the unmasking of cultural artifacts as socially symbolic acts

June 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

As I painfully, sluggishly work through my summer project–the meaning of hand gestures in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend–I’ve decided that I am in dire need of a relevant theoretical foundation for my argument/thesis. For the traditional historicist inside me (a consequence of studying literature in a vacuum as an undergrad), this is a challenge. Before my first year of grad school, if I had ever thought of a literary text in terms of macro-politics (which I rarely did), it was in this basic, obvious vein: all literary texts are products of the historical period they are borne out of, exemplifying a totalizing cultural milieu reflected in the text’s literary elements, narrative style, and narrative “universe”. Still, now, I find myself reverting over and over again in my analyses of texts to this mode of interpretation–my current project the living example. I argue that hand gestures in OMF–all 800 plus specific references to them–express numerous socio-political Victorian anxieties, specifically anxieties involving class fractions and economic conditions.

Alright. That’s all fine and dandy. Nothing ground-breaking, really just idiosyncratic in terms of the hand gestures themselves, but other than that this project is heading towards traditional historicist territory. Bleghhh. So I’ve started reading Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious as a potential theoretical guide. A die-hard Marxist, Jameson reiterates his cri de guerra throughout: because we are individuals under a consumer-capitalist system, our ideology regarding…basically anything–our existence, religion, and most important for the present discussion at hand, our habits/methods of interpretation–impairs and “paralyzes” our conceptions of time, change, causality, and language. In other words, capitalist society impairs the way we perceive and therefore construct and organize history (and thus interpret texts in a historical mode). But Jameson isn’t against employing historical interpretations. In fact, he believes historicity is the only way one can interpret a text most, but never wholly, accurately. As he asserts in his preface, “I have tried to maintain an essentially historicist perspective, in which our readings of the past are vitally dependent on our experiences of the present” (11). However, he wants to displace the current historicist method of interpretation (current in the sense of 1981, when this book was published), and replace it with the praxis of a philosophy of history, and if not that, at least a meticulous awareness of a philosophy of history. “A genuine philosophy of history,” writes Jameson, “is capable of respecting the specificity and radical difference of its polemics and passions, its forms, structures, experiences, and struggles, with those of the present day” (my emphasis, 18). Say what?! The way I understand what he means is that one must study history with a self-checking consciousness that acknowledges our debt to our current society, an understanding that no matter how we go about it, we will always project our own (meaning current) ideological conceptions onto the way we construct and read the past. Jameson believes that it is only through Marxism, “the collective struggle to wrest a realm of Freedom from a realm of Necessity,” that we can find the essential mystery of the cultural past (19).

One major conceptual fail in the way we perceive history is our linear perception of it, as well as our categorization and periodization of the past. Instead of demarcating chucks of time into neat periods like “the Renaissance,” “the Enlightenment,” “the Romantic Era,” and so forth, it is imperative that we see the passing of time, History (note: history, with an lowercase “h” is the history we read in texts…texts that are constructed by PEOPLE, meaning it is constructed, excluding, totalitizing, and always, ALWAYS subject to one’s own interpretation–BIASED), as one vast narrative, without an end, without telos, containing only one fundamental theme: class struggle. Class struggle is the underlying foundation to all social aspects and there is absolutely nothing that is untouched by social and historical stuffandthings. Everything is political. I’m rambling and not saying enough. I’m just going to get to the point thus far (I’m only about 30 pages in). Everyday life, any quotidian event or routine, is laden with socio-political content. All actions are socially symbolic acts. But in order to interpret these actions in the best way possible, we must revise our conception of the cultural past. We must go beyond mechanical and expressive causality, which is in a nutshell a cause and effect mindset, the mentality that goes something like “this event happened which therefore effected this phenomenon to emerge”–pretty much the way we make sense of history.

How will I use this for my analysis of anxiety driven, Victorian hands? Still not sure.  The idea that everything is a socially symbolic act is an adequate point of departure. Dickens’s description of hands, at first glance, generate a comical effect, stemming mostly from the fact that he’s so repetitious and idiosyncratic with each character’s specific hand gestures, which results in a surreal-ish effect: really, Twemlow, you’re going to have your hand on your forehead for the entire duration of the Veneerings dinner party? Yep. But what does it mean and why does Dickens’s reiterate the action three times before the end of the chapter? It is a socially symbolic act!


That is all I have to say for now. More later!


Books referenced:

Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. New York: Cornell UP, 1981.



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