In conscious life, we achieve some sense of ourselves as reasonably unified, coherent selves, and without this action would be impossible. But all this is merely at the 'imaginary' level of the ego, which is no more than the tip of the iceberg of the human subject known to psychoanalysis . The ego is function or effect of a subject which is always dispersed, never identical with itself, strung out along the chains of the discourses which constitute it.
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What persuades men and women to mistake each other from time to time for gods or vermin is ideology. One can understand well enough how human beings may struggle and murder for good material reasons - reasons connected, for instance, with their physical survival. It is much harder to grasp how they may come to do so in the name of something as apparently abstract as ideas. Yet ideas are what men and women live by, and will occasionally die for.
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The British are supposed to be particularly averse to intellectuals, a prejudice closely bound up with their dislike of foreigners. Indeed, one important source of this Anglo-Saxon distaste for highbrows and eggheads was the French revolution, which was seen as an attempt to reconstruct society on the basis of abstract rational principles.
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The New Testament is a brutal destroyer of human illusions. If you follow Jesus and don't end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do. The stark signifier of the human condition is one who spoke up for love and justice and was done to death for his pains. The traumatic truth of human history is a mutilated body.
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In the pragmatist, streetwise climate of advanced postmodern capitalism, with its scepticism of big pictures and grand narratives, its hard-nosed disenchantment with the metaphysical, 'life' is one among a whole series of discredited totalities. We are invited to think small rather than big - ironically, at just the point when some of those out to destroy Western civilization are doing exactly the opposite. In the conflict between Western capitalism and radical Islam, a paucity of belief squares up to an excess of it. The West finds itself faced with a full-blooded metaphysical onslaught at just the historical point that it has, so to speak, philosophically disarmed. As far as belief goes, postmodernism prefers to travel light: it has beliefs, to be sure, but it does not have faith.
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Derrida... labels as 'metaphysical' any such thought system which depends on an unassailable foundation, a first principle or unimpeachable ground upon which a whole hierarchy of meanings may be constructed. It is not that he believes that we can merely rid ourselves of the urge to forge such first principles, for such an impulse is deeply embedded in our history, and cannot - at least as yet - be eradicated or ignored. Derrida would see his own work as inescapably 'contaminated' by such metaphysical thought, much as he strives to give it the slip. But if you examine such first principles closely, you can see that they may always be 'deconstructed': they can be shown to be products of a particular system of meaning, rather than what props it up from the outside.
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Marx was troubled by the question of why ancient Greek art retained an 'eternal charm', even though the social conditions which produced it had long passed; but how do we know that it will remain 'eternally' charming, since history has not yet ended? Let us imagine that by dint of some deft archaeological research we discovered a great deal more about what ancient Greek tragedy actually meant to its original audiences, recognized that these concerns were utterly remote from our own, and began to read the plays again in the light of this deepened knowledge. One result might be that we stopped enjoying them. We might come to see that we had enjoyed them previously because we were unwittingly reading them in the light of our own preoccupations; once this became less possible, the drama might cease to speak at all significantly to us. The fact that we always interpret literary works to some extent in the light of our own concerns - indeed that in one sense of 'our own concerns' we are incapable of doing anything else - might be one reason why certain works of literature seem to retain their value across the centuries. It may be, of course, that we still share many preoccupations with the work itself; but it may also be that people have not actually been valuing the 'same' work at all, even though they may think they have. 'Our' Homer is not identical with the Homer of the Middle Ages, nor 'our' Shakespeare with that of his contemporaries; it is rather that different historical periods have constructed a 'different' Homer and Shakespeare for their own purposes, and found in these texts elements to value or devalue, though not necessarily the same ones. All literary works, in other words, are 'rewritten', if only unconsciously, by the societies which read them; indeed there is no reading of a work which is not also a 're-writing'. No work, and no current evaluation of it, can simply be extended to new groups of people without being changed, perhaps almost unrecognizably, in the process; and this is one reason why what counts as literature is a notably unstable affair.
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What Althusser does... is to rethink the concept of ideology in terms of Lacan's 'imaginary'. For the relation of an individual subject to society as a whole in Althusser's theory is rather like the relation of the small child to his or her mirror-image in Lacan's. In both cases, the human subject is supplied with a satisfyingly unified image of selfhood by identifying with an object which reflects this image back to it in a closed, narcissistic circle. In both cases, too, this image involves a misrecognition, since it idealizes the subject's real situation. The child is not actually as integrated as its image in the mirror suggests; I am not actually the coherent, autonomous, self generating subject I know myself to be in the ideological sphere, but the 'decentred' function of several social determinants. Duly enthralled by the image of myself I receive, I subject myself to it; and it is through this 'subjection' that I become a subject.
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So there is nothing inherently subversive about pleasure. On the contrary, as Karl Marx recognized, it is a thoroughly aristocratic creed. The traditional English gentleman was so averse to unpleasurable labour that he could not even be bothered to articulate properly. Hence the patrician slur and drawl, Aristotle believed that being human was something you had to get good at through constant practice, like learning Catalan or playing the bagpipes; whereas if the English gentleman was virtuous, as he occasionally deigned to be, his goodness was purely spontaneous. Moral effort was for merchants and clerks
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Statements of fact are after all statements, which presumes a number of questionable judgements: that those statements are worth making, perhaps more worth making than certain others, that I am the sort of person entitled to make them and perhaps able to guarantee their truth, that you are the kind of person worth making them to, that something useful is accomplished by making them, and so on.
All of our descriptive statements move within an often invisible network of value-categories, and indeed without such categories we would have nothing to say to each other at all. It is not just as though we have something called factual knowledge which may then be distorted by particular interests and judgements, although this is certainly possible; it is also that without particular interests we would have no knowledge at all, because we would not see the point of bothering to get to know anything. Interests are constitutive of our knowledge, not merely prejudices which imperil it. The claim that knowledge should be 'value-free' is itself a value-judgement.
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What we have witnessed in our own time is the death of universities as centres of critique. Since Margaret Thatcher, the role of academia has been to service the status quo, not challenge it in the name of justice, tradition, imagination, human welfare, the free play of the mind or alternative visions of the future. We will not change this simply by increasing state funding of the humanities as opposed to slashing it to nothing. We will change it by insisting that a critical reflection on human values and principles should be central to everything that goes on in universities, not just to the study of Rembrandt or Rimbaud.
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One criticism of Freud still sometimes heard on the political Left is that his thinking is individualist - that he substitutes 'private' psychological causes and explanations for social and historical ones. This accusation reflects a radical misunderstanding of Freudian theory. There is indeed a real problem about how social and historical factors are related to the unconscious; but one point of Freud's work is that it makes it possible for us to think of the development of the human individual in social and historical terms. What Freud produces, indeed, is nothing less than a materialist theory of the making of the human subject. We come to be what we are by an interrelation of bodies - by the complex transactions which take place during infancy between our bodies and those which surround us. This is not a biological reductionism: Freud does not of course believe that we are nothing but our bodies, or that our minds are mere reflexes of them. Nor is it an asocial model of life, since the bodies which surround us, and our relations with them, are always socially specific.
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[F]or the most part football these days is the opium of the people, not to speak of their crack cocaine. Its icon is the impeccably Tory, slavishly conformist Beckham. The Reds are no longer the Bolsheviks. Nobody serious about political change can shirk the fact that the game has to be abolished. And any political outfit that tried it on would have about as much chance of power as the chief executive of BP has in taking over from Oprah Winfrey.
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When they first emerged in their present shape around the turn of the 18th century, the so-called humane disciplines had a crucial social role. It was to foster and protect the kind of values for which a philistine social order had precious little time. The modern humanities and industrial capitalism were more or less twinned at birth. To preserve a set of values and ideas under siege, you needed among other things institutions known as universities set somewhat apart from everyday social life. This remoteness meant that humane study could be lamentably ineffectual. But it also allowed the humanities to launch a critique of conventional wisdom.
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Because subjects like literature and art history have no obvious material pay-off, they tend to attract those who look askance at capitalist notions of utility. The idea of doing something purely for the delight of it has always rattled the grey-bearded guardians of the state. Sheer pointlessness has always been a deeply subversive affair.
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If literature matters today, it is chiefly because it seems to many conventional critics one of the few remaining places where, in a divided, fragmented world, a sense of universal value may still be incarnate; and where, in a sordidly material world, a rare glimpse of transcendence can still be attained.
The most common mistake students of literature make is to go straight for what the poem or novel says, setting aside the way that it says it. To read like this is to set aside the 'literariness' of the work - the fact that it is a poem or play or novel, rather than an account of the incidence of soil erosion in Nebraska.
The 'healthy' sign, for Barthes, is one which draws attention to its own arbitrariness-which does not try to palm itself off as 'natural' but which, in the very moment of conveying a meaning, communicates something of its own relative, artificial status as well... Signs which pass themselves off as natural, which offer themselves as the only conceivable way of viewing the world, are by that token authoritarian and ideological. It is one of the functions of ideology to 'naturalize' social reality, to make it seem as innocent and unchangeable as Nature itself. Ideology seeks to convert culture into Nature, and the 'natural' sign is one of its weapons. Saluting a flag, or agreeing that Western democracy represents the true meaning of the word 'freedom', become the most obvious, spontaneous responses in the world. Ideology, in this sense, is a kind of contemporary mythology, a realm which has purged itself of ambiguity and alternative possibility.
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Characters may lend the action a certain colouring, but it is what happens that comes first. To overlook this while watching a tragedy would be like treating a football game simply as the acts of a set of solitary individuals, or as chance for each of them to display 'personality'. The fact that some players behave as though this is precisely what football games are about should not distract us from this point.
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[B]y reinterpreting Freudianism in terms of language, a pre-eminently social activity, Lacan permits us to explore the relations between the unconscious and human society. One way of describing his work is to say that he makes us recognize that the unconscious is not some kind of seething, tumultuous, private region 'inside' us, but an effect of our relations with one another. The unconscious is, so to speak, 'outside' rather than 'within' us - or rather it exists 'between' us, as our relationships do.
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Lacan, as we have seen in our discussion of Freud, regards the unconscious as structured like a language. This is not only because it works by metaphor and metonymy: it is also because, like language itself for the post-structuralists, it is composed less of signs - stable meanings - than of signifiers. If you dream of a horse, it is not immediately obvious what this signifies: it may have many contradictory meanings, may be just one of a whole chain of signifiers with equally multiple meanings. The image of the horse, that is to say, is not a sign in Saussure's sense - it does not have one determined signified tied neatly to its tail - but is a signifier which may be attached to many different signifieds, and which may itself bear the traces of the other signifiers which surround it. (I was not aware, when I wrote the above sentence, of the word-play involved in 'horse' and 'tail': one signifier interacted with another against my conscious intention.) The unconscious is just a continual movement and activity of signifiers, whose signifieds are often inaccessible to us because they are repressed. This is why Lacan speaks of the unconscious as a 'sliding of the signified beneath the signifier', as a constant fading and evaporation of meaning, a bizarre 'modernist' text which is almost unreadable and which will certainly never yield up its final secrets to interpretation.
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The liberal state has no view on whether witchcraft is more valuable than all-in wrestling. Like a tactful publican, it has as few opinions as possible. Many liberals suspect passionate convictions are latently authoritarian. But liberalism should surely be a passionate conviction. Liberals are not necessarily lukewarm. Only the more macho leftist suspects that they have no balls. You can be ardently neutral, and fiercely indifferent.
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What it means to be a 'better person', then, must be concrete and practical - that is to say, concerned with people's political situations as a whole - rather than narrowly abstract, concerned only with the immediate interpersonal relations which can be abstracted from this concrete whole. It must be a question of political and not only of 'moral' argument: that is to say, it must be genuine moral argument, which sees the relations between individual qualities and values and our whole material conditions of existence. Political argument is not an alternative to moral preoccupations: it is those preoccupations taken seriously in their full implications.
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If this constant sliding and hiding of meaning were true of conscious life, then we would of course never be able to speak coherently at all. If the whole of language were present to me when I spoke, then I would not be able to articulate anything at all. The ego, or consciousness, can therefore only work by repressing this turbulent activity, provisionally nailing down words on to meanings. Every now and then a word from the unconscious which I do not want insinuates itself into my discourse, and this is the famous Freudian slip of the tongue or parapraxis. But for Lacan all our discourse is in a sense a slip of the tongue: if the process of language is as slippery and ambiguous as he suggests, we can never mean precisely what we say and never say precisely what we mean. Meaning is always in some sense an approximation, a near-miss, a part-failure, mixing non-sense and non-communication into sense and dialogue.
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In conscious life, we achieve some sense of ourselves as reasonably unified, coherent selves, and without this action would be impossible. But all this is merely at the 'imaginary' level of the ego, which is no more than the tip of the iceberg of the human subject known to psychoanalysis. The ego is function or effect of a subject which is always dispersed, never identical with itself, strung out along the chains of the discourses which constitute it. There is a radical split between these two levels of being - a gap most dramatically exemplified by the act of referring to myself in a sentence. When I say 'Tomorrow I will mow the lawn, ' the 'I' which I pronounce is an immediately intelligible, fairly stable point of reference which belies the murky depths of the 'I' which does the pronouncing. The former 'I' is known to linguistic theory as the 'subject of the enunciation', the topic designated by my sentence; the latter 'I', the one who speaks the sentence, is the 'subject of the enunciating', the subject of the actual act of speaking. In the process of speaking and writing, these two 'I's' seem to achieve a rough sort of unity; but this unity is of an imaginary kind. The 'subject of the enunciating', the actual speaking, writing human person, can never represent himself or herself fully in what is said: there is no sign which will, so to speak, sum up my entire being. I can only designate myself in language by a convenient pronoun. The pronoun 'I' stands in for the ever-elusive subject, which will always slip through the nets of any particular piece of language; and this is equivalent to saying that I cannot 'mean' and 'be' simultaneously. To make this point, Lacan boldly rewrites Descartes's 'I think, therefore I am' as: 'I am not where I think, and I think where I am not.
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We like to think of individuals as unique. Yet if this is true of everyone, then we all share the same quality, namely our uniqueness. What we have in common is the fact that we are all uncommon. Everybody is special, which means that nobody is. The truth, however, is that human beings are uncommon only up to a point. There are no qualities that are peculiar to one person alone. Regrettably, there could not be a world in which only one individual was irascible, vindictive or lethally aggressive. This is because human beings are not fundamentally all that different from each other, a truth postmodernists are reluctant to concede. We share an enormous amount in common simply by virtue of being human, and this is revealed by the vocabularies we have for discussing human character. We even share the social processes by which we come to individuate ourselves.
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Might not too much investment in teaching Shelley mean falling behind our economic competitors? But there is no university without humane inquiry, which means that universities and advanced capitalism are fundamentally incompatible. And the political implications of that run far deeper than the question of student fees.
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Certain American uses of deconstruction, Derrida has observed, work to ensure 'an institutional closure' which serves the dominant political and economic interests of American society. Derrida is clearly out to do more than develop new techniques of reading: deconstruction is for him an ultimately political practice, an attempt to dismantle the logic by which a particular system of thought, and behind that a whole system of political structures and social institutions, maintains its force. He is not seeking, absurdly, to deny the existence of relatively determinate truths, meanings, identities, intentions, historical continuities; he is seeking rather to see such things as the effects of a wider and deeper history of language, of the unconscious, of social institutions and practices.
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Interestingly, this speech by Prospero does not contrast the unreality of the stage with the solid, flesh-and-blood existence of real men and women. On the contrary, it seizes on the flimsiness of dramatic characters as a metaphor for the fleeting, fantasy-ridden quality of actual human lives. It is we who are made of dreams, not just such figments of Shakespeare's imagination as Ariel and Caliban. The cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces of this earth are mere stage scenery after all.
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Woman is the opposite, the 'other' of man: she is non-man, defective man, assigned a chiefly negative value in relation to the male first principle. But equally man is what he is only by virtue of ceaselessly shutting out this other or opposite, defining himself in antithesis to it, and his whole identity is therefore caught up and put at risk in the very gesture by which he seeks to assert his unique, autonomous existence. Woman is not just an other in the sense of something beyond his ken, but an other intimately related to him as the image of what he is not, and therefore as an essential reminder of what he is. Man therefore needs this other even as he spurns it, is constrained to give a positive identity to what he regards as no-thing. Not only is his own being parasitically dependent upon the woman, and upon the act of excluding and subordinating her, but one reason why such exclusion is necessary is because she may not be quite so other after all. Perhaps she stands as a sign of something in man himself which he needs to repress, expel beyond his own being, relegate to a securely alien region beyond his own definitive limits. Perhaps what is outside is also somehow inside, what is alien also intimate - so that man needs to police the absolute frontier between the two realms as vigilantly as he does just because it may always be transgressed, has always been transgressed already, and is much less absolute than it appears.
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From the viewpoint of political power, culture is absolutely vital. So vital, indeed, that power cannot operate without it. It is culture, in the sense of the everyday habits and beliefs of a people, which beds power down, makes it appear natural and inevitable, turns it into spontaneous reflex and response.
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What was needed was a literary theory which, while preserving the formalist bent of New Criticism, its dogged attention to literature as aesthetic object rather than social practice, would make something a good deal more systematic and 'scientific' out of all this. The answer arrived in 1957, in the shape of the Canadian Northrop Fryes mighty 'totalization' of all literary genres, Anatomy of Criticism .
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Reading is not a straightforward linear movement, a merely cumulative affair: our initial speculations generate a frame of reference within which to interpret what comes next, but what comes next may retrospectively transform our original understanding, highlighting some features of it and backgrounding others.
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We face a conflict between civilisation and culture, which used to be on the same side. Civilisation means rational reflection, material wellbeing, individual autonomy and ironic self-doubt; culture means a form of life that is customary, collective, passionate, spontaneous, unreflective and irrational.
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Christian faith, as I understand it, is not primarily a matter of signing on for the proposition that there exists a Supreme Being, but the kind of commitment made manifest by a human being at the end of his tether, foundering in darkness, pain, and bewilderment, who nevertheless remains faithful to the promise of a transformative love.
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All propaganda or popularization involves a putting of the complex into the simple, but such a move is instantly not constructive. For if the complex can be put into the simple, then it cannot be as complex as it seemed in the first place; and if the simple can be an adequate medium of such complexity, then it cannot after all be as simple as all that.
The most common mistake students of literature make is to go straight for what the poem or novel says, setting aside the way that it says it. To read like this is to set aside the 'literariness' of the work "" the fact that it is a poem or play or novel, rather than an account of the incidence of soil erosion in Nebraska.
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To claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it.
Virtue is something you have to get good at, like playing the trombone or tolerating bores at parties. Being a virtuous human being takes practice; and those who are brilliant at being human (what Christians call the saints) are the virtuosi of the moral sphere - the Pavarottis and Maradonas of virtue.
It is in Rousseau's writing above all that history begins to turn from upper-class honour to middle-class humanitarianism. Pity, sympathy and compassion lie at the centre of his moral vision. Values associated with the feminine begin to infiltrate social existence as a whole, rather than being confined to the domestic sphere.
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