Marjorie Garber on...

...the Humanities and Culture

Symptoms of CultureOurs is an era that distrusts language, that fears figures of speech, and especially what could be called figures of thinking -- ideas and associations that beget ideas, that link to other links in culture rather than in hypertext, ideas that are regarded as dangerous because they are not end-stopped. Ideas that lead us to the brink of consciousness and control. The dominance of the quantitative and the empirical, as contrasted with the overdetermined, the counterintuitive, and the qualitative, seems to imply that the only things worth knowing are the things that can be counted. The opposition between so-called "hard" and so-called "soft" subjects (often construed as the tension between that natural or "social" sciences and the humanities, or even between history and literary criticism) is itself one of the most striking symptoms of our time. Our culture likes numbers, statistics, "facts." As if a fact were somehow the end of the story rather than the beginning. (Symptoms of Culture 5-6)

But it is to Freud's earlier work on dream analysis, I want to suggest, that we should look for a theory of the symptom, and specifically, in my sense, the "symptom of culture." For in this mode of analysis we find an emphasis on intuitive connections, connecting seemingly unconnected, often wildly disparate things. [...] I do not propose to diagnose culture as if it were an illness of which we could be cured, but to read culture as if it were structured like a dream, a network of representations that encodes wishes and fears, projections and identifications, all of whose elements are overdetermined and contingent. (Symptoms of Culture 9)

The word "rebus" comes into English from res, the Latin word for things. A rebus is a riddle made of things. The elements in the rebus are the symptoms. Freud's description of the dream as rebus is a good analogy for the interpretative model employed in the essays in this volume, which follow the itinerary of cultural signs from football to Jell-O to "Shakespeare" and "greatness," reading the picture-puzzle of their recurrence in diverse and often bafflingly inappropriate contexts. My method is metonymic, in that it pursues associations and contiguities rather than identities and essences; ideas do not "stand for" or "symbolize" something in culture but rather evoke, imply, glance at fields of connotation. (Symptoms of Culture 10)

Repetition and repression are the twin mechanisms by which a culture processes and comes to terms with its intolerable history. The inevitability and linkage of these processes, repetition and repression, makes it impossible to secure the historical moment politically or ideologically in a single place. Neither the left nor the right can be securely in possession of the sense of its own primal words: when the repressed returns, it may well turn out to be on the other side.

Which is the left position, and which is the right? Which is the liberal move, and which the conservative? What are the "weapons of the left" -- and of the right? Who pickets? Who prohibits? Who blocks? Who bombs? We may think we know the answers to these questions. But history sometimes answers them differently. As the overdetermined example of creationism and evolution suggests, there can be more than one way to stage a primal scene. (Symptoms of Culture 139)

..."Culture Wars"

One of the most striking symptoms of culture in our time has been the phenomenon of the so-called "culture wars," a conflict that might be located precisely in the clash between the timeless, ahistorical, universalizing, decontextualizing function of the "symbol" and the historically contingent, specific, and overdetermined function of the "symptom." Literature is often thought of as treacherous territory if and as its "meaning" shifts over time, with new generations of readers, new cultural contexts. Literature as "symbol" is expected to proclaim "timeless, universal truths"; literature as "symptom" is embedded in particular historical preoccupations and conflicts, both in its own time and in ours. We eagerly allow our sciences (and even our social sciences) to find new "truths," to perform the equivalent of a computer's editing function, search-and-replace. But with the humanities, or what in French are called the "human sciences," we are more intolerant of change, more possessive and nostalgic. Like a child returning home from an extended absence to find his or her bedroom full of new paint and furniture, many a modern critic will express dismay rather than pleasure that the "classics" can receive new interpretations, some quite different from the old ones.


In today's "culture wars" whole categories of analysis crucial to cultural studies, from race to identity politics to queer theory, are often described as intrinsically inimical to aesthetic judgment and literary merit. But this is so only if merit and value are tied to decontextualization, historical forgetting, and erasure of the conflicting forces that go into the production and reception of literary and cultural works. (Symptoms of Culture 7-8)


Wilbur [of Charlotte's Web], Oz, the Great Books, the Great Tradition. Greatness is an effect of decontextualization, of the decontextualization of the sign -- and of a fantasy of control, a fantasy of the sujet supposé savoir, of a powerful agency, divine or other. [...] Someone knows; someone -- someone else -- is in control. The political logic of this is as disturbing as its psychology. It's a lesson that has not been lost on contemporary political "spinmeisters" [....]

"Good" books, like "competent" politicians, are in our inflated culture somehow not good enough. From the canon debate to the political arena, "greatness" has become an increasingly problematic standard. If we have greatness thrust upon us in either sphere, we should recognize it as an ideological category, a redundancy effect, a "recognition factor," as the pundits say. It seems clear that anxieties about greatness in literature are closely tied to anxieties about national, political, and cultural greatness, and that the more anxious the government, the more pressure is placed upon the humanities to textualize and naturalize the category of the "great." This is no reason to discard such a category entirely, even if it were possible to do so. But it is a good reason to be wary, and to pay some attention to that man behind the curtain -- or, if anyone tries to sell you one, to be cautious about lionizing "some pig" -- however terrific, radiant, and humble -- in a poke. (Symptoms of Culture 43)

...Jell-O as signifier

Like Benny Kubelsky, koshered by General Foods into Jack Benny, with a seemly nose and an appetite for Jell-O plum pudding, Jell-O itself both marked and crossed the borderline between Jewish and Christian, American and foreign, kosher and traif. As such, and embodied in the split or bifurcated box, it was the perfect sign for the politics of the Rosenberg case.

I return then to my epigraph, spoken of course by Iago, the master-plotter and master opportunist, the man who seized upon another overdetermined domestic object, a woman's handkerchief, and made it the sign of calumny. "This may help to thicken other proofs/ That do demonstrate thinly." The Jell-O box is not a random signifier, however it made its way into the evidence submitted in the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Overdetermined by both its relationship to the Jewish community and its much more highly visible status as the quintessentially American, middle-class, and patriotic food, America's just dessert, the Jell-O box was already a culturally loaded term, "the necessary link," when Roy Cohn or one of his colleagues cut a facsimile into pieces and displayed it to the court. (Symptoms of Culture 149-150)

...Quotation Marks

...[T]he tall, stooped [Representative Henry] Hyde craned across the the ages, speaking to the future through a voice from the "past."

That I elect to stress the spuriousness of this past by enclosing the word in quotation marks will indicate, at the outset, one of the curious properties of these typographical signifiers. For in their present condition of use, they may indicate either authenticity or doubt. Make that "authenticity" or "doubt." This is a property to which we shall want to return. But let us continue, for a moment, with the impeachment hearings. (“  ” (Quotation Marks), p. 654-655)

Always "in quotation," whether its quotation marks are showing or not, the quotation often blends, apparently seamlessly but with its seams and its semes showing, into the parent text of the quoter. As in the philosphical brainteaser "'This statement is false' is true," the location and comprehension of a quotation's limits, and the degree to which its voice is marked as different from the speaker's, can radically alter both our sense of its truth-value and our interpretation of its meaning. (“  ” (Quotation Marks), p. 679)

(c) Marjorie Garber. Used with permission


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