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ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature
- The Political Unconscious
In this lecture, Professor Paul Fry explores Fredric Jameson’s seminal work, The Political Unconscious, as an outcropping of Marxist literary criticism and structural theory. Texts such as Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” and Shakespeare’s seventy-third sonnet are examined in the context of Jameson’s three horizons of underlying interpretive frameworks–the political, the social, and the historical, each carefully explained. The extent to which those frameworks permeate individual thought is addressed in a discussion of Jameson’s concept of the “ideologeme.” The theorist’s work is juxtaposed with the writings of Bakhtin and Levi-Strauss. The lecture concludes by revisiting the children’s story Tony the Tow Truck, upon which Jameson’s theory of literature is mapped.
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Introduction to Theory of Literature
ENGL 300 - Lecture 18 - The Political Unconscious
Chapter 1. Marxist Aesthetics and Frederic Jameson [00:00:00]
Professor Paul Fry: Well, I’d like to begin by pointing out that the first name of Fredric Jameson is spelled F-r-e-d-r-i-c. The reason I point that out is that most scholars don’t seem to be able to grasp that simple fact and that references to him, which are rife in the critical literature, perhaps one-third of the time spell his first name wrong. So I thought it would be important for you to be among the cognoscenti and to know that it is spelled in the way that I just mentioned. It’s a strange thing. When I started teaching I taught many, many, many sections of English 129, and of course in the first semester, the first text that we read was The Iliad. Now “Iliad” is spelled I-l-i-a-d. Why it is that of the student population I taught over all those years, hundreds and hundreds of students, fully a third of them spelled it I-l-l-i-a-d I really couldn’t say, but there are words that simply seem to be insusceptible to being spelled correctly, [laughs] and one of those words is the first name of Fredric Jameson, so stand advised.
Okay. Now last time I talked about four possible options of an aesthetic nature for a Marxist approach to literature, and passed them in review. I mentioned realism, both realism according to the tastes and theoretical preferences of Engels and Lukacs, and also tendentious realism as it pervaded the Soviet world, especially after 1934; then also the participatory aesthetic of figures like Walter Benjamin, and the high Modernist aesthetic of the “whole” embraced particularly by Adorno–those last are the two aesthetic modes that we passed in review last time–and finally, as a fifth notion, the idea that realism being somehow outworn, having developed hardening of the arteries as a kind of a bourgeois perspective on things, needs somehow or another to be replaced aesthetically in the Marxist view of things by something else.
Perhaps the most eloquent proponent of replacing it with something is Jameson, who earlier in the introductory chapter of The Political Unconscious–much of which you’ve been assigned for today–writes a section which he calls “Magical Narratives” and which promotes, very much in keeping with the thinking of Northrop Frye about the role of romance in society–and particularly the religious role of romance in society–proposes that an aesthetic of the romance which entails folklore, the folk tale, the fairy tale, and various forms of folk expression as a magical resolution of conflicts that can’t otherwise be resolved, is the more appropriate aesthetic to take up. The long passage that I sent to you last night, which I’d like quickly to go over, is meant to further the promotion of this aesthetic and also to pose for us a critique of what the consequences would be of lingering with a realist aesthetic. So Jameson says, on the second passage on your sheet:
In other words, in Scott’s treatment of history as dialectical, against the foil of the present there is envisioned a kind of romanticized evocation of a feudal past, and so it is in turn–I don’t want to linger long over this with the other writers.
In other words, “this is all I can say and this is the only way I can say it. There are no other possibilities of literary expression because I now feel confined to this reification of the real, this insistence that the real, the evocation of the real, is my only literary option, and so it’s no longer liberating.”
That is, in a way, a jab at Freud, but at the same time an acknowledgement that Freud participates in a sort of growing despair over the necessity of confining oneself to the real, evoking freedom from the reality principle to which a now oppressive realistic representation is the hostage.
Chapter 2. Romance at the Three Horizons [00:07:42]
Okay. So that’s the aesthetic of Fredric Jameson, and before we begin an analysis–that is to say, before we begin to consider his three horizons or concentric circles of interpretation–from other points of view, I thought it would be interesting to find this romance aesthetic in those three levels. We’re talking, of course, about the “political,” the “social,” and the “historical”: the political, the kind of chronicle-like–as he puts it–record of successive happenings in a fictive context, constructed as a plot by some individual voice; the social as the conflict–or emergence into our awareness of its being a conflict–of what Jameson calls “ideologemes”–that is to say, ways of thinking about the world as expressed by disparate and conflicting classes; and then finally the historical, which Jameson calls “necessity.” At the end of the essay, he says it’s “what hurts,” but in terms of literary analysis, as we’ll see, it has to do with understanding the overlap of the succession of modes of production as they unfold in historical time. We’ll have more to say about modes of production, but our basic three horizons, then–in which I am now going to look for the romance aesthetic–our basic three horizons, then, are what Jameson calls the political, the social and the historical.
It’s important that he does sometimes call them concentric circles, because you have to understand that as you advance through the three stages, you’re not leaving anything behind. The political is contained within the social and the social is contained within the historical. All of that is what is not to be left behind but is rather to be rethought, reconsidered. Jameson sometimes uses the word “rewritten,” thinking of the text that is the object of one’s study as one advances through these three stages. So that’s why he thinks it appropriate to call them concentric circles.
So what is the essential political moment of the creative act? Well, it’s what Jameson, borrowing from Kenneth Burke, calls “the symbolic act.” As an individual writer, I undertake to resolve symbolically a contradiction–and Marxism is always about contradiction: that is to say, the way in which the perspective of any class exists in a contradictory relation both with its own needs and desires and with other classes. In any case, then, the symbolic act at the political level is designed to resolve a contradiction that can’t be resolved by other means. In other words, it’s a fantasy, it is the fairy tale, it is the princess and the pauper. It is the arbitrary happy ending tacked onto a situation for which in reality there would be no happy ending. In other words, it is a romance perspective about the world, the realistic approach to which would somehow or another leave us feeling much more confined.
“Slumdog Millionaire” is an interesting example. It’s an auteur film made by Danny Boyle, an interesting example of an individual act which magically resolves a contradiction through the whole Bollywood apparatus that it brings to bear on it. The contradictions, of course, are rife between Hindu and Muslim, the contradictions entailed in globalization, the contradictions of caste–all of these contradictions, not to be resolved on a realistic plane, nevertheless can be resolved by an individual symbolic act: You hit the Lotto. You win against all odds a prize that makes you a millionaire. Who wants to be a millionaire? Well, we all [laughs] want to be millionaires, but only one of us miraculously, magically, through a series of completely implausible happenstances, is able to do so.
Now notice this: it’s not that it doesn’t happen. People do hit the Lotto. People do win the $64,000 question or whatever it is. It’s not that it’s absolute never-never land, but the point is–and I think this is really ultimately the point of that extravagant dance in the railroad station at the end of the film–the point is that even were it to happen in reality, it wouldn’t resolve contradictions. That is to say, your life would not have that kind of scripted perfection: You get the girl, everything is going to be perfect, and the whole world falls in line, dancing behind you. This just [laughter] doesn’t happen. In other words, it can be sort of tragic to hit the Lotto, as many stories of that kind have made clear to us. That, it seems to me, is finally how the film is somewhat self-conscious about its nature as a symbolic act. Anyway, that’s the romance element of the political level of interpretation as understood by Jameson.
Now the second level brings to the surface the element of subversion that has to be entailed in this same fairy tale resolution of a conflict that can’t otherwise be resolved. There are all sorts of other aspects at the second level, but remember I’m discovering the romance aesthetic here in all three levels before turning to other matters having to do with them. At the second level, on page 1297, the right-hand column, you have Ernst Bloch’s understanding of the fairy tale. This is at the second level, about two thirds of the way down.
In other words, it’s not just a symbolic act, the fairy tale. It is a thumbing of the nose at hegemony. It is, in other words, an act of antagonism which, of course, recognizes the impossibility of resolution or reconciliation precisely in its register of antagonism; so that at the second level, the social level, in which the ideological voices of various classes and perspective are openly in conflict, you don’t get resolution. What you get is subversion and reaction. You get, in other words, a tension of voices that is not meant to resolve anything but is rather meant to lay bare the conflicts that are entailed.
Still, however, in doing this you get the kind of carnivalesque uprising from below which Jameson associates with romance: that letting off of steam, that entertaining of the possibility of utopia that you get, for example, in the early modern period on that day in which someone is called the Lord of Misrule, the entire social order for one day is inverted, the low are elevated to positions of authority, and for one day you get the keys to the castle, in effect. This is a day in which conflict is expressed and not resolved because everybody knows that tomorrow it’s going to be the same old-same old and back to business as usual; but there is still the romance element, the idea that folk expression is simultaneously the expression of a wish, a wish similar to the wish that’s expressed at the first political level but the expression of a wish which is collective–that is to say, in behalf of a class and a perspective, and which is also, with great self-consciousness, not a wish that can in any way expect to be fulfilled, but rather one that is used subversively with respect to the dominant ideology that it expresses its abrasiveness toward.
The third level involves the way in which there is at any given time at the historical level a dominant mode of production. A mode of production is a system of thought or production generated by an overarching social or economic arrangement. Jameson lists them in his text, and we’ll come back to them and we’ll read that listing and we’ll think about those terms; but Jameson gives an excellent example of the way in which, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment began to be the dominant form of expression of an emergent mercantile, successfully capitalist bourgeoisie. That is to say, the values that drove the development of industrialization and capital were those values emerging from feudal and aristocratic ideals that were less realistic, less engaged with actuality and the way in which you can actually get things done in the world. The Enlightenment is understood as an expression of an emerging new mode of production, or capitalism as it succeeds feudalism.
But Jameson points out–and here’s where romance comes in, and then after that we’ll move on to our next point–that at the same time you get Enlightenment, at the same time that that does seem to become the dominant form of expression, you also get two modes of resistance or contestation. On the one hand you have Romanticism, which can be understood in this context as a kind of atavistic throwback to aristocratic and feudal idealism, codes of conduct, beliefs, visions of utopia within Romanticism–all of them sort of trying to recode in an age of Enlightenment various sorts of idealism that had come to seem outmoded. So that’s a kind of, as it were, reactionary mode of production overlapping with or expressing itself through the dominant one. Then at the same time, you get folk resistance to the increasing mechanization of the Enlightenment. With Political Economy, with the rise of social engineering and with the various forms of social organization associated with Utilitarianism, you get folk resistance. You get popular resistance in the forms of protest, “frame-breaking,” disruption of labor activity, protest against industrialization, all of which also–because it insists on earlier forms of agricultural and industrial cottage industries and so on–is atavistic, also a throwback to the way in which labor is performed or conducted under feudalism. So that, too, in the form of folk expression–of longing for, in this case, a utopian past, more agrarian, more individualized as a mode of labor, and more cottage-oriented–in all of this you get an overlapping mode of production. So the tension among modes of production, which is the focus of analysis at the historical level, the third historical level, can also be understood in terms of the romance of utopian nostalgia.
Chapter 3. The Political Unconscious at the Three Horizons [00:22:18]
All right. So that, then, just to show how Jameson’s aesthetic, his sense of the importance of romance, can be seen to pervade the way in which he understands analysis at all three of these levels. So that’s his aesthetic. The question then is: what is the interpretative payoff of undertaking literary analysis at these three levels? That is to say, why should we take the trouble to do it? What’s so interesting about it? Well, from Jameson’s point of view–this, of course, is the title of his book–each of these three modes of analysis is designed to disclose, to uncover, to lay bare an element of the “political unconscious.” As for deconstruction, as for Freud, this sense of a political unconscious exposes or reveals something that is antithetical to ordinary consciousness–that is to say, undermines our conventional understanding of things, shows us that beneath our conventional understanding of things there are laws and causes and dynamics at work that we need to understand.
In this case, however, the unconscious in question is not a linguistic unconscious; it is not a psychological unconscious. It is a political unconscious. Insofar, in other words, as we are political animals, the acts that we perform, the dialogues that we engage in, the modes of production that we participate in–all of them have political ramifications; that is to say, we do what we do, as opposed to doing other things, for political reasons of which we may not be fully aware–hence the emphasis in analysis of this kind on the political unconscious.
So again the three levels. Going back to the idea of the “symbolic” act: what political unconscious, in other words, is revealed by a symbolic act? Well, Jameson gives a wonderful example taken from structuralism, and you can see that he leans very heavily on structuralism for his understanding of the way in which something is going on in a narrative form of which it is not immediately apparent that anybody can be aware. Take for example Caduveo face painting. Levi-Strauss asks both in The Savage Mind and again in Tristes Tropiques: why the excessive complexity of these paintings? Why the curious tension in the marks on the faces between the vertical and the horizontal? Why, in other words, do you get a feeling of tension, of aesthetic beauty but also of tension and complication, in this cross-hatching, in this sense of the relation between the vertical and the horizontal?
So Jameson’s argument, which he brings out more clearly than Levi-Strauss–but Levi-Strauss does say the same thing, contrasting the Caduveo in this respect with neighboring tribes like the Bororo–his explanation is that the Caduveo are a hierarchical society in which there are open and obvious forms of inequality that one must perforce be aware of as a member of the tribe, but that neighboring tribes, (and this is something that probably the tribe itself can observe) work out a way of seeming to resolve the contradictions inherent in hierarchy by the exchange of moieties, which is to say, of kinship gifts and wedding gifts and so on–that Levi-Strauss talks about. This exchange of moieties seems to impose on these social orders in real life, in real terms, a way of making society more equal than it might otherwise be. Yes, it’s still hierarchical, but at the same time, wealth is distributed, each person has his own form of asserting dignity, and so on.
The Caduveo doesn’t have this. Levi-Strauss’s and Jameson’s point is that the Caduveo never really worked that out, so they’re stuck with a simple form of hierarchical organization. Face painting, then, according to Levi-Strauss followed by Jameson, is their way of symbolically resolving the problem by introducing the horizontal–by introducing, in other words, the ways in which other tribes have successfully offset hierarchy with ways of distributing wealth and prestige more equally. The symbolic act which other tribes were able to accomplish in real life, in real terms, the Caduveo accomplish individually, with each individual woman painting her face as a symbolic act, a symbolic act expressing the political unconscious– because this is not an act, we suppose, of which any individual is aware.
The unawareness, the lack of consciousness of what’s going on in a story, is much more readily available to us in the Oedipus myth because that’s the part of Levi-Strauss’s “Structural Study of Myth” that we happen to have read. The nextpart is [laughs] Caduveo face painting, but in “The Structural Study of Myth,” Levi-Strauss begins by talking about the Oedipus myth. Well, the whole point of that is, “Gee, there’s a terrible contradiction, born from two or born from one.” Plainly, no individual version of the story, certainly not Sophocles’ version, is saying to itself, “Oh, this is a terrible contradiction. I don’t know whether I’m born from two people or born from one person.” That is the unconscious, in other words, of the story which is brought out, brought to the surface, by a structuralist analysis of the myth. Jameson doesn’t talk about it because it’s not in any obvious and immediate way a political problem or a problem susceptible of Marxist analysis. It is perhaps ultimately–everything is–but not immediately, and so he turns instead to a discussion of the Caduveo myth, which has as its unconscious an issue that’s obviously a political one, but it is nevertheless the case that a structural analysis of a symbolic act is designed to and will inevitably reveal an element of unconscious thought, political or otherwise. That then is the way in which the political unconscious, as Jameson describes it, is brought out at the first political level of understanding, the individual symbolic act.
Now at the second level, the social, in which the text, as Jameson says, rewrites itself not as an individual act but as, very much in the spirit of Bakhtin, a heteroglossal expression of voices, of points of view, writing themselves as it were through the text–there the political unconscious in question is something that has to be understood in terms of ideologemes. In other words, people reflexively express, perhaps unbeknownst to themselves, views and opinions which are intelligible not arising out of their individuality, not because they are who they are, as they themselves might say–but rather because of their economic class and prestige status. In other words, because of their place in the world, it follows that they will hold certain views. They will be the mouthpieces, in other words, for certain ideologemes, and those ideologemes Jameson understands to be at least in part unconscious. One doesn’t know, in other words, that the opinions one so fervently expresses and so devoutly believes in are opinions conditioned by the social circumstances in which one finds oneself, so that literature then becomes a kind of drama of ideologemes, a representation of unresolved conflict that manifests in the variety of class or status voices brought to bear.
You can see this is the point at which Jameson’s work is closest to Bakhtin’s and most clearly reflects some of the preoccupations of Bakhtin as we have encountered them already. Jameson gives a very good example of the way in which this conflict works–because part of the mystery of these clashes is that they always present themselves within a shared code. This already begins to look forward to the idea of the mode of production. At the bottom of page 1296, Jameson is talking about the violent religious controversies of the seventeenth century in England between Cavalier and Roundhead, with all the controversies surrounding the interregnum of Cromwell, the restoration of Charles the Second, and the tremendous ferment, largely religious ferment, taking place during that period; but this ferment for any Marxist–and Christopher Hill is the leading historian writing about this period who has made it most clearly intelligible in these terms–for any Marxist this conflict has an underlying political unconscious: that is, its ultimate motives are an assertion of rights and an expression of class views. This is the way Jameson puts it, bottom of page 1296: “…the normal form of the dialogical is essentially an antagonistic one…” He’s alluding here to Bakhtin, for whom frequently the dialogical is simply a kind of happy cacophony of voices, a carnivalesque expression of chaos from below, all of which is a kind of yeast-like ferment, and somehow or another in the long run energizing and socially progressive.
But Jameson points out that the ideologeme is very often expressive of conflict as well, an antagonistic one, and that the dialogue of class struggle is one in which two opposing discourses fight it out within the general unity of a shared code. Thus, for instance, the shared master code of religion becomes in the 1640s in England the place in which the dominant formulations of a hegemonic theology are re-appropriated and polemically modified. In other words, the Church of England stands for–and this is the word that was used–“establishment.” Roundhead points of view, various forms of Puritanism and other forms of religious rebellion, are antiestablishment, and yet they are all coded within the discourse of the Christian religion. That is to say, they have to fight it out on a common battlefield, and that’s the way it is with conflict of this kind.
Maybe a contemporary example would be not so much in the sphere of religion. Well, today one could speak again of religion, but in the sixties and seventies it was maybe more a question of ethics. Think, for example, of the sexual revolution. Again there is a common ground, a sense of the centrality of sexual conduct to human life; but what you get in–not so much, perhaps, the conflict of classes as conflict of generations in this case–what you get in the conflict of generations is an inversion of values, not a new set of values exactly but a simple transvaluation of what exists. Everything that one faction considers bad, another faction transvalues and considers good. The very thing against which one is warned is the thing that one rushes to embrace and so on. So once again you get a clash, an unresolved clash, but a clash that arises from and participates in the semiotic structure of a common code, right? That’s the way in which social antagonism expresses itself at the second level, and it usually involves, because there are underlying interests, elements of the political unconscious and brings to the surface elements of the political unconscious.
Finally, at the third level what comes out, what is made manifest, is the tension or clash among modes of production as they jostle each other historically. It’s understood that the danger, as Jameson puts it, of thinking in terms of a succession of modes of production is that each one of those modes of production might seem like a synchronic moment. In other words, if you’re in capitalism, you might get lulled into thinking that no other mode of production is available. If you’re in patriarchy, you might get lulled into thinking that no other mode of production is available; yet as Jameson points out, the tension between corporate hierarchy and patriarchal hierarchy–the tension, in other words, which very often drives a wedge and has driven a wedge in polemic between Marxist and feminist points of view–is a reflection of the coexistence of modes of production from completely different eras: one contemporary, one completely–at least insofar as it was the dominant–a thing of the past, and yet persisting and still overlapping with a mode of production that is contemporary.
Chapter 4. Literary Analysis: Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” [00:38:08]
All of that is simply a matter of historical fact, but in literary analysis you begin to think of it in more formal terms, and you see, for example, the very choice of verse form–and I’m taking as an example Shelley’s famous poem “The Ode to the West Wind”–you see the very choice of verse form as an instance of what Jameson calls “the ideology of form” that can be understood in terms of the conflict of modes of production. The verse form of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” has five strophes, and each strophe is exactly the same in form. It is simultaneously a sonnet and–the first twelve lines of which, concluding in a couplet–a succession of terza rima. Now these two forms brought together, synthesized as a single strophic form in Shelley, are coded in entirely different ways. Each aspect of them has an ideology. Terza rima is coded “prophecy” because it is in the tradition of Dante. It’s the verse form in which The Divine Comedy is written, and it is a mode that is expressive of hope that resolves all contradiction in the divine, in the revelation of the divine, in theParadiso; so that terza rima expresses for Shelley the hope of the poem, which is that the west wind will be through him the trumpet of a political prophecy. If winter’s here, can spring be far behind? Revolution is in the offing, everything’s going to be great.
But at the same time, the poem is shot through with a kind of pessimism–a sort of, if you will, realism; an awareness that this notion of prophecy is rather farfetched. Why should the wind do his bidding? The wind is just wind. It’s not inspiration. Therefore, the very stanza which is written in terza rima is written at the same time as a sonnet, fourteen lines. The first stanza in particular is coded not just as a sonnet but also as an allusion specifically to one sonnet, Shakespeare’s seventy-third sonnet, which begins “That time of year in me thou mayest behold”–in which I’m getting old. I don’t have any hair left. I’m just a bare-ruined choir where late sweet birds sang. In other words, I am in a parlous state, I am getting old, and there’s nothing to be done about it. At the end of the poem, the embers of my fire are about to be snuffed out. There is just no hope for it. That’s the way it is: you get old. In other words, winter’s here and spring isn’t coming. There is no prophetic possibility. There is only the reality of the trajectory of a life spent. If there is rise, there is also fall. If there is development, there is also decline and decay, and these, as the sonnet form codes it, are simple facts of life that poetic idealism, that Romanticism, cannot override.
So what you get in Shelley’s verse form is a tension between ideas, the prophetic idea which you can associate with a feudal and theocentric world in which the contradictions of reality really can be resolved theologically, on the one hand, and a kind of proto-realist tradition in which we just have to come to terms with the way things are, coded through–which is, after all, proto-Enlightenment, and Shakespeare is often sort of thought of as a proto-Enlightenment figure–the sonnet. So formally, both the terza rima and the sonnet participate in what Jameson calls “the ideology of form,” and they reflect modes of production, feudal and Enlightenment respectively. They reflect attitudes that one can associate with those modes of production. So that’s an example of the way in which the political–perhaps one had better call it quasi-conscious because Shelley was an incredibly self-conscious poet–the way in which the political “quasi-conscious” expresses itself at the third or historical level of analysis.
Chapter 5. The Formal Emphasis at the Three Horizons [00:43:34]
Now in formal terms–and I have already sort of gotten into this, and I’ll go through it rather quickly because there isn’t much time left–in formal terms we can think of the essential critical task at the first or political level as one of thematization. That is to say, what theme is the plot structure of an individual symbolic act trying to express? What is the contradiction that’s being resolved in this symbolic act? At the second level, the formal principle that we do bring to bear is the idea, the Bakhtinian idea, of heteroglossia: the clash of voices, the way in which the voice is no longer individual but rather social, the representative of a social point of view that expresses itself through the individual author’s writing. At the third level, you get what Jameson calls “a repertoire of devices,” and I have already reflected a little bit on that.
Let me just add another example, also taken from Romanticism, in keeping with Jameson’s exemplification of the overlap of modes of production as being particularly interesting in the age of Enlightenment. In Romanticism there is a long tradition leading up to it of the formal Pindaric ode. Wordsworth is still making use of that tradition in writing his ode, “Intimations of Immortality,” but in the meantime he and Coleridge have developed a new kind of ode, if you will, which is called the “conversation poem”: Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” and “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” are notable examples of the conversation poem.
Now the difference is very clearly intelligible in terms of a conflict of modes of production. The formal ode, derived ultimately from Pindar celebrating Olympic victories of aristocratic patrons in Greece–horse races, foot races, wrestling matches: that’s the original purpose to which the formal ode was put–plainly is coded once again as feudal-aristocratic, whereas the conversation poem belongs very much, as the word suggests, in the public sphere. It’s the atmosphere of the coffeehouse. It’s the atmosphere in which people sit down and talk together, exchange views, and address each other. It is a poem always of address to some individual person that turns to that person at a certain point, evokes the nature of that person, sometimes solicits that person’s opinions. In other words, it’s a poem that performs dialogism. It’s a poem that performs the sense of the give-and-take of a much more open, democratic culture in the public sphere. So you can see that the very transition from the formal ode to the conversation poem is itself intelligible as a transition between–or what Jameson calls “a cultural revolution” brought in by a seismic shift in–modes of production.
Chapter 6. Acknowledged Interpretive Dangers [00:47:16]
All right. So these exemplify, in various ways, what can be done with these three levels. Jameson himself reminds us of the dangers. If we think of a narrative as a symbolic act, we are much too prone either to forget that it’s based on reality by emphasizing the structuralist nature of what’s going on or to forget that form is involved at all by emphasizing the social contradiction that’s being resolved. As Jameson says, these two dangers at the first level are the danger of structuralism and the danger of vulgar materialism. The point in analyzing the symbolic act is to sustain a balance or a synthesis between formal and social elements within the text. At the second level, the problem is that if we start thinking in terms of un-reconcilable class conflict, our analysis can become static, as though class perspectives didn’t shift, as though one perspective might not succeed another as the hegemonic: in other words, as though change didn’t take place, as though there was always the same old-same old in class conflict. The boss is always going to speak demeaningly of the worker. The worker is always going to laugh at the boss behind his back. This is the way it is; this is the way it will always be. There are static relations in other words among the classes that history can’t resolve.
Finally, at the third level, there is the danger of thinking in terms of impasse–late capitalism, for example, as an impasse that simply can’t be surmounted. Think of Adorno and his incredible gloom about the culture industry. There isn’t much hope in Adorno, [laughs] is there? And by the same token, you could argue that poor old Jameson talking about history as necessity, history as what hurts, history as just what has happened–by the same token, you could argue that Jameson, too, is perhaps a little bit subject to this sense of impasse, which is why I quote for you, as these people themselves often do, the ringing warning of Marx in the Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” That is ultimately the focus of Marx’s analysis.
Chapter 7. Application: Tony the Tow Truck [00:49:55]
Let’s revisit Tony in the remaining minute. Now a reified realist approach to Tony, the kind that Jameson criticizes on the sheet, would point out that nothing happens to Neato and Speedy. They are manifest villains, and yet at the same time, nothing can happen to them. They simply have their place in the social order: one of them is a fastidious aristocrat who doesn’t want to get dirty, the other is completely committed to productivity and the time clock and the work ethic, a bourgeois Speedy. There they are; nothing to be done. They’re not nice to Tony but nothing happens to them. There is no recrimination.
But then at the first level, if we understand this as a symbolic act, the resolution of what would otherwise be a hopeless conflict is through friendship–the friendship of Bumpy and Tony; the fact that it’s perfectly okay if I’m just a working guy. I’ve got my buddies. We go out. We drink beer. We have a good time. Life is great. It doesn’t matter, in other words, that there’s a class structure, that there’s a social system. “I’m happy,” Tony says in effect. “I like my job.” That in itself, of course, is a resolution, [laughs] is a symbolic act and a resolution in advance of the conflicts that the story might otherwise manifest.
At the second level, you get the discourse of ideologemes. “I can’t help you,” says Neato the car. “I don’t want to get dirty.” “I can’t help you,” says Speedy the car. “I am too busy.” “I can help you,” says Bumpy; but notice that this is all within an individual, single code, and that’s what the complete parallelism of these three utterances shows us. Within a single code, these ideologemes, which can’t really be resolved, get themselves expressed.
All right. Now finally modes of production: plainly, the very existence of Neato and Speedy in the same story suggests that there is a certain tension between the feudal and the bourgeois at work, but it’s not a tension that in any way necessarily works itself out. The important thing to notice here, it seems to me, is the conflict between pulling and pushing. It’s very interesting–and I’ve said this before–that a tow truck, something that pulls–and once again Tony is a mode of production, right? He’s a tow truck, right? And something that pulls has to be pushed. Bumpy, like the Little Engine that Could, is a sort of a throwback to an earlier, less energized, less powerful mode of production. He has to push. Think of the way walls get put up: a prefabricated wall before the invention of the crane and the pulley has to be pushed up by a bunch of people. Pushing is the essential labor mode before the kind of technology arises that makes it possible to pull something. After that, you have a crane. You run the hook down, and you just pull the wall up into place. Before then, you got maybe one person standing on a rafter with a rope kind of pulling but everybody else is down on the ground pushing; and so the relationship between pushing and pulling in the story is a crucially important one which suggests the overlap of older and newer modes of production, all of which can be resolved at Jameson’s third or historical level of analysis.
Okay. So much then for Jameson and for Tony. We’ll be coming back to Tony again next time in the context of talking about the New Historicism.
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