Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 3 No. 2, December 1985

Reading Reading Relations

John O. Thompson

Bernard Sharratt, Reading Relations: Structures of Literary Production: A Dialectical Text/Book, Brighton: Harvester Press, 1982.

Reading Relations (RR) represents an unusual solution — unusually festive, unusually worried — to a problem which presents itself to most young academics: How do you get your doctoral thesis published? Thesis-writing has its problems, but researching and writing-up within an institutional setting insulated from the forces ruling the book-market at a given moment 1 can produce material which you want other people to see. But this means finding a way of re-writing-up for the market. Some of Sharratt's best jokes bear on this. Here is 'Anne Arthur', putative author of the bulk of the book, introducing it: 'It is written mainly for sixth-formers and undergraduates, since they constitute the largest single market for this kind of book [i.e. 'Marxist theory of literature'], but I will be grateful to any one at all who buys it, or, even more, to anyone who assigns it for reading on a compulsory course' (53). The second part of 'her' book 'began life' not only as her 'Mistress of Arts dissertation, entitled "Autobiography and Class Consciousness"' (235) but as Sharratt's 'PhD thesis supervised by Arthur Sale and examined by Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson' (339). S/he describes the changes it has undergone on its way to publication thus:

In the rush to get the book on to the market, I have not thought it worthwhile to waste time erasing the scars of its genesis, beyond removing the scholarly clutter of footnotes, references, evidence, bibliography, etc.: such detritus of a bank­rupt academicism can be consulted by any moles so inclined in the Anderson Room of the University Library (235).

This nicely sends up the standard reviewer's complaint about ex-theses, as well as implicitly reproving a lumpen-left hostility to schol­arship. It also, disconcertingly, does describe just what Sharratt has done.

Ann Arthur's text is structured as a fictional progression towards the thesis. That is, the thesis appears after a Lecture on Marxist literary criticism (57-92), a Seminar taking off from a George Herbert poem but getting political or metapolitical as seven voices succeed one another (93-168), and a Finals Exam for a course called 'Studies in Legal Fiction' to which six essays purport to be answers (169-237).2 But of course what stand in for pre-thesis academic stages are actually post-thesis writings. They embody a problem as fa­miliar to lecturers as the thesis-publication one: How do you move on from your thesis? The demands of the job tend to make writing a more desultory and interrupted business, so the dream that you will confidently carry your thesis's thought forward — enrich it with new evidence, reconceptualise it in a broader theoretical framework — is not easily realised. Not least because the closure represented by actu­ally finishing a thesis is surprisingly hard to break open again.

While RR manages to be a tour-de-force vehicle for post-thesis papers (see the list of places they were delivered on p 399) as well as for the thesis itself, conveying the malaise of the writing-and-publishing situation is basic to its strategy. The bitterness with which Anne Arthur's ironic introduction to the thesis continues —
I have, however, allowed the traces of its now-faded ideological ambience (it was completed in 1986 [sic]) to remain, as a dia­lectical counterpoint to the other sections of this book which register the definitive advances since made in my own intel­lectual Odyssey —
alerts us to the extent to which the later writing is indecisive and un-cumulative. And this despite all the Theoretical Advances of the 70s! Counterbalancing this is the (untheorizable? anti-academic?) exhilaration of the process of assemblage. Herein, rather than in the 'theoretical' metadiscursive mastery which various bits of Sharratt's collage individually may claim, lies the post-thesis Sharratt success story whose energy keeps the big book aloft.

The subject-matter of the thesis was well chosen to make the follow-on problem more ironic than usual. The autobiographies whose class consciousness is being interrogated are those of four now-forgotten 19th century radicals — Samuel Bamford, Alexander Somerville, James Dawson Burn and Thomas Frost — whose lives share a pattern of early activism followed by retreat. RR as a whole is organised so as to portray academic-professional 'settling in' as a parallel process.3 But Sharratt is, in delineating the process, trying to fight it, so RR is designed to be unsettled and unsettling.

This would seem to distance RR from the autobiographies, as diag­nosis is distinct from symptom. But even leaving aside all the ways in which RR's unsettling strategy involves presenting itself as symp­tomatic, as symptomatic in presenting itself as symptomatic, and so on, the real discovery which the thesis records moves us away from the notion of the symptomatic altogether (to a degree which its author, who in this respect may not be the Bernard Sharratt of RR-as-a-whole, seems not to realise) — as close reading usually does.
What turns out to be fascinating about Bamford, Somerville, Burn and Frost is the different ways their texts have difficulty holding together. Whatever the generic contract between the writer of an au­tobiography and his readers may be — '... to communicate ... to par­ticipate in (and thereby help to perpetuate) an existing set of social relations ... relations of production ... relations of expectation' (311) — these four autobiographers fall short of fulfilling it.
Now this can itself be seen as symptomatic, as deriving from the set of social relationships which made it impossible for each of these subjects to achieve the sort of stable identity which would support a simple-communication-model autobiography. Specifically, by a Lukacsian twist, each man is diagnozed as lacking access to the politi­cal organizational form which would have given him a firm class-identity within a properly revolutionary workers' movement. And the problems of each man can be correlated roughly with a history of not-yet-available forms; the key paragraph setting this up is on p.316.

However, when the author of the thesis slides in the parenthesis in the following sentence —

This is not to say that such political organisations or forms of society were historically possible in 1819, 1832, 1855 or 1880 (or even possible in principle), but that a need for such organisations and modes of society is implicit in the personal and politi­cal problems of Bamford and Somerville, Burn and Frost — (316)

a different scene opens up. What if political forms which would re­store subject-unity are impossible? What if, correlatively, simple-communication-model autobiography, or indeed writing of any sort, is impossible? ('But in what sense is "autobiography" a "genre"?' (311).) Then, while the particular difficulties with the form which close reading reveals in the four autobiographies may indeed be his­torically specific (in ways which the thesis brings out well), the pros­pect of any organisational solution to these difficulties recedes indefinitely.

In reflecting on how things stand now, RR develops its sense of the impossibility of adequate left political forms most fully via Bert, the final 'student' to speak in the George Herbert seminar. (Her)Bert speaks after George. Both of them are reacting to the 70s dominance of 'Althusserian-Lacanianism'.4 George, after shrewdly putting his finger on a famous difficulty with the Althusserian postulation of a Marxist Science in the wake of an epistemological break ('And what we ended up with, after the "break", was a self-justifying theory anyway, a theoretical practice that justified its own premises! After that, it was inevitable that we'd spend the next decade arguing about epistemology' (131)), comes up with the outlines of a positive politi­cal use for text-based ideological analysis. We'll return to this below. But Bert, following on, performs the characteristic gesture of RR, undercutting.

To do this he returns us to organisational questions. He sees that both Althusser and the Perry Anderson of the famous 'Components of the National Culture' essay (on which Bert's seminar contribution is a digressive commentary) need the Party to keep their accounts from settling into a description of impasse. But they can't have the Party, for, by now, well-known reasons. 'Actually-existing' Commu­nist Parties in Western Europe and the Third World are blighted by the ossified forms of 'actually-existing socialism' in the Stalinist states.5 And the would-be (Trotskyist) revolutionary-CPs don't come up with much.

No 'revolutionary socialist party' in Britain seems to have any­thing like a practical answer to the question: 'What do we do next, and after that? My own experience over twenty years is that no new strategic perspectives have been developed by any revolutionary socialist party in Britain within which the 'next tactic' makes sense (160).

That leaves ethically-based movements like CND; and Bert argues that CND could only get so far in the early '60s (so that its collapse at that point was an actual precipitating agent for the renewal of the dream of the Party), and still can get only so far in its revival, because

of a fundamental blockage: the impossibility of extending the moral case against unilateralism into a total political pro­gramme and converting 150,000 heterogeneous adherents of the former into disciplined supporters of the latter. I say 'im­possibility'. Not exhaustion or incompetence. What would have been involved would have been a revolution against the material needs, interests, hopes, expectations, of those who were to make that 'revolution'. Fully to follow through the consequences of unilateralism would have involved a fundamental threat to the material conditions of life of not just the 150,000 but most of the 50 million in Britain — a threat arising not (solely) from 'Soviet aggression' but from economic and other reprisals on us by our erstwhile 'allies'. To align with the 'non-aligned bloc' ... was a liberal version of the paradoxical demand faced by any revolutionary socialist party in Europe and North America — a 'demand' it would have to make, in the first instance, of its own members (161).

Bert's political pessimism, which I don't think is in turn undercut by anything else in RR,6 may not be global ('What is left, waiting, hope­fully, in the wings, at the quiet margins of history and political theory, is that other puissance, those masses who live, and die, in their own fourth realm, their own dark world' (164));7 but it certainly discerns no prospect of any British left organizational form which could, to go back to the thesis's problematic, as a useful byproduct of its main concerns, reunify the psyches of those who act within it.

It should be noted that RR doesn't quite get around to denying the possibility that some political organization might have the subject-integrating effects adumbrated in the thesis. This may be important in accounting for the obvious absence in the above list of deficient parties: the Labour Party. I take it that this prosaic and compromised option couldn't for a moment strike anyone as a candidate for the Lukacsian Party whether as integrating the psyches of its activists or otherwise. But, if Bert's eliminative procedures are valid, and the political question were to be cut completely free from the psychic-integration question, the Labour Party — and not even a Bennite-rump version of that — might look like the only, never-guaranteed vehicle for whatever 'actually-existing socialism' we can manage. No doubt RR fails to consider this possibility partly because post-Althusserian Labourism hadn't yet crystallised when it was being written; but it may also spurn it because a certain political gloom is the vital other pole to the textual-celebratory side of the project to which we are about to turn.

What is characteristic of Lacanian-Althusserianism is that it takes the theoretical impasse of European Marxism to its point of highest theoretical development so far: into the contradic­tions of epistemology and the proclamation that: The subject can't know the discourses which produce him, the deep struc­ture and laws of the social formation, because the very process of being constituted as a subject involves the repression of that dis­course, the misrecognition of those laws of the mode of produc­tion' ... Goldmann's argument is that Kant's philosophy is an expression of that 'tragic vision' which articulated the crisis of the bourgeoisie in the revolutionary epoch of the late Enlight­enment ... That Western Marxism, and indeed European twentieth-century thought generally, has consistently been unable to develop, or refused to develop, a 'morality', may be a mark that 'European Marxism' is now the expression of another 'tragic vision' (162-165).

RR needs this taste of tragedy in theory, as well as its 'most deeply re­pressed ... racial(ist) theme which haunts the text as its guilt (those forgotten memories of Latin America, Barbados, Algeria, etc.)' as the para-critics in one of the final sections8 put it, if it is to match the poignancy of the autobiographies it is modelling.

But the other thing about that poignancy is how it is a function of the autobiographies' oddity, their uncanniness even, at a micro-textual level. The thesis's originality lies in its demonstration of this. Each of the four autobiographers reveals, in his handling of the narra­tion of his own life, an inability to control, to limit, some particular meaning-effect that (whether or not you approach it 'diagnostically') undercuts his desired sense of mastery over that life. And it is these meaning-effects that turn out to be valuable! It is as if the work the autobiographers have put in (even the lives they have lived as part of that work) is only justified in their writing by what has eluded their own grasp.
You could try to reflect such texts in your own text in two ways: either by working away very straightforwardly and 'positively', and waiting for the collapse of your text to happen behind your back, or by somehow overtly enacting collapse in the writing.

Sharratt takes the latter course. The whole complicated apparatus of quarrelsome and variously inadequate personae is set up to be a text that will not 'work', that will never close. The irony is that Shar­ratt may retain so much more mastery as collageist of his own posi­tions, as connoisseur of cut and undercut, than the autobiographers — who, alas, lived before Modernism — that the similarity between his text and theirs evaporates. The pleasure-seeking reading need not feel that this matters much, though. Sharratt's mastery/mistressery is independently delightful, in an acrobatic way, whatever the depression the 'position-undercut-position' contents of the book might seem apt to induce.


We have seen the Lukacsian manner of speaking of the thesis fall away in the 'pre-' (i.e. post-) thesis material under the joint pressures of an institutional-pessimistic intuition (the workers' movement in the West does not, and foreseeably cannot, find embodiment in or­ganizations which could de-alienate the subjectivities of their mem­bers) and a textual-optimistic intuition (the production of historically 'split subjects' makes fascinating reading; as such a subject himself, Sharratt has a right to yield himself fully to the fascinations of writ­ing).

I want to turn now to the problem of the way the Screen of the late 70s turns up within the book as a sort of enemy. This is already evi­dent in the Review Section towards the end of the book, which offers one 'S.P.'s' hostile reactions: This absurd book should never have been published' (327). S.P. not only believes that 'the actual "literary criticism" the text offers ... immediately comes under the decisive guillotine of the sharp critique of (literary) criticism erected and operated by the practitioners of the only genuine criticism in England today: the Screen circle' (328), but proceeds to quote a great chunk (uncredited) of Anthony Easthope's review for Screen Education of Screen Reader I (at the end of the extract this becomes Screem Reader).

I shall start from Sharratt's formulation of what I'll call the guilty question hanging over the heads of left-wing textual experts (literary or filmic). The guilty question amounts to a restatement of the ten­sion between pessimism and optimism we've been looking at — ex­pressed pessimistically. I shall be arguing that Screen, at the point at which Sharratt was reacting against it, had a project which, had it been realisable, would have left the guilty question not worth posing. Sharratt never argues very directly against that project. But to just the degree to which 70s Screenishness can now be seen to promise more than it could perform, the project's ability to fend off the guilty question dissolves, leaving Sharratt's posing of it looking more chal­lenging than we might once have liked to think.

The question turns up early in RR:

As a reader of literary works, I have at least to ask the question why I 'value' literature, why I read it at all. And involved in that question is, basically, the question of why I continue to spend time reading poems and novels while, to put it brutally, comrades are being shot and Indian villagers are starving (14).

Substitute 'watching films and tv' and you still get a formulation which would definitely not have felt at home in a '70s Screen.

The guilty question only makes sense if the brutalities in the 'while' clause are a part, but an inaccessible part, of the life of the mere reader. If they are not a part, it collapses into inconsequence ('How can I spend time reading while on the other side of the world earthquakes keep killing people unjustly?'); if they are not an inac­cessible part, then the mere reader emerges as, for whatever reasons, a mere creep ('How could he spend time reading while he knew his friend needed him?'). But to be part of a global economic system which, in generating the brutalities, does so most brutally elsewhere (the Third World) and, because systematically, in ways which make voluntarist intervention irrelevant (I'll just hop on a plane with some groceries.'), fulfils the guilty question's presuppositions all too well. Screen in the 70s naturally shared with Sharratt the background assumption that this is indeed our position; it's hard to imagine anyone on the left not agreeing.

But if the question makes sense at all, won't it always loom? What course of action could ever fend off the reproach of the 'while' clause? One is always at best only going to be able to 'do what one can' — which at its most straightforward ('political work') is not apt to bear on one's literary or cinematic consumption at all. What keeps 'Marx-Engels-Lenin on Literature and Art'-type compilations rather marginal to marxism is that the founders, doing what they could, left the aesthetic in the same subordinate position in their lives that it occupies for most people.

However, it became (suspiciously?) clear in the '70s that expertize in texts could itself rank as one form of doing-what-one-can. The key illumination, I think, looked something like this. If reading or watch­ing can be analyzed as demonstrating how one is held by the information-flow within a system so as to be at once integrated into and subordinated to the system's workings, then a 'critical science of the text' offers the prospect of loosening that hold via the under­standing, perhaps even just the making-visible, of its mechanisms. The Althusser of the Ideological State Apparatuses essay provided a trenchant model for how ISCs as message-emitters (as distinct from the Repressive State Apparatuses as force-wielders) can hold, by con­stituting, the system's subjects ('interpellation').

The trouble with this orientation, which stresses the constituting activity of the system as a whole or of subsystems within it (the ISAs), is that correlatively it minimizes activity on the part of the constituted, the cogs in the machine. Insofar as this ran into trouble from free-will enthusiasts, that was perceived as just too bad. 9 But activity (fluidity, mobility, polysemy) within the message itself was also threatened, and this came into conflict with the evidence which one's textual expertize itself imposes on one. The experience of close read­ing always puts in question the simple communication model, while at the end of the day a functionalist systems model always presup­poses it. Furthermore, the very theoretical import routes which brought you Althusser was also bringing you, via a Saussureanized anthropology (Levi-Strauss), lit crit (Barthes), psychoanalysis (Lacan) and philosophy (Derrida), a set of kits each sensitizing us to new aspects of the elusiveness of the closely-read. ('Structuralism' was always 'post-structuralism' in that the diacritical trick of Saus-surean thought, the insistence on difference, may promise 'system' but always comes up with an intriguing tangle when applied to any semantic phenomenon more complex than traffic-lights.)

The guilty question has not been exorcized if doing-what-one-can in close reading reveals message complexities which make the message a bad 'holder' or 'positioner'. Screen in the '70s made various attempts to keep a general 'positioning' account in place while remaining open to textual complexity.10 Sharratt is tempted by the double-bind concept, which installs the message receiver as passive victim of a certain sort of message complexity. But he doesn't actually develop a single account of literature's value along double-bind lines very far. The Reader's Report reports that the fairly short (thank God!) section on 'literary conversions' actually seems to justify all these 'ambiguities', 'double-binds' and so on as common features or strategies of fiction, from Rich­ardson through Coleridge to Joyce and Eliot: once we've em­barked on a text, the text will eventually 'trap' us and make us 'change our mind' about it by forcing us into a double-bind, so that we can only go on reading it if we make sense of it in terms we resist because they're logically contradictory (323).

This sounds like the Stanley Fish of Self Consuming Artifacts. But the actual argument is somewhat different from the reported version: rather than the text enforcing a therapeutic double-bind on the reader, the reader's freedom enables him or her to see ideological double-binds as they are made visible by the art-work:

What your analysis suggests, Chris, is that a 'literary' text might incorporate, might be structured upon, a particular stage in the history of an 'ideologic' and that a reading of the 'logic' of the text may reveal the logic of that ideology, that ideologic, precisely because a reading isn't enmeshed in the power-premise that gives rise to the ideologic: when I read a text I'm not actually in the double-bind the text articulates, because I'm not in the situation of powerlessness relative to power that the ideologic derives from. Or if I am so enmeshed in 'real life', I'm not while I'm reading.... If I'm right in suggesting that ideology is constituted by an enmeshing of power and logic, of a distribution of power and an ideologic which is generated from acceptance of that power, then it may be that a 'literary' text can re-work, re-construct, be structured by, or put into a kind of disarray, that 'ideologic'. A reader may then be able to grasp the structure of that ideologic ... precisely because in the act of reading, the power-relation that supports the double-bind, that prevents one from 'leaving the field', is in abeyance ... To explore those problems may be more important than trying to 'relate' a text to its historical moment, since the derangement of an ideologic achieved in a text may be prompt­ed by a paradox of power specific to a historical moment, or even the specific dilemmas of an individual, but the text may experiment with the internal possibilities and permutations of an ideologic in ways that release it from the constraints of the actual double-bind operative at that (historical) moment (139-40).

This is interesting, but, as an Apology for Poetry and the Reading Of It, too optimistic for Sharratt to rest content with. It is also, in its appeal to the reader's freedom, the opposite of a text-positioning theory. So, in wrestling with '70s-Screen-type problems, a solution gets proposed which, even if undercut by other things in RR, signals a persisting dissatisfaction with the text-positioning hypothesis.

Later Sharratt coins the word 'constraintment' for the 'unity' (a unity in several senses imaginary) which both the dream-work and the art-work produce/are (232): 'the dream-work's self-constraintment is always precarious, however, since the necessity for it, what makes it necessary, is finally insatiable, uncontainable, dis­contented, unconstrainable ..." This sets us up, at the conclusion to the Finals Exam (the Camus question), for RRys single most eloquent passage.

The specific contradictions of a white French Algerian in 1956-7 are an instance of that pervasive contradiction that turns support for 'justice' into acquiescence in 'injustice' when we ourselves become the targets in a 'just war' of liberation; in such a situation, faced with that problem, we would all prefer to be civilians. But though a constraintment of those contradic­tions may temporarily be found in the art-work — in the work
114 Aust. J. Cultural Studies, 3:2 (1985)

of writing and of reading — there is no truce possible outside of that work: at most, writing or reading a work of art may allow us, for a few privileged moments, to 'work through' some of the permutations of those contradictions which already shape our 'damaged lives' (to use Adorno's phrase from Minima Moralia), may even allow us access to an 'understanding' of them, in the process of which we may arrive at the peculiar satisfaction of 'inhabiting' the world which would be constituted by their permanent, static, self-constraintment: a steady state world from which the actual movements of history have been expelled. There, perhaps, lies literature's subtlest attraction and tempta­tion. In the end, however, those contradictions are, necessarily, worked through according to another logic, with quite other rules and procedures, and within that logic, the logic of history, there can be no truce at all. Always, with a shock, the dreamer has to awake — to find that the war is still continuing (234).

The post-70s drift (not, I think, Screen's) towards micro-textual impe­rialism, the 'it's all text' school of Anglo-American sub-Derrideanism, might here find not so much a crushing argument against itself as a telling picture of itself as cosy. Whatever the textual splendours and miseries which close reading reveals, a wider context can be turned to which is the text's force-ful outside and in relation to which the text is a haven. Where this differs from '70s~Screenery, which via the importation of Metz's metaspectator cosy in the darkness of the cinema is once again not far from Sharratt, is in its granting the text 'haven' status at all, since the system's writ should run there too on a functionalist account. It is ultimately one's dissatisfaction with functionalism that might lead one to ask now whether Sharratt is right, whether the (commonplace enough) comfortable-reader-viewer/cruel-world picture is worth dispensing with if the price to be paid is the assigning of fake cruelties (constraining powers) to the text itself.

John O. Thompson teaches at Liverpool University.


1. Of course this sort of writing is not insulated from market forces absolutely, since thesis-writing plays a central role in the academic job-market. But this fact doesn't of itself negate the effects, both negative and positive, of freedom from book-market constraints.

2. The paper itself is fun; the questions unanswered include: '5. "The naked truth is never visible to a voyeur" (M. Powell). Com­ment on the contribution of the cinema screen to our image of de­tection, with reference to two of the following: Young Mr Lincoln, The Wrong Man, Peeping Tom' and '15. List any fifteen plays by Brecht you consider appropriate'.

3. This is given to S.P. to say with maximum venom on pp.330-31.

4. S.P. finds the term barbarous (p.330), and here I'm inclined to agree with him.

5. For Anderson's latest views on the global legacy of Stanlinism, see Trotsky's Interpretation of Stalinism', New Left Review,l39, May-June, 1983, pp.49-58.

6. Though see the para-critics' remarks on Bert on p.335.

7. This sentence is the climax of a bravura passage turning Althusser's description of Montesquieu back against Althusser. The Bert/?BS position is that as the workers (a fourth puissance beyond the classical three estates) were invisible to Montesquieu, so the Third World is, despite all contrary protestations, invisible to all effective Western 'left' parties.

8. On p.334; other readers may find this theme anything but repressed, though none the worse for that. My own candidate for the repressed of RR is the institution for which the thesis was actually produced.

9. If one's textual expertize is to rank as liberating, one cannot afford to reckon that in any simple way the ordinary recipients of texts are already free. Luckily, there are all sorts of good arguments to show they aren't. And yet...

10. You can divide your texts into positioning and non-positioning . classes: Barthes' 'readerly' vs. 'writerly', MacCabe's George Eliot vs. James Joyce or Days of Hope vs. History Lessons, Hollywood Crass vs Hollywood Complex a la Cahiers, Hollywood vs Independent Cinema. Or — this was Stephen Heath's move — you can try to describe positioning and its loss, homogenization and heteroge­neity, as in tension in every text at every moment — though more productively in some texts than in others, which virtually gets us back to the first option.

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