These are some research topics I have supervised on this course, as well as related ideas which I have discussed with students as potential topics for this course (which then, for various reasons, did not come about), and topics which grew out of such discussions or projects and became HTs, MAs, etc. Students may want to consider these potential topics, to modify and adapt them in ways which will feed into their own research interests. Students are also, of course, free to come up with their own research topics altogether, in which case the ones listed here might spark some ideas.
These topics have an obvious slant towards materialist theory and criticism, and thus the tropes of commodity culture, consumption, political economy, the sociology of texts, etc, constantly emerge. This makes sense in light of my portion of the EN4242 course, but I do have other and quite different interests I've not listed here, and you're certainly free to propose to me topics without such a theoretical slant.
Narrative, Form, Structure
1. Consumption and Form: One large research area would consist of the analysis of various ways in which the structure and form of contemporary texts (particularly popular texts such as pulp fiction, the detective novel, popular film, t.v. serials, etc) have reflected, and been impacted by, patterns of consumption as dictated by the contemporary market in such texts.
That is to say, how do factors in the sociology of the market such as:
The time of the text (i.e. duration of viewing/reading,
the analogic representation of timed events, chronologicality and sequentiality)
The marketing of the text (ticketing, covers, advertising, pricing)
The demographics of the text (which kinds of readers are targeted, and by what means; what profiles in terms of race, age, assumptions, gender etc)
affect formal and interpretative issues such as:
Style (diction, font, syntax at various levels,
Plot (archetypal patterns, resolutions or the lack thereof, sequentiality and order, linearity and openness)
Intertextual allusions (to which texts, of which period(s), which media)
2. Genres, within postmodern culture/society, and within popular culture.
Is there even a place for genre studies anymore, given postmodernity's tendency to de-differentiate, to collapse, overlap and reduplicate structural features, voices, intertextual elements, etc? That's one big theoretical question worth considering.
In particular, if one want to defend the whole notion of "genres," there are several smaller projects one can pursue as part of that larger project:
a. The historical development and transformation of a genre,
particular in the modern-to-postmodern time frame of interest to this course.
b. Related to this, that development and transformation is likely to involve mutations of the genre, changing social roles, mergings into and identifications with other genres, etc - would be interesting to select a genre and analyse its mutations and movements, particularly in relation to other closely-related genres.
Some possible strands: gothic-horror-science fiction-fantasty; the "art" or "literary" novel (Booker-prize or other award-winning potential stuff) and popular genres like the detective, the ghost story.
c. Genre(s) and society: a particular genre as an articulation or channeling of social anxieties/desires of particular kinds.
3. Written forms and other arts - the co-influence and modifications of verbal forms and other arts/media such as advertising, visual arts, film, tv, etc.
1. One large group of research topics in Advertising would be constituted by sub-cultures/otherness research - i.e. the study of non-mainstream identities, groups, linguistic communities, gendered identities, etc, within advertising: to what extent do advertisements and mainstream culture permit otherness? What are the strategies of otherness, both in authorisation and in interpretation?
2. There's been a lot of work (by Raymond Williams, Sut Jhally and others) on advertising as commodity sign - i.e. sign-as-commodity and commodity-as-sign, the nexus of semiotics and material culture. It remains an interesting topic, though, with all kinds of facets. Particularly interesting in our part of the world might be to consider the interaction of global and local forces - the multinational capitalism and its sign system which (as has been pointed out repeatedly in globalisation studies) encroaches on and transforms many parts of the world, and the way this engages with local values and traditions (e.g. the spatial and textual symbolism of vernacular religions? Or the discourses of nation-building, especially in government advertising? etc).
3. There are always changes in the forms assumed by capital,
and thus also changes in their ideological and semiotic manifestations.
If you're interested (especially) in international finance, there's a lot
to be said for the political economy of modern finance as a kind of sign
system. Particularly interesting, to my mind, would be the notion
of e-money as manifested (at the smallest level) in things like short-selling,
put-and-call instruments, ELNs (equity linked notes), etc. What happens
to money (which, as Marx had always maintained, was a signifier) when it
is no longer backed by gold (pre-WW II), and indeed no longer even a physical
presence (of paper money)? More to the point, what happens to notions
of identity (which, as we know, are in many subtle, complex and implicit
ways structured by material conditions) - to our notions of time (the time
taken for us to complete a transaction, to save money, make a "fortune"),
of space (where is the "space" of e-money, as opposed to paper? where
do we transact e-transactions?), place, nation, future, destiny, etc?
1. "Endo-colonialism" (Virilio Reader, p. 59): power, no longer constituted by the physical control of the land, but by technological influence: capital, media, defense technology, surveillance, etc. Many aspects to consider here.
2. Lots of work yet to be done on colonial remainders in contemporary independent nations. The assumption in much of postcolonial literary studies is that literary discourses constitute an active engagement with and repudiation of the colonial past, a self-conscious project which counters colonial influence. The study of material forms and cultures would seem to indicate otherwise, and suggest the continuation of many forms of colonial influence (architecture, names of streets/housing, the advertising and marketing of certain products like luxury goods, etc).
3. Christianity and postcolonial identity: deserves separate mention because of the global reach of evangelical Christianity, its own political economy and spatial/architectural tradition, its long history and its active period coincident with European colonialism of the 16th to early 20th centuries, etc. Lots to be said on the syncretism of Christian/European with Vernacular/traditional/Asian identities and values (Jean di Bernardi has done interesting work on Christianity in this part of the world).
4. Intersections between commodity culture and neo-colonialism? To what extent can the undeniable (although also contested and problematised) forces of global capitalism and information be considered a neo-colonialism? In what ways does it differ from historical colonialism (different powers; different structure of governments and economic systems; different media and forms of influence).
POPULAR CULTURE/SOCIOLOGY OF TEXTS/MEDIA
1. One of my former students did a thesis on motorbike culture in Singapore: obviously the film Eating Air was central to the thesis, but she also did interesting work on the constitution of an identity/cult via the sign-system of bikes and accessories - what kinds of bikes, the jargon and labels, helmets, clothing, stickers, gangs, etc. Similar sorts of work can of course be done on other areas of "marginal" cultures and their engagement with the dominant discourses - migrant workers, sports groups (S-league fan clubs and how they engage hybridly with, e.g. EPL fandom?), martial artists, mall groups and teen sub-cultures, etc.
2. Music: Lily Kong has done a lot of work on popular music and identity - issues like the ethnographic features of popular music in Singapore (who listens to what, and why; how do these affiliations cut across, reinforce, contest, the affiliations fostered by national discourses, vernacular groups, etc).
3. Performance: particularly interesting from the point of view of materialist theory, might be questions of how material circumstances shape all kinds of performances - a (performative) poetics of material space? e.g. The post-religious, postcolonial space of the Singapore Art Museum, and how this shapes (resonances, remainders, 'ghosts') the various artistic performances there (the exhibitions of visual artworks, the various events staged there, etc). There's also the more obvious but still important topic of the ideological bases of performative texts in Singapore.
URBAN SPATIAL FORMS
1. Public housing - has received lots of attention, from Chua Beng Huat who probably wrote the definitive book on Singapore public housing, but also people like Manuel Castells, Leo Van Grunsven, etc. Both Brenda Yeoh and Lily Kong have done some work on the historical geography of public housing estates like Tiong Bahru. Still lots to be said, in large part because of the constantly- and swiftly-changing nature of the HDB's visions, plans, etc. Of particular interest from the point of view of materialist theory would of course be the ideologies of public housing: the possible disruptions to (or at least interactions with) the very different economy and ideology of private housing (or are they so different? Why/why not?). The management of class differentiations, the constructions of class superiority, the sign-system of the same, etc.
2. Malls, shopping districts and exhibition centres always attract lots of attention from materialist theorists, because of their obvious involvement with consumption and commodities. Fringe/tangential topics might include the art of the mall (the use, placement, role of art in consumer spaces - i.e. fountains, sculptures, paintings, etc); "heterotopias" (in Foucault's sense of "those singular spaces to be found in some given social spaces whose functions are different or even the opposite of others" - see Foucault Reader, p. 252); the "gutter" or "genitalia" of malls (the underside, the waste-dispersal, the hidden or concealed which is nevertheless an integral, though occluded, part of the consumer economy).
3. Still on Foucault's "heterotopias," on a larger national
scale - what are the different or contrary spaces, where dissent from dominant
spatial/ideological organisation can be found? Why are they tolerated
or sustained? What is the politics of this difference; what are the
narrative/semiotic features of this differentiated narration? (The
space of sex is one obvious heterotopia, including of course the notions
of "deviance" and how this is sustained; the notion of an underclass, an
"untouchable" class, is another). "Heterotopic" studies these days
obviously also have to consider if the internet is being used as a means/space
EN 4242 (2003-2004)
Seminar 1 (13 Aug) Introduction to Course; Theory Overview (RG/JWP)
Seminar 2 (20 Aug) "Language and Beyond" (JWP)
Seminar 3 (27 Aug) "Communication and Action"
Presentations: Simon Sim
Seminar 4 (3 September) "The Visible and the Invisible"
Presentations: He Jia Wen and Cho Chan Ying
Seminar 5 (10 September) "The Trace" (JWP)
Presentations: Jeannine Tang and Low Gek Piao
Seminar 6 (17 Sep) "Ideology and Capital" (RG)
Seminar 7 (24 Sep) "History, Literature, Narrative" (RG)
Seminar 8 (1 October) "Power/Knowledge" (RG)
Presentations: Leonard Ng and Josephine Lin Li
Seminar 9 (8 October) "Narrating Society" (RG)
Presentations: Karen Lim
Seminar 10 (15 Oct) "The Production of Culture"
Presentations: Jonathan Whittle-Utter and Jocelyn Yan
Seminar 11 (22 Oct) "Production of Culture
Presentations: Juliet Chia and Pong Yen-Ting
Seminar 12 (29 Oct) "Horizons of Psychoanalysis
Presentations: Catherine Ang and Lesley-Anne John
Seminar 13 (5 November) "Horizons" (JWP)
Assessment: The main assessment will be an individual project, to be defined by the student in consultation with the assigned lecturer; this will constitute 40% of final grade. Projects to be about 4000 words in length (not including images, appendices, bibliographies). Deadline: Monday 27 October, before 5.00 pm, in respective supervisor's mailbox. Students are urged to think about their project areas as soon as possible, and to confirm them with their supervisor.
Class presentation of about 10 minutes – 5% of final grade. Presenters are not at all expected to give exhaustive or comprehensive coverage of a particular writer or text; rather, they are to focus on a specific issue or concern, offer a reading of it, and open the session to further discussion.
General participation – 5%
Examination: 2 questions, 3 hours, forming 50%
of the final grade. This will be an open book examination – students
are allowed to bring in any material they wish.
EN 4242 PRESENTATION SCHEDULE AND PROJECT SUPERVISION
Seminar 3 (27 August) Simon Sim
Seminar 4 (3 September) He Jia Wen and Cho Chan Ying
Seminar 5 (10 September) Jeannine Tang and Low Gek Piao
Seminar 6 (17 September)
Seminar 7 (24 September)
Seminar 8 (1 October) Leonard Ng and Josephine Lin Li
Seminar 9 (8 October) Karen Lim
Seminar 10 (15 October) Jonathan Whittle-Utter and Jocelyn Yan
Seminar 11 (22 October) Juliet Chia and Pong Yen Ting
Seminar 12 (29 October) Catherine Ang and Leslye-Anne John
Seminar 13 (5 November)
JWP – Cho Chan Ying, Pong Yen Ting, He Jia Wen, Jeannine Tang, Jocelyn Yan, Simon Sim, Leonard Ng, Josephine Lin.
RG - Catherine Ang, Karen Lim, Juliet Chia, Yow Shiyun, Lesley-Anne John, Low Gek Piao, Adrian Koh, Jonathan Whittle-Utter
EN 4242 – Introductory Presentation (Seminar
One): Materialist Theory
Loosely speaking, a tradition of thinking and set of ideas concerned with the materialist bases of thought, speech, behaviour. Often opposed to idealist theory, although not usually in any crude and simplistic opposition. “Matter” could be both the physical things which have mass, occupy space (bodies, objects), as well as the “qualities” and “attributes” of such things (colour, force, attraction, solidity etc).
“Qualities” of things can figuratively (or causally) be applied to others – so, not just a materialist ontology, but theories of influence, determination, praxis.
Locke, Hartley, Hume and other “British Empiricists” the founding fathers? But coincident with political economy and theories/philosophies of society and commercial behaviour: Adam Smith, Malthus, Marx, Engels, etc.
Keywords: “Ideology”; “consciousness” (and implicitly, the “unconscious”); “history”; “reification” (from Latin “res” = thing); “alienation”; “power”(not merely brute force, but including a power that is “knowledge”); “culture” and “superstructure”; “institution”
1. “Ideology” – attributed to Destutt de Tracy, associated with the 18th C Institut National des Sciences et des Arts, who meant it to refer to a “science of ideas,” a “rigorous [intellectual] discipline” (James Chandler, Wordsworth’s Second Nature, 216-229). Positive, Enlightenment definition
2. Began to acquire suspicious/sceptical definition (something complicit with power, oppression, false consciousness) almost immediately – Napoleon called Rousseau the “eloquent ideologue…it would have been better had this man never lived…” (Chandler 218).
3. Karl Marx, with whom the term in its most popular present meaning is associated, likewise noted the duality: his notion of “German Ideology” wanted to move from a purely mentalist spirit or power which was believed to govern and structure world/society (the “zeitgeist”); to a more suspicious understanding of society as governed by basic power in complicity with cultural mechanisms.
4. The ‘height’ of “ideology” used as a rallying cry for class warfare is thus late nineteenth century to (perhaps) the fall of the Berlin wall (translation and propagation of Marx’s ideas, the rise of radicalism on the lines of Fourier, St. Simon, Fabianism, communism, anti-colonialism etc). More recently, a more complex and less simplistically oppositional notion – i.e. not only a “Bourgeois Ideology,” but (if anything) “ideologies”.
5. In literature and culture, “ideology”
in its height began to be applied to documents and discourses which were
seen as helping to create and sustain a “false consciousness” motivated
by the need to retain surplus value, reify and alienate the worker, perpetuate
power and wealth inequalities, etc.
So the “base” of economic operations (factory system, capital, division of labour), working in conjunction with a “superstructure” of cultural mechanisms (philosophy, religion, literature, science, other discourses and assumptions).
6. Criticism thus became a power-struggle – for authentic consciousness, to read the ideological motivations and strategies underlying/in discourses. “Dialectical Materialism” – the intellectual/mental struggle to relate culture back to base production, and likewise to use changed consciousness to change production.
For a long time (the golden age of dialectical materialism) the goal of criticism was to overthrow capitalism – what is the goal of criticism now? A “negative dialectics”?
“It attempts…to substitute for the unity principle, and for the paramountcy of the supra-ordinated concept, the idea of what would be outside the sway of such unity. To use the strength of the subject to break through the fallacy of constitutive subjectivity…” (Adorno, “Preface” to Negative Dialectics, xx)
II. Materialism Across Disciplines
As a theory of modernity, materialist notions engage with social questions in a number of varied and inter-related ways:
Economically (as an alternative economics, a critique of capitalism and its way of life)
Politically (as a critique of the forms/methods, motives, and unconscious, of power)
Socially (as a method of thinking about social formations such as the family, work, sexuality, social institutions)
Culturally (as a study of “superstructural” modes of influence and interpellation – including but not limited to “high literature,” science fiction, religion, architecture, advertising, visual arts, etc).
More specific disciplinary tropes: globalization (as economic formation and cultural influence); race, colonial analysis, postcolonial studies (as a means of engaging with history and forms of appropriation); urban studies (cities as institutional sites; as means of organizing labour and capital); media studies (media technology, developments and narrative forms as ideological instruments); etc
III. Theoretical influences and developments:
Materialism against “Materialism”
1. Marxism and the unconscious
2. Negative dialectics as a power “against power”: the “sublime” of language and culture; the “deferral” of metanarrative completion.
EN 4242 – Week 6 Handout
Ideology and Capital – Karl Marx
1. Overview – “Ideology” as:
a. “science of ideas” (Destutt de Tracy et al) – positivist, empirical project
b. “false consciousness” (most commonly associated with Georg Lukacs, Georgi Plekhanov and that generation of Marxist scholars – an adamant view of ideology as a blind spot, mental shackles in service of the bourgeoisie, created and reinforced by capitalist production and superstructure). Contradictory, inherently unstable, pathological – but (by the same token) general, universal, sweeping.
c. as “impress” of a “mode of production” (associated with Althusser, Eagleton) – the marks of a particular set of conditions at work in the production of a particular text. The “logic” of a particular text, which is the structural sign of the set of social and productive relations operative on/in the particular text.
“…strictly speaking there can be no contradiction within ideology, since its function is precisely to eradicate it. There can be contradiction only between ideology and what it occludes – history itself. Textual dissonances, then, are the effect of the work’s production of ideology. The text puts the ideology into contradiction, discloses the limits and absences which mark its relation to history, and in doing so puts itself into question, producing a lack and disorder within itself” (Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory, p. 95).
d. (compatible with c.) historical or systemic ideology (i.e. that of non-Marxist historians like Weber, Foucault, postcolonialists like Robert Young and Homi Bhabha) – ideology as the manifest (textual?) characteristics of particular productive structures (e.g. protestant Christianity of the 18th C; 18th/19th C institutionalism such as in prisons or asylums; the reproduction of Victorian attitudes to race and gender in colonial conditions; etc).
e. Critical avenues/junctions:
i. “ideology” has inherent similarities with an “unconscious”; and thus points to a hermeneutics and a criticism concerned with unintended, unaware, cathexic and pathological signs/utterances. While psychoanalysis tends to be concerned with the unconscious of the individual, and Marxism with that of a class/society, this is not always or necessarily the case: Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents is a psychoanalytic reading of modern European society as a whole; while (following Eagleton) it is possible to make Marxist readings of individuals (e.g. his Myths of Power, a reading of the Brontes).
ii. reading “ideology” is also a sensitization to issues of the actualities of “society” and “history”. Put simply, it is a critical challenge to consider the missing, absent, repressed in social and historical terms; a skepticism about false resting-points (hypostases?) concerning society and its meanings; and a dialectical relentlessness which pushes towards a “something else/other” in social discourses.
iii. at least in the notions of particularized production in Althusser and Eagleton, ideology opens up a potentially-infinite series of microhistories and microtextualities – aware of overarching socio-historical forces (colonialism, factory system), but intent on opening up the individual ideologies of particular moments/conditions/authors (British colonialism in India, Dickens’ view of the factory system).
2. Karl Marx’s project:
The Grundrisse (“foundation” or “ground-plan”) was an extensive collection of notebook entries which attempted to critique the classical political economy which begins in the late 18th C with Adam Smith and his contemporaries. Beginning with the basics of “material production,” Marx demonstrates political economy’s “illusory” view of human nature and society, by tackling the false universalism of its fundamental concepts (production, division of labour, property ownership and distribution). The German Ideology was a critique of the tendency to see history and society as the production of ideas (the “zeitgeist”), and thus to ignore the real material bases for historical change and production.
What is the point of Marx’s emphasis on distinctions and mediations? (e.g. pp. 229-232, where he talks about the erroneous identification of production and consumption; leading up to p. 232 when he says “Distribution steps between the producers and the products…etc). Marx replaces the notion of “identicality” with the notion of “members of a totality” (p. 236) – i.e. parts of a whole system, not identical and replaceable modules.
What does Marx mean by “abstraction” (e.g. p. 237)? What lies behind this argument? (“Vorstellung” – vor + stellen, to put before). The opposite of this appears to be “the concrete” (p. 237) – a totality of individual facts and their relationships.
Compare his notion of the illusion of the “separated, independent” nature of labour-as-capital, versus the “subjective” experience of “living labour”. Compare also his view of the agency of money as the means of “separating” labour from its products. (p. 269).
What is “surplus value” (p. 247)? (an “excess,” but also a concealment and abstraction).
What is Marx’s notion of the “alien”? (It emerges in conjunction with “alien labour” and “alien property,” p. 260). How is this related to “alien objectivity” (p. 261) - relationship of base to infrastructure?
What is Marx’s use of pre-capitalist history (beginning p. 261)? (pre-individuation; the tracing of “exchange” as the start of individuation, alienation etc).
Links with Grundrisse and Capital by its opposition to the “pure idea,” his insistence on regarding man in terms of “a definite mode of life” (p. 150).
History: what is the basis of Marx’s distinction between history as a “collection of dead facts as it is with the empiricists…or an imagined activity of imagined subjects, as with the idealists,” on the one hand; and a “real” history on the other hand? (p. 155) (An “earthly basis for history”). Contrast the view of history as “the political actions of princes and States…” p. 165. How does history become “separated from ordinary life” (p. 165).
Why does Marx identify the “division of labour” as the site of the “contradiction” between the forces of production, the state of society, and consciousness? (p. 159). (Different agencies, differentiated tasks/rewards/powers). Cp. p. 173, where he talks about “the division of mental and material labour”.
Why does this lead to the “fixation of social activity” (p. 160), and what does Marx mean by this?
What is “estrangement” (p. 161), and what does it have to do with production?
3. Language and Literature
“A definition of language is always…a definition of human beings in the world” (Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature).
Marxism, for purposes of critical theory, might be conceived of as an allegory of “the object”, and how it is produced and consumed (written and read).
Marxist notions of “alienation,” “separation,” seem to be analogies of the relationship between author and his/her text; between signifier (as an exchange value) and signification (as a use value).
History, as a narrative, is analogous to textual units like the novel; thus Marxist notions of the separation of history (“dead facts,” “imaginary” history) seem to be relevant to our analysis of longer literary units such as the novel, as well as other discourses.
But also the actual praxis of literature: the
economics of production, marketing, selection, distribution, the power-politics
of reading, prizes, publication, interpretation, etc.
EN 4242 – Week 7 Handout
History, Literature, Narration; Intepretation and the Position of the Individual
1. With Marx (see week 8 handout), we can see culture (the “superstructure” of social discourses, literature and art, political forms, institutions, value systems etc) as a form of production – linked to the “base” (the system of economic production, ownership, distribution) both as a product (the economy which produces the culture), and as an ideological impress (a sign which contains the hidden, repressed and displaced marks of the system which produces it).
The Althusser/Balibar and Jameson readings this week are a useful point
at which to move from these considerations of ideology-as-production system,
to more individualized issues of the subject-object relations implied by
materialist criticism. I.e. we now shift our emphasis from “production”
to “readings,” from economic/systemic activity to hermeneutics (although
obviously they are related as parts of an entire system). Some pertinent
a. What happens to the subject, and to subjectivity, within capitalist systems? Is the individual a producer, or part of the productive machinery, or a product? What happens to notions of the author/artist, then? To “style”? What is “iterability” within ideological production?
How does this affect reading and criticism? I.e. is the individual reader as the “subject” of political economy capable of “subjectivities”? How “open” is the ideological text?
b. Similarly, what becomes of the “object” within capitalist systems? What is the relationship between the object (and its corollary of “objectivity”) and the dominant (is it merely a hypostasis, a false idea?)? Or does the object necessarily turn into “objection” (i.e. a deconstructive resistance)?
2. Althusser/Balibar, Reading Capital
Note ambiquity – reading Capital, or reading (Marx’s) Capital. While it is the latter which is ostensibly Al/Bar’s object, they play with this notion in a self-conscious way: “But since PE is defined as PE by its object, the critique directed at it from the new object with which it is confronted could strike PE’s vital spot….Marx’s critique of PE cannot challenge the latter’s object without disputing PE itself…” (p. 158).
So Reading Capital is a reading of Marx’s reading (in Capital) of Capital – in fact, of Capital’s self-reading and self-representation.
This is deliberate, and stems from Al/Bar’s conviction that “there is no such thing as an innocent reading” (p. 14).
“we posed [Capital] the question of its relation to its object, hence both the question of the specificity of its object, and the question of the specificity of its relation to that object, i.e., the question of the nature of the type of discourse set to work to this object…”
“we posed Capital the question of the specific difference both of its object and of its discourse” (p. 14).
3. So Al/Bar might be seen as key players in the philosophical
inquiry of Marxism (as opposed to the determinedly economic and political
inquiry posed by Marx, Lukacs and other earlier theorists). This
is fueled by the conviction that analysis (like exposition) involves readings
and discourses, and thus problems of subjectivity, positionality, language
and mediation, and so on – questions which bring Marxism even closer to
(Thus in many ways, Al/Bar anticipate and influence the Marxist theoretical engagement with postmodernism seen in various ways in Eagleton, Jameson, Harvey and other recent writers).
Jameson himself says that the key to Althusserian structure is the understanding that all elements in a social formation are related (as all Marxists would agree), but in relationships of “difference and distance from one another,” and not in terms of “identity,” allegorical sameness, mirroring (Jameson, Political Unconscious, p. 41).
But is this an “interpretation” as such? – a problematic raised by Jameson (and indeed by poststructuralism in general).
4. Marxist criticism as discourse analysis:
Starting from the purported “facts” of PE, Al/Bar translate these into an “object” or discursive claim; this involves an “imaginary,” a “pretended” object (hypostasis?); the use of puns and etymological connections (“plain,” “planar,” “plan”) recovers the imaginary constructs offered as facts; there is a topography or spatialisation of discourse (the “plain” is that which is surface, depthless, apparently self-evident).
So language/discourse itself is uncovered as a machine, analogous to the machinery of economic production. The machinery of language can produce the “homogeneous field” of facts, can produce smooth surfaces, the imaginary horizon of bourgeois eternity, etc. In placing an imaginary object for interpretative consumption, discourse is a producer of commodities – of objects whose value consists of imaginary exchange-values, rather than actual physical/use values.
5. Jameson, Political Unconscious
As title suggests, this is the attempt to appropriate psychoanalytic terms and terrain, for a comprehensively political reading of narratives – the “political perspective” as “the absolute horizon of all reading and all interpretation” (p. 17). Struggles against what it sees as the crudification of psychoanalysis in a certain “hermeneutic” tradition, and turns to the political as a means of a specific critical tool which is nevertheless aware of the “solidarity” of history (i.e. the “polemics and passions” of capitalism struggle) (p. 18).
Uses the Althusserian critique of “expressive causality” (i.e. Althusser’s criticism of Hegelian-style idealism, in which meaning and change is generated somehow “within” discourses and ideas) to repudiate the kind of vulgar hermeneutics (including vulgar Marxism, e.g. Lukacs) which sees the cultural text merely as an allegorical parallel of the economic base of society (p. 32/33).
In contrast (and in an attempt to correct Althusser as well), Jameson proposes to read cultural texts, not as a single allegorical code to society, but as layers of narratives. Implying that Althusser is not sufficiently interested in these narrative layers (since for Al “only one structure exists: namely the mode of production itself”, p. 36), Jameson wants to return to the possibility of interpretation, by looking at the symbolic “mediation” (p. 39) between these different narrative levels. At the same time, “mediation” links narrative back to production, not merely as an allegorical key to production, but as a displacement (“transcoding”) of production – a continuity with social processes, not a mirror-image of it, not a “homology” (p. 43).
Central question is posed on p. 38):
“is the text a free-floating object in its own right, or does it ‘reflect’ some context or ground, and in that case does it simply replicate the latter ideologically, or does it possess some autonomous force in which it could also be seen as negating that context”?
6. How does Jameson’s concept of narrative “mediations” answer this problem of the text? (Displacement; transcoding; layers; projection; repression; compensation)
Is it possible to see Jameson’s argument as a sophistication of Al/Bar’s
strategies (the topology or terrain of the text, its contours and features
all aspects of textual production; the meta-discursive turn, away from
crude homologies of production and political allegory).
EN 4242 – Week 8 Handout
Power/Knowledge: Institutions, Frames, and Disciplines
1. Marxism suggests a theory of the material and historical constitution of the individual and society. Central notions like the inextricable link between cultural superstructure and the materialist base; the blurring of concrete use values and identities via exchange values; the ideological work that actively (mis)represents classes and identities; the reification of the human within impersonal capitalist production and exchange – all lead to a theory of the (unconscious, concealed, normalized) intervention of social frames in identity.
One possible criticism of Marxism is that in its concern with an enemy supposed to be universal and dominant (the form of capitalism and bourgeois ideology that arises in 19th C Europe), it tends to deal only with macro-forms: “Ideology,” “metanarratives,” “false consciousness,” “the dominant,” “Capitalism” (and its opposite, “pre-Capitalist” society).
Likewise, the choice of cultural/superstructural documents critiqued: overwhelmingly the 19th and early 20th C novel (in works by Marx and Engels, Lukacs, Eagleton, Jameson and others); sometimes short stories; advertising and commodity culture; shopping malls, industrial/working-class areas; downtown financial/shopping districts.
(What does such a list leave out – what is less easily addressed by Marxist theory? Individual authors qua individuals (style, “genius”)? Poetry – if so, what forms/types? Non-European cultures and societies; the particularities of sub-classes, cults and alternative cultures?)
Possible to speak of two “strands” or tendencies in contemporary materialist thought, overlapping with each other, but with certain distinctive traits/concerns:
a. The semiotic-narrative strand: Althusser, Jean Baudrillard, Theodor Adorno, Jean-Francois Lyotard etc. Concerned with dismantling the objectivity of capitalist discourses, revealing its subjectivity and self-serving circularity instead; with showing the “simulacra” (Baudrillard) of signs in capitalist culture (Disneyland; news; advertising); with the free play of signs, the essential word-game, that is language in a postmodern disjunctive world; with the loss of moral “legitimacy” of metanarratives, arising out of capitalism’s disconnection of the sign.
b. The institutional-systemic strand: a kind of anthropology
of the modern, often inspired by theories of power struggle in society
(Marxism, colonial discourse analysis, gender, etc). (e.g., but certainly
not exhaustively, Lukacs, Gramsci, Castells, Harvey, Foucault, De Certeau).
Although this group is also very much interested in language and other
signs, they are also interested in the frameworks or contexts which produce
not only signs, but also identities, social structures, topographies, etc.
A micropolitics or historicism of society’s faultlines, fissures, clashes, hybrid moments, contradictions, their consequences, etc. Thus fundamentally “dialectical,” even if these writers don’t always/explicitly use the Marxist framework.
2. Michel Foucault
Various metaphors have been applied to F’s work, by himself and others: an “archaeology” of culture; a history of fissures and gaps; a study of the “technology of the self”; “the genealogy of problems, of the problematique”; the study of “politics as an ethics” (For some of F’s comments on his own project, see “On the Genealogy of Ethics,” and “Politics and Ethics: an Interview,” both reprinted in The Foucault Reader). He takes a certain pride in being contrary, difficult to categorize as a thinker.
Yet there are certain methodological and theoretical tenets which recur in his writings: a tendency to ask fundamental questions whose answers seem obvious at first, but which really challenge socially-constructed meanings (“What is an author? What is a text? What is madness? What is a criminal?” etc). Then there is the historical account, a revision of standard/received accounts, often working by foregrounding a seemingly inconsequential account or episode, or re-reading in contrary strain a certain text (e.g. the historical moment of “the text,” or “uniforms,” or a reading of Bentham’s Panopticism).
To use something of a mixed metaphor from F’s own images for his project, we might say that he’s interested in digging up (archaeology/history) existing (hypostasised) foundations, in order to create/discover fissures/cracks, upon which he builds his own historical account of institutional frames and their influence. The result is a destabilizing, open-ended, problematic account which foregrounds this problematic, which refuses to accept easy answers.
a. “What is an Author” -
“A Theory of the work does not exist,” F insists (p. 104) – why is this a typical Foucaultian question, and what is his strategy? What is the relation between the concept of “work”/text, and the “transcendental anonymity”/”author’s privileges” that F complains of?
“…we must locate the space left empty by the author’s disappearance,
follow the distribution of gaps and breaches, and watch for the openings
that this disappearance uncovers” (p. 105)
Why is F so interested in space? (cp. also the notion of the author’s name as a “classificatory function,” “marking off the edges of the text”, p. 107). What are the consequences for textual studies of this spatial analogy of the text?
“Author function” – “characteristic of the mode of existence, circulation, and functioning of certain discourses within a society” (p. 108). Can this statement be seen as a typically Foucaultian sociology of the text? (Keeping one eye on Marxism and materialist theories, how is this a materialism or economics of the text?)
What does the “systematic ensemble” of scientific discourses have to do with literature? (Think about the kinds of premises of discourses, claims, readings that Althusser questions in Reading Capital – the systematic characteristics or frameworks of texts and readings). Consequently, what does F imply by comparing literary criticism’s search for the author with the “Christian tradition’s” methods of authenticating texts? (Nostalgia, desire, the logos of unity – what is F’s attitude to this desire for the “unity of writing”?)
“…unlike the founding of a science, the initiation of a discursive practice
does not participate in its later transformations” (p. 116)
What are the political implications of F’s distinction here? Can we speak of the ideology of the “return to the origin”? Cp. F’s claim that “the author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning” (p. 119).
“The soul is the prison of the body” (“Body of the Condemned,” p. 177) – how does this notion of “soul” differ from more familiar ones? (Christian theology; romanticism’s world-spirit; moral discourses of the soul)
What, then, is the relationship between “soul” and “body” as F uses the terms? (If both are involved in discipline, austerity, docility)? So, e.g., the “soulful” discourse of the condemned/criminal; compared to the objective discipline of the soldier’s drill/uniforms, etc.
c. Panopticism and the “economy of visibility”
What is at stake in talking about an “economy of visibility” (p. 199)? How does this transform the visible, and vision, into an institutional act?
3. Max Weber
Protestant Ethic first published 1904-5. Weber was a student of law, a professor economics, and a sociologist – a mix of disciplines and methodologies which is evident in this work. This was part of a series of studies on the sociology of religion – a project which has clearly inspired more recent projects in comparative cultural economics/geographies (e.g. Samuel Huntingdon’s The Clash of Civilisations; David Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, etc).
Was not interested in universalized notions of “capitalism”, but rather in the specific manifestations of the capitalist spirit in different cultures – including the “rational capitalistic organization of (formally) free labour” and the “separation from business from the household” that he associates with “the Occident” (Intro to PE, p. 21).
a. Why does Weber refer to the “spirit of Capitalism” (esp.
p. 47)? Can we compare this with F’s notion of the imprisoning “soul”?
Is there any religious/metaphysical quality to Weber’s term?
(cp. p. 53, when he speaks of the “summum bonum of this ethic, the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life, is above all completely devoid of any eudaemonistic, not to say hedonistic, admixture”).
Also, the “obligation” (towards money-making) felt by the individual (p. 54)
b. “Spirit” as discipline? It “educates and selects” the individual (p. 55); it “dominates” the individual and society.
c. History, geography, ideology, culture: Weber says that
“the spirit of capitalism (in the sense we have attached to it) was present
before the capitalistic order. There were complaints of a peculiarly
calculating sort of profit-seeking in New England…as early as 1632” (p.
How is this a non-Marxist statement/strategy? What are its overlaps with Marxism, nonetheless (ideology, but not strictly the product of a specific base of factories, division of labour).
d. “Education” as ideology (p. 62) – cp. Marxist notions of exchange values? (Similar distinction between actual/physical work and its payments, and perceived/received notions of value, needs, etc.
e. Economic “rationalization” (p. 68) – in what ways is
this a kind of institution or system (cp. Marx; cp. Foucault – there is
a practical, material logic of following suit or going bankrupt; there
is a hegemonising, totalizing quality; it manifests itself in cultural/discursive
means. Yet Weber proceeds from a much more particular and individual
starting point – the business practices of an individual textile dealer
– than either Marx’s sweeping notions of capitalist theory, or Foucault’s
(at times) trans-individualistic institutional perspective.
EN 4242 – Week 9 Handout
Power/Knowledge: Discourse, Identity, Conflict
1. The “anthropology of the modern institution/sect” explored
by Foucault, Weber and others establishes a framework for the study of
the institutional contexts which shape literature, art, social identities
and structures, etc.
Affiliations with Marxism – possibly seen in:
a. Concern with an underlying ideology of institutions/sects (although they don’t use that term exactly – but they are concerned with underlying institutional agendas which drive and motivate discourse and praxis, and Foucault’s emphasis on “fissures and gaps” bears some comparison to Marxian views on ideological contradictions).
b. Theories of history: a common project of understanding and analyzing modernity from the point of view of a historical development – the creation of modern conditions through historical processes of socio-economic alienation and rationalization, the de-individualisation of the subject within political/institutional processes
c. Focus on (economic/political) dominance: if not always identified with the problematic class label of “the bourgeoise” (as in vulgar Marxism), there is nevertheless a conviction of a form of oppression, even if this has ramifications throughout society rather than merely on a particular oppressed group.
d. Hence the “ethics” (Foucault’s term) of historical/political/social analysis – the dialectical struggle is to mount an ethical criticism of society (rather than either a passive absorption into it, or the futility of a revolutionary doctrine).
2. Postcolonial discourse analysis:
Decolonisation in the 1960s onwards added a particular historical impetus to deconstructive/revisionist/ethical theories of society. Many of the French poststructuralists had some connection with the French colonies (especially in Algeria – Sartre, Althusser, Derrida, Lyotard, Cixous and others were all either born there, or in some ways involved in the struggle for independence – see Robert Young, White Mythologies chapter 1).
Poco theory might in some ways be seen as the extension of the Marxian theoretical framework to another aspect of society/history. “Race” takes the place of “the working class” as the Other (while in Feminist theory, which also has affinities with Marxian theory, the Other is the (M)other).
Affinities between poco and Marxist theories:
a. Positing of an ideological core to society – a central influential narrative/assumption/motivation which governs particular formations, cultures, texts. (For Poco, there are several strands: i) the racial superiority of the Europeans; ii) the moral/biological/ethical imperatives of racial segregation and white authority; iii) the political economy of colonialism and slavery; iv) the gender economy (miscegenation, desire, punishment etc) of race).
b. Similar historical scope and thematics: the “long industrial revolution” from late 18th C through modernism, the economy of empire, cities, factories, etc.
c. Dialectical and Material: colonial authority is tied to the base of the concrete particulars of the slave/colonized economy; colonial discourses/literatures can be read as superstructural corroborations/productions of that base. Nationalisation and decolonisation are inherently dialectical strategies.
3. Robert Young: analysis of racial discourses dealing with
“miscegenation” is intended to show the “push and pull of an irreconcilable
conflict between desire and aversion for interracial sexual union” (p.
a. How are some of the terms of psychoanalytic analysis taken on board (or not) by Young’s account? (A “political unconscious”? Compare Jameson’s refinement of/quarrel with Althusser, to come up with a notion of “layers” in narrative and society?)
b. Is Young correct in relating the contemporary “famous ‘melting-pot’ model of American identity as a form of racial fusion,” an “apparently liberal model” (p. 147) to the kinds of 19th C miscegenation discourses he discusses? If so, what does this say about history (repetition, recycle? Occlusions?)? About “liberalism,” “multiculturalism,” “multiracialism.”
c. What is the role of literature in all this? What techniques for “reading” (or making “readings”) does Young’s theory permit/facilitate?
d. Race and identity – does colonial discourse analysis complicate the Marxist tendency to ignore issues of race in its generalized or universalized theories of social identities? How do race and class inter-relate, and what are the problems posed to a materialist theory concerned with BOTH race and class?
How would we relate the kind of analysis Young makes, to other forms of poco theory which celebrate and capitalize on the hybrid, the mixed, the interstitial? E.g. Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture:
“What must be mapped as a new international space of discontinuous historical realities is, in face, the problem of signifying the interstitial passages and processes of cultural difference that are inscribed in the ‘in-between’, in the temporal break-up that weaves the ‘global’ text. It is, ironically, the disintegrative moment, even movement, of enunciation – that sudden disjunction of the present – that makes possible the rendering of culture’s global reach. And, paradoxically, it is only through a structure of splitting and displacement…that the architecture of the new historical subject emerges at the limits of representation itself….” (p. 217)
Is this a movement from Marxism/colonial discourse analysis, to postmodernism? Is that a continuum in theory, or a disjunction, or even a reversal of sorts?
Michael Holquist (in his introduction to The Dialogic Imagination) calls Bakhtin “a supreme eccentric” (p. xvi), which says something about his intellectual trajectory, project, affiliations, etc. On the one hand, his overwhelming project was nothing more or less than the novel – thus a big change from the base-centred materialism of Marxist theory. On the other hand, his close readings of the novel closely imply a certain history and politics which parallels Marxist interests – the rise of the novel is, after all, the sign of the rise of modern, commercial, socially-complex society (“a new era of world history”, p. 4).
Bakhtin’s theory of the form of the novel – evolving, dialogical, contesting and contested, parodic, openended, self-reflexive, carnivalesque – is thus implicitly or analogically (literature as the analogue for society) a theory of modern society.
a. What is Bakhtin’s point about the novel’s relationship (or rather lack thereof) with a “ruling social group”? (p. 4). What does this say about modernity, and about power and its articulation?
b. “polyglossia” – why does Bakhtin relate this to a “new cultural and creative consciousness,” “an actively polyglot world,” which marks the end of “the period of national languages, coexisting but closed and deaf to each other” (p. 12)?
c. “Epic” – which political/historical force or moment is this associated with? (“beginnings” and “peak times”, p. 13).
d. What is the point of Bakhtin’s opposition between the “distanced plane” which characterizes “the high genres”; and the “popular laughter” of folkloric narratives? (pp. 20-21).
e. Related to this: what is the point of the novel’s “special relationship with extraliterary genres, with the genres of everyday life” (p. 33)? What becomes of the notion of “literature” or “art” (or “value” in literature and art)?
f. Ethics: is Bakhtin’s theory an “ethical” one? In what ways? Perhaps related to this, what does he mean by “an unrealized surplus of humanness” (p. 37)? How is this related to the semantic openness, the self-consciousness, of the novel?
In the final analysis, does Bakhtin offer us a theory and terminology
which escapes the master-slave dialectic in which Marxism and other materialist
theories seem to be caught (i.e. they seem almost paradoxically to reiterate
and even reinforce the mechanistic, dehumanizing, dominant and abstracting
terms of the culture they criticize)?
EN 4242 – Week 10 Handout
The Production of Culture: Cultural Formations, or Art and Acquiescence
1. With Althusser and Jameson (in Political Unconscious), we have seen a contestation within Marxism, and the movement away from what is seen as the vulgar simplification of “homology” (i.e. assuming that the base simply creates cultural texts in its own image – i.e. the identity of base and culture). Yet the “micropolitical” perspectives and instances of local cultural formation (institutions, sects/groups, literatures) we’ve seen with Foucault, Weber, Young, even Bakhtin, indicate that history and power permeate all cultural formations, and are part of the constitutive process of subjectivities and narratives.
The readings for this seminar seek to define “culture” in a broad way that encompasses such moments and texts as music, painting, architecture, film, media, etc. We might say that where earlier Marxists and materialists tended to focus either on theories of ideology (as a unifying notion of social organization), or on the theory of a particular genre or epoch (the novel, realism, colonial desire) as the product and manifestation of a social impulse; more recent theory is interested in the immanence of culture – its omnipresence, its all-encompassing nature, its involvement with history, power, commerce, mass consciousness, all at once.
2. i.e. a convergence with what has often been called “Cultural
Studies,” which has several implicit assumptions that come close to recent
a. The unity of all cultural documents; the legitimacy of all such documents, as significant fields of study. This also means an expanding field of study, the constant addition of more aspects of culture to the list (food? Sexuality? Cults? Pathology? A wide range of fetish objects – bikes, weapons, uniforms, tattoos, comics, etc);
b. The tendency to foreground mass cultural texts (advertising, media, film, television, popular music, public performances etc), not necessarily as being better in value terms than traditionally “high” cultural texts (literature, painting, theatre), but as a means of righting the balance and giving a more representative picture of society;
c. An awareness of the commercialist impulses which motivate, influence, and direct popular cultural texts – i.e. the consumption of culture;
d. An interest in the fault lines of society (often because of ethnicity, gender, power, historical factors, global conjunctions and clashes) that may be revealed through a study of culture;
Recent materialist theory resembles cultural studies in that it foregrounds a wide range of (especially popular) cultural texts; it is an attempt to be descriptive and inductive (to a certain extent) in approach.
Hence the titles of both Adorno’s and Jameson’s pieces: the “schema” of mass culture, the “cultural logic” of late capitalism. Ostensibly, instead of working first from a theory of economic production (base), and then projecting these on certain cultural moments (often the high art of the bourgeoisie); the aim now is to work inductively from broad culture in order to arrive at a “schema” or “logic,” which then (of course) confirms certain aspects of the social productive process and its ideology.
3. Yet there is one crucial difference between Cultural Studies and Materialist Criticism: the former seems constantly to celebrate the plurality, complexity and significance of cultural texts, while the latter is almost always critical of them. There is a persistent tendency on the part of recent materialist criticism to see cultural texts as a loss or fall, from the authentic struggle still possible in modernism (or older moments – classicism/romanticism), into a degenerate, sprawling, proliferating mass. This valuation raises the question of how inductive and descriptive materialist theory’s project really is.
4. Thus a number of central questions come to mind in the
context of this discussion:
a. Is mass culture the same thing as what Marxism might see as a “proletarian culture”? If not, what does it do to the older divide between bourgeoisie/owners and marginalized workers? Is the master-slave dialectic relevant here? I.e. institutionalism (in Foucault’s terms) cuts across notions of haves and have-nots?
b. What does the foregrounding of culture (and the implicit or obvious assumption of the unity of cultural documents) do to the Marxist prejudice against “homology”? Can cultural studies answer the question of a non-homologous, non-identifying relationship between texts and society?
c. What is postmodernism seen in materialist terms? Why is it often played off against modernism? (Said, in Culture and Imperialism, spoke of the “utopian impulse” in modernism, despite its gloom and apparent cynicism).
The essay “Das Schema der Massenkultur” appeared in 1981 (translated and collected in The Culture Industry in 1991). It could be argued that Adorno wasn’t really interested in a descriptive account of contemporary culture at all, the title of his piece notwithstanding. In his insistence that the “contraband of utility” and the “work ethic” underlie all cultural texts, and interpolate and ensnare (“thrall”; p. 53/54) the individual, Adorno stays close to the older Marxist notions of a bourgeois system of production and ideology which falsifies reality and deceives the individual. The difference with contemporary culture, in Adorno’s eyes, is only in the scale and technology of cultural production, which are ideological in their own ways and mechanisms.
a. “Reality becomes its own ideology through the spell cast by its faithful duplication. This is how the technological veil and the myth of the positive is woven. If the real becomes an image insofar as in its particularity it becomes as equivalent to to the whole as one Ford car is to all the others of the same range, then the image on the other hand turns into immediate reality.” (p. 55).
How does technology turn the object into image (cp. Baudrillard’s notion of the “precession of simulacra”)? Adorno singles out aspects like Fordian production, photography and film – are his ideas valid here? Are they valid in other areas of cultural production?
b. “…art assumes a parasitic character,” when it is no longer distinguished from reality (p. 56). How is parasitical art related to socio-economic production? How does Adorno escape the vulgar Marxist trap of “homology”?
(Is the answer in his notion of “self-reflexivity,” p. 56? I.e. art does not have to consciously or slavishly corroborate economic status quo, when all it has to do is use as its subject matter the ubiquitous material produced by mass culture – hence biopics, etc. Even a film about the life of an individual is “already ideological,” according to Adorno, because the individual was in the first place already produced by society (cp. Foucault – everyday life as a system of discipline of the individual).
c. In that case, how does Adorno escape the vicious circle of “reality”? If “reality” is already always produced by society, then can art be criticized for taking that “reality” as its subject matter? Isn’t that a kind of truthfulness? (How does this affect our notions of postmodern “playfulness”? Are aesthetic judgements and differentiations possible anymore?)
Jameson mounts his analysis of “postmodernism” by beginning with postmodernism’s criticism (the sense of the “end of…” something) of “high modernism,” especially in architecture. Postmodernism is characterized by a number of adjectives – “kitsch,” “schlock,” “pastiche,” “depthlessness,” etc. If Jameson is not as derogatory as Adorno, he isn’t that far off. At the heart of this postmodern culture is a specific economic/social base: what Ernest Mandel calls “Late Capitalism.”
“…every position on postmodernism in culture – whether apologia or stigmatization – is also …necessarily, an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today” (p. 3)
a. Jameson prefaces his essay by saying that it is an exercise in “historical periodization,” and not an attempt at a “stylistic description” (p. 3) – what are the implications of this distinction? If, as he suggests at the beginning, postmodernism is a period which defines itself at the “end of” something, then is historical periodization only possible after the fact? Is that what Jameson is doing? Who decides when a period is over, and ready for analysis?
Is Jameson’s distinction an attempt to avoid criticism and value judgment? Is this because of the complicity of artistic texts in commercial production? But would this constitute Jameson’s own acquiescence in the dominant? (Note that he says “I am very far from feeling that all cultural production today is ‘postmodern’ in the broad sense I will be conferring on this term”, p. 6)
b. “a new kind of flatness or depthlessness” – due to the fact that the “object world itself” has “now become a set of texts or simulacra” – how has Jameson moved from Adorno’s technological focus (i.e. the object as simulacrum because it is literally and technologically produced en masse), to a kind of epistemology or consciousness of simulacra (i.e. the object is now perceived by everybody to be a simulacrum)?
Jameson wasn’t really interested in the kinds of Fordian uniform production that Adorno was interested in – he wasn’t interested in the fact of photography being able to make identical mass copies, etc. Indeed, his focus on “late capitalism” and “multinational capitalism” implies a post-Fordian base – flexible, adaptable, with multiple and long-term goals rather than short-term profits, with a greater stake and investment in society, with many different and diversified products rather than a small and fixed number of products.
I.e. Jameson (in contrast to Adorno) assumes a late capitalist transformation
of the object (into simulacrum) which takes place at a more pervasive,
insidious level of MNC cultural influence, the internalization of the individual’s
role and stake in capital culture, etc. Adorno was much more concerned
with the actual fact of (Fordian) technological reproducibility.
But does this also mean that Jameson is to a certain extent conceding the
fight? At least Adorno remained adamantly critical, and could conceive
of an order prior to that technological revolution – thus, also the possibility
of a consciousness resistant to such mental constructions (what he elsewhere
calls a “negative dialectic”?)
EN 4242 – Week 11 Handout
The Production of Culture: Discourses of the State/Polis
1. Marx delineated a very clear-cut class warfare, with a pervasive ideology which was simultaneously interpellating (of both “masters” and “slaves”) and yet also originating in and associated with a specific class (“bourgeois” ideology). Some of the materialist theorists we’ve since read, have moved away from this clearly-delineated class warfare, to describe general social conditions – the religious value-system, the institution, the MNC-ethos.
With the movement towards a universal condition (“postmodernism”), also comes the tendency to neglect local particulars/applications, to occlude agency (if not a class, then who?), and to invoke a pervasive atmosphere of cynical acquiescence – Adorno’s “parasitic” art, Baudrillard’s ubiquitous and precessional “simulacra,” etc.
Harvey and Deleuze/Guattari are useful writers with whom to end the course. They are very much part of the late materialist theoretical turn, concerned not with older class-based notions of power and consciousness, but working from the assumption of widely-interpellating entities (the city, institutions, corporations, the state) which function through complex and multi-layered narratives of various kinds. Yet this late materialist theoretical turn does not lead to quite the same implications as for Adorno, Jameson, Baudrillard and others – not the rather cynical and dispirited hegemony of a pervasive “postmodernism,” but an engaged criticism which insists on local resistances and differentiations, which is interested in exposing the particular machineries and agendas of power and consciousness.
A Marxist cultural geographer, Harvey is interested in applying the kinds of urban evolutions (industrialization, urban flight, decline) studied by the “Chicago school” in the 1930s onwards, to a Marxist critique of the city. Underlying his work is thus the political and economy agenda of the city – not a faceless deterioration, not a mindless interpellation, but a directed and motivated undoing of the city, on the part of urban planning complicit with business and industry. Thus transportation policy (the image and structure of roads, rapid transits, etc) cannot be taken in isolation, as if this symbolism and structure appears gratuitously (although Harvey is interested in sign systems), but rather must ultimately be seen in the context of economic plans to create industrial areas, to move the workforce to and from those areas, and to separate the owners (in rich suburbs, etc) from this distasteful scene.
Harvey is one of the influential thinkers (together with sociologist/theoreticians
like Henri Lefebvre, Pierre Bourdieu and of course Foucault) who articulated
a theory of space itself as constituting identity and consciousness – the
symbolism of spatial forms, but also the way we think about space as a
concept, the way space structures our thinking. (Virilio of course
has a particular take on this – our conception of space itself is further
modified by the speed and forms of technology, so that space as it were
compresses in our thinking). Space is not merely narrative (the city
as a text), but consciousness, mental construct, habitus, mental space.
Harvey’s concrete attention to the forms of and attitudes to the city, also allow him to make a rather more detailed distinction between modernism and postmodernism than Jameson perhaps accomplishes – postmodernism is marked, not just by the emergence of a certain style of art, but by the change from Corbusian high modernist cities (mass produced, high-density, uniform), to eclectic and stylistically plural ones.
Motives of postmodern style – permanent spectacle of diversity and unity; “ephemerality,” “jouissance”; the “search for a fantasy world”. What does this elide or gloss over? Slums, ethnic marginalisation, the actual “schizophrenia” of the city (Harvey follows Jencks).
3. Deleuze and Guattari:
In some sense a representative late materialist theoretical turn: the injection of a plurality of theoretical discourses (especially psychoanalysis, but also ethnology, geography, history, political theory, literary criticism, art history, etc); the reliance on figurative language in theory in order to convey crucial notions outside of a positivist/rational manner; the conviction of the totality of the inscribing/interpellating machinery (the “socius” – all-encompassing structure?); the easy analogy between the individual and the state pathology (from “desire” to “desiring machines” and “desire production”).
Yet they lead up to, and constantly assume, a critical engagement with the status quo – the notion of a “schizoanalysis” (in the final parts of Anti-Oedipus) is a means of splitting the purported unity of the urstaat – a vitally deconstructive project. Also, although they are interested in abstractions – or rather, the ways in which the state projects and displaces its real anxieties onto abstract notions – their (materialist and psychoanalytic) analysis is always interested in linking and relating these abstractions to local and particular causes/concerns – the “territorialisation” of colonial/imperial/national endeavours; the mechanical metaphor (but also the actual dominance of machinery) of late industrial society, and its creation of “automata”; the desire-functions of social praxis like sexuality, commerce, violence; the role of individual artistic texts as significant articulations of such an ideology.
To a certain extent, Anti-Oedipus (as the title suggests) is as much a meta-theoretical discourse (a discourse about and against other discourses, including Freud’s), as it is a theoretical work.
a. Why focus on the Oedipal complex? Is this justified, as a central trope of late capitalist society? (What is at stake in Freud’s Oepidal theory? D&G feel that it is the end of desire (p. 24), the supplanting of the mechanism of desire, into the static terms of Oedipal displacement). What is the role of the “schizophrenic” – the constant wavering, the dialectical play which is “historical”.
b. What is the “body without organs” – taken from the level of the individual paranoiac, applied to capitalism (“capital is indeed the body without organs of the capitalist,” p. 10).? How is it related to “production,” capital, and surplus? What is the motivation implicit in this body, according to D&G’s conception of it (smoothens, spreads, redistributes, but while leaving no trace, no “engendered” productivity.
How does this notion of “body” compare with Foucault’s? (D&G call it a “delirium” – is this anti-discipline, non-disciplinary in F’s sense?)
c. Why do D&G compare desiring production to machinery?
Why do they prefer this image to the notion of the “id”? (Material,
present, active – “it is everywhere”, p. 1).
SELECT (AND BRIEFLY ANNOTATED) BIBLIOGRAPHY OF MATERIALIST CRITICISM
I. Eighteenth/Nineteenth Century Discussions on Political Economy
A. Division of Labour, Alienation, "Torpor," Criticism
Adam Smith, An Inquiry into...The Wealth of Nations, especially Chapter I of Book I. (A useful 1-volume paperback edition is the 1976 University of Chicago Press edition). This is perhaps the classic discussion of the economic benefits of the division of labour, which of course sets the terms for Marxist criticisms of the reification and alienation this causes.
Thomas Robert Malthus. Essay on the Principles of Population. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976). Malthus has been identified as part of a Christian and conservative political economy concerned with defending the rights of Tory landowners. The professed moral concern for the condition of the working class in this essay, is arguably part of a project to limit the charitable responsibilities and burdens of the upper classes. Nevertheless, Malthus has some interesting things to say about the effects of an unchecked population on working class habits, values, physical health - a kind of theory of working class consciousness as the corollary, not of division of labour etc, but of welfare state.
Edmund Burke, "Thoughts and Details on Scarcity" (a pamphlet presented to William Pitt in 1795; published in 1800; reprinted in The Works of Edmund Burke, Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1889, vol. V). Burke considered himself a disciple of Adam Smith, and in this article uses Smithian defenses of the "invisible hand" of the market to argue for a minimal role of the government (i.e. "laissez faire"), even in times of famine and hardship. There are thus similarities between Burke and Malthus, in their treatment of the working class as entities governed by mathematical rules and proportions of reproduction and food supply. "The laboring people are only poor because they are numerous. Numbers in their nature imply poverty" (p. 134). Burke also made a Smithian argument about the inevitability, even the usefulness, of self-interests in commercial society: the "benign and wise Disposer of all things...obliges men, whether they will or not, in pursuing their own selfish interests, to connect the general good with their own individual success" (p. 141).
Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Biographia Literaria (London: Dent, 1965). The early chapters, especially chapters 4 and 5, are a long (some say long-winded) account of the history of an idea - philosophical passivism, which he associates with Empiricist philosophy (Locke, Hartley etc), and with the modern phenomena of popular literature.
William Wordsworth. "Preface  to the Lyrical Ballads"
(included in the Oxford University Press edition of the Lyrical Ballads,
William Wordsworth. "Preface to the Edition of 1815" and "Essay, Supplementary to the Preface" (both found in Wordsworth's Poetical Works. London: Oxford University Press, 1904). Both these essays (together with the 1800 preface) are the implicit ground of Coleridge's comments in the Biographia. Wordsworth's comments about the "torpor" into which the modern individual is likely to fall, because of the conditions of urban and industrial life, as well as his view that the great poet is capable of making a "conquest" over the minds of his readers; are met by Coleridge's arguments that the answer to modern torpor is not the authority of the great poet, but the fostering of the individual's critical, self-conscious faculty.
Matthew Arnold. Various writings, including the essays usefully collected in Matthew Arnold's Essays in Criticism, ed. G. K. Chesterton (London: Dent, 1964), and of course Culture and Anarchy. Arnold's critique of modern society in Culture and Anarchy is multiply-edged: it criticises the growing Victorian "faith in machinery," but also the "anarchy" threatened by the mental decline of both the working class and the upper classes (a social critique in which the influence of and resemblance to both Carlyle and Coleridge is evident). His social and cultural nostrum, a "disinterested" position of criticism, is both a building upon Coleridgean notions of self-reflexive criticism, as well as an anticipation of later materialist thinking and its concern with a critical position somehow "outside" complicity and ideology (e.g. Adorno's "negative dialectic").
Thomas Carlyle. Past and Present (New York: New York University Press, 1965). The Victorian sage's pronouncements on his society's evils, as powerful social forces ("supply and demand," unemployment, low wages and starvation) which nevertheless come across as abstractions in Carlyle's text, and thus as admitting few concrete remedies. Offers moral palliatives to problems of economic recession and exploitative labour conditions, drawn from the lessons learnt from a medieval abbey and its moral-economic organisation. Carlyle's nostalgia and moral abstraction a strategy of ideological reinforcement of structures of capitalism, whether intended or otherwise?
John Ruskin. Unto this Last and other Essays on Art and Political Economy. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1907. Primarily known as an art patron, Ruskin also makes some comments on what he sees as the harmful effects of trade cycles, the free market, and other aspects of the present mode of production which resemble a "lottery." Ruskin argues that this is not merely an inescapable and mechanical aspect of production, but due in significant part to human agency: the fact that "masters cannot bear to let any opportunity of gain escape them" and rush into any opportunity to maximise profits. The result for the working class is often "three days of violent labour, and three days of drunkenness." Ruskin is thus in some ways making an argument for a moral interventionist form of economy which would regularise wages (even at the cost of only moderate profits to entrepreneurs).
James Chandler, Wordsworth's Second Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984). Useful section (chapter nine) tracing the rise of the term "ideology" in the aftermath of the French Revolution, also showing some of the early reversals and contentions regarding the notion of "ideology." Is it really, as Tracy wanted to believe, a positive science of ideas, or at least a value-free intellectual enterprise? Or is it always already implicated in a "hermeneutics of suspicion" (Mark Poster) involving false consciousness, intellectual feters, distortions?
P. G. M. Dickson The Financial Revolution in England. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1967. Massive tome, but one of the classic studies in the rise of a credit system and its political/social implications.
A number of well-known "social condition" novels (or "condition of England"
novels) in the Victorian period also bring up issues of factory labour,
its debilitating effects on the morals and health of the working class,
the oppressive system of wages, etc. These include
Benjaming Disraeli. Sybil: Or, the Two Nations.
Charles Dickens. Hard Times.
Elizabeth Gaskell. Mary Barton.
Elizabeth Gaskell. North and South.
Charlotte Bronte. Shirley.
Emile Zola. Germinal (Not an English novel, of course, but considered one of the classic novels railing against the evils of capitalist exploitation and middle-class indifference to the sufferings of the workers).
Karl Marx. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, ed. Frederick Engels. Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. (New York: International Publishers, 1967). In 3 volumes, this is the compendium of Marx's mature theory. Most of what are often considered his key notions ("surplus value," "reification," "alienation") are found in the first volume.
Karl Marx. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International Publishers, 1963. Marx's analysis of the succession of revolutions in mid-century France is part of his theory of history as repetitive, as more of the same (i.e. the coming to political power by a group of middle-class owners of property, who borrow from the past only to install the social forms appropriate to the perpetuation of their power). Contains the famous lines "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and trasmitted from the past" (p. 15).
Frederick Engels. The Condition of the Working Class in England. This was the eye-opening account of the appalling conditions of industrial labour in England in 1848. Engels exposed the inhuman hours, the lack of rest, the wages barely sufficient to keep life, child labour, dangerous working conditions, and the indifference of the employers to the injuries, death and suffering of the workers, in the age before Unions.
Two useful "shortcut" books (which nevertheless stay quite true to Marx's
1. Marx and Engles on Literature and Art, selected and edited by Lee Baxandall and Stefan Morawski (New York: International General, 1974). Marx and Engels did not write extended pieces on the role and function of literature and art in ideology and economic production, so this volume is a useful compilation of the more fragmentary comments they did make on the subject.
2. Marx in His Own Words, ed. Ernst Fischer. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968. Basic, but nice introduction, with a schematic organisation of Marx's thought on different topics.
II. Contemporary Marxist Theories of Art and Criticism
Raymond Williams. Marxism and Literature (1977).
Williams' main project here is to restore language (including and especially
literary language) to the role of a social function, determined by social
relations between individuals, rather than as an immutable system fixed
by metaphysical or objective relations. To return to such an understanding
of language as social system, is to see it as the product of real relationships
between individuals; this in turn relies on an appropriate understanding
of the "social" - i.e. historical, shaped by human processes, de-mystified.
"Literature is the process and result of formal composition within the social and formal properties of language"
Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory. (London: Verso, 1976). An important early work of Eagleton's for a number of reasons, including for its survey of literary criticism (in the tradition of Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, the Scrutiny school, "practical criticism"). This "liberal humanist" activity essentially confers on criticism an air of value-neutral, innocent "objectivity," even as it slants the whole process of criticism by its elitist conception of literature and reading, its privileging of the personal experience of the (bourgeois) poet/author, its narrowing of the "proper" themes of literature, and so on. Also, Eagleton writes against the naive assumption that base and superstructure (or forces of production, and culture) are related in a simple or homologous fashion. The product (the novel, art, culture) will bear the "impress" of production, but its form will not necessarily (or usually) point to its productive origins. Hence the role and function of criticism in uncovering conditions of production, history, and "the real."
Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981). Significant in its incorporation of psychoanalytic theory into a reading of a social and political unconscious, and in its insistence on a properly critical (i.e. for his purposes, Marxist) "interpretation" to uncover the historical real in society and its cultural products. Readings of Balzac, Conrad, Gissing and others utilize psychoanalytic notions of repression, desire, Oedipal conflicts, as well as other theoretical notions (archetypes, form criticism, symbolic analysis) to show how writing is a "mediation" of the real: "history...as an absent cause,...is inacessible to us except in textual form" (p. 35). "It follows, then, that the interpretive mission of a properly structural causality will...find its privileged content in rifts and discontinuities within the work, and ultimately in a conception of the former 'work of art' as a heterogeneous and....schizophrenic text" (p. 56).
M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981). This is not a "Marxist" exercise, of course, but there are many critical and political affinities between Bakhtin's project and Marxism. Bakhtin's reading of modern society as essentially "heterovox" bears some resemblances to (for example) Raymond Willliams's notion of the struggle between "dominant" and "emergent" classes, or to Eagleton's insistence on criticism's task of reading the clashes or fissures in bourgeois texts, or in Jameson's notion of the "hetergeneous" and even "schizophrenic" nature of the text. Bakhtin's readings of form as motivated by power, is a close cousin to many Marxist readings of the ideology of certain literary and cultural forms (although of course while the Marxists tend to regard the novel generally as a bourgeois invention, Bakhtin celebrates it as the new and dynamic instrument which opposes and critiques the closed semantic systems of older forms like the epic.
Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990). Not a history of aesthetics, as Eagleton is quick to declare, but a reading of aesthetic theories themselves as motivated constructs. (Thus a kind of expansion of his project of critically reviewing literary criticism in the first part of Criticism and Ideology - a kind of Marxist metacriticism, which continually and dialectically turns the critical lenses onto criticism and theories of art themselves).
Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.
(Durham: Duke University Press, 1991). Marxist criticism meets globalization
theories meets cultural studies. Jameson reads a range of cultural
texts (visual arts, pop art, science fiction, architecture, literature,
advertising) in terms of the productive influence of late (global, multinational)
capitalism, which engenders certain characteristic formal and stylistic
features: pastiche, nostalgia (the simulacrum of the past), a concern with
surface (i.e. a depthlessness), the "waning of affect" (the disappearance
of emotion), etc.
III. Ideology as "False Consciousness"
Georg Lukacs, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism. Addresses contemporary realism (James Joyce, Thomas Mann) as part of a "common ideological factor." This is a reaction against a kind of bourgeois critical method which (to his mind) over-exaggerates stylistic difference, playing up the cult of the individual genius of the author, and thus neglecting what Lukacs sees as the common ideology underlying different texts. After acknowledging the differences in Joyce's and Mann's respective uses of the interior monologue, for Lukacs these stylistic differences are less important than "the view of the world, the ideology or weltanschauung underlying a writer's work"
Georg Lukacs, The Historical Novel. A theory of the novel-as-history, and the novel-instead-of-history. Lukacs reads nineteenth-century novels and novelists in terms of their response to the challenge of history, giving full marks to those who, like Walter Scott, create characters and narrative forms which "always represent social trends and historical forces." What makes Scott's art an "objective" record of history is the difficult balance of values/attitudes/sympathies (between Georgian regime and Jacobean rebels, between heroism and practicality, etc) that his art achieves - i.e. Scott's refusal to "romanticise" history. In the middle of the nineteenth century, with the triumphant installation of bourgeois dominance after the 1848 revolutions, art is transformed to "a pictorial and decorative grandeur" (e.g. Flaubert).
Georgi Plekhanov, "Art for Art's Sake" (from Art and Social Life,
originally a lecture given in 1912). Plekhanov deals with the separation
of art from its "social environment" - the belief in "art for art's sake"
is thus a bourgeois myth, perpetuating the seeming independence of art
from society. In this way, art is a kind of surplus culled from the
labours of the proletariat, while denying that dependence. At the
same time, art justified "for art's sake" can also deny its ideological
involvement in the whole superstructure of bourgeois ideology - i.e. can
pretend to an objective and independent status, while nevertheless reinforcing
ARTICLE ON SINGAPORE ADVERTISING
(European Journal of Cultural Studies 6:
2 2003, pp. 131-156)
TEXTUAL SPACES, SOCIAL IDENTITIES AND RACE IN SINGAPORE ADVERTISING
Advertising in Singapore contests certain notions which prevail in much of the current advertising theory: notions of the advertisement as ‘commodity sign’, removed from the real particularities of social contexts, in order to interpellate consumer-readers into a uniform set of ‘symbolic exchange values’ (Williamson 1978; Goldman 1992). The influence of Marxist thought in such theory is clear. However, this method of analysis is not remunerative in the Singapore context, chiefly because of its small size, highly multi-racial and multi-cultural society, and strong degree of governance. These are manifested in a number of ways: indirectly (for example, in the creation of the so-called ‘Asian values’ which are meant to resist ‘Western influence’), and directly, in the form of media and advertising regulations, and government advertising campaigns which create signs quite different from the commodity signs touted by neo-Marxist theory. In addition, racial and cultural sensitivities are registered in textual dialogics which interrogate both that theory, as well as the constructed identities (whether commodified or governanced) in advertising texts.
(Key words: Advertising theory; commodity signs; values construction; social identities; race and governance)
INTRODUCTION: ‘COMMODITY SIGNS’, THE ‘MULTICULTURAL STATE’, AND ABSTRACT
Recent theory has tended to see advertising as a homogenising social force, working as part of the market system to transform ‘real’ differences (usually figured nostalgically as a mode of praxis somehow prior to, and more ‘concrete’ than, exchange) into the abstract exchange values of global capitalism. Inspired by structural linguistics, Marxism, and theories of media technologies and their structuring effects, these theories essentially see advertisements as messages which interpellate their readers into codes of interpretation, which are at the same time forms of consciousness and value systems. Thus, working in part from theories of speech communities and communicative processes, and in part from the old and still-recurring idea of advertising as the spell cast by producers of goods on consumers, Judith Williamson (1978: 13) insists that advertising ideology, the ‘meaning made necessary by the conditions of society while helping to perpetuate those conditions’, results in the creation of ‘a social being, a common culture’. This is a view shared by Stuart Ewen’s (1976) and Erving Goffman’s (1976) studies of the information techniques of advertising signs, and the ways in which the viewing subject is shaped and transformed by advertising messages. According to such theories, the abstracted viewer - Ewen’s ‘commodity self’, a monstrous pastiche of different parts and attributes valorised by advertisements, and Goffman’s diminished, child-like female figure - is effectively removed from any alternative means of constructing social identities, interpellated fully into the homogenous and hegemonic system of exchange values.
Where plurality is acknowledged, this is seen as the ‘selves’ structured in relation to different goods, or by the choices represented by different goods. However, the heterogeneities of various class constructions and tensions tend to be overlooked within Williamson’s conviction that ‘classes’ of goods effectively supplant other social distinctions:
But in our society, while the real distinctions between people are created by their role in the process of production, as workers, it is the products of their own work that are used, in the false categories invoked by advertising, to obscure the real structure of society by replacing class with the distinctions made by the consumption of particular goods. (1978: 13)
Williamson’s formulation locates social meaning in ‘the consumption of particular goods’, emphasising the passivity and alienation of the subject (from ‘class’ and other more concrete, social distinctions) by ignoring interpretative processes - the actual, concrete ways in which viewers construct meanings (and are not merely constructed by such meanings), and the possibilities of alternative meanings and identities based for example on conservative or fundamental religions, differences in gender and sexual orientation, racial and linguistic differences, and other distinct sub-cultural forces. Williamson herself, analysing an advertisement for ‘Goodyear’ tyres, argues that the ‘transference of significance’ on which the advertisement relies ‘does not exist as completed in the ad, but requires us to make the connection’ (1978: 19). However, this interpretative activity is seen, in the well-known Marxist diatribe, as a mere illusion in which the subject, despite seeming to act, merely falls passively into an already-constituted system of structures of meaning. Jean Baudrillard (1994: 15, 92-93) figures this as the ‘sorcery of the social relation’ which is created by capitalism, in which on the one hand ‘empty’ advertising signs no longer even refer to an object, and on the other hand, false social relations between individuals in society are created and inserted into the social text. The uniformity of global capitalist culture is the uniformity of ‘hyperreal’, empty signs, the paradigms of which (for Baudrillard) are Disneyland, the shopping mall, media and advertising.
Thus, viewer passivity is only one aspect of the advertising sign, according to such theories: since these signs are ‘symbolic exchange values’, they also reduce social difference to uniform conformity to the commodity-sign (Baudrillard 1981: 30). Mark Poster (1990: 46), for example, argues that television advertisements are ‘monologic’, thus preventing the possibility of viewer interaction and dialogue, and also [undermining] the referentiality of discourse necessary for the rational ego’. Building on Williamson’s theory of the commodity-sign, Robert Goldman (1992: 5) argues that the advertisement serves to create a new significance which overrides (as it over-writes) the functional ‘use-value’ of the object: thus, ‘the functional utility of a Rolex watch is supplemented by its image of affluent status’. The end result is that ‘the commodity form universalizes social relations’, creating relationships of “equivalence” which come to determine human relations (20-24).
The geo-political (and geo-economic) implication of ‘universalising’ theories of the commodity-sign is that centres of the global informational and entertainment corporations and industries - America predominates, together to a much lesser extent with other economic and cultural centres like Britain and Japan - are installed as the hegemonic issuers of values through media signs which are bought and consumed passively by global viewers. Accompanying this is the collapse of media signs into a fundamental homogeneity, where only slight and non-signifying variations on a single theme (the formula of ‘Classic Hollywood Cinema’, the body proportions of the Ford Agency model, etc) are possible. Textual form is power, but it is also ethnography, as Mary Cross (1996: 2), in a formulation which is itself unconsciously ethnographic, argues:
Profoundly American, the language of advertising insists upon speed, enshrining the perpetual present in repetitions worthy of a Gertrude Stein, giving in its incantation a material present to words as it pries them loose to code a commodity culture.
In a similarly ethnocentric gesture, Michael B. Goodman (1996: 85) uses another American literary icon, William Burroughs, as the paradigm for the ‘fractured language’ which, in his view, is the ‘universal language’ of advertising.
Other theorists, like Sut Jhally, have been more ready to recognise that advertising value depends upon the interpretative labour and viewing time of audiences. Thus what advertisements sell is specifically ‘audiences’ watching time’, which pays (networks) for the cost of buying and transmitting programmes (1990: 72). However, Jhally sees the audience as an undifferentiated mass, abstracted as surplus (viewing) value; differentiation, where it occurs, is part of media’s strategies of ‘narrowcasting’, which still construct viewer identities, as passive segmented viewers of the ‘real and full meaning’ provided by advertising (1990: 51, 90).
Such theory offers little possibility for the role of advertising signs in the construction of local and particular identities and value-systems. Where advertising scholarship is less strongly influenced by Marxist theories of exchange value, however, there is greater acknowledgement of the significant role of cultural differences in the economy of the commodity-sign. Fairfid Caudle (1994: 122), for example, analyses international magazine advertising to show how a range of textual (both verbal and non-verbal) devices register national boundaries and differences, suggesting the more complex role which an economy of cultural difference may play in advertising. A study on the European Community suggests that cultural differences among the neighbouring European nations are quite clearly marked by the different images and values which are encoded in the advertisements of different nations, as well as by differing interpretative responses (Kahle et al, 1994). Not surprisingly, there were significant differences between the stereotype or impression of a particular people which advertisers from other countries relied on in their campaigns and texts, and the actual value-systems and self-perception of the people themselves.
Drawing on theories of multiculturalism developed in the contexts of postcolonial and diaspora studies and the sociology of ethnicity, permits a more complex theoretical framework for the analysis of advertising signs, one which acknowledges the multiplicity of identities against which any universalizing set of values must work. In the first place, it is necessary to register ethnic and linguistic positions as a difference from or resistance to the abstract identity fostered by media and commodity signs: as Hall (2000: 218-219) observes in the context of Britain, the ‘seamless web of a transcendent’ British state is an illusion created by the constant elision of real racial and cultural differences. This elision of difference may take place via a number of symbolic mechanisms: for example, Sassen (1996: 192-193) speaks of the ways in which ‘corporate architecture’ and spatial economy in the ‘new city’ work to relegate the immigrant other to a ‘devalued, downgraded space’. Ethnic difference (from the economically dominant white majority) thus comes over time to be identified not only with a marginal space of ‘the ghetto’, but also a marginal social identity of unemployment, poverty, crime and familial crisis. Media images tend to reinforce socio-economic hierarchies, relying on and reinforcing existing types and values in order to sell programmes (and advertising time) to mass audiences. As Wilson and Gutierrez (1995: 117) observe, even when changing racial demographics force media corporations to include images of minority races in their programmes, they are usually portrayed ‘as filtered through Anglo eyes’. The resultant image of the other is thus one that is ‘palatable, and even persuasive, to the White majority to which it was directed’, and ultimately becomes codified as the accepted type of that ethnic identity (1995: 117).
There is thus a fundamental similarity in the motives of the media sign and the politics of the multicultural state: both are interested in eliding difference in the name of an abstract commonality, or else of re-presenting difference so that it becomes ‘palatable’ to the masses, and serviceable to the larger entity of the market or the nation. Indeed, as Anderson (1983: 37-40) points out, the rise of ‘national consciousness’ in Europe is closely linked to (among other things) the advent of ‘print capitalism’ and the creation of a vast market of readers in the vernacular languages which came to bind citizens together as national communities. While commodity signs seek to unify a market of consumers in order to sell products, national discourses appeal to a unified state consciousness in order to foster social stability and cohesion for a political mandate. In both cases, diversity and linguistic-ethnic otherness are potentially destabilizing factors, and must be contained within signifying strategies and policies which transform difference into neutral and non-threatening forms, if they do not elide it altogether.
‘MULTICULTURAL’ OR ‘ASIAN’ SINGAPORE: CONTAINING DIFFERENCE THROUGH
LINGUISTIC POLICY AND VALUE SYSTEMS
The case of Singapore is interesting both as a challenge to the Marxism-dominated theories of the commodity sign, and as a case study of state-initiated policies and discourses to contain ethnic and cultural differences. Singapore, a small island nation (population around 4.01 million) whose closest neighbours are Malaysia and Indonesia, gained independence from the British in 1965, and has since then embarked on an ambitious programme of infrastructural and economic development, and the construction of a multicultural nationalism. Multiculturalism is written explicitly into Singapore’s political, social and economic landscape: its national pledge avows ‘one united people…regardless of race, language or religion’, while its tourist promotional material markets its ‘diversity of experiences’ due to its ‘special multiracial quality’ (Singapore Tourism Board 2002: 1, 15). As Chiew (1978: 132) points out, ‘rituals of publicly expressing identification with national symbols and the pledge to serve the nation, not one’s own race exclusively,…must have led to the formation of national identity among the majority’. With a racial composition of 76.8 percent Chinese, 13.9 percent Malays, 7.9 percent Indians, and 1.4 percent other races, Singapore is effectively a Chinese-dominated society which nevertheless has an ideological commitment to racial harmony and equality (Department of Statistics 2001: 3). Government documents and publications are written in the four official languages of English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil, and the school system requires students to study a second language (other than English) according to each student’s ‘mother tongue’, defined by race. Linguistically, English (the main medium of instruction in all schools, as well as the language of everyday business and government) plays the role of a ‘broker’ language medium between the different ethnic groups, although most multi-lingual Singaporeans use a language other than English at home (Chiew 1978: 130-133).
As might be expected, such policies may do much to alleviate the more overt tensions and hostilities which might otherwise arise between the different racial groups, but they also foreground issues of racial definition and categorization (Chua 1998: 190). Thus the racial category of ‘Chinese’, which may be a necessary construct in Singapore’s multicultural project (for example, as representing one ethnic group in its balance and dealings with other groups, or in crafting a ‘mother tongue’ policy), depends upon a linguistic equation of Chinese ethnicity with the Mandarin dialect (as the official Chinese tongue), which in turn requires a suppression of other possible Chinese identities. Similarly, ‘Indian’ is often equated with the Tamil ethnic group and language (the Tamils for historical reasons being the largest Indian community in Singapore), thus effectively glossing over the wide range of ethnicities and languages which obtain in the Indian sub-continent. There is no questioning the administrative effectiveness of these definitions and the policies that depend on them: from 1990 to 2000, the number of Singaporean Chinese who used one of the Chinese dialects (Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew being the most commonly spoken) as the language most frequently spoken at home, dropped from 50.3 percent to 30.7 percent (Department of Statistics 2000: 4). The percentage is likely to drop even further in future, as Mandarin is taught in schools as the de facto ‘Chinese’ tongue, is reinforced by Singapore media stations which dub (imported) dialect shows into Mandarin, and increasingly functions as a ‘marketplace’ language shared by (especially younger) Chinese Singaporeans who might belong to two different dialect groups.
Thus while government educational and linguistic policies and media guidelines seek to regularize ethnic categories within a harmonious multiculturalism, the result is often that ‘people are made more conscious of their origins, rather than less’ (Clammer 1998: 41). Not only does the multicultural model seek to promote social harmony (paradoxically, and perhaps counterproductively) by ‘continually reinforce[ing] the four-race model’ (Clammer 1998: 41), but the racial categories themselves require a certain linguistic and cultural violence in order to make them ‘fit’. Government policies and government-linked media initiatives, in representing the ‘official’ racial categories and languages as appropriate and desirable, often have to downplay and even denigrate unofficial racial definitions, most commonly the speaking of other Chinese dialects than Mandarin. As Hall (2000: 209-211) observes, there is in fact a constant tension between the desideratum of a ‘multicultural’ state, and the real pluralities of a ‘multi-cultural’ society such as Singapore’s.
One way in which the problems of ‘multi-culturalism’ are offset in Singapore, is by minimalizing intra-national differences in comparison to international differences, especially within the framework of an ‘Asian’ and ‘Western’ contrast. This is a strategy which Singapore shares with its postcolonial and multi-cultural neighbour Malaysia, which (especially under the leadership of its present Prime Minister Mahathir) has made a policy of unifying the nation by highlighting the ‘threat’ posed to it by Western powers. Thus Mahathir’s rallying cry during the early stages of the Asian economic crisis in 1997, was to call for the nation’s support of tough fiscal policies as an attempt to defeat the perceived attacks on the Malaysian currency by U.S. traders like George Soros. In addition to such ad hoc vilifications of ‘Western’ threats, Malaysia uses media and advertising regulations to propagate social values which are seen as positive and healthy, while keeping out those values and influences seen as foreign and harmful. In addition to monitoring performed by Malaysia’s Ministry of Information and the Advertising Standards Authority of Malaysia (ASAM), advertisements in Malaysia have to conform to the principle of ‘Rukunegara’, a set of guidelines to ensure conformity to national values and identity. Although Islam, the religion of the majority and ruling Malay race, is not forced upon the other races, it inevitably forms the backbone of national policies, influencing public discourses such as advertising and media. Thus advertisements promoting pork and pork products (offensive to the Muslim religion) are banned, as are the many alcohol advertisements and those featuring female nudity common in Western advertising campaigns (Hashim 1994: 10). In addition, advertisements broadcast on the two government television channels (TV1 and TV2) must either be produced in Bahasa Malaysia, the Malay language or feature Bahasa Malaysia subtitles (Hashim 1994: 11).
Singapore’s situation is in some ways more complex than that of Malaysia, most obviously because it lacks the latter’s use of Islam and the Malay language as the primary elements of a national culture and media policy. Nor is Singapore as historically- and culturally-homogeneous as Japan, which it otherwise resembles (certainly much more than it does America) in being at the same time an advanced consumer culture with a collectivist rather than individualistic society (McCarty 1995: 33). Singapore shares with Malaysia the vilification of ‘Western’ values and influences, associated with the centres of the global media industries in the U.S. and Western Europe. However imprecise and unfounded some of the criticisms of negative Western values might be (the oft-cited ones include sexual permissiveness, lack of filial and familial coherence, lack of respect for elders and state institutions, and a consequent moral decay, drug abuse and high crime), there exists what might be termed a prominent rhetoric of ‘contagion’ or ‘pollution’ which constantly warns against the passive and uncritical acceptance of the codes of Western media signs (Benjamin 1976: 123 and n. 23; Heng and Devan 1992: 351). This, according to Ho (1989: 673), is part of the anti-colonial dynamic in which ‘the governments of most newly independent countries adopted a policy of deliberately downgrading Western colonial values in favour of the revival of traditional values’. In contrast, ‘good’ or ‘core’ Asian values are defined by the Singapore government as a common heritage shared by the different ethnic groups in Singapore, encompassing things like filial piety, respect for elders, strong kinship ties and social or civic responsibility (Yeo 1998: 2). The emphasis on common Asian values thus serves not only to strengthen the government’s mandate for policies which would protect the nation against external influences and interventions, but also to downplay ethnic and cultural differences in the name of a common national identity and culture. The fact that these values are used in governmental discourses as part of a project of fostering national cohesion, is seen in the anxiety concerning ‘bad Asian values’, which are either retrogressive and inimical to economic and infrastructural modernisation, or (more pointedly) at odds with the neutralising effect required in the project of national integration (Stravens 1996: 277; Chen 1977: 30-38).
Strict advertising guidelines also ensure that content conforms (if within broad limits) to the ‘core values’ identified as conducive to national unity and stability (Birch 1993: 58-59, Tan and Soh 1994). Such common-denominator values threaten to overide some of the particularities of ethnicity and religion, editing out any material which ‘could be injurious to the well-being of any community or the devotees of any religion’ (Birch 1993:58), or which may contradict the role of the Singapore press in ‘helping to build and maintain a national consensus’ and to ‘prevent the erosion or eclipse of those values that underpin Singapore’s success’ (cited in Tan and Soh 1994: 51).
STATE ADVERTISING: MEDIA IMAGES, POLICY, AND THE
CREATION OF VALUES
In the absence of either an official state language/culture (such as that of Malaysia), or a linguistic and cultural homogeneity such as that of Japan, Singapore relies on a powerful state media machinery in order to foster its social cohesion and defend its national and cultural boundaries from external encroachments. Government advertising, initiated by the various statutory boards and ministry offices (perhaps the most active being the Ministry of Community Development and Sports, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Information and the Arts, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the various councils and committees which operate under them), serves to influence citizens to adopt approved values and attitudes, and thus to create a society in the government’s image. State advertising might thus be considered the ‘softer’ and more ‘persuasive’ side of state policies which work through regulations, laws and penalties. For example, as part of its efforts to create national unity, the Singapore government has repeatedly mounted campaigns to get its ethnic Chinese population to speak Mandarin instead of the dialects (Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew being the most common) which represent the regional origins and particularised identities of immigrant families. Its ‘Speak Mandarin’ advertisements, which sell the convenience, usefulness and profitability of speaking Mandarin instead of one’s dialect, are thus a complement to educational policies which ban the use of dialects in classrooms and require all ethnic Chinese students to study Mandarin, and media regulations which ban the airing over Singapore television and radio channels of programs in Chinese dialects.
Likewise, the various advertisements for ‘Total Defence’ on the part of the Ministry of Defence, calling for a wider citizen support of and participation in national defence initiatives, is the soft-sell campaign which complements policies such as the Enlistment Act which requires all able-bodied male Singapore citizens to serve two to two-and-a-half years of ‘National Service’ in the Armed Forces. Together with other campaigns such as the ‘Courtesy’ and the ‘Drug-Free Singapore’ campaigns, such government-funded advertising forms a significant aspect of the media signs (using most of the common media, including newspapers, television advertisements, and posters in public spaces) in Singapore. There are many other ‘core values’ which government advertising also promotes, to lesser degrees, including being ‘fit for life’ (depicting sensible eating and sporting activities), not littering, taking pride in one’s work (the ‘productivity’ campaign), being a matchmaker (an initiative of the government's Social Development Unit, which was set up initially to ensure that young graduates found appropriate life partners), and having children (at a point when the government's population policy was one of expansion, after the initial ‘replacement’ policy in the '60s and '70s).
Such advertisements have a radically different economy and textuality than the commodity signs treated of in dominant advertising theory: operating under a ‘public funding’ economy, they do not have to conform to the narrative forms of the typical commodity sign, nor do they construct the same attractive, desirable image. Indeed, it is noteworthy how much such signs rely on a very different poetics of ‘aversion’ - particularly in the anti-drug, anti-smoking campaigns - rather than the attraction, identification and desire which drive commodity-advertisement narratives. Certainly they sell something, as do all advertisements: if all advertisements are ‘selling us ourselves’, as Williamson (1978: 13) argues, the ‘core values’ which the various government ministries wish to propagate also seek to sell the viewer a certain constructed identity - that of the civic-minded, family-oriented, healthy individual, part of a larger, cohesive national community.
Government advertising specifies a desired social outcome, an imagined public space or consciousness which is both collective and communal on the one hand, and on the other hand is in harmony with the Government’s desired value system. The appeal is not to individual desires which can be accommodated within the exchange symbolisms of the commodity sign, but rather to a collective identity, with peer pressure (the need to conform to a public goal and consensus) taking the place of identification-by-consumption. The collective rhetoric is clear in advertisements (for example) which rely on the construction of an assumed moral homogeneity in order to structure negative, aversionary actions. Thus the ‘Partnership for a Drug Free [sic] Singapore’ advertising campaign, which relies on shock tactics - depicting the unpleasant physical and psychological consequences of drug addiction - to create the desired social goal of a drug-free society. A television advertisement which aired in 1998 features a ragged young man who approaches the camera/viewer diffidently, performing a series of abject gestures while the stark inter-titles read ‘beg’, ‘roll over’, and other commands normally given to dogs. The viewer assumes the position of the collective eye (the anonymous camera perspective, easily identifiable with the social ‘norm’, the public), so that the young drug abuser is particularly isolated, becoming the dehumanised form which defines the public by defining what it is not, or must not become.
The camera perspective maintains a distancing effect from the abuser – he is diminished in size as well as in posture, so that he is seen as both removed from ‘us’ as well as smaller and pathetic. In one vignette, his cupped hands begging alms are swept away, as if by a contemptuous passer-by, but without the entry of that figure of the citizen, and without reducing the abuser’s distance from ‘us’. In the poster advertisements which were used earlier in this campaign, again the figures of the abusers were reduced and alienated by keeping them at a pronounced distance from the perceiving eye (Figure 1), or by featuring only an isolated body-part (hand, armpit) estranged by the disfiguring effects of drug addiction. Implicit in these narrative strategies is a moral judgement, a response of disgust and censure which is built into the text by the graphic use of scatological images (one advertisement features a soiled toilet bowl, punctuating the point that ‘heroin withdrawal makes you defecate for hours’), by the ‘loftier’ perspective of the viewer, and by the detachedly factual tone of the concluding message.
[Insert figure 1]
These narrative strategies must be contrasted on the one hand with the
classic perspective of the commodity sign, which positions the object or
model as immediate and accessible, tantalising the viewer with the possibility
of possession and identification. On the other hand, too, they must be
contrasted with the ‘heroin chic’ of the controversial Calvin Klein advertisements,
which turned a similar trope (addiction and its physical consequences)
into a space for certain social desires (thinness, radical edginess, fashionable
social transgression). It is not simply that this defiant and aberrant
fashion finds easier acceptance in the individualistic and tolerant social
environment of the United States, but also that the text of the Singapore
government advertisement reveals the very different socio-economic as well
as narrative function of such a media sign: it is a will-to-unity
which makes a civic appeal to judgement and common sense, downplaying the
libidinous desire and playful imagination which characterize the Calvin
In this process, particular social distinctions (including class, religion and language, as well as the individualistic and competitive drives which the commodity-sign fuels) are elided, so that the goal of ‘civic dignity’ and the pressure of collective judgement appear to over-ride the potentially-divisive forces of race, language and religion. Like the daily pledge-taking undertaken by students in government schools, Government advertisements interpellate adult citizens into enacting a similar ritual of abstract collective identity, each advertising campaign confirming different aspects of that national consciousness as they are encountered by viewers in the public space of television, bus-stop displays, newspapers and the like. In each case, the creation of the collective identity runs counter to several aspects of particularized social identities.
The ‘Speak Mandarin’ campaign is an interesting case in point, although this obviously refers to a sub-set of the civic whole - the non-ethnic Chinese Singaporeans are not expected to relate to the imagined Mandarin-speaking collective, although all ethnic Chinese Singaporeans are expected to. Singaporeans of Chinese descent, whose ancestors typically came from different provinces in Southern China in the nineteenth century, belong to different dialect groups marked not only by distinctive linguistic features, but also by cultural differences such as cuisines and signature dishes, artistic forms and predominant economic activities. The differences are marked enough that two speakers from different dialect groups will not be able to carry on an intelligible discussion unless each is familiar with the other’s dialect. About 42 percent of Singaporean Chinese belong to the Hokkien dialect group, 22 percent are Teochew-speaking, 15 percent Cantonese, 7 percent each are Hainanese and Hakka, while the remaining 4 percent or so belong to even smaller dialect communities (Chiew 1995: 45). Identification with one’s dialect group, and pride in one’s dialect identity, are fairly strong factors, notwithstanding the fact that the use of dialects as the main language spoken at home has declined from about 50 percent to 30 percent in the period 1990-2000, clearly as a result of the government’s campaigns and policies promoting Mandarin, which increased in usage in the same period from 30 to 45 percent (Department of Statistics 2001: 4). Most of the different dialects groups, particularly the larger and more powerful ones, maintain clan associations which conduct cultural activities and promote the economic co-operation and welfare of its members, and which of course remain bastions of dialect usage and identification. Another area in which remnant dialectal identities are preserved is in cuisine, where restaurants often advertise their regional affiliations with descriptors like ‘Teochew restaurant’ or ‘Cantonese restaurant’, and where the names of certain dishes are often best known by their original appellations in their dialect.
The government’s campaign to promote Mandarin at the expense of dialects, which began in 1979, aims at creating a unifying language and identity among the majority ethnic Chinese in Singapore (comprising almost 77 percent of the population in 2000), which is also supposed to have benefits in international trade and relations with Chinese-speaking nations like China and Taiwan. The Singapore ethnic Chinese are, in this perspective, all part of a linguistic ‘norm’ which is Mandarin-competent, at least at a basic communicative level, although individuals may actually be much more competent in one of the Chinese ‘dialects’ than in Mandarin, or may conduct most communication in English. The ‘normalisation’ of the Mandarin-competent Chinese, similarly as the creation of a judgemental civic collective, is in part effected through advertising signs which create an imagined degradation, in this case the Mandarin-incompetent individual whose linguistic failure is not merely the cause for professional or commercial error, but also cultural and social shame. In figure 2, the advertising sign sells the linguistic norm by using the comic-strip format to structure a collective experience, the expectation of joining together in laughter and ridicule of someone.
[Insert figure 2]
As in the anti-drug advertisements, the offending character is consistently
alienated by being presented with his back to the reader, or in oblique
profile. This recurring character is called ‘Mr Kiasu’ - a slang
term in common Singlish usage, but taken originally from the phrase in
Hokkien dialect meaning literally ‘afraid to lose out’ and connoting one
whose unduly anxious, grasping or greedy nature makes him act in anti-social
and obnoxious ways. The character’s name thus links his unattractively
boorish misadventures with dialect use and Mandarin incompetence. This
is reinforced in the particular strip illustrated, in which his inability
to understand Mandarin not only results in a commercial loss - the appeal
to Singaporean frugality and business sense is obvious - but implicit behind
the commercial loss is a cultural loss, a shocking degradation. The degradation
is highlighted by repeated episodes of social and communicative failure,
embarrassing mistakes involving scatology (in one version, he is slapped
by a Mandarin-speaking woman urgently in need of the public restroom, whom
he is unable to help) and other forms of offense. The signs thus create
the sense of a transgression of a norm - a transgression which cannot be
depicted as being opposed to traditionalism, since the dialects also convey
traditional cultural values, and which must thus be specially constructed
as an imagined rite of civic shame and estrangement. The role played by
such advertising narratives is precisely to structure imaginary norms such
as this, in ways which would be harder to articulate in direct policy-statements
or official documents.
Often the normative social values to which the government appeals, come together in overlapping and reinforcing ways in state advertising images and campaigns. Thus the ‘Mr Kiasu’ comic-advertisements are as much a fostering of civic values of helpfulness, politeness, social savoir faire and efficiency, as they are an appeal to speak Mandarin. Since Mr Kiasu’s social errors and offenses are associated with his linguistic incompetence, he functions as a warning against cultural and linguistic loss or shortfall, social deviance, ineptitude and failure all at once. The Mr Kiasu advertisements can thus be seen to overlap with the social desiderata of other state advertising campaigns such as the ‘Courtesy’ campaign (depicting the joy and fulfillment which comes from proper social interaction), as well as various campaigns which appeal directly or indirectly to social cohesion or co-operation, including the Ministry of Defence’s ‘Total Defence’ advertisements, the ‘Productivity’ campaigns to foster workers’ pride and involvement in their work processes, and even campaigns by the Social Development Unit promoting courtship and marriage.
Similarly, government fiscal policies are often accompanied by cartoons or graphic illustrations which not only depict the fait accompli of the policy in simplified and accessible ways, but also humanize the policy (and by extension the government which authors it) in a number of ways: by the use of humour, by depicting negative responses (i.e. hostility to the policy) as ludicrous, and by putting the impact of the policy into a normative social context. Thus the measure to increase Singapore’s Goods and Services Tax from 3 to 5 percent, raised in the 2002 budget statement, is depicted as a comic dialogue between the anxious ‘Eddie’ and his sensible and reassuring wife (figure 3). Like the Mr Kiasu advertisements, the GST cartoon uses ridicule and satire (here, of Eddie’s frantic and irrational fears, which disrupt his sleep and disturb his wife) to promote a normative social identity: not only the sensible acceptance of the GST measure, but incidentally also a healthy married life, courteous interaction, and fiscal responsibility and awareness. Primary and secondary messages in various Singapore state advertising campaigns thus come together to appeal to and nurture a desired social identity, in which civic obedience and conformity to social norms triumph over irrationality, social deviance and selfishness. This social conformity can itself be seen as a corollary to the ideal of multicultural cohesion: Eddie is persuaded to the fiscal norm, just as Mr Kiasu’s antics urge the viewer towards the linguistic norm, and the stylized cartoon figures in many such advertisements can themselves be seen as a means of blurring racial and linguistic boundaries in the name of a common Singaporean citizenship.
[Insert figure 3]
COMMERCIAL ADVERTISING: NEGOTIATING THE MULTICULTURAL STATE
Within this climate of strong governance reinforced by powerful government advertising campaigns, in which issues of unified social values and cultural agreement become the stress points of society, it is hardly surprising that commercial advertisements too should be influenced by considerations of linguistic and cultural values. On the one hand, commercial advertising in the Singapore context tends to rely on the homogeneous social identity constructed in U.S. and European advertising and media images; in such instances, Western images of positive qualities (beauty, success, desirability, wealth and so on) are depicted in broad strokes that do not touch on the racial and cultural sensitivities in Singapore. In quite a few instances, however, advertising campaigns by multinational corporations have to be adapted to the Singapore context, as is also the case in other countries: thus McDonald’s advertisements include sales pitches for products specially geared for the local market (including the ‘Rendang Burger’, featuring a dry curry sauce used in Malay cooking and popular in Singapore). Furthermore, there are also instances in which commercial advertising appeals to social identities that are inappropriate or unacceptable in the Singapore context, as a result of which public outcry or controversy is provoked. While these often involve anger at the intrusion of foreign values into Singapore’s Asian society, or at foreign stereotypes or misperceptions of Singapore’s Asian peoples, in other instances it is intra-social tensions that are provoked – in other words, the linguistic, ethnic and cultural boundaries that are often glossed over within state advertising and the unifying abstraction of ‘the Nation’.
David Birch (1993: 65) documents the public outcry which was raised in Singapore in response to a Kentucky Fried Chicken television advertisement which depicted a Chinese girl and a Caucasian boy on a date, chaperoned by the girl's entire family; this was perceived as a ‘Westernised stereotype of Chinese family life’. The backfiring of this attempt on the part of the global franchise to ‘localise’ the advertisement, by invoking the sense of familial closeness and protectiveness in the Singapore Chinese community, indicates the particular sensitivities about race and culture in Singapore. More pointedly, it reveals Singapore's sensitivity to misinterpretation and stereotyping of its cultural identity by ‘outside’ agencies. Interestingly, Pizza Hut has run a similar advertisement in America, depicting a young Italian couple on a date with the girl's family in tow, with heavily ‘Mediterraneanised’ elements (peasant dress, Italian dialogue etc). The jocular invocation of the over-protective, conservative ethnic group is less contentious in that context because it is essentially an American perspective of itself, Americans of Italian descent forming a large and successful part of the ethnic melting pot. Jokes about ethnic groups can be tolerated as a ‘fond’ self-caricature when the historical place and social prominence of the group concerned are beyond question - when, in fact, the group and the social ‘centre’ (in this case, white America's power institutions of fast food chains, Madison Avenue, New York television corporations) are seen as essentially identical or overlapping. Jokes about African-American or Latino groups, in contrast, often occasion greater sensitivity, since in this case the ‘centre’ is seen as an agency external and hostile to the group.
Defending the Singapore value-boundaries is thus often played out as an issue of race and culture. A recent British Airways advertisement which attempted to promote the carrier's new multi-racial and multi-linguistic ambience by featuring a character from Chinese opera, caught in a pose which might be interpreted as comic or ridiculous (Figure 4), provoked a certain amount of attention in the newspapers. The objection by a reader of the Straits Times, expressed in a letter to that paper's Forum page, brought a response from the advertising agency defending the advertisement as portraying, ‘in a light-hearted manner, a potential situation that could arise on board a flight because of language barriers’ (Straits Times 7 August 1998). What is at stake in instances like this, where an advertisement for a product or company seen as ‘foreign’ or ‘other’ (British Airways had for long featured the Union Jack on its promotional material and airplane markings), is not so much the notion of a ‘real’ Chinese or Singaporean identity; not only is there no single, unproblematic identity, but such as there is, is inescapably a construct. What is at stake, rather, is the source and authority of that construction, and its fit (or failure to do so) with the Asian cultural heritage of the Singapore context. While many Singaporeans, even those of ethnic Chinese descent, might not fully appreciate or understand the art forms of Teochew, Cantonese or Beijing opera, the British Airways advertisement shows that they are nevertheless quick to take offense to foreign representations of that culture which may be seen as disrespectful or offensive; this is particularly true when the company involved not only evokes cultural exteriority, but also national competition and the spectre of colonial control.
[Insert figure 4]
A rather more successful adaptation - one which indicates that ‘Asian Values’ as a constructed rallying point can, to a certain extent, be surmounted - involves an adaptation of a series of advertisements in the U.S. for the Westin chain of hotels, featured attractive young executives of both genders (in different ads) who epitomised carefree, individualistic success. They got away with behaviour (‘wearing jeans to work’, advancement seemingly incommensurate with their youth and carefree attractiveness) which aroused the envy of colleagues. The tag-phrase, ‘who is he [or she] sleeping with’, suggests both the sexual innuendo which explains the executive's meteoric rise, as well as the sensible choice of staying in a Westin hotel, which facilitates successful business dealings. When the advertisement was adapted to the sexually-conservative Asian markets, the sexual innuendo in the Americanism is carefully edited out: the executive is always male (since a ‘kept man’, who provides sexual services for a female superior in exchange for advancement, would be almost unthinkable in many of the male-dominant Asian corporate cultures), and the double entendre is removed with the insertion of a caption (in larger letters than the tag-phrase) reading ‘Asia ValueStays from $79 per night’ (Figure 5). The financial bottom-line clearly erases the teasing, sexual scenario of the American advertisement, and the full-page advertising space is dominated (occupying about two thirds of the page) with a list of Westin hotel locations in Asia and their room rates. The inserted phrase could be read as emphasising ‘value stays’ in Asian locations, but also echoes the term ‘Asia (or ‘Asian’) Values’, which is what this adaptation invokes: the responsible and bargain-conscious executive, who ‘never loses a client’ and ‘never pays full price’ (the latter perhaps more important in the light of the Asian economic crisis, which was in its nascent stage when this advertisement ran in the Straits Times in March 1998).
[Insert figure 5]
The advertisement remains enough of the original joke to intrigue: the
tag-phrase resonates with the bedroom scene, and generates some curiosity
as to the sleeping executive's companion, who might be hidden behind him
on the bed. Yet the overwhelming message of fiscal responsibility and sensibility
literalises the phrase: the executive is only sleeping, obviously in comfort,
apparently quite alone, the sexual innuendo unsustained by any visual or
verbal clues, unlike the American version. Rebellious individualism and
in-your-face competitiveness in the original advertisement, appropriate
to the ethos of American corporate life appealed to there, becomes a carefully-edited
(if somewhat less exciting or clever) paen to a certain corporate
culture of responsibility and accountability - including, it would seem, sexual and moral accountability. Something peculiarly American and brash is lost in the translation, but that loss signifies (in the Singaporean context) a greater cultural sensitivity and adaptation than either the British Airways or the Kentucky Fried Chicken advertisements.
Not only does commercial advertising in Singapore point out the possibilities and pitfalls of appealing to (or offending) a unified Asian cultural heritage, in other instances it also shows where this unity may be dismantled in favour of competing vernacular identities. Commercial advertising in Singapore is thus capable of contesting state constructions of multicultural abstraction and linguistic-cultural conformity as normative social identities. Thus there have recently been a number of advertisements featuring Hokkien words and phrases, in opposition to state campaigns to replace dialects with Mandarin. The emergence of Hokkien to the advertising foreground might be linked to the success of the irreverent made-in-Singapore film ‘Money No Enough’ (1998, directed by Tay Teck Lock), which defiantly featured a considerable amount of Hokkien dialogue in comic sketches of life in Singapore’s public housing estates. The film seems to have catalyzed an underlying awareness that dialect expressions and cultural forms (particularly of the dominant Hokkien group) are central to certain crucial aspects of Singapore life, and cannot really be supplanted by Mandarin. ‘Best Buy’, a large chain of electronic goods stores, has capitalised on the film’s publicity by featuring advertisements (Figure 6) with one of its stars, Mark Lee, and Hokkien slogans (albeit in smaller fonts, below the deliberately ungrammatical English translations) such as the inevitable ‘kiasu’, ‘Si Mi Bao Wu’ (roughly translatable as ‘inclusive of everything’, or ‘everything available’), and ‘Bo Bei Chau’ (literally ‘no horse to run or compete’, signifying the unsurpassable or unbeatable). The mockery and laughter here - the rubber-faced Lee is usually caught in an exaggerated grimace, his head in a composite image joined to a ludicrous sketch - is good-natured and inward-looking, re-visiting notions of the ugly Singaporean in a much more gentle way than in the ‘Speak Mandarin’ advertisements. Appropriately, this hybrid image sells tolerance of cultural and linguistic hybridity, promoting a more (self-)accepting attitude to the buffoonish and self-serving nature which it associates with the freedom to acknowledge one’s unregenerate dialect-identity, but which the Speak Mandarin advertisement figures as a degraded aberration, and the British Airways advertisement as an exoticised and reductive homogeneity.
[Insert figure 6]
The ‘Best Buy’ advertisements are not isolated examples: although there dialect-identity surfaces to license potentially-transgressive ‘kiasu’ behaviour in the respect of grabbing bargains on household appliances, in other advertisements this identity is structured more positively as exceptional strength and vitality. An advertisement by Isuzu for one of its larger commercial vehicle, features the same Hokkien phrase ‘Bo Beh Chao’ (although spelt differently from the ‘Best Buy’ advertisement), together with a picture of a cheerfully robust-looking young man. The fine print stresses the large-engined, ‘powerful’ nature of the vehicle, so that a ‘big cargo’ poses no problem (Figure 7). It is not absolutely clear what relation the picture of the young man has to the truck, but this lack of a pedantic and precise message (in contrast to the government advertisements) reveals the way in which social identities based on dialect require and permit a greater degree of interpretative leeway than does the carefully-engineered representation of the social collective. The young man, with his beefy face, bushy eyebrows and seemingly indefatigable cheerfulness, could represent a common image of the Hokkien-speaking rough labourer who is likely to be driving or working with the Isuzu truck, and whose robustness endorses that of the truck. On the other hand, he is also an image of the ‘real’ man - unlike the model in most commodity-signs, he is unmade-up, ungroomed, unposed, the close-up photograph (unthreatening, because of his grin) fostering the readers’ identification and association with him. Since he stands alone, removed from any context of objects and events except for the truck, none of these and other possible meanings (friendliness, informality, vigour, frankness, size, communal brotherliness, etc) is definitively authorised and thrust upon the readers’ awareness. This textually-open and proliferating advertising space is thus available to whichever of these and other meanings readers may insert. Conversely, if the meaning of the advertisement makes available all the possible meanings within the general sign of the Hokkien-speaking labourer, this also means that the social identity of the Hokkien-speaker is conferred an expressive, textual space within signs such as this, rather than silenced or alienated as a reduced set of derogatory meanings.
[Insert figure 7]
It is not surprising that Hokkien should feature prominently in some
of these examples, since it is not only one of the most commonly-spoken
dialects in Singapore, but also has a traditional association with the
common man, the uneducated labourer, and thus with common life itself:
the patois spoken in the Singapore army barrack rooms is a mixture of English,
Hokkien and (to much lesser extents) Cantonese and Malay, and many Secret
Society groups speak Hokkien and use Hokkien identification numbers.
Hokkien is also the unofficial language of the public housing hawker centres,
where many of the cheap and ubiquitous dishes (such as ‘mee pok’ or broad
flat noodles, or the extremely popular ‘Hokkien mee’ [fried noodles Hokkien
style]) are often referred to by their Hokkien names. These social
dialogics are not easily overwritten by imaginary national identities and
broker languages, any more than their textual dialogics can be totally
effaced in media. They also ensure that a passing knowledge of Hokkien
expressions are available to more than the 42 percent of Singapore’s ethnic
Chinese who are actually of Hokkien descent; indeed, it is not unheard
of for even Singapore Malays and Indians to be able to use some Hokkien
expressions in the right context, or even to speak conversational Hokkien.
Other particular social identities also emerge in advertising and other signs: another version of the Isuzu truck advertisement, in the form of a comic strip, emphasises the heavy payload of the vehicle by having an Indian man ask to borrow it, so that he can take his entire family (19 children are shown) on a picnic. This is clearly a more caricatured and simplifying sign than the other Isuzu advertisement, reducing Indian (probably South Indian, specifically Tamil) ethnicity to stereotypes of dress, dark skin, thick curly hair and mustaches, and a predilection for large families. Another cartoon emphasises a truck’s aluminium side panels by showing a man squatting beside it and combing his extravagant pompadour hair in the reflection; his enthusiastic comment is ‘Wah! So kilat’ (a Malay word, meaning ‘shiny’ or ‘flashy’). In the case of these latter two advertisements, the invocations of (respectively) Tamil and Malay ethnic elements are more exaggerated representations which have less connection with possible social identities than the Hokkien advertisement does, and it is even possible that they might give offense. However, they are still significant for the risk they take, their insistence on associating various features of the product with ethnically- and culturally-diverse meanings. Isuzu’s advertising strategy reveals an abiding concern with the plural, even where this plurality is potentially tense; dialogical social forces are revealed, not in any verisimilitude on the part of their advertising images (no-one expects this), but rather in the underlying assumption that even a comic space must strive to give room for potentially-awkward racial juxtapositions and relations, if the product is to have a credible image and to sell.
Awkwardness in matters of racial and cultural diversity, if not always as gauche as in the Isuzu advertisements, is nevertheless a recurring and significant feature, marking the limits of brokering institutions and media, even in the relatively successful implementation (over the past few decades) of the Singapore model. This uncomfortable fit is even evident in classified advertising, where if particular identities are invoked, this is done by the sellers themselves, rather than by faceless organizations with their capacity to stereotype and mismanage. Singapore car classifieds in the Straits Times, for example, feature a large range of particular social identities, whose meanings are not always clear. It is possible to see proclamations such as ‘1 LADY OWNER’, ‘A MALAY HOUSEWIFE’S…’, ‘A PILOT’S ‘84 model..’, ‘A LADY OFFICER’S…’, ‘1 expat. [i.e. expatriate] owner’, ‘A MANAGER’S…’, ‘A LADY TEACHER’S…’, ‘JAPANESE LEAVING’, and other such marks of nationality, profession, race, class and gender. The commercial justification of some of these claims is clear: like the old chestnut of ‘driven by a little old lady’, gender claims in Singapore car advertisements, as in many other places, argue for the relatively refined and careful driving of the car owners. In the Singapore context, this is also linked to class, in Singapore: certain professions and labels are ostensible ‘white-collar’ markers, with suggestions of sobriety, responsibility and educated care. ‘Manager’, ‘Teacher’, and ‘Doctor’ are fairly predictable and common markers of this sort. More problematic are national and racial markers such as ‘Japanese’, ‘expatriate’, and ‘Malay’, the last of which tends to occur far more often in Singapore classified advertisements than any other racial marker, certainly out of proportion to the size of the Malay community relative to that of the other races. It is difficult to attach an absolute significance to such markers (since they cover a potentially wider and more complex range of meanings than the ones in the responsibility-hierarchy), especially in the sketchy context of classified advertisements. ‘Expatriate’ might imply nothing more than that the seller is the victim of one of those forced professional relocations, and his or her car thus represents an outstanding bargain; on the other hand, it might also convey notions of cultural superiority which are supposed to translate into the superior value of the car (because it is driven and managed ‘better’) as well. ‘Japanese’ could mean the same as ‘expatriate’, but could also suggest (additionally, or instead) a member of a technologically and economically advanced nation, one synonymous with modern car production and innovation. Of course, an unintended possible connotation, at least for older Singaporeans and in the wake of the periodic publicity concerning the supposed Japanese denial of history, is the reminder of Japanese imperialism and cruelty in the second World War. ‘Malay’ might refer to any number of supposed racial and cultural characteristics (piety, honesty, the spirit of the ‘kampung’ or small village community, strong familial bonds), not necessarily unique to the Malay community, which are imagined as indicators of good car-ownership. Alternatively or in addition, ‘Malay’ could simply be an identifying marker which calls for a buyer from the same community (without necessary reference to the supposed characteristics of that community), simply for the sake of easier intra-cultural negotiation.
These examples do not, of course, exhaust the issues and concerns in Singapore advertising: most of my examples have come from print sources like the newspapers, simply because in Singapore this remains a fairly dialogical medium, certainly in contrast (say) to cinema or public-space advertising. The internet, still relatively underutilised, seems poised to play a greater role as a dialogical medium through which contested identities can be articulated. I have also not had the opportunity to discuss variations and modalities in the constructions of notions of professionalism’ and the ‘middle class’, which are topics unto themselves. However, what is clear from the above discussion is that advertising, in the Singapore context, permits textual declarations (but also textual interrogations) of social identities, in ways which are not possible or significant in the official ethnically-marked public displays (e.g. festivals and parades such as Thaipusam in the Serangoon ‘Little India’ neighbourhood, or the representative contingents in cultural shows and national parades), and certainly not in the text of the imagined homogenous national identity. Advertising, with its constant invocation of strong ‘populist’ forces, also takes greater ‘risks’ (of textual conflict, dissent, dialogic) than most of the other public expressions of identity in Singapore. If ‘technology is ideology’ (Cross 1996:1, after Neil Postman), textuality is nevertheless the heterovocal index of social gaps and interstices. It would be a mistake to blow this social and textual dialogic out of proportion, at the present time, in the Singapore context of effective governance and dominant discourses of a carefully-constructed social unity. However, these examples do indicate something of the sites of negotiation in advertising in Singapore's near future, as globalisation and web culture compel a more participatory and liberal culture. This move, with its likely concomitant of an atmosphere more tolerant of individualism and dissent, will necessitate an entirely different textual strategy in the government's narrative control over the public space; once again, advertising will be one of the significant dialogical modes wherein such a transformation and contestation will be enacted.
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LIST OF FIGURES
1. Singapore government advertisement for the ‘Partnership for a Drug Free Singapore’ campaign.
2. One of a series of ‘Mr Kiasu’ comic-strip advertisements for the ‘Speak Mandarin’ campaign.
3. Government ‘GST’ (Goods and Services Tax) advertisement/graphic accompanying the 2002 Budget Statement.
4. ‘British Airways’ advertisement.
5. Asian edition of ‘Westin Hotels’ advertisement (detail).
6. The ‘Best Buys’ advertisement featuring Mark Lee.
7. Isuzu’s ‘Bo Beh Chao’ advertisement.
ARTICLE ON FANTASY AS SOCIAL TEXT
(Published in Social Semiotics 10:1 (2000), pp. 21-40)
CONSUMING SPACES: CLIVE BARKER, WILLIAM GIBSON AND THE CULTURAL POETICS
OF POSTMODERN FANTASY
ROBBIE B. H. GOH
The sociological analysis of fantasy texts is essentially the analysis
of the modes and motives of production of such texts, which are not confined
to ‘high fantasy’ books, but include some science fiction, children’s literature,
film and television, and electronic texts. As a working definition,
we might say that a fantasy depicts, not just ‘a sense of a radically altered
or augmented world’ (Attebery 1992: 15), but also the experience of being
transported or carried away out of the everyday into an ‘other’ realm.
A sociological analysis aims at studying the relationship between the forms
and structures of fantasies on the one hand, and on the other hand the
various social anxieties and concerns which these texts represent (with
varying degrees of displacement), as well as the conditions in the technology,
industry and demographics which govern their production. Charles
Elkins offers a brief catalogue of the agents and factors involved in such
A proper sociological analysis of fantasy seeks to reveal who is allowed to create fantasy, who can understand what kind of fantasy, what fantasies are available to what specific groups, what conflicts are resolved in fantasies, and how they are resolved. (Elkins 1985: 26)
Elkins goes on to identify the social function of fantasy as a ‘resistance
to the rationalization of everyday life, the reaction to capitalism and
the bourgeois culture that is its expression’ (27). Elkins would
probably agree that his sociological methodology and checklist is not exhaustive,
yet its shortcomings reveal something of the difficulties of strict sociological
approaches (the ‘proper’ disciplinarity Elkins suggests) to contemporary
To sketch a cultural poetics of contemporary fantasy is not to insist on an asociological approach, but rather to acknowledge what Jean Baudrillard (1994) would call the ‘precession of simulacra’ - the paradigm shift which has installed the proliferating and self-referential image or text as the model for social reality, rather than an insistence that the text is produced by a prior set of sociological factors somehow ‘outside’ of textuality. A cultural poetics of fantasy is, among other things, a sociology of texts, relating these texts to the patterns of the production and consumption of popular literature, distinguishing these patterns both from those governing other types of texts, as well as from earlier historical manifestations. However, this sociology of contemporary fantasy must recognise the often bewildering interpenetration of different media expessions of fantasy, as well as the role of these ubiquitous fantasies in creating our sense of the real.
Crucial to this cultural poetics is the creation of spaces in fantasies, which fulfils an updated version of the role of creating and defending social differentiations that used to be performed by older discourses of religion, ethics, nationalism, race, and gender. The act of consuming such spaces (in consuming popular fantasies) is both a phenomenon of marketing, distribution and technology, as well as the creation and reinforcement of a popular image of society - society as the protean and creative site of new possibilities and alterities. Yet in this postmodern textual process the underlying market transaction is inseparable from the structure of the texts: contemporary fantasies sell spaces, but the allure and fascination of these spaces is in turn dependent upon their mass consumption in products such as fantasy texts.
A postmodern fantasy seems a contradiction in terms, by some definitions of the ‘postmodern’ - that moment of the consciousness of the loss of ‘master narratives’ that Jean-Francois Lyotard (1992) speaks of, with the attendant focus on the fragmented, incomplete or ‘sublime’ which this occasions. In narratology and narrative forms, this moment of self-consciousness manifests itself in the acute revisionism of post-structuralist theory, and the playful self-referentiality of the ‘nouveau roman’ or ‘fabulation.’ Fantasies, with their fundamental divergence from realist and rationalist modes of discourse, are closely related to fabulation, even that practised by the ‘literary mainstream,’ as Elkins (1985: 28) notes.1 In non-verbal texts, this self-consciousness is seen in Ray Lichtenstein's parodies of comic books (rather than the consumerist narratives of the comic books themselves), or the work of an architect like Rem Koolhaas, whose sophistication consists of gesturing conspicuously towards the child's playhouse,2 or films like Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers or Tim Robbin's Bob Roberts with their foregrounding of the very media processes in which their own films must participate.
Such textual processes of playful self-revision, relentless intertextuality, and the foregrounding of the act of narration itself, pose major problems to the assumption that fantasy is a relatively discrete and unproblematic textual phenomenon whose social agents and motivations (admittedly plural and heterogeneous) can be as discretely identified. The whole ideological question of ‘conflicts’ and their ‘resolutions’ which Elkins proposes that the sociology of fantasies answers, is deflected by a metafictional tendency in contemporary fantasies which places greater emphasis on the imaginative creation of stories than on socio-political concerns. Thus Robert Crossley’s insistence that ‘the exhortation of nearly all fantasists, pure and applied, is that you must go home again,’ identifies a social function (the propagation of ideas of individual and social change, revision, rejuvenation) which seems much less relevant to contemporary fantasies than to older forms: in many of the works of William Gibson and Clive Barker, significantly, there is no final return to the primary world. We might say that in many contemporary fantasies, the whole notion of ‘home’ as a stable, recognisable notion, is undermined altogether.
Seen, however, as a materialist mode, the ‘postmodern’ assumes larger parameters than this agonised intellectualism and self-consciousness playfulness. The processes of ‘late capitalism’ (Fredric Jameson’s elaboration of Ernst Mandel’s notion, 1991: xx, 3) include the production of texts which are essentially consumerist in their structures, which, somewhat paradoxically, parade their hollow and insubstantial nature even as they construct escapist fantasies which offer the reader a reassuring reconfiguration of social reality. Their function is essentially that of symbolic exchange, as Baudrillard (1988: 125) describes it, simulating social values (liberalism, moral metaphysics, racial inclusiveness) while actually negating these within the ‘structural’ logic of its narrative codes.
The function of characteristically postmodern fantasy as symbolic exchange is best illustrated by contrasting it with the linear narrative of older (‘epic’ or ‘high’) fantasy, which is no less a consumerist narrative, but which proffers simulations of holistic, organic experiences - this is a narrative of absolute values in moral and spiritual terms. Its dominant impulse is overwhelmingly syntagmatic, one chapter or similar element impelling the consumer ceaselessly forward to the next. In contrast, postmodern fantasy lets the consumer appear to dictate consumption and make it suit his or her convenience; narratives as well as politics and values are episodic and paradigmatic, facilitating experimentation and sampling.
The Heterocosm, Time, and Horror
Kenneth J. Zaborski and Robert H. Boyer (1982) offer a useful summary of the different kinds of spaces used in fantasy novels, categorising them in terms of the relationship posited between the ‘secondary world’ (Tolkien’s phrase) and the primary, everyday, quotidian world. In one form of fantasy, the secondary world is remote and detached from the everyday, its ‘geographical and chronological settings...too nebulous to permit solid identification’ (59). The reader begins the novel in the secondary world, the primary world is left behind and never invoked, and whatever parallels or similarities there may be between the worlds is left tacit. Tolkien’s own Middle Earth fantasies, Ursula Le Guin’s world of Earthsea, and Piers Anthony’s land of Xanth are some of the more well-known examples. Another relationship is that of ‘juxtaposed primary and secondary worlds,’ the reader and protagonists moving between the fantasy space and a space which is a reasonable facsimile of our contemporary society. C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, a seven-volume series recounting the adventures of English schoolchildren in a parallel world loosely allegorising ‘muscular Christian’ eschatology, is one of the best-known examples of this form. Finally, there is a group of fantasies which posit ‘worlds-within-worlds,’ where ‘the secondary world is simply a particular location within the primary world’ (59, 71). In a sense, the second and third categories might be classified together: the secondary world as a particular location in the primary one, but with its own specific rules, qualities and characteristics, may have different thematic foci. (Zahorski and Boyer identify some of them, including the ‘enchanted wood,’ the ‘magical garden,’ and the ‘remnant of Faerie,’ 73), but in structural terms the spatial relationship between the worlds is similar to that in the second category of fantasies.
Postmodern fantasies typically belong to this latter, consolidated group. They characteristically feature a juxtaposition of different worlds - the everyday with one or more secondary worlds - with easy or repeated movement, back and forth between worlds. We might call these ‘heterocosmic’ fantasies, since this term captures something of the parallelism and multiplicity of worlds and levels of existence. It is this multiplicity, suggesting the proliferation of alternative worlds (through various acts of creation: dreaming, imagining, the speaking of magical or electronic formulae) which is significantly postmodern, resonating with the proliferation of media images and texts in contemporary society, and finding textual expression not only in popular texts but also in the metafictions of Salman Rushdie, John Gardner, Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth, and others. In contrast, the ‘high fantasies’ form a smaller group of texts, with strong affinities to an older tradition of romances and fairy tales, and linked to a British tradition of ‘nostalgic’ and ‘pastoral’ speculative fiction.3
This does not imply that ‘high fantasy’ is extinct or outmoded, or that it serves no ideological function in contemporary society. Many important writers continue to work in this tradition, creating romances which address pre-postmodern humanist issues such as the individual’s need to acknowledge and confront the various fears and anxieties in life (symbolised in different aspects of the journey, the adventure, the return). Ursula Le Guin’s ‘existential’ high fantasies such as the Earthsea trilogy are good examples of the endurance of this form: in the first of the trilogy, A Wizard of Earthsea, the young apprentice wizard Ged unleashes a shadowy doppelganger as a result of his arrogance and impatience to attain higher powers. The doppelganger relentlessly pursues Ged until he confronts his own fears and becomes the pursuer instead, taking hold of the ‘black self’ and speaking its name, which is his own name ‘Ged’ (Le Guin 1968: 201). In Terry Brooks’s The Sword of Shannara, the first of a highly successful series of epic ‘Shannara’ fantasies, a Bilbo-like everyman protagonist, Shea, must use the power of a magical sword to defeat an immortal dark lord who plans to conquer the world. The seemingly impossible match is won by Shea, because ‘the touch of the Sword carried with it a truth that could not be denied by all the illusion and deceit of the Warlock Lord’ (Brooks 1977: 701). Other highly influential recent writers in this tradition include Piers Anthony, Anne McCaffrey, David Eddings, and George R. R. Martin. Magical objects, Faeries and other ‘wee folk,’ monsters and demons representing moral and spiritual corruption, journeys of growth, and the challenge to attain ‘truth’ (including self-knowledge), are the dominant tropes of this genre. These ‘existential’ fantasies, among their other functions, serve to provide ‘vicarious moral growth’ for a mass readership of armchair adventurers; like role-playing in therapy, high fantasy confers the quick fix of self-actualisation that is difficult or impossible to attain in a complex society characterised by transcience, purely market forces and relationships, and confining urban and professional spaces.
Heterocosmic fantasies share some of the features of high fantasy, particularly in the positing of magical, exotic worlds which enable unearthly wonders and experiences. The crucial difference lies in the foregrounding of multiple worlds, and in the transitions between worlds. In many such fantasies, the protagonist lives a dreary, unreflecting existence in an urban and professional world which is meant to typify the discontents of contemporary society. The discovery of and entry into the heterocosm becomes a quickening of life and consciousness, a realisation of deep desire, the discovery of a missing dimension or the fulfilment of a lack. This is not the existential story of individual growth that characterises high fantasy, where the secondary world is an epic realm of heroism, bravery, truth, and other fine qualities nostalgically and wishfully projected. In the heterocosmic fantasy, the secondary world (and the qualities it calls forth from the protagonist) is neither ideal nor nostalgic, and (after the initial period of enchantment) is often discovered to be fraught with the same moral and political problems which plague the quotidian. The focus is not on individual growth, but on the individual’s place in relation to structures of power.
Heterocosmic fantasies are thus characteristically postmodern, in their rejection of romanticised ideals and histories, and in their inability to posit a simplistically moral, better world. This moral restlessness is combined with a temporal restlessness, which manifests itself in several ways. While the time of the high fantasy is epic in duration and nostalgic or retrospective in orientation, the time of the heterocosmic fantasy is fragmented, intermittent, and historically disoriented. A reader of Tolkien or Le Guin is transported into a pre-industrial, pre-rationalistic world whose rural economy, manners and language often suggest the dark feudalism of ancient Europe.4 The narrative of the high fantasy is an epic time, reflected in the fact that the fantasy is often a chronicle of the deeds and adventures of one or several protagonists, that this usually involves a long and perilous journey, and that the life and adventures of the protagonist may be spread out over several volumes. Heterocosmic fantasies reject this epic and biographical time in favour of an episodic logic, instantaneous passages, and the division of the journey into many short ‘flights.’ Even where heterocosmic fantasy novels can be grouped together as a series, as in Gibson's ‘Sprawl’ trilogy, the lives and histories of individuals do not take centre stage; characters may re-appear in later novels, but their participation in the main plot becomes secondary, and often their names have changed and there is little attempt to link the present novel with the lives and events portrayed in earlier ones.
Time becomes sporadic as heterocosmic narratives move in fits and starts, changing directions and even reversing themselves. In Clive Barker's extremely successful novel Weaveworld, a magical carpet contains an entire world, the remnants of an older order collected together and concealed from the greed and sordidness of present-day England. The protagonist of the novel is Cal Moody, a young aimless insurance agent whose discovery of the carpet-heterocosm initially opens a world of mystery, romance and adventure undreamed of in his empty life. Yet the novel does not move in the expected pattern of epic struggle to recover the carpet, the final revelation of its wonders, and Moody's fulfilment within that world. Instead, the carpet-heterocosm is fitfully manifested and re-concealed, the human protagonists given episodic adventures in its domain before it is quickly withdrawn again. The heterocosm effectively exists in the interstices of quotidian time, although this is not ostensibly a time-continuum novel: since it lacks its own space,5 and can only be manifested as a kind of physical unfolding over the existing everyday landscape, the carpet-heterocosm can only be enjoyed and entered sporadically and briefly, when accident or contingency releases it from its spell, although it must then immediately be re-woven and concealed from its enemies.
The episodic time of heterocosmic fantasies is a time which is suited to television serialisation and narrative forms. Indeed, fantasy series like Dr Who, Quantum Leap, and more recently Stargate and Sliders, share many of the aspects of time and narrative of the heterocosmic fantasy novel. Stories are clustered episodically around a particular heterocosmic adventure, which occupies just one (or at most two) weekly hour-long slots. The biography and aims of the protagonist are unimportant, usually summed up in the brief soundbite at the beginning of the theme song and titles; unlike earlier epic series such as Roots, Lonesome Dove or North and South, there is no historical progression towards a final resolution or ‘achievement.’ Any ‘history’ or ‘morality’ must be summed up within the brief encounter permitted by the weekly episode, and the next episode introduces an entirely different scenario. The journeys accordingly take no time at all: once the premise of the heterocosm is explained in the pilot episode, the transitions to other worlds are instantaneous and given no attention in each episode, unlike earlier television voyages (the original Star Trek with its ‘Five-year Mission,’ for example) which are aware of the time expended on the journey.
This results in a different viewing or reading experience: the cohesion of the epic story meant that its consumption was itself an epic, long drawn-out process. Each chapter or episode lacks the closure or resolution which only inheres in the whole, each episode pointing ahead to the next installment and thus leaving the reader or viewer in anticipation. This intervening time between episodes, which the dedicated viewer regards with impatience, becomes part of the epic journey, adding to the illusion of the passing of time in the fantasy world - an effect exacerbated by the network practice of running throughout the week anticipatory trailers with highlights from the coming episode.6 In contrast to this simulation of an epic duration, the heterocosmic fantasy creates the illusion that little or no time passes in the everyday world while the heterocosmic adventure takes place. This is a convention that goes back at least as far as C. S. Lewis, in whose Narnia stories the time spent in the secondary world is strangely incommensurate with everyday time: the children might actually ‘grow up’ in Narnia, but on their return to the quotidian discover themselves children once again, practically at the same point of time at which they left.
Lewis used this device to reflect the Christian Platonist idea that the everyday world is merely a copy of the essential other world (and thus its affairs and events occupy no time in relation to the truly significant events of the heterocosm). In contemporary fantasy this chronological split is culturally overdetermined: in the first place it is a wishfulness, reflecting the desire to access a multitude of exotic experiences while expending little or no time in a materialistic society where ‘time is money.’ In more science-fiction oriented fantasies like Stargate, the split is influenced and sponsored by popularised (pseudo) Einsteinian notions of faster-than-light space travel, ‘wormholes’ and other astronomical oddities, and their possibly anomalous effect on time as it is experienced on Earth. There are also influences of New Age spiritualism and its notions of rebirth, dreaming, mantras and other verbal formulas possessing power over the illusory stuff of material existence. Barker’s Weaveworld ends on a note which suggests just such a spiritualism and its temporal implications: the magic of the carpet-heterocosm is salvaged in the form of a book, which makes itself accessible to the individual’s imagination and desire. The novel closes with an enigmatic vision of the breakdown of chronological time:
There was time for all their miracles now. For ghosts and transformations; for passion and ambiguity; for noon-day visions and midnight glory. Time in abundance.
For nothing ever begins.
And this story, having no beginning, will have no end. (722)
This might loosely be compared to Buddhist doctrine, in particular the
belief that ‘it is a mistake to regard this world as either a temporal
world or as a real one’ (1966: 110). Materialist notions of progress and
change which are integrally connected to our sense of chronicity, are rejected
as illusory in comparison to the world of ‘mind-only’ and its separate
ontology. New Age practices such as transcendental meditation are
thus in some ways analogous to the narrative of the heterocosmic fantasy;
in meditation, time in the earthly world ‘stands still’ while the individual
steps (instantly and fantastically) into a separate domain.
Reflecting this overdetermined cultural ideology, the heterocosmic series thus foregrounds the possibility of infinitely varied journeys, as it were a smorgasbord of simultaneously-existing worlds, mini-adventures and experiences. Unlike an epic series such as Lonesome Dove where the viewer must watch every episode in order to participate in the story, the viewer of the heterocosmic fantasy can pick and choose, watching a particular episode only if its (individualised) premises and experiences catch his fancy. In a sense, the heterocosmic fantasy is a metaphor for contemporary television itself, with its bewildering choice of channels (especially if cable television is included) and the ‘seamless’ and timeless transition between the ‘worlds’ of different channels, with the aid of the remote-control ‘transporter.’ MTV narrative, with its frenetic splicing together of short features, individual music videos, and doctored sound bites with echoes, repetitions and distortions, is only a more radical version of this heterocosmic narrative.
The ‘instantaneous’ rather than epic time of the heterocosmic narrative represents a significant break with the conventions of linear narration and consumption. Lyotard (1989: 382 - 386) figures this as ‘word games’ and the disturbing ‘infinity’ of meanings (their connotations, their invocation of other possible events and times) which are released when the narrow conventions of ‘realism’ are shattered by an event like ‘Auschwitz.’ Lyotard’s sense of the ‘infinite’ - a complex web of possibilities, links and overlapping realities - captures something of the easy and numerous transitions, the discrete episodic nodes, the paratactic narrative impulse, and the multitude of simultaneous, parallel ‘worlds’ which characterises a certain kind of contemporary narrative. The poetics of the ‘infinite’ on the one hand govern the narrative of an individual fantasy text; but on the other hand also characterise the entire inter-related and inter-textual network of media and print texts which transform the participating consumer’s space into the space of heterocosmic choices and transitions.
‘Hypocrisy Heal Thyself’: Horror, Moral Fictions
and the Politics of the ‘Possible Lifestyle’
Horror is integral to the social function of fantasy, even in the older and pastoral romances of high fantasy, where the protagonist often has to face a dreaded monster whose ugliness represents moral corruption, deceit, and other evils latent in man. Some contemporary fantasies continue to use horror in this existential and moralistic manner, as an emblem of the ‘evil within’ which the protagonist must acknowledge and thus overthrow. If it is true that ‘fantasy literature allows its creator and its consumers to satisfy their desires’ (Elkins 1985: 27), part of this desire is to fictionalise a confrontation with and triumph over evil - to participate vicariously in a moral struggle which represents man’s victory over his worse self. In these high fantasies, the horrific element is localised in one ultimate source or symbol of evil (often troped as a satan-like, adversarial ‘dark lord’ - Sauron in Lord of the Rings, Brona in The Sword of Shannara), although there may be many minions and secondary adversaries whose power and motivations stem from the main source. This gives the epic high fantasy its effect of cathartic resolution: the goal of the journey is the defeat of the one source of evil, and that defeat calls a conclusive end to the epic and to the anxieties and tensions at stake in the journey.
In heterocosmic fantasies, quite a different textual structure and function is in evidence. For one thing, horror is pervasive, multiple in source, and complex or enigmatic in motivation. Figures of evil here do not take on the obvious polemical role of a satanic adversary, whose threat can be emblematised in terms of elemental conflicts between darkness and light, the Dionysian and the Apollonian, or Manichean notions of eternal good and evil. Rather, the figures of evil are horrifying precisely because they are perversions or complications of immanent, social phenomena, their evil inexplicable because it is random and arbitrary. This is turn severely limits any kind of moral or existential function on the part of the heterocosmic fantasy; the reader does not vicariously confront his or her own fears in order to overcome and banish them, and there are no essentialised or fundamental solutions. The fantasies often conclude with no distinctive triumph of ‘good’ over ‘evil,’ no moral lesson or elevating principle; endings seem contingent and accidental, almost a temporary halt to the experience of terror which might soon erupt again from another source.
Clive Barker and William Gibson are perhaps the best examples of influential and popular writers whose works are heterocosmic both in their structure and narrative time, as well as in their use of horror to undermine moral oppositions and existential quests. The two writers are often placed in separate categories of writing: Barker is a horror fantasy writer whose works are often sold alongside works by Ramsey Campbell, Stephen King, Anne Rice and other such writers, while Gibson is a leading figure in the ‘Cyberpunk’movement, usually categorised as a sub-genre of science fiction together with ‘ystopian’works by Philip K. Dick, Bruce Sterling, and Linda Nagata, and screenplays like Tron, Bladerunner and Freejack. Yet the similarities between them are interesting for a cultural poetics of contemporary fantasy. The popularity and success of both writers make them cultural icons of sorts, influential figures who attract a considerable amount of attention from all kinds of sources. Barker's novels have been reviewed by such varied arbiters of literary tastes as Elle, People, Publishers Weekly, Times Literary Supplement, and Washington Post; Gibson's works are accessed by a similarly wide range of reading tastes, and have also been singled out for academic attention by Fredric Jameson (1991: ix and n., 39). Both writers have crossed over into the medium of Hollywood blockbuster films: Barker directed and wrote the screenplay for the movie Hellraiser, based on his own 1987 novel The Hellbound Heart, and his short stories ‘The Forbidden’ and ‘The Last Illusion’ have been adapted and filmed respectively as The Candyman (starring Virginia Madsen) and The Lord of Illusions (starring Scott Bakula). Gibson's work has been no less adaptable to the big screen, and one of his short stories was filmed as Johnny Mnemonic, starring Keanu Reeves.
Barker is the reigning champion of horror, his mastery of the genre proclaimed by peers such as Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell and Stephen King.7 Yet in some ways, his work does not fit comfortably in the mould of horror stories written by writers of a slightly older generation (Barker was born in 1952) or who (like Ramsey Campbell) consciously write in an older tradition. King in his best-known works writes tales of mildly handicapped loners, latchkey children and shy introverts (Andy in ‘Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,’ the children in It and ‘The Body,’ Jessie in Gerald’s Game), whose battle with evil is also a personal odyssey of self-discovery and the growth of courage and determination. In a sense, the classic King story is a high fantasy story where the supernatural visitation or affliction takes the place of the secondary world; what is emphasised is a journey or adventure which culminates in the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, of ‘good’ moral qualities like courage and loyalty over ‘evil’ qualities like bullying and cowardice.8
Many of Barker's novels start out the same way, with everyman-like characters who in various ways are afflicted with the malaise of contemporary society: Cal and Suzanna in Weaveworld initially lead lives as dreary as the industrial and commercial wasteland that is Liverpool, Phoebe Cobb in Everville is trapped in small-town middle America and in a marriage to a selfish brute, Julia in The Hellbound Heart is likewise trapped in her boring marriage in middle-class suburbia, Gentle in Imajica (memories of his previous life erased by traumatic amnesia) leads a dissolute and aimless life marked by failed relationships with various women. These individuals accidentally discover portals to alternative worlds, which initially inspire wonder and enchantment at the exotically different vistas they offer. In many ways, these heterocosms are expressions of desires which cannot be fulfilled in the quotidian: Phoebe, for example, has her interracial affair with her black lover Joe Flicker brutally punished by the hypocrisy of her husband and of small-town America, the lovers separated and Joe left for dead. They are reunited when Phoebe's erotic energy in a wistful wet dream takes her to Joe, who has accidentally stumbled through the portal into a world called ‘Quiddity,’ whose dominant feature is a sea with the power to realise dreams and desires (Barker 1995: 274 - 286). Suzanna, a human protagonist in Weaveworld who is charged with the protection of a magical world within a carpet, has to flee the rabid bigotry and violence of a police special force which bent on persecuting that which is does not understand. In the course of her adventures she finds sexual release with Jerichau, a denizen of the Weaveworld whom the ignorant police see as a dangerous ‘nigger’ (Barker 1987: 199 - 201). To Suzanne, his exotic other-worldliness is also a source of sexual fulfilment: in one scene, she is aroused as she looks at him and sees ‘another species,’ something ‘unhuman,’ and as they make love his magical energy causes their bedroom to light up with ‘exquisite life’ (352). In Imajica, Gentle's series of failed affairs with women is contrasted to the fulfilment he finds in his relationship with the fantastical androgyne Pie'oh'pah, who possesses ‘a third genital form entirely,’ and who hints at a superior, ‘third way’ of sexual congress (Barker 1991: 382, 393).
Other characters (in this and other novels) find in the heterocosm reunion with dead loved ones who are revived by magically-augmented desire, the discovery of a purpose or calling which redeems their mechanical and meaningless lives, companionship and a new-found acceptance of their various forms of deviance or stigmata. The novelty and entertainment value of this brand of sexual titillation gestures to New Age notions of spiritual awakening, mysticism and holistic being - a sharp contrast to the representations of sex in earlier potboilers such as Harold Robbins novels, which speak to immediate physical urges, the exploitation of women, creating fantasies of male power - but there is also an larger sexual politics at stake. Barker has come out about being gay, and in an interview speaks of ‘confronting hypocrisy, cruelty, homophobia’ and other social oppressions in his life and career (Ganahl 1996). ‘Gay’ might be somewhat misleading - in an internet chat session, he explains that he used to be heterosexual, and now is ‘only gay’ as a deliberate choice within the spectrum of human sexuality which he feels entirely qualified to address:
The constants in our lives are the same whatever our sexual orientation. We feel desire and desperation, we feel love and rejection, we feel possessed by those we love and feel a need to be, in our turn, possessed. (Barker 1996)
‘Possession’ is the language of cultism and spiritualism, rather than
of conventional sexuality. Barker’s novels seek to offer fantasies
of extraordinary fulfilment through the discovery of difference, of which
one manifestation is sexual difference. Homosexuality is not the
point, or not the main point, although one of Barker’s recurring themes
is the persecution of homosexuality by intolerant authorities. In
Everville, the gay lovers Owen Buddenbaum and Seth Lundy are assaulted
by a bible-thumping fanatic offended by their imagined ‘depravities’ (220-222).
In Weaveworld, the crazed extra-terrestrial being Uriel, imagining itself
God’s enforcing angel, destroys two copulating Arab tribesmen it chances
to encounter, first cauterising their offending body parts (570-571).
However, Barker owes less to any militant Gay rights ideology than to the politics of the possible - the appeal to alternatives, imaginative pluralities not necessarily realised or realisable ‘in the flesh,’ the need and right to believe in metaphysical alterities. This obviously has left-leaning tendencies and could, at the most basic level, be associated with political lobbies such as Gay pride and ‘Pro-Choice’ abortion advocates. Yet the political agenda and polemic, no less than the moral story and the sources of horror, often become blurred. Ironically, there turns out to be little fundamental difference between the dreariness and oppression of the quotidian, and the wonder and exotic difference of the heterocosm. If there are human greed and shallowness, commercialising forces, threatening oligarchies and authoritarian regimes in the human world, the heterocosms and their inhabitants often contain eerie mirror-images of the same evils, or else place their allegiances and magical powers alongside the corruptive forces and autocrats of the human world.
Thus the struggle to gain control over the Weaveworld is initially represented as a political struggle between the worldly forces of irrational consumerism, greed, and fascist authoritarianism on the one hand; and the dreamy, artistic, tolerant liberalism of the Weaveworld inhabitants. The latter are given racial representations which suggest a multiculturalism threatened by rabid intolerance: Jerichau is African, others have Asian features or names, and one of the tribes is called the ‘Babu,’ a name Barker probably borrowed from the Hindi term of address used by northern Indians. The heterocosmic inhabitants also suggest alternative or underground cultures, in their bohemian habits, their esoteric and non-conformist beliefs, their love of imaginative play and the arts, all of which alienate them from the dominant rationalism of capitalist culture. However, the novel soon confuses this simplistic dichotomy: in addition to the main human villains, the megalomaniacal salesman Shadwell and the violent secret police chief Hobart, there are also villains from the Weaveworld such as Immacolata and her wierd sisters, who plan to destroy the carpet in revenge for being denied royal prerogatives. If human politics are recogniseably characterised by selfish greed and betrayal, the politics of the Weaveworld are no less recogniseably human in their violence, fractionalism and prejudice: the inhabitants quarrel bitterly over the appropriate response to the threat facing their world, torn between a pacifist response which seems naive and simplistic, and a violent extremism which sounds all too much like the terrorism of the human world. The contempt that many of the heterocosmic inhabitants have for humankind, whom they term ‘cuckoos,’ mirrors the human racism and prejudice which persecutes the Weaveworld in the first place.
This is not an accidental structural feature, nor is it found only in Weaveworld. In The Hellbound Heart, the protagonist-turned-villain, Frank, seeks to discover the portal into a hidden world of pleasure, only to find that the terrifying inhabitants of that world (the Cenobites) have a peculiar, sado-masochistic and extreme definition of ‘pleasure’: he is ‘overdosed...on sensuality,’ the inhuman limits bringing ‘incalculable suffering’ (Barker 1986: 48). Yet this is no more than the logical (if extreme) conclusion of Frank’s own human libido and perversion, which previously manifested itself in rapacious sex, addiction to heroin and drink, the thrill of crime and other vicious endeavours. In Imajica, the wonders of the heterocosmic worlds quite quickly give way to the realities of gender oppression, tyranny, and religious absolutism which, despite the fantastical permutations, are all too similar to the woes of contemporary society.
The space that is created in such fictions is thus an illusion of difference and deviance, but an illusion which foregrounds its own illusory nature. Barker’s images of the heterocosm are images of invention, dreaming, illusion and artifice - all insubstantial, ephemeral orders which are under threat by the more earthy and concrete orders of the quotidian. The heterocosmic space thus differs markedly from the space of high fantasy in being fundamentally dualistic in textual and ideological impulse: it addresses the fascination with deviance, alterity and the freedom to imagine these differences, while reinforcing a perceived image of bleak ‘social reality’ which ultimately infects and constrains any such play of difference.
A similarly ambivalent structure of differences pervades Gibson’s novels. This does not merely consist in the inversion of the older oppositions between man and machine, the western self and the threatening orientalised other, the individual and the corporate identity, although these have been observed by critics.9 While the blurring of such hitherto-distinct spaces in cyberpunk does mark a significant development from ‘classical’ science fiction (with its ‘frontier’ and ‘imperialistic’ ideology analogous to the American myth of the West),10 what is perhaps more significantly postmodern is Gibson’s use of horror and its spatialisation within the reading process. At the same time that his novels construct cyberspace as a realm of infinite possibility - where (organically) dead people can continue to exist in electronic form, where one can instantaneously access (the data centres of) remote countries and even outer space stations, where forgotten or demolished scenes can be (electronically) reproduced with startling accuracy and detail - they also repell with their picture of totalising power and dehumanised identities.
The characteristic textual form of this contradictory spatialisation of cyberspace (simultaneously positive and dystopian), is the surreal comic episode or exchange, which in turn is dependent upon a typically heterocosmic structure of brief, intermittent ‘flips’ or ‘hits.’ This is evident in the representation of the ‘construct’ Dixie Flatline in Neuromancer,’ a reconstruction in electronic data of a cyberspace cowboy named McCoy Pauley. The protagonist of the novel, Case, uses the construct to help him penetrate the defenses of the powerful Artificial Intelligence Wintermute. The relationship between Case and Dix is the banter and shop talk of professionals and friends (McCoy, in his previous organic existence, was one of Case’s mentors and teachers), a very human interaction relying on humour, idiosyncracies tolerated and reciprocated, loyalty and shared memories. These take on a surreal quality when they are punctuated by constant reminders of Dix’s ‘death’ - a paradox which is constantly highlighted, in the nickname of ‘Dixie Flatline,’ in the fact that McCoy ‘died braindeath three times,’ in the recurrence of those deaths as one of the frequent topics of conversation between Dix and Case (since they pertain to the dangers of coming up against an AI; Gibson 1984: 50). This relationship is thus marked by the absurd juxtaposition of the ‘human personality and idiosyncracies’ of the construct (his ‘good ole boy’ humour and ‘pronounciation,’ his affectionate references to Case as ‘bro’ and ‘pard’) with the contradictory reminders that this is nothing more than an electrical simulation of humanity. Even if we are moved to accept a new definition of human personality which is not in contradiction with electronic constructs, the episodic and manipulative structure of this relationship creates a disturbing note: Case ‘hits’ into and out of his exchanges with the construct as he pleases, only to extract information and assistance; the final ‘flip’ which marks the erasure (the electronic death) of the construct is as abrupt and casual as any of their previous exchanges (260).
Emotionless, manipulative strategems and relationships governed purely by commercial exchange are also the characteristics of a dominant source of horror in these novels, namely the ‘corporations.’ If people like Case, Bobby in Count Zero and Mona and Kumiko in Mona Lisa Overdrive are victimised or threatened in various ways by the actions of the corporations, their own actions are often governed by the same emotionlessness and ambition which characterise this pervasive horror. At the end of Count Zero, Bobby and Angie (both of whom suffer physically and emotionally from the complex treacheries of corporations, in the process losing family members and friends) become part of another corporate environment, the world of ‘simstim’ (an electronic form of Hollywood glamour), surgical enhancements, expensive clothes and large salaries (Gibson 1986: 243 - 244). Other characters in the trilogy wheel and deal their way through the intrigue and danger, typically escaping one threat from a gang or corporation by buying or bartering the assistance of another corporate entity. The plots curiously fail to develop, such actions and intrigues inevitably ending in the same condition of society in which the novels begin, with none of the moral or existential growth or triumph of the epic fantasies.
It might be more accurate to say that the textual processes of a heterocosmic fantasy like Gibson's text do not fulfil the same readerly expectations of linear narratives like the epic or historical story, the high fantasy, the hermeneutic detective story, and classic science fiction - all ‘modernist’ narratives in Lyotard's sense, seeking to recover a quasi-romantic wholism. Gibson's narrative proceeds like an electrical signal, jumping abruptly from one ‘flip’ of dialogue, scenario or action to another His prose, simulating the instantaneous changes of environment which only virtual realities can effect, comes closest to the time and texture of watching television in the age of remote controls, channel surfing and picture-in-picture technology, as two representative sequences from Mona Lisa Overdrive illustrate:
‘He's really a very clever man. Extraordinarily clever. Although I don't think I fancy him, really.’ She wore something loose and black that hung to her knees. Her feet were bare. ‘Nonetheless, I want…his body.’ She laughed.
‘Juice?’ Bobby the Count asked, holding out a tall glass of something yellow. The water in the turqouise pool reflected shifting blobs of sunlight on the palm fronds above his head.
And later in the same chapter,
He grinned. ‘It really pisses her off. The people who're trying to get into your place to get the aleph back, they work for somebody else who works for some people she hired out on the Coast. But, yeah, I've done the odd deal with her, traded things. She's crazy, but she plays a tight game…’
Not even a click.
At first he thought he was back in the gray house, where he'd seen Bobby the first time, but this room was smaller and the carpets and furniture were different, he couldn't say how. (Gibson 1988: 227, 229).
The narrative ‘flips’ from Gentry's (real human ‘jacked in’) perspective
to the scenario assembled by the construct 3Jane (to resemble Straylight,
a space mansion), to that assembled by Bobby to resemble a country manor,
cutting to another scenario assembled by Bobby, this time recreating a
London apartment. There are world within worlds, however; the reader
is aware that in yet another space, Bobby only exists as a wasted human
shell, and 3Jane's bodily form is dead, whereas Gentry can jack out to
a real physical existence. Yet these distinctions finally become
trivial in the disorientating transitions of the narrative, where electronic
existences can reach out to terminate biological ones, where characters
return in new guises and formats, where moral oppositions and polemical
conflicts often turn out to be different arms of the same corporate activity.
To make the by-now standard observation, following Jameson, that postmodern narratives such as those of Barker and Gibson are the ‘depthless’ pastiches which fragment information, is to miss the cultural significance of this type of narrative. Heterocosmic narrative plays no less a social role than high fantasy, as the former's rising popularity already suggests. The moral tone of Barker's attack on social ‘hypocrisy,’ despite the rejection of moral terms in his own narratives, provides a clue to this social role: it is the construction of textual experiences of deviance, alterity and counterculture as safer alternatives to the praxis of deviance in an age of AIDS, gay-bashing, eco-terrorism, abortion violence, litigious political correctness and other forms of fear and threat prevalent in contemporary society. This might be termed the textual politics of ‘possible lifestyles’ (the ‘cause’ transformed into an episodic textual experience) as opposed to the lived epic politics of the Civil Rights movement or anti-Vietnam War activities.
Paradoxically, textual deviance as an expression of lifestyle and experience must encode the fact of its own pseudo-deviance, in order to defuse any possibility of real threat and violence. The initial moral stridency in Barker's fantasies accordingly defuses itself, rejecting its putative status as subversive discourse critical of the status quo, by a coded recognition that there is no possibility of standing ‘outside’ of the problems of the authoritarian and capitalist system.11
Thus at one level, heterocosmic fantasies can safely articulate their codes of deviance all the more because of the codes of conformity (or at least, the inability to envision a radical alternative) to the basic modes of production, control and distribution which are symbolised as Barker's tyrannical authorities and Gibson's corporations. At another level, the characteristic narrative structures of heterocosmic fantasies market themselves as prime examples of ‘safe’ and ‘accessible’ consumerist texts: instead of the pre-packaged moral simplifications and ‘uplifting’ linear plots of epic fantasies and various forms of pulp fiction, heterocosmic fantasies promise to be intermittent and non-linear, a collection of images and episodes over whose temporal and spatial unfolding a reader has more control. This marketing is evident in several ways: in the prevalent ‘picture-in-picture’ cover designs which promise tangentiality, exotic breadth and diversity;12 and in the layout of the books with their rejection of the summarising prologues and predictive maps and contents pages which in high fantasies serve to locate the reader at specific points in a single, coherent journey or development.
This is not to ignore perhaps the most fundamental social function of the heterocosmic fantasy, which is to rehearse the act of consumption itself, to reinforce the centrality of frenetic consumption by creating reassuring habits and rhythms of paid ‘entry’ and ‘exit.’ Thus the structure, packaging and reading processes of heterocosmic fantasy novels is merely one manifestation of a pattern of behaviour which finds it echo in the enhanced viewing choices of paid television channels and purchased or rented videos, the rise of internet video games which allow for ‘competitive’ gaming between innumerable combinations of unseen surfers, pay-for-membership internet sites which offer the consumption of anything from pornographic photos to chat sessions, and other related textual processes. Moral disquiet and postmodern cynicism at the level of plot and theme are contrasted with the reassurance of the familiar act of textual consumption itself, an act whose pattern is essentially heterocosmic. If the story dissatisfies or makes no impression, the practice of paying, entering and exiting repeatedly becomes its own therapy. This is in a sense ‘anti-reading,’ a process of transitory repeated bouts of contact with the text which refutes the demands of textual completion intact as recently as (say) pre-postmodern space opera or pulp fiction; but it is a pattern of consumption already installed in fundamental habits of ‘hanging out’ at the mall, browsing (window shopping or watching “sellavision”), and buying and returning merchandise.
While this discussion has chosen to focus on two well-known novelists whose work is in many ways representative of the textual and ideological patterns being discussed, it should be clear by this time that ‘heterocosmic’ features relate to much broader trends in a variety of cultural texts. In popular fiction, we could point to heterocosmic elements in recent works by Stephen Donaldson, Michael Moorcock, Stephen King's The Dark Tower Trilogy, and Jack Vance's Lyonesse Trilogy, although these are often combined with elements of high fantasy as well. In literary fiction, novels like Kurt Vonegut's Slaughterhouse 5, Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and John Gardner's Freddy's Book, to name just a few, exhibit features of heterocosmic narrative, brought to bear on literary self-consciousness. The teenage fantasy book market has recently seen the entry of ‘interactive’ books (where the reader can construct a variety of stories by choosing to go to different pages at key points, these choices in turn engendering others) which resemble heterocosmic fantasies in that they stipulate particular adventures which stand parallel to other possibilities - one of the earliest and best-known series of such books is the Fighting Fantasy series by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. The heterocosmic qualities of certain recent television series, and of competitive programming at ‘key’ timeslots by different networks and stations, cannot be overlooked either.
One last cultural nexus whose operation is fundamentally that of the heterocosmic text should be mentioned, namely cultism and its relationship to electronic texts. The textual ideology of the heterocosmic fantasy tells us much about the ideology of New Age Cults, and vice versa. As John M. Bozeman (1997: 153) points out, groups such as the Christian Scientists, Scientologists, Cryogenicists and UFOlogists like the Raelian movement are ‘a curious blend of radical and conservative elements,’ each promising to ‘overturn the social order’ while simultaneously aiming at a perfect order which was really ‘the preservation and magnification of the existing, perhaps endangered, present order.’ In this respect, they echo the dualistic social function of heterocosmic narratives. The much-publicised last activities of the Heaven's Gate group, whose members ‘seem to have drunk from a delusional cocktail of just about every religious tradition and New Age escapist fantasy,’ (Newsweek 7 April 1997: 16) reinforces this parallel.13 Heaven's Gate's members were fond of watching Star Trek and the X-Files, and constructed an apocalyptic belief that a UFO would come down to take its members up to ‘the next level.’ The group also publicised its activities on its internet web page. Whether they were actually successful in recruiting new members this way (the evidence suggests they were not) is beside the immediate point. The proliferation of cult fantasies, each one offering an experience of deviance and counterculture (both to mainstream religion and mainstream social economy), and advertising itself as a text to be consumed, even as it consumes other fantasy (apocalyptic, millenarian, UFOlogic) texts, is a more spectacular manifestation of postmodern society's heterocosmic impulse. One might say that cultism is merely a form of postmodern narrative and lifestyle politics which chooses an ostensibly ‘religious’ packaging, although in its fundamental process it has much in common with electronic, print and visual heterocosmic narratives
National University of Singapore
 Elkins names John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme
and Kurt Vonnegut as “fantasy” writers, equally with more popular writers
like Ursula Le Guin and J. R. R. Tolkein (28). See also Peter Malekin
(1992), who considers a writer like Jorge Luis Borges a fantasist of the
highest order, together with the Science Fiction and Fantasy author Philip
 I am thinking, in particular, of Koolhaas’s Villa Dall’Ava just outside Paris; see House and Garden March (1992), 158-165, 172.
 See Brian Stableford’s (1990) very useful and informative essay, ‘The British and American Traditions of Speculative Fiction.’ For Stableford, British ‘scientific romances’ possess a ‘distinctive kind of flavor’ despite the trend in recent years towards a trans-Atlantic conflation of speculative fictions. Although Stableford traces these romances back no further than to the ‘utopian fantasies and imaginary voyages’ published at the end of the nineteenth century, we could extend his argument and root British scientific romances in older European and English mythic elements. The relevance to the pastoral settings, lush landscapes and nostalgic feudalism of much ‘High Fantasy’ is clear.
 In particular, it is interesting how many high fantasy writers (both English and American) gravitate towards a mythical insular kingdom, or else draws from Celtic folktales and fairytales, both of which devices suggesting something of pre-Norman England. Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy traces the rise and fall of kings and kingdoms in a mythical land of Lyonesse, which was supposedly ‘located across the Cantabrian Gulf (now the Bay of Biscay) from Old Gaul,’ just south-west of England (1984: ix). George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones (1996) is set in an island kingdom marked by a long wall in its wintery north, which suggests Hadrian's Wall, and whose characters have names which suggest Saxon feudalism. Many high fantasy writers obliquely re-create a mythical western European antiquity, by their use of Celtic names, legends, and fairytales. Jules Zanger, in ‘Dorothy and Tarzan: Notes Toward a Theory of National Fantasy’ (1990), suggests the same point when he says that ‘British fantasies often take the form of unfamiliar histories set in familiar landscapes of the past and future’ (84); this tendency, however, is clearly one of genre and literary tradition rather than of ‘national’ characteristics, since many American high fantasy writers also use ‘British’ landscapes.
 Curiously, and significantly, the novel does not suggest the possibility that the carpet is its own distinct space, which without unfolding might already be a world ready to be visited by humans (who would, of course, magically have to shrink down to that scale or dimension). I remember reading just such a variation on the world-in-carpet motif, in a John Jakes Brak the Barbarian story which I have been unable to track down subsequently. In that story the humans are pulled into a sinister garden within the carpet, whenever they make physical contact with it. Weaveworld, as the newer story, shows the temporal tensions which characterise the contemporary fantasy.
 The advent of the Video Cassette Recorder and pre-programmed recording, and of the strategy of retailing a popular television series as a boxed set of videos, does not completely remove the epic consumption time of such a series; no matter how the viewing is timed, the entire series still occupies the same number of hours (less the time for commercials), necessitating breaks in the viewing process, and the episodes still look ahead to the next one.
 This is on the evidence of the promotional quotes which have been included on the inside covers of Barker's various books. King, in a quote on the inside back cover of the paperback Weaveworld, goes so far as to say that ‘what Barker does makes the rest of us look like we've been asleep for the last ten years,’ and that ‘he is an important, exciting and enormously saleable writer.’ King's endorsement carries enormous weight in the making of reputations in this genre: it was just such an endorsement of the low-budget horror movie Evil Dead which made it a college cult classic and spawned a trilogy of movies, incidentally also establishing the reputations of director Sam Raimi and actor/director Bruce Campbell, who worked together on the television series The Adventures of Briscoe County Junior and on several episodes of Hercules.
 Interestingly, King comes closest to writing heterocosmically in more recent works like his Dark Tower series, which began with the 1982 volume The Gunslinger, and ran through three other volumes to date (The Drawing of the Three, 1987, The Waste Lands, 1991, and Wizard and Glass, 1997). The episodic and metafictional quality of these texts is seen not only in the textual allusions (‘dark tower’ from Browning’s poem ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,’ and ‘waste lands’ from T. S. Eliot’s poem of the same title), but also in their composition and narrative structure. King himself refers to the series as a ‘long tale,’ which gestures to the epic quality evident in other King works, but which cautiously avoids the more specific indications of duration and resolution conferred by terms like ‘trilogy’ or eponymous epic titles. The fact is that it is an incomplete and inconclusive series, an epic that curiously goes nowhere and frustrates all the epic conventions King so adeptly fulfils in his other works. If this experiment in heterocosmic narrative is uncharacteristc of King, it also suggests the compelling and ubiquitous nature of this heterocosmic form.
 See especially Veronica Hollinger, ‘Cybernetic Deconsntructions: Cyberpunk and Postmodernism’ (1991) and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, ‘Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism’ (1991); and Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (1993). I am grateful to my student, Mae Lyn Urquhart, for calling my attention to these publications.
 Most accounts of ‘classic’ science fiction see 1960 as a convenient date to mark its end, and the (admittedly gradual) movement towards ‘new age’ science fiction. The analytical comparison between the American frontier and the ideology of classic science fiction comes from Brian Attebery, ‘The Closing of the Final Frontier: Science Fiction after 1960’ (1995). See also Rob Latham’s article, ‘The Men Who Walked on the Moon: Images of America in the ‘New Wave’ Science Fiction of the 1960s and 1970s’ (1995).
 Postmodern heterocosmic fantasies thus refute an older notion of fantasy literature as a politically subversive discourse. See Rosemary Jackson's Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (1981), for an account of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fantasies as political subversions. Jackson's argument is more complex than this single assertion, of course, but her thesis does indicate something of the vastly different social role played by fantasy in earlier eras as compared to postmodern fantasy.
 As examples, we might consider the paperback covers of Barker's Hellbound Heart and Gibson's Neuromancer, although these are representative rather than exhaustive.
 See David Chidester, Patterns of Power: Religion and Politics in American Culture (1988), especially the section on ‘New Religious Movements,’ 237-257. Chidester debunks the popular notion that cults are extremist groups on the lunatic fringe, whose processes are totally removed from those of mainstream society: he notes the efforts of groups like the Unification Church and the ISKCON (Hare Krishnas) to align themselves with the discourse of American Civil Rights, and also points out that there is ‘no great difference’ between enlistment in a mainline Christian movement and a ‘cult’ (242, 249).
Attebery B 1992 ‘Fantasy and the Narrative Transaction’ in Ruddick 1992
Attebery B 1995 ‘The Closing of the Final Frontier: Science Fiction after 1960’ in Sanders 1995 205-213.
Barker C 1986 The Hellbound Heart HarperCollins London.
Barker C 1987 Weaveworld William Collins Sons Great Britain.
Barker C 1991 Imajica HarperCollins London.
Barker C 1995 Everville HarperCollins London.
Barker C 1996 ‘Appearance on America On-Line’ 16 July.
Baudrillard J 1988 Selected Writings (ed. Mark Poster) Polity Press Cambridge.
Baudrillard J 1994 Simulacra and Simulation (trans. Sheila Faria Glaser) University of Michigan Press Ann Arbor.
Bozeman J M 1997 ‘Technological Millenarianism in the United States’ in Robbins 1997 138-158.
Brooker P 1992 (ed.) Modernism/Postmodernism Longman London.
Brooks T 1977 The Sword of Shannara Ballantine New York.
Bukatman S 1993 Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction Duke University Press Durham.
Chidester D 1988 Patterns of Power: Religion and Politics in American Culture Prentice Hall New Jersey.
Collins R A & H D Pearce 1985 The Scope of the Fantastic: Culture, Biography, Themes, Children’s Literature Greenwood Press Westport, Connecticut.
Csicsery-Ronay I 1991 ‘Cyperpunk and Neuromanticism’ in McCaffery 1991.
Elkins C 1985 ‘An Approach to the Social Functions of Science Fiction and Fantasy’ in Collins 1985 23-31.
Ganahl J 1996 ‘Clive Barker: Hell-Raiser on a Spiritual Quest’ Examiner 11 August.
Gibson W 1984 Neuromancer Ace Books New York.
Gibson W 1986 Count Zero Ace Books New York.
Gibson W 1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive Bantam Books New York.
Jackson R 1981 Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion Methuen London.
Jameson F 1991 Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism Duke University Press Durham.
Jefferson A 1980 The Nouveau Roman and the Poetics of Fiction Cambridge University Press Cambridge.
Hollinger V 1991 ‘Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and Postmodernism’ in McCaffery 1991.
Langford M K 1990 (ed.) Contours of the Fantastic Greenwood Press New York.
Latham R 1995 ‘The Men Who Walked on the Moon: Images of America in the ‘New Wave’ Science Fiction of the 1960s and 1970s’ in Sanders 1995 195-203.
Le Guin U 1968 A Wizard of Earthsea Ace Books New York.
Lyotard J F 1989 The Lyotard Reader (ed. Andrew Benjamin) Blackwell Oxford.
Lyotard J F 1992 ‘Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?’ in Brooker 1992.
Malekin P 1992 ‘Knowing About Knowing: Paradigms of Knowledge in the Postmodern
Fantastic’ in Ruddick 1992 41-48.
Martin G R R 1996 A Game of Thrones Bantam New York.
Robbins T & S J Palmer 1997 (eds) Millenium, Messiahs, and Mayhem: Contemporary Apocalyptic Movements Routledge New York.
Ruddick N (ed) 1992 State of the Fantastic: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Fantastic Literature and Film Greenwood Press Westport, Connecticut.
Sanders J 1995 (ed) Functions of the Fantastic Greenwood Press Westport, Connecticut.
Schlobin R C 1982 (ed.) The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art University of Notre Dame Press Notre Dame, Indiana.
Scholes R 1979 Fabulation and Metafiction University of Illinois Press Urbana.
Stableford B 1990 ‘The British and American Traditions of Speculative Fiction’ in Langford 1990 39-47.
Vance J 1984 Lyonesse Grafton London.
Zahorski K J & R H Boyer 1982 ‘The Secondary Worlds of High Fantasy’ in Schlobin 1982 56-81.
Zanger J 1990 ‘Dorothy and Tarzan: Notes Towards a Theory of National Fantasy’ in Langford 1990 81-87.
ARTICLE ON ICONITY IN ADVERTISING
(Published in The Motivated Sign: Iconicity in Language and Literature 2, ed. Olga Fischer and Max Naenny.
Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2001, pp. 189-210).
ICONICITY IN ADVERTISING SIGNS: MOTIVE AND METHOD IN
MIMING "THE BODY"
Robbie B. H. Goh
National University of Singapore
Advertisements (especially those in print media) rely in various ways
on the poetic function of language - that "focus on the message for its
own sake" which Roman Jakobson (1960: 356) identifies as the crux of such
language. Their textual component tends to foreground language, promoting
the "palpability of signs" that Jakobson speaks of, by spectacular modifications
of word-arrangement (line breaks, spacing, the use of columns, the creation
of word-shapes, and related means). Mary Cross (1996: 2) argues that
advertising relies on techniques of “peeling verbal signs off their traditional
associations in attention-getting wordplay and fragmented syntax”, which
is a sort of “linguistic vandalism”. It is thus very tempting to
make comparative analyses of advertising and poetic language, as some theorists
have done.1 If advertising signs employ language in fundamentally
poetic functions, then - as scholars like Max Nänny (1986: 199-208)
and Jørgen Dines Johansen (1996: 37-55) have shown - this crucially
involves iconic processes; poetic language conveys meaning through many
concrete and formal features of words themselves which are much less easily
manifested in realist prose.
In general, however, advertising theory has been dominated by neo-Marxist approaches, which are less concerned with the sign-properties of advertisements, since it is assumed that they function as abstract, symbolic "commodity signs". The implication of this symbolic function is that the commodity-sign is seen as highly arbitrary (but in an ideologically-loaded way), inasmuch as it has reference only to a set of consumerist values and ideas characteristic of the capitalist market. For Judith Williamson (1978:11, 13), the characteristic semiology of the advertising sign is a substitution or "transference" in which the ostensible reference to the "material medium" (the featured object, the world in which it exists) is replaced by a reference to a constructed idea of the self - advertisements ultimately "are selling us ourselves". This "consumer self" which is the referent of advertising signs, is a composite drawn from the various notions of the middle-class consumer propagated by different media signs.
To what extent, then, is iconicity possible or significant within the semiology of the advertising sign? The disparity between the abstract and symbolic functions insisted upon by neo-Marxist advertising theory, and the iconic functions of advertising signs which resemble poetic language, suggests that advertisements are complex signs which may rely on differentiated signifying processes, incorporating the iconic, symbolic and even indexical (although this last seems to be less common). While advertising signs are doubtless commodity signs, if only in the sense that they function within an overall system of market motivations and significances, the recurrent role of iconic functions in many advertisements suggests that the semiology of such complex signs is not limited to the mere symbolic reiteration of consumerist codes. Iconicity in advertising marks the place of "the body" in the sign - the material world, particularly the "everyday bodily and perceptual experiences" which constitute our central domain and perspective (Gibbs 1994: 79) - which will not simply be effaced and overwritten by the abstractions of commodity meanings.
This is not to say, of course, that symbolic meanings are always or obviously at odds with iconic or cognitive ones. Some advertisements seek a happy coincidence and agreement of all such semiotic processes, in their attempts to offer "concrete" proof of the truth of their claims. Thus, for example, many advertisements for financial products (insurance, loans, credit cards, and the institutions which back these) often use iconic elements to ground their claims about the happiness, security and high social esteem which comes from buying their products. The obvious way this can be indicated in advertisements is in the use of "upward" oriented figures which, according to the cognitive theories advanced by Lakoff and Johnson (1980: 22), draw from one of the "most fundamental concepts" which cuts across different cultures. Since so much of our somatic, emotional and thus semiotic experience associates an upward orientation (in posture, facial expression, limb movements and the like) with positive states such as success and power, this is reflected in our figurative expressions (e.g. "the height of ecstasy," "buoyant with happiness").
This figurative meaning can be conveyed iconically, in the layout, format, physical shape and orientation of an advertisement. Thus, for example, the advertisement for Credit POSB, a Singapore bank, which represents the happy homeowners as being located in an upward-oriented series of balconies in what appears to be a looming apartment tower (figure 1). This is not an accidental structure dictated by conditions of photographic representation, or the newspaper format in which the advertising sign appears, or any similar factors: in fact, it would have been as easy or easier to represent the grandeur of the property in a horizontal orientation (i.e. “good is breadth/width/expanse”), given that in this case the advertising space is a rectangle whose breadth is longer than its height. Instead, the entire advertisement iconically mimes this upward orientation, assuming the form of three signifying “towers” (reading from left to right: the photograph, the caption, and the text in smaller print with the face of a friendly loan officer at the top).
In each of these signifying towers, the reader not only reads vertically, but does so in a gesture of repetition which is like the movement of an elevator up and down a tower (or the movement of the eye as a viewer “reads” a tower in the urban landscape), and is in a sense prevented from reading horizontally, from “jumping” off each tower. For example, the caption not only breaks up the words to build a tower (two or at most three words long, but in a stack of six such lines), but also halts the linear and downward trend by having key words (“easy,” “best,” “loans”) in a vertical line of larger type.2 Read as a sentence, the caption moves across and ultimately downwards, but the larger type also picks out a collocation which is supposed to register visually with the reader, moving up and down (as the reader considers this message) independent of the expected horizontal and downward orientation. Interestingly, the homeowners are not placed right at the top of the tower, but lower down: we still look up to them, which is crucial, but with the stack of balconies above them, the photograph mimes not so much the fait accompli of social climbing, but its potential. The raised hands of the homeowners may also point the direction of their upward socio-economic aspirations. Thus what is depicted as a positive value in this text is upward orientation, mimed in a number of ways, rather than the absolute height of the human figures (which is also in danger of connoting remoteness and inaccessibility - as it is, the figures are small enough).
A similar mimetic movement is created in the small-print text, whose content concludes in the final paragraph with the key notions of “fast, friendly highly-professional service”, which makes the choice “easy”. For Peirce (1955: 106), the photograph was a typical icon, its resemblance to the object so clear that it could supply "truths…which suffice to determine [the object's] construction. Thus, by means of two photographs a map can be drawn, etc.". Yet it is not so much the photograph's "resemblance" or "physical connection" to its depicted object (this bank officer, who is typical rather than distinguished, who in turn synecdochally represents the bank rather than is identical with it) which conveys meaning through an iconic function, but rather the placement of the photograph within the orientations of the advertisement. The content of this rightmost "tower" is made to refer back upwards to the photograph of the smiling bank officer, which is supposed to justify the bank’s claims - it is the officer, the (synecdochal) face of the bank, who is “fast, friendly [and] highly-professional” (and, in an unsurprising sexual sub-code, also “easy”), if anything at all is. Yet this friendly accessibility (mimed also by the ease of repetitive movement structured in the text) is, perhaps paradoxically, also “high”: the highly-efficient bank officer must connote power, to confer loans, to make homeowning dreams come true, which is why her photograph is placed at the top of the column when it could easily have been placed at mid-point or at the bottom.
Yet there also seems to be a degree of anti-iconic force in the meaning of the text. While many value-orientations in the sociology of the building may in fact be aligned with the cognitive field of "up is good", and not necessarily only in congested urban spaces (private family areas in the house tend to be upstairs, public areas downstairs; houses on a hill are generally more desirable; an office on a higher floor usually denotes a higher rank than one on a lower floor), other meanings having to do with the economy of the building in fact run counter to this field. Credit POSB, as a creditor financial institution, is fundamentally concerned with the "bottom line" of a consumer's credit worthiness (including how "rooted" this is, in collateral or job security), interest rates, and other "down"-oriented factors. This is spelt out quite paradoxically in the right-most column, where the fact that they "keep our rates low" is placed quite high up in the priority of claims the institution wishes to make.
The connection between upward-orientation, icons of the same, and financial "truths", might be seen more clearly by comparing the Credit POSB mortgage advertisement with the Standard Chartered one for fixed deposits (figure 2). Here, again, there is some degree of iconic correspondence between the formal properties of the sign (its extreme vertical orientation, the floating, looming effect of the rate-sign "3% p.a.") and the claim that this high rate is cause for "happiness" (and, incidentally, cause for choosing Standard Chartered). Considered from the point of view of iconic resemblances, the text is problematic: the huge intervening blank space (between the rate-sign and the bottom of the text) may compel the reader to look upwards (thus miming an action literally suggested by the figure of speech "something's looking up"), but it also causes the reader to look downwards, to find the explanation or anchoring point for the floating sign above. The upper sign could, after all, refer to a mortgage rate or the interest rate on a credit card (for both of which, "down" rather than "up" would be good), or any other rate for that matter, and it is only by looking down that the explanation can be found.
The empty middle space thus mimes emptiness and insubstantiality - it corresponds at the level of content to the uncertainty of interests rates (which, the small print at the bottom warns, are "subject to change without notice"), the lack of any concrete, easily-grasped guarantee or base upon which this promise can rest. The text as a whole reminds us that "up" may often be good, but may also be "airy" and impractical (as suggested by common expressions such as "castles in the air", "head in the clouds"). The formal features of the text, like that of the Credit POSB advertisement, seem to refer iconically to concrete experiential notions, and yet there are slippages in these signs which invoke quite opposite meanings. These slippages are the places where symbolic fields overwrite iconic particularities: in the Standard Chartered advertisement, the blank space creates a minimally-intrusive text which allows different readers to read different needs and desires into the text, where a specific sign would have appealed more to some readers and less to others. In the Credit POSB text, the basically iconic meaning (emotional "upness", elation", ease" of process) is overwritten by more specifically financial meanings which are also more arbitrary: socio-economic mobility (which can go both upwards and downwards), the tendency for interests rates of all sorts to fluctuate suddenly and violently, the vagueness of what the "best value" in a loan would constitute ("best" to whom? What kind of "value"? what is lost or compromised in this bargain?).
It might be said that despite the sort of decontextualising manipulation of the advertising sign that Cross speaks of, in many respects such signs also rely on fairly conventional textual features in order to appeal to a general readership (and market) - whose constituent is the "rational, abstract consumer". Such a consumer, in classic economic theory, is assumed to make rational choices to maximise the fulfilment of needs in conditions of limited resources. These calculations - involving, in Marxist terms, the "exchange value" which reduces material differences to the fungible terms of symbolic exchange - are accordingly represented through semiologies which ultimately refer to (as it were) conventions of rational choice. Such serious and weighty considerations as mortgages, insurances, vehicle purchases, and related "adult, daily life decisions" are often reflected in advertising layouts which use regularly-sized, evenly-spaced and evenly-textured type fonts, in terms of colour, shading, even in some cases third-dimensionality. Variation within such "serious" messages is relatively minor, and usually confined to adding relative emphasis on certain words or ideas through greater (both larger and thicker) font size. The Credit POSB advertisement is typical, the larger and bolder words ("easy", "best", "loans") creating a sort of acrostic sub-text within the larger text of the caption. However, apart from this the font of the caption is generally uniform: all letters are in lower case (perhaps suggesting informality, although even here the effect is mitigated somewhat by the mechanically-uniform quality of the type), all with serifs, and all relatively evenly-spaced.
It is when advertisements are less concerned with general products appealing to the abstract and rational consumer, and more with a specific and smaller market defined by a "body" with particular characteristics, that a greater degree of foregrounding of the materiality of the text takes place. Iconicity in font manipulation - not merely changes in size or departures from linear horizontal layouts, but the manipulation of the colour, texture and solidity of the font as well - seems to feature more prominently, when the advertising sign needs to represent (in particular) the body and its experiential meanings. Symbolism, it would seem, is the preferred sign-function where the abstract and intangible meanings of socio-economic standing and choice are concerned: a neo-Marxist thinker like Baudrillard (1994: 15, 92-93) would insist that this is due to the "sorcery of social relations" to which all commodity signs contribute. Yet this is also due to the semiotic property of symbols themselves; for Peirce, the "genuine symbol" has a "general meaning", and refers by virtue of "a contract or convention" (1955: 112-113), including the conventional notions of social power and prestige which a society propagates. The body and its associated meanings, being grounded in direct experience, is often the point of resistance of such complex abstractions, and its place is correspondingly marked by iconic functions: as Peirce says,
Given a conventional or other general sign of an object, to deduce any other truth than that which it explicitly signifies, it is necessary, in all cases, to replace that sign by an icon. (1955: 106)
Of course, in the case of complex and composite signs like advertisements,
the icon can function side-by-side with the symbol rather than "replacing"
it. Yet it is this iconic function which mimes the "new knowledge"
of the body, where it tends to stand outside of conventional notions.
This is quite noticeable especially in age-specific advertisements, for example those aimed at the elderly. The advertisement for life and health insurance from NTUC INCOME (figure 3) uses greater variety in fonts: it lists a variety of serious illnesses, with the more traumatic or damaging ones (e.g. the predictable stroke, heart attack, cancer) given emphasis, both through larger and thicker fonts, but also more spacing between letters of the word, and around the word separating it from other words. "Stroke" is the most prominent, in this respect, apparently because stroke is one of the deadliest diseases in Singapore.
The formal features of the advertisement thus become an icon for bodily pathology, the size and prominence of certain words corresponding to the size and importance (in terms of pathological disruption) of the diseases they represent. The diseases are not listed in any particular order (such as alphabetically, or in ascending or descending order of seriousness), so that one encounters a sudden looming word much as one would unexpectedly encounter a deadly disease, the disruption to the expected orderly format resembling the disruption to one's life that such an illness (in one personally, or in a family member) would prove to be.
To the extent that this advertising sign mimes the pathological body, its semiotic function is chiefly iconic. However, as a complex sign it also has other referents, of course, and it should be remembered that health insurance is a financial instrument as much as a mortgage or credit card are. Despite this degree of iconic reference to the ageing body, the "serious" business of life and health insurance is also "adult consumer" business - it is not only old people who face such problems and need such products. Whatever its mode of advertising itself, one insurance company or brand competes against many others offering much the same products, to much the same sort of clientele, its stylistic modalities confined by the sense of the "sameness" of the underlying realities of purchasing power, premiums, capital gains, incomes and annuities - all reducible, in turn, to the lowest common base of the dollar. Thus the sign of the body in the NTUC INCOME advertisement - the iconic chart of potential pathologies - is literally based upon a more abstract and symbolic text below, which discusses the quite-unsomatic details of "annuities", "savings", "premiums" and "bonuses".
Symbolic representations can take many forms in advertising signs, of course, but they have in common techniques of de-registration of differences and particularities, of which the body proves the most threatening; abstract and symbolic representation is thus also the de-corporealisation of the sign, removing from it any trace or resemblance to bodily difference. Thus in the famous Gatorade television advertisements, featuring basketball star Michael Jordan, the viewer is invited to "be like Mike" regardless of how far short our physical attributes are from Jordan's famous six and a half foot, 200 pound frame. Some of the ways this abstraction of the viewer from his or her physical reality is effected include the almost exclusive use of child models in the advertisement, emphasising potentials and future states (which can be anticipated through imagination and desire), rather than present and actual physical limitations. This imaginative identification is reinforced in the jingle's use of rhyme, so that the identification (viewer = Jordan) is persuaded through a verbal identification:
Sometimes I dream that he is me
You've got to see that's how I want to be
The invitation to the reader to project imaginatively his or her
identity into an abstract, plausible and general space, is the essential
strategy of symbolic exchange semiotics. At one extreme is the blank
space and its variations, where particularities almost disappear altogether,
and an almost endless range of possibilities are invoked - one example
is the advertisement for The Peninsula hotel in Bangkok, which uses slightly
raised, white-on-white letters to spell out "YOUR ROOM IS READY", with
the hotel's name and crest at the bottom.3 The deictic possessive
"your (implicitly, "this") room", but without the expected accompanying
photos of the room, other parts of the hotel, reception personnel or guests,
leaves blank both the actual physical room as well as the nature and particulars
of the guest. The reader is invited to take this unopposing, unparticularised
blankness (much as a hotel guest is welcome to take the ever-serviceable
hotel stationary, which the advertisement's embossed letters and crest
invoke), and to fit himself or herself into this picture. Even in
less strikingly innovative advertisements, the forms of symbolic exchange
semiotics depend upon creating an abstract space for an unspecified, undifferentiated
general consumer to imagine himself or herself. Typically, this involves
minimal text (within which there is minimal reference to biographical particularities
of readers and potential purchasers), the emphasis on the commodity itself
(usually abstracted from any particular background or context, or else
placed in a fantasy context such as on the wrist of a famous personality),
and inter-referentiality between logo and commodity (so that the "meaning"
of the commodity is explained or justified by the brand name, and vice
versa in circular fashion.
Advertisements which sell the youth body tend to rely less on this symbolic exchange semiotics, or at least tend to mix this mode with an iconic mode which resembles the physicality of the youth body. This physicality is figured in several ways: typographically, it often involves the creation of a rough, unfinished, uneven (in colour, spacing, outline, size) font. The link between the "rough" texture of the font, and the physical roughness it mimics, is clearly seen in the Isuzu truck advertisement which ran in a Singapore newspaper (figure 4). The caption, in the form of a direct quote (supposedly spoken by the young man in the adjacent picture), is a phrase in a chinese dialect, hokkien - this has one of the largest linguistic communities among the various dialect groups in Singapore, but (due in part to Government policy promoting Mandarin instead of dialects) lacks "legitimacy" as an official language spoken by "educated" individuals. As such, the common perception is that it is the dialect spoken by (among others) manual labourers, soldiers in the army, and many working-class families. The phrase, rendered in English as "bo beh chao", literally means "no horse run," and idiomatically means "exceedingly fast/strong/powerful", especially in a physical sense. Yet one need not understand anything of hokkien or the sociology of Singapore dialects to read the characteristics of the Isuzu truck, or of the young man who is linked to it. These characteristics are embodied in the typography, with its deliberately bumpy outlines, and uneven size among all three words (with the first, "bo", standing out as the largest by far) which suggests a boisterously exuberant proclamation, almost a shout of rough joie de vivre.
Even (or especially) in the absence of particular knowledge of the language or culture, the sign mimes a physicality characterised by size, roughness, unfinished or unpolished spontaneity, excitedly uneven performance or behaviour, and related features. The letters somehow "look like" the sort of words the rough and boisterous young labourer would speak, in every aspect (performance and intonation, content, but also a certain culture of physicality and roughness). We might say the letters look like the young man, whose appearance is deliberately left "rough" - bad haircut, uneven shave, pockmarked and uneven complexion, exuberant grin and all. Figuration (the associations between the young man's physical and behavioural traits and his presumed occupation, between the man and the truck, the analogical notion of vehicular "toughness" and "strength" which finally emerges) rests in large part upon the "direct communication" (in Peirce's terms, 1955: 105) of the typographic body.
Youthful exuberance (etymologically "ex uberare" - copiously, overflowingly fertile) can be embodied in other ways, as the advertisement for Nissin noodles shows in unabashedly sexist terms (figure 5). There is in fact little or no link between noodles and female sexuality (or specifically here, breast size), except for the conventional pun linking "cup" noodles to bra "cups" - a thin link, since the pun could have been played out in a number of other ways ("cup" as the action of cupping or craddling something, coffee or tea culture, as trophy, and hence linked to soccer or other sporting events and their trophies). Yet there is a fundamental link which is not merely the cheap sexist sensationalism of using a beautiful and scantily-clad girl to attract attention. In fact, the conventional and arbitrary link is strengthened by all kinds of experiential meanings. The girl is not only physically well-endowed, but is "luxuriant" in many senses, with her thick and lustrous long hair, dark eyebrows, and full lips. Her comprehensive fullness and luxuriance thus embodies the rich texture of the noodles that she represents - as not only psychoanalysts would argue, orality is sexuality, and one can luxuriate in the texture of noodles in one's mouth just as easily as one can luxuriate in the feel of soft thick hair or the experience or sensation of other physical contact. The typography of the caption - "All cups are not created equal" - strengthens the link-by-materiality. The font used is a variation on the style commonly known as "chequebook", with lines that are thickly swollen in some parts, but left thin elsewhere, particularly at the joints. The modified font in this advertisement is not as mechanically uniform as chequebook (which is often used to simulate electronic data, for example as subtitles which are supposed to be computer entries especially on science fiction programmes like Star Trek: The Next Generation). In the Nissin advertisement, the swollen parts of the fonts are made to look spontaneous and unpredictable, swelling some parts of letters but not others (the angular letter "L", for example, is left thin). What are swollen, conspicuously, are the concave curves of rounded letters like "C" (repeated at the start of "cups" and "created"), "D", "U", "Q" and "O". The fact that all these letters are upper-case adds to the sense of fullness and expansiveness, since the volume and swell of the rounded parts of these letters are inevitably maximised in the upper-case as compared to their lower-case forms.
Figurative associations - Nissin noodles are as desirable (and, in a sexism familiar from the Credit POSB advertisement and elsewhere, as "easy") as this beautiful girl - play up to marketing demographics and intentions. Instant noodles are favoured by younger consumers, who are not bothered by nutritional considerations, who appreciate the speed and availability of the snack, and who are always or unpredictably hungry. Yet the crude sexuality of the advertisement is not perfectly justified by this demographic consideration, since (unlike, say, a female celebrity endorsement) the blatant sexual availability of this unknown girl appeals only to the male half (albeit the hungrier half) of this demographic. Once again, figurative meanings and demographic intentions are based upon more fundamental, less arbitrary or exclusionary, codes of meaning, which cut across the values of sub-groups (e.g. of race, gender, age) even as they cut across particular advertisements. That is to say, iconic mimicry of the youthful body agrees with our understanding or experience of this body, even if we are not (or not longer) part of that actual demographic. The rambunctious, overt physicality of the young labourer in the Isuzu advertisement, despite being an opposite set of meanings in many ways (not least of which is the obvious gender opposition), thus really forms a significant pair with the blatantly "healthy" and physically-luxuriant girl in the Nissin advertisement. Both signs mime (in various aspects of their form and structure) the physical exuberance of youth - its barely-containable, unexpectedly full and luxuriant body, with its energies and appetites which are always threatening to manifest themselves in unexpected appetites and behaviour (whether this be shouting, laughing, stripping, sexual intercourse, eating, or other antics).
Reading these lesser-known examples in some detail helps us compare this semiology with that of better-known examples, such as MTV narratives, which mime in various ways the spontaneity, haste, brashness, crude and unpolished manner, and daring and loud behaviour, of the youth body. Clearly many more iconic parameters can be encoded in a moving, television narrative: time and duration (the "pace" of an MTV segment, particularly those between music videos, mimes the frenetic activity - or, perhaps more uncharitably, the short attention span and flighty mental processes - of a typical teenage viewer), appearance and layout (colourful, quirky, eye-catching, but always informal and seemingly "unfinished"), and a range of physical and cultural attributes such as the physical energy, social stature (or lack thereof), dress and behaviour. However, many of these parameters are also captured in print advertisements, for example in the advertisements for the Discovery Channel, which (particularly in its adventure programmes) caters to a similar youth market. The advertisement featuring white-water kayaking (figure 6) features not only a striking photograph of a riverbed seen (as it were) by a canoeist underwater; in its typography, it also mimes the physical sensations of such an experience. The text, like that of the Isuzu truck advertisement (with the exception that quotation marks are dispensed with here), uses relative font size to mime a certain vocal performance - the excited, almost incoherent babble of a person in the frenzy of an adventure like white-water kayaking (or the watching of the Discovery programme which is supposed to be identical with this). It is not only that certain words "shriek" due to their relative size, and that this swelling of size follows no logic other than the sudden spurts of fear and excitement experienced by the kayaker - thus the sensation of "spinning in a washing machine", the "white chaos", are the crisis points in the body of the text, as well as to the body of this hypothetical kayaker. In addition, the failure of alignment at these points in the text, resulting in "forced" contact between the "s" in "washing," the "e" in "white" and the "c" in "chaos" with letters in surrounding words, mimes the actual physical swirling and bumping of the kayaker.
Thus the rather dubious leap of the imagination which equates watching a programme with actually performing a dangerous physical activity - an equation which must certainly require a considerable "willing suspension of disbelief", as Coleridge would put it - is actually based on the less arbitrary identification of the performative agitation of the text, with the sensation of said physical activity. This format is not merely an attempt at an eye-catching variation from standard, predictable orthography (although it also works at that level), but also an iconic representation of a certain rambunctious physical activity and the sensations that must accompany it.
The youth body is not always so positively viewed - after all, social value systems are likely to be more important in symbolic representations than in iconic, since the experiential meanings referred to by the latter are less subject to cultural mediations. Another aspect of the youth body is the physical stigmata of acne, menstrual changes, and other marks of a body in a state of undependable flux. The advertisement for Whisper feminine pads (figure 7), which appeared in a youth-oriented Singapore publication (Go magazine, whose title also evokes youthful energy), refers to several potentially-embarrassing marks of the youthful body. One young girl, obviously still unused to the feminine business of periods and how to deal with them with composure, anxiously tells her friend to check her for stains. The reader is unable to actually see "menstruation" as such, of course, nor even the stain that would be a metonymy of this. However, menstruation - or rather, the young girl's internal discomfort and anxiety arising out of her body's unaccustomed responses to this process - is marked elsewhere, in the pink blush on her face, in the picture of the Whisper package (which, strangely, floats in a thought balloon unconnected to anyone and hovering in the vicinity of her derriere), and in the red type in the words "check" and "whisper ultra thin" (which contrast with the black of all the rest of the dialogue and thoughts).4
In one sense, these marks are metonyms, stigmata which are caused by menstruation. Yet they also resemble, if not menstruation per se, then the physical and emotional state which the girl is in as a result of her physical embarrassment. This is evident, firstly, in the redness of the highlighted text, so that if the word "check" in its context is merely a euphemism for "stain" (the metonym), with its significant colour it stands out as an icon for menstruation, a startling red stain on the otherwise evenly black body of the text. They also resemble the effusive colour of the blush, the unconcealable fact of a disturbance or agitation in the expected textual and bodily order.
This iconicity accords with the particular marketing strategy of this advertisement, of course, since it is precisely such pronounced female stigmata which the product (and this product alone) can replace and thus conceal. Hence the fact that the product name is linked by typography to the stigmata, and that the picture of the product conceals the girl's derriere. A similar iconic "palpability" is used in the ubiquitous advertisements for skincare products, particularly of the anti-blemish variety, where disruptions in the body of the text emphasise the threatening and unpredictable disruptions that acne poses to the normal skin. Thus the advertisement for Sanctuary Spa (figure 8), for example, uses a great deal of "textured" fonts, using words of different colours (black, blue, white, and two shades of pink), layering these on backgrounds of different colours (including one which looks like a stylised flower), and eschewing right-justification for the list of skin "irregularities" it lists (so that the list is itself "irregular"). Facial products and services are in a difficult position, of course: on the one hand, they inevitably refer to the body, and to the unpredictable and threatening blemishes which erupt from it. The reminders of this underlying bodily threat must thus be present, and yet not dominant in the overall text - in this example, this is served by the small photos (tucked discretely away in a corner) which iconically "map" a pattern of blemishes and invoke the threatening body, and also by font-background manipulation which suggests a great degree of layering, the textured surfaces of skins.5 On the other hand, however, such advertisements must also persuade the potential customer that these blemishes can be covered up quickly and effectively. They must thus also invoke another, differently-valued texture, namely the beneficial applications of salves and cosmetics which promise to remedy the texturing caused by natural blemishes. An iconic texturing of the advertising text can convey something of this ambivalence, without the more univocal valuation of more explicit means of signification.
The constant iterations of the "body" in such texts suggest that certain cognitive domains return in ways which are governed, not merely by commercial logic and values (although these are inescapable), but also by the reference to a certain basic, shared knowledge of the physical domain. The purpose of a semiotic analysis of such advertising signs is not, however, simply to revisit the old contest between "arbitrary" and "natural" signs, or symbols versus icons. Clearly such complex signs rely on a variety of different semiotic functions, and if symbols (as Peirce suggests) are somehow limited in their meaning-making and can convey no "new knowledge" without icons, it is also true that icons cannot function in social texts without the greater generality and the reference to abstract meanings which symbols provide. However, the analysis of the particular strategies of this differentiated semiology reveals much about a culture's fundamental cognitive notions, and how these interact with the commercially-fungible symbolic representations.
1 See, for example, Walter Cummins' essay, "Love and Liqueur: Modernism and Postmodernism in Advertising and Fiction," and Michael B. Goodman's "Burroughs and Advertising: Fractured Language, Fractured Time, Fractured Image as the Universal Language." The advertising function of language is also implicit in the oft-discussed examples "Veni, Vidi, Vici" and "I Like Ike," which use poetic features to promote a particular image associated with an individual.
2 As Max Nänny pointed out to me (private communication, 26 March 1999), this height-orientation is also conveyed phonetically: in the caption, words with high vowel sounds ("easy," "see") are placed high up in the middle "tower", while middle-to-lower and back vowels are found in words placed lower down ("best", and even lower, "home" and "loans").
3 This is part of a series of print advertisements for the Peninsula hotel chain, featuring different particular locations, but all using the symbolic means of the white-on-white, embossed layout.
4 This advertisement actually ran in full colour, although for cost reasons it is reproduced here in black and white. In the original, all dialogue in the speech balloons appeared in black text, except for the words "check" and "whisper ultra thin" used by the two girls.
5 Again, this figure, originally in colour, is reproduced here in black and white for reasons of cost. In addition to the use of full colour in the photographs to the left, the original also mimes the ambivalence of textures (as both blemish, and appliqued treatment or concealment) in the use of colours for the script on the right: the words appear in five different colours, on four differently-coloured (and sometimes patterned) backgrounds. There is thus a complex and ostentatious pattern of multiple layers, to which the reader’s attention is drawn.
Baudrillard, J. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation, S. F. Glaser (trans). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Cross, M. 1996. “Reading Television Texts: The Postmodern Language of Advertising”. In Advertising and Culture: Theoretical Perspectives, M. Cross (ed), 1-10. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.
Cummins, W. 1996. “Love and Liquer: Modernism and Postmodernism in Advertising and Fiction”. In Advertising and Culture: Theoretical Perspectives, M. Cross (ed), 61-74. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.
Gibbs, R. W. 1994. The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Goodman, M. B. 1996. “Burroughs and Advertising: Fractured Language, Fractured Time, Fractured Image as the Universal Language”. In Advertising and Culture: Theoretical Perspectives, M. Cross (ed), 85-90. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.
Jakobson, R. 1960. “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics”. In Style in Language, T. Sebeok (ed), 350-377. Cambridge: Technology Press of MIT.
Johansen, J. D. 1996. “Iconicity in Literature”. Semiotica 110-1/2: 37-55.
Lakoff, G and Johnson, M. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Nänny, M. 1986. “Iconicity in Literature”. Word and Image 2 (3): 199-208.
Peirce, C. S. 1955. Philosophical Writings, J. Buchler (ed). New York: Dover Publications.
Williamson, J. 1978. Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and
Meaning in Advertising. London: Boyars.
ARTICLE DEALING WITH MONEY AS SIGN, NARRATIVE, FETISHISM (Paper presented 16 October 2002, now under consideration)
Stevenson’s Financial Gothic: Money, Commerce, Language, and the Horror of Modernity
Robbie B. H. Goh
I. Towards a Financial Gothic – Money, Fetishism and Novelistic
It hardly seems credible that money should have escaped being made the gothic villain in any number of late eighteenth and nineteenth century narratives – a period which saw not only the rise of the gothic novel, but also an increasing social consciousness about money and its role, after the “financial revolution” in the first half of the eighteenth century which created modern credit (Dickson 1967: 12). The dangerously unreliable nature of money and its wielders – both seen as treacherously motile, parasitical, and vicious – is the subject even of early theorists of commercial society like Josiah Child, Adam Smith and David Hume. Child’s 1668 pamphlet, Brief Observations Concerning Trade, and Interest of Money, blamed usury and high interest rates for impoverishing nations as a whole, and for making the common people “poor and despicable” (Letwin 1959: 44, 47). He asserts such commonsensical homilies as “the Borrower is always a slave to the Lender,” and praises Moses (“that wise legislator”) for forbidding the Children of Israel to “lend money at use to one another,” while “permitting them to lend their money to Strangers” (Letwin 1959: 48, 54).
This attack on usury as a kind of internal/civil enslavement – bad when individuals within a society practiced it on each other, even worse in the case of foreign money – is a commonplace of the “Country” or “Commonwealth” tradition of political writers, who held virtue to inhere in solid and undeceptive land ownership, and tended to see money altogether as a destabilizing and treacherous form of wealth and social identity (Pocock 1985: 66-69). Property in land (also known as “real property”) was the ideal for such theorists, because it “tended to make men independent citizens,” and conduced to civic virtue (Pocock 1985: 68). This “Country” attitude to money is typified by the moral philosopher Adam Ferguson, who in his 1767 Essay on the History of Civil Society maintains that “commercial arts” were associated with a “sordid mind,” and wealth as an end in itself (rather than as an incentive to struggle and progress) frequently causes “corruption and vice” (1966: 93, 206). Ferguson thus favours the equality of “agrarian laws,” even as he acknowledges that this may be ideal rather than practicable in modern societies; like Child and other writers on the subject, he sees money-lending as an evil, and advocates a Mosaic “expunging of debts” in order to maintain the “liberality” of mind and spirit in the people (Ferguson 1966: 156-57, 164). Monied modern society, in contradistinction to an equal, agrarian republic, permits the rise of a “desire of profit” and a “luxury” which exert a torporific and laxative spell on the people, making them ignorant, narrow, dependent and greedy.
These tropes of money (as a synecdoche for the political and economic processes of monied, commercial society) conducing to enslavement and corruption, eventually give rise to discourses of money itself as a bewitching object, exerting an almost magical power over individuals. This is notwithstanding the fact that the forms and praxes of commercial society come largely to be accepted as the inevitable replacement for “Civic” republicanism; as Winch (1996: 59) observes, “by the third quarter of the eighteenth century the standard defences of luxury were so well established that Rousseau was quite right to speak to an English paradox in favour of luxury.” Yet even where romantic social critics indulged a belief in the necessity of luxuries and of economic inequality, they reserved some of their most scathing criticisms for money. Thus, for example, S. T. Coleridge’s complaint in a Table Talk entry of 1830 that “The stock-jobbing and moneyed interest is so strong in this country, that it has more than once prevailed in our foreign councils over national honour and national justice” (Coleridge 1905: 102). Money is capable of creating an exceptional “influence,” which brings under its corrupting sway even the “country gentlemen” whose political, social and moral sphere is otherwise distinct from the moneyed interest (Coleridge 1905: 102). When Southey betrays Coleridge by pulling out of their Pantisocracy scheme, the most trenchant insult the latter can give is to call Southey a “selfish, money-loving man” – an imputed motivation which Coleridge compares with “fall[ing] in love with that low, dirty, gutter-grubbing Trull, WORLDLY PRUDENCE” (Coleridge 1956 I: 93). The sense of the baffling and mysterious pull of money is even more evident in critics like William Cobbett, who as a landowner and opponent of commerce, saw the cash nexus as a kind of “financial legerdemain” practiced by the government in collusion with the monied interests, and in which the rest of the nation was cheated (Cobbett 1803: 408). Money, fuelled by speculators and profiteers during the Napoleonic wars, is an over-inflated and thus illusory indication of wealth; Cobbett warns that “the stock-holder of the present day, though he may have a high sounding fortune in the funds, will be reduced to beg in the streets” (Cobbett 1804: 171).
Even staunch proponents of laissez-faire commerce like Adam Smith, while they accepted and even saw social advantages in the inequality in wealth which commerce would permit, held profound reservations about money and its influence on society. Smith in his Wealth of Nations (1776) associates money with certain erroneous conceptions of wealth, such as the notion that money is the means of defining the real value of goods, or that it indicates the true wealth of a nation. Smith cautions that “a commodity [i.e. money in silver and gold] which is itself continually varying in its own value, can never be an accurate measure of the value of other commodities” (1937 I: 33). In a kind of epistemological legerdemain or hypostasis, money – which only represents wealth – is often confused with wealth itself. It is this misconception which lies at the root of the evils of modern society, since money can be over-extended in ways that “natural” wealth (in labour, corn and other commodities) cannot. Hence the over-circulation of paper money, in quantities disproportionately large both to the gold and silver which backed it, as well as to the stock of commodities in the nation; Smith castigates the “over-trading of some bold projectors” as cause of this inflationary phenomenon, as well as symptom of this fetishized view of money.
Smith thus brings together several anxieties about money: to older “Civic” political concerns that the cash nexus creates relationships of dependence and influence that undermine individual virtues and the well-being of the nation, he develops the anxiety of money as a fetish of value in and of itself, and the related anxiety of money’s ability to cloud real value in goods, substituting instead an unreliable monetary value. By thus complicating the older “Civic” framework within which money referred to a specific political position and socio-economic function, Smith thus establishes the ground for a modern theory of money as constitutive of social processes, and as coterminous with society itself. James Thompson’s insightful reading of English discourses on money in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries accordingly sees Smith’s “thorough dissociation of money from wealth” as the logical culmination of a process of “the re-representation of the money form, as it passes from realist to nominalist conceptions of value” (1996: 43, 79). With the Wealth of Nations, “money is no longer defined as an inert thing, but rather as potential, shifting from object to action” (Thompson 1996: 84).
Even Smith’s approbatory images of (a properly-controlled supply of) money – as the “great wheel of circulation,” and as a “water pond” from which simultaneously “a stream is continually running out” while another is “continually running in” (Smith 1937 I: 276, 288) – emphasise this conception of money as constitutive social process. The intransitivity of these images is telling: while a wheel can bear a load on top of itself, properly speaking what a wheel “circulates” is nothing more or less than itself. Similarly, a water pond may be an appropriate analogy for the banks’ control of money, but a pond’s water serves no specific function or functions, and is by definition nothing but a temporary amassing of water; to take the analogy to its logical conclusion, is to see money (pond water) as precisely that which defines its container (a pond). Grammatically and logically, money in these analogies stands in place of the expected object – the world of goods whose circulation money is supposed to facilitate, the human society within whose larger processes money is supposed to fit.
Money thus comes to be fetishised, as a sign or intermediary for something else, which uncannily supplants that thing, so that it is simultaneously sign and signified, means and end, cipher and substance. The explicator of much of money’s function as fetish is of course Marx, who points out in his “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts” (1844) that the money-as-fetish inheres in the first place in the inordinate importance that is placed on silver and gold: “The nations which are still dazzled by the sensuous splendour of precious metals, and are therefore still fetish-worshippers of metal money, are not yet fully developed money-nations” (Marx and Engels 1978: 98). Yet fetish-displacement also characterizes paper money: the “fantastic” nature of commodities, which supplants a “social relationship between men” with a “relationship between things,” is also shared by money, which is the means of “the conversion of products into commodities,” as well as itself a “special commodity” (Marx 1967 I: 77, 90). The ultimate proof of money’s power as “automatic fetish,” for Marx, is in the notion of “interest-bearing capital” or “money generating money,” in which money no longer pretends to stand for something else, but is its own author, sign and signified:
Capital appears as a mysterious and self-creating source of interest – the source of its own increase. The thing (money, commodity, value) is now capital even as a mere thing, and capital appears as a mere thing. (Marx 1967 III: 392)
As Marx’s language here shows, money’s function invokes two other social
phenomena: in the first place, money assumes a sacred, supernatural, magical
quality which is analogous to “religious” belief; religion, as merely a
“reflex of the real world” and not a system of beliefs and rituals indicating
an actual deity, assumes a role similar to that of fetishised money, worshipped
for its own sake rather than as a key to something else (Marx 1967 I: 83).
Religion – for Marx specifically the Christian religion – as the “cultus
of abstract man” (1967 I: 83), is analogous to money as the ultimate commodity,
which intercedes between man and man, man and nature, veiling real social
and productive processes. Freud’s account of the taboo – a “sacredness”
with connotations of “veneration and horror,” the most fundamental form
of which is a “totemism” prohibiting killing the totem animal and having
sex with members of the totem clan (Freud 1950: 18, 25, 32) – shows how
much fetishised money also resembles the mediating and obscuring signification
of anthropological signs like totems. While Freud’s primary focus
was on the unconscious prohibitory role of totems and taboos, his insights
into neurotic totemism – which involves the “displacement” or “substitution”
of some unconscious content by the totem animal, for example a manifest
fear of dogs in place of an inexpressible fear of the father (Freud 1950:
128-131) – adumbrate a paratactic substitution akin to Marx’s theory of
money, thus also invoking unconscious fears and anxieties as a contributing
Secondly, “value” – a contingent significance, arising out of the social interaction of “exchange” that money facilitates – “is just as much a social product as language” (Marx 1967 I: 79). By saying that “it is value…that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic,” Marx makes analogous the social functions of language and money, both of which constitute all-pervasive systems which mediate reality and assign acceptable significance. Yet this is not merely to imply a constant and stable relationship between signifier and signified, in which language and money passively assume a fixed value that is assigned to them by some other controlling agency; what is implicit in Marx’s account is the lack of a larger, stabilizing control, so that money (as “automatic fetish”) generates its own changing values, a “form without content” (Marx 1967 III: 392).
Thus if money resembles language, it is in a particular modality, a particular form of discourse: not the relative fixity of meanings, the assumption of a stable order which language strove to express, which is commonly called “realism”; but rather those modes of writing in which form itself is the predominant focus, in which language obscures the object and interposes itself as the object worthy of attention – yet an object of its own authoring, with itself as (proliferating) agency. Obscuration, as not only Freud maintains, is a mechanism of fear and anxiety; writing of the “sublime” aesthetic effect in his 1757 Philosophical Enquiry, Edmund Burke observes that “To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary” (1990: 54). Burke accordingly asserts that the verbal arts, conveying only “so poor and insufficient an idea of the thing described,” are more sublime than the imitative visual arts, which more accurately refer to objects (1990: 160).
Another take on this is provided by Bakhtin’s account of “novelistic discourse,” which (like Burke’s sublime language) is characterized by an “indeterminacy,” a “semantic openendedness,” which problematises the real (1981: 7). Coming from a very different political position from Burke’s social conservatism, Bakhtin celebrates this indeterminacy rather than seeing it as a mechanism for creating terror and pain; the playfulness of novelistic discourse, for Bakhtin, was more a means to critical insight (out of its demolition of epic certainties and fixities of meaning), than a failure of representation as it was for Burke. Yet they both point to a similar modality of language: its repudiation of clear representation, leading to a proliferation of new meanings stemming from the obscurity of form itself. Bakhtin’s formulation – “the novel is the only developing genre and therefore it reflects…reality itself in the process of its unfolding” (1981: 7) – has a self-referentiality which resembles the monetary form: the indication of reality’s unfinished, “unfolding” form is the similarly unfinished quality of the novel, so that “reality” assumes the form imputed to it by language, rather than being the thing outside language to which the latter is supposed to refer. Notwithstanding Bakhtin’s celebratory account of novelistic discourse, there are implicitly horrifying consequences which recall not only Burke’s sublime terror, but also Marx’s account of the loss of human wholeness which comes from the occulting role of money: the novel’s openendedness leads to an epistemological fragmentation characterized by “indecision” and “ambivalence,” occasionally (as in the case of Gogol’s Dead Souls) manifesting itself as “tragedy” or “loss” which comes from the fragmenting of a genre, and creates new images of man as “jester” or “inadequate” hero, “less than his condition as a man” (1981: 16, 24, 28, 36-37). Bakhtin’s account of an indeterminate and infinitely-flexible novelistic discourse constantly reaching to express an inexhaustible “surplus of humanness” (Bakhtin 1981: 37) comes close to Marx’s human tragedy in which money is the ever-changing signification to express the “surplus value” of human agency concealed and exploited by capitalism.
It is thus entirely unsurprising that Bakhtin has provided the theoretical base for some of the most significant theories of the gothic novel, featuring prominently in the seminal work of Rosemary Jackson (Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion), Jacqueline Howard (Reading Gothic Fiction: A Bakhtinian Approach) and others. Such theories account for gothic terror as a function of intensely heteroglossic, fragmented, polyphonic discourses, which figure the evolving and plastic nature of man, invoking “something less certain,” “the unsaid and the unseen of culture” (Jackson 1981: 8, 15). Yet this heteroglossic and polyphonic discourse is not only index (of a deeper human and cultural reality, including their hidden fears and anxieties), but also a screen or interposition: as Howard (1994: 49-50) puts it, “for Bakhtin the human subject is not unified, autonomous, and free, but neither is it, as in Saussurean linguistics, simply a passive recipient of a pre-given society. The self can only be constructed through relationship to others by means of sign production….” Sign production, whether that of the novelistic discourse or of the praxis of social language, is already loaded with inherited meanings and values, not a “neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intention,” but already “populated – overpopulated – with the intentions of others” (Bakhtin, cited in Howard 1994: 46). If language is not “private property,” it is because it is always haunted by other presences, with collective “intentions” which disrupt authorial intentionality and the coherence of the subject.
II. Stevenson’s Financial Gothic: the Horror of Modern “Values”
Gothic discourse, with its dualistic aspect – a form which points to the unfinished nature of man and society, but which also interposes its own form (with its intertextual hauntings, the plural “intentions” of inherited language) in place of a referent object or coherent subject – enables, though it does not explicitly signify, a critical awareness of a modern “values” society. Gertrude Himmelfarb (1996: 9, 11) recounts the radical transformation from Victorian “virtues” to modern “values” over the course of the nineteenth century: while the former are ideals existing outside of society (in “nature” or from “God”), to which society must conform for its overall health and order; the latter are “subjective and relative” ideas, “mere customs and conventions,” “peculiar to specific individuals and societies.” The realization of a “values” society comes, for Himmelfarb (1996: 10), only comes in the last decades of the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth, in Nietzsche’s awareness of the cultural relativism of beliefs and mores, and later in Max Weber’s account of the cultural production of a governing “ethic” and “spirit.” Trotter (1988: 25) also sees around the turn of the century a resurgence in novels concerned with “the new and often troubling forms taken by money in the Edwardian era.”
Given the obviously monetary quality of modern “values,” and the close relationship between a “values” society and the “financial revolution” (Dickson 1967) of the late seventeenth into the eighteenth centuries, it is surely pertinent to wonder why this realization (if Himmelfarb’s thesis is correct) is largely deferred through the period of high Victorian culture. Thompson (1996: 185) offers an explanation from genres, in which “political economy” becomes the sole genre about money, while “the novel” proper is “about character, about subjectivity, a realm and a topic far removed from value, for characters/individuals/subjects are not supposed to be quantified, calculated, related to one another comparatively against a single (golden) standard.” The attention paid to money by many eighteenth-century novels, in contrast, can be accounted for as a particular “stage in the development of money,” which impinges so strongly on the social consciousness that the novel correspondingly “confronts and puzzles through complications in its ideas of value” (Thompson 1996: 185). By the time of the Victorian novel, such confrontations with money become relegated to minor episodes (one thinks perhaps of Becky Sharpe’s constant financial calculations in Vanity Fair) within the “serious” tropes of social life: hence the “Middle-Class Novel” (Tomlinson 1976), the “Historical Novel” (Fleishman 1971), the “New Woman” in the Victorian Novel (Cunningham 1978), “Domestic Realism” (Colby 1974) and related themes.
If the consciousness of a modern values-society arises in the last decades of the nineteenth century with Nietzsche, (Himmelfarb 1994: 10), the equivalent figure in fiction is arguably Robert Louis Stevenson, whose gothic romances in the same period bring out an awareness of the interpenetrations of money values and everyday life. Stevenson’s explicit commentaries and insights on money and exchange (including that of the literary market and profession) are abundant, and can be found leavened throughout such writings as “The Morality of the Profession of Letters,” “A Chapter on Dreams,” “Letter to a Young Gentleman Who Proposes to Embrace the Career of Art,” “Truth of Intercourse,” “The Old Pacific Capital,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” In the South Seas, The Silverado Squatters, and others. Many of the fictional works also have money as part of their mise en scene or plot catalyst: thus wills and estates (and their contestation) in Jekyll and Hyde, The Master of Ballantrae, St. Ives, and Kidnapped; treasure hoards in Treasure Island, “The Merry Men” and “The Treasure of Franchard”; trade profits in The Beach of Falesa; and the tontine payout in The Wrong Box.
It is certainly tempting to read Stevenson’s tales as acknowledging “the beguiling potentiality of the new world order, the romance of money,” as Wood (1998: 81) argues in respect of Treasure Island. Yet this romance paradigm may not reflect the full complexities of Stevenson’s view of money, which had as much of a horrified recoil from money’s form and function as it did an acceptance of its ubiquitous place. It is in supernatural tales such as “The Isle of Voices” (first published in 1893), “The Bottle Imp” (1891), and to a lesser extent “The Body-Snatcher” (1895), that Stevenson’s characteristic invocation of the haunting, empty agency of money, and its effect on human identity, most clearly emerges. Stevenson’s financial gothic establishes money as the fetishised demon-god of modern existence – not merely pervasive and tempting, but possessive and maddening, altering the spheres of human relations, understanding and meaning beyond recognition. The form of these gothic stories, with its narrative gaps, troubling polyphony, disjunctions and unresolved fragments, prevents a final resolution which can accommodate the role of money (however reluctantly) into a modern “romance.”
“The Isle of Voices,” which is centrally concerned (in its fantastic way) with the supply of money, epitomizes Stevenson’s financial gothic. The story at first glance appears to be one of Stevenson’s exotic romances in the mold of Catriona or “The Sire de Maletroit’s Door,” in which a young man’s perilous adventures bring him into intimacy with a young woman, with whose help he is able to survive his travails and win home and a happy life. In this case, the adventures of the would-be hero Keola come courtesy of his father-in-law, the magician Kalamake who initially enlists Keola’s help in procuring money (involving a magic ritual which takes them to an isle where money is to be harvested like shells on the beach), but who is later annoyed with Keola’s stupid venality and tries to murder him. Rescued from drowning and finding himself marooned back on the money-isle by chance, Keola engineers a vicious battle between the isle’s cannibal inhabitants (who have been planning to eat him) and the magicians who come invisibly to the isle in search of money. At a critical point in this conflict, he is rescued by his wife Lehua, who has come as Kalamake’s assistant, and together they purloin the magician’s resources to make their way back to home, abandoning Kalamake and thus freeing Keola from his wrath.
Interwoven into this extravagant and fantastic tale is a parable of money and its corrupting influence. Kalamake is known as “the wise man of Molokai,” yet in the course of the story his magic is only ever seen as a means to procure money and conceal its secret origins (Stevenson 1923: 475). Accordingly, he is a byword for extravagance without labour or visible income:
Kalamake was a man that spared nothing, whether to eat or to drink or to wear…. ’Bright as Kalamake’s dollars’ was another saying in the Eight Isles. Yet he neither sold, nor planted, nor took hire …and there was no source conceivable for so much silver coin. (Stevenson 1923: 475-476).
If Keola’s undoing is caused to a certain extent by his laziness and
ill-judgment, in a sense he is merely the victim of his father-in-law’s
corrupting example. His confrontation with Kalamake, in which he
asks for “a concertina” as additional payment for helping the magician,
comes out of his comparing himself with his father-in-law – explicitly,
with the latter’s never-ending source of wealth, but implicitly with his
model of behaviour and social worth: “Why should I work…when I have a father-in-law
who makes dollars of sea-shells?” Indeed, to follow the monetary
logic symbolized in this story, Keola has as much right as Kalamake to
this indolently luxurious lifestyle: if money is not the sign of physical
labour or services, then it is merely a premium paid to exclusive knowledge,
namely the knowledge of the secret origin of money. When Keola says
“[I] hold his secret,” this is not merely the threat of blackmail it sounds
like, but also points to the commodity-value of money, possession of which
consists not in physical or material assets, but in knowledge of the form
This form is symbolized in several ways: in the first place, money is paradoxically abundant yet valuable, restricted yet freely available. Stevenson’s use of shells as the source of money creates a complexly overdetermined symbolism: while they hint at historical forms of currency like cowrie shells, shells are also hollow and empty things, with their contents scooped out of them. They are not used as currency in their native isle, where they are in abundant supply and merely to be gathered on the beach; yet in Kalamake’s land they are magically transformed into the controlled medium of “dollars.” Keola’s musings on this paradox of abundant value might serve as a critique of the inflationary and destabilizing threat of money:
And his head was dizzy with the thought of these millions and millions of dollars, and all these hundreds and hundreds of persons culling them upon the beach and flying in the air higher and swifter than eagles.
“And to think how they have fooled me with their talk of mints,” says he, “and that money was made there, when it is clear that all the new coin in all the world is gathered on these sands! But I will know better the next time!” said he. (Stevenson 1937: 492)
In this context, the magical means of obtaining money also comes
to symbolize more than the old trope of money’s bewitching, uncanny influence
over individuals and national economies; it also denotes the obscuratory
nature of money, its ability (as sign system and assigner of values) to
subsume subject and object within its self-referential operation.
To the natives of the isle, the shells are nothing more than concrete,
natural shells; it is only to the visiting harvesters that the shells assume
value as money, but these visitors by the same token cannot manifest themselves,
and become invisible. Invisibility is obviously not a precondition
of visiting the isle: not only are the natives visible and manifest to
each other, but “now and then a boat’s crew came for copra” and succeeds
in bartering (a physical, pre-monetary exchange) with the natives.
Keola is invisible when he first visits the isle on Kalamake’s money-harvesting
enterprise, a fact he first learns of when he approaches a scantily-clad
native woman but “her eyes did not rest upon” him.
However, when he accidentally returns there by non-magical means and without intending to gather money, he is not only welcomed by the natives (albeit with their ulterior motive of fattening him up for the kill), but also given a wife, who turns out to be the same woman who ran unseeing from him the first time. In the tale’s romance sub-plot, it is this wife’s affection for him and warning which saves him from the cannibals’ pot. At the same time, money’s dematerializing force almost costs Keola his life on another occasion, when the invisible Lehua tries to save him but fails once, and almost fails again, to attract his attention. Money thus precludes Eros as well as other forms of saving human relationships, since within its mode of operation humans appear only as “invisible devils”; the final battle between the cannibal natives and the money-harvesting magicians – a figure for the bloody nature of financial competition – is ironically not over the shells themselves, which the natives show no sign of wanting nor defending. Invisibility, both a condition attached to money-gathering and a means of effecting it, is also depicted as the cause of dehumanizing mysticism, superstitious dread, and mad violence.
Sandison (1996: 6) observes that “Stevenson delights in the polyphonic coexistence – even within one text – of a number of forms, articulating themselves in a number of ‘voices,’” of which no story is more appropriate illustration than “The Isle of Voices,” whose very title points to the story’s multiple antagonists and antagonisms, contrary significations and symbolic overdeterminations, begging a Bakhtinian reading of this tale as being about polyphony itself. Clearly these plural “voices” do not ever harmonize, agree or even communicate with each other: the story is replete with insuperable disagreements, from the failed contract between Kalamake and Keola, to the latter’s refusal to heed Lehua’s warning not to confront her father, to the story-within-the-story of the abusive mate (on the ship which rescues Keola) who dies when he refuses to heed native warnings about poisonous fish, to the bloody conflict between islanders and money-magicians, to the missionary at the end of the story who is supposed to be the couple’s confessor and supernatural advisor but who “could make neither head nor tail” of their story and reports them as counterfeiters. It should not be overlooked that the cause of this polyphony, within the symbolic logic of the tale, is the money which constantly interposes itself between man and man, man and woman, native and white man, son-in-law and father-in-law, lay people and missionaries. But perhaps the most striking image of polyphony is that of the money-beach in full swing:
…there was no sign of man, only the beach was trodden, and all about [Keola] as he went, the voices talked and whispered, and the little fires sprang up and burned down. All tongues of the earth were spoken there: the French, the Dutch, the Russian, the Tamil, the Chinese. Whatever land knew sorcery, there were some of its people whispering in Keola’s ear. That beach was thick as a cried fair, yet no man seen… (Stevenson 1937: 491)
Ironically, in this episode about multiple voices, the narrative voice
records its own failure as well: to capture and embody the full plurality
of languages, nations and ethnicities that it hints at. The gap between
the inclusive and expansive “all tongues” at the beginning of that sentence,
and the arbitrary choice of merely five languages (or, for that matter,
the gap between “tongues” and “lands,” languages and nations), is one micro-structural
instance where the authoritative voice falls short. Larger narrative
gaps occur in a more pronounced fashion, for example at the end of the
tale, with the unknown fate of Kalamake:
Keola and Lehua took [the missionary’s] advice, and gave many dollars to the lepers and the fund. And no doubt the advice must have been good, for from that day to this, Kalamake has never more been heard of. But whether he was slain in the battle by the trees, or whether he is still kicking his heels upon the Isle of Voices, who shall say? (Stevenson 1937: 495)
What is offered in lieu of knowledge (of whether Kalamake survives and
will return, and thus the fate of the young lovers) is the closed circle
of narrative itself: the fate of Kalamake is not retold because he is now
outside language (“has never more been heard of”), and written out by the
complicity of language (“who shall say?”). Yet in another sense,
it is once again money which insinuates itself in place of meaning: the
narrative voice reinforces its complacent closure, by adducing the young
couple’s act of giving “many dollars to the lepers and the fund,” a monetary
transaction which is supposed to offer a dubious moral prophylaxis, but
is also offered as the answer to the problems left dangling at the end
of this disturbing tale.
Kalamake’s dematerialization at the end of the story might thus be compared to the invisibility which seems to be the fundamental precondition of money. The narrative thus begs a reading of Kalamake as the embodiment of monetary form itself: not only is he a plutocrat who (in Marxist terms) seems to oversee the invisible production of money by (the secret of) money, but his own bodily form mimics that of money, in the invisibility he assumes in the course of the tale, and the uncertain formlessness to which he is consigned at the end. This is only the logical conclusion for a figure that from the beginning is conflated with money, not only in Keola’s greedy eyes, but in the “common repute” and “rumoured” opinions which constitute social value in the Eight Isles. Even Kalamake’s magical trick of “swelling” to gigantic proportions, which he uses when he abandons Keola to his death at sea, can be seen as a mimicry of money’s unsettling inflationary characteristics. Indeed, Kalamake is provoked to use this power on Keola by the latter’s greedy demand of a concertina, and the sight of the magician’s swelling recalls that desired commodity again: “He thought, too, of the concertina, and shame took hold upon him” (Stevenson 1937: 484). If Keola’s hopes for a concertina seem puny compared to the now-giant Kalamake (who is also the supplier of money for the Eight Isles), this corroborates an inflationary logic in which some commodities become unattainable because of money’s ability to change values quite abruptly.
In the final analysis, if this story is all about voices which do not cohere, it is because it is also all about money; Stevenson’s narrative structure collapses content into form, with form in its turn indicating the self-referential, destabilizing, fragmentary nature of money-form. For Stevenson, the polyphonic and heteroglossic qualities of narrative that Bakhtin identifies are not gratuitous or a writerly indulgence; they are part of a historical vision, of the shaping structures of modern values society. Bakhtin (1981: 12) indeed speaks of the novel’s era as that of the “actively polyglot world” (in contrast to the older condition of discrete and separated “national languages”) in which “one language can…see itself only the light of another language.” The peripatetic Stevenson, who was also a keen observer of different customs, cultures and languages, creates a gothic narrative form which reflects a modern, increasingly globalized world in a state of rapid change. This “convulsive and transitionary state” threatens to come to all nations and peoples, although not necessary all at once: in a journal entry from In the South Seas, Stevenson makes a well-known comparison between the condition of nineteenth-century Scots folk and present-day Marquesas islanders: “In both cases an alien authority enforced, the clans disarmed, the chiefs deposed, new customs introduced, and chiefly that fashion of regarding money as the means and object of existence” (Stevenson 1987: 34).
Thus for Stevenson, gothic polyphony reflects an “actively polyglot world” characterized by the “translational” and “mediating” work of power and money (Sorensen 2000: 281). Space and loci accordingly function in Stevenson’s financial gothic tales as ostensibly separate but disorientatingly interpenetrating, overlapping zones. The prime example of this is in Stevenson’s oeuvre is probably the monstrous urban landscape in Jekyll and Hyde, the “city in a nightmare” whose districts refuse to conform to socio-economic distinctions, but instead run together like the repetitive “labyrinths” and “street corners” in Utterson’s dream (Stevenson 1987b: 16, 27). Thus even Enfield, the “well-known man about town,” does not register the fact that the respected Jekyll’s address (on the cheque that Hyde produces in recompense for running over the girl) – “he lives in some square or other” – is really only “round the corner from the by-street” on which the infamous back door is located (Stevenson 1987b: 11, 19).
This paradox of socio-economic inequality and physical proximity or connected – so far, and yet so close – is brought out in more dramatic and fantastical ways in the South Sea tales of “The Isle of Voices” and “The Bottle Imp.” In the former, the money-isle is initially a world away from Keola’s Hawaii, only to be reached by powerful magical means. Yet Keola returns there quite by chance, and by the very ordinary means of jumping off a passing ship – although once there, he despairs of ever leaving the island and returning to Hawaii. It is only towards the end of the tale, when the young couple spread out a map to try to ascertain if Kalamake could travel back from the isle to Hawaii in “swelling” mode, that the Isle seems to be given a fixed location in the known world. Yet no actual co-ordinates, or orientation from the Eight Isles, are given, and even the estimated distance is inconclusive: “it seemed a far way for an old gentleman to walk…Still, it would not do to make sure of a warlock like Kalamake” (Stevenson 1937: 495). If the narrative insists on giving the isle an actual place in the real world, this is simultaneously overlaid with supernatural attributes which blur the relationship between the known space of Hawaii and the uncertain location of the isle.
A similar conception of space is seen in “The Bottle Imp,” a tale of a magical bottle which can grant its possessor any wish, but which also condemns the possessor to hell unless the bottle is sold for “coined money” at a price lower than that which the possessor paid for it (Stevenson 1937: 370). In the course of the story, the bottle circulates through the hands of a number of varied owners, of varied race and origins, although we are mainly concerned with the fate of the hero Keawe, who knowingly buys the bottle back again at the fatal price of two cents (since it can now only be sold once more, and to someone who has no possibility of selling it again), in order to cure himself of a dread contagious disease (“Chinese Evil”) for love of Kokua. Kokua proposes a solution to their dilemma, which is to go to the “French Islands” and exploit the different currency structure and the exchange rate between currencies (one American cent being equivalent to about five centimes) in order to create more possible transactions. After a further series of misadventures, the bottle is unloaded, seemingly at the very end of the tether (at the price of two centimes), to an “old brutal Haole” boatswain, who blasphemously accepts damnation in exchange for the pleasures (chiefly alcoholic) which the bottle can provide him.
McLaughlin (1996: 175) reads the bottle imp as a symbol of “financial credit,” which gives the appearance of being infinitely deferrable, but only as long as it can be passed on to someone else. Yet this “utilitarian” reading of the tale as a “particular kind of domestic romance,” in which credit and spending are manageable so long as one is aware of “the sober calculation of consequences” (McLaughlin 1996: 178), depends on seeing the bottle as taken out of circulation at the end of the story, and on a reading of the boatswain’s fate as justifiable because self-inflicted. Yet both these assumptions are challenged by the narrative, particularly in its use of the bottle itself as a symbol of money. The circulatory persistence of the bottle, which symbolizes money’s sole function as a medium of circulation, is by no means ended with the end of the story, which (like “The Isle of Voices”) merely ends with a contingent narrative stoppage: “there goes the bottle out of the story” (Stevenson 1937: 397). Not only are there more lands, more currency structures, and indeed shifting exchange rates to facilitate further potential trades; but the bottle itself is characterized by circulation in a way which seems to know no end (if it is sold for the same price or dearer than what was last paid for it, it simply appears to change hands before magically returning to the ersatz seller’s possession).
Nor is the boatswain a satisfactory scapegoat whose sacrifice can rid the world of material desires and exploitative transactions. In a sense, his need – alcohol and debauched pleasures – is not qualitatively different from the needs of all the bottle’s other purchasers, which drive them to the risky bargain. The narrative effects an uneasy exchange, and equivalence of values, between the bottle’s varied owners: from the fabled “Prester John” to “Napoleon” to “Captain Cook” to the old man in San Francisco, the “young Haole in Beritania Street,” the boatswain, and Keawe and Kokua themselves, despite the differences in details of price, nationality, race and appearances, all are bound by an equivalent logic of desire. As McLaughlin (1996: 177) points out, the moment Keawe re-acquires the bottle and heals his illness (ostensibly for Kokua’s sake), he loses his love for her; desire, and not a particular object, is its own motor-force and fulfillment, true of Keawe, or the old man in San Francisco who rattles unhappily in his beautiful house, or the boatswain and his drink. Like the polyglot money-harvesters on the isle of voices, the bottle’s owners are rendered uncannily alike, their physical differences abstracted in the process of exchange. The peripatetic bottle, and the journey on which it takes the reader in the course of this story, play off geographical distances and differences against abstract equivalences, creating an uneasy duality, a constant slippage between human concern and exploitative competition, significance and signification.
While “The Isle of Voices” and “The Bottle Imp” of all of Stevenson’s supernatural tales bear the most resemblance to each other (at least in terms of setting and use of locales), in a sense it might be said that many of these tales revolve around a single fundamental form. The persistently circulating bottle in “The Bottle Imp” establishes a trope which is picked up in various ways by “The Body-Snatcher” (where the dissected corpse of Gray uncannily returns to haunt Wolf and Fettes for their unscrupulous trade in human bodies), by “The Waif Woman” (where the dead Thorgunna constantly reappears as long as her purloined goods are not disposed of according to her instructions), and in other tales. Jekyll and Hyde offers Hyde as a figure of wealth without attachment or accountability – a figure who splits respectability from privilege, and who provokes (even before the murder of Carew) as much by his mere presence and appearance, his circulation throughout London society, as for any actual misdeed. Stevenson’s underlying financial gothic form is as fascinating and enduring as it is, in large part because it captures the very weft of modern values society. In this project, not the least part is the representation of the “de-moralization of society” (Himmelfarb 1994), of which the chief figure and instrument is money, through narrative form itself. In so doing, Stevenson crucially anticipates more recent theories of language’s role not merely as that of representing reality, but that of “put[ting] forward the unpresentable in presentation itself,” in Lyotard’s phrasing (1992: 149). If money as a global system has translated our social consciousness itself, Stevenson’s narrative response is not a naïve refutation of that condition, but an uncanny mimicry of monetary form itself.
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EN 4206 SEMINAR ONE – INTRODUCTION
Critical Theory – Materialist Notions of Culture and Society
1. “Classical” Marxist theory
a. “Surplus value,” condition of working class, division of labour
b. “Reification,” “abstraction”, “exchange” value (vs. use value)
c. “Ideology,” “base,” “superstructure”
d. “Dialectical Materialism,” “history,” the “historical” (novel, art, etc)
2. Art and the political dimension
a. The “Hermeneutics of suspicion” (Poster) – no innocent art, the reconsideration of
”realism,” “character,” “symbol/myth”. Lukacs, Williams, earlier Eagleton.
b. Gesture, action, alienation – Brecht, Benjamin.
c. Dialogics, the “novelistic” mode and zones, carnivalesque performances - Bakhtin
3. (Art within) Discipline, Institutionalism,
Power - Foucault
a. Science, “madness,” legitimacy (cp. Williams’s “dominant” and “emergent”)
b. “Author function” – conditions and codes of criticism (cp. Structuralism, semiotics)
c. Panopticons, prison-houses, uniforms, and other forms of discipline – towards an analysis of power in space/structure
4. Art as production/commodity
a. Terry Eagleton (Criticism and Ideology) – work of art reflects the impress of “forces of production” – not the writing of an explicit, motivated ideological agenda, but ideology as “mode of (mechanical) production”
b. Jameson: “late capitalism,” loss of “depth”, the “pastiche”, ironic play.
c. (Contrast Linda Hutcheon, Poetics of Postmodernism – irony as openness, democratizing poetics)
d. Formal features: repetition, flatness, lack of individuality, pseudo- or minimal differentiation (Baudrillard)
5. Search for a materialist otherness
a. Originally implied in feudal guild system
b. Implausibility of an alternative economics/mode of production – decrying the loss (Baudrillard on symbolic exchange, on consumption/Disney, on “clef de songes”)
c. Othering the textual self – interruptions, negative dialectics, the sublime (Foucault, Brecht, Lyotard, Derrida).
6. Ramifications for theoretical praxis:
a. Emphasis on formal properties of art – not as artistic experience, but as object (of production) viewed with critical distance.
b. Emphasis on art object’s inextricable connection with social power, desire, anxiety. (Gilles Deleuze – social function of art to “channel” society’s anxieties; Freudian notions of displacement/condensation)
c. Emphasis on the demographics of art consumption – facts of class, gender, race, and art’s participation in social institutions/power.
7. Aims/goals of this course:
a. Read cultural breaks/discontinuities/interruptions, not a seamless “cultural heritage” – so, e.g., the modern-postmodern problem (meta-critically – also the problem of “theory” as professionalism, as the heritage of a Continental “school,” etc)
b. Read the social motivatedness of cultural texts
c. See the interpenetrations of text and context, art (as production) and society (which produces)
d. Understand some of the characteristic properties of different artistic media, how they are produced, and the implications of such production on artistic structure and interpretation/consumption
e. Question the whole notion of artistic value and values, in the light of institutional forces (including theory as institutionalism); and so, also, the very notion of “high art,” and its relation to popular culture/art
f. Consider the possibility of interpretation(s) beyond (or at least critically alert to) disciplines and structures
g. Consider the problem of verbal and visual texts, and their complex inter-relations in contemporary culture