"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)




Mapping Barthelme's "Paraguay"

by Perry Meisel

Therefore we try to keep everything open, go forward avoiding the final explanation. If we inadvertently receive it, we are instructed to (1) pretend that it is just another error, or (2) misunderstand it. Creative misunderstanding is crucial.

Jean Mueller, in "Paraguay"

To choose among Donald Barthelme's many stories and sketches a single one that could be called central or paradigmatic to his achievement as a whole is to enter that vortex of metacritical speculation and display that is often the precise subject of his fiction. Barthelme's novels, Snow White and The Dead Father, full of deadpan improbabilities and allegorizations of referents of which we have no secure notion, help us less here than we might expect; they don't organize and focus Barthelme's considerably larger and more characteristic project as a short-story writer so much as they caution us about the easy certitude with which we may seek or offer a single mythological formula - for example, pop or ideological in the case of Snow White, Oedipal in the case of The Dead Father - to explain or account for the vicissitudes of any discourse at all.
So we have to narrow the search to those tales that are overtly and exactly metacritical, that take the problem of coherence and organization as their own proper subjects, too, by reproducing the project of finding a plan or discovering a key or pattern as their manifest aim. Perhaps such stories can provide us with clues as to the grammar or structure of the imagination that produces them, and, so designated, certify themselves as the central or privileged kind of tale we wish to find.
Some stories in particular stand out from this point of view as clues to Barthelme at large - "The Expedition" (Guilty Pleasures), "The Discovery" (Amateurs), "The Explanation" (City Life). These, however, are boldly, badly burlesque, easy parodies of the questing sensibility and low on "endthusiasm"1 compared to the genuinely paradigmatic "Paraguay," the arguable centerpiece of City Life and a story that takes - and takes seriously - as its organizing conceit the exploration and ordering of an alien terrain whose intractability, like that of Barthelme's own prose, emerges only gradually to its navigator.
Apparently the narrative of an anonymous speaker who recounts his experience among strangers in a strange land in the unruffled tone of a cosmopolitan visitor or an ethnographer, "Paraguay" is an uneasy but highly formalized, at times parodically scientific, charting of the alien terrain and society its title seems only to name. Like the unexplained intimacy with which his Paraguayan hosts, Jean and Herko Mueller, greet him and show him about, the narrator's own coolness under obvious pressure imparts to us an unspoken assurance as to Paraguay's existence and coherence, despite its fantastic conditions and alarming incoherence - its "red snow" (39), for example, or its "flights of white meat" moving "through the sky overhead" (30).2 Organized by a series of titled entries, each one part diary, part field report, the story's composure seems to flow from no more than its confidence in its own manifest ordering devices, overcompensatory attempts as they are to keep organized what cannot be organized, to impose the structure of a familiar discourse on a culture whose rules differ markedly from the familiar.
A discursive map or ethnography, of course, the story looks like an informal taxonomy, an attempt to understand the codes common to any foreign country, no matter its exact geographical location. So in its action, at least from this point of view, the story internally doubles its reader's relation to it. Here the story itself becomes an act of criticism or interpretation like the one that tries to apprehend it, as the reader attempts to elucidate its own partially transparent discourse much as the narrator whose apparent diary he reads tries to do the same in relation to his fugitive, and perhaps phantom, Paraguay. "Paraguay," in short, is about how to read "Paraguay."
Diary and ethnography at once, this slight oscillation or shifting in the story's representation of itself as a map or charting of an alien culture and terrain reveals a constituent feature of Barthelme's language that helps to guide us in its interpretation. Highly figured behind a surface of simplicity, Barthelme's prose is intentionally multivalent or overdetermined, a transistorized or "software" (34) discourse that pressure-packs a store or inventory of various information systems even in a single term or trope like that of the map. Barthelme's reader may tease out or unpack those systems latent within it, and so discover the various implicit tropological options or possibilities by which his fiction represents itself through even a single such organizing - and already teased out or implied - figure.
The result, in "Paraguay" at least, is that bifurcated notion of organization in which the figure of the map has two simultaneous meanings or interpretations, one dependent on space, one dependent on time. The map of the ethnographer is a taxonomic table, a structural figure that accents the spatial and the synchronic in its in its quest for a set of rules by which a culture - or a text - generates its effects at any given moment. The map of the diarist, by contrast, is temporally inflected, an organization or mapping in time rather than space. Let us take up each subfigure of the map, then - table and structure on the one hand, diary and temporality on the other - and unpack the ways in which each one directs "Paraguay" and its attempt to provide a map or representation for the problem of fictional organization itself.

As a place to map, of course, the tale's referent appears to be no undiscovered country at all, but - naturally, or so it seems - Paraguay, the Paraguay designated by the story's title. We all know Paraguay; or do we? Barthelme has a surprise for us in the second entry, "Where Paraguay Is":
Thus I found myself in a strange country. This Paraguay is not the Paraguay that exists on our maps. It is not to be found on the continent, South America; it is not a political subdivision of that continent, with a population of 2,161,000 and a capital city named Asunción. This Paraguay exists elsewhere. (30)
Like Borges's Uqbar and Tlön, or like Barthelme's own "Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning" in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, Paraguay, in Barthelme's signification at least, has no referent as such - no preexisting set of codes to which it points as a signifier, and certainly no discoverable, self-sufficient, extrasemiotic reality to which its name merely appeals the way the ordinary map or diary appeals to places and events we all know, at least from our reading. As static representation or ethnographic project, the story has no proper objects to work upon, since Paraguay is not a given space or place that can be quantified or categorized, but a place - an "elsewhere" - whose constituent terms are given only by the language of the story. Accordingly, Barthelme parodies and exhausts the notion of the grammar or table in the closing entry. As the tale concludes, Herko Mueller at last presents the narrator with "the plan," the chart or grammar the story as taxonomy has sought. "It governs more or less everything," says Herko. "It is a way of allowing a very wide range of tendencies to interact" (40). Instantly, however, "the bell rang and the space became crowded" (40). With "the plan" a failure the moment it is invoked, "marshals" must try to "establish some sort of order" (40) all over again.
What "Paraguay" maps, then, is the project and problem of mapping itself. By Barthelme's own testimony, mapping cannot be a straightforward, automatic reference to a self-sufficient world outside language that language simply points to. If Paraguay is not Paraguay, if it "exists elsewhere," we need to begin reading the story all over again to see how it constitutes its terms, how it manages to map - to fashion - a place that exists in a purely imaginative, purely Barthelmean "elsewhere." Here the figure of the map as static representation or as taxonomic table begins to give way to the rival dominance of the map as diary, and to its accent on the way language generates its referents temporally.
The bland description of the approach to Paraguay with which the tale opens turns out to be, as Barthelme's footnote tells us, a "slightly altered" citation from an old travelogue description of Tibet (30). This deadpan representation of a standard narrative opening, however, has curious results, skewing as it does the very teleology of journeying at the moment it calls it into play.
Although we expect proper names like that of Paraguay to point to their customary referents whenever they are used, Barthelme interrupts - even before he says so in "Where Paraguay Is" - the self-evident, apparently natural power with which they are invested at the start of the tale, in its title, by placing under the heading of the proper name "Paraguay" a description that properly belongs to Tibet. Of course, the story goes on to restore the name Paraguay at the close of the Tibetan passage, even though at this point such a restoration turns out to be not a restoration at all, but a fresh violation, a violation of the news that the description is really proper only to Tibet.
Surely this byplay suggests that "Paraguay" is interested in how easy it is to sever names from their proper referents, though just as surely this is not its principal thrust. No, what is interesting about this split, uneasy start that is not a start at all is that it makes the same kind of mistake at least twice - Paraguay is Tibet, but Tibet is also Paraguay. The boundaries of each one, in other words, are brought into relief only at the moment of their transgression, making each the effect of its crossing by the other. Hence it is the difference the names plot against themselves that allows us to think that the property referred to in each case is something different, even though it is, of course, (also) the same. Without Barthelme's footnote, we would otherwise be misled, happily and unknowingly, into reading about Tibet while journeying into Paraguay, and would very probably take the Tibetan place names the passage uses as nonsense or as a parody of the exotic. What the intentional confusion has wrought, in other words, is a sense of proper names as the product, not of their links to a real piece of property, but of their differences from one another. What allows "Paraguay" to signify Paraguay is also what allows it to signify Tibet, though to confuse the two, to violate the law that keeps each one in its place, is also to establish the law, to bring its operations to light.
Even more, the very act of reference here turns out to be a temporally plotted one, like the reference to a subject enacted by the diary with which "Paraguay" as a map refers, its narrator, the subject to which it refers as a diary, is equally unavailable, or at least available only in the way the "elsewhere" of Paraguay itself is available: as a linguistic function temporally installed. Even the proper referents of real diaries and autobiographies acquire their coherence, their existence, only proleptically and analeptically - as temporally constituted productions of the texts that claim only to report or narrate them. Reference or legibility in Barthelme turns out to be a similar process. In order for Barthelme's reader to fix the "elsewhere" of Paraguay, the reader must fashion what he can differentially, laterally, within the signifying chains or "cables" (to use the graphic vocabulary of The Dead Father) the story's surface texture provides. Hence the reader tries to line up signifier with its repetition according to the very law that is violated by the frustrated prolepsis of Paraguay when it is analeptically replaced by Tibet. Challenging itself as well as its reader in a double wager, the story charges us, as the price of its legibility, to seek retroactive confirmation of its signifiers in a process that allows us to discern its various possible systems of meaning.
Indeed, the temptation to call fugitive the objects a map or taxonomy like "Paraguay" wishes to coordinate or classify is by no means a simple response to the story's murmuring moral lament that language is too weak to grasp the elusive real; it is, rather, evidence that we have fallen, from one point of view at least, directly into the story's clutches, prey to its ability to convince us, despite its warnings, that language and the world are things apart from one another, and that language's sole function is to try its best to correspond to the world despite the usual "modernist" difficulties in doing so. To call the apparent objects of Paraguay fugitive is to invest them, analeptically, with a self-sufficient existence whose presence is in fact no more than the effect of its touted absence. Even the paradigmatic notion of structure itself, of the taxonomic chart or table, is complicit with those logocentric effects that produce the sense of an elusive real that escapes the text, for structure here becomes a logocentric referent, too, as impossible as those "attached photographs of the human soul" that appear in Guilty Pleasures.3 Like those méconnaissances that impute presence to the Freudian unconscious in the name of denaturing it, the interpretation of "Paraguay" as a text about a synchronic structure of reference simply reconstitutes the very type of referentiality the story excludes. Reference is not a site or structure to be discovered, but a process always in movement. Indeed, any such moment of rest is always subject to its reinsertion in another series of differences in which the cards may be reshuffled and a new combination of signifiers produced to decenter the momentary status of what came before. As The Dead Father tersely puts it, "a static 'at rest' analysis" gives way "to super series of unpredictable mathematical frequencies."4
The story even gives us terms for this second or alternative self-representation, a demystification of how the temporally organized process of reading actually proceeds, and how the sense a text ordinarily enjoys is really procured. The terms are to be found in a mundane but resonant remark characteristic of Barthelme's "software" prose: "Temperature," says the narrator, "controls activity to a remarkable degree" (31). Measures, that is, are a function of a threshold ("degree") of re-markability. So climate conditions in Paraguay and the kinds of measures or "temperature" by which its conditions can be known suggest that things emerge as such in its world only to the extent that they may be re-marked or repeated - to the extent that they can be identified a second time, or, to put it another way, to the extent that a mark can find its repetition. Not until its second appearance, not until the moment of re-marking or repetition, can anything even appear as such for the first time, a function as it is of its own repetition or ability to repeat itself.
Hence the legibility of the text ebbs and flows depending upon the re-markability a given element may have in the various signifying chains or cables that may be seen or said to support it. Indeed, Barthelme's prose is habitually overdetermined and yet still oblique because its overdeterminations don't as a rule add up in the same columns at the same time. Not only does "Paraguay" set such traps - Paraguay is Tibet, Tibet is Paraguay, and so on. This is also how Barthelme stories such as "110 West Sixty-first Street" or "The School" in Amateurs garner what readability they may have, constituted as they are along a series, for example, of puns ("bar," "will," "kidded"). These ambiguous notations or polyphonic registers (the "scales," "colors," and "table" in "The Indian Uprising" in Unspeakable Practices are at once names for the process and examples of it) create coherence as well as confusion - "a gigantic jiveass jigsaw puzzle."5 Thus, too, the burlesque - or not? - of the process of re-marking in the self-duplicating columns of a repeated word like"butter" in "Eugenie Grandet" in Guilty Pleasures, or its outright problematization in the list (?) of which City Life's "The Glass Mountain" is composed.
One overweening example of the process and its productive and deferred effects lies in the way the transparent discourse of the old-fashioned travelogue citation grows dramatically rich and problematic once it is re-placed under the heading of a Barthelme story. Suddenly, belatedly, the description of Tibet takes on the intricacies and wit of a page from Blanchot, finds itself amplified in ways it never knew before, and so exemplifies the precise kind of re-markable legibility "Paraguay" itself recommends. Hence the ingenious web of rhetorical strategies the passage (now) deploys to establish time, places, events that have not been - and apparently cannot be - supplied directly ("the plain that we had crossed the day before was now white with snow"; "the night as still as the previous one and the temperature the same"; "agreed-upon wage" - 29-30), all this together with the self-emptying device of "now white with snow," as though this (belatedly) postmodern text is intent to erase its coordinates even as it establishes them.

Now we can assemble the two parts or versions of the story's self-representation and see how they both oppose and require one another. The difference between table and diary, of course, corresponds to a difference in the story's very notion of reference itself. Is the story's notion of reference - its model for its own style of organization or readability - the synchronic one suggested by the taxonomy, the structure that is uncovered or discovered within or behind the language of the story, and that accounts, as a grammar would, for all its effects? Or is its notion of reference the temporal one suggested by the figure of the diary and founded on a process of repetition or re-markability that makes any stability or fixity of reference always a product of, always dependent on, a series of temporal operations within a system of differences? These alternative notions of reference also correspond to the difference from itself the tale has already displayed at its skewed outset. If the map as static structure or taxonomy presumes stable objects beyond the text which the text merely apprehends - even if that object is the structure of reference a narrative taxonomy can claim to find - the map as diary, by contrast, assigns all "discovery" to the effects of a differential system that generates the logocentric effects that we call the elusive real. What the clash of the taxonomic figure and the figure of the diary enact, in other words, is the antinomy or difference between an epistemology that discovers and one that produces.
Moreover, what is gained by denying the text a logocentric dimension is precisely what opponents of such a position claim such analysis loses: reference itself. For "Paraguay" is by no means a nonreferential or even self-referential text. Not only is the story capable of referring to those codes of social reference that allows us to produce a text's public meanings, it also takes that very possibility as the requirement for its own reading: only by attempting to read the story "straight" - taking Paraguay as the real Paraguay, and so on - do we find out the peculiar and particular nature of its own brand of serial lawfulness. The level of law at which the story operates requires the violation of customary linguistic lawfulness for its discovery. For Barthelme, language does not express or represent; it situates within systems of serially constituted differences. To find this out, Barthelme's reader must read according to the old model in order to gain access, through a mistake, to the new.6
And just as the story requires that normal codes of reference be observed so that their violation may constitute a new system of law, it also requires that we restrain our desire to endorse, as we have, one side of its double epistemology at the cost of the other. For, like the interdependence of Fatherhood and childhood in The Dead Father, the figures of the table and diary, structure and series, are, of course, interdependent, too, each one making the other possible:
Arbiters registered serial numbers of the (complex of threats) with ticks on a great, brown board. (37)
The labor (arbeit) of the random (arbitrary) series constitutes a "complex or constellation of "threats" to the purity of the synchronic table or "board," here infected by time ("ticks," as in clocks) and so "brown" rather than white.
What Barthelme here criticizes under the name of whiteness, "blankness" (35), empty signification - the model is the Le Corbusier design description he cites in the section entitled "The Wall," "Paraguay" as Borgesian Book of Sand - is that ideal of a purely formal structure of structure as the goal of a postmodern, metacritical fiction. Allied as such an ideal is with the synchronic and the structural, it is corrected or opposed by the story's rhetoric of temporality in an extended series of figures for Paraguay's climatology akin to the trope of "temperature" and its remarkable effects. Like the "white snow" we have misread as a sign for the story's self-erasure, or like the properly Paraguayan "red snow" that John Leland reads as a sign for "the machinery of ordering,"7 the "sand" that the narrator is surprised to find in his clothing (and that takes the rather opaque form of a sand dollar") is supposed to be "sifted twice daily to remove impurities and maintain whiteness" (32). Like the "silence," "white noise," or "white space" that comes with "the softening of language" (36), or, indeed, like the "vast blind wall" and its "expanse of blankness" that Barthelme cites from his Le Corbusier (35), the sifting of sand bespeaks the story's desire to keep its meanings free and open - to keep itself clean or propre - by referring, it seems, only to the structure of signification itself.
And yet the very mechanism of this s(h)ifting process by which the perpetually new reading - the sifting - is made possible by the shifting status of the same signifiers is premised, temporal as the process must be, on the very residue or impurity it wishes to sift or clean away. Hence the residue represented by the "sand dollar" reminds us of what sifting costs. For to constellate the same trace differently on different readings is possible not because its semantic inventory has been cleansed, but because its inventory continues to provide new possibilities for the establishment of new signifying chains that may be set into operation by those fresh series which constitute subsequent readings.
The story's larger, more motivated self-interpretations or thematizations are regulated by the same oscillation between its figural systems, between static ideal and temporal praxis. As a self-conscious piece of (post)modern fiction, after all, we would expect "Paraguay" somehow to render its judgment as to the state of both its language and the modern culture in which it is inscribed, though we should expect, too, that such judgment(s) will be delivered in the inevitably double or opposed terms with which we are by now familiar.
Hence two possibilities. On the one hand, the story's Wastelander or modernist option, that matrix of misreading in which the story situates itself as a story whose promise of narrative teleology and closure is constantly interrupted, waylaid in the face of the fugitive real. Here the world is fractured, fragmented, a world in which "men wander," "trying to touch something"; a world in which a misreading of Barthelmean semiotics advises that "everything physical . . . is getting smaller" ("walls thin as thought"), and which occasions that nostalgia for touch or presence expressed in Paraguay as a "preoccupation with skin," "possibly," says the narrator, "a response to this" (38).
On the other hand, however, emerges the story's anti- or postmodernist thematization in which Wastelander fragmentation turns out to be a misreading of serial abundance. Books of Sand are testimony, as are Freud's interminable analysis or Pynchon's paranoia, to the unending possibilities of interpretation, the broken or shattered texts really "calculated mixes" (36), as Barthelme's finally pop or mass vision puts it, "dispatched from central art dumps to regional art dumps, and from there into the lifestream of cities" (34). Moreover, it is the minimalism or "microminiaturization" (38) of such art that is witness for the abundance - rather than witness for dessication - since postmodern, minimalist "software" is really an exercise in the transistorizing that Barthelme calls, with some irony, "rationalization":
Rationalization produces simpler circuits and, therefore, a saving in hardware. Each artist's product is translated into a statement in symbolic logic. The statement is then "minimized" by various clever methods. The simple statement is translated back into the design of a simpler circuit. (34)
Hence "the softening of language," says the narrator in an exemplary moment of antimodernist candor, "usually lamented as a falling off from former practice is in fact a clear response," like "The Balloon" in Unspeakable Practices, "to the proliferation of surfaces and stimuli" (36). "Software," in short, is "more durable than regret."8
Our interpretations, of course, are by necessity serial ones, too, relying on particular signifying chains in the story at the cost of others, inevitable méconnaissances as are any acts of reading in the world of Barthelme's fiction. Indeed, to represent the story as a sequence through which its design emerges, or even to represent it as the opposition of two styles of self-representation, is to repress much of what it enacts. Even our retention of terms disallowed by the story's serial critique of structurality ("story," for example, or "structure" itself) requires their erasure despite their necessity to us, although it should also be said that deconstruction, too, needs the closure against which it is always articulated. For like the mediating figure of the map itself, which allows for a structural and serial epistemology at once, the story for which the map is both metaphor and metonymy also allows, indeed requires that its alternative self-representations be read as a constitutive difference rather than as a conflict to be won or lost by one model or the other.
And yet if we wish to acknowledge the relative dominance of the figure of the temporal diary next to that of the static map or table in "Paraguay," it allows us a radical notion of the continuity between Barthelme's fiction and the reflexive realism - that of Updike, say, or Bellow - with which it is customarily contrasted. Now that the temporal plottings required in any t(r)opological coordination of a map are mainifest, the diary's association with the figure of subjectivity reminds us that Barthelme's arguably privileged style of temporal ordering is also the style of (dis)order by which we know even the romantic self. Barthelme is different only in the position of the gaze, not in the articulation of its structure. Although Barthelme is to be distinguished from more customary writers in his lust for the aleatory rather than the determined, only the pressure of a determination superior to chance - or at least required by it - can account for the energy of his insistence.


1. Donald Barthelme, The Dead Father (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1975), p. 171
2. All references and citations from "Paraguay" are from the Quokka edition of City Life (New York: Pocket Books, 1978). References from other works by Barthelme will be given separately in the notes.
3. See "The Photographs," Guilty Pleasures (New York: Delta, n.d.), p. 153.
4. The Dead Father, p. 50. The equivalent opposition in The Dead Father is that uneasy coexistence of a series of fathers in "A Manual for Sons" with the Dead Father's own claim that his particular paternity is privileged. See also John Leland's reading of Barthelme's Snow White as a serial text in which seriality and openness are responses to and critiques of the closed structure of the myth proper of Snow White ("Remarks Re-marked: Barthelme, What Curios of Signs!" Boundary 2 (Spring 1977), 5: 795-811
5. "I Bought a Little City," Amateurs (New York: Pocket Books, 1977), p. 66.
6. Hence Lévi-Strauss's notion in the "Overture" to The Raw and the Cooked that seriality is without double articulation collapses here in accord with Eco's critique (see Umberto Eco, "Pensée structurale et pensée sérielle," Musique en jeu 5: 45-56), because the very méconnaissances that put the story into play at the outset, and which the reader must traverse in order to accede to the story's serial logic, are, of course, drawn from the public codes the story puts into play in order to violate. This, of course, deconstructs their propriety, and so meets Eco's requirement that seriality denature the apparently natural or proper status of its fist level of articulation.
7. Leland, "Remarks Re-marked," p. 797
8. See "Alice," in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (New York: Pocket Books, 1978) p. 123.

Originally published in Fragments: Incompletion & Discontinuity (New York: New York Literary Forum, 1981)