Saturday, March 29, 2008

Totality and Interpretation

"The interpreter here "restructures" with the aim of registering and apprehending, words whose disciplinary overtones are difficult to ignore. The purpose of such restructuring is precisely to render the force-fields, the struggle and conflicts of History, appropriable by a contemplative, detached spectator, the traditional subject of scientific observation. History is thus to be made safe for cognition. Conflict is objectified but the process of objectification itself is held to be outside the Melee.

"How different the picture of interpretation that emerges in The Interpretation of Dreams, where, it is true, the "dialectical code" in which the notion of Darstellung is at home, is replaced by something more difficult to name, if not with the word used by Freud himself: Entstellung, displacement, disfigurement, dislocation. The interpretive process that it designates, however, provides a striking contrast to the academic serenity described in The Political Unconscious. "It should not be forgotten, Freud writes,

that the work of interpretation must struggle against the very psychic forces to which we owe the distortion of the dream (welche die Entstellung des Traumes verschulden). It thus becomes a question of the relation of forces whether one's intellectual interest, capacity to overcome one's self, (Selbstüberwindung), psychological knowledge and skill in dream-interpretation enable one to master internal resistances. [The Interpretation of Dreams (New York: Avon Books, 1965), p. 563]

Interpretation, for Freud, does not reconstruct and resuscitate so that we may register and apprehend; it partakes of, and in a process of conflict that no totalization can ever comprehend. Which is why its effect is not simply the primitive or teleological accumulation of wealth, nor the "semantic enrichment" of the phenomena it interprets, but their impoverishment as well. Or rather, a transformation in which enrichment and impoverishment become very difficult, perhaps impossible, to distinguish. This is why, when Freud chooses a word to articulate the relation of Entstellung to "the forces" from which it proceeds, it is derived from "debt," Schuld (verschulden). The hermeneutics of Entstellung thus inscribe itself in a tradition which can be traced to The Genealogy of Morals, in which both history and interpretation are conceived as forms of a debt that is impossible to repay. By contrast, Freud--here and elsewhere--adds the implication that the debt in question cannot be construed as a static and stable obligation, but rather as an ambivalent and unresolvable tension. If the psychic conflict that structures the subject of desire precludes any enduring resolution, any kind of totalization, neither can the process of interpretation simply renounce such aspirations. For every interpretation (including, of course, this one) must necessarily seek to arrest and to dominate the conflictual process of symbolization it seeks to comprehend. In the text just cited, the ambivalence can on the one hand be retraced to the exigency of Selbstüberwindung--a term which means practically the opposite of its translation in the Standard Edition, which reads: "self-discipline," since what is both required, and stated, is the overcoming-of-self, i.e. of the ego--and on the other, to the fact that such "overcoming," the "mastering of internal resistances," still inevitably entails mastery, control, discipline, and hence, as such, appeals to the very ego that it seeks to "overcome.""

--Samuel Weber, "Capitalizing History: Notes on the Political Unconscious," Diacritics, vol. 13, no. 2 (Summer 1983), pp. 27-28.

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A good sign that you're encountering a writer who will teach you something, demand something of you, is that you feel humbled and at sea when you've read the work. I'm not referring to tone, as though only supercilious erudition will teach anyone. It's more about frames of reference, speed of connections, durability of concepts. Since my late adolescence I've been chasing after people smarter than I am, chasing after ideas too difficult or intricate or nuanced for me. (Hence the title of this blog, by the way: when I'm at my computer, writing, I'm either Tantalus or Sisyphus.) Fredric Jameson is one of the writers and thinkers whose work has taught me the most over the past 5-6 years.

What Samuel Weber offers in his long review essay of books by Jameson and Stanley Fish is what I think is a fairly rare occurrence--a critique of a major Marxist intellectual (Jameson) in terms that don't appear to me as a long and convoluted justification for codedly reactionary politics. I've encountered, in text and conversation, a lot of disdain for Jameson--because nobody likes totalizing theorists, nobody likes curmudgeons who aren't optimistic about pomo, and often, anyway, comes the old chestnut "Marx was proven wrong." Weber's account is not an angry howl against Jameson's political project but a complication of the means of interpetation by which our man FJ can say that History is our untranscendable horizon, that Marxism is something like the code by which all other codes can be properly placed and utilized (because it, historical materialism, properly understands History). The idea is not so much that the Marxist project is a wash or that its political aims are undesirable--but what precisely enables us to mediate the material before us if we sustain the integrity of our recognition of ideology, of class, of conflict? (And, what is the wisdom of loudly smuggling this tool into the scholarly marketplace, as Weber interprets Jameson as doing with his book The Political Unconscious, as a kind of intervention into the definable arena of ideas and academic politics?) This is not obfuscation Weber's offering--I don't think--as though the world were hopelessly "complex" and resistant to any kinds of organized comprehension & reistance so we may as well simply accept it (a common bourgeois reflex, peddling stretched-out half-truths). But, with Jameson, what is the wisdom, or what are the use-values, of essentially freezing this grandfatherly interpretive grid for the aim of US academic consumption?

Unfortunately I haven't any answers yet. Just thinking.

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