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Chapter 5 Literature and Ideology
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Macherey: Scientific Criticism and the Question of the Text

In A Theory of Literary Production , Macherey attempts to develop a scientific literary criticism in the form of a realist and materialist concept of literary practice. Such a criticism, he insists, must address two basic questions: the question of what the work says and "the question of the question," that is, what the text does not say and why. The first


question reveals the work as an expression, as a structure; the second reveals the condition of this effect—conditions of which the work has no awareness. If the first question may be compared to the question of the manifest content of the text, the second question is the question of its unconscious. "The critical problem," as Macherey sees it, lies "in the conjunction of the two questions; not in a choice between them, but in the point from which they appear to become differentiated." The complexity of the critical problem, in other words, is "the articulation between the two questions" (Macherey 1978, 90). A realist and materialist criticism must (a) define a general concept of literary practice (the literary effect as a particular form of ideological production with its own relative autonomy) that establishes the theoretical object of inquiry for criticism and (b) account for the production and reception of literary texts in terms of their determinate historical contexts (the place and function assigned to the literary effect by the social formation as a complex whole), thus establishing criticism as a regional theory of historical science and a subfield of the theory of ideology. Macherey takes as his point of departure Althusser's discussion in his "Letter on Art" of the possibility and the necessity of a scientific criticism of art: "in order to answer most of the questions posed for us by the existence and specific nature of art, we are forced to produce an adequate (scientific) knowledge of the processes which produce the 'aesthetic effect' of a work of art. . . . The recognition (even the political recognition) of the existence and importance of art does not constitute a knowledge of art . . . . Like all knowledge, the knowledge of art presupposes a preliminary rupture with the language of ideological spontaneity and the constitution of a body of scientific concepts to replace it." (Althusser 1971, 225-26).

Following Althusser, Macherey insists that criticism and its object—in his case, the literary text—be firmly distinguished: science is not the duplication of its object but rather the constitution of its object, as a theoretical object, from a perspective outside of the object and capable of knowing it as it cannot know itself. Macherey contrasts this view with two other critical strategies, "normative" and "empirical" criticism, which must serve as negative reference points for scientific criticism. According to Macherey, empiricist criticism tends to accept the text as a "given" that offers itself spontaneously to the inspecting glance; normative criticism, by contrast, tends to measure the text against a model of what it might be—to refuse the text as it is in order to "correct" it against an ideal object that precedes it. In both cases,


Macherey insists, the text is treated as an object of consumption, and the apparent opposition between the two methodologies is, in actuality, a simple "displacement" of this commodity form: empiricist criticism receives the work as an immediately given object of consumption while normative criticism treats and modifies this object so that it can be better or more "profitably" consumed.

Criticism claims to treat the work as an object of consumption, thus falling into the empiricist fallacy . . . because it asks only how to receive a given object. But this first fallacy is closely followed by a second, the normative fallacy, in which criticism proposes to modify the work in order to assimilate it more thoroughly, denying its factual reality as being merely the provisional version of an unfulfilled intention. The second fallacy is no more than a variety of the first, a displacement of it. In fact only the empirical characteristics of the work are transposed, by being attributed to a model—that fixed and independent entity which exists alongside the work, guaranteeing both its consistency and its readability and making it accessible as an object of judgement. The normative fallacy proposes a transformation of its object only within previously defended limits. It is the sublimation of empiricism, its ideal image, but based ultimately on the same principles. (Macherey 1978, 19)

Macherey criticizes the passivity of empiricist criticism with respect to the literary text. In the case of empiricism, he argues, the distance between the object of criticism and the knowledge of this object is reduced, and criticism collapses into the submissive reception and consumption of "literature"—a mysterious essence imposed on criticism from without and whose meanings define the horizon of critical knowledge. In contrast to such a passive and self-limiting reception of the text, Macherey insists on criticism as an active and autonomous enterprise. If criticism has as its domain the study of literature, this domain does not necessarily constitute the object of criticism, nor does it delimit, in advance, the entire field of critical knowledge: "knowledge is not the rediscovery of hidden meanings, it is newly raised up—an addition to the reality from which it begins" (Macherey 1978, 6). Thought about the object is never identical to the actual object, Macherey reminds us, and empiricist criticism merely destroys the autonomy of its own practice when it "unites" with the literary work through the "discovery" of the latter's "truth." Such criticism, because it takes the text as a given, immediate object, can neither explain it nor formulate the concepts or laws of its production. Normative criticism, which adds a previously given model that is taken to be the truth of the text's phenomenal essence, merely adds a superficial complexity to this same pro-


cess. In both cases, Macherey concludes, criticism has been reduced to axiology, a matter of judgment and description, a set of practical rules of taste and value.

Macherey's criticism of empirical and normative approaches may be extended to include many of the critical practices that have dominated the twentieth century. For example, it speaks directly to the hermeneutics of Gadamer as well as the aesthetic historicism of Jauss and Iser, the so-called Rezeptionästhetik.[3] In varying degrees these methodologies valorize the "authority of tradition" and the "horizon of expectations" of successive ages as principles of textual interpretation capable of consciously, albeit indirectly and incompletely, bringing forth the "reality" of art, that is, the "phenomenal essence" of art that persists through time precisely because it is an essence. Such a view marries a mythology of literary production (the creative genius) to an equally mythologized notion of literary reception (the value jugments of critics), a shotgun marriage designed to propagate cultural elitism (the canon) and present, as virtue itself, the illicit relation uniting literary production and reception (the class bias embedded in the text-reality relationship). The hermeneutic notion of an "ongoing totalization" of the past through the "aesthetic experience" denies the objectivity of both the past and the text, while the idea of a general theory of "literariness" elaborated within the constraints of hermeneutics is an idealist evasion of the task of producing a scientific concept of the literary effect. In contrast to the irrationalist and ultimately conservative appeal to "tradition" endemic to hermeneutics, the Structural Marxist concept of literature as an ideological practice grounds the production and the reception of literary texts in real history and at the same time produces real knowledges of literary production and reception—knowledges that are neither the slaves of the past nor the tools of the status quo.

Macherey's scientific criticism also raises powerful objections to the methods of structuralist and poststructuralist methodologies. For Macherey, the structuralist critical enterprise revolves around the decipherment of the "enigma of text" in order to disengage from it a cryptic but nonetheless coherent sense (Macherey 1978, 136-56). The text is posited as a message, and the function of the structuralist critic is to isolate the transmitted information in order to extract the truth of the text from its inner space and to reveal this truth as the timeless "combinatory" of immutable semiological forms. The language system is not only the sole condition of literary production, it is also an ahistorical condition. The text's production, therefore, can only be the appearance


of a production for structuralist criticism, since its true object always lies behind it. In Macherey's view, structuralist criticism is simply another form of empiricism—an adequation and conformation of knowledge to its privileged object, in this case the art of transmitting and interpreting messages.

Poststructuralism, which develops out of that aspect of structuralism that sees meaning as a diacritical, elusive, absent center of discourse—the perpetual and relational discrepancy between signifiers that both supports and eludes centering—presents a somewhat different problem for Macherey since he himself is as critical of the idea of a single "meaning" of a literary text as is any deconstructionist. Indeed, the attempt to reduce the diversity of the work to a single signification, what Macherey calls "interpretive criticism," constitutes a third negative reference point to be explicitly rejected by scientific criticism. Interpretive criticism, Macherey explains, rests on a number of related fallacies: "it locates the work in a space which it endows with its own depth; it denounces the spontaneously deceptive character of the work; finally, it presupposes the active presence of a single meaning around which the work is diversely articulated. Above all, it confirms the relationship of interiority between the work and its criticism: commentary establishes itself at the heart of the work and delivers its secret. Between knowledge (critical discourse) and its object (the literary work) the only distance is that between power and action, meaning and its expression" (Macherey 1978, 76-77).

However, poststructuralist criticism, by basing itself on the infinite openness of meaning, the indefinite multiplicity of the text, collapses writing into reading and abolishes even the memory of production. By making production a secret, a mystery whose processes cannot even be mentioned, the text becomes the accomplishment of the reader—a valuable insight, no doubt, when directed against crude axiologies of immanent value, but one that Macherey insists has nothing to do with the real complexities of the text, which stem from its character as a determinate ideological production of a determinate historical matrix: "Under the pretence of identifying the theoretical incompleteness of the work, we must not fall into an ideology of the 'open text': by the artifice of its composition, the work constitutes the principle of its indefinite variation. It has not one meaning but many: although this possible indefinite multiplicity, a quality or effect accomplished by the reader, has nothing to do with that real complexity, necessarily finite, which is the structure of the book. If the work does not produce or contain the prin-


ciple of its own closure, it is nevertheless definitively enclosed within its own limits (though they may not be self-appointed limits)" (Macherey 1978, 80).

For Macherey, the work is finite because it is incomplete, a paradox that stems from the ideological origins of the text and its character as an ideological production. The incompleteness of the work must be understood, Macherey explains, not in terms of its consumption but in terms of its production. Macherey introduces two concepts to clarify his meaning: dissonance (the decentered, contradictory nature of the text) and determinate absence (the inherent incompleteness of the text). Literary texts are internally dissonant, he argues, not as a function of their reception (that is, the reader) but because of their peculiar relationship to their ideological origins. Since the dominant ideology functions to call social subjects into existence, place them in positions within existing social relations, and reproduce those positions and relations, it manifests an inherent tendency to mask social contradictions by a process of distortion, exclusion, and omission. In a sense, the dominant ideology exists because there are certain things that must not be spoken of, things that are visible only as limits of ideological discourse.

Such silences in ordinary ideological discourse also obtrude into second-order ideological productions such as fiction, in which, Macherey contends, their presence-absence takes a determinate form that is the true object of criticism. "By interrogating an ideology, one can establish the existence of its limits because they are encountered as an impossible obstacle; they are there, but they cannot be made to speak. . . . Even though ideology itself always sounds solid, copious, it begins to speak of its own absences because of its presence in the novel, its visible and determinate form" (Macherey 1978, 132). The text, by putting ideology into determinate form, bears within it the marks of certain determinate absences that twist its various significations into conflict and contradiction. "The necessity of the work is founded on the multiplicity of its meanings; to explain the work is to recognize and differentiate the principle of this diversity. . . . [W]hat begs to be explained in the work is not that false simplicity which derives from the apparent unity of its meanings but the presence of a relation, or an opposition, between the elements of the exposition or levels of the composition" (Macherey 1978, 78-79). This determinate absence, which is the principle of the work's identity, cannot be explained in terms of a unified meaning; it is not some extension of meaning but is instead "generated from the incompatibility of several meanings" that consti-


tute "the bond by which it is attached to reality, in a tense and ever-renewed confrontation" (Macherey 1978, 80).

According to Macherey, the distance that separates the work from its ideological origins embodies itself in an "internal distance," which, so to speak, separates the work from itself and forces it into a ceaseless difference and division of meanings. In "putting ideology to work," the text necessarily illuminates the absences and begins to "make speak" the silences of that ideology. The absences, the "not said" of the work, are precisely what bind it to the ideology from which it emerged. This being the case, Macherey argues, the task of criticism cannot be, as normative or empirical criticism would have it, to situate itself within the same space as the text, allowing the text to speak or completing what it leaves unsaid. On the contrary, criticism must install itself in the incompleteness of the work in order to theorize what is unsaid: in order to become a theoretical object, the work must be transformed. However, the number of possible transformations is not unlimited; Macherey insists that the ideology from which it emerges renders the text determinate and thus finite. "If the work does not produce or contain the principle of its own closure," Macherey says, "it is nevertheless definitively enclosed within its own limits" (Macherey 1978, 80). Because the relationship between the work and what it cannot say is a determinate one, Macherey characterizes textual absences as structural contradictions and holds them to be constitutive of the text. Structural contradictions are internal to the text, not external, part of a process of internal concealment to which Althusser refers as the "inner darkness of exclusion" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 26). Only by breaking with all spontaneous, lived relation to the text—that is, by refusing the discourse of the text as the ground of ratification and by establishing it instead as an object of knowledge within a theoretical practice entirely foreign to the text itself—only then, Macherey insists, can we come back to the text and "see" those visible absences that mark its peculiar relationship to ideology.

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