A previous post focused on Fredric Jameson's materialism, in light of today's new materialism. Here I want to say more about Jameson's theory of interpretation, particularly the fundamental claim driving so much of his work, that “the political perspective [is] the absolute horizon of all reading and all interpretation.”
Interpretation has suffered greatly in recent years, taking flak from all sides, whether from quantitative methods in the digital humanities, from empirical trends in the social sciences, or from the new materialism's tendency to elevate ontological questions over epistemological ones. Still, interpretation is at the heart of Jameson's project. There is no way to excise interpretation, like a malignant tumor, and retain any fraction of this undertaking, or indeed the Marxist one as a whole. In fact, a central component of Jameson's work is to explain the correspondence between thinking and being, or, if you like, between the layer of culture and society and the layer of existence and matter.
But what folly to believe that we can think the world. Is this not the inaugural dilemma of philosophy: the insurmountable chasm between subject and object, followed by a violent correspondence bridging the two, one contradiction breeding another?
Jameson's work may be seen as an attempt to classify and judge such correspondence, splitting it into two basic types. Consider Jameson's recent short book on volume one of Marx's Capital. Here we see the classification of correspondence quite clearly: equations versus mediations. The first riddle of Capital is the riddle of equivalence, he argues, the riddle of the equation as such, the riddle of how one thing could ever be fairly and accurately substituted for another thing. Capital offers an “immense critique of the equation as such,” Jameson observes, in reference to Marx's recurrent example in which 20 yards of linen are equivalent to 1 coat, just one of several equations that populate Marx's text.
“[H]ow can one object be the equivalent of another one?” The properly Marxist answer is both direct and romantic, it can't. Still, we know that it can, or at any rate it does, and hence figuration and form of appearance (Erscheinungsform) are required to “solve” the riddle of equivalence. This shift, from equation to figuration, is fundamental in Marx, and Jameson too. It can be posited as a general principle: figuration is superior to equation.
Or, to soften the distinction slightly, figuration can be labeled “weak” equivalence, while equation can be labeled “strong” equivalence. The second type forms the backbone of the capitalist skeleton, while the first is deployed by criticism, via allegory that most resourceful mechanism, as a way to mediate between dissimilar narrative layers or cultural elements.
Strong equivalence is the equivalence of natural fact and eternal truth, those things Marxism seeks so avidly to unmask and dismiss. Strong equivalence is a truth discourse. But Marxism is not a truth discourse, Jameson argues. Rather, it is a way of marking and mediating between codes. (At one point he even calls theory, along with art, a “registering apparatus” for codes, something like the Aufschreibesystem in Friedrich Kittler.) Marxism is a “translation mechanism” not an equation mechanism. And “Marxism is a far more subtle and supple mode of translating between these languages than most of the other systems,” Jameson maintains.
Subtle and supple, then, is figuration as it maps the many complexities of the world far more comprehensibly than the equation can attain.
Given the delicate if sometimes vague distinction between figuration and equation it is necessary to accentuate the difference by way of a normative posture -- all the while remembering that Jameson himself has long maintained his distance from all ethical or moral attitudes. Hence the techniques of unmasking, demystifying, and decoding are privileged in all kinds of cultural Marxism, which grants a certain normative vector to the process of interpretation.
Indeed in a relatively early text on method Jameson used terms like “censor” and “censorship” (terms he has since discarded) to describe how ideology distorts and represses original experience. “Content is already concrete, in that it is essentially social and historical experience,” he wrote on the relationship between criticism and the content of a work, “and we may say of it what the sculptor said of his stone, that it sufficed to remove all extraneous portions for the statue to appear, already latent in the marble block. Thus, the process of criticism is not so much an interpretation of content as it is a revealing of it, a laying bare, a restoration of the original message, the original experience, beneath the distortions of the censor.”
Jameson's metaphor of the sculptor and his stone says much about the ontological schema guiding his work. The concrete conditions of social life, or what he calls “words, thoughts, objects, desires, people, places, activities,” constitute the real level of existence, upon which arise the distortions of the “censor” like so great a weight of stone. Or as Marx put in 1852 on the heels of Louis Bonaparte's coup d'état, “[t]he tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”
All of this provides the fuel for the various forms of actually existing interpretation that populate Jameson's work, from cognitive mapping, to symptomatology, to allegory, to diagramming. In all of them, the lesson of the stone sculptor remains constant: form reveals the social situation; only through the forms of art and literature may we find the concrete social context in which it is embedded. In other words, the aesthetic is the precipitate of the political; to arrive at the political one must begin with the aesthetic.
That said, there is no small-scale, localizable truth in a particular film or piece of literature, some specific thing, and no other, spoken by the text once and for all. One cannot say, therefore -- as Badiou said of Deleuze -- that Jameson is monotonous in his interpretations, like that interminable bore who stifles all lively conversation with the preposterous claim that all art and culture is secretly about x, be it sex or God or death or something else entirely. Who on Earth can say what the overzealous shark in Jaws actually means? Indeed, as Jameson showed in a much read essay on filmic allegory, the shark can mean any number of things (and capitalism isn't one of them), “from the psychoanalytic to historic anxieties about the Other that menaces American society -- whether it be the Communist conspiracy or the Third World -- and even to internal fears about the unreality of daily life in America today, and in particular the haunting and unmentionable persistence of the organic -- of birth, copulation, and death.”
Jameson's Marxism is not so much the “reduction to class,” a move that might seem to exclude other forms of subjugation, but the reduction as such, the reduction to reduction, the desire to ground ideology and antagonism in the generic continuum of collective life. Interpretation is the process of grasping this reduction, not to stifle thinking under the fist of some dogmatic tenet, but to liberate it further, to push thinking beyond its immediate preconceptions and prejudices.