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The Incomplete Projects: Marxism, Modernity and the Politics of Culture
Carl Freedman
Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.
$65.00, 203 pages, ISBN 0-8195-6554-7 (hardback).
$24.95, 203 pages, ISBN 0-8195-6555-5 (paperback).

Mercedes Cuenca
Universitat de Barcelona

Carl Freedman is Professor of English at Louisiana State University. He has written numerous essays on Marxist theory and on Marxist analysis of cultural manifestations, both literary and cinematic. He is the author of George Orwell: A Study in Ideology and Literary Form (1998) and Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000).

The Incomplete Projects: Marxism, Modernity and the Politics of Culture (2002) is divided into two parts. The first part, “Marxism Today”, provides a political, economic and cultural theoretical framework to the second part, “Case Studies in the Politics and Ideology of Culture”. This latter part is, in fact, a compilation of seven essays which Freedman had published previously and which he has hardly edited for this new re-printing. Freedman provides a rationale for this structure in the book’s Preface. He writes that “[t]he purpose of this volume is to affirm the continuing validity—and indeed primacy—of Marxism as a method of social analysis, and to offer several examples of the Marxist analysis of modern culture” (xi).

The first part of Freedman’s book consists of a long essay entitled “The Situation of Modernity and the Crisis of Political Thinking at the Present Time”. This essay is divided into four subsections: “Marxism Today: Economy”, “Marxism Today: Strategy”, “Marxism and Modernity” and “Marxism and the Politics of Culture”. In “Marxism Today: Economy”, Freedman points to the relevance of Marxist theory as a tool to understand the development of late capitalism. He argues that the mainstream political and economic view, Neo-Liberalism, fails to acknowledge the shortcomings of a system which “depends upon limited resources for unlimited expansion” (5). In “Marxism Today: Strategy”, Freedman points to Marxism’s effectiveness as a scientific tool to analyze economic systems as opposed to its failure in providing strategic political thought. The author argues that this failure explains the basic tenets of Western Marxism: namely, that political failure leads to the revolutionary spirit being circumscribed to the individual’s mind. After these two explanatory sections, Freedman proceeds in “Marxism and Modernity” to propose an innovative definition of modernity. He defines this cultural period as a mixture of Enlightenment rationality and Romanticism’s tendency to irrational reaction. He criticizes the fact that this latter aspect has been undervalued. The author goes on to argue that as both Capitalism and the Enlightenment thwart human freedom, Marxism is a valuable theory for the critical analysis of modernity. Finally, in “Marxism and the Politics of Culture”, Freedman argues for the necessity of a Marxist reading of modern culture on the grounds that it is the only aspect of modernity which still retains left-wing political ideas and revolutionary potential.

Following the structure Freedman maps out in his work’s Preface, the second part provides the reader with seven sample Marxist readings of modern U.S. and English culture. The first three essays focus on visual arts products, that is, films and popular TV series. Firstly, “From History to Myth: The Ideology of M*A*S*H*” demonstrates how the potentially subversive character of this popular American sitcom on the Korean War, shown during the late 1970s and early 1980s, was ultimately contained. According to Freedman, M*A*S*H* is a good example of what Roland Barthes termed “inoculative myth”, that is, a strong criticism against the establishment that is ultimately absorbed into the dominant order. The author points to individualistic army surgeon Hawkeye as an example of this myth. Freedman explains that although the character rebels against the political power embodied by the military, he depends on the army to earn a living. In this way, Hawkeye’s work perpetuates the very system he is criticizing.

Secondly, in “England as Ideology: From Upstairs Downstairs to A Room with a View”, Freedman establishes that both the TV series (1970-1975) and the film (1985) strove to reflect an apolitical, ahistorical “Englishness”. This type of national identity had been created and established as a cultural export with the advent of England’s decline in economic power after the Second World War. Drawing on Fredric Jameson’s definition of mass culture as repression of social and political anxieties, Freedman argues that Upstairs, Downstairs provides such an accurate depiction of Edwardian England in its material details, that it manages to provide an idealized political vision of the era. Thus, the “reification of history” (79) results in an ahistorical rendering of national identity which remained largely unnoticed. Similarly, A Room with a View is based on an “evacuation of history” (79), an elision of the capitalist and imperialistic forces which would have demanded a critique of liberal England. In foregrounding the psychological drama of Lucy Honeychurch’s sexual development, the film provides a secondary, utopian political framework, much in tune with the cultural climate of the Thatcher years.

Thirdly, “On Kubrick’s 2001: Form and Ideology in Science-Fiction Cinema”, posits 2001 as an atypical science-fiction film because of its politically critical content. Freedman explains that science-fiction films were especially popular during the 1950s, late 1970s and 1980s. These periods, which were extremely conservative ones in American history, fostered apolitical cultural manifestations. However, 2001 (1968) was not produced at any of these times. This enabled Kubrick to articulate a social critique. The author points out that Kubrick gives language a central role in his film. The director establishes a contrast between computer HAL’s linguistic competence and the stilted dialogue of the human characters. In this way, the beneficial qualities of rational advancement for human beings is questioned. Therefore, the need for a renewed spirituality to enable further human evolution is posited against an apparent vacuity of values in the late capitalist era.

The remaining four essays in this volume deal with literary texts. The first one, “Power, Sexuality and Race in All the King’s Men” aims to undermine the novel’s claim to individualistic liberalism. Freedman situates Robert Penn Warren’s work, published in 1946, within its historical and geographical framework. He argues that, in the book, political power is a code for sexual power which, in turn, points to a preoccupation with race and historical guilt in the American South. Focusing on a chapter on the Old South which seems to break the main line of the plot, on political power in the New South, the author claims that Penn Warren’s exploration of racial injustice undermines the ideological containment that the novel seems to defend.

The following essay, “Labor and Politics in Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest”, is co-authored by Freedman and Christopher Kendrick. They argue that the novel, written in 1929, is structured around four different kinds of labor: economic, political, linguistic and sexual. The authors explore the potentially subversive aspects of these types of labor in Hammett’s work. However, they emphasize the fact that the text’s main political upheaval, the miners’ strike in the town of Personville, leads to no subsequent changes in the capitalist framework of the town. Hence, all the different types of labor serve to reinforce power structures. In an interesting twist, the authors point out that the detective in the novel is, in fact, trying to understand the reification enforced on all aspects of human life by capitalism—a reification which leads to political paralysis.

Next, Freedman turns his attention to science-fiction once again and, in my opinion, produces the essay which best exemplifies this volume’s main aim. In “Late Modernity and Paranoia: The Science-Fiction of Philip K. Dick”, the author explores the Marxist theory of paranoia. This theory posits that capitalism constitutes everyone into paranoid subjects who “must seek to interpret the signification of the objects—commodities—which define us” (152). He also points to the centrality of the concept of conspiracy in democratic governments—a concept which enables them to implement decisions without being despotic. The genre of science-fiction in general, and particularly the works of Philip K. Dick, are interesting in this connection because they are structured around an estranging content set in a realistic form. Thus, Dick’s characters use paranoia in order to decipher conspiracy. In much the same way, subjects immersed in late capitalism turn to paranoid attitudes to make sense of the alienating, commodified, political realities which surround them.

Last but not least, “Antinomies of Nineteen Eighty-Four” is a critique to Orwell’s individualistic outlook on politics as reflected in Winston Smith, the novel’s protagonist. Freedman argues that Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1947, reflects Orwell’s increasing ideological pessimism due to the advent of the Cold War. This pessimism manifested itself in a distrust of collective political struggle. For Orwell, only the individual could fight against repression in totalitarian systems as groups were more susceptible to corruption by external forces. As a socialist who distrusted theory deeply, Orwell emphasized the need for a simple language which would devalue theorizing as a political strategy. However, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, this language becomes “Newspeak” and only leads to the annihilation of subjective thought. Furthermore, Winston Smith is severed from the possibility of fighting against Big Brother with other men and women. Therefore, he can understand the workings of the totalitarian system he inhabits but is eventually subsumed into despair and silence. Thus, Freedman argues that Orwell’s premises lead to the perpetuation of the totalitarian system he seeks to criticize.

The Incomplete Projects: Marxism, Modernity and the Politics of Power will prove to be an interesting reading for those seeking to understand the basic workings of Marxist theory and its connection to modern culture. While the first part of the work is informative and interesting in its innovative reflections on modernity, the compilation of essays sometimes falls short of the main aim put forth by Freedman. The fact that the essays were written before the theoretical framework of the text was established is noticeable. Indeed, in his zest to focus on Marxist theory as a tool to analyze novels, films and TV series, the author sometimes underplays the importance of the cultural manifestation he is criticizing for his line of argument. Thus, the effectiveness of Marxism as an enabling tool to provide a critical reading of culture is, at times, difficult to appreciate. Notwithstanding, Freedman has succeeded in providing a good reference volume for all those readers who wish to develop Marxist readings in cultural studies.

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