Sunday, May 17, 2009

On the Historical Sociology of Literary Form II

Fredric Jameson’s ideology of form and the Political unconscious

[H]istory is not a text, not a narrative, master or otherwise, but [. . .], as an absent cause, it is inaccessible to us expect in textual form, and that our approach to it and to the Real itself necessarily passes through its prior textualization, its narrativisation in the political unconscious. (Jameson, 2003: 20)

Like Moretti’s, Jameson’s literary criticism is based on a Marxist historical materialism. While their methods and periodisations are largely compatible there is a significant difference in how each conceives of the relationships between symbolic, or literary, forms and the phenomena of the historical Real that such forms seek to represent. So, while Moretti, builds his historical sociologies out of a range of sources as wide as Darwin’s theory of evolution, to Goethe’s philosophy of form, Jameson’s historical sociology is relentlessly anchored and drawn back into the orbit of the totality of history. There is also a considerable variation in their approaches to the uses and subsumption of psychoanalytic theories in their work. In this area Jameson, unlike Moretti, has subsumed and seeks to work with the theories of post-structuralist linguistics and psychoanalysis that culminate in Lacan’s re-reading of Freud, and in Althusser’s appropriation of Lacan’s psychology for his theories of Marxism.

For Jameson literary criticism and literary history are practices of working through levels of hermeneutics whereupon the subsequent levels seek to reinterpret, and even remake, the text against a widening horizon of social and historical significance. Interpretation takes

[p]lace within three concentric frameworks, which mark a widening out of the sense of the social ground of a text through the notions, first, of political history, in the narrow sens of the punctual event and chronicle-like sequence of happenings in time; then of society, in the now already less diachronic and time-bound sense of a constitutive tension and struggle between social classes; and. Ultimately, of history now conceived in its vastest sense of the sequence of modes of production and the succession and destiny of the various human social formations, from prehistoric life to whatever far future history has in store for us. (Jameson 2003: 60)

The first “narrowly political or historical” horizon of interpretation grasps “the individual work [. . .] essentially as a symbolic act” (61). At the second hermeneutic level the individual text falls away “to be reconstituted in the form of the great collective and class discourses” and “the ideologeme [. . .] the smallest intelligible unit of the essentially antagonistic collective discourses of social classes” becomes the “object of study” (61). Finally, along the orbit of the third concentric circle, “the ultimate horizon of human history as a whole” is the totality against which particular social formations are posited and relativised in relation to “their respective positions in the whole complex sequence of the modes of production” (61). In this final level of interpretation, Jameson writes, “both the individual text and its ideologemes know a final transformation, and must be read in terms of what I will call the ideology of form, that is, the symbolic messages transmitted to us by the coexistence of various sign systems which are themselves traces or anticipations of modes of production” (61-2).

As was noted above in the case of Moretti’s universalising and Eurocentric conceptions of modernity, this thesis seeks to read Grunge fiction against a much more compressed and localised historical sociology than what Jameson wants to move against in his third hermeneutic framework. Indeed, the perspective that Jameson calls for – effectively one at the end of history – is highly fraught. And the fragility of its status can be seen not least in the notion of a prophetic, even messianic, transmission to us through the text of future modes of productions.

What, however, Jameson’s model of a widening series of concentric hermeneutics does offer is a means by which to take a psychological and individual reading of a text and re-position such literary fictional phenomena as mourning and melancholy, for example, as responses to socially significant loss. The advantage of Jameson’s approach over Moretti’s, in this domain, is that he re-configures aspects of Lacanian pyschology – itself a re-reading of Freudian psychology – into a theory of the political unsconscious. The political unconscious is the realm of the Real of history, that can only be approached by moving through a text via the concentric circles of the three hermeneutics and their widening horizons listed above. In chapter four I take Jameson’s first and second hermeneutic frameworks, and his notion of the political unconscious, and apply these to the reading of the post-Grunge novel Three Dollars.

A final point of comparison between Moretti and Jameson’s historical sociology of literary form concerns the concepts of mediation and homology. For Jameson, the key to Marxism as a theory with which to grasp the relationships between aesthetic – or symbolic – forms, and forms active in the mode of production, is to remember that Marxism is not a mechanical but an historical materialism (30). It is thus the “isomorphism, or structural parallelism” of a mechanical conception of homology which makes rigid, determinist relations between levels of society, rather than those of the “text and its social subtext [that are represented] in the more active terms of production, projection, compensation, repression, displacement and the like” that a historical materialism more fruitfully enables (28-29). While Jameson finds utility in the notion of homology he is wary of the manner through which it can be used to make a too literal pairing of forms, such as that of the production of texts with the production of commodities (30).

Moretti, also sets aside the mediating concept of homology. Rather than “equating,” for example, the structure and function of a text when considering how to practice a sociology of literature, Moretti writes,”[w]hat is in question is correlation, not necessarily homology” (2005: 130). For Moretti something like the Althusserean relative autonomy of levels keeps the concept of homology as isomorphism from gaining any firm hold on those relationships of literary morphemes to social phenomena that he prefers to characterise using the figures and terms that arise in the dialectic between interpretation and explanation (153-54). I will follow Moretti’s example in this thesis and seek, where possible, to generate the figures of mediatory relationships out of the terms of the texts themselves. In chapter two, for example, my reading of Praise’s main characters’ diseases – asthma and eczema – is abstracted through the medical classification of these both being atopic illnesses. This form of illness is then read across to the Neoliberal practices of economic government that I have chosen to affiliate with Praise, specifically, and Grunge fiction more generally. This reading across extrapolates from the figures of youth that both Grunge and Paul Keating’s language share. Rather than a present an homology between Gordon’s asthma and financial government, what I will do here is shuttle between the Australian political body of Gordon’s illness and the ill body politic that Keating narrates as becoming healthy, in order to explicate the one of the specific ways that Neoliberalism became embedded into Australian political culture.


Moretti’s methods of literary history share much with Fredric Jameson’s Marxist periodisations and views on the history of modernity and capitalism’s various stages. The key to the historical sociology of literary form, for both Moretti and Jameson, is genre, concerning which Jameson argues that

the strategic value of generic concepts for Marxism lies in the mediatory function of the notion of genre, which allows the coordination of immanent formal analysis of the individual text with the twin diachronic perspective of the history of forms and the evolution of social life. (2003: 92)

While accepting the specific claim made here by Jameson concerning the “mediatory function” of literary form, the notion of an “evolution of social life” has a too portentiously teleological direction and universality for this thesis, which seeks instead to work ‘closer-to-home’ by focussing on a small number of texts and nationally inflected instantiations of Liberalism, Labourism and Neoliberalism.

In order to avoid the lure of Moretti’s zeitgeist fallacy, the fragilities of the total view of history from which Jameson purports to be moving in his final concentric hermeneutic circle, and to instead move horizontally and promiscuously into that affiliative network of texts that Grunge fiction is a contemporary of but has rarely been read with, this thesis will jump tracks and move into a localised and tightly periodized hermeneutics of the texts of the long Labor decade. By working through the writing and textualisation of the long Labor decade we will be ready to begin to read Grunge fiction on those boundaries that require a more exacting historical sociology to make the affiliations occur. It is to that labour that this thesis now turns.

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