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Chapter 5 Literature and Ideology
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Macherey: Scientific Criticism Versus a History of Aesthetics

Literary criticism focuses necessarily on the relationship between the form and content of the text and its historical and ideological context. However, the existence of a literary text as a social production by no means exhausts either its historical significance or the interest of Marxism in literature as a historical phenomenon. If production is the key to a realist and materialist concept of literature, its mechanisms do not directly determine or sufficiently explain the reception of the text, that is, its ideological impact (although they remain a necessary condition of such an explanation). In A Theory of Literary Production , Macherey largely ignores the concrete historical existence of literature, in the sense of literature as a practice that "lives" only by a process of interaction with particular readers. This tactic was necessary, of course, if Macherey was to demonstrate effectively the fact that the relationship between the text and reality has nothing to do with what contemporary readers felt about the text. Marxism is not obliged to accept outside judgments regarding a text's value in order to use it as a historical document; nevertheless, a general theory of history must be able to account for the text's reception and its ideological effectivity as well as its production and ideological origins. It is my position that a synthesis between criticism, the science of literary texts as social products, and what I will call a history of literary effects is necessary, but such a synthesis is possible only on the condition that the concept of literary discourse developed in the preceding pages is retained.

My position strongly contrasts with the trajectory of Macherey's own development, which since A Theory of Literary Production has taken a dramatic turn away from the concept of literature as a particular type of discursive practice. In making this move, Macherey seems to have been decisively influenced by Althusser's rejection of "theoreticism" in For Marx and Reading Capital and by his essay "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses." In response to Althusser's shift of emphasis from ideology as a system of imaginary relations and the distinction between ideology and science toward a greater concern with ideology as a material force inscribed in material institutions and constituting social subjects, Macherey has come to reject any possible continuity or compatibility between the two projects. In a 1976 essay, "Problems of Reflection," Macherey insists that "for historical materialism, ideology must cease to be considered as a system of representa-


tions, of facts of consciousness, of ideas, as a discourse. . . . From a materialist point of view, ideology is constituted by a certain number of ideological state apparatuses" (Macherey 1976, 50). However, as I have argued, an underlying coherence unites Althusser's early and later works—a coherence organized around his unfaltering commitment to scientific realism. With Macherey, unfortunately, this is not the case. In his more recent work Macherey has not only turned to the problem of the material effect of literature, that is, the history of literary effects, but has also gone so far as to redefine literature exclusively in terms of its historical reception, a project that denies, if not the legitimacy of a scientific concept of literary practice, at least its utility: "A study of the literary process is no longer an investigation into what literature is produced from, into the basis of its existence, but an attempt to identify the effects which it produces" (Macherey 1976, 51).

By reducing literature to the historical effect of its reception, Macherey has not simply rejected theoreticism; he has also rejected the very project of a science of history, a position that brings him closer to Hindess and Hirst than to Althusser. Macherey has rejected a realist and materialist concept—by which literary practice could be explained functionally by virtue of its distinct discursive nature (not by its authenticity or value, about which scientific criticism can have nothing to say)—for an irrationalist, gauchiste position that renounces the project of objective, scientific criticism and embraces the historicist, relativist denial of a general concept of literary production. This volte-face does not answer the "materialist" question of reception, as Macherey seems to think; it only casts doubt on the very possibility of such a materialist understanding. Unable to synthesize the "text-reality" relationship and the "text effect" relationship, Macherey posits a false antithesis between them: either literature is an objectively distinct discourse (and thus exists in a theoretically distinct relationship to the real by way of its ideological origins and its mode of production), or it is a historically relative discourse that functions to interpellate subjects (and thus exists exclusively as a function of the ideological apparatuses that determine its reception). Macherey eliminates the antithesis by rejecting the reality of the text's production in order to affirm the reality of its reception, but he can produce no "materialist" understanding of reception because he can have no concept of what it is that is being received: the objective existence of the literary text simply dissolves into a postmodern, hermeneutic fog of subjective interpretation.

The question of the concept of literature no longer has any meaning


for Macherey: "Literature is a practical material process of transformation which means that in particular historical periods, literature exists in different forms. Literature with a capital 'L' does not exist; there is the 'literary,' literature or literary phenomena within social reality and this is what must be studied and understood" (Macherey 1977, 3). The question of the relationship between literature and ideology, he maintains, must be posed in terms that escape the "confrontation of universal essences in which many Marxist discussions have found themselves enclosed" (Macherey and Balibar 1974, 30). Disingenuously ignoring the fact that there are distinct levels of theoretical discourse ranging from the abstract-general to the concrete-specific, Macherey imperiously dismisses the "illusion that literature in general exists . . . that literature is something, that is to say a whole united around a coherent system of principles which ensure its conformity to a fixed and immutable essence" (Macherey 1976, 51).

There is no reason to accept the terms of Macherey's false antithesis between the production and reception of literary discourse. What is actually going on beneath the surface of Macherey's argument is a misguided attempt to combat the class-biased aesthetic judgments about literature by taking an idealist and irrationalist position with respect to art ("criticism is an ideological effect of class struggle") as opposed to a materialist and realist position ("aesthetics is class struggle in culture"). In an attempt to defend Macherey's position, Tony Bennett puts the problem this way:

What is in dispute is not the material existence of texts but the contention that, in any part of their objective and material presence they declare themselves to be "literature." Written texts do not organize themselves into the "literary" and "non-literary." They are so organized only by the operations of criticism upon them. This contention is fully substantiated by the history of the term "literature" which finally achieved the range of meaning [we now give the term] only during the nineteenth century, side by side with the consolidation of literary criticism and aesthetics as autonomous and academically entrenched areas of inquiry. (Bennett 1979, 7)

This line of argument graphically reveals the incoherence of Macherey's reduction of literature to its reception. Most certainly texts do not "organize themselves" into the "categories of their reception." But this does not mean that all "criticisms" that "organize the reception" of literary texts are the same; that there is no vital difference between axiological aesthetics and scientific criticism. By denying the possibility of a general concept of literature, Macherey and Bennett have put his-


torical materialism in the awkward position of uncritically accepting concepts of literary practice that it is supposed to be explaining. If there is no distinction between a scientific analysis of a literary text and any other interpretation, by extension there can be no distinction between a scientific analysis of any historical phenomena and any other interpretation of those phenomena. Of course, such a critique completely cuts the ground out from under any knowledge of history, making nonsense of any attempt at "studying and understanding" literary phenomena even as unique, concrete objects. When Bennett attempts to persuade us that "what is needed is not a theory of literature as such but a historically concrete analysis of the different forms of fictional writing and the ideologies to which they allude," he is, strictly speaking, talking nonsense. What is fictional writing? What are ideologies? Without a conceptual problematic—that is, without concepts—one cannot say. To speak of a "historically concrete analysis" without concepts of the historical practices being analyzed is to assert blithely the existence of historical science while denying its theoretical conditions of existence.[4]

In opposition to the idea of knowledge without concepts, we must insist that without concepts the knowledge effect of criticism becomes theoretically indistinguishable from the ideological effect of reception. I do not wish to deny the class-biased nature of reception, but I do protest the reduction of criticism (a scientific practice) into a class-biased form of aesthetics (ideological reception), which is the ultimate effect of the historicism espoused by Macherey and Bennett. Rather than seeing criticism as a scientific practice with political effects, criticism itself becomes merely a political act: "The task which faces Marxist criticism is not that of reflecting or bringing to light the politics which is already there, as a latent presence within the text. . . . It is that of actively politicizing the text, of making politics for it" (Bennett 1979, 167-68). Such statements hopelessly muddle the distinction between criticism and aesthetics; the task of Marxist criticism is precisely to explain the presence of "politics" within the text as well as the "politics" of its reception, while the task of Marxist aesthetics, presumably what Bennett means by the term criticism, is to combat the already politicized system of valorizations and exclusions that surround the text and constitute the field of its reception. A Marxist position in aesthetics is not advanced at all by denying the possibility of a scientific knowledge of literary discourse (on which any Marxist aesthetic position must necessarily be based). Macherey and Bennett seem to have succumbed to voluntarist political pressures to emphasize class struggle to


such an extent that they reduce literary criticism and the concept of literature to functions of a rigid, simplistically conceived class polarity and to the equally reductionist effects of direct class domination.

In order to valorize the function of literature as an ideological apparatus, Macherey goes so far as to deny its autonomy as an ideological production. Not only is he no longer interested in the signifying power of the text, but he also seeks to empty the text of any and all cognitive relation to the real: "to analyze the nature and the form of the realization of class positions in literary production and its outcome ('texts,' those 'works' recognized as literary), is at the same time to define and explain the ideological modality of literature. . . . [T]his problem should be posed as a function of a theory of the history of literary effects" (Macherey and Balibar 1974, 19). The project of a history of literary effects, an important and necessary project in its own right, has become the beginning and the end of all knowledge of literature. Certain essential facts—that the aesthetic effect signifies something, that the signifying effect of this "something" stands in a determinate relation of production to its ideological origins, and that this "something" is knowable (and worth knowing)—have disappeared completely from Macherey's later work. In fact, it is the text itself that has disappeared. Urging that the concept of the "text" or the "work" that has for so long been the mainstay of criticism should be abandoned, Macherey advances the argument that there are no such things as works or texts: "the materialist analysis of literature rejects on principle the notion of the 'work'—i.e., the illusory representation of the unity of a literary text, its totality, self-sufficiency and perfection. . . . More precisely it recognizes the notion of the 'work' (and its correlative 'the author') only to identify both as the necessary illusions inscribed in the ideology of literature that accompanies all literary production" (Macherey and Balibar 1981, 49). The literary effect is reduced by Macherey to three dimensions of a monolithic process of ideological domination: "(1) as produced under determinate social relations; (2) as a moment in the reproduction of the dominant ideology; and (3) consequently as an ideological domination effect in itself" (Macherey and Balibar 1981, 54).

Such a simple-minded reduction of literature to its modes of reception not only betrays the very project of producing knowledge about literature but also subverts the materialist position in philosophy, the class struggle in theory, and in aesthetics, the class struggle in culture. By contrast, defending the complementary nature of scientific criticism and the history of aesthetic reception—and defending as well the con-


cept of ideological practice by which scientific and literary discourse and literary production and reception become comprehensible—affirms a materialist and realist position in both philosophy and aesthetics. Inserting literature into the social formation, studying its role as an ideological apparatus and its relationship to the reproduction of the dominant ideology and the existing relations of production, is not only a legitimate activity but an essential one as well. What is at issue here is not the legitimacy of this enterprise but rather the proposition that such an activity has as its corollary the rejection of a concept of literature and the relative autonomy of the text as a signifying discourse. This is demonstrably not the case. It is possible to analyze literary effects as ideological apparatuses only on the condition that we have a concept of literature as an ideological production—that is, a concept of literature as signifying something —as well as a theory of the "text-reality" relationship that specifies what that something is. It is, after all, only by virtue of the text's peculiar relation to ideology that the relatively autonomous field of reception is opened up. Without a concept of literature, the "minimum generality" necessary to constitute a text as a theoretical object, the very basis of reception itself becomes incomprehensible.

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Chapter 5 Literature and Ideology
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