Mosquitoes and Foreign Embassies: Connecting the Small and Big

March 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

Woooooo! Spring Break assignment #2 done and it’s just shy of Wednesday! Now to tackle that master’s thesis, ay. Below is my “think piece” on Arundhati Roy’s impeccable novel The God of Small Things and Duke professor Aarthi Vadde’s ecocritical article “The Backwaters Sphere: Ecological Collectivity, Cosmopolitanism and Arundhati Roy” (2009). This post will probably be incoherent to any reader who hasn’t read either the novel or article; nonetheless, I decided to post it since I haven’t been active on this thing in a long while.

For the ecocritcs and green revolutionaries out there, this one’s for you. On a side note, walking to my apartment tonight, I saw what I thought was an innocuous leaf turned out to be a massive cockroach. I screamed so loud. So much for ecological collectivity. No thank you!!!

If The God of Small Things is a novel “which connects the very smallest things with the very biggest” (Roy, quoted in Vadde 522), and if one of its primary foci is to spawn awareness of the inseparability between the political, cultural, and environmental, then I wonder how such connections can be discerned in parts of the novel where the backwater sphere, a social space of “ecological collectivity,” is not the center of narration. According to Vadde, the backwaters of River Meenachal in the novel represent a space where the human and nonhuman come together and form a special social bond. But the backwater sphere is certainly not the only space where human and nonhuman subjects coexist alongside each other, and while the backwater sphere is especially significant because it portrays the coexistence between cross species as harmonious and egalitarian, I wonder how the representation of the nonhuman functions in parts of the novel where the primary focus is arguably on human dialogue and action, not necessarily the nonhuman and thus the environment itself.

In these parts of the novel, where Vadde would consider as functioning under the epistemologies of ascendancy as her analysis of Baby Kochamma’s garden and Pappachi’s moth suggests, I wonder if it is possible to glean meaning from instances where even smaller, seemingly expendable, representations of the nonhuman appear. In other words, how does Roy’s use of insect imagery in instances where humans are obviously the center of narration contribute to her vision of the novel as “connect[ing] the very smallest things with the very biggest”? I am specifically thinking of chapter 14 titled “Work Is Struggle” where Chacko visits Comrade K. N. M. Pillai to find out about Velutha’s involvement in the Marxist Party. As one of the novel’s strongest portrayals of ascendancy, this chapter surveys practices of domination through Chacko’s and Pillai’s display of power relations in the forms of institutional apparatuses (they talk about Velutha in terms of caste politics and his affiliation with the Marxist Party), gender imbalances (Chacko’s scopophilic gaze on Pillai’s wife and Pillai’s misogynist disregard of her), and cultural ideology (the use of colonial British influences in the forms of Scott and Shakespeare as measurements of intelligence and capability). The values of global capitalist efficiency and production are also present in the form of Chacko’s plans for “a new product that Paradise Pickles & Preserves planned to launch in the spring. Synthetic Cooking Vinegar” (261). Furthermore, Pillai’s calculated vacillation between speaking English and Malayalam is a tool he uses to wield power in spite of his inferiority to Chacko, his Oxford-educated boss and wealthier superior.

Scattered among these contingent manifestations of power is Roy’s interesting, and I assume calculated, use of insect imagery that helps describe the material environment of the “hot little room” packed with ambition (260). While Roy incorporates descriptions of midges (254) and ants (263), I focus on the ubiquitous presence of the mosquitoes as they are referred to on three separate occasions within the chapter. Here is a sphere perceived ecologically as well as socially. Similar to the backwater sphere, Pillai’s house is represented as a site of biodiversity where human and insects coexist alongside one another, albeit through epistemologies of ascendency, not ecological collectivity. Over Pillai’s mother’s head is a “funnel of mosquitoes, like an inverted dunce cap” and as the table fan disperses its “mechanical breeze in exemplary, democratic turns” the mosquitoes over hers and Chacko’s heads “dispers[e] and re-assembl[e] tirelessly” (255). Later, Pillai’s son, Lenin, claps his hands over his father’s head, “creating mayhem in the mosquito funnel” (265). Are the mosquitoes here used to make a political point, in a similar way the baby spiders on the river are, or are they merely a demonstration of what Barthes calls “narrative luxury, lavish to the point of offering many ‘futile’ details” (quoted in Vadde 536)?

Although the work the mosquitoes (arguably) do in this chapter serves to redirect the reader’s focus from the politically charged dialogue between Chacko and Pillai onto the biotic elements of this (politically) domestic sphere, how does the small, seemingly insignificant presence of the mosquitoes connect with the big issues this chapter foregrounds? Perhaps one point of departure is to gauge Lenin’s trivial yet destructive treatment of nonhuman species. After clapping his hands over his father’s head, he “counted the squashed carcasses on his palms…he showed them to his father” (265). Reminiscent of Pappachi’s taxonomic treatment of the moth, Lenin’s carcass counting signifies the creeping ascendant humanism already at work in his childhood phase as he turns the mosquitoes into objects of human knowledge. Lenin’s mosquito killing also comes at a moment in the chapter where the dialogue between his father and Chacko is on the brink of belligerence; Pillai retorts, “Keep in mind, comrade, that this is not your Oxford college. For you what is a nonsense for the Masses it is something different” (264). It is as if the mosquito killing, there to mostly demonstrate the ideological violence of the act itself, is somehow a reflection of the epistemologies of ascendancy entrenched in his father’s political ambitions which in turn also foretells Lenin’s own perpetuation of ascendant humanism. When Rahel returns to Ayemenom years later, she learns that Lenin has built a career in Delhi working for foreign embassies. As she reminisces back to the time when a three or four year old Lenin stuck a green gram in his nose, the narrator comments, “It was curious how politics lurked even in what children chose to stuff up their noses” (125). I would add that his childhood mosquito killing demonstrates a tacit political training which is part of the process that initiates him as an interpellated subject who upholds the praxis of ascendant humanism, implicit in the values of global capitalist pursuit, signified in his place of employment.

dialogues of exchange: foucault and said

August 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

When Edward Said wrote how Orientalism was “greatly indebted” to Michel Foucault, I didn’t realize the extent until reading Foucault’s “Orders of Discourse”. Said’s definition of Orientalism as a discourse comes directly from Foucault.  A discourse is a system of thought, a large unit of knowledge comprised of a node of disciplines, distributed among a society through texts and speech. For me, it is easier to think of a discipline as a microcosm of a discourse, since what makes a discipline–whether it be medicine, science, literature, et al–are groups of objects, methods, corpus of propositions considered to be true (or fact), a set of rules, definitions, techniques, and tools (Foucault 15); basically a discourse in a much larger sense. Similarly, Said defines Orientalism as a discourse that is not only “a mere political subject matter or field that is reflected passively by culture, scholarship, or institutions”; it is also, and more importantly,

a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts; it is an elaboration not only of a basic geographical distinction but also of a whole series of “interests” which, by such means as scholarly discovery, philological reconstruction, psychological analysis, landscape and sociological description, it not only creates but also maintains; it is, rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different world (Said 12).

That last bit, where Said asserts Orientalism’s ability to maintain, control, manipulate, is crucial to Foucault’s ideas of the order of a discourse: “I am supposing that in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures” (Foucault 8). Driving the existence of any discourse is the principle of exclusion and there are three rules to this principle. The first is prohibition, which is at once the blatant and tacit understanding that not everyone is free to say or do exactly anything; in society, there exists the “privileged or exclusive right to speak of a particular subject” (8). The second is the process of division and rejection, of the strict binary between reason and folly. In a word, of how actions, words, ideas are categorized or divided between what is right and what is wrong. Similar to the second, the third system of exclusion is the opposition between true and false, driven by the resilient desire for the will to truth.

Foucault gives an excellent example of the effects of these mechanisms of exclusion by offering the case of 19th century botanist Mendel, who during his time, was rejected within the discipline of botany for his innovative, totally foreign theoretical perspectives. He was deemed false, inaccurate–in opposition to the will to truth.

Mendel spoke the truth, but he was not “within the true” of contemporary biological discourse: it simply was not along such lines that objects and biological concepts were formed. A whole change in scale, the deployment of a totally new range of objects in biology was required before Mendel could enter into the true and his propositions appear for the most part, exact. (16)

Because his rhetoric was different, because his “objects” and “signs” did not conform to the current discipline of botany, he was excluded from the discourse.

This isolated case, attesting to the extent of the contingency of the makings of a discourse, is just one out of the unfathomable, complex web of the construction of a discourse. Discourses are founded upon discoveries and propositions that become the standard to which all other “fresh propositions,” new knowledge and new discoveries are measured against. The standard of a discourse, those initial discoveries and propositions, thus become the nature of any given field. But what if this “standard” was in error to begin with? Aren’t we in trouble if our foundational knowledge of a discourse is,  cloaked in the guise of being “natural” and true–always taken for granted–erroneous? These errors, going unnoticed and taken for being natural, thus have “their own positive functions and their own valid history,” being built upon over the years, and thus “their roles are often indissociable from that of the truth” (15 my emphasis).

Foucault’s delineation of the relationship between primary texts and commentary, and the impact of this commentary on a discourse, is of crucial importance to Said’s explanation of the treatment of ancient Eastern texts (primary texts) and how, found by certain Europeans, were read and thus commented on by the West.

One of the founding father’s of Orientalism was Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron who traveled as far as Suret and found a bunch of Avestan texts–primary, ancient texts–at his own disposable. “A universe in writing was available, but scarcely anyone seemed to suspect the immensity of those unknown lands. The realization began with his translation of the Avesta…[Anquetil-Duperron] interjected a vision of innumerable civilizations from ages past, of an infinity of literatures” (Schwab quoted in Said 77). Thus began the official shaping and construction of the Orient at the hands of Europeans, for Europeans: “For the first time, the Orient was revealed to Europe in the materiality of its texts, languages, and civilizations” (77). His translations–which are undoubtedly interpretations–provided opportunity for other Europeans to build upon these texts, as well as use his translations as guides to other subsequent texts. In comes William Jones, proficient in Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian, taking up the Orient as his personal study and “thereby turning it into a province of European learning” (78), and later, Napolean, among others.

So the relationship between Duperron finding  the Avestan texts (PRIMARY TEXTS) and the action of him translating these texts (SECONDARY TEXTS) would be according to Foucault, the start of a new discourse, creating “an open possibility for discussion” (Foucault 13) of the Orient, basically. The role of commentary is to say “what has silently been articulated deep down…it gives us the opportunity to say something other than the [primary] text itself, but on conditions that it is the text itself which is uttered, and, in some ways, finalized” (13). As Said brings to light, commentary of the Orient, written by Europeans, is all Napolean read before he invaded Egypt. When he did invade Egypt, his mind was filled with preconceived ideas of the discourse of what we’ve been identifying as orientalism; his view of the Orient was constructed by Europeans, a view that was already seen as natural and true.

I’m going to shut up now.

fall/staff + shake/spear: to reject falstaff is to reject shakespeare

August 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

I had to write a short review for class on Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part One. I was so excited that this was one of the two plays performed at this year’s Houston Shakespeare Festival–it is my favorite Shakespeare play! In my review I focus on the great Sir John Falstaff because….how could I not?! Overall, the performance was great and I had a lot of fun experiencing Henry IV in theatre for the first time!


In theatre, not all roles are created equal. Some roles, to name a few of Shakespeare’s most memorable, bear the weight of timeless legacy: Hamlet, Iago, Cleopatra, King Lear. But this school of sacrosanct stage players would be incomplete without its witty constituent, Sir John Falstaff, and in the Houston Shakespeare Festival’s rendition of Henry IV, Pt. One, actor David Rainey’s portrayal of “Sack-and-Sugar Jack” pays proper tribute to his character by bringing to light the qualities that not only reflect a comedic Lord of Misrule spewing wisdom and transcending social value systems; Rainey’s portrayal also reminds us of Falstaff’s one true vulnerability: his unwavering love for his protégée, Prince Hal.

That cowardice is one of Falstaff’s debasing characteristics is a topic for scholarly debate not to be explored here. Yet Rainey bestows Falstaff’s cowardice with a benevolence that only cajoles the audience into a loving embrace with the man that “lards the lean earth as he walks.” As he gives the false account of his heroic fighting in Act II, Scene IV where he fights “eleven buckram men grown out of two,” he jabs the air with his dagger with a vigor that quickly disappears when in actual confrontation. Rainey inflects this travesty with such comedic relief and likeness that the audience cannot help but love Falstaff more.

More importantly, Rainey’s rendering of Falstaff is clearest, no doubt reaching its apex, at the end of Act II, Scene IV where he adroitly converges the core elements of his character in the role-reversing charade between Falstaff and Prince Hal, each taking turns at playing King Henry and Prince Hal. When Falstaff assumes the role of King Henry, Rainey’s histrionics remind the audience of Falstaff’s carnivalesque aura as he substitutes heraldic insignia for festive tokens, signifying a retreat from social order and into a period of misrule. He clumsily places the flattened cushion over his head to resemble a jeweled crown and uses his “cup of sack” like a royal scepter, making it sway not between political affairs, but passion and pleasure. His hands repeatedly fall to his “stuffed cloak-bag of guts” as he delivers his witticisms, and it is in these instances where Rainey’s hand gestures give his words the gumption to score large shares of laughter from the audience.

But not only does Falstaff’s carnivalesque portrayal of King Henry confer him as Lord of Misrule. This enactment also literalizes Falstaff’s relation to Prince Hal as his comical, yet loving second father. When Prince Hal pretends to be his father and calls Falstaff a “trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack,” Rainey excels in emulating that Falstaffian vulnerability by oscillating between a once jubilant smile now turned dim to furtive, sullen looks at the floor—inevitably inspiring sympathy for that “goodly portly man”.

It is obvious that by Act V the bond between Falstaff and Prince Hal has been disrupted, and director Jack Young’s calculated positioning of Falstaff on stage needs to be lauded, as it brings the foreshadowing of his public rejection in Part Two to the forefront of the play. Once the center of attention in the Eastcheap tavern scenes, Falstaff has now been displaced into the background amidst the sword fighting and politically charged exchanges. Specifically in Scene I, the audience is presented with Falstaff at the far left of the stage—alone—while Prince Hal and his royal posse are huddled on the right side. Rainey gives Falstaff an anxious, hungry-for-acceptance manner as he slowly inches his way across the stage towards Prince Hal and, in an effort to join the conversation, says of Worcester, “Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it,” to which he is cut off by Hal who yells, “Peace, chewet, peace!”

My only critique for Rainey is that he could have delivered Falstaff’s most famous lines in a way that touches upon their profundity. That famous soliloquy where Falstaff ponders, “What is honor” was too comedic, in my opinion. One’s manner of deliverance and tone of words have everything to do with altering their meaning, and somewhere, amidst Rainey’s over jubilant execution, the shrewd potency of the soliloquy was lost. Just as he skillfully balanced his character between Lord of Misrule and loving mentor, it would have behooved his performance to temper Falstaff’s humor with a more serious tone when needed, in order to underscore the moments when he speaks of universal truths.

**title for this post comes from Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

keep calm and stop calling orientals ‘exotic’

August 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

I decided to get a little head start on my school readings to avoid initial bombardment once the semester begins. Since I’ll be taking Intro to Post Colonial Theory, I’ve started Orientalism by Edward Said. What follows is just a rehashing of Said’s pioneering stance on and epistemological delineation of Orientalism and its complex impact on history, ideology, material realities, and contemporary issues—just a concise synthesis to keep my thoughts fresh as I wait for class discussion.
The most obvious question to begin with is what exactly is Orientalism? Said is so painstakingly precise, yet complex when he approaches this question; his explanation couldn’t be more lucid, yet I find myself overwhelmed with the question. What is Orientalism? “How can one describe it all together as a historical phenomenon, a way of though, a contemporary problem, and a material reality” (44)? Well, it’s complicated.
Briefly, Orientalism is a discourse the West (Europe and America) created, structured, restructured in order to understand and “manage” the East (India and the Levant—basically, the Middle East but China, Japan, North and South Korea, Africa can also be considered similarly). The East—its people and its geographical boundaries—is subsumed under the term “the Orient,” and the Orient, more specifically the attitudes, perceptions, assumptions that are conjured up when the Orient is mentioned, is not an inherent aspect of the world. But when we think of the East, the Middle East, the Orient we (“we” as in the Western world) tacitly understand that there’s a difference between the East and the West—“them” and “us”. Asked to describe the East, it seems natural—I don’t think anyone would argue that this is unfamiliar or far-fetched—to label the Orient as “exotic”, “mystic”, “fascinating”, “unfamiliar”, “foreign”, “alluring”, “bizarre”, “romantic”, “avant garde”…but where do these distinctions come from? Surely, one would never think to call America a land of mystery, a country laden with exquisite exoticness just waiting to be discovered and experienced; but it is not so difficult to see India through that lens, is it? Why does this difference between the East (the Orient) and West (the Occident) exist?
To believe that the difference between the East and West has always been “there”, that it happened naturally, is to be “disingenuous,” as Said says. “The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination of varying degrees of a complex hegemony” (5). The late Renaissance was a period of “extraordinary European ascendancy,” a time where Europe experienced a surge of global power because of scientific, education, economic, and political advances. Out of this hegemony emerged a “sovereign Western consciousness out of whose unchallenged centrality an Oriental world” was constructed and shaped, “first according to general ideas about who or what was an Oriental, then according to a detailed logic governed not simply by empirical reality but by a battery of desires, repressions, investments, and projections” (8). While this European power flourished and reached its peek in the late nineteenth century, that Western power, that assumed superiority over the East lives on and still pervades the present day. It is a power largely based on the production of knowledge, and this knowledge tells the European or American encountering the Orient (whether in actual life, in texts, in thoughts, etc) that his nationality comes first, his individual impression second (11).
Over the course of history, this production of knowledge—which is Orientalism—has injected a “geopolitical awareness” of the binarized East and West into all cultural and political institutions where at its core is the template of “the ineradicable distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority” (42), where “ideas about what “we” do and what “they” cannot do or understand as “we” do” (12). It is a discourse that is structured in a way that always promotes “the differences between the familiar (Europe, the West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”)” (43). It shows up in literature (among the many authors Said enumerates as participating in Orientalism, he goes into specific detail with Aeschylus (56) and Dante (68)); in academic disciplines, in political and economic agendas/accounts (see accounts on Cromer, Balfour, Kissinger—Said bridges their Orientalist rhetoric in the political sphere past and present day).
Said cites three European projects on the Orient that officially created what he has been calling Orientalism. The first was by theoretician Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron (1731-1805), who traveled to India where he translated a collection of Avestan texts, “opening large vistas” of Oriental vision for the Europeans to interpret for themselves. “For the first time, the Orient was revealed to Europe in the materiality of texts, languages, and civilizations” (77). The second of these projects was by William Jones, a poet, jurist, historian, and scholar who wrote, “it is my ambition to know India better than any other European ever knew it” (78). Leaving England to India in 1783, Jones embarked on a personal study of the Orient and documented his findings in to his work “Objects of Enquiry During My Residence in Asia”. In this written account Jones labeled, “codify[ed]”, “tabulat[ed]”, and compar[ed]” (77) the Orient to the West; he domesticated them, making it his goal to “rule and learn” (78) of them in every possible way for the benefit of the Europeans, so Europeans could better understand them, the Orient. Jones thus turned the Orient “into a province of European learning,” becoming the “undisputed founder of Orientalism” (78).
Most influential to Orientalism was the third project, Napoleon’s well known invasion of Egypt in 1798, where he installed French colonies and made Egypt an object of unlimited European study and inquiry, a “department of French learning” by bringing in travelers, scholars, conquerors to survey and write about the land (83). While this historical event has been well documented and studied by historians, Said makes the excellent point that Napolean’s interest in Egypt—the reason why he chose Egypt—was fostered and cultivated by “ideas and myths culled from texts, not empirical reality” (80). These texts were translated or written by European authorities—Orientalists—and therefore, prior to his arrival in Egypt, he already had specific expectations of the Orient, a vision of the Orient that was based off of European interpretation. Where is the Orient’s voice in all of this?
Although Napolean’s military occupation in Egypt failed, his invasion “gave birth to the entire modern experience of the Orient…what would happen as a continuing legacy of the common Occidental mission of the Orient would be the creation of new projects, new visions, new enterprises combining additional parts of the old Orient with the conquering European spirit” (87). From then on the Orient appeared to the world as an entity that always, inevitably harkened back to European powers; their history was not their own history but a history constructed by Orientalists.
That Said emphasizes the European encounter or experience with the Orient through texts is crucial, as it is most responsible for the dissemination of Orientalist vision. To begin, it is impossible for reality (Jameson’s the Real), the “swarming, unpredictable, and problematic mess in which human beings live”, to be transmitted 100 percent accurately into a text: “to apply what one learns out of a book literally to reality is to risk folly or ruin” (93). Yet that is exactly what European travelers, scholars, historians, scientists, etc did to “prepare” for their real encounter with the Orient. They read books, telling them what to expect, what the countries are like, how the people are. When travelers, and this is perfectly applicable to present day, say their experience in a new country wasn’t what they expected, it means that it “wasn’t what a book said it would be,” testifying to that “greater authority” a text may have over actual reality (93). This is one of the two “textual attitudes” Said elaborates on, and his point is that texts carry an aura of expertise and authority; they “create not only knowledge but also the very reality they appear to describe” (my emphasis 94). This is exactly the way discourses, like Orientalism, are created: “In time such knowledge [in texts] and reality produce a tradition, or what Michel Foucault calls a discourse, whose material presence or weight, not the originality of a given author, is responsible for the texts produced out of it” (94).
For me, Orientalism was one of the hardest books to summarize! As I’ve already mentioned, Said’s language is so clear and well organized, yet there is so much to unpack. This book is truly a masterpiece and I’m afraid I didn’t do it any justice at all. I’ve left out so many points, so many important details. I am hoping that what I’ve gone over in this post will only guide me back to the other elements I’ve left out.

false narcissism: illusory reflections

July 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

The fulcrum of what has been perhaps my favorite reading of the summer, Reading Victorian Fiction by Andrew Blake, is best said in the words of the Marxist playwright, Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” Published in 1989, Blake is responding to the inadequacies of traditional historicism, which blatantly see literary texts as reflections of their historical background. For the historicizing literary critic, what is the point of studying fiction if one’s purpose is to recapitulate “established fact” (9)? Using literature as a secondary source that merely confirms historical fact is limiting, unfruitful, and more importantly a dubious endeavor.  The novel, inherently subversive, is used to question dominant modes of conceptualization and educate audience on how to better contemporary and future ways of life. Novels are not direct imitations of reality, then, but sources that transmit “certain types of information” that “[help] to form or change attitudes and behavior” (8); while novels, as all other art, are concerned with their historical background, it is crucial to recognize that they are also staging a reaction against their historical background. Novels should not be seen as neutral or passive reflections of society–they undoubtedly are active, influencing and producing culture (8). I enjoy this particular explanation: “Literature is not lined with deposits of historical fact, nor is it for the most part a straightforward reflection of society. It rather congeals and refracts it, revealing itself in its internal contradictions and omissions not as external to, but as part of, a total social process” (my emphasis, 13).

Furthermore, placed in the context of  British mid-nineteenth century, Blake’s study also places political pamphlets, magazines, personal diaries, newspapers on the same caliber as fiction, an “overall information system” that “accords no special place to literature” (32). This literary culture (fiction, diaries, magazines, newspapers, political writing) is the discourse of social knowledge, functioning in ways that are, in a nutshell, didactic, and thus over time “[change] collective consciousness” (34).  This side of his argument is of equal importance to his primary claims as outlined briefly above, as he dedicates the rest of his book to studying the ways all these parts of literary culture cross-reference, contradict, interact with each other and how, as a whole, create a “total social process.” And while Blake makes clear that he does not privilege fiction (nobody should) over the other parts of literary culture, he does distinguish how the nuances of fiction contribute to ideological construction. He asks, “What, then, is the special perspective provided by art?” The novel, for example, tells a story that is complete–it has a beginning and an end, “creat[ing] its own sense of wholeness,” its inherent goal to “resolve the contradictions apparent in ordinary lived experience” (33), which is even further proof that novels, as all other art, do not reflect reality.

Perhaps this may seem problematic at first glance when we consider the typical mid-nineteenth century British novel, typically known as the ‘realist novel’.  Dedicated to candid portrayal of the upper classes of life, the “realism” of a novel is only a “limited system of signification: an ideology” (71) since it excluded many aspects of social reality such as sexual immorality and ‘low’ life. Realist novelists were encouraged to include a moral message couched within their tailored representations of “ordinary” middle class members and their everyday experiences; and if they “fail[ed] to come up to the moral mark,” they suffered castigating reviews from their critics (77). The general consensus was that a novel “should be a work of polite literature, to be read aloud in the family circle while the members are pursuing some graceful or fanciful work after the severer duties of the day are closed” (77). It was thought to be exemplary, inculcating moral values into the social collective–the “ordinary” people these novels portrayed were not purposed to reflect real people, but to help establish new, morally rectified norms by which real people should follow.


the prison house of language

July 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

As I anticipate applying to ph.d programs after only one year of grad school, one of my main concerns is the fear of not having “grown” enough, in a literary critic-ish kind of way, to the extent that a well qualified ph.d program would require. I’m just starting to discover what my interests in the field are and where I see my work gravitating towards—which is great—but nonetheless, my ideas are nascent and I feel extremely pressured to have them fully developed in time for the application process.

Anyway, all that just to say…one of my newly realized interests is the topic of ideology—not an uncommon area of interest in the least since the emergence of critics like Michel Foucault who, disrupting and permanently changing the landscape of literary criticism, crystallized post structuralist methodologies, and thus made it inevitable for the literary critic to circumvent ideological considerations when studying literary texts. More specifically, though, what I find fascinating are the ways in which a literary text critiques a certain set of social issues, values, and mores while simultaneously perpetuating the same social constructs, constructs the text had initially set out to expose and critique (deconstruction, woot woot!). Nietzsche described human discourse as trapped in a “prison house of language” and because ideology is of course the result of language, being stuck in a prison house of ideology rings pretty true, too.

The last couple of readings I’ve done are concerned with this broad subject in the context of British nineteenth century and Dickens’s work. David Waters’s Dickens and the Politics of the Family is a study of the ramifications of the construct of the cozy, domesticated middle class family Dickens’s is so well known for portraying. And while Dickens’s offers many representations of broken families in his novels too, it is clear that these fractured families only function to be measured against the middle class family ideal—a precautionary portrayal of what NOT to be. Such families in Our Mutual Friend like the Wilfers serve to produce and elevate the “formation of middle class cultural authority” (27).

In Our Mutual Friend the installment of the “perfect” middle class family serves to solve one major social and ideologically charged conflict: class struggle. The marriage of Lizzie Hexam, lower class factory worker, and Eugene Wrayburn, upper class gentleman, for example, erases class boundaries and transcends social disparities—at least this is the pretty packaged message delivered to the reader by the end of the novel. And in order for the Lizzie and Eugene, as well as Bella and John, to live happily ever after, in order for their domestic household to work properly under the status quo, Eugene and Bella must undergo a moral transformation: Eugene goes from insensitive, rude, insouciant bachelor to loving, grateful, respectful husband; Bella goes from gold-digging, sassy, selfish brat to humble, devoted, self-sacrificing wife. These transformations, which “involve a conversion to the values of domesticity,” allow for the resolution of class struggle, and tacitly suggest that one’s just morality prevails over social inequalities (192).

Now isn’t that lovely? Not so fast. Dickens resolves class struggle by exploiting another major social conflict: gender inequalities. “Social inequalities,” Waters writes, “are made to seem temporary and relatively insignificant in comparison with the supposedly permanent and ‘natural’ differences of sex which are defined by the middle class ideology of separate spheres” (199). I won’t go much into detail, but in a nutshell, Dickens perpetuates the inequalities of gender by giving the narrator full-access to the thoughts of women in OMF as well as allowing their bodies to be “site[s] for character analys[es]”; whereas the narrator’s treatment of men is limited to significantly fewer moments of free-indirect discourse and their “physical presence is downplayed,” emphasizing their individual voice (185). These gender constructs—where the woman is portrayed in ways that promulgate her vulnerability, purity, etc and where the man is viewed as the source of dominance, restraint, etc—are the pieces needed for Dickens to complete the middle-class-family-that-overcomes-class-struggle portrait.

Where Dickens manages to circumvent one social construct, he falls into the pit of another—it’s inescapable; we live in a prison house of langauge. As unpleasant as it is to accept, we realize and fathom the world through social constructs, the very systems that create and shape our ideologies.

unmasking of cultural artifacts as socially symbolic actions part II

July 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

The hardship that came with this reading! After rereading…and rereading again, I finally feel comfortable moving on from the FIRST chapter of The Political Unconscious–cut me some slack, it was 100 pages of pure theory. What follows below is, in my own words, the explication (cough, cough clarification!) of the three phases of understanding a text must pass through in order for the critic to BEGIN to reach a correct interpretation of the text, according to Jameson.

But before I do that, I’d like to explain some concepts that I think will help prepare the mindset for this marxist interpretative method. I’ve gathered some critical points Jameson makes through out and massed them together; I think knowing them from the outset helps justify Jameson’s reasoning, or Marxism in general–it is the conceptual groundwork, let’s say, for the three phases (he calls them “horizons”…initiate eye roll) of textual understanding.

Immediately important to me was the insurmountable inaccuracy of portraying external reality, what Jameson calls the Real, in a text. It is impossible for the Real to be represented in a text as unmodified, pure, and wholly accurate because when the Real is converted into language we have to consider the “ultimate paradoxes” and problems of linguistics and semantics. External reality and language are not entirely compatible–the representation of reality in a text is a process that FORCES the Real to submit to “the transformations of form” (81). Thus, it is impossible for a text to “reflect” reality or a historical moment (BURNNN to traditional historicist interpretations) because the text (Language) takes the Real and articulates it through its OWN terms–terms that will never be 100 percent conducive to the Real. (Side note: this is the fundamental premise for postcolonial theory: we cannot represent the Other because we will articulate that representation through our own Westernized lens, resulting in a complete misrepresentation of the Other and thus falls victim to a perpetuation of that misrepresentation.) Thus, we must understand the text to be a mirage of the Real.

Another important ramification of a text is found in the implications of the answered question What is the political unconscious? Jameson makes all this fancy-shamncy noise about Freud in the middle of the chapter but he doesn’t spell out the answer until the end of the first chapter, to my understanding. The political unconscious is the text itself!! Like the Freudian concept of dream, the literary text is the dream of society that articulates its unfulfilled wishes of a utopia through “hidden” and “coded” narration within the form of the dream/text. Here is Jameson’s version in the words of good ol’ Levi-Strauss: the literary text is “the fantasy production of a society seeking passionately to give symbolic expression to the institutions it might have had in reality,” had not oppression and relations of domination stood in the way (79).

The last point I’d like to make before explaining the three phases is for the sake of understanding Marxism in general. Marxism sees class relations functioning under the template of a dominant class and laboring class. Unlike typical sociology, which understands each stratum of society as independent and thus having its very own, separate ideological framework, Marxism sees class ideology as inextricably linked to/heavily influenced by the opposing classes, each class defining itself against the other (84).

Okay enough~

Step one: The literary text must be understood as a symbolic act; the formal and stylistic features of a literary text–its form and content of narration–are symbolic enactments taking place within the aesthetic realm (79). It is important to understand that the literary text–the symbolic act–is not a product/an effect of/inspired by ideology: it is ideology itself. Like a kind of coping mechanism, the symbolic act (which is an ideological act) functions to “[invent] imaginary or formal “solutions” to unresolvable social contradictions” in the collective class discourses of society (79). And to go back to the misconception of the text being a “reflection” of external reality, the symbolic act cannot be conceived in this way because as it converts the Real into the form of language, it also steps back (to process and reflect upon reality itself) with the intention of its own transformative agenda. Thus again, a literary work can never portray the Real because it stages the very situation “to which it is also, at one and the same time, a reaction” to the Real (82, my emphasis).

Step two: Now that we understand the text to be a symbolic act–a form of individualized utterance/expression in collective society–we can REFIGURE the text by enlarging its scope to being an ideologeme (one of many Jamesonian made up words), defined as “the smallest unit of the essentially antagonistic collective discourses of social class” (85). Huh? To me, an ideologeme (which is the reconfigured text) is the smallest indication of class struggle within social class discourses; if class struggle was an corporeal monster, then an ideologeme would be one of its cells……..I think. So, the text is still a symbolic act; but it is a symbolic act which has been enlarged to relate to an entire class discourse: the symbolic act itself has been reconstituted as a “polemic and strategic ideological confrontation between the [dominant and opposed] classes” (85). And now we come to a problem (and I admit that this part of the chapter was especially confusing for me so bear with me): Jameson says that “cultural monuments and masterworks”–which I will take as a literary work–are problematic because they tend to present culture as univocal. They universalize one specific culture–that of the hegemonic order (dominant class)–and thus marginalize and silence the culture or voice of the oppressed. Therefore, we must rewrite the marginalized and silenced voices BACK into the text itself–we must reconstruct them back into “their proper place in the dialogical system of the social classes” (86). That sounds basic enough, I guess. My confusion originates from trying to figure out how Jameson gets from point A, text as ideologeme, to point B, rewriting the oppressed back into the text (the ideologeme?). I understand the two separately, now I’m trying to understand their relationship. Adding to the confusion he continues his course and arrives at point C: “the ideologeme,” he writes, “has the capacity to mediate between conceptions of ideology (abstract opinion, class values, etc.) and the narrative materials” of a literary text (87). An ideologeme, then, can be conceptualized as a “philosophical system” and/or a cultural, literary text.  And here comes the inevitable, severe possibility of distortion the ideologeme presents in its two-fold nature as manifested ideology AND literary text itself: we must analyze the literary text (which is the ideologeme) by studying the raw material of the ideology of class discourses…which are ideologemes, too. What??? To my understanding, Jameson’s “solution” to this weird, double bind is that the cultural analyst must CORRECTLY identify an ideologeme, though he says that “the immense preparatory task of identifying and inventorying such ideologemes has scarcely even begun” (88). So f*ck.

Once the analyst has rewritten the oppressed voice back into the text, the two class oppositions–the hegemonic and oppressed classes–are (equally? not sure…) now BOTH in view and we can finally see the TRUE (as true as it ever can be) unity of the social system (not the social system through the lens of ONLY the hegemonic order) (88). Which tills the soil for

Step three: The text is reconfigured yet again as a whole social system where both class discourses are represented. This new object of study (still the text from step one) is now revealed to have a “code, sign system, or system of the production of signs and codes” and thus SUBSUMES (and transcends) the “narrowly political (symbolic act of step one) and the social (class discourse and the ideologeme of step two)” and thus results in understanding the comprehensive historical as a mode of production” (89). So in this third step, the text is like an embodiment of a mode of production, even though the concept of a mode of production must be seen on an abstract level so high that “no historical society has ever embodied a MOP in any pure state” (94). Why? Well, Mr. Fredric Jameson insists, we must understand that any society existing in time is made up of SEVERAL modes of production all at once: the current mode of production in a society is only the hegemonic one, which also includes “vestiges and survivals of older modes of production” (95). I enjoyed this explanation: “The temptation to classify texts according to the appropriate mode of production is thereby removed, since the texts emerge in a space in which we may expect them to be crisscrossed and intersected by a variety of impulses from contradictory modes of production all at once” (95). Jameson calls this intermingling of older and newer MOP a cultural revolution which stages the moment when these various MOP clash antagonistically in which their contradictions emerge and move to the very center of political, social, and historical reality (95). But it is important to realize that this cultural revolution does not happen in the way that a light switch turns on and off, instantly. It does not signify a moment in which a society “transitions” into a new MOP (like the French Revolution, like the Industrial Revolution); the cultural revolution is only the result of an EMERGENCE of a dominant MOP amidst/between the “various coexisting MOPs” (97). Thus, the text in this third step is now restructured as a site of the sign systems of several MOPs. These various MOPs are the sources of the contradictions the text tries to (unsuccessfully) resolve; each MOP has its own sign system, and it is when these sign systems touch, converge, intersect that contradictions emerge. The dynamics and ramifications of these manifested contradictions are what Jamesons calls the ideology of form.

One’s analysis of the ideology of form will prove correct IF ONLY earlier modes of production and their sign systems can be glimpsed alongside the newer, dominant mode of production and its sign system within the text. From the acknowledgment of coexisting MOPs at once, comes the understanding of History itself, which is the goal of the marxist interpretive method.