Friday, October 24, 2008

Theoretical and Empirical Schizophrenia

This is another short paper written for a class that looked at how the concept of time worked in literature and theory. Every paper in the series takes up whoever we were reading and pairs them together. They aren't exactly haphazard pairings, but ya' know. It is an open question as to how forced brevity effected the efforts--good exercise; still not used to it. This continues on about Fredric Jameson's idea of "postmodernism" and formed the basis for my much expanded final. What is interesting here for fans of Pirsig is Sherman Alexie's meditations about Native Americans and the connection with madness, a very profitable intersection that hooks up nicely with Jameson, too.

You'll also notice the forced MLA. God I hate MLA.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


Fredric Jameson, piggybacking on Jacques Lacan, “describes schizophrenia as a breakdown in the signifying chain.” (Jameson 26) Having already preemptively disposed of atomistic conceptions of language (in which meaning is generated when words are paired off with their appropriate world-chunks) by presupposing a Saussurean holism, Jameson bridges from the analogy between the psychic life of persons and the functioning of language to the meltdown of literary and historical meaning as postmodern artists set out to render life in contextless (and hence, meaningless) chunks. This movement, I should argue, requires a monumental leap from the theoretical to the empirical and using Alexie Sherman’s treatment of the past will help bring out this point.

Jameson states rightly that in the new holism the old “signified,” which used to be classically seen as a material world-chunk, is now seen to be just another signifier.[fn.1] A signifier-as-signified, however, is in a particular kind of context, one of, roughly, being-pointed-to as opposed to the usual doing-the-pointing situation of a signifier. Jameson, again rightly, calls this a “meaning-effect,” but then goes on to call this an “objective mirage of signification generated and projected by the relationship of signifiers among themselves.” (ibid.) This is not something a convinced holist would say. For the holist, the context-dependence of meaning does not put objectivity in jeopardy, but simply replaces a bad philosophy of language with a better one, one that redescribes the sources of objectivity accordingly.

Jameson, it would seem, is a holist, but a particular kind—a nostalgic one, wishing for the theoretical comforts of old. Schizophrenia, as stated before, is the breakdown of the signifying chain.[fn.2] Jameson’s fear of schizophrenia is the cultural realization of “a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers.” (ibid.) He says this creates “an experience of pure material signifiers … a series of pure and unrelated presents in time.” (27) We might feel Jameson’s fear, which could be described “in the negative terms of anxiety and loss of reality,” but we might also “just as well imagine in the positive terms of euphoria, a high, an intoxicatory or hallucinogenic intensity.” (27-8) The old, atomistic view of language once safe-guarded our sense that we could get back in touch with a solid reality, but—now in postmodernity—we no longer have this comfort.

What I would like to suggest is that Jameson’s argument breaks down by its very ability to compose itself as an argument.[fn.3] Put very simply—schizophrenic contextlessness cannot actually exist, for if it did, it would be just as much a “meaning-effect,” an effect of context, as any other normal-seeming, contextually generated meaning.[fn.4] Jameson cannot move from holism to a scary form of schizophrenia because holism simply describes how we are (and were) always situated, not a new situation. The only new thing in holism is the fact that we are rejecting Plato’s way describing our reality, not introducing a massively new and differently behaving and organizing reality.[fn.5]

According to Jameson’s theory, we should encounter cultural artifacts that are isolated and contextless, “randomly heterogeneous and fragmentary.” (25) The consequence of this theory is that displays of history and time should be free-floating, broken from their signifying chain. A good example of how this theory founders in practice is Alexie’s “A Drug Called Tradition.” In this section, Victor and his friends take an unnamed drug and free-float through a series of hallucinatory dreams in the recapitulation of the evening. This would seem to be a good example for Jameson’s cause: the very concept of history is called into question as the boys see pasts and presents that are clearly not what had happened or is happening. And by the end, Alexie has someone hallucinating a theory of history that ends with “We are trapped in the now.” (Alexie 22, italics his)

The ironic return of context begins with analyzing the italics in the passage. Devoid of the context of the piece, one might think Alexie was emphasizing the trap of presentness, much like Jameson’s notion of the sad, but inescapable state of postmodernism. But this is not what the italics mean. The italics are part of a consistent effort to demarcate the boundaries between hallucinative state of dream and normal state of reality. This stylistic choice, among others, is what signals to us, the readers, that we are reading something different than what is contained in the other parts (whatever the differences end up meaning on any of the many levels one could interpret them).

The point is that Alexie, as a writer, circumscribes the context with which we are to read the passages as much as the atomist supposes that the world circumscribes our words and what they mean. The hallucinatory effects in Alexie are as much “meaning-effects” as are normality. This doesn’t mean atomism is true, it simply means that context always determines meaning, including the appearance of meaninglessness or contextlessness. Jameson has confused a theoretical point about language-functioning for an empirical shift in culture, including the empirical shiftings of literary production.


Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. New York: Grove Press, 1993, 2005.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.


[1] This is the real meaning behind Derrida’s much parodied line “Il n'y a pas de hors-texte” (“There is nothing outside the text,” or better, “There is no outside-text”). Derrida was not staking out a new form of idealism, or denying the existence of rocks, but denying, like Wittgenstein when he denied ostensive definition, that language is (or perhaps, can be reduced to) a word-world relation. Words are words (i.e., have meaning and are not just sounds or marks on a page) because of how they hang in a web with other words.

[2] This notion can be used just as well for an atomist, but there seems to be a heightened sense of precariousness for the holist. In the atomist picture, a break in the chain can be rectified by being put back in touch with the solid, unalterable signified. On the holist picture, on the other hand, everything is a chain of signifiers, every signified can be reduced to a signifier such that a shift in signifiers alters the composition of the signified. This is the force of Jameson’s “objective mirage”: once our solid signifieds are really as ephemeral as our constantly shifting significations, we begin to really fear the loss, now irrevocable, of our grip on reality.

[3] Which should be suitably ironic, given how much fun holists-cum-deconstructionists have in showing how displays of intelligibility slide into unintelligibility, that Jameson’s display of unintelligibility should slide into intelligibility.

[4] For instance, the actual psychological state of schizophrenia could be described as signifiers losing touch with their signifieds (which seems to be the image that Jameson more relies on), but that reposes on the old atomistic view. On the holist view, schizophrenia would better be described as signification-chain-A losing touch with signification-chain-B. On this view, schizophrenics don’t behave oddly because they are acting without context, but because they are acting in the wrong context, an A-chain that would be less socially awkward if it were an AB-chain.

[5] Jameson commits this mistake when he says our “cultural production” “can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world,” but is now “in Plato’s cave.” (Jameson 25, italics mine) Plato was suggesting a metaphorics for describing our knowledge-production. The holists, like Derrida, want to reject wholesale this entire edifice, whereas Jameson seems to swallow Plato’s poison pill and imagine we were once out in the light of Plato’s Form of the Good, but we have now—in real historical time—been shuttled back down into the cave.

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