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Contextualizing the Debate: the Subject of Sinfields Study

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Students will and should find Alan Sinfields Literature, Politics, and Culture s ecially refreshing insofar as it see!s to reconnect the worlds of cultural roduction to the worlds in which they are historically, socially, and economically embedded. So, lease do not mista!e my comments here as a criticism of the ro"ect as a whole, a ro"ect with which # am $ery sym athetic. %#n assing, # want to a ologize %!ind of& in ad$ance for references to the '(() *indle edition of Sinfield+s boo!, which # belie$e is a re roduction of the ,--. rint edition of the boo!. /lectronic boo!s ha$e enabled me to cart much of my 0er!eley library with me without the hassle and e1 ense of bo1es and ta e.& 2his said, # would li!e students to try to roblematize the inference that by situating cultural roduction within society,history, culture, olitics, and economics, we therein are also ad$ancing a social, historical, olitical, or economic inter retation of that roduction. 2his inference is mista!en, # belie$e, on se$eral le$els. At the most basic le$el, howe$er, such an inference is missing any reference to or e1 lanation of the causal mechanisms that might and %we ho e e$entually& will hel us to a reciate how any s ecific dimension of culture has been sha ed by and in turn sha es s ecific factors in society, history, culture, olitics, or economics. #n want of a causal mechanism, we are left with hunches or inferences, which, as we all !now, lend themsel$es easily to rhetorical mani ulation %see Plato+s 3orgias&. 4f course, it could be suggested 5 as many, many scholars articularly in literature ha$e insisted o$er the years 5 that the need for a so6called 7causal mechanism8 is a re"udice wrongfully im orted into cultural studies from ositi$istic sciences and that students of literature would do far better relying u on tools s ecifically designed for and ade9uate to the human sciences. Sinfield notably distances himself from this suggestion: A non6materialist a roach alleges that high culture deri$es from the human s irit, and hence transcends historical conditions, constituting a reser$oir of ultimate truth and wisdom and belonging thereby to all eo le indifferently %72he Politics and Cultures of ;iscord %,--.&8 Loc <<.&. 2his disembedded, 7transcendental8 a roach to literature, Sinfield rightly oints out, 7has often been ta!en by leftists= it gained new $alidation in the ostwar settlement, as art and literature were en$isaged as good things which %li!e healthcare and social security& would be generally a$ailable within welfare6ca italism8 %<<.&. Sinfield does not want to ado t a disembedded, transcendental a roach. And, yet, it is not entirely clear why he then ado ts the sub"ect osition that he does 5 if not on transcendental grounds. Allow me to e1 lain. Sinfield describes his a roach to literature as 7cultural materialist,8 e1 laining that 7cultural materialists in$estigate the historical conditions in which te1tual re resentations are roduced, circulated and recei$ed8 %<<(&. Sinfield then goes on to e1 lain how cultural materialists 7engage with 9uestions about the relations between dominant and subordinate cultures, the im lications of racism, se1ism and homo hobia, the sco e for subaltern resistance, and the modes through which the system tends to accommodate or re el di$erse !inds of dissidence8 %<<(6<<.&. >inally, in a section titled

7?a!ing it Political,8 Sinfield %again accurately& oints out how 7cultural materialists are attac!ed as eo le who undermine cultural $alue by ma!ing it olitical+,8 re lying %accurately& 7that culture is olitical anyway, and that the attem t to su ress that !nowledge is itself a olitical manoeu$re8 %@)@&. Aere # want to call students attention to three related oints. 2he first oint is how Sinfield is eager to e1 lain his reasons for engaging with the !inds of 9uestions he does 5 racism, se1ism, homo hobia, resistance, etc. 5 ha$e to do with his own social and historical location. Be will return to this oint. Let us sim ly oint out here that self6referentiality 5 accounting for the conditions of one+s own ossibility or, more broadly, accounting for the historical com osition of one+s interests and re"udices 5 can not in and of itself ro$ide either a $alid or a satisfying $antage6 oint of criti9ue. %Consider, for e1am le, how all social sub"ects can and do ta!e their own e1 erience as their oint of de arture= creating multi le, often conflicting, oints of de arture.& 2he second oint # want students to obser$e is Sinfield+s referencing of 7the system,8 which, he writes, 7tends to accommodate or re el di$erse !inds of dissidence.8 # thin! that it will be im ortant to !ee an eye on this 7system8 as Sinfield elaborates it through his te1t. 0y the end of this cha ter, we will already !now that the 7system,8 at the $ery least, means ca italism. 2he 9uestion we may want to as! oursel$es is whether he means more than ca italism= for e1am le, does he also mean se1ism, or racism, or homo hobiaC And, if he also means these other social forms, then it might be $aluable for us to as! how these other formations are related, if at all, to ca italism= or whether, all of these, lus ca italism, are to be included under the broader heading of 7domination8 in general. 2hese two oints 5 self6referentiality and system 5 are intimately related to the third oint # would li!e students to consider, namely 7the olitical.8 # want students to consider this third oint because it may be felt that it is through olitics, through olitical action, that we not only e1 ress, but also give rise to and create the self6referential oints we can then ta!e as our oints of de arture. Bhen, for e1am le, # enter a $oting booth and cast a ballot, # not only artici ate in the democratic rocess. # also $alidate and constitute $oting as an ob"ecti$e form of social mediation. #f # am then to maintain my integrity, both indi$idually and socially, it will be much harder for me to criticize $oting as an institution. # ha$e not only legitimated this institution. 2his institution has, in a $ery real sense, through my artici ation in it, constituted me= it has created my identity. Bhen we act, no matter how we act, we not only create a world outside oursel$es, as Aannah Arendt has noted. Be also create a built world that in turn acts u on us= that creates us. Det, we might well as!, how does this !ind of self6 roduction or self6grounding, olitical self6 roduction or self6grounding, differ from the transcendentally grounded sub"ect of #mmanuel *ant+s criti9ueC 2here may be a clue to hel us answer this 9uestion at Loc @'' in the te1t, where Sinfield notes how 7there is no innocent mode of cultural roduction, no way of "um ing clear of the system. Even so, the point is not that nothing can be done, but that the struggle will have to be unremitting.8 Aere it is again: 7the system.8 0ut in this conte1t we are in$ited to locate oursel$es, as it were, both within and as roducts of the system and in unremitting struggle with the system= so the natural 9uestion is: how is it that the system generates from within itself a $antage6 oint or sub"ect6 osition that finds itself in unremitting struggle with itselfC

#t has sometimes been suggested that this internal conflict is e$idence of the dialectical nature of reality. And erha s this conflict ro$ides "ust such e$idence. #f so, howe$er, it also calls into doubt the $antage oint of the element within the system that is at struggle with the system. 2hat is to say, it calls into 9uestion the $alidity or %e$en more& the "ustice of the struggle since we might "ust as well claim that it is that against which we are struggling unremittingly that is the agent of the struggle and that it is we who are unwitting agents of the system against who are being unremittingly resisted. Needless to say, down this ath is nothing but cynicism and des air= des air because it might be easy for some to conclude %as many ha$e concluded& that 7there is really no difference8 between 7left and right8 or 7good and e$il8 or 7right and wrong8 and, therefore, it is u to each one of us to sim ly ma!e our choice %or not& and be done with it. Cynicism because, in s ite of 5 or erha s because of 5 the groundlessness of our choice, we might ne$ertheless be inclined to o t for that sub"ect osition that is nearest and dearest to us %our identity& and act u on that sub"ect osition, de facto ma!ing out of 7the real8 7the good.8 # belie$e there is another alternati$e. Let us su ose that our aim is not first to resist unremittingly, but to understand 5 and not least to understand how it is e$en ossible for an element of any system, dialectical or otherwise, to understand and desire to su ersede its own systemic conditions. 0ut # do not intend that we embrace this aim solely or rimarily because we are or feel oursel$es to be o ressed or dominated. Be are o ressed and dominated by many things 5 air, gra$ity, mass, weight, language, atoms, molecules, muons, le tons, 9uar!s, and so on 5 whose remo$al would lea$e us 9uite dead. #f we are truly the sub"ect and the ob"ect of 7the system,8 if e$en our desire for its su ersession is structured by 7the system,8 not only in o osition, negati$ely %as Adorno might ha$e said&, but substanti$ely and formally, then our aim cannot be sim ly to identify in order to o ose. Eather do we need to understand because it is in this understanding that our own emanci ation is com osed 5 not in o osition, not in indeterminate, but recisely through determinate negation. 0ut this suggests that more is entailed than seating e$en the o ositional $antage6 oint in its historical, social, olitical, or economic setting. Be are also in$ited to critically reflect on why o osition 5 successful o osition 5 is not free to ta!e u "ust any old o ositional ath, willy6nilly and why 7the system8 occu ies bodies and s ace in highly s ecific !inds of ways in order to re roduce itself, why it is so terribly o ortunistic and %hence& successful. Put differently, when we ta!e any and all o ression, whether in series or in combination, as our oint of de arture, we cannot but hel lose our way both ractically and theoretically. And we cannot hel but lose our way because each indi$idual oint of domination and o ression is itself 5 e$en in o osition 5 among the ways that 7the system8 re roduces itself. #n order to chart a ath through and e$entually to the other side of the system, we therefore need to gras the system in its totality, the causal mechanisms by which it is sustained. 2o call these causal mechanisms 7ca italism8 is both hel ful, but also unhel ful. #t is unhel ful, when, by this term, we mean to distinguish it from something else that is non6ca italist. And this is unhel ful because it suggests that the o osition arises either o ositionally or transcendentally from outside the system. 2he only way it can be hel ful, therefore, is when using the term 7ca italism8 in$ites us to e1 lore how we too, its o osition, are com osed by and within this term, not in indeterminate, but recisely in determinate o osition. 2his is hel ful because it steers us clear of mista!ing o ositional consciousness transcendentally for the inter reti$e categories we need to understand the system. #nstead, we are in$ited to e1 lore in an entirely non6ironic way how ca italism forms a com le1, highly

differentiated, dialectically moti$ated and 9uasi6 ersonal social form in which we and our thoughts and practices too are contained. #f it is to be o$ercome, it will therefore be self6 o$ercome from within. And that entails thin!ing deliberately about causal mechanisms: structures, laws, institutions, regulations, social grou s, etc. in highly s ecific !inds of ways. ?y im ression, so far, is that Sinfield is not far from doing recisely this. 0ut # thin! that we can su lement his a roach with a theory of ca italism that is substantially more rigorous.

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