The Imperial Eye: Textualist Visuality and Class

Kimberly DeFazio


Sofia Coppola's film Lost in Translation (2003) thematizes the city as the sublime space of seeing in an age of global cultural flows. In the film, Tokyo is the highly visualized foreground in which the main characters, two reluctant American visitors, meet and share a brief and rather eventless week trying to escape their insomnia and boredom in a primarily visual encounter with the city and its cultural forms.  The film luxuriates unfamiliarly in numerous long shots of familiar objects of city life—restaurants, markets, clubs, congested sidewalks, and especially the electric commercial signs that outline city streets—both from above, as from a hotel window dozens of floors up, and below, as through the windows of a cab driving through crowded streets, often in slow motion, accentuating the density of the global urban marketplace. Perhaps more significantly, though, we not only see images of the city but are witness to the characters seeing these views. The main characters are not only objects of the film viewer's gaze, in other words; they are situated as primarily visual subjects of our gaze: subjects who navigate the city visually, and before whom everything becomes an excessive cultural form over which to linger visually and get "lost."  Each shot seems to want to encourage its viewers to accept the fact that, as Mieke Bal argues, "[w]henever events are presented, they are presented from within a certain 'vision'" (42).  That is to say, the film asks the viewer to recognize that the city is never seen by an "objective" viewer, because "[o]ne might try to give an 'objective' picture of the facts.  But what does this involve?   An attempt to present in some new way no more than what is seen or perceived" (42).  The film suggests that as much as seeing mediates our relation to the world, we have only partial views, or locally situated seeing, which is the only available way to navigate the complexity of the transnational city and its ephemeral cultural forms. 

Lost in Translation reflects a wider set of assumptions in visual culture that posit contemporary culture as unleashed from the underlying structure of wage labor and as implicated instead in an infinite series of overdetermined relations that exceed class.  On the one hand, the film is an index not only of the ways in which culture is the dominant frame of reference—it is, to be more precise, in many ways a textualized culture.  It is a theory of culture deeply informed by what Stuart Hall characterized as the "culturalist" paradigm of cultural studies, which, in contrast to structuralist theory, "restores the decentered subject" (70), through the lens of "discourse theory."  Which is another way of saying that the film inscribes a reflexivity which posits everyday visual culture as fundamentally excessive and unavailable to reliable knowing.  On the other hand, the film updates the assumptions of discourse theory,  insofar as it rejects knowing the city as knowing its fundamental relations from which comes the knowledge of transformation, but also, in a signal of the broader shift toward the sensuous in cultural theory, puts in place of knowing a heavily aestheticized feeling for surfaces and localities and thereby "restores" the "decentered subject" as the sovereign consumer.  In this highly seductive image of capital, which ultimately provides an enchanting epicurian cover for the brutal binaries of global capital, the new social agents are (visual) consumers whose central agency lies in the aesthetics of the singular: the differential desires activated by deeply specific tastes.  The exemplary subject of visual culture is one for whom the cultural—the sphere of lived experiences that are the product of wage labor—becomes a spectacle of the senses.  Consequently, the spectator of new cultural forms "is more of a sensualist than a 'reader' or 'interpreter'": "a seeker after unbridled visual delight" (Darley 169).

Visual culture, in this regard, is part of the broader movement aimed at substituting sensuousness for science (positive and reliable knowledge of the material world) and dislocating the individual from the structures of determination in which she is located by re-situating her as a consuming subject: precisely the subject (whose "sensuous" desires are to be met in the marketplace) needed by capital to manage its crisis of overproduction.  That is to say, the enormous productive capacity of global capital has led to a superfluidity of products, necessitating the cultivation of a cultural and "sensory" climate in which shopping and spending are ways of life (even when the consumer does not need the products consumed and requires credit to purchase products).  Visual culture cultivates sensuous subjectivities that, in their attention to the lived experience of the everyday, are highly attuned to the market and the newest fads and styles.

The emphasis on the visual subject of sensuality is perhaps most influentially theorized by Nicolas Mirzoeff, who explains in his Introduction to Visual Culture that new ways of thinking about visual culture direct "attention away from the structured, formal viewing settings," for instance of cinemas and art galleries, "to the centrality of visual experience in everyday life" (7).  In fact, Mirzoeff suggests that the problem with modes of contemporary theory that continue to be informed by structuralist paradigms—that is, paradigms which locate the individual and his or her visual experience as effects of broader series of social relations—is that they ignore "the sensual immediacy" of the visual.  In other words, they ignore what Mirzoeff refers to as the "surplus of experience" that he equates with the "sublime" (16).  The sublime is that (code) name for the irreducible aesthetic experience that sanctifies the individual as a (bourgeois) individual with distinct and unique tastes and desires.  I leave aside for now the ways in which the turn to affect and the senses is at the same time a return to the pre-theoretical subject that was itself the earlier subject of deconstructive critique. What I want to emphasize here is that foregrounding sensual specificity and sublimity has, not surprising, led theorists in the field of visual studies to insist that, although they need to address the "social" aspects of the visual (because they seem quite aware that otherwise the emphasis on the aesthetic comes dangerously close to justifying the very experiencial discourses that had been critiqued throughout the 1970s and 80s for being complicit with power), they should do so in a way that "check[s] the slide into older 'productionist' models which limit the view of practices of meaning and cultural construction to manifestations of determining and logically prior events at the level of the economic" (Evans and Hall, Visual Culture: The Reader 3).  This is another way of saying that at stake in the valorization of the sensuous subject is the abandonment of materialist visuality—for which perception, like consciousness, is determined by the social relations of production—and the consequent inability to understand and transform the relations of capital which shape the perceptible world. 

Materialist visuality, for which Marx provides a philosophical foundation in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, is based on the premise that, "not only the five senses but also the so-called mental senses, the practical senses (will, love, etc.), in a word, human sense, the human sense of the senses, comes to be by virtue of its object, by virtue of humanised nature," by which Marx means that "[t]he forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present" (301-02).  Contemporary theories of visuality, while tacitly accepting the "social" (by which they mean "cultural") construction of the senses, are ultimately opposed to materialist visuality because materialist theory locates the existing ways of seeing—as well as the subjects and objects of vision—in the unfolding relations of labor. Materialist visuality suggests that "seeing" in a way that reinscribes the isolated and distinct subject of the sublime is neither "natural" nor purely a cultural phenomenon, but reflects the private property relations on the basis of which the vast majority of the population, being alienated from the means of production, are also alienated from the products of their labor, and as a result from themselves and other members of society, while a few privately appropriate the surplus value produced by the majority.   Under these alienating and exploitative conditions, Marx argues, the senses are more "egotistical" than "human" (that is, they foreground the specificity and individuality of experience) because the world the senses reflect in the human subject is an alienating world, prioritizing private profit over social need (300).  To say, then, that "seeing" today involves "sensual immediacy," far from testifying to an empowering new shift in social relations, reflects the fact that in class societies, the senses are, as Marx argues, radically "restricted" (302).  And not simply by ("structuralist") ways of thinking but by the actual material relations in which people live.  This, consequently, is one of the central issues at stake in the rejection of materialist visuality by contemporary visual theory, which valorizes changes in feeling (culture) over changes in the social relations of production:  while for culturalists, change is limited to the superstructural changes capital itself requires, for materialists, since consciousness and the senses are mediated extensions of material relations, the transformation of capital is necessary "to make man's sense human, as well as to create the human sense corresponding to the entire wealth of human and natural substance" (302)—that is, to make accessible to all people the experiences of the wealth of the achievements brought about by the collectivity of labor.

Perhaps no theorist has done more to "check the slide into older productionist models," however, than Derrida, who has developed one of the most rigorous and sophisticated arguments for the irreducible singularity of cultural practices, and his influence within visual culture and cultural theory more broadly remains profound.  Derrida's writing has been at the center of the broader textualist decentering of the materialist theory of the outside—the relations of production that shape cultural practices, or what Evans and Hall re-write as the "logically prior events at the level of the economic" (and in doing so turn the economic into a heuristic device).  By textualizing production, treating it as a discursive trope subject to the laws of différance, Derrida has, on the one hand, turned the material outside of capital into an endlessly shifting signifier unable to serve as a reliable analytical ground for understanding the social and, on the other, treated as nostalgic holdovers of logocentric thought all efforts to theorize the material basis of production as foundational in social life. And, of course, one of the main appeals of this double-move is its displacement of Marxism in highly sophisticated philosophical terms (terms which focus primarily on matters of epistemology and representation, and in particular what is constructed as the simplistic "mimeticism" of Marxism and its theoretically "violent" reductiveness) rather than in the more heavy-handed discourses of crude anti-communism.  Thus, although it has become a cliché to say that theory is dead and with it the value of Derrida's writing which pioneered what is assumed to be "theory,"[1] so much do Derrida's writings shape the common sense of "theory" that, as a writer puts it in a recent special issue of Mosaic devoted to Derrida, "I would like to suggest that now may really be the time to be 'following Derrida'" (Naas 3).  It is in this context that Irit Rogoff argues for "a field of vision version of Derrida's concept of différance" (24-5), which uncovers "the free play of the signifier" and which establishes visual culture as "provid[ing] the visual articulation of the continuous displacement of meaning in the field of vision and the visible" (25). 

In this essay I re-read Derrida's textualist visuality and argue that the "free play" and "freedom" celebrated by Rogoff and others is an inversion of the material relations of global capital.  The expansion of global capital in the North and the South has meant the ever deepening dependence of the majority of the world's population on the relations of wage-labor—their material un-freedom—while a privileged few in the North have waged a relentless assault on labor in the accumulation of ever vaster amounts of surplus value. The subject of free play is the subject of capital, for whom private property relations have required more flexible notions of subject and object since the late 1960s and 1970s. Textualist visuality, as I will explain, has been one of the most effective ways of recasting the relation between subject and object in a world increasingly dominated by visual culture because of the way it renders the visual subject a subject of desire (of lack) and the visual object "unmasterable," through the development of a complex mode of neoformalism.  This neoformalism, with its expansion of the object of vision into a proliferating and indefinitely open field of textuality, justifies the relations of unfettered neoliberalism by opening (rendering limitless) the commodity for global production.  In this context, re-reading Derrida is important because—despite the growing wave of criticism of deconstruction (which for the most part does not ultimately break from its fundamental assumptions about the irreducibility of the social to class)—it is not just the emphasis on "language" that limits his analysis of the contemporary.  It is, rather, the (idealist) way in which his theory of language becomes a vehicle for the dismantling of knowledges necessary to grasp the roots of society in the social relations of production.



The visual subject of free play, like Derrida's theories themselves, is the outcome of the wider displacement of the subject of knowledge implicit in the Cartesian visual subject.  Enlightenment thought has been closely identified with vision, and especially clarity of vision.  In fact, "[t]he development of Western philosophy cannot be understood," Martin Jay observes in Downcast Eyes, "without attending to its habitual dependence on visual metaphors of one sort or another.  From the shadows playing on the wall of Plato's cave and Augustine's praise of the divine light to Descartes' ideas available to a 'steadfast mental gaze' and the Enlightenment's faith in the data of our senses, the ocularcentric underpinnings of our philosophical tradition have been undeniably pervasive" (186-87).  In contemporary visual culture, what is often stressed with regard to Enlightenment regimes of ocularcentric visuality is the way that such thinkers as Descartes had posited vision as a transparent process by which the subject comes to know the world, hence seeing becomes a metaphor for knowing. For instance, critics point out that Descartes believed that sight was "the noblest and most comprehensive of the senses" ("Optics"), according it a central place in the scientific study of the natural world and its laws.  Science would on these terms progressively bring the "invisible" laws of nature into the domain of the visible and the knowable.  This was presumed possible because, as Nicholas Pastore explains, for Descartes, sense perception "should convey correct information of the characters of external objects" (21).  Which is another way of saying that perception "represents" reality, according to classical thought; reality is accessed through the subject's unmediated relation to the world.  Thus, by seeing the world one can establish the truth (meaning) of the world: to see is to know. Within this framework, contemporary theorists have stressed, language is simply the transparent medium through which the truth of perception and cognition is represented.

At issue for contemporary theorists of vision, then, is the way that in the Cartesian economy of vision, the "world out there" exists, not as an effect of changing signifying practices, but as a static, pre-existing entity, reliable knowledge of which is created in the subject. As a result, contemporary theorists emphasize, the Cartesian paradigm posits a fundamental binary between subject and object of vision, according to which the subject of vision can gain mastery over the object of vision, a mastery which is finally illusory however as it must remain blind to the function of language in mediating the subject/object relation.  It is in this sense that theorists such as Jay and Paul Ricoeur regard Descartes' view of the world as being a "sovereign gaze" predicated upon an independent all-seeing, all-knowing subject: someone powerful in his certainty and certain in his power over the object of knowledge. As Ricoeur writes in The Conflicts of Interpretation, in Cartesian visuality, "the whole of objectivity is spread out like a spectacle on which the cogito casts its sovereign gaze" (236). 

What is at stake in the textualist reading of Descartes (and "theoria" as "visual") is thus the analogy of sight as granting a "clear and distinct perspective" on the world and not "vision" as a perceptual datum as such.  After all, Descartes and even empiricists such as Locke are, at various moments, critical of perception as giving an accurate picture of the world.   But contemporary theory is not primarily concerned that Enlightenment thinkers allowed for the existence of error and misjudgement.  What concerns contemporary theorists is the fact that Enlightenment scientists believed, at all, that science can potentially overcome perceptual errors and arrive at objective knowledge.  This is what Stanley Fish emphasizes when he writes about Francis Bacon in his recent defense of deconstruction in the New York Times:  "Bacon hopes" that by adopting "the method of induction which mandates very slow, small, experimental steps" and which requires that "no proposition is to be accepted until it has survived the test of negative examples brought in to invalidate it," that the "'entire work of the understanding' will be 'commenced afresh.'"  In other words, that he will be able to arrive at scientific truth.  "To this hope," Fish continues, "French theory (and much thought that precedes it) says 'forget about it,'" because "the distinctions that define the task — the 'I,' the world, and the forms of description or signification that will be used to join them — are not independent of one another in a way that would make the task conceivable, never mind doable." In short, the  "'I' or subject, rather than being the free-standing originator and master of its own thoughts and perceptions, is a space traversed and constituted — given a transitory, ever-shifting shape — by ideas, vocabularies, schemes, models, distinctions that precede it, fill it and give it (textual) being" ("French Theory").

As Fish's arguments make clear, however, the deconstructionist critique is not simply a rejection of knowledge per se, but a critique of a particular mode of knowledge: the materialist theory that argues that the objective world not only shapes all aspects of social life but that objective knowledge of that world can be known through scientific analysis.  For the materialist analysis of what lies outside and thereby constitutes the subject (production), Fish substitutes the constantly shifting local and specific linguistic and cultural frames of reference that make both the subject and object of knowledge so unstable and unreliable as to make objective knowledge impossible.  Similarly, contemporary theory, which is deeply influenced by textualism, does not so much displace the Western association of vision and knowledge—it simply substitutes a new kind of knowledge for scientific and rational knowledge: a culturalist theory of specificity and indeterminacy. The main point here is that the goal of textualism in critiquing rationalism and empiricism is not so much a critique of the limits of experience as it is getting rid of any grasping of the outside.  It is this—the existence of an independent world external yet potentially knowable by the subject—that is the main target of dominant theories of visuality. 



In this regard, poststructuralist assumptions about language have very significant implications for re-understanding vision.  Derrida's Truth in Painting is exemplary here.  One of Derrida's main projects is the deconstruction of the Western paradigm of artistic truth, or what he refers to as "the heritage of the great philosophies of art which still dominate this whole problematic, above all those of Kant, Hegel, and, in another respect, that of Heidegger" (9).  Within this framework, Derrida writes, art in general becomes "an object in which one claims to distinguish an inner meaning, the invariant, and a multiplicity of external variations through which, as through so many veils, one would try to see or restore the true, full, originary meaning: one, naked.  Or again, in an analogous gesture, by asking what art means (to say), one submits the mark 'art' to a very determined regime of interpretation which has supervened in history" (22).  This supervening western philosophy of art claims to restore Truth through the act of seeing and is thus metaphysical.  It assigns art objects an invariable "essence," knowledge of which it is the task of philosophy to determine and "restore" or "restitute" beneath the various "veils" of inessential nonmeaning.  It seeks, in other words, to find a meaning beyond the form, beyond the outward appearance of the object. 

It is precisely the restoration of essence that Derrida's analysis opens up to question and ambiguity, asking whether or not there is anything at all (anything essential) to "restore" beyond the "form" (that is, the form in which meaning is conveyed and received), and whether the "form" itself is ever finally knowable.  In "Restitutions of the truth in pointing [pointure]," for instance,  Derrida deconstructs the "very determined regime of interpretation" which assigns art an invariable "essence" beneath the various "veils" of inessential nonmeaning through a close reading of two established interpretations of Van Gogh's painting(s) of shoes.  The focus of his inquiry is the exchange between art historian Meyer Shapiro and Heidegger.  In "Origin of the Work of Art," Heidegger had written that the shoes in Van Gogh's painting were "peasant shoes," specifically the shoes of a peasant woman (158-62).   Shapiro, in "The Still Life as a Personal Object," responds to this claim, insisting instead that Heidegger is (falsely) "projecting" his own rural identifications onto the work of Van Gogh.  Far from being the shoes of someone else (let alone a peasant or a woman), Shapiro counters, the shoes are the representation of the shoes of Van Gogh himself.  Moreover, he goes on to claim, at the time he painted the shoes, Van Gogh was a man of the "city," not the "country." (He was not, in other words, a peasant, thus the shoes he represented—his shoes—could not be peasant shoes.)

Derrida engages the "correspondence" of these two writers, and, like all of Derrida's readings, this text highlights the "doubleness" of the concept of correspondence, as both Shapiro and Heidegger's exchange through letters and the theoretical problematic that informs their opposed positions (despite the apparent differences between them). The "sameness" beneath the apparent difference is founded on the fact that both Shapiro and Heidegger seek, in viewing the object of art, to establish (with un-self-reflexive certainty) the meaning of the painting, by appeal to the identity of the owner of the shoes—the peasant in the case of Heidegger and Van Gogh in the case of Shapiro.  They appeal, that is, to something that exists outside the "frame" of the painting that the painting is presumed to mimetically represent, and to which it is the role of the viewer to "restore": to give it what is "owed" (its "truth").   For Derrida, the outside of the "frame" is an effect of the inside, which he stresses through his deployment of the concept of the "parergon," which is "[n]either simply outside or simply inside" (54), but a "supplement" (55).   And the supplement, as he argues in Of Grammatology is that which both "adds itself" as a surplus and is a "substitute" or site of an absence (144).  The supplement, in other words, exposes the lack at the center of all thinking, since "whether it adds or substitutes itself, the supplement is exterior, outside of the positivity to which it is super-added, alien to that which, in order to be replaced by it, must be other than it" (145).  Thus for Derrida the "exterior" supplement is always the sign of deferred and delayed presence.  In this, the outside is incorporated into the inside such that there is an endless play between meaning and its referent.  What follows from Derrida's supplemental readings, which are deployed in all of his writings, is that language doesn't refer to anything outside itself, only the process of signification. 

Derrida undoes the seemingly self-evident assumptions behind both theorists' viewing of Van Gogh's shoes by introducing various supplements into the viewing of "art." He demonstrates that the "meaning" of the painting of shoes owes its existence neither to the owner of the shoes (to whom Shapiro wants to return them) nor to the things themselves (which Heidegger sees as the manifestation of Being), but to a series of assumptions that are haunted by a lack, or a supplement.  For instance, not only is it not at all clear whether Shapiro and Heidegger (and Derrida for that matter) are looking at the same painting, since Van Gogh  painted multiple canvases in which similar shoes were the subject matter, and often they were given the same title.  That is to say, not only is the "referent" of the exchange uncertain because it is plural. Even the meaning of "pair" of shoes (which both Shapiro and Heidegger "see" in the painting and believe represent something "outside" it, a reliable referent) is indeterminate.  What, after all, is a "pair"?  "[N]othing proves that they form a pair," Derrida writes (277).  For instance, "two shoes for the same foot are more the double of each other but this double simultaneously fudges both pair and identity, forbids complementarity, paralyzes directionality, causes things to squint toward the devil" (my emphasis; 278). A pair, to put this differently, is premised on the "identity" of two shoes; yet this identity itself presupposes difference, the difference of a left and right foot.  It is premised on the potential existence of two of the same.  That a "pair" could just as easily—and in fact, Derrida suggests, more "commonsensically" though less practically, less "wear"-ably—be two shoes for the same foot as two shoes for two different feet renders "pair" a site of slippage, calling into question the painting's ability to representationally "stand in" for something else (such as a "pair" of "peasant" "shoes," or a "pair" of "city dweller" "shoes").  Not only is the owner of the shoes in doubt—but so is every signifier to which one might appeal in making sense of the painting.  There is, in short, "a certain essential indeterminacy [that] forms part of our problem which is also the problem of the title and the discourse produced (for example by the author) on the subject of the picture" (296).

"Squinting" thus becomes a playful yet exemplary trope for the destabilization of epistemological clarity and mimesis: a metaphor for the experience of uncertainty and indeterminacy rather than mastery.  To squint of course is to look obliquely, or askance: to look in such a way that something comes into focus more sharply at the expense of the clarity of other objects in the visual field.  In squinting, the closer one looks, the more blurry boundaries become.  It makes things simultaneously clear and unclear. "Squinting toward the devil" becomes a code for disruption, rather than aesthetic order, for the destabilization of formal properties rather than their policing.  It is a mode of (not) seeing which undermines logocentric thought.  Within the framework of textuality, no matter how much one stares, no matter how closely one looks, the effects will always already be those of a near-sighted, fuzzy, or partial knowledge. Derrida thus writes: 

I did not say, like Heidegger, they are peasant shoes, but against him: nothing proves that they are peasant shoes (Schapiro's only incontestable proposition, in my view); and I did not say, like Schapiro, they are the shoes of a city dweller and even of Van Gogh, but against him: nothing proves or can prove that "they are the shoes of the artist, by that time a man of the town and city."  Each time you read "they are clearly…," "this is clearly…,"  "are evidently …," it does not signify that it is clear or evident, very much the contrary, but that it is necessary to deny the intrinsic obscurity of the thing, its essential crypt, and that its necessary to make us believe that it is clear quite simply because the proof will always be lacking.  (364)

Objects of vision, rather than containing an essential truth, betray an "intrinsic obscurity" that is masked, Derrida suggests, by Shapiro's obsession with (conceptual) "clarity."  Like all textual tropes (Cartesian) "clarity" is tied to "unclarity"; it is laced with a lack which prevents it from ever being able to bring truth to presence, or to establish "proof."  Derrida, in short, displaces the clarity of the Cartesian and empiricist gaze with the opacity of the textualist squint. 

In his short book Illustration: Essays in Art and Culture, J. Hillis Miller makes even more explicit the argument for the (textual) indeterminacy of images, or what Derrida above calls their "essential crypt." For Miller, like the reading of texts, the reading of images—which has become an increasingly important matter in what he refers to, in a re-appropriation of Benjamin's famous essay, "the age of digital reproduction"—involves revealing "the irreducible heterogeneity of works of art" (151).  According to Miller, this is most effectively accomplished by a "rhetorical reading of works of art in any medium in order to identify what is different in each" (151).  The "heterogeneity" of culture has little to do, he says, with "the historical, economic, technical, class and gender contexts of the works" (151).  These are the contexts which he suggests cultural studies has problematically privileged as reliable, self-identical grounds for art works' meaning.  Instead, heterogeneity results from "constraints on the way signs work" (151).  Constraints, in other words, which preclude unmediated access to anything outside language and thus trouble every attempt to establish a determinate boundary between a work and its context, or between one cultural artifact and another, since each expression is haunted by its other (a difference within). Echoing the logic of the "squint," Miller suggests that to see is to experience that "Illustrations [textual and visual] are always falsifying abstractions from the ungraspable idea they never adequately bring into the open.  What they bring to light they also hide…[T]hey leave the idea still out of sight, grimly reposing in the dark" (150).  No illustration can ever adequately express a work's true meaning, because the textual operations of language always prevent Truth from arriving—something that becomes for him particularly (if not ironically) "illustrative" in the paintings of such artists as J. M. W. Turner, before whose work one catches "a glimpse, though only a fleeting one, a glimpse that is not really a glimpse, of the materiality behind or beneath both image and word" (149).  A glimpse, in other words, of the excessiveness of all forms.

Whether squinting or glimpsing, central to poststructuralism's re-writing of sight is the way it epistemologically troubles the "immediacy" of vision.  Drawing attention to the textuality of visual meaning, Derrida asks, "Are we reading?  Are we looking?" (326).  That is to say, the binary between "perception" and "conception" collapses, since looking never involves the pure act of abstracting the essence of an object; looking rather, is always "contaminated" by linguistic and cultural mediations that undermine our ability to determine the meaning of visual objects, due to the slippages of signification.  Attention to textuality, as Bill Readings suggests, "renders vision opaque, an opacity that allows us to see (by virtue of its resistance to perception) the mediated quality of perception itself.   Nothing more (is) obvious" ("How Obvious is Art?"145).  Indeed, following this logic, Readings goes so far as to argue that "Mediation now marks the essential nature of perception, as vision and textuality are fused under the common aegis of the sign" (146), thus suggesting that seeing is inherently bound up in textual opacities (that are, however, irreducible to the social relations of production which in fact shape them).

On one hand, then, textualism is an explicit critique of empiricism and its illusions of unmediated perception.  That is, it demonstrates the ways in which "physical" or "empirical" reality is made intelligible (i.e., made socially significant) through social signifying systems. It is language that turns the sensory data into the (social) "real." The meaning of one's "experience," poststructuralist theory argues, is neither essentially true nor purely subjective but conditioned by the codes and conventions of a society's language. 

On the other hand, however, the question of what mediates the cultural and linguistic codes themselves becomes a non-question for Derrida, since textualism brackets the cultural and the textual from the relations of production which produce the cultural and the textual.  Indeed, the effort to establish the economic "outside" of culture which conditions the linguistic and cultural codes of a given society at a particular historical moment becomes, in textualist discourse, a residual logocentric will to power.  Derrida makes this quite clear when he argues that the illusion of the unmediated nature of experience is fostered by

that other (secret) police, which, on the pretext of delivering you from the chains of writing and reading (chains which are always, illiterately, reduced to the alphabet), hastily lock you up in a supposed outside of the text: the pre-text of perception, of living speech, of bare hands, of living creation, of real history, etc. Pretext indeed to bash on with the most hackneyed, crude, and tired of discourses.   (326) 

On  these terms, then, any discussion of the outside of language is a metaphysical claim.  In making such a claim, Derrida equates materialism and empiricism, in order to get rid of any attempt to establish an outside to textuality.

However, what this reduction erases is the fundamental difference between the empiricist "outside"—which is the world of (unmediated) facts—and the materialist "outside"—which is the densely mediated outside of labor relations.  Whereas empiricism treats the empirical world (its concreteness) as given, materialism understands the concrete as "the concentration of many determinations" (Marx, Grundrisse 101).  On these terms, the complexity of the concrete is its manifestation of a totality of social relations, an effect, which is not explainable on the basis of the immediacy of perception, but needs to be explained, through the mediations of theory, in relation to its material roots. The reduction of materialism to empiricism is of course a means both of representing materialism as incapable of addressing cultural "mediations" (and thus ignoring, for example, Marx's labor theory of the visual or Lenin's non-mimetic theory of reflection in his writings on Tolstoy[2]) and of displacing the need to examine the class relations within which cultural mediations develop and the ends toward which cultural mediations are put.

Moreover, the argument that "objects" of sight are inherently complex, slippery and unknowable does not in fact take us very far beyond the classical theories of the object of vision.  If, as the textualist representation of Descartes and Locke emphasizes, knowledge is seen as inherent in the thing itself, and, as a result, that "thing" is conceptualized as static and unitary—as unchangeable—then poststructuralism simply posits slippage (not textual unity or transparency) as a function of forms themselves.  Poststructuralism remains based on the assumption that, as Derrida argues in Memories for Paul de Man, "there is always already deconstruction at work in works… Deconstruction cannot be applied, after the fact and from the outside, as a technical instrument of modernity.  Texts deconstruct themselves by themselves, it is enough to recall it or to recall them to oneself" (123). Or, as J. Hillis Miller insists, "Deconstruction is not a dismantling of the structure of a text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself" ("Stevens' Rock" 341).

Poststructuralism, then, ends up reversing the main terms of classical theory.  For unity it substitutes difference, for absolute knowledge, it substitutes absolutely limited and partial knowledge.  But for both textualism and empiricism, the primary assumption is that "meaning" (whether it is "truth" or the textual "undoing" of truth) is located in the object.  And for both, the primary role of the "viewer" or critic is to "observe" or "report" on the object—whether its transhistorical unity or its always already state of disunity.  It is "enough," as Derrida says, to simply "recall" the self-dismantling of objects.  In short, neither textualism nor empiricism moves beyond the forms of intelligibility to investigate the material conditions of possibility: the relations which, in the early modern stages of capitalism required empirical and rationalist knowledges through which to advance science and technology and develop relations of exchange within the context of nation-states, and which in the latest, triumphant stage of global capital, increasingly resembles "a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, [and that consequently] is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells" (The Communist Manifesto). The conditions which brought about, in the first instance, the Cartesian (sovereign) gaze and, in a later instance, the sorcerer's "squint," are absorbed into a textual vacuum. 

Of course, Derrida maintains in various places that "It is totally false to suggest that deconstruction is a suspension of reference.  Deconstruction is always deeply concerned with the 'other' of language.  I never cease to be surprised by critics who see my work as a declaration that there is nothing beyond language, that we are imprisoned in language; it is, in fact, saying the very opposite" (Kearney 123).  Leaving aside the opportunistic deployment of certainty to defend uncertainty, the central issue is that, if experience of the world is fundamentally shaped by the dynamics of language, and if the dynamics of language are such that they never adequately or accurately represent the world—i.e., there is always a textual slippage that undermines our knowledge of the outside world—then what poststructuralism has done by implication is textualize all "other" forms of social relations. The irony is that addressing other (apparently) non-linguistic relations as linguistic ones is precisely the sort of "reduction" for which Marxism is rejected. There is, in other words, a class politics of reduction that shapes which theories are admired for their theoretical subtly and which are dismissed for their vulgar rigidity: "rigid" is a code almost always reserved for those theories which throw the fundamental binary of class into relief.

Implied in the differences between textualist and materialist visuality, then, is also a difference between theories of language.  More specifically, the difference between a conception of the material world outside language as a "thing-in-itself" (only ever knowable through mediations) and language as a dialectical effect of labor.  Following such philosophers as Kant, for whom the thing-in-itself is never knowable except through its effects, which brackets the historical questions of how and why the thing-in-itself develops in the first place, contemporary discursive theory treats the referent of language as beyond understanding and knowledge.  For them, the world we know is always known through language (its linguistic representation), rendering knowledge of the world outside language unavailable, if not simply a language-effect. If anything is "known" by textualists about language it is that it is certainly not determined by production!  This theory of language is of course radically opposed to what Marx calls language as "practical consciousness."  As he explains in The German Ideology, consciousness, far from being "pure," is "'burdened' with matter," by which he means "the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in short, of language. Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men" (43-4).  Language is "practical consciousness" both because it presupposes the relation of the self and the other—consciousness is fundamentally social—and because it is directly bound up with the practical relations of production by which society meets its needs; it bears a material relation to labor relations.  What, then, makes it possible to mistake language as something unrelated to labor?  As Marx explains, the advance of the productive capacities of society and the appearance of "the division of material and mental labour": "From this moment onwards consciousness can really flatter itself that it is something other than consciousness of existing practice, that it really represents something without representing something real; from now on consciousness is in a position to emancipate itself from the world and to proceed to the formation of "pure" theory, theology, philosophy, ethics, etc. " (45).  Textualism's "emancipation" of language—its severing of language from production and foregrounding the "free play" of the signifier—is itself an effect of class.

This is perhaps as good a time as any to point out that Fish's recent narrative of the emergence of French theory and its significance itself shows that for centuries scientists have been fully aware of the mediations of language—but this has not led them to confuse language with reality.  To return briefly to Fish's text: in his effort to assure Americans that "there was never really anything to worry about," Fish himself admits that Derrida and other French poststructuralist thinkers were only the most recent in a long line of thinkers who had addressed the mediations of language.  As he explains, Bacon understood that

everything, even the framing of experiments, begins with language, with words; and words have a fatal tendency to substitute themselves for the facts they are supposed merely to report or reflect. While men "believe that their reason governs words," in fact "words react on the understanding"; that is, they shape rather than serve rationality. Even precise definitions, Bacon lamented, don't help because "the definitions themselves consist of words, and those words beget others" and as the sequence of hypotheses and calculations extends itself, the investigator is carried not closer to but ever further way from the independent object he had set out to apprehend. ("French Theory in America")

Fish's conclusion is that such an acknowledgement is an acknowledgment that no objective knowledge of the world is possible and that Bacon was forced to come up with a religious explanation to avoid confronting the non-objectivity of knowledge.  The mediation of language was "one example of the deficiencies we have inherited from the sin of Adam and Eve," and, as Fish puts it, "[a]s an antidote he proposed his famous method of induction which mandates very slow, small, experimental steps; no proposition is to be accepted until it has survived the test of negative examples brought in to invalidate it."  By Fish's account (which is no less spiritual than Bacon's explanation of language's limits), science is merely the purification of the sins of the slippery signifier sought by those who continue to be dogged by the objective world.  Science, he suggests (and in a way that establishes important similarities between discourse theory and intelligent design), far from being able to ever establish objective knowledge of nature or society, is essentially a series of discursive paradigms whose relation to the world outside language can never be determined.  On this logic, none of its conclusions—whether that the cause of natural development is evolution or God—are more truthful than any other (since there is no way to measure any particular truth in relation to an outside).  Conclusions are only true in a local,  pragmatic sense, "working" in particular contexts and communities.

But the real significance of Fish's own discussion of Bacon is that it shows that historically science has in fact acknowledged the mediating role played by language in the study of nature, social relations and the universe—but this has not led the majority of scientists to conclude that knowledge of the objective world is impossible.  To put this bluntly: science has not become so distracted by mediations as to confuse linguistic mediations with reality itself, which is precisely what Derrida and Fish do.  The effect of Fish's narrative of (deconstructive) "theory," however, is to entirely displace the question of why, if for at least the past 300 years thinkers have addressed the role of language in shaping our understanding of the world, it is only in the 1960s that these basic observations come to dominate thinking and the common sense.  The explanation is perhaps nowhere more clearly stated than in The Economist. For while textualism (and its kin, pragmatism) have been distracted by their "emancipation" from the relations of production, mainstream organs of capital have taken a keen interest in the basic arguments developed by such theorists as Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault.  In an editorial significantly located in a section titled "Shopping and Philosophy," the editor writes that while "Lyotard, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida were all from the far left," they nonetheless "gave modern retailers, advertisers and businessmen the tools" to help "capitalism ... reinvent itself in the 1980s and 1990s":

"neo-liberal" free-market economics, which had developed entirely independently of each other over the previous half-century, pointed in much the same direction. One talked about sex, art and penal systems, the other about monetary targets. But both sought to "emancipate" the individual from the control of state power or other authorities--one through thought and the other through economic power. Both put restoring individual choice and power at the hearts of their "projects" (quoted in Ebert and Zavarzadeh 20)

It is no wonder that, in response to those who (still) believe textualism is any kind of threat to market society, Fish, following Francois Cusset in his new book French Theory, admits "there was never really anything to worry about"!



Though it has been good for and driven by capital, the absorption of the material into the linguistic has had devastating implications for cultural theory, and especially left cultural theory, because it has fostered a conceptual environment which dispersed capital-wage-labor relations into overdetermined cultural networks and blocked cultural theory in the global North from grasping the very relations which have made textualism so seductive in the contemporary moment.  This is in part because textualism's emphasis on textual surfaces led cultural theory to focus on the cultural changes in capital as (semi)autonomous from the global relations of exploitation driving cultural changes. 

Textualism, to be more specific, emerged in the context of capital's shift away from mass production and consumption (industrial capital) in the North toward post-industrialism and the more flexible relations that allow for a more unfettered mobility of capital in its global stage. As Teresa Ebert and Mas'ud Zavarzadeh argue in Class in Culture, this shift in production practices required a new theory of referentiality, and it is in this context that textualist visuality needs to be located.  They write,

traditional theories of the relation between language and reality…were based on what might be called a 'Fordist' relation of correspondence between signifier and signified.  This form of rerentiality was more suitable for early industrial capitalism whose main features were Taylorism in management and the assembly line in production.  However, with the emergence of cybertechnologies—which have brought with them new management techniques, such as plural organization and team management; substituted the post-Taylorist flexible workplace for the old Taylorist management, and opened up the labor force to women, African Americans, Latinos, and other marginalized groups—the mode of presentation based on the adequation of signifier to signified has bec[o]me historically irrelevant.  One of the features of the new cybertechnologies is hypertextuality and pluralization of the sign.  The sign—which in Fordist industrialism worked to a very large extent on mostly a single level—has bec[o]me subject to various forms of doubling and self-referentiality." (144)

In place of a more restrictive theory of reference, textualism proposes a new theory of referentiality which pluralizes the referent and which is, among other things, better suited to the shift away from the mass production and consumption of goods to the era of niche production.  The pluralized referent reflected a broader need of capital, whose productive capacities have become increasingly "colossal" as Marx puts it, to gain more flexibility in its mobility across national borders, especially with the end of the Soviet Union (which had remained one of the last great barriers to capital), and in its efforts both to cut the wages and benefits of existing workers and to be able to hire cheaper labor at lower costs elsewhere.  Textualist flexibility, in other words, is the logic of privatization in global capitalism at the level of theory.  It is in this sense that the effect of textualizing the "outside" is another way of establishing what Ebert and Zavarzadeh call "an imperial inside": Derrida's double science by which he writes the "difference" between inside/outside as the difference within the system, "actually annexes the outside to the inside, and the resulting imperial inside sets the laws of the social according to its own immanent needs and requirements.  His inside/outside argument provides the cognitive context for reading global capitalism in its own terms—an imperial inside without regulations (from outside)" (Class in Culture 42). 

Textualism, in other words, is the master discourse of the triumphant stage of capital unleashed throughout the world, driven by its need to accumulate profit to create more and more massive productive capacity which in turn requires even newer forms of flexibility to ensure greater movements of greater amounts of capital.  It corresponds with post-industrialism, and the low level of class struggles in the North that accompanies it, and relies on the emergence of a society of consumption and consumers of signs/images, which is how the American workers in particular have been positioned since the post-war period, and especially since the 1970s, as a way to ideologically subdue the strength of the working class movement.

Ttextualism, in short, translates capital's need for increasingly flexible and fleeting relations to facilitate exploitation into a theory of fugitive signifiers. In doing so, it also makes it impossible to establish any kind of causal connection between its own theory of language and unfolding relations of capital (one of its major philosophical feats), fostering the further ideological "emancipation" of language from production.

The effectivity of texutalist visuality, in this context, is that it casts the visual subject as an exuberant observer of this capital-driven phenomena at the level of visual culture.  Unlike the early modern period of capitalism—which, in fighting the remnants of feudal social relations, pioneered totalizing forms of knowledge that coincided with the technical develoments needed by capitalism and the Enlightenment frames of reference that helped to make the world comprehensible and coherently locate the individual as part of an emerging and rapidly changing social totality—post-industrial (global) capital has new needs.  While its need for technical and scientific knowledges has progressed unabated, its older humanist models of integration have become outdated in the multipolar world and it now needs to foster among its citizens a sense of being at home in what seems, at the level of cultural appearances, a fundamentally incomprehensible world that is beyond the scope of scientific understanding.  To put this differently, there is more and more pressure for science to be used only in the interest of capital, only to the extent that it develops technical expertise (what Fish calls the "doable"), not knowledge that makes sense of the workings of capital in a totalizing manner.  Increasingly suspect are those attempts to explain the appearances of the cultural everyday of capital in relation to their underlying causes. 

In this context, one of the most important consequences of textualism's reversal of classical theory is that its critique of visuality does not so much move beyond the classical modes of formalism as it does articulate a new mode of formalism that is especially useful for global capital.  A neo-formalism, that is to say, based on the argument that we have access only to the forms that signification takes rather than a more heavily codified formalism in which form is reducible to content. By formalism, to be more specific, I mean a mode of looking which focuses on various forms and surfaces of objects and the various mediations through which that object is known. Or, to put this differently, neoformalism takes the linguistic and cultural conventions (and their disruption) as the beginning and end point of analysis. In focusing on visual objects as texts subject to the slippages of signification, what such a mode of seeing does is privilege objects (in a more complex way than empiricism) by privileging the appearances of objects.  This is the case, since the question of "essence" has been suspended—there is no longer any such thing as "essence" for poststructuralism, it is a logocentric fiction aimed at fixing meaning.  Which is to say that the appearance is constitutive of the essence (there is no outside to appearance).  There is thus nothing else to address but the contradictions of the object's "form."  And one of the most significant aspects of textualism's new formalism is the way in which it reconceptualizes the object.  Within the older paradigms of interpretation, as Stephen Melville observes, "objects" were taken "as standing for something absent, for a meaning of which they are the vehicles," thus giving the act of interpretation a "primordial" or absolute ground of meaning.  When one takes textuality into account, by contrast, "Interpretation ... loses the prospect of closure or finality, of replacing the object with its meaning" (Vision and Textuality 22).  As Melville continues, "The interpretation is not a move behind or beyond the representation to its hidden meaning: it is rather a work of prolongation of the object" (22; my emphasis).  This is the case because the object is extended "to other spaces, other contexts, and as such a prolongation it does not allow of any easy or final distinction between what is present in it or absent from it" (22).  What Melville refers to as textualism's "prolongation of the object" is what I mean by the way in which "textual formalism" simultaneously re-prioritizes the object and reconceives it. Indeed, Melville suggests that there is an even greater emphasis on objects within the textualist framework than is the case in other, earlier frameworks. His articulation also helpfully draws out that since there is nothing beneath or behind the object, what we are dealing with in textualism's prolongation of the object is an infinitely expanding field of appearances, which cannot ultimately be explained except as a function of signifying forms through which the subject "sees."  

Textualism's neoformalism reconceptualizes the object in ways that are fundamentally useful to the private property relations of global capital in its most advanced stage.  In fact, Derrida himself marks that the question of "restitution" (of Truth, of essence) is a question of "property" when he writes,

the desire for attribution is a desire for appropriation.  In matters of art as it is everywhere else.  To say: this (this painting or these shoes) is due to X, comes down to saying: it is due to me, via the detour of the "it is due to (a) me."  Not only: it is properly due to such and such, man or woman, to the male or female wearer … but it is properly due to me, via a short detour: the identification, among many other identifications, of Heidegger with the peasant and Shapiro with the city dweller, of the former with the rooted and the sedentary, the latter with the uprooted emigrant. (283) 

To see in an object a transparent truth, he suggests, is a means of establishing an object as a property of one's self, or in relation to self.  This is because the act of restitution, according to Derrida, is ultimately about constructing the "rightful owner" as oneself:  i.e., it is my shoes in the painting because I recognize them (they are like my own).  In both cases there is an attempt to ground the meaning of the painting in the identity of the author, a fixing of meaning vis à vis the subject.  Derrida, then, provides an immanent critique of private property relations, and the "fetishism" of objects.   The effort to own, he suggests, establishes a relation of mastery between subject and viewer.  Textualism's neoformalism, in response, proposes that the object is impossible to own ("master") by extending it infinitely.  By opening the object, unlimiting its boundaries, he opens it up to an endless questioning, suggesting that such questioning undoes the relations of property. 

The problem, however, is that Derrida thereby reduces property relations to perception.  He accepts the bourgeois premise that "I see it, I own it," and simply blurs the boundaries between the subject and the object of vision.  But perception is historical, not textual or experiential.   "Seeing," to be more precise, is a social relation.  As Marx argues in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, "seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, observing, experiencing, wanting, acting, loving … are in their objective orientation … the appropriation of human reality," under specific relations of production (299-300). Far from being simply a cognitive process or a linguistic or cultural practice, "seeing" is one of the many ways of "orientating" or relating to the objective world, and like other ways of relating (such as perceiving, feeling, thinking and acting), it is shaped by property relations.  Under private property relations, seeing is mediated by alienated human relations.  This is because the majority of people possess only their labor power, which in order to survive they must turn over to another, who appropriates their product and the surplus value created by their labor power.  It is in this sense that "private property is only the perceptible expression of the fact that man becomes objective for himself and at the same time becomes to himself a strange and inhuman object" (299).

In other words, whereas Derrida treats the fetishism of objects as an epistemological phenomena (i.e., looking at something as personal possession is an effect of wanting to attribute meaning and identitification to it), Marx demonstrates the historicity of this approach to perception: it is not simply a transhistorical will to power governing the Cartesian gaze that makes possible the (assumption of the) domination of the subject over the visual object.  Instead, Marx argues, it is "Private property [that] has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it—when it exists for us as capital, or when it is directly possessed, eaten, drunk, worn, inhabited, etc.—in short, when it is used by us" (106). The sovereign gaze, in other words, needs to be located in the context of the private property of emergent capitalism, for which the private desires of the individual take precedence over the needs of society.  The result of a society based on the alienation of labor and the subjugation of the working population to those who own capital is "the sheer estrangement of all these [physical and mental] senses—the sense of having.  The human being had to be reduced to this absolute poverty in order that he might yield his inner wealth to the outer world" (106-7).  The Cartesian gaze, in short, is a transcription of the laborer's emergent "freedom" within capital to sell his labor power to those who command the capital to purchase it.

It is, therefore, only with the "transcendence of private property" that it is possible to bring about "the complete emancipation of all human senses and attributes" (107). It "is this emancipation," Marx explains, "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 emanating from man for man.  The senses have therefore become directly in their practice theoriticians.  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" (107).  The "resolution" of "antithesis" subject and object of vision—which Derrida attempts to blur by textualizing their antithesis—is, in short, "only possible in a practical way, by virtue of the practical energy of men.  Their resolution is therefore by no means merely a problem of knowledge, but a real problem of life, which philosophy could not solve precisely because it conceived this problem as merely a theoretical one" (109). Derrida is of course the exemplary (high) theorist, who substitutes epistemological blurring of the boundaries between subject and object for transforming the material relations of property, and in effect makes them impossible to see.

The neoformalism at the center of textualist visuality speaks to an era of capital in which global corporations require greater flexibility in terms of their movements from market to market. The same commodities have to be sold in ways that appeal to a vast range of cultural tastes while simultaneously benefiting from brand recognition—a time when the commodity is both itself and something else, when its boundaries are forever indefinite. This is the logic of commodity fetishism in the era of globalization, when, for instance, Coke needs to attempt to re-brand itself so as to be sold on the market in the Middle East and not be identified with the US.   It needs to compete against Mecca Cola by being able to transcend its own (Western cultural) boundaries. It needs, in short, to be simultaneously precielsy specific and empty, to appeal to the vastest range of consumers possible.   Derrida's arguments respond to a moment when the commodity can—and, for the biggest companies, must—go everywhere.  McDonalds, which became a highly profitable national chain on the basis of its meat products, for instance, needs in the global market to be able to sell its products in the largest vegetarian nations in the world.  It (like other global corporations) needs to (re)package itself in every culture, fine-tuning its products to the regional demands of specific consumers and at the same time creating new demands that can only be met by specific corporations' products. 

When Derrida posits the object as limitless and consequently unknowable, he therefore "opens up" the commodity for the era of global capital.  Derrida's neoformalism reproduces at the level of theory the ability of capital to deconstruct itself in its effort to realize the surplus value congealed in commodities, and the subject of neoformalism turns the visual subject into the passive agent of consumption of the new who actively resists "reducing" the new to the material conditions which produce it.  But, to say it again, the problem of capital is not that it claims to know, but that it exploits.  Capital is based on the private appropriation of the labor of the other, a process which it then conceals.  Simply calling for the further impossibility of reading/knowing the world, far from being a significant intervention into capital, is, instead, a quite effective alibi for capital in its global phase, when it needs to sell new commodities in new markets and needs to be able to do this on a constantly shifting and expanding basis. And most important of all, it needs to continue to do this at an ever more relentless pace, while at the same time undermining all efforts to theorize the objective relations of a system that is willing to sacrifice the lives of billions of people for the private accumulation of the few. 

This is the logic at work in global corporations as well as in such contemporary forms of culture as the photography of Edward Burtynsky which, for instance, depicts working people dwarfed in Chinese industrial landscapes transformed by transnational capital.  In his own words,  his images are "aesthetically seductive," because "[t]hey can hang in the hall of a corporate office—and on the wall of the environmentalist fighting that corporation. Most people would find that ambiguity intolerable, but I think that's where the power comes from" (Birchall).  Burtynsky's emphasis on the photographs' "ambiguity" of course allows the greatest possible market for his product.

Textualism is the transcription of commodity fetishism into the logic of the social itself, substituting the "power" of capital to be everywhere at once for the collective "power" of working people to take back the means of production from the "bosses," in effect ensuring at the level of theory that there is "no outside" to the "imperial inside" of capitalism.



A materialist visuality that locates the cultural in terms of the working day is urgently needed, so as to intervene in the dominant discourses of cultural theory that naturalize capitalist exploitation.  As Marx explains, the working day in fact involves "two constituent parts" (Capital 341), and it is through examining both that Marx finds that the working day is not what it appears. The first part of the working day involves the time the worker spends to produce the value of her wages (necessary labor time).  Like any other commodity, the value of the commodity of labor power is determined by the time necessary to produce it: the "necessary labor time" because it is the labor time necessary to reproduce the value of the workers' labor power; it is the equivalent of the worker's wages.  But the second part of the working day represents that time the worker works over and above what she receives in wages, without equivalent.  Marx calls this period of time "surplus labour time" and it is the basis of all capital accumulation.  The capitalist appropriates the "surplus value" produced during surplus labor time as his own.  It (surplus labor time) is, in fact, the reason why the capitalist purchases the labor of the working class in the first place. "Under the capitalist mode of production," Marx explains, "necessary labour can only form a part of the working day; the working day can never be reduced to this minimum," because without it there would be no profit  (341). 

Particularly significant for the matter of visual experience is the fact that surplus value—the second constituent part of the working day—is also the hidden aspect of the working day.  As Marx emphasizes, the division of the working day between the value the worker produces to meet his or her needs and the value taken by the capitalist "is not evident on the surface" (Capital 345).  The experiential reality of capitalism is, in other words, different from the underlying structures of capitalism—its exploitative labor relations.  Moreover, it is important to note, this "imperceptible" aspect of capitalism—this gap between the experiential "appearance" of capital and its exploitative "essence"—distinguishes the capitalist form of exploitation from other historical forms of exploitation.  For instance, under feudalism, that part of the time spent working for the lord (the "corvée") and that time spent producing the serf's own means of subsistence was clearly established and violently enforced:

The necessary labour which the Wallachian peasant performs for his own maintenance is distinctly marked off from his surplus labour on behalf of the boyar.  The one he does on his own field, the other on the seigniorial estate.  Both parts of the labour-time thus exist independently, side by side with each other.  In the corvée the surplus labour is accurately marked off from the necessary labour. (Capital 346) 

Under capitalism there is no such visible distinction. In fact, the exchange of wages for labor appears as both "free" (in the sense that people are not "forced" into this exchange) and "equal" (in the sense that the wages received seem equivalent to the actual value produced).  But it is neither. It is because working people do not own the means of production that they are forced to sell their labor to survive; and, as we have seen, what the worker receives in wages is only a fraction of what he or she actually produces, the rest of which is taken by the capitalist as profit.  Key here is that what distinguishes the form in which surplus labor is appropriated in capitalism and feudalism is that while "surplus labor in the corvée [feudalism] has an independent and immediately palpable form" (Capital 244), the appropriation of surplus labor in capitalism is not directly available to experience (perception), since it is concealed beneath a veil of equivalence (wages).

How, then, does one "see" the exploitative relations of capitalism, if they are not directly perceptible?  Here, of course, is the crux of the matter:  Marx's method of analyzing the working day (and all other aspects of capital) does not proceed on the basis of perception (experience) but theory (abstraction).  Unlike Derrida, he reads the concrete and the specific, not on their own terms (the terms of their appearance), but in relation to the abstract structures that shape the concrete.

"Seeing the material," in other words, requires a mode of conceptualizing the concrete effects of social life in relation to their deeper-lying, and therefore "invisible," structures. For in the everyday world of capitalism, what we perceive are only the phenomenal forms of capital: the sphere of the exchange of commodities, which is premised on equivalence, equality and the rights of the individual.[3] The world of experience is in this sense the sphere of "ideology" ("false consciousness"), the role of which is to present the deeply unfair and unequal relations of capitalism as fair and equal. It is important to keep in mind however that, in contrast to Williams and others, the Marxist theory of ideology does not situate people as "dupes."  Rather, it understands ideology as a structural phenomenon that is fundamental to the commodity relations of capitalism.  It therefore requires an analytics that grasps ideology and its specific workings in structural (not experiential, personal) terms.  An analytics, in other words, that shows how cultural processes are used to render social relations as natural, given and eternal.  Seeing the material, in short, requires a way of looking from the "outside in."    

Remaining at the level of forms and surfaces—whether these surfaces are articulated in terms of "textuality" or "affect"—is a mode of "unseeing" because it remains on the inside of capital.  It unsees the surplus labor that is the foundation of culture under capitalist relations.  We see, at this immanent level, only the effects of exploitation—as in the very different eating, dressing, shopping, living, … habits of people in different classes, or what is today discussed in terms of "lifestyle"—but not its cause. To comprehend the cause of these effects in exploitation requires knowledge of the abstract structures which underlie the world-as-experienced. 

[1] What has come to be known as "theory" in the US is in fact only a historically narrow thread of theory—poststructuralist-informed discourses—that have dominated North Atlantic cultural theory since the 1970s.  By contrast, theory is explanatory knowledge: knowledges which do not render causality and determinacy fugitive tropes but seek to understand the origins of natural and social phenomena.

[2] Stephen Tumino's "Materiality in Contemporary Cultural Theory" (in this issue of The Red Critique) provides a close reading of Lenin's re-theorization of "reflection."

[3] Marx refers to the sphere of circulation or commodity exchange as "a very Eden of the innate rights of man.  It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham" (Capital 280).

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THE RED CRITIQUE 13 (Fall/Winter 2008)