(Reid Matko is the editorial director of Schism and is the author of Christmastown; Annette Descantes is a member of the editorial committee of Schism. Interview transcribed and interspersed notes courtesy of AD.)
Annette Descantes: There’s a good deal of attention drawn lately to the idea of Capitalist Realism, mostly due to Mark Fisher’s book of the same name. There is of course early Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Konrad Lueg and their version, and some would even include Andy Warhol in that history. How do you define your idea of Capitalist Realism and how does it differ?
Reid Matko: Of course the East Germans were responding to the constraints of Socialist Realism, my ideas are a bit more particular, they deal first and foremost with what's called literature in our society, how this literature is part and parcel of capitalism, and on the other hand, more generally, the extent to which how we think and make ourselves comes from the forms of our fictions.
AD: You mention that you believe that we are all structured as fictions, can you elaborate on this?
RM: Let’s begin by saying it another way: our fictions are structured as representations of us. In the simplest terms: we're structured in the same way that our fictions are structured. Our identities are not only structured as fictions but are indeed fictions, unless you believe your identity to be something essential, hence natural, a product of nature. Identity, our very human subjectivity even, is not natural, but is indeed, a cultural production. Now, how can a cultural production that is by definition not natural be structured or formed in any way but as fiction? Even theories are structured as fictions, our knowledge is structured as fiction, as is our relation to authority. Think of Lacan’s “le suject supposé savoir,” is this not an example of fiction? And what of our desires? When you realize that you don’t desire what you thought you did, do you acquire any understanding of the ability of your mind to create fictions? We are not born, we are made. And as made, we are structured. I know that some believe that we're determined genetically, etc. But that’s really not how genes work, genetic architecture is very complicated, much more complicated than any kind of simple, direct correspondence. I still find the Freudian model to be the most eloquent, not to mention the most well-reasoned and rational. It allows for both the sexualities and the phobias: simply stated, we all share a psychic bisexuality and are determined by unconscious forces and anxieties. Of course, if mathematics is our only true access to the real then everything else about our realities, including our realities themselves, is fantasmatic, and that means, structured as fiction. It can still be a lived truth, but it's nonetheless fantasmatic or imaginary. So, keeping these things in mind, how is our reality not structured as fiction?
AD: You use the phrase “The material organization of language reproduces conceptions of the mind.” What more can you say about this idea?..
RM: Generally I mean that every prose style is or contains a way of conceiving or thinking human subjectivity; it’s a way of representing how you think the human mind is organized and operates. In many ways this is not even overt. Say you have a single narrative voice providing an overview, what's implied by that? Is there an inherent conception of a unified being, a state of being as unicity? It may just be a shortcut for dispensing knowledge and tying narrative threads together, but it has implications as to how our being is presented. And what of your implied position as reader? Now I say that the dominant prose, the ideological representation, is fundamentally egocentric, and this, in part, reflects the needs and ideals of capitalist society. Capitalism needs certain types of minds, a certain structure of mind to keep it in producers and consumers for its relentless march, as well as a certain subjective position in relation to meaning and authority.
Think of different prose styles, take Finnegans Wake even, how does it compare to most anything written today? What exactly is going on in the enormous differences between the two? Or take Paradis, or La Jalousie, or even Three voiced periods, what do the differences express? What are they conceptions of, if not the same thing? Different ways of expressing how the mind works, how we occupy time and space, our relation to being. Right now we have a dominant prose style that has grown up with capitalism. But you know, sometimes the style fits, if only unwittingly; think of American Psycho, it’s not a great novel but it’s an appropriate use of the style, simply because it’s a style that’s perfectly suited to the spirit of the republic.
AD: So this describes your conception of literature. How about other forms, such as liturgy?
RM: Of course what I’m referring to is that something called ‘literature’, but ‘literature’ is so hard to define because it infects all things language, like poison in the bloodstream. I think of the Gospels as being literature that because of belief we're not capable of understanding, hence my love for Michael D. Goulder. But think of a scholarly paper, it represents an ideal of how the mind should be and operate, does it not? The example of liturgy is interesting because it implicates the performative. But are these not ways of conceiving the mind? How are they not? I think that any language usage is to a certain degree a way of conceiving the mind, some just more than others. This is related to the very idea of Capitalist Realism, the idea that there is a dominant prose, with its concurrent ideology, that represents the needs and ideals of capitalism and capitalist society, the society that no one can imagine being any other way (cf Mark Fisher), a prose that’s coherent, transparent, egocentric with its unicities. Welcome to an assumed, conventional way of thinking, a veritable conceptual hegemony, and it’s all represented in the prose. Where else should it be? We learn to think ourselves through our interaction with literature. Is it so hard to imagine that prose, language usage, involves a way of representing how the mind is believed to work? And that you share that belief and that makes for a kind of coherence which helps insure social order? And what is our social order if not capitalist? Ask yourself what kind of subjects does capitalism want? What kinds of subjects make capitalism work? Those who are drawn to its economic and narcissistic rewards are representatives of it. So the question is raised, can you change the way that people conceive of themselves? In large part pleasure and social rewards work against any such attempt.
AD: Well then, how would define your concept of Capitalist Realism?..
RM: Capitalist Realism is the dominant prose style advocated and chosen by publishers, editors, writing programs and workshops; it’s based on a nineteenth century model and its concomitant conception of realism. You know the prose, you could recognize it if it was put in front of you. It’s a kind of plodding reportage. The style of prose that’s been with us for centuries now, the accepted prose style, the style that is emulated and assumed to be natural. Go ahead, pick up any bestseller, look at any book on any bestseller list, whether genre fiction or literary fiction, which is of course just pulp with pretensions, and you'll find an example of Capitalist Realism. The, he-said-she-said-description-of-the-sky, prose. The unicity of voice, whether narrative or character voice, the transparency of language, the easy comprehension based, as it is, on convention. This is a prose style created by market forces, by editorial intervention, by ideas of 'good prose' and communicability, with an emphasis on story, on image and the idea that language should never get in the way of the story. In other words, pun intended, you should never see the language. There are of course economic and narcissistic rewards at work, along with a sentimental attachment to narrative. There is indeed a uniformity of prose, it all looks the same, reads the same and makes meaning in the same way. We could of course speak of the comfort and passivity of the familiar, and I think it also applies to thinking of ourselves, of our human subjectivity. So it’s reasonable to assume that just as our conceptions of literary prose are increasingly generic, formulaic, and plasticized, our modes of thinking human subjectivity are just as generic, formulaic, and plasticized. Where are the varieties of prose styles? Where is individuality? And I don’t mean some kind of Adorno-esque pseudo-individuality. Those who refer to a-typical prose styles as experimental are indeed performing an ideological policing function in support of the market because it pays for them to do so. There is no such thing as an experimental novel, there is only the opposite, novels that adhere to timeworn and tested conventions. To speak of ‘experimental novels’ is merely to seek to justify those conventions that are acceptable.
“If a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work on his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style.”
But those who produce non-conventional novels are relegated to being ‘weirdo formalists...oddball language players,’ creating ‘jazz literature,’ or some such drivel. The so-called experimental novels are simply closer to being unique and individual. All novels should be stylistically different, and not all the same; in fact, Capitalist Realism is what a hegemony of the subjective looks like, with its standardized prose, its concomitant and hegemonic conception of desire, and its relegation of the reader to a position of passivity. You're familiar with and assume its conception ahead of time, that’s why it’s so apprehensible, or understandable, that’s how you and it communicate in an expected and assumed manner. It doesn’t force you to discover how the prose communicates, how it communicates is pre-existant and is assumed. So in a way when the accepted prose is being taught and praised, what is really being taught and praised is a subjective hegemony, an accepted way of thinking, of conceiving subjectivity, a way of thinking and desiring that takes on airs of being natural; in short, an ideology.
There is no top down enforcement, the economic and narcissistic-egotistic, the media culture rewards are sufficient to perform this policing function: if you don't write the familiar accepted prose style you’ll be marginalized, and if you're not economically successful you're simply not recognized as successful. Money and fame are, after all, how we keep score in this society. Capitalist Realism is all about how we think of ourselves, our subjective being, and how it's inculcated, how we assume what it is we think we know when we think of ourselves. It’s clear that people don't want to question, not even their expectations, or have their lives questioned, they simply don't want to conceive of anything else than what they think they know, in a manner analogous to Mark Fisher's ideas regarding his version of Capitalist Realism.
"…(Adorno’s) restless theoretical work in charting this course effectively develops, albeit tacitly, a unified theory of art and social formation; one that maps the ground between the structuration of social, political and economic relations and their psychic correlates in the consciousness of individuals.
"The system of consumption is no less authoritarian than the system of production. It, too, is not answerable to the subjects whose lives it shapes. Submissiveness and dependency is demanded of individuals both at work and in leisure. The appeal of the (desociated) fetish-object is always to the desociated consumer. It reinforces the narcissism of the individual whose ego-weakness and dependency is a manifestation of the loss of any formative or constructive power in relation to commodities. The consumer submits to the 'appeal' of commodities, to the effects they can work upon him as a desiccated body, but lacks power over them; lacks the power, that is, to express or realize his life-process in them. The object's gain in power here is the subject's loss. The subject responds rigidly to fetish-objects (stimulus-response fashion) and every response becomes a more or less reliable and predictable reflex.
"The psychological correlates of fetish-consciousness are the counterparts of the socio-economic form of capitalist social relations. Products are standardized; the response of the consumer to the product is presupposed in the design of the product. It could not be otherwise unless the recipients were to be freely involved in the creation of the product and they are not (emphasis mine). Marketization does not encourage self-expression but is its antithesis; it maximizes predictability and repeatability. The system of production thus manipulates and controls the psyches of those who must make it work both as producers and as consumers; as a consequence, the individual ends up disempowered in both domains.”
Robert. W. Witkin, Adorno on popular culture, pp 3-5
Keep in mind a couple of things: with The Barthesian “death of the author” comes its correlate, the birth of the reader, so that the reader has a part in the process of the production of the literary event. Second of all, in our society the commodity represents social relations, it’s how people relate in our society; they hand people money, money that's based on a shared assumption of value, money that really isn’t worth anything, it’s just symbolic value, they hand people money for things and this passes for social relations. Everyone complains that people are farther apart than ever, well, this could be a direct result of our commodity-based society and its reduction of social relations to capital-commodity exchange.
AD: Is there a relationship between Socialist Realism and Capitalist Realism? Does the state have to have anything to do with Capitalist Realism?
RM: Not in our society. You could say that with globalization the state isn't even necessary for capitalism any longer. In fact capitalist entities argue against the need for government and its taxation and regulations, and we may even need a new model for capitalism as it creates new forms. It’s a mistake to think that capitalism doesn’t evolve as well. But there is an analogous or even homologous relationship between the two forms of realism. In a comparable way the totalitarianism inherent in Socialist Realism is inherent in Capitalist Realism as well. That’s their defining characteristic.
AD: What creates or produces Capitalist Realism? How has Capitalist Realism come about if not from the top down?
RM: Those who adhere to the dominant paradigms create and produce Capitalist Realism, simply because the rewards are there if you do. This success is then passed off as being a result of genius or whatever, and there is a certain amount of talent involved, although conformist in its impulse, but it's all just a set-up, a kind of pseudo-individuation à la Theodore Adorno,
“...the culture industries reproduce capitalist hegemony over the working class by engineering consent to the existing society, and thus establishing a socio-psychological basis for social integration. Whereas fascism destroyed civil society (or the "public sphere") through politicizing mediating institutions, or utilizing force to suppress all dissent, the culture industries coax individuals into the privacy of their home, or movie theater, while producing consumers-spectators of media events and escapist entertainment who are being subtly indoctrinated into dominant ideologies and conformist behavior..."
Douglas Kellner, T.W. Adorno and the Dialectics of Mass Culture, pp 8-9
...and they go on to appear on the television talk shows, are reviewed in the media book reviews, etc. The rewards are thus economic and narcissistic. We are all implicated in this capitalist world and its models and don't want to renounce the pleasures and the rewards that we derive from it. So we’re taught or told that if we want to succeed we have to adhere to the dominant paradigms because it’s assumed that that is the only legitimate way to make literature. As such it’s assumed to be natural. Look, it's a question of writing versus storytelling. When I write I'm not telling a story, I'm creating an experience, a reading experience, a language event, an intersection with language. I'm not telling a story, story-telling is a folk art. I'm seeking to inscribe experience, but a lived experience, not the representation of a lived experience. Telling stories might be a part of this experience but it’s not the goal or reason for what I attempt.
AD: How does Capitalist Realism relate to the 'Society of the Spectacle' and what is referred to as media culture?
*(cf note at end of interview-AD)
RM: Think again of Adorno and his conception of the culture industry. Also consider that in the regime of Capitalist Realism literature becomes reduced to the image, to the transparency of language and thus becomes a mediated, not immediate experience. In fact, most readers can’t even see the physical reality of the language and the page in front of them because everything is reduced to, and they’re blinded by, the image. No one wants the language to get in the way, this would be like a barb getting in the way of the seamless illusion. Here you can find the relation to the Society of the Spectacle: everything is mediated through the image. Furthermore, you can be assured that the degree of transparency of language is directly related to the degree of passivity of the reader. With such transparency of language, with transparent fictive language, the emphasis is on the image produced, on the effect produced by the language. You don't ever see the production, that is, how the images and effects are produced. They remain invisible, you only ever see the product. In this way the reader is alienated, made passive and rendered a consumer, not an active participant in a collaborative experience between reader and text. The work of fiction that relies on such transparency of language is an object of consumption.
“I’ve never felt less self-consciously preoccupied with language than I did when I was writing Freedom. Over and over again, as I was producing chapters, I said to myself, “This feels nothing like the writing I did for twenty years—this just feels transparent.
“I was admittedly somewhat conscious that this was a good sign—that it might mean that I was doing something different, pressing language more completely into the service of providing transparent access to the stories I was telling and to the characters in those stories. But it still felt like a leap into the void.”
Jonathan Franzen, Paris Review, Winter, 2010
Even the 'voice on the page' is essentially an image of subjectivity based on the narrator-authorial presence in language, not the language itself. It’s thus for all intents and purposes a metaphysics of presence, not to mention a curious version of phenomenology. And of course by this time we have a stock repertoire of images that we can use to enhance and to elaborate our perceptions. We could even refer to it as the spectacle industry, in place of the culture industry. Compare with Barthes: "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." And as far as the Society of the Spectacle is concerned, consider horror movies, I think horror movies can be very informative; more than anything lurking below a surface, in our culture many horror movies are based on the deformation and instability of the image. These are important sources of horror in this society of the spectacle, our media culture.
AD: I have in mind your text Three voiced periods, which is, to say the least, very different from what anyone would consider standard prose.
(You can find Three voiced periods here:
RM: The interesting thing about Three voiced periods is that no one can see it. They seem ideologically incapable of even apprehending it. They can’t see it, they can’t read it, because of their expectations of what prose is, because of what they expect to see on the page. It remains, as one critic remarked, “experimental and generally unintelligible,” when in fact it’s very simple. It simply utilizes the page itself, the physical qualities of reading and the page. It uses the movement of reading from left to right and back again, as well as the cut of the page to inscribe the minimal events which constitute subjectivity. These are of course symbolic events. For instance, the first period deals with the breaking of the mother-child dyad by the paternal presence. The proto-subject is laying in bed in a near-hypnotic trance staring at the moon when a presence from the right breaks up that dyad. This is simply inscribed in and on the page utilizing repetition as its major mode of assemblage (every line moves to the right and then back to the left), considering that these events are not singular events but are repeated in different ways throughout our lives. The second involves a ‘body of light’ which simply symbolizes the gestalt which results in our ability to think our body as a whole and which is symbolized by the body of parts forming a whole, represented in Three voiced periods by the body of, seemingly aleatory, lines forming a whole. It echoes Lacan’s ‘stade du miroir’ as well as the body of the resurrection. The third is a bit more difficult to describe. The event in question is a glimpse, a perception of a pulsing, energetic field that is something other than us– the pulsing field of words and images. This is something that’s viewed from the outside and which isolates you in a frozen state of conscious being. It’s as though you’re watching this pulsing field of signifiers that’s like a slice of light through a partially opened door filled with flowing images and words. This experience, or event, finds an interesting echo in Lacan’s Séminaire XI when he refers to a pulsation that petrifies the subject. It’s the pulsation of the symbolic and the imaginary, a force other than us, that we appropriate and is symbolized in the movement and flow of the language across the page.
“The use of language itself, cloaking us in the safety of the Other [substitutes a body of discourse for the body that bleeds]. As the subject is inserted into this chain of signifiers, Lacan identifies a pulsation, which acts to reduce “...the subject in question to being no more than a signifier, to petrify the subject in the same movement in which it calls the subject to function, to speak, as a subject...”
lacanian ink 40, p 119
“The signifier, producing itself in the field of the Other, makes manifest the subject of its signification. But it functions as a signifier only to reduce the subject in question to being no more than a signifier, to petrify the subject in the same movement in which it calls the subject to function, to speak, as subject. There, strictly speaking, is the temporal pulsation in which is established that which is characteristic of the departure of the unconscious as such– the closing.”
Lacan, Séminaire XI, p 207
It presents us with the question regarding the split between biology and meaning, or signifier. You can consider my three voiced ‘periods’ to be either visions or psychotic episodes depending on your predilection. I’ve always referred to Three voiced periods as, ostensibly, a meditation on the Trinity.
Now the inability to apprehend texts like this is indeed a form of cultural blindness, driven by ideology, by being determined by something we could refer to as ‘the culture industry’, but which we might want to call the ‘entertainment industry’ which seems to place it a little closer to home.
It means simply that people cannot see the page for the image that is represented in the language. They’ve bought into the ideology of Capitalist Realist prose, into the ideology of ‘literary fiction’, they see nothing else because they live in that bubble, in that narrow focus: these are called their expectations. In painting or plastic arts, it’s quite common for people to encounter or to be told they’re going to encounter things outside of their expectations. Strangely it’s different with literature. This is because literature involves the stability, not only of identity, but of your very reality itself. Your expectations need to be met in order for that stability to be propagated. Nothing creates anxiety like fluidity and instability. In Three voiced periods I’ve attempted to create a trance-like state in order to produce a (spontaneous) physical reaction: it’s more like an exorcism, or at the very least, a spiritual exercise than what is presently considered to be fiction. It’s like Gnawa music in that regard.
AD: I’m impressed by the Dantesque qualities of the text, the twenty-seven lines per page, the thirty-three page sections...
RM: Indeed, it is Trinitarian in its structure and purposely so. The Trinity is an attempt to think the human mind. The writers and thinkers I love involve attempts to think human subjectivity and the human mind. Three voiced periods is an attempt to think the human mind. It’s about the structure of the human mind. In a sense, I’m not telling a story or stories so much as I’m attempting to inscribe the symbolic life of the mind. In fact, I believe that the only interesting story is the story of the enunciation, how it is that we are speaking animals. In short, people don’t really read in this society, they just try to fit things into their received notions, into their expectations. Capitalist Realism has become the natural way to think human subjectivity, it’s like an instituted blindness, and as it’s assumed to be natural it exists as dominant ideology. Capitalist Realism becomes a reified or objective view, or way of thinking, it becomes as though it were natural to think of ourselves in its terms and not any other way. Think of Tom Wolfe and his emphasis on and propagation of what he calls social realism. Realism, like any other literary genre, is composed of conventions; it’s based on a code. Indeed, there are many different forms of realism, it’s something of an arbitrary concept. It’s clear that despite, or perhaps because of, Mr. Wolfe’s journalistic satires he doesn’t know much about literature or realism. In fact, he’s something of an idiot when it comes to such things, which would be alright, but it’s not anything you should wear like a white suit.
AD: What writers produce literature that you consider to be other than Capitalist Realist?
RM: Look at some of the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Samuel Beckett, Edmond Jabès, William S. Burroughs, Ronald Sukenick, Philippe Sollers, Juan Goytisolo, Severo Sarduy, the theoretical and critical work of Julia Kristeva amongst others, not to mention Andrei Bely who wrote things at the beginning of the 20th c. that are more interesting than 95% of what is being produced today. Think of Joyce, particularly the Wake, Julian Rios and Larva, Sasha Sokolov and School For Fools, Monique Wittig and Les Guérillières and Le Corps Lesbien, and even Borges. There are some marvellous recordings of Gertrude Stein reading some of her writing on UbuWeb.
Think of the writers who create their own forms or styles of prose, those who operate outside of convention or who undermine, play with, or seek to undo convention. Those who don't have such an approach and attitude produce the same standard prose, maybe blocked or broken up in a new way, but they don't seem to want to try to do anything else with words, sounds, rhythms, with meaning, comprehension, or even fundamental conception. They're seemingly stuck in the realist-descriptive approach to prose, content to reproduce standard image-based consumerist fiction, based on a transparent language and having the effect of rendering readers passive. Basically they give the readers what they expect without asking anything of them. They do this because they're either told or taught that they need to do so in order to be comprehensible, or because they choose to do so for economic or narcissistic reasons, or because they just don't know any better. In this sense most writers are nothing more than mere copyists. They’re like monks sitting at their tables copying scripture, it’s just that what they copy is a conception, not of a text but a style of text, a way of thinking comparable to a belief, to a way of believing. It’s an analogous kind of literalism, they believe it literally represents them, the narrative voice, its unicity, the I, you, he, it’s a kind of fundamentalism, a response, a reactionary response to an existential threat. That threat is the debasing, the decentering of the ego. Barthes would call them clerks, I call them copyists. Think of Burroughs and Pierre Guyotat and what I like to call the ‘masturbatory frenzy’ of their prose as a way of subverting that kind of fundamentalism.
AD: Why does literature matter?
RM: Apart from the pleasure of the literary experience, ask yourself if literature is related in any way to the future of the human mind. Indeed, what is the future of the human mind? What can literature accomplish? How have we come to think of ourselves and how are we to think of ourselves in the future? How has literature mattered in the past? Has it in any way contributed to our understanding of our human being? Let’s ask this, do we want there to be, at least, the possibility of change? Or do we want there to be a social, cultural, and psychological morbidity? The literary event, insofar as it undoes convention, allows for change, for what can be called progress. Of course literature has always contributed to our understanding of human being, most anyone who thinks or attempts to think who and what we are references literature in some way at some time. This is clearly how we have come to think ourselves: in terms of our cultural history, in reference to stories, tales, myths, fables. Literature can be a fundamental way of human knowing. And now we can proceed by advocating a different relation to language, to the words on a page, to the structure of a text, and using that as a pivot to spark a change in how we think ourselves and our place in this unimaginably vast and inconceivably violent cosmos.
*“realism (is) a social practice of representation which exploits the plurality of language in a limited way.
“...realism stresses the product and not the production. It represses production in the same way that the mechanism of the market, of general exchangeability, represses production in capitalist society. It does not matter where a product comes from, how it was made, by whom or for what purpose it was intended. All that matters is its value measured against the general medium of exchange, money. In the same way, it does not matter that realism is produced by a certain use of language, by a complex production: all that matters is the illusion, the story, the content. What we value is its truth to life, the accuracy of its vision. We do not read Agatha Christie of John Braine for the productivity of their language, we read for the story, the impression we produce of a real world. When we pay attention to the ‘style’ of writers,...it is because this style produces the illusion of a character;...We do not look at the production, but the product...
“...realism (is) an effect of language, and not language as a (rhetorical) effect of realism.
“This repression of production takes place because realism has as its basic philosophy of language not a production (signification being the production of a signified through the action of the signifying chain), but an identity: the signifier is treated as identical to a (pre-existant) signified. The signifier and signified are not seen as caught up together in a process of production, they are treated as equivalents: the signifier is merely the equivalent of a pre-established concept. It seems as though it is not the business of language to establish this concept, but merely to express or communicate it. ‘Not only do signifier and signified seem to unite, but in this confusion, the signifier seems to be erased or to become transparent so as to let the concept present itself, just as if it were referring to nothing but its own presence’ (Derrida, Positions, pp 32-3). Language is treated as though it stands in for, is identical with, the real world. The business of realist writing is, according to its philosophy, to be the equivalent of a reality, to imitate it. This ‘imitation’ is the basis of realist literature and its technical name is mimesis, mimicry. The whole basis of mimesis is that writing is a mere transcription of the real, carrying it over into a medium that exists only as a parasitic practice because the word is identical to, equivalent of, the real world. Realism naturalises the arbitrary nature of the sign; its philosophy is that of an identity between signifier and signified in the level of an entire text as much as that of a single word.
“In Tristam Shandy...realist language becomes treacherous, the signifier is no longer linked to the signifier in a relationship of identity. There is a constant sliding of signifiers; substitution, relationships of metaphor; a dissolution of the realist signified-signifier equivalence.
“With Sarrasine,...the realist convention is no longer visible as a convention; it has become natural, identical with reality. So anything that disturbs its naturalness, its ability to imitate the real, inevitably disturbs the real as much as its instrumental language...
“The realist narrative functions to uncover a world of truth, a world without contradictions, a homogenous world of appearance supported by essences.
“...the process of narrative is itself necessarily a statement of contradiction and heterogeneity: although the narrative-as-product displays a harmonious world of reality, the process of unfolding is the continuous statement of contradiction which will be more or less closed at the end.
“This process of narrative, a process that opens and closes with homogeneity, depends on ‘the inscription of the subject as the place of its intelligibility.’ The whole process is directed towards the place of a reader: in order that it should be intelligible, the reader has to adopt a certain position with regard to the text. This position is that of homogeneity, of truth. The narration calls upon the subject to regard the process of the narrative as a provisional openness, dependent upon the closure which the subject expects as the very precondition of its pleasure. In order that the narrative is intelligible at all, it is necessary that the subject regards the discourse of narration as the discourse of the unfolding of truth. The subject must operate the identity between signifer and signified: and as we shall see, the construction of the subject as homogeneous in ideology places it in an imaginary position of transcendence to this system. So the subject is constructed in such a way that it is not questioned by the flux of the text (something that is regarded as an ‘aberrant reaction’); neither is it thrown into process by the sliding of signifiers which disestablish social positionality, as with the avant-garde text. Narration rather sets the subject in place as the point of intelligibility of its activity: the subject is then in a position of observation, understanding, synthesising. The subject of narration is a homogeneous subject, fixed in a relation of watching. It is precisely this relationship of specularity that becomes clear in the analysis of films, hence the importance of magazines like Screen which analyse narration in the cinema and the positions for the subject that it includes.
“Texts that do not depend on placing the subject in this kind of position are as rare in cinema as in literature itself.
“Thus realism has two basic features: mimesis, the imitation of reality based on fixing the signifier/signified identity, and the stratification of discourses around this which set the subject in a place of mastery. But these mechanisms take place over a multitude of different texts, and are supported by a practice of reading and writing. So how does realism find its hold, how does it appear multiple and always changing, as the immediate ‘spontaneous’ mode of writing and reading? The practice of reading and writing are determined by the widest forms of behaviour, the basic attitude of capitalist society: reading is a consumption, writing is a purely instrumental use of language. Reading as consumption presupposes that the text is read once, for its imitation of reality: “...re-reading is an operation contrary to the commercial and ideological habits of our society which would have us “throw away” the story once it has been consumed (“devoured’), so that one can move on to another story, buy another book.’ (S/Z. p 15)”
Rosalind Coward and John Ellis, Language and Materialism, pp 46-51
April 1, 2013