Re: traveling theory, text part 2 (second 5 pages)

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Posted by rainer ganahl on August 04, 1996 at 12:20:56:

In Reply to: traveling theory, text part 1 (first 5 pages) posted by rainer ganahl on August 04, 1996 at 12:17:54:

Now because it rises above objects, consciousness enters a realm of potentiality, that is, of theoretical possibility. The special urgency of Lukacs' account of this is that he is describing something rather far from a mere escape into fantasy. Consciousness attaining self­consciousness is no Emma Bovary pretending to be a lady in Yonville. The direct pressures of capitalist quantification, that relentless cataloguing of everything on earth, continue to be felt, according to Lukacs; the only thing that changes is that the mind recognizes a class of beings like itself who have the power to think generally, to take in facts but to organize them in groups, to recognize processes and tendencies where reification only allows evidence of lifeless atoms. Class consciousness therefore begins in critical consciousness. Classes are not real the way trees and houses are real; they are imputable by consciousness, using its powers to posit ideal types in which with other beings it finds itself. Classes are the result of an insurrectionary act by which consciousness refuses to be confined to the world of objects, which is where it had been confined in the capitalist scheme of things.
Consciousness has moved from the world of objects into the world of theory. Although Lukacs describes it as only a young German philosopher could describe it - in language bristling with roe metaphysics and abstractions than even I have been using - we must not forget that he is performing an act of poetical insurgency. To attain to theory is to threaten reification, as well as the entire bourgeois system on which reification depends, with destruction. But, he assures his readers, this destruction "is no single unrepeatable tearing of the veil that masks the process (of reification) but the unbroken alternation of ossification, contradiction and movement."11 Theory, in fine, is won as the result of a process that begins when consciousness first experiences its own terrible ossification in the general reification of all things under capitalism; then when consciousness generalizes (or classes) itself as something opposed to other objects, and feels itself as a contradiction to (or crisis within) objectification, there emerges a consciousness of change in the status quo; finally, moving toward freedom and fulfillment, consciousness looks ahead to complete self­realization, which is of course the revolutionary process stretching forward in time, perceivable now only as theory or projection.
This is very heady stuff indeed. I have summarized it in order to set down some small indication of how powerfully responsive Lukacs' ideas about theory were to the political order he described with such formidable gravity and dread. Theory for him was what consciousness produced, not as an avoidance of reality but as a revolutionary will completely committed to worldliness and change. According to Lukacs, the proletariat's consciousness represented the theoretical antithesis to capitalism; as Merleau­Ponty and others have said, Lukacs' proletariat can by no means be identified with a ragged collection of grimy­faced Hungarian laborers. the proletariat was his figure for consciousness defying reification, mind asserting its powers over mere matter, consciousness claiming its theoretic right to posit a better world outside the world of simple objects. And since class consciousness derives from workers working and being aware of themselves that way, theory must never lose touch with its origins in politics, society, and economics.
This, then, is Lukacs describing his ideas about theory - and of course his theory of sociohistorical change - in the early twenties. Consider now Lukacs' disciple and student, Lucien Goldmann, whose Le Dieu caché (1955) was one of the first and certainly among the most impressive attempts to put Lukacs' theories to practical scholarly use. In Goldmann's study of Pascal and Racine, class consciousness had been changed to "vision du monde," something that is not an immediate, but a collective consciousness expressed in the work of certain highly gifted writers.12 But this in not all. Goldmann says that these writers derive their world vision from determinate political and economic circumstances common to members of their group; yet the world vision itself is premised not so much on empirical details on a human faith that a reality exists "which goes beyond them as individuals and find its expression in their work."13 Writing as a politically committed scholar (and to like Lukacs as a directly involved militant), Goldmann then argues that because Pascal and Racine were privileged writers, their work can be constituted into a significant whole by a process of dialectical theorizing, in which part is related to assumed whole, assumed whole verified empirically by empirical evidence. Thus individual texts are seen to express a world vision; second, the world vision constitutes the whole intellectual and social life of a group (the Port­Royal Jansenists); third, the thoughts and feelings of the group are an expression of their economic and social life.14 In all this - and Goldmann argues with exemplary brilliance and subtlety - the theoretical enterprise, an interpretive circle, is a demonstration of coherence: between part and whole, between world vision and texts in their smallest detail, between a determinate social reality and the writings of particularly gifted members of a group. In other words, theory is the researcher's domain, the place in which disparate, apparently disconnected things are brought together in perfect correspondence: economics, political process, the individual writer, a series of texts.
Goldmann's indebtedness to Lukacs is clear, although it has not been noted that what in Lukacs is an ironic discrepancy between theoretical consciousness and reified reality is transformed and localized by Goldmann into a tragic correspondence between world vision and the unfortunate class situation of the noblesse de robe in late seventeenth­century France. Whereas Lukacs' class consciousness defies, indeed is an insurgent against, the capitalist order, Goldmann's tragic vision is perfectly, absolutely expressed by the works of Pascal and Racine. True, the tragic vision is not directly expressed by those writers, and true also that it requires an extraordinarily complex dialectical style of research for the modern researcher to draw forth the correspondence between world vision and empirical detail; the fact nevertheless is that Goldmann's adaptation of Lukas removes from theory its insurrectionary role. The sheer existence of class, or theoretical, consciousness for Lukacs is enough to suggest to him the projected overthrow of objective forms. For Goldmann an awareness of class or group consciousness is first of all a scholarly imperative, and then - in the works of highly privileged writers - the expression of a tragically limited social situation. Lukacs' zugerechnetes Bewusstsein (imputed consciousness) is an unverifiable, yet absolutely prior theoretical necessity if one is to effect a change in social reality; in Goldmann's version of it, admittedly limited to an acutely circumscribed situation, theory and consciousness are expressed in the Pascalian wager upon an unseen and silent god, the deus absconditus; they are also expressed for Goldmann the scientific researcher, as he calls himself, in the theoretical correspondence between text and political reality. Or to put the matter in another way, for Lukacs theory originates as a kind of irreducible dissonance between mind and object, whereas for Goldmann theory is the homological relationship that can be seen to exist between individual part and coherent whole.
The difference between the two versions of Lukacs' theory of theory is evident enough: Lukas writes as a participant in a struggle (the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919), Goldmann as an expatriate historian at the Sorbonne. From one point of view we an say that Goldmann's adaptation of Lukacs degrades theory, lowers it in importance, domesticates it somewhat to the exigencies of a doctoral dissertation in Paris. I do not think, however, that degradation here has a moral implication, but rather (as one of its secondary meanings suggests) that degradation conveys the lowering of color, the greater degree of distance, the loss of immediate force that occurs when Goldmann's notions of consciousness and theory are compared with the meaning and role intended by Lukacs for theory. Nor do I want to suggest that there is something inherently wrong about Goldmann's conversion of insurrectionary, radically adversarial consciousness into an accommodating consciousness of correspondence and homology. It is just that the situation has changed sufficiently for the degradation to have occurred, although there is no doubt that Goldmann's reading of Lukacs mutes the latter's almost apocalyptic version of consciousness.
We have become so accustomed to hearing that all borrowings, readings, and interpretations are misreadings and misinterpretations that we are likely to consider the Lukas­Goldmann episode as just another bit of evidence that everyone, even Marxists, misread and misinterprets. I find such a conclusion completely unsatisfying. It implies, first of all, that the only possible alternative to slavish copying is creative misreading and that no intermediate possibility exists. Second, when it is elevated to a general principle, the idea that all reading is misreading is fundamentally an abrogation of the critic's responsibility. It is never enough for a critic taking the idea of criticism seriously simply to say that interpretation is misinterpretation or that borrowings inevitably involve misreadings. Quite the contrary: it seems to me perfectly possible to judge misreadings (as they occur) as part of a historical transfer of ideas and theories from one setting to another. Lukas wrote for as well as in a situation that produced ideas about consciousness and theory that are very different from the ideas produced by Goldmann in his situation. To call Goldmann's work a misreading of Lukacs', and then to go on immediately to relate that misreading to a general theory of interpretation as misinterpretation, is to pay no critical attention to history and to situation, both of which play an important determining role n changing Lukacs' ideas into Goldmann's. The Hungary of 1919 and post­World War II Paris are two quite different environments. To the degree that Lukacs and Goldmann are read carefully, then to that precise degree we can understand the critical change - in time and in place - that occurs between one writer and another, both of whom depend on theory to accomplish a particular job of intellectual work. I see no need here to resort to the theory of limitless intertextuality as an Archimedean point outside the two situations. The particular voyage from Hungary to Paris, with all that entails, seems compelling enough, adequate enough for critical scrutiny, unless we want to give up critical consciousness for critical hermeticism.
In measuring Lukacs and Goldmann against each other, then, we are also recognizing the extent to which theory is a response to a specific social and historical situation of which an intellectual occasion is a part. Thus what is insurrectionary consciousness in one instance becomes tragic vision in another, for reason that are elucidated when the situations in Budapest and Paris are seriously compared. I do not wish to suggest that Budapest and Paris are seriously compared. I do not wish to suggest that Budapest and Paris determined the kinds of theories produced by Lukacs and Goldmann. I do mean that "Budapest" and "Paris" are irreducibly first conditions, and they provide limits and apply pressures to which each writer, given his own gifts, predilections, and interests, responds.
let us now take Lukacs, or rather Lukacs as used by Goldmann, a step further: the use made of Goldmann by Raymond Williams. Brought up in the tradition of Cambridge English studies, trained in the techniques of Leavis and Richards, Williams was formed as a literary scholar who had no use whatever for theory. he speaks rather poignantly of how intellectuals educated as he was could use "a separate and self­defining language" that made a fetish of minute, concrete particular; this meant that the intellectuals could approach power but speak antiseptically only of microcosm, profess not to understand reification, and to speak instead of the objective correlative, not to know mediation although the knew catharsis.15 Williams tells us that Goldmann came to Cambridge in 1970 and gave two lectures there. This visit, according to Williams in the moving commemorative essay he wrote about Goldmann came to Cambridge in 1970 and gave two lectures there. This visit, according to Williams in the moving commemorative essay he wrote about Goldmann after his death, was a major event. It introduced Cambridge to theory, Williams claims, understood and employed as it had been by thinkers trained n the major Continental tradition. Goldmann induced in Williams an appreciation of Lukacs' contribution to our understanding of how, in an era of "the dominance of economic activity over all other forms of human activity," reification was both a false objectivity so far as knowledge was concerned and a deformation thoroughly penetrating life and consciousness roe than any other form. Williams continues:

The idea of totality was then a critical weapon against this precise deformation; indeed, against capitalism itself. And yet this was not idealism - an assertion of the primacy of other values. On the contrary, just as the deformation could be understood, at its roots, only by historical analysis of a particular kind of economy, so the attempt to overcome and surpass it lay not in isolated witness or in separated activity but in practical work to find, assert and to establish more human social ends in more human and political and economic means.16

Once again Lukacs' thought - in this instance the avowedly revolutionary idea of totality - has been tamed somewhat. Without wishing in any way to belittle the importance of what Lukacs' ideas (via Goldmann) did for the moribund state of English studies in late twentieth­century Cambridge, I think it needs to be said that those ideas were originally formulated in order to do more than shake up a few professors of literature. This is an obvious, not to say easy, point. What is more interesting, however, is that because Cambridge is not revolutionary Budapest, because Williams is not the militant Lukacs, because Williams is a reflective critic - this is crucial - rather than a committed reflective critic - this is crucial - rather than a committed revolutionary, he can see the limits of a theory that begins as a liberating idea but can become a trap of its own.

At the most practical level it was easy for me to agree (with Lukacs' theory of totality as a response to reification). But then the whole point of thinking in terms of a totality is the realization that we are part of it; that our own consciousness, our work, our methods, are then critically at stake. And in the particular field of literary analysis there was this obvious difficulty: that most of the work we had to look at was the product of just this work of reified consciousness, so that what looked like the methodological breakthrough might become, quite quickly, the methodological trap. I cannot yet say this finally about Lukacs, since I still don't have access to all his work; but in some of it, at least, the major insights of History and Class­Consciousness, which he has now partly disavowed, do not get translated into critical practice (Williams refers here to Lukacs' later, much cruder work on European realism) and certain cruder operations- essentially still those of base and superstructure - keep reappearing. I still read Goldmann collaboratively and critically asking the same question, for I am sure the practice of totality is still for any of us, at any time, profoundly and even obviously difficult.17

This is an admirable passage. Even though Williams says nothing about the lamentable repetitiveness of Goldmann's later work, it is important that as a critic who has learned from someone else's theory he should be able to see the theory's limitations, especially the fact that a breakthrough can become a trap, if it is used uncritically, repetitively, limitlessly. What he means, I think, is that once an idea gains currency because it is clearly effective and powerful, there is every likelihood that during its peregrinations it will e reduced, codified, and institutionalized. Lukacs' remarkably complex exposition of the phenomenon of reification indeed did turn into a simple reflection theory; to a degree of course, and Williams is too decently elegaic to say it about a recently dead old friend, it did become this sort of idea in Goldmann's hands. Homology is, after all, a refined version of the old Second International base­and­superstructure model.
Beyond the specific reminder of what could happen to a vanguard theory, William's ruminations enable us to make another observation about theory as it develops out of a situation, begins to be used, travels, and gains wide acceptance. For if reification­and­totality (to turn Lukacs' theory now into a shorthand phrase for easy reference) can become a reductionist implement, there is no reason why it could become too inclusive, too ceaselessly active and expanding a habit of mind. That is, if a theory can move down, s to speak, become a dogmatic reduction of its original version, it can also move up into a sort of bad infinity, which - in the case of reification­and­totality - is the direction intended by Lukacs himself. To speak of the unceasing overthrow of objective forms, and to speak as he does in the essay on class consciousness, of how the logical end of overcoming reification is the self­annihilation of the revolutionary class itself, means that Lukas had pushed his theory farther forward and upward, unacceptably (in my opinion). The contradiction inherent in this theory - and perhaps in most theories that develop as responses to the need for movement and change - is that it risks becoming a theoretical overstatement, a theoretical parody of the situation it was formulated originally to remedy or overcome. To prescribe " an unbroken alternation of ossification, contradiction and movement" toward totality as a theoretical remedy for reification is in a sense to substitute one unchanging formula for another. To say of theory and theoretical consciousness, as Lukacs does, that they intervene in reification and introduce process is not carefully enough to calculate, and allow for the details and the resistances offered by an intransigent, reified reality to theoretical consciousness. For all the brilliance of his account of reification, for all the care he takes with it, Lukacs is unable to see how even under capitalism reification itself cannot be totally dominant - unless, of course, he is prepared to allow something that theoretical totality (his insurrectional instrument for overcoming reification) says is impossible, namely, that totality in the form of totally dominant reification is theoretically possible under capitalism. For if reification is totally dominant, how then can Lukacs explain his own work as an alternative form of thought under the sway of reification?
Perhaps all this is too fussy and hermetic. Nevertheless, it seems to me that however far away in time and place Williams may be from the fiery rebelliousness of the early Lukacs, there is an extraordinary virtue to the distance, even the coldness of his critical reflections on Lukacs and Goldmann, to both of whom he is otherwise so intellectually cordial. he takes from both men a sophisticated theoretical awareness of the issues involved in connecting literature to society, as he puts it in his best single theoretical essay, "Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory." The terminology provided by Marxist aesthetic theory for mapping the peculiarly uneven and complicated field lying between base and superstructure is generally inadequate, and then Williams goes on to do work that embodies his critical version of the original theory. He puts this version very well, I think, in Politics and Letters: "however dominant a social system may be, the very meaning of its domination involves a limitation or selection of the activities it covers, so that by definition it cannot exhaust all social experience, which therefore always potentially contains space for alternative acts and alternative intentions which are not yet articulated as a social institution or even project." 18 The Country and the City records both the limits and the reactive alternatives to dominance, as in the case of John Clare, whose work "marks the end of pastoral poetry (as a systematic convention for describing the English countryside) in the very shock of its collision with actual country experience." Clare's very existence as a poet was threatened by the removal of an acceptable social order from the customary landscape idealized by Jonson and Thomson; hence Clare's turning - as an alternative not yet fully realized and not yet completely subdued by the inhuman relationship that obtained under the system of market exploitation - to "the green language of the new Nature," that is, the Nature to be celebrated in a new way by the great Romantics.19

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