‘The fin is coming early this siècle.’
Endings and crisis have become common motifs in twentieth-century humanistic critical theories. It seems that such apocalyptic moments are intrinsic to the culture of pedagogic discourse in the university. What interests me is how these discourses attempt to position the reader.
In Story and Situation[i] Ross Chambers has argued that narrative is a form of exchange. What this draws attention to is the form and nature of the contract between author and text and reader. Intrinsic to the relationship is the seduction of the reader. According to Chambers this is an example of perlocutionary force. It is a kind of power that
is not self-directed but other-directed; and it is definable as the power to achieve authority and to produce involvement (the authority of the storyteller, the involvement of the narratee) within a situation from which power is itself absent. If such power can be called the power of seduction, it is because seduction is, by definition, a phenomenon of persuasion: it cannot rely on force or institutional authority (‘power’), for it is, precisely, a means of achieving mastery in the absence of such means of control.[ii]
This is a stimulating and powerful thesis. What is especially important, though, is the unthought of the book, by which I mean the way in which the text effects closure, seducing the reader into accepting the frame of the argument as being non-ideological, beyond question, and its terms beyond choice. The power of the theorist is to position the reader within the frame so that its parameters are never in question. In brief, what is apparent is the connection between seduction and institutional authority. But within critical discourse the institutional authority is always masked, as is the process of the text’s construction. What Chambers does not allude to is the seduction or seductiveness of his own text. There are two linked strands here. On the one hand, his book is part of a credentializing network: it will circulate (only) within a specific educational space and within a specific context. It is, more generally, a part of a certain sort of cultural capital. Secondly, as a theoretical text — it is overtly framed and classified as such — it appears as the product of one who knows. The words of the master seduce because all theoretical knowledge, considered as cultural capital, tends overtly or covertly towards the form of the Bildungsroman. The reader is to be disabused of innocence and, hopefully, to be presented with the key, the truth.
These are constants of all critical humanistic practice. In these terms there is absolutely no difference between Derrida and Habermas. Their texts are a part of a pedagogic culture; simultaneously, they occlude their material contextualization by being framed in and as part of a theoretical imaginary. This is a space where theory stands all alone. As Gouldner writes:
The culture of critical speech requires that the validity of claims be justified without reference to the speakers’ societal position or authority. Here, good speech is speech that can make its own principles explicit and is oriented to conforming with them, rather than stressing context — sensitivity and context-variability. Good speech here thus has theoreticity.[iii]
This disembodied speech, which is integral to critical discourse, appears late in an individual’s educational trajectory. Specifically, it is part of a system in which mental and manual labour have been sharply differentiated, and mental labour is highly valued. It would seem that the relationship between cultural capital and the individual changes over time. There are changes in how knowledge is presented as important or desirable. For a young child the pedagogic space is construed in terms of the skills that are deemed necessary. There is often an assumed correspondence between skills and needs, and the pedagogical programme is often justified in physical terms. So, skills are perceived as being as much a matter of the body as the mind, and the mind itself is perceived in physical terms — for example, in the association of reading readiness with hand-to-eye co-ordination. Later there is a split or separation between a pedagogy based on skills and a pedagogy that is linked to the control and deployment of reason. This splitting carries with it status and power. There is a correspondence between pure and applied curricula and high and low prestige.
Increasingly, pedagogic arrangements and choices are justified and legitimated in terms of the disciplinary discourses that constitute the curriculum. This justification becomes separated from social or material circumstances and internalized in the discourses themselves. It is this rhetorical process that positions the student as reader. In order to achieve this, humanistic critical theories become involved in ever-increasing and vigilant forms of purification. There exists a sort of theoretical imaginary that is forever in the process of extruding aspects of itself that are perceived as profane. This process of purification has a history, of course; but that history is denied as part of the institutional process, which excludes the social; theory then appears as ‘pure’ and ‘sacred’, as something that comes from nowhere. So at varying times this theoretical space has tried to extrude art, as in the work of Plato, or technology, as in the work of Heidegger.
More recently, postmodernism, notwithstanding its own reflexive dimension, has made its own authority and the agency of its creators forms of the contemporary unthought. But these extrusions are constructions of the discourse itself, parts of itself that are split off and projected out so as to be combated. The theoretical imaginary seems like a paranoid system. In paranoia the perceptions of an external world are a function of an internal economy, and what is projected out defends the wholeness and purity of the subject.
Projection defends the ego insofar as it demarcates it, insofar as it cuts it off from its own production (that is, its fictional world), so that the ego can refuse to acknowledge the factitious nature of the world it has created.[iv]
This seems especially relevant now, when in critical discourse authorship, agency and intention are disavowed as markers of authority.
Now a dominant way in which theories — and I am signifying by this term critical humanistic discourses that claim for themselves some meta-status — can establish their authority and power is through their articulation of crisis and endings. So postmodernism is often defined in terms of a crisis of legitimation. Its characteristic scepticism of metanarratives diminishes the regulatory power of Freud and Marx, and of Enlightenment thinkers in general. But in the postmodern critique the space previously occupied by the master narrative — a power function — is replaced by postmodernism itself. Postmodernism’s authority, like that of the systems it displaces, is constituted by its own canon, symposia, publications and forms of credentialization.
Here I want to explore how apocalyptic moments, moments of crisis and endings, may be necessary in the space of the theoretical imaginary because they allow theories to reassert their status and power in relation to processes of struggle. The narratives seem to gain authority from their very ability to embed the apocalyptic moment in the discourses themselves and ‘resolve’ the problems that the theory itself constructs. This is a constant process in the institutionalization of theory. What is important is that the solution or resolution of the conflict is always theoretical. Part of the seduction is a tacit contract that the reader will follow or use the protocols of orientation and interpretation that the texts set up.
Let us begin with a paradox. It has occurred to some philosophers to ponder the question of what enables one to distinguish between works of art and simple, ordinary things, and to suggest with unflinching sociologistic daring (which they would never accept in a sociologist) that the principle of this ontological difference must be sought in an institution. The art object, they say, is an artefact whose foundation can only be found in an artworld, that is, in a social universe that confers upon it the status of a candidate for aesthetic appreciation. What has not yet occurred (although one of our postmodernists will surely come to it sooner or later) is for a philosopher — one perfectly worthy of the name — to treat the question of what allows us to distinguish a philosophical discourse from an ordinary one.[v]
I want to respond to this paradox by exploring two narratives that tell of endings. Arthur Danto has written recently on the theme of the end of art.[vi] His writing is framed by a problematic that involves two issues. One is the meaning of art. What is art? The other is the issue of the disenfranchisement of art by philosophy. What is the difference between Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box and a brillo box? Danto constructs a story that deals with the relationship between philosophy and art within a teleological framework. The importance of the Brillo Box as against the identical brillo box outside the gallery is that the meaning of the former demands a philosophical enquiry. The object in the gallery has to be interpreted. What is it? Why is it there? It is as if these questions are inevitable and can only be answered philosophically. According to Danto we cannot make sense of such works as the Brillo Box without theory, and it is theory that makes them art. Without theory, we would not know if the object perceived is a work of art or not. It is this imbrication of art and philosophy that constitutes the end of art. With the advent of Warhol, art forced on the public certain questions, which only philosophy could answer. So at the end of art there is philosophy.
Danto offers another parallel story of ending. Art has a history that is determined by the task of representation. It is the purpose of art to aspire to direct perception. According to Danto there is in art a cultural imperative to move from some inferential perception of an object to a realist representation. This has transformed the medium. With the advent of photography and the cinema there is no way the discipline can progress. When perceptual reality can be represented, the history of art, as a teleological enterprise, stops.
Danto’s philosophy is not a commentary on art works in a socially contextualized space. Rather, it subsumes art works under a categorial scheme of its own making. Similarly, in his essay ‘The End of History’,[vii] Francis Fukuyama constructs history as an emanation of the theoretical imaginary.
For Fukuyama, the advent of glasnost in the USSR has validated his argument that the West has triumphed. ‘What we may be witnessing is … the end point of mankind’s [sic] ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.’[viii] This triumph, then, is marked by the absolute pre-eminence of liberalism, which effects a closure on the process of history. If one imagines history in terms of consciousness, then history becomes a signifier that denotes a series of consciousnesses through time, a series of ideologies or positions that have art inexorable direction. And the theorist knows what the direction is.
As in Danto’s story, the aim is to achieve some identity between consciousness and object. Once this is achieved, the process — history or art — ends. The pivotal point of the essay is the Hegelian proposition that ‘consciousness will ultimately remake the material world in its own image’. What Fukuyama is doing, though this is hidden, is constructing a redemptive story for his own ends; but his own agency is hidden by the construction of an impersonal consciousness as a source of meaning. How can one argue against such a consciousness?
What is it that gives liberalism its power? It is what consciousness desires. According to Hegel, history ends when desire and the real coincide. But what is the object of desire? In Fukuyama’s words:
We might summarise the content of the universal homogeneous state as liberal democracy in the political sphere combined with easy access to VCRs and stereos in the economic.[ix]
The desire of consciousness is to consume goods. And the freedom embodied in liberalism is the freedom to consume. This freedom is valued because it is a precondition for capitalist growth. And this is valued because only if growth is ensured can demands be met. So, if what the consumer demands or wants is realized then, in Hegelian terms, there is a fusion of consciousness and object. Wants and desires are constituted in terms of consumption, which the liberal state is designed to satisfy. According to the inescapable logic of the discourse, this must necessarily be true. For if consciousness is prior and determines the material system, then it must constitute a system that satisfies its needs. If consciousness is the desire to possess goods, then this desire will give rise to a state that will manufacture and distribute the goods. So the material world is the mirror image of consciousness, and if all wants and desires are met, history ends. What follows is stasis. If all demands are met, then there is nothing more for consciousness to desire. If all desires are fulfilled, and consciousness is determined, then the world becomes a space of endless repetition. In this story, material goods are plentiful and available to all. So there is harmony and goodwill everywhere.
But not quite. The space of endless repetition gives rise to boredom. If all demands are met then there is no need for the imagination. Yet Fukuyama imagines a time in the future when a few people would remember a previous time of conflict and unsatisfied competition. For such a time stimulates artists and theorists like Fukuyama to imagine their capitalist Utopias — perfect except for the boredom.
The unthought in these discourses is the empirical — not empiricism — and power. I think these texts are doing battle with a process that may best be termed ‘modernity’. This denotes a space in which the sacred, as the dominant marker of certainty, has been destroyed. But there seems to be a deep denial of this. So that for theorists like Danto and Fukuyama, for whom desires have become matters of fact, hypostasis has become a dominant speech act. This is the way in which intellectual theories gain currency.
But of course there are crises. For example, the disintegration of the old markers of certainty has given rise to an intellectual dream, namely that the theorist can escape from the general economy by producing a discourse that is removed from the everyday — the profane. In so doing, theory becomes sublime and empty. And seductive, because it is difficult to resist the intellectual fantasy that there is a space to be had, free from the mundane affairs of the general economy.
[i] Ross Chambers, Story and Situation (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1984).
[ii] ibid., p. 212.
[iii] Alvin Gouldner, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class (Macmillan, London, 1979), p. 28.
[iv] Paul Smith, Discerning The Subject (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1988), p. 96.
[v] P. Bourdieu, ‘The Historical Genesis of a Pure Aesthetic’ in Analytic Aesthetics (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1989), p. 147.
[vi] Arthur Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (Columbia University Press, New York, 1986).
[vii] Francis Fukuyama, ‘The End of History’, Quadrant, 8, 1989.
[viii] ibid., p. 15.
[ix] ibid., p.18.
Image credit: Dennis Jarvis