I very much enjoyed the latest episode of the Pex Lives? Podcast, which looks at ‘Paradise Towers’. During it, Kevin and James’ guest Jane (of achairforjane? and many fascinating comments – and an amazing guest post on Lost – at Phil Sandifer’s blog) suggests a Marxist reading of the story in which the Rezzies are the consumerist bourgeois who ascend a few levels via the system which later consumes them. Totally valid and satisfying reading. (And I’m grateful for the lovely shout-out, as always.)
I think, however, that it illuminates a certain interesting ambiguity about what constitutes a ‘Marxist reading’ or a ‘Marxist analysis’. I know Jane and the Pex Lives boys already know this, so this isn’t in any way meant as a criticism of any of them, but I think a ‘Marxist analysis’ would really have to constitute more than finding some way in which aspects of the narrative function as an allegory of some aspect of the class struggle. I hold my hands up: that’s often what I do here, and it doesn’t really cut the mustard.
To do that is to bring Marxist categories to a text, but still to treat a text as something that exists somehow outside its own origins and function within the forces of production. A more proper sense of the term ‘Marxist analysis’ would be to critically evaluate the story in the light of the circumstances of its production – in individual terms, in terms of material/technical circumstances, in terms of the overall system of capitalist cultural production, and then also in terms of broader Marxist categories like ‘the culture industries’ or ‘ideology’ or ‘hegemony’ (with different Marxists probably stressing this or that aspect over another). I personally would want to argue that a proper Marxist analysis of a text, or any artifact of cultural production, would also focus at least as much upon the social circumstances of its consumption, circulation, distribution, exchange, commodification and financialisation. For my money, too many Marxist critics (of lots of things including – but also beyond – texts) have overstressed the node of production, which is only one node in the circuit of capital.
I’m often said (by people who kindly link to me on social media, for instance) to have written a ‘Marxist reading’ or ‘Marxist analysis’ of this or that. This makes me more than a little uneasy, to be honest, because I’m not usually anything like as rigorous and scholarly as I would need to be to meet even my own standards for such a thing. Generally I just react to texts in a very individual way, with my Marxist views inevitably forming the backbone of my response.
I worry that people with, perhaps, no other exposure to Marxism than me, might take me as a meaningful representative. Ye gods, I hope not. I am an amateur and, despite having gone to University, I consider myself effectively an autodidact. One of my purposes here (beyond simply amusing myself and indulging my vanity) has been, via the conduit of a popular TV show, to maybe bring a bit of Marxism (or just critical leftiness generally) into the thinking and reading of people who might otherwise not encounter it in our barren age. I worry that someone out there might read me and then think they know what ‘Marxist criticism’ is. I may be vain, but I know my limitations, and I hate the idea of doing my own beliefs a disservice, even in a very small way.
I’ve reacted to ‘Paradise Towers’ in a way that is actually a bit more properly Marxist than I usually manage. In this post, I at least gesture towards a proper Marxist contextualising of the story (i.e. I mention the dawning neoliberalism of 1987 as a context for the production of the story, for the way it references modernism, which I also historicise very briefly.) Even so, I’d hesitate to claim the status of a ‘Marxist analysis’ for that post.
And I wouldn’t want to claim that I always even do as well as I do in that piece. My ‘essay‘ about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, for instance, has been called a ‘Marxist reading’ or ‘Marxist analysis’. I’m really not sure it qualifies. It gestures in that direction towards the end, but I think of it as a personal reaction which has a background in my Marxist convictions – something quite distinct.
Going back to ‘Paradise Towers’, and addressing some of the things said in the podcast… Jane doesn’t actually say that the Rezzies represent capitalists or capitalism, but she nevertheless uses the word ‘bourgeois’ to describe them. Now, that’s right – I agree. They clearly (through their aesthetic representation – something Jane is very hot on) signify a certain stereotypical middle-class, middle-brow social position which is deeply associated – and not inaccurately – with a strata of people in bourgeois society who combine the passive, the complacent, the ressentimental, the reactionary and the aspiring. But we should remember to separate the ‘bourgeois’ from the ‘bourgeoisie’. The Rezzies are not capitalists. (To be clear: Jane doesn’t say they are.)
Similarly, neither are the Caretakers. Here I have a more serious quibble with Jane, because she says they are the proletarians in Paradise Towers. I don’t think that’s right… or rather, I think it needs nuancing. Jane mentions elsewhere in the podcast that the Caretakers are costumed in military style… but they are explicitly not the military, because the military took all the rest of the males away to war. The Caretakers are the police. And the police are not proletarians. In capitalism, the police are ultimately aligned with the class interests of the capitalist class. They are, essentially, defenders of private property (and of the peace of the system which normalises and legitimises private property) against people who don’t own anything. (This is one big reason why the end of ‘Paradise Towers’ clangs for me, at least politically. If you wait for the police to align themselves with anybody other than their masters, you will wait forever.)
Jane goes on to say interesting things about how, if viewed as proletarians who have achieved positions of authority, the Caretakers can be seen as an illustration of how power corrupts any class. And that’s true too (as long as we expand a bit on what we mean by ‘power’). Jane takes this observation on to see a polemic against Stalinism lurking within the story, with the Caretakers as being a kind of nomenklatura, and the Chief Caretaker as a General Secretary. I think it’d be dangerous to generalise that into any kind of ahistorically-detached model, but it isn’t inaccurate as a description of what happened in the Soviet Union. A segment of the working class achieved political power and then, detached from the rest of the class (owing to historical circumstances that ‘Paradise Towers’ almost acknowledges via the business of the male population disappearing into a war), they become a bureaucratic tyranny. (Jane also stresses – in an almost neo-Trot way – that the Stalinists are merely posturing as being in charge while capitalism still runs the show in a hidden form below the surface. All lovely stuff, and music to the ears of someone like me who accepts the argument that Stalinism is the political expression of authoritarian, bureaucratic state capitalism.) But I don’t think you need to go as far as post-Civil War Soviet Russia to see what the Caretakers represent. In capitalist society, the police are just what Jane describes: a layer of the working class that is detached from the class position (and therefore the class interests) of the rest of the workers. Even in openly capitalist society, the Caretakers are there.
Kroagnon, by the way, doesn’t really convince me as a manifestation of capitalism… though, as a representation of the authoritarian inner-core of some variants of modernism, he obviously reflects capitalism because modernism is part of the cultural logic of early-C20th Euro-American capitalist culture.
For me, ‘Paradise Towers’ is not really a picture of a capitalist dystopia so much as a picture of a post-industrial one. The theory of the post-industrial is about to be massively in vogue in Britain as ‘Paradise Towers’ appears. It’s an idea that is aloft on the postmodernist wind. It ties in with certain non-Marxist or pseudo-Marxist Left impulses to declare that capitalism is changing beyond the ken of classical Marxism. And it also ties in with impulses within the burgeoning neoliberal Right to claim that capitalism is changing beyond the ken of even old-style social democracy. The response of the anti-Thatcher Left is to point to post-industrialism as a kind of social dysfunction. An understandable (if ultimately unsatisfactory) position which, I think, we see mirrored in ‘Paradise Towers’. None of this makes ‘Paradise Towers’ any less angry and wonderful (I adore it, by the way), but it marks the circumstances of its production as being within the cultural context of early-neoliberal Left thinking. It also allows us to loop back a tad and join this ramble up in a notional loop of logic… because it illustrates the distance between finding a Marx-friendly allegory within a narrative, and actually analysing said narrative using a material-dialectic method (not that I’m claiming to have done more than gesture vaguely towards that here.)
Oh, one more thing. During the podcast, Jane asks James if he thinks Mel has changed at all during the course of the story. James says she’s learned a Moral of the Week. I agree, and I’ve been trying to think how to formulate the Moral of the Week that she learns. I’ve decided that it would be best expressed as: ‘a monomaniacal obsession with swimming pools can be fatal under certain extremely specific circumstances’.