Wednesday, July 11, 2012
dedicated to the memory of Abram Tertz
I’m going to begin by putting forth a basic contention: there is such a thing as capitalist realism in contemporary literary practice. That is, if there was or is such a thing as socialist realism which promoted the ideals and goals of socialism, there can and must be a capitalist variant of the same. Furthermore, it is ordered and functions more or less invisibly as a form of ideology, as a dominant paradigm, as an expression of market capitalism, and as a way of thinking human subjectivity through prose style. Considering that every prose style, whether you choose to recognize it or not, is a way of conceiving human subjectivity, the conception that capitalist realism embodies is an example of and acts to sustain the ego in modern capitalist society. The prose style itself limits what you can ask, explore, discover or even describe. It literally creates a mindset, a model of being, a way of thinking of self and of otherness, and this is how capitalist realist prose can be said to function.
Capitalist realism is a form of codified literary convention which serves to promote the ideals and goals of capitalism, not so much outright as in the form of the subjectivity represented. So my contention is simple: there is such a thing as capitalist realism, in an analogous manner to socialist realism, and that it is enforced through those conventions of prose which represent the discourse of the ego, of consciousness and its linear time and categories. This is achieved through language use reduced to communication, to codified coherence, continuity and consistency, all enforced through such things as editorial and educational restraints on what constitutes ‘good prose’. This reduction to communication minimizes or even ignores the poetic or literary aspects of language, those drive related or semiotic aspects of language which connect language to the body and which are not reducible to communication.
“If we use the term symbolic to refer to the language of consciousness (with its linear temporality and its categorizations), I have proposed the term semiotic to refer to a different language, the unconscious “language” found in children’s echolalia before the appearance of signs and syntax, and especially in the discourse we receive as aesthetic (poetry, literature, painting, music, which redistribute logical categories under the pressure of oppositional processes).”
Julia Kristeva (Hatred and Forgiveness, p 81)
Literary use of language does not rely on communication, but on the musical aspects of language which inscribe the body and implicate you in an incestuous history with the mother, with the ‘infra-verbal’ semiotic link between mother and child. The experience of art is incestuous and drive-related.
"But be careful, once again, the key is...the fact of taking in the operation of musical language, this state that we spend our time denying in so-called normal communication. Why this refusal? Because of sexual repression."
Philippe Sollers (Le Monde 29 Nov 1974)
Capitalist realism represents and serves the ideals of capitalism by replicating an ideal reflection of sovereign unicity, that is, idealized reflections of the sovereignty of the ego, without which capitalism would dissolve. It is a kind of tin foil prose that, not only is founded on, but sustains and supports a system that relies on thinking human subjectivity in a certain way. In this society literary practice is literally in the service of capitalism; there exists a rarefied form of literary practice that serves the purposes and interests of capitalism, not of humanity and the human mind, a form of literature shaped by the forces of market capitalism and its needs. This form of literary practice is what I call capitalist realism, and indeed involves self-censorship and self-policing in the name of economic and narcissistic self-interest.
"...a coded...descent into the folds not of the Ego but of the subject. What's the difference? The Ego reassures itself through display, the exhibition of its minidramas, while the subject's intimacy is diffracted into a mosaic of confessions, associations, and slips that destabilize the Ego's certainties as well as others'—the reader's. The subject's intimacy pierces through to that of others (characters are split, twinned, there are doubles, projections, there is a loss of self...)..."
In this context we could also mention interruptions and false starts...
"...At the very least, we can say that the globalized spectacle to which we devote our "disposable publishing (poubellications)" does not take this path. Since the televised image amplifies what is already at work in the marketing of books, we can see that the market's rush toward the "transparency" of the blissful or suffering Ego-ego produces an effect of seduction and astonishment. The fascinated consumer hoping to bandage his wounds in fact paves them over; speech is no longer an enigma that might have meaning, but raw "data" used or manipulated in matters of power...—there is no return to a reflection on the self. We are fabricating a terrorism of the ego, like a soft version of hard sex and technology that is also hard and necessarily militaristic."
Julia Kristeva (Hatred and Forgiveness, p 274)
In our society we have what can only be referred to as a narrative-industrial-complex which seeks to reproduce itself as dominant ideological paradigm, not only as mindset, if only in the form of the novel of the ego, but as a form of ideological apparatus (and not ‘ideological state apparatus’ since capitalism in its global and transnational incarnation no longer needs the state). This ideological paradigm serves a populace not merely lost but enmeshed in the trance of imaginary continuity and illusory consistency of the ego and its trajectory, qualities which help contribute a necessary subjective and social stability to capitalism and its hegemonic goals, universal commodification amongst them. In the midst of such a socio-economic structure where is the place for and what is the role of transgressive creativity, of the revolutionary and aggressive undoing of social codes and conventions, a role that literary practice has historically played, without which there is only psychological, cultural, and social morbidity and ossification?
In a literary environment that seems wholly founded on and invested in pastiche, or the copying of historical form and style (and here we can find a parallel in Frederic Jameson’s thinking on post-modernism), in a prose founded on and embracing a readability based exclusively on a version of what has come before, it becomes clear that the predominant and standardized form sought, taught, and desired by editors, writing programs, and publishing houses, because of marketing constraints as well as ideological concerns, constitutes a version of what I refer to as capitalist realism. The thinking seems to be that if you don’t see things the way you are used to seeing them then you can’t see them at all: the dominant prose style employed in this society is a version still based on 19th century prose, and in fact has grown on a parallel path with capitalism, and it becomes clear that the predominant and standardized form sought, taught, and desired by editors, publishing houses, writing programs and workshops, because of marketing constraints as well as ideological concerns, constitutes a version of what I refer to as capitalist realism.
“Excision by others is probably one reason why no living American author has a real prose style...”
H.P. Lovecraft (letter to Weird Tales, 1923)
Consider the distinction Theodore Adorno made between the composers Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. In short, it was Adorno’s contention that Schoenberg created a musical language whereas Stravinsky relied on pastiche, on preexisting musical languages or idioms, to shape his creations. In our society the dominant fictive form is the novel of the ego, a form based on cultural assumptions of supposed unicity, linearity, continuity and consistency, and is a means of sustaining and supporting a conception of human subjectivity pertinent to market capitalism. It acts in the service of social stability, seeking and functioning first and foremost to sustain social codes, rather than to undo or undermine them, which, along with allowing you to think of language in a new way, one not based on journalistic notions of communication, is a true and revolutionary function of literary practice. This stylized fiction that is capitalist realism functions as an internalization of and support for capitalist ideology and reflects the unmitigated egocentrism that capitalism demands and requires. It is fundamentally based on pastiche, on versions of what has come before and which can thus be recognized as ‘readable’.
Literary practice can be said to be the final defense of psychical space, and remains a challenge to the recent attacks on the very notion of psychical space and process, attacks on the notion of a unique scene of the self, whether they’re made by the cognitive sciences, neuro-biologists, constructivist reseachers, neorealists giddy with empiricism, or even those attempting to link genetics and sexual orientation, and should not be thought of as a commodity but as a reading experience which you cannot simply consume in any manner that you can anticipate or in which you can have expectations of knowing how it communicates. You sustain a certain model of literary practice by producing and allowing your art to be a commodity, by adhering to those societal strictures and allowing it to be a commodity within the parameters offered by that paradigm or model. Indeed the prose you read in this society, whether genre or literary fiction, is essentially in the service of market capitalism, not in the service of what constitutes literary practice as one of the fundamental ways of human knowing. It is a commodity, structured as such, which conditions you to expect commodities. Needless to say your expectations, which you are never required to question, are invariably met.
“I do not think I am overstating it when I say that mainstream fiction has become death with its complacent, unequivocal truths, its reductive assignment of meaning, its manipulations, its predictability and stasis... ...it became increasingly clear to me that this fiction had become a kind of totalitarianism, with its tyrannical plot lines, its linear chronology, and characterizations that left no place in the text for the reader, no space in which to think one's thoughts, no place to live. All the reader's freedoms in effect are usurped.”
Carole Maso ("Precious, Disappearing Things" 67)
It should be clear by this stage in our cultural evolution that realism in and of itself is an arbitrary concept; there are indeed many different kinds of realism. These all function more or less to stabilize meaning and conception, which is always inherently unstable, and that any concept of a universal, general, or meta-realism is a dream reserved for deists. As the real is quite possibly only truly accessible to us through mathematics, all concepts of reality are founded on illusion and are indeed imaginary and fantasmatic. Unless you are willing to concede that women are born not made, that race is biological and not cultural, that there is a genetic reason for queerness and that we are not all subject to a psychical bisexuality shaped by unconscous anxieties, we have to concede that we are structured as fictions, and our fictions not only reflect this but are versions of it, indeed act as a form of mirroring. The way fiction is structured is the way we are structured, and vice versa. Without fiction we would not know how to think our selves.
“Human beings today need their daily dose of fiction...without it, we would not know how to live.”
Capitalist realism is a theory of the possibility of a dominant prose style aligning subjective states, thus synchronizing, albeit imperfectly, a populace in a body of conception and ideal. This style is simply accepted, and rarely, if ever, questioned. When was the last time you questioned or were even asked to question your assumptions and expectations of the prose, from journalism to literary fiction, that is marketed in this society? Is there possibly an underlying socio-economic reason for not doing so? I say that yes there is. This could involve the shared ego structure/conceptual subjective structure of a populace which is required to perform within certain parameters of productivity. This could require synchronization and alignment of subjective structure so that experience and social structure can be shared. Social order is founded on coherence after all, thus on communication, and any social order or link implies a shared structuring of and aligning of subjective conceptions, that is, a dominant ideology. Capitalist realism functions as an ideological apparatus, and acts to achieve a certain implicit mirroring (related to an implicit bias) of subjectivity, not to expand or question it but to sustain it.
What is narrative if it is not founded on a presumed stability of meaning and image? Story, plot, character, are all elements of narrative which presuppose the stability of meaning as well as the ideal of control. You don’t question the possibility and meaning of what you do, you just embrace it, reaping the subjective benefits of illusory stability and unicity.
Capitalist realism is made in what can be called the commodity shops, in the factories of virtuous art (any art that adheres to the dominant paradigms can be said to be virtuous). Whether writing schools, universities, or mainstream publishing, these function as commodity shops, as, in essence, the killers of vision: you align yourself, your vision with that of the commodity and you implicate yourself in the commodification of your literary work by accepting such strictures as they demand. Literary practice is a fundamental expression of the individual, is perhaps the final refuge for the same (“La liberté passe par la réconnaissance de la singularité.” Kristeva). As such it is not part of the structure of human community except perhaps in a negative manner as all human community is ultimately founded on exclusion, on a shared sense of evil and taboo; in this context you should consider the logic of community standards, of shared abjection, usually related to waste and/or menstruation, and of dietary prohibitions. Literary practice is a way of thinking, and every prose style is a form of conceptualizing; that is to say, literary practice is ultimately a form of investigation. From Poe’s tales of ratiocination, to la littérature engagée, to Solzhenitsyn’s ‘experiment in literary investigation,’ and even prior to that, ways of thinking, explorations in human consciousness and in expanding rationality and exploring the possibilities of human subjectivity: in the same way Giorgio Agamben can refer to Dostoevsky as the greatest theologian of the 19th century, and Harold Bloom can credit Shakespeare with the creation of the modern mind. More than anything literary practice is a fundamental way of human knowing, “a meticulous and painstaking analysis of the aptitude itself to represent, symbolize, and think.” (Julia Kristeva, Hatred And Forgiveness, p. 210) The commodity shops, on the other hand, are in the business of producing commodities, and the publishing houses are in the business of publishing commodities, and the journalists are in the business of reviewing commodities, and the so public is spoonfed commodities. Commodity prose reinforces code and convention, it doesn’t question or subvert them as is the case with what can be called the literary event. Codes and conventions reinforce false beliefs, in fact they are founded on such beliefs. The literary act seeks to undo social codes and conventions.
Clearly the vast majority of subjects do not want their codified notions of self questioned in the manner that literary practice can accomplish. Everyone seeks stability, and will even cling to ignorance and illusion in order to maintain such stability. Just look at the popularity of religion. Capitalist realism helps this stability by not exceeding or challenging your expectations but by reinforcing them, literally, and that is in part its function and appeal. It can also be said to prepare you for productivity, in the market capitalist sense, by allowing you expression for desires that would otherwise get in the way of said productivity. It’s so easy to just take your anti-depressants and to watch or read your desires acted out in popular forms of fiction. Producers and consumers of capitalist realism don’t want to have their comfortable notions of self and of knowledge questioned, it’s easier to seek and to maintain stability, and these codes are used to promulgate and sustain capitalism, illusory as such stability may be. In many cases there’s almost an unacknowledged knowledge of the fact that it is an illusion, but even that is preferred to instability. Humans have a strident need for stability, for stability of meaning, and they will grasp at delusion and delirium in order to believe they’ve achieved it. Nothing creates anxiety like fluidity. Capitalism as well has a need for stability, for at least a stable workforce and markets, and a strident need for stability of meaning on which to base value.
...The form of traditional fiction is a metaphor for a society that no longer exists: “Its present function is to sustain a series of comforting illusions, among which might include the feeling that the individual is the significant focus among the phenomena of “reality” (characterization); the sense that clock, or public time is finally the reigning form of duration for consciousness (historical narrative); the notion that the locus of “reality” may be determined by empirical observation (description); the conviction that the world is logical and comprehensible (causal sequence, plot).”
It can therefore be stated that capitalist realism is not conceptually grounded or presented, but is, rather, something that operates blindly, as something we are not conscious of, that is, as ideology. What passes for conceptual grounding are the 19th century elements that constitute the dominant prose style, but its conception of the subject remains the same, egocentric. We can define those as consciousness reduced to unity, as the belief that the subject is the subject of the enunciation, or even somewhere in the enunciation (hence the emphasis on ‘the sound of the voice on the page’). This means that consciousness is always defined as an identification with an ideal image, essentially the fundamental American ideology of free will, which is an essential delusion of capitalist realism: a reduction to rationality, a reduction to linearity, the belief that realism is not an arbitrary concept or practice. American capitalist ideology is an identificatory, ego-based ideology, and it does not matter if you bring a new slant to it, if yours is a ‘new voice’, as everyone is so fond of saying, it’s always the same conception of the mind. Let me clearly say that I believe that every prose style is first and foremost a conception, a vision of the mind. So instead of encountering truth, questioning assumed meaning, people no longer read, they consume printed matter of like conceptual basis and bias. They, in effect, assume the reality and the rules that they refuse to test. Capitalist realism does not challenge codified and conventional notions of self, it reinforces them by assuming the dominant social codes and conventions. Indeed, social codes and conventions are like contracts between parties, coded ways of knowledge, conventional ways of thinking, which transgressive creativity undoes.
“Even if people read, they do not read. There is an ideological mechanism, or a prejudice, which obliterates the very possibility of reading.”
People do not so much read any longer as they search for images to sustain their egos and their conceptions thereof in image-based fiction that acts to render language transparent: their relation to the text is narcissistic and egotistical. This is essentially an experience of the mirror. Ego psychology and ego-based analytic methods are meant to produce and maintain strong enough egos to sustain and nourish capitalism. These are adaptive techniques, meant to adapt people to society, not to free them to achieve a unique vision and embrace their own desire. People don’t read so much as they seek to fit things into their received notions and will indeed ignore anything that does not so fit. People read through their received knowledge and attempt to fit things into their preconceived notions (this is one definition of being reactionary). People expect to be able to read in the manner in which they’ve become accustomed and are unwilling to allow a text to define itself; as such it simply remains unreadable to them. People when they read have very distinct, very determined expectations, this is how they maintain their sense of self, and of identity. This means that people don’t apprehend a text, they seek to fit it into their received notions, and failing that they reject it. They’re looking for images to sustain them, for something they can use to justify their opinions or beliefs: they’re not apprehending the text, but rather they’re looking for something that they’re familiar with or interested in; they’re not reading. This is due to the fact that they are used to language being used in terms of communication (of ideas, viewpoint, etc). Literature seeks to affect the order of being, “an event is nothing but a certain distortion/twist in the order of Being” (Slavoj Zizek), not just in a rational manner, although it can and will ultimately expand the limits of rationality by expanding the limits of readability...
“There is, therefore, a single ideology of which Lacan provides the theory: that of the ‘modern ego’, that is to say, the paranoiac subject of scientific civilization, of which a warped psychology theorizes the imaginary, at the service of free enterprise.”
J.A. Miller Ecrits, A Selection, p.327
Capitalist realism acts and operates in a comparable manner to such adaptive techniques with its conceptions and models of the ego: its embrace and reliance on univocity, consistency, continuity. As fictive form capitalist realism is like cloning yourself to match all the other clones: there is no true otherness. In fact, the familiar, dominant prose enjoyed in this society is like kissing your clone, there is no otherness, and I mean otherness to yourself as well, just narrative and its assumed stability of image and meaning, which acts to conceal otherness. Indeed, in capitalist realism it’s as though we all share the same clone.
Narrative exists, indeed is founded on such an assumed stability of image and meaning, and is indeed one of the utmost expressions of it. Narrative requires stability and continuity, and is in fact a self-enclosed system based on stability and meaning. Why does literature have to be reduced to an imaginative experience? Why not try to produce physical effects or trance-like states in the reader? Why do we have to reduce the literary experience to an imaginary one? Why can’t it be other? Mystical, evental, based in the experience of the language itself, a provocation or means of provoking thought. Why can’t it attempt to reproduce the dissolving, the breaking down of identity that mystics (and psychotics) experience, not merely promoting identification, thereby solidifying identity?
Summary of Roland Barthes' Propositions:
1. The Text is not a definitive object. While the work is concrete (analogous to a substance), the Text is less substantial, more like a "field" (of force) or an event.
2. The Text functions as a paradoxical and subversive force. It resists easy classification according to traditional categories and hierarchies. In doing so, it pushes the limits of readability and rationality.
3. A work has two levels of meaning: literal and concealed. A Text, on the other hand, is engaged in a movement…a deferral…a dilation of meaning…the play of signification. Metonymy—the association of part to whole—characterizes the logic of the Text. In this sense the Text is "radically symbolic" and lacks closure.
4. In a Text, meaning is disseminated and irreducibly plural. Rather than allowing for an interpretation of its meaning, it typically leads to an explosion of meaning due to the fact that it's composed of a web of signification and intertextuality without origin or destination.
5. Whereas the work is understood to be traceable to a source (through a process of derivation or "filiation"), the Text is without a source—the "author" a mere "guest" at the reading of the Text.
6. The work is a commodity—an object of consumption. The Text narrows the distance between reading and writing by replacing consumption with the free play of collaborative reading. Difficulty arises when one attempts to consume the Text in a traditional sense. Only then does it become "unreadable" and boring.
7. The Text is linked to jouissance—losing oneself in a form of "pleasure without separation".
Roland Barthes, "From Work To Text" (in Image, Music, Text), can be found here:
In short, capitalist realism is a discourse founded on communication and based on a pre-existing model. This very way of thinking is based on a trap, a lure; it is invariably descriptive, that is, image based and not the thing itself, which would be the text in its material existence as literary event, but is based on an idea of unicity, of conventional codes of character, plot, and story, and all the imaginary and illusory stability, continuity and consistency that they assume utilize and rely on an image-based transparency of language. It remains a question of creating a literary language, of a transgressive creativity which has the ability to upset expectations, undo social codes and conventions, not to be a kind of slave music to help you through the adaptive necessitudes of your life as you grasp at a kind of shared structure or scaffolding.
Capitalist realism can be said to be like processed food. It is a form of processed prose; you chew less, you think less. You don’t even need to discover how to read the text, to know how it communicates since it is founded on a common model. It is a kind of prose-by-numbers version of paint-by-numbers where the structure, the very conception, embodied by the elements of character, voice, plot, story, is the pre-existing outline. Only the coloration is varied. Your expectations are met, you know how it communicates and how it communicates you. You snap right into place. It is literally a prose of the living dead.
So what is capitalist realism? Market determined strictures on the conception of prose which produces a model of ‘good prose’ which is not freely, esthetically determined, but which is based on market determined conceptions which reflect the needs and desires of a populace enduring a capitalist existence. An ideology to cover over internal contradictions, an illusory unicity to hide an otherness, an imaginary continuity to hide the discontinuity of our lives, which does not lend itself as readily to easily digested, univocal meaning, an illusory consistency to hide the inherent inconsistencies of subjectivity, inconsistencies which ultimately allow for you.
Capitalist realism is a kind of profound psychological morbidity, a kind of zombie prose, so that a fundamental, conceptual meaning can be produced and arrayed in the same way, as the hegemonic same. It is basically a soporific, a form of prozac for reassuring the quietly desperate in their work-a-day worlds. That capitalism has a history should be, at the very least, apparent. That it has engendered artistic forms which have come to be dominant in capitalist societies is perhaps not so apparent. Popular tastes are created for a reason, for the purpose, yes, of maximizing profits and productivity, but also to maintain a body of ossified, non-reflexive workers.
Simply stated there is a confluence of motives and rewards connecting psychology (the subject) and the socio-economic (capitalism). And the forms of art, as commodities, under capitalism, far from representing variants of freedom, manifest this confluence and further it, playing a role in its maintenance. The mutual rewards of fame and fortune are not the goals nor are they the function of literary practice. If it is a question of value, how do you accord value to that which is resisted by a general population? “The ego has a horror of the letter as such” (Jean-Claude Milner). What is literature’s value to the community? I would contend that a true literary practice is so poisonous to the community, that, although it has value as a means of moving society and the individual forward (a fundamental way that we, as a species, can be said to progress), it will always be resisted and denied positive value: the letter destabilizes the ego, and all capitalist realism is ego-based. Literature transcends, that is, remains outside of capitalism precisely because it ultimately unsettles capitalism by unsettling the ego. Literary practice is more like a science, a way of knowing. Literary practice, the literary act resulting in the literary event, should and must be in the service of the human mind and its precarious future, not of capitalism. More than anything, literary practice is a fundamental way of human knowing, not a means for producing commodities, and this is something that the commodity shops do not want to know, let alone practice.