“In a society like ours, not stricken with aphasia so much as with amnesia, there is a higher priority than reading and that is history itself: so the very greatest critics of our time – a Lukács, for example, or, to a lesser degree, a Leavis – are those who have construed their role as the teaching of history, as the telling of the tale of the tribe, the most important story any of us will ever have to listen to, the narrative of that implacable yet also emancipatory logic whereby the human community has evolved into its present form and developed the sign systems by which we live and explain our lives to ourselves. So urgently do we need these history lessons, indeed, that they outweigh the palpable fact that neither critic just mentioned is a good, let alone a virtuoso, reader, that each could justly be reproached for his tin ear and his puritanical impatience with the various jouissances of the literary text.” – Fredric Jameson, “The Symbolic Inference; or, Kenneth Burke and Ideological Analysis”
It is no small irony that that Fredric Jameson’s elevation of historical criticism over the details of literary analysis comes from the critic who has, more successfully than any other, joined the two kinds of analysis. Certainly no contemporary critic has presented the theoretical case for “the primacy of History itself”1 with more theoretical elegance (or dogged determination) than Jameson. At the same time, as Terry Eagleton has noted, Jameson is one of the finest readers of literature in the critical tradition, looming “like a holdover from a grander cultural epoch altogether, a refugee from the era of Shklovsky and Auerbach, Jakobson and Barthes.”2 Yet while Jameson has been explicitly programmatic on the level of theory, propounding a hermeneutic system that seeks to formalize the procedures of Marxist literary criticism, he has been far less didactic when it comes to the critical methods that produce the close readings that are themselves responsible for so many of the moments of intellectual virtuosity one encounters in his texts. This essay seeks to fill out Jameson’s program for Marxist literary theory, as it were, by joining it with the micro-strategies of interpretation proposed by Kenneth Burke. The resulting methodology is capable, I argue, of doing justice to both the synchronic and diachronic moments of literary analysis – yielding an interpretation of both the structure of a given text (or a given literary conjuncture) and the historical development of literary practices.
Kenneth Burke’s theory of literary criticism provides the appropriate starting place for developing such a methodology, concerned as it is primarily with developing the tools of analysis for approaching individual texts. In this way, beginning with Burke can be seen as the methodological analogue of Marx’s famous ‘rising from the abstract to the concrete,’3 with the individual text here taking the place of Marx’s commodity. Though Burke’s literary theory would undergo multiple ideological and analytic revisions over the course of his career,4 here I wish to focus on the theory as it is developed in his 1941 book, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. In the far-ranging and idiosyncratic title essay of this work, Burke develops a method of reading that emphasizes the connections among themes, images, and ideas in a work that is a useful complement to Jameson’s method of historicization. For Burke, understanding the structural functioning of a text requires a mapping of the various relationships of its component elements. He argues that there are two primary means of describing these relationships: the arpeggio and the chord. The arpeggio describes the relationship of “from ——- to ——-,” describing a pattern of association in the text based on progression (Burke, for example, uses this term to analyze the linkages between marriage, murder and opium addiction in Coleridge.) The chord is slightly more complicated. Burke uses it first to explore relations of equivalence in a text, where themes or images are united not by the progression of the text but rather immediate comparability (his example here is the equation of “sunny mist” and luminous gloom” in Coleridge’s line “The sunny mist, the luminous gloom of Plato.”) Besides this function as the opposite of the arpeggio, Burke also uses the image of chordal collapse to describe the effect of a text’s totality of structural relationships, the equations that result from its various arpeggios.5
For Burke, the end result of mapping the arpeggios and chords of a text is to grasp the way the text represents “the dancing of an attitude.” By this phrase Burke seeks to capture the way a text always constitutes a communication of some sort, a stance or opinion on a given matter. The dancing of an attitude itself has three component parts: dream, chart, and prayer. The dream describes the conscious and unconscious inputs into a text, both what a writer seeks to communicate and those unconscious expressions of intent or desire which inevitably find their ways in. The chart is how the text “sizes up” its moment, how it evaluates the situation into which it intervenes. Finally, the prayer is what exactly the text seeks to communicate, the effect it seeks to produce.6
As this short summary indicates, even as Burke seeks to articulate a critical method that will describe the structural relationships of a given text, he also moves his analysis towards incorporating the historical situation of a text in the reading produced. More generally, his description of text’s as “symbolic actions” is a useful corrective to the reified methods of New Criticism, which treat texts as objects (‘a well wrought urn,’ for example). Burke’s insistence that the text “is designed to ‘do something’ for the poet and his readers,” combined with his method of incorporating dream and chart into his reading, is in important ways analogous with the methods developed by Raymond Williams – above all in the theorization of texts as moments in a process.7
Yet as Jameson himself has argued, Burke’s program for examining texts and their relationship to history is ultimately hindered by the adoption of multiple ‘strategies of containment’ that divert the course of analysis before it reaches outward to history itself. For Jameson, this is exemplified in Burke’s analysis of Keats, which traces the equations in Keats’ poems as a sort of self-criticism of romanticism. As Jameson argues, this reading, “by projecting a situation which is its own response, seals us off from any further need to consult the historical circumstances of romanticism itself, and makes this particular superstructural subtext a kind of autoreferential causa sui.”8 As rich as Burke’s method is, then, it requires supplementing by a theory capable of overcoming its own strategies of containment.
Jameson has produced just such a theory, particularly in the Marxist hermeneutic proposed in The Political Unconscious. Though Jameson’s argument in that work is much broader, ultimately asserting that even non-Marxist critical methods themselves imply a Marxist analysis as their completion, for this essay I will restrict my exegesis to the hermeneutic Jameson develops. Drawing from the medieval hermeneutic system, Jameson argues that Marxist analysis should proceed in three “concentric frameworks,” moving from “political history, in the narrow sense of punctual event and a chroniclelike sequence of happenings in time” to “society, in the now already less dischronic and time-bound sense of a constitutive tension and struggle between social classes” to “history now conceived in its vastest sense of the sequence of modes of production.” Each of these frameworks, or horizons as Jameson sometimes calls them, imply their own privileged object of analysis in the text. In the first horizon, this object is the “symbolic act”9 which responds to a given social contradiction. In the second horizon, the critical gaze is broadened, bringing more of history into the text, as the object of analysis consists of “ideologemese,” defined by Jameson as “the smallest intelligible unit of the essentially antagonistic collective discourse of social classes.” Here the class struggle itself is the social referent of the text, not social contradictions such as alienation or reification as in the first horizon. In the final horizon, the perspective is broadened once more, this time to examine the cultural revolution of a given mode of production, the logic by which old cultural forms are broken down and remade anew in the image of a new structure of society. Together, these three horizons allow the critic to map a detailed relationship between the individual text and even the broadest contours of human history.10
To demonstrate the utility of the particular combination of Burke and Jameson I’ve suggested here, I would like to examine Ann Petry’s 1946 novel The Street, and particularly the question of genre. As Jameson has argued, genre, while a somewhat disreputable concept in literary study today, is a privileged category of analysis for Marxist criticism, possessing at it does a “mediatory function…which allows the coordination of immanent formal analysis of the individual text with the twin diachronic perspectives of the history of forms and evolution of social life.”11
One of the most perceptive analyses of genre in The Street is that of Heather Hicks, who reads Petry’s novel as a sort of self-criticism of naturalism/realism. Drawing from Mark Seltzer’s work on Henry James, Hicks argues that naturalist/realist fiction, with its emphasis on mimetic principles, is fundamentally a cultural practice of surveillance. This highly Foucauldian argument reads the fiction of James and other authors working in a similar tradition as producing works which replicate in their form the disciplining gaze Foucault placed at the center of modernity. In her reading of The Street, Hicks argues that Petry thematizes this formal aspect of her novel, with the constant emphasis on regimes of vision in the life of its protagonist, Lutie. Ultimately, Hicks sees Petry as subverting the formal proclivities of realist fiction through her portrayal of Lutie’s local knowledge, grounded in the specific experience of an African American woman. For Hicks, Lutie’s refusal of a totalizing viewpoint and her constant phrasing of her experience as a question frustrate the impulse towards production of disciplined subjects in her form.12
While there are numerous aspects of this reading with which a Marxist interpretation would disagree,13 Hicks’ specification of realism/naturalism and the problematic of vision in the novel are important coordinates for any reading of The Street. By employing the combination of Burke and Jameson described above, I will demonstrate that a very different reading of the relationship between genre and vision is possible, one which does far more to connect The Street with the “twin diachronic perspectives” posited by Jameson. This reading begins by asking what are the “equations” that The Street makes with vision. Of the many that could be made, the novel itself suggests money as the most important, with its positioning of an equation between the two terms at three crucial points in the narrative. First, when Lutie is entering the apartment building that will be the most important space of the novel for the first time, she is put off by the dim light in the hallway, thinking to herself that “if you dropped a penny…you’d have to scrabble around on the cracked tile floor before you could ever hope to find it.” 14 Here, (the lack of) vision is itself is described through the search for money. Money, it appears, is a condition of possibility of vision, a code the latter must be written in to be intelligible. The second moment comes in the book’s flashback to Lutie’s time working for a wealthy white family in Connecticut. After she witnesses the family cover up their uncle’s Christmas morning suicide, she becomes “interested in the way in which money transformed a suicide she had seen committed from start to finish in front of her very eyes into ‘an accident with a gun.’”15 This moment marks the time at which Lutie became firmly convinced of the ability of money to solve any and all problems she could encounter. Given the way the incident is written, one can hardly blame her for this belief, as money’s alchemical power transmutes the suicide she saw herself into an accident. The implication here is clear – vision is dominated by money. The final equation between money and vision comes when Lutie is sitting in Junto’s bar, where her encounter with a musician sets her on her path for the rest of the novel. In this scene Lutie is sitting at the bar looking in the mirror. As Lutie looks at the bottles of alcohol on the shelves, she observes “that they were magnified in size, so that they had the appearance of being filled with liquid, molten gold.”16 Here, money transmutes the objects of Lutie’s vision even when it is absent, as she rewrites containers of alcohol as containers of bullion. The chordal collapse these equations produce is a picture of vision, in particular Lutie’s, as dominated and constituted by money.
The identification of money as a central theme in the novel is reinforced by its importance in the character system, where every character’s relation to every other is articulated either through money or lust. Even Lutie’s relationship with her son, Bub, is mediated by the efforts of both to secure money for the other. On levels of both narrative and imagery, then, the domination of human beings by money constitutes a primary theme of the novel. The identification of this theme brings us back to the question of genre, as both aspects of this theme lend themselves to a placement of The Street firmly within the genre of naturalism. On the level of plot, the deterministic narrative that is the result of Petry’s portrait of lives utterly dominated by money is a familiar one in naturalist fiction. On the level of theme, Petry’s choice of a particular commodity, money, as the subject of her investigation, can also be seen as part of the naturalist tradition of focus on the world of a particular commodity (think of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! Or Frank Norris’ project on The Epic of Wheat).
At the same time, Petry’s use of naturalist genre conventions begs the question of why many readers have insisted on assigning her work to realism. Here an unavoidably diachronic level of analysis arises, as the difference between The Street and other naturalist novels lies precisely in the co-development of American capitalism and naturalist poetics. While earlier naturalist works often oriented their narrative around a specific individual commodity, Petry chose money, the ‘universal equivalent.’17 The higher level of abstraction this focus imparts to Petry’s work accounts for the realist impulse readers have detected in The Street, as money’s role as a universal equivalent allows it to serve as the basis for knitting together a larger number of social relations than other commodities. Petry’s greater scope of narrative here is not simply the result of artistic ability: it also represents a change in the real abstractions18 of capitalism. Just as Aristotle was unable to theorize labor as the source of value in a slave society which “had as its natural basis the inequality of men and of their labour-powers,”19 earlier naturalists confronted a society which itself had not undergone the process of abstraction Petry performs in her novel. The shift from Oil! to The Street is also the shift, after all, from an American capitalism still characterized by significant amounts of craft work to an overwhelmingly industrial economy, when mass production eliminated traces of individual worksmanship from commodities and left them naked as products of abstract social labor. At the same time that Petry achieves more than other naturalists could, however, her portrait of reification suffers from the limitations of naturalism. This is evident primarily in the deterministic structure of the plot. In Petry’s narrative, Lutie’s domination by money necessarily condemns her to her fate. This one-sided portrait of the effects of reification stems, ironically enough, from a failure of abstraction on Petry’s part. While focusing on money as the determining force in her novel allows Petry to abstract from particular commodities to a broader view of social relations, it remains one step away from abstracting from all commodities to a focus on the commodity form itself. This crucial abstraction is what allowed Georg Lukács to theorize the standpoint of the working class as that position from which society could be grasped as a totality, grasping its moments of both freedom and necessity. Petry’s novel can thus be seen as a narrative written from the standpoint of the penultimate abstraction of capitalist society, with the insights and limitations that this perspective brings with it.20
The same rewriting of naturalism in terms of the development of American capitalism can be performed with regard to American literary history as a whole. Indeed, one could argue that genres are in a sense analogous to modes of (literary) production, and that Jameson’s assertion that “any individual mode of production projects and implies a whole sequence of such mode of production”21 applies with equal force to them. In this case, naturalism’s resistance to and domination by reification prompt us to look to an earlier moment in American cultural history, when capitalist social forms were not yet as dominant as the moment of naturalism. One such moment is that of American romanticism, what literary historians following F.O. Matthiessen have called “the American Renaissance.” Though this is a period in which reification has not, to use Lukács’ imagery, sunk as deeply into American consciousness, the forms of alienation which dominate later literature are visible here in lesser form. Matthiessen himself noted how Emerson’s prose style can be seen as a response to “our double tendency towards standardization and anarchy,”22 exactly the sort of social structure of feeling Lukács sees developing from the universalization of the commodity form. More recently, Carolyn Porter has conducted a detailed examination of Emerson’s aesthetic and philosophical project from a Lukácsian standpoint, concluding that although much of Emerson’s work was dedicated to resisting the consequences of reification, “the ‘mechanical philosophy’ [he] opposes infiltrates the means he designs to resist its hegemonic dominance.”23
At the same time that the marks of reification are visible in the history of the American Renaissance, it is also noticeable that the literary forms of this period do not seem to be as alienated as in later periods. Herman Meville’s novels and stories, for example, depend upon an intertwining of objective and subjective experience that became far harder to conceive after the split between aestheticism (which would become modernism) and naturalism in the second half of the twentieth century. “Bartleby,” for example, revolves around the confrontation between the narrator, whose consciousness is interiorized extensively, and the scrivener Bartleby, whose seemingly opaque consciousness constitutes the major problem of the story. As this text mounts an early investigation into the effects of reification, its form remains (relatively) free from the tendencies it seeks to diagnose.24
The contrast between the American Renaissance and modernism/naturalism demands an investigation of the relationship between reification and modernism itself. If the history of naturalism is in part a tracing of the process of real abstraction under capitalism, what is modernism? Seth Moglen’s investigation of modernism provides one compelling answer to this question with his formulation of two tendencies in the movement: the modernism of melancholia and the modernism of mourning. For Moglen, all modernist texts, from the reactionary T.S. Eliot to the revolutionary Langston Hughes, are responses to what he calls “the wounds of capitalism,” by which he means the effects of reification on human consciousness and society. The difference between the two modernisms lies in their ways of responding to these wounds. The texts of reactionary modernism, such as Eliot and Faulkner, treat the wounds inflicted by reification, the human capacities smothered and ossified by capitalist development, as irrevocably lost. As such, their response is to aestheticize this loss, praising those formal strategies best suited for this task. The result, Moglen argues, drawing on Freud, is a melancholic modernism obsessed with its own traumas, unable to think of a life beyond them. The modernism of mourning, on the other hand, responds to these wounds with attempts to redress the wounds of reification, often through projects of revolutionary change. The project of changing society thus allows these authors to move beyond their wounds towards a renewed existence. As Moglen’s work demonstrates, positing reification as the essential social horizon of American literature does not commit one to the homogenization of American literary histories, but rather to tracing the diverse formal and political configurations that result from the collision of cultural production and capitalist development.25
Moglen’s analysis brings us back to the same moment of American literary history as that of The Street. As such, I wish to conclude this essay with an examination of a text nearly contemporaneous with Petry’s, but written from a vastly different political and formal standpoint: William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! For purposes of continuity, I will also focus my reading of this text around the role of money. Using the combination of Burke and Jameson developed above, I will demonstrate that this methodology allows us to see how texts confronting the same “social contradictions” can produce quite different modes of engagement with those contradictions.
On the face of it, money plays a far smaller role in Absalom, Absalom! than The Street. Early in the novel, money is explicitly disqualified as one of the motivations of Thomas Sutpen. Describing Sutpen’s appearance in Jefferson, Rosa Coldfield tells Quentin that “a man of twenty-five does not voluntarily undertake the hardship and privation of clearing virgin land and establishing a plantation in a new country just for money.”26 Quentin’s grandfather confirms that money played little role in Sutpen’s interactions with the citizens of Jefferson, noting that Sutpen paid his last Spanish gold coin for the land that would become Sutpen’s Hundred. Sutpen’s drive to complete his plantation is similarly outside the monetary realm, as “Sutpen did not need to borrow money with which to complete the house,” since what it lacked was a wife.27
Later in the novel, however, it becomes clear that these assessments of Thomas Sutpen do not penetrate to the essence of what drove his demonic quest. Sutpen’s obsession is in fact grounded in his childhood as a poor white Virginian, and specifically in his rejection (by a black house slave) from the door of a white planter’s house. Sutpen resolves to acquire whatever it takes to possess that social standing (and social power). As he quickly realizes, this means “above all things money in considerable quantities.” Learning that white men may make their fortunes in Haiti, Sutpen sets out for the West Indies. At this point, money itself recedes in importance in the novel, and its place is taken by the imagery of the accounting book, the ledger. Specifically, the ledger appears as a metaphor for Sutpen’s conscience (and here the impact of reification becomes clear, as human conscience is reduced to an accounting balance sheet). Following Burke’s method of looking for the clusters of equations surrounding this imagery, we find two: revenge and fire. The first appearance of the ledger comes in a description of how Sutpen paid off his first wife to compensate for abandoning her. Sutpen’s effort to “balance his moral ledger”28 is immediately contrasted with his action’s result: his wife raising his son with the purpose of murdering Sutpen. The second linking of the ledger and revenge comes when that son, Charles Bon, is talking to a lawyer who kept his own metaphorical ledger “in a secret drawer” in his desk and who informs Bon that “With most of us, even when we are lucky enough to get our revenge, we must pay for it.”29 The ledger’s arpeggio then progresses to include fire, when two separate characters on different occasions call for ripping it up and burning it.
These equations link money up to the crucial plot-lines of the book. Bons’ revenge is one of the central narrative threads of the novel. Fire also plays a central role, both in the climactic burning of Sutpen’s Hundred by the former slave (and daughter of Sutpen) Clytenmenestra, and in its association with Sutpen’s suppression of a slave revolt during his time in Haiti. Faulkner’s description of this revolt centers around the burning of the sugar fields. Of equal importance, however, is Sutpen’s suppression of the revolt, which Faulkner attributes Sutpen’s “indomitable spirit which should have come from the same primary fire as [the slaves’] but which could not have.”30 Here, fire itself is linked with racial superiority, a linkage strengthened when it is recalled that the motive for Bon’s revenge and Clytenmenestra’s arson is Sutpen’s racism. Faulkner even directly links money and (racial) blood, describing the money produced by the exploitation of Black slaves in Haiti as possessing a sheen “not from gold but from bood.”31
These clusters of equations result in a chordal collapse that sheds considerable light on some of the critical controversies that have surrounded Absalom, Absalom!. Carolyn Porter, for example, has argued that Sutpen is a quintessentially American and capitalist figure, representing Faulkner’s take on the entrepreneurial myth of the self-made man. This reading allows Porter to cast Faulkner as responding to the development of American capitalism, and supports her argument that the novel’s form breaks down reified reading practices.32 On the other hand, Richard Godden has argued that slavery’s key role in Sutpen’s history denies this linkage, writing Faulkner as a descendant of Eugene Genovese’s anticapitalist slaveholders. The chordal collapse of money, race, revenge, and fire that I have traced suggests that both of these readings are correct. Faulkner’s antipathy to a society ruled by the ‘cash nexus’ is clear in the novel, as he portrays the hellish results of Sutpen’s quest for money and class status. At the same time, however, it has to be recognized that Faulkner’s critique of this quest relies on a deep-seated fear of the Black revolt that it engenders. The tragedy of Sutpen’s drive is that it creates a host of “Black Jacobins” throughout the novel, from the slaves of Haiti to the elderly Clytenmenestra.33 In this way, Faulkner’s critique of money’s place in American society can be distinguished from that of Petry, whose novel is deeply critical of the entwinement of racial and class oppression. Though both novels form complicated responses to reification in American society, the attitudes that dance in each of them could not be more different.
Bürger, Peter. The Decline of Modernism. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.
Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form : Studies in Symbolic Action. 3d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974, 1973.
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Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! : The Corrected Text. Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1987, 1986.
Godden, Richard. “Absalom, Absalom!, Haiti and Labor History: Reading Unreadable Revolutions.” ELH 61, no. 3 (Autumn, 1994): pp. 685-720.
Hicks, Heather J. “Rethinking Realism in Ann Petry’s “the Street”.” MELUS 27, no. 4, Varieties of the Ethnic Experience (Winter, 2002): pp. 89-105.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1981.
———. “The Symbolic Inference; Or, Kenneth Burke and Ideological Analysis.” Critical Inquiry 4, no. – 3 (1978): 507.
———. Valences of the Dialectic. London; Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2009.
Lukács, Geörg. The Historical Novel. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.
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———. Writer and Critic. London: Merlin Press, 1970.
Marx, Karl and Ben Fowkes. Capital : A Critique of Political Economy. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.
———. Grundrisse. Foundations of the critique of political economy. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.
Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance; Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. London: New York etc. Oxford university press, 1941.
Melville, Herman. Billy Budd and the Piazza Tales. Dolphin Book ; C307. Garden City, N.Y: Dolphin Books, 1961.
Moglen, Seth. Mourning Modernity : Literary Modernism and the Injuries of American Capitalism. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2007.
Petry, Ann. The Street. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985.
Porter, Carolyn. Seeing and being : The Plight of the Participant-Observers in Emerson, James, Adams, Faulkner. 1st ed. Middletown, Conn; Irvington, N.Y: Wesleyan University Press; distributed by Columbia University Press, 1981.
Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance : The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. 1st ed. New York: Knopf, 1988.
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