FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 29, July 1999

 


 

Erica Sheen

As Animals Might Dream

 


 

 

 

 

Fredric Jameson

_Signatures of the Visible _

New York: Routledge, 1992

ISBN 0-415-90011-5 hb

ISBN 0-415-90012-3 pbk

254 pp

 

I

'The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination; thinking about its attributes becomes an adjunct to that, if it is unwilling to betray its object; while the most austere films necessarily draw their energy from the attempt to repress their own excess (rather than from the more thankless effort to discipline the viewer).' (1)

 

This is the opening sentence of Fredric Jameson's _Signatures of the Visible_, a collection of essays that includes most of his best known pieces on film and cinema. Between them, these articles display the acuity of Jameson's perception of the important film, whether in the context of Hollywood, or that of global cinema: 'Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture'; 'Class and Allegory in Contemporary Mass Culture: Dog Day Afternoon as a Political Film'; 'Diva and French Socialism'; 'Historicism in The Shining'; 'In the destructive element immerse' (Syberberg on Hitler as auteur); 'Allegorizing Hitchcock' (with its wonderful divagation on the perils of negotiating the San Franciscan sidewalk); 'On Magic Realism in Film', an intense cross-reading of Polish and Venezualan films about political violence; and a new piece, 'The Existence of Italy', an extended reappraisal of the dialectic of realism, modernism, and postmodernism which Jameson describes as 'the most sustained . . . I have so far attempted' (6).

 

It is also the winning sentence in _Philosophy and Literature_ journal's 1996 Bad Writing Contest. Three of the essays in _Signatures of the Visible_ were first published in _Social Text_, so they might be said to have a distinguished pedigree in incomprehensibility: _Social Text_ was the journal to which Alan Sokal famously submitted a spoof essay parodying what he saw as the meaningless discourses of contemporary theory. Commenting on this contest in _Philosophy and Literature_, Denis Dutton appeared to agree with him. Pointing out that 'it remains our opinion that anyone who thinks visual experience is essentially pornographic suffers confusions that no improvements in English are going to remedy', he identified what he described as 'a challenging new career opportunity for an academic: translating the prose of Fredric Jameson into English'. [1]

 

In fact, by Jameson's own standards, the sentence in question is a pussy cat. But there are ways in which the issue of translation (and of domestic animals) can more usefully be brought to bear on the main argument of this book: the 'proposition' that 'the only way to think the visual, to get a handle on increasing tendential, all-pervasive visuality as such, is to grasp its historical coming into being' (1).

 

II

Reviewing a book which was published seven years ago and consists largely of essays that have been in the public domain for up to twenty years is a particular kind of critical activity. I am not going to treat it as if this material needs introducing to a new readership, though I will have things to say about the kind of publishing activity that does. [2] Bearing in mind the interests of _Film-Philosophy_, and some of the recent arguments under discussion here in the salon, what I intend to do is consider two ostensibly unrelated issues: 'bad' writing; and the 'historical coming into being' of the visual. There is, I suggest, a relationship between them, and a much more interesting and important one than a merely institutional or disciplinary put-down might imply. From John Milton's description of Satan as a 'bad angel', to Abel Ferrara's _Bad Lieutenant_, the word 'bad' carries an intensity of heroic understatement that bears witness to a kind of materialist sublime. Theoretically proleptic as well as formally oppositional, this little word alerts us to forms of transgression whose time has not yet come, but whose meanings are imminent. What does it mean for history to have powerful beings -- devils, policemen, cultural theorists -- who are committed to being 'bad'? [3]

 

To begin with, I should say that this sentence of Jameson's had a bad effect on me too, but mainly because I think the word 'pornographic' has lost all serious theoretical content. This is very much to the point. As Denis Dutton's comment seems to confirm, an identification of this sentence as bad writing seems to veer undecidedly between the difficulties of a single word, and those of a syntactical structure. The sense that this writing is 'bad' (a 'confusion') seems in itself to create a confusion about where badness in writing is. This isn't just a question of making a choice between semantics or syntax as the appropriate level of description; more of how the connection between these levels works -- just exactly where in a sentence do we make the jump from form to meaning, or vice versa? I want to suggest that this confusion -- the geopolitics of reading, so to speak -- is what happens with Jameson all the time, and that it is the basis on which his bad writing is a significant contribution to 'thinking the visual'.

 

III

I always look forward to reading Jameson, with a strong expectation of illumination. I always look back at having read him with a sense of captivated enrichment. What happens in between, however, is more of a problem. The word-by-word process (Derrida's 'dialectics of protention and retention that generates all signifying force in alphabetic language') is extremely, almost physically, painful, and I have to force myself over and over again to concentrate, to keep reading, and to finish -- which, notwithstanding, I do. Since there are lots of books I don't finish, this is in itself interesting. The fact is, Jameson makes me feel so bad that I read him in a state sensitised to the extent of my own failure, and finishing him is one of the few things I can do to atone. I suppose you might say that he thus forces you to experience one of the most characteristic perceptions of what he calls 'the Marxist problematic': the function of 'determinate failure' within the dialectic of cultural forms. Indeed, through me, that dialectic inscribes itself fully on Jameson's work as well as in it. My copies of his books are covered with annotation, even though at the time I often can't remember what he's said from paragraph to paragraph. When I pick his books up again later, I'm amazed at the ideas that came into my mind while I was working on it, but also at how little of it I still seem to know. Where does it all go?

 

It is of course an orthodoxy of contemporary theoretical discourse, particularly of Marxist discourse, that it's difficult, and that that's the point -- jouissance rather than plaisir; a politics of writing that deconstructs the intellectual agency of the author even as it reconfigures the text as the space of the reader. Unsurprisingly, the Barthesian paradigm has provided the starting point not only for a Marxist stylistics but also for a critical approach to it. [4] Equally unsurprisingly, the paradigm doesn't perform exactly according to expectations. Terry Eagleton has identified the experience of reading Jameson as one of 'profound pleasure'. By this he meant pleasure, not 'bliss'. According to Eagleton, since Jameson is prepared to take up the 'grave burdens' of 'historical responsibility', he must be allowed a little for himself, and that, precisely, is style. Style in Jameson is the excess or self-delight which escapes even his own most strenuously analytical habits. [5]

 

Something fascinating is happening here. In his own highly characteristic use of that single word 'precisely', Eagleton allows himself, precisely, the 'little' that is, precisely, style; in doing so, he turns his own (by Jamesonian standards) unexcessive second sentence into a critique rather than an affirmation. What Eagleton is saying is that Jameson offers the pleasures of the masterful and mastering Author. At the same time, though, he himself offers a plaisir which, because it draws attention to the extent to which it allows itself to be contained within strenuously analytical habits rather than self-delightedly escaping, insinuates Jameson's style as, by comparison, a form of (politically self-indulgent) jouissance. This is a master/slave dialectic indeed; a style war that might remind us of the shoot-out between Ben Jonson and Shakespeare, to whom I will return in due course.

 

It is, ultimately, the question of politics that is at stake, and Jameson is not prepared to concede it. In _The Ideologies of Theory_, Jameson insists that Barthes's _The Pleasure of the Text_ restored 'a certain politically symbolic value to the experience of jouissance, making it impossible to read the latter except as a response to a political and historical dilemma'. [6] (Note here this use of 'the latter'. If Eagleton's prose is marked by the pointedness of 'precisely', Jameson's is marked by the syntactic sprawl of anaphoric 'former/latter' structures. They make you scroll constantly forwards and backwards across the surface of his page). If this analysis of Barthes strikes some readers as a somewhat masterful reading of _The Pleasure of the Text_, _Signatures of the Visible_ offers another, and it is one that brings us directly us to the idea of the sentence, and from there, back to the issue of translation. Here I quote, at some length, a crucial passage from his Introduction:

 

'Barthes thought certain kinds of writing -- perhaps we should say, certain kinds of sentences -- to be scriptible, because they made you wish to write further yourself; they stimulated imitation, and promised a pleasure in combining language that had little enough to do with the notation of new ideas. But I think that he thought this because he took an attitude towards those sentences which was not essentially linguistic, and had little to do with reading: what is scriptible indeed is the visual or the musical, what corresponds to the two outside senses that tug at language between themselves and dispute its peculiarly unphysical attention, its short circuit of the sentences for the mind itself that makes of the mysterious thing reading some superstitious and adult power, which the lowlier arts imagine uncomprehendingly, as animals might dream of the strangeness of human thinking. We do not in that sense read painting, nor do we hear music with any of the attention reserved for oral recitation; but this is why the more advanced and rationalized activity can also have its dream of the other, and regress to a longing for the more immediate sensory, wishing it could pass altogether into the visual, or be sublimated into the scriptural body of pure sound.' (2)

 

Difficult as this is -- structures of cohesion are both foregrounded and dysfunctional -- it is not an accurate representation of Barthes's ideas about 'scriptibility'. The inaccuracy begins with the act of (mis)translation identified by 'certain kinds of writing -- perhaps we should say, certain kinds of sentences'. If we look at the section of _The Pleasure of the Text_ translated as 'sentence' -- in French, the section called 'phrase' -- we get a clearer idea of what Barthes meant by 'sentence' and how he understood its relation to 'language':

 

'One evening, half asleep on a banquette in a bar, just for fun I tried to enumerate all the languages within earshot: music, conversations, the sounds of chairs, glasses, a whole stereophony of which a square in Tangiers (as described by Severo Sarduy) is the exemplary site. That too spoke within me . . . I myself was a public square, a sook: through me passed words, tiny syntagms, bits of formulae, and no sentence formed, as though that were the law of such a language'. [7]

 

For Barthes, the sentence is 'hierarchical': 'In fact it is the power of completion which defines sentence mastery and marks, as with a supreme, dearly won, conquered savoir-faire, the agents of the Sentence. *The professor is someone who finishes his sentences*'. [8]

 

And perhaps that is the point: even though his sentences do their utmost not to finish, Jameson, like Eagleton, has quite simply too much at stake in 'the agency of the Sentence'. In contrast to Barthes -- for whom sensory stimuli are always already part of language, and sentences are an ideological form that stands in resistance to them -- Jameson allows 'sentence' priority over 'writing', and positions it at the interface between the 'mind' and 'the outside senses'. In doing so, he effectively redirects the Barthesian account of jouissance into an Adornoesque critique of instrumental reason: 'the more advanced and rationalized activity can also have its dream of the other'. But there is a curious doubling back within the theoretical perspectives that intersect within the frame of this analysis. Jameson's metaphor -- 'as animals might dream of the strangeness of human thinking' -- seems to confirm the presence in this analysis of a Deleuzean discourse of becoming. On some level of the very process of reading that Jameson himself invokes -- this 'mysterious thing'; this 'superstitious and adult power' -- it *feels* as if what he's *said* is that we long for sensory immediacy *as humans might dream of the strangeness of animal thinking*: the historical coming to be of the visual thus linked with a human becoming of its animal other. But in fact he is reasserting -- against Deleuze, of the status of whose 'pioneering attempt' at a 'meditation on the visual' he remains unconvinced (5) -- a classical Marxist humanism: the coming to be of the visual does not overcome human thinking, it becomes it. Through the mediation of the sentence, Jameson navigates our way through the wormhole of postmodernism and comes out the other side:

 

'Scriptible is not however the poetry that actually tries to do that (and which is then itself condemned to the technical mediation of a relationship to language not much more poetic than the coloration of orchestral instruments and the specialized, painfully acquired knowledge of their technologies); it is the prose stimulated by the idea of sound, or the sentences that something visual -- unfortunately, our only word for it is the image -- calls into being by suggestion and by a kind of contamination.' (2-3)

 

So here we are: where this curious elision of the Barthesian distinction between writing and sentence takes us is a place from which Jamesonian prose becomes the royal road to the historical unconscious. The Jamesonian sentence is not just our point of access to the image: it is called into being by it, a being distinguished by a Goethean perception of its own Orphic status:

 

'We don't write about these things, it is not a metaphorical representation that the sensory pretext summons but rather something related by affinity, that prolongs the content of the object in another, more tenuous form, as though to prolong a last touch with the very fingertips.' (3)

 

The sentence, then, is not so much 'writing' as a hyperlink: an access point within the dialectic of protention and retention that opens up, not to the problematic of meaning, but to a beyond of writing. A word we might have used instead of 'hyperlink' is the Heideggerian Lichtung: 'the radically ephemeral appearance of the scene as such within a different type of space, that Heidegger calls the *clearing*' (193). This idea underpins the last essay in this collection, the only one published here for the first time: 'The Existence of Italy' -- as he puts it, 'the most sustained rehearsal of the dialectic of realism, modernism and postmodernism I have so far attempted, *and which I have hitherto misrepresented by staging one another in isolation*' (6, my emphasis).

 

Jameson's understanding of 'signatures of the visible' thus moves way beyond the implications of the citation from Joyce's _Ulysses_ taken as the reference for this book's title: 'signatures of all the things I am here to read'. Writing that breaks open to reveal something 'beyond' itself (as it never does in Joyce) is translation, and the paradox of animal thinking is perhaps one of our best ways of approaching this. [9] Thus Shakespeare:

 

Snout: O Bottom, thou art changed. What do I see on thee?

Bottom: What do you see? You see an ass-head of your own, do you?

Quince: Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee. Thou art translated. [10]

 

'Bottom's Dream' in _A Midsummer Night's Dream_ is that of an animal that knows the very terms of its visibility to humans are those of metaphors of human identity: the cratylically named 'Snout' sees an image of what he already is but doesn't yet know. Foucault understood that what he called 'commentary', and what a Marxist would call 'critique', is the way we access this mode of translation (again, I quote at some length):

 

'In this activity known as commentary which tries to transmit an old unyielding discourse seemingly silent to itself, into another more prolix discourse that is both more archaic and more contemporary -- is concealed a strange attitude towards language: to comment is to admit by definition an excess of the signified over the signifier; a necessary, unformulated remainder of thought that language has left in the shade -- a remainder that is the very essence of thought, driven outside its secret -- but to comment also presupposes that this unspoken element slumbers within speech, and that, by a superabundance proper to the signifier, one may, in questioning it, give voice to a content that was not explicitly signified. By opening up the possibility of commentary, this double plethora dooms us to an endless task that nothing can limit: there is always a certain amount of signified remaining that must be allowed to speak, while the signifier is always offered to us in an abundance that questions us, in spite of ourselves, as to what it 'means'. Signifier and signified thus assume a substantial autonomy that accords the treasure of a virtual signification to each of them separately; one may even exist without the other, and begin to speak of itself; commentary resides in that supposed space. But at the same time it invents a complex link between them, a whole tangled web that concerns the poetic values of expression: the signifier is not supposed to 'translate' without concealing, without leaving the signified with an inexhaustible reserve; the signified is revealed only in the visible, heavy world of a signifier that is itself burdened with a meaning that it cannot control. Commentary rests on the postulate that speech is an act of 'translation', that it has the dangerous privilege images have of showing while concealing, and that it can be substituted for itself indefinitely in the open series of discursive repetitions; in short, it rests on a psychologistic interpretation of language that shows the stigmatas of its historical origin. This is an exegesis which listens, through the prohibitions, the symbols, the concrete images, through the whole apparatus of Revelation, to the Word of God, ever secret, ever beyond itself. For years we have been commenting on the language of our culture from the very point where for centuries we had awaited in vain for the decision of the Word.' [11]

 

It is characteristic of the 'anti-hermeneut' Foucault that, whilst he is perhaps the most sophisticated analyst of 'the endless task', he does not look beyond it. For him, virtual signification does not open up to the Real; we are 'doomed' to language. Jameson's prose more often makes us feel (sorely) the burden of meaning; but he does have an idea of something beyond, and he does keep trying to get there. He has himself described Marxism as a 'translation machine', mediating between the 'private languages' of different theoretical discourses:

 

'I would like to defend the idea that Marxism is a far more subtle and supple mode of translating between these languages than most of the other systems. It is true that the great universal systems -- Catholicism, for instance -- had that once; maybe Catholicism still does. There was great power in the way in which certain kinds of Catholic theologians, the Jesuits, for example, were able to pass from one philosophical language to another. Marxism is the only secular version of this capacity I know today.' [12]

 

The comparison with Catholicism is interesting because it acknowledges a sense of responsibility -- responsibility in the Levinasian sense of responding from here to the beyond -- to something universal even as its disavows the notion of transcendence: 'Reality takes care of truth', he says; 'the codes are our business'. [13] This book would suggest he doesn't really believe this. If that is the case, it is a matter of some regret that Jameson hasn't written any thing systematic about film and continues to make his readers do the kind of work that makes them (this reader, anyway) feel they might have got more out of it if he'd done more of it himself. Thus, when he approaches his concluding paragraph with the acknowledgement that his hypothesis 'clearly demands *verification* by way of a very great range of historiographical materials' (228), there is a small-minded part of you at that precise moment -- aware of how long it's taken you to get to there -- that would rather trade all his difficult pleasures for just a little piece of 'verification'. For the academic reader, at least, there can be a sense that Jameson's defining positions -- that characteristic vision, for instance, of 'determinate failure' [14] -- have become perverse refusals masquerading as theoretical imperative. (At least Deleuze gave it a shot.)

 

In the Preface to _Geopolitical Aesthetics_, Colin MacCabe drew attention to the shape of Jameson's career. He had, MacCabe said, spent over twenty years (the twenty years cognitively mapped by this volume) working out his theoretical position 'patiently', and once that was achieved, had replaced it with a 'riot of cultural analyses'. At some level, one can only feel regret that the point in his career when he turned most conclusively to film was that at which patience gave way to riot. There is here, perhaps, a final, crucial, paradox. As we have seen, the postructuralist deconstruction of the author/reader dyad is ultimately of less interest to Jameson than the Marxist concept of the masterful intellectual whose writing becomes the site of theoretical conversion. But there is a way in which Jameson himself seems to have settled for the former rather than the latter. Maybe the problem, in the end, is that of the institutional context from which this mastery derives its status, and to which it submits its credentials. Certainly, there is a way in which the postmodernist paradigm is one in which the problematic being addressed is above all one of the deconstructive relation between autobiography and [academic] institutional identity. Interviewed recently in _New Literary History_ Jameson himself recognised that his global narrative has what he calls a 'situational specificity':

 

'The notion of postmodernity emerges from my experience as an American, and I am an American. I think that, in the United States, we are also relatively limited by this very successful institutional form which is federalism, constitution, and the states and so forth. Politics here, when it is effective in terms of power, the people, the distribution, and so forth, feeds immediately and exclusively back into local politics.' [15]

 

Having recently spent some time in Washington DC, I have an idea of just how situationally specific this 'American' sense of the hyperlink between the local and the global is. In the same interview, Jameson spoke of the possibility that this 'situational specificity' is beginning to result in irritation with American parochialism in parts of the world -- Australia, for instance -- where the academic institution is arguably taking on the intellectual challenge of a global manifest destiny:

 

'The specificities or the exceptionality of American culture is that Americans think that they are in the universal; that somehow we are the end of history; there are no other realities than this one, or other realities are culturally determined -- what the French do, what the Chinese do -- but the United States is the true and universally human. Therefore, they need not take an historical perspective on this; maybe they do not even need to take a class perspective on this form of scholarship. They do not need to see themselves in terms of their own situation.' [16]

 

I'm sure the _Film-Philosophy_ salon has many American members who would reply that this is more Jameson's problem than theirs. Even so, _Signatures of the Visible_ shows that Jameson is one of the few academics who responds to, and can illuminate, a world culture. One of the significant features of the modernist moment, of which he is so important an analyst, was the rise of a characteristic 'relation of production' that negotiated the link between base and superstructure within creative and intellectual work: the impresario, the collector, the publisher, the editor, the agent. Jameson needs a great editor -- someone to do the patience thing while he carries on rioting; someone who sees the responsibility of getting his work into the public sphere as itself a form of intellectual work; someone who would be prepared to make decisions as small as making him write slightly shorter sentences, and as big as a bold reconceptualisation of the formal structure of a collection like _Signatures of the Visible_. The worst thing about this book is that it is not what it says it is. It is not a book that argues a proposition, and it would have been better presented in a different way: as a retrospect with a reappraisal, perhaps, either in the form of an interview (particularly successful, I think, in the volume of _New Literary History_ cited above) or a general introduction/series of individual introductions by a dogsbody happy to dream of the strangeness of Jamesonian thinking. In the case of other contemporary writers of comparable intellectual status, this job tends to get done not so much by an editor as by a translator -- where would Jacques Derrida be today without Gayatri Spivak's introduction to _Of Grammatology_? In the last analysis Denis Dutton may be right, but not in the way he meant it. Many of the difficulties of Jameson's work come about not because he doesn't speak English, but because he does. In terms of career opportunities within the postmodern academic institution, translating the prose of Fredric Jameson might be a rather more worthwhile occupation than most.

 

University Of Sheffield, England

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Denis Dutton, 'Writing Good, Bad and Classic', _Philosophy and Literature_, vol. 21 no. 2, 1997 p. 501.

 

2. More conventional reviews have been provided by Douglas Bruster in _Modernism/Modernity_, vol. 11 no. 1, 1994, pp. 163-6, and by Steven Helmling in _Kritikon Litterarum_, 1992.

 

3. This question has been asked, particularly in relation to 'grand narratives' of history, about 'evil'. I suggest that the notion of 'badness' has far more pertinence to such accounts.

 

4. See Steven Helmling, 'Marxist Pleasure: Jameson and Eagleton' (_Postmodern Culture_, vol. 3 no. 3, 1992 <http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/pmc>) for an extremely detailed and attentive discussion of this issue. In an article that has considerable resonance for my own argument, he concludes that Jameson 'conflat(es) plaisir/jouissance with S/Z's lisible/scriptible', and that:

 

'Jameson reads Barthes' binary of 'pleasure' and 'jouissance' as a contemporary avatar of Edmund Burke's 'beautiful' and 'sublime' . . . Jameson has remade Barthes' jouissance, in short, in the image of his own 'sublime', a passion of 'fear' prompted by 'History', by 'what hurts': it is not Barthes who has chosen what crushes him; Barthes is willing to confess (or boast) that at least parts of him are not crushed; it is Jameson who insists on being crushed, by a 'sublime' villain, late capitalism. The measure of that 'crush' is of course the effect of the prose in which Jameson projects his 'vision of Necessity' and its inverted Hegelian-Marxist metanarrative in which 'the subject of History' proves to be not the proletariat but capitalism. 'Pleasure: A Political Issue' invites a redescription of what Eagleton named the 'pleasure' of Jameson's prose as, on the contrary, a type of 'the sublime.''

 

See also the same author's article, 'Jameson's Postmodernism: Version 2.0', _Postmodern Culture_, vol. 9 no. 2, 1999 <http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/pmc>.

 

5. Terry Eagleton, _Against the Grain: Selected Essays_ (New York and London: Verso 1986), p. 66.

 

6. Fredric Jameson, _The Ideologies of Theory, Volume 2: The Syntax of History_ (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1988), p. 69.

 

7. Roland Barthes, _The Pleasure of the Text_, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang 1975), p. 49.

 

8. Ibid., p. 50; my emphasis.

 

9. _Film-Philosophy_ members interested in this topic might want to have a look at the Animal Minds public forum at the Edge: <http://www.edge.org>.

 

10. William Shakespeare, _A Midsummer Night's Dream_, III.2.109-114.

 

11. Michel Foucault, Preface to _The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception_ (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. xvi-xvii.

 

12. Interviewed by Xudong Zhang in _New Literary History_, vol. 29 no. 3, 1998, p. 365.

 

13. Ibid.

 

14. 'It is to be doubted whether any study of film can have this philosophical or historical value [i.e. that of the Lukacsean Form problem] . . . nor is it likely (despite Deleuze's pioneering attempt . . .) that the meditation on the visual will achieve even the symbolic value of the 19th century meditation on music.' (5)

 

15. Zhang (1998), p. 375.

 

16. Ibid.

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

 

Erica Sheen, 'As Animals Might Dream',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 29, July 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n29sheen>.

  

 

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