"The Feudal Unconscious:
Capitalism and the Family Romance"

October 159 (Winter 2017)
MIT Press

Now Available

Portuguese translation of THE MYTH OF POPULAR CULTURE (Blackwell Manifestos, 2010) now available from Tinta Negra (Rio de Janeiro, 2015)


O renomado crítico cultural americano Perry Meisel detona as noções convencionais sobre a divisão entre “alta” e “baixa” cultura.

O autor transita pela provocante teoria de que a cultura pop experimentou ritmos dialéticos. A hábil análise que o livro apresenta de três tradições culturais duradouras – o romance norte-americano, Hollywood, e o rock inglês e americano – nos leva a um ciclo histórico da cultura pop que tem Dante como ponto de partida e revisita ícones como Wahrol, Melville, Hemingway, Twain, Eisenstein, Benjamin, Scorsese e Sinatra.


The Myth of Popular Culture discusses the dialectic of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" in popular culture through an examination of literature, film, and popular music. With topics ranging from John Keats to John Ford, the book responds to Adorno's theory that popular culture is not dialectical by showing that it is.

Available as eBooks

COURSE IN GENERAL LINGUISTICS. Trans. Wade Baskin. Co-ed. with Haun Saussy. By Ferdinand de Saussure (Columbia University Press, 2011)

THE LITERARY FREUD (Routledge, 2007)





Course in General Linguistics
 Trans. Wade Baskin. Co-ed. with
Haun Saussy. By Ferdinand de Saussure. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. eBook, 2011.
The Myth of Popular Culture from Dante to DylanOxford: Blackwell Manifestos, 2010. Portuguese translation, 2015 (Tinta Negra).

The Literary FreudNew York and London: Routledge, 2007. eBook, 2013.

The Cowboy and the Dandy: Crossing Over from Romanticism to Rock and Roll. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. eBook, 1998.

The Myth of the Modern: A Study in British Literature and Criticism after 1850. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Bloomsbury/Freud: The Letters of James and Alix Strachey, 1924-25Co-ed. with Walter Kendrick. With Introduction, Epilogue, and Appendices. New York: Basic Books, 1985; London: Chatto & Windus, 1986. Paperback, 1990 (Norton); French translation,1990 (Presses Universitaires de France); German translation,1995 (Verlag Internationale Psychoanalyse).

Freud: A Collection of Critical EssaysEd. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1981. eBook, 2014 (International Psychotherapy Institute).

The Absent Father: Virginia Woolf and Walter Pater. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.

Thomas Hardy: The Return of the Repressed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972.


The Feudal Unconscious: Capitalism and the Family Romance

by Perry Meisel

          Psychoanalysis is not only a science of the individual; it is also a historical science. Well beyond Freud’s familiar excursions into psychohistory and psychobiography—one thinks of Moses, for example, or of Leonardo—lies another Freud, one whose texts make a surprising historical argument by virtue of their metaphors. Drawing from a series of wider historical dialogues, the vocabulary of psychical process exceeds the history of the individual. Mikhail Bakhtin alerts us to their specificity and functions in Freudianism: A Critical Sketch, composed with his friend Valentin Voloshinov and published under Voloshinov’s name in 1927. There, Bakhtin demonstrates that Freud is a historical thinker because of the tropes he employs:

The family, that castle and keep of capitalism, evidently has become a thing economically and socially little understood and little taken to heart; and that is what has brought on its wholesale sexualization, as if thereby it were made newly meaningful or “made strange,” as our formalists would say. The Oedipus complex is indeed a magnificent way of making the family unit “strange.” The father is not the entrepreneur, and the son is not his heir—the father is only the mother’s lover, and his son is his rival!

The fantasy world of the family romance and the real conditions of capitalism mystify or distort one another thanks to their different metaphors. They are distinct, they are systematic, and they are at odds. The father is, in bourgeois fact, an “entrepreneur,” but in infantile fantasy he is his son’s “rival” in a medieval romance, the antagonist in a quest-romance of love won and lost. 

          Bakhtin’s stunning description of the family as the “castle and keep of capitalism” is especially helpful. From a Marxist point of view, the family romance has a familiar structure. The grant of authority to the father for the sake of protection is, after all, feudalism. It is a feudalism of the unconscious, a mutualism of vassal and lord, knight and king. It is the baleful landscape of Harold Bloom’s Romanticism, the internalization, as Bloom puts it, of quest-romance (1968).2 For the modern subject—the subject as such—feudalism is the Imaginary mode of thought that misreads or represses the Symbolic order of capitalism. The family romance thus preserves feudalism in the bourgeois home by making every man a king. Value or authority, in wealth or in kinship, is in capitalism no more than a position in a system of exchange. The feudal unconscious—the term with which I concluded a discussion of representation at the close of The Literary Freud—masks the symbolic in a more grounded mythology of rule.3 Its sociality is radically historicizing. Freud—modernity—structures the psyche by putting the discursive modes in conflict. Their strife provides us with a picture of the psyche by providing us with a picture of the psyche’s social history. Primary process is feudalism; secondary process is capitalism. The tension between them is, from the point of view of literary models, the tension between, in Bakhtin’s terms, epic and novel.
         Freud’s tropes describe what they declare. If the life of the family is the epic world of the “castle,” its “keep” is the modern world of contending tongues and the free marketplace that surrounds and isolates it—the world of the “entrepreneur,” of finance and exchange, of parliamentary democracy and applied science, and of colonialism, its source of raw materials or, in the psychoanalytic variant, of somatic impulses ready for conversion, like natural resources, into the products of the ego and modern trade. If Romanticism internalizes quest-romance, capitalism externalizes it in a new way. Freud’s well-known description of himself as a “conquistador” in a letter to Fliess in 1900 is a gaudy example of the second system of tropes that structure Freud’s description of the mind, the tropes of colonial conquest that inaugurate capitalism and dramatize the subordination of primary process by secondary process, of the id by the ego, of the past by the future, as the individual, like civilization, proceeds upon its rocky and dubious path of progress through repression.
  Andrew Cole’s reading of Hegel shows Freud’s historical argument emerging in statu nascendi at the dawn of Romanticism and the beginning of the passage into the industrial capitalism with which we customarily associate the nineteenth century. Hegel’s split subject is already Freud’s own. Hegel’s metaphors are no less historical and no less exact than Freud’s psychoanalytic ones. Indeed, Hegel’s metaphors signify the moment of their emergence in real time. For Hegel, the transition from the implacable reciprocity of lord and bondsman under feudalism to the plastic mutuality of self and other under capitalism is, as Cole points out, “the specific political structure and social arrangement within which modernity and freedom are realized.”5 Like Freud, Hegel uses metaphor in more than an ornamental or supplementary way. It designates a specific historical regimen and mode of human praxis. Feudalism and the unconscious are the scaffolding upon which capitalism and consciousness are respectively propped. 
  Hegel enshrines his ghostly other as a permanent feature of subjectivity. Like Freud’s feudal unconscious, Hegel’s Middle Ages may slip away into time, but they do not disappear. This, of course, is Hegel’s “double-consciousness,” the alterity that is the condition of the psychological subject, or, in its historical variant, the feudal past that persists in the modern present.6 Hegel’s feudal ghosts have their contemporary counterpart in the haunted tombs and graveyards of the Gothic Revival in England that accompany the High Romanticism of Wordsworth’s mournful churchyards. Freud has his own contemporary counterpart in the haunt- ed tombs and graveyards of German expressionism, particularly those of German cinema. No wonder “double-consciousness” is a premonitory version of Freudian melancholia, the implacable “shadow,” as Freud calls it, “that fell upon the ego”(1917) thanks to the infantile identifications of family life whose ghosts persist into adulthood.
  Nor is the melancholia of double-consciousness an individual affair. It has brutal results politically. A century after Hegel’s, W.e.B. DuBois’s “double-consciousness”—“this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others”—is what Paul Gilroy calls “post-colonial melancholia.”8 The psychological other is also the colonial subaltern. In The Ego and the Id (1923), the great metaphor of the ego as a “frontier-creature” patrolling the boundary between the psyche and the external world is also the “frontier” between feudalism and the global capitalism that succeeds it.9 The “romance” of Orientalism that serves as colonialism’s apology is another form of nostalgia for feudalism.10 Orientalism, like feudalism, is a metaphor for primary process. Wearing the garments of global or anthropological feudalism—the costumes of the east or those of Africa, the Native Americas, or the black south—Orientalism is also a return of the feudal repressed, another way of making capitalism’s medieval past strange or unfamiliar. Its atavism is aristocratic. Like Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko or Cooper’s Native American heroes, its literary champions are, in Dryden’s memorable phrase, “noble savages.”11 
  Freud employs his two systems of metaphor to describe primary and secondary process throughout his career. Having introduced the terms primary process and secondary process late in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) to refine what he at he time calls the difference between consciousness and the unconscious, Freud maintains his historical metaphors even after this difference becomes less important.12 For the purpose of describing Freud’s two vocabularies and the historical argument they make, the difference between early and late Freud is therefore a negligible one. such continuity is rare in Freud: Typically notions from the first phase undergo major revisions, particularly regarding consciousness and the unconscious, and between the ego and libido. When, beginning with the metapsychological papers and formalized with Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud shifts his system from a “topographical” to an “economic” or “dynamic” one, the ego becomes both libidinal and largely unconscious. What stands against it is no longer what is unconscious but what is repressed. yet Freud’s system of historical metaphors nonetheless conforms to both models. If the unconscious is feudalism in the first model and consciousness is capitalism, in the second model capitalism is the ego and feudalism the repressed. The feudal unconscious and the feudal repressed are one and the same. 
  The Freudian unconscious is a history of the terms of which it is composed conceptually. It is social, political, and linguistic, scarred by the influences it absorbs and redistributes.13 It does so by making the psyche as a whole a system of unconscious agencies, each one obscuring the terms of the other, and each one reflecting the tropes of a historical period. As a tropology, psychoanalysis instantiates the phenomenology it describes. Indeed, it makes its literary and philosophical sources an example of the mental functioning it narrates by embalming them in its language, expunging its anxieties of influence by entombing them in what it represents. This is as true of Freud’s precedents in clinical psychology as it is of his philosophical precedent in Hegel, whose double-consciousness finds additional analogues in Pierre Janet’s double conscience and Charcot’s condition seconde, both of which furnish psychoanalysis with prototypes for its notion of the unconscious in scientific terms no less concrete than the historical prototype provided by Hegel.14 
  Psychoanalysis guarantees what it proposes not despite its literary form but because of it. Its récit is the residue of the tropes with which its histoire is identical. Clear and consistent to an unlikely fault, Freud’s double system of metaphor needs to be teased out of his texts in a careful way. If Bakhtin is too impatient to do so, and too tendentious with regard to his dialogical project to let Freud speak for himself, it is no matter: Freud does so on his own with little resistance. 
  A brief survey of The Interpretation of Dreams will show us how the two vocabularies behave and prepare us for an examination of how their historicism functions in Freud’s work early and late. Although Freud revised The Interpretation of Dreams with each new edition, as he did the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), both before and after the shift in his model, these revisions do not, as Strachey’s comprehensive footnotes show, import the vocabulary of either feudalism or capitalism into the dream book from a later point of view. They are there from the start. Primary process (or the realm of unconscious wishes) is feudal, and secondary process (or the machinery of consciousness or distortion) is capitalist. 
  What secondary process adds to the dream by distorting the infantile or primary-process wishes beneath it is a system of a different metaphorical order than the feudal one of a “scene” in which, as in a play, something is “represented” or “experienced”—a system of “speculations” and “mutual relations,” of proposition and assignment (p. 534). This is the tropology of the capitalist marketplace and system of credit. Indeed, in “hallucinatory dreams”—dreams with striking iconic imagery such as the images of royal personages—“excitation moves in a backward direction” (p. 542). This backwardness is historical in both a real and psychological way—its imagery is feudal. By contrast, “the direction taken by psychical processes arising from the unconscious during waking life”—the distortions of secondary process—are “progressive” in their defensive impetus to mask what is “regressive” in their character (p. 542). Here distortion “might be described,” says Freud, as “a substitute for an infantile scene modified by being transferred on to a recent experience” (p. 546). The present moment screens or alters the past because it follows it, not because its nature is different. secondary process, that is, shifts the vocabulary or metaphoricity of primary process into another lexical register, replacing an earlier metaphorical system (feudalism) with a later one (capitalism). This substitution or transvaluation is not unlike a system of fluctuating values or credit of the kind familiar in modern money. Precious coins are the currency of kings; money and credit, the currency of capitalists. 
  Marx describes this movement as it unfolds in real time: 

When a coin leaves the mint, it sets out on the road to the melting pot. During their currency, gold coins get worn, some more, others less. The name of gold and the substance of gold, the nominal content and the real content, begin to part company. Gold coins bearing the same name come to have different weights. Gold as medium of circulation differentiates from gold as standard of prices, and thus ceases to be an actual equivalent for the commodities whose prices it realizes. The his- tory of coinage during the Middle Ages and during the modern era on into the eighteenth century, is the history of these confusions. The natural tendency of the process of circulation to transform the essentiality of gold in the coin into the semblance of gold, to transform the coin into a mere symbol of its official content in metal, secures recognition in the latest legislation concerning the degree of wear which will suffice to demonetize a gold piece, to make it unfit for legal tender. The fact that, as the outcome of the currency of money, a severance ensues between the real content and the nominal content of a coin, between its actual metallic existence and its functional existence, discloses to us a latent possibility that the function of metallic money in coinage may be taken over by tokens or symbols of some other material.15 

This transformation of “the essentiality of gold” into a symbol—the severing of “the real content and the nominal content”—is precisely the difference between primary and secondary process in the psychoanalytic model. While Freud is less sanguine about the natural status of primary process than Marx is about the sensuality of feudalism, the structural homology is nonetheless striking. These different systems of exchange signify “the progressive control exercised upon our instinctual life by our thought-activity” as time goes by.16 Here one is “inclined to renounce as unprofitable”—this metaphor is decisive—“the formation and retention of such intense wishes as children know” (p. 552), much as coins lose their value. While the metaphorical differences may seem to be offhand—decorative rather than substantive, dramatic rather than systematic—the very reverse is true. A new system of value is required for both culture and the individual. The difference in metaphor augurs the historicism of Freud’s unspoken argument about the mind’s relation to the real events of a past broader than that of persons, and of a past whose own record returns with the history of each individual mind. 
  Even Freud’s single figures of speech split in a way that allows them to con- tain the two metaphorical systems simultaneously. Most decisive is Freud’s term for representing the way in which primary and secondary process communicate or interact, the German Bahnung—the “pathway” or “facilitation,” as Strachey various- ly translates the term—between the two systems (p. 611). That Bahnung can be translated as both “pathway” and “facilitation” evinces the doubleness and pliability of Freud’s vocabulary in both the German original and in the interpretative splitting its translation requires. each translation is sound, although “pathway” leans toward the feudal, evoking a path through an imagined forest peopled by ogres, while “facilitation,” by contrast, is a technological metaphor drawn from the vocabulary of applied science. The same may be said for the connotative structure of the German Schicksal, which Strachey translates, in a quantitative flourish, as “vicissitude” in the key metapsychological essay of 1915, “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes.” and yet Schicksal also means, in high literary fashion, “fate,” “fortune,” or “destiny.” Once again, a quantitative or scientific metaphor coexists with a feudal one in the same signifier. Both examples recall, too, the infamous debate over the years about Strachey’s translation throughout Freud’s work of Seele— “soul”—as “psyche.”17 
  More to the point is that the two models also account for the clinical behavior of the mind. In primary process, symbolization is fixed. In secondary process, it is mobile. This is why in the analytic scenario the fixed symbolizations of primary process or childhood may be reassessed and fixed bonds loosened and remobilized, allowing the patient to revise the determinations of primary-process ideation. Feudal wealth, as it were, becomes no more than another currency. As “capital” rather than as coin, primary process is fungible, subject to change through mature reflection as an accommodation to the sadness of bourgeois life rather than as a feckless capitulation to the brutal terms of the feudal unconscious. Psychical energy is “the quantity at the disposal of the entrepreneur”18 (p. 561)— that is, of the capital supplied to him. Strachey’s footnote reminds us that “capital” is not to be construed as though the wish were simply an unconscious thought—as a quality—but as a quantity.19 Unlike the feudal metaphor of royal dramatis personae, “capital” evokes no scene, even as it prompts the intensity of one. Feudalism’s tropology is evocative, imagistic, dramatic, painterly—its style is in accord with the passionate arts and iconography of its day. Capitalism’s tropology, by contrast, is dry, quantitative, dispassionate; its style, too, is in accord with its lack of spectacle and its measured protocols. 

Feudalism and the Family Romance 

  Freud’s feudal metaphors for primary process, particularly the personages whose images people it, take center stage in “Family Romances” (1909), a relative- ly early and brief essay on the subject originally published in a collection of essays on myth edited by Otto Rank. The term “Oedipus complex,” the customary synonym for the term “family romance,” makes its first appearance a year later, in “A special Type of Object-Choice Made by Men” in 1910, although “family romance” is more rather than less exacting, highlighting the fluid and situational way in which its positions come to be established. Clinically, the term explains the ease with which Oedipal formations occur regardless of anatomically conceived notions of gender, as, for example, with same-sex parents. Historically, it has the advantage of describing more accurately the role feudalism plays in Freud’s imagination. As he writes in “Family Romances”: 

The liberation of an individual, as he grows up, from the authority of his parents is one of the most necessary though one of the most painful results brought about by the course of his development. It is quite essential that that liberation should occur and it may be presumed that it has been to some extent achieved by everyone who has reached a normal state. Indeed, the whole progress of society rests upon the opposition between successive generations.20

  The individual’s development—indeed, the emergence of the “individual” as such—is nothing less than his or her “liberation” from absolutist or religious authority. No wonder the “progress of society” as well as of the individual depends upon it. The very movement of history is one from a feudal or absolutist condition to a parliamentary or democratic one. It is therefore not surprising that “for a small child his parents are at first the only authority and source of all belief” (p. 232). Like a vassal under the dominion of a lord and master, the world is defined by a system of single allegiance to a single authority, an allegiance that is also “the source,” in a decidedly religious metaphor based on a notion of faith, “of all belief.” The child’s world is, simply put, a feudal one. When that world is sur- mounted over time, it nonetheless remains because it is the world in memory of infantile sexuality, the individual’s unconscious. 
  The “mental impulses of childhood,” which the world of the “family romance” both is and represents, also “enable . . . us to understand the nature of myths” because myths feature the same political arrangements as infantile sexuality (p. 238). Both are part of a world based on the absolute “authority” of a ruling family and “unquestioned belief” in its values. Christianity is nothing new, it simply refines the specifics of family interaction. even, perhaps especially, a child of “humble parents”—the baby Jesus, for example—will compare his parents to “aristocratic” ones (p. 240). Though this is done initially to begin the process of free- ing oneself from parental authority, the net result of the upwardly mobile fantasy is an ironic one. By means of the comparison, “the child is not getting rid of his father but exalting him” (p. 240). The images of the “new and aristocratic parents” for whom the child exchanges his real ones “are derived entirely from real recollection of the actual and humble ones” (p. 240). By deferred action, even “humble” parents therefore become feudal masters and mistresses. so absolute is this action of the unconscious as the child proceeds into presumable maturity that 

the whole effort at replacing the real father by a superior one is only an expression of the child’s longing for the happy, vanished days when his father seemed to him the noblest and strongest of men and his mother the dearest and loveliest of women. He is turning away from the father whom he knows to-day to the father in whom he believed in the earlier years of his childhood; and his phantasy is no more than the expression of a regret that those happy days have gone. Thus in these phantasies the overvaluation that characterizes a child’s earliest years comes into its own again.21 

  Capitalist metaphors are, to be sure, present in “Family Romances,” but they linger at the horizon of the essay, and there are far fewer of them than when he about adult life, as in The Interpretation of Dreams. And if, in “Family Romances,” Freud’s feudal metaphors are blunt, so too are his capitalist ones, even if they are used only as passing figurations for maturity. The feudal unconscious, as one might expect, features dramatis personae, while secondary process resembles a face- less, assembly-line world of talk and mass production. The notion that the individual’s “progress” and that of society as a whole are both couched in the metaphor of political process—of “liberation” from “authority”—is the essay’s first alert that a parliamentary or democratic politics underwrites what seems to be a metaphor for the individual alone. The building of an unconscious based in infantile sexuality resembles the movement from feudalism to capitalism. “Dissatisfied” and “critical,” the individual “acquires the right to doubt,” especially “to doubt the incomparable and unique quality” once attributed to the parents in the individual’s psycho- logical prehistory (p. 237). Rather than given or implicit, as with kings, queens, princes, and princesses, individual “right” is “acquired,” much as capital or property is. Rivalry, originally of a sexual kind, predominates, not simply as a courtly affair but as a fully public mode of behavior and motivation. “Rivalry” leads to “get- ting free from the parents” (p. 238). Their authority is overcome in a world of competition between free individuals on a level field of play. 
  Development or “progress,” however, has, as any presumptions of chronology or objective time always do in Freud, a backspin or regressiveness attached to it. “Getting free” is enabled by fantasies the growing child develops. These are once again feudal, although now they are tainted by the language of capitalism. The child attributes to his mother as many fictitious love affairs as he himself has “competitors” for her attention (p. 240). “Competitors” is a term derived from the free marketplace, although by thinking of himself as “the hero and author” who “returns to legitimacy . . . while his brothers and sisters are being eliminated by being bastardized” (p. 240), the child also returns to the world of romance and the court. In the blink of an eye, competition becomes the stuff of “imaginative romances,” with the mocking result that the father who is to be gotten rid of ends up becoming once again the “noblest” of men, and the mother “the dearest and loveliest” of women (p. 241). “Progress” or “liberation” has as its regressive result the return of the feudal repressed. The unconscious of capitalist “freedom” is the vassalage of bondage to feudal models of feeling, the quality of attachment characteristic of infantile ideation. 
  The feudal trend in Freud’s metaphors well accords with classical accounts of feudalism. In Marc Bloch’s epochal Feudal Society (1931, 1939), the faith of the vas- sal to his lord is the model for family relationships, not, as one might expect, the other way around.22 By the same token, vassals also came to wage war against their kings, just as kings might turn against their vassals (pp. 235, 237). From a modern point of view, one asks whether the ambivalence that structures the Oedipus complex finds its real source in these arrangements rather than prompts them. 
Indeed, for Bloch, the presumably collateral bonds of vassalage in the “first” feudalism of the early Middle Ages “were,” as he puts it, “ordinarily put on the same plane” as those of kinship relations, “each one lending a fundamental authority to the other with equal precedence” (p. 124). For Perry Anderson, the “reciprocal ties of fealty” from which the lord drew his authority are feudalism’s key social achievement, and the moment at which its dialectical components coalesced.23 
The political theology of divine right makes feudalism’s resemblance to the family romance clearer still. The conversion to Christianity across northern Europe not only drew tribal principalities together under monarchies in the “second” feudalism of the later Middle Ages. The doctrine of divine right that sustained them also formalized the structure of the family romance that it prefigures. For all its fine dress, divine right simply recapitulates the arrangements of early feudalism in a higher key. As Ernst Kantorowicz reminds us in The King’s Two Bodies (1957), the monarch represents not God but Jesus Christ—not the father but the son. The king’s lordship is defined not by his absolute authority but by his own subservience to another. He is, in other words, defined by his status as a son in his own right, owing fealty to the Creator just as his heirs owe fealty to him. A mystical conjunction of father and son from the point of view of religion, it is a constitutive paradox from a psychoanalytic point of view. The political and the religious are one and the same in the psychological sociology that both reflect. Much as the son is obliged to bow to the father in the family romance, the father is also obliged to bow to the son. As shakespeare is at constant pains to remind us, neither has his status without the other. “How art thou a king,” says York to the king in Richard II, “but by fair sequence and succession?” This is the logic of the Oedipus complex. Indeed, feudalism is arguably the source of the Oedipus complex in Freud’s Christian unconscious, to use Paul Vitz’s phrase, and undoubtedly its source, biography aside, from the point of view of intellectual history.24 
By such a definition, feudalism applies not simply to medievalism but to any social structure guaranteed by religion, whether Western, African, or Asian. such relationships are what Freud means by the “universal.” The “universal” is historical not because it is unchanging but because it is Freud’s cipher for the feudal. Here Freud’s understanding of “primitive” systems of kinship in his “prehistorical” allegories, notably Totem and Taboo (1912), is not so much “universal” in a synchronic sense as it is a way of gauging the status of culture when it is infantile, when it is without the superimposition of the defense mechanisms of secondary process. even Bloch cannot disagree. Feudalism, he writes, citing Voltaire, is “a type of society.” It includes “Egyptian feudalism, Achaen feudalism, Chinese feudalism, Japanese feudalism—all these forms and more are now familiar concepts.”25 For Bloch, Western feudalism and its other global and historical permutations recur as a rule to “a type of society” that remains universal in Freud’s own sense—one grounded in the filial faith between lord and vassal. Indeed, the brothers of the primal horde in Totem and Taboo aspire to the condition of feudalism in their wish to murder the father, and do so when they accomplish the deed. establishing the totem is the equivalent of inventing religion—in this case, a thinly veiled kind of Christianity—and of organizing infantile desire by attaching it to an image that socializes it in the child’s mind. This is the process that Freud describes in “On Narcissism” (1914) and the process that recapitulates in Freudian mythology the triumph of the “first” feudalism over the chaos of the Gothic tribes. No wonder feudalism appeals so strongly to our imaginations. Whether the kingdoms of the Middle Ages, the tribes of Africa, or the empires of ancient Asia, feudalism is a mirror of the gratifications of primary process. 
It is worth pointing out that a familiar derogation of Freud’s feudal metaphors for the family romance, the term “romance” chief among them, is not so much a successful dismissal of an outmoded aspect of Freud’s conception as it is proof that what is outmoded in the metaphor is precisely the metaphor’s claim upon us. I have in mind, of course, Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (1972). To Deleuze and Guattari’s objection that the family romance resembles nothing more than a vulgarized Holy Family, the response is a simple one. Deleuze and Guattari identify not a problem but the solution to why infantile sexuality is structured like a myth, romance, or fairy tale. It is structured that way because it is a feudal vestige, the residue of a form of thought and government left behind in the empirical life of the present but still alive in mind and in memory. 

“Constancy” and Capitalism

Although Freud’s capitalist metaphors for secondary process are present throughout his work, they are, not surprisingly, foregrounded in the second phase, with its especially elaborate account of secondary process. Freud’s modern or “capitalist” metaphors derive from applied science and technology, the means by which industrial production regulates the constitutional state. They give indus- trial production its infrastructure and, in Freud’s language, give unconscious wish- es their motive force. 
  Freud’s chief metaphor for the nature of psychological drive, particularly in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, is the metaphor of psychical “energy.” Only coming into common use, in both German and english, in the nineteenth century, the term is rooted in scientific discoveries with specific applications to industrialism, particularly thermodynamics. Freud’s source for this vocabulary, of course, is Hermann Helmholtz’s notion of the conservation of energy, an application of the theory of thermodynamics to physiological and mental processes.26 Helmholtz employs the notion of “energy” as both a scientific assumption about the behavior of the nervous system and as a metaphor regarding matter and motive force in life as a whole. Thermodynamics not only provides Freud with his principal scientific figurations but also provided capitalism with the theory required for the applied science that led to the technology of mass production. The link is direct—mass production leads to the concrete material conditions necessary for a market economy. Transformations between primary and secondary process are like a system of exchange based upon not only contract but credit. something is left over that accumulates in addition to its original value. Free, mobile “energy” becomes “bound” in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, depending upon circumstance and the agreement of affect and association. Bindung is one of Freud’s favorite words for the mind’s control of itself. Fixed, or at least momentarily fixed, value—price, as it were—is energy fixed on the run. Here Gustav Fechner’s addition to Helmholtz— “the principle of constancy,” by means of which energy seeks equilibrium rather than discharge—not only provides Freud’s dynamic notion of the mind a principle of equanimity but also an additional metaphor by means of which value can be stabilized. It seeks to bring constancy to a volatile marketplace. Like a good trader or investor, the ego is a manager or chief executive officer of its capital. Freud’s feu- dal vocabulary for primary process has its counterpart in his capitalist vocabulary for secondary process. 
The relation of secondary process to primary—the movement of binding—is one of deferred action. It reflects the tale Freud himself has to tell. The future captures the past, reconfigures it to its own uses so that the past itself becomes “bound” as a function of the freedom of the present. The clinical implication is once again of a piece with its rhetorical presentation: No longer bound by the past, the patient undoes its determinations and revalues them.27 
          Scientific metaphors introduce and sustain Freud’s description of the mind throughout Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Note this particularly decisive passage: 

The phenomena of organic development must be attributed to external disturbing and diverting influences. The elementary living entity would from its very beginning have had no wish to change; if conditions remained the same, it would do no more than constantly repeat the same course of life. In the last resort, what has left its mark on the development of organisms must be the history of the earth we live in and of its relation to the sun. . . . The tension which then arose in what had hitherto been an inanimate substance endeavored to cancel itself out. In this way the first instinct came into being: the instinct to return to the inanimate state. It was still an easy matter at that time for a living substance to die; the course of its life was probably only a brief one, whose direction was determined by the chemical structure of the young life. For a long time, perhaps, living substance was thus being constantly created afresh and easily dying, till decisive external influences altered in such a way as to oblige the still surviving substance to diverge ever more widely from its original course of life and to make ever more complicated détours before reaching its aim of death. These circuitous paths to death, faithfully kept to by the conservative instincts, would thus present us to-day with the picture of the phenomena of life.28 

The biologistic description is at bottom a thermodynamic one. Its notion of “organic” elasticity (p. 30) rests on the assumption of an “energetics” among the instincts, to use Paul Ricoeur’s term, the measure, as it were, of their “vicissitudes,” as Freud calls this “elasticity” during the metapsychological phase.29 
But despite the changes the new, “economic” model has wrought in his system, Freud also keeps his old “topographical” model in place and thereby does what he always does—he makes the earlier formulation a part of the unconscious processes he describes: 

The ego now found its position among sexual objects and was at once given the foremost place among them. Libido which was in this way lodged in the ego was described as “narcissistic.” This narcissistic libido was of course also a manifestation of the force of the sexual instinct in the analytical sense of those words, and it had necessarily to be identified with the “self-preservative instincts” whose existence had been recognized from the first. Thus the original opposition between the ego- instincts and the sexual instincts proved to be inadequate. A portion of the ego-instincts was seen to be libidinal; sexual instincts—probably alongside others—operated in the ego. Nevertheless we are justified in saying that the old formula which lays it down that psychoneuroses are based on a conflict between ego-instincts and sexual instincts contains nothing that we need reject to-day. It is merely that the distinction between the two kinds of instinct, which was originally regarded as in some sort of way qualitative, must now be characterized differently— namely as being topographical.30 

The shift in Freud’s thinking doubles the shift in the psychoanalytic system. Like the psyche, it is historical. The shift, or presumable shift, shows how Freud’s writing is a history of its own vicissitudes. Its earlier assumptions become its own unconscious. Clinically, it resolves a paradox less easily. Although secondary process frees or mobilizes the determinations of primary process or infantile ideation—much as capitalism is a liberation from the bondage of feudalism—it is also a distortion of the frightening clarity of infantile fantasy, its inhibition or repression as well as progress beyond it. This is the double bind in which the patient is situated, and the double bind that analysis as both a cure and a form of writing is designed to assess and accommodate. The book’s conclusion is, ironically, an accommodation of the new theory to the earlier one in almost comic fashion. By definition, the pleasure principle’s energy seeks discharge, and therefore a relief in quantitative excitation. This is precisely what the death instinct is—the consummate path to pleasure: 

The pleasure principle, then, is a tendency operating in the service of a function whose business it is to free the excitation or to keep the amount of excitation in it constant or to keep it as low as possible. (p. 62) 

“Constancy” is a “business” whose “function” is “to free” the mind rather than restrict it. Thus “the pleasure principle seems actually,” says Freud, “to serve the death instincts” (p. 63). The circle is complete. Bondage and freedom engage one another reciprocally or dialectically. Past and present remain commingled despite the passage of time. The pleasure principle and the death instinct are both required to concede to the reality principle. Like the patient, the psychoanalytic system maintains constancy or stability by virtue not of discharging but of preserving the assumptions of its earlier theory as proof of—as capital for—its newer one. 

Freud, Marx, Keynes

In The Ego and the Id, the shift from a feudal accent to a capitalist one is even more pronounced. This is because the shift in metaphor accelerates to include not only the sciences but the bureaucratic and political worlds as well. Here the ego— the new focus because so much of it is now understood to be unconscious, a function of secondary rather than primary process—is rendered in metaphors of a distinctly bourgeois kind. While the ego of the early phase reigns, or tries to reign, over a sovereign realm subject to the insurgencies of the unconscious, now the ego is drawn in managerial terms that modernize the unconscious of which it is a part. It “supervises” its “constituent” elements.31 It manages, as a chairperson would. The metaphor is also parliamentary: The ego governs its assembly of representatives. And—before we can even reach the end of this sentence—these constituents also function, in a scientific metaphor, not as persons but as “processes”: 

We have formed the idea that in each individual there is a coherent organization of mental processes; and we call this his ego. It is to this ego that consciousness is attached; the ego controls the approaches to motility—that is, to the discharge of excitations into the external world; it is the mental agency which supervises all its own constituent process- es, and which goes to sleep at night, though even then it exercises the censorship on dreams. From this ego proceed the repressions, too, by means of which it is sought to exclude certain trends in the mind not merely from consciousness but also from other forms of effectiveness and activity. In analysis these trends which have been shut out stand in opposition to the ego, and the analysis is faced with the task of removing the resistance which the ego displays against concerning itself with the repressed. (p. 17) 

What is repressed is not primary process but the conditions of existence. It is these that analysis seeks to disclose. 
Democratic epistemology, unlike feudalism’s, resembles secondary rather than primary process. It is based not on faith but on contract—on the consensual value of the signified rather than on an inherent meaning it may be presumed to have. It is a system of mobile valuation, like currency, which under capitalism has the form of fixity while retaining the function of change. even a gold standard, according to John Maynard Keynes, is a legal fiction because, as he puts it in A Tract on Monetary Reform (1924), “the value of gold depends” not on its inherent features but “on the policy of the Central Banks.”32 
Marx remains the best guide. Under feudalism, social relations appear, oxy- moronically, “in their natural guise as personal relations” despite “the masks in which the different personalities strut,” in a shakespearean flourish, “upon the feudal stage.”33 Under capitalism, by contrast, social relations become “dressed up”—as though they were not already—as commodities, “as social relations between things,” between the products rather than the processes “of labor” (p. 51). Despite Marx’s lingering naturalism—his nostalgia for a preindustrial human essence remains undiminished even in the shift from the 1844 manuscripts to the later Capital—the structural identity between the political and the psychical remains intact. Under capitalism, only the regulation of currency allows commodities to acquire “objective fixity” in the sea of exchange value, and therefore to acquire a “general social validity”:

When this happens, the particular kind of commodity with whose bodily form the equivalent form is socially identified becomes the money commodity, or serves as money. Thenceforward, the specific social function (and therefore the social monopoly) of this commodity is that it plays the part of a general equivalent among commodities at large. (p. 42) 

The objectification of labor in commodities, money chief among them, is the equivalent and insuperable condition in Marx of the splitting of the subject in Freud, a splitting that Marx, unlike Freud, is unwilling to accept or negotiate. Like libido, labor cannot be said to exist except in the objects it endows. They are witness to the subject that produces them, not the other way around. Like libidinal objects, labor’s objects retroactively constitute their makers, much as the objects of desire fashion the subject whose concrete dreams they are. Labor and libido are the life forces in Marx and Freud, respectively, each with the same epistemological structure and each with the same productive rather than expressive relation to empirical reality. 
Keynesian capitalism, with its emphasis on the state regulation of money and the stabilization of economies through government policies, is the best instance of how the regulation of currency is capitalism’s chief metaphorization of secondary process. The stabilization of currency by the regulating agency of government doubles the regulation of the infantile drives by the ego. The vocabulary of science— of an energetics—mediates between the psychical and the economic, giving them a shared tropology and a common project. “The fluctuations in the value of money since 1914,” writes Keynes in Monetary Reform, reflecting on the dysfunction of economies after World War I, is a “disequilibrium,” as he puts it, from which the social order, like the ego in the psychoanalytic analogue, should be cured.34 The stability in currency value throughout the nineteenth century, like the relative stability of endlessly shifting treaty arrangements in politics, rested on promises honored until the cataclysm of the Great War. The strong hand of government in stabilizing economic disequilibrium resembles the ego psychology of Freud’s second, postwar phase. “As always,” writes Keynes, “the balance of payments must balance every day.”35 “Instability” (p. 141)—the pun is now obvious—is to be avoided at all costs. Like psychical mechanisms, inflation and deflation have their respective roles in the regulation of economy, financial or therapeutic, each one playing a part as specific circumstance requires, whether for the social formation or the individual psyche. “Violent shocks to the existing equilibrium”—trauma in the finances of postwar Europe as well as in its shell-shocked veterans—require “readjustment” (p. 161), whether the goal is economic or psychological stability. Indeed, Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money from 1936 revises “classical” political economy by controlling precisely those factors that free markets leave unattended—the surplus value, for example, that divides wages from profits—regulating them into a coherent, if perpetually fluctuating, whole. As in psychoanalysis, here, too, the topographical—a sharp divide between classes— gives way to the dynamic—a coherent economy with a presumable rapprochement between top and bottom. Both manage a fluctuating system whose fixities are illusory and ideal and require intervention for their functioning to proceed. It is worth noting that Keynes lived on the floor above his Bloomsbury friend James Strachey at 41 Gordon square while, for decades, Keynes presided over the British treasury and Strachey over the english translation of Freud. Keynes was, as it were, also translating Freud. 
The scientific metaphors of Beyond the Pleasure Principle persist in The Ego and the Id, too, as does the new historicism of the psyche’s organization. “The character of the ego,” writes Freud, “is a precipitate of abandoned object-cathexes and . . . contains the history of those object-choices.”36 even the Oedipus complex—the family romance—now “originates” (p. 32) from these later mnemic structures rather than causes them. The feudal unconscious, in other words, is the retroactive product of the capitalist unconscious. Its power is held in check by the shift in metaphor by means of which the ego funnels its value from the feudal materials of its prior force. Its value is a dividend flowing from an accumulated wealth that now functions as capital. Historicity, even the historicity of the unconscious, is derived through the belated lens of a future looking back- ward. Time is beneficial as well as ruinous. As in shakespeare, history becomes the possibility of its own revision. The Oedipus complex is a “precipitate in the ego,” the “residue” of “the earliest object-choices of the id”—of infantile sexuality rather than their originals. This is because secondary process fuels the ego’s “energetic reaction-formations against these choices” (p. 34). The transit of the original Oedipus complex—its feudal character—into its modern or adult char- acter comes about only after the components of the family romance have been changed into modern terms. Now the family romance is known by virtue of what it leaves behind, that is, after its passing. The feudal character of primary process has been transformed into a modern enterprise for the purpose of ordering its overdeterminations and reducing its sway. 
This “reaction-formation” is, of course, the newly invented “superego,” which now “confronts” the ego as capitalism does feudalism. This process is no less static than anything else in this decidedly historical dynamic. The superego is not only a “residue” of the Oedipus complex but one with an active relation to the past that it represents. As an “energetic reaction-formation” to the id’s original object-choices, it carries forward the parents’ prohibitions in a new way—as a manager in a system of exchange rather than as a vassal in a system of faith. Once again the metaphors are decisive, this time revealing the link between the language of science (“energetic reaction”) and the language of capitalism (“choices”). “The infantile ego fortified itself” against the father—here the metaphor is once again feudal (“fortified”) as the child moves forward in time—by “erecting,” amusingly enough, a barrier within itself by virtue of its identification with the father. “It borrowed strength to do this,” says Freud, “from the father” in the form of a “loan” (p. 34). The historical circuit is metaphorically complete. “Borrowed” and “loan” are financial metaphors that progress from simple moneylending to a more modern form of credit. even the id is less biological than it is historical. It is another kind of “residue” with an unexpected origin in the experience of egos past: 

The experiences of the ego seem at first to be lost for inheritance; but, when they have been repeated often enough and with sufficient strength in many individuals in successive generations, they transform themselves, so to say, into experiences of the id, the impressions of which are preserved by heredity. Thus in the id, which is capable of being inherited, are harbored residues of the existences of countless egos; and, when the ego forms its super-ego out of the id, it may per- haps only be reviving shapes of former egos and be bringing them to resurrection. (p. 38) 

Freud sums up the ego’s component relationships in metaphors that describe not only the history of the ego itself but the history, as it were, of history. The political metaphors are especially striking: 
Our ideas about the ego are beginning to clear, and its various relation- ships are gaining distinctness. We now see the ego in its strengths and in its weaknesses. It is entrusted with important functions. By virtue of its relation to the perceptual system it gives mental processes an order in time and submits them to “reality-testing.” By interposing the processes of thinking, it secures a postponement of motor discharges and controls the access to motility. This last power is, to be sure, a question more of form than of fact; in the matter of action the ego’s position is like that of a constitutional monarch without whose sanction no law can be passed but who hesitates long before imposing his veto on any measure put forward by Parliament. All the experiences of life that originate from without enrich the ego; the id, however, is its second external world, which it strives to bring into subjection to itself. It with- draws libido from the id and transforms the object-cathexes of the id into ego-structures. With the aid of the super-ego, in a manner that is still obscure to us, it draws upon the experiences of past ages stored in the id. (p. 55) 

The scientific metaphors—“processes,” “discharges,” “transforms”—produce a technological vocabulary with which to describe the mind, much as applied science produces the technological infrastructure of capitalism. The ego’s transformations, designed to control its energies and their sources, result in its being likened to “a constitutional monarch,” a feudal personage at the mercy of parliamentary oversight. No wonder the ego is “like a politician,” required “to mediate between the world”—the present and future—and “the id”—the past (p. 56). 
To describe the ego as a “constitutional monarchy” is to describe it, of course, as a compromise-formation between feudalism and capitalism. Freud’s second model of mind makes his double tropology explicit. It resolves the difference between the topography of the first phase and the dynamism of the second by including the topographical within the dynamic as a graveyard—as the ego, “a precipitate,” in the language of the mortuary, “of abandoned object-cathexes” (p. 29). In “Mourning and Melancholia,” the figures of the patient’s past are ghosts, per- sons known to be dead. Presiding over this graveyard, the ego is a sexton, a night watchman, a gravedigger to its own Hamlet, who looks on in perplexed fascination at his own past. Late Freud retains landscape by reimagining it as a cemetery of lost causes. These include the pernicious idealizations of the family romance and feudalism alike. Feudalism and the family romance are one and the same. The presumption of a galvanized maturity based on mourning rather than melancholia is no presumption. What is dead is dead. What lives is a perpetually precarious present, mindful of the past and careful not to repeat its derelictions. 

1.     V. N. Voloshinov, Freudianism: A Critical Sketch, trans. I. R. Titunik (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987), pp. 90–91.

2.     See Harold Bloom, “The Internalization of Quest-Romance” (1968), in Poetics of Influence, ed. John Hollander (New Haven: Henry R. Schwab, 1988), pp. 17–42.

3.     See Perry Meisel, The Literary Freud (London: Routledge, 2007).

4.     Sigmund Freud, Letter of February 1, 1900, in The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887–1904, trans. and ed. Jeffrey M. Masson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 398.

5.    See Andrew Cole, The Birth of Theory (Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 2014), p. 71.

6.    G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. B. Baillie (New York: Harper, 1967), p.

7.    Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol . 14, ed. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, 1953–1974), p. 249.

8.     W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Penguin, 1996), p. 5; and Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Multiculture or Postcolonial Melancholia (London: Routledge, 2004).

9.    Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id (1923), in Strachey, vol. 19, p. 56.

10.    Edward said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978).

11.    John Dryden, The Conquest of Granada (1672), in Dryden: The Dramatic Works, vol. 3, ed. Montague summers (New York: Gordian Press, 1968), p. 35.

12.    Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), in Strachey, vol. 5, p. 601.

13.     As in Hegel, dialectic governs psychical activity. As in Fredric Jameson, the unconscious is “political”: The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981). As in Jacques Rancière, its terms are “aesthetic” because desire, in a Lacanian object-les- son, is governed by language: The Aesthetic Unconscious, trans. Debra Keates and James Swenson (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009).

14. See Alfred Binet, On Double Consciousness: Experimental Psychological Studies (London: Open Court, 1890).

15. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul (London: J. M. Dent, 1930), pp. 105–06.

16. Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, in Strachey, vol. 5, p. 532.

17. For summaries, see Perry Meisel and Walter Kendrick, eds., Bloomsbury/Freud: The Letters of James and Alix Strachey, 1924–25 (New York: Basic Books, 1985); and Adam Philips, “After Strachey,” London Review of Books 29, no. 19 (October 4, 2007), pp. 36–38.

18. Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, in Strachey, vol. 5, p. 532.

19. See Strachey in ibid., p. 561, n.2.

20. Sigmund Freud, “Family Romances” (1909), in Strachey, vol. 9, p. 237.

21. Ibid., pp. 240–41.

22. Marc Bloch, Feudal Society, Vol. 1: The Growth of Ties of Independence, trans. L. A. Manyon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), pp. 232–33.

23. Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (London: Verso, 1978), p. 151.

24. See Paul Vitz, Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious (New York: Guilford, 1988).

25. Marc Bloch, Feudal Society, Vol. 2: Social Classes and Political Organization, trans. L. A. Manyon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 441.

26. Hermann von Helmholtz, “The Conservation of Force: A Physical Memoir,” in Selected Writings, ed. Russell Kahn (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1971), pp. 3–55; and Helmholtz, “The Application of the Law of the Conservation of Force to Organic Nature,” in Kahn, Selected Writings, pp. 109–91.

27. The notion of Bindung is hardly new in second-phase Freud. It is also at the center of the early Project for a Scientific Psychology, which, well before Freud’s elaboration of his political metaphors, even in The Interpretation of Dreams, theorizes the way in which psychical energy is both “free” and “bound” because its nature is “mobile.”

28. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), in Strachey, vol. 18, pp. 38–39.

29. See Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy, trans. D. savage (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).

30. Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in Strachey, vol. 18, p. 52.

31. Freud, The Ego and the Id, in Strachey, vol. 19, p. 17.

32. John Maynard Keynes, A Tract on Monetary Reform ( London: Macmillan, 1924), p. 170.

33. Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, p. 51.

34. Keynes, A Tract on Monetary Reform, p. 2, p. 111, p. 193.

35. Keynes, A Tract on Monetary Reform, p. 109.

36. Freud, The Ego and the Id, in Strachey, vol. 19, p. 29.

Perry Meisel, "The Feudal Unconscious: Capitalism and the Family Romance," October, 159 (Winter, 2017), pp. 19-36. © 2017 by October Magazine, Ltd. and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Reprinted with permission of the MIT Press.


Imitation Modernism: An Interview with Perry Meisel

Imitation Modernism: An Interview with Perry Meisel

by Katie Da Cunha Lewin

Perry Meisel is a professor of English at New York University. He has written and lectured for over 40 years and is a prominent thinker in critical theory. His work tackles a disparate range of subjects, from pop culture and Henry James, to rock & roll and the popular television show Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Most recently, he has authored The Myth of Popular Culture from Dante to Dylan and co-edited the first edition of Saussure's Course in General Linguistics to be published in English.

What are the concerns of the contemporary novel? 

The contemporary novel seems to me to have three directions. First, a conventional one that is both popular and critically praised - the familiar novel of psychological inwardness, an inheritance from High Modernism, whose protocols have become conventionalized, together with a return to the generic plot structures of the kind of realist fiction High Modernism presumably superseded. I have in mind Paul Auster, Jennifer Egan, and even Jonathan Franzen, for whom the plight of characters is as a rule heightened by a pathos that is a given precondition of this sentimentalization of modernist inwardness, which is as a rule quite brutal, from Dostoyevsky and James to Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner, and even Hemingway. What is successful about this kind of fiction is also what is problematic about it. It has institutionalized what was in the first instance something very new. But if James and Dostoyevsky and their High Modernist heirs taught writers to go within, today's imitation modernists, as I like to call them, assume that everyone not only goes within but stays within, all the time. 

While in Woolf or Joyce inwardness always mixes with sociality, in imitation modernism it does not. This kind of irony was not lost on Katherine Mansfield, probably the most influential single High Modernist, however cloaked her influence still remains. Mansfield's assumption that everyone is a narcissist, preoccupied not only by death but by shopping and one's household, is shockingly prescient, and well ahead of the notion that in James, or Dostoyevsky, only the noble or the special among us suffer. This, too, is a misreading of early and High Modernism alike - many of James's characters are, ultimately, run-of-the-mill charlatans, while Woolf and, especially, Joyce and Faulkner assume that everyone suffers from within from the smallest as well as the largest social slights. To use a term from Marxist theory, they suffer from the imbrications of hegemonic expectation inscribed in subjects unconsciously and constitutively. Contemporary or imitation modernism has replicated the look but not the real performance of early and High Modernism alike. 

Second, the fantastical mode. Here I have in mind, not the work of magic realists like Garcia-Marquez or even Manuel Puig - still vivid enough to be considered contemporaries - but what I will call members of the School of Barthelme, notably Ben Marcus, for whom word play and the construction of imaginary kingdoms on the basis of familiar tropes taken in new and unlikely directions is enormously successful, if a bit beside the point. The formal achievement alone is impressive. This is, however - like Barthelme himself - a mode with no egress. Fiction's formal beauty is one of the last things this socially oriented mode of discourse can rely upon as fit meat for survival. I should note here, too, that a writer like Will Self combines, as does, in a less obvious way, Nicholson Baker, psychological inwardness with an extraordinarily playful, almost Barthelmean sense of language, a combination that saves both from the problems of this mode in its pure form and that elevates each to the more recognizably achieved status readers and critics have granted them both. 

Third, what I will call media fiction. This is the most promising new direction for fiction, though it is only just opening despite the many cultural pressures that make it an inevitability. David Foster Wallace, in a 1993 essay, ‘E Unum Pluribus,’ called for a ‘literature of the image,’ one based in media apart from fiction like television. Among the chief influences on young writers, truth demands that new media be given a place in fictional representation. While Wallace - a better critic than novelist - never wrote this kind of fiction, others have begun to, notably Jay Cantor, whose Krazy Kat takes a cartoon character as its focus; Mark Jacobson, whose Gojiro does the same with the Japanese movie monster; and Tao Lin, whose Shoplifting from American Apparel explores the way fashion - another popular, and visual, medium - usurps the stage of what contemporary reality is. Like Taipei, his novel employing Google Chat, which explores the incursion of social media into our daily discursive universe, this kind of media fiction is not fiction about fiction in the old ‘metafictional’ sense - a story about a story - but is itself realist in the strictest sense: These presumably ‘other’ or distinct media are in fact the very stuff of the real. Dr Johnson’s original sense of the novel's specificity - that it represents the real languages of life by participating in them - is reinvented here. Representing media is, in the classic Johnsonian sense, the representation of the way we live now. It is, ironically, imitation psychological modernism that is, by contrast, metafiction in the weak sense - a story about a story of isolated inner space once told and now no longer alive because no longer true. 

Who do you consider to be the most important writer who is still writing currently? 

It is always unwise to designate a writer who is ‘the most important,’ especially today. This is because literary importance - canonicity is the dirty word for it - is a function of influence. And, as you can see from what I've said about the contemporary practice of fiction, these influences have now accumulated to the point of an overdetermination unparalleled in the prior history of the novel. To be sure, Jane Austen and the Brontës chart different courses for later nineteenth-century fiction, but, then again, the Brontës may be seen as a response to Austen, and Hardy as a response to the Brontës. This kind of dialectical clarity, however, is missing today because the influence of modernism has been so diffuse, as shown by the three very different paths of contemporary writing I've outlined above. 

Still, three novelists remain influential, one recently deceased, and the other two now gray-beards. I have in mind, of course, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, and Norman Mailer. Mailer's became media fiction when he began the New Journalistic side of his career with The Armies of the Night and his belief that history is itself the stuff of fiction, and vice versa. Pynchon gave us the rock and roll sentence - still largely unused - and Reed an equally musicalized kind of prose that combines the rhythms of soul and jazz with the argot, both high-literary and slang, that lie behind their enunciative patterns. Nonetheless, we have moved beyond that moment in literary history in which dialectical movement can be seen or traced from one major writer to another. Despite their importance, all three of these writers seem, for the time being at least, left unused by our contemporaries. Even Salinger, the most academically neglected of important writers, remains neglected in fictional influence because he finds his influence in New Journalism rather than in fiction proper. 

As you know from conversations we have had, I am very dubious about some aspects of postmodernism and its stultifying effect on metafictional studies. How do you see postmodernism as functioning in critical theory? 

Postmodernism is now a clear and delimited historical category. Whether Robbe-Grillet, Borges, or Barthelme, its goals were to call attention to the frames in which we read and to foreground them. Whether Wallace, Marcus, or Cantor, this is no longer what fiction does, even at its most extreme. Typically, metafiction is a word synonymous with the kind of postmodernism I have already described. As for its relation to theory, that is self-evident. This is also why noting the similarities between classic postmodernism and structuralism and deconstruction goes without saying, and deserves a passing remark of general assumption rather than the whole books that have been unnecessarily devoted to it. 

What aspect of structuralism needs further exploration in critical work? 

There seem to me to be no further routes structuralism and its heirs - deconstruction in particular - have to take. We now have a wonderfully synthetic method for literary study, and for discursive study in general. All the new, or supposedly new, approaches, from the New Historicism to archive studies, environmental criticism, gender studies, queer theory, the new lyric theory, surface reading, and distant reading are spins on structuralism, like it or not. Surface reading, for example, is simply Barthes in ‘From Work to Text.’ Distant reading is simply Foucault's The Order of Things. Archive studies is simply a combination of Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge and Derrida's Archive Fever. 

As for gender studies and queer theory, they are all Freud, Lacan, and Klein. Postcolonialist theory seems to me the sole instance of a reasonably fresh conceptual development, though in its origins, it, too, is the function of Edward Said's use of classic theory - in this case Lacan - to clarify the nature of an ideological configuration regarding otherness as constitutive of psychological subjectivity in an overtly political way. Said is, of course, prefigured here by Fanon, and polished by Homi Bhabha and Paul Gilroy. This said, one should also note that we would be nowhere today without the work of Althusser and Raymond Williams, who accomplished in theoretical terms what the media novelists have accomplished later on in fiction - seeing how constitutive ideological formations are in the construction of the unconscious. These New Left theoreticians saw how, in a reversal of classical Marxism, base doesn't simply determine superstructure. Superstructure also determines base or infrastructure by creating states of mind that allow - or disallow - the means of production of goods and social services to be sustained.