Apprehension of the social can be effected conceptually through theoretical reflection on social formations and the structures underlying them—as in the body of thinking variously described as social theory, political economy or sociology. The picturing of the social, though, generally operates in a different mode. In the Realist or Naturalist forms of picturing dominant in later nineteenth-century depictions of modern life, the scene or situation was designed to be apprehended by the viewer as a directly experienced physical reality. An existential awareness of the social, experienced at a level that was not fully conceptually articulated, was where visual art’s picturing came into its own.
This brings us back to Jameson and realism. Jameson continues to insist upon the idea of meaninglessness in Zola’s abundant descriptive lists; in referring to the copious description of the cheeses in the shop in Le Ventre de Paris, he speaks of “their veritable liberation from meaning in all their excess.” The pungent cheese passage indeed shows a “delirious multiplicity,” but the cheeses are far from being meaningless or “autonomous.” For what does it mean when it is said that an element of a literary work is meaningless? Can it be true that multiplicity or excess leads to meaninglessness? Or that the moment something exists in the bodily realm, it does not signify?
What needs to be understood about my distance from those debates around affect polemics is that I still believe in the binary opposition, and am in that sense, I guess, some kind of structuralist Hegelian, or better still, that I include Hegel in Marx and structuralism in the dialectic. “Oppositions without positive terms”: such was Saussure’s great formula, his reinvention of the dialectic on a linguistic basis. Concepts do not exist in isolation, they are defined by their opposites: it is a dialectical lesson as well as a structuralist one, and in the best of worlds the latter should lead back to the former, which it reinvents in a new and contemporary way.