insistence on the primacy of form is an interesting argument, it hardly seems suitable to the conjuncture in which he intervened. Such a novel argument seems directed towards a field which is filled with Marxist critics who focus only on content, not the formalist and technocratic field of American criticism. Looked at from this perspective, Jameson’s argument can only appear misplaced. But judged according to the criteria of pedagogical potential, the argument about form fulfills its purpose beautifully, providing ample opportunity to illustrate the power of dialectical thought.

For Jameson, the argument that form is the privileged object of dialectical theories of literature does not stem from Marx, but from Hegel. For it was Hegel who first formulated the opposition between form and content in its modern guise. Prior to Hegel, the Aristotelian pairing of form and matter, in which the latter was but the passive raw stuff of the former, had dominated philosophical thinking about form. Hegel’s insistence that content itself carried its own logic, which in turn determined the form. In his system, this insight meant that the progress of the Absolute Spirit could only be expressed in certain forms along the way. His ranking of types of knowledge, from art to theology to philosophy, is a history of forms which themselves are determined by the progress of human knowledge.

In Marx’s hands, the opposition of form and content becomes not a means to understand the history of knowledge, but to understand history itself. Marx’s iconic images of historical transformation, the integuments bursting asunder, the throwing off of fetters of production, are precisely images of a content seeking an appropriate form. Without Hegel’s redefinition of the problem of form, Jameson argues, the key Marxist distinction between forces and relations of production is impossible. It is this parallelism between the key Marxist concepts and the key concepts of aesthetics that, for Jameson, explains the affinity between Marxism and art.

Hegel’s animation of content is also the driving force behind Jameson’s argument that form holds primacy in dialectical analysis. For it is precisely form’s determination by content which makes it such a valuable optic into our society. As Jameson argues, “inasmuch as the cultural is far less complex than the economic, it may serve as a useful introduction to the real on a reduced, simplified scale” (10). This formulation hints that for Jameson, the content of literary form is not so much the abstract story as society itself. Thus it is precisely because of form’s determination by content that the former holds the privileged place in dialectical criticism. For it is by reading form that we may come to see the material traces of content, which is to say society as a whole.

With this as Jameson’s central argument, it is not difficult to see why he argues that “[t]he basic story which the dialectic has to tell is no doubt that of the dialectical reversal, that paradoxical turning around of a phenomenon into its opposite” (309). The way Hegel’s subordination of form to content allows the former to stand as the privileged category of analysis is Jameson’s central example of this reversal. From this, we can begin to see its suitability not only as a worthwhile line of investigation in its own right, but also as a an example of how dialectical analysis works.

Jameson’s privileging of form carries with it some baggage, however, in his relative laxity when it comes to addressing content, or history, itself. On one level this makes an appearance with his rather loose acceptance of theories of “postindustrial society,” which often posit the disappearance of the working class (it must be said that Jameson was undoubtedly aided along this route by his endorsement of certain Maoist theorists who argued for the non-revolutionary character of the Western working classes). Forty years later, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, it is as clear as ever that the proletariat has not been absorbed into the bourgeoisie on any level.

At another point in the text, Jameson argues that Lukács faced a contradiction in his diagnosis of modernism as a symptom of a morbid capitalism, and his strident condemnations of modernist writers. Jameson reads this conflict between objective and subjective modes of analysis as internal to Marxism itself, as illustrated by Lenin’s voluntarism in attempting revolution in a more or less pre-capitalist country. As elegant as this symmetry may be, it is essentially dependent upon a Menshevik analysis of October. In endorsing this analysis, Jameson gives credence to the grossest voluntarism of all, that of bourgeois liberalism, which held that force of good ideals could create a third way between the revolution of the Bolsheviks and the barbarism of the White generals.

Unfortunately, it is this kind of disregard for history which has come to dominate literary studies today, not Jameson’s call for a Marxism of form. Indeed, his approach of reading texts as symptomatic solutions to the problems of society has not spread in the way he undoubtedly hoped. Although figures like Benjamin and Adorno (though not Sartre and Lukács) are now firmly part of the cultural studies pantheon, they now bare little resemblance the Hegelian figures Jameson presents. Indeed, the vision of totality which animates Jameson’s entire book is often the polemical target of textual readings today. In the ideologies of textualism, a work is not determined by the problems of society which it attempts to answer, but instead appears as an unstable congeries of criss-crossing discourses, none of which attains primacy.

The hostility of today’s academy to Jameson’s totalizing Marxism helps explain why even forty years later Marxism and Form remains, above all, an exciting read. In a final dialectical reversal, Jameson’s failure (and of course it is not his alone) to organize a generation of American dialectical critics has ensured that his manual for dialectical thinking retains all the urgency with which it was originally written.

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Some truly colonial journalism from Nicholas Kristof today.

Witness the beneficent white liberal walk among the savages. Feel his pain as he empathizes with Blacks who finally admit they aren’t ready for self-government. Chuckle along with him as he observes how they, in their typically hysterical fashion, even take this realization too far and blame their leaders for animals trampling their crops. Stand firm with him as he calls on the Western world to force submission upon the country’s dusky leadership.

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