Sunday, 15 March 2009

Back to the future of Marxist theory?


“Understood in its full complexities, the self-criticism undergone by structuralism and semiology has had far-reaching results. The book explains how the encounter of two disciplines – psychoanalysis and Marxism – on the ground of their common problem – language – has produced a new understanding of society and its subjects…[which] produces a critical re-examination of the traditional Marxist theory of ideology, together with the concepts of sign and identity of the subject. A genuinely materialist understanding of the subject is thus developed: it is both a revolutionary theory and a theory of revolution.”

That’s from the dust-jacket of Language and Materialism, an interesting enough book, which is probably better thought of as an artefact. I may do a full review when I finish it (there’s not a great deal of it to finish, only about 150 pages), but for now it’s just worth dusting it off, like a fragment of Roman pottery on Time Team, and wonder exactly what those involved would make of it now.

It’s effectively a chemically-pure sample of Screen, a journal which now exists more or less in the form you would expect of a scholarly periodical about films. In the 1970s, however, it formed – in the Mandelite jargon of the day – a “red base” in academia that was utterly dominated by Althusserian Marxism. It’s influence even began to dominate hoary old institutions like the British Film Institute – on Mark Kermode’s film review slot on Radio 5 a few months ago, Richard Attenborough somewhat summed up the mood; he had been at a BFI symposium during its “Marxist theory phase”, and found himself bemused by a theoretical barrage from the top table. “What’s he on about?” he asked the person next to him. “Oh, it’s perfectly simple, Dickie,” came the reply. “All you need is an understanding of dialectical materialism!”

Screen loved Althusser for his theory of ideology, but also his overtures to psychoanalysis in the person of Jacques Lacan. Lacan, despite his vocal privileging of clinical analysis, could not stop himself from veering into almost every other intellectual vocation going, and came up with a bunch of useful notions about semiology (getting lumped in with structuralism for his troubles). Screen could have its cake, eat it and devour it too – ideological coding, sign systems and symptoms should be enough to keep a film critic going for years.

But there was also the sense of historical mission – finally, we were going to have a properly materialist theory of ideological utterances and cultural production, rather than the vulgar-empiricist jabs at the thing that certain classical Marxists had knocked together in their 10 minutes off actually making revolutions (Plekhanov has a particularly bad rep), as well as more interesting but again partial studies that took up more of the theoretical issues (Trotsky’s fascinating Literature and Revolution). And there’s the last sentence from my little quote: “it is both a revolutionary theory and a theory of revolution.” Marxism railroaded these comrades-least-likely-to into vigorous ideological militancy (and there was nothing more Althusserian than the sharply-drawn demarcation – the ‘continuing break’ between idealism and materialism is particularly vexatious to professional Hegelians, who rather like their idealism).

This book is full of that stuff. So what happened? At some point, Coward and Ellis refer to a key thinker in their analysis as moving towards just that sentence – the revolutionary theory that’s a theory of revolution. Good news – except that it’s Julia Kristeva, who actually moved from an initial ultra-left Maoist position rapidly out of Marxism altogether (without having read much of her work, I couldn’t be sure, but I think she was being ‘disillusioned’ by a visit to China just as this book came out in 1977). Her Tel Quel comrade Roland Barthes is also cited extensively – he was also going in a postmodernist direction, though he was mown down by a laundry van before he could renounce all ties with the Marxist tradition (or otherwise).

As for our authors, the story is a little sadder. Ellis, for his part, is still a jobbing academic – his research interests are now completely focused on television, and he has apparently spent some time as a producer. The revolutionary fire in his belly appears to be fairly well doused. Rosalind Coward’s story is somehow sadder still – after writing a significant bunch of feminist work, she seems to have ended up as some kind of journalist and written an authorised biography of Lady Di – so good it comes with a preface by Nelson Mandela. I say ‘good’, but if this execrably clunky puddle of bilge-water of an article on the subject is any indicator, then it’s of exactly the quality you’d expect of an authorised hagi…sorry, biography of – as Paul Merton used to say an awful lot – that overblown tart.

The total ideological collapse of academia in the 1980s is, I’m sure, the subject of a number of detailed studies – some extant, some yet to be written. Historians of ideas should have a gander at the curious case of this pair – from an avant-Marxist theory of the subject to Daily Mail dimwittery in a few short decades.


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