Materiality in Contemporary Cultural Theory

Stephen Tumino

ONE: Introduction

One of the mainstays of contemporary cultural theory is the argument that the social is primarily shaped by culture. Culture, that is, not as a collection of artifacts or an archive of progress, but, rather, following the writings of Antonio Gramsci, as "an arena of consent and resistance" (Stuart Hall, "Deconstructing" 239) over the shape of the social. Contemporary cultural theory has extended the understanding of culture beyond universalist, and, therefore, supposedly elitist assumptions and normative hegemonic conclusions about culture and instead focused on culture as "the articulation and activation of meaning" (Storey xiii) on the grounds that it is primarily discourse that possesses "the power and the authority to define social reality" (xii). The meaning(s) in a culture that secure and contest the dominant social arrangements are thought to lie in what Michel de Certeau calls "secondary production" (xiii), the sphere of consumption, rather than the economic sphere of production. In these terms, it is the "consumer who in effect 'produces in use'" (xiii) the meaning(s) of the culture that determines social reality. So much has such a focus on the daily practices of consumption and identification been "central to the project of cultural studies" (xi) that some have simply argued that "cultural studies could be described ... perhaps more accurately as ideological studies" (James Carey qtd. in Storey xii). The focus in cultural theory on the constitutive power of discourse to define social reality has shifted the attention of cultural studies from the wider social relations of production which shape ideology and consumption and in fact determine the social real, toward a market theory of culture which valorizes the excessive "uses" and "resignifications" of cultural commodities and in doing so transforms the subject of labor into the subject of consumption who, far from intervening into global capital, supports it through "resistant" desires and "rebellious" acts of consumption.

Cultural theory, in other words, rests on the assumption that consumption determines production rather than the other way around. People's "lifestyles" (which is another way of referring to the commodities they consume and how they consume them) are thus assumed to be more significant, in these terms, than the labor relations they must enter into as a necessary precondition of consumption. Such an assumption concludes that the markers and beliefs that position individuals in culture as men and women, black, latino, gay,… are more important than the fact that they are wage workers that must first sell themselves daily to capital before they can acquire the cultural markers of identity. Such an understanding of the priority of the economic is seen on the cultural left as "left conservatism" (Butler, Bové, et. al.) because it forecloses on differences. But as Teresa Ebert has explained, "differences in class societies are always exploitative" (169) because they serve to divide and segment the working class and foster competition between the workers. At the core of the labor theory of culture is the explanation of how culturalism itself has an economic basis in the division of labor – and more specifically, in the crisis of overproduction that is endemic to capitalism since the 1970s—and reflects the interests of those who having had their material needs already met from the labor of the other can afford to focus on their desires in the market.

The assumption that consumption is more important than production which has steadily shaped cultural theory since the 60s, has become the common-sense of both cultural theory and daily culture itself. And, like all common-sense assumptions, the assumption of the priority of culture over class ("culturalism") has gained the status of a self-evident fact. My essay is a sustained inquiry into the commonsense of culturalism in the effort to articulate a labor theory of culture. The point is not only to offer the labor theory of culture as an "alternative," however, but to explain why culturalism has become dominant, to inquire into what are its material effects and limits and what is its relation to the existing social arrangements. My argument is that by developing a labor theory of culture, it becomes possible to address not only the specificities of culture focused on exclusively by the culturalist approach but also culture's relation to its "outside," the labor arrangements that I think provides for a more comprehensive analysis of culture and that returns cultural theory to being what Marx called a "material force" because it produces root knowledge of inequality (Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right). Cultural theory, I believe, has become so focused on the details of culture and cultural difference that it cannot address cultural difference except on the culturalist terms described above. Cultural theory has ultimately insulated culture entirely from the labor relations and conflicts in which it is always involved, and in doing so it has become an ideological arm of capital.


TWO: Labor and Culture

While drawing out the ways in which culture is shaped by the developments of labor my argument is that a labor theory of culture works to connect the most pressing cultural questions to the economic and political structures which determine how people live their lives. This argument is based on the recognition that labor, as Marx explains, is the "process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature" (Capital 283). Before there can be a culture of consent and resistance over the socially consequential meaning(s) that shape people's lives, there first needs to be their material life itself. By grasping the material dependence of culture on the metabolism between labor and nature it follows, as Marx goes on to explain, "that the man who possesses no other property than his labour power, must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labour" ("Gotha Programme" 81). Thus, for Marx, labor is not simply a natural material process necessary to sustain life but is also a historical zone of conflicts over control of the means of production.

Labor for Marx names "the human essence" ("Theses on Feuerbach" 145), but not in the metaphysical sense of an "abstraction inherent in each single individual" (145), such as the "rationality" of homo economicus in classical political economy, but rather as "the ensemble of the social relations" (145) under which men and women interact through their labor with the material world and each other. Culture, according to Marx, is thus the arena "in which men become conscious of this [economic] conflict and fight it out" (Critique of Political Economy 21); culture is the place, in other words, where the awareness of labor as the root of the social is articulated, as well as resisted in "ideology" (21). The boundaries of culture are thus defined by the possibilities of labor, as both the material basis of culture (what people need to consume) and the meanings attached to these practices (as essential and consequential or not) are dependent on the collective social project of production (the global division of labor). Although debates over cultural "values" tend to begin where it seems that labor ends—in the sphere of consumption—the options of what can and cannot be consumed in any culture are determined by the level of production.

Currently, for instance, there is what is widely commented on as a "return to ideology" and the world is seen as divided between rival "fundamentalisms."  Leaving aside that fundamentalism in Islam is not just about values—although that is the way it is represented in the Western media, it is essentially about inequality—in the US fundamentalism is seen in purely cultural terms as a rise in religious feelings in response to an invasion of "alien" cultural values represented under the sign of 9-11 (Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations). US fundamentalism besides being read as a religious phenomenon is also represented as the dominance of a "red" state mentality over its "blue" rival, purportedly testifying to basic differences in cultural consumption (Brooks, Frank); latte drinking, Volvo-driving and IKEA shopping versus soft drinks, NASCAR and Wal-Mart for example. On the latter terms US fundamentalism is supposed to signal the dominance of an oil dependent mode of production located in the (conservative and evangelical) "red states" over a (liberal and secular) service economy mostly located in the "blue states". Whether seen as a clash of civilizations between the West and the rest or a cultural war within the US what the debate over "values" silently covers over is the accumulation of surplus profits in the countries of the North from the economically dependent countries of the South. When Islamic fundamentalists say the West is on a crusade to destroy Islam, this is a code for the West is plundering our oil, forcing our governments to spend our money on military weapons, giving us cell phones and DVDs instead of drinking water,… Fundamentalism is basically an economic struggle transcoded into populist religious languages for organizational reasons (in mosques, etc.). It is material domination that explains both the cultural differences within the US, whether one shops at Wal-Mart or IKEA or drinks latte or a Big Gulp for example, as well as the culturalist ideology which claims that cultural difference explains material inequality rather than the reverse. Without the accumulation and concentration of capital in the North at the expense of the South there would not be the array of commodities there are in the US nor would there be the culture industry promoting culturalism as the global frame of intelligibility explaining the contemporary.

The disguising of class conflicts in terms of culture is of course as old as class society itself. Every ruling class in history has identified its particular form of rule with the general good and justified its mode of appropriating the labor of others in cultural, and for the most part religious, terms. It was with the rise of capitalism, however, that culture begins to take on the appearance of an independent basis separate from labor and is seen as by definition "free," as in Humanist and Enlightenment discourses; free from religious and political coercion on the one hand, and free of the rule of the market on the other. Because the freedom of culture was only ever an ideal of bourgeois society contradicted in daily practice it became a dogma that culture was a timeless space that expresses what is most rational, moral and beautiful—"the best that has been thought and said" (Matthew Arnold)—and as such the essence of what it means to be a person. The reason for this idealization of culture has an economic basis however in the basic inequality of capitalism and it is necessary to unpack this relation in order to explain the present dominance of culturalism and why it has replaced humanism as an apologetic for inequality.

In the period between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries capitalism systematically dispossessed the laborer of not only his labor power or ability to work but also of all the material preconditions through which labor is alone possible, such as the material to be worked upon, the instruments of labor and the means of subsistence of the laborer. This systematic expropriation of the material conditions of productive social life forced the worker to sell his labor to survive and thus commodified the worker as an "individual" unit of the production process. This individual, now "free" to work or starve, is the real material basis for bourgeois philosophy and culture since the Enlightenment and what is behind the basic division in the human sciences between the subject (culture) and its "soft" knowledges, such as the humanities and social sciences, and the object (nature), which is investigated by the "hard" physical sciences. Capitalism needs persons to be defined as individuals because it needs them to voluntarily enter into an economic agreement to exchange their labor power for wages. An idealist view of culture is the necessary result of a society that defines its highest achievements in terms of individual freedom, because it depends on the free exchange of labor for wages, and attacks any other cultural basis for defining freedom, such as social equality. Because the development of capitalism itself has come more and more to limit individual freedom to those who can financially afford it, the "individual" has been displaced as the standard of knowing and achievement, especially since the historic economic downturn experienced by the Western democracies since the mid-70s. It was then that culturalism was consolidated and has since become dominant.

Culturalism, in other words, is the (updated) ideology most useful to capital in the age of cybertechnologies and globalization. Like idealism and religion, which have always disguised and legitimated class oppression, culturalism spiritualizes the material relations of class. But, unlike humanism (the now exhausted species of idealism), which situates culture as the free expression of free subjects, relegating inequality to nature and explaining it away as differences of knowledge or natural abilities, culturalism renders culture autonomous from class and thus spiritualizes it in a new way. Culturalism is the reduction of culture to discourse which gives all social practices an ideological foundation in codes, conventions, discourse, values, perceptions, and affect—rather than explain social practices as at root economic and grounded in the division of labor and the interaction of labor and the natural world—at a time when it becomes impossible to justify capitalism on its own terms because of the crisis of profitability and the increasing inequality it produces. However, the changes in technology which are commonly supposed to explain the reification of culture as discourse in the contemporary (e.g., Friedman, The World Is Flat) are themselves explained as effects of class forces, especially the drive to innovate endemic to market competition which has as a necessary result the increasing alienation of the worker from her own labor power through under-/unemployment. The shift from "modernism" as a cultural dominant to "postmodernism," which in the humanities is represented as a shift from "humanism" to "culturalism," is a cultural effect of the global crisis of cyber-capitalism and not its triumphant "globalization" as culturalist discourses argue. The reason for this is because capitalism cannot ultimately survive the reification of culture it makes necessary as this reification itself is caused by the separation of the laborer from the productive process entirely, thus leading to a crisis of overproduction and the fall in the rate of profit.

Let me clarify what I have said. For roughly the last thirty years the capitalist West has experienced a prolonged crisis of profitability which comes from systemic overproduction—it has reached the point that technological efficiency has massively lowered the need for labor worldwide thus raising unemployment (often disguised as under-employment) while the profit imperative is brutally maintained as the rationale of production. Capitalism, at least in its most advanced forms, is now is finding it difficult to secure new areas of labor for productive investment, which among other things (such as financial speculation) forces it to imperialistically expand its market geographically and at great cost in both material and ideological terms. The global expansion of capitalism is actually a short term way to stave off the inevitable fall in the rate of profit that comes from the introduction of technological innovations in the context of market competition. The value of capital depends on its ability to productively employ wage-labor and appropriate a surplus-value over and above the costs of production and the reproduction of the laborer. In order to realize a bigger share of surplus-value in the context of market competition capitalists are forced to lower the amount of necessary labor it takes to produce commodities and this is for the most part done by increasing the productivity of labor through the introduction of labor saving devices. With the spread of the most efficient methods of production the general result is to raise the amount of capital socially invested in plant and equipment relative to the amount invested in labor thus increasing what Marx calls "the organic composition of capital" at the expense of the working class who find themselves deskilled, their wages cheapened and themselves impoverished. The rising organic composition of capital is what produces a fall in the rate of profit because of the social costs it inflicts on the workforce, the consumers of the commodities.[1] Capitalism, through the workings of the law of value which governs the production of commodities, inevitably reaches the point where it calls itself into question as it is "incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him" (Marx and Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party). The eclipse of humanism by culturalism is a response to these contradictions. Because capitalism over the last thirty years has not been able to "deliver the goods" to more and more people and prove the superiority of the market for insuring individual freedom the "free subject" of the classical period of bourgeois ascendancy has been placed in crisis and a self-enclosed understanding of culture has taken its place in the dominant ideology as the self-regulating mechanism that protects the market from a class-based critique that would implicate "ideas" in the terms of inequality. Culture serves this crisis management function most effectively by not simply dismissing inequality and the antagonisms it generates (how could it?), but by translating (reifying) the contradictions into cultural terms that leave the foundation of capitalism basically intact. It is, for this reason, a highly effective form of spiritualizing material relations in an era characterized by deepening social inequalities that are the effect of the wage-labor-capital relation. Despite its aggressive insularity, in other words, culturalism itself has an economic basis—it reflects the interests of those who having had their material needs already met from the labor of the other can afford to focus on their desires in the market at a time of inescapable social inequality and it projects this special interest as universal, as ideology has always done.

To argue as I am that culture is economically determined by the global division of labor is not to deny culture has material effects in shaping subjectivities and practices such as voting patterns and consumer choice. My point however is that contemporary cultural theory is dominated by a culturalist ideology that focuses solely on the effects of culture and not its material cause in labor arrangements and thus makes it seem as if the world we see is culturally determined, that it is "spirit" (ideas) that moves the world. In actuality the effects of culture on subjectivity and social practices such as voting and consumption are relays of economic production and reflect as imperatives and drives what are at root economic interests tied to the division of labor. As Marx argues, the social relations of production (economics) explains consumption (culture) as the "internally impelling cause for production" (Grundrisse 91): "consumption ideally posits the object of production as an internal image, as a need, as drive and as purpose. It creates the objects of production in a still subjective form" (92). Whether one drinks a latte or a Big Gulp and whatever this says about one's cultural politics one has already "chosen" to quench one's thirst through the commodity form, whether one celebrates the universality of this form as leading to a democratic world or as the superiority of the West over the rest. To be blind to the economic needs reflected in culture by considering culture to be merely the self-enclosed production of signs and the contestations over meaning is, therefore, to engage in the production of "false consciousness" (Engels, "Letters" 766) and to "imagine[] false or seeming motive forces" (766) in place of "the real motive forces" (766) that compel individuals. The real force compelling culture is profit and the material precondition of profit is exploited labor.

According to the labor theory of culture 

It was through labor that humanity created itself as a skillful, large-brained, language-using animal, and through labor that it created an elaborate cultural superstructure. The very impressiveness of mankind's mental achievements, however, has obscured the fundamental significance of labor. Furthermore, the separation of planning for labor from the labor itself, a development of complex society, contributed to the rise of an idealistic world outlook, one that explains people's actions as "arising out of thoughts instead of their needs" [Engels]. (E. B. Leacock qtd. in Woolfson 77)

By considering the historical alienation of social labor into culture as a realm of ideas that obscures its own social basis Engels in the above quote transforms our understanding of labor from being simply a natural technical activity into a crucial critique-al concept that is, by definition, opposed to ideology. As a concrete natural activity labor of course transforms the material world in accordance with subjective human needs and abilities and in the process expands them. Labor however is a constant social activity and both the material to be transformed as well as the abilities of the laborer are already the product of previously expended (or "dead" as Marx says) social labor and it is awareness of this impersonal and abstract compulsion shaping the concrete instance of labor and its effects that allows Engels to define labor as the opposite of ideology, as the real social activity and material precondition that explains human practices. Labor is thus what Marx in his "Theses on Feuerbach" calls a "'revolutionary' ... practical-critical, activity" (Reader 143) opposed to ideology, which is the spontaneous experience of the complexity of labor arrangements that mystifies the real causes of human activity. As a "revolutionary practical-critical activity," or "praxis," labor acts as a material force that transforms the material world to serve human purposes and in the process—through the development of abstract signs and languages that allow them to generalize from the specific occasion and to foresee the future—transforms human beings themselves from being slaves to nature and those who control the means of production into a conscious and collective agent. Cultural practices thus have a necessary function in the labor process in that they make it possible to abstract from the immediately given reality and to project into the future a different reality that corresponds more with our needs.[2

Culture, when taken as something in itself separate from labor practices, produces an ideological distortion which mystifies rather than clarifies the place of culture in the social. This separation and distortion is itself necessitated by history (past labor) as capitalism demands that more and more areas of life be technically rationalized in order to increase the rate of profit: "The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society" (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto 476). This rationalization demanded by production for exchange ultimately "strip[s] of its halo every occupation" (476) by converting "the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-labourers" (476) and thereby compels man "to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind" (476). At the same time this process of economic rationalization that has commodified intellectual production has led to the idea that "culture" is autotelic and possesses an end in itself whose meaning is only realized in the act of consumption as if it exists independently of the social relations of production. Culture, however, is always the production of men and women within a particular historic relation to the means of production through which they (re)produce their existence. It is only under capitalism that culture appears alienated from the social relations of production because the rule of capital systematically alienates labor from the laborer by forcing her to produce not according to her needs but solely for exchange on the market. Capitalism, by depriving the worker of access to the means of production, forces the worker to work for wages the value of which is equivalent to the number of commodities she needs in order to survive. The amount of time required for this "necessary labor" given the technical productivity of labor is minimal. The rest of the time the worker is engaged in "surplus labor"—labor which forms neither part of wages nor the consumption of the capitalist but is engaged in solely to create values which later can be exchanged on the market for a profit by the capitalist. The alienated labor is the basis of culture because it creates a world of commodities as well as the alienated perception of production in which it appears that labor is exchanged for wages (consumption) rather than the source of all value. If production for need was the rule rather than production for profit there would be no "culture" in the one-sided way it is currently understood as a realm of consumption (or merely metaphorical production). Labor in actuality creates the "all-sided production of the whole earth" (Marx and Engels, German Ideology 59), both objectively in the transformation of nature and subjectively in the transformation of the laborer. Because labor is the "all-round dependence" (59) of this "world-historical co-operation of individuals" (59) it also necessarily leads to "the control and conscious mastery of these powers, which born of the action of men on one another, have till now overawed and ruled men as powers completely alien to them" (59). Labor is thus more than the source of value, it is a "'revolutionary' practical-critical, activity" that transforms our understanding of culture from an ideological one that trivializes culture as an in itself to a critique-al one that implicates culture in the material world and emancipates it from the rule of capital.

I realize, however, that to argue for a labor theory of culture today is to write against the grain of cultural theory. This is, in large part, because the materialist concepts which lay bare the social totality and explain how culture is always shaped by labor have for the most part been displaced in cultural theory by the terms of poststructuralist linguistic philosophy, such as difference (play), articulation, ideology (as discourse), hybridity, performance, and "pleasure" (jouissance).  In such terms, the outside (labor) is thought to be an effect of the inside (tropes), as Derrida for example argues in his critique of structuralism; the binary inside/outside that governs referential theories of culture is itself an effect of différance, the internal tropic play of the structure itself as it tries to "fix" its absent center ("Structure, Sign, and Play" 247-65).[[3]] On this logic, it becomes impossible to connect the secondary processes and mediations of culture to their more basic economic causes, which is necessary for changing the social totality from a "realm of necessity" ruled by reified understandings of social relations to a "realm of freedom" (Marx, Capital Vol. III 958-9) in which men and women have learned to direct their productions. By disconnecting the outside (social relations of production) from the inside (cultural practices of meaning) the relation of determination between the two is reversed in poststructural theory so that culture is assumed to constitute the real and re-make history. As Laclau puts it:

Once this is realized, once the deconstruction of those categories [of identity] fully reveals the power games that govern their actual structuration, new and more complex hegemonico-political moves become possible within them. (2)

The social, in these terms, becomes a formal collection of incommensurate language games without any objective order of priority ruled by the a-logic of desire, which is the central theme of the liberal individualism of the market place. Such a discursive immanentism as is authorized by difference in cultural theory has dominated cultural studies so the focus remains solely on the unforeseen inversions of meaning in shopping as cordoned off from the totality of the social relations of production. For culturalism there is no outside to ideology on which to base a critique of the totality and ideology instead is understood to merely describe the surface of daily life from within it rather than provide an explanation of the appearance that grasps the essence of the daily in the invisible historic relations of social production.


THREE: Culture Theory as the Immanence of Culture

It might be helpful to pause here and focus briefly on the writings of Tom Cohen. Why Cohen?  Tom Cohen's writings are enthusiastic cheerleading for whatever happens to be the current wisdom in institutional theory, which they excitedly represent as the cutting edge of knowledge. His texts, to use business management writer Tom Peters' term, are the "pursuit of Wow." However, his "wows" are forced and his excitement is stale: they are mimetic echoes of a certain Modernist poetics with its old-fashioned undertone of "épater le bourgeois" which has become more comical than shocking in the age of absolute difference.

His writings are mostly annotations of mid-20th century language theories which focus on what he calls the "tele-technics" of representation and are primarily descriptive and conceptually thin. Their lack of substantive arguments are covered up with a theatrical prose that often dissolves into unintended self-parodies. They are, therefore, often not taken seriously and are read with an indulgent amusement. Nonetheless, I think one should pay attention to his texts in their larger historical contexts and their relations with existing social relations. No matter how shallow and derivative they may be, their interpretive conclusions are symptomatic of the class politics of institutional theory by which the norms of reading and the accepted forms for the interpretation of culture are taught to the future labor force. Unpacking the discursive strategies and political values by which they are constructed is therefore necessary for any serious intervention that goes beyond local activism in the reorganization of the existing social relations.

One should not dismiss vacuous cultural texts as insignificant because, as we have seen in the popular culture, it is through such texts and the routine ploys of their language that ideology circulates and makes much of its most lasting impact. In their shifting intensities, Cohen's "wows" are indexes of the magnitude of the class contradictions of contemporary capitalism and the ways in which the "new" is being used to contain them.

Before analyzing his institutional writings on cultural theory and cultural studies in some detail, I will sketch here in broad terms some of the framing assumptions of his writings because unfolding them will make clear the  role of institutional theory in rewriting and teaching class antagonisms as cultural difference. Theory today has become an integral part of an on-going institutional process of re-calibrating, refining, and re-adjusting cultural discourses to produce concepts (e.g. "climate change"), reading strategies (e.g. "performativity"), and interpretive slogans (e.g. "the future belongs to ghosts") that are necessary for constantly updating the cultural representations by which the class interests of the transnational bourgeoisie are normalized. Cohen's writings are a documentation of this process of ideological regulation and control of theory. With an almost comical excitement, they reflect what is "in" (i.e. what is ideologically well-adjusted to capital) and what is "out" (i.e. what is resistant to capital) in the culture of theory now. 

Like the majority of institutional theorists, most of Cohen's writings are a repetition of the old poststructuralist talking points. Theory, for example, is said to be a language construct whose reference to its outside is indeterminate and therefore any attempt (such as the one I am making here) to relate theory to social relations is misguided in part because there are, according to the poststructuralist canon, no concepts that correspond to reality and provide a reliable understanding of the outside. Concepts are assumed to be language tropes in self-difference with no purchase on the reality outside language. Theory, in other words, is to a very large extent autonomous from such outside forces as class relations. Theory, to put it differently, is, according to these views, an interpretation and not an explanation. The suspension of the relation between theory and the social world ultimately turns the social world into an unexplainable text that can be interpreted in different ways but never explained and understood [Tom Cohen, "Climate Change in the Aesthetic State: (A Memory (Dis)Order)" 84-86]. Theory interprets, it does not explain.

There is, therefore, never any reliable knowledge of the outside to form a basis on which one can act to transform the dominant social relations. Any transformation that goes beyond the changes in representation—and at most, cultural reforms such as the ones that Cohen's reading of Katrina prescribes—is, therefore, seen as a form of escape from inscriptional difference and regarded to be the mark of an outdated social fantasy. This is the running theme of Cohen's "climate change."

As part of his textualizing and localizing change, class, for example, is turned into an excess of language whose meaning exceeds all fixed referents (e. g., proletariat), which means its only referent is its own processes of signification. Class, in other words, does not exist except as a language trope in self-difference.

Concepts such as class are, of course, neither tropic excess (a Derridean fixation) nor are they a mimesis of reality (a Hegelian obsession). Rather, they "run side by side" with reality "like two asymptotes, always approaching each other yet never meeting" (Engels, "Letter to Conrad Schmidt 1895." Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence 457). Concepts provide the knowledge necessary for collective action to change the existing social relations. Demolishing them on the epistemo-rhetorical grounds is simply a way of reducing all social struggles for change to a change of cultural meanings and negotiations for local adjustments that leave the system of wage labor itself intact.

Cohen, following Derrida ("Marx & Sons"), does not openly reject class but textualizes it and, through its resignification, hollows it out from its economic contents. At the "Chronopolitics" conference (in Albany, New York, Spring 2007; I will discuss the conference later), for example, after playing the old game of "not knowing" (a popular gesture of abandoning interpretive authority among institutional theorists which always precedes their authoritarian pronouncements), and after stating that there was no such thing as class (which meant that class was a graphematics of a concept and simply a self-referential mark in language), Cohen read class in terms of a vulgar Malthusian biopolitics. He "pre-dicted" (again, another gesture of not knowing to give one's utterance the full rhetorical force of "truth") the continued emergence of an underclass (which he said was not a class) of "disposable humanity" (a concept most recently elaborated in Disposable People by Kevin Bales) that will be subject to population culling in the upcoming resource wars, and an overclass (which he emphasized was not a class) of the über-rich. While insisting that there was no such thing as class, he nevertheless went on to describe its features in some detail (his writings, as I will point out, are saturated with such conceptual incoherencies).

By tying class to the biopolitics of population Cohen eliminated the structure of opposition of labor and capital over the socially produced surplus labor which actually produces classes. Class is not an excess of meaning nor a surplus of population but the outcome of the relations of production which determine not only the social division of labor but all cultural structures such as language and the way it means at different stages of the development of production relations.

It is not only "class" that in Cohen's texts is emptied of its material contents. Ideology, to take another example, provides an understanding of how wage labor structures the material social relations under capitalism. Cohen reduces it (following de Man) to a mis-reading, namely, the phenomenalization of the inscription which is the result of the failure to recognize the materiality of the letter (Ideology and Inscription 16-24; 78-91; de Man, The Resistance to Theory 11, 89). Demolishing ideology as a materialist concept and turning it into an indeterminate language effect allows him to substitute the materiality of the letter for material labor, and invert capitalism from a system of wage labor into a system of cultural representations. He, like many institutional theorists today, criticizes capitalism as a structure of meanings but leaves it intact as a material system of wage labor. 

Having rewritten class and ideology as excesses of meaning beyond history, Cohen de-historicizes the "new" (the grounding concept of his "climate change"). What he represents as the "new" (theory) is a recycling of the cultural theories of the last century—mostly poststructuralism mixed with a spectral Benjamin, and some Deleuzian vitalist tele-technics. Derrida-Benjamin-Deleuze are his trinity of the new. The concepts and arguments of his "new," however, have all become clichés in contemporary theory. However, Cohen seems to think they are fresh ideas. At the "Chronopolitics" conference, for instance, with an almost evangelical zeal and an amusing historical innocence, he represented these clichés—from posthuman, exteriority, causeless arrival, and letteration, to x-factors, inscription, and occularcentrism, and everything "non-linear" in between—as elements of a mutation in theory ("climate change") that have instituted a new paradigm in 21st century theory. At some level, however, he seemed to be aware that his "new" are old clichés and therefore he attempted to make them energetic and lively by re-wording them in a language whose verbal effects, as I have already said, often became unintended baroque self-parodies.

I have mentioned "climate change" several times and it is time to say more about it. Cohen's "climate change" is based on his claim that 20th century paradigms cannot perceive 21st century horizons, and that therefore new theories are needed to interpret new realities (such as Katrina). "Climate change" is a monolithic discourse aimed at displaying the "new" by intervening in and suspending the "‘auteurist,' humanist, ‘modernist,' mimetic, and historicist projects" of the 20th century (Hitchcock's Cryptonymies 5). However, this is a confirmation of existing social relations presented as an intervention in them. Like the liberalism and the humanism that they rely on, these projects have become ideological burdens on global capital which is now the most anti-mimetic, anti-humanist, and post-auteurist institution and seeks the kind of libertarian posthumanism that the latter-day poststructuralists, Cohen among them, are arguing for.

The idea of "climate change" is derived from Cary Wolfe's Critical Environments. Its internal arguments are all "applications" of Paul de Man's notion of "aesthetic ideology" (Resistance to Theory 3-20; 73-105; Aesthetic Ideology 34-50;70-90;163-184) which was a rather popular view in the last century's literary criticism, especially in the interpretation of Romanticism and its poetics. De Man's point, as I will discuss in more detail later, is that writing and experience are of two different epistemological orders. Cohen treats this familiar idea, which in various forms is used in all class societies to isolate the experiences of the working day from the laws of private property, as a groundbreaking theory and applies it to all texts of culture which he mechanically reads as untranslatable inscriptions of "letteration and runes" ("Climate Change in the Aesthetic State (A Memory (Dis)Order) 93).

Discovery of inscriptionality leads him to re-discover other old poststructuralist discoveries that the world is a text, is a text, is a text, is a text,… and a text is a representation, is a representation, is a representation, is a representation which "perpetually cites itself circularly and in advance" (93). Wow! 

But these "climate change" wows, as I said at the outset, are not all that wow-y any more. Having vacated the world from "models of the human" (95) by "letteration," Cohen seems to sense that after over half a century of (poststructuralist) lettering of the world, it no longer produces "shock and awe" in readers. For more intensity, he vacates the already vacated by pre-lettering the letter. The preletteral (taken from Kristeva's understanding of materiality as chora) re-makes the world as the unrepresentable whose being cannot be reduced to meaning:

Hitchcock's "J" is is all but preletteral in the absence of its umbrella-like spur, masking a preoriginary cut or slash that serially engenders space and perception. It lodges... The "J," in one sense, is a nexus where letteration and graphematic of the visible meet in a sort of transit station into or dissolving cognitive relays, postal systems, mnemonic regimes, digitalization. (95-96)  

The preletteral displaces the anthropeic practices and re-organizes the world as a "tele-technic order." This is the very order through which capitalism replaces human labor by technicity—not to meet human needs but to reduce the cost of labor. The anti-anthropeic order is the anti-worker order of low labor cost and high surplus labor. What Cohen represents as the "new" cutting-edge theory autonomous from its "outside" (the economic), is, it turns out, a re-legitimization of the existing economic order.  

The programmatic point of "climate change," as I have suggested before, is that the "new" (which he maps in the "old" ways chronologically as 21st century) realities require "new" modes of reading because the old (20th century, again a point in chronology) interpretive paradigms cannot grasp the  complexities of the "new" ("Minority report on 21st century studies (D)") or, as he put it in his presentation at the "Chronopolitics" conference, to understand the new realities of the 21st  century, a "new head" is needed. A "new head" which is free from the Modernist memory regimes and its "anthro-politics." I will discuss some of the implications of this second hand correspondence theory of representation later. Here I want to say that neither his "climate" nor his "change" have anything to do with the material world (where the climate changes). Rather, he uses "climate change" as an ideological hammer to demolish all that stands in the way of capital in its travels across the world—as "outdated." During the discussion section of the "Chronopolitics" conference, for instance, in a language and tone which sounded more like a linguistic mugging than an invitation to conversations on ideas (as is the custom in conferences), he labeled his critics—who pointed out that his arguments reproduced the old class politics of capital in the guise of new theory—as "outdated" and told them that their views were "old"—very old. In the commodity logic of the market, "old" is the terminal argument ("unmarketable") to which there are no counterarguments. In the name of the "new," he silenced the "other" and excluded the public from participation in public debates in a public conference supported by public funds in a public university. *Climate change.*

The binary of Old/New (20th century/21st century) by which Cohen silenced his critics at the conference, underlies all his declarations. The argument of the "new" that he uses is culturally very compelling because its discursive power derives from the material marketing relations that divide the world into old/new commodities and privilege the "new" commodity as the best. Cohen manipulates this marketing commonsense and the binary it normalizes in order to discredit revolutionary theory as "old" and to label all revolutionary struggles for social transformation as "outdated."

However, the irony here is that the binary that he needs in order to discredit the revolutionary as "old," gets in the way of his constructing the hybridity that he needs to dismantle class binaries (owners/workers). These and similar contradictions that make his discourses incoherent, however, are not simply logical. They are the result of the class contradictions that "climate change" is fabricated to contain, but which exceed its containing strategies and engulf it. Before discussing the ways in which Cohen "solves" these contradictions, I want to point to the global contradictions that structure "climate change."

The basic idea of Cohen's "climate change"—that "new" theories are necessary to understand "new" realities ("Minority report on 21st century studies (D)")—is itself founded on a mimetic epistemology (i.e. what he rejects humanism, mimesis, auteurism for). Mimetic epistemology is a version of the old Modernist positivism—the unity of the represented and the representational. It also underlies identity politics which assumes a correspondence between identity and authentic experience (e.g. only a woman understands women's oppression). Mimetic epistemology marginalizes the materialist understanding of the event. It, unlike materialist theory, regards the "event" to be an autonomous heterogeneity that is intelligible only in terms derived from its own internal logic (its "difference"): mimetic epistemology is a mimesis of the immanent logic of the event. The event produces an epistemology which is then used to understand the event. It is, in other words, an epistemology that protects the order of things (difference) from their outside. Materialism contests this class shield that masquerades as epistemology and regards the event to be the effect of complex social determinations which in fact shape what seems to be the immanent logic of the event—difference is always the local form of totality and not a free-standing event. Hamlet's problem, contrary to Derrida, is that he attempts to make sense of the ghost mimetically, namely as a difference in its own terms, and thus does not "see" it as an apparition of the State power in its prevailing class conditions. A woman, to go back to the mimetic epistemology of identity politics, does indeed experience oppression as a woman but her experience cannot be understood (and changed) in its own indwelling terms. What Hamlet sees, as I will explain later in my discussion of the "eye," is the outcome of alienated social relations; it is not a self-marking specter but social alienated relations as specter. The 21st century's realities are indeed different from those of the 20th century but they cannot be grasped in the 21st century's own terms because 21st century realities are produced by social class relations whose history goes back to the modern social division of labor and the formation of wage labor in early modernity. The 21st century, in  other words, is not a free standing "new" reality that is intelligible only in terms of an epistemology that imitates (mimes) its internal logic. What seems to be a "new" reality is the accumulation of the surplus labor of the past and the on-going class struggles over the social appropriation of that surplus.

Mimetic epistemology, in all its forms, is a ruse of metaphysics to separate culture from its material base and foreground it as an independent play of meanings. The idea that one needs a "new head" to understand the "new" realities is part of this metaphysics, and is very popular in contemporary cultural theory. In his The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics With an 18th-Century Brain, for example, George Lakoff writes that the cause of the defeat of the U.S. democrats in election after election is a misrecognition of the fact that people don't approach the world logically. In other words, the reason for the power of the conservatives is mental and not material. "Climate change," similarly, is a mentalist ontology whose arguments are symptoms of what Lukács in his History and Class Consciousness calls the fragmented bourgeois thinking caused by the escape from history. Cohen's criticism of "humanism," "auteurism," "mimesis," and similar mentalist projects is not a criticism of mentalism as such (his interpretation of Hitchcock is a mentalist graphematics) but of the models of mentalism that have become impediments to the appropriation of higher levels of surplus labor from the global labor force.

Cohen's formal anti-mimesis (Anti-Mimesis from Plato to Hitchcock; Hitchcock's Cryptonymies) depends on this mimetic epistemology; he relies on a conventional mimetic epistemology and its reactionary identity politics of difference to argue for "climate change" of a poetics free from identitarian anthropo-semiotics. My point is not to simply do a Derridean reading here and show how Cohen's anti-mimesis falls apart because it is grounded on the very premises that he excludes. The contradictions in "climate change" are interesting not because they show the rifts in Cohen's arguments, but because they reproduce the class contradictions that they try so hard to repress and contain. They are a mimesis of class relations.

The incoherence is not local. To take another instance: on the one hand he dismisses progress as perhaps another "cruel Enlightenment episteme" (Hitchcock's Cryptonymies 1, xiv) and on the other, he regards what in the "Chronopolitics" conference he called the "new head"—the head beyond anthropolitics—as the only one capable of understanding the complexities of "climate change." The "new head" is nothing if not the embodiment of forward-moving "progress": it is assumed to be more evolved than the "old head" and therefore at home with the 21st century horizon. The incoherence in Cohen's position (rejecting and embracing progress at the same time) is part of poststructuralism's double move by which, as I will discuss shortly, it normalizes the class interests of the owners. I must add here that what is also interesting about the "new head" is that it is not only the result of evolutionary "progress," it is also just a "head"—an organ without a body. It is, in other words, the twin of a certain Cartesian essentialist binarism in which the "body" and "mind" are separated and the "mind" is privileged as the primary—another version of mentalism. This is the very binarism that by privileging the mind constructs the humanist head. Although Cohen formally rejects the humanist head as a residue of a mimetic Modernism ("Climate Change in the Aesthetic State (a Memory (Dis)Order)" 85; 87, 89; 92; 95), it is in the rifts of his discourses that that humanist head actually writes the memory regimes of his posthuman "new head."

In order to reconcile contradictions which are the result of his class politics, such as embracing and rejecting, for example, progress or binaries, Cohen deploys the poststructuralist device of the "double-session" and its logic of "and/both" that produces hybridity out of opposites without discarding them. This is the logic that Benjamin institutes through his "dialectic at a standstill" (with its overtones of a Kierkegaardian metaphysics of melancholy which is the privileged mood of the high bourgeoisie) to manufacture the double logic of spiritual materialism (of history).

The "double session" is, ostensibly, a rewriting to overcome the binary distinctions (mimesis/anti-mimesis; new/old) that poststructuralism regards with ambivalence and suspicion as part of the metaphysics of presence. This ambivalence toward the difference between mimesis/non-mimetic; new/old is represented in poststructuralism as a cognitive matter—a result of thinking about truth and its foundation in Western philosophy. Like all cognitive/philosophical matters, however, it is a cultural legitimization of the economic organization of society.

Capitalism is a regime of the "prior" in social relations, a practice which is normalized in such books as David Wills' Dorsality: Thinking Back Through Technology and Politics. Wills, following Derrida's reading of seeing as knowing, annotates "dorsality" as spacing and resistance to occularcentrism, and as an examination of what is not seen (rear). However, historically the dorsal has been an activating of the temporal, the "before": what has come "earlier," namely the  old social relations of production that in the form of unseen conventions, traditions, and habits are assumed in the conservative political theory to be the actual dynamics of social life. The "prior" is the canon of old relations of property. 

But capital is also and at the same time aggressively progressivist (see Derrida and his equivocations on "for better" with regard to globalization in Philosophy in a Time of Terror) in technology (tele-technics) because it is by technicity that the market reduces the cost of labor and, in a chain of substitutions, replaces the old commodities with the new and propels the market forward. Cohen's writings are extensions of the techno-logic of the market. His "climate change" is an emptying of the world from its historical contents and their refiguring as representation—the absolute technics. He is one of the technocrats of the "new head" which substitutes technics for philosophy, and letteration for labor.

Cohen's analytical confusions—the double embrace of the yes and no, progress and regress, binary and hybridity—are the result of his class politics that has to look back (the dorsal) to relations of property and forward to the techno-logic of the market. The rifts between the back and the fore are what in Cohen's tele-technical legitimization of capital take the form of logical contradictions.

To put it differently: to acquire the cultural legitimacy that gives it moral authority and universalizes its values ("free" market), the owning class needs the "new" to represent itself as a forward-looking order open to different and emerging ideas. It, therefore, has an ur-"novum organum" which is interpreted by its theorists in different historical periods differently according to its specific historical needs. The "novum organum" of each age takes a different form and a new name. Derrida, for example, articulates the "novum organum" of postwar capitalism as "dissemination" and marks it by its logic of anti-mimesis and hybridity.

Anti-mimesis cuts the relation of reality and everyday language and opens up a fissure in realism. It is the representational logic of anti-materialist explanations in, for example, religion that interprets the worldly by the otherworldly, namely by the "miracle." Miracle is the sublime of anti-mimesis. It is the epistemology of the owning class by which it isolates the existing social relations from their causes in history. Cohen's causeless arrival, which is the feature of all events in "climate change" ("Chronopolitics" conference), is the miraculous of the new.

However, even more than the "new" and its miraculous arrival, the owning class needs the old (dorsal) social relations of property to maintain its economic hegemony and political power. The owning class's source of power is the old social relations of property (class relations) which are always in contradiction with the emerging relations of production that develop within them new revolutionary forces. The contradictions between the (old) social relations and the (new) forces of production are obscured and the crisis of change is postponed by representing the old social relations as new and suturing them to the new forces of production. This is what Cohen's "climate change" does: it re-presents old theories (which are the effects of old social relations) as new and sutures them to new forces of production (which he depicts as tele-technics) to defuse the conflicts between the two and thus relegitimate things as they are. "Climate change" is a crisis management discursive device; a means for repairing the ideological damage done by the new forces of production to the old social relations.

This has always been the role of institutional theorists. They produce concepts such as "posthuman," reading practices such as "dialectic at a standstill," and interpretive theories such as "to-come" (as in democracy-to-come) to dissolve the difference between binaries that points to the antagonism between workers and owners and to contain class crisis by a reconciliationist poetics. 

Poststructuralism's "double-session" (Derrida, Dissemination 3-59) is, in other words, not so much a philosophical operation as a means for class crisis management. It turns the material fissure between the economic and the cultural into an epistemo-textual suspicion toward binaries themselves and shades the difference between them by means of such tropes as spacing, hymen, supplementarity, friendship, secret, spectrality,… that carve out a site of in-between-ness in the binaries but without abandoning them. In discussing anti-mimesis, for example, Derrida is quick to point out that it does not stand in opposition to mimesis but is itself a version of mimesis which is itself anti-mimetic: "mimicry without imitation" (Dissemination 211). "What counts," in other words, is "the between, the in-between-ness" (212).

Since Heidegger in-between-ness has become the most popular philosophical landfill for all the class contradictions of capital. The "double-session" reinscribes the old as new and the new as old so as to dissolve the difference between the old social relations and the new forces of production into an in-between-ness.

To do this, institutional theorists provide a theory of history as spectrality in which the binary "past" and "future" are inverted. History as ghostly turns the "future" into a "before" of the "past" and the "past" into an "after" of the "future." This is the mimesis of the anti-mimetic history; the represented unrepresentable; the unexplainable that is explained (as unexplainable) and is the sublime of philosophy in all class societies because it displaces production time with pure temporality and thus obscures labor as the source of value. Cohen (following Levinas, through Derrida) makes the spectral the specter of the "wholly other" (See, in addition to Rudolf Otto's Das Heilige and Derrida's The Gift of Death, W. F. Haug's "Das Ganze und das ganz Andere: Zur Kritik der reinen revolutionaren Transzendenz") ("Climate change" 85; "Minority report on 21st century studies (D)" 12).

The "wholly other" is the new which precedes the old, the old that comes after the new—the unrepresentable absolute other that cannot be ablated with meaning without reserve. The "wholly other" is the total without totality. It (locally) "solves" such contradictions in Cohen's writings as those between his cheer leading for the new and dismissal of progress because progress in this inverted history is a progress without movement—it is an "image" (Benjamin's "dialectic at a standstill"). His anti-mimesis too is reconciled with his mimetic epistemology because his anti-mimesis, like Derrida's, is also and at the same time mimetic. In the spectral history, the mimetic includes its other (Derrida, Dissemination 173-285) and the two are in a scandalous ("wow") cohabitation. The "new" as "wholly other" is, in other words, not the empirical newness of elements of the real but the real itself as the "wholly other"—the unrepresentable self-difference of the to-come.

The "wholly other," is a spiritualization of the shifting labor needs of capital. Cohen's formulation is that the 20th century (Old) understanding of the "other" marked the other as specific social identities (woman, black, queer). The "other" of the "new head" exceeds all the others, and cannot be exhausted by social identities. Cohen represents the excess of the "wholly other" as an absolute unrepresentable but in actuality it is a concrete-historical made abstract-spiritual. It is the culturalizing of the material labor conflicts of capital in the age of the globalization of labor whose overflow is, to name one event he discusses, Katrina. In his talk at the "Chronopolitics" conference, Cohen absorbed Katrina into non-explanatory associations of (dis)connected  signs, images, and letterations that constructed Katrina people as "disposable people" and marked them as an excess that cannot be reduced to a conclusion. This is of course the orthodox protocol of reading in poststructuralism in which the conclusion of a subtle reading is postponed and the more subtle the reading the more delayed its conclusion. The most subtle reading is one in which the conclusion is the last instance that never arrives which means the subtle reading is one of the strategies for manufacturing a class truce among contesting class interests. There is, of course, no truce among classes and the role of the institutional theorist is to engineer one by the tele-technics of representation.

Katrina people are not the excess of an unrepresentable "wholly other." They are those whose labor does not yield the acceptable (by capital) rate of return of surplus labor and thus their labor is not as profitable for capital as that of others. The "wholly other" is the other in a world of globalized labor, represented through the rhetoric of "climate change" as a cultural excess; the graphematics of an indeterminate war-to-come "over the re-inscription of the earth itself" ("Minority report on 21st century studies (D)" 15). After "climate change," the working day becomes a graphematic riddle that precedes perception and memory and lies beyond the reach of the transparencies of ocular regimes of seeing-knowing. 

The depicting of otherness as the specific others was historically necessary for capital when it needed to increase the national pool of labor by recruiting specific others (women, blacks, ...). This was the time when, for example, women were allowed to enter the labor market in great number and in working positions that were not traditionally normalized for women. "Multiculturalism" is the regime of the other as specific others. Cohen marginalizes the other as specific other because capital has moved beyond the liberal multicultural labor force and is now libertarian and omnicultural (what Derrida naturalizes as "cosmopolitan"). The "wholly other" totalizes all the specific others into cosmopolitan "instruments of labor."  

The "wholly other" is the theology of the ghostly; it explains the worldly by the otherworldly (the ghost) and, through mimetic anti-mimesis, re-institutes the "miraculous" (unexplainable) as the logic of the social. The "wholly other" as the theo-poetics of "climate change," in other words, is the inversion of revolutionary materialism. According to "climate change" the world might be interpreted in different ways but it can never be explained so as to provide knowledge for collective work to change it. The transformation of social relations, according to "climate change" and its postlogic of the miraculous is, to repeat, an impossibility, an Utopian fantasy. Cohen's associative reading of Katrina which inscribes the ghost in the city and thus makes the "disposable" a mark of the "to come," however, introduces yet another irony into the discourse of "climate change." 

The "new" is not, however, as Cohen simplistically suggests, the effect of cultural practices or as he puts it the result of the "transformation of critical premises" ("Climate Change" 86). It is not, to phrase it differently, the result of a difference within the "old" that overturns the hierarchies of reference/difference; perception/inscription; memory/phenomenalization, and which produces a graphematic (dis)order. Rather, it is, to use some words from Marx, a material practice "bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production" ("Marx, to J. Weydemeyer in New York," March 5,1852) which is always in history and emerges from the struggles of classes over appropriation of the social surplus and which actually forms the basis of the "critical premises." The "new" as the difference of a double session proposes a new way of interpreting the existing world. The "new" as the effect of new production relations is not about interpretation of the existing world, but about making a new world.   

Which brings us back to the question of history although we have never been away from it. I have already said that "climate change" turns history into a spectral apparition within which the "wholly other" as the "new" becomes a citational structure; a view which is now reproduced over and over again in institutional "scholarly" conferences such as the one on "Chronopolitics." "Chronopolitics" is the analytics of the relationship between time and social change, and the politics of alternative futures (George W. Wallis, "Chronopolitics: The Impact of Time Perspectives on the Dynamics of Change"). One of the most important contributions to this inquiry is Johannes Fabian's Time and the Other which examines allochronicity, and how the "other" is always constructed as living in another time, the time that is away from that which normalizes and secures the existing social relations. In the discourse of "climate change," for example, Cohen exiles the revolutionary other to the other time—the ana-chronos and produces cultural security for the owners by depicting the militant revolutionary as "outdated"—s/he whose time is irrelevant to the temporality of the market time. For Paul Virilio ("On Speed-Space and Chronopolitics"), allochronicity is a matter of technology. Rey Chow 's The Age of the World Target: Self-Referentiality in War, Theory, and Comparative Work, which is deeply influenced by Fabian's arguments, reads the Asia Pacific in terms of Heidegger's "The Age of the World Picture" in order, ostensibly, to free it from being the "target" of the temporality of the West. However, she actually ends up re-writing Asia and its history through the time of the West and in the same limiting terms of the very Eurocentric poststructuralism that she criticizes by, for example, interpreting history through the Derridean trope of the "ghost" (90). Cohen deploys "chronopolitics" to construct a time beyond time—a "wholly other" whose temporality puts the time of the revolutionary before the future and thus (following Chow who is following Heidegger) turns history into a spectral temporality which translates the time of production into the temporality of the "event" and thus places history outside the logic of class struggles (Derrida, Specters of Marx 70). Within this history whose materialism is grounded in Benjamin's theosophy of "materialist" history (the materiality of the "ghost"), Cohen repeats the formula of "climate change": that an auratic modernism cannot explain the anti-anthropomorphic posthuman.

The anti-anthrop(omorph)ism and anti-humanism which Cohen represents as the effect of "climate change" are in fact staple themes of Modernist philosophy and culture. From the early modernist tele-technics of Frankenstein and experiments with the corporeally indeterminate, to Schoenberg's high modernist atonal and twelve-tone technique, the (anti-)"anthrop" has been the subject of modernist thought. It finds its canonic articulations in the Eurofocal writings of Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, and their institutional annotators today. 

The anti-anthropomorphic in its various historical configurations (e.g. as posthuman) is the official philosophy of the culture of capital. It is refashioned and its politico-economic implications are re-secured in each generation, by, for example, the theory of the death of the subject (at the time of the emergence of neoliberal economics) or the fantasy about the "new head" (after the move by capital to globalize production). Capital needs the "new" (anti-anthropeic) head" so as to dismember the proletariat as a militant agent of social change into an organ without body which is the compliant immaterial worker of the service-knowledge ("head worker") sector. I will come back to the posthuman and the way it is used to erase class from understanding social justice at the end of this section of my essay.

Cohen's interpretation of "chronopolitics" or anti-anthropomorphism, or... (fill in the blank) is the result of a routine "application" of his ready-made "theory" by which he writes predictable answers to all questions about the virtual or actual. His "theory" is (as I have already suggested) an "application" of Paul de Man's totalizing concept of "aesthetic ideology" (Resistance to Theory 3-20 ; 73-105; Aesthetic Ideology 34-50;70-90;163-184). In De Man, "aesthetic ideology" is the naïve phenomenalization of inscription—the anthropomorphic attribution of human desires and habits to the non-human. "Aesthetic ideology" was a concept produced in reaction to an aesthetic thought that was inherited by contemporary critics, notably the New Critics, from a Western romantic theo-poetics that was invented to diffuse the violence of capital against labor in early capitalism by a moral critique of the proletarian city. New Criticism—the poetics of Fordism—and its underlying neo-Kantianism (although de Man attempted to make Kant a materialist which tells us a great deal about his understanding of materialism) had become irrelevant to the neoliberal capitalism of the mid-century which needed a new poetics without interiority. Poststructuralism is that poetics.

The anti-anthropomorphism that Cohen represents as the ground breaking contribution of "climate change" and its chronopolitics of the "posthuman" has been not only one of the grand themes of Modernism, but such a popular motif in cultures of the machine that it has become a major subject in comic books. DC Comics, for example, has been having fun with (anti)anthropomorphism in its "Anthro" ("full of futuristic stuff") series. It is a double irony that some of the most recent appearances of "Anthro" have been in comics with titles such as Crisis on Infinite Earth and Tales of the Unexpected—titles that echo the themes (infinite, surprise, the unrepresentable) that Cohen promotes as signs of the unexplainable "climate change."  

Cohen's writings are the comics of theory. Like all comics, they are structured by a binary Manichean moral logic that divides the world into "old" (bad guys) and "new" (good guys). He, in other words, uses binaries profusely but with a diverting innocence, and, without the slightest self-reflexivity, like a comic "hero," he fights the other's binaries (e.g. class binaries) to save the world from the old heads who still struggle for transforming the world.    

Cohen's anti-anthropeic ideology, like all ideologies, however, cannot contain, without remainder, what it represses. The repressed "anthrop" and its assigned auratics return to Cohen's writings over and over again. Having, for instance, spent a great deal of time arguing against auteurism, its mimetic poetics and humanism, for example, he wonders if Hitchcock might be "a Hegel of the cinematic" ("Climate Change" 91). The master of graphematics, it turns out is the philosopher of Spirit and its Ocularism: Hitchcock (grammatologist of the letter) is Hegel (phenomenologist of the spirit and its mimesis as the State). 

There is more: Hitchcock's anti-anthropomorphism is itself anthropomorphic: "Hitchcock knows these deserts speak" (92). Hitchcock is, in other words, the same all-knowing anthropeic subject of the metaphysics of humanism. The subject of his knowing is also anthropomorphized: "these deserts speak" (92). The desert is human: it "speaks." Hitchcock's Hegelian ocularism (seeing is knowing) introduces an unintended irony into Cohen's "theory" of the anti-anthropic "new head" and leaves his cryptonymy in ruins: the criticism of aesthetic ideology, it is now clear, is itself an "aesthetic ideology." 

The historical role of materialist critique is to activate the contradictions between the existing social relations and the emerging forces of production whose conflicts are the source of social transformation. Cohen's institutionalist "theory" aims at repressing the crisis ("crisis" is, of course, itself a marginalized concept in poststructuralism). His writings are strategies to contain these contradictions by reconciling the fading social relations (which were articulated in the mid-20th century poststructuralist theories) with the new material forces which have developed as a result of the globalization of production and the rise of a new world working class. "Climate change" denies the possibility of radical social change which, as I have said, it regards to be a desire for presence and escape from difference—a form of utopianism. The only change for Cohen is essentially letteral—the sabotage of aura. However, if "climate change" is read reflexively, in the same terms by which it reads others, it soon becomes clear that it is itself a textual utopia—a nowhere of signs from which it postpones change everywhere in order to cloud class difference.

The discourse of "climate change" blocks social transformation by first equating change with "double writing" which allows it, in the name of inscribing difference, to re-legitimate the existing social relations through a re-writing with interval and thus warn against any radical action, which Derrida calls "jumping" (Derrida, Positions 41). Then it extends the "interval" (Positions 42) of the double-writing and thus postpones social justice to a "to-come" (Derrida, "Force of Law" 27) and, consequently, avoids the present through the "to come"—namely an excess whose excessiveness will never be recuperated by history; a utopia of letter(ation). "Climate change" is not in actuality opposed to utopianism. It is itself an idealist utopia of letters (Cohen, Hitchcock's Cyrptonymies). What it discredits as Utopian is the materialist historical struggles for economic equality and social justice of and for the here and now. Economic justice in the "climate change" is an outdated fantasy. Yet, as one reviewer put it in The London Review of Books (February 2003), "It is when radicals are derided as Jeremiahs by liberals and as starry-eyed 'utopianists' by the conservatives that they know they have got it more or less right."

Cohen's prose plays an important role in his suturing the old poststructuralist theories to the new material realities which allows him to absorb the new production relations into the old cultural representations and market the new bundle as a path breaking interpretation. He uses sentences which are lexically (on the textural surface of the sentence) theatrical and thus (amusingly) intriguing. Syntactically, where the complexity of thinking and the connections of ideas become formative, his sentences are mundane and straightforward. His essay "Climate Change in the Aesthetic State (A Memory (Dis)Order)," for example, has a lexically melodramatic surface on the "graphemic operations" (83), "auratic habits," and "ocularcentric 'order'" (84). The syntactical structures, which are exceedingly simple, however, reproduce what is basically a paraphrase of the old poststructuralist trope-cliché about the Western preoccupation with the transparency of seeing and/as knowing (Derrida Memoires of the Blind). Ocularity and a-ocularity become the themes by which he reads Hitchcock and his de-naturalizing of the "eye" (89) and ends with another Derridean conclusion in which sight is tied to the spectre (91). The lexicon, in other words, like the images in an advertisement draw attention to the commodity but the commodity itself is made of refurbished parts from other commodities held together by the famous brand name: Derrida. 

Through these representational stunts the reader is entertained into conceding to the class politics of the dominant theory, which is necessary for the frictionless operation of capital, while thinking that s/he is on the edge of an unprecedented reality. The suturing of the recycled theories to new material relations allows Cohen to displace the material "new," which is the effect of historical class struggles, with a "ghostly" (spiritual) "new" which is manufactured discursively. His writings, as in popular cultural texts, uses verbal pastiche and gimmicky language to render its old ideological narratives as brand new and the most exciting and momentous events in the world. The gap between theatrical language and plain contents is not, however, accidental or the result of textual exhibitionism but is the historical consequence of the class contradictions that, as I have said, his texts attempt to contain.   

Most of Cohen's writings on media are variations on the theme of ocularity: how seeing as truth is an "old head" idea. He presents the "seeing is not truth" leitmotif with all the excitement of a new discovery. Ocularcentrism and its auratic regime, however, is not an effect of the metaphysics of presence as he, in annotating Derrida, represents it but an effect of private property. His anti-ocularism, in other words, is an ideological ruse to put the "eye" out of history ("Prosthesis of the Visible" in Hitchcock's Cryptonymies 2 169-190). 

In the place of all physical and mental senses there has therefore come the sheer estrangement of all these senses,... the abolition of private property is therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities, but it is this emancipation precisely because these senses and attributes have become, subjectively and objectively, human. The eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object—an object made by man for man. The senses have therefore become directly in their practice theoreticians. They relate themselves to the thing for the sake of the thing, but the thing itself is an objective human relation to itself and to man, and vice versa. Need or enjoyment have consequently lost their egotistical nature, and nature has lost its mere utility by use becoming human use. (Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 300).

Cohen's writings disconnect "eye" and the ocular regime from the regime of private property.

Cohen's texts belong to a genre of academic theory that has emerged after the analytical exhaustion of poststructuralism and the interpretive dead-end that it and its allied discourses (Benjaminian, Deleuzian, etc.) have reached. Poststructuralism was, as I have suggested, the cultural legitimization of the social relations of production in the mid-20th century. The purpose of the new genre is to maintain those relations and suture them to new forces of production and postpone the crisis which always arises from the conflicts of social relations and new forces of production. The new genre does this by "proving" the living force of old theory (i.e. social relations) by "applying" it to current situations and events. Cohen, for example, following Samuel Weber, spends a great deal of time "applying" Derrida, de Man, and Benjamin to contemporary media. Media has become an increasingly important part of institutional theory because it is through media (from films and videos to cyber writings) that American capitalism represents its class interests as the cutting-edge realities of now. What is at stake in the new genre in other words, is not poststructuralism itself but what poststructuralism legitimates socially, namely the property relations of the last century. In showing the relevance of the old poststructuralism and the social relations it legitimates in the languages of difference and hybridity, anti-mimesis and graphematics, Cohen and others imply that there is no social and cultural change that  cannot be accounted for by the old social relations. In their writings hybridity and "differance" continue to shape culture even though "society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other" (Manifesto 485). 

This Americanized form of poststructuralism has become the grand cultural theory of contemporary American capitalism. It is now the most effective interpretive weapon in the intraclass wars between the American form of capitalism and its European and Asian rivals, for example, in China. Poststructuralism, to put it differently, has become the theory of a new cultural missionary work of capitalism. Like the old missionaries in Africa, the academics of American, European, and Asian universities are conducting wars of positions on behalf of the international bourgeoisie in China. Humanities departments in Chinese universities have in effect become missionary outposts for capitalism. However, unlike 19th century missionary outposts where various versions of Christianity competed to legitimate capitalism, today it is a cultural theory (poststructuralism) that is doing the converting. The "native" interpretive practices (like native religions in Africa) such as nationalist poetics or formalist exegesis in the humanities departments in Chinese universities are dismissed by the poststructuralist missionaries as outmoded and are displaced by "new" theories. As in the 19th century, the work of the missionaries is maintained by huge funds from business, foundations, governments, and their agencies (e.g., universities).

As I have said before, poststructuralism is being constantly re-calibrated and adjusted for these intra class wars, but the story of all such re-figurings of deconstruction is the "survival of deconstruction after deconstruction"—its "afterlives". After each re-writing poststructuralism becomes more itself and the orthodoxy becomes more orthodox. Cohen's lectures in China (e.g. "Minority report on 21st century studies (D)"), are stories of the orthodoxy after orthodoxy—more deconstruction after deconstruction. They legitimate American capitalism as the sublime of difference by culturally discrediting socialism through displacing materialist understanding of culture by the ghostly materiality of archives and memories.  

In this zone of the ghostly, "climate change" becomes the time of the posthuman. Cohen's narrative of the posthuman, like his anti-mimesis, is formulaic: it is the "application" of Paul de Man's "aesthetic ideology" mixed with Derrida's animalcentric elementalizing of the social. To construct his posthuman, Cohen places the human outside the history of labor (which is a repeating of the mid-20th century stories of the subject) and produces an essentialist humanism as a foil of the posthuman. He has, one should keep in mind, no problem with humanism as such. He is actually quite at home especially in its spiritualized versions. As I have mentioned, he writes Hitchcock as "the Hegel of the cinematic." His target of demolition is socialist humanism which is not, as it is childishly implied, about some Feuerbachian human essence and/as subject ("the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations," Marx, "Theses on Feuerbach" 7). Socialist humanism is a historical transformation—the result of "the annulment of private property". It is "the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being" (Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1884  296).

Cohen's posthuman, is an example of what I called his enthusiastic cheer leading for whatever happens to be the current wisdom in the institutional theory which he represents excitedly as the cutting edge of knowledge. The posthuman is a growing interpretive tendency in the academy and the most recent form of the cultural muting of class relations (Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Posthumanities)). It is, like all such "new" trends, also highly marketable. So much so that in fact the University of Minnesota Press which has always had a keen sense in book business and commodification of the "new" trends, has devoted a whole new series to it.  

The posthuman is the cultural trope for the affirmation of private property framed in a dream of a trans-species life by overcoming the binary that ostensibly opposes man as a thinking animal to other living species. Actually, however, it erases the binary of property owner/ propertyless by collapsing the species life and animal life and in doing so inverts the social contradictions of capitalism into natural differences that are unrepresentable because the "natural" is itself a signifier for that which always already exceeds "human" concepts (Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am). The posthuman, to put it differently, is a version of a vulgar Kantian metaphysics that, by textualizing a discredited Cartesian binary, insists on looking at things in their "own" unknowable terms, free from their "outside." Through the prophetics of posthumanities, Cohen de-socializes the social and naturalizes the logic of the market as a spiritual force that is unrepresentable and yet which shapes all representation.

As a prophetic chronicler of the transition to the post-human humanities, Cohen's writings also re-write the history of cultural studies in a way that re-models the study of culture into a speculative practice that substitutes for materialist critique a mode of de-inscription which ultimately positions the reader as ecstatic observer of the textual self-undoing of all social relations—what he calls their "eventfulness." In so doing, in the guise of a more "political" project (which criticizes the aestheticizing of culture), he renders cultural studies more amenable to the needs of capital for an educated workforce that can continually deconstruct social reality to find new avenues of profit without the ability to understand why the market functions against their interests.

Cohen claims that there are, on the contemporary scene, three modes of "cultural studies": the cultural studies that are grounded in a "mimetic" theory of language, one which represents itself as recognizing the non-mimetic of language but remains mimetic, and a third truly non-mimetic cultural studies, which he sees as the only advanced mode of reading culture. Echoing his textualist mentors Derrida and deMan, Cohen finds that most of what passes for cultural studies now "evades the problematic and programming of inscription" (Material xi) by "relapsing" into mimetic codes of "a pragmatic, everyday, referential, socio-historicist 'politics'" (Ideology 102) that serves to "preclude alternative modes of thought, or action ... that remain key ... to addressing the accelerated evisceration of terrestrial resources in the machinery of mimeto-capitalism" (107). In his emphasis on the mimeticism (or not) of language, what becomes clear is that Cohen's reading of "cultural studies" is an attempt to absorb the cultural turn in an earlier linguistic turn and to therefore argue that culture, far from being a site of plenitude (which he seems to think is the underlying idea of mainstream cultural studies), is itself a language effect. Language, he argues, is a material formation that determines meaning in a culture independently of labor. In other words, unlike Marx—for whom language is material only to the extent that as "practical consciousness" (German Ideology 49) it is inserted in the "process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature" (Capital 283)—for Cohen language is material in itself. It is thus in the terms of this immanent materiality of language that Cohen advances what he claims is a "materialist" understanding of culture.

Again, what is important here is the way in which Cohen repackages the textualist theory of materiality developed in the 1960s and 1970s as the "new" boundary of cultural studies while displacing the materialism of labor (as the "old"). For Cohen, what is material is the excessive differential slippage (free play) of the signifier over the series of signifieds as without origin or end. Since all concepts (signifieds) emerge in the process of signification, and because human practices are conventionally made intelligible through the habitual repetition of linguistic codes, the material is thus a language effect—what Cohen calls the "inscription of anteriority" in discourse—in relation to which all other values are then determined. In the discursive cultural theory represented by Cohen, culture is thus itself material because it is the singular means as well as the medium in which the "sense of the real" is constructed in language and the place of the subject primarily determined. This immanent cultural theory assumes that "the entities discourse refers to are constituted in and by discourse" (Hindess and Hirst 19-20). Culture, in other words, is not the other of a real world lying "out there" beyond the means with which we attempt to grasp it—what is "outside" (e.g., nature or truth) is always already an effect of the "inside" of the modes of signification available in a culture. Moreover, according to Cohen, the concept of ideology should be equated with "mimesis"—"ideology is always mimetic," (Material xii)—because referentiality in language fails to reflect the immanent cultural process of the inscription of meaning. In other words, as Paul de Man puts it, "ideology is precisely the confusion of linguistic with natural reality, of reference with phenomenalism" (Resistance 11) and not "false consciousness" of the outside of labor relations, as I am arguing.  

How then, does this theorization of the materiality of culture as opposed to the mimeticism of ideology bear out in the project of a discursive cultural studies as a mode of opposition to the dominant social relations that Cohen is advancing?  In fact, for Cohen, "mimesis" is more than simply a mode of representation that "reflects" on the world. It is the mode of rule of an "aesthetic state"—a "ghost state" that actually "does not exist" (Material 120) because it is "an entire regime of cognition, interpretation and experience" that exceeds "political ideology" (118) and the "logics attributed to capital" (121)—that "is designed to efface a materiality of inscription" (120). The "ghost state" is, like ideology and materiality for Cohen, a purely cognitive matter with no connection to an outside in labor arrangements. He argues that the mode of intelligibility authorized by the "aesthetic state" dissimulates its own production of meaning in natural reality and thus deflects awareness of the "eventfulness" of history. Historic change, in other words, comes from knowing that the past is always retroactively constructed discursively in the present, which provides a sense of the otherness of the future for Cohen. It is then this "eventfulness" of history that is represented by Cohen, citing Benjamin, as the project of a "material historiography" (ix) which would found a discursive cultural studies for the contemporary and that would constitute an operation of "deinscription": a "performative intervention at the site of prerecordings" (x) which articulate "a radical (re)programming of the (historical) archive out of which the 'sensorium' would be alternatively produced" (x).

Cohen understands his project of a discursive cultural studies that is more attentive to inscription to be materially embedded in texts themselves. Specifically it is a matter of the way texts perform the impossibility of their own signification (their unrepresentability) in their very tropes and testify to the ghostly power of inscription over reality. And yet, by locating the impossibility of self-same meaning in the text itself Cohen reinscribes the very mimetic logic he claims to be opposing. But, the logical contradiction—the fact that what Cohen deploys as the most oppositional narrative toward mimesis is itself mimetic—points to the fact that what is at issue here is not epistemology, as Cohen seems to think, and not an ethical question of "bad" ("old" mimetic) versus "good" ("new" post-mimetic) epistemic models of culture. Rather, the fact that in Cohen's writings the post-mimetic is mimetic with a vengeance indicates that representation, as Jameson has argued, is always mimetic because it presupposes a relation to history:

Indeed, no working model of the functioning of language, the nature of communication or of the speech act, and the dynamics of formal and stylistic change is conceivable which does not imply a whole philosophy of history. (Political Unconscious 59) 

What Cohen's writings thus show despite themselves is that at stake in the debates over mimesis is not mimesis, but different ways of knowing the world that have different and opposed political consequences in terms of the ongoing class conflicts over the cultural real. To clarify this point, it will be useful here to look at a specific cultural reading that Cohen proposes as a model for discursivist cultural studies, his reading of Alfred Hitchcock's film The 39 Steps.

According to Cohen, The 39 Steps demonstrates the "sheer exteriority" of meaning and subjectivity as the effect of inscription and the "resistance" to it that comes from the impossibility of its project to program the culture and police its boundaries. The 39 Steps is thus made to tell a story about history and culture in which the origin and limits of domination are purely formal and emerge from within cultural processes, either within the code of mimesis and its "inscription of anteriority," or, oppositionally, in what Cohen calls "allographics," a writing that reveals its own processes of inscription as purely textual and arbitrary.

In his reading of The 39 Steps, Cohen makes Mr. Memory (the vaudeville performer who serves as a pawn between the rival spy agencies in the story) the agent subverting the dominant ideology because he articulates the purely linguistic basis of its rule when he utters a "meaningless" string of numbers and words at the moment in the narrative when he reveals the state secret that stands to undermine its power if it gets into the enemy state's hands. Because in the climactic scene the secret words Mr. Memory utters are audible only as sounds they do not signify except in a purely literal way: what they thus signify, for Cohen, is that the State's secret is its own performativity and what they thus teach the viewer is that the way to resist the dominant is to mime it and reveal the cultural process of inscription and subjection to the dominant order. Because the significance of Mr. Memory's statement is purely discursive, the meaning of the utterance is not that of a subversive state secret as referred to in the story but rather what for Cohen is the secret of the State itself: that the State is an effect of a relation in discourse between signifiers that are actually lacking any order of priority. Thus what Cohen's "deinscriptive" reading from the "inside" proposes is that the agency of resistance to the culture's dominant meanings and values is not based on a materially oppressed subject that has been foreclosed from representation and that therefore stands as a critique of it (the proletariat), but comes from within the dominant order itself at those moments when its own textual performativity is revealed to be the basis of its power (as opposed to any objective, "outside" order of causality). Yet what such a reading itself forecloses is how the text of The 39 Steps is the scene not of a self-dismantling of the State but in fact of a hegemonic struggle over the state.

How does The 39 Steps reveal this hegemonic struggle?  What Cohen codes as a difference within discourse that is relayed as the contestation between (on the one hand) the State and its mimetic agents and (on the other) the subject of (de)inscription, is actually a conflict between basically opposed social orders, the State of capital based on the logic of exchange and an other emergent State within the State based on the materiality of need. The alternative hegemony is dismissed by Cohen when he fails to read the political economy of significance behind the "unnamed enemy state" (Material xiii) Mr. Memory is en route to in the story.

What Cohen dismisses about the film is its materialist subtext which represents the social conditions under which anyone would want to be going to an enemy state and why an enemy state exists in the first place. This materialist text is present from the very opening scenes of the film. During Mr. Memory's performance in the music hall, for instance, there is a class struggle over the use of his ability to recall facts. Not only does the scene make clear that different classes and groups need to know different facts, but the scene also shows that what they are competing for is the power to represent their needs as socially real; a farmer is so preoccupied with his cattle as to repeatedly ask his question about horticulture, while a proletarian is so consumed with Mae West and alcohol as to instigate a fight when he does not receive the reply he is looking for. Although the scene suggests a reading of class as cultural inscription seeing it merely in such terms fails to bring to the surface the material conflict that compels individuals to enter into ideological struggle.  The class struggle over the means of representation is carried through the film and it effectively reveals that the central issue involved in the State is not whether it is "representative" (mimetic) or not, but the fact that there are different social orders demanding representation. Thus, when Hannay, whose run from the police for a false murder charge carries the bulk of the story, ducks into a public assembly hall and poses as a politician it doesn't matter that he is acting and his utopian speech in which all social conflicts are overcome is met with popular enthusiasm. The enthusiasm in fact indicates a popular need to overcome what are intractable social conflicts that have reached the point where they can be spontaneously represented by Hannay as a fight between "nation and nation" as well as "neighbor against neighbor" in his impromptu performance. These moments, in short, point to the popular need for a State where material need has priority over the politics of representation—which foregrounds the false question of whether the State is or is not representative of an extra-discursive real that transcends the class struggle.

For Cohen, most of what passes for cultural studies "evades the problematic and programming of inscription" (Material xi) by "relapsing" into mimetic codes of "a pragmatic, everyday, referential, socio-historicist 'politics'" (Ideology 102). But how effective is Cohen's argument for focusing on inscription as the hegemonic logic of the political in order to contest the logic of capital?  Cohen proposes that getting rid of "reference" (mimesis) is more important for changing the world than combating exploitation (the appropriation of surplus labor in the daily). In fact, in advancing such a position Cohen himself re-articulates the logic of transnational capital in relation to the State by proclaiming in effect its material irrelevance, as when he claims that the State cannot be explained according to the "logics attributed to capital" (Material 121). Because the ideological function of the State is primarily programming the "sensorium" and hegemonizing consciousness, according to Cohen, such as to create belief in "a pragmatic, everyday, referential, socio-historical 'politics'" (Ideology 102), his own theory which argues for "de-inscribing" the State in actuality itself aestheticizes the State and fails to see it as a site of class struggle. Indeed, the "ghost state" is, like ideology and materiality, for Cohen a purely cognitive matter. Thus, the matter of how social relations shape consciousness is occulted and capitalism is aestheticized as "mimeto-capitalism," a cognitive regime ruled by a "ghost state" that can only be known at the level of its effects on subjectivity and not in relation to its material pre-conditions. Far from being "materialist,"  Cohen's war on the referent—the objective relations which precede their "conceptualization"—is, as I have said, a return to a form of neo-Kantian idealism in which "matter" is understood ahistorically as that which produces effects at the level of consciousness but which itself cannot positively be known. But what this occludes, as opaque to consciousness, is precisely the labor relations that precede it, the fact that, as Marx and Engels argue in The German Ideology, the "first premise of all human existence" (including the operations of the linguistic and cultural realms[4]) is that "men must be in a position to live in order to 'make history'," and "life involves before everything else eating and drinking, housing, clothing and various other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself" (47). By supplanting this production of material life and the agency of labor, what Cohen in fact does is limit any understanding of the material to the terms of the cultural and thus privileges the regime of "ideas" (tropes) as instrumental in shaping the world. History is dematerialized of labor and made strictly a matter of shifting tropes.

Cohen believes that a non-mimetic cultural studies captures the materiality of culture in ways that mimetic types do not and is oppositional because it frees culture from the tyranny of transparency and phenomenalism he sees as the primary ideological support of contemporary capitalism. However, his theory of materiality as a language effect is itself the dominant understanding of culture as is evidenced by the fact that it shares with overtly representational theories of culture a hostility to any cultural analysis that implicates the text in the social conflicts over material resources which precede and constitute the internal dynamics of cultural texts. Indeed, Cohen's own "post-mimetic" understanding of culture as immanent and constitutive of the contemporary real is actually just as much in evidence in liberal humanist cultural theories which argue that representation reflects "timeless" truths about human beings. To make the case that the rule of cultural immanence which blocks off the inside of the text from its "outside" is in fact not a new oppositional view but the norm in culturalist theories, such as Cohen's, it will be useful to briefly examine the writings of an explicitly liberal humanist cultural theory in order to demonstrate how while they remain formally opposed in terms of the cultural politics of representation they are nevertheless underwritten by a common emphasis on the immanence of culture that severs the cultural from its material determinations.

I take the writings of Hannah Arendt as an instance of a liberal humanist cultural theory. In The Human Condition, Arendt mimetically traces the development of culture in relation to what she elsewhere calls the "constellation" (Past and Future 62) of "labor" (which she takes as merely biological reproduction), "work" (technology) and "action" (politics). She calls these "the capabilities of man" (62) and argues that "their mutual relationships can and do change historically" (62) as "can best be observed in the changing self-interpretations of man throughout history" (62). History marks a progressive "world alienation," according to Arendt, that has been brought about by a growing freedom from "the burden of laboring and the bondage of necessity" (The Human Condition 5) due to technology. One of the effects of this alienation has been to disaggregate the "constellation" of labor, work and politics in such a way as to depoliticize contemporary culture by turning it into mere entertainment rather than "the lasting testimony of the spirit which animated it" (Past and Future 201). Arendt thus seemingly argues for a materialist view of culture, considered from within "the vantage point of our newest experiences" (6), especially the constellation of a "consumer society" (211) in which culture has primarily become alienated as a "social commodity" to be "circulated and cashed in for all kinds of other values" (204) rather than valued in itself. It seems at one level Arendt is not making a culturalist argument as if all that mattered was immanent to culture because the agency of alienation is "not-culture" in her thinking but a bigger constellation of material practices of which it is a part. At the same time, however, she takes a "post-mimetic" position because she argues for the materiality of culture in ways that assume its autonomy from and power to constitute the real—as when, for example, she writes that "speech is what makes man a political being" (The Human Condition 4). Here language alone effectively makes humans social beings despite the fact that Arendt seems to argue that the origin of such an alienated view of language lies in the commodification of the real in contemporary "consumer society."  How can culture at one and the same time be a reflection of the historical constellation of material human activities and the place where the social is itself constituted?    

The move which allows Arendt to simultaneously argue that culture reflects social relations and that it is what makes human beings social is itself purely discursive: she calls it the "event" represented by the "invention" of  a "new mental instrument" (The Human Condition 241), Galileo's telescope, which according to her "cannot be explained by any chain of causality" (225). Galileo's telescope is thus effectively a trope for a non-material understanding of culture in the same way that the cultural process of "inscription" for Cohen eludes the "logics attributed to capital" (Material 121). The result of the telescope, according to Arendt, has been "world alienation"—the placing of "a decisive distance between man and earth" (Human Condition 228), which has allowed the world to be seen for the first time as an object among others to be subordinated to human purposes. The result of the instrumental alienation of the world in terms of Arendt's understanding of culture is contradictory: on the one hand, she argues that modern culture is materially subordinated to consumerism and, on the other, that it can yet testify to its spiritual origins. The latter is an understanding of culture whose origins, by being alienated from the material as spirit (e.g., Galileo's mind), cannot be causally explained in terms of the existing social constellation and thus can only be borne witness to as "the lasting testimony of the spirit which animated it" (Past and Future 201). Although recognizing the economic basis that explains modern alienation—Arendt mentions the "individual expropriation and accumulation of social wealth" as a cause (The Human Condition 225)—it is finally to the inventions of the human mind that Arendt ascribes the power to determine history. This move inverts material causality and the modern mastery of productive forces is understood idealistically as coming from ideas. Spirit moves the world, not labor.

Through her concepts of social constellation and historical alienation Arendt is able to articulate the connection between materiality and human agency in dialectical and even causal ways, and therefore offer a critique of Cohen's basic assumption of materiality as inscription. But, because she fundamentally adheres to a liberal humanist ideology of the subject as essentially free of material causality (Galileo's invention eludes causal historical explanation), Arendt too reinscribes the dominant culturalist view of culture as an in-itself cut off from the social relations of its production in ways that ideologically aligns her theory with Cohen's. As a consequence, the reification of culture cannot be contested and it becomes an empty tautology for Arendt—"the lasting testimony of the spirit which animated it" (Past and Future 201).

Arendt dehistoricizes labor, treating it as merely biological (physical reproduction) rather than as an historically developing social relation. Thus, as a result, the task of cultural theory, according to Arendt, is not a matter showing how culture provides an index of "the changing self-interpretations of man throughout history" (Past and Future 62) that bears witness to "the spirit of whole epochs" (62), as she claims, but to affirm its essentially spiritual origins as if it simply revealed what lies within "the innermost recesses of the human heart" (209). That this is not a spiritual but economic move is clear in that the goal of her project to recover the spiritual ideal of culture is to oppose the culture of consumption and to produce a subject of taste and distinction in the contemporary—one who takes "culture seriously the way we do" and "who knows how to choose his company" well (226). Such a subject of choice as she imagines who chooses above and beyond "coercion by truth" (223) or "sentiment" (self-interest) because he lets taste decide "not only how the world is to look, but also who belongs together in it" (223), in actuality requires the labor of the other as a material basis whose presence he is then economically free to choose to ignore.

Cohen and Arendt represent an immanent cultural theory. Both are formally "materialist" in terms of understanding culture as producing the real. But, both also reduce the real to culture by substituting tropes for a materially causal explanation of the seeming autonomy of culture in the contemporary. "Invention" and "event" are tropes used by Arendt to block an historical and material explanation of the contemporary in the same way that "inscription" and "spectrality" do for Cohen. Arendt takes a liberal humanist position and assumes that a transcendental signified (the original spirit of culture) grounds all representations and thus concludes that culture must be immunized from history in order to humanize the world. Cohen takes a post-humanist position that implicates Arendt's logocentrism in the dominant order of spectrality he wishes to subvert in the manner of the old avant-garde by foregrounding its opacity. Despite the intellectual and political differences between Cohen and Arendt they yet share a more basic ideological sameness in their assumption that a Marxist cultural theory is unable to effectively explain culture. For Cohen this means Marxist cultural theory must be condemned as a support of "mimeto-capitalism" because according to it culture "reflects" labor relations, while Arendt too rejects Marxism as underwriting "consumer society" because it understands the "spirit" of culture as a reification of the labor process of history. In place of an understanding of how culture is shaped by economics both equally mystify the cultural by failing to grasp it as alienated labor. What they are thus rejecting in Marxist cultural theory is what its bourgeois critics have always objected to, its explanation of culture as a superstructural reflection of a class basis produced outside it that exposes language as "an arena of class struggle" (Vološinov 23).         


FOUR: Beyond Culturalism?

Despite Cohen's self-representation as resisting the prevailing intellectual wisdoms, his discursive theory of culture is dominant and it has incorporated the traditional ideas of cultural autonomy of the liberal humanist cultural theory represented by Arendt in an updated language. However, because of increasing global inequality this humanist-discursive theory of culture is losing its ideological effectivity in obscuring the economic contradictions of capitalism behind a rhetorical smoke-screen of floating signifiers. What is emerging to take its place is a turn towards an economistic theory of culture. In fact, in a move reminiscent of the pendulous logic of wall street, after years of denying the importance of economic relations in understanding culture, contemporary cultural studies has now practically become obsessed with what it calls the "economic."   In new books such as Cultural Studies in Question and Marxism, Modernity and Postcolonial Studies, there is an increasing call for cultural studies to return to its "roots" in discussions of capitalism and inequality. For instance, Lawrence Grossberg, editor of the influential journal Cultural Studies, writes that having replaced a class politics with a semiotic politics, cultural studies "continues to leave the relationship between culture and capital unexamined" ("Speculations" 16). In contrast to his own years of denying any causal relationship between capitalism (base) and culture (superstructure) (e.g, Bringing it all Back Home: Essays on Cultural Studies), Grossberg now declares the necessity of "return[ing] to questions of economics" and "the exploitation of ... labor" if cultural studies is going to be able to understand, respond to, and transform "the changing configurations of ... systems of inequality" ("Speculations" 16).

The recent turn to economics in contemporary cultural theory contests the reification of the social in terms of discourse. Yet, what one finds in examining the economistic logic of the latest turn in bourgeois cultural theory is that while its proponents call into question any social theory that does not take into account economic inequality, they nonetheless continues to accept the presupposition that culture is "productive" and thus too "complex" to be read as shaped by the social relations of production. For instance, on the one hand, there are writers such as Grossberg who continue to represent the social in overtly "rhetorical" terms and assert that "economics is itself a discourse" ("Speculations 17). On the other hand, there are critics, such as the neo-marxist writers Frederic Jameson and Antonio Negri, who argue for going beyond the rhetorical by returning to Marxist concepts of social totality in order to investigate the materiality of culture. Although they distance themselves from more "rhetorical" born-again economic materialists such as Grossberg, however, neo-marxist cultural theorists advance an equally dematerialized theory of social relations as symbolic production. For example,  relying on Althusser, Negri and Jameson argue that the root of the contemporary social formation is "immaterial" and unavailable as a basis for transformative materialist critique because it has become primarily symbolic. That is to say, according to their reading, "value" arises not from labor, but from the exchange of signs. It is precisely in this emptying of some of the central concepts of Marxist theory of any meaning that neo-marxist theories of culture have quickly become the new lingua franca of cultural studies. As such, in order to articulate the classical Marxist labor theory of culture today it is therefore necessary to look at the contemporary cultural theories that put themselves forward as "materialist" critiques of the dominant cultural theory of immanence and show why what is represented in their work as "materialist" is really 21st century idealism in disguise.

Antonio Negri's work in particular has become one of the central conceptual frameworks through  which the culturalist ideology of bourgeois theory has been updated to account for the economic realities that the more "rhetorical" theories now fail to cover over. In "The Specter's Smile," for example, Negri calls into question Derrida's "deconstructive" reading of capitalist hegemony (Specters of Marx) and argues that it is in actuality a spectral materialism which remains immersed in "the phenomenology of capitalist production" (7) in a way that "corresponds with common experience" (9) and as a result fails to describe its "ontological" basis; namely, the "new productive reality" (9) of the laboring subject whose experience it is. As Derrida ignores the fact that "human labor, both mental and manual, is increasingly implicated in exploitation" (11),  Negri writes, he is thus "a prisoner of the ontology he critiques" (13). Even as he prioritizes concepts central to a materialist theory of culture such as labor, production, exploitation, and revolution, Negri evacuates them of their historical and material basis in the capitalist mode of production by maintaining that in "the law of value no longer works in describing the entire process of capital" (10). Thus, according to Negri while, on the one hand, exploitation is global—and explains the "spectral" logic of the discursivist cultural theory, which Cohen (annotating Derrida) claims exceeds the "logics attributed to capital" (Material 121), as in fact reflecting the logic of capital—on the other hand, exploitation no longer concerns the extraction of surplus-value from labor, as Marx explained the source of profit. "Accumulation nowadays," Negri claims, consists of "fixing hierarchal and expropriative dividing lines" in the "acquisition of knowledge and social activity taking place within ... communicative horizons" (11) such as "the Internet" (11). What Negri displaces here is a theory of material exploitation with an analytics of cultural domination on the grounds that labor has become "immaterial" and primarily cultural.

For all his criticism of Derridean spectrality, Negri basically agrees that "there's no longer an outside" ("Specter's Smile" 9) to capitalism and "no longer a measuring gauge of value" (8) upon which to base an emancipatory critique of it. His criticisms of the spectral are thus themselves spectral: They are no more than semantic differences in a merely cultural war, what he calls "the new class wars that define [the] exploitation of labor in a world of immateriality and spectral production" (11). The "new class wars" in which class is merely a trope of culture as a signifying operation indicates that the base of the social (exploitation) is not up for contestation, which is why Negri displaces social theory of the contemporary for "ontology"—"a common experience of spectrality as clear as the sun" (9) which takes as a given that Marxism is "out of date" (10) because "no reasonable person could ... affirm exploitation's identical form then and now" (10). Negri's understanding of the contemporary is purely cultural despite the language of Marxism he uses because he ignores the material measure of value—profit. Negri has of course become a celebrated figure in the culture industry (by the New York Times and the Charlie Rose show, for example) for his bestseller Empire, which argues that "imperialism is over" (xiv) and has been replaced by "empire," a social formation that lies beyond "the fiction of any measure of the working day" (402). But, if the work day is a fiction then there would be no more profit. Profit is the measure of the working day Negri claims no longer exists. Profit comes from surplus-labor—labor expended in the work day whose value is over and above the value of the necessary labor expended in order to maintain the existence of the laborer, as Marx explains ("The Working Day" Book I, Chapt. 10, Capital Vol. I, 340-416). That is to say, profit can only be explained as coming from the unequal relations of production of capitalism. It is capitalism that has monopolized the productive forces of society into the private property of a few and dispossessed the many of everything but their labor power to sell. Without Marx's labor theory of value there can be no basic contestation of capitalism, only moral condemnation of its more oppressive effects that keeps exploitation intact by immunizing it from critique. In place of an understanding of labor as an historical structure of conflicts that reveals "the real movement that abolishes the present state of things" (German Ideology 57) and inaugurates the necessity of communism for Marx and Engels, Negri gives a "parable of change" ("The Specter's Smile" 12) which finds communism ready-made in "the rupture with memory" (14) demanded by the "mobile and flexible reality" of (12) spectral production and says good-bye to the working class as the agent of history.

Instead of a materialist theory of social change Negri tells stories about the potential for rebellion due to newer technologies. What defines contemporary exploitation now, according to Negri, is not labor in the classical Marxist sense, but the "body" (13): the "experience" of high-tech work today. Negri claims that contemporary capitalism has brought into being "a common experience of spectrality" (9) in the lives of "a laboring subject amassed in intellectuality and cooperative force" (12). The "new social force of mass intellectuality" (15), he claims, produces a subject at home in the body, who therefore "refuses transcendence and chooses to live a worldly, laic [secular] and rational ascesis [self-discipline] that will lead him towards a constitutive hermeneutics and an ethics of liberation" (11-12), or, the "new theory of revolution" (14) that Negri calls "communism" (14). Negri's communism, however, has nothing material to say against exploitation because it is a "rupture with memory" (14). Exploitation is real, according to Negri, because

On the one side, we have communication and the wealth that accumulates therein; on the other, we have the solitude, the misery, the sadness, the exodus and the new class wars that define this exploitation of labor in a world of immateriality and spectral production. (11)

But in these terms, emotions give the truth of the world (not the social relations of production) and exploitation is made a matter of moral sentiments (not labor). But even in such moral terms exploitation is a thing of the past for Negri because the "common experience" of the contemporary that "deem[s] the Marxist ontology out of date" (10) is that "no longer are capitalist relations of production exercised solely on a subject characterized through misery" (12). The "common experience" of the contemporary that Negri speaks for is that of a post-exploitative "dual state of mind" (11) which "lead[s] the mind to grasp the very nature of Desire, beyond the (past) determinations of existence or the (present) external dialectic of sadness and joy" (11). "Passion" thus figures in his imaginary as "destructive of the world of capital and constructive of freedom" (15) more so than collective praxis guided by historical materialist theory. Through the trope of "immaterial" and "affective" labor as constitutive of the contemporary real, Negri first displaces concepts that explain the contemporary in terms of conflicts over the ratio of exploitation demanded by the work day with sentimental categories, and then, in a second move, injects into this emotional plenitude a voluntarist communism that morally transcends both the affirmation (joy) and negation (sadness) of the existing as a "constituent spirit of the ontological violence of transformation" (15). Again, as in idealist theories, it is Spirit (passion) that moves the world, not labor.


FIVE: Towards a Materialist Cultural Theory

In order to begin to understand how the utopian "passion" of a cultural transcendence of labor relations is specifically tied to the capitalist mode of production, one has to turn to the writings of Fredric Jameson. This is because central to Jameson's writings is Marx's concept of "commodity fetishism," which he understands primarily through Lukács's theory of "reification"— the material process of production whereby social relations are depersonalized and thus appear as relations between things and ideas due to the dominance of exchange-value (production for profit). As in Marx—who finds in the abstract and naturalistic ways of discussing labor in classical political economy a symptom of the real practical indifference toward individual labors in capitalism that reflects the concrete social whole in an ideological way (Grundrisse 104)—Jameson argues that any conception of the autonomous separation of culture from the economic is "a symptom and a reinforcement of the reification and privatization of contemporary life" (20) due to the "universal commodification of labor power" (Political Unconscious 66):

Such a distinction reconfirms that structural, experiential, and conceptual gap between the public and the private, between the social and the psychological, or the political and the poetic, between history or society and the "individual," which—the tendential law of social life under capitalism—maims our existence as individual subjects and paralyzes our thinking about time and change just as surely as it alienates us from our speech itself…To imagine that, sheltered from the omnipresence of history and the implacable influence of the social, there already exists a realm of freedom…is only to strengthen the grip of Necessity over all such blind zones in which the individual seeks refuge, in pursuit of a purely individual, a merely psychological, project of salvation. (20)

Culture, in short, is ideological as "the production of aesthetic or narrative form" has "the function of inventing imaginary or formal 'solutions' to unresolvable social contradictions" (79) thus "strengthening the grip of Necessity" in culture. It is in "detecting the traces of this uninterrupted narrative, in restoring to the surface of the text the repressed and buried reality of this fundamental history" (20) that Jameson, citing Marx, understands the goal of a materialist cultural theory as participating in labor, "the collective struggle to wrest a realm of Freedom from a realm of Necessity" (19). Thus, Jameson is in a position to implicate Negri's story of communism as a new "passion" brought about by technical changes impacting the bodies of cultural workers—not to mention Cohen's neo-Kantian "materiality"—as  itself a commodification of the senses necessitated by private property, in a manner similar to the way Jameson reads Conrad's "impressionistic" style, which attempts "to rewrite in terms of the aesthetic, of sense perception…a reality you prefer not to conceptualize" (215). In these terms, Jameson's use of commodity fetishism would seem to show that far from being a site of resistance to capital, the "senses" are an extension of exploitative relations: the site of ideology. This is significant because he thus establishes the need to read culture and cultural experience (the "senses") not in their own terms, but in relation to their outside, namely the commodity relations that both necessitate such experiences and provide "ready-made" interpretations that justify existing unequal relations. He shows, in short, that senses, experience, passion, etc. are not explainable on their own terms (since they are produced under certain circumstances) but require explanation (concepts).

However, Jameson (both in his early and later work) simultaneously undermines this very conclusion in ultimately arguing against the ability to conceptualize economic relations and in suggesting that culture (contrary to what he has already critiqued) should be seen as not only "semi-autonomous" from class relations but as an (immediate) site of libidinal resistance to class inequality. For instance, he rejects a materialist theory of ideology which argues that "superstructural phenomena, are mere reflexes, epiphenomenal projections of infrastructural realities" (Political Unconscious 42), on the grounds that "history ... is inaccessible to us except in textual form, and that our approach to it and to the Real itself necessarily passes through its prior textualization" (35). There is, in other words, no outside to ideology, according to Jameson—which of course renders Jameson's purportedly "Marxist" conclusion identical to those of Cohen, Derrida, de Man,…. But, for a materialist cultural studies, the other of ideology is the positive knowledge (science) of the real motive forces compelling individuals as they (re)produce their material life under specific historical circumstances. On such terms, it becomes possible to give a critique of ideology as a false-consciousness of the economic and produce an awareness of the necessity for social change. Because Jameson abandons the critique of ideology he therefore speculates that beyond the historical specification of ideology as the way that culture becomes "an immense collection of commodities" (Marx) that acts as a "containment" of the awareness of the historicity of labor in capitalism, culture also provides the individual with a therapeutic "compensation" for a thoroughly commodified social life in the form of the "libidinal transformation" (237) of the senses:

We stressed the semi-autonomy of the fragmented senses, the new autonomy and intrinsic logic of their henceforth abstract objects such as color and pure sound; but it is precisely this new semi-autonomy and the presence of these waste products of capitalist rationalization that opens up a life space in which the opposite and the negation of such rationalization can be, at least imaginatively, experienced. The increasing abstraction of visual art thus proves not only to express the abstraction of daily life and to presuppose fragmentation and reification; it also constitutes a Utopian compensation for everything lost in the process of the development of capitalism—the place of quality in an increasingly quantified world, the place of the archaic and of feeling amid the desacralization of the market system, the place of sheer color and intensity within the grayness of measurable extension and geometrical abstraction. The perceptual is in this sense a historically new experience, which has no equivalent in older kinds of social life. (236-7)     

What Jameson is calling a utopian compensation for alienation in the experiential immediacy of the senses is really a sign of his own capitulation to the "prior textualization" of the economic imposed by the culture industry that makes imperative the folding of culture in on itself so as to bolster consumption and marginalize an awareness of culture as an arena of class struggle. In fact, in his later writings, such as Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson goes even further in proposing that "the infrastructural ... is necessarily itself already cultural" (xv), as postmodern theory claims. He argues that contemporary "experience" itself can be considered a "supreme act of nomination" which "wields a material impact and, like lightning striking from the superstructure back to the base, fuses its unlikely materials" (xiii) into new shapes that, therefore, cannot be explained in terms of the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production. Jameson, to put this differently, substitutes the immediacy of a compensatory sensuality (culture) for science (of the social totality), which, as Marx argues, is necessary to intervene in the workings of ideology from the outside so to end the regime of necessity imposed by capital.

In fact, it will be useful here to briefly situate the increasing abstraction of visual art that Jameson celebrates as "Utopian compensation" in the broader history of global capital to show the extent to which the senses are never "semi-autonomous" but conditioned by existing social arrangements. As Teresa Ebert and Mas'ud Zavarzadeh argue in their sustained analysis of capital's "cultural turns," abstract visual art became a particularly important tool for replacing realist and referential modalities (whose ideological effectivities had become exhausted in the postwar era) with anti-realist and anti-referential forms of culture, such as abstract expressionism, that were instrumental to global capital's crushing of labor militancy in the postwar era. While abstract expressionism "is often regarded to be an absolute text, a self-referring textuality with zero outside," in fact, "what is depicted as an ecstasy of sheer color is like the joy of the absolute signified in writing, an articulation of the interests of the class in supremacy, although the class affiliations are difficult to see in the sensuous rapture of the aesthetic" (Class in Culture 59). "It is held up, like anti-referential writing, as an instance of free art and, by extension, of human freedom from all that may constrain it by tying it down to an idea, a direction, or a 'cause' (which is represented as the embodiment of metaphysics)" (60), but its real goal is to demolish all causes but the cause of the market. Indeed, so important was abstract expressionism—an instance of Jameson's supposedly "compensatory" abstract aesthetic experience—to the Cold War culture of capital that Nelson Rockefeller called it "free enterprise painting" and the CIA actively funded and encouraged the international circulation of abstract expressionism as a cultural means of combating socialism (Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters; quoted in Ebert and Zavarzadeh 59). The value of such cultural forms, as Ebert and Zavarzadeh go on to explain, is deeply related to ways in which  "anti-mimetic art 'blanks' out [social] contradictions in an orgy of the singularity of signs, whose abundance of color/meanings exceeds all representations" (60). As a result, in its primary aim of keeping Thought and Concepts free from any content (keeping them "open"), abstract expressionism thus "produces a workforce for capital that is 'Thoughtfully thoughtless'—it thinks but has no ideas, thinks about thinking about Thought. Self-reflexivity is the last space left under capitalism for the subject of estranged labor" (60). The role of the indeterminate and unrepresentable—whether it takes the form of Cohen's "Absolute Other," Negri's "Passion," Arendt's cultural "Spirit," or Jameson's "Utopian"—is to blank out material contradictions and foster the cultural environment needed for frictionless capital.

The "perceptual," in short, is not, as Jameson claims, "a historically new experience" (236-37). The senses are manufactured. Culture, under capitalism, is "mere training to act as a machine" (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 501). There is nothing more impersonal and machine-like than the idea of culture as a privately "sensual" and "experiential" matter free of the logic of capital in the world of global production and the massive unmet need produced by capital. That Jameson can simultaneously acknowledge that the cultural production of the senses has an economic function through which men and women "are culturally and psychologically retrained for life in the market system" (Political Unconscious 236) and at the same time put forward the spontaneity of experience as the space of the utopian makes his defense of the senses all the more problematic.

Furthermore, the "place" where Jameson locates culture, at the site of consumption and in the immediacy of the senses, actually contradicts his own understanding of the prior textualization, or, cultural work, behind the sense-perception of the world when such work is understood in a materialist sense. When one implicates this "cultural work" in the wider division of labor it becomes possible to see that the senses are not the site of an immediacy but the site of class conflict in which immediacy serves as an ideological mystification of the historical production of the senses. Take the work of Matthew Barney, for example, which is read as a new way of seeing art in the new millennium; the New York Times has labeled Barney "the most important American artist of his generation" and celebrated his work as heralding a "new freedom" for "art in the new century" (Kimmelman). The reason for such praise is because his work is taken to be beyond ideology, or, as the Times critic puts it, it is "Free To Play and Be Gooey."  Barney's art is taken to be beyond ideology in the mainstream commentary because of its multi-media complexity—from Vaseline and self-lubricating plastic to tapioca, precious metals, sculpture, drawing, and film, as well as its cross-cultural references to Masonry, Irish nationalism, pop culture, and high art—and the way such complexity of means disrupts its narrative coherence which seems to eschew any decided content or closure (the Cremaster Cycle is among other things about the failure of gender differentiation and identity). The Cremaster Cycle represents a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) that installs a new modality of seeing that exemplifies Jameson's diagnosis of the contemporary as a crisis of metanarrative brought about by global commodification and its ceaseless production of sensual compensations. The basic commitment of the Cremaster Cycle is to reactivate metanarrative as the after-effect of conflicting binary forces and to explore how this return to the extra-discursive real challenges some of the basic assumptions of postmodernism, which argues that all the big issues that have divided masses, classes and nations in the past, such as social inequality for instance, are essentially over and attention now needs to be shifted to the local and micro-political, the space of discursive ethics and care of the self ("little-narratives"). The exhibition of the Cremaster Cycle at the Guggenheim itself marks its importance beyond the culture wars that assume that people's values are more important than class inequality. Barney was not the first recipient of the Hugo Boss award and given open access to the Guggenheim with funding in the millions of dollars by Delta Airlines because these powerful institutions believe that people's values are more important than profits, after all. Rather, for the same reasons that abstract expressionism was funded by the Museum of Modern Art and the CIA, Barney's celebrity signals his ideological usefulness for capital in a "new" age. More specifically, at a time of rising class inequality it marks the need for institutionalizing and legitimating the end of the post-al dogma which has maintained that the world has entered a new order where the conflicts and concepts of the past have lost their explanatory and transformative power and circulate as merely ghostly simulacra and vehicles of consumer desires and cultural values.  

The main trope of Barney's work is "restraint" and it is graphically represented by the barred lozenge figure that recurs again and again and stands in for the work as a whole as a kind of marketing logo. Barney's understanding of artistic production, and by implication production in general, is that it is always the product of "restraint" whether of a self imposed discipline (such as the early "drawing restraint" harnesses and strategies) or the social restraint of conventions and rituals, whose performances form such a major part of the films (especially Drawing Restraint 9, 2006). "Restraint" is what Foucault called "discipline": the organization of bodies in practices producing a proliferation of counter-practices and narrative inversions. The "way of seeing" produced by Barney's work, however, is not the product of restraint, whether understood as immanent and local as in Foucault or, as in Jameson, the end result of the rationalization of the market. Rather, "restraint" is a mode of sense-making with which to contain awareness of the social determination of culture and the senses. In other words, the need for a "total work of art" and the multiplex way of seeing it inaugurates is not necessitated by the technology of production fetishized and ritualized in Barney's films, nor is it the necessary product of the destruction of metanarratives of the contemporary caused by the triumph of the market over social life. These are superstructural effects that are treated as causes on the grounds that material causal knowledge is finally impossible now that "knowledge" has displaced labor as the source of value. In actuality, "restraint" is necessitated by the absolute dependence of labor on capital in the contemporary which has normalized the self-reproduction of the worker. It teaches the workers to see the privatization of social resources as the precondition for "self-fashioning" (acquiring an identity) and it normalizes the flexibility (precariousness) of the current labor market.

As Marx predicted, the universalization of the market has lead to the normalization of relative surplus value, through such techniques as speed-ups and micro-taylorization, over absolute surplus value, cutting wages directly or increasing working hours. This state of affairs represents the "real subsumption" of labor under capitalism in which capital takes on the costs of its own augmentation through systematic innovations, rather than as in the past when labor was only "formally" subsumed under capital through the mechanism of the market and the costs of labor were subsidized through extra-economic means (such as the welfare state). In the "global factory" the worker is totally dependent on the market and the capitalist has abandoned his role as the organizer of the production process and turned it over, highly rationalized and de-skilled, to the workers who now must manage themselves to be more productive at the risk of losing their livelihoods completely. It is the emergence of the "global worker" who is both de-skilled and central to the relative production of surplus-value that necessitates a "global art" which places a premium on complexity, multi-linguality, and a high tolerance of ambiguity and sensual immediacy such as Matthew Barney's. The modality of seeing culture as a multifarious practice of "restraint" (of a primary "gooey-ness") is to deny labor as the subject of history and normalize containment of such awareness under the guise of complexity and sheer pleasure.

In his critique of "sensuous certainty" as Feuerbach understood it, Marx was concerned to emphasize how the new ways to perceive that emerge in the development of capitalism—"the secrets which are disclosed to the eye of the physicist and chemist" (German Ideology 46)—are the product of "industry and commerce" as "[e]ven this 'pure' natural science is provided with an aim, as with its material, only through trade and industry, through the sensuous activity of men" (46). It is in this sense that, as Marx says, "[t]he senses have therefore become directly in their practice theoreticians," and, "they relate themselves to the thing for the sake of the thing, but the thing itself is an objective human relation to itself and to man, and vice-versa" (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts 300). Thus, if the senses are always a relation of production between men and women to each other and the development of this relation has reached the point where it becomes productive to experience objects in themselves (stripped of their relation to labor) according to their essential natural properties like color and form (or gooey-ness), as in modern science and art, to the point that the totality of human production itself is seen as an object (e.g., what Jameson calls a "narrative" and Barney "restraint") free of labor, this is as much to say that culture has become commodified and thus its "enjoyment and labor, production and consumption, devolve on different individuals" (Marx and Engels, German Ideology 51). To hold out a libidinal compensation in consumption in the pleasure of the senses as Jameson proposes is to conveniently forget that access to consumption is a class matter determined by one's place in production and thus acts to block access to consumption on the part of the exploited who are thereby expected as always to make do with what is required to get them to return to work the next day.

Jameson's deployment of culture as a libidinal compensation for exploitation deconceptualizes the senses and once again turns culture into a self-enclosed locality cut off from the world historicity of labor. A materialist reading of culture brings to the fore the necessity of praxis in all cultural productions: "praxis" as what Marx theorized as the materiality of labor, a "'revolutionary' ... practical-critical, activity" that in transforming the objective world transforms men ("Theses on Feuerbach" 143). For a materialist reading, culture "reflects" objective reality, especially the dialectical interaction between humanity and nature and between men and women themselves. The enclosing of culture in on itself that Jameson recognizes to be a product of capitalist rationalization and the alienation of the senses it brings about, besides being a symptom of the commodification of culture and an index of exploitation, is also a precondition for the emancipation of culture from capital. The reification of culture from the labor relations of which it is always a part and the phantom objectivity it assumes in ideology represents the moment when culture ceases to be grasped in the mode of "tradition" or "convention" and becomes the object of conscious activity. The commodification of culture coincides with the social production of culture. As the current battles over "intellectual copyright" show, the political economy of culture problematizes its privatization on the market as an article of private consumption. Contemporary culture is the combined activity of workers around the world in ways that call into question the private norms of ownership demanded by capitalism. The dominant ideology of culture has fetishized the new forms of culture such as the Internet and the global anti-corporatism and contrasts them with what is considered a hierarchal "modernist" past ruled by a linear and analogical thinking obsessed with its own identity and reproduction. But there can be no freedom from oppression without awareness of the ongoing collectivity of labor at the root of culture and the need of its emancipation from capital.

The "senses," "emotions," "passions," are not "spontaneous"—they are the product of a history of labor in production ("the senses have ... become directly in their practice theoreticians"). By positing "emotions" (passions, etc.) as independent of the history of labor, Negri and Jameson block any investigation into the theoretical (social) construction of the emotions. In short, "passions" (which is a code word for "experience") is an effect which needs to be conceptually interrogated by investigating its conditions of production (through inquiry into the social relations of production, as I am arguing) not taken as a given (i.e. as a self-motivating "cause"). By valorizing the experiential, Negri and Jameson cut off the possibility of such a conceptual reading and reify the effects of capitalism, thus limiting their theories to the terms set by the dominant "culturalist" ideology and its class politics. Culture as free of the history of production is a reified view of culture that corresponds to the interests of those who have already had their material needs met from the labor of the other. The "place" of culture in the totality does not lie in the experiences of the "heart" (sensuality) but in root knowledge (economics): "the all sided production of the whole earth" (Marx and Engels, German Ideology 59). It is only when the materiality of culture in labor relations is grasped that the "liberation of each single individual will be accomplished" (Marx and Engels 59). Jameson and Negri are participating in a more general "ethical turn" to validate the experience of workers in their celebrations of the compensatory value of culture in terms of experience. Against such a move it is necessary to return to Lenin's critique of "spontaneity," "proletarian culture," and the "artificially restricted limits of 'literature for workers'" promoted by "(bad) intellectuals [who] believe it is enough 'for workers' to be told a few things about factory conditions and to have repeated to them over and over what has long been known" (What Is To Be Done?). Against all local delimitations of culture Lenin put forward the universality of culture and the necessity of grasping and completing the thoughts and actions of the past through "critique" and thus advancing culture to its inevitable conclusion in the construction of a truly free society—communism (The Tasks of the Youth Leagues).

The dominant discursive cultural theory I have been engaging with above rejects materialist theory as bad epistemology because the materiality of labor subordinates the materiality and agency of the signifier—the formal operations of language which is understood as primary and material in poststructuralist theory and is performed as such in idealist cultural theory and consumer culture as well—to a secondary position determined by labor. The labor theory of culture is accused of supporting what de Man calls "aesthetic ideology" (Aesthetic Ideology): the collapse of the phenomenal and the real in referential representation. In these culturalist terms a materialist cultural studies is dismissed as a "mirror of production" (Baudrillard) that serves a conservative function in normalizing desire to the dominant order because it fails to liberate the signifier in whose free play are imagined radical possibilities of regime change. The attack on materialist reading, however, fails to engage with the materialist mode of reading through the relay of an epistemological ruse that displaces the question of materiality from social praxis to rhetoric, thus conflating the material with the experience of "pleasure" that is held to be the effect of the opacity of errant tropes in a text.

The lack of engagement of dominant theories of culture with the labor theory of culture can be seen when one turns to Lenin's understanding of culture as "reflection."  Lenin's understanding of culture as "reflection" is not intelligible if one only sees in it the secondary issue of epistemology, the familiar question of how a text constructs meaning through (dis)simulation at the level of its immanent formal properties. Even such an otherwise careful reader of Lenin as Pierre Macherey in his Theory of Literary Production argues that Lenin's materialist understanding of writing as "reflection" is not effective because it fails to grasp the immanent "literariness of the text" (119), which for him is a matter of how the text performs "an internal displacement of ideology" (133) that resists "all attempts to 'demystify'" (133) it from its outside. Lenin, according to Macherey, by failing to grasp the immanent function of literature "to present ideology in a non-ideological form" (133) and that a text must always "include an ideology—which by itself does not belong to it" (127), is thus a slave to the idea of historical "content" in the same way as "bourgeois criticism" (119) despite the oppositional use he makes of its concepts. But it is Macherey who in this way is reinscribing the bourgeois ideology of the literary text by placing it in a zone held to be immune from ideology critique. The understanding of "reflection" in bourgeois criticism has always done this by focusing on the means of representation as determinate to the exclusion of the function of representation in the social. For Lenin, however, "reflection" is a recognition of the working of necessity behind all acts of knowledge production in which writing too is implicated into social praxis. Writing, that is, as reflecting not the "free" consciousness of the writer, or the "excess" of "desire" as it is in culturalist theory, but rather writing as inserted into the revolutionary dialectic of the social real (the class struggle). This is a reflection without mimesis: writing "reflects" the class struggle behind culture of which writing is itself a more or less productive part and is therefore in no way to be understood as a static and transparent reflection (mimesis).

When Lenin reads Tolstoy, for example, he first emphasizes that by "reflection" he does not mean simple "mimesis," a formal operation of adequation between the codes and conventions of language conceived as a pure medium of expression, a vessel of a timeless consciousness, or, the mirror of a presumably static and inert reality:

To identify the great artist with the revolution which he has obviously failed to understand, and from which he obviously stands aloof, may at first sight seem strange and artificial. A mirror which does not reflect things correctly could hardly be called a mirror. ("Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution" 202)

Reflection, in Lenin's terms, is thus not about the "transparency" of "meaning," as Cohen for example assumes. It is about reading effects at the level of consciousness in terms of their more primary causes in an unfolding revolutionary social process or, in other words, their "historical and economic conditions" ("Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution" 208). Furthermore, Lenin recognizes that "transparency" is not the issue because what is being reflected is itself contradictory. That is to say, the historical and economic conditions themselves are conflicted such that any reflection is bound to be partial and to a certain extent distorting as it must reflect contrary class interests.

Lenin thus reads for social and ideological contradictions that militate against an ahistorical understanding of reflection as posited by (post)modern formalist reading strategies. What Lenin reads as a reflection is the way in which contradictions at the level of consciousness—between Tolstoy's "merciless criticism of capitalist exploitation," on the one hand, and "crackpot preaching of submission, 'resist not evil' with violence" ("Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution" 205), on the other—are tied to contradictions in the social relations:

The contradictions in Tolstoy's views are not contradictions inherent in his personal views alone, but are a reflection of the extremely complex, contradictory conditions, social influences and historical traditions which determined the psychology of various classes and various sections of Russian society in the post-Reform, but pre-revolutionary era. ("Leo Tolstoy" 325)

Lenin's materialist reading, as Lukács has argued, is not dependent on a naturalistic view of the text as a stylistic mode of reflecting on a reified reality, whether located in the mind or in the material world. Rather, it directs reading to the interaction of the text as a locus of ideological struggles over the social real and the conflictual reality of social struggles in ongoing material praxis whereby the "writer is part of, and determined by, the movement from and towards some goal" (Lukács 55) to which history is moving—socialism.

Contrary to the view that says a materialist cultural studies is disempowering because it reduces "agency" (the agency of consciousness, the agency of the signifier, etc.) to a secondary position, the direct opposite is true. Without the recognition of the determination of "consciousness" by objective social reality, what is called agency is really a symptom of reification, as a part of social reality is placed in the position of representing the whole of reality thus stabilizing the dominant order by protecting it from critique. It is only when the whole is grasped that agency becomes serious:

A writer's pattern of choice is a function of his personality. But personality is not in fact timeless and absolute, however it may appear to the individual consciousness. Talent and character may be innate; but the manner in which they develop, or fail to develop, depends on the writer's interaction with his environment, on his relations with other human beings. His life is part of the life of his time; no matter whether he is conscious of this, approves of it or disapproves. He is part of a larger social and historical whole. (Lukács 54)

What is this whole? It is the fact that "no writer of the past century ... has been able to ignore [the] ideological crisis of bourgeois society" (Lukács 60) and necessarily reflects this crisis in one way or another and thereby takes sides in the class struggle.

In the remainder of this essay I wish to turn to Kafka and his readers as an example of the crisis of the contemporary totality so as to make my arguments above regarding culture as a site of conflict over materiality more concrete in terms of cultural practices and addressing the question what is to be done for a transformative cultural theory. Kafka is popularly seen as the opposite of a "realistic" writer because of the attenuated view of the world in his texts and the impossibility of an authentic human response to these conditions. This view fails to read Kafka's text as reflecting on social relations because it conflates reflection with "reference" and assumes that as Kafka does not refer directly to the shape of social relations, or, indeed, any metanarrative of explanation, his texts cannot be said to be "about" social relations. The conclusion is that because Kafka's writing lacks systemic awareness of society and modalities of change it must be read in "existential" or "metaphysical" terms that are common-sensically assumed to be above politics and free of labor. However, as I will show, the labor theory of culture is needed in order to penetrate the fog of "aboutness" (reference) and uncover the necessary reflection of labor relations in the text. I argue that if class relations are absent in the narrative, this is more than a problem of reference (knowledge); it is a social problem (ideology) while classes exist. The conflation of reflection with reference that concludes class is absent in Kafka is itself a class narrative that not only provides an apologetic for inequality but also distorts the intelligibility of narratives which are not exhausted by their content, as Lenin's labor theory of reading shows in its understanding of a non-mimetic reflection. The labor theory of reading is needed to turn reading from being quietist and complicit with the dominant culturalist ideology and make it a struggle practice for social emancipation and equality.


Epilogue: Before the Law—Reading Culture Materially

Kafka's writings and their "readings" have become not only a layered cultural signpost but also a threshold in critical and cultural theory. In their analyses of Kafka, Lukács and Derrida, to take two of his most careful readers, bring out not only the complexities of his texts but also mark the the way in which the act of reading itself has become a complex and materially consequential cultural practice.[5]   

In reading Kafka's Before the Law, Derrida, with meticulous attention to the working of rhetoric in the text, makes reading the practice of teasing out the singularities that put in question all generalizations about the text, including its own laws of genre. Before the Law, he argues, is a text of "subversive juridicity" (Acts of Literature 216) that, "owing to the referential equivocation of certain linguistic structures" (216), "does not tell or describe anything but itself as text" (211) and therefore "tells us perhaps of the being-before-the-law of any text" (215)—including the law of literature that, Derrida maintains, is evident "when the categorical engages the idiomatic, as a literature always must" (213). Derrida problematizes here the law of literature (fiction) through the idiomatic in the way that the title Before the Law is both positioned "before" the "story" of the law as well as within the first sentence of the story ("Before the Law stands a doorkeeper."), a doubling that renders the identity of the literary "undecidable":

The former, the title, is before the text and remains external if not to the fiction then at least to the content of the fictional narration. The latter is also at the head of the text, before it, but already in it; this is a first internal element of the narration's fictive content. And yet, although it is outside the fictional narrative or the story that is being told, the title (Before the Law) remains a fiction ... We would say that the title belongs to literature even if its belonging has neither the structure nor the status of that which it entitles, to which it remains essentially heterogeneous. (Acts of Literature 189)

According to Derrida this doubling suggests that "the law had entitled itself" (189) in the displacement of the words "Before the Law" from its place in the fiction to the place of the title, which is supposed to be the "non-fictional" identity that, because it simply "refers" to the "story," grounds the text in the institution of Literature. The law of literature, whose "inside" is supposed to be fictional while "outside" it theory (science) and practice (politics) are not, is thus deconstructed and the text reveals a "fictive narrativity ... without author or end" (199) which is as much "the origin of literature as the origin of law" (199). Before the Law is therefore read by Derrida as a text that enacts the performative "idiomatic" basis of the general (law) by showing how the general is always dissected by the singularity of its performative iteration.

Derrida goes on to show how the law—which, as the country man assumes, "should surely be accessible at all times to everyone"—never materializes its presence because of a series of delays and deferrals. The country man, for example, only prevents himself from entering as he is not prohibited ("'It is possible,' says the doorkeeper…") so much as delayed by the "guarded" appearance of the Law and the "terrible" aspect of the doorkeeper ("in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tartar beard"). The undecidable appearance of the Law as both accessible and guarded, a prohibition which does not prohibit anything so much as perform it as the doorkeeper suggests by his own placement outside the Law because of another absent doorkeeper ("so terrible that even I cannot look at him"), reveals, according to Derrida, that the Law is in actuality a fiction as "nothing really presents itself in this appearance" (Acts of Literature 191). Rather, the appearance "fuels desire for the origin" (197). In this sense, Derrida argues, "Kafka's text tells us perhaps of the being-before-the-law of any text" (215) that "the law of the law ... is neither natural nor institutional" (205)—its origin does not lie in class oppression, for example—but that its secret is that it does not repress so much as allow "oneself [to] be enticed, provoked, and hailed by the history of this non-history" of "pure morality" (191), as the categorical command that says "you must not" (192) always just as much says "you must" (192). Derrida concludes that, if power is necessary to thinking about the law (or, as he puts it, "if the nobility is necessary" [205]), that is so only because of the desire of "the lot of 'guardians,' critics, academics, literary theorists, writers, and philosophers" (215) that depend on "the legal personality of the text" (185) as a form of property and who therefore presumably have an interest in deferring access to the "secret" of the law: that, "The secret is nothing" (205). "This is the secret that has to be kept well" (205), in Derrida's reading, in order to "fuel desire for the origin": the desire which authorizes the contemporary "system of laws and conventions" (185) as much as the desire for their subversion. But what could be more comforting to the dominant than the story that their dominance has no basis to critique and that it is merely a conventional (consensual) mode of capturing desire? Derrida's "desire-full" reading is a commodified reading that places desire beyond critique and thereby naturalizes the division of labor that systematically produces desire in opposition to need, providing the exploiters with the means to desire from the labor of others and relegating the majority to unmet needs. To read the problem of reading as a desire for proprietary rights and to propose an endless deferral of such rights as Derrida does is to install an ethical reading practice in which the individual is empowered over the collective and which thus fails to problematize the bourgeois right to exploit workers.

Derrida provides an immanent reading of Before the Law that subverts the binary of truth and fiction in order to conclude that conclusions are not only unnecessary but impossible and that any law defers us to other signifiers without end—"The work, the opus, does not belong to the field, it is the transformer of the field" (Acts of Literature 215) and "none receives an answer" in reading the cultural text "that does not involve différence: (no) more law and (no) more literature" (215). In this way Derrida underwrites the very ideology he puts in question by maintaining the fiction that law is "pure morality," a merely formal and empty universal standing outside the political economy of the contemporary real. The law of différence does what bourgeois law has always done: it provides a cover for exploitation by deferring class conscious solutions to the contradictions of class society. The placing of law under erasure in the mode of deconstruction inverts the relation of law and fiction so that law is seen as a construct of the imagination rather than fixed in some absolute sense for all and for all time. And yet such a move reinscribes through a textual relay the idealism of the law as something existing beyond material interests and the conflicts over material resources. What this means in terms of literature is that the ethics of deconstructive reading does not problematize the place of reading in the social totality even as it displaces the "fictive" drive of the text from its traditional idealist location in the author (in humanist ideology) or even the text itself (as in the New Criticism). The law of literature which places it above class is maintained by deconstruction as is the idealism which says that human inventiveness moves the world rather than social labor.

Lukács begins his materialist reading of Kafka at this very point because he reads in Kafka's style—"the attenuation of reality" in his texts—not the mark of a fictive ingenuity that problematizes the cultural real but a reflection of the "terror generated by the world of imperialist capitalism…where human beings are degraded to mere objects" (52). In Lukács' terms, to cut Kafka's style off from "its social basis" (47) is to mystify the politics of style, which is a matter of how "the social structure of imperialism" impacts on "the bourgeois intelligentsia" (73). Thus "the crucial question" posed by Kafka, Lukács argues, is

whether a man escapes from the life of his time into a realm of abstraction—it is then that angst is engendered in human consciousness—or confronts modern life determined to fight its evils and support what is good in it. The first decision leads to another: is man the helpless victim of transcendental and inexplicable forces, or is he a member of a human community in which he can play a part, however small, towards its modification or reform? (80-1)   

The task of the reader in materialist reading is thus a "critique-al" and not merely an "ethical" one: to "establish by examination of the work whether a writer's view of the world is based on the acceptance or rejection of angst, whether it involves a flight from reality or a willingness to face up to it" (Lukács 83). It is not an ethical reading because it implicates the individual in the collective struggles of the time rather than place her in an imaginative beyond where her reading is expected to carry exemplary power and which thus relegates social change to piecemeal cultural reforms that do nothing to challenge class at its root. A materialist reading thus entails asking a rather sharp question in reading the text that moves outside the bourgeois norms of reading as a private matter: whether "is it able to include—or, better, demands—a dynamic, complex, analytical rendering of social relationships, or whether it leads to loss of perspective and historicity" (82). A culturalist reading practice is designed to make such a question impossible of course because it maintains an idealist understanding of literature as autonomous from class and merely normative in its consequences. Such an understanding is itself deeply implicated in class however because it forecloses on an "other" reading: reading in terms of its materiality. Reading, that is, as part of the class struggle at the level of ideas where antagonistic social intelligibilities carry opposed material consequences in terms of engaging with the objective world.

Lukács' reading of Kafka is critique-al and dialectical. It is not a dogmatic reading in the way that deconstructive reading is because it does not assume the text as "static" and self-enclosed, spontaneously resistant to the production of "meaning" (the Law of différance). My reading of Lukács thus argues against a "formalist" interpretation of his work as providing, as Lunn puts it, a "philosophical underpinning for…socialist realism" (77). Lunn argues that because Lukács "reduced works of art (including literary techniques) to reflexes of class ideology… modernist forms such as those of expressionism were apparently tied indissolubly to late bourgeois ideological decay and thus could not be transformed to serve other purposes" (85). This view of Lukács' work, besides being another example of the fetishism of signification in culturalist theory, fails to take into account his dialectical account of literary form which militates against all formalist solutions in art for what are in actuality intractable class conflicts. Rather than imposing some set of formal prescriptions as a guarantee of a pre-determined meaning and effectivity, Lukács' materialist reading of culture grasps the meaning of the text and of literary technique as the site of conflicting class structures that militate against any singularity of meaning in a world more and more "transfer[ed] into the proletariat" (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party 494). Furthermore, his materialist cultural theory does not fetishize the way that literature must inevitably reflect the reification of social life under capitalism because, as Lukács' argues, texts carry an inevitable protest of "the diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism" (77) as well. In Kafka's case, this protest of capitalism is precisely located in the very realism of detail that Derrida sees as the "idiomatic" expression of a disavowed desire inscribed in law that is essentially "free" of history.

For example, Derrida can only see in the "terrible" aspect of the doorkeeper a trope of castration because "in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tartar beard" the doorkeeper suggests the phallus in imagery as well as effect, since in seeing him the man from the country "decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission" to enter. Yet Derrida does not see in this detail the trappings of feudalism and its symbols of rank radically out of joint with the impersonality of the Law and the abstract freedom it demands under capitalism. While the "terrible aspect" of the doorkeeper is in keeping with the extra-economic form of coercion demanded by the feudal division of labor, with which we can assume the "man from the country" is familiar, its application on the Law as he encounters it—"open, as usual" and precisely "accessible at all times and to everyone"—reflects the contradiction of the Law under capitalism in which the worker must freely submit to his own exploitation. Thus, whereas Derrida concludes that the appearance of the Law, which precisely prohibits while provoking a desire because of its categorically imperative form ("you must-/not"), thus placing the man in a position to "decide" to prohibit himself, a materialist reading finds in such self-contradictory details a trace of the "silent compulsion of economic relations" (Marx, Capital 899) that is the real "secret" of the Law under capitalism. The Law under capitalism does not need the extra-economic coercion of pre-capitalist social formations because in capitalism inequality is primarily economic not political. What the text reflects, therefore, using the terms of Lukács' materialist reading, is not a "fixed" (logical) contradiction good for all and for all time, as Derrida's deconstructive reading posits, but an historical contradiction that has unavoidable effects on representation rendering it internally inconsistent, as well as socially and personally unsettling and enabling because it places reading as praxis in the political economy of the social real.

Lukács' reading of the material real in Kafka is the opposite of Derrida's non-reading of the real as displaced desire. For Lukács:

Kafka is one of the very few modernist writers whose attitude to detail is selective, not naturalistic. Formally, his treatment of detail is not dissimilar to that of a realist. The difference becomes apparent only when we examine his basic commitment, the principles determining the selection and sequence of detail. With Kafka these principles are his belief in a transcendental force (Nothingness)…But the problem cannot be approached formalistically. There are great realistic writers in whose works immediate social and historical reality is transcended, where realism in detail is based on a belief in a supernatural world…In Hoffmann, realism in detail goes hand in hand with a belief in the spectral nature of reality…Kafka is more secular than Hoffman. His ghosts belong to everyday bourgeois life; and since this life itself is unreal, there is no need of supernatural ghosts…But the unity of the world is broken up, since an essentially subjective vision is identified with reality itself. The terror generated by the world of imperialist capitalism…where human beings are degraded to mere objects—this fear, originally a subjective experience, becomes an objective entity. (53)

Lukács is here implicating a deconstructive reading which assumes that "extreme subjectivism, the static nature of reality, and the senselessness of its surface phenomenon, are absolute truths requiring no proof" (72) by revealing the class basis of this view as "a certain way of looking at reality" (73) that does not see "what goal history is moving" toward (59) due to the "strong counter forces" (91) at work in the world that are productive of social collectivity. In other words, what are usually taken to be the signs of fictive and metaphysical agency at work in Kafka are actually necessary effects at the level of consciousness of a material process at work that makes us aware of the class basis of the world. By implicating the "fictive" agency of the signifier and literary form in the material social relations in this way a materialist reading recovers the agency of culture as the praxis of social change.

"Kafka" is a cultural sign of the logic of reification in capitalism—what has already been theorized above as the immanent culturalism of the dominant discourses. Before the Law follows a (post)modern culturalist logic by surfacing the contradictions of daily life under monopoly capitalism and mystifying any causal systemic explanation for them. Derrida limits the materiality of Kafka's text to epistemological terms by only seeing in its details an "idiomatic" implication of the concept of the general (law). What the spectral reading of Kafka is blind to and what materialist reading emphasizes however is its textual "protest" of the system of monopoly capitalism which transforms daily life into a regimented life regulated by the logic of the commodity (exchange value)—culture as "mere training to act like a machine" (Marx and Engels). In the spectrality of its details, Before the Law registers the fact that capitalism as it develops must alienate all social activity and productions to serve the rule of profit so that nothing in the end is able to remain a local and self-enclosed activity but rather entails an invisible global system for its production. The fetishism of detail in Kafka is in reaction to this impersonal machinery that has overtaken the social relations which holds out hope in the sensual and that also implicates literature in the global historicity of production. However, materialist reading does not idealize the "protest" embedded in Kafka's text as it is finally merely cultural in its assumptions and effects. Kafka's works presuppose a kind of bureaucratic reason run amok—where even those institutions which are supposed to provide a space of freedom from the market for the subject (such as the family, romantic love, the law, etc.) are themselves reproducing the dominant logic—that finds its negation in a voluntary leap into "absurdity," an existential act of empty negation that puts a seal of condemnation of the system as a whole—"inhuman" ("since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.'"). What Kafka represents is the systematicity of commodity fetishism in daily life, which is an index of the universalization of social production. What he does not show is the equally systemic negation of this logic in the production of the collectivity of labor, the material force that has produced and is alone in a position to control the "machine."

The one-sided presentation of the socialization of production in Kafka has effects on the understanding of "reflection" in materialist cultural theory. On Lukács' reading, Kafka capitulates to the general process of reification necessitated by extension of the logic of capital over more and more areas of social life, which as a consequence turns literature from being a force for change to one of reaction by strengthening the grip of necessity over cultural productions. For Lukács the role of literature is to "de-reify" the social and, "demand…a dynamic, complex, analytical rendering of social relationships" that can guide humanity in its struggles toward a realm of freedom. On Lenin's terms, however, this means that culture is expected to have a realistic "mimetic" function rather than an ideologically "reflective" one because it assumes that "consciousness" can take the place of collective praxis as the agency of social change. Social relations cannot be "de-reified" in consciousness while classes continue to exist. The socialization of consciousness can only assume a class basis under capitalism and every representation of social relations and the relationship of humanity to nature until then is necessarily class divided, supporting either bourgeois or proletarian interests. For a materialist cultural theory to advance the cause of social equality it must base itself on a labor theory of culture or risk reifying materiality and falling into a merely pragmatic understanding of culture that works within the dominant terms that construct the naturalness of the cultural real rather than challenge these terms with the root knowledge of class.


[1] In the post-war period up to 1980 the value composition of fixed capital (that is, capital invested in raw materials, plant and equipment that is necessary to set labor in motion) rose by over 77 percent, seeing the biggest rise in the mid-70s, and the rate of profit fell by a third, according to the US Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Statistics (Shaikh and Tonak, Measuring the Wealth of Nations). According to Shaikh and Tonak, corporate profits to corporate net stock fell 13 percent between 1969-73, from 11-15 percent to between 8.8 and 11 percent. It has since only risen to about 9.4 percent in 1996 (Measuring the Wealth of Nations 12).

[2] As Christopher Caudwell explains, poetry is economic as the poem, "project[s] man into a world of phantasy which is superior to his present reality precisely because it is a world of superior reality – a world of more important reality not yet realized, whose realization demands the very poetry which phantastically anticipates it… [F]or the poem proposes something whose very reason for poetical treatment is that we cannot touch, smell or taste it yet. But only by means of this illusion can be brought into being a reality which would not otherwise exist" (37).

[3] Derrida's "linguistic turn" in philosophy is widely seen as necessitated by an historical break, as he himself has stated: "never as much as at the present has it [the problem of language] invaded, as such, the global horizon" (Of Grammatology 6). A "peculiarity of our epoch," he alludes, which occurs at precisely the same "moment when the phoneticization of writing ... begins to lay hold on world culture" (4).

[4] Even "poetry," as George Thomson explains, which historically has been the most non-mimetic of the cultural arts, produces "a closer communion of imaginative sympathy" (Marxism 23), which as much as it may express a "weakness in the face of nature" (24), yet "succeed[s] to some extent in overcoming it" (24) to the extent that it serves to focus on and to clarify the "subjective aspect" (29) of labor, that is, "the inner, psychical struggle" (29) labor produces in the worker.

[5] In this epilogue I will investigate these readings using Kafka's Before the Law, which I reproduce here.



Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. "It is possible," says the doorkeeper, "but not at the moment." Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: "If you are so drawn to it, 'just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him." These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tartar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper by his importunity. The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions about his home and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords put them, and always finish with the statement that he cannot be let in yet. The man, who has furnished himself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts everything, but always with the remark: "I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything." During these many years the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He forgets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing access to the Law. He curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly; later, as he grows old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and since in his yearlong contemplation of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs the flea ' s as well to help him and to change the doorkeeper's mind. At length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law. Now he has not very long to live. Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a question he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low toward him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man's disadvantage. "What do you want to know now?" asks the doorkeeper; "you are insatiable." "Everyone strives to reach the Law," says the man, "so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?" The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and, to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it." 

(Translation of Franz Kafka, "Before the Law" in Wedding Preparations in the Country and Other Stories, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978).

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THE RED CRITIQUE 13 (Fall/Winter 2008)