“For too long, we were taught that our art could only reference itself endlessly, like a snake eating it’s own tail. But this is real,” says Margarita, 22, a media student at the Slade School of Fine Art. “Ironic art is dead now — it’s undead. That’s because we finally have hope. We have something real, something to believe in again.”
— Turner prize protester, December 7, 2010 1
Re-reading Fredric Jameson’s 1984 New Left Review article, “Post-Modernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” 2 I’m struck by how his review of certain features of the postmodernist sensibility, particularly a “depthless” quality without affect, itself lacks depth because it relies upon Lacanian psychoanalysis and is thereby hampered by the neglect of affect and associated object relations that characterizes Lacanian theory. In discussing the work of three artists — Van Gogh, Munch, and Warhol — and a selection from the diary of Renee, a schizophrenic girl, Jameson in different ways loses track of the connection between, to put it generally for now, the manifest content under consideration — the work of art, the schizophrenic experience — and the communicative or, when defensive operations take over, excommunicative intentions of the subject in the midst of their external and internal relationships.
This disconnect fundamentally subverts the critique of reification that characteristically animates Jameson’s work. Critique can alert the subject to a dialectic of internal and external repression that works to obscure itself and become a deadening second nature. The traces of these dynamics can be discerned in cultural objects, as well as in the class-situated individuals who produce them. But instead of promoting a rejuvenating spark, within his analysis both Jameson’s form of presentation and his choice of theory reproduce the stifling disjunctures and evasions central to the organization of the narcissistic subjectivity he analyzes. Because Lacanian theory is deaf to the object relational tensions that narcissism seeks to escape and silence, it offers Jameson an inadequate interpretive standpoint, and he is thus largely limited to a mimetic registration of narcissistic foreclosure.
And it gets worse. When Jameson, in A Singular Modernity, takes up the question of how social upheaval invigorated aesthetic modernism and, much further, how it instigates revolutionary action, his Lacanian take on subjective processes leads him to egregiously misunderstand what the revolutionary impulse is about. Far from revolution involving, as he would have it, a dissolution of subjectivity, a “depersonalization,” revolutionary activity entails the invigoration of subjectivity. Immediate, formerly suppressed grievances bring individuals into intersubjective coalitions that are capable of practically challenging the limits of their social orders. Jameson’s Lacanian perspective leaves him blind to this mundane possibility.
The end of hermeneutic depth and the waning of affect
Jameson begins his consideration of the waning of affect by comparing two paintings of shoes, one by Van Gogh, the other by Warhol. He wants to avoid treating Van Gogh’s painting as a “reified end-product” by engaging it as a “symbolic act in its own right, as praxis and production.”3 He places the shoes in “the whole object world of agricultural misery, of stark rural poverty, and the whole rudimentary human world of backbreaking peasant toil, a world reduced to its most brutal and menaced, primitive and marginalized state.” Against these crushing pressures the shoes flare up in “a glorious materialization of pure colour in oil paint,” a “Utopian gesture,” an “act of compensation” against the “specializations and divisions of capitalist life.” This accords well with what we know of Van Gogh’s fierce affirmation of the humanity of the peasants he had lived with in the Belgian coal fields while he briefly pursued a religious life there.
To Jameson such a reading is “hermeneutical, in the sense in which the work in its inert, objectal form is taken as a clue or a symptom for some vaster reality which replaces it as its ultimate truth.” However, when we consider the art of our time, as an example of which he selects Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes, a hermeneutical dimension is lacking:
Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes evidently no longer speaks to us with any of the immediacy of Van Gogh’s footgear: indeed, I am tempted to say that it does not really speak to us at all…. Here, however, we have a random collection of dead objects, hanging together on the canvas like so many turnips, as shorn of their earlier life-world as the pile of shoes left over from Auschwitz, or the remainders and tokens of some incomprehensible and tragic fire in a packed dancehall. There is therefore in Warhol no way to complete the hermeneutic gesture, and to restore to these oddments that whole larger lived context of the dance hall or the ball, the world of jetset fashion or of glamour magazines. 4
Jameson puzzles over how it is that Warhol, who began his career as an illustrator for shoe fashions and who eventually became well-known for his wry aestheticization of commodities, produces works that do not convey a critical political statement: “If they are not [a political statement], then one would surely want to know why, and one would want to begin to wonder a little more seriously about the possibilities of political or critical art in the postmodern period of late capital.”
A peculiar disjuncture now follows: Having raised the issue of how postmodernism undercuts art’s political potential by silencing its hermeneutic invitation, Jameson believes that in next taking up the theme of “depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality …. perhaps the supreme formal feature of all the postmodernisms,” he is now talking about “some other significant difference between high modernism and postmodernism” [my emphasis]. But is this an “other” feature, or is it integral to the elimination of hermeneutic resonance, a silencing of the shoes? Could depthlessness and hermeneutical foreclosure, or perhaps an indifference to hermeneutics, be indissolubly part of the same picture?
Our impression that Jameson has overlooked an important link grows as he turns to the matter of the “waning of affect.” He works up this idea with a powerful contrast:
It is Warhol’s use of photography and the photographic negative that confers a deathly quality to the image, creating an “inversion” of Van Gogh’s Utopian gesture. Instead of strident color, we are left gazing at the “deathly black-and-white substratum of the photographic negative” underlying the image…this kind of death of the world of appearance …thematized in certain of Warhol’s pieces — most notably the traffic accidents or the electric chair series — is not a matter of content any longer but of some more fundamental mutation both in the object world itself — now become a set of texts or simulacra — and in the disposition of the subject. 5
Modernism (Van Gogh) brings the coarse peasant shoes to colorful life while postmodernism (Warhol) foregrounds a deadened substratum, preempting a restorative hermeneutic engagement. With this sharp juxtaposition Jameson generates a strong, yet volatile, critical potential. It is volatile in the sense that, even as he stimulates critical interest, at the same time he must restrain the reader from simple indignation over the contrast between Van Gogh’s redemptive exaltation of the boots and Warhol’s anonymous, deathly shoes, washed out traffic accidents and executions. But what might seem to be a deliberate pacing of his argument actually becomes more than a managed titration of affect in the service of careful analysis. The pacing reflects a circumscription of his own initiatives resulting from a mimetic resonance with Warhol’s art and its creator. In exercising emotional self-restraint to more thoroughly understand what is going on, Jameson ends up internalizing the problematic form, the “mutation” under investigation, in such a way that its “affectless,” circumspect quality attenuates critical drive.
And so, on the one hand, Jameson calls our attention to both a dwindling and a warping of the emotional engagement and rapport between painter, subject and audience. The affirmative bond animating Van Gogh’s Utopian gesture is not only missing in Warhol. It is replaced by another stance that is not merely a substitution, or a simple focus shift, but a corrosion, a reduction of Van Gogh’s affirmative effort in the sense that formerly elevated objects become sheer text, simulacra. However, on the other hand, the way in which Jameson disjointedly presents these affective-aesthetic features of postmodernism tends to both reproduce their effects and disperse a potential for their reversal. As I will draw out below, a dispersal of affect and occlusion of its interpersonal grounding is characteristic of narcissistic defensive routines. In mimetic resonance with the narcissistic form of relating that imbues its aesthetic object, Jameson’s critical reflection passes over into reserved contemplation.
In the same vein, when Jameson next directly addresses the waning of affect in postmodern culture he, remarkably, feels obliged to say that it is “perhaps [my emphasis] best initially approached by way of the human figure.” Even though affects are an essential part of human life, he is moved to apology for this seemingly contingent association. Staying with Diamond Dust Shoes, he cautions that “it would be inaccurate to suggest that all affect, all feeling or emotion, all subjectivity, has vanished.” What affect there is, however, is a “decorative exhilaration …the glitter of gold dust…which seals the surface of the painting and yet continues to glint at us.” In Warhol’s work, this effect extends to human subjects, including Marilyn Monroe, “commodified and turned into their own images.” To this Jameson counterposes Munch’s The Scream, “a canonical expression of the great modernist thematic of alienation, anomie, solitude …,” and then argues that “the very aesthetic of expression itself vanished away — for both practical and theoretical reasons — in the world of the postmodern.”
The very concept of expression presupposes indeed some separation within the subject, and along with that a whole metaphysics of the inside and the outside, of the wordless pain within the monad and the moment in which, often cathartically, that ‘emotion’ is then projected out and externalized, as gesture or cry, as desperate communication and the outward dramatization of inward feeling. And this is perhaps the moment to say something about contemporary theory, which has among other things been committed to the mission of criticizing and discrediting this very hermeneutic model of the inside and the outside and of stigmatizing such models as ideological and metaphysical. But what is today called contemporary theory—or better still, theoretical discourse—is also, I would want to argue, itself very precisely a postmodernist phenomenon. It would therefore be inconsistent to defend the truth of its theoretical insights in a situation in which the very concept of ‘truth’ itself is part of the metaphysical baggage which poststructuralism seeks to abandon. What we can at least suggest is that the poststructuralist critique of the hermeneutic, of what I will shortly call the depth model, is useful for us as a very significant symptom of the very postmodernist culture which is our subject here. 6 [my emphases]
Given the acute distress conveyed by the Scream, a depiction of mental agony that, whatever its ambiguity, violently demands the personal engagement of the viewer, it is noteworthy how readily Jameson passes over its “desperate communication” to abstractly conceive of it as raising a metaphysical question of inside and outside. Instead of sticking with the painting’s cue to consider expression as an interpersonal overture and then wonder why subsequent artists have attenuated this dimension, Jameson only notes the shift and then ratifies it by adopting an aesthetically couched standpoint that denies interpersonal reference: the artist is a “monad” striving to “bring out” something from within themselves, to cathartically discharge it. He disjoins “communication” from the interpersonal, replacing it with the goal of discharge, a solitary relief on the order of defecation. He next drops interpersonal and emotional considerations entirely in favor of the aporias of theory and epistemology. The question of truth has supplanted the question of responding to an expression of desperation.
Of course, we need not naively regard the Scream as a “cry for help,” implying a stereotypically sympathetic understanding of psychic pain and the role of the caring Other in addressing it. Thus, to take Munch himself, we might consider whether the painting depicts how suffering has become inchoate, seemingly beyond ameliorative engagement due to the interplay between, on the one hand, incomprehension and unavailability on the part of Munch’s parents (Munch’s mother died when he was five, and his father’s stringent Pietism only intensified the subsequent emotional void) and, on the other hand, Munch’s internalization of this as emotional confusion and despair over the difficulty of addressing profound loss. Further, we could note a resonance between this childhood catastrophe and the stifling quality of Norwegian bourgeois society of Munch’s time, the disorientation and distrust attendant to rigid social conventions that thinly gloss over the ruthless pursuit of profit.
Jameson, however, does not directly take up this question of a dialectic between internal and external communication and how it might break down when internal excommunication complements external repressive pressures. He instead offers a nominally aesthetic conjecture framed in postmodernese:
“The Scream deconstructs its own aesthetic of expression…since the realism of the sonorous, the cry, the raw vibrations of the human throat, are incompatible with its medium…Yet the absent scream returns more closely … in the form of those great concentric circles in which the sonorous vibration becomes ultimately visible …the visible world now becomes the wall of the monad on which this ‘scream running through nature’ (Munch’s words) is recorded and transcribed…” 7
By phrasing it as though the painting acquires a subjectivity apart from Munch, Jameson loses track of the central fault creating Munch’s excommunicative rupture. The idea of an absolute aesthetic limit — when you paint, no one can hear you scream — misses how the idea of a scream vibrating through nature precisely reflects what happens when no one can hear it, when it pours, uncontained in the Bionian sense, into a nature which only “responds” with vibrations that magnify solitude. (Bion’s concept is reviewed here.) The painting is thus a keen representation of a two-fold incapacity: the screamer is not heard by anyone else, and the corresponding, internalized absence of an internal listener brings him to the point that he cannot hear himself.
Jameson is not unaware of an intra- and interpersonal communicative framework; it has not yet deliquesced into disembodied intertextuality in which matters of containment and solidarity are eradicated. But, pausing before another pass at Munch, Jameson signs on to a psychoanalytic cliché that sets up further opportunities for ambiguation:
…concepts such as anxiety and alienation (and the experiences to which they correspond, as in The Scream) are no longer appropriate in the world of the postmodern. The great Warhol figures—Marilyn herself, or Edie Sedgewick—the notorious burn-out and self-destruction cases of the ending 1960s, and the great dominant experiences of drugs and schizophrenia—these would seem to have little enough in common anymore, either with the hysterics and neurotics of Freud’s own day ….This shift in the dynamics of cultural pathology can be characterized as one in which the alienation of the subject is displaced by the fragmentation of the subject…. Such terms inevitably recall one of the more fashionable themes in contemporary theory — that of the “death” of the subject itself, the end of the autonomous bourgeois monad or ego or individual — and the accompanying stress, whether as some new moral ideal or as empirical description, on the decentering of that formerly centred subject or psyche. 8
While it is true that the sufferings of Monroe and Sedgwick were significantly different from neurotic misery, to claim that they represent a transformed subjectivity typical of a cultural shift from alienation to fragmentation overlooks what they shared with Van Gogh and Munch. The screams of Monroe and Sedgwick,9 both silenced by suicide, can be understood as communicative/relational failures in which the satisfaction of, to use a generic term, dependency needs has catastrophically failed. [see the note below] Jameson doesn’t consider the possibility that those failures might culminate in narcissistic forms in which routines of sham self-sufficiency and/or the substitution of simple interpersonal yearning for public adulation — fame, being a “Superstar” — would replace more personalized forms of engagement (more on that to come). Instead, he jumps to jargon — “death of the subject” — that is, not surprisingly, quite consistent with and supportive of particular forms of narcissistic defense — if you imagine you’re dead, you need nothing from unreliable objects. He fails to consider whether, at least from the perspective he is carefully setting out, the “world of the postmodern” might be in some way determined and regulated by a narcissistic flight from dependent strivings.
Clinical note: narcissism, schizophrenia and dependency
Two articles, one by Harold Searles on dependency processes in schizophrenia and another by Herbert Rosenfeld on destructive aspects of narcissism, are useful references here. Between them they show that there are certain strong continuities between the defensive concerns of those suffering from schizophrenia and others, relatively better off, troubled by narcissistic disorders. Searles on schizophrenia:
“As nearly as one can determine, the patient is unaware of pure dependency needs; for him, apparently, they exist in consciousness, if at all, only in the form of a hopelessly conflictual combination of dependency needs plus various defenses—defenses which render impossible any thoroughgoing or sustained gratification of these needs. These defenses (which include grandiosity, hostility, competitiveness, scorn, and so forth) have so long ago developed in his personality, as a means of coping with the anxiety attendant upon dependency needs, that the experiencing of pure dependency needs is, for him, lost in antiquity and to be achieved only relatively late in therapy after the various defenses have been largely relinquished.” 10
Now Rosenfeld on narcissism:
I stressed the … identification of self and object (fusion of self and object) in narcissistic states, which act as a defence against any recognition of separateness between the self and objects. Awareness of separation immediately leads to feelings of dependence on an object and therefore to inevitable frustrations. However, dependence also stimulates envy, when the goodness of the object is recognized. Aggressiveness towards objects therefore seems inevitable in giving up the narcissistic position and it appears that the strength and persistence of omnipotent narcissistic object relations is closely related to the strength of the envious destructive impulses.
In studying narcissism in greater detail it seems to me essential to differentiate between the libidinal and the destructive aspects of narcissism. In considering narcissism from the libidinal aspect one can see that the over-valuation of the self plays a central role, based mainly on the idealization of the self. Self-idealization is maintained by omnipotent …. identifications with good objects and their qualities. In this way the narcissist feels that everything that is valuable relating to external objects and the outside world is part of him or is omnipotently controlled by him.
Similarly, when considering narcissism from the destructive aspect, we find that again self-idealization plays a central role, but now it is the idealization of the omnipotent destructive parts of the self. They are directed both against any positive libidinal object relationship and any libidinal part of the self which experiences need for an object and the desire to depend on it. The destructive omnipotent parts of the self often remain disguised or they may be silent and split off, which obscures their existence and gives the impression that they have no relationship to the external world. In fact they have a very powerful effect in preventing dependent object relations and in keeping external objects permanently devalued, which accounts for the apparent indifference of the narcissistic individual towards external objects and the world. 11My emphasis.]
Both of their accounts remind us of the importance of looking past manifest presentation to underlying content. Instead, Jameson’s theorizing lapses into naive acceptance of defensive obfuscations at face value and so, instead of charting a tortuous intersubjectivity, he assumes that it, along with constitutive subjectivity, is dead and gone.
Munch, uncontained, and Warhol, obliterated
To resume: Jameson seems to be just shy of full awareness of the narcissistic dilemma, lacking only the conceptual tag for its defensive matrix:
“…Munch’s painting…shows us that expression requires the category of the individual monad, but it also shows us the heavy price to be paid for that precondition, dramatizing the unhappy paradox that when you constitute your individual subjectivity as a self-sufficient field and a closed realm in its own right, you thereby also shut yourself off from everything else and condemn yourself to the windless solitude of the monad, buried alive ….As for expression and feelings and emotions, the liberation, in contemporary society, from the older anomie of the centred subject may also mean…a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self to do the feeling. This is not to say that the cultural products of the postmodern era are utterly devoid of feeling, but rather that such feelings…are now free-floating and impersonal.” 12
Jameson begins by tracing the consequences of the monad option well, and even sets up the question of whether the notion of a “decentred subject” is simply a rationalization of narcissism, the conceptual ratification of a liberation from want through its negation. But he stumbles by mistakenly taking Munch’s painting, rather than Warhol’s work, as a guide to the narcissist’s world. In the process the term “expression” is torn from its interpersonal context. Contrary to Jameson, Munch clearly shows us psychic pain, pain that is spilling out into nature because it can find no response in humanity. Warhol shows us something else, a defensively sealed off sequel, with objects — both human and nonhuman — layered over with glittery armor against genuine sentiment. Jameson reads Munch from the standpoint of Warhol, who might regard Munch as needlessly trapped, screaming, in a horrible situation that he has failed to fashion a truly narcissistic response to. Warhol would say to him: “You’re famous, you need nothing more!” Expression hardly presupposes a monad; rather, a narcissistic resolution to mundane dependence creates one.
If anything, narcissism has to do with the extirpation of dependence or, more accurately, the extirpation of a feeling of vulnerability associated with dependence. Warhol’s solution was to trade dependence on particular individuals, which would reinforce a sense of his own his subjectivity, and increase the risk of possibly being devalued, for a more generalized sense of being admired for his artistic achievement. The risk of dependence on particular individuals is traded for a circle of admirers, readily sustained by ongoing artistic efforts. The search for fame, the interest Warhol flatly acknowledged to be his main concern, is a way to set up a diffusing screen through which one can ongoingly tap into reservoirs of public fascination, rendering unnecessary the uncertain interests of individual Others. Simultaneously, the dependent orientation itself is devalued, reduced to shit and mocked. (As he said of Hollywood: “Everything’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.”) In Jameson’s discussion, this could serve as a way to critical engage at least one underpinning of the contention that the subject is dead, decentred, and beyond alienation. The subject is not decentred, but disconnected. Once it is disconnected from differentiated intersubjective yearning, subjectivity becomes distorted, misshapen, bound up in self-negation.
Organized subjective/intersubjective depletion: the pathological organization
To more adequately understand the persistent, patterned form of this defensive effort, we can turn to John Steiner’s concept of a ‘pathological organization.’ Working within a neo-Kleinian orientation, Steiner tries to make sense of how some analysands seem to set up a “psychic retreat” that they regularly fall back to as an escape from more intense, conflicted states. Steiner’s condensed presentation of his work with one analysand illustrates this well:
[Ms. B] sought treatment because of attacks of incapacitating anxiety, at first associated with major decisions such as whether she should stay in England, or whether she should let her future husband move into her flat when, at that time, he didn’t intend to marry her. They would also occur when she got involved in long discussions on existential themes which resulted in panic when she realized that she saw no meaning in life. She would find herself trembling, would feel her surroundings recede and become distant, and found that she could not make contact with people because a diffuse barrier came between them. When her husband agreed to marry her the anxiety lessened but would reappear periodically, for example once, when she lost a locket containing a piece of his hair. In addition, she suffered from a specific fear of being poisoned from tinned food which she would become convinced had been contaminated. Even between anxiety attacks she was preoccupied with pollution and poisoning and had terrifying dreams in which, for example, radioactivity produced a kind of living death and people became automata. A fascination with deadness and aridity was linked to a preoccupation with the Sahara Desert which she had visited and to which she planned to return in an expedition when her treatment was over.
A central feature of the analysis was the fact that she was a silent patient, in fact often silent for the greater part of the session for months on end. She would begin with a long silence or a comment such as, ‘Nothing has happened’, or ‘It is going to be another silent session’. Occasionally she would give an explanation and, for example, say, ‘I sort things out into what I could say and what I couldn’t say, and the things I could say are not worth saying’…. During the silence she often thought of herself as sunbathing on a desert island, and she acknowledged that she enjoyed these games and their accompanying fantasies. The most prominent mood was of a smiling indifference, a kind of nonchalance and a playful lack of concern in which the difficulties of the analysis and indeed the realities of life going on around her were my problem…. She would say that she had a large number of thoughts which she could not string together…. However it was clear that something more active, teasing and pleasurable was going on, which resulted in long periods of deadness and aridity in which no development was discernible…At the same time there was a deadly seriousness about her analysis, and she was rarely late and almost never missed a session. On one occasion, when I had let a silence go on for longer than usual, she began to weep silently and when I asked her what she was thinking I was told a tragic story about a girl who had taken an overdose and was left to die because nobody came until it was too late. 13
As Steiner develops it, the frightening experiences that brought Ms. B into analysis — anxiety, existential doubts, dissociative states (objects seeming to recede), paranoid fears of being poisoned, an inability to make contact — diminished as she began work with him. In analysis a desert island fantasy emerged, involving a becalmed, torpid state, removed from any clear representation of others and her own needs that might draw her to them. Within this apparently isolative scenario, Ms. B could diffusely bask in Steiner’s presence and concern. As she lay on her island, she would omnipotently sort through what was and was not worth saying, what of herself mattered and what didn’t, and this self-omnipotence would be reflected interpersonally in an almost indifferent attitude towards Steiner. Her troubles were blurry, ill-defined and of arbitrary import — maybe they didn’t matter, maybe they were something she would bring up for him to deal with. This calm, lackadaisical attitude was tenuous, however. If Steiner’s silence went on too long — and what constitutes “too long” would be very hard to determine in advance because her sense of what she wanted from him was kept so vague — she would suddenly despair and experience the situation as a potentially fatal abandonment.
Ms. B’s withdrawal to this position gradually became less automatic. However, the movement away from it was precarious, prone to overextensions and retreats:
She began a session some two years into the analysis, by hunting in her bag for her cheque which she eventually gave me, and which I noticed had been incompletely filled in. She then spoke after only a short silence to tell me a dream.
In it she had invited a young couple for a meal and then realized that she had run out of something, probably wine or food. Her husband and the friends went out to get the provisions while she waited at home. When they returned they brought the girl back on a stretcher and explained that she had been cut through at the waist and had no lower half. The girl did not seem upset but smiled and later went off on crutches. The patient asked her husband to take her to show her where it had happened. He did this and explained how a car had hit her from behind and cut her in two.
It was a relief to have a dream instead of the silence, and I interpreted that the dream itself might represent provisions for the analysis, as if she realized that we had run out of material to work with. The girl in the dream had been violently attacked when she went out for the provisions and I suggested that she might be afraid that something similar would happen to her if she brought material for analysis. Perhaps, I added, she was less afraid of being attacked now and could express a wish to understand these fears, represented in the dream by the request to find out how the accident had happened.
She was attentive and nodded as if she understood what I meant and this led me to go a little later and try to link the dream with her experience at the beginning of the session when she was hunting for her cheque. I suggested that she might be divided in her feelings about paying me, having brought the cheque and then losing it in her handbag, and also by filling it in incompletely.
There was a sharp change of mood and the patient became flippant saying that if that was the case she could put it right immediately because she had a pen with her, and she didn’t want me to have anything I could use in evidence against her. It felt as if the contact with her had been abruptly cut off. She now seemed to feel that I had caught her out and was making a fuss, using her mistake with the cheque to put pressure on her to admit her ambivalence and to talk about her feelings. A mistake which she hadn’t noticed left her feeling dangerously out of control and she had to attack the mood of co-operation and correct the mistake as quickly as possible. The mood in the earlier part of the session had, however, given a feeling of contact, and I think it did represent a move towards the depressive position in which she could show some concern for herself and her objects. This however, stimulated a violent attack when it seems I went too far or too fast, to link it up with something actual which had happened in the session. 14
While it is possible to second guess some of the nuances of Steiner’s interpretations here, the basic framework is relatively transparent. Ms. B’s dream — and it is remarkable how analysts working with analysands with these difficulties need to rely on dreams — offers a representation of her needs and their shaky provisioning that Steiner notices and responds to. He first focuses on the idea that she might somehow anticipate a retributive attack. Ms. B responds, appreciative that he has picked up on her anxieties in this connection. But then Steiner attempts to link these interpreted anxieties to the here-and-now issue of the check, showing how her not being able to find it and not filling it out completely may reflect ambivalence about, in a basic sense, bringing her needs to the analysis. The immediacy of this framing of the issue is too much for Ms. B. Her ability to consider the question in a relaxed way vanishes as her worry that she might come under attack seems about to be realized by what seems to be Steiner’s need-driven confrontation. She falls back into a mildly paranoid stance in which any consideration of her own needs becomes temporarily impossible. Putting up with Steiner’s needs, or indulging him, offers a sarcastic way back to her island, cutting her off both from Steiner and from her wish for anything he might offer.
To bring this to bear on Warhol is straightforward at a general level: the state of ‘being famous’ is like Ms. B’s desert island, only nominally more populated. Uncertain routines of reciprocal giving and getting which can easily break down, akin to the Ms. B’s check problem, are replaced by a rigid status hierarchy that uses the reality of fame and fortune to support a fantasy that, following the above Rosenfeld quotation, combines omnipotent plenitude with omnipotent devaluation. Being famous means you both always have something from a diffuse Other and, in the midst of all the clamor and camera lights, you are more aware of having something that other individuals want, not the other way around. Like Steiner, whom Ms. B stuck with the check, so to speak, other individuals are the ones in need.
Recruiting to a project of narcissistic denigration
Ms. B’s defensive struggles with her need for Steiner would often seem to offer both of them a way out: cynical indifference, masking despair, over the possibility of helping her, and questions about the value of analysis itself as well as relationships in general. To fully seal off the disruptive potential of Steiner’s interest in her, Ms. B would try to induce a complementary indifference in him, to make him give up on her, to feel empty and distracted by trivia. This spoiling projective identification, in which she sought to induce her own orientation in Steiner to promote a collaborative erasure of a hope for anything better, has its social parallel and is most pertinent to understanding the hermeneutic modalities Jameson works with in his essay.
Jameson’s juxtaposition of Van Gogh’s exalted peasant shoes with Warhol’s “random collection of dead objects” is also a juxtaposition of ways of relating, of engagement and disengagement. A first interpretive pass on Van Gogh might stress his having been a replacement child, bearing the same name as a stillborn sibling, and his loneliness and failure to gain the respect of his father. Van Gogh wanted to show how the humble shoes, or the peasant wearing them, actually bear their own glory. By inspiring us to see through the mud of the shoes to some incarnate value, he hopes we will do the same with him. Further, we may be thereby brought to look beyond the shoes and consider our own tendency to denigrate, both interpersonally and internally.
But Warhol confuses us because his narcissistic defenses aim to obliterate the direct interpersonal plea that has been repeatedly disappointed. It is no accident that Jameson was moved to think of Auschwitz and dance hall fires, anonymous death and incineration. That Warhol is often defended as a registrar of a narcissistic culture can miss the point that he allied himself with that culture (“I want to be plastic”) in employing a range of dismissals, running from indifference to outright ridicule, that he promoted as aesthetic forms and postures into which the viewer is drawn as a participant. In this respect, Warhol can be regarded as programmatically perverse in the strict sense that his project entailed a destructive attack on dependent strivings against which he invites us to join in a community of scoffing. Warhol was not interested in exposing cultural practices for transformative aims because for him the more personalized interpersonal strivings that were left behind in the pursuit of fame were, as Searles put it above, “lost in antiquity.” He sought to draw us into a state of wry, if not pitiless, fascination, as emotionally immobilized voyeurs.
Lacan’s heaps of broken signifiers and a silenced scream
Later in the essay, Jameson’s discussion of Lacan’s theory of schizophrenia reveals a theoretical commitment undergirding Jameson’s inability to see how the question of interpersonal dependence links to the decline of hermeneutic artistic intention. Having earlier mentioned Lacan only in passing, his more developed use of Lacan begins in a both disarming and dismaying fashion:
I have found Lacan’s account of schizophrenia useful here, not because I have any way of knowing whether it has clinical accuracy, but chiefly because—as description rather than diagnosis—it seems to me to offer a suggestive aesthetic model. 15
After brushing aside Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism for inviting a trivialization of what psychoanalysis might bring to the matter at hand, as an alternative Jameson draws on Lacan’s discussion of schizophrenia and how it represents a “breakdown in the signifying chain.” This refers to Lacan’s shift away from a psychoanalysis oriented to object relations — in Jameson’s terms, “familial” — to one oriented to language:
I must omit the familial or more orthodox psychoanalytic background to this situation, which Lacan transcodes into language by describing the Oedipal rivalry in terms, not so much of the biological individual who is your rival for the mother’s attention, but rather of what he calls the Name-of-the-Father, paternal authority now considered as a linguistic function…Meaning in the new view is generated by the movement from Signifier to Signifier: what we generally call the Signified—the meaning or conceptual content of an utterance—is now rather to be seen as a meaning-effect, as that objective mirage of signification generated and projected by the relationship of Signifiers among each other. When that relationship breaks down, when the links of the signifying chain snap, then we have schizophrenia in the form of a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers. The connection between this kind of linguistic malfunction and the psyche of the schizophrenic may then be grasped by way of a two-fold proposition: first, that personal identity is itself the effect of a certain temporal unification of past and future with the present before me; and second, that such active temporal unification is itself a function of language, or better still of the sentence, as it moves along its hermeneutic circle through time. If we are unable to unify the past, present and future of the sentence, then we are similarly unable to unify the past, present and future of our own biographical experience or psychic life. 16, my emphasis]
What I earlier termed Jameson’s mimetic identification with Warhol’s denial of dependent object relational strivings is here theoretically rationalized by drawing on Lacan’s structural-linguistic supersession of them. The Lacanian transcoding dissolves bodily needs and attendant interpersonal engagement into a lexicographic way of thinking about signifiers, a narrowly literal notion of what “meaning” means. The meaning of chaotic meaning in schizophrenia thereby becomes, absolutely and finally, a breakdown of relations between signifiers. We see only textual debris because within the mandate of theory there is no call to consider a preceding object relational breakdown, a disaster at the intersection of external and internal worlds. It is like focusing on the rubble of war, not the armies that make it, much less the civilian life composing it.
Clinical note: Andre Green on Lacan
Parenthetically: The approach I’m taking here parallels criticisms of Lacan developed by Andre Green beginning in the early 1960s. Green argued that Lacan’s reconstruction of Freud failed to give due consideration to “unpleasure” as the instigator of repression, and that the interweaving of the symbolic and defenses against drive-related unpleasure had to be conceptualized in a more balanced way.
“Lacan seems to follow a particular desire: to find an ontological status for psychoanalysis based on philosophical consistency, which requires reinterpretation of a whole aspect of [Freud’s thought]: everything that is usually labeled as biologistic. In spite of the impasses to which it apparently leads, it seems to me to be indispensable to preserve it, since this perspective is practically the only attempt to give psychic reality body without reifying it.” 17
My concern here, as in other essays on this site, would expand Green’s reference to the “body” and what is “biologistic” in Freud to argue that the Lacanian emphasis on language leads to a formalistic abstraction from object-related psychodynamics that are integral to our lived experience with others.
To resume: Jameson tries to give us a palpable sense of what the breakdown of the signifying chain into “pure material Signifiers” would feel like by quoting from the memoirs of a schizophrenic girl, Renee:
I remember very well the day it happened [around the age of five]. We were staying in the country and I had gone for a walk alone as I did now and then. Suddenly, as I was passing the school, I heard a German song; the children were having a singing lesson. I stopped to listen, and at that instant a strange feeling came over me, a feeling hard to analyse but akin to something I was to know too well later—a disturbing sense of unreality. It seemed to me that I no longer recognized the school, it had become as large as a barracks; the singing children were prisoners, compelled to sing. It was as though the school and the children’s song were set apart from the rest of the world. At the same time my eye encountered a field of wheat whose limits I could not see. The yellow vastness, dazzling in the sun, bound up with the song of the children imprisoned in the smooth stone school-barracks, filled me with such anxiety that I broke into sobs. I ran home to our garden and began to play “to make things seem as they usually were,” that is, to return to reality. It was the first appearance of those elements which were always present in later sensations of unreality: illimitable vastness, brilliant light, and the gloss and smoothness of material things. 18
At this point in his essay the echoes of Van Gogh and Munch’s appeals have faded away, along with the expressive-communicative problematic we have earlier tried to sustain against Jameson’s unraveling of it. So, Jameson argues that Renee describes a “breakdown in temporality” in which the present is disengaged from all “activities and intentionalities that might focus it and make it a place of praxis.” An orientation to action within history is overwhelmed by shocking, decontextualized perceptual distortions and inexplicable, powerful affects.
True enough. But even in this brief quotation there are strong hints of object relational difficulty: the dreamed singing children are prisoners, and Renee sobs as she looks at them. There is thus a suggestive tension between, on the one hand, the imprisoned children compelled to sing and, on the other, the illimitable vastness supposedly representing the breakdown of the signifying chain.
If we consult Renee’s diary where Jameson leaves off, we see, with astonishment (and indignation), that she next wrote: “I have no explanation for what happened, or why. But it was during this period that I learned that my father had a mistress and that he made my mother cry. This revelation bowled me over because I had heard my mother say that if my father left her, she would kill herself.”
Conjoining what Jameson, rummaging through unorganized signifiers, disjoined, we are in a better position to see that Renee’s experience of an illimitable vastness is a perceptual equivalent to the ripples flowing away from the screaming figure in Munch’s painting. Renee was stuck in a horrible version of the situation children can find themselves in during acute parental conflict. One parent, in this case the father, is causing her mother pain to the point of suicide. Both parents are preoccupied and unavailable, in different ways they are each on the verge of leaving. Again, there is no Bionian container. Her emotions become, in fantasy at least, life-threatening to everyone concerned. Within her eventual schizophrenic “resolution” they are radically excommunicated and haunt her as charged perceptions — with no apparent irony she referred to her state as “Enlightened,” because at times her surroundings would appear incandescent — filling her with horror and ecstasy.
We can again question Jameson delimitation of what is relevant to this schizophrenic aesthetic form. Is it just a heap of “pure material Signifiers,” which we are free to theoretically paraphrase in semiotic jargon? Or are we obliged in our account to at least grant a structuring placeholder to some form of inter/intrapersonal failure that we, like Renee, believe is relevant, though in ways that cannot be precisely outlined? In other words, do we theoretically mimic the defensive immediacy of Renee’s account of her symptoms, or do we follow the spirit of her conjecture about the causal significance of the terrifying disintegration of her family?
In the arc of the work of Van Gogh, Munch, and Warhol we have traced an unacknowledged withering away, replaced by perverse distrust, of what drives communicative intention. Now, at this point in his essay, by detaching a formalized schizo-linguistic structure from its object relational base, Jameson reproduces the reification of schizophrenia contained in contemporary psychiatric manuals. Jameson is certainly more respectful of Renee. He does find something to consider in these “heaps of fragments,” unlike a psychiatric approach simply defining the communication as nonsensical “word salad,” a formal thought disorder overlaying a neurological one, jumbled wiring to be cleared up with medication. Yet, as with Lacan, an appreciation that there is a mangled subjectivity convolutedly seeking intersubjective grounding founders in abstract structural formulations. As Jameson carries it out, the very process of aesthetic criticism, that is, a reflection on how his encounter with an object takes on an aesthetic quality, involves succumbing to the core intention of the author’s defensive effort, to not only flee from a horror, but to abolish both it and any link to it. This form of aesthetic experience depends on a radical disengagement that must be obscured to fulfill its motives. Secure on its desert island, it is haunted by a suppressed theory of sublimation — broadly dismissed by Lacan — that would draw attention back to the object relations it flees from.
Radicalized intersubjectivity elided: From heaps of signifiers to depersonalized ecstasy
Anyone familiar with Jameson’s writings is aware that a prominent organizer of his work, running from The Political Unconscious to Archaeologies of the Future, is the interpretive retrieval of suppressed popular aspirations to a more humane way of life. The problems we have been considering arise when interpretation addresses hopes managed through strong, primitive defenses. The possibility of hermeneutic recovery, creating a revivifying tension between manifest and latent, appears to vanish because the speaker wishes to be one dimensional, “plastic,” Warhol’s terms. What in a neurotic speaker might be readily visible behind, say, a frenzy of denial or a transparent displacement is instead killed off and “crematively” dispersed. Interpretation risks aligning itself with a wish that violently hostile to interpretation itself.
A critical method that does not recognize how this defensive effort may reflexively shape the critic’s encounter with the subject winds up in a stance that is both conflicted and inertial. In significant respects this stance is similar to that often reported by analysts working with narcissistic or schizophrenic patients. They feel they are useless, unnecessary, because the analysand is so removed from and guarded regarding their own object-related needs that there is no engagement.
But these considerations can lead into a dyadic myopia that ignores the potentiating social surround. To zoom out, we can consider the way Jameson, in A Singular Modernity, draws on an argument by Perry Anderson identifying three factors that contributed to the emergence of aesthetic modernism in the late nineteenth century:
[Anderson refers to, 1]The onset of industrialization, although still geographically limited, seems to promise a whole new dynamic. In all the arts… conventionalism and beaux-arts academism prolong a widespread sense of suffocation and dissatisfaction, from which as yet unthematized breaks are longed for on all sides.  Finally, immense new social forces, political suffrage and the growth of the labour unions and the various socialist and anarchist movements, seem to menace the stifling closure of high bourgeois culture, and to announce some impending enlargement of social space itself. The proposition is not that the artists of the modern occupy the same space as these new social forces, nor even manifest any ideological sympathy for or existential knowledge of them; but rather that they feel that force of gravity at a distance, and that their own vocation for aesthetic change and new and more radical artistic practices finds itself powerfully reinforced and intensified by the dawning conviction that radical change is simultaneously at large in the social world outside. 19
In the last sentence Jameson argues that regardless of their political standpoint, the modernists are encouraged by an enlivening erosion of hegemonic convention that gradually filters through major institutions. To imagine how this would be experienced by the artists, it would seem essential to refer to the their understanding of a potential for alliances and recognition, both among themselves and regarding a wider audience. This can be thought of mundanely, as in who they can talk with without fear of impatient dismissal, or the reaction of an audience at a showing of their work. We can also extend this to refer to the artist’s internalized audience, which could be thought of simply as thoughts about supporters, or more complexly as supporters in an alliance against the mandarins, the Father, etc. In other words, we would situate the artists in an object relational field that reflects an interplay of internal and external objects.
But Jameson again opts for an unusual rendering, one that translates our sketched intersubjective communicative matrix into something less defined and structured. How he accomplishes this, after starting from what seems to be a direct acknowledgement of the decalcifying impact of social upheaval, is worth exploring. After the Anderson citation he continues:
Indeed, what is at stake in both areas — in art as well as in social life and economic reality — is not some mere sense of change as such, a sense of things passing away and other things arising, a flow more characteristic of a time of decay and growth and more reminiscent of natural processes than of the new non-natural forms of production. It is rather the radical transformation of the world itself that spreads through the end of the nineteenth century, in Utopian and prophetic impulses of all kinds. This is then why the older ideologies of the modern have been misleading in their insistence on some ‘inward turn’ of the modern or on its increasing subjectivization of reality. At best, there stirs here everywhere an apocalyptic dissatisfaction with subjectivity itself and the older forms of the self. 20
As we follow his argument we might assume, as I suggest just above, that his objection to the notion of an increasing “inward turn” will hinge on a foregrounding of an intersubjective resituating of the subject, a change in the experience of subjectivity that dovetails with a radicalized intersubjectivity, one that seems both tolerant of what had hitherto been considered “deviant” and capable of social innovation. But Jameson understates this dialectic to the point of losing it altogether because he conceives of this transformation of subjectivity as depersonalization. Thus he offers the example of Rilke:
Any close inspection of the [Rilke’s] texts will in fact betray a radical depersonalization of the bourgeois subject, a programmatic movement away from the psychological and from personal identity itself:
Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me! A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time. If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me! ……
It is on the face of it perverse not to hear the great modernist evocations of subjectivity as so much longing for depersonalization, and very precisely for some new existence outside the self, in a world radically transformed and worthy of ecstasy. What has so often been described as a new and deeper, richer subjectivity, is in fact this call to change which always resonates through it: not subjectivity as such, but its transfiguration. This is then the sense in which I propose to consider modernist ‘subjectivity’ as allegorical of the transformation of the world itself, and therefore of what is called revolution. The forms of this allegory are multiple; yet all the anecdotal psychologies in which it finds itself dressed — in their stylistic, cultural and characterological differences — have in common that they evoke a momentum that cannot find resolution within the self but that must be completed by a Utopian and revolutionary transmutation of the world of actuality itself. 21
Risking the charge of perversity, we can say here that Jameson makes the mistake of assuming that the only way a convention-ridden, repressive subjectivity can be escaped is to get rid of it altogether. Rilke, sensing that the forces of change are congenial to his unmet and likely barely formed hopes, yearns to give himself over them. Doing so involves a dissolution of habits of self-restraint that are feared to be so embedded that they can only be relaxed and dismantled by letting oneself be blown away. But is this so different from the common scenario of someone wondering “How much longer can I put up with this? When will I stop putting up with this shit?” Does this necessarily involve longing for depersonalization, a state or process suggestive of an ecstatic leap out of one’s self?
As Anderson reminds us, it is only because such revolutionary change is already in dwelling and stirring convulsively within the present that its impulses can find figuration in such unique psychic allegory, which does not posit mere individual affects and faculties, but imperiously demands whole new kinds of human beings fit for a world poised on the edge of some thoroughgoing metamorphosis.
No matter that it is for the most part only in the forms left behind by modernism that we detect the traces of this momentous moment — one of whose tendencies, the technological one, was shattered by World War I, the other, that of social ferment, arrested and exhausted at the end of the 1930s by Stalinism and Nazism. Yet the forms still, as symbolic acts, testify to immense gestures of liberation and new construction which we can only glimpse retrospectively, by historical reconstruction.
The notion that individuals experience social upheaval as something akin to naturalized pulsions that might inspire and energize does seem to resonate with Rilke’s plea. It is a compelling metaphor, reminiscent, for example, of the way people suffering through a drought are heartened by the sound of thunder. But when Jameson continues in this vein to talk of the “social ferment” exhausted by Stalinism, it becomes apparent how much can be lost by in this naturalistic analogy. All of the interpersonal and organizational mediations that are usually grouped under the heading of revolutionary solidarity have disappeared. The whole gamut of recovered outrage, awareness of shared grievance, defiance, inspiration, and acceptance of the need for coordinated political work that are played out in an evolving intersubjective matrix are elided. It is as though Jameson fails to recognize that Stalinism, a term which centrally refers to an authoritarian intolerance of dissent, involved repressing subjectivity that had been extended in its scope by revolutionary action, however much it was doomed by its foundation in backward, catastrophically ravaged Russia.
Participants in a revolution typically gain a heightened sense of personal reality as they articulate and act on the truth of their oppression for the first time. They change, but this involves mobilizing formerly suppressed aspects of themselves and working out new syntheses as they act with and gain courage as they learn from others. If selflessness develops, it is a willed sacrifice. Depersonalization, on the other hand, is more likely to be experienced by those in the grip of oppression. Consider, for example, the psychoanalyst Edith Jacobson’s account of the experience of depersonalization by political prisoners under the Nazis. Having gone through the experience herself, she notes the “transparent connection of such
[depersonalized] states with the universal reaction of prisoners to the narcissistic blow inflicted by their arrest: the feeling that “this could not possibly have happened to them.”22 The degrading treatment by the Nazis brought about a reaction of disavowal, an attempt to hold on to the shards of subjectivity, a visceral repudiation of the defiling of themselves the regime imposes on them. In the strongest contrast, in revolutionary conditions it is more fitting to speak of repersonalization in that systemically-suppressed experience is fully acknowledged and acted upon.
Conclusion: Dialectics away from the Desert Island
Within the horizon of his work we have considered here, Jameson risks stripping critical theory of concepts that plot the subjective grounding of dialectics, the features of subjectivity that make the social dialectic a suffered process engendering resistance and revolt. The mundane action-logics flowing from customary experience formulated in terms of notions such as “grievance,” “crime,” “offense,” “fairness,” “hypocrisy,” “rights” and all the other terms commonly associated with political mobilization find little basis in the fragmented subjectivity that Jameson believes typifies late modernity. Indiscriminately drawing on models of personality that reflect narcissistic or schizophrenic functioning, Jameson generalizes from them to present to us a depleted social field in which the possibility of mutual identification and solidarity disappears behind talk of signifier heaps and depersonalization; subjects are so numbed and disoriented to their own suffering and that of others that mutual recognition against a class antagonist is theoretically well nigh impossible. By turning to Lacan for support, he enlists a psychoanalytic tendency that offers such a disembodied, affectless account of subjectivity that his generalization appears to be both theoretically and clinically unquestionable. Instead of helping Jameson trace the psychodynamics of a suffering driven underground, that psychoanalysis only disperses it in a conceptual mystification mirroring the narcissistic defenses that deny the existence of a subject who can suffer.
As I have noted, this theoretical silencing is often strikingly at odds with Jameson’s respectful sensitivity and, indeed, his sympathies for those who suffer. In trying to determine the source of this tension, I have argued that he falls into a mimetic thrall with his object, here most prominently Warhol’s work. But this focus on aesthetic interpretation risks overlooking a point adumbrated by Jameson’s reference to Perry Anderson’s contextualization of modernism, a point also embodied in the quotation from the Turner prize protester at the beginning of this essay. Simply: have we not been living through a period of relative political foreclosure, a time in which Thatcher’s claim that “there is no alternative,” while certainly false, drew its power from a wary, “disillusioned” central tendency in the progressive and radical political imagination? A time preponderantly determined by the overall failure of the Soviet experiment – although it must be questioned whether it should be called an experiment, which implies the bounded conditions of a laboratory and willfully ignores the open warfare characteristic of much of its history – and thus having to dwell within a capitalist social order capable of a degree of self-stabilization and willing to guarantee basic welfare. Under those conditions, needs and aspirations that transcended capitalism no longer promoted a critical distance from capitalism, but rather a distance from the subjectivity trying to formulate them.
From this flows the ironic posture the Turner protester attacks as “undead,” zombifying for those adopting it. And similarly a variety of other more theoretically ponderous imaginaries that confused struggles over the definition of subjectivity with struggles over the scraps of intersubjective rapport left to us after an inherently unstable capitalism has its way with us for a time. Instead of being mindful of the Frankfurt School’s (unevenly realized, to be sure) injunction regarding the need for critical theory to recognize the deforming impact of oppression on itself even as it tried to fight it, these positions became disoriented to the possibility of disorientation within a social order that regards itself as the end of history.
 Andre Green, (1960) “The Freudian unconscious and contemporary French psychoanalysis, Les Temps Modernes, p. 195. Quoted in Fernando Urribarri, “Fatherhood revisited: the dead father, fraternal pact and analytic filiation in the work of Andre Green,” in The Dead Father: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry, Lila Kalinich and Stuart Taylor, eds., Routledge: 2009