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Culture and the Real.

Culture and the Real By Catherine Belsey London: Routledge, 2005

Over the last decade unease and discontent have haunted the whole area of the humanistic disciplines--literary criticism, cultural criticism, and, above all, cultural studies. Prophecies of apocalypse appeared in 1996 in Bill Readings's The University in Ruins, denouncing an academically trivial cultural studies. (1) And seven years later, in Death of a Discipline, Gayatri Spivak's critique of the ideological and political shortcomings of Western Comparative Studies, intimations of Doomsday persist, albeit mitigated by a much greater propositional emphasis. (2) Despite their diversity, both Readings and Spivak are unremittingly dismissive of contemporary cultural and literary analysis, on the grounds of its overt inadequacy to global complexity. From their opposed angles, on the right and left of the ideological spectrum respectively, both voice a widespread dissatisfaction with the latest versions of cultural studies, which have now ramified into subdisciplines, including gender studies, race studies, media and visual studies.

The disappointment is not without grounds. Though invigorated and refined by post-structuralist theory and adapted to fit the changing profile of British and American societies, Raymond Williams's foundational project has in the course of time lost much of its initial edge. Although political and cultural awareness have been sharpened, and policies of gender and race have been developed to the benefit of minorities, the high hopes invested by liberal democratic humanists in the power of culture to provide emancipation from the vestiges of idealism and conservatism have been partly frustrated. Indeed, the very popularity of the cultural studies project has produced unfortunate consequences.

I do not want to generalize. The many facets of the post-structuralist prism (New Historicism, cultural materialism, gender theory, queer theory, for example) have certainly vitalized theoretical debate on both sides of the Atlantic, while at the same time taking hold of specific cultural and political issues. But academic institutionalization has exacted a high price. Digested for synoptic exposition, theory has been divested of its incisiveness, diluted into sociology, and equated with political correctness. Without the support of theoretical awareness, the blurring of disciplinary boundaries, a major imperative of the original cultural studies project, has come to authorize approximation and improvisation. And events as traumatic as 9/11/01 in New York, or 7/7/05 in London, have thrown into relief the critical shortcomings of idealism. When the event escapes the cultural script, our claims to exhaustive knowledge, often synonymous with cultural reductionism, become self-evidently incongruous.

The euphoric vein of American culturalism bears witness to a worrying complacency, which accommodates dissent, squaring political circles, while keeping anxiety at bay, in line with the American dream. It is as if a blind trust in the naturalness of the sign had been merely replaced by a wholehearted devotion to the absoluteness of culture. At the same time, on the conservative front cultural anxiety has produced a backlash in entrenchment, in the revival, the "pursuit," indeed, of English Studies, as well as in the renewed emphasis on the specificity of literature and literariness. At times of danger and anxiety the desire for neat contours and hierarchies was bound to resurface, but the faultlines in cultural studies have no doubt prompted the reemergence of symptomatic preoccupations with ethics and values. In consequence, metaphysics is back on the agenda, looming behind recurrent ontological questions: What exactly is the field of knowledge humanistic studies can venture to explore without falling into the trap of amateurism? Who is entitled to investigate what and on what grounds? And should we not reaffirm the literary, marking out its territory as the repository of higher value? In the best instances, exemplified by Derek Attridge's The Singularity of Literature, the whole apparatus of theory is incorporated and directed toward sophisticated redefinitions of the literary. (3) But in more controversial cases theory is crudely isolated and neutralized, separated off as mere scholarship, or even slighted for evading the tough job of practical criticism. English is vigorously reinstated as the "natural," all-embracing discipline, the self-evident paradigm of cultural analysis, subsuming and erasing differences--and theory itself. With its disturbing imperialist associations, the resurgence of English in this sense appears merely as the other side of the coin of cultural reductionism, or the British counterpart of the American dream.

Catherine Belsey shows that this is not the whole story. In Culture and the Real she points to Jacques Lacan's account of culture as a more productive and sophisticated option, and a way out of the idealist and reductionist impasse that has entrapped cultural theory. Belsey weaves the threads of her seminal Critical Practice into the web of a glamorously prismatic narrative, which does full justice to the Lacanian trajectory of her own theoretical career. (4) Loss and desire, the recurring features of her journey into Western love stories and Shakespeare's plays, (5) are brought back to Lacan, while Lacan's own engagement with crucial cultural issues is highlighted.

Addressing Lacan's tantalizing prose presents a major challenge. Isolating the Real as the litmus paper of significance for cultural theory is even more demanding. But Belsey appropriately chooses a deconstructive and encircling approach that perfectly fits its object of study. While the book gradually entices the reader into the mazes of the concept, it points to new directions in critical practice. There is no unraveling of a plot with a chain of events leading to final disclosures. The Real, beyond signification, that which is there, but not there to be known, defies traditional linear argument and calls for strategic sidetracking. Firmly posited from the beginning as that against which the culture we inhabit should be defined and described, the Real stands out only relationally and differentially, working as a touchstone. The nuances of its difference are sharpened, gradually delineated against what resists its challenge, and against the cultural reductionism that fails to take account of it. In the process one has the feeling of multiple gains. As more light is thrown upon Lacan's idyosyncratic style, the branches of critical theory and philosophy are pruned and cleared. Belsey's prose, however, never relishes slashing. The Lacanian web is woven with the untied threads of theory, as the narrative moves forward and around the Real in concentric circles, with increasing focus and from a number of different angles.

Eluded in Judith Butler's determinism, bracketed by Stanley Fish's interpretive communities, the beyondness of the Real resurfaces as the referent, as what cannot be either signified or mastered, as the ultimate dissent that no culturalism can accommodate. Is the Real, the brute materiality that culturalism has so keenly repressed, too hard, then, to acknowledge? Isn't the awareness of the nondescript alterity of culture, of the irreducible gap between human selves and their organisms, too demanding for human subjects? What is the point of keeping the lack that constitutes us steadily in place, and in sight, when it only elicits anxiety? It is in answer to these questions that Lacanian psychoanalysis, with its Saussurean emphasis, is here newly disclosed and highlighted, not only as the alternative to cultural reductionism and idealism, but also as a fresh post-structuralist approach to an understanding of the ways that desire and loss, life and death, become entangled in one single drive.

By contrast with claims to the sovereignty of knowledge over materiality, Lacan's Real radically unsettles mind-body dualism, leaving no space for one polarity to overpower the other. Located and rigorously maintained at the level of the signifier, the mark of loss becomes visible in the speaking subject as the split that keeps separating the actuality of our speech from the wish that motivates it. But it also emerges as the locus of desire for the Thing, the illusory object we suppose will fill the place vacated by the lack. Driven by loss and desire, torn between discontent and resistance, "human beings remain uneasy composites, the conjunction of an unreachable real organism and the subjects they become" (50). Though exceeding conceptualization, and even the shared occasional experience of a gap, though utterly mysterious and "lost to the the subject" (51), the Real still surrounds and inhabits human culture as the determining condition of our drives.

Subtly and keenly retraced on the basis of the different nuances it attains in the development of Lacan's own writing, Belsey's Real strips bare the tinsel of theory and challenges appropriations, eluding even the captivating net Slavoj Zizek would enmesh it in. No matter how attractive, witty and politically productive they are in their own way, Zizek's brilliant--and unarrestable--accounts of human relationships, and of traumatic cultural events, are shown to betray Lacan in their conflation of the Real with the Thing, the void, or the death drive. Ultimately brought back to the advent of disruptive and unsettling human experiences, Zizek's Real never entirely resists signification. Trauma is always introjected and phantasmatically reconstructed, only to be newly projected outward onto hate figures, "the sublime objects of ideology." (6) Designed to fit into a post-Hegelian ideology, Zizek's imbrication with Lacan inspires a hermeneutic pattern that invariably appeals to the death drive and aggressivity, to explain the failures of both democracies and totalitaranisms. Belsey's exposure of the invalidity of Zizek's Lacanian claims is not unwarranted, since differentiating Zizek's Real serves the purpose of recovering and refocusing Lacan's.

Against the terrifying sublimity of Zizek's hate figures, the pacifying relief and the austere, nonidealized beauty disclosed by Lacan's cultural artifacts is seen to provide major, though challenging, rewards. Stripped of sacredness and religiosity of the sublime, delivered from idealist investments, the Lacanian beautiful, that which in its own apparent presence and fullness keeps alluding to the ultimate absence or loss, is put forward as the core of a truly materialistic aesthetics, as distinct from the Kantian idealism that encrusts prevailing accounts of postmodernism and post-structuralism. Built to encompass the void, but doomed to fail to do so entirely, tombstones, sculptures, paintings are unraveled as barriers against annihilation and self-destruction, while still alluding to the impossible encounter with the Thing. These objects make space and draw magic circles around emptiness, and in the process, they pacify antagonistic or self-destructive drives. At the same time, they also elicit and keep in place our desire to reach beyond their signifying veil.

Taking stock of Lacan's own challenging forays into the wide range of the cultural beautiful, where Van Gogh's abandoned shoes are aligned with empty matchboxes or macaroni, Belsey ventures into cross-disciplinary examples, testing Lacan's cultural theory in her own cultural practice. Nimbly shifting her focus from sculpture to painting, from tombstones to written memorials, Belsey retraces the ways culture makes rich surfaces, while signifying loss and desire, in the effort to encompass its (and our) constitutive lack. Readers are providentially rescued from reverential awe and relieved of the familiar refrains of scholarship, to be eased into multiple channels of cultural signification, and encouraged to switch inquiringly from one form to another, looking at literature through and with sculpture and painting.

Combined with anthropological curiosity Belsey's characteristically unconventional stance provides close and acute insights into the paradoxes of absence and presence, fullness and emptiness. Never coinciding with what is valuable, let alone with what has become canonized, the beautiful is shown to lie in lingering enigmas, in denied access to the Thing, or in what most puts on display the logic of Lacanian desire. Crucially, however, the enigmas are always seen to be grounded in cultural history. And it is in its cultural determination that the specificity of the desire they elicit becomes interesting. Behind the lavishly ornamented tomb of a modest apothecary, erected in 1697 by his wealthy friend, pieces of local, material history come into focus. The contrast between the exuberance of the inscriptions and the relatively humble status of John Simson draws attention to the death the monument is designed to neutralize. But, instead of arousing metaphysical dizziness, that contradiction prompts cultural curiosity. Belsey's microhistorical inquiry into the folds of John Simson's background bears upon Foucauldian archaeology with a Lacanian difference. Power relations, disclosed in the entanglement of the economic and emotional motivations between the apothecary and his powerful mentor, never fully account for the mystery of this grand memorial investment. Beyond the pleasing and pacifying veil of inscriptions and ornaments, the story of the relationship between the two shows up as ulimately unknown, as inaccessible as the long-dead John Simson himself.

His memorial, unswept and otherwise obscure, is nonetheless restored to its Lacanian nonreligious beauty, and the mystery of the dead apothecary challengingly set alongside the equivocations of Shakespeare's celebrated Sonnet 55, which also claims immortality for its addressee. In both cases, what emerges is the beguiling veil of the signifier and the elusiveness of the referent. Belsey's alignment of Simson with Shakespeare and her explanation of Shakespeare through Simson work strategically as a paradigm for the subsequent cultural reading. Looked at through Lacan, and against the Real, canonized poetry loses its spurious metaphysical value, but it becomes newly visible as a locus of desire rooted in specific cultural history, a significant contribution to the effort of encircling the void, at once pacifying the drive and eliciting desire.

What remains in the foreground is textuality, and its untiring effort to conjure up depth in the flat surface of painting and writing, from the skillful ways of perspective depiction down to the wonders of photographic illusionism. Rather than being exposed to flashes of epiphanic intensity, we are brought back to contextual webs and to the means by which attempts to encompass and master the absolute are shaped by the history they also make. Inspired by Lacanian art historians, Belsey's examples, from Filippo Brunelleschi's conjuring trick to the seductive illusionism of Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Double Portrait, from Darcy's picture in Pride and Prejudice to Diego Velazquez's celebrated Las Meninas, recast in a Lacanian mould the developments of ways of seeing, historicizing desire as they do so.

In the course of the trajectory from verisimilitude to conscious self-referentiality, from the early miracles of perspective to the Baroque attention to the surface of the signifier, artists and viewers alike have paid different kinds of price for their striving toward sovereignty over space, and the desire elicited by the signifying veil has taken diverse forms. In each individual instance, Belsey's close reading proves the more rewarding insofar as it is displayed as a steplike process that gradually leads to sequential disclosures. Contrary to our expectations, however, what emerges is not new meanings nor a celebration of the scintillating ineffability of polysemy but the workings of the veil itself. The focus is on what in the painting or in the writing triggers and resists interpretation, what lures viewers into the scene, only to exclude them in the end, barring access beyond the decorative surface. Each time we are led to the verge of the unpresentable, made to experience the hope of presence and confronted with absence.

The characterization of visual pleasures displayed in this section resembles what, at first sight, we might be tempted to trace through a whole line of French theorists who, in sharp contrast with all cultural reductionism, have positively engaged with the unaccountability of what eludes the cultural script. Lyotard's postmodern sublime, Barthes's jouissance du text, Deleuze's emphasis on writing pushed to its limits, automatically surface in the minds of readers brought up on Kantian aesthetics. But we are not allowed to make that association. The scope and the import of the Lacanian shift of emphasis in Belsey's insight comes into sharper relief when, in the last section of the book, it is set against the vestiges of idealism obdurately lingering in the domain of post-structuralist aesthetics. And while the claims and the shortcomings of cultural reductionism had emerged in their relationship with the unreducibility of the Real, here, in the field of aesthetics, it is the metaphysical investment in art that resurfaces, by contrast with Jacques Lacan's radical materialism. In the developments of the phenomenology of the sublime, from its early Kantian occurrence to Lyotard's postmodern appropriation, Belsey uncovers the systematic resurfacing of a secular theology, which steadily associates the experience of art with mystery, awe, and terror. It is ultimately the entanglemement with value judgments, the constant concern with hierarchy, that is seen to weigh, as the burden of idealism, even on the shoulders of potentially Lacanian theorists, like a well-established and naturalized vocabulary.

Belsey's search for Lacan ("Is there a Lacan in this class?") unfolds as a doggedly subtle inquiry into the nuances of critical vocabulary, proving productive in more than one way. As idealism is laid bare even where it is most disavowed, and Zizek s Lacan is unmasked as Zizek's Kant, repressed Lacanian traces are exhumed and revived, put forward as the lexicon of a new Lacanian cultural theory. Salvaged from their Kantian obfuscations, the Lacanian assumptions of Jean-Francois Lyotard and Terry Eagleton are disclosed as viable ways of alternative reading. And teased out of its Kantian wrappings, the unpresentable is not only downsized, brought back to the culture it evades, but in the process also restored to desire and to the pleasure principle, as evoked in Lacan's account of sublimation. Once it is set against Freud's pessimistic account in Civilization and Its Discontents, and distinguished from Zizek's conflation with sublime, sublimation in Lacan is newly offered as the theoretical explanation, and the only viable ground for a new theory, of the materiality of culture. While interposing itself as the necessary barrier between the subject and the object of the drive, between us and absolute destruction, sublimation, freed from its deadly superegoic strictures and its bourgeois allegiances, accounts for the creative thrust of culture, allowing both for the pleasure of making and for the enjoyment of seeing and reading. While the beautiful comes into unsentimental focus as the "blinding flash" that reveals "the site of man's relationship to his own death," (7) the signifying veil still offers its pleasurable surface, prompting inquiries, eliciting desire.

Culture and the Real blows boldly into the field of humanities as a breath of invigorating fresh air. In theory and in practice Belsey wittily illustrates the rewarding difference Lacan makes, once his account of the relationship between culture and the Real is held firmly and prominently in view. Countering cultural reductionism and idealism, Belsey's Lacan inspires cross-disciplinary inquiry and stirs anthropological curiosity and political resistance. It calls for sophisticated close reading, while preempting value judgments and hierarchies. And, as Belsey argues in her conclusion, it offers "a way of understanding the pleasures the signifier offers the speaking being, without reducing culture to something else: ethical instruction, ideological control, or scripted determinism" (155). But in spite of its ample rewards in view of a theory of culture, Belsey's keen fidelity to the rigors of Lacan's psychoanalytical ethos proves highly demanding. In face of disciplinary boundaries and academic strictures, the Lacanian stance, which is so hardily advocated and so brilliantly taken on, is bound to stand more as a utopian move than as a realistically viable alternative.

And yet we are left with the feeling that this is the kind of utopia we need if we want to take new directions. With its rephrasing and reframing of the scopes and fields of the humanities, the Lacanian turn we are confronted with does not only help to cast new light on our own different areas of inquiry; it also challenges our critical vocabulary, and our role as intellectuals, calling for a close and rigorous awareness of the culture we inhabit.


(1.) Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).

(2.) Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

(3.) Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature (London: Routledge, 2004).

(4.) Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (London: Methuen 1980; 2nd rev. ed., London: Routledge, 2002).

(5.) See Catherine Belsey, Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (London: Macmillan, 1994) and Shakespeare and the Loss of Eden (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 19991.

(6.) See Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989).

(7.) Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalyis (Seminar 7), trans. Dennis Porter (London: Tavistock/Routledge, 1992), 295, (cited in Belsey, Culture and the Real, 146).

Reviewer: Alessandra Marzola
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Author:Marzola, Alessandra
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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