Letters

The Empty Chair: On Reading Jameson

“I had occasion then to read several good books, from which it is always possible to find by oneself all the others, or even to write those that are still lacking.”

Guy Debord, Panegyric

Hermeneutics has its roots in the practice of reading the old testament through the new one. The sacred Jewish texts are at one and the same time a book of and a book for a people; at one and the same time the text of that people’s being and their destiny. But hermeneutics reads these texts allegorically, as the anticipation of another time, another people, another being, another destiny, and above all other texts. The relation to the old texts is enough to stabilize the new.

Allegory today repeats the gesture of using certain old texts, if not to read news ones so much as to write them. The classic Marxist texts are at one and the same time a book of and a book for a people; at one and the same time the text of that people’s being and their destiny. The task, for me at least, is to create a new kind of allegorical practice, not only of reading but of writing.

In Jameson this practice perhaps exists already in negative. His texts are allegorical readings of the Marxist classics, the texts of and for a people, their being and their destiny. But the allegory works in the negative because the people of a new book have not come to the table. As Jameson writes in The Political Unconscious: “The reader will there find an empty chair reserved for some as yet unrealized, collective, and decentered cultural production of the future, beyond realism and modernism alike.” (PUC 11)

It is interesting to me that the name of Guy Debord shows up as early as the third page of Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, and is not mentioned again. While he crops up in the margins of the Jamesonian corpus, he has never been central. Certainly, as a writer, Debord appears as a variation on certain themes that in Jameson have more robust apostles: Lukacs, Goldman, Lefebvre, for example. For some time now I have wondered whether the concepts of a Situationist practice, particularly détournement, might not be the key to constructing a new allegorical writing.

As Jameson says: “only Marxism can give us an adequate account of the essential mystery of the cultural past, which, like Tiresias drinking the blood, is momentarily returned to life and warmth and allowed once more to speak, and to deliver its long forgotten message in surroundings utterly alien to it.” (PUC 19) Only, one suspects, it is Marxism itself which now forms this cultural past, which has itself become historical. But where, paradoxically, it is precisely this otherness of Marxism, that it belonged to another people of another time, that allows for a fidelity to it in these alien times.

In what the Situationists called the overdeveloped world, it appeared for some decades now as if fragmentation and differentiation had fractured the coherence of the people and their destiny. The human adventure was not one, it lacked unity, purpose. There was nothing left to testify and nobody who could be trusted to recite it.

How strange this interregnum looks now. Perhaps we could just call them the postproduction years. The movie was in the can, everyone was so hopeful for it. If there were problems, we would “fix it in post” as they say in the film business. Only the reels were scratched, the soundtrack lost. The money ran out. All that remains are fragments and law suits.

What guaranteed the unity of the human adventure – our world cinema – was the collective history of wresting freedom from necessity. Now that we have to make the sequel it is exactly the reverse.

The collective task is now to wrest necessity from freedom.

The impossible totality of Lukacs and Debord is no longer an abstraction, a matter of debate for ambitious normaliens. It’s the reason that whole ice sheets tear off the arctic and melt into the sea. This is the context in which one might perform the allegorical labor of rewriting the old corpus into the new, starting with the Jamesonian method of “detecting the traces of the uninterrupted narrative.” (PUC 20) A method we might détourn here, in the service not of a new hermeneutic model, but in favor of a new kind of production.

Nevertheless, if there is a hermeneutic procedure to perform, it would be to uncover, with a certain Neitzschian savagery, the self serving element of certain heretical and revisionist Marxisms. Central here would be a reconsideration of that old Maoist Louis Althusser. There is a curious double quality to Althusser, which few alive still have the hermenutic code to read: a Maoist among Communists; a Communist among scholars. In what way did the radicalizing Maoist gesture within the party become a conservative gesture within the academy?

Mao’s slogan “put politics in command” becomes the license for complicating the relation between the economic base and the political and ideological superstructures. A complicating that will come down to us as a simplifying gesture which abandons the ‘relative autonomy of the superstructures’ for their absolute autonomy. In Althusser there was indeed, as Jameson says, a “coded battle waged within the framework of the French communist Party against Stalinism.” (PUC 37) But it was a battle waged for Maoism against the party on the one hand, and for the protocols of academic knowledge against the party, on the other. Jacques Ranciere noted this immediately. For him Althusser constituted “a renewed defense of the reified specialization of the bourgeois academic disciplines.” (PUC 38) The question now might be how to reverse it.

Within the framework of an allegorical practice, of rewriting the classic texts, Jameson might be useful here for working backwards out of the Althusserian impasse. For look at what Althusser has wrought: what such otherwise odd bedfellows as Balibar, Laclau, Badiou, Butler, even Ranciere himself have in common is the relative autonomy of the political or ideological (now cultural) instance. One no longer works on the totality, even if the totality is working on us.

In The Political Unconscious, Jameson walks us through Althusser’s now famous critique of mechanistic and expressive causality, on the way to Althusser’s supposedly superior model of a structural causality which relates elements of the totality by their differences, not by their identities, as expressive totalities do. Althusser’s is a structuralism of the mode of production as synchronic system.

Rather than a mechanical, expressive or structural totality, why not a chaotic, complex, turbulent one? Is this not the totality of Marx when he writes as a journalist? Is this not the totality of Asger Jorn and Debord when they are elaborating a Situationist conception of historical time? Their self appointed task was to think the totality from the point of view of their class, not class from the point of view of totality.

Which class? Jameson sagely warns us: “One cannot without intellectual dishonesty assimilate the ‘production’ of texts… to the production of goods by factory workers: writing and thinking are not alienated labor in that sense, and it is surely false for intellectuals to seek to glamorize their tasks – which can for the most part be subsumed under the rubric of the elaboration, reproduction, or critique of ideology – by assimilating them to real work on the assembly line and to the experience of the resistance of matter in genuine manual labor.” (PUC 45) This is surely so. But if intellectual labor is not so easily collapsed into manual labor, perhaps the fault lies with the conception of class at work there.

Perhaps class conflict is not dichotomous; perhaps the language of class is not dialogic. Perhaps class is always about a certain kind of ‘thirdness’. The positing of two classes invariably raises the question of a third which is not at odds with either of the other two classes but is rather ajar, and not in relation to either of the other classes but in relation to what is taken to be the generalized logic of class. Class deconstructs, in other words. But perhaps this thought needs to be wielded tactically. The third class of tactical interest is always the one which posits the undoing of the mode of production.

And perhaps we discover the being of this class in the act, not of writing, but of publishing. After all, “producing texts” is not even labor until its value can be realized, and it is realized as publishing broadly conceived. The act of publishing brings us squarely to the struggle over the ownership of information. If the avant garde of social change are, as Marx writes in the Manifesto, those who “ask the property question”, then the question to ask is: who owns information? Who are we, this nameless class, who labor to produce information but who do not own the means of realizing its value? The way to find out, I suggest, is through collective, decentered cultural production, which, if it cannot fill the empty chair, can a least name it.

Interesting examples of this decentered cultural production, which in some cases interestingly pass outside of realism and modernism alike, would for me include the collaborative writings of Luther Blissett, Wu Ming Foundation, Bernadette Corporation or Critical Art Ensemble. (The last interestingly takes the form of ‘low theory’ rather than the novel). These practices of writing might subtly reorder Jameson’s famous ‘semantic horizons’. The first horizon is here the individual literary work, a symbolic act which resolves real contradictions in the diachronic time of political conjuncture and everyday life. The second horizon is that of class struggle, and the dialogic relation between class discourses which share the same code. The third horizon is that of the mode of production, or rather overlapping modes of production and their respective codes.

The first thing to note is the way the publishing of the individual work is these days directly implicated in the mode of production, or rather tension between modes of production. The individual work enters into the irreconcilability between modes of production, as a symbolic act. Is the work entirely captured by the regime of information as property or not? To what extent is any work an act of détournement, an expression of a cultural commons?

It is not that writers have to go to the factories anymore. The factories came to us. Or rather, not the factory – social factory turns out to be an entirely misleading image. Rather, private property came to us. But the extension of the property form to information happens alongside, and because of, developments in the forces of production that tend to free information from its fetters in any particular materiality. Information wants to be free but is everywhere in chains. It is the one thing that escapes from scarcity and points beyond the dialectic of capital and labor, even if information as property is now the motive force of the new commodity economy, perhaps even a new mode of production.

What one might add, then, to a hermeneutics of suspicion then is a suspicion of hermeneutics. That the insistence on the materiality of the sign, and the sign alone, is what is ideological. Critical theory collapses into hypocritical theory at precisely this point, at taking the sign as a separate material domain upon which to found the specialized knowledge of the superstructure.

Here vulgar Marxism is not vulgar enough, in that it just collapses information into materiality without an investigation of the specific realities of information itself. Vulgar post-structuralism simply severs information from materiality.

McKenzie Wark

  • michael

    Do we have a clear picture of the exchange value of academic publications? Do they generate surplus value in the mode of information? I’m not so sure. For one thing, individual publications rarely get read. They are bought and sold, but en masse, as databases. And they’re paid for by consumers who effectively never consume them as knowledge. At the same time, if publication rights were collectively owned, or owned by some non-profit entity and provided as a public good (funded by, say, a sliver of Harvard’s vast endowment), what would be different about the broader mode of production (if there is *one*)?

    • mckenziewark

      They are clearly worth a fortune whether they are read or not. The value is as a database, an aggregation. Whether they are read or note doesn’t figure into it. It might not change much to put academic articles into the commons, but the patents owned by universities — now that’s another matter.

      • michael

        Right, that’s what I’m trying to figure out. As an aggregation, they are not “knowledge” in any hermeneutic sense. Patents are another matter, but that did not seem to be what you were discussing in the post. But of course a radical transformation in intellectual property rules could easily come about as a result of the existing mode of production; indeed, lots of mainstream economists and business observers see the current system as counterproductive. So it’s far from clear that a change in one represents a challenge to the other, or that we need Marxian analysis to make that case.

        • mckenziewark

          I think this is already another mode of production, based on control via asymmetries of information. One version of how it might evolve is indeed that certain kinds of information are free, but only because certain other kinds of information are not.

          • michael

            Perhaps. And I liked your post about whether this still counts as “capitalism,” though I’ve never found any definition of that term satisfying. Now it seems to me that the asymmetry argument inadvertently forecloses more thorough analysis in the interest of critique. I’m not yet convinced that this new mode of production actually turns on information, at least in the received sense of that word. It may just as well be said to turn on insurance, which I often think captures powerfully much that is going on across quite different domains—including the database asymmetries. Certainly it’s worth noting that the most important databases today are not primarily extracting the products of labor so much as struggling to keep up with the avalanche of information thoughtlessly generated by virtually all activity.

          • mckenziewark

            Well, what is insurance but a contract linking past and present time based on probability — which is to say, information?

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