Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Political Unconscious

Here is a somewhat extended quote to explain what I like about Fred Jameson:

“Our presupposition, in the analyses that follow, will be that only a genuine philosophy of history is capable of respecting the specificity and radical difference of the social and cultural past while disclosing the solidarity of its polemics and passions, its forms, structures, experiences, and struggles, with those of the present day...My position here is that only Marxism offers a philosophically coherent and ideologically compelling resolution to the dilemma of historicism...Only Marxism can give us an adequate account of the essential mystery of the cultural past, which, like Tiresias drinking the blood, is momentarily returned to life and warmth and allowed once more to speak, and to deliver its long-forgotten message in surroundings utterly alien to it. This mystery can be reenacted only if the human adventure is one; only thus—and not through the hobbies of antiquarianism or the projections of the modernists—can we glimpse the vital claims upon us of such long-dead issues as the seasonal alteration of the economy of a primitive tribe, the passionate disputes about the nature of the Trinity, the conflicting models of the polis or the universal Empire, or, apparently closer to us in time, the dusty parliamentary and journalistic polemics of the nineteenth-century nation states. These matters can recover their original urgency for us only if they are retold within the unity of a single great collective story; only if, in however disguised and symbolic a form, they are seen as sharing a single fundamental theme—for Marxism, the collective struggle to wrest a realm of Freedom from a realm of Necessity; only if they are grasped as vital episodes in a single vast unfinished plot...” (18-20)

And cut to a quote from the Communist Manifesto. “The history of all hitherto existing societies...” In Jameson’s class on Sartre, at least in its most recent incarnation, the first reading assignment is selections from Pascal’s Pensées. At several points in The Political Unconscious Jameson mentions the frequent comparisons between various religions and Marxism, saying that the comparison may be just, but should certainly not be to the denigration of the latter. Indeed, he courts such comparisons by, entirely unnecessarily, positioning his Marxist (Freudian) hermeneutic as the successor, the next, indeed, the only real change since, medieval theological hermeneutics. He begins with the four levels of medieval Biblical hermeneutics not just in relation to Northrop Frye, but essentially because his critical practice, if not a religion proper, is certainly a faith. So perhaps assigning Pascal is a nod in the direction of his own faith.

Sartrean philosophy does not, in my opinion, leave much room for the past (even the ‘cultural past’), except as individuals ‘know’ it. Any kind of collective history is impressionistic at best. The Critique (in 1960) did indeed try to rectify this, and to treat totality rigorously from both an existentialist and a Marxist perspective. Although it is perhaps unfair, it is exactly at this juncture that I am inclined to locate the Jamesonian leap of faith. Sartre’s attempt to bring his phenomenology in line with a Marxist philosophy of the collectivity failed. I am inclined to say the Critique is a failure not so much because the book is unreadable as because as far as I can tell, Jameson, who is very persuasive, has failed to get anyone to pretend to have read it.

So from my perspective, Jameson’s insistence that not just the text, but History (emphatically, for this reason, capitalized)—which is not itself text, but can only ever be approached textually—makes a meaningful whole represents his primal leap of faith, without which the rest of his critical practice would not be possible. Conceiving of history as the Lacanian Real (or, what I know even less about, the Althusserian/Leibnizian ‘absent cause’) does not solve the problem. Lacan does not take one into a realm of genuine collectivity, never mind totality, any more than Sartre. It is possible that Jameson would describe this ‘leap of faith’ as one of the Utopian goals of his project, or a Utopia inscribed into its process. This is acceptable to me, I suppose, though I don’t share it.

Moreover, I don’t see the reason for it. Neuroscientists claim that the brain is greater than the sum of its parts. There is, I understand, a whole field of research built around ideas of irreducible complexity, critical mass of connectivity, or whatever. I should know more about them, probably. This sort of claim is far from what Jameson is doing. Really, his claims to totality—as he makes clear—are a necessary gesture of critical foreclosure. One must somehow delimit the field of study, the lines are arbitrary, and will line up only with some sort of radical original choice. Jameson’s is Marxism. After this, with great critical dexterity he divides the task of totalizing criticism into three overlapping phases, or levels. All the different critical idioms are contained, on one of the three levels, within the Marxist one (this is the point of the smaller, more soberly formulated 1976 essay, “Criticism in History”).

There are a few further issues that I would like to signal, but about which I haven’t made up my mind. The first is Jameson’s explicitly interpretive, that is, hermeneutic, stance. He mentions Gadamer once, in a footnote, to say that the contextual horizons for interpretation he, Jameson, is setting out here are not like Gadamer’s horizons of interpretation. I suppose that this is Jameson’s way of being anti-Barthesian. There is a hard kernel of the Real in every text, and the critic ought not try to ignore it in the name of jouissance. Politics, all the moral imperatives of Marxism, get in the way.

This interpretation must happen within, as suggested above, certain contexts. Different contexts for different sorts of interpretation; though I think a more detailed comparison of Jameson’s three levels of interpretive context with LaCapra’s (also from the early 1980s) long list of contexts for each text. No doubt the difference may be explained disciplinarily—that is, LaCapra is, in the end, an historian, Jameson a literary critic. So LaCapra goes very willingly outside the text, while Jameson goes so far as to say, “the symbolic act [that is, the text] therefore begins by generating and producing its own context in the same moment of emergence in which it steps back from it” (81). I’m not sure what the distinction between generation and producing is supposed to be, but the model is an interesting one. Too flat, though. Any given text certainly might be a symbolic act, and most can be read in that way, but this depends on the context of production. The author-function, I should think, still allows this. Perhaps the issue is that for Jameson one always goes into the past through the text one is investigating, and in this sense, it does indeed create its own context. In the end, though, I can’t agree. To say that the text produces its own context is to allow the critic to find whatever she is looking for in it. Jameson solves this dilemma by turning to totalizing interpretation—that is, the text means only in relation to other structures, other texts—but the totality is, as I said above, really just an act of faith, its content prescribed in some sense from before the book is opened.

Finally, there is the question of allegory. Jameson’s use of historical allegory is sensitive and multi-layered, but my fur is up about this. Michael Sprinker’s 1994 book on Proust purported to be historical materialist in orientation but didn’t seem ever, or hardly ever, to rise above the level of class allegory. As though Sprinker had read a few books about the class structure of the time, and then found homologous structures within the Recherche; he declares an allegory and goes home. For instance, he seems to have decided that the proletariat was a negligible political force in the fin-de-siècle and up until the popular front, even. The real struggle continues to be, according to him, between aristocrats and the bourgeoisie. This is foolishness. It comes from taking the Action Française at its word, and hunting for French fascists in every literary corner. The Recherche certainly is incisive social critique, among other things. But it is not a model of French society as a whole, it is a very peculiar view of a peculiar part of this society. Even this view might be said to be underpinned by the lower-classes, excluded, certainly, but not ignored. This is the content of the scene in À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs at Balbec, where the wealthy eat in the gas-lit glass box of the restaurant, while the poor stand in the dark outside, invisible from within, their faces pressed against the glass. Sprinker’s ham-handedness and vulgar allegory has made me suspicious of Jameson in this regard. I’ll have to read more.

Perhaps next I’ll try Vico out. All this talk of philosophy of history has me itching for it. Also, it will be useful when I go back to Sorel.

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