The New Historicism. Edited by H. Aram Veeser. Routledge: 1989.

Towards a Poetics of Culture

Stephen Greenblatt

I feel in a somewhat false position, which is not a particularly promising way to begin, and I might as well explain why.1 My own work has always been done with a sense of just having to go about and do it, without establishing first exactly what my theoretical position is. A few years ago I was asked by Genre to edit a selection of Renaissance essays, and I said OK. I collected a bunch of essays and then, out of a kind of desperation to get the introduction done, I wrote that the essays represented something I called a “new historicism.” I’ve never been very good at making up advertising phrases of this kind; for reasons that I would be quite interested in exploring at some point, the name stuck much more than other names I’d very carefully tried to invent over the years. In fact I have heard—in the last year or so— quite a lot of talk about the “new historicism” (which for some reason in Australia is called Neohistoricism); there are articles about it, attacks on it, references to it in dissertations: the whole thing makes me quite giddy with amazement. In any case, as part of this peculiar phenomenon I have been asked to say something of a theoretical kind about the work I’m doing. So I shall try if not to define the new historicism, at least to situate it as a practice—a practice rather than a doctrine, since as far as I can tell (and I should be the one to know) it’s no doctrine at all.

One of the peculiar characteristics of the “new historicism” in literary studies is precisely how unresolved and in some ways disingenuous it has been—I have been—about the relation to literary theory. On the one hand it seems to me that an openness to the theoretical ferment of the last few years is precisely what distinguishes the new historicism from the positivist historical scholarship of the early twentieth century. Certainly, the presence of Michel Foucault on the Berkeley campus for extended visits during the last five or six years of his life, and more generally the influence in America of European (and especially French) anthropological and social theorists, has helped to shape my own literary critical practice. On the other hand the historicist critics have on the whole been unwilling to enroll themselves in one or the other of the dominant theoretical camps.

I want to speculate on why this should be so by trying to situate myself in relation to Marxism on the one hand, and poststructuralism on the other. In the 1970s I used to teach courses with names like “Marxist Aesthetics” on the Berkeley campus. This came to an inglorious end when I was giving such a course—it must have been the mid-1970s—and I remember a student getting very angry with me. Now it’s true that I tended to like those Marxist figures who were troubled in relation to Marxism—Walter Benjamin, the early rather than the later Lukács, and so forth—and I remember someone finally got up and screamed out in class “You’re either a Bolshevik or a Menshevik—make up your fucking mind,” and then slammed the door. It was a little unsettling, but I thought about it afterwards and realized that I wasn’t sure whether I was a Menshevik, but I certainly wasn’t a Bolshevik. After that I started to teach courses with names like “Cultural Poetics.” It’s true that I’m still more uneasy with a politics and a literary perspective that is untouched by Marxist throught, but that doesn’t lead me to endorse propositions or embrace a particular philosophy, politics or rhetoric, faute de mieux.

Thus the crucial identifying gestures made by the most distinguished American Marxist aesthetic theorist, Fredric Jameson, seem to me highly problematic. Let us take, for example, the following eloquent passage from The Political Unconscious:

the convenient working distinction between cultural texts that are social and political and those that are not becomes something worse than an error: namely, a symptom and a reinforcement of the reification and privatization of contempo­rary life. Such a distinction reconfirms that structural, experiential, and concep­tual gap between the public and the private, between the social and the psycho­logical, or the political and the poetic, between history or society and the “individual,” which—the tendential law of social life under capitalism—maims our existence as individual subjects and paralyzes our thinking about time and change just as surely as it alienates us from our speech itself.2

A working distinction between cultural texts that are social and political and those that are not—that is, an aesthetic domain that is in some way marked off from the discursive institutions that are operative elsewhere in a culture—becomes for Jameson a malignant symptom of “privatization.” Why should the “private” immediately enter into this distinction at all? Does the term [i.e. privatization] refer to private property, that is, to the ownership of the means of production and the regulation of the mode of consumption? If so, what is the historical relation between this mode of economic organization and a working distinction between the political and the poetic? It would seem that in print, let alone in the electronic media [Remember: this essay predates the WWW. Electronic media here is a reference to radio and television, not to digital culture], private ownership has led not to “privatization” but to the drastic communalization of all discourse, the constitution of an ever larger mass audience, the organization of a commer­cial sphere unimagined and certainly unattained by the comparatively modest attempts in pre-capitalist societies to organize public discourse. Moreover, is it not possible to have a communal sphere of art that is distinct from other communal spheres? Is this communal differentiation, sanctioned by the laws of property, not the dominant practice in capitalist society, manifestly in the film and television industries, but also, since the invention of movable type, in the production of poems and novels as well? Would we really find it less alienating to have no distinction at all between the political and the poetic— the situation, let us say, during China’s Cultural Revolution? Or, for that matter, do we find it notably liberating to have our own country governed by a film actor who is either cunningly or pathologically indifferent to the traditional differentiation between fantasy and reality?

For The Political Unconscious any demarcation of the aesthetic must be aligned with the private which is in turn aligned with the psychological, the poetic, and the individual, as distinct from the public, the social, and the political. All of these interlocking distinctions, none of which seems to me philosophically or even historically bound up with the original “working distinction,” are then laid at the door of capitalism with its power to “maim” and “paralyze” us as “individual subjects.” Though we may find a differenti­ation between cultural discourses that are artistic and cultural discourses that are social or political well before the European seventeenth century, and in cultures that seem far removed from the capitalist mode of production, Jameson insists that somehow the perpetrator and agent of the alleged maiming is capitalism. A shadowy opposition is assumed between the “indi­vidual” (bad) and the “individual subject” (good); indeed the maiming of the latter creates the former.

The whole passage has the resonance of an allegory of the fall of man: once we were whole, agile, integrated; we were individual subjects but not individuals, we had no psychology distinct from the shared life of the society; politics and poetry were one. Then capitalism arose and shattered this lumi­nous, benign totality. The myth echoes throughout Jameson’s book, though by the close it has been eschatologically reoriented so that the totality lies not in a past revealed to have always already fallen but in the classless future. A philosophical claim then appeals to an absent empirical event. And literature is invoked at once as the dark token of fallenness and the shimmering emblem of the absent transfiguration.

But, of course, poststructuralism has raised serious questions about such a vision, challenging both its underlying oppositions and the primal organic unity that it posits as either paradisal origin or utopian, eschatalogical end.3 This challenge has already greatly modified, though by no means simply displaced, Marxist discourse. I could exemplify this complex interaction between Marxism and poststructuralism by discussing Jameson’s own most recent work in which he finds himself, from the perspective of postmodern­ism, deploring the loss of those “working distinctions” that at least enabled the left to identify its enemies and articulate a radical program.4 But to avoid confusions, I want to focus instead on the work of Jean-Francois Lyotard. Here, as in The Political Unconscious, the distinction between discursive fields is once again at stake: for Lyotard the existence of proper names makes possible

the co-existence of those worlds that Kant calls fields, territories, and domains— those worlds which of course present the same object, but which also make that object the stakes of heterogenous (or incommensurable) expectations in universes of phrases, none of which can be transformed into any other.5

Lyotard’s model for these differentiated discourses is the existence of proper names. But now it is the role of capitalism not to demarcate discursive domains but, quite the opposite, to make such domains untenable. “Capital is that which wants a single language and a single network, and it never stops trying to present them” (p. 55). Lyotard’s principal exhibit of this attempt by capital to institute a single language—what Bakhtin would call monologism—is Faurisson’s denial of the Holocaust, and behind this denial, the Nazis’ attempt to obliterate the existence of millions of Jews and other undesirables, an attempt Lyotard characterizes as the will “to strike from history and from the map entire worlds of names.”

The problem with this account is that the Nazis did not seem particularly interested in exterminating names along with the persons who possessed those names; on the contrary, they kept, in so far as was compatible with a campaign of mass murder, remarkably full records, and they looked forward to a time in which they could share their accomplishment with a grateful world by establishing a museum dedicated to the culture of the wretches they had destroyed. The Faurisson affair is at bottom not an epistemological dilemma, as Lyotard claims, but an attempt to wish away evidence that is both substantial and verifiable. The issue is not an Epicurean paradox—“if death is there, you are not there; if you are there, death is not there; hence it is impossible for you to prove that death is there”—but a historical problem: what is the evidence of mass murder? How reliable is this evidence? Are there convincing grounds for denying or doubting the documented events? And if there are not such grounds, how may we interpret the motives of those who seek to cast doubt upon the historical record?

There is a further problem in Lyotard’s use of the Faurisson affair as an instance of capitalist hostility to names: the conflation of Fascist apologetics and capitalism would seem to be itself an instance of monologism, since it suppresses all the aspects of capitalism that are wedded to the generation and inscription of individual identities and to the demarcation of boundaries separating those identities. We may argue, of course, that the capitalist insistence upon individuality is fraudulent, but it is difficult, I think, to keep the principle of endlessly proliferated, irreducible individuality separate from the market place version against which it is set. For it is capitalism, as Marx suggested, that mounts the West’s most powerful and sustained assault upon collective, communal values and identities. And it is in the market place and in the state apparatus linked to the circulation and accumulation of capital that names themselves are forged. Proper names, as distinct from common names, seem less the victims than the products of property—they are bound up not only with the property one has in oneself, that is, with the theory of possessive individualism, but quite literally with the property one possesses, for proper names are insisted upon in the early modern period precisely in order to register them in the official documents that enable the state to calculate and tax personal property.6

The difference between Jameson’s capitalism, the perpetrator of separate discursive domains, the agent of privacy, psychology, and the individual, and Lyotard’s capitalism, the enemy of such domains and the destroyer of privacy, psychology, and the individual, may in part be traced to a difference between the Marxist and poststructuralist projects. Jameson, seeking to expose the fallaciousness of a separate artistic sphere and to celebrate the materialist integration of all discourses, finds capitalism at the root of the false differentiation; Lyotard, seeking to celebrate the differentiation of all discourses and to expose the fallaciousness of monological unity, finds capi­talism at the root of the false integration. History functions in both cases as a convenient anecdotal ornament upon a theoretical structure, and capitalism appears not as a complex social and economic development in the West but as a malign philosophical principle.7

I propose that the general question addressed by Jameson and Lyotard— what is the historical relation between art and society or between one institu­tionally demarcated discursive practice and another?—does not lend itself to a single, theoretically satisfactory answer of the kind that Jameson and Lyotard are trying to provide. Or rather theoretical satisfaction here seems to depend upon a utopian vision that collapses the contradictions of history into a moral imperative. The problem is not simply the incompatibility of two theories—Marxist and poststructuralist—with one another, but the inability of either of the theories to come to terms with the apparently contradictory historical effects of capitalism. In principle, of course, both Marxism and poststructuralism seize upon contradictions: for the former they are signs of repressed class conflicts, for the latter they disclose hidden cracks in the spurious certainties of logocentrism. But in practice Jameson treats capitalism as the agent of repressive differentiation, while Lyotard treats it as the agent of monological totalization. And this effacement of contradiction is not the consequence of an accidental lapse but rather the logical outcome of theory’s search for the obstacle that blocks the realization of its eschatological vision.

If capitalism is invoked not as a unitary demonic principle, but as a complex historical movement in a world without paradisal origins or chiliastic expectations, then an inquiry into the relation between art and society in capitalist cultures must address both the formation of the working distinction upon which Jameson remarks and the totalizing impulse upon which Lyotard remarks. For capitalism has characteristically generated neither regimes in which all discourses seem coordinated, nor regimes in which they seem radically isolated or discontinuous, but regimes in which the drive towards differentiation and the drive towards monological organization operate si­multaneously, or at least oscillate so rapidly as to create the impression of simultaneity.

In a brilliant paper that received unusual attention, elicited a response from a White House speech-writer, and most recently generated a segment on CBS’s “Sixty Minutes,” the political scientist and historian Michael Rogin recently observed the number of times President Reagan has, at critical moments in his career, quoted lines from his own or other popular films. The President is a man, Rogin remarks, “whose most spontaneous moments— (‘Where do we find such men?’ about the American D-Day dead; ‘I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green,’ during the 1980 New Hampshire primary debate)—are not only preserved and projected on film, but also turn out to be lines from old movies.”8 To a remarkable extent, Ronald Reagan, who made his final Hollywood film, The Killers in 1964, continues to live within the movies; he has been shaped by them, draws much of his cold war rhetoric from them, and cannot or will not distinguish between them and an external reality. Indeed his political career has depended upon an ability to project himself and his mass audience into a realm in which there is no distinction between simulation and reality.

The response from Anthony Dolan, a White House speech-writer who was asked to comment on Rogin’s paper, was highly revealing. “What he’s really saying,” Dolan suggested, “is that all of us are deeply affected by a uniquely American art form: the movies.”9 Rogin had in fact argued that the presidential character “was produced from the convergence of two sets of substitutions which generated Cold War countersubversion in the 1940s and underlie its 1980s revival—the political replacement of Nazism by Com­munism, from which the national security state was born; and the psycholog­ical shift from an embodied self to its simulacrum on film. ” Both the political and the psychological substitution were intimately bound up with Ronald Reagan’s career in the movies. Dolan in response rewrites Rogin’s thesis into a celebration of the power of “a uniquely American art form” to shape “all of us.” Movies, Dolan told the New York Times reporter, “heighten reality rather than lessen it.”

Such a statement appears to welcome the collapse of the working distinc­tion between the aesthetic and the real; the aesthetic is not an alternative realm but a way of intensifying the single realm we all inhabit. But then the spokesman went on to assert that the President “usually credits the films whose lines he uses.” That is, at the moment of appropriation, the President acknowledges that he is borrowing from the aesthetic and hence acknowl­edges the existence of a working distinction. In so doing he respects and even calls attention to the difference between his own presidential discourse and the fictions in which he himself at one time took part; they are differences upon which his own transition from actor to politician in part depends, and they are the signs of the legal and economic system that he represents. For the capitalist aesthetic demands acknowledgments—hence the various marks of property rights that are flashed on the screen or inscribed in a text—and the political arena insists that it is not a fiction. That without acknowledg­ment the President delivers speeches written by Anthony Dolan or others does not appear to concern anyone; this has long been the standard operating procedure of American politicians. But it would concern people if the Presi­dent recited speeches that were lifted without acknowledgment from old movies. He would then seem not to know the difference between fantasy and reality. And that might be alarming.

The White House, of course, was not responding to a theoretical problem, but to the implication that somehow the President did not fully recognize that he was quoting, or alternatively that he did realize it and chose to repress the fact in order to make a more powerful impression. In one version he is a kind of sleepwalker, in the other a plagiarist. To avoid these implications the White House spokesman needed in effect to invoke a difference that he had himself a moment before undermined.

The spokesman’s remarks were hasty and ad hoc, but it did not take reflection to reproduce the complex dialectic of differentiation and identity that those remarks articulate. That dialectic is powerful precisely because it is by now virtually thoughtless; it takes a substantial intellectual effort to separate the boundaries of art from the subversion of those boundaries, an effort such as that exemplified in the work of Jameson or Lyotard. But the effect of such an effort is to remove itself from the very phenomenon it had proposed to analyze, namely, the relation between art and surrounding discourses in capitalist culture. For the effortless invocation of two appar­ently contradictory accounts of art is characteristic of American capitalism in the late twentieth century and an outcome of long-term tendencies in the relationship of art and capital; in the same moment a working distinction between the aesthetic and the real is established and abrogated.

We could argue, following Jameson, that the establishment of the distinc­tion is the principal effect, with a view towards alienating us from our own imaginations by isolating fantasies in a private, apolitical realm. Or we could argue, following Lyotard, that the abrogation of the distinction is the principal effect, with a view towards effacing or evading differences by establishing a single, monolithic ideological structure. But if we are asked to choose between these alternatives, we will be drawn away from an analysis of the relation between capitalism and aesthetic production. For from the sixteenth century, when the effects for art of joint-stock company organiza­tion first began to be felt, to the present, capitalism has produced a powerful and effective oscillation between the establishment of distinct discursive domains and the collapse of those domains into one another. It is this restless oscillation rather than the securing of a particular fixed position that constitutes the distinct power of capitalism. The individual elements—a range of discontinuous discourses on the one hand, the monological unifica­tion of all discourses on the other—may be found fully articulated in other economic and social systems; only capitalism has managed to generate a dizzying, seemingly inexhaustible circulation between the two.

My use of the term circulation here is influenced by the work of Jacques Derrida, but sensitivity to the practical strategies of negotiation and exchange depends less upon poststructuralist theory than upon the circulatory rhythms of American politics. And the crucial point is that it is not politics alone but the whole structure of production and consumption—the systematic organization of ordinary life and consciousness—that generates the pattern of boundary making and breaking, the oscillation between demarcated ob­jects and monological totality, that I have sketched. If we restrict our focus to the zone of political institutions, we can easily fall into the illusion that everything depends upon the unique talents—if that is the word—of Ronald Reagan, that he alone has managed to generate the enormously effective shuttling between massive, universalizing fantasies and centerlessness that characterizes his administration. This illusion leads in turn to what John Carlos Rowe has called the humanist trivialization of power, a trivialization that finds its local political expression in the belief that the fantasmatics of current American politics are the product of a single man and will pass with him. On the contrary, Ronald Reagan is manifestly the product of a larger and more durable American structure—not only a structure of power, ideo­logical extremism and militarism, but of pleasure, recreation, and interest, a structure that shapes the spaces we construct for ourselves, the way we present “the news,” the fantasies we daily consume on television or in the movies, the entertainments that we characteristically make and take.

I am suggesting then that the oscillation between totalization and differ­ence, uniformity and the diversity of names, unitary truth and a proliferation of distinct entities—in short between Lyotard’s capitalism and Jameson’s—is built into the poetics of everyday behavior in America.10 Let us consider, for example, not the President’s Hollywood career but a far more innocent California pastime, a trip to Yosemite National Park. One of the most popular walks at Yosemite is the Nevada Falls Trail. So popular, indeed, is this walk that the Park Service has had to pave the first miles of the trail in order to keep them from being dug into trenches by the heavy traffic. At a certain point the asphalt stops, and you encounter a sign that tells you that you are entering the wilderness. You have passed then from the National Forests that surround the park—forests that serve principally as state-subsi­dized nurseries for large timber companies and hence are not visibly distin­guishable from the tracts of privately owned forest with which they are contiguous—to the park itself, marked by the payment of admission to the uniformed ranger at the entrance kiosk, and finally to a third and privileged zone of publicly demarcated Nature. This zone, called the wilderness, is marked by the abrupt termination of the asphalt and by a sign that lists the rules of behavior that you must now observe: no dogs, no littering, no fires, no camping without a permit, and so forth. The wilderness then is signaled by an intensification of the rules, an intensification that serves as the condition of an escape from the asphalt.

You can continue on this trail then until you reach a steep cliff on to which the guardians of the wilderness have thoughtfully bolted a cast-iron stairway. The stairway leads to a bridge that spans a rushing torrent, and from the middle of the bridge you are rewarded with a splendid view of Nevada Falls. On the railing that keeps you from falling to your death as you enjoy your vision of the wilderness, there are signs—information about the dimensions of the falls, warnings against attempting to climb the treacherous, mist-slickened rocks, trail markers for those who wish to walk further—and an anodyzed aluminium plaque on which are inscribed inspirational, vaguely Wordsworthian sentiments by the California environmentalist John Muir. The passage, as best I can recall, assures you that in years to come you will treasure the image you have before you. And next to these words, also etched into the aluminium, is precisely an image: a photograph of Nevada Falls taken from the very spot on which you stand.

The pleasure of this moment—beyond the pleasure of the mountain air and the waterfall and the great boulders and the deep forest of Lodgepole and Jeffrey pine—arises from the unusually candid glimpse of the process of circulation that shapes the whole experience of the park. The wilderness is at once secured and obliterated by the official gestures that establish its boundaries; the natural is set over against the artificial through means that render such an opposition meaningless. The eye passes from the “natural” image of the waterfall to the aluminium image, as if to secure a difference (for why else bother to go to the park at all? Why not simply look at a book of pictures?), even as that difference is effaced. The effacement is by no means complete—on the contrary, parks like Yosemite are one of the ways in which the distinction between nature and artifice is constituted in our society—and yet the Park Service’s plaque on the Nevada Falls bridge conve­niently calls attention to the interpenetration of nature and artifice that makes the distinction possible.

What is missing from this exemplary fable of capitalist aesthetics is the question of property relations, since the National Parks exist precisely to suspend or marginalize that question through the ideology of protected public space. Everyone owns the parks. That ideology is somewhat bruised by the actual development of a park like Yosemite, with its expensive hotel, a restaurant that has a dress code, fancy gift shops and the like, but it is not entirely emptied out; even the administration of the right-wing Secretary of the Interior James Watt stopped short of permitting a private golf course to be constructed on park grounds, and there was public outrage when a television production company that had contracted to film a series in Yosem­ite decided to paint the rocks to make them look more realistic. What we need is an example that combines recreation or entertainment, aesthetics, the public sphere, and private property. The example most compelling to a literary critic like myself is not a political career or a national park but a novel.

In 1976, a convict named Gary Gilmore was released from a federal penitentiary and moved to Provo, Utah. Several months later, he robbed and killed two men, was arrested for the crimes, and convicted of murder. The case became famous when Gilmore demanded that he be executed—a punishment that had not been inflicted in America for some years, due to legal protections—and, over the strenuous objections of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Col­ored People, had his way. The legal maneuvers and the eventual firing-squad execution became national media events. Well before the denouement the proceedings had come to the attention of Norman Mailer and his publisher Warner Books which is, as it announces on its title pages, “a Warner Commu­nications Company.” Mailer’s research assistant, Jere Herzenberg, and a hack writer and interviewer, Lawrence Schiller, conducted extensive inter­views and acquired documents, records of court proceedings, and personal papers such as the intimate letters between Gilmore and his girlfriend. Some of these materials were in the public domain but many of them were not; they were purchased, and the details of the purchases themselves become part of the materials that were reworked by Mailer into The Executioner’s Song,11 a “true life novel” as it is called, that brilliantly combines documen­tary realism with Mailer’s characteristic romance themes. The novel was a critical and popular success—a success signaled not only by the sheaves of admiring reviews but by the Universal Product Code printed on its paperback book cover. It was subsequently made into an NBC-TV mini-series where on successive evenings it helped to sell cars, soap powder, and deodorant.

Mailer’s book had further, and less predictable, ramifications. While he was working on The Executioner’s Song, there was an article on Mailer in People magazine. The article caught the attention of a convict named Jack H. Abbott who wrote to offer him first-hand instruction on the conditions of prison life. An exchange of letters began, and Mailer grew increasingly impressed not only with their detailed information but with what he calls their “literary measure.” The letters were cut and arranged by a Random House editor, Erroll McDonald, and appeared as a book called In the Belly of the Beast. This book too was widely acclaimed and contributed, with Mailer’s help, to win a parole for its author.

“As I am writing these words,” Mailer wrote in the Introduction to Abbott’s book, “it looks like Abbott will be released on parole this summer. It is certainly the time for him to get out.”12 “I have never come into bodily contact with another human being in almost twenty years,” wrote Abbott in his book, “except in combat; in acts of struggle, of violence” (63). Shortly after his release, Abbott, now a celebrity, approached a waiter in an all-night restaurant and asked to use the men’s room. The waiter—Richard Adan, an aspiring actor and playwright—told Abbott that the restaurant had no men’s room and asked him to step outside. When Adan followed him on to the sidewalk, Abbott, apparently thinking that he was being challenged, stabbed Adan in the heart with a kitchen knife. Abbott was arrested and convicted once again of murder. The events have themselves been made into a play, also called In the Belly of the Beast, that recently opened to very favorable reviews.

Literary criticism has a familiar set of terms for the relationship between a work of art and the historical events to which it refers: we speak of allusion, symbolization, allegorization, representation, and above all mimesis. Each of these terms has a rich history and is virtually indispensable, and yet they all seem curiously inadequate to the cultural phenomenon which Mailer’s book and Abbott’s and the television series and the play constitute. And their inadequacy extends to aspects not only of contemporary culture but of the culture of the past. We need to develop terms to describe the ways in which material—here official documents, private papers, newspaper clip­pings, and so forth—is transferred from one discursive sphere to another and becomes aesthetic property. It would, I think, be a mistake to regard this process as uni-directional—from social discourse to aesthetic discourse-—not only because the aesthetic discourse in this case is so entirely bound up with capitalist venture but because the social discourse is already charged with aesthetic energies. Not only was Gilmore explicitly and powerfully moved by the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but his entire pattern of behavior seems to have been shaped by the characteristic represen­tations of American popular fiction, including Mailer’s own.

Michael Baxandall has argued recently that “art and society are analytical concepts from two different kinds of categorization of human experience . . . unhomologous systematic constructions put upon interpenetrating subject-matters.” In consequence, he suggests, any attempt to relate the two must first “modify one of the terms till it matches the other, but keeping note of what modification has been necessary since this is a necessary part of one’s information.”13 It is imperative that we acknowledge the modification and find a way to measure its degree, for it is only in such measurements that we can hope to chart the relationship between art and society. Such an admoni­tion is important—methodological self-consciousness is one of the distin­guishing marks of the new historicism in cultural studies as opposed to a historicism based upon faith in the transparency of signs and interpretative procedures—but it must be supplemented by an understanding that the work of art is not itself a pure flame that lies at the source of our speculations. Rather the work of art is itself the product of a set of manipulations, some of them our own (most striking in the case of works that were not originally conceived as “art” at all but rather as something else—votive objects, propa­ganda, prayer, and so on), many others undertaken in the construction of the original work. That is, the work of art is the product of a negotiation between a creator or class of creators, equipped with a complex, communally shared repertoire of conventions, and the institutions and practices of society. In order to achieve the negotiation, artists need to create a currency that is valid for a meaningful, mutally profitable exchange. It is important to empha­size that the process involves not simply appropriation but exchange, since the existence of art always implies a return, a return normally measured in pleasure and interest. I should add that the society’s dominant currencies, money and prestige, are invariably involved, but I am here using the term “currency” metaphorically to designate the systematic adjustments, symbol­izations and lines of credit necessary to enable an exchange to take place. The terms “currency” and “negotiation” are the signs of our manipulation and adjustment of the relative systems.

Much recent theoretical work must, I think, be understood in the context of a search for a new set of terms to understand the cultural phenomenon that I have tried to describe. Hence, for example, Wolfgang Iser writes of the creation of the aesthetic dimension through the “dynamic oscillation” between two discourses; the East German Marxist Robert Weimann argues that

the process of making certain things one’s own becomes inseparable from making other things (and persons) alien, so that the act of appropriation must be seen always already to involve not only self-projection and assimilation but alienation through reification and expropriation. ...

Anthony Giddons proposes that we substitute a concept of textual distanciation for that of the autonomy of the text, so that we can fruitfully grasp the “recursive character” of social life and of language.14 Each of these formulations—and, of course, there are significant differences among them— pulls away from a stable, mimetic theory of art and attempts to construct in its stead an interpretative model that will more adequately account for the unsettling circulation of materials and discourses that is, I have argued, the heart of modern aesthetic practice. It is in response to this practice that contemporary theory must situate itself: not outside interpretation, but in the hidden places of negotiation and exchange.


1. This is the text of a lecture given at the University of Western Australia on 4 September 1986. A slightly different version appears in Murrary Krieger, ed.. The Aims of Representation (New York: Columbia Univ. Press. 1987).


2. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press. 1981) p. 20.


3. See Mark Poster, “Foucault, Poststructuralism, and the Mode of Information,” in The Aims of Representation.


4. Jameson himself does not directly account for the sudden reversal in his thinking; he suggests rather that it is not his thinking that has changed but capitalism itself. Following Ernest Mandel, he suggests that we have moved into late capitalism, and in this state cultural production and consumption operate by wholly different rules. In the cultural logic of postmod­ernism, the working distinctions Jameson earlier found paralyzing and malignant have in fact vanished, giving way to an organization of discourse and perception that is at once dreadful and visionary. Dreadful because the new postmodern condition has obliterated all the place markers—inside and outside, culture and society, orthodoxy and subversion—that made it possible to map the world and hence mount a critique of its power structures. Visionary because this new multi-national world, a world with intensities rather than emotions, elaborated surfaces rather than hidden depths, random, unreadable signs rather than signifiers, intimates a utopian release from the traditional nightmare of traditional history. The doubleness of the postmodern is perfectly figured for Jameson by contemporary architecture, most perfectly by the Bonaventura Hotel in Los Angeles. The rapidity of the shift between modern and postmodern charted in Jameson’s shift from The Political Unconscious (1981) to “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capital­ism,” New Left Review, No. 146 (July-Aug. 1984), pp. 53-93, is, to say the least, startling.


5. J. F. Lyotard, “Judiciousness in Dispute or, Kant after Marx,” in The Aims of Representa­tion, p. 37.


6. See, for example, William E. Tate, The Parish Chest: A Study in the Records of Parochial Administration in England (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1946).


7. Alternatively, of course, we can argue, as Jameson in effect does, that there are two capitalisms. The older, industrial capitalism was the agent of distinctions; the new, late capital­ism is the effacer of distinctions. The detection of one tendency or the other in the phase of capitalism where it does not theoretically belong can be explained by invoking the distinction between residual and emergent. I find this scholastic saving of the theory infinitely depressing.


8. Michael Rogin, “Ronald Reagan, ” The Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonol­ogy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).


9. Quoted by reporter Michael Tolchin in the New York Times account of Rogin’s paper, headlined “How Reagan Always Gets the Best Lines,” New York Times, 9 Sept. 1985, p. 10.


10. I borrow the phrase “the poetics of everyday behavior” from Iurii M. Lotman. See his essay in The Semiotics of Russian Cultural History, ed. A. D. Nakhimovsky and A. S. Nakhimovsky (Cornell: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985).


11. Norman Mailer, The Executioner’s Song (New York: Warner Books, 1979).


12. Introduction to Jack Henry Abbott, In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison (New York: Random House, 1981), p. xviii.


13. Michael Baxandall. “Art, Society, and the Bouger Principle,” Representations, 12 (1985), 40-41.


14. All in The Aims of Representation.