Since this is my last Chronicle before reaching triple figures, I hope the reader will forgive me if it waxes a bit prophetic. The expression Era of Suspicion (L’ère du soupçon) is Nathalie Sarraute’s characterization of modernity.
The contestatory tone of Western thought dates from the Enlightenment, when the philosophe claims an understanding of human reality superior to that incarnated in its ruling institutions. The Enlighteners were spokesmen for the rising bourgeoisie in contrast with the agro-ritual social organization of the old regime; perhaps naively, they intended their rationalist discourse not as a mere critique of traditional discourses but a substitute for them. The charm of 18th century satire, whose high point is Voltaire’s Candide, is that it is only minimally resentful of the order it mocks.
Already in the following generation, Rousseau laid the foundation for the Romantic relocation of the resentful self within bourgeois society. But his critique is aimed at society in general, and his idea of the good society, as expressed in the Social Contract, is not historically situated in relation to what it must supersede. Rousseau is not yet a suspicious thinker; he finds anthropological truth in a universally available intuition of the “heart”: je sens mon coeur et je connais les hommes.
It is Karl Marx who inaugurates the age of suspicion, and intellectuals ever since have made use of his method of demystification: the demonstration that the discourse of the “ruling class,” or by extension, of the patriarchy or the white race or the West, not merely expresses the ruling group’s self-interest but unwittingly disguises this self-interest as a universal truth. The very rational universality that the philosophes had fought for against the “obscurantism” of religion and tradition was now shown to be the expression of the values of one class–the bourgeoisie–in their struggle for the supremacy of their mode of production relations. What then were the truly universal values on the basis of which this demystification could be carried out? Those of the proletariat, in whose interest Marx claimed to write. Since bourgeois society makes obsolete the older divisions between nobles, clergy, and tiers état, the bourgeoisie is in fact the only “class” remaining; once the knell of private property has sounded, everyone will be a proletarian. Hence Marxism is only provisionally a class-bound truth; its historical destiny is to be the truth of, as they say nowadays, humankind.
Since the collapse of the Socialist bloc, it has become obvious that the bourgeois market is a less essentially inequitable mechanism for distributing goods and services than any centralized system, however ideologically committed to utopian ideals. Which is to say that the idea that demystificatory truth resides in a final, classless state has been disproved by history. But if this is so, then the extension of the demystificatory enterprise to other domains (race, gender, colonialism, etc.) is founded on a faulty epistemology. Marx criticized present society from the standpoint of a reasonably coherent view of the end of history, however flawed this has proved to be in hindsight. Lacking such a final perspective, contemporary forms of suspicion can only fall back on our originary moral intuition, which cannot be analyzed as such in the context of the demystificatory model.
What this suggests is that the more recent forms of demystification implicitly depend upon the Marxian critique of “capitalism.” It is this dependence that explains why, although socialism has been tried and, to put it euphemistically, found wanting, instead of celebrating the virtues of liberal market society or à la rigueur criticizing it in its own terms, the academy remains dominated by critical theorizing consecrated to demystifying the hegemonic discourses of late capitalism.
The system of critical suspicion is an intellectual perpetual-motion machine, a self-unfulfilling prophecy. It lacks a fundamental theory of how culture operates, because, absent the “classless” model provided by Marx’s discredited utopia, its very method precludes such a theory. If the underlying model of the social order is a binary structure of domination, then no historically existing cultural institution or discourse can be of any value in revealing the moral horizon of non-dominated human relations, our intuition of which has presumably descended on us from the moon. Post-Marxian suspicion is a form of radical Rousseaueanism for which society has so blighted our original human essence that even our “heart” no longer retains its intuition of it. But the moral indignation that bubbles through all this writing demonstrates that our originary moral intuition is alive and well; it’s just our theories that are unable to situate it in relation to the cultural forms they are so busy demystifying.
Whence the following modestly prophetic suggestion:
Let us declare an end to the era of suspicion. Let us study the operations and discourses of society, including in particular its cultural discourses, with a little humility, to see how they work, and not in order to hasten the demise of late capitalism, the patriarchy, and Big Corporations. Let us examine the expressions of political and other resentments within these discourses in the context of their operation, not as objects of our own resentful approval or denunciation.
In future columns I will attempt to enunciate and develop a generative approach to cultural criticism, and to CS, as an alternative to the demystifications of the era of suspicion. (As I pointed out in last week’s column, because CS, although informed by the usual theories of suspicion, is driven by empirical curiosity rather than ideology–if only to find new topics for Conferences–it often goes far to realizing my suggestion in practice.) In the past, I have never elaborated a GA methodology, since from a generative perspective, no moment of history is reducible to any other and each cultural form must therefore be understood in terms of the scenic consciousness of its specific historical context. But in response to the critique of suspicion, it becomes necessary to define the activity of cultural criticism in a broader ethical context.
In a word, what is needed is a critique that begins from love rather than resentment: one that understands the components of culture as means of adding rather than subtracting from their audience’s freedom, of empowering it rather than submitting it, whether or not through the ruses of what Marcuse called “repressive tolerance,” to the oppression of whatever version of Big Daddy one desires to denounce.
I do not think this sort of criticism will be very hard to create. It will not require we throw away the strengths of what Easthope usefully calls the modernist (i.e., close) reading of texts, although it will require that we subordinate this reading’s celebration of well-wroughtness to the ethical function of culture. Readers familiar with GA will recall that it defines the function of culture as “the deferral of violence through representation.” What this means is not offering inauthentic substitutes to distract the audience from its genuine impulses of revolt, but recycling the audience’s resentment into the system as a means of enrichment.
To give a brief example: in a little manual on Madame Bovary (G. K. Hall, 1989), I developed the idea that Emma is the first literary character to incarnate the values of what has come to be called consumer society (la société de consommation). Although Emma’s life ends tragically, Flaubert’s accomplishment is malgré tout an enrichment and empowerment of the desiring self, not just because Emma’s own career illustrates increasing control over her circumstances (although this ultimately leads not to emancipation but suicide), but because her praxis uncovers new layers of meaning that readers can apply to their own lives. To understand the semiotic relation between Emma’s purchases and her desires is not to repeat her failure, but to give oneself new options. It is sufficient demonstration of this point that market society has ever since emphatically followed Emma’s (and the merchant Lheureux’) lead, although the new system had no name in Flaubert’s day and for several generations afterward and was not theorized on a comparable level of acumen until 1968 in Jean Baudrillard’s Le système des objets.
I hope you, dear reader, will seriously consider implementing my “prophetic” suggestion in your own work, thereby transmitting it by example to others. Let us hope that, by the time of the new millennium, we will all have learned to speak with civility and (not uncritical) respect about the social order we profit from and to which, hopefully, we all wish to make a positive contribution.