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.



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