Wednesday, February 19, 2014

“Ideological Effects Of The Basic Literary-Narrative Apparatus*”
by Hans Heinrich-Herber

(Hans Heinrich-Herber is a member of the editorial committee of Schism and the author of The Only Living Novel, to be published by LetternetPress/OpenDrawerPublications.)

               “Fantasy is both that which covers up inconsistencies within the symbolic order   
          and that which ideological interpellation works today in our seemingly ‘post-
          ideological’ times: it is through our apparent distance from ideology (non-ideological 
          enjoyment, fantasy, cynicism) that ideology captures us.” 
                                                      (Slavoj Zizek, Interrogating The Real, continuum, 2005. p 364)

      Let me begin with a borrowing, a pastiche of sorts:

     “In this seminal article, Reid Matko, like many others, uses an analogy to develop the implications of his argument. Matko claims that the masking of self-contradiction, otherness, and difference in narrative literature resembles the masking of our perception of the physical experience of language and the text. He elaborates on the basic concept of apparent physicality to construct an imposing theoretical argument. He draws from Louis Althusser the idea that relations to real conditions which do not help us to realize how those relations were constructed are ipso facto ideological. They lack the "knowledge effect" that a realization of their production would entail. This idea allows Matko to posit that narrative-literature (especially as it exists in our Capitalist society), based on an illusory unity, is based on a fundamentally ideological effect.

     “Matko turns to Jacques Lacan to demonstrate that this ideological effect involves constituting the reader as a transcendental subject or imaginary unity. The continuous unfurling of a universe before our eyes/through the image in the text confirms our own centrality: when our vision (our visual imagination) roams freely, liberated from the body/word, the world exists for it; our sight/ego is the world's point of origin and its source of coherence. Matko summarizes Lacan's notion of the mirror-stage, likening it to our experience in narrative, where we identify not only with characters but also with the implied narrator’s ego ideal as the surrogate for our desire for order, organization, and unity. We want a narrative that makes sense of disparate experiences, that confirms the self as the transcendent, all-knowing center of the world.

     “This turn toward Lacan and the psychoanalytic approach also turns us toward ideology, but ideology here remains at some remove from specific instances in the political, economic, or social arenas. It is an ideology of the subject and of subjectivity, which certainly underpins specific ideologies of class, gender, race, and nationality but which in isolation leads to an idealist conception of the subject or ego apart from specific historical conditions.

     “Some argue that such generalized effects fail to account for patterns of varied and conflictual ideological effects at particular levels of textual analysis. If this is right, Matko's thesis...constructs an imaginary coherence for narrative-literature by positing an attractive analogy in which narrative-literature masks difference in a way that resembles the masking of difference in the mirror-stage. Thus, Matko's argument may be compelling and satisfying precisely because of its own effect, which is one of producing an imaginary unity for narrative-literature. But, even if his analogy is overextended, Matko may also be right: The potential of narrative-literature for the production of knowledge may be severely constrained by the nature of the ‘apparatus’. That this ‘apparatus’ renders the production of knowledge completely impossible, as Matko seems to imply, remains very much in doubt.”

 (The preceeding is an adapted version of an introduction to Jean-Louis Baudry’s “Ideological Effects Of The Basic Cinematographic Apparatus” from Movies and Methods: An Anthology, Volume 2 by Bill Nichols, University of California Press, 1985, p 531.)

     Of course, far from being simply a canard or a pleasantry, this is a proposition, a proposition that there is an analogy at work here: Matko’s thesis bears an analogical relation to Baudry’s and indeed, uses Baudry’s thesis to elucidate his own. There is a similarity between the approaches of Baudry and of Matko, both of which have a common goal in mind: freeing cinema and literature from their ideological shackles. According to Matko, the image masks the material experience of language and, by extension, of literature, in the same way that the transcendental subject, the imaginary unity, masks our experience as full human subjectivities, which would incorporate contradiction, antagonism, and self-difference. This imaginary unity is a way of stabilizing that which is inherently unstable. As all human identity is structured as fiction, it must be repeated over and over that any identity that is taken to be authentic or true only ever functions as a representation of authority, and that this is a way of stabilizing that which is inherently unstable, i.e. human identity.

     Narrative-literature is a ‘subjectivity apparatus’, and the primary function of this apparatus is not to represent (physical reality), rather it produces a subject or simulates a psychological conditioning. This conditioning is evoked through identification. The primary and invisible identification is with the narrator as transcendental or as a form of omniscient vision (which is inherently ideological, the reader remains blind to how it is produced, as well as to its effects), secondary identification is with the characters, and you identify with all of them despite what you repress or censor.
     The text is a medium defined not as a capacity for representation (‘realism’), but as a (philosophical) system of component parts wherein the reader is simultaneously a part of the text and its product, a ‘subject effect’. Prose, its styles, are not neutral or value-free, rather they are both socially conditioned and socially conditioning.
     Realism, realist prose has these ideological objectives:
     ––a repression of the work of signification giving the false impression that the prose represents reality transparently, i.e. without transforming it (or enframing it with meaning)...[When in actuality] the world is framed and made intentionally meaningful for the reader.
     ––it positions the reader as an ideal or transcendental perspective, the master of a meaningful world (based on the image).

     Literature does not simulate reality, it simulates the condition of the subject. The ‘reality’ mimed is thus first of all that of a ‘self’. Thus with a little imagination we can apply the concept of the dispositif to the act of reading, and perhaps see that indeed, reading is the model for further technological elaborations:
               Such is the advantage of the concept of the dispositiv in that it pertains to both    
          hypothetical subject position and to the actual person (the one to whom the projection is   
          addressed), or to the (imaginary) spectator and to the (real) viewer. Exactly because of these 
          features the concept of the dispositiv provides the means of conceiving communication 
          technology within its use as a situation and as a setting, locational and relational at the same 
          time, which both constitutes and includes the subject. Constituted is an imaginary subject 
          position, a simulated point of view which one must take in order to recognize representations 
          and which all spectators share. Included is the individual, the concrete, living person, and 
          every single cinema-goer to whom the dispositiv assigns a distinct place within the setting. 
          Baudry wants to prove that reading/cinema technology is not neutral, that it is not a natural 
          but a social phenomena with certain social effects. The way he proves this social dimension of 
          technology is by theorizing the fact that communication technology works on, that it affects, 

(Melita Zajc, The Concept of Dispositiv:  Studying Technology in Terms of its Use 
Because of the All Yet-To-Be-Written User Manuals, in: A Decade of Transformation, 
IWM Junior Visiting Fellows Conferences, Vol. 8: Vienna 1999)

     Literature is more than mere knowledge, it is where the social contract and its codes are destroyed and renewed. It is a question of new forms for literature (as Roland Barthes stated, “in order to expand rationality and readability”) but the problem encountered is that Americanized readers are (ideologically) incapable of apprehending any such new forms, generally speaking their egos need something to identify with (be it ‘voice’ and its illusion of transparent self-presence, ‘characters’ and figures possessing imaginary consistency and illusory continuity, et al). They need representations of transcendental subjects, of imaginary unities, representations of and for their egos because they have been ideologically programmed to think in such terms, to see and to think themselves in such ways. In fact, this Capitalist society requires a certain conception and vision of human subjectivity and its possibilities. These representations serve social policing functions, they allow you to connect, to fit into this Capitalist social universe. It’s like the model for and of an adaptive ego-psychology, a psychology, as practiced in this society with its emphasis on the ego and on pharmaceutic ‘cures’, that adapts egos to function in the prevailing society.  

          “The true nature of the media system seems to me to lie in consensus itself, in the sense that 
           it’s because consensus rules that the media is what they are. I don’t think the media constructs 
           consensus. Rather, it’s consensus that makes people put up with the media’s repetitive   
           mediocrity and paucity of information. People thrive on this moreover, they revel in it; they 
           chip in their contribution and go play their part. You have to see the way the media summon 
           people and how people adore this. They are thrilled to go and announce that they are part of 
           the process. They’re ready to do all it takes to keep the media show going.” 
                                                                                      (Alain Badiou, Philosophy And The Event, Polity Press, 2013 p 9)

     This is fiction, narrative-literature, as an adaptive model, presenting an ego ideal in the form of an imaginary unity, a transcendental subject. The transcendental subject is the one that’s “born this way”, coming ready-made into the world, not the result of any process.This is how fiction as presently manifested represents us and how it wants us to think ourselves, and we have something to gain from doing so: there is a consensus at work in this dynamic. There is a consensus of what prose should be and how it should represent us, there is a consensus at work in how we think ourselves and how we seek out representations of ourselves in our fictions.

     This adaptive model, along with the models of human subjectivity that it promotes, are in the service of Capitalism; Capitalism is implicated because this adaptive model represents and promotes a form of subjectivity conducive to Capitalism, and the public is implicated because it allows for representations of the ego and for the inscription of desire, desire that is frustrated, if not created, by the necessitudes of life under Capitalism and its constraints. It can’t be said enough, Capitalism wants certain types, certain models of subjectivity.

     All we need is to ask is why it is that the vast majority of prose fiction, and all of mainstream prose fiction, from pulp to literary fiction, looks the same, reads the same, and means the same way, why does it adhere to the conventions that it does? The answer can only be consensus,and precisely consensus because this type of prose fiction provides or allows for something. It allows for the expressions of (ego) desire and for a socially compatible and productive subject for Capitalism: it keeps the edifice running. Capitalism promotes the types of subjectivity that it desires and needs for its smooth operation and continuance. This is an operation of ideology in that these representations do not help us in any way understand how they are produced, but in fact hide such knowledge behind the representation of subjectivity as imaginary unity or transcendental, their production remaining hidden. People tend to take up such conditioned subjectivities and adhere to them because they allow for the illusion of stability and because they are rewarded by Capitalism by doing so; they can be functioning members of its system.

     New forms, and new modes of representing the human subject, who and what we are, this is what Matko is advocating. And doing so precisely in order “to expand rationality and readability”. This begs another question underlying Matko’s thesis: what is transgressive creativity, and how it is possible? How does it come about and, perhaps more importantly, how can it be cultivated? First we must understand convention and social code and what they do and do not allow for before we can understand how to undo them, for, if it does anything, transgressive creativity undoes and subverts convention. Only such action allows for the renewal of social codes and of the social contract in general.

     So the task remains, how do we remove the deleterious effects of Capitalism from literature, how do we remove literature from the corroding influences of Capitalism? Capitalism has shaped literature, especially narrative-literature, in its present forms, from pulp to literary fiction and everything in-between, forcing it to exist within a narrow scope of conventions simply because it serves a consensual purpose to have it do so. Literature should have a function that is transgressive in character and purpose, hence a function that is necessarily going to be co-opted if not submerged by Capitalism, which desires nothing more than a status quo: this is the force that shapes literature and gives us its present forms, and against which Matko foments and instigates.

[* “Apparatus”, is a non-precise translation of the French term ‘dispositif’. It in no way refers to a mechanical device, but rather. “a network or structure comprised of heterogenous elements that give rise to certain effects of subjectivization...” For a succinct discussion of this see Fabien Tarby’s Preface to his collection of conversations with Alain Badiou “Philosophy And The Event” (Polity Press, 2013).]