"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)




The Form of Politics

by Perry Meisel


It is, of course, a deconstructive commonplace to observe that the singular or the unique is the function or the effect of a relation. And yet a political and intellectual climate like ours in America today – a New Sanctimony, if you will, a recall of transcendental categories by Left and Right alike – too often propounds the singular as a value in itself, whether it is ethnicity, gender, or oppression as such. Our climate needs to be reminded of this deconstructive commonplace, not only to explain to Neo-conservatives why and how deconstructive relativism is actually very systematic indeed, but also to distinguish deconstruction from the neo-centrisms of the Left (a self-contradictory description that is itself an example of the problem). These latter impulses, astonishingly enough, reconstitute the binarisms of black/white, male/female, power/oppression that gird tyranny, and that are under presumable siege as categories.
What is perennially misconceived about deconstruction (Harold Bloom's term "weak misreading" well accounts for the surprisingly literal response to Derrida that we all know) is that its procedure for deracinating essences, absolutes, transcendental categories of all kinds is not in the service of an anarchic play of signifiers. Nor is it designed to prioritize the historically repressed or marginalized side of an opposition. Deconstruction is a highly exact mode of reading designed, not to throw texts or the world into chaos, but to show how the world we think we find only gets – and has gotten – made in the shapes and terms that we take for granted as given, self-evident, natural.
American criticism may perhaps wake from its dogmatic slumbers by remembering what Anselm Haverkamp states in his introduction to this conference – that America is difference. This is the crucial tie between deconstruction and America despite deconstruction's French (and Germanic) ground of philosophical emergence (here, too, though, we should recall that both America and deconstruction share, after all, a place in the tradition of the Enlightenment despite a difference in the epistemological deposition of the subject that Enlightenment Romanticism was invented to sustain following the first death of God).
As Jonathan Culler points out, the performative or constitutive nature of discourse, together with its chiastic ground-making, is particularly plain in American life; indeed, it is American life's singular virtue. If marginal America constructs itself as a difference from dominant America, we should remember that dominant America constructed itself as an enabling difference from Europe, thereby preparing a common and originary ground for American life at large, based, not on European – read logocentric – notions of identity or sameness, but, in principle if not always or altogether in practice, on difference. This common epistemology of American life ironically guarantees freedom by requiring everyone to deal with influence.
Hence the ease with which we allow ourselves to be swayed by the language of the singular – of the essentiality of the ethnic, the gendered, the this, the that – is precisely what a deconstructive reassessment of the political asks us to question. Without aesthetic theory – I use these terms with Kant in mind – and without a deconstructive reimagination of the categories involved, a dangerous epistemological lassitude will continue despite the need for its correction.
Consider, for example, the category of the ethnic. What is its status as a notion? In 1992, the Poetics Institute of New York University and the Cardozo School of Law sponsored a conference with Jacques Derrida that allowed me to address the problem then. The Greek ethnos, I argued at that time, emerges in the Septuagint as a means of translating the Hebrew goyim, which has the sense of "heathen" – those who do not believe in the Jewish God. Only in the nineteenth century does the word gain the more specific sense of race with which we associate it still in this century. This way of reading ethnos as designating biosemiotic traits, sometimes derived iconically through or from the language a person speaks, well suited nineteenth-century ideological needs, particularly those of nationalism. The less-than-various array of ethnic nationalisms, from Mazzini to Herzl, sought a justifying physicalism familiar in nineteenth-century reasoning from phrenology to ethnography. Ethnography and ethnology alike emerge as disciplines of study contemporary with the growth of nationalist feeling, the first in 1834, the second in 1842. Lexicons record a hazy relation between ethnos and ethos, too, the latter meaning custom, although the nature of the relation is unclear. This muddy proximity is the very nature of the relation, which motivates what is merely customary among people by divining a mystic bond among them and elevating it, that is, reducing it, to the status of an innate rather than a derived characteristic.
The ethnic as a trope, then, rests, or fails to do so, on a paradox whose structure is a familiar deconstructive site constituted by the play between inclusion and exclusion. That which is without value – those who do not believe, those who are goyim or heathen – becomes precisely that which is of, that which is, value – the inherent, often racially construed trait that assigns and defines one at a presumably fundamental level. The ethnic or racial – that denigration or impropriety that defines goyim – is also the trope designed to signify the pure, the essential, the very opposite of the unclean or the improper that it originarily signifies in the history of its usage. It should be noted, too, that ethnos also originarily signifies the notion of "one's own" – of what is, properly speaking, proper to one – a notion whose like paradoxical structure has also long been familiar to us. Curiously enough, then, the otherness that structures the heathen or the unruly – the excluded – is also the properness, the inherence that structures what is included.
If a narrative were to be constructed from this play of the trope's senses, it would find its telos in the scientific racism and eugenics of the Nazi era, even if it might also find an epistemological counterpart in soil-Zionism, African-American separatism, or feminism of the essentialist variety. Democratic thinking, by contrast, describes the truth of the universality it declares by virtue of its erasure. Freedom of worship, for example, has as its implication that which guarantees the possibility of its emergence: a constitutional indifference to the very religions it frees.
Any contemporary articulation of the ethnic rolls and rocks on the lip of this paradox. Its negation is the repressed that returns late in the twentieth century with the revalorization of those ethnic categories that the century's civil and human rights revolutions, especially in the United States, supposedly put in question. The rise of multiculturalism in the United States and the end of the socialist ideal in the Soviet Union are, from this point of view, similar reactions against and repressions of the non-ethnic ideals of both political constructions.

Any deconstructive reassessment of the political depends today, then, on a series of new assumptions about both society and subjectivity. Here deconstruction maintains its historical relation to psychoanalysis and Marxism alike, although by now these relations are so implicit that the crucial term in each case remains largely silent throughout the conference.
The unconscious is the conference's enabling notional secret, an Althusserian notion of the unconscious that understands subjects and ideology, texts and their reception, in reciprocal rather than exclusive terms. Avital Ronell's "testing" is a superb psychoanalytical representation of the subject. "Testing" suggests what the ego and any shape at all have in common – the doing and undoing of frames, edges, outlines, borders. "We exist in sway," says Ronell, linking Kant with Freud and Lacan, and linking epistemology with psychoanalysis.
The conference's second chief notion, ideology, is well described by Barbara Johnson without being named. By asking "what speaks?" rather than "who speaks?," Johnson efficiently points out the dynamic and constitutive relation between ideology and the unconscious, and the way in which this relation fashions the ground of self and society alike. When Judith Butler asks, "Why do words wound?," the answer is that the unconscious is structured like a language.

In order to elaborate a deconstructive reassessment of the political, let us read a familiar and even topical text at some length. No twentieth-century text is more alluring for its presumable gender allegory than Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928). And yet no twentieth-century text is also more strategically plain about its own deconstructive rather than irreducible notion of gender than Orlando is. Everyone knows the popular conception of Orlando – even the movies attest to it: an allegory about how perfect a human being would be could s/he combine the qualities of both genders. The emblem for Orlando's apparently synthetic project is the book's hommage to androgyny, borrowed from Coleridge's picture of a harmonious imagination in the Biographia Literaria (1817). Woolf literalizes, or so it seems, Coleridge's idealizing descriptions of rich imaginative figures such as Shakespeare by switching Orlando's gender about halfway through the book. Woolf thus simultaneously preserves and changes Orlando's character as the rival demands of soul and history struggle beneath the full-throated ease of both the plot and Woolf's seamless use of language.
Culler's notion of performativity is dazzlingly evident as Woolf's text provides a virtual object lesson in how semiosis makes subjects from the ground up. What language brings into being in Orlando is gender as such. Even to call it "as such" is, of course, problematic, since gender's suchness or givenness is the function of a difference or a relation. Under the pressure of Woolf's language, Orlando's presumably central notion of gender splits its husk.
The key to the novel, as the saying goes, lies in the sometimes odd structure of Woolf's prose, which as a rule is so well sutured that the means of its production slips by. In the novel's third chapter, the narrator announces, with an apparent straight face, that "everything, in fact, was something else" (143).1 How can what is "in fact" be "something else"? By definition, a "fact" is what it is – just the fax, ma'am – but here, quite ironically, the self-evidence ordinarily associated with "fact" is also taken away from it by virtue of how its self-evidence is represented – as "something else."
This kind of rhetorical oddness occurs again and again in the texture of the book's language, often structuring sentences in uncannily similar – and equally disturbing ways. "Everything was different," says the narrator early on (27), trying to give us a picture of the Elizabethan past by negation, even in a catalogue of vegetables, climates, and poets. How can a statement of nonidentity be a properly representational or descriptive one? "The arras" in "the hall" at Orlando's ancestral home "moved always" (45) – "moved always" is an oxymoron. Or, says the narrator, meditating on Orlando's future in the book's first chapter and thinking vaguely of official roles for him, he "was cut out for precisely some such career" (15). How can what is "precisely" also be "some such"? Similarly, if "openness . . . was the soul" of Orlando's "nature" (189), as the narrator says it is, then the outside – "openness" – and the inside – "soul" – are perilously and curiously identified.
The seeming imprecision in Woolf's language is, in fact, a rhetorical pattern – a principal one throughout the novel, and the way the novel itself goes about estimating as well as representing oppositions such as fact and fiction, text and world, and, of course, one gender and another.
The rhetorical pattern has as its counterpart the novel's larger structural pattern, which requires a similar transgression of the reader's assumptions once they have been put in place. Much as Woolf's sentences ask the reader to believe opposing or different kinds of propositions simultaneously, so, too, does the structure of the novel's fundamental illusionism. Orlando is at one and the same time the same person despite her change of sex midway through the book – her subjectivity is essential behind even gender. And yet Orlando is also a function of history, changing as she does in accord with the changes through which she lives. To define and represent gender, Orlando – and Orlando – both invoke history and deny it.
Rather than a problem, such structural irreconcilability is a strategy or device. Time must be invoked to describe something as timeless – Orlando's personality, for example – since the timeless can only be conceived of in its relation – its nonrelation – to time. And history can be thought of only in relation to a timelessness that is its foil or counterpart. In Orlando, everything, then – and remember, everything is something else – is as a rule put in place by its transgression. This strategy or device, both rhetorical and structural, I shall call Woolf's cross-writing – the transgression or crossing over of assumptions even as they are put in place.
Woolf theorizes cross-writing in Orlando by telling us that Orlando's own mind works in "violent see-saws" (46), not unlike Woolf's own clashing metaphors, "stopping at nothing," she says, "in between" (46). Sounding like Saussure (and Keats), Woolf gives cross-writing a differential model: "Nothing thicker than a knife's blade separates happiness from melancholy" (45). Of course not: to know one means to know its difference from the other. To accent this relativist or relational semiotics, Woolf uses the same metaphor that she uses in Mrs. Dalloway (1925) to show how difference works to constitute sameness: the clocks in London are off line, each ringing the same hour a bit differently from the others (1925, 60 - 61).2 Woolf's description of Shakespeare early in the novel also matches the structure of her cross-writing: "his mind was . . . a welter of opposites" (22). Queen Elizabeth, too, is drawn according to the same plan: qualities such as "innocence" and "simplicity" were "all the more dear to her for the dark background she set them against" (23).
Woolf tells us in the book's preface to be prepared for this double rhythm or movement. "The book," she says, "will inevitably wake expectations in the reader which the book itself can only disappoint" (viii). Expectation and disappointment, disappointment and expectation – this is a fair estimate of the semiotic rhythm the novel employs to have its way with us. The play of expectation and disappointment on the reader's part is necessary for any horizon or circumference – any edge or margin or frame that situates an object as such, whether animate or inanimate – to emerge at all, and as a function of compounding, of difference. Readers know, says Woolf, how to "make . . . up from bare hints dropped here and there the whole boundary and circumference of a living person; can hear in what we only whisper a living voice; can see, often what we say nothing about, exactly what he looked like, and know without a word to guide them precisely what he thought" (73).
Woolf reminds us of the kind of rhetorical sleight of hand at work here by calling our attention to it and its mechanisms. "The most poetic" kind of "conversation," she says, "is precisely that which cannot be written down" (253). This creates not simply awe at the depth of the conversation in question (a conversation between Orlando and her nineteenth-century lover, Shelmerdine), but also awe at the fact that such "repletion" or fullness, as Woolf puts it (253), can be the effect of "a great blank here" (253). Even the opposition between life and literature is handled – is simultaneously established and undone – by crossover rhetoric. While life and literature are on the one hand distinct ("Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another" [17]), on the other hand, the Queen "read him" – Orlando – "like a page" (25).
When Orlando's change of gender comes, the way in which Woolf represents it, rhetorically at least, slides over us without a hitch. "He was a woman" (137). The fictional illusion succeeds despite – perhaps because of – the rhetorical impossibility. This is, as it turns out, simply a hyperbolic instance of the mixed metaphors that Woolf uses to describe practically everything. Even the novel's plot is made, ironically, out of transformation.
Far, then, from being a self-evident singularity, gender – like ethnicity, or like subjectivity itself – is always already the function of a relation in Orlando. A commonplace of structural feminism, it is interesting to see it rehearsed as early as 1928. Even androgyny is not fusion, but a structure of difference. One doesn't fuse the genders by crossing them – one puts them in place that way, and always has. To be fused, the genders must be different. Gender is a difference, not an essential characteristic, an elementary semiotic activity in all cultures that, in one way or another, is part of the basis upon which a given culture's world, and its subjects, are formed. Gender is pure difference, a "pure performative," as Barbara Vinken puts it, whose role is merely paradigmatic, structuring a fundamental difference out of a formal necessity that is also necessarily political. As Orlando's confirmation of her new gender in the mirror suggests (138), form is itself always already political. The equivalence of politics and form is among the most provocative of the notions to which a deconstructive reassessment of the political leads. What is a politics of form?


1. All references are to Virginia Woolf, Orlando, rpt. (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1973).

2. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, rpt. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1953).
Originally published in Deconstruction is/in America: A New Sense of the Political, ed. Anselm Haverkamp (New York: New York University Press, 1995).