Mid-Term (Answer Two of the Following Four Questions):
“From the nineteenth century on, beginning with Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche the sign is going to become malevolent,” writes Michel Foucault. “There is in the sign an ambiguous quality and a slight suspicion of ill will and ‘malice.’” Consider the imagery of inversion, reversal, and distrust that characterizes the projects of these three threshold figures for contemporary critical theory, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. “[I]n all ideology,” write Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, “men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura[.]” Freud writes (not in the text by him assigned for our course) that psychoanalysis “prove[s] to the ego that it is not even master of its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on unconsciously in his mind,” an insight Freud compares to Copernicus’s insistence that the earth is not the center of the Universe. Nietzsche describes the method of affirmation he delineates in Ecce Homo and the other books he wrote in the brilliant brief burst of creative activity before his madness all as part of a vast project he considered a “Revaluation of All Values.”
Choose one of these figures, Nietzsche, Marx, or Freud, and explain in your own words how, in the pieces of theirs we read in class, they are offering up projects of interpretation that express a deeply ironic sense of the way we conventionally understand the world. Recall that we discussed irony in class as one of four “Master Tropes,” and concluded that irony is a form of substitution or association defined by opposition, inversion, or reversal. Now compare or contrast the project of the figure you have chosen with the project of Roland Barthes in Mythologies, in which he claims “to live to the full the contradiction of my time, which may well make sarcasm the condition of truth.”
In his 1888 Preface to The Communist Manifesto, Frederick Engels attributes to Marx a “proposition which, in my opinion, is destined to do for history what Darwin’s theory has done for biology[.]” This proposition is as follows:
“[I]n every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiters and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class -– the proletariat –- cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class –- the bourgeoisie -– without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles.”
First, describe simply and in your own words the three propositions that characterize Marx’s unique contribution to the interpretation of history from this viewpoint. And second, describe the status of these three propositions in Barthes' Mythologies and propose how any change in their status for Barthes might have an impact on his own interpretive project as a Marxist or post-marxist critical theorist.
In his essay “Psychological Notes Upon an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia,” Freud offers up an interpretation of the autobiography of Dr. Daniel Paul Schreber. Near the conclusion of his reading of Schreber’s book, and, presumably of Schreber himself, Freud makes the last of a series of curious claims on a similar theme: “It remains for the future to decide whether there is more delusion in my theory than I should like to admit, or whether there is more truth in Schreber’s delusion than other people are as yet prepared to believe.” How and why does the figure of Schreber seem to pose such a challenge to Freud’s larger effort to portray the project of psychoanalytic interpretation as a scientific practice? Are there other places in the text in which Freud seems to play out this ambivalence to Schreber’s own interpretation of the world and of his own place in it? Why might this matter so much Freud in the first place?
In the Preface to the 1970 edition of his Mythologies Roland Barthes says that his ambition for the book was to “account in detail for the mystification which transforms petit-bourgeois culture into a universal nature.” In the extended theoretical essay “Myth Today,” at the end of the volume, Barthes spells out this transformation in greater detail. In a key section of that culminating essay, “Myth as Depoliticized Speech,” Barthes writes:
[M]yth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal. Now this process is exactly that of bourgeois ideology… [M]yth is the most appropriate instrument for the ideological inversion which defines this society… [:] What the world supplies to myth is an historical reality, defined… by the way in which men have produced or used it; and what myth gives in return is a natural image of this reality… The world enters language as a dialectical relation between activities, between human actions; it comes out of myth as a harmonious display of essences. A conjuring trick has taken place; it has turned reality inside out, it has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature[.]
In the series of shorter essays that make up the bulk of the volume, Barthes offers up interpretations of a host of phenomena, popular icons, events, attitudes, and so forth. In each essay he exposes the way something that is actually a contingent and specific product of historical circumstances (which might therefore be open to contestation and reform in the ongoing social struggle of history) has come to assume the status of the natural, the inevitable, the taken-for-granted, the best of all possible worlds, the best workable solution, and so on. But although each short essay testifies in its own way to the ideological accomplishment of naturalization, the fact is that the force of “nature” for each of the objects of his interpretations is a bit different in the specific work it seems to do, and in the specific forms it seems to take.
Pick two of the objects Barthes interprets in his shorter essays. First, show how these essays both illustrate the more general thesis that myth is naturalization, and then point to some significant differences in the way “the natural” seems to function more specifically in each of your chosen examples.