Merely Reading: Cultural Criticism as Erasure of Labor

Robert Faivre

Marxist Shakespeares (Routledge, 2001, Jean E. Howard and Scott Cutler Shershow, eds.) is an encyclopedia of assumptions of the bourgeois radicalism that deploys a para-marxist vocabulary to legitimate the liberal state and its education.  While the text engages Marxism it enacts a familiar re-thinking of Marxism which empties key terms of their conceptual content, thus putting in place a marketable "marxism" by which cultural critics may refer to "class" separately from any project aimed at bringing about the end of class.

The editors argue that to read cultural texts and indeed to comprehend the contemporary context in which texts are read, "'class' relations cannot be considered to possess a priority in the colloquial sense, a greater immediacy or practical relevance to any and all human situations" (7). According to the editors it is necessary to go "beyond class-based analysis" (3) in reading and cultural study in order to avoid a "simple methodological focus on the analytic category of 'class' as opposed to race, gender, or ethnicity" (7). The Marxist theory of class, they say, has been an important tool for understanding a period of modern life; however, recent theories worked out in relation to Marxism do not put such emphasis on "class" as a singular category and thus avoid what the editors see as a form of idealism, that is, a way of reading which does not ground itself in a changing historical reality but rather imposes an "idea", specifically that of a basic binary of class, on a reality which is more complex than that.  The editors draw on Stuart Hall, Louis Althusser, and Frederic Jameson for their reworking of Marxist concepts into more "flexible" terms. For instance, they cite Jameson's recasting of the determinative relation of the economic base to the cultural superstructure not as "'a solution and a concept', but [as] 'a problem and a dilemma'" (7). The base/superstructure relation is a core concept of Marxism by which to grasp the ways in which the cultural, political, and other aspects of superstructural forms mediate the basic economic relation of the classes in production. However, according to the editors, who follow Jameson's logic on this point, class, like base/superstructure, is not to be regarded as an explanatory concept, but as a problematizing metaphor. Class is presented as one ideational category among many, which must be "remembered" when one reads cultural texts in contemporary society.

The editors treat "class" as an "analytic category" which it would be idealist to prioritize over other categories. They see themselves as broadening Marxism with what they think orthodox Marxism does not address by "engaging with feminism, cultural studies, and non-Marxist forms of historicism" (3). The result is that Marxism is "pluralized" into a rhetoric, and thus class, rather than being an explanatory concept, becomes one category among many to remember if one reads and interprets in order to "problematize". Rather than providing readers with explanatory concepts and historical modes of analysis for decisively grasping objective class contradictions in order to change them, then, Marxism is represented merely as a means of "raising questions" and temporarily framing the issues.

Such a radical rewriting of Marxism, reducing it to a vocabulary and rhetoric, is an indicator both of the growth of class contradictions and of the means by which the ideologists of the ruling class must work to contain it.  As a response at the level of theory to the growing class contradiction which manifests at all sites of culture and thus must be either historically explained or explained away, Marxist Shakespeares is an exemplary managerial text which offers a mode of reading culture and humanities education which explains away the contradictions and fosters the production of the updated skills required for the continuance of the exploitative social relations of class.  The skills, that is, required for the functioning of the contemporary labor force within the property relations of capitalism: not only the technical skills required for the new forms of production, but the consciousness skills, that is, the modes of subjectivity which displace conceptual understanding of the social relations with ideological representations of these relations.

It is, in fact, the production of subjectivities and knowledge in and about social relations that is the main role of the humanities. The question is: Are the humanities, including the study of Shakespeare and Marx, going to be aimed at producing subjects who will not only enable but justify the continued exploitation of the working class on a global scale? Or, conversely, are the humanities going to aim at producing principled subjects who can explain the relations of production based on exploitation and fight to transform them?

These are the stakes in reading Shakespeare and Marx, and indeed in all reading. Reading is never "merely" reading, that is, reading separated off from the social relations within which reading has become possible. Rather, reading is always a historical act, made possible by the development of the social resources and fettered by the historical limits, a historical act which either confirms or contests the social relations in which it takes place. In the contemporary moment, and indeed in the historical period which contemporary readers share with Shakespeare and Marx, these are first and foremost social relations of class. This means that we live in times when reading—from the selection of texts encountered in the marketplace, to their means of material production, to the ways of reading and institutions of literacy education made possible—occurs within social relations of production which are class relations. Thus, what is necessary now is a labor theory of reading.  A praxis of reading which does not simply negotiate between alternative interpretations, as if these were equally positioned within contemporary culture, but which is based on explanatory concepts and which always seeks to critique the various texts and appearances of culture in terms of the underlying relations of production in capitalism, the historical (and thus changeable!) reality of unequal property relations, of the opposition of labor and capital, of class.

Why do contemporary literary and cultural critics call for a return to Marx in the first place, if they reject the Marxist concept of "class"? By their own account, and following Stuart Hall, the editors state that Marxism is useful because it makes it possible to think of "intellectual work in political terms" and supplies "a serious if imperfect set of tools and concepts for addressing [urgent] questions" (2). That is, in their view, too much cultural study has not addressed questions of "context", because it has been caught up in a textualist view of the world, whereby the textuality of the world becomes the frame of study rather than "the worldliness of the text" (2). Here, Marxism provides "the irritating imperative to remember" this context and thus the text's "affiliations with what lies outside it, its effects in history" (2). Marxism is presented as a corrective to the overly textualist reading of texts which has grown out of the tradition of post-structuralism, thus providing ways of reading "not available in other analytic traditions" (6).

This (re)turn to Marxism provides alternatives to bourgeois readings of the world, but why are alternative readings of the world necessary? That is, why have bourgeois accounts of reality become "inadequate"?

Marxist Shakespeares is unable to explain why textualism emerged or why the current shift to culturalism has become historically necessary in capitalism now.  Briefly, "textualism" became prevalent with the development of cyber-technologies and transnational capitalism, and with capital's subsequent need for a workforce in the North able to shift from the "skills" of "manual labor" to the "skills" of computing and cybertechnology. Now that "cyber-industry" is undergoing economic stagnation and decline, and many managerial and cyber-workers in the North are unemployed and having to be retrained, contemporary culturalist theory must also adjust in order to continue to deflect attention away from the contradictions of the wage-labor/capital relation in transnational capitalism.

In other words, the dominant humanities education today is consistent with maintaining exploitation in the face of economic crisis. The various phases of class society, from Shakespeare's time to ours, are themselves united by the exploitation of labor-power. Exploitation as the basic social fact in class societies has remained; what has changed is its mode and the ideological cover stories which obscure this fact from view. Likewise, the shift from textualism to a culturalism without class (that is, without a theory of the wage-labor/capital relation) simply works within capitalism to keep the workforce trained for capital's basic need for a pool of exploitable labor-power.

This, then, is more to the point of the necessity of the "citational" turn to Marx in contemporary theory. That is, as the class antagonism between wage-labor and capital has intensified globally, new accounts are necessary to legitimate the current relations as the best possibility for equality and freedom. Thus, the editors cite Marx and deploy the emptied shells of a para-Marxist vocabulary (terms without concepts) because their purpose is to produce a language that seems to "include" the economic contradictions that the workers of the North and South are facing in capitalism today, but that dispenses with the "troublesome" core concepts of Marxist analysis:  class, exploitation, inequality, etc. Rather than explaining these contradictions, the language the editors and other culturalists produce explains away these contradictions and helps to update the contemporary labor force for capitalism so that owners can continue to profit from their surplus-labor.

The editors of Marxist Shakespeares claim to revive Marxism for a new generation and embrace the "trouble" it causes for postmodern theory.  However, by dispensing with the concept of class as ownership of the means of production, what the editors are actually doing is promoting a mode of reading and culture that conceals the trouble spots of capitalism. In a very historically telling move, Marxist Shakespeares repeats familiar McCarthyist assumptions about communism and thus about capitalism as well.  Stating that "Marxism was used by repressive regimes," Howard and Shershow seek to separate the struggle for socialism and communism from "the varied body of Marxist thought" (5).  In the age of triumphalist capitalism the assumption that communism, and particularly the history of the Soviet Union, is a "totalitarian regime" has become so routine that it literally goes without saying.  There is, evidently, no need to actually examine the historical material conditions of the rise and collapse of the Soviet Union and the material conditions and limits within which revolutionary struggle has been fought. This is because the point of Howard and Shershow's rehearsal of the problems of "Soviet-style communism" is not to learn historical lessons for the struggle for a society free from exploitation but to banish the class struggle for freedom from exploitation from the history of Marxism!

Communism, for Howard and Shershow, as for many other critics, is a political regime which has collapsed. It was an alternative form of social organization which failed because it was "totalitarian". It failed, the editors say, because it was based on too simplistic a view of society, human nature, and culture. Communism, and the Marxism it deployed, privileged class in its theory and practice when class is not the only form of social difference; it ascribed the complexity of the cultural relationships to economic determination when these are multiply determined, over-determined, and indeed, "relatively autonomous". Marxism was used—misused, they argue—in the Soviet Union, but Marxism is not identical with communism. In fact, the editors see the "collapse of authoritarian communist regimes" as an opportunity to re-assess the "intellectual tradition" of Marxism. It's safe now, they are saying, because Marxism is just a set of ideas; it is not (any longer) the class struggle to emancipate workers of the world from exploitation.

By reducing Marxism to a "set of ideas" divorced from the necessity of the class struggle to free workers from exploitation, the editors have in fact returned to the very idealism that they claim to move beyond.

At the core of their assumptions that "Communism" in the Soviet Union failed owing to its "totalitarianism" is the implication that capitalism has survived because it is not "totalitarian"!  Howard and Shershow use an appeal to "difference" as a means to naturalize class relations and exploitation. But the "failure" of Communism to survive in the former Soviet Union had nothing to do with too simplistic a view of "class". In fact, the fall of the Soviet Union had everything to do with the re-emergence of class relations. For Marxism, however, such a re-emergence is itself the effect of objective historical conditions that can be intervened in provided that the objective conditions can be put into place to do so and provided that workers have access to the historical knowledges to grasp the objective conditions and transform them. But for contemporary cultural critics such as Howard and Shershow the re-emergence of class relations in the Soviet Union is "evidence" that communism does not "work" and is inevitably doomed to fail. Rather than look at class as a historical and changeable relation, they look at it as an existential part of the human condition as such.  All of the pretense to gender equality, freedom from racism, and freedom of sexuality in their claims to account for social difference is merely a cynical ruse for justifying economic inequality and poverty brought on by class relations.

The editors' reading of communism, in short, is a familiar mis-reading of the nature of communism. As Marx writes in The German Ideology, "Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things" (Collected Works, Vol. 5, 49). The "present state of things"—in Marx's moment and after the fall of the Berlin Wall—is a set of social relations of the property owners and the property-less workers, who meet in the world market. Communism is a world-historical activity, a movement, not an idealized (utopian or dystopian) "state of affairs". It is a movement to transform the current class relations to relations of production free from class, where no one person can profit off of the surplus-labor of others. To do this, the communist movement draws on and develops its praxis in terms of the concepts and analyses of materialism; this is a praxis which seeks to abolish the unequal property relations that characterize capitalism and thus to transform the existing social forms to new ones.

Contrary to Howard and Shershow's outdated "cold war" assumptions, it is capitalism that has the troublesome history. Socialism is much younger than capitalism (which has been developing for over 500 years now) and while there are indeed historical limits to its development thus far this is because the conditions of development are historical and material, not transhistorical or ideal.  Even a brief examination of the differences between existing capitalism and existing socialism today shows how crisis-ridden capitalism is and how beneficial socialism is for humanity. Cuba, for instance, is a tiny country which is exceedingly poor relative to the rich capitalist nations. However, its conditions of life—despite the historical limits involved in building socialism today in the midst of the terrorizing brutalities of rich imperialist capitalist nations—are evidence of a much higher regard for human life.  In the midst of imperialist capitalism, and with a history of economic sanctions, Cuba clearly does not have a position of wealth and dominance within the relations of transnational capitalism; however, what wealth Cuba does have is social wealth (that is, the means of production are owned by and operated for the benefit of the social collective). As a result, all Cubans have health care, public education from pre-school to the highest doctoral degree, and one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Further, the few Cubans who do not own their own homes cannot be charged more than 10% of their income for rent. That is to say, Cuba and the Cuban people are advanced in the struggle to produce for needs, and this fact places them far ahead of advanced capitalist nations who prioritize profit at the expense of need.

To represent communism as a collapsed regime, a failed state, or a dead movement is to reduce Marxism from a historical materialist praxis to an idealist philosophy. The editors separate Marxism from communism, which means they seek a "marxism" which can be safely practiced within the current state of affairs: a "marxism" that goes along with class and exploitation. This kind of "marxism" is not a praxis aimed at transformation, but a way of reading that enables apparent reforms within capitalism, in order to preserve class society.

It is not surprising, then, that rather than take up Marx's "troublesome" theory of the social which prioritizes class (and thus supposedly falls into the "idealist trap" of a totalizing master narrative), the editors try to eliminate all that causes "trouble" for the ruling class. They do so by emphasizing that the "category" of class is but one category among many, and thus they present society as the space of "negotiation", in which many defining factors are at play. They see an insistence on the priority of class as too simplistic an accounting, and indeed as an idealist one. By pluralizing "class", they claim that it is then possible to see the "interconnections" between literary and cultural texts and provide a more inclusive understanding of "the state and its economic formations" (3).  The state for Howard and Shershow is not a social arrangement, which is primarily a matter of property relations and class, a characterization that they see as falling into the trap of "old-fashioned economic determinism" (8). Rather, they regard the state as the condition of "relative autonomy", negotiation, and self-determination.  This is, of course, the bourgeois conception of the state as the space of freedom—freedom for all who have capital! Freedom for all workers to sell their labor-power in the marketplace at whatever level of compensation they can find. This "new left" statism (emphasizing the autonomous power and freedom of the state from class) is, moreover, the very logic that is now helping to legitimate brutal imperialist warfare against workers in the Middle East and Central Asia in the name of a "free" and "democratic state".

For Marx, the state has emerged as "the form in which the individuals of a ruling class assert their common interests" (Collected Works, Vol. 5, 90); that is, the state is an expression of the property relations and the consequent prioritization of the interests of property-owners over the property-less workers. The state is "nothing more than the form of organization which the bourgeois are compelled to adopt, both for internal and external purposes, for the mutual guarantee of their property and interests" (90). Thus to reject the communist or socialist states as totalitarian and failed, while not addressing the way in which the capitalist state exists to advance the interest of the dominant class, is to read ideologically. Howard and Shershow assert that a rigid Marxist reading of the state in terms of class is not "an adequate account of the past and present worlds" (8). In place of this they contend that, in the work of Stuart Hall and other reworkings of "marxist" cultural theory, is "a newer insistence on the relative autonomy of superstructural elements and the subsequent move away from base-driven, bottom-up model of historical development" (8). In fact, following Jameson, they reduce the important Marxist concept of the relation of base and superstructure to a "metaphor" and a rhetorical device, just a way of posing a problem, not of solving or explaining it.

The state—which as Marx has explained, "is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie" (The Communist Manifesto)—is represented by the editors as the free state, in which the various institutions, such as those of politics and education, are communal spaces of negotiation between dominant and alternative traditions. Thus the apparent goal in politics is to foster democratic exchange, to be aware of the interplay of differences, to seek reforms when difference is suppressed, etc. And in education, which is a primary realm of knowledge production and reproduction, learning means acquiring the skills to negotiate the diverse traditions; it means "remembering" and learning to read in terms of the many contextualities.

What the editors defend is the classic ideological notion of the state as above class antagonism when in fact, it represents the interests of the bourgeoisie. Moreover, this is always the appearance, not the reality, of production in capitalism: a site for "free" and "fair" exchange, a site of manifold differences. What is hidden by these appearances, however, as Marx shows in his explanation of the working-day, is the basic reality of exploitation. That is, hidden in the relations of production is the "unfreedom" of surplus-labor, that portion of the worker's daily labor that is taken without compensation by the owner as profit. The hidden reality is that capitalism and production for profit is based on the exploitation of the surplus-labor of those who do not own the means of production by the minority who do. Under such conditions there is no possible fair exchange in society without abolishing class. It has always been the role of the state in capitalism to erase class antagonisms, while at the same time managing the contradiction in order to preserve the interests of the ruling class.

More specifically, inasmuch as the editors are interested in culture and the humanities, they mark out culture as the space of displacement and mediation, of the indirect relation of texts and the world (2-3). The purpose of the humanities and of the study of culture is to come to understand "the 'big picture', or at least the bigger picture" (3). The humanities have always been—not only in capitalist times—about the production of subjectivities, they note (7), as if to say that Marxists are claiming the reverse.  What is needed, they say, are new ways of seeing the world and new kinds of knowledge, alternative readings of the world, which "marxism" provides.

The mode of reading that Howard and Shershow claim to draw from Marxism is a very "untroubling" (because useful to capitalism) form of reading. Citing Marx's reading of economic relations (such as the commodity and profit), they show how Marx provides alternative understandings of seemingly obvious and natural appearances. They celebrate Marx for his re-situating, re-seeing of the commonsense, but separate this from the communist project and from the necessity for class-conscious readings. That is, the whole point of Marxist reading, as presented by the editors, is to show that appearances are not what they seem, but their mode of reading never goes beyond the appearances of capitalism as a free and equal negotiation!

What is indispensable for going beyond the appearance of capitalism, it turns out, is precisely what the editors leave out:  the concepts of wage-labor, capital, and their relation of exploitation. In short, class. Marx reads the wage, which is represented as a fair and equal exchange between worker and owner meeting in the market, as a fundamentally unequal exchange, whereby the owner, who gives to the worker a wage which is only a fraction of the value created by the expenditure of the worker's labor-power, claims the "surplus" portion of this value as profit.

The dominant cultural theory, which is precisely what Howard and Shershow articulate in their text,  offers a ruling class mode of reading and education because this theory masks the exploitation in capitalism with the appearance of equality and "negotiation". Marx's theory of the working-day—precisely because it makes visible and examines the objective class contradictions in production—offers a "reading" of culture in capitalism now that can enable workers to transform these objective contradictions, not merely an "alternative" eclectic reading which treats "class" as a difference to celebrate. The editors' notions of reading, education, humanities, politics, and the state ultimately are notions that help the ruling class by updating the contemporary laborforce to continue to work for capitalism. Class relations are already informing the editors’ overall theory of reading, education, and the state; that is, rather than developing a theory which they say supercedes the class contradiction, they have developed a theory which says that class is not contradictory, but only one more set of differences among others which must be taken into account if one is to understand the complexity of contemporary society and culture.

However, what is needed today is not another theory that pretends that class is not contradictory and that it is possible to read above class relations, but rather a labor theory of reading which always explains the trouble spots of capitalism that bourgeois radicalism covers over. A labor theory of reading begins by acknowledging the praxical impossibility of reading above the class relations without the working class praxically transforming class relations and bringing about the end of class; thus, the necessary aim of such reading is to enable critique of the class relations. The point of this reading is not simply to show that things are not as they seem, but rather to educate the worker as part of a movement to change the social relations of production to equitable ones, that is, to social relations in which freedom is not the unfreedom of the market but rather economic freedom or freedom from the necessity to sell labor-power, the end of exploitation. But since the editors have separated the political project from the act of reading—that is, since they have moved reading into the textually "political" space of "context", or contextualities, within which the reader is to choose between commonsense and alternative interpretations—the political necessity of explanation as a weapon of social intervention is lost.

Thus, the editors arrive at the generic conclusion that "Rather than a natural act, reading, then, is a learned activity and a site of contestation" (6). Of course, reading is "social"; naturalized readings only seem "natural" because they are taken for granted and appear to be adequate. However, what is meant by "social”? As discussed above, Marx theorizes the social in terms of class and specifically in terms of social organization which puts the interests of the propertied class over those of the propertyless, and thus the social is indeed a matter of class contradiction and contestation, that is, as manifestations of the contestation between capital and labor. But Howard and Shershow's banal appeal to "social" reading empties the concept of the "social" of its historical material content by representing it as the space of autonomous co-determinations. Here social differences are disconnected from the material conditions determining their production and are, ultimately, considered to be "existential" (and thus "natural"!) conditions. Reading in this case is merely a matter of including "differences"—which are themselves the product of relations of production based on exploitation—and thus, reading is reduced to reformist accounts which legitimate the existing relations of production. The result of these interrelated assumptions is the production of forms of reading (and of the education that teaches this reading), which do not explain the social reality in terms of the basic fact of class but rather seek to establish a new commonsense for capital. That is, rather than intervening, the aim of "reading" is to update the subjectivity of the contemporary laborforce to be useful to capitalism.

In short, Howard and Shershow have produced a theory of "reading" whose main aim is to contain the growing class contradictions in capitalism and the class struggle to objectively overthrow them.  In this way they are most effective allies of transnational capitalism, and the social institutions—particularly the corporate education—set up to support it. Because the resources needed for the development of equitable social relations do in fact exist, what capital must do in order to maintain the unequal relations is develop ways to manage the consciousness and productive abilities of labor. Without a theory that produces concepts that explain cultural appearances and texts in terms of the objective social relations that produce them, the working class remains captive in a worsening global situation.

All the while, contemporary theory in its dominant bourgeois forms treats reading and education as matters of alternative interpretations which change with the times and which are largely a matter of linguistic play and negotiation. Thus, if one follows the editors of Marxist Shakespeares and reads the existing social relations as social relations without class, then one eliminates the problem of class and all the "trouble" it brings. This approach actually reduces the effectivity of "reading" and "language" as a weapon of social intervention because it treats the reading of culture as an end in itself. What is necessary is a labor theory of reading that understands reading not as an end in itself, but as a vital weapon of social intervention; that is, as a means of explaining the hidden relations of production in order to enable people to materially (and not linguistically) transform them.

What is needed is not negotiated reading which "remembers" the world, but rather explanatory reading which shows that class and its effects can be objectively ended. What is needed is a labor theory of reading, a praxis of reading which produces a class-conscious reader who, rather than reading within plural contextualities and floating existential differences, reads social inequalities of race, gender, sexuality,… always in relation to the context of the objective class relations in capitalism. All texts and cultural contexts, in order to be intelligible to the class conscious reader, need to be explained in the context of the class relations; other attempts at intelligibility are ideological because they are mystifications of the real relations between people, which are always class relations until class is abolished.

THE RED CRITIQUE 9 (Fall/Winter 2003)