Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”


Ellison, Wright, and Alain Locke disliked this novel, but it has become a classic at least in part because of its unique deployment of free indirect discourse in the story Janie tells Pheoby of her life in three parts. Janie famously moves “from object to subject” in the process, and the last line of the novel is “She called her sould to come and see” 193. Barbara Johnson claims it solves some narrative issues of Jakobson’s conflict between metaphor (universalizing totality) and metonymy (the repetition and renaming of the particular). I don’t have any recent notes on this novel, so I’m going to publish some information from Wikipedia…

Wikipedia summary:

The main character, an African-American woman in her early forties named Janie Crawford, tells the story of her life and journey via an extended flashback to her best friend, Pheoby, so that Pheoby can tell Janie’s story to the nosy community on her behalf. Her life has three major periods corresponding to her marriages to three very different men.

Nanny, Janie’s grandmother, was a slave who became pregnant by her owner and gave birth to a daughter, Leafy. Though Nanny tries to create a good life for her daughter, Leafy is raped by her school teacher and becomes pregnant with Janie. Shortly after Janie’s birth, Leafy begins to drink and stay out at night. Eventually she runs away, leaving Janie with Nanny. Nanny transfers all the hopes she had for Leafy to Janie. When Janie is sixteen, Nanny sees her kissing a neighborhood boy, Johnny Taylor, and fears that Janie will become a “mule” to some man. Nanny arranges for Janie to marry Logan Killicks, an older man and farmer who is looking for a wife to keep his home and help on the farm. Although Janie is not interested in marriage at that time, her grandmother wants her to have the kinds of things she never had the chance to have, and by marrying Logan Killicks Janie’s grandmother thinks it will give her the opportunity to make this possible. Janie has the idea that marriage must involve love, forged in a pivotal early scene where she sees bees pollinating a pear tree, and believes that marriage is the human equivalent to this natural process [think Beloved and the turtles!]. Logan Killicks, however, wants a domestic helper rather than a lover or partner and feels Janie does not do enough around the farm and she is ungrateful. Janie runs off with the glib Jody (Joe) Starks, who takes her to Eatonville.

Starks arrives in Eatonville to find the residents devoid of ambition, so he arranges to buy more land from the neighboring landowner, hires some local residents to build a general store for him to own and run, and the people of the town appoint him mayor. Janie soon realizes that Joe wants her as a trophy wife. He wants the image of his perfect wife to reinforce his powerful position in town, as he asks her to run the store but forbids her from participating in the substantial social life that occurs on the store’s front porch.

After Starks passes away, Janie finds herself financially independent and beset with suitors, some of whom are men of some means or have prestigious occupations, all of whom she turns down. She meets a young drifter and gambler named Vergible Woods who goes by the name of Tea Cake. She falls in love with Tea Cake after he plays the guitar for her. She sells the store and the two head to Jacksonville and get married, only to move to the Everglades egion (“the muck”) where they find work planting and harvesting beans. While their relationship has its ups and downs, including mutual bouts of jealousy, Janie realizes she now has the marriage with love that she had wanted.

The area is hit by the great hurricane. Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog while saving Janie from drowning. He contracts the disease himself. He ultimately tries to shoot Janie with his pistol, but she shoots him with a rifle in self-defense. She is charged with murder. At the trial, Tea Cake’s black, male friends show up to oppose her, while a group of local white women arrive to support her [think bell hooks!]. The all-white jury acquits Janie, and she gives Tea Cake a lavish funeral. Tea Cake’s friends forgive her, and they want her to remain in the Everglades. However, she decides to return to Eatonville. As she expected, the residents are gossiping about her.

  • In Maria J. Johnson’s article “‘The World in a Jug and the Stopper in [Her] Hand’: Their Eyes Were Watching God as Blues Performance”, she states that Hurston’s novel takes a similar structure and aesthetic to blues culture [if jazz is masculine?]. Johnson also shows how the contrast of Hurston’s images, such as the pleasure and pain dynamic of the bee, can be seen in songs by singers like Bessie Smith.
  • The article, “The Cognitive Construction of the Self in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Patrick S. Bernard highlights the connection between the construction of self and cognition in Hurston’s novel. According to Bernard, cognition is the inner essence of an individual that embodies the idea of “thinking, seeing, speaking, and knowing,” but is often determined by one’s exterior environment. Janie, the protagonist, uses her cognitive skills in order to find her identity and throughout the novel develops her cognition further. While Janie is living in a sexist society she continues to rise above her opposition specifically that of her three husbands. Bernard demonstrates this,

In a conversation with Jody, Janie defends ‘womenfolk,’ disagreeing with the sexist claim that God made men “different” because they turn “out so smart” (70). When she states that men “don’t know half as much as you think you do,” Jody interrupts her saying, ‘you getting too moufy Janie … Go fetch me de checker-board and de checkers’ (70-71) so that he and the other men could play (Bernard 9).

The comment from Jody, Janie’s second husband, attempts to suppress her voice and manipulate her thoughts. Rather than acting submissive to Jody, Janie for a brief moment contends with Jody by telling him how men misunderstand women. Jody fears that Janie’s thinking will lead to her gaining more knowledge and naturally to speaking her mind, eventually leading to Janie achieving the power of knowledge to recognize and change the mistreatment and unfairness she has been receiving. Bernard proposes the idea that Jody’s relationship with Janie represents society’s assumption that women are of limited cognition. This assumption positions women in subservient roles that limit their ways of thinking, speaking, and seeing.
In addition to bringing up Janie’s relationship with Jody, Bernard emphasizes how her relationships with her other husbands influenced her cognition. He points out the fact that Logan Killicks, Janie’s first husband, mistreated her by severing any beginning form of self construction by treating her as an infant [think Friedan and de Beauvoir!]. Bernard also brings forth the idea that Janie’s construction of selfhood blossoms when Tea Cake, her third husband, allows her to participate in experiences unimaginable to her. While Logan Killicks gives her no opportunity of expressing herself, Jody overpowers her expressive voice; Tea Cake allows her construction of self to mature.link between self construction and cognition. Bernard’s main point therefore is that self-construction is influenced by cognition, that is, knowing, thinking, seeing and speaking are important to the construction of self in Zora Neale Hurston’s novel.
  • In “The Hierarchy Itself: Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and the Sacrifice of Narrative Authority”, Ryan Simmons argues that Hurston made a statement against models of authority that supplant an oppressive system with other oppressive systems and offered an alternative. By models of authority, Simmons means the narrative voice of the author and Janie’s narrative voice. Hurston represented the different ideologies of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois through the characters of Logan Killicks and Joe (“Jody”) Starks. Like Washington, Logan models the path of “gradual progress” that wouldn’t threaten the white-dominated sphere of power and Hurston presents his practices as a tradeoff between liberty and modest prosperity. Joe models the path advocated by Du Bois, which is one of assertion of dignity and less compromise. But the issue shown by Joe’s eventual isolation from the community dialogue he helped establish and Janie’s overpowering of him through a usurpation of authority, Hurston shows that the weakness with Joe’s approach is that it mirrors that of white suppression. Instead, Hurston introduces a third way of achieving self-autonomy through Tea Cake. He represents an independence from reliance on communal validation, and instead serves as a mirror for Janie to discover her narrative power. In relation to the author’s narrative power, Tea Cake is the epitome of a good reader, one that is receptive to the transformative message of the text. Language is the understanding and sharpening of one’s identity while communication comes second. In Hurston’s innovative narrative, she is attempting to fulfill the “ideal narrative”, which is one that nurtures and changes both the reader and the author. [think of Banjo, dialectic, Adorno]

James Wood, “Human, All Too Inhuman” & “Tell Me How Does it Feel

“HUMAN, ALL TOO INHUMAN” – August 30, 2001 – New Republic

Taking its title from the first work of aphorisms by Nietzsche (Human, All Too Human), James Wood’s review of Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, is most famous for its coinage of the term “hysterical realism” (a term of dubious value in any case, but especially, I think, because he coins it in reviewing a female novelist). Wood begins by diagnosing a “hardening genre” of novel in the tradition of Charles Dickens:

A genre is hardening. It is becoming easy to describe the contemporary idea of the “big, ambitious novel.” Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: he is Dickens. Such recent novels as The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Mason & Dixon, Underworld, Infinite Jest, and now White Teeth overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each other at their edges. A landscape is disclosed–lively and varied and brightly marked, but riven by dead gullies.

(The image of the atlas here would make a fascinating comparison with David Mitchell… It’s so close to the goal of that book that one almost wonders if it was his inspiration!)

The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence–as it were, a criminal running endless charity marathons. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs. Indeed, vitality is storytelling, as far as these books are concerned.

Creating an imaginary description of a novel culled from many styles, James Wood jokes about improbable names like Toby Awknotuby (perhaps as in Pynchon), twins in Delhi with the same “genital mutilation” (perhaps as in Rushdie), the cult study of Wordsworth by Hell’s Angels (perhaps as in DeLillo), and weird character traits that occurred at specific moments in history (perhaps as in David Foster Wallace). The problem with this for Wood is that it occurs before the character has “done a thing, or thought a thought!”

Zadie Smith is added to this tradition because of her own twins, “silly acronym[s],” and farfetched scientific claptrap. “This is not magical realism,” Wood famously says, “It is hysterical realism.”

“Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels; it is how they structure and drive themselves on. The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked. Appropriately, then, objections [by whom?] are not made at the level of verisimilitude, but at the level of morality [oh dear]: this style of writing is not to be faulted because it lacks reality–the usual charge against botched realism–but because it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself. It is not a cock-up, but a cover-up.

Underworld’s “calm profusion” has “a soothing sense that it might never have to end, that another thousand or two thousand pages might easily be added.” This fearful continuity (what I want to consider as vital to seriality and faceting), conceals a sort of mindlessness for Wood, as he reveals when he puns on the “lights are on, but nobody’s home” cliche: “Bright lights are taken as evidence of habitation.”

What are these stories evading? One of the awkwardnesses evaded is precisely an awkwardness about the possibility of novelistic storytelling. This in turn has to do with an awkwardness about character and the representation of character… they clothe real people who could never actually endure the stories that happen to them… they are stories which defy the laws of persuasion… what above all makes these stories unconvincing is precisely their very profusion, their relatedness. One cult is convincing; three cults are not.

I find myself rather confused about what it is, for Wood, that distinguishes these recent works from earlier postmodernism, such as White Noise, The Crying of Lot 49, even Pale Fire or The Golden Notebook! This obsession with network and profusion seems to me a hallmark of the fiction of the era, rather than a swerve of the 1990s. Take this description, which is not only a perfect description of The Crying of Lot 49, but also the essence of its genius (which Wood, apparently, does not admit):

An endless web is all they need for meaning. Each of these novels is excessively centripetal. The different stories all intertwine, and double and triple on themselves. Characters are forever seeing connections and links and plots, and paranoid parallels. (There is something essentially paranoid about the belief that everything is connected to everything else.)

What interests me in Wood’s critique is the way that his critique of these novels seems to me to be their very strength; he seems to want to hold to a model of the novel as a fixed, unchanging genre. And it’s not even so much that this is all new; it is rather its return to 19th century convention with a contemporary twist that irks him:

These novelists proceed like street-planners of old in South London: they can never name a street Ruskin Street without linking a whole block, and filling it with Carlyle Street, and Turner Street, and Morris Street, and so on.

In a mode similar to the social realist novel of the 19th century, these novels emphasize forces or ideas over characters, for Wood:

Life is never experienced with such a fervid intensity of connectedness… real humans disaggregate more often than they congregate. So these novels find themselves in the paradoxical position of enforcing connections that are finally conceptual rather than human. The forms of these novels tell us that we are all connected–by the Bomb (DeLillo), or by myth (Rushdie), or by our natural multiracial multiplicity (Smith); but it is a formal lesson rather an actual enactment.

Paradoxically, this is what I find so formally interesting about the novels Wood criticizes. In fact, I think their multiple characters, which drop in and out of lives, are more like a certain kind of realism (we try to make patterns around characters that disappear), and the emphasis on ideas and forces clearly has something to do with a rising awareness of and interaction with systems, technology, and globalization, which the novel cannot help but assimilate and explore. The novel, as Bakhtin points out, swallows up genres and ideas and modes of parlance. Its form of mimesis must change as the world changes (think of Benjamin’s argument about society, or Stendhahl’s mirror vs faceting…) What if the experiment of David Mitchell is the “Time Passes” section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse taken to its most fecund point for a new age? Wood argues that these characters have no character (I almost think he means morality…):

All these contemporary deformations flow from a crisis that is not only the fault of the writers concerned, but is now of some lineage: the crisis of character, and how to represent it in fiction. Since modernism, many of the finest writers have been offering critique and parody of the idea of character, in the absence of convincing ways to return to an innocent mimesis. Certainly, the characters who inhabit the big, ambitious contemporary novels have a showy liveliness, a theatricality, that almost succeeds in hiding the fact that they are without life: liveliness hangs off them like jewelry.

Smith is ‘not as bad’ as some of the others, like Rushdie. Sometimes we feel sympathy and interest for her characters. “Clearly, Smith does not lack for powers of invention. The problem is that there is too much of it.” What he finally betrays is his distrust of the novels’ surfaces:

As realism, it is incredible; as satire, it is cartoonish; as cartoon, it is too realistic; and anyway, we are not led toward the consciousness of a truly devoted religionist. It is all shiny externality, all caricature.

Wood acknowledges that many great writers used types (I’m yawning at Dostoevsky and Tolstoy as the examples he gives, not only because it’s dull to extol the 19th century Russian writers at the expense of Dickens, etc., but because it’s not even true, especially of Tolstoy. Two writers could not differ more than they do…). The novels he offers as counterexamples include Buddenbrooks, “written by a writer only a year older than Zadie Smith” (yes! by Thomas Mann! In 1901!), as well as the “less great” Nausea by Sartre and Camus’ The Plague. Wood’s praise is that these engage the same “unreal, symbolic vitality” of hysterical realism, but attach it to ‘real’ characters.

Wood’s problem with the style of the contemporary novel seems mainly to lie in its abandonment of the Jamesian ideal of the individual bourgeois ego unfolding in a psychically complex way to the reader over time. The modernist novels he cites are all written this way; thus he implicitly endorses contemporary novels in the vein of Ishiguro and McEwan – replays of realism and modernism, for which I find them far less interesting – rather than the likes of Smith, Mitchell, and the American writers. (Where would Byatt fall, in his view? She does both so expertly…) Of course this is where we arrive at Dickens:

Many of Dickens’s characters are, as Forster [in Aspects of the Novel] rightly put it, flat but vibrating very fast. They are vivid blots of essence. They are souls seen only through thick, gnarled casings. Their vitality is a histrionic one. Dickens has been the overwhelming influence on postwar fiction, especially postwar British fiction [Spark, Naipaul, Smith].

Here again, Wood prioritizes Forster’s ancient idea of “flat” and “round” characters over any new and vital possibilities for the novel (he also folds Bellow and De Lillo in at this juncture). Here’s where it gets really rude:

One obvious reason for the popularity of Dickens among contemporary novelists is that his way of creating and propelling theatrically alive characters offers an easy model for writers unable, or unwilling, to create characters who are fully human… He shows a novelist how to get a character launched, if not how to keep him afloat, and this glittering liveliness is simply easier to copy, easier to figure out, than the recessed and deferred complexities of, say, Henry James’s character-making. Put bluntly, Dickens makes caricature respectable for an age in which, for various reasons, it has become hard to create character.

But it gets worse:

Yet that is not all there is in Dickens, which is why most contemporary novelists are only his morganatic heirs. There is in Dickens also an immediate access to strong feeling, which rips the puppetry of his people, breaks their casings, and lets us enter them.

For Wood, no one cries and has outbursts of feeling in these novels (I feel like we are reading different novels… What of all the tears in Zadie Smith? Or Jack and his wife in White Noise? Oedipa’s tears in Lot 49?) Here again with the priority of the individual psyche:

It is now customary to read 700-page novels, to spend hours and hours within a fictional world, without experiencing anything really affecting, sublime, or beautiful.This is partly because some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist’s quarries any more. Information has become the new character.

Wood doesn’t seem to consider that perhaps it isn’t that these authors can’t write a certain way, but that they want to explore the world this way. His horrible dismissal of pop culture and film makes it clearer still that he seems to fall on the aesthetic side of the curmudgeonly Adorno (rather than fun-having Benjamin): “It is this, and the use made of Dickens, that connects DeLillo and the reportorial Tom Wolfe, despite the literary distinction of the former and the cinematic vulgarity of the latter.” Zadie Smith heself, Wood points out, admits that “none of us” have yet gotten the balance of information and character right… yet.

Ironically, the moments of Smith’s novel that “glow” for Wood, that are “better” than Rushdie, are actually the descriptions of “a recognizable English type… receding,” another weird way in which even his valorizations (of an old white dude in a young novel bursting with multiculturalism) seem to completely miss the point of the text at hand.

About her, one is tempted to apply Orwell’s remark that Dickens had rotten architecture but great gargoyles. The architecture is the essential silliness of her lunge for multiplicities–her cults and cloned mice and Jamaican earthquakes. Formally, her book lacks moral seriousness.

Its best moments, for Wood, are again where it regurgitates the formal tropes of modernism:

When Smith is writing well, she seems capable of a great deal. At several moments, for example, she proves herself skilled at interior monologue, and brilliant, in other passages, at free indirect style:

There’s a disturbing way in which the novel seems to be unreal for Wood because he simply refuses to recognize the reality it seeks to portray. He refuses to enter the suspension of belief that fiction invites and entails. Characters “binging in any kind of allusion” might actually be what those characters think, but Wood does not want to be convinced:

Nothing we know about Samad… convinces us that Smith is telling the truth when she tells us that this hot-headed Muslim sat talking about women’s breasts; the topic seems, instead, to have been chosen by Smith from a catalogue of cliches called “Things Men Talk About in Bars”… The language is oddly thick-fingered, and stubs itself into the vernacular: that juvenile verb “squished,” for instance… corrupts… it is bewildering when… she seems to leave Samad’s interior, and watch him from the outside, satirically (and rather crudely).

Wood reduces all of these to the old dialectical binaries, erasing the multiplicity they try to represent: “And so it goes on, in a curious shuffle of sympathy and distance, affiliation and divorce, brilliance and cartoonishness, astonishing maturity and ordinary puerility.” When characters change their minds, there is no Jamesian depth; “It as if the novel were deciding at these moments whether to cast depths on its shallows, and deciding against.” Once more, we’re reminded that this is ‘even worse’ than Dickens:

It is quite clear that a general message about the need to escape roots is more important than Irie’s reality, what she might actually think, her consciousness…This is problem-solving, all right. But at what cost? As Irie disappears under the themes and ideas, the reader perhaps thinks wistfully of Mr. Micawber and David Copperfield, so uncovered by theme and idea, so uninsured, weeping together in an upstairs room.

“Which way will the ambitious contemporary novel go? Will it dare a picture of life, or just shout a spectacle?” For Wood, these are diametrically opposed values, and though the novel he’s reviewing contains both, it shouldn’t, mostly because he refuses to believe that it can.

“TELL ME HOW DOES IT FEEL” – October 5, 2001 – The Guardian

Lambasting Zadie Smith wasn’t enough for James Wood. Two months later, following the 9/11 attacks, in a bizarre rerouting of his theory, James Wood writes another article on the topic of hysterical realism. This time the subheading is “U.S. novelists must now abandon social and theoretical glitter, says James Wood.”

How we swerved from Wood’s first theory, originating in the work of Naipaul, Rushdie, and, above all, Smith in the UK and somewhat well-connected to Wallace, Pynchon, and DeLillo in the US over to a transparently anti-American theory of national artistic corruption that somehow has something to do with 9/11 – after the fact – is mind-boggling. Wood ironically enacts the same paranoid overconnectedness of facts that he critiques in fictions. The article begins with Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis saying they’re shamefully glad they don’t have a book coming out this month. In my mind, Wood should be ashamed he did have a review a month beforehand.

“Will the horrid alteration of America’s greatest city also alter the American novel?” Wood wonders (as if it could not). Stranger still, Wood claims a skepticism about the value of the information fiction he was already preaching before 9/11 even happened: 

“One is naturally suspicious of all the eschatological talk about how the time for trivia has ended, and how only seriousness is now on people’s minds – not least because the people saying it are usually themselves trivial and, as in McInerney’s piece, are thus unwitting arguments against their own new-found seriousness. Doubtless,  trivia and mediocrity will find their own level again, in novel-writing as in everything else. And besides, the “New York novel” – as opposed to the novel set in New York – is a genre of no importance at all. If I live the rest of my life without having to come across another book like Bret Easton Ellis’s New York novel, Glamorama, I will have very happily been what Psalm 81 calls “delivered from the pots”.

He goes on to admit that “there has, of course, been great fiction set or partly set in New York” – thanks, Wood, I really couldn’t figure that out by myself – glad we all have your blessing to agree. These are “already dark books” – how would they accommodate 9/11? Once again, their great value is that “their foci are human and metaphysical before they are social and documentary” – the modernist rises again. “They are stories, above all, about individual consciousness, not about the consciousness of Manhattan.” Once again, too, he attacks the “tentacular” Underworld: 

he DeLilloan idea of the novelist as a kind of Frankfurt School entertainer – a cultural theorist, fighting the culture with dialectical devilry – has been woefully influential, and will take some time to die.

The reviewer, mistaking bright lights for evidence of habitation, praises the novelist who knows about, say, the sonics of volcanoes. Who also knows how to make a fish curry in Fiji! Who also knows about terrorist cults in Kilburn! And about the New Physics! And so on. The result – in America at least – is novels of immense self-consciousness with no selves in them at all, curiously arrested and very “brilliant” books that know a thousand things but do not know a single human being.

This is a lot like the piece on Zadie Smith, and he goes on to attack her next. What’s so bizarre here is the mention of curry and Kilburn even as the insults fly toward specifically American novels – oh, and Zadie Smith. And Rushdie. And… What Wood hopes is that

This idea – that the novelist’s task is to go on to the street and figure out social reality – may well have been altered by the events of September 11, merely through the reminder that whatever the novel gets up to, the “culture” can always get up to something bigger. Ashes defeat garlands.

Wood again deploys a modernist image of backward-looking mimesis to claim an “explosion” that the contemporary novel already explores and values, though he doesn’t seem to see it:

Fiction may well be, as Stendhal wrote, a mirror carried down the middle of a road; but the Stendhalian mirror would explode with reflections were it now being walked around Manhattan.

He even takes on a Yeatsian “Surely, the Second Coming” tone as he wishes this change into existence:

Surely, for a while, novelists will be leery of setting themselves up as analysts of society, while society bucks and charges so helplessly. Surely they will tread carefully over their generalisations. It is now very easy to look very dated very fast.

He cites the irony of Franzen’s The Corrections, which ends with the line “disasters of this magnitude no longer seemed to befall the United States.” More death wishes:

he other casualty of recent events may well be – it is to be hoped – what I have called “hysterical realism”. Hysterical realism is not exactly magical realism, but magical realism’s next stop. It is characterised by a fear of silence.

And for the grand finale, Wood’s hopelessly modernism-loving conclusion:

It ought to be harder, now, either to bounce around in the false zaniness of hysterical realism or to trudge along in the easy fidelity of social realism. Both genres look a little busted. That may allow a space for the aesthetic, for the contemplative, for novels that tell us not “how the world works” but “how somebody felt about something” – indeed, how a lot of different people felt about a lot of different things (these are commonly called novels about human beings). A space may now open, one hopes, for the kind of novel that shows us that human consciousness is the truest Stendhalian mirror, reflecting helplessly the newly dark lights of the age.

Judith Butler, “Gender Trouble”



It is in sexual practice that gender is destabilized because “policing gender is sometimes used as a way of securing heterosexuality” xii [Foucauldian?].

“The sexist claims that a woman only exhibits her womannes in the act of heterosexual coitus in which her subordination becomes her pleasure… a feminist view argues that gender should be overthrown, eliminated, or rendered fatally ambiguous precisely because it is always a sign of subordination for women” xiv.

While we assume that gender is “an interior essence that might be disclosed,” this is “an expectation that ends up producing the very phenomenon that it anticipates” xv. This Butler stages as “metalepsis, the way in which the anticipation of a gendered essence produces that which it posits as outside itself” xv. The notion of performativity Butler advances is “a repetition and a ritual… a culturally sustained temporal duration… the gendered stylization of the body” and “an hallucinatory effect of naturalized gestures” xv. This narrativization of performance also interests me in terms of duree. (Interestingly, Butler also asks us not to transpose the theory onto race unproblematically, but to consider what happens when it performativity tries to come to grips with race.)

In a way, this is an advocation of surface reading, for if we see a person in drag and take their assumed gender as the opposite of their performed one, we give the first one priority and call the second one “mere artifice, play, falsehood, and illusion” xxiii [Blade Runner]. Butler’s goal is to explore the vacillation of reading between categories as “the experience of the body in question” xxiv.

“To the extent that gender norms (ideal dimorphism, heterosexual complementarity of bodies, ideals and rule of proper and improper masculinity and femininity, many of which are underwritten by racial codes of purity and taboos against miscegenation) establish what will and will not be intelligibly human, what will and will not be considered to be ‘real,’ they establish the ontological field in which bodies may be given legitimate expression. If there is a positive normative task in Gender Trouble, it is to insist upon the extension of this legitimacy to bodies that have been regarded as false, unreal, and unintelligible. Drag is an example that is meant to establish that ‘reality’ is not as fixed as we generally assume it to be” xxv.

While this implies a history of symptomatic reading (the surface belies depth), it also values surface. It is neither pure surface, self-invention, language, or theatricality xxvi. “Those who are deemed ‘unreal’ nevertheless lay hold of the real” xxviii.


If woman is mystery for de Beauvoir, it might stem from the “trouble” Sartre locates in her ability to return the gaze xxx. For Butler, “power appeared to operate in the production of that very binary frame for thinking about gender” xxx. In a Foucauldian genaeological approach, Butler will look at gender as a set of effects, rather than causes.

“Gender is a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real. His/her performance destabilizes the very distinctions between the natural and the artificial, depth and surface, inner and outer through which discourse about genders almost always operates” xxxi.


Rather than feminism based in identity politics, which glosses over issues of race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and individuality, Butler invites us to consider a coalitional feminism (rather than a universal basis on identity politics, which, as bell hooks suggests, already confronts issues of race) that would undermine the term “woman” and upset the patriarchal linguistic binary. In fact, gender is multiple and unstable 4.

The split between sex and gender is false for Butler, since both, and not just gender, are constructed: “gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which ‘sexed nature’ or ‘a natural sex’ is produced and established as ‘prediscursive,’ prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts” 10. If de Beauvoir sees men constructing their gender against woman’s lack and Irigaray holds that it is One phallogocentric gender that cancels woman altogether, Butler questions the idea of “being” a gender at all, as well as the necessity of being represented as such.

“Gender is a complexity whose totality is permanently deferred, never fully what it is at any given juncture in time. An open coalition, then, will affirm identities that are alternately instituted and relinquished according to the purposes at hand; it will be an open assemblage that permits of multiple convergences and divergences without obedience to a normative telos of definitional closure” 22 [Foucauldian, Deleuze & Guattari]

Gender, instead, is performative. “Intelligible” genders uphold “coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire 23.

“The identification of women with ‘sex,’ for Beauvoir as for Wittig, is a conflation of the category of women with the ostensibly sexualized features of their bodies and hence, a refusal to grant freedom and autonomy to women as it is purportedly enjoyed by men. Thus, the destruction of the category of sex would be the destruction of an attribute, sex, that has, through a misogynist gesture of synecdoche, come to take the place of the person, the self-determining cogito” 27 [Isherwood!]

Institutional heterosexuality has created this, since “gender can denote a unity of experience, of sex, gender, and desire, only when sex can be understood in some sense to necessitate gender” 30. [But where does that leave us now, since we can’t all drag and still get laid?] Another issue is language – Wittig claims it is only problematic in its applications, Irigaray in its content. Wittig ends up making polymorphous perversity a “telos” of human sexuality rather than its former state, however. “Woman itself is a term in process” 45.


Gender’s acts of “expression” constitute, rather than reflect, gender [vs. symptomatic reading! Here surface is content.] Both genders are open to resignification. This is where she calls for “gender trouble,” performance that troubles the binary: “a proliferation of precisely those constitutive categories that seek to keep gender in its place by posturing as the foundational illusions of identity” 46.


In this section, Butler challenges a utopian “pre-patriarchal” ideal as it appears in much feminist literature. Structuralist accounts, such as that of Levi-Strauss, depend on an idea of the transformation of sex into gender by means of the incest taboo, which creates a kinship structure around the exchange of women. Joan Riviere’s psychoanalytic approach claims femininity is a masquerade to hide masculine identification and lesbian desire. Finally, Freud’s theory on mourning and melancholia posits cathexis as identification, as the traits of a lost loved one are incorporated.

Butler challenges all three. In the case of incest, she argues that it is the presence of the taboo that incites incestuous desire. In Riviere, mimicry are the essence of gender, not an outward concealment of it. In Freud, we actually internalize the prohibited object via melancholia as we construct our own gender. This involves homosexual cathexis, but “heterosexual melancholy is culturally instituted as the price of stable gender identities.” Heterosexuality depends on homosexuality for its existence (is it Sontag who says this?). Approved heterosexuality and subversive homosexuality only exist after the law, which is generated and regulated via the incest taboo [Foucauldian]. “Not only does the taboo forbid and dictate sexuality in certain forms, but it inadvertently produces a variety of substitute desires and identities that are in no sense constrained in advance, except insofar as they are ‘substitutes’ in some sense” 103. Incest incites desire for the mother or father but also displaces that desire: “the notion of an ‘original’ sexuality forever repressed and forbidden thus becomes a production of the law which subsequently functions as its prohibition” 104.


In this section, Butler addresses Kristeva, Foucault, and Wittig. Recalling Kristeva’s argument that the feminine surfaces in language via the semiotic (vs the symbolic), Butler challenges the notion of writing and womanhood as reclamations of the body, but not homosexuality: “the unmediated cathexis of female homosexual desire leads unequivocally to psychosis” 117. On motherhood: “Kristeva conceptualizes this maternal instinct as having an ontological status prior to the paternal law, but she fails to consider the way in which that very law might well be the cause of the very desire it is said to repress.” In a Foucauldian argument, she claims that ideas of maternity themselves are products of discourse and power. “The female body that is freed from the shackles of the paternal law may well prove to be yet another incarnation of that law, posing as subversive but operating in the service of that law’s self-amplification and proliferation… If subversion is possible, it will be a subversion from within the terms of the law, through the possibilities that emerge when the law turns against itself and spawns unexpected permutations of itself” 127 [faceting!].

Butler examines the journals of the hermaphrodite Herculine who committed suicide when forced to live as a man. Prior to this, Herculine lived in “nonidentity.” Butler sees this idealism as a sort of “confessional” on Foucault’s part of his own (silent) homosexuality, since the idea contradicts what he argues for in History of Sexuality: namely, that there is no sex “prior” to power, and that sex is not a solution to discourse but part of it. “S/he is ‘outside’ the law, but the law maintains this ‘outside’ within itself… the law’s uncanny capacity to produce only those rebellions that it can guarantee will… defeat themselves” 144.

Sex is produced by compulsory heterosexuality – compulsory reproduction. Therefore, the binary of gender only exists in “the heterosexual matrix” and are naturalized there to conceal and reproduce it 150. Butler examines and agrees with Wittig’s formulation of lesbian sexuality. Wittig argues that women carry the burden of sex because they are always identified with/as sex. Thus sex is a way to designate the non-male by absence, and the synecdochic division of the body into parts (which we now feel is fact) fragments what is really a whole. “The body is itself a consequence of taboos that render that body discrete by virtue of its stable boundaries.” In lesbian sexuality, partners might multiply and proliferate signifying parts of the body. Lesbian sexuality must not posit itself all too radically outside heterosexuality, lest it consolidate that hegemony 174.

In the last part of the chapter, Butler asks why bodies are the surfaces on which gender is written. We enforce the boundaries of the body as a means of establishing taboo (thus AIDS being equated with anal sex – a threshold being crossed). Drag is a way to playfully exaggerate and undercut “original” gender.

“If gender attributes, however, are not expressive but performative, then these attributes effectively constitute the identity they are said to express or reveal. The distinction between expression and performativeness is crucial [since the former implies truth, but the latter implies there is no prior truth]… Genders can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent, neither original nor derived. As credible bearers of those attributes, however, genders can also be rendered thoroughly and radically incredible” 193.

It’s interesting to use the word incredible – unbelievable – here. It ties this to fiction and narrativization, which she has done all along. )It is also, again, a form of surface reading, at least insofar as it makes surfaces count.)


Butler tries to imagine a feminism free of the binary – the us/them or object/subject divide, as many feminists have thought before, is itself problematic and hegemonic. The subject is formed by repetition as signification (think of Stein!) Drag and other forms of parody destabilize and make apparent hidden assumptions about the “ontological locales” of gender (like Adorno on Beckett!) Butler hopes to have demonstrated how “the signifying practices that enable this metaleptic misdescription remain outside the purview of a feminist critique of gender relations” 202. We have no choice but to repeat the terms – the question is how or “to repeat, and, through a radical proliferation of gender, to displace the very gender norms that enable the repetition itself” 203 [how multiple is gender already, before this, I wonder?] Feminism’s foundationalist frame “presumes, fixes, and constrains the very ‘subjects’ that it hopes to represent and liberate,” in an “internal paradox” 203. The task is to “redescribe those possibilities as they already exist,” but in “unintelligible and impossible domains” 203. Gender’s “present proliferation might then become articulable within the discourses that establish intelligible cultural life, confounding the very binarism of sex, and exposing its fundamental unnaturalness” 203.

Shoshanna Felman, “What Does A Woman Want?”


Felman wonders whether feminists can reclaim Freud’s famous question in a letter to Marie Bonaparte: “What does a woman want?” The question is always male – a bemusement in the face of women’s resistance to their place in patriarchy, but can it be reclaimed? If so, what are its affordances? In examining the male texts of Balzac and Freud, Felman sees a common fascination with female resistance – to be appropriated, interpreted, or recognized.

Felman tells the story of how Simone de Beauvoir began The Second Sex not as a feminist, but as a woman situating herself, first through the eyes of others, then through her own eyes. de Beauvoir tells Sartre that she became a feminist less through writing than through the existence of her book in a community of women around the world. This idea of becoming a woman, becoming a feminist, is vital to Johnson. It is also, as Rich says, a re-vision of the past.

Felman’s chapter on Freud begins with Juliet Mitchell’s argument that Freudian psychoanalysis is not sexist. Felman agrees that psychoanalysis has a number of useful valences for feminist reflection, but does not think Freud is immune from mistakes and oversights that can be critiqued through a feminist lens. Ultimately, she argues that femininity is “the navel of psychoanalysis: a nodal point of significant resistance in the text of the ongoing psychoanalytic dream of understanding; a navel that, though ‘unplumbable,’ is also positively… [the] ‘point of contact with the unknown’… dynamic play… with its own self-difference” 120.

In the final chapter, Felman considers Woolf, de Beauvoir, and Rich as “autobiographers.” She begins by claiming the Interpretation of Dreams as Freud’s own autobiography. Freud’s value is of “a structure of address inclusive of its otherness,” but she begins to turn in her own autobiographical consideration away from men entirely. Like Woolf, she attempts to correct this: she is speaking to women with the knowledge that she is being overheard – she wants to make room for men, too (like A Room of One’s Own). Rich first accuses Woolf of an oversight in this sense. Felman encourages us to “read autobiographically,” “giving testimony to the unsuspected, unexpected ‘feminine resistance’ in the text” 133. It is a practice of “experiencing this feminine resistance as a joint effect of interaction among literature, autobiography, and theory, insofar as all three modes resist, precisely, one another” 133. Thus we must read ourselves with theory’s tools as a resistance to theory – a similar formulation as art and autonomy for Adorno.

Felman points out that in Rich’s famous poem, “Diving Into the Wreck,” the speaker says, “I am he, I am she,” breaking down the very binary that Rich uses to resist Woolf’s address. The poetry is “autobiography and resistance to autobiography,” as Woolf’s is as well, and as Felman notes, de Beauvoir’s too. Woolf’s way to autobiography is via the detour of fiction – she cannot be named in A Room of One’s Own – she is “Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please.” (This indeterminacy is also like Rich.) Thus Woolf births her own autobiographer – Mary – who allows her to look back to her mother and mother’s mother and Judith Shakespeare, and forward to the future as well. The “splitting of consicousness” she describes, also characteristic of Emily Dickinson and Doris Lessing, is genealogical as well as personal, then. The real child of Woolf’s autobiography is the “writer’s certainty” that things will be better in 100 years.

Theodor Adorno, “Aesthetic Theory”


Adorno’s approach to aesthetics eschews the division between philosophy, methodology, and the subdisciplines of the arts he studies. (This reminds me of Deleuze & Guattari’s open approach.) The text sets up a dialectic between modern art and philosophical aesthetics, using each to reconstruct the other synthetically and historically. He called this mode of “paratactical presentation” (recall Pound’s ‘paratactical’ concatenated poetics, versus Williams’ more subordinated, ‘hypostatic,’ and vertical poetics) a mode of “atonal philosophy.”

Adorno questions whether art can survive in late capitalism (following on Hegel) and whether it can transform that world if it does survive (following on Marx). Adorno insists that if it does, it must retain “formal autonomy,” which Kant also insists on. However, he combines this formal element with one of content – Hegel’s insistence on “intellectual import” and Marx’s notion that art is “embedded” in society. Thus, paradoxically, the artwork must be autonomous, but that autonomy is always somewhat illusory. Modern art seeks to synthesize this paradox: it is “the social antithesis of society” 8.

“Authentic” works of modern art are “social monads” whose tensions express conflicts in the sociohistory from which they emerge. (In Leibniz’s terms, the monads have a sort of fractal logic – they are all a whole, but they are all also independent down the scale.) Recall that Marx, Benjamin, and Jameson, of course, also identify art as conditioned by means of production, and that, in a more tempered vein, Raymond Williams claimed that it would be as foolish to assume that a work of art could be completely free of its economic base of production as it would be to assume the opposite (its complete dependence). The tensions of these “social monads” enter the work through the artist’s struggle with the conditions of production (as materially bound as they are to history). For Adorno, this often causes works to be ‘misread.’ Adorno seeks to resolve some of these tensions, though it would be impossible to resolve them all in our current situation.

Most of the resolution of these contradictions occurs through polarities or pairs, in the dialectical fashion. Whereas hermeneutics would emphasize the import (Gehalt) of a work’s cultural meaning and empiricism would emphasize the causal relations inherent to the function (Funktion) of a work’s political purpose, Adorno wants to understand how these two categories relate to one another. The two categories can be opposed, united, or mixed in a work, but they inform each other. He generally falls in favor of Gehalt, however, stating that “Insofar as a social function can be predicated for artworks, it is their functionlessness” 227. Thus, Adorno favors art that is socially meaningful and socially mediated, rather than that created expressly for political service (he dislikes positivism and instrumentalized reason). Something of this resonates with Kant’s free beauty – a “purposiveness without purpose,” a beauty that exceeds function.

Art should not be merely aesthetic, even if the structures of capitalism will only strangle purely resistant art. Art must be independent and beautiful, not didactic, but also politically engaged. Thus art must work out its own internal contradictions so that the viewer/reader cannot ignore the “hidden” contradictions of society. This is why Adorno loves Beckett, whose work he finds the quintessence of this aesthetic, and to whom he dedicates the volume.

Adorno’s main focus is ultimately on the dialectical and nonpropositional “truth content” of art, in which Gehalt (import) is itself a dialectic between content and form. One can judge art’s internal and external truth content – its own dynamics as well as those of the sociohistory in which it was produced. Art looks to change but does not enact it: “Art has truth as the semblance of the illusionless” 132. Thus truth content is

“Not a metaphysical idea or essence hovering outside the artwork. But neither is it a merely human construct. It is historical but not arbitrary; nonpropositional, yet calling for propositional claims to be made about it; utopian in its reach, yet firmly tied to specific societal conditions. Truth content is the way in which an artwork simultaneously challenges the way things are and suggests how things could be better, but leaves things practically unchanged” [SEP]

Like Virginia Woolf, Adorno holds 1910 as the year when art set out toward “the inconceivable.” Art has lost its naivete and should no longer seek to offer solace. It must “turn against itself” and be self conscious. It attacks what has seemed to be its foundation. Art is what it has become – like Benjamin, Adorno believes it is fruitless to argue, then whether film is art. Art is both a part of its historical moment and supersedes it (Madame Bovary). Here are a couple of quotes I’d like to remember from the first chapter:

“The unsolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as immanent problems of form. This, not the insertion of objective elements, defines the relation of art to society. The complex of tensions in artworks crystallizes undisturbed in these problems of form and through emancipation from the external world’s factual facade converges with the real essence. Art… takes up a position to it in accord with Hegel’s argument against Kant: The moment a limit is posited, it is overstepped and that against which the limit was established is absorbed… Art is autonomous and it is not; without what is heterogenous to it, its autonomy eludes it” 6.

“Only dilettantes reduce everything in art to the unconscious, repeating cliches… the sharpest sense of reality was joined with estrangement from reality… If art has psychoanalytic roots, then they are the roots of fantasy in the fantasy of omnipotence” 9.

Where Freud sees art without distance, as wish fulfillment, Kant overstates this with distance, severing art from desire and fragmenting the subject 10.


Guy Debord, “Society of the Spectacle”


Debord’s assertion that “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation” is central to his neo-Marxist arrival at the failures of image culture (reminds me of Jameson and Adorno) – “the historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life.” The most Jamesonian moment is perhaps the assertion of a failure of history in the spectacle, which obfuscates the past and fuses it with a future to create a neverending present. The waves of ecstasy and obsessive product trends also parallel religious fervor of ages past.

One might also think of the spectacle – which Debord argues arises in the 1920s as the confluence of mass media, advanced capitalism, and governments – as parallel to Benjamin’s concern with mass culture and fascism in “Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility,” though Benjamin seems to have more faith in film…

In the “society of the spectacle,” we see “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing,” so that “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity.” Debord takes Marx’s idea of the social relation between objects, rather than subjects, as an origin point:  “The spectacle is not a collection of images. Rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”

Debord’s situationism proposes to wake up ideologically drugged spectators by using spectacular images to disrupt the flow of spectacle (detournement) – to interrupt suture, as it were (Oudart).

Jonathan Crary, “Techniques of the Observer”


Chapter 1: Modernity & the Problem of the Observer

Crary identifies the medieval/Renaissance split, the mid-19th century, and the present as moments of “a transformation in the nature of visuality” 1. The first improves mimesis, the second perfects it, and the third surpasses it. The focus of the book is on the “reorganization of vision” that created “a new kind of observer” in the first half of the 19th century, vis a vis new relations between the body and institutional/discursive power (re: Foucault) 3. Crary calls “the myth of the modernist rupture” the narrative that aligns Manet and the “end of perspectival space” with what would become modernist art, severing it from visual technologies like photography that are considered as a “continuous unfolding of a Renaissance-based mode of vision” 4. For Crary, however, a fundamental shift in modes of vision took place before these changes in art or technology, so that the two realms are “overlapping components of a single social surface” 5. The observing subject is “both the historical product and the site of certain practices, techniques, institutions, and procedures of subjectification” 5.

It’s useful to consider that Crary deliberately uses “observer,” rather than “spectator,” emphasizing the individual’s role in “complying” with certain codes of seeing, whereas the latter is more commonly used to emphasize the passivity of “looking” on as the passive recipient of the mass spectacle 5. In terms of faceting,

“What determines vision at any given historical moment is not some deep structure, economic base, or world view, but rather the functioning of a collective assemblage of disparate parts on a single social surface. It may even be necessary to consider the observer as a distribution of events located in many different places” 6. (Note: read Paul Feyerabend, Problems of Empiricism, vol 2 p 5).

Crary’s mode seeks to outline the “hegemonic” transformation of how the “observer was figured” in the nineteenth century, largely from the shift from the camera obscura of the 17th and 18th centuries to the stereoscope of the 19th century 7-8. Oddly enough, the “realism” created by the stereoscope and similar instruments is constituted from “a radical abstraction and reconstruction of optical experience, thus demanding a reconsideration of what ‘realism’ means in the nineteenth century” 9. Further, Crary maps a development of the “subjective vision… the productivity of the observer,” which was suppressed by the 17th and 18th centuries, brought to light by visionary Romantics (see M.H. Abrams – “The Mirror & the Lamp), and brought to bear on the potential for individual “seeing” in the 19th century, making that subject both “a product of and at the same time constitutive of modernity” 9.

Crary cites Baudrillard (“measurable in terms of objects and signs”) and Benjamin (“the phantasmagoria of equality”) on the need to measure and quantify the happiness capitalism was meant to guarantee in visual terms (what Adorno calls “Anschaulichkeit,” the reification of the visible 139 AT) 11. For Baudrillard (like Benjamin in “Mechanical Reproduction”), the serial production of objects creates a world in which there is no longer original and counterfeit, analogy, or reflection, but sheer equivalence 12. Crary goes so far as to make photography and money equivalent as well, in that they “are equally totalizing systems for binding and unifying all subjects within a single global network of valuation and desire. As Marx said of money, photography is also a great leveler, a democratizer, a ‘mere symbol,’ a fiction ‘sanctioned by the so-called universal consent of mankind'” 13.

Crary’s book, however, precedes photography itself, contending that the stereoscope and phenakistiscope entail “an uprooting of vision from the stable and fixed relations incarnated in the camera obscura” 14 (shift from geometrical to physiological optics 16). He cites Foucault on how “dispersed mechanisms of power coincide with new modes of subjectivity” in the 19th century to emphasize the importance of “normality” and “codes of behavior” 15-16. The limits of such “norms” were tested with “retinal afterimages, peripheral vision, binocular vision, and thresholds of attention… imposing a normative vision on the observer” 16. (See Foucault: “Our society is not one of spectacle but of surveillance… we are neither in the amphitheatre nor on the stage but in the Panoptic machine” D&P 217, as well as Deleuze’s Foucault 46 and Rajchman’s “Foucault’s Art of Seeing” 1988.) For Crary, “spectacle” and “surveillance” can coincide before the full emergence of the 20th century spectacle, namely in the “discipline or mode of work” that visual consumption itself becomes in the early 19th century 18.

If, for Debord (18), visuality, the most easily deceived sense, severs itself from touch, once the most precious of senses, this autonomizes sight, isolating vision and giving its objects “a mystified and abstract identity” 19. In The Arcades Project, we see Benjamin, a 20th century observer mapping 19th century developments, observe

“a convergence of new urban spaces, technologies, and new economic and symbolic functions of images and products – forms of artificial lighting, new use of mirrors, glass and steel architecture, railroads, museums, gardens, photography, fashion, crowds. Perception for Benjamin was acutely temporal and kinetic; he makes clear how modernity subverts even the possibility of a contemplative beholder. There is never a pure access to a single object; vision is always multiple, adjacent to and overlapping with other objects, desires, and vectors” 20.

In this world, modernity “coincides with the collapse of classical models of vision and their stable space of representations… observation is increasingly a question of equivalent sensations and stimuli that have no reference to a spatial location” 24. (Think about how this would relate to Jameson & postmodernism.) At the same time, situating visuality in the individual body opens it up for training, control, and prevention from distraction – “disciplinary techniques” through which capitalism resorts vision to “time, to flux, to death” 24.

Chapter 2: The Camera Obscura & Its Subject

“It has been known for at least two thousand years that when light passes through a small hole into a dark, enclosed interior, an inverted image will appear on the wall opposite the hole” 27. But from the 1500s to the 1700s, the artifact itself of the camera obscura “coalesced into a dominant paradigm through which was described the status and possibilities of an observer” 27 – “in both rationalist and empiricist thought, of how observation leads to truthful inferences about the world” 29. (Think about how this relates to Kant’s idealism and the essential unknowability of the object, versus the potential universality of the comprehending subject.)

By the 19th century, for Marx, Bergson, and Freud, the camera obscura becomes a tool to conceal or disguise truth 29. What changed? Well, if the camera obscura defined hegemonic vision as individuation and askesis (isolated, witndrawn from the world into darkness), it is also a representation of a “metaphysic of interiority,” a “free sovereign individual” and a “decorporealize[d] vision” 39. How? As Nietzsche holds in The Will to Power, “the senses deceive, reason corrects the errors; consequently, one concluded, reason is the road to the constant; the least sensual ideas must be closest to the ‘true world.’ It is from the senses that most misfortunes com – they are deceivers, deluders, destroyers” 40. (Again, recall Kant’s disinterestedness.) Newton, Locke experience this, as Descartes does: “solely an inspection by the mind” in a dark, introspective space, for one knows the world “uniquely by perception of the mind” – one can see how this will lead to the cogito, also essentially idealist in nature 41.

Crary calls this “a radical disjunction of eye from observer,” not least because Descartes also advocates making a dead human or animal eye into the lens of a camera obscura through dissection and experimentation, what Crary calls “an infallible metaphysical eye more than… a ‘mechanical’ eye” 48. Knowing that the “cone” or “cylinder” of rays that allows vision fixes on a certain point to create harmony from chaos 51, the camera obscura offers a “monocular aperture,” a “perfect incarnation of a single point,” versus the “awkward binocular body of the human subject” 53.

“By insisting that knowledge… is built up out of an orderly accumulation and cross-referencing of perceptions on a plane independent of the viewer, 18th-century thought could know nothing of the ideas of pure visibility to arise in the 19th century. Nothing could be more removed from Berkeley’s theory of how distance is perceived than the science of the stereoscope. This quintessentially 19th-century device, with which tangibility (or relief) is constructed solely through an organization of optical cues (and the amalgamation of the observer into a componnt of the apparatus), eradicates the very field on which 18th-century knowledge arranged itself” 59.

Interestingly, for Crary, this is deeply tied to the idea of the senses not being severed from one another, but part of the same apparatus: “From Descartes to Berkeley to Diderot, vision is conceived in terms of analogies to the senses of touch” 59 – “the certainty of knoowledge did not depend solely on the eye but on a more general relation of a unified human ssensorium to a delimited space of order on which positions could be known and compared” 60. (Think of the ‘synesthesia’ of Faulkner’s Compsons – Benji smells cold, Quentin sees with his hands, etc.) Chardin’s still lifes, then, are “both the product of empirical knowledge about the contingent specificity of forms” and “an ideal structure founded on a deductive rational clarity” – they are “not about a surface design, but rather a permanent space across which are distributed ‘the non-quantitative identities and differences that separated and united things'” (in-qtd. Foucault The Order of Things 218) 62-3. Interestingly, for Crary this also confirms

“the 18th-century preoccupation with ensuring transparency over opacity… to confirm the unity of a single homogenous field in spite of the diversity of media and possibilities of refraction within it. Dioptrics (science of refraction) was of greater interest to the 18th century than catoptrics (science of reflection)… It was crucial that the distorting power of a medium, whether a lens, air, or liquid, be neutralized, and this could be done if the properties of that medium were mastered intellectually and thus rendered effectively transparent through the exercise of reason… vision and touch work cooperatively… the coidentity of idea and matter and their finely set positions within a unified field discloses a thought for which haptic and optic are not autonomous terms but together constitute an indivisible mode of knowledge… vision performs like the sense of touch, passing through a space of which no fraction is empty” 64.

Chapter 3: Subjective Vision & the Separation of the Senses

Crary begins by Goethe experimenting with retinal after-images in by staring at a bright circle of light allowed through a camera obscura, then sealing the hole and staring at the darkest part of the room for colored circles in a “post-Kantian” mode of experimentation that is both rationalist (empirical) and Romantic (autonomous) 69. Here, “the human body, in all its contingency and specificity, generates ‘the spectrum of another colour,’ and thus becomes the active producer of optical experience” 69. This is related to Kant in that representations do not conform to the things as they are, but to our perception of them as subjects (though it differs from Kant’s universality, as well as his emphasis on outline over color) 69-70. Thus vision itself becomes an object of knowledge rather than a form of knowing 70, and “the kind of separation between interior representation and exterior reality implicit in the camera obscura becomes in Goethe’s work a single surface of affect on which interior and exterior have few of their formare meanings and positions… color… [is] cut off from any spatial referent… the body itself produces phenomena that have no external correlate” 71.

In Foucault’s terms, this means that the body itself is the site of the structures of knowledge, not separate from it – in Maine de Biran’s work, the “immediate awareness of the presence of the body in perception… the simultaneity of a composite of impressions inhering in different parts of the organism” 72.

“Although formed by Kant’s aesthetics and epistemology in fundamental ways, Schopenhauer undertakes what he calls his ‘correction’ of Kant: to reverse Kant’s privileging of abstract thinking over perceptual knowledge, and to insist on the physiological makeup of the subject as the site on which the formation of representations occurs… what Kant called the synthetic unity of apperception, Schopenhauer unhesitatingly identifies as the cerebrum of the human brain” 77.

Adorno will critique this idea for its assumptions that such perceptions are authentic and its avoidance of the instrumentalization of the body, Nietzsche for retreating from the body’s sexual potential 77-8. Schopenhauer followed the scientist Bichat in atomizing the body and its life and death into separate parts and functions (faceting?) 78. This connects back to Foucault – when sovereignty fades in favor of discipline (biopower of populations to be controlled), life is the new object of power (re: History of Sexuality – also, the proliferation of scientific discourse and enumeration here81. The wave theory of light also challenged theological and scientific images of light as rays in earlier, more classical forms of optics, and stimulation of the eye demonstrated “false” reactions to “light,” making man the purveyor and victim of such knowledge 86. “The issue was not just how does one know what is real, but that new forms of the real were being fabricated, and a new truth about the capacities of a human subject was being articulated in these terms” 92.

This gets related to Marx (labor division akin to sense division), though “the problem for Marx under capitalism was not the separation of the senses but rather their estrangement by property relations; vision, for example, had been reduced to the sheer ‘sense of having'” 94. Marx actually anticipates a kind of modernist aesthetic of sheer separation and disinterested perception, where the eye revels in sight free of objects of exchange value 94. This appreciation is similar to Ruskin’s “innocence of the eye,” and Helmholtz holds that “Everything our eye sees it sees as an aggreate of coloured surfaces in the visual field – that is its form of visual intuition” 95. For Crary, this is not so much innocence as

“a vantage point [for the eye] uncluttered by the weight of historical codes and conventions of seeing, a position from which vision can function without the imperative of composing its contents into a reified ‘real’ world. It was a question of an eye that sought to avoid the repetitiveness of the formulaic and conventional, even as the effort time and again to  see afresha dn anew entailed its own pattern of repetition and conventions And thus the ‘pure perception,’ the sheer optical attentiveness of modernism increasingly had to exclude or submerge that which would obstruct its fucntioning: language, historical memory, and sexuality” 96.

The flip side of “liberating sensation from signification” is control:

“a comparable neutrality of the observer that was a precondition for the external mastery and annexing of the body’s capacities, for the perfection of technologies of attention, in which sequences of stimuli or images can produce the same effect repeatedly as if for the first time…”It was the remaking of the visual field not into a tabula rasa on which orderly representations could be arrayed, but into a surface of inscription on which a promiscuous range of effects could be produced” 96.

Chapter 4: Techniques of the Observer

While subjective retinal afterimages were classically reduced to “spectra” or “mere appearance,” Goethe and his generation make them appear less as deceptions than as constitutive of  human vision 97. The “presence of a sensation in the absence of a stimulus” cut sight from its external referent in vital ways, focusing on a process unfolding over itme 98. Schelling argued that “our knowledge is piecework, that is, it must be produced piece by piece in a fragmentary way… a series of processes following one another, in which the later always involves the earlier, brings each thing to maturity” 99. (This sounds a lot like Genette’s theory of narrative.)  Both Goethe and Hegel see perception dialectically, as the interaction of forces and relations, rather than contiguous and stable sensations a la Locke 100. For scientists like Hebart, “the mind does not reflect truth but rather extracts it from an ongoing process involving the collision and merging of ideas,” a concept deeply tied to his somewhat creepy interest in instilling moral ideology pedagogically 101-2. (Jan Purkinje’s drawings of afterimages are strikingly crystallographic 103.)

The afterimage becomes key for the thaumatrope (“wonder turner” c.1825), a disk with an image on each side that is held on two strings and can be twirled to create a coherent picture 105 – a device that “made unequivocally clear both the fabricated and hallucinatory nature of its image and the rupture between perception and its object” 106. Roget demonstrated how this could lead to manipulations of temporal experience itself (train wheels seen moving through a fence) 106. This leads to the phenakistiscope (“deceptive view,” c. 1830),comprised of either one disk (facing a mirror) or two, and acting like a flip book, where the eye comprehends “continuous movement” through a series of slits in the turning viewing disc in the 8 or 16 pictures in the segments of the second disk 109. Horner’s zootrope (“wheel of life,” c. 1834) reproduces this effect in a cylinder, thus enabling multiple viewers (a precursor to spectacle?) 110. Crary would like to consider these not as “nascent forms of cinema” only, striving for “higher standards of verisimilitude,” but as devices with singular features 110. They at least created a feedback loop between entertainment and scientific knowledge-gathering: “This is where Foucault’s opposition between spectacle and surveillance becomes untenable; his two distinct models here collapse onto one another” 112.

Other examples include the kaleidoscope (1815), which for Baudelaire dissolved unitary subjectivity, as well as Daguerre’s diorama, which forced the reader to walk or at least turn her head to comprehend its whole 113. By the 1840s, “the multiplicity [of the kaleidoscope] that so seduced Baudelaire was for [Marx and Engels] a sham, a trick literally done with mirrors. Rather than producing something new the kaleidoscope simply repeated a single image… ‘composed entirely of reflections of itself’… symmetrical repetition” 114. Inventor Brewster saw the kaleidoscope as a means of producing natural symmetry for new art – “it will create in an hour, what a thousand artists could not invent in the course of a year… with a corresponding beauty and precision,” but for Marx and Engels it proves “the appearance of decomposition and proliferation,” and the appearance alone 116. The real focus of the chapter is in fact the stereoscope:

“a major mode of experiencing photographically produced images… its conceptual structure and the historical circumstances of its invention are throughly independent of photography. Although distinct from the optical devices that represented the illusion of movement, the stereoscope is nonetheless part of the same reorganization of the observer, the same relations of knowledge and power, that those devices implied” 118.

Again, Brewster helped invent it (also Wheatstone, c. 1830), though it was not popularized until the 1850s and after 118. It focuses on the synthesis in the optical chiasma, “the point behind the eyes where the nerve fibers leading from the retina to the brain cross each other, carrying half of the nerves from each retina to each side of the brain” 119. Thus he focused on an “object placed so near the eyes that to view it the optic axes must converge… a different perspective projection of it is seen by each eye, and these perspectives are more dissimilar as the convergence of the optic axes becomes greater” 120. Thus for Crary “its ‘realism’ presupposes perceptual experience to be essentially an apprehension of differences… the observer to the object… [as] disjunct or divergent images” 120. Again, the fusion takes place as process, over time 120.

More than a simple superimposition, the stereoscope relies on rapid alternation of the optic axes successively, so that there “never really is a stereoscopic image… it is a conjuration, an effect of the observer’s experience of the differential between two other images” 122 (dialectical?). This raised the image, for Brewster, to the level of tangibility – the eye produces depth out of 2 flat images (vs the 2 similar retinal images produced to view 1 flat image or the 2 dissimilar retinal images for 1 solid object) 124. For the full effect of 3D in the stereoscope, there must not be simply a view with natural perspectival recession, but

“objects or obtrusive forms in the near or middle ground; that is, there must be enough points in the image that require significant changes in the angle of convergence of the optical axes. Thus the most intense experience of the stereoscopic image coincides with an object-filled space, with a material plenitude that bespeaks a nineteenth-century horror of the void; and there are endless quantities of stereo cards showing interiors crammed with bric-a-brac, densely filled museum sculpture galleries, and congested city views” 125.

For Crary, the “planar” arrangement of these shapes like “flat cutouts” among one another creates “a vertiginous uncertainty about the distance separating forms… some superficial similarities between the stereoscope and classical stage design, which synthesizes flats and real extensive space into an illusory scene… but… the movement of actors… rationalizes the relation between points” 125.

“In the stereoscopic image there is a derangement of the conventional functioning of optical cues. Certain planes or surfaces, even though composed of indications of light or shade that normally designate volume, are perceived as flat; other planes that normally would be read as two-dimensional, such as a fence in a foreground, seem to occupy space aggressively. Thus stereoscopic relief or depth has no unifying logic or order…. a fundamentally disunified and aggregate field of disjunct elements… a localized experience of separate areas. When we look head-on at a photograph or painting our eyes remain at a single angle of convergence, thus endowing the image surface with an optical unity …[vs] an accumulation of differences in the degree of optical convergence… a patchwork of different intensities of relief within a single image…” 125-6

“…part of the fascination of these images is due to this immanent disorder, to the fissures that disrupt its coherence. The stereoscope could be said to constitute what Gilles Deleuze calls a ‘Riemann space,’ after the German mathematician… ‘Each vicinity in a Riemann space is like a shred of Euclidian space but the linkage between one vicinity and the next is not defined…. Riemann space at its most general thus presents itself as an amorphous collection of pieces that are juxtaposed but not attached to each other'” 126.

Overall, this demonstrates a reorganization of space therefore not unique to painting, though that medium also mixed flat and molded shapes (think Cezanne) 127. Crary calls this literally obscene – scene-shattering of the theatrical setup of the camera obscura, and indicative of Benjamin’s idea that the need to possess the object in the image and its reproduction was increasing all the time 127. “It is no coincidence that the stereoscope became increasingly synonymous with erotic and pornographic imagery… the very effects of tangibility that Wheatstone had sought from the beginning were quickly turned into a mass form of ocular possession… in part responsible for its social demise as a mode of visual consumption… it became linked with ‘indecent’ subject matter” 127. Crary aligns this, like 3D movies, with an uneasy limit of “acceptable verisimilitude,” since the stereoscope presents to each eye the projection on a plane surface of the object as it appears to that eye, rather than the object itself, or its holistic representation 127-8. It is “the technical reconstitution of an already reproduced world fragmented into two nonidentical models, models that preced any experience of their subsequent perception as unified or tangible” 128.

The Wheatstone model, with its mirrors and angles, laid bare the device of fragmentation, while later models enabled viewers to feel they were looking directly in 129. As Marx discusses with the tool, for Crary the new 19th century visual devices make man into a metonym of the machine. “The content of the images is far less important than the inexhaustible routine of moving from one card to the next and producing the same effect, repeatedly, mechanically… transubstantiated into a compulsory and seductive vision of the ‘real'” 132. The ‘real’ becomes nothing more than mechanical reproduction, then.

After 1850, “phantasmagoria” (Adorno, Benjamin) take over – the “magic lantern” shows that emphasize the sui generis mode of the image and efface the machine (suture?) 133. Spectacle and pure perception both entail “a fully embodied viewer,” but ultimately they triumph through the denial of the body “as the ground of vision,” Crary concludes 136.

Chapter 5: Visionary Abstraction

Turner’s paintings problematize the “loss of a fixed source of light, the dissolution of a cone of light rays, and the collapse of the distance separating an observer fromt he site of optical experience” 138. The scientist Fechner sought to quantify sensation and succeeded in measuring it via the external stimulus for the first time 145. Sensation proceeds at regular intervals, and stimulus at first exceeds its capacity. Psychophysics and other sciences “beginning with the prefix psycho are part of this strategic appropriation of subjectivity” 148. As money moved things from qualitative to quantitative, so the real is “less useful” than that produced by a “more adaptable, autonomous, and productive observer… to conform to new functions of the body and to a vast proliferation of indifferent and convertible signs and images” 149. The “immense legacy” of the 1830s and 40s is “all the industries of the image and the spectacle in the 20th century” 150. “What is important is how these paths continually intersect and often overlap on the same social terrain, amid the countless localities in which the diversity of concrete acts of vision occur” 150.

Frederic Jameson, “Video” & “Film”

1993: Video: Surrealism Without the Unconscious

Jameson begins with the idea that “with the extinction of the sacred and the ‘spiritual,’ the deep underlying materiality of all things has finally risen dripping and convulsive into the light of day; and it is clear that culture itself is one of those things whose fundamental materiality ias now for us  not merely evident but quite inescapable” 67. The word media thus denotes for us 1) a form of aesthetic production, but also 2) a technology or specific machine and 3) a social institution 67. A paradox:

“…the written text loses its privileged and exemplary status at the very moment when the available conceptualities for analyzing the enormous variety of objects of study with which ‘reality’ now presents us… have become almost exclusively linguistic in orientation. Media analysis in linguistic or semiotic terms therefore may well appear to involve an imperializing enlargement of the domain of language to include nonverbal – visual or musical, bodily, spatial – phenomena; but it may equally well spell a critical and disruptive challenge to the very conceptual instruemtns which have been mobilized to complete this operation of asismilation” 68.

Jameson claims that we were “warned” by the “cleverest prophets” (probably Adorno) that the “dominant art form” of the century would be film – but why has literature had more innovation, even “intelligently and opportunistically absorbing the techniques of film back into its own substance” 68? The first two eras of film – silent and sound – are latticed into problems of the mass audience and mass culture, respectively, preceding the real auteur innovation of te 50s (Hitchcock, Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini) 69. Neither film nor literature, Jameson claims, any longer speak the rich allegory of the times – instead, it is video: “commercial television and experimental video… ‘video art'” 69. If film is large and mesmerizing, it is not different enough from TV and video art to constitute a “satisfactory translation” between cousins 70.

Jameson mentions Raymond Williams’ “total flow,” [so feminizing] which obliterates distance and memory, since TV does not leave haunting images or impose temporal structure for Jameson 70. (Again, interesting to note how this has changed with “quality TV” as well as the decline of the TV set.) For Jameson, we can get at commercial TV through video art, in the same way we get at language through experimental poetry: by seeing it as pure possibility, divorced from restriction and convention 71. He locates boredom as “a defense mechanism” – again one thinks of Ngai’s “Stuplimity” 72. As an example, interestingly, we are asked to imagine the “timeless immoble mask” of a static face on our TV screen lasting 21 minutes, according to our TV Guide 72. For Jameson, this is comparable to the photographic subject’s head being clamped into place for the necessary time of late-19th c photographs or the literature of Roussel (Beckett?), with the infinite description of objects – but here in video art, dateable to the late 60s (Paik)/ early 70s (Snow?) we have “the machine on both sides… the machine as subject and object” – the camera looking at us as we are clamped into place 73.

If film, even documentary, presents a particular kind of constructed or fictional time, video art operates more on “real time,” the uncomfortable time of boredom – when compared to TV, it’s interesting then that “out of the rigorously nonfictive languages of video, commercial television manages to produce the simulacrum of fictive time” 75. Video art makes its form this seam of space and time. All the materials of the videotext he examines are degraded:

“If we think of the various quoted elements and components – the broken pieces of a whole range of primary texts in the contemporary cultural sphere – as so many logos, that is to say, as a new form of advertising language which is structurally and historically a good deal more advanced and complicated than any of the advertising images with which Barthes’ earlier theories had to deal. A logos is something like the synthesis of an advertising image and a brand name; better still, it is a brand name which has been transformed into an image, a sign or emblem which carries the memory of a whole tradition of earlier advertisements within itself in a well-nigh intertextual way” 85.

“The matter grows more complicated… when we realize that none of these elements or new cultural signs or logos exists in isolation: the videotext itself is at virtually all moments a process of ceaseless, apparently random, interaction between them… between signs for which we have only the most approximate theoretical models… a constant stream, or ‘total flow,’ of multiple materials, each of which can be seen as something like a shorthand signal for a distinct type of narrative or a specific narrative process” 86.

Jameson reduces the multi- to the binary here – the dialectic, the opposition of subject and predicate 87. It is “Benjaminian ‘distraction’ raised to a new and historically original power” 87. ”

The postmodernist text – of which we have taken the videotape in question to be a privileged exemplar – is from that perspective defined as a structure or sign flow which resists meaning, whose fundamental inner logic is the exclusion of the emergence of themes as such in that sense, and which therefore systematically sets out to short-circuit traditional interpretive temptations (something Susan Sontag prophetically intuited… in Against Interpretation)… it will be bad or flawed whenever such interpretation proves possible” 92.

“Yet another way of interpreting… would seek to foreground the process of production itself rather than its putative messages, meanings, or content” 95.

“Once upon a time at the dawn of capitalism and middle-class society, there emerged something called the sign, which seemed to entertain unproblematical relations with its referent… literal or referential language… came into being because of the corrosive dissolution of older forms of magical language by a force which I will call that of reification, a force whose logic is one of ruthless separation and disjunction… that force… continued unremittingly, being the very logic of capital itself. [After modernism] reification penetrates the sign itself and disjoins the signifier from the signified. Now reference and reality disappear altogether, and even meaning – the signified – is problematized. We are left with that pure and random play of signifiers that we call postmodernism, which no longer produces monumental works of the modernist type but ceaselessly reshuffles the fragments of preexistent texts, the building blocks of older cultural and social production, in some new and heightened bricolage” 96.

1993: Film: Nostalgia for the Present

“When the notion of the oppositional is contested, however, in the mid eighties, we will know a fifties revival in which much of this ‘degraded mass culture’ returns for possible reevaluation” 280. The small town (the setting of the 50s) has lost its autonomy and become part of a chain. The Nietzschean position is that “period concepts finally correspond to no realities whatsoever” 282. Jameson’s example is Dick’s novel about a fake 50s village in Russia in the 90s. “The novel is collective wish-fulfillment, and the expression of a deep, unconscious yearning for a simpler and more human social system and a small-town Utopia very much in the North American frontier tradition” 283. This is cognitive mapping distorted. “Historicity is, in fact, neither a representation of the past nor a representation of the future,” but “a perception of the present as history… a relationship to the present which somehow defamiliarizes it” 284. If the future film turns into mere realism, as the Dick novel does for Jameson, and we are divorced from history, why do we subsume all styles all the time now?

“It is by way of so-called nostalgia films that some properly allegorical processing of the past becomes possible: it is because the formal apparatus of nostalgia films has trained us to consume the past in the form of glossy images that new and more complex ‘postnostalgia’ statements and forms become possible” 287.

This occurs in the unlikely meeting of high-gloss nostalgia film and B-grade punk film.

“Thus these films can be read as dual symptoms: they show a collective unconscious in the process of trying to identify its own present at the same time that they illuminate the failure of this attempt, which seems to reduce itself to the recombination of various stereotypes of the past” 296.

“Dick used science fiction to see his present as (past) history; the classical nostalgia film, while evading its present altogether, registered its historicist deficiency by losing itself in mesmerized fascination in lavish images of specific generational pasts. The two 1986 movies, while scarcely pioneering a wholly new form (or mode of historicity), nonetheless seem, in their allegorical complexity, to mark the end of that and the now open space for something else” 296. [alas, no, The Help]


Jameson claims himself as one who neither loves nor disavows postmodernism. The novel is the weakest link in art, while poems are not bad, and video and film are quite good. He appreciates improvements in food and other areas. When we compare two eras, as we always do, we compare the modes of production, occurring as contact between reader and text. Jameson concludes by arguing that capitalism’s unprecedented freedom in our era will lead to a new international proletariat and a return to older forms of labor – it is only a matter of time, since postmodernism is “a transition stage” between 2 forms of capitalism (think of how Kant and Schiller imagine aesthetics…). He says that his “cognitive mapping” was a mere rephrasing of ” class consciousness” for a new world. “The rhetorical strategy of the preceding pages has involved an experiment, namely, the attempt to see whether by systematizing something that is resolutely unsystematic, and historicizing something that is resolutely ahistorical, one couldn’t outflank it and force a historical way at least of thinking about that” 418.

Fredric Jameson, “Culture” (Ch 1, “Postmodernism”)


Jameson begins by stating that the present time (the eighties) is obsessed with “a break…. the waning or extinction of the hundred-year-old modern movement” that occurred in the late 50s or early 60s (significantly a period we still seem to be making ever more movies and TV shows about, in fits of continued ‘nostalgia’) 1. For Jameson, this remains confused in literary and artistic production – a “new aesthetic of textuality,” but is crystallized in architecture (re: Brideshead’s exhausted representations of old architecture?) 2.

Postmodern architecture performs for Jameson: it “stage[s] itself as a kind of aesthetic populism” that effaces the “frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture… that very culture industry so passionately denounced by all the ideologues of the modern, from Levis and the American New Criticism all the way to Adorno and the Frankfurt School… this whole ‘degraded’ landscape of schlock and kitsch” 2. Whereas modernism “quoted” from pop culture – think Ulysses – postmodern works “incorporate” this “into their very substance,” an odd statement not least because it’s questionable what Jameson would mean by substance here 3. The third stage of capitalism is no longer about industrialism and class struggle, but is purer, so that “every position on postmodernism in culture – whether apologia or stigmatization – is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today” 3. Postmodernism, too, should be conceived for Jameson “not as a style, but rather as a cultural dominant” with “the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate, features” (reminiscent of Foucault on sexuality 4.

Though Jameson acknowledges that Stein, Roussel, and Duchamp seem to be postmodern avant-la-lettre, he holds that this does not account for the social history, the canonization of the modern (and even its appropriation), by the bourgeoisie 4. He also acknowledges that the postmodern is already incapable of shocking us with its obscurity and sexual content. This brings to mind Ngai’s idea of “stuplimity,” which both locates Stein and Beckett as “postmodern” writers, but also claims that the alternation between shock and boredom is key to the contemporary affect she describes.

Aesthetics are now fully bound to the economy, and this is one reason Jameson prefers the example of architecture, closely tied in its production to global corporations 5. This leads him to explain why the postmodern must not be swallowed into periodization as “modern” – it is not historically coterminous and  as a system, it does not actually obliterate heterogeneity, though Jameson is willing to interrogate the difficulty of the “‘winner loses’ logic”:

What happens is that the more powerful the vision of some increasingly total system or logic – the Foucault of the prisons book is the obvious example – the more powerless the reader comes to feel. Insofar as the theorist wins, therefore, by constructing an increasingly closed and terrifying machine, to that very degree hloses, since the critical capacity of his work is thereby paralyzed… perceived as vain and trivial in the face of the model itself 5.

The postmodern’s “hegemonic norm” actually highlights “genuine difference” for Jameson, protecting us from the myopic vision of our own time as uniquely ‘random’ or ‘chaotic’ 6. The postmodern is “the force field in which very different kinds of cultural impulses – what Raymond Williams has usefully termed ‘residual’ and ’emergent’ forms of cultural production – must make their way” 6. Its features are 1) a “new depthlessness… both in contemporary ‘theory’ and… the culture of the image or the simulacrum, 2) a flattening or weakening of historicity through ‘schizophrenic’ Lacanian structures of syntax, 3) a “return to older theories of the sublime” in “a new type of emotional ground tone,” 4) a whole new technology tied to globalization, and 5) a mission of political art as it has shifted in multinational capitalism 6.

Jameson begins by discussing Van Gogh’s painting of the peasant’s shoes (over and against its “copiou[s] reproduc[tion] – re: Benjamin), with its “hallucinatory surface of color” as “an act of compensation” for the darkness of labor under capitalism 7. Secondarily, Jameson offers a Heideggerian reading, in which the meaningless material (Earth) is elevated through art to the level of aesthetics, society, and history (World) 7.  This is a kind of “laying bare the device,” through which aesthetic mediation uncovers the truth of the object, and again, this is partly through the materiality of the painting itself (again re: Benjamin) 8. Both readings are hermeneutical, says Jameson – they can be abstracted to larger meaning, whereas Warhol’s “Diamond Dust Shoes” cannot. Warhol’s shoes are not “a heterosexual pair” like Van Gogh’s, but a collection of single, odd “dead objects” 8. They are fetishes, decontextualized from their original materiality and unable to be material in art either, because they are like X-ray photographs, reproduced and flattened and sprinkled with a sealing veil of golden sparkles, expressive of the return of the repressed, “decorative exhilaration,” but also “the waning of affect in postmodern culture” (an idea Ngai resists in “Stuplimity”) 10.

This is not to say there is no emotion here, but that art does not “look back” at us, and that other Warhol subjects “like Marilyn Monroe – …are themeselves commodified and transformed into their own images” (though Jameson does not gender this, he probably should) 11. Essentially, the art of anxiety, such as Munch’s “The Scream,” is predicated on a division of the inner self and the outer world, “the outward dramatization of inward feeling” 12. This is connected to the poststructuralist critique of depth models of hermeneutics: 1) the dialectical essence vs appearance, 2) the Freudian latent vs manifest, 3) the existential divide of authentic vs inauthentic, and 4) the opposition of signifier and signified – itself already unraveled 12. For Jameson:

“What replaces these various depth models is for the most part a conception of practices, discourses, and textual play, whose new syntagmatic structures… [suggest that] here too depth is replaced by surface, or by multiple surfaces (what is often called intertextuality is in that sense no longer a matter of depth” 12.

Jameson cites the tall, flat Wells Fargo Court in L.A., which “momentarily transforms the solid ground on which we stand into the contents of a stereopticon… as fateful as the great monolith in Kubrick’s 2001,” an idea that really reminds me of Linda Williams’ concept that if the original film was concerned with panorama, the new one is concerned with height (contemporary examples: think Avatar’s cliffs vs. The Master‘s painted-scenery of flat “depths,” as opposed to old Westerns or Abel Gance’s Napoleon) 13. As opposed to Ngai, for Jameson anxiety and alienation are purely modernist affects: “This shift in the dynamics of cultural pathology can be characterized as one in which the alienation of the subject is displaced by the latter’s fragmentation” 14. In other words, it is no longer the world that is fragmented, as in modernism, but the subject. 

Like Benjamin, for Jameson this means the end of individual style, and the “emergent primacy of mechanical reproduction… a liberation from anxiety, but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well” – not so much the end of feeling as its depersonalization, as well as the accompaniment of euphoria to its expression 15-16. More concretely, this signifies

“the waning of the great high modernist thematics of time and temporality, the elegiac mysteries of duree and memory… we now inhabit they synchronic rather than the diachronic, and I think it is at least empirically arguable that our daily life, our psychic experience, our cultural languages, are today dominated by categories of space rather than by categories of time, as in the preceding period of high modernism” 16.

If parody is modern (despite the “inimitable” modern styles  – Faulkner’s long sentences, Lawrence’s natural imagery, Stevens’ evasions of certain syntaxes) because these “ostentatiously deviate from a norm which then reasserts itself” and are “willful eccentricities,” then pastiche is the province of the postmodern (though what about The Waste Land?16. “Modernist styles become postmodernist codes” for Jameson, layered atop the many codes of jargon, idiolect, and regionalism, since “advanced capitalist countries today are now a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm” 17. Pastiche is instead “blank parody” – a “linguistic mask” with no humor or satiric impulse that “cannibalizes” past styles by attaching “neo” to them 17-18. It is characteristic of “consumers’ appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudoevents and ‘spectacles'” 18. For Jameson, as for Guy Debord, this is where “Plato’s conception of the ‘simulacrum,’ the identical copy for which no original has ever existed,” becomes useful, since “the image has become the final form of commodity reification” 18.

Instead of Lukac’s historical time in the novel, we now face a “libidinal historicism,” seeking to assimilate “a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum,” leaving us with “nothing but texts” 18. In the nostalgia film,  for example, “the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation” (he cites George Lucas’ American Graffiti – “for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the privileged lost object of desire”) 19. The nostalgia film sees the past in “stylistic connotation, conveying ‘pastness’ by the glossy qualities of the image… by the attributes of fashion” – he cites Barthes’ Mythologies 19. In this sense – in the “remake,” “retelling” or “historical fiction” of today, “the history of aesthetic styles displaces ‘real’ history” 20. Even stars, then, are flatter – an absence of “personality” makes them more like character actors displaying past styles of acting, and the most common setting is small-town America, eschewing the high-rise features of multinational capitalism as well as older features of civilization. This seems related to the idea of “suture” – it all “conspires to blur its official contemporaneity and make it possible for the viewer to receive the narrative as though it were set in some external thirties, beyond real historical time… the pastiche of the stereotypical past” 21.

“We seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience,” Jameson claims 21. An exception for him is the work of Doctorow, namely The Book of Daniel. Ragtime, for Jameson is “a seemingly realistic novel” that is “a nonrepresentational work” combining “fatnasy signifiers from a variety of ideologemes in a kind of hologram” 23. Jameson seems to find it positive that the novel “short-circuits” traditional interpretative techniques and “imposes” a reading mode where we must sort out real historical figures from fictional representation (reminds ME of Pynchon… why not Jameson?) 23. Here, history returns as the proverbial Freudian repressed – form replaces content as a means of communicating affect and meaning, since the “waning of content is precisely [Doctorow’s] subject” and the historical novel “can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only ‘represent’ our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby becomes ‘pop history'” 25.

In Genette’s terms, if the subject has “lost its capacity actively to extend its pro-tensions and re-tensions across the temporal manifold and to organize its past and future into coherent expereince,” then representation becomes “heaps of fragments… the randomly heterogenous and fragmentary and the aleatory” 25. Ngai will use this image in “Stuplimity,” but one wonders how Jameson’s notion of these “privative features” of postmodern art (more kindly called textuality, ecriture, or schizophrenic wriitng 26) pushes against T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land“I have shored up these fragments against my ruin” – likely in the loss of the subject who still believes in the possibility of a ruin to be staved off? In Lacan’s terms, schizophrenia is “a breakdown in the signifying chain, that is, the interlocking syntagmatic series of signifiers which constitutes an utterance or a meaning” 26.

I’m interested in thinking of this in terms of faceting – not as a chain, but as a three-dimensional structure. In Derridean terms, “Meaning on the new view is generated by the movement from signifier to signifier” – akin to differance 26. The signified is then a “meaning effect… a mirage of signification generated and projected by the relationship of signifiers among themselves” 26. This “rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers” is for Jameson tied to psychic and linguistic ‘health’ – if we cannot understand and express 3 temporalities in language, “the schizophrenic is reduced to an experience of pure material signifiers, or, in other words, a series of pure and unrelated presents in time” 27. This reminds me not only of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, but ironically enough, of the slogan Jameson decries: “The medium is the message”! 27. Jameson cites Sechehaye’s Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl, which is where he locates the affect of euphoria in the loss of reality: “illimitable vastness, brilliant light, and the gloss and smoothness of material things” 27. I want to read this! It seems gendered, as well as connected to reading, to surfaces, and to faceting.

Related to such euphoria is the reappropriation of previously clinical terms for humor, irony, and even joy (one thinks of paranoid, schizphrenic, manic, stalker, obsessed) 29. He calls reading a kind of zoom lens, thinks of such verbal change as making meaning into the decorative, and explains photorealism as an effect of a world in which the real objects of art were not the things themselves but photos – the realism is the simulacrum 30. Criticism thus stresses “the heterogeneity and profound discontinuities of the work of art… now a virtual grab bag or lumber room of disjoined subsystems and random raw materials and impulses of all kinds” 31. This seems ripe for considering that we might join but not suture these elements, since Jameson does identify the positive value of collating multiplicity: “In the most interesting postmodernist works, one can detect a more positive concept of relationship, which restores its proper tension to the notion of difference itself… new and original way of thinking and preceiving… an impossible imperative to achieve that new mutation in what can perhaps no longer be called consciousness” 31. (Note: is the very impossibility related to old ideas of the sublime – thin Ngai’s stuplime?)

Jameson locates the euphoria of “the extraordinary surfaces of the photorealist cityscape” in automobile wrecks, new surfaces, and commodified urban squalor (makes me think of Ballard and tours of squatters in Berlin) 33. Art divides the body from space (empty bathrooms as installations vs. simulacra of the body) to form an aesthetic of “derealization,” in which “the world… momentarily loses its depth and threatens to become a glossy skin” 34. Jameson connects this to camp, calling it a “hysterical sublime” 34. Whereas for Kant, the sublime alternates between awe and terror as the mind seeks to comprehend that which is at first beyond comprehension, now he looks at this more as dead objects, as technology turning back against us in its inert forms, haunting us in its covering of nature (Auden, Silko) 35. He periodizes capitalism: 1) 1840s steam power = market capitalism (realism), 2) 1890s electric power = monopoly or imperialist capitalism (modernism), 3) 1940s nuclear power = postindustrial or multinational capitalism (postmodernism) 35. (Even the polyglot words of the third phase are conglomerations!)

Jameson differentiates the potential for movement in the old technology and architecture (think the ships of Le Corbusier – this leftist emphasis on motion reminds me of Lukacs) from the static outer shell of the computer or television, “which articulates nothing but rather implodes, carrying its flattened image surface within itself” 37. These are “machines of reproduction rather than of production… narratives which are about the processes of reproduction and include movie cameras” 37. One can imagine what Jameson would say now abut reality TV, as well as the true flatness of the iPhone and the iPad, the new computer called “Surface” from Microsoft, machines which almost efface themselves visibly as machines. For Jameson in 1984, architecture “remains… the privileged aesthetic language; and the distoriting and fragmenting reflections of one enormous glass surface to the other can be taken as paradigmatic of the central role of process and reproduction in postmodernist culture” 37. (Note: calling it “mesmerizing” and “fascinating” is interesting because repetition/phallus roots.)

This leads to a “high-tech paranoia” – both the feeling that these machines are synecdochic stand-ins for a large, incomprehensible network (connected to the idea of the sublime?), but also the fear that that complexity cannot be overcome or understood by the “normal reading mind” (he cites cyberpnk – William Gibson, I think Neal Stephenson) 38. Our spatial creations, then, have outgrown the capacity of our minds, as if we wish to “expand our sensorium” to “impossible dimensions” (related to Kant’s free beauty?) 39. They speak the vernacular of the city, but do not aesthetically raise its tone? (Re: Adorno and the elitist’s complaint – these buildings do not seek to lift up the rest of the city, as in the modernist project). The Westin Bonaventure in LA reflects the city back, has 3 “backdoor” entrances on 2 different levels, none of which go to the lobby, and seeks to be a miniature city, Jameson argues.  (Think about this in terms of suturing off? Also vs. the arcade – infinitely enterable and exitable, where you always see the structure in the glass as well as through the glass both directions). The reflectivity of the “glass skin” repels all, giving distorted images of surroundings even as you can see out and the Other can’t see in (makes me think of Byatt, and glass/all reflective of other and/or self) 42.

Thinking of elevators and escalators as narrative movements in the building, Jameson claims that these symbolize and institutionalize movement, rather than just allowing it (Nicholson Baker’s “The Mezzanine”?) 42. You are either slowly moving against your own pace or shooting vertically up or down into another contained space, all covered in colors, streamers, and the indecipherable four corners of the hotel, which discourage orientation. In other words, we can never get our Kantian distance, because we are always overwhelmed by the spectacle (one wonders why we are so shamed by our looking and seeing – is it erotic in some way?). This is like the limits of fiction, too? Jameson politicizes this by claiming the inability to talk about war now (always?) 44. Surface and symbol are problematized in that the machine can no longer represent motion when inert, but must actually be represented in motion (video?) 45.

Though Jameson concludes that it would be an ethical mistake to accept the “delirious camp-following celebration of this aesthetic new world,” it is equally problematic to trivialize it in comparison to “the ‘high seriousness’ of the great modernisms” 46. Like Zizek, for Jameson, the world of images erases past and future into images of cataclysm on the personal and social levels 46. Even though the postmodern is essentially negative, we are all embedded in it, and if it is historical, we cannot moralize it away:

“Marx powerfully urges us to do the impossible, namely, to think this development positively and negatively all at once… grasping the demonstrably baleful features of capitalism along with its extraordinary and liberating dynamism simultaneously within a single thought… at one and the same time the best thing that has ever happened to the human race and the worst… dialectically, as catastrophe and progress all together” 47.

(This reminds me to think of Byatt’s “agnosticism” somewhat. Note: weird that Jameson says we are “submerged” if this aesthetic has no depth in his framing of it.) Jameson wonders: if there is no outside the system, and the relative autonomy of the arts is no longer, what can be done? Like Foucault on power & sexuality, the irony of proliferating sexual discourses is somewhat akin here to the irony of proliferating theoretical paradigms 49.  If, for Jameson, the promise of capitalism’s hugeness is the hugeness of potential social change, how is this not like an apology for technology and globalization, which he warned us against 50? He concludes that leftists should be less afraid of the pedagogical function of art, letting go of their fear of the bourgeois reaction to modernism 50.

Jameson ends by imagining “cognitive mapping” 51. If ideology toggles between the imaginary and the real (Althusser, also like Foucault, where sexuality toggles between power and pleasure?), then art needs to be able to situationally represent the individual in relation to the vast totality, and this is cognitive mapping (“to cognitively map our individual social relationship to local, national, and international class realities” as well) 52. It seems Jameson is imagining something that will  toggle experience and knowledge, orienting the individual in her surroundings 53.  If ideology is imagined and science is real (both of which fit into Marx and Althusser’s models), then in Lacan, we also have the symbolic, and Jameson looks to political art to fill this role somehow. Perhaps sadly and ironically, it seems Google Maps or GPS or a smartphone quite literally solves this problem, but in a mode so deeply imbricated in capitalism that it can hardly be seen as a solution. Does it, however, enable the end of postmodernism and the rise of the New Sincerity? And why did Occupy fail if all this is true?