Volume One, No. 2 | June 2000
j_spot online edition ISSN 1481 8 5842
Thus lead is the parody of gold.
Air is the parody of water.
The brain is the parody of the equator.
Coitus is the parody of crime.
- Georges Bataille, "The Solar Anus"1
The postmodern world has placed acts of interpretation into a vertiginous experience where the virtual replaces the real and all discourse problematizes the meaning of things. We have moved from the Kantian ‘thing-in-itself’ to the impossibilities of referentiality, from the utopian desires of modernity to the dystopian fragments of a forgotten unity. From the din of sadomasochism surrounding his childhood and from the reflections of the pineal eye, Georges Bataille describes this "lack of interpretation" and loss of origins where "a car, a clock, or a sewing machine could equally be accepted as the generative principle."2 For Bataille, as well as for many others we tend to trace through the Nietzschean line to the postmodern, interpretation becomes nothing more than a playful gesture. On this view, we are necessarily led to question the implications of ‘play’ and how play can be politically responsive as interpretive action.
I begin with Bataille exactly because of these implications and the extreme methods he employs to advance his own concerns for social responsibility and reform. For Bataille, the lack of interpretation in this world is not foundational, but is, rather, the product of historical contingencies as they have manifested themselves in the twentieth century. Working from his critique of Hegel and valorization of Marx and Engels, Bataille calls for a social praxis which stems directly from the conditions of one of these contingencies, that is, from the negativity of lived experience. In other words, the dialectical and material themes put forth by Marx "introduce into tactics a constant recourse to negative forces or actions, not as goals but as means demanded by historical development."3
Although Bataille gains his political commitment from various strains of Marxism, the continuance of the postmodern and poststructuralist lineage tends to depart from political commitment.4 Now rooted in such thinkers as Lyotard and Derrida, postmodern discourse, at least as it tends to be characterized, often tends to abandon notions of political action. The only interpretive stance is the ‘ironic’ one; representation, mimesis, and referentiality are abandoned and labeled impossible.5 From this perspective, interpretation, insofar as it genuinely has been separated from the political sphere, is relegated to self-propagation: to the proliferation and self-preservation of its own form without any consideration of its consequences for the context out of which it emerges. It is from this field of self-propagation and proliferation that we all turn back from the socio-historic field, having forgotten, like Nietzsche, our umbrellas.6
Under the momentum of the metaphoric missing umbrella, we begin to feel the imminent storm of divided interests. On one side, the tendency of postmodernity to atomize the political domain into mobile fragments allows for interpretation to deny responsibility; interpretations beget their own kind without dialogue, compensation, or possibilities for political response.7 Postmodernity consistently struggles against a vision of macro-political organizations, choosing instead local sites for interrogation and political intervention (when any intervention at all is made).8 On the other hand, the tendency of multinational capital to erase social and cultural difference requires some type of response from the political and academic left. In other words, at a time when economic supremacy is the weapon of international colonialism (e.g. the West’s appropriation of organic “commodities” in developing countries; Russia’s new reliance on Western currency; the expansion of international trade agreements that allow American companies to exploit yet again the disenfranchised worker) the need for ideology critique is increasingly present. Any response, if it is to act effectively in the social field, must account for this new constructed existence that promotes a type of identity politics that refuses to see difference even as it erases it. Resistance at the micro-political levels, via Foucault’s notion of realigning the vertices of power, is simply not capable of fairly addressing the molecular relations of an increasingly monolithic international culture. Consequently, the tools of critique and the interpretive gestures it requires must be capable of both micro and macro analysis. In short, the division of interest between the academic left and discourse theorists generates two specific lines of questioning: 1) How can the decentered subject of the postmodern episteme advance interpretive truth claims when s/he is relegated to shifting immanent domains of political impotence? and 2) If the geopolitical field demands an engagement from an oppositional politics, how might we address the molar organizations of society without reducing or dissolving leftist desire at the molecular level?
Any attempt at reconciliation—even at the level of hermeneutics or interpretation—tends toward dangerous programs. One program, exemplified by Ihab Hassan and William James, seems to appeal to a pragmatic optimism of human resistance. Hassan argues in his closing political statements of The Postmodern Turn that we appeal to "faith," for "without some radiancy, wonder, wisdom, we all risk, in this postmodern clime, to become barren."9 Hassan's call for a Jamesian mysticism is also mirrored by his predilection for celebrating the neo-Marxism of Baudrillard and the repetitive dissemination of the ‘hyperreal.’10 While Hassan's political mysticism disables the currency of leftist activism, other programs offered by the radical left or more orthodox Marxisms treat postmodern descriptions of local sites as allegorical (re)presentations of older, more traditional master narratives (i.e. class struggle, patriarchal control and inscription, containment and subversion, etc.). The negative backlash against such allegorical treatments of micro-political domains is characterized once again by an appeal to the decentered subject who cannot, because of her position, wholly confront the multiplicitous character of the global field. Consequently, my concern here is to suggest possibilities for retaining the desire of the political left without proclaiming a totalizing historicism or a privileged subjectivity and without succumbing to postmodernism's tendency to fragment completely the social field into unassimilable and non-consequential domains.11
As a means for sketching out such possibilities, I would like to turn to Fredric Jameson's early interpretive work because it offers an expressly Marxist mode of interpretation that remains aware of the manifold implications of postmodern society.12 Jameson's work is marked by an urgent sense of social responsibility and the need for transformation. However, to the extent that Jameson's thought serves as a place to turn to, it also provides us with the ground to turn from, for his work remains within the problematic of a privileged subjectivity and an untranscendable horizon.13 Beyond the domain of these problems (which I will take up later in this essay), Jameson's work also returns political action to the nexus of theory and practice where interpretive gestures are necessarily implicated in the political field.
For Jameson, as for a host of Marxist critics from the later Sartre to Althusser, praxis is directly related to theoretical possibilities. Consequently, the ability to articulate the historical past within the historical present with some interpretive accuracy is perhaps the only means to reinvent the conditions of social life, or, in the words of Marx, for people to ‘make their own history’. Nevertheless, such an interpretive project must remain responsible to the history out of which it emerges and from which it takes its form. In fact, all forms of interpretation inherently present a relationship that demands an ethical response insofar as that response is determined by the local structures within any micro-political site (e.g. intersubjective connections, or social subsystems based on class, race, gender or ethnicity).
To be sure, calling for an ethics—even an internal one—while still recognizing the diffuse forces of postmodernism and postmodern theory might seem to require a strange leap of faith. Nevertheless, any attempt to abandon an ethics of interpretation risks the acceptance of dystopia and impotence—or, of seeing Bataille's sewing machine as the generative principle of all life. In other words, speculations on interpretive gestures must, if they are not to abandon the social urgency of the present, make interpretation more than a gesture. The tendency of poststructuralist and postmodernist theory, at least in its dominant forms, has been to posit indeterminate gesture as the only alternative to negative critique.
Such tendencies as
the one described above have held the day in various disciplines ranging
from literary criticism to general aesthetics, from philosophy to
ethnography and cultural anthropology.14
The dominance of these tendencies is exactly what brings us back to
Jameson and to the questions of his work within the postindustrial
society of multinational capitalism, for Jameson envisions his privileging
of dialectical thought as necessary for social change, never divorcing
the tactical or political question from its origin: the theoretical.15
With the importance of theory singularly foregrounded, Jameson's work,
to the extent that I would suggest is necessary, returns us to the
priority of political interpretation. In his Political Unconscious,
this focus is explicit:
Although the effect of Jameson's hermeneutic would seem to totalize
all other interpretive gestures into a series of supplementary modes
culminating in his own (a problem he does not adequately confront),
his most difficult challenge is to maintain his call for a politically
active discourse which must legitimate itself in the force field of
today's culture. Right now,
Jameson's description of the situation of socialist discourse in contemporary society seems to be accurate, but he avoids the more difficult question of method: how do we legitimate a socialist discourse in today's culture?
When Jameson does attempt to address this question explicitly, he
must defend his totalizing scheme for history and validate his own
mode of dialectical thinking. It is exactly in the either/or
logic of Jameson's purely dialectical thought that the problems of
confronting the postmodern condition seem to weigh most heavily against
his Marxist hermeneutic. Indeed, if one is not willing to accept
Jameson's win or lose logic (totality or complete heterogeneity),
his defense appears jarring. To explain the dialectical tension
in Jameson's thought, I quote his own claim and counterclaim at length:
If we accept this either/or logic, Jameson's view would indeed be the only politically adequate one. But, if we resist this either/or tendency to play the extremes against each other, then the possibilities for other normalizing measures could arise. Why must difference and effectivity be determined from an external point of reference? Is it not possible to allow difference to be prior to interpretation, and therefore not a condition that interpretation must necessarily affirm? And even more to the point, how is difference established by the hypostatization of a cultural dominant? Jameson's remarks ultimately force difference back into a mode of identity construction where phenomena gain identity by differences from a common point. All elements of difference are characterized only by their otherness from the dominant. From this point, we begin to see the essentially problematical nature of this discourse: that to change the socio-historical field in which we speak, we must appeal to an outside (an other, non-identical narrative) to consolidate the various postmodern forms of difference into a diachronic history which is true to its own horizontal and teleological unfolding.
In contrast, I want to suggest an alternative model for developing
a politically aware and informing hermeneutic in postmodernism, one
that neither denies postmodernism as its own epoch (which would simply
constitute a return to the formula of modernism proper), nor proclaims
a controlling subjectivity, a privileged global view, or a mystification
of the local. This seems necessary against the backdrop and
historical importance of Jameson's appeal to an outside. His
method recalls the type of mystification that substantiates another
form of domination: namely, the reinscription of deific figures in
the form of history proper:
The alternative model I want to suggest requires a certain allegiance to the political nisus of Jameson's argument, for the desire for freedom must be central to a socially informed hermeneutic in any historical period, including our own. Thus the question becomes how we can maintain the relevance of class struggle and social freedom and still allow for the multiplicity of social fields and for the ability of individual consciousness to affect political structures.
Jameson's attack on Freudian reductionism in The Political Unconscious might serve as a way to find possible answers to this question. The goal here, as I see it, is to retrace the path that Jameson takes and seek a conclusion free from an additional form of reductive mystification. Jameson attacks the master code of Freud's family romance because it tends toward the reductive impoverishment of the text to be interpreted, whether it be the analysand's dreams or the cultural or literary text at hand. Jameson claims that the problem with Freudian analysis as an interpretive model is its function as a "system of allegorical interpretation in which the data of one narrative line are radically impoverished by their rewriting according to the paradigm of another narrative...as the unconscious meaning of the first one."24 Jameson is correct in faulting this interpretation because the ultimate consequence of such a hermeneutic would be a complete eliding of difference; every story is the same, and all history has, for once and always, already been written.
In order to offer an alternative model, Jameson turns to the revolutionizing—and certainly postmodern—work of Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus.25 He allies himself with their position which he reads as "[the reassertion of] the specificity of political content of everyday life and of individual fantasy-experience and to reclaim it from that reduction to the merely subjective and to the status of psychological projection."26 In his claim to alliance with Deleuze and Guattari, Jameson points to the primary problem: how can any Ur-narrative ‘reassert the specificity’ of local domains? How can the master narrative of all history, when it is reduced to a single desire in a single story, inform the interpretation of fantasy-experience? These are the questions for which Jameson does not offer a satisfactory answer; instead, he sidesteps such questions by turning away from the very issues which Deleuze and Guattari raise.
Deleuze and Guattari's anti-interpretive attack on traditional Freudianism
and Marxism provide a possible ‘line of flight’ from the master code
of Jameson's hermeneutic. Jameson avoids what seems to me to
be the real issue, which, as Deleuze and Guattari claim, is the use
of ‘immanent criteria’ for purposes of determining legitimacy:
Moreover, Jameson's response also privileges the interpretive subject
who has access to the ‘real’ narrative through which all other narratives
must be interpreted. According to Foucault, this form of historical
understanding—in which interpretation refers back to the modern episteme
of the human subject as both subject and object of (all) knowledge—always
reinscribes the subject in a position of power:
The question then works through the conditional: if political interpretation (and therefore political praxis) is to be met outside of modernity's constitution of the subject, how are we to describe action without an actor, intention without an intender? The answer requires a radicalized description of subjectivity that resists the coding practices of capitalism and master narratives and that resides only in the local, shifting domains of existence. This description of subjectivity must also create an internal system that normalizes and regulates interpretive activity for specified sites without universalizing these norms or regulations in the larger macro-political field. I would suggest, along with neo-Marxists such as Félix Guattari and Antonio Negri, that action can happen without the normative and restrictive formulations of subjectivity posed by modernity, and if allowed to develop through a ‘microphysics of desire’ could open up the constricted trajectories of interpretive action posed by Jameson without abandoning notions of responsibility.
To be sure, offering such descriptions is difficult and the complete
articulations of subjectivity under a new code are yet to be discerned.
But, at the fundamental level, descriptions such as Guattari's ‘subjectless
action’ provide the possibility for dealing with the power relationships
of late capitalism:
* Unless otherwise noted, all italics in citations are those of the respective authors.
1. Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Allan Stoekl, ed. trans. by Allan Stoekl with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 5. back to text
2. Bataille, “The Solar Anus,” in Visions of Excess, 5. back to text
3. Bataille, "The Critique of the Foundations of the Hegelian Dialectic," in Visions of Excess, 105-115, 114. back to text
4. I am thinking especially of the early Derrida and those Derrideans in the American academy who refused to see interpretation as an interpenetration into socio-historical discourse and formation. Specifically, the Yale school, holding great sway over the American academy in the 1970s and even early 1980s, fortified itself against all forms of historical materialism, especially Marxist versions of history and hermeneutics. back to text
5. See for example Paul de Man, "The Rhetoric of Temporality," in Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, 2nd. ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 187-228. De Man argues that irony, grounded in German idealism and Romantic forms, is a "permanent parabasis" leading ultimately to a fall (225-7). back to text
6. My reference here is to Nietzsche's fragmented remark, "I have forgotten my umbrella." As a part of Nietzsche's unpublished manuscripts, this fragment is generally seen as a ‘text’ beyond the optic of interpretation. Jacques Derrida, however, develops this lack of interpretation into a proliferation of possibilities and questions of authority, trace, and signature. See his Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles. trans. by Barbara Harlow. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), esp. 122-146. In effect, my suggestion here is that this form of Derridean interpretation—that is, the form engaged in addressing ‘texts’ or text analogues variously marginalized by political acts of interpretation—is enabling for political activity in the immanent domain. back to text
7. This type of critique typifies, for example, Jürgen Habermas’ challenge to Derrida, Foucault, Heidegger, and Nietzsche in his The Philosphical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. trans. by Frederick Lawrence. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987). back to text
8. I would suggest that the problem of seeing the global political field is signalled by Foucault's (provisional) abandonment of archeology. After The Archeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. trans. by A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), Foucault adopts the Nietzschean genealogical method to investigate local sites of incarceration and discipline. As Stephen Best and Douglas Kellner argue, however, both archeology and genealogy "re-examine the social field from a micrological standpoint that enables one to identify discursive discontinuity and dispersion instead of continuity and identity." See their Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. (New York: Guilford Press, 1991), 46. back to text
9. Ihab Hassan, The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1987), 229-230. back to text
10. See for example Jean Baudrillard, Simulations. trans. by Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beichtman. (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983), 44, and Hassan, The Postmodern Turn, 221-229. back to text
11. It seems to me that these two possibilities—to reduce postmodern ‘realities’ to illusions and to find identity or to claim utter heterogeneity as disabling—describe much of the debate between leftist political theorists and discourse theorists. Consequently, the American academy has mostly looked toward thinkers who have attempted to ameliorate such vast distinctions, such as Foucault, Baudrillard, Deleuze, and Guattari. back to text
12. For my discussion of Fredric Jameson, I draw specifically on his work from the early publication in 1976 of Marxism and Form to his collection of essays entitled Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Moreover, much of the focus here will be drawn from Jameson’s seminal work The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981). Jameson’s overarching theme of a continuous history has been fairly consistent and emerges from his commitment to dialectical thinking. In fact, I would argue that these early texts are essential for understanding Jameson’s more recent work in which he is often less explicit about his grounding for interpretive action. For a different reading of Jameson, see Clint Burnham’s The Jamesonian Unconscious: The Aesthetics of Marxist Theory. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995). Burnham, like Jameson, pits the postmodernism of Lyotard, for example, against the Marxist hermeneutic for aesthetics.(5) back to text
13. For a consideration of the problems in Jameson's attempt to conjoin an orthodox Marxism with a radical postmodernism, see Best and Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations, 181-193. back to text
14. Michael Taussig's recent work in The Nervous System. (London: Routledge, 1992) accurately reflects a growing urgency in anthropological studies to become aware of political synergy. I see Taussig's work in describing the terrain of terror and positing a cultural nervous system as exemplary, evoking the importance of our own situatedness within the domain of interpretation and reading. One might examine, on the other hand, the type of systems theory application represented by Niklas Luhmann, who offers a model of relative autonomy for self-reproducing systems. In brief, Luhmann’s systems theory allows for a recognition of interdependency without erasing entirely the autonomous nature of any social system. See, for example, Niklas Luhmann, Social Systems. trans. by John Bednarz, Jr. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995); see also Hugh Baxter, “Autopoesis and the ‘Relative Autonomy’ of Law,” in Cardozo Law Review. July 1998, 1987-2090. back to text
15. See Jameson, Marxism and Form. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 18, especially the concluding chapter, "Towards Dialectical Criticism," 306-417. back to text
16. Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 17. back to text
17. For a more complete consideration of Jameson's reading of French poststructuralism, especially Deleuze and Foucault, see Paul Bove's introduction to Gilles Deleuze's Foucault. trans. by Sean Hand. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), vii-xl. back to text
18. Jameson, "Cognitive Mapping," in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 347-360, 355. back to text
19. Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), 5-6. back to text
20. Jameson, Late Marxism: Adorno, or the Persistence of the Dialectic. (New York: Verso, 1990), 5. back to text
21. Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 5. Jameson applies this type of hermeneutical regimen in which difference may be understood in his most recent work, The Geopolitics of the Aesthetic. (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1993). back to text
22. Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 100. back to text
23. Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 19-20. back to text
24. Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 22. back to text
25. As William Dowling notes in Jameson, Althusser, Marx: An Introduction to The Political Unconscious. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983), Jameson's choice here is strategic and necessary, confronting a particular threat: "The threat here to orthodox Marxism, which has always sought to explain the 'meaning' of everything from political events to cultural artifacts by rewriting or allegorizing them in terms of Marx's own providential history, is abundantly clear. [For Deleuze and Guattari] see in Marxism a prime example of an intellectual or interpretive system that inevitably transforms itself into an instrument of physical and political domination." (101). Dowling's comment is well-taken; however, both Deleuze and Guattari, along with a host of other continental Marxist thinkers, are seeking ways of opening Marxist critique to a more complex socio-historical structure that needs more descriptive and delimiting terms. back to text
26. Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 22. back to text
27. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. trans. by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 109. back to text
28. Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge, 12. back to text
29. Félix Guattari, Molecular
Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics. trans. by Rosemary Sheed.
(New York: Penguin, 1984), 143. back to
Bataille, George. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Allan Stoekl, ed. trans. by Allan Stoekl with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr. (Minneapolis: Univeristy of Minnesota Press, 1985.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. trans. by Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beichtman. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.
Baxter, Hugh. “Autopoesis and the ‘Relative Autonomy’ of Law,” in Cardozo Law Review. July 1998, 1987-2090.
Best, Stephen, and Douglas Kellner. Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. New York: Guilford Press, 1991.
Bove, Paul. “Introduction,” in Gilles Deleuze, Foucault. trans. by Sean Hand. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988, vii-xl.
Burnham, Clint. The Jamesonian Unconscious: The Aesthetics of Marxist Theory. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.
de Man, Paul. "The Rhetoric of Temporality," in Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. 2nd. ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. trans. by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
Derrida, Jacques. Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles. trans. by Barbara Harlow. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
Dowling, Willliam. Jameson, Althusser, Marx: An Introduction to The Political Unconscious. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983.
Foucault, Michel. The Archeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. trans. by A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.
Guattari, Félix. Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics. trans. by Rosemary Sheed. New York: Penguin, 1984.
Habermas, Jürgen. The Philosphical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. trans. by Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987.
Hassan, Ihab. The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1987.
Jameson, Fredric. "Cognitive Mapping," in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988. 347-360
Jameson, Fredric. Late Marxism: Adorno, or the Persistence of the Dialectic. New York: Verso, 1990.
Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.
Luhmann, Niklas. Social Systems. trans. by John Bednarz, Jr. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.
McGowan, John. Postmodernism and Its Critics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.
Taussig, Michael. The Nervous System. London: Routledge, 1992.
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