Sections of this piece are drawn from conversations with Niki Haringsma, whose forthcoming Black Archive on ‘Love & Monsters’ is really good. Don’t blame her for this though, for god’s sake.
The style/substance dichotomy is, of course, false. Most dichotomies are, when you dig deeply enough. The thing is: dichotomies are also real. Even false dichotomies are real. Our world – bourgeois society, the capitalist epoch – is made of ‘real false dichotomies’. The most fundamental dichotomies in our society – capitalist and worker; use value and exchange value – are both real, in the sense of having real material effects, and also unreal, insane, hallucinatory. Capitalism is the rule of abstraction. It is concrete human existence tyrannised by the slippery, the spectral, the notional.
For Marx, when things are produced as commodities they are no longer just ‘use values’ but now have the divided nature of also being ‘exchange values’. Use values are useful, sensual, material, human. Exchange value is abstract, useless outside the profit system, and has no use beyond the self-expansion of value. That’s capitalism. That’s the root of ‘profit for profit’s sake’. Marx sees labour, and thus production, as fundamental to human life and society (our conscious, constructive, creative, social activity is what marks us out among animals). So production that is geared towards exchange value is inhuman. Self-expansion of value (capitalism) thus perverts human creative and social powers into perpetuating an alien system, which expands by feeding on those powers. This is alienation.
This is actually at the root of Marx’s critique of capitalism: that it subjects real and sensuous human life to the domination of phantasmic things like exchange value, the force that renders all actual human effort nothing more than abstract and homogeneous labour. Exchange value – loosely, price – is determined by ‘socially necessary labour time’, i.e. the average amount of time it takes to make things, or perform services, etc, given the average level of productivity in society. This is because capitalism organises production for profit, and labour that falls outside ‘socially necessary labour time’ is unprofitable – because it costs money but does not make money. This is because the worker whose low productivity meant that their work fell outside the ‘socially necessary labour time’ would – by definition – be being paid for time above the average amount of time necessary, and hence the price of her labour is raised, and hence the profits when her work is sold are reduced. This is why no ordinary worker is allowed to get away with such things. This is why the supervisor times your bathroom breaks. In capitalism, labour that is ‘particular’ or ‘specific’ has no value in itself, because it produces only use-values (i.e. useful things), and they are not profitable in themselves – not to capitalism anyway. A table is useless to capitalism unless it is a profitable table. (This is why capitalism doesn’t make things that are not directly profitable except when forced to, or when it realises that it is in its longer term interest so to do – in which case it generally gets the state, i.e. the taxpayer – to do it for it.) Capitalism produces such use values only as a by-product, because it happens to be obliged to, because it is made of and by humans, and humans happen to work in a certain way and thus need and want certain things, like tables. The profits are the actual goal, towards which the production of use values us merely a means to an end. And exchange value derives not from particular or specific labour but from abstract homogeneous labour. This is the labour that has value because it takes place within an abstract – average – period. The only kind of profitable labour is the abstract, homogeneous labour performed within a certain period set by averages. Thus capitalist society – by which we mean the millions of lives living in it – is dominated by slippery averages, by phantasmic abstractions, which reduce our specific labour – and thus our human essence, because our essence is our work, our conscious activity – to bland, grey homogeneity.
In art, the style/substance dichotomy is a ‘real false abstraction’.
It is false in the sense that, artistic texts being what they are, it is impossible to disentangle the thing being ‘said’ from the manner or medium in which it is said. Even when they conflict, they are inextricable. It is real in the sense that it is, nonetheless, something we experience or imagine. The impossibility contains the apparent possibility within itself. The possibility of imagining a separation between style and substance is on a slider, and it rises or falls with the medium being considered. And the scale the slider traverses is the level of abstraction. It makes no sense to imagine that the ‘substance’ of a Beethoven symphony can be disentangled from the ‘style’ of a Beethoven symphony. Similarly, a Jackson Pollock canvas. But with Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, suddenly the possibility of rupture seems to open up. We may say that it is possible to gauge how the music communicates the ideas explored by the libretto. In actuality it is an illusion to think that any work of art could communicate its ideas via different style, because that would make the ideas different, and consequently we would simply be dealing with a different work of art. The work is itself, and can’t not be. This is simply a real tautology. Because actually the particular prose style used by, say, Charles Dickens or Arundhati Roy or Dan Brown is not just a way of saying things that could be said otherwise, beyond the most mechanical level of narrative. The style is part of the worldview being communicated.
What do we mean when we say that an effect is ‘realistic’ or ‘convincing’? Actually, let’s save ourselves some trouble and collapse those down into one scarequoteless word: realvincing… so, when we say that an effect is realvincing what do we actually mean?
Are we claiming that we don’t know its an effect because it does not stand out from the non-effects around it? Well, there are such effects. The matte painting which makes it look like Obi-Wan is standing over a huge chasm of technology in the Death Star is such an effect. And its very unobtrusiveness is what makes it work. There is a fuzzy border between this kind of trompe l’oeil effect and the effect which gives us a massed fleet of x-wing fighters. We find that effect realvincing because it looks sufficiently how we think it would look if we peeped out of a window and saw an actual fleet of spaceships outside it. But in both cases – in all cases where something impossible is being represented – we still know it is an effect, no matter how well it has mastered the art of optical illusion, no matter how well it has appealed to our sense of the plausible, since we know, if we stop to think about it, that such a thing cannot actually exist. So even with effects that are meant to, in a certain sense, ‘fool’ us, or fool our eyes at any rate, there is a built-in awareness that we are being fooled, and part of our pleasure is our awareness of how well we are being fooled. We come out of movies saying “the effects were amazing” or “the effects were really bad”, because our appreciation of the effects is part of the fun, and part of our appreciation of the effects is our judgement of how well they ‘work’… so obviously, when they do ‘work’, it can’t be because they actually fooled us. They achieved a complex task of provoking a reaction of pleasure in us by showing us something like this: their potential to fool, were it not that we know we are watching something artificial, and thus know that we cannot be fooled. The effect is thus more akin to a magic trick than a confidence trick. In a confidence trick, you are actually being fooled, you are being made to believe something that isn’t true. A magic trick is pleasure in artifice. The pleasure comes from knowing that something unreal has been brilliantly and mystifyingly simulated, with the closeness of the simulation being the source of spectacle.
But another layer of complexity is added by the fact that we are not generally aware of this as we watch, anymore than we are consciously concentrating on the fact that we are watching recorded images of actors being projected onto a screen, or whatever. We allow ourselves to become immersed in a system of provisionally accepted mental propositions. Contrary to some old and rather rubbish theories about how this works, these are not ‘beliefs’, not even by willing negation. They are more akin to what children do when they play, and say to each other “you be…” whoever. The pleasure lies precisely in the knowledge that one is engaging in artifice. But this comparison is also instructive in another way, because it showcases a difference as well as a similarity. Child’s play is – at least when left free to self-structure – is creative. The pleasure we take in fiction is less so. But again, this is on a slider. There is an extent to which all consumption of art and fiction is creative, in that a text always requires that it be read in order to be socially activated. Or even personally activated in the head of an individual. But then even personal reading is actually social, since it is all about comprehending social propositions. To read fiction is to engage in an interior investigation of one’s place in society, and the society around you, activated by the propositions about people in society contained in the text. This is also partly the purpose of child’s play, and the reason for it. This is also why we watch TV and movies, and what is happening when we do so. However, the visual narrative arts are more ‘settled’, more ‘fixed’ in what they give the mind to socially consider.
A reader may – and must – imagine a character in a novel in various ways. When I read Sons and Lovers, my mind imagined the Morrell home as like my maternal grandparents’ home, and Paul’s parents as like my maternal grandparents. When I watch a film adaptation of Sons and Lovers, I must accept the appearance of the Morell home and parents as the film imposes them upon me.
Beyond this crude level, film and TV texts impose all sorts of fixity and determinacy that books don’t. They impose meaning via music, framing, etc. This is without even touching on the process of alteration which takes place when a script is created from an original novel. It is possible to read the final Harry Potter books as children’s romps in a straightforward way, despite the author’s attempts to invoke complex issues, whereas the movie adaptations foreclose on this reading via their overall tone of self-important ‘seriousness’. They also edit out certain interpretations of the actions of characters which the books – generally by incompetence or lack of self-awareness – leave open. It is impossible to read Snape in the final movies as anything but a tragic hero, except by very deliberately reading the films against the grain, whereas Rowling – while apparently not conscious of the fact – leaves him a more ambiguous figure, if not actually a despicable one. This is a cameo of her entire invented world, which she consciously imagines as a utopia but which is actually – by any serious consideration of how it works, which the books disingenuously invite and then disavow – the opposite. The films foreclose on this openness via their untroubled acceptance of Rowling’s view in some places, and their use of aesthetics to ideologically manage and foreclose upon her ambiguities in others.
And here we see very clearly why we are dealing with ideological issues. In a way, the entirety of filmed story is a ‘special effect’. We are watching people who clearly are not really there, doing things they clearly are not really doing, in a space they cannot possibly be. We are aesthetically seduced into ‘believing’ that these impossible things are happening – which is a colloquial way of saying that we are being induced to accede to a provisional conscious pretence that certain impossible things are happening in order to comprehend a story. If the use of a certain actor imports closed meaning, and the use of certain music likewise, then so does the appearance of a certain kind of ‘special effect’. Those x-wing fighters are designed according to Star Wars’ ‘used future’ look, whereby the fairytale aspects of the story are sublimated to a grimy, industrial aesthetic which recalls modern warfare and refers inescapably to the horrors of 20th century political conflict. This is something the text forecloses on using ‘effects’. More fundamentally, the entire entire of filming Star Wars in a ‘realist’ manner, including its fantastical elements, from not only trying to make its machines look functional and non-fantastic, and its aliens look biologically plausible and evolved, but also down further to attempting to make all these fantasy elements seem to be ‘really there’ – or realvincing – is an implicitly ideological maneuver. And here Star Wars stands for a huge amount of modern visual SF (though there are major exceptions to be found in films and television which are resolutely non-realist).
(Some might raise their eyebrows at my description of Star Wars as ‘realist’ but the term refers to how it represents humans embodied and moving in physical space, even within a fantasy environment. The category ‘realism’ is unstable, confabulated, ideological, going back to the Renaissance, where painters strove to depict the human figure accurately, but placed such figures in Biblical environments of the supernatural, etc, and based their idea of ‘accuracy’ on certain kinds of bodies – a corporeal caste system we still live with, as you’ll see if you look at everything from Hollywood films to perfume ads.)
The effect is thus a kind of distillation of a certain kind of approach to telling and reading stories, one which highlights the ability of stories to induce us to accept certain propositions semi-consciously, or despite our intellectual rejection of them, and to indeed revel in the ability of the storyteller to make us accept the validity of the patently untrue, owing almost entirely to the pleasure that the commodified version of the story causes by its very mastery of artifice.
I submit that this is not irrelevant to how we currently understand the actual social world we live in. Especially not in a world in which SF and Fantasy narratives enjoy a hegemonic position among the most massive and culturally-prominent commodities . Especially not in a world in which such texts are over-aware of their ability to be metaphorical and to thus contain claims about the world. Especially not now that we live in an era of overproduced ‘non-fiction’ media, from news reports steeped in CGI graphics and environments, to documentaries constructed as mini-dramas in which scripted reenactments take the place of information. We can look at the special effect, and the complex way it navigates our rejection and acceptance of propositions, as emblematic of how we propagate and process information in late capitalist society.
Even more fundamentally than any specific ideological claims about politics or society or history made in today’s hyperreal and simulation-laden SF/Fantasy, there is the central and foundational ideological claim that visual representation can be hyperreal in the first place, that simulation can break its boundaries and merge with the simulated. The claim is actually a form of reiteration of a very old bourgeois ideological claim: that there is a distortion-free lens through which we can view the world, and that this lens can be shared by science, art, whatever you like, and that it is possible to see the distinction between the objectively real and the narrativization of reality, the ideological artifact, by virtue of the ideological artifact’s increased approach towards being indistinguishable from reality. The process of producing and experiencing the realvincing is the ideological project not only as inducing the spectator to accept propositions despite our knowledge that they are ‘unreal’; it is also the project of instilling in the spectator the ideological assumption that it is possible for capitalist culture to show us an undistorted reality.
This is why, ultimately, it doesn’t matter so much what the literal ‘message’ is of this or that piece of media. It is ultimately less important to parse what Avengers: Infinity War is saying about eugenics and resource-allocation, or The Handmaid’s Tale is saying about patriarchy, or Doctor Who is saying about racism and resistance when it makes an episode about Rosa Parks, than it is to realise that what are watching is an increased claim to certain propositions on the part of the capitalist culture industries. The first claim is to be able to master (via commodification, of course) the phantasmic nature of life in capitalism, by making fantasy its hegemonic form of cultural expression. The second claim is to be able to comment meaningfully upon itself via its control over the collapsing of distinction between – and thus the supposed objective borderline itself – the real and the unreal.
In short: capitalism wants to control its own nature as a fantasy, and our understand of this fantasy, by controlling the terms of the fantasy it generates by its own fantastic nature. This is why even the most woke text is still capital staking a claim to control the terms of the narrative.