Reviewed by Tony McKenna
The world of modern day literary theory is a strange and surreal place. It is a place where novels resonate with ‘diegetic centres’ where ‘object words’ give off ‘metonymic signals’, it is a place where a story does not so much amble to its conclusion but rather strives toward its ‘global narrative closure’. It is a place where ‘signifiers’ float across a myriad of ‘micro-episodic dimensions’. It is a world which has been strewn together from a hotchpotch of eclectic material: the linguistics of Saussure, the dense deconstructionism of Derrida, the tortuous discourse theory of Foucault, the convoluted post modernism which became a catch term for the evaporation of objectivity in an increasingly fragmented and atomized universe. It is a murky, mystical terrain overseen by a series of superstar academics who are at the same time its high priests; the gatekeepers whose rarefied talents allows them direct access to the sublime object, to tear away the veil, to decipher its mysteries and reveal its secrets.
But the obscurity which is at work in the language of much of modern literary theory is more than just the faddish, fashionable amour propre of a well-to-do and rather privileged set of radicals – those who enjoy their aesthetic theory à l’espresso with a whiff of continental sophistication and opaque exclusivity. It is, in fact, the expression of a deeper and more fundamental trend. One in which the contradictions of fundamental socio-historical processes – particularly those of class – are displaced into an transcendental realm which is then understood almost purely in terms of a linguistic, semiotic or psychoanalytical set of categories. Modern literary theory reached maturity and achieved global precedence from around the late sixties to the eighties; a timeframe roughly coextensive with a worldwide economic slump. And a concomitant decline or defeat of international working class movements, especially those located around industry, couldn’t help but have an effect on every aspect of culture, including university life.
As the revolutionary tide receded, the faith more radically inclined academics were able to espouse in the social agencies of the mass movement more broadly – the unions, the political groupings, the organs of community activism – was increasingly eroded, unconsciously, organically. The character of literary theory came to offer a palliative; the contradictions which underpinned class struggle in the wider world were ever less palpable, ever less visible, but in the rarefied realm of signs and signifiers these contradictions could be discerned once more, could be worked out to their full and radical potential without the need to participate in dour union meetings or attend the ever dwindling numbers of rainy-day rallies. As the effects of economic decline and political malaise sunk deeper into academic life, many came to understand that a revolution which called into question the socio-historical structures of capitalist oppression was not feasible, but a revolution which called into question the structures of language and even meaning itself – which reshaped it on a far more radical and innovative basis – was something which might be achieved.
All of this might seem like a curiously circuitous way to begin a review of Fredric Jameson’s latest book on the writings of Raymond Chandler, but it is necessary in as much as I want to make clear that the copious criticism which follows is not anti-intellectual in origin – it is not the fact that Jameson uses obscure phrases or a technical, academic vocabulary (Aristotle, Kant, Hegel and Marx all do that) – but rather that the obscurity of many of the concepts deployed overlays a specific function: a special type of alchemy by which socio-historical contradiction is transmuted into an ahistorical essence which involves a preoccupation with the physical form and structure of the novel abstracted from its historical life. So, for instance, when Jameson considers what the literary plot does in general he provides a definition which is not only threadbare and purely formal, but also highly tendentious: ‘the detective story plot merely follows the basic tendency of all literary plots or intrigue in general, which is marked by the resolution of multiplicity back into some primal unity, by a return to some primal starting point’. (27) This seems to me to be demonstrably false. Much contemporary literature is very much concerned with fragmentation and the loss of the whole – consider Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, for instance.
But even if Jameson was able to somehow establish that the modus operandi of every ‘literary plot’ involves the attempt to dissolve multiplicity in a single ‘primal unity’ – even if we were to accept this – such an analysis would still have said relatively little, for it would have addressed the issue of form in isolation while the content would remain virtually untouched. The preponderance of form over content provides one of the abiding attributes of Jameson’s slim compendium. Consider, for instance, Jameson’s analysis of the first chapter of perhaps Chandler’s most famous work, The Big Sleep. Here Jameson reverts from a historical paradigm, shifting to a psychoanalytical-cum-semiotic model which is focused on the way in which four ‘characters’ in the scene – Marlowe, the butler, Carmen and the dead general in the painting – all stare out at each other. Jameson argues that the number of ‘looks’ exhibited is somehow key – ‘by way of the Look as a permutation space, a whole system is slowly cumulatively disengaged’. (34) Following the approach of Algirdas Julien Greimas, Jameson suggests that:
we will need at least four fundamental semes, or two fundamental oppositions, in order for this thematic constellation to emerge in the form of some genuine ideological system; the process of realization that in fact this opening chapter exhibits for our inspection not three pairs of eyes, not three characters (of very unequal diegetic importance), but rather four, since the whole encounter is seen through the eyes of Marlowe, a “peeper” and someone whose business is observation. (35)
A ‘seme’ is – apparently – a small unit of meaning, but why do we need ‘at least four’? What would happen if, god forbid, we only had three ‘semes’? Well, says the writer, without that extra ‘seme’ the ‘thematic constellation’ would never emerge in the form of a ‘genuine ideological system’. What a ‘thematic constellation’ would look like before its emergence in a ‘genuine ideological system’ is anybody’s guess, but now that our ‘semes’ have been counted and our ‘thematic constellation’ has indeed emerged, Jameson provides us with a diagram in which such a system is exhibited (much in the fashion of Greimas’ ‘semiotic square’). Briefly, The Dead General is connected to Marlowe by ‘The Public Codes of Honor History’, Marlowe is connected to The Butler by ‘Detachment Observation’, The Butler is connected to Carmen by ‘The Private Dishonour Sexuality’, and Carmen is connected to The Dead General by ‘Passion and Commitment’.
Such links are tenuous. Marlowe is connected to The Butler by something called ‘Detachment Observation’ for they are both in situations where they witness at close quarters the behaviour of others one would presume. But Marlowe does this as part and parcel of the basis of his profession, whereas in the butler’s case he is not supposed to linger when private intrigues or arguments among family members are being played out. Or is he? We don’t know. The specifics of their social roles are not examined. Having plucked this category – ‘Detachment Observation’ – from the ether, Jameson takes no pains to interrogate it. Carmen and The Dead General are linked by ‘Passion and Commitment’, but couldn’t Marlowe also be categorized as displaying passion and commitment – certainly in terms of his job at least. In fact, don’t most people at some point in their lives display these qualities?
What we have here is a series of extremely vague psychological categories, extirpated from an analysis of social-historical conditions; such categories are then syphoned through a jargon heavy, pseudo-scientific lexicon which seems to hint at some profound and esoteric revelation – the emergence of a ‘genuine ideological system’. But once the emergence of this ‘genuine ideological system’ has been ‘established’ by way of grafting these loose psychological categories to a black and white diagram, Jameson says very little about such a ‘system’ except to note that it involves an underlying contradiction ‘between “passion” and “self” and the public realm.’ (36) But exhibiting the diagram and then baldly asserting this contradiction seem to me to fall significantly short of a systematic and conscientious exposure of a ‘genuine ideological system’, whatever such a system might have entailed!
Elsewhere, Jameson uses this distinction between the private and public realms to underwrite a broader motif in Chandler’s fictional landscape:
The private, “unpresentable” areas behind the official reception rooms and “fronts” come to be considered little by little as more “real” than the areas designed for public appearance: it is in the backrooms then, and behind the scenes, that some more authentic activity takes place; and it is felt that only those who know such operations “from the inside”, that is to say, who know what goes on behind the counter and in the backroom, have any genuine knowledge (or know how). (40)
Jameson’s description here contains some truth. But at the same time, in privileging an almost generic ontological opposition between the private and public spheres, he misses the historicity and, in particular, the class dimensions which constitute such an opposition in Chandler’s novels in the first place. Marlowe is someone who knows such operations ‘from the inside’ precisely because he is a canny grafter: hardboiled, rough and ready in manner. The reason he is able to penetrate the ‘public appearance’ and into the backrooms is because he speaks the dialect of the petty criminals, henchmen, gamblers, gigolos and gangsters who inhabit that underground world. He is able to decipher their behaviour for he is, in fact, a more plebeian archetype whose work secures his livelihood on a day-to-day basis; like many of the people he encounters, he is implicated in a quite practical struggle for existence. This represents a significant break with the more classical detective – à la Miss Marple – who was nearly always from the upper classes, and pursued her mystery solving endeavours as a leisurely hobby on the part of a moneyed individual.
In his book on the crime story genre Delightful Murder, Ernest Mandel argues that such a shift in archetype was accomplished in an especially vivid way in the US crime fiction of the 1930s because of the particularities of American historical development. ‘When the Depression came, it gave fresh and frightening impetus to crime of all sorts … With the quantitative extension of crime came a qualitative transformation of it … The coming age of organized crime tolled the death knell of the drawing-room detective story … an abrupt break with the gentility of the classical detective story, especially with crime based on individual psychological motives like greed and revenge.’ (Mandel 1984, 31-5) With the development of increasingly systematic and endemic forms of crime, aesthetic consciousness is more and more compelled to go to the social roots of the phenomenon, to comprehend crime in society-wide terms: not simply the criminal in abstraction, but the links which spread out – from the rural bootlegger, to the local businessman who invests in him, to the mob outfit in the city who buy up their product, to the customs officials that criminal enterprise is compelled to bribe, to their corrupt affiliates in the police and broader state bureaucracy who are all in on the racket.
For those crimes which are more social and endemic in nature, and presuppose a systematic network of bureaucratic (class) corruption, a detective in the vein of a Miss Marple or a Lord Peter Whimsy is utterly inadequate to the task. One requires a more hardboiled, plebeian character who carries within themselves the tenor and character of vast swathes of people, who is himself a microcosm of the masses, and is able to navigate the underlying and veiled relationships of power and exploitation which open up behind the scenes and impact their lives. While Marlowe has the sense of justice, the moral purpose, of a Miss Marple or Father Brown (albeit cosseted behind a jaded exterior), the key to his literary power lies in the way he is able speak the language of the streets and thus penetrate their secrets (which is why, incidentally, dialogue is so important and so uniquely emphasised in Chandler). Marlowe is a particle of the very social mystery he inhabits; blemished, tainted, a soul of a soulless world.
Mandel conscientiously situates such a character development in the broader historical trajectory of prohibition, the increase in organized crime, the shift toward detecting as a large-scale organized profession, the collapse of bourgeois optimism which was brought about by the First World War and the crash of ‘29, and so on. When Jameson references such historical criterion at all, he does so fleetingly and tangentially, and his analysis of living history is nearly always swallowed up by the labyrinthine warren of ossified and formal concepts which undergird much of modern literary theory. So, having correctly elucidated the contradiction between the inauthentic and the authentic, between the façade and the ‘backroom’ world which Marlowe is able to move in, Jameson at once vanquishes the possibility of any historical insight by a laborious and formal consideration of how the opposition between the authentic and inauthentic manages ‘in a quasi-metaphysical way to reconfirm the idea of “reality” itself’. Pace Dean MacCannel, Jameson argues that such an opposition grasps:
hermeneutic activity (whether that of the textual interpreter or that of Marlowe and other detectives) 1) as a ritual, as an activity whose connotative meaning confirms and secures an ideology which greatly transcends its immediate denotative intent (the immediate solution to the enigma or problem); and 2) as a spatial form, that is, an activity whose fundamental material organization is to be found in space (rather than in cognitive categories) (40)
Indeed for much of the book Jameson focusses on notions of space:
“space” must be read … the reader may expect to pass through an initial period of programmation, through some inaugural entry chamber in which the appropriate decoding techniques are taught and learned. Even as far as the category of space itself is concerned it cannot be assumed to pre-exist the text either but must be projected by the latter as that “code” of space which the reader must learn to read. (31)
I leave it to the reader to decide how much of substance can be gleaned from passages of this type. But it is important to note how they carry within them the most abiding motif of Jameson’s analysis as a whole – the abrogation of a historical account by a static, formal set of categories imagined in spatial terms and increasingly abstracted from any fundamental social or class agency – ‘mapping space.’ While some may indeed find such an approach compelling, what surely has to be emphasised is that such an approach is in no way Marxist. It is not simply that Jameson fails to draw upon or even really reference the concepts which arise in the rich body of Marxist literary criticism. More than this, at the most fundamental level, Jameson’s book represents an abandonment of the historical method per se.
12 December 2016
- Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story London: Pluto Press, 1984