in interpretation

Lit 101 students arm the barricades
(cartoon ‘borrowed’ from Lalo Alcaraz, Latino U.S.A.)
Questions/assumptions behind
interpretive practice
• Where does meaning come from? (author, text,
reader . . . some combination thereof?)
• If you’re not satisfied with considering only one of
these elements, then how do one or more of these
elements fit together in a totality at a given
• Since every moment (including our own) is
historically-culturally specific, how do you talk
adequately about that specificity? Do you simply
see History as a “context,” a period? If so, don’t
you remove yourself far from that context?
Interpretive choice? Or dead-end?
How can we talk about all in relation?
Some theory of the “real,” the social . . .
(Jameson will say: the historical)
Jameson’s main points
1. Interpretation is not a question of choosing from a variety
of (formulaic) options, each of which will produce a
“reading.” He calls this view “typologizing” or
2. However, Marxist critics have clung to a formulaic,
typologizing form of interpretation, which springs from
making the mode of production (base) as an allegory of
every cultural phenomenon (part of superstructure)
3. If we could form a better model of causality, and a more
diachronic idea of historical periods, we could understand
the relation of a text to its “period” in a much more supple
4. We repress the working of History within ourselves, in the
present moment
from Song of Solomon, chapter 4
Behold, you are beautiful, my love,
Behold, you are beautiful!
Your eyes are doves behind your veil. . .
Your neck is like the tower of David, built for an arsenal…
Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed
among the lilies. . . .
Come with me from Lebanon, my bride; . . .
Depart from the dens of lions,
from the mountains of leopards.
‘Base’ and ‘Superstructure’:
traditional models of causality
Cultural expressions/ideology
Family/social relations
Political forms
institutions that follow
from base
Base: mode of production
(the whole system, from tech
to social class arrangements)
OR: plinth and statue
The state, law, religion, family,
Social customs, literature, art,
ideology, etc.
Mode of production
Jameson’s model, reader 179
particulars of a mode
of production as
developed in a specific
time and place
Class relations
‘forces’ of production
(tech, nat resources)
Causality and interpretation
“The idea is, in other words, that if interpretation in
terms of expresssive causality [“vulgar” Marxism]
or of allegorical master narratives [template:
Christian, Oedipal, etc.] remains a constant
temptation, that is because such master narratives
have inscribed themselves in the texts as well as
our thinking about them. . . “
What does Jameson mean by “always
historicize” and that everything is historical?
• NOT antiquarianism (“those cobwebs of topical
allusion…that dry and intolerable chitinous murmur of
• NOT simple “causal” mechanism
• NOT an allegory
“[That] History is not a text, not a narrative, master or
otherwise, but that, as an absent cause, it is inaccessible to
us except in textual form, and that our approach to it and to
the Real itself necessarily passes through its prior
textualization, its narrativization in the political
unconscious” [201 right]
• Hermeneutic: a process or mode of
interpretation (EX: “Biblical hermeneutic”)
• Synchronic: taking place at a single point or
period in time (EX: you reading this now)
• Diachronic: taking place across moments in
time (EX: the relationship between you and
• Mediation: what governs a relationship
between one thing and another (EX: a
translator mediates your reading of Dante;
money or power mediates social relations)
Against the ‘historical causality’ model
• Jameson’s contribution: several modes of
production can be present at once, so you can’t
“reduce” a text to its moment’s worldview
• Focus on “that moment in which the coexistence
of various modes of production becomes visibly
antagonistic, their contradictions moving to the
very center of political, social, and historical life”
• (caveat: that doesn’t mean we just look at
“transition moments”--it’s always a transition
How literary form is historical
“The individual text or cultural artifact (with its
appearance of autonomy . . . ) is here restructured
as a field of force in which the dynamics of sign
systems of several distinct modes of production
can be registered and apprehended. These new
dynamics . . . make up what can be termed the
ideology of form . . . . At this level “form” is
apprehended as content.”
Benjamin and 19th C Paris:
an example of History as an “absent cause”
in interpretation
• the arcade, the panorama, the exposition, the interior, the
streets of the flaneur, the barricade
The arcade: a covered passage within the city
Barricaded street during the Paris Commune, 1871