Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 3 No. 1, May 1985

On Reflection Theory: Including Remarks on John Docker's In a Critical Condition

Ian Hunter

In this paper I use John Docker's book (1984) as a convenient point of departure for a critical survey of the field in which it appears. In A Critical Condition (hereafter ICC) has been well reviewed in the national press and this gives me the leeway to contest the currency of the general position represented in the book without having to gloss its contents in their entirety. My remarks are addressed to the cultural theory and history that provide the framework for the book's central arguments. [1] I offer a map of the extremely limited space for analysis and political argument made available within this framework.

Of course, no book, unless it is a treatise in formal logic, is exhausted by its framework and it is not my intention to argue that ICC contains nothing that escapes the problems of its governing strategies. What I do argue is that the sort of cultural history and theory represented in this book—drawn from marxian reflection theory—is inadequate for an understanding of the variety of circumstances in which cultural artefacts are deployed and have effects. In particular, I argue that Docker's cultural analysis is incapable of describing the spaces that literature occupies in the domain of the social, which is of course the very task it is supposed to perform.

Docker's Cultural History

In Docker's account, modern literary criticism emerges as a discipline at the very end of the nineteenth century, where, in conjunction with modernist literature, it reflects a 'crisis for industrial society, and for Victorian notions of evolutionary progress, of civilisation as inherently benevolent' (40). According to Docker, modern criticism reflects this crisis in two ways: first, by rejecting the transparency of art to social reality; and, second, by denying the role of authorial experience in the production of literary representations.


As a result, despite local variations and contradictions, modern criticism 'on the whole exhibits fundamentally shared positions, assumptions and rules' (45).

These are the circumstances in which Docker lumps together Leavisism and New Criticism as representative of modern criticism and then expands the classification to include Russian formalism, Czech structuralism and recent French structuralism and semiotics as 'rough equivalents'. Apparently all these movements share the same fundamental formulations and assumptions. On the one hand, by denouncing the 'imitative fallacy', they attempt to deny literature's realist vocation as a reflection of social reality:

For Byron's poetry does not, says the Imitative Fallacy, simply reflect or imitate or describe or transcribe a reality (personal, social, political) outside of itself. Rather, the poetry creates its own 'reality', its own perception and interpretations—its own 'truths'. (45)

On the other, by criticising the 'intentional fallacy', they ignore the role of authorial experience and personality in the originating of political ideas and action. Instead:

What matters is the literary or poetic personality revealed and active in the text, not the irrelevant 'real' personality of the authors themselves. (46)

This literary personality is paralysed by the purely internal dynamics and tensions of the text, removed from commitment and action by ambiguity, irony and paradox.

Through this rudimentary history and theory, Docker is able to conjure up a picture of a modern criticism trapped within the confines of the text by its own assumptions, unable to forge those connections with social structures and ideological movements that provide literature with an 'historical explanation'. Cut off even from its own conservative social analysis, such a criticism fails altogether to grasp the manner in which literary works reflect social reality:

So that New Criticism and Leavisism are always reproducing the work in their own image: what such criticism sees is itself. (49; original emphasis)

Having thus sketched in the dominant tradition of modern criticism, Docker is able to call in the opposition, in the form of the marxian cultural history and criticism of E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams. Given the central role that their work is asked to play in his historical argument, Docker's treatment of Thompson and Williams is fairly cursory. However, we can take two features as central, according to Docker. First, by stressing the radical


utopianism of romantic literature, Williams and Thompson return literature to its vocation of reflecting social reality:

In particular, they stressed that the English romantic tradition was rich in alternative visions to industrial society and to utilitarianism: it was a tradition that inextricably and inescapably possessed social, political and ideological dimensions. (50)

Second, by showing the political importance of moral values in romanticism, they reaffirm the central role of (class) subjective experience against both the 'impersonalism' of New Criticism and the economism of orthodox Marxism. In this way marxian cultural criticism supposedly frees cultural artefacts from the prison of text-centred analysis. It returns them to their role as reflections of social reality mediated through the personal experience of those caught up in the perpetual contestation of political movements and ideological forces.

In other words, Docker uses the category of reflection to cut a single essential section through the tangled mass of modern cultural criticism. To the far side of this division Docker banishes a Leavisite-New Critical orthodoxy, whose rejection of the origin of literary representation in political experience leaves it confined to the contours of the text, surrounded by reflections of its own method. On the near side he embraces an oppositional marxian cultural criticism that restores the reflective and interventionist powers of literature by reinvesting them in the subject of political experience. This division provides the grid through which Docker reads Australian cultural history, including the recent interventions of anti-humanist Marxism and structuralist semiotics. The transposition to the Australian context is quite direct as we can see from Docker's discussion of a debate about Australian culture between H. P. Heseltine and A. A. Phillips:

The debate, later featured in the Meanjin collection On Native Grounds, is in many ways a culmination of a decade of critical and historiographical argument, conflict, and contestation, similar to what we have witnessed in Britain in the 1950s between radical thinkers like E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, and Cold Warriors like Frank Kermode, over the nature of the English romantic heritage; arguments in which the Cold War theorists tried to establish that the nature of literature itself excluded social/political/ideological/utopian concerns, and was inherently moral, metaphysical, religious, sacred. (63)

These, then, are the governing strategies of Docker's historical and theoretical arguments concerning cultural artefacts and literary criticism.

What are we to make of these strategies and the arguments they


organise? Well, at a first level, it is possible to show that Docker's attempt to divide modern criticism in two around the question of textual autonomy produces a monolithic classification that is both unrevealing and erroneous. Perhaps some of these errors are not crucial. For example, Docker includes William Empson in the cast of those who fail to relate literature to ideological currents and historical circumstances (41). Yet Empson wrote two books in which such relations were of central concern. The following from the earlier of the two, Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), is typical:

Gray's 'Elegy' is an odd case of poetry with latent political ideas:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear; Full many a flower is born to blush unseen And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

What this means, as the context makes clear, is that eighteenth-century England had no scholarship system or carriĀre ouverte aux talents. This is stated as pathetic, but the reader is put into a mood in which one would not try to alter it.... By comparing the social arrangement to Nature he makes it seem inevitable, which it was not, and gives it a dignity which was undeserved. (11-12)

The second book, The Structure of Complex Words (1951), is historical in a different sense, being a singlehanded attempt to adapt the philological techniques of the Oxford English Dictionary to the tasks of an historical criticism of literary language.

Perhaps being wrong about Empson doesn't really matter because these works—the latter in particular—have not been very influential, with the notable exception of Raymond Williams (somewhat ironically for Docker) whose Keywords utilises many of the techniques of the 'critical philology' developed in The Structure of Complex Words. It matters more if Docker is wrong about Leavis, because it is through the pair Leavisism-New Criticism that Docker establishes his version of a modern criticism cut off from political experience and trapped in the text. Yet Docker is wrong here too, because Leavis in fact makes the alleged capacity of literary language to transcribe experience 'immediately' and 'concretely' central to his account of it. Indeed, Leavis sets up 'complexity' as an effect of literature's imitative powers. The following description of Lawrence's poem 'Piano' is representative:

When we examine this effect of complexity we find it is associated with the stating manner.... For the banalities instanced do not represent everything in the poem- the 'vista of years' leads back to some thing sharply seen—a very specific situation that stands there in its own right, so that we might emend 'stating' into 'constating' in order to describe that effect as of prose statement (we are inclined to call


it—but the situation is vividly realized) which marks the manner. The main immediate point, however, is that in all this particularity we have something quite other than banal romantic generality: this is not the common currency of sentimental evocation or anything of the kind. The actuality of the remembered situation is unbeglamouring.... Something is; we see, held and presented in the poem, and the presentation involves an attitude towards, an element of disinterested valuation. (Leavis, 1945/1968: 215; original emphases)

Furthermore, despite Docker's claims regarding the embargo of the 'intentional fallacy', this capacity to produce the effect of direct experience is related to the author's personality and life. This is all too clear in Leavis' account of the hapless Tennyson whose thoughts and feelings are apparently in excess of his mimetic faculty:

The poet, we can say, whose habitual mode—whose emotional habit—was represented by that poem would not only be very limited; we should expect to find him noticeably given to certain weaknesses and vices. (1945/1968: 213)

Now, of course, there is an important sense in which Leavis does not see literature as a transcription of reality based in the actual experience of authors. In Leavis' account it is only through literature that one obtains a heightened understanding of reality; and the subject of this new perception is not the biographical person but the person whose faculties have been remade through the powers of literature. In other words, literature does not so much describe reality as subject it to a moral intensification; and the writer or reader is not really the origin of experience so much as the space where transcendentally ('immediately') realised details call a full experience into being. Leavis' stress on mimesis then is not 'empiricist' or 'naturalist'. Instead, it belongs with his attempt to specify literature in terms of its moral intensification of detail—its alleged capacity to 'concretise' or 'dramatise' its themes and meanings—which permits the formation of a mode of experience and judgement freed from all historical determinations and political necessities.

Is it this aesthetic specification of literary language that Docker has in mind when he criticises Leavisism for its failure to ground the text in real political experience? Hardly; for Docker follows Leavis in claiming an essence for literature as a special (aesthetic) mode of knowledge and in investing this essence in literature's alleged capacity to 'dramatise' its meanings:

New Criticism and Leavisism allow for the detailed inner investigation of the text's actual workings and modes and aesthetic shape and dramatised meanings. Further, the stress on detailed study of texts is necessary as only such detailed analysis can provide evidence for an argument. The notion of a work 'dramatising' its themes is also liberating


because it directs attention to the fact that literature is literature and not something else, that there is a specific aesthetic mode of apprehending reality, and that evaluation of literature must take into account how well or how badly themes are dramatised, are created for us. (48)

In fact, despite all his attacks on the New Criticism for its denunciation of the 'imitative fallacy', Docker himself doesn't think that literature will 'simply reflect or imitate or describe or transcribe a reality outside of itself'. Like Leavis he argues that reality does not reveal itself to us immediately because the historical deformation of subjectivity can trap us in appearances. Further, Docker also argues that literature—popular culture in particular—can provide us with a special access to reality by virtue of its dramatised aesthetic form which anticipates the appearance of a purified consciousness.

Of course this is unfair to Docker. After all, in his account it is ideology that obscures the contours of the real and not moral failings like sentimentality and insincerity, which Leavis attributes to Tennyson. Moreover, in Docker's criticism it is not simply the relation between the individual and the text that is crucial to the emergence of authentic consciousness. Instead, presumably, it is the real movement of history that counts here in its synthesising of an increasingly universal class consciousness from the fragments of ideology. Clearly these differences matter, but what matters much more, I will argue, is the striking overlap between the two positions.

As a shorthand, the account of literature offered by Leavis—centred in the claim that literary language permits a special access to reality through its capacity to 'realise' a central, synthetic point of judgement—can be dubbed 'culturalist'. The disjunction and overlap between Leavisite criticism and the sort practised by Docker can then be mapped in the following (rough and ready) way:

First, Leavis marries the culturalist conception of literature to a number of other discourses, initially to an historical mythology (the 'dissociation of sensibility') in which it is imagined that the current transcendental pretensions of aesthetic knowledge are justified by the 'fact' that it was once rooted in everyday life. Later in his career Leavis seeks a philosophical justification for his privileging of cultural artefacts. At this point he has recourse to a marginal phenomenology of language in which such artefacts are pictured as occupying a transcendental 'third realm' between subjectivism and positivism.

Second, Docker for his part joins the same culturalist conception of literature to the categories and themes of historical materialism,


functioning in this instance as an historical sociology of knowledge. Here the claim that cultural artefacts, and literature in particular, provide a special access to the real is given a specifically historical and marxian gloss. In Lukacsian terms, the capacity of art to return abstract knowledge to the synthetic immediacy of experience—to 'dramatise' it—supposedly anticipates the historical synthesis of a universal class consciousness.

Now what must be noted here is the striking overlap between Leavisism and the sort of cultural criticism advocated by Docker, an overlap manifested in the dominance of 'culturalist' criteria in his arguments for a marxian cultural politics. Docker may well wish to bring literary texts before the bar of political experience, but in fact he establishes a purely circular relation between aesthetic form and political reality. This is evident, for example, in Docker's account of James McAuley's cultural project.

Docker describes McAuley as seeking a cultural renovation of Australian society which the poet sees as based in the European traditions of 'the Common Law, the parliamentary method, humanitarian sentiment' (McAuley, in Docker, 1984: 74). This social renewal was to be focussed in the revival of certain traditional values associated with a particular type of aesthetic form, best exemplified in McAuley's own poetry. But, says Docker, this project came to nothing be cause the poet was out of touch with the real movement of Australian history and society in the fifties, trapped in the confines of a purely personal vision. Further, it is the real movement of history that accounts for McAuley's ideological mistake, because the fifties' 'Cold War anti-communism allowed McAuley a paranoid confidence in projecting himself into the centre of the Australian historical moment' (78).

Now, we can ask at this point, what makes Docker think that Australian history or society do form a unity, or have a 'movement' which might be revealed to or hidden from consciousness? What is it that gives all the things that might be located in the geographical and temporal boundaries of Australia in the fifties—everything from sexual manners and legal statutes through forms of economic and political organisation to hair-styles and welfare policies—a single general articulation or movement that a poet might align himself with or not? The answer is not, as one perhaps might have expected, a marxian theory of society as an uneven totality unified in the historical development of its economic mode of production; at least it is not this in the first instance. No, the synthetic point from which Australian history and society might have been reflected is provided


by culture and, in particular, by the culturalist conception of aesthetic form.

McAuley might have grasped the real movement of history, writes Docker, if he had mastered the 'specific aesthetic mode of apprehending reality' capable of true reflection. Contrariwise, the poet could only have mastered this specific 'dramatistic' essence of art if he had been in touch with the real movement of Australian history, instead of some European surrogate. The following quotations (77-81) make plain enough the relation of circular equivalence Docker establishes between the culturalist conception of literature and the historicist conception of politics:

McAuley's sense of the European heritage is eclectic and external. His poetry doesn't flow naturally, but painfully in its heavy mental construction, it is intellectual in the most unsubtle ways. It is, finally, precisely what he hoped it wouldn't be: an 'arbitrary', 'individual', 'self expressive' activity.

As a result:

It couldn't last, and it didn't. During the 1960s McAuley's work collapsed into dessication, into the sense that the desired traditional values were more personal assertion than social hope.... The collapse coincided with the slackening of Cold War attitudes, when the political and ideological polarisations, which had been the basis of McAuley's buoyancy, began to dissolve.

This historical collapse can be read-off from the aesthetic form of McAuley's later work in that 'the poems, unlike Lowell's, are not sustained or particularised enough [and contain] . . . a slight ideological stiffness'. And the aesthetic failure to realise abstraction in a suitably dramatised particularity can, in its turn, be read-off from the poet's isolation from the movement of history:

McAuley's poetic and cultural project was bound to fail . . . [because he failed to sense] that these values belong to a European social history of which Australians have never been part.

In other words, says Docker, we know that literature fails aesthetically—that it is overly mental, forced, insufficiently particularised, etc.—when it does not reflect the real movement of history. On the other hand, we know when literature does not reflect the movement of history when it is forced, insufficiently particularised and so on.

Needless to say, under these circumstances we learn very little about the conditions permitting aesthetic judgement, or about the terms of analysis necessary for the understanding of any particular historical or political situation. It is simply assumed that a particular


aesthetic form guarantees the reflection of historical reality and vice versa. This, to return one of Docker's favourite terms of abuse, is why Brecht described Lukacs' cultural theory as 'formalist'. It is also why Lukacs can endorse the realist novel and Docker can enthuse over certain television quiz shows, as expressions of 'authentic working class values', without having to engage with the level of social institutions and apparatuses where such artefacts are organised and have political effects.

These problems are not of course peculiar to ICC. They spring immediately from marxian reflection theory which, admittedly at several removes, is the source of Docker's cultural theory and history. More precisely, they arise from the attempt to sociologise the idealist conception of reflection (representation) while maintaining, nonetheless, that society will be reflected as a totality when it manages to synthesise a universal class consciousness. Of course, as Humphrey McQueen enthuses in the book's foreword, you wouldn't catch Docker saying anything so complex or European. Nevertheless, it is precisely these problems that Docker, like other reflection theorists, attempts to solve by establishing the circle in which the truth of art and the truth of history are derived from each other in a manner that reveals little about either.

Since the late sixties the categories and themes of reflection theory have been subject to intensive criticism and debate, something you couldn't discover by reading ICC. Focussed initially in the Althusserian reworking of the concept of ideology, this line of criticism has since superseded the central Althusserian categories. It now enables us to understand the organisation and effects of cultural artefacts without recourse to general theories of reflection or representation (on the one hand) or of ideological determination (on the other). As a result it has become possible to reject the notion that there is a specific aesthetic mode of apprehending reality embodied in the dramatising or synthesising powers of art which allegedly anticipate the historical formation of a true reflection of society. In the following sections I will provide a rough outline of the critical attack on reflection theory, ending with some remarks on the direction of a 'post aesthetic' cultural analysis.


No one could accuse John Docker of theoretical sophistication. His prose skates quickly over theoretical problems, executing the occasional vernacular turn in order to remind us that John is a good


bloke, perhaps even an intellectual in touch with the movement of the people. However, the problems besetting Docker's particular accounts of the relation between aesthetic form and historical reality have their roots in a particularly opaque area of theoretical Marxism—its theory of knowledge, reflection theory. The most rigorous application of marxian epistemology to aesthetics is to be found in the cultural writings of Georg Lukacs. Indeed, Lukacs' account of the manner in which cultural artefacts reflect social reality can best be understood as deriving from an attempt to marry such an epistemology to a conventional aesthetic analysis. [2]

Like many other epistemologies the marxian theory of knowledge begins with two separate domains—those of consciousness and objective reality—and understands knowledge as the process whereby the latter is reflected in the former. It differs from them, according to Lukacs (1936-54/1970), both in how it conceives of the two domains and in how it pictures the process of reflection. In particular, it op poses the views of what Lukacs calls a 'mechanical materialism' and a 'subjective idealism'. The former, Lukacs argues, while correctly identifying the primacy of objective reality, conceives of reflection in a purely mechanical or photographic manner; hence it remains trapped in appearances because under capitalism essential or 'concrete' reality is not immediately visible, owing to the ravages of ideology. The latter, subjective idealism, correctly identifies the role of abstraction and consciousness in penetrating ideological appearances and thereby producing an objective reflection of the essential determinations of reality. However, this epistemology is lop-sided, says Lukacs, because it fails to realise that the process of abstraction is itself determined by objective reality and not by consciousness which, if it is to do its job properly, must do the bidding of history.

Applied to aesthetics, mechanical materialism produces a tyranny of content over form in that it gives no essential role to aesthetic forms in the reflection of reality; this leads to naturalism. Subjective idealism, for its part, leads to a tyranny of purely formal values over content; it fails to understand that aesthetic form is determined not by the artist's consciousness but by the forces of historical reality themselves. The failure produces expressionism and modernism.

In other words, Lukacs' account of art as an 'objective reflection of reality' arises as a criticism of two competing accounts. Against idealist conceptions of aesthetic form as an expression of consciousness, Lukacs counterposes a marxian sociology of knowledge:

He [Marx] showed first that every artistic form is the outgrowth of definite social conditions and of ideological premises of a particular society


and that only on these premises can subject matter and formal elements emerge which cause a particular form to flourish. (1936-54/1970: 56)

The novel form, for example, arises with the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie, quite independently of the artist's consciousness, as a reflection of the new variety of social forces and contradictions that characterise this period.

On the other hand, Lukacs opposes the mechanical materialist conception of aesthetic form by invoking a Hegelian-Marxist notion of totality and the privileged role of art in realising totality. Objective, concrete reality is not immediately open to reflection. Instead, says Marx:

The concrete is concrete because it is the synthesis of many determinants, the unity within diversity. In our thinking the concrete thus appears as the process of synthesis, as the result, not as the point of departure, although it is really the point of departure and hence also the point of departure for perception and conception. (in Lukacs 1936-54/1970: 46-47)

Realism, therefore, is not a matter of the accurate reflection of details. Rather, '[t]he objectivity of the artistic reflection of reality depends on the correct reflection of the totality' (1936-54/1970: 42-43). Aesthetic form thus has the job of revealing the concrete as a 'synthesis of many determinants' which it does—differently from science—by crystallising the totality in 'typical' details:

The task of art is the reconstitution of the concrete ... in a direct, perceptual self-evidence. To that end those factors must be discovered in the concrete and rendered perceptible whose unity makes the concrete concrete. (1936-54/1970: 47)

Under these theoretical circumstances it turns out that great art is the 'objective reflection of reality' in two quite different senses. On the one hand, aesthetic forms reflect the content of historical reality in that they are determined by 'social conditions and ideological pre mises' quite independently of authorial consciousness. On the other hand, through its alleged capacity to dramatise the 'synthesis of many determinants' in the typical details of life, aesthetic form reflects the concrete in the sense of making it available to consciousness or, equivalently, making a consciousness available for it.

Not unexpectedly, the 'dialectic' is called in to permit the conversion of these two conceptions of reflection. Through the profound legerdemain of the dialectic, aesthetic form becomes at once a material reflection conditioned by historical reality and the point where such reality is reflected in consciousness. With this flourish Lukacs


manages to produce an image of great art as something like an immediate, unconscious knowledge through which history reflects itself in man. Not surprisingly, this image is radically unstable.

Consider, for example, Lukacs' account of the novel form. In the first place he wants to treat this form, with its greater complexity of plot and depth of characterisation, as a sociological outcome of mature capitalism with its complex social forces and new political contradictions. But on the other hand, he also claims that the realist novel—in particular its fully rounded characters and richly typical details—gives consciousness a unique access to the real by rendering 'perceptible' the historical determination of the concrete. Hence the play on 'reflection' makes it quite unclear as to whether the analysis of literature—for example an analysis of the formation of the capacities for literary reading and writing—is to be carried out by describing the historical determinants conditioning such capacities, or by treating these capacities as the privileged site of an immediate (transcendental) perception of historical reality. Of course, Lukacs claims to be operating in both registers at once, as does Docker; and, indeed, in this claim we can recognise the problematic of the 'cultural studies' movement. But the only way Lukacs can make this claim is by arbitrarily privileging a particular conception of the relation between the real and consciousness. Namely, historical determinants secure their own representation in consciousness by unconsciously depositing in men the very aesthetic forms able to anticipate their synthesis and hence deliver them to consciousness.

In other words, to effect his historic compromise between sociology and criticism, Lukacs must do away with all actual, definite criteria used to determine what counts as a 'reflection'. These are submerged in the circle that links historical determination to aesthetic reflection. No room is left for an historical description or a political analysis of the formation of literary capacities and aesthetic artefacts. On the one hand, these are simply what is required by history, acting now as a designing agent, if it is to reflect itself in man. On the other, they are what is required by consciousness if it is to grasp the many determinants of the real 'in a direct, perceptual self-evidence'. In the first case, it is not necessary to give an account of the means by which human beings acquire literary capacities—for example, the techniques and procedures of commentary that build up the 'sense of plausibility'—as such capacities are produced unconsciously by his tory as it reflects itself in the aesthetic process:

For the reader does not consciously compare an individual experience with an isolated event of the work of art but surrenders himself to the general effect of the work of art on the basis of his own assembled


general experience. And the comparison between both reflections of reality remains unconscious so long as the reader is engrossed, that is, so long as his experiences regarding reality are broadened and deepened by the fiction of the work of art. (1936-54/1970: 36-37)

In the second, it is equally beside the point to investigate the political organisation and effects of the novelistic machinery for 'rendering perceptible' historical determinants. This machinery, says Lukacs, is the immediate realisation of the totalising tendency of the real determinants themselves; that is, the political tendency of the realist novel is a transcendental reflection of the inner logic of historical reality itself and stands in no need of any actual means or criteria of political calculation:

The tendency in the work of art speaks forth from the objective context of the world depicted within the work; it is the language of the work of art transmitted through the artistic reflection of reality and therefore the speech of reality itself, not the subjective opinion of the writer exposed boldly or explicitly in a personal commentary or in a subjective, ready-made conclusion. (1936-54/1970: 43-44)

The trouble with this account is that even if historical reality did stand up and address us we wouldn't necessarily recognise it or be able to identify its political implications. Lukacs assumes that historical determinants can secure their own representation through an aesthetic form which, in synthesising and transcending all historical determinants, anticipates a mode of reflection equivalent to consciousness pure and simple. But there is no need to assume that social and economic forms—for example, the division of occupational skills and the relations of production—determine particular aesthetic forms. Nor need we assume that there is such a thing as the 'immediate reflection of reality', invested in something called consciousness or arising as the result of the historical 'synthesis of many determinants'. This is not because ideology is eternal but because, as Wittgenstein shows, what counts as knowledge (thought, reflection, experience, etc.) is determined by always definite, practical procedures and criteria, by the host of special technologies of the body and mind through which human capacities are historically achieved. Amongst these technologies and resultant capacities we find those of the aesthetic domain. Lukacs may well appeal to aesthetic form as an anticipation of universal class consciousness but, as Brecht was quick to point out, this is to do no more than dream of the universalisation of a limited set of literary techniques and capacities.


Reflection Without a Mirror

Formal analysis of language has played an important role in returning 'consciousness' to the field of local capacities, built-up through the mastery of definite techniques and procedures. Under this circumstance aesthetic form forfeits all claim to be the privileged point of synthesis for the whole field. Formal analysis, derived from logic and linguistics, makes it possible to describe aesthetic capacities and effects in terms of the practical deployment of 'aesthetic technologies', without recourse to a notion of consciousness or reflection supposedly independent of such deployment. This intervention under mines marxian reflection theory from two directions at once:

First, it means that the assumption of a general relation of determination linking socio-economic forms to aesthetic forms, modelled as a relation between material reality and its immaterial reflection 'in the head', is untenable. Literary representation is itself a material artefact produced by the deployment of techniques (of composition, printing, etc.) and procedures (of commentary, introspection, etc.) which are not located in the head but in social institutions like the school and the publishing industry. Hence, instead of assuming a general relation between two different domains—as in the base-superstructure model—it is necessary to investigate the role of literary techniques, procedures and institutions alongside other forms of social organisation.

Second, it means that literature is not the scene of a privileged 'apprehension of reality' given to a universalised consciousness. In particular, if literary capacities result from the deployment of always definite techniques and procedures, then there can be no question of aesthetic form synthesising the 'many determinants', thereby transcending them and rendering them immediately 'perceptible' to consciousness. What counts as 'consciousness', 'feeling', etc., in literature is determined by the practical deployment of such techniques (eg., of characterisation) and goes no further than the social sphere organised by the 'educational' apparatus of literature.

Under these circumstances it is not clear whether a specifically Marxist theory of literature is either desirable or possible. Certainly the central categories and themes of such a theory—the category of reflection and the play between an historicist 'context' and a culturalist 'text' on which it is based—are called into question by the intervention of formal analysis. However, the techniques of formal analysis,


as they are used, for example, in the structural and semiotic analysis of narratives, do not compete for the same territory as Marxism. They do not form part of a general theory of society, or of the formation of human capacities. This is something overlooked by their opponents as well as by their more enthusiastic proponents.

What such techniques do permit is the analysis of literary representation in terms of the regular patterns, techniques and formulas that compose a book or a film. By isolating a 'compositional technology', structural and semiotic analysis function as a modern rhetoric. They permit us to treat literary capacities as built up through the deployment of definite techniques rather than as originating in the privileged consciousness of the author. As we have seen, the effect of such analysis on the marxian conception of reflection is to short-circuit the relay between historicism and humanism on which it is based. If authorial capacities depend on the practical mastery of essentially local technologies, then the author's work is not an unconscious re flection of other (economic) determinants; nor is it the site where their synthesis permits the author to inherit the mantle of universal class consciousness.

However, this does not mean that art fails to reflect reality. It simply means that the category of reflection is inadequate for under standing the relations that exist between literary technologies and other social technologies and forms of organisation. This is precisely what marxian critics of formal analysis like Docker (1984: 180-208) and Lovell (1980: 79-95) fail to understand. According to Docker, the fact that formal analysis breaks with the categories of reflection and authorial experience makes it into a 'rough equivalent' of Leavisism: confined to the text and the politically quiescent theory of the 'impersonality' of art. It should be clear by now that this view is quite mistaken. We have seen that 'impersonality' in Leavis does not mean that works of art do not express the personalities or experiences of their authors. It simply means that great art does not express the actual personality of the author or reader but one that is renovated and freed from historical deformities, able to provide an 'immediate' or transcendental perception. The point is that here Leavis and Lukacs are in complete agreement; the latter also argues that art delivers the subject from the limits of actual, historical consciousness 'so long as the reader is engrossed, that is, so long as his experiences regarding reality are broadened and deepened by the fiction of the work of art' (1936-54/1970: 37).

The manner in which formal analysis frees literary capacities from an origin in authorial consciousness has nothing to do with Leavis'


conception of impersonality; nor has it anything to do with Lukacs' parallel conception of the 'unconscious' character of reflection, which has him endorsing Balzac's view that 'French society should be the historian, I only its amanuensis' (in Lukacs, 1936-54/1970: 37). Impersonality of this sort should be called 'hyper-personality', in that it refers to the mythic moment where aesthetic form converts un conscious social determination into the immediate consciousness of determination itself, thereby permitting the author to function as the subject of history. Far from echoing such conceptions, formal analysis presents them with an inescapable challenge by restricting what counts as 'consciousness' to the techniques and procedures that build up definite, limited (literary) capacities.

In fact, Docker and Lovell are not criticising formal analysis be cause it confines criticism to a conception of the text that fails to reflect the author's political experience. Rather, they are lamenting the fact that such analysis destroys the category of reflection, the category which had (falsely) promised to permit the tendency of political reality to be read-off from an aesthetic form privileged as history's self reflection. It cannot be insisted too often that the critical impact of formal analysis on marxian reflection theory is a 'materialist' intervention in the concept of consciousness retained in the latter. This remains the case even if the structuralist appropriation of formal analysis threatens its usefulness as a local description of literary capacities by expanding it into a general theory of subjectivity. [3]

I cannot tell whether the failure of Docker and Lovell to under stand this intervention is the result of political stupidity or political cunning. Other Marxists are under no such illusions. Raymond Williams, for example, writes that the intervention of formal analysis means that marxian cultural studies:

have to restate, often radically, positions on ideology and on cultural hegemony, but also, and more crucially, positions on creativity and its sources and formations, to which the formalist tradition has delivered an inescapable challenge but to which also, it has contributed important and indispensable evidence. (1976: 502)

Neither is Williams in any doubt about the impetus behind this challenge:

But formalism was only able to get through so far because the materialism it negated did not include the materialism of signs: a materialism which we really cannot escape, in twentieth-century cultural systems, with their evident technology of media, but which is also there, fundamentally, in language itself. (1976: 505)

For the past decade the most important work in marxian analysis of


culture has been the outcome of attempts to incorporate the 'materialism of signs' into a modified version of reflection theory. Even if, as I shall argue, these attempts are finally unsuccessful, the appropriate response is not to form a defensive huddle around the category of reflection, absorbing what is left of its warm glow. Indeed, it is the very rigour with which the project of incorporation has been attempt ed that has revealed the bankruptcy of this category and opened up the possibility of new types of analysis.

The grounds for the attempt to include formal analysis inside re flection theory are to be found in the work of Louis Althusser and his collaborators, particularly in their reworking of the concept of ideology. Althusser (1964-71/1971) challenges the notion that ideology is a reflection of social relations in consciousness, insisting instead that it consists of techniques and practices just as real as any others in the social domain. He then goes on to argue that ideological apparatuses are connected to other (economic, political, etc.) instances of the social not via reflection but through their role in forming subjects fit to occupy positions in the relations of production.

Applying these remarks to the domain of literature, Macherey and Balibar (1978) set up their attack on conventional reflection theory in the following way. First, they insist that the fact that thought reflects a material reality must not subordinate the fact that thought itself is a 'material reality':

Dialectical materialism asserts the objectivity of the reflection and the objectivity of thought as reflection, ie., the determinance of the existent reality which precedes thought and is irreducible to it, and the material of thought itself. (1978: 5)

Second, as a result of this insistence, they reject the Lukacsian notion that aesthetic form can itself secure true reflection through 'rendering perceptible' historical determinance to consciousness. It is not in class consciousness that the truth of reflection will appear but in an 'analysis of the relatively autonomous process of the history of science'. Reflection is thus reconceived as 'reflection without a mirror'.

I will not be directly concerned with this theory of the history of science as a 'process without a subject'. (It is elaborated, as far as it can be, in Part I of Althusser and Balibar's Reading Capital) Of more immediate concern is the way Macherey and Balibar spell out the 'material reality of thought':

Ideological forms, to be sure, are not straightforward systems of 'ideas' and 'discourses', but are manifested through the workings and history of determinate practices in determinate social relations, what Althusser calls the Ideological State Apparatus (I.S.A.). The objectivity of literary


production therefore is inseparable from given social practices in a given I.S.A. More precisely, we shall see that it is inseparable from a given linguistic practice in itself inseparable from an academic or schooling practice which defines both the conditions for the consumption of literature and the very conditions of its production also. (1978: 6; original emphases)

It is the description of literary capacities in terms of the techniques and practices which make them possible that marks the breach in the category of reflection. If capacities are formed in this manner, then their relation to other forms of social organisation cannot be under stood as a 'reflection' in either the sociological or the representational sense.

On the one hand, literary works and capacities must be seen as artefacts of distinct forms of social organisation—perhaps too narrowly located here in the school system—whose conditions of existence are not reducible to more real political and economic forms. (Of course, this is not to deny that they are related to such forms.) On the other, the apparatus of literature must be seen as an organisation of techniques and practices capable of producing effects (capacities) which do not originate in a subject's consciousness of reality:

To define literature as a particular ideological form is to pose quite another problem: the specificity of ideological effects produced by literature and the means (techniques) of production. (1978: 7; original emphasis)

At this point a way is opened for an analysis of cultural artefacts and capacities in terms of the techniques and procedures that make them possible and the forms of institutional organisation in which these techniques and procedures are deployed. More particularly, it becomes possible to describe a field of relations between the apparatus of literature and other types of social organisation which does not assume a single general form in which the former exists in order to reproduce the latter. It also becomes possible to describe the role of literary techniques in equipping individuals with various aptitudes and capacities (memory, introspection, sentiment, moral character, etc.) which take the form of positive, historical achievements not reducible to a generalised faculty of (mis) recognition.

However, Macherey and Balibar do not in fact explore these possibilities. After following Althusser in prospecting the path to a new field of analysis they, like him, turn back to the topography of reflection theory. This retreat occurs on two fronts.

First, despite their claim that literature possesses its own forms of social organisation and conditions of existence, Macherey and Balibar


'finally' subordinate these to a more fundamental economic and political level whose function they serve:

To be more explicit: literature is produced finally through the effect of one or more ideological contradictions precisely because these contradictions cannot be solved within ideology, ie., in the last analysis through the effect of contradictory class positions within the ideology, as such irreconcilable.... What is in fact 'the primary raw material' of the literary text? It is the ideological contradictions which are not specifically literary but political, religious, etc.; in the last analysis, contradictory ideological realisations of determinate class positions in the class struggle. (1978: 8,12; original emphasis)

Once more literature becomes the reflection of 'superimposing real processes', and the variety of functions organised by the apparatus of literature is reduced to the single function of reproducing class relations whose conditions of existence are finally economic.

Second, Macherey and Balibar retreat from their analysis of aesthetic effects in terms of the deployment of techniques which build up the differentiated and delimited capacities of social agents. Far from offering a description of the historically various effects and capacities organised by the apparatus of literature (the introspective powers of the school-child, the moral sagacity of the literary critic), they return to the image of a single, general aesthetic effect (identification) rooted in an undifferentiated 'subject':

Brecht was the first marxist theoretician to focus on this [identification] by showing how the ideological effects of literature . . . materialise via an identification process between the reader or audience and the hero or anti-hero, the simultaneous mutual constitution of the fictive 'consciousness' of the character with the ideological 'consciousness' of the reader. (1978: 9)

The mechanism of this process is described using Althusser's account of the way ideology 'interpellates individuals as subjects'. Literature, through its capacity to stage real identification with fictional events and persons, calls forth the consciousness necessary to reflect such events and persons; that is, a consciousness originating in the recognition of a fictive world and the misrecognition of the 'stage machinery' through which this world is presented. So, literature is returned to the domain of subjectivity as a single general process rooted in an alleged capacity for (mis)recognition whose technical conditions remain unspecified. The claim that interpellation establishes a relation of 'mutual constitution' between subject and text is poor compensation indeed given what has been forfeited: the chance to describe literature in terms of the deployment of techniques (narration), devices (character typologies, mnemonic forms), and procedures


(perceptual routines, reading strategies) possessing no essential 'literariness' and no unity (eg., in the processes of reflection or interpellation), save that contingently secured by forms of social organisation (the school, publishing, etc.).

As Paul Hirst (1979) first pointed out, in an essay I have drawn on freely in this section, Althusser's concept of interpellation is quite in coherent. It purports to be an account of how social agents acquire capacities ('consciousness'), but in fact assumes the existence of an un specified consciousness through which individuals (mis) recognise the 'hallucination' of reality presented in ideology. The importance of this conceptual breakdown is that it shows how, pushed to its furthest extent, the Althusserian project reveals the impossibility of at tempting to incorporate the discovery of the 'material reality of thought' within Marxism as a general theory of social structure and determination. Thought dematerialises in Macherey and Balibar's account—that is, loses its dispersed, technical character—precisely at that point where it is cut off from its bases in definite types of con strained activity and fades into the socially determined process of (mis) recognition.

Despite their sophisticated attempt to produce a workable version of reflection theory—to conceive of 'reflection without a mirror'—Macherey and Balibar are finally driven back to a philosophical conception of the subject in order to incorporate the apparatus of literature within Marxism as a general theory of society. First, they are forced to claim that the conditions of existence of literature lie outside the forms of institutional organisation in which it is deployed, the latter becoming transparent to the economic relations whose reproduction they allegedly secure. Second, they are forced to abandon their description of literary capacities as artefacts of historically variable techniques and procedures and to seek an origin for them in a general process of recognition. Perhaps the most damaging aspect of this collapse is that it threatens to condemn the interrogation of the apparatus of literature to that fruitless union of economism and utopian humanism which has crippled the marxian analysis of cultural institutions.

Describing a Moral Technology

If we are to describe the apparatus of literature, in particular its emergence in the domain of the social, then we must give up the category of reflection, in both its sociological and representational uses. It is quite misleading to claim that art reflects social reality in


any general sense. This is not because reality exists outside the range of representation, nor because the real is somehow internal to the pro cess of representation, to 'discourse'; and it is not because the apparatus of literature, as a collection of techniques, devices and procedures, is absolutely autonomous of other forms of social organisation. Again, the point is not that literature fails to reflect the forms in which it is socially organised and deployed; it is that the category of reflection is useless for understanding this organisation and deployment. To recapitulate, formal analysis and other investigations of the 'material reality of thought' (Wittgenstein, Foucault) permit us to treat literary capacities as the artefacts of limited techniques and procedures. These are irreducible to consciousness, are just as material as other social practices and forms of organisation, and hence do not exist in a general relation of reflection to them.

The fact that it is possible to describe the historical construction of literary capacities does not entail that what one knows or feels by virtue of such capacities is thereby unreal or dispensable. Despite certain post-structuralist claims—for example, those made by Cixous (1974)—the capacity for identifying with literary characters is not a purely linguistic phenomenon deriving from some alleged relation of 'mutual constitution' holding between text and subjectivity. Instead, it is built up through the practical mastery of an ensemble of techniques and activities—some linguistic (protocols for plausible character types), some not (the arrangement of bodies in relation to a stage, the practical exercises children must perform in order to find their own actions judged against those of a character). Of course this capacity relates to other things that a child (for example) says and does, but the relation has no general form, such as representation. It may be related as a means for deploying norms that govern other areas of conduct and demeanour. Alternatively, it might have the form of a technique for intensifying sentiment and bodily sensation, as in the case of love stories and pornography. In other words, the types of relation that exist between literary 'words' and 'things' cannot be read-off from a general theory of the subject but must be revealed through piecemeal descriptions of the apparatuses in which they are secured, or not. [3]

It is for this reason, that literary capacities have conditions of existence that are irreducible to forms of economic organisation and the general function of securing the latter's reproduction. This is not to say that the apparatus of literature is relatively or indeed absolutely autonomous of economic forms. It is simply to say that the types of relation holding between literary forms and procedures and other parts of the social domain are not mediated (reflected) through the person


or the class, conceived of as the 'unity in consciousness' of all social capacities. We have seen that social capacities, like those for judging character and calculating a return on investment, are achieved and maintained through definite technologies and forms of social organisation.

Of course, these forms overlap and interlock producing large-scale mobilisations in the social field, but they have no necessary synthesis in the person or its surrogate, the class. As Foucault's studies of the hospital and the prison have shown in great detail, individuals are agents of capacities whose formation and maintenance is the achievement of forms of social organisation not based in 'consciousness'. The concept of class will not reveal the relations between 'literature' and 'society' because the individual as agent of certain economic capacities has no necessary or general relation to the individual as agent of literary and moral capacities. In particular, there need be no general relation of the sort whereby forms of economic organisation are trans formed or maintained depending on whether their agents acquire true or false consciousness in the aesthetic sphere. The rejection of such a general relation entails no special privilege or autonomy for the literary apparatus. Quite the opposite. It becomes possible to stress the disunity of the apparatus—the fact, for example, that it shares techniques of interrogation and introspection with other disciplinary forms like psychoanalysis and welfare counselling—only after we give up the image of literature as the unique synthesising sur face on which society will be reflected, or not.

Take, for example, a prominent theme in the novels of Charles Dickens: the denunciation of statistical reasoning for its alleged repression of the world of the human spirit and moral values. One cannot inquire as to whether this theme reflects political and economic reality because the novel does not contain the forms of calculation that produce the 'statistical sense'; nor is the novel connected, at this level, to the forms of social organisation where statistical capacities are deployed and have effects. These forms of social organisation are epitomised in the new machinery of the 'police', in the eighteenth century sense of a mechanism for relieving want and providing for the security and well-being of populations. This mechanism deploys statistical calculation through a system of surveillance capable of transforming the social field into a field of moral frequencies.

In fact, far from repressing moral values, the police mechanism makes them central to the system for observing deviations from the norm, which is why a whole set of Victorian reforms based on inspection (reform of the penal system, industrial and family reform, etc.)


employ a conception of norm which is simultaneously statistical and moral. But this is not to say that the novel fails to reflect the statistico-moral field of political interventions. Not possessing the relevant forms of calculation and not being deployed in the actual mechanism of 'improving surveillance' means that the novel cannot try to 'reflect' this field. The novel's relation to the machinery of government lies in a specific moral technology focussed in the publishing, school and (latterly) welfare systems. Here it is deployed as part of a means for forming capacities for the self-regulation of conduct, demeanour and manners. If we are to understand the capacities made available by the apparatus of literature, if we are to avoid treating them as the short-change of ideology or as a down-payment on some final historical truth, then we must begin a description of the deployment of literary techniques and procedures in the technology of morality.

This should be enough to call into question the political importance of the project to politicise cultural and literary criticism. This project overinvests in the fact of literature, giving it a quite fictitious centrality in the sphere of political organisation and argument. The novels of Dickens, for example, cannot aspire to the heights of anticipating history's synthesis of its own reflection in class consciousness nor can they be cast into the depths of ideology for some alleged failure to achieve such a reflection. The forms in which these novels function in the social field are not determined by true or false consciousness. Rather, they are governed by the less glamorous forms of social organisation in which literary-moral capacities are built-up and deployed. The deployment of literary capacities is not itself governed by some higher-order criterion of truth or falsity, no more than is the capacity to ride a bicycle or confess a misdeed. Of course, this does not mean that the literary apparatus escapes judgement. It simply means that the criteria of judgement have no transcendental form in 'consciousness', being themselves the local achievements of moral technologies.

In other words, as we have seen in the case of Dickens, the question of whether a novel provides an 'objective reflection' of social reality is literally meaningless. It is asked independently of any of the practical techniques and procedures that determine what counts as a 'reflection'—for example, protocols for literary verisimilitude, forms of statistical calculation, norms of appropriate conduct, etc. (If we have not settled on a means for answering a question, says Wittgenstein, then we have no idea what it is we are asking.) Once we have mapped the apparatus through which literature transects the social, then we can set aside its claims to realise a synthetic moral conscious ness; set aside, for example, Dickens' claims to a higher vision than


that possessed by the nineteenth-century moral statisticians. In this way, we attach our judgements to the limited sphere of social agency organised by the apparatus of literature—describing, for example, the political deployment of norms of conduct and sentiment—which is the condition of such judgements having any purchase on their object.

The marxian analysis of literature fails to transform this sphere to the extent that it relies on the mechanism of the literary reading to synthesise a transcendental consciousness of the 'whole of society'. Perhaps we are only just beginning to understand the nature of this complicity. The nineteenth century saw the secularisation of a special discipline of reading through which the Puritans had forced the word to come alive in a consciousness relieved of all worldly deformation by the grace of reading itself. This discipline is the central condition for the ethical valorisation of literary language as the site where 'doctrine' is dramatised and intensified, brought home to the faculties as a renovatory 'experience'. (This remark gives the orientation for a genealogy of the 'full response'.) At the same time the individual who was to occupy the position of judgement made available by this discipline of reading was emerging from the new machinery of public education, publishing and publicity in the form of an exemplary ethical personage, possessor of something like 'secular grace'. These are the circumstances in which the modern literary critic first appeared.

The critic's authority derives from the ethical intensity of a ritual of reading which sees into the 'whole of society' because it supposedly transcends the actual means of looking employed in the parts. As we have seen, it is precisely this attempt to float free of the dispersed 'material reality of thought' that eviscerates the category of reflection. Insofar as it attempts to decipher political reality through an exemplary reading of literary texts, marxian criticism inherits the giant's boots of nineteenth-century criticism, impossible to walk in. To this extent the marxian critic operates not through definite forms of political reasoning but by assuming the mantle of the exemplary ethical personage made available by the apparatus of literature.

Let us say, as an orientation to further work, that literary techniques and procedures form part of a moral technology which emerges during the nineteenth century, a technology closely connected with a strategy for 'policing the metropolis' and governing populations through the forms with which individuals are equipped to monitor their own conduct. Of course it is necessary to describe the relations between literary institutions and other more obviously political and economic forms. What I have argued is that such a description


cannot be governed by the question of whether the former 'reflect' the latter through the synthesis of a consciousness, collective or other wise. Instead, such relations must be described in terms of the contingent links established between the forms of social organisation where different capacities are put into effect. John Docker's book supports this enterprise, to borrow an epigram, in the same manner as a rope supports a hanged man.

Ian Hunter teaches at Griffith University.


1. In particular I am concerned with Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 8 and 9.

2. For an account of the degree to which this marriage characterises Marxist criticism in general, see Eagleton (1981).

3. For further discussion, see Hunter (1984).



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Cixous, H. (1974) 'The Character of Character'. New Literary History, 5 (2): 383-402. Docker, J. (1982) 'In Defence of Popular Culture'. Arena, 60: 72-87.

Docker, J. (1984) In A Critical Condition, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Eagleton, T. (1981) "'Marxist Criticism"'. In his Walter Benjamin: Or Towards A Revolutionary Criticism, London: New Left Books, 79-100.

Empson, W. (1935) Some Versions of pastoral London: Chatto and Windus.

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Hirst, P. (1979) 'Althusser and the Theory of ideology'. In his On Law and Ideology. London: Macmillan, 40-74.

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Leavis, F. R. (1945) "'Thought" and Emotional Quality'. In his (ed.) (1968) A Selection from scrutiny (Vol. 1). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 21 1-30.

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Macherey P. and Balibar, E. (1978) 'Literature as an Ideological Form: Some Marxist Propositions'. Oxford Literary Review, 3 (1): 4-12.

Williams, R. (1976) 'Developments in the Sociology of Culture'. Sociology, 10 (3): 497-506.

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