Frederic Jameson: The Political Unconscious. (1/28/99)

Drawing from elements of Freud's psychoanalytic theory, Jameson argues that the idea of a cure emerging from the discourse taking place between the therapist and the patience is a myth. He takes this position primarily because he does not accept the notion that unconscious material, if the content of unconsciousness can even be referred to as material in any sense of the word, cannot be assimilated, drawn into, appropriated by, or become part of, the conscious life of an individual subject. V. N. Voloshinov, in Freudianism: A Critical Sketch (which is a book that may have been written by Mikhail Bakhtin), takes the view that Freudian method fails because it refuses to acknowledge the fact that all psychical material, all the content of the psyche, whether conscious or unconscious, is

"ideological through and through; from the vaguest of thoughts and dimmest and most uncertain of desires all the way to philosophical systems and complex political institutions, we have one continuous series of ideological and, hence also, sociological phenomena." (24)

Jameson reaches essentially this same position by suggesting that individual subjects are incapable of seeing through the "false consciousness" that classical Marxism identifies as the content and material of all ideological constructs. In other words, Marxism has always held to the notion that ideology equals "false consciousness" and the task of Marxian analysis, dialectical materialism, is to unmask the falsity of ideology. The act of unmasking false consciousness, in the worker primarily, in the class called "proletariat" exclusively, raises the consciousness, not of the individual worker necessarily, but of the class to which he/she belongs as a whole, which act then results in the spontaneous overthrow of the class (bourgeoisie) that owns and controls the means and modes of industrial production. Individuals cannot act against dominant class ideologies because those ideologies are not the result of individual creative energy and force but come about through the collective activity of entire social classes of individuals.

Jameson says, in expressing an extension of his doubt about the efficacy of Freudian method to its corollary in Marxian ideological analysis, that

"the vision of a moment in which the individual subject would be somehow fully conscious of his or her determination by class and would be able to square the circle of ideological conditioning by sheer lucidity and the taking of thought [is surely a myth]. But in the Marxian system, only a collective unity--whether that of a particular class, the proletariat, or of its 'organ of consciousness', the revolutionary party--can achieve this transparency; the individual subject is always positioned within the social totality (and this is the sense of Althusser's insistence on the permanence of ideology)." (283)

Jameson here recognizes the fact that Marxian analysis cannot achieve an unqualified success in unmasking the false consciousness of class ideology because the individual cannot remove him/herself from the totality of the social structure in which he/she lives. The social structure itself, of course, is a construct of the dominant class ideology that creates and maintains the content of the false consciousness that is articulated by and in the society as a whole.

Jameson continues this thought in his next paragraph:

"What this impossibility of immanence means in practice is that the dialectical reversal must always involve a painful 'decentering' of the consciousness of the individual subject, whom it confronts with a determination (whether of the Freudian or the political unconscious) that must necessarily be felt as extrinsic or external to conscious experience. It would be a mistake to think that anyone ever really learns to live with this ideological 'Copernican revolution', any more than the most lucid subjects of psychoanalysis ever really achieve the habit of lucidity and self-knowledge; the approach to the Real is at best fitful, the retreat from it into this or that form of intellectual comfort perpetual" (283-284).

This statement is the epitome of the concept of negative dialectics. On the one hand, the individual knows him/herself through the terms and categories of the dominant ideology (that people once lived in a perfect garden of utter delight where they did not have to work for a living and were immortal, for instance, but committed an original sin which caused expulsion from the perfect world of that Eden), and that ideology defines the human condition socially with such force and coercion that no individual in the society can even think the contrary, cannot even imagine him/ herself in a society that does not start from that same sacred and inevitable dime. (No)man, no(wo)man can be in that social milieu and think or imagine the not-me it would require to begin a process of unmasking the false consciousness of that dominant ideology.

On the other hand, the dialectic does not come into play until the first "on the other hand" is finally voiced against the closed circle of the god-driven monologic discourse that sets the absolute and irrevocable terms of self-identity that the originary myth creates and demands. Jameson's assertion that the first occasion of the "dialectical reversal" is, and must be, "felt as extrinsic and exterior to conscious experience" turns out to be preeminently true--notwithstanding relativity, of course. I say that because my own conscious experience of the confrontation with the cause of the "dialectical reversal" surfaced in my own life the day I encountered the old man in the desert landscape of West Texas in the Spring of 1959.

To understand what I mean by this, you simply need to position yourself outside the absolute circle of the ideological construct that centered me in relation to the same and the other, as Plato might have described it, as that initial confrontation occurred. While it is true that I was only fifteen when it happened, I was nevertheless well-versed in Judeo-Christian tradition, was a regularly attending member of the Methodist church and had been thoroughly exposed to the doctrines of original sin, work versus grace as a means to salvation, free-will versus providence as a way of positioning the human individual in relation to the divine, and so on. I was a totally westernized individual subject. The "dialectical reversal" which turned my life inside out and outside in, as it were, appeared in the body of the old man who confronted me with the fact that he had chosen me to be the instrument, not unlike an engineer, of orchestrating the construction of a bridge between my wholly westernized world, consciousness, experience, belief system, etc. and the contrary and diametrically opposite one of his conscious experience and belief. At the time, of course, I did not know what he was talking about because, as far as I could see, which was hardly as far as the end of my own nose as it turned out, he was not substantially or significantly different than any other old man I had ever seen or imagined. It was only after he turned and walked away that I realized he did not exist in any traditional sense of being-there in the here and now of the present moment, that he existed, if that is a meaningful word in this context, in some other form or state of being that was beyond my comprehension and experience, that he was of and in and from the spirit-world.

The realization, the term itself, "spirit-world," meant nothing to me at the time and was an idea, notion, fact that only occurred to me twelve or fifteen years later. The old man brought me to that perception of the Real only slowly and carefully, even gently, over and through the passage of time. I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of the regular, even harmonic, motions of time. Time itself is the bridge, as the Quiche Maya say in the Popol Vul, that connects this world to the one where the old man lives and spends his time. Revolutionary doctrines and manifestoes, like the ones that inform Marxism, need to learn the virtues of patience. The problem with revolutionary thinking is that the goal of the party is never valuable enough, significant enough, crucial enough, to spend five hundred or a thousand years to achieve it.

Take an example of the difference between European and native American perceptions of time and its passing: the Maya created a table of calendrical day-names and recorded it in the Dresden Codex, one of only three books Bishop Landa failed to burn, which plots the regular progression of Venus's motion through the stellar background. The table is arranged in sections of five synodic periods of the planet (5 X 584 = 2 920-days each) which also exactly count the progression of eight tropical years (8 X 365 = 2 920-days each). The table extends over a period of 104 Mayan years (37,960 days). Tell any European revolutionary, Marxist or otherwise, that the act he/she performs today will reach fruition, bear some usable fruit, will get him/her to a point where, after 104 years, he/she can record the first word of a document that will require another 104 years of work to complete, not the final draft of the manifesto, but only a rough estimate of what it will eventually say. After that, it is necessary to add on another 104 years to verify the accuracy of the rough draft, and so on and so forth; and when you tell him/her that it will require 312 years of ceaseless labor just to get to the point where he/she might see the finished product 104 years hence, well, what your mythical revolutionary will probably do in the face of that 416-year struggle to produce a single document (manifesto) is convert to capitalism and sell used cars for a living. What I cannot fail to say in this context is that Bishop Landa's fire destroyed that book in 30 seconds.

Jameson's assertion that a person cannot really learn to live with an ideological 'Copernican revolution' is not true. I have been doing just exactly that for 39 years. To say that it has been difficult, stressful, challenging, even personally harmful, is to say nothing at all that every other native American in the Western hemisphere who has remained connected to the spirits does not always already know. Am I forced back and away from the Real? Do I retreat from the confrontation with Western ideological hegemony when my only strength for standing in the face of it is a disembodied voice of a ghost who vanished before my eyes 40 years ago? Everyday, every minute of my waking life. A more important question: will I still be here 500 or a thousand years from now? You can take it to the bank. I'm not going anywhere. I'm home. I got no where else to be.

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