Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture (Jameson, 1979)

by cominsitu


The theory of mass culture-or mass audience culture, commercial culture, “popular” culture, the culture industry, as it is variously known-has always tended to define its object against so-called high culture without reflecting on the objective status of this opposition. As so often, positions in this field reduce themselves to two mirror-images, and are essentially staged in terms of value. Thus the familiar motif of elitism argues for the priority of mass culture on the grounds of the sheer numbers of people exposed to it; the pursuit of high or hermetic culture is then stigmatized as a status hobby of small groups of intellectuals. As its anti-intellectual thrust suggests, this essentially negative position has little theoretical content but clearly responds to a deeply rooted conviction in American radicalism and articulates a widely based sense that high culture is an establishment phenomenon, irredeemably tainted by its association with institutions, in particular with the university. The value invoked is therefore a social one: it would be preferable to deal with tv programs, The Godfather, or Jaws, rather than with Wallace Stevens or Henry James, because the former clearly speak a cultural language meaningful to far wider strata of the population than what is socially represented by intellectuals. Radicals are however also intellectuals, so that this position has suspicious overtones of the guilt trip; meanwhile it overlooks the anti-social and critical, negative (although generally not revolutionary) stance of much of the most important forms of modem art; finally, it offers no method for reading even those cultural objects it valorizes and has had little of interest to say about their content.

This position is then reversed in the theory of culture worked out by the Frankfurt School; as is appropriate for this exact antithesis of the radical position, the work of Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and others is an intensely theoretical one and provides a working methodology for the close analysis of precisely those products of the culture industry which it stigmatizes and which the radical view exalted. Briefly, this view can be characterized as the extension and application of Marxist theories of commodity reification to the works of mass culture. The theory of reification (here strongly overlaid with Max Weber’s analysis of rationalization) describes the way in which, under capitalism, the older traditional forms of human activity are instrumentally reorganized and “taylorized,” analytically fragmented and reconstructed according to various rational models of efficiency, and essentially restructured along the lines of a differentiation between means and ends. But this is a paradoxical idea: it cannot be properly appreciated until it is understood to what degree the means/ends split effectively brackets or suspends ends themselves, hence the strategic value of the Frankfurt School term “instrumentalization” which usefully foregrounds the organization of the means themselves over against any particular end or value which is assigned to their practice. In traditional activity, in other words, the value of the activity is immanent to it, and qualitatively distinct from other ends or values articulated in other forms of human work or play. Socially, this meant that various kinds of work in such communities were properly incomparable; in ancient Greece, for instance, the familiar Aristotelian schema of the fourfold causes at work in handicraft or poeisis (material, formal, efficient, and final) were applicable only to artisanal labor, and not to agriculture or war which had a quite different “natural”–which is to say supernatural or divine-basis. It is only with the universal commodification of labor power, which Marx’s Capital designates as the fundamental precondition of capitalism, that all forms of human labor can be separated out from their unique qualitative differentiation as distinct types of activity (mining as opposed to farming, opera composition as distinct from textile manufacture), and all universally ranged under the common denominator of the quantitative, that is, under the universal exchange value of money. At this point, then, the quality of the various forms of human activity, their unique and distinct “ends” or values, has effectively been bracketted or suspended by the market system, leaving all these activities free to be ruthlessly reorganized in efficiency terms, as sheer means or instrumentality.

The force of the application of this notion to works of art can be measured against the definition of art by traditional aesthetic philosophy (in particular by Kant) as a “finality without an end,” that is, as a goal-oriented activity which nonetheless has no practical purpose or end in the “real world” of business or politics or concrete human praxis generally. This traditional definition surely holds for all art that works as such: not for stories that fall flat or home movies or inept poetic scribblings, but rather for the successful works of mass and high culture alike. We suspend our real lives and our immediate practical preoccupations just as completely when we watch The Godfather as when we read The Wings of the Dove or hear a Beethoven sonata.

At this point, however, the concept of the commodity introduces the possibility of structural and historical differentiation into what was conceived as the universal description of the aesthetic experience as such and in whatever form. The concept of the commodity cuts across the phenomenon of reification-described above in terms of activity or production-from a different angle, that of consumption. In a world in which everything, including labor power, has become a commodity, ends remain no less undifferentiated than in the production schema-they are all rigorously quantified, and have become abstractly comparable through the medium of money, their respective price or wage-yet we can now phrase their instrumentalization, their reorganization along the means/ends split, in a new way by saying that by its transformation into a commodity a thing, of whatever type, has been reduced to a means for its own consumption. It no longer has any qualitative value in itself, but only insofar as it can be “used”: the various forms of activity lose their immanent intrinsic satisfactions as activity and become means to an end. The objects of the commodity world of capitalism also shed their independent “being” and intrinsic qualities and come to be so many instruments of commodity satisfaction: the familiar example is that of tourism-the American tourist no longer lets the landscape “be in its being” as Heidegger would have said, but takes a snapshot of it, thereby graphically transforming space into its own material image. The concrete activity of looking at a landscape-including, no doubt, the disquieting bewilderment with the activity itself, the anxiety that must arise when human beings, confronting the non-human, wonder what they are doing there and what the point or purpose of such a confrontation might be in the first place-is thus comfortably replaced by the act of taking possession of it and converting it into a form of personal property. This is the meaning of the great scene in Godard’s Les Carabiniers, when the new world conquerors exhibit their spoils: unlike Alexander, they

merely own the images of everything, and triumphantly display their photos of the Coliseum, the pyramids, Wall Street, Angkor Wat, like so many dirty pictures. This is also the sense of Guy Debord’s assertion, in an important book, The Society of the Spectacle, that the ultimate form of commodity reification in contemporary consumer society is precisely the image itself. With this universal commodification of our object world, the familiar accounts of the other-directedness of contemporary conspicuous consumption and of the sexualization of our objects and activities are also given: the new model car is essentially an image for other people to have of us, and we consume, less the thing itself, than its abstract idea, capable of the libidinal investments ingeniously arrayed for us by advertising.

It is clear that such an account of commodification has immediate relevance to aesthetics, if only because it implies that everything in consumer society has taken on an aesthetic dimension. The force of the Adorno-Horkheimer analysis of the culture industry, however, lies in its demonstration of the unexpected and imperceptible introduction of commodity structure into the very form and content of the work of art itself. Yet this is something like the ultimate squaring of the circle, the triumph of instrumentalization over that “finality without an end” which is art itself, the steady conquest and colonization of the ultimate realm of non-practicality, of sheer play and anti-use, by the logic of the world of means and ends. But how can the sheer materiality of a poetic sentence be “used” in that sense? And while it is clear how we can buy the idea of an automobile or smoke for the sheer libidinal image of actors, writers, and models with cigarettes in their hands, it is much less clear how a narrative could be “consumed” for the benefit of its own idea.

In its simplest form, this view of instrumentalized culture-and it is implicit in the aesthetics of the Tel Quel group as well as in that of the Frankfurt School-suggests that the reading process is itself restructured along a means/ends differentiation. It is instructive here to juxtapose Auerbach’s discussion of the Odyssey in Mimesis, and his description of the way in which at every point the poem is as it were vertical to itself, self-contained, each verse paragraph and tableau somehow timeless and immanent, bereft of any necessary or indispensible links with what precedes it and what follows; in this light it becomes possible to appreciate the strangeness, the historical un-naturality (in a Brechtian sense) of contemporary books which, like detective stories, you read “for the ending”-the bulk of the pages becoming sheer devalued means to an end-in this case, the “solution”-which is itself utterly insignificant insofar as we are not thereby in the real world and by the latter’s practical standards the identity of an imaginary murderer is supremely trivial.

The detective story is to be sure an extremely specialized form: still, the essential commodification of which it may serve as an emblem can be detected everywhere in the sub-genres of contemporary commercial art, in the way in which the materialization of this or that sector or zone of such forms comes to constitute an end and a consumption-satisfaction around which the rest of the work is then “degraded” to the status of sheer means. Thus, in the older adventure tale, not only does the denouement (victory of hero or villains? discovery of the treasure, rescue of the heroine or the imprisoned comrades, foiling of a monstrous plot, or arrival in time to reveal an urgent message or a secret) stand as the reified end in view of which the rest of the narrative is consumed, this reifying structure also reaches down into the very page-by-page detail of the book’s composition. Each chapter recapitulates a smaller consumption process in its own right, ending with the frozen image of a new and catastrophic reversal of the situation, constructing the smaller gratifications of a flat character who actualizes his single potentiality (the “choleric” Ned Land finally exploding in anger), organizing its sentences into paragraphs each of which is a sub-plot in its own right, or around the object-like stasis of the “fateful” sentence or the “dramatic” tableau, the whole tempo of such reading meanwhile overprogrammed by its intermittent illustrations which, either before or after the fact, reconfirm our readerly business, which is to transform the transparent flow of language as much as possible into material images and objects we can consume.

Yet this is still a relatively primitive stage in the commodification of narrative. More subtle and more interesting is the way in which, since naturalism, the best-seller has tended to produce a quasi-material “feeling tone” which floats above the narrative but is only intermittently realized by it: the sense of destiny in family novels, for instance, or the “epic” rhythms of the earth or of great movements of “history” in the various sagas can be seen as so many commodities towards whose consumption the narratives are little more than means, their essential materiality then being confirmed and embodied in the movie music that accompanies their screen versions. This structural differentiation of narrative and consumable feeling tone is a broader and historically and formally more significant manifestation of the kind of “fetishism of hearing” which Adorno denounced when he spoke about the way the contemporary listener restructures a classical symphony so that the sonata form itself becomes an instrumental means toward the consumption of the isolatable tune or melody.

It will be clear, then, that I consider the Frankfurt School’s analysis of the commodity structure of mass culture of the greatest interest; if, below, I propose a somewhat different way of looking at the same phenomena, it is not because I feel that their approach has been exhausted. On the contrary, we have scarcely begun to work out all the consequences of such descriptions, let alone to make an exhaustive inventory of variant models and of other features besides commodity reification in terms of which such artifacts might be analyzed.

What is unsatisfactory about the Frankfurt School position is not its negative and critical apparatus, but rather the positive value on which the latter depends, namely the valorization of traditional modernist high art as the locus of some genuinely critical and subversive, “autonomous” aesthetic production. Here Adorno’s later work (as well as Marcuse’s The Aesthetic Dimension) mark a retreat over the dialectically ambivalent assessment of a Schoenberg’s achievement in The Philosophy of Modern Music: what has been omitted from the later judgments is precisely Adorno’s fundamental discovery of the historicity, and in particular, the irreversible aging process, of the greatest modernist forms. But if this is so, then the great work of modem high culture-whether it be Schoenberg, Beckett, or even Brecht himself-cannot serve as a fixed point or eternal standard against which to measure the “degraded” status of mass culture: indeed, fragmentary and as yet undeveloped tendencies in recent art production-hyper- or photo-realism in visual art, “new music” of the type of Lamonte Young, Terry Riley, or Phil Glass, post-modernist literary texts like those of Pynchon-suggest an increasing interpenetration of high and mass cultures.

For all these reasons, it seems to me that we must rethink the opposition high culture/mass culture in such a way that the emphasis on evaluation to which it has traditionally given rise, and which-however the binary system of value operates (mass culture is popular and thus more authentic than high culture, high culture is autonomous and therefore utterly incomparable to a degraded mass culture)-tends to function in some timeless realm of absolute aesthetic judgment, is replaced by a genuinely historical and dialectical approach to these phenomena. Such an approach demands that we read high and mass culture as objectively related and dialectically interdependent phenomena, as twin and inseparable forms of the fission of aesthetic production under late capitalism. From this perspective, the dilemma of the double standard of high and mass culture remains, but it has become-not the subjective problem of our own standards of judgment-but rather an objective contradiction which has its own social grounding. Indeed, this view of the emergence of mass culture obliges us historically to respecify the nature of the “high culture” to which it has conventionally been opposed: the older culture critics indeed tended loosely to raise comparative issues about the “popular culture” of the past. Thus, if you see Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Don Quixote, still widely read romantic lyric of the type of Hugo, or best-selling realistic novels like those of Balzac or Dickens, as uniting a wide “popular” audience with high aesthetic quality, then you are fatally locked into such false problems as the relative value-weighed against Shakespeare or even Dickens-of such popular contemporary auteurs of high quality as Chaplin, John Ford, Hitchcock, or even Robert Frost, Andrew Wyeth, Simenon, or John O’Hara. The utter senselessness of this interesting subject of conversation becomes clear when it is understood that from a historical point of view the only form of “high culture” which can be said to constitute the dialectical opposite of mass culture is that high cultural production contemporaneous with the latter, which is to say that artistic production generally designated as modernism. The other term would then be Wallace Stevens, or Joyce, or Schoenberg, or Jackson Pollock, but surely not cultural artifacts such as the novels of Balzac or the plays of Moliere which essentially precede the historical separation between high and mass culture.

But such specification clearly obliges us to rethink our definitions of mass culture as well: the commercial products of the latter can surely not without intellectual dishonesty be assimilated to so-called popular, let alone, folk art of the past, which reflected and were dependent for their production on quite different social realities, and were in fact the “organic” expression of so many distinct social communities or castes, such as the peasant village, the court, the medieval town, the polis, and even the classical bourgeoisie when it was still a unified social group with its own cultural specificity. The historically unique tendential effect of late capitalism on all such groups has been to dissolve and to fragment or atomize them into agglomerations (Gesellschaften) of isolated and equivalent private individuals, by way of the corrosive action of universal commodification and the market system. Thus, the “popular” as such no longer exists, except under very specific and marginalized conditions (internal and external pockets of so-called underdevelopment within the capitalist world system). The commodity production of contemporary or industrial mass culture thus has nothing whatsoever to do, and nothing in common, with older forms of popular or folk art.

Thus understood, the dialectical opposition and profound structural interrelatedness of modernism and contemporary mass culture opens up a whole new field for cultural study, which promises to be more intelligible historically and socially than research or disciplines which have strategically conceived their mission as a specialization in this or that branch (e.g., in the university, English vs. Popular Culture departments or programs). Now the emphasis must lie squarely on the social and aesthetic situation-the dilemma of form and of a public-shared and faced by both modernism and mass culture, but “solved” in antithetical ways. Thus, in another place, I have suggested that modernism can also be most adequately understood in terms of that commodity production whose all-informing structural influence on mass culture we have described above: only for modernism, the omnipresence of the commodity form determines a reactive stance, so that modernism conceives its formal vocation to be the resistance to commodity form, not to be a commodity, to devise an aesthetic language incapable of offering commodity satisfaction, and resistant to instrumentalization. The difference between this position and the valorization of modernism by the Frankfurt School (or, later, by Tel Quel) lies in its designation of modernism as reactive, that is, as a symptom and a result of cultural crisis, rather than a new “solution” in its own right: not only is the commodity the prior form in terms of which alone modernism can be structurally grasped, but the very terms of its solution-the conception of the modernist text as the production and the protest of an isolated individual, and the logic of its sign systems as so many private languages (“styles”) and private religions-are contradictory and make the social or collective realization of its aesthetic project (Mallarme’s ideal of Le Livre can be taken as the latter’s fundamental formulation) an impossible one (a judgment which, it ought not to be necessary to add, is not a judgment of value about the “greatness” of the modernist texts).

Yet there are other aspects of the situation of art under late capitalism which have remained unexplored and offer equally rich perspectives in which to examine modernism and mass culture and their structural dependency. Another such issue, for example, is that of materialization in contemporary art-a phenomenon woefully misunderstood by much contemporary Marxist theory (for obvious reasons, it is not an issue that has attracted academic formalism). Here the misunderstanding is dramatized by the pejorative emphasis of the Hegelian tradition (Lukacs as well as the Frankfurt School) on phenomena of aesthetic reification-which furnishes the term of a negative value judgment-in juxtaposition to the celebration of the “material signifier” and the “materiality of the text” or of “textual production” by the French tradition which appeals for its authority to Althusser and Lacan. If you are willing to entertain the possibility that “reification” and the emergence of increasingly materialized signifiers are one and the same phenomenon-both historically and culturally-then this ideological great debate turns out to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding. Once again, the confusion stems from the introduction of the false problem of value (which fatally programs every binary opposition into its good and bad, positive and negative, essential and inessential terms) into a more properly ambivalent dialectical and historical situation in which reification or materialization is a key structural feature of both modernism and mass culture.

The task of defining this new area of study would then initially involve making an inventory of other such problematic themes or phenomena in terms of which the interrelationship of mass culture and modernism can usefully be explored, something it is too early to do here. At this point, I will merely note one further such theme, which has seemed to me to be of the greatest significance in specifying the antithetical formal reactions of modernism and mass culture to their common social situation, and that is the notion of repetition. This concept, which in its modern form we own to Kierkegaard, has known rich and interesting new elaborations in recent post-structuralism: for Jean Baudrillard, for example, the repetitive structure of what he calls the simulacrum (that is, the reproduction of “copies” which have no original) characterizes the commodity production of consumer capitalism and marks our object world with an unreality and a free-floating absence of “the referent” (e.g., the place hitherto taken by nature, by raw materials and primary production, or by the “originals” of artisanal production or handicraft) utterly unlike anything experienced in any earlier social formation.

If this is the case, then we would expect repetition to constitute yet another feature of the contradictory situation of contemporary aesthetic production to which both modern-ism and mass culture in one way or another cannot but react. This is in fact the case, and one need only invoke the traditional ideological stance of all modernizing theory and practice from the Romantics to the Tel Quel group, and passing through the hegemonic formulations of classical Anglo-American modernism, to observe the strategic emphasis on innovation and novelty, the obligatory break with previous styles, the pressure–geometrically increasing with the ever swifter historicity of consumer society, with its yearly or quarterly style and fashion changes-to “make it new”, to produce something which resists and breaks through the force of gravity of repetition as a universal feature of commodity equivalence. Such aesthetic ideologies have to be sure no critical or theoretical value-for one thing, they are purely formal and by abstracting some empty concept of innovation from the concrete content of stylistic change in any given period end up flattening out even the history of forms, let alone social history, and projecting a kind of cyclical view of change-yet they are useful symptoms for detecting the ways in which the various modernisms have been forced, in spite of themselves, and in the very flesh and bone of their form, to respond to the objective reality of repetition itself. In our own time, the post-modernist conception of a “text” and the ideal of schizophrenic writing openly demonstrate this vocation of the modernist aesthetic to produce sentences which are radically discontinuous, and which defy repetition not merely on the level of the break with older forms or older formal models but now within the microcosm of the text itself. Meanwhile, the kinds of repetition which, from Gertrude Stein to Robbe-Grillet, the modernist project has appropriated and made its own, can be seen as a kind of homeopathic strategy whereby the scandalous and intolerable external irritant is drawn into the aesthetic process itself and thereby systematically worked over, “acted out” and symbolically neutralized.

But it is clear that the influence of repetition on mass culture has been no less decisive. Indeed, it has frequently been observed that the older generic discourses-stigmatized by the various modernist revolutions which have successively repudiated the older fixed forms of lyric, tragedy, and comedy, and at length even “the novel” itself, now replaced by the unclassifiable “Livre” or “text”-continue a powerful afterlife in the realm of mass culture. Paperback drugstore or airport displays reinforce all of the now sub-generic distinctions between gothic, bestseller, mysteries, science fiction, biography, or pornography, as do the conventional classification of weekly tv series, and the production and marketing of Hollywood films (to be sure, the generic system at work in contemporary commercial film is utterly distinct from the traditional pattern of 1930s and 1940s production, and has had to respond to television competition by devising new meta-generic or omnibus forms, themselves generally reduplicated by “original” novels: these omnibus forms, however-the “disaster film” is only the most recent such innovation-at once become new “genres” in their own right, and fold back into the usual generic stereotyping and reproduction).

But we must specify this development historically: the older pre-capitalist genres were signs of something like an aesthetic “contract” between a cultural producer and a certain homogeneous class or group public; they drew their vitality from the social and collective status-which to be sure varied widely according to the mode of production in question-of the situation of aesthetic production and consumption, that is to say, from the fact that the relationship between artist and public was still in one way or another a social institution and a concrete social and interpersonal relationship with its own validation and specificity. With the coming of the market, this institutional status of artistic consumption and production vanishes: art becomes one more branch of commodity production, the artist loses all social status and faces the options of becoming apoete maudit or a journalist, the relationship to the public is problematized, and the latter becomes a virtual “public introuvable” (the appeals to posterity, Stendhal’s dedication “To the Happy Few,” or Gertrude Stein’s remark, “I write for myself and for strangers,” are revealing testimony to this intolerable new state of affairs).

The survival of genre in emergent mass culture can thus in no way be taken as a return to the stability of the publics of pre-capitalist societies: on the contrary, the generic forms and signals of mass culture are very specifically to be understood as the historical reappropriation and displacement of older structures in the service of the qualitatively very different situation of repetition. The atomized or serial “public” of mass culture wants to see the same thing over and over again, hence the urgency of the generic structure and the generic signal: if you doubt this, think of your own consternation at finding that the paperback you selected from the mystery shelf turns out to be a romance or a science fiction novel; think of the exasperation of people in the row next to you who bought their tickets imagining that they were about to see a thriller or a political mystery instead of the horror or occult film actually underway. Think also of the much misunderstood “aesthetic bankruptcy” of television: the structural reason for the inability of the various television series to produce episodes which are either socially “realistic” or have an aesthetic and formal autonomy that transcends mere variation, has little enough to do with the talent of the people involved (although it is certainly exacerbated by the increasing “exhaustion” of material and the ever-increasing tempo of the production of new episodes), but lies precisely in our “set” towards repetition. Even if you are a reader of Kafka or Dostoyevsky, when you watch a cop show or a detective series, you do so in expectation of the stereotyped format and would be annoyed to find the video narrative making “high cultural” demands on you. Much the same situation obtains for film, where it has however been institutionalized as the distinction between American (now multinational) film-determining the expectation of generic repetition-and foreign films, which determine a shifting of gears of the “horizon of expectations” to the reception of high cultural discourse or so-called art films.

This situation has important consequences for the analysis of mass culture which have not yet been fully appreciated. The philosophical paradox of repetition-formulated by Kierkegaard, Freud, and others-can be grasped in this, that it can as it were only take place “a second time.” The first-time event is by definition not a repetition of anything; it is then reconverted into repetition the second time round, by the peculiar action of what Freud called “retroactivity” [Nachtraglichkeit]. But this means that, as with the simulacrum, there is no “first time” of repetition, no “original” of which succeeding repetitions are mere copies; and here too, modernism furnishes a curious echo in its production of books which, like Hegel’s Phenomenology or Proust or Finnegans Wake, you can only reread. Still, in modernism, the hermetic text remains, not only as an Everest to assault, but also as a book to whose stable reality you can return over and over again. In mass culture, repetition effectively volatilizes the original object-the “text,” the “work of art”-so that the student of mass culture has no primary object of study.

The most striking demonstration of this process can be witnessed in our reception of contemporary pop music of whatever type-the various kinds of rock, blues, country western, or disco. I will argue that we never hear any of the singles produced in these genres “for the first time”; instead, we live a constant exposure to them in all kinds of different situations, from the steady beat of the car radio through the sounds at lunch, or in the work place, or in shopping centers, all the way to those apparently full-dress performances of the “work” in a nightclub or stadium concert or on the records you buy and take home to hear. This is a very different situation from the first bewildered audition of a complicated classical piece, which you hear again in the concert hall or listen to at home. The passionate attachment one can form to this or that pop single, the rich personal investment of all kinds of private associations and existential symbolism which is the feature of such attachment, are fully as much a function of our own familiarity as of the work itself: the pop single, by means of repetition, insensibly becomes part of the existential fabric of our own lives, so that what we listen to is ourselves, our own previous auditions.

Under these circumstances, it would make no sense to try to recover a feeling for the “original” musical text, as it really was, or as it might have been heard “for the first time.” Whatever the results of such a scholarly or analytical project, its object of study would be quite distinct, quite differently constituted, from the same “musical text” grasped as mass culture, or in other words, as sheer repetition. The dilemma of the student of mass culture therefore lies in the structural absence, or repetitive volatilization, of the “primary texts”; nor is anything to be gained by reconstituting a “corpus” of texts after the fashion of, say, the medievalists who work with pre-capitalist generic and repetitive structures only superficially similar to those of contemporary mass or commercial culture. Nor, to my mind, is anything explained by recourse to the currently fashionable term of “intertextuality,” which seems to me at best to designate a problem rather than a solution. Mass culture presents us with a methodological dilemma which the conventional habit of positing a stable object of commentary or exegesis in the form of a primary text or work is disturbingly unable to focus, let along to resolve; in this sense, also, a dialectical conception of this field of study in which modernism and mass culture are grasped as a single historical and aesthetic phenomenon has the advantage of positing the survival of the primary text at one of its poles, and thus providing a guide-rail for the bewildering exploration of the aesthetic universe which lies at the other, a message mass or semiotic bombardment from which the textual referent has disappeared.

The above reflections by no means raise, let alone address, all the most urgent issues which confront an approach to mass culture today. In particular, we have neglected a somewhat different judgment on mass culture, which also loosely derives from the Frankfurt School position on the subject, but whose adherents number “radicals” as well as “elitists” on the Left today. This is the conception of mass culture as sheer manipulation, sheer commercial brainwashing and empty distraction by the multinational corporations who obviously control every feature of the production and distribution of mass culture today. If this were the case, then it is clear that the study of mass culture would at best be assimilated to the anatomy of the techniques of ideological marketing and be subsumed under the analysis of advertising. Roland Barthes’ seminal investigation of the latter, however, in his Mythologies, opened them up to the whole realm of the operations and functions of culture in everyday life; but since the sociologists of manipulation (with the exception, of course, of the Frankfurt School itself) have, almost by definition, no interest in the hermetic or “high” art production whose dialectical interdependency with mass culture we have argued above, the general effect of their position is to suppress considerations of culture altogether, save as a kind of sand-box affair on the most epiphenomenal level of the superstructure. The implication is thus to suggest that real social life-the only features of social life worth addressing or taking into consideration when political theory and strategy is at stake-are what the Marxian tradition designates as the political, the ideological, and the juridical levels of superstructural reality. Not only is this repression of the cultural moment determined by the university structure and by the ideologies of the various disciplines-thus, political science and sociology at best consign cultural issues to that ghettoizing rubric and marginalized “field of specialization” called the “sociology of culture”–it is also and in a more general way the unwitting perpetuation of the most fundamental ideological stance of American business society itself, for which “culture”-reduced to plays and poems and high-brow concerts-is par excellence the most trivial and non-serious activity in the “real life” of the rat race of daily existence. Yet even the vocation of the esthete (last sighted in the U.S. during the pre-political heyday of the 1950s and of his successor, the university literature professor, had a socially symbolic content and expressed (generally unconsciously) the anxiety aroused by market competition and the repudiation of the primacy of business pursuits and business values: these are then, to be sure, as thoroughly repressed from academic formalism as culture is from the work of the sociologists of manipulation, a repression which goes a long way towards accounting for the resistance and defensiveness of contemporary literary study towards anything which smacks of the painful reintroduction of just that “real life”-the socio-economic, the historical context-which it was the function of the aesthetic vocation to deny or to mask out in the first place.

What we must ask the sociologists of manipulation, however, is whether they really inhabit the same world we do. Speaking for at least a few, I will say that culture, far from being an occasional matter of the reading of a monthly good book or a trip to the drive-in, seems to me the very element of consumer society itself; no society has ever been saturated with signs and messages like this one. If we follow Debord’s argument about the omnipresence and the omnipotence of the image in consumer capitalism today, then if anything the priorities of the real become reversed, and everything is mediated by culture, to the point where even the political and the ideological “levels” have initially to be disentangled from their primary mode of representation which is cultural. Howard Jarvis, Carter, even Castro, the Red Brigade, Vorster, the Communist “penetration” of Africa, the war in Vietnam, strikes, inflation itself-all are images, all come before us with the immediacy of cultural representations of which one can be fairly certain that they are by a long shot not historical reality itself. If we want to go on believing in categories like social class, then we are going to have to dig for them in the insubstantial bottomless realm of cultural and collective fantasy. Even ideology has in our society lost its clarity as prejudice, false consciousness, readily identifiable opinion: our racism gets all mixed up with clean-cut black actors on tv and in commercials, our sexism has to make a detour through new stereotypes of the “women’s libber” on the network series. After that, if one wants to stress the primacy of the political, so be it: until the omnipresence of culture in this society is even dimly sensed, realistic conceptions of the nature and function of political praxis today can scarcely be framed.

It is true that manipulation theory sometimes finds a special place in its scheme for those rare cultural objects which can be said to have overt political and social content: thus, 60s protest songs, The Salt of the Earth, Clancey Segal’s novels or Sol Yurick’s chicano murals, and the San Francisco Mime Troop. This is not the place to raise the complicated problem of political art today, except to say that our business as culture critics requires us to raise it, and to rethink what are still essentially 30s categories in some new and more satisfactory contemporary way. But the problem of political art-and we have nothing worth saying about it if we do not realize that it is a problem, rather than a choice or a ready- made option-suggests an important qualification to the scheme outlined in the first part of the present essay. The implied presupposition of those earlier remarks was that authentic cultural creation is dependent for its existence on authentic collective life, on the vitality of the “organic” social group in whatever form (and such groups can range from the classical polis to the peasant village, from the commonality of the ghetto to the shared values of an embattled pre-revolutionary bourgeoisie). Capitalism systematically dissolves the fabric of all cohesive social groups without exception, including its own ruling class, and thereby problematizes aesthetic production and linguistic invention which have their source in group life. The result, discussed above, is the dialectical fission of older aesthetic expression into two modes, modernism and mass culture, equally dissociated from group praxis. Both of these modes have attained an admirable level of technical virtuosity; but it is a daydream to expect that either of these semiotic structures could be retransformed, by fiat, miracle, or sheer talent, into what could be called, in its strong form, political art, or in a more general way, that living and authentic culture of which we have virtually lost the memory, so rare an experience it has become. This is to say that of the two most influential recent Left aesthetics-the Brecht-Benjamin position which hoped for the transformation of the nascent mass-cultural techniques and channels of communication of the 1930s into an openly political art, the Tel Quel position which reaffirms the “subversive” and revolutionary efficacy of language revolution and modernist and post-modernist formal innovation-we must reluctantly conclude that neither addresses the specific conditions of our own time.

The only authentic cultural production today has seemed to be that which can draw on the collective experience of marginal pockets of the social life of the world system: black literature and blues, British working-class rock, women’s literature, gay literature, the roman quebecois, the literature of the Third World; and this production is possible only to the degree to which these forms of collective life or collective solidarity have not yet been fully penetrated by the market and by the commodity system. This is not necessarily a negative prognosis, unless you believe in an increasingly windless and all-embracing total system; what shatters such a system-it has unquestionably been falling into place all around us since the development of industrial capitalism-is however very precisely collective praxis or, to pronounce its traditional and unmentionable name, class struggle. Yet the relationship between class struggle and cultural production is not an immediate one; you do not reinvent an access onto political art and authentic cultural production by studding your individual artistic discourse with class and political signals. Rather, class struggle, and the slow and intermittent development of genuine class consciousness, are themselves the process whereby a new and organic group constitutes itself, whereby the collective breaks through the reified atomization (Sartre calls it the seriality) of capitalist social life. At that point, to say that the group exists and that it generates its own specific cultural life and expression, are one and the same. This is, if you like, the third term missing from my initial picture of the fate of the aesthetic and the cultural under capitalism; yet no useful purpose is served by speculation on the forms such a third and authentic type of cultural language might take in situations which do not yet exist. As for the artists, for them too “the owl of Minerva takes its flight at dusk,” for them too, as with Lenin in April, the test of historical inevitability is always after the fact, and they cannot be told any more than the rest of us what is historically possible until after it has been tried.

This said, we can now return to the question of mass culture and manipulation. Manipulation theory implies a psychology, but this is all very well and good: Brecht taught us that under the right circumstances you could remake anybody over into anything you liked (Mann ist Mann), only he insisted on the situation and the raw materials fully as much or more than on the techniques. Perhaps the key problem about the concept, or pseudo-concept, of manipulation can be dramatized by juxtaposing it to the Freudian notion of repression. The Freudian mechanism, indeed, comes into play only after its object-trauma, charged memory, guilty or threatening desire, anxiety-has in some way been aroused, and risks emerging into the subject’s consciousness. Freudian repression is therefore determinate, it has specific content, and may even be said to be something like a “recognition” of that content which expresses itself in the form of denial, forgetfulness, slip, mauvaise foi, displacement, substitution, or whatever.

But of course the classical Freudian model of the work of art (as of the dream or the joke) was that of the symbolic fulfillment of the repressed wish, of a complex structure of indirection whereby desire could elude the repressive censor and achieve some measure of a to be sure purely symbolic satisfaction. A more recent “revision” of the Freudian model, however-Norman Holland’s The Dynamics of Literary Response-proposes a scheme more useful for our present problem, which is to conceive how (commercial) works of art can possibly be said to “manipulate” their publics. For Holland, the psychic function of the work of art must be described in such a way that these two inconsistent and even incompatible features of aesthetic gratification-on the one hand, its wish-fulfilling function, but on the other the necessity that its symbolic structure protect the psyche against the frightening and potentially damaging eruption of powerful archaic desires and wish-material-be somehow harmonized and assigned their place as twin drives of a single structure. Hence Holland’s suggestive conception of the vocation of the work of art to manage this raw material of the drives and the archaic wish or fantasy material. To rewrite the concept of a management of desire in social terms now allows us to think repression and wish-fulfillment together within the unity of a single mechanism, which gives and takes alike in a kind of psychic compromise or horse-trading, which strategically arouses fantasy content within careful symbolic containment structures which defuse it, gratifying intolerable, unrealizable, properly imperishable desires only to the degree to which they can again be laid to rest.

This model seems to me to permit a far more adequate account of the mechanisms of manipulation, diversion, degradation, which are undeniably at work in mass culture and in the media. In particular it allows us to grasp mass culture not as empty distraction or “mere” false consciousness, but rather as a transformational work on social and political anxieties and fantasies which must then have some effective presence in the mass cultural text in order subsequently to be “managed” or repressed. Indeed, the initial reflections of the present essay suggest that such a thesis ought to be extended to modernism as well, even though we will not here be able to develop this part of the argument further. I will therefore argue that both mass culture and modernism have as much content, in the loose sense of the word, as the older social realisms; but that this content is processed in a very different way than in the latter. Both modernism and mass culture entertain relations of repression with the fundamental social anxieties and concerns, hopes and blind spots, ideological antinomies and fantasies of disaster, which are their raw material; only where modernism tends to handle this material by producing compensatory structures of various kinds, mass culture represses them by the narrative construction of imaginary resolutions and by the projection of an optical illusion of social harmony.

I will now demonstrate this proposition by a reading of three extremely successful recent commercial films: Jaws (now Jaws I), and the two parts of The Godfather. The readings I will propose are at least consistent with my earlier remarks about the volatilization of the primary text in mass culture by repetition, to the degree of which they are differential, “intertextually” comparative decodings of each of these filmic messages.

In the case of Jaws, however, the version or variant against which we will read the film is not the shoddy and disappointing sequel, but rather the bestselling novel from which the film-one of the most successful box office attractions in movie history-was adapted. We will see that the adaptation involved significant changes in the original narrative; our attention to such strategic alterations may indeed arouse some initial suspicion of the official or “manifest” content preserved in both these texts, and on which most of the discussion of Jaws has tended to focus. Thus critics from Gore Vidal and Pravda all the way to Stephen Heath have tended to emphasize the problem of the shark itself and what it “represents”: such speculation ranges from the psychoanalytic to historic anxieties about the Other that menaces American society-whether it be the Communist conspiracy or the Third World-and even to internal fears about the unreality of daily life in American today, and in particular the haunting and unmentionable persistence of the organic-of birth, copulation, and death-which the cellophane society of consumer capitalism desperately recontains in hospitals and old age homes, and sanitizes by means of a whole strategy of linguistic euphemisms which enlarge the older, purely sexual ones: on this view, the Nantucket beaches “represent” consumer society itself, with its glossy and commodified images of gratification, and its scandalous and fragile, ever suppressed, sense of its own possible mortality. Now none of these readings can be said to be wrong or aberrant, but their very multiplicity suggests that the vocation of the symbol-the killer shark-lies less in any single message or meaning than in its very capacity to absorb and organize all of these quite distinct anxieties together. As a symbolic vehicle, then, the shark must be understood in terms of its essentially polysemous function rather than any particular content attributable to it by this or that spectator. Yet it is precisely this polysemousness which is profoundly ideological, insofar as it allows essentially social and historical anxieties to be folded back into apparently “natural” ones, to be both expressed and recontained in what looks like a conflict with other forms of biological existence.

Interpretive emphasis on the shark, indeed, tends to drive all these quite varied readings in the direction of myth criticism, where the shark is naturally enough taken to be the most recent embodiment of Leviathan, so that the struggle with it effortlessly folds back into one of the fundamental paradigms or archetypes of Professor Frye’s storehouse of myth. To rewrite the film in these terms is thus to emphasize what I will shortly call its Utopian dimension, that is, its ritual celebration of the renewal of the social order and its salvation, not merely from divine wrath, but also from unworthy leadership.

But to put it this way is to begin to shift our attention from the shark itself to the emergence of the hero-or heroes-whose mythic task it is to rid the civilized world of the archetypal monster. This is, however, precisely the issue-the nature and the specification of the “mythic” hero-about which the discrepancies between the film and the novel have something instructive to tell us. For the novel involves an undisguised expression of class conflict in the tension between the island cop and the high-society oceanographer, who used to summer in Easthampton and ends up sleeping with Brody’s wife: Hooper is indeed a much more important figure in the novel than in the film, while by the same token the novel assigns Quint a very minor role in comparison to his crucial presence in the film. Yet the most dramatic surprise the novel holds in store for viewers of the film will evidently be the discovery that in the book Hooper dies, a virtual suicide and a sacrifice to his somber and romantic fascination with death in the person of the shark. Now while it is unclear to me how the American reading public can have responded to the rather alien and exotic resonance of this element of the fantasy-the aristocratic obsession with death would seem to be a more European motif-the social overtones of the novel’s resolution-the triumph of the islander and the yankee over the decadent playboy challenger-are surely unmistakable, as is the systematic elimination and suppression of all such class overtones from the film itself.

The latter therefore provides us with a striking illustration of a whole work of displacement by which the written narrative of an essentially class fantasy has been transformed, in the Hollywood product, into something quite different, which it now remains to characterize. Gone is the whole decadent and aristocratic brooding over death, along with the erotic rivalry in which class antagonisms were dramatized; the Hooper of the film is nothing but a technocratic whiz-kid, no tragic hero but instead a good-natured creature of grants and foundations and scientific know-how. But Brody has also undergone an important modification: he is no longer the small-town island boy married to a girl from a socially prominent summer family; rather, he has been transformed into a retired cop from New York City, relocating on Nantucket in an effort to flee the hassle of urban crime, race war, and ghettoization. The figure of Brody now therefore introduces overtones and connotations of law-and-order, rather than of yankee shrewdness, and functions as a tv-police-show hero transposed into this apparently more sheltered but in reality equally contradictory milieu which is the great American summer vacation.

I will therefore suggest that in the film the socially resonant conflict between these two characters has for some reason that remains to be formulated been transformed into a vision of their ultimate partnership, and joint triumph over Leviathan. This is clearly the moment to come to Quint, whose enlarged role in the film thereby becomes strategic. The myth-critical option for reading this figure must at once be noted: it is indeed tempting to see Quint as the end term of the three-fold figure of the ages of man into which the team of shark-hunters is so obviously articulated, Hooper and Brody then standing as youth and maturity over against Quint’s authority as an elder. But such a reading leaves the basic interpretive problem intact: what can be the allegorical meaning of a ritual in which the elder figure follows the intertextual paradigm of Melville’s Ahab to destruction while the other two paddle back in triumph on the wreckage of his vessel? Or, to formulate it in a different way, why is the Ishmael survivor-figure split into the two survivors of the film (and credited with the triumphant destruction of the monster in the bargain)?

Quint’s determinations in the film seem to be of two kinds: first, unlike the bureaucracies of law enforcement and science-&-technology (Brody and Hooper), but also in distinction to the corrupt island Mayor with his tourist investments and big business interests, Quint is defined as the locus of old-fashioned private enterprise, of the individual entrepreneurship not merely of small business, but also of local business-hence the insistence on his salty Down-East typicality. Meanwhile-but this feature is also a new addition to the very schematic treatment of the figure of Quint in the novel-he also strongly associates himself with a now distant American past by way of his otherwise gratuitous reminiscences about World War II and the campaign in the Pacific. We are thus authorized to read the death of Quint in the film as the two-fold symbolic destruction of an older America-the America of small business and individual private enterprise of a now outmoded kind, but also the America of the New Deal and the crusade against Nazism, the older America of the depression and the war and of the heyday of classical liberalism.

Now the content of the partnership between Hooper and Brody projected by the film may be specified socially and politically, as the allegory of an alliance between the forces of law-and-order and the new technocracy of the multinational corporations: an alliance which must be cemented, not merely by its fantasized triumph over the ill-defined menace of the shark itself, but above all by the indispensable precondition of the effacement of that more traditional image of an older America which must be eliminated from historical consciousness and social memory before the new power system takes its place. This operation may continue to be read in terms of mythic archetypes, if one likes, but then in that case it is a Utopian and ritual vision which is also a whole-very alarming-political and social program. It touches on present-day social contradictions and anxieties only to use them for its new task of ideological resolution, symbolically urging us to bury the older populisms and to respond to an image of political partnership which projects a whole new strategy of legitimation; and it effectively displaces the class antagonisms between rich and poor which persist in consumer society (and in the novel from which the film was adapted) by substituting for them a new and spurious kind of fraternity in which the viewer rejoices without understanding that he or she is excluded from it.

Jaws is therefore an excellent example, not merely of ideological manipulation, but also of the way in which genuine social and historical content must be first be tapped and given some initial expression if it is subsequently to be the object of successful manipulation and containment. In my second reading, I want to give this new model of manipulation an even more decisive and paradoxical turn: I will now indeed argue that we cannot fully do justice to the ideological function of works like these unless we are willing to concede the presence within them of a more positive function as well: of what I will call, following the Frankfurt School, their Utopian or transcendent potential-that dimension of even the most degraded type of mass culture which remains implicitly, and no matter how faintly, negative and critical of the social order from which, as a product and a commodity, it springs. At this point in the argument, then, the hypothesis is that the works of mass culture cannot be ideological without at one and the same time being implicitly or explicitly Utopian as well: they cannot manipulate unless they offer some genuine shred of content as a fantasy bribe to the public about to be so manipulated. Even the “false consciousness” of so monstrous a phenomenon of Nazism was nourished by collective fantasies of a Utopian type, in “socialist” as well as in nationalist guises. Our proposition about the drawing power of the works of mass culture has implied that such works cannot manage anxieties about the social order unless they have first revived them and given them some rudimentary expression; we will now suggest that anxiety and hope are two faces of the same collective consciousness, so that the works of mass culture, even if their function lies in the legitimation of the existing order-or some worse one-cannot do their job without deflecting in the latter’s service the deepest and most fundamental hopes and fantasies of the collectivity, to which they can therefore, no matter in how distorted a fashion, be found to have given voice.

We therefore need a method capable of doing justice to both the ideological and the Utopian or transcendent functions of mass culture simultaneously. Nothing less will do, as the suppression of either of these terms may testify: we have already commented on the sterility of the older kind of ideological analysis, which, ignoring the Utopian components of mass culture, ends up with the empty denunciation of the latter’s manipulatory function and degraded status. But it is equally obvious that the complementary extreme-a method that would celebrate Utopian impulses in the absence of any conception or mention of the ideological vocation of mass culture-simply reproduces the litanies of myth criticism at its most academic and aestheticizing and impoverishes these texts of their semantic content at the same time that it abstracts them from their concrete social and historical situation.

The two parts of The Godfather have seemed to me to offer a virtual textbook illustration of these propositions; for one thing, recapitulating the whole generic tradition of the gangster film, it reinvents a certain “myth” of the Mafia in such a way as to allow us to see that ideology is not necessarily a matter of false consciousness, or of the incorrect or distorted representation of historical “fact,” but can rather be quite consistent with a “realistic” faithfulness to the latter. To be sure, historical inaccuracy (as, e.g., when the 50s are telescoped into the 60s and 70s in the narrative of Hoffa’s career in FJ.S.T.) can often provide a suggestive lead towards ideological function: not because there is any scientific virtue in the facts themselves, but rather as a symptom of a resistance of the “logic of the content,” of the substance of historicity in question, to the narrative and ideological paradigm into which it has been thereby forcibly assimilated.

The Godfather, however, obviously works in and is a permutation of a generic convention; one could write a history of the changing social and ideological functions of this convention, showing how analogous motifs are called upon in distinct historical situations to emit strategically distinct yet symbolically intelligible messages. Thus the gangsters of the classical 30s films (Robinson, Cagney, etc.) were dramatized as psychopaths, sick loners striking out against a society essentially made up of wholesome people (the archetypal democratic “common man” of New Deal populism). The post-war gangsters of the Bogart era remain loners in this sense but have unexpectedly become invested with tragic pathos in such a way as to express the confusion of veterans returning from World War II, struggling with the unsympathetic rigidity of institutions, and ultimately crushed by a petty and vindictive social order.

 The Mafia material was drawn on and alluded to in these earlier versions of the gangster paradigm, but did not emerge as such until the late 50s and the early 60s: this very distinctive narrative content-a kind of saga or family material analogous to that of the medieval chansons de geste, with its recurrent episodes and legendary figures returning again and again in different perspectives and contexts-can at once be structurally differentiated from the older paradigms by its collective nature: in this, reflecting an evolution towards organizational themes and team narratives which studies like Will Wright’s Sixguns and Society have shown to be significant developments in the other sub-genres of mass culture (the western, the caper film, etc.) during the 60s.

Such an evolution, however, suggests a global transformation of post-war American social life and a global transformation of the potential logic of its narrative content without yet specifying the ideological function of the Mafia paradigm itself. Yet this is surely not very difficult to identify. When indeed we reflect on an organized conspiracy against the public, one which reaches into every comer of our daily lives and our political structures to exercise a wanton ecocidal and genocidal violence at the behest of distant decision-makers and in the name of an abstract conception of profit-surely it is not about the Mafia, but rather about American business itself that we are thinking, American capitalism in its most systematized and computerized, dehumanized, “multinational” and corporate form. What kind of crime, said Brecht, is the robbing of a bank, compared to the founding of a bank? Yet until recent years, American business has enjoyed a singular freedom from popular criticism and articulated collective resentment; since the depolitization of the New Deal, the McCarthy era and the beginning of the Cold War and of media or consumer society, it has known an inexplicable holiday from the kinds of populist antagonisms which have only recently (white collar crime, hostility to utility companies or to the medical profession) shown signs of reemerging. Such freedom from blame is all the more remarkable when we observe the increasing squalor that daily life in the U.S. owes to big business and to its unenviable position as the purest form of commodity and market capitalism functioning anywhere in the world today.

This is the context in which the ideological function of the myth of the Mafia can be understood, as the substitution of crime for big business, as the strategic displacement of all the rage generated by the American system onto this mirror-image of big business provided by the movie screen and the various tv series, it being understood that the fascination with the Mafia remains ideological even if in reality organized crime has exactly the importance and influence in American life which such representations attribute to it. The function of the Mafia narrative is indeed to encourage the conviction that the deterioration of daily life in the United States today is an ethical rather than an economic matter, connected, not with profit, but rather “merely” with dishonesty, and with some omnipresent moral corruption whose ultimate mythic source lies in the pure Evil of the Mafiosi themselves. For genuinely political insights into the economic realities of late capitalism, the myth of the Mafia strategically substitutes the vision of what is seen to be a criminal aberration from the norm, rather than the norm itself; indeed, the displacement of political and historical analysis by ethical judgments and considerations is generally the sign of an ideological maneuver and of the intent to mystify. Mafia movies thus project a “solution” to social contradictions-incorruptibility, honesty, crime fighting, and finally law-and-order itself-which is evidently a very different proposition from that diagnosis of the American misery whose prescription would be social revolution.

But if this is the ideological function of Mafia narratives like The Godfather, what can be said to be their transcendent or Utopian function? The latter is to be sought, it seems to me, in the fantasy message projected by the title of this film, that is, in the family itself, seen as a figure of collectivity and as the object of a Utopian longing, if not a Utopian envy. A narrative synthesis like The Godfather is possible only at the conjuncture in which ethnic content-the reference to an alien collectivity-comes to fill the older gangster schemas and to inflect them powerfully in the direction of the social; the superposition on conspiracy of fantasy material related to ethnic groups then triggers the Utopian function of this transformed narrative paradigm. In the United States, indeed, ethnic groups are not only the object of prejudice, they are also the object of envy; and these two impulses are deeply intermingled and reinforce each other mutually. The dominant white middle-class groups-already given over to anomie and social fragmentation and atomization-find in the ethnic and racial groups which are the object of their social repression and status contempt at one and the same time the image of some older collective ghetto or ethnic neighborhood solidarity; they feel the envy and ressentiment of the Gesellschaft for the older Gemeinschaft which it is simultaneously exploiting and liquidating. Thus, at a time when the disintegration of the dominant communities is persistently “explained” in the (profoundly ideological) terms of a deterioration of the family, the growth of permissiveness and the loss of authority of the father, the ethnic group can seem to project an image of social reintegration by way of the patriarchal and authoritarian family of the past. Thus the tightly knit bonds of the Mafia family (in both senses), the protective security of the (god-)father with his omnipresent authority, offers a contemporary pretext for a Utopian fantasy which can no longer express itself through such outmoded paradigms and stereotypes as the image of the now extinct American small town.

The drawing power of a mass cultural artifact like The Godfather may thus be measured by its twin capacity to perform an urgent ideological function at the same time that it provides the vehicle for the investment of a desperate Utopian fantasy. Yet the film is doubly interesting from our present point of view in the way in which its sequel-released from the restrictions of the bestselling fictional text on which Part I was based-tangibly betrays the momentum and the operation of an ideological and Utopian logic in something like a free or unbound state. Godfather II, indeed, offers a striking illustration of Pierre Macherey’s thesis, in Towards a Theory of Literary Production, that the work of art does not so much express ideology as, by endowing the latter with aesthetic representation and figuration, it ends up enacting the latter’s own virtual unmasking and self-criticism.

It is as though the unconscious ideological and Utopian impulses at work in Godfather I could in the sequel be observed to work themselves towards the light and towards thematic or reflexive foregrounding in their own right. The first film held the two dimensions of ideology and Utopia together within a single generic structure, whose conventions remained intact. With the second film, however, this structure falls as it were into history itself, which submits it to a patient deconstruction that will in the end leave its ideological content undisguised and its displacements visible to the naked eye. Thus the Mafia material, which in the first film served as a substitute for business, now slowly transforms itself into the overt thematics of business itself, just as “in reality” the need for the cover of legitimate investments ends up turning the mafiosi into real businessmen. The climactic end moment of this historical development is then reached (in the film, but also in real history) when American business, and with it American imperialism, meet that supreme ultimate obstacle to their internal dynamism and structurally necessary expansion which is the Cuban Revolution.

Meanwhile, the Utopian strand of this filmic text, the material of the older patriarchal family, now slowly disengages itself from this first or ideological one, and, working its way back in time to its own historical origins, betrays its roots in the pre-capitalist social formation of a backward and feudal Sicily. Thus these two narrative impulses as it were reverse each other: the ideological myth of the Mafia ends up generating the authentically Utopian vision of revolutionary liberation; while the degraded Utopian content of the family paradigm ultimately unmasks itself as the survival of more archaic forms of repression and sexism and violence. Meanwhile, both of these narrative strands, freed to pursue their own inner logic to its limits, are thereby driven to the outer reaches and historical boundaries of capitalism itself, the one as it touches the precapitalist societies of the past, the other at the beginnings of the future and the dawn of socialism.

These two parts of The Godfather-the second so much more demonstrably political than the first-may serve to dramatize our second basic proposition in the present essay, namely the thesis that all contemporary works of art-whether those of high culture and modernism or of mass culture and commercial culture-have as their underlying impulse-albeit in what is often distorted and repressed, unconscious form-our deepest fantasies about the nature of social life, both as we live it now, and as we feel in our bones it ought rather to be lived. To reawaken, in the midst of a privatized and psychologizing society, obsessed with commodities and bombarded by the ideological slogans of big business, some sense of the ineradicable drive towards collectivity that can be detected, no matter how faintly and feebly, in the most degraded works of mass culture just as surely as in the classics of modernism-is surely an indispensable precondition for any meaningful Marxist intervention in contemporary culture.

source: Social Text, No. 1 (Winter, 1979), pp. 130-148

See also: Fredric Jameson after the postmodern


  1. Fredric Jameson, Sartre: The Origins of a Style (1961)
  2. Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (1971)
  3. Fredric Jameson, The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism(1972)
  4. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981)
  5. Fredric Jameson, The Ideologies of Theory (1988, 2008)
  6. Fredric Jameson, Late Marxism: Adorno, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic (1990)
  7. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991)
  8. Fredric Jameson, Signatures of the Visible (1992)
  9. Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time (1994)
  10. Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method (1998)
  11. Fredric Jameson, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998 (1998)
  12. Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (2002)
  13. Fredric Jameson, “Dialectics of Disaster” (2002)
  14. Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (2005)
  15. Fredric Jameson, Conversations on Cultural Marxism(2007)
  16. Fredric Jameson, The Modernist Papers (2007)
  17. Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic (2009)
  18. Fredric Jameson, The Hegel Variations: On the Phenomenology of the Spirit (2010)
  19. Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One (2011)
  20. Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism (2015)
  21. Fredric Jameson, The Ancients and the Postmoderns(2015)
  22. Fredric Jameson, “The Aesthetics of Singularity” (2016)
  23. Fredric Jameson, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army (2016)
  24. Fredric Jameson, “Badiou and the French Tradition”(2016)
  25. Fredric Jameson, Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality (2016)