Preferred Citation: Resch, Robert Paul. Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.

Chapter 5 Literature and Ideology

Macherey and Etienne Balibar: Marxism Against Literature?

Renée Balibar and her associates have made an important contribution to our understanding of the relationships between culture and class domination. They have revealed the historical connection between literature and the public school system and between both of these and ideological hegemony. By focusing on the determinate institutional origins of literature, they have extended the materialist theory and analysis of literary production and corrected the excessively "intrinsic" methodology characteristic of Macherey's Theory of Literary Production . Nevertheless, their work is not without certain serious problems, problems that emerge most clearly in the theoretical introduction to Les français fictifs provided by Macherey and Etienne Balibar.

Macherey and Etienne Balibar wholeheartedly endorse the reduction of literature to a single linguistic mechanism, the compromise formation, itself exclusively determined by a single contradiction, the contradiction between literary and common language. For them, literature is a one-dimensional process, masking social contradictions by providing "imaginary solutions" to them: "a literary formation is a solution to ideological conflicts, insofar as they are formulated in a special language which is born different from the common language and within it (the common language itself being the product of an internal conflict), a formation which realizes and masks, in a series of compromises, the conflict which constitutes it by displacing the entire ensemble of ideological contradictions into a single one, or a single aspect—that of linguistic conflicts" (Macherey and Balibar 1981, 51). All other elements of textual production are of only secondary importance; it is the compromise formation that "invests the manifest ideological themes and organizes their effectivity according to constraints which, borrowing a concept of Freud's, one might call a 'secondary elaboration,' and thereby confers on them the order of a narrative facade—romanesque, allegorical, or abstract" (Macherey and Balibar 1974, 35). The contradiction between common and literary language originates in the ideological apparatuses of the schools; therefore, "literature is inseparable from an academic or schooling practice that defines the conditions for both the consumption and production of literature" (Macherey and


Balibar 1981, 46). Literature is completely determined by the educational apparatus both in its origins and effects, Macherey and Balibar maintain, since it is the reception/consumption of literature that gives discourse whatever "literary" quality it possesses: "The text is literature and is recognized as such precisely when and to the extent that it provokes interpretations, criticisms, 'readings.' This is why it is quite possible for a text to actually cease to be literature or become such under new conditions" (Macherey and Balibar 1974, 44).

Macherey and Balibar have replaced Macherey's earlier view of literature as putting ideology to work for a more ominous vision of ideology putting literature to work. In making this move, Macherey and Balibar abandon a realist and materialist concept of literary production for a concept of literature indistinguishable from the historically variable aesthetic ideologies and apparatuses that define and control the reception of literature. In effect, the concept of literature is being defined by its reception and no longer by its production. Scientific criticism, the analysis of the production of literary representation-meaning, loses its raison d'être from the perspective of a "materialism" that passively accepts the judgments of aesthetic ideology in order to condemn them (and with them literature itself) as inherently oppressive. Macherey and Balibar deny literary production any relative autonomy whatsoever and completely reject any general concept of literature that would define "fiction" in terms of a "text-reality" relationship:

All general definitions of literature as fiction involve, as a first element, reference to a story which is an image or analogue of life. . . . To define literature as fiction means taking an old philosophical position . . . linked with establishing a theory of knowledges, and confronting the fictional discourse with a reality—even and especially when it gives reality an image different from the immediate perception of daily life and common experience. . . . The category of reflection, which is central to the Marxist problematic . . . is not concerned with [such] realism but with materialism, which is profoundly different. Marxism cannot define literature in general as realism, nor can it define literature in general as fiction. (Macherey and Balibar 1981, 51-52)

A strange text indeed that speaks of materialism while at the same time denying the possibility of realism! As stated, the argument leaves us with a conception of literature that has not only severed any direct link between the significations of the text and reality (reflectionism) but has also denied the possibility of any indirect link (ideology to a second power) as well. What remains? Apparently nothing at all, merely a


philosophical feint that posits the existence of the literary but only as the shadow of its reception, the latter being, somehow, the substance of this very effect.

By a complex process, literature is the production of a certain reality, not indeed (one cannot overemphasize this) an autonomous but a material reality. . . . Literature is not, therefore, fiction but a production of fictions . . . fiction and realism are not concepts for the production of literature, but, on the contrary, notions produced by literature. This leads to remarkable consequences, for it means the model—the real referent "outside" the discourse which both fiction and realism presuppose—has no function here as a non-literary, nondiscursive anchor point previous to the text. . . . But its [reality] does function as an effect of discourse. It is literary discourse which induces and projects in its midst the presence of the "real" in the manner of an hallucination. (Macherey and Balibar 1981, 52-53)

A material effect, the reception of the text as real, emerges from nowhere—an immaculate reception, if you will—since there is no "fiction," only an "effect of fiction," which is really the process of reception; from an effect of reception we get the reception of an effect. Such a formulation is more absurd than "complex," and its absurdity stems directly from Macherey and Balibar's determined rejection of a concept of literature as a distinct form of representation-meaning whose ideological nature constitutes the principle of intelligibility of both its production and reception.

At least part of the problem originates in an obsessive desire to reduce literature to domination. Macherey and Balibar subordinate literature to the educational apparatuses of the schools in order to define literary practice in terms of a single, direct relation of class domination: the domination of elementary language by literary language.

The literary effect is always an effect of domination: the subjection of individuals to the dominant ideology and the domination of the ideology of the dominant class. . . . If literature is able to serve, indeed must serve in the primary school as the means to fabricate and, at the same time, dominate, partition, and repress the "elementary" French of the dominated classes, it is on the condition that elementary French is itself present, in literature, as one of the terms of its constitutive contradiction, more or less deformed and masked, but also necessarily betrayed and exhibited in fictional reconstructions. And this is the case because the literary French realized in literary texts is both distinct from the "common language" (and opposed to it) and internal to it. In its constitution and its historical evolution within the educational system, literary French has been determined by the material requirements of a developing bourgeois society. This is why we are able to affirm that the place of literature in the education process is only the inverse of the


place of the education process in literature . It is the structure and historical function of the school, the truly dominant ideological state apparatus, which constitutes the base of the literary effect. (Macherey and Balibar 1974, 46-48)

There is a powerful element of truth here. I do not dispute the fact that literature functions as an integral part of class-based domination in the schools, nor do I take exception to the fact that, given the class contradiction within schools between two linguistic practices, there is an overdetermined tendency for literary practice to reproduce this contradiction while masking it. I do object, however, to the reduction of literature to just this class bias and just this reproductive function; I object, in short, to the manner in which Macherey and Balibar posit this particular aspect of literary practice as if it exhausted the concept of literature. Such a view of literature simply anticipates the gloomy essentialism of Foucault's concept of knowledge/power. Let us remember from our critique of Foucault that ideological interpellation is never evenly developed; it creates contradiction as well as integration, and it constitutes social subjects whose practices at least potentially disrupt as well as reproduce existing social relations. Because they see ideology otherwise, as a one-dimensional relation of class domination (thereby accepting, as objectively real, the monolithic coherence that the dominant ideology seeks to project), Macherey and Etienne Balibar emphasize only those aspects of Renée Balibar's concept of the compromise formation that pertain to the reproduction of the existing relations of domination.

For Macherey and Balibar, the literary text is a unified, non-contradictory whole, which by means of the compromise formation always achieves its intended effect of subjugation. It achieves it, they maintain, through a mechanism of identification that persists despite any literary attempts to subvert or eliminate it. The key element of this oppressive process of identification is that necessary property of the compromise formation, its ability to provide, by the mere fact of its existence, imaginary solutions to real ideological problems: "literature 'begins' with an imaginary solution to implacable ideological contradictions, or rather with a representation of just such a solution. However, the solution that literature presents, by means of figuration (through images, allegories, symbols or arguments) is not an actually existing solution pre-existing its literary representation (to repeat, literature is produced precisely because such a real solution is impossible). The literary solution exists only in the sense of a 'mise en scène'—the


representation as the solution " (Macherey and Balibar 1974, 53). The incongruous terms of a contradiction may be presented on the same stage, but only at the cost of a greater or lesser number of more or less complex displacements and substitutions. For there to be literature, the terms of the contradiction (and hence the contradictory ideological elements of the figuration) must be rendered commensurable at the level of discourse. "From the very outset, they must be enunciated in a special language, a language of 'compromise,' realizing in advance the fiction of their forthcoming reconciliation. Better: a language of 'compromise' makes the reconciliation appear 'natural' and ultimately necessary and inevitable" (Macherey and Balibar 1974, 33).

This imaginary solution provokes from the reader an effect of identification , which is at the same time a process of ideological interpellation acting on the reader:

[Literary French] is a case of expressions which always diverge in one or more salient details from those used in practice outside literary discourse, even when both are grammatically "correct." These are linguistic compromise formations, reconciling usages that are socially contradictory in practice, and hence mutually exclusive in tendency. In these formations there is an essential place, more or less disguised but recognizable , for the reproduction of "simple" language—ordinary language . . . which "speaks to everyone," reawakening or reviving memories . . . which produces the effect of 'naturalness' and 'reality.' . . . [L]iterature unceasingly produces subjects on display for everyone. . . . In its own way [it] endlessly transforms (concrete) individuals into subjects and endows them with quasi-real hallucinatory individuality. The realistic effect is the basis of this interpellation which makes characters or merely discourses "live" and which provokes readers to take a stand in literary conflicts as they would in real ones, albeit with much less risk. (Macherey and Balibar 1981, 53-54)

Such a view of the literary effect is perfectly correct, as far as it goes. What is objectionable in Macherey and Balibar's account is neither the process of identification they describe nor their assertion that this process is overdetermined by class struggle; what is objectionable is their assumption that the identification process has no internal contradictions and as a result is inherently and necessarily oppressive. For Macherey and Balibar, literary practice is not so much riven with class struggle as it is itself a consequence of class struggle and therefore a manifestation of class dominance. Literature is not dominated by the ruling class; it is an attribute of ruling-class domination. Under such circumstances it is pointless to criticize class-biased aesthetic judgments


regarding literature; rather, it is a matter of abolishing literary practice altogether.

This draconian solution follows from the series of reductions by which Macherey and Etienne Balibar, following Renée Balibar, reduce literature to style, the compromise formation, and style to a grammatical-syntactical process (inherently deformed by the class-based distinction between everyday and literary language in the schools) devoid of representational-semantic significance (content and meaning, which might contest class-biased criteria and mechanisms within literature itself). This approach places an impossible burden on literary style, which all by itself is supposedly capable of producing the identification effect. It is forced to shoulder this burden because Macherey and Balibar have summarily dismissed all semantic elements as epiphenomena: literary and common linguistic practices are distinguished by different usages of the same unified semantic base, and thus the contradiction between them is never a matter of content or meaning but of grammar and syntax. Semantic considerations (themes, ideas, characters) are reduced to a "facade" whose monolithic unity within the common language precludes, by definition, a variegated or complex (much less a contradictory or disruptive) reception.

This excessive privileging of syntax over semantics has pernicious consequences. If literary style is solely a function of grammar, then differences in content, for example, between the representation of women in Virginia Woolf and August Strindberg are either illusory or, at best, insignificant. Correlatively, if themes, ideas, and other literary elements are merely a facade, writers with similar styles, for example, Dos Passos and Céline, must be saying the same thing or at least producing identical interpellative effects. To eliminate the absurdity of such claims, we must eliminate the theoretical reductions on which they rest and admit that the contradictions within literary practice involve more than just formal characteristics: semantic narrative elements are more than just a facade through which literary style disguises its workings; they refer to ideology and through ideology to reality, and as such, literary production is a complex, contradictory social practice with emancipatory as well as subjugating dimensions.

Literature does interpellate subjects, and literary practice is determined, at least in part, by class-based ideological practices and apparatuses. However, literary practice does not achieve its identifications simply or solely by masking social contradictions, nor is class domination always or necessarily realized in literary texts. We can escape such


simplistic generalizations only by recognizing literary practice for what it is, a second-order production of representation-meaning that is open-ended and contradictory precisely because it is based on the subject-form of ideology and the subjective-ideological experience of the world. Literary practice does indeed "dominate" ordinary ideology, but the result is not necessarily oppressive or obfuscatory since ordinary ideology is itself riven with class-based contradictions rooted in objective reality. Literary production is overdetermined by the class struggle, which assigns it a place and a function within the social formation, but literary representation-meaning nevertheless possesses a relative autonomy that cannot be reduced to the disciplinary delusions of knowledge/power. Despite the fact that it is articulated from within a class-based system of power, literary practice may, under certain circumstances, expose as well as legitimize class domination. Literature cannot transcend the subject-form, of course, but precisely because the subject-form is unevenly developed and contradictory, the mechanisms of identification peculiar to the literary text may promote opposition as well as conformity. Finally, literary style, like all discursive practice, is caught up in a network of semantic as well as syntactical relations. By virtue of its semantic elements, literary style has interpellative possibilities that overflow the class-biased grammatical practices that seek to contain them.[6] It is Renée Balibar's contribution to have shown how, in the conjuncture of nineteenth-century France, the interpellative character of literary discourse was caught up in a class-based structure of ideological domination in a fashion that her concepts of style and compromise formation illuminate. Her error, which is magnified in the essays of Macherey and Etienne Balibar, is to have demonized and homogenized these phenomena and to have made them the very "essence" of literary practice.


Chapter 5 Literature and Ideology

Preferred Citation: Resch, Robert Paul. Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.