Alexandr Zholkovkii’s short essay “Deus ex Machina” does not, rather fortunately, succumb so swiftly to the strange (and strikingly out of place) Romanticism that characterizes so many of the other texts that outline what he terms a “poetics of expressiveness”. Here, instead of praise for the accomplished and inspired author and his or her techniques for better self-expression, his focus is on the literary machine itself and its autonomic tendencies.

Zholkovkii’s thesis, he tells us, is that “any artistic text is a machine working on the reader: a ‘machine’ not only in the figurative sense, but in the strictly cybernetic sense as well–as a transforming device” (53). Soon enough, however, this definition has to be extended: there is no special privilege to the artistic text; all cultural productions and practices obey a machinic logic that amplifies, distorts, modulates, or transforms a whole series of inputs, often in unpredictable ways. Social and legal conventions, for instance, ensure that a contract is fulfilled (in one example that Zhlkovskii provides) even when one of the parties to the contract has, unknown to the other, suddenly died. Events have a logic of their own, that goes beyond individual agents. Plot consists in precisely such machinic logic that overtakes and determines the fate of individual characters.

In Zholkovskii’s vision, every instance of a literary, artistic, or social machine still requires some kind of external input: the machines do not run by themselves. This is the residual trace of the notion of “expressiveness”: the machinery is ultimately a form of expression. But the mechanism that enables such expression tends to become so dominant that individuals are soon subjected to the machine rather than its subject: Zolkovskii mentions the famous scene, for instance, in Modern Times in which Charlie Chaplin is physically “dragged into an assembly line” (57). “One is, of course, tempted” he therefore observes, “to think of a machine that would alone do all the plot work” (59).

A machine without some kind of prior input, however, is unimaginable: the whole formula of expressiveness would disappear and “such a machine would [. . .] completely replace and thus cancel the plot” (59); such a perpetual motion machine, that strictly followed its own logic and no other, would be the end of art and culture. The machine needs an external God, a supplement of some kind, to ensures that there is indeed God also in the machine itself. Zholkovkii’s Romanticism never quite disappears, though here we see its limit point.

But what if there were nothing but machines? Or at least, other inputs that were not themselves already human. This, of course, is the provocative opening of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus:

It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. What a mistake to have ever said the id. Everywhere it is machines–real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections. (1)

This would be a machine that, like Athusser’s “hailing machine,” produced subjects (rather than being driven by them), though also so much else. Indeed, the subject might be perhaps the least interesting of its many products. And if a God remained in the mechanism, it would be immanent, fully part of the machine rather than the mere trace of some transcendent vision.

Meanwhile, I’ve written elsewhere on the machinic unconscious of literary texts: “Arguedasmachine”.


In Mythologies, Roland Barthes takes up the challenge posed by Ferdinand de Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics: to elaborate “semiology” as what Saussure terms “a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life” (15). Or to put this another way: Barthes takes the world around him as a social text, which can be read more or less like any other and in which the elements that compose it are almost as arbitrary as any other.

But the social text is only almost as arbitrary as any other; for Barthes, we also need “to pass from semiology to ideology” (128), that is, to recognize that the myths that structure the text of everyday life are politically motivated. To adapt a line from Marx: the ruling myths of each age have ever been the myths of its ruling class. There is therefore often a rather complex play between arbitrariness on one level and necessity (or, at least, political motivation) on another.

Wine is a perfect instance of this combination of extreme malleability and narrow determination. As Barthes observes, in France wine “supports a varied mythology which does not trouble about contradictions” (58). For example, “in cold weather it is associated with all the myths of being warm, and at the height of summer, with all the images of shade, with all things cool and sparkling” (60). Indeed, Barthes notes that the fundamental characteristic of wine as a signifier is less any particular content or signified to which it is attached than that it seems to effect a function of conversion or reversal, “extracting from objects their opposites–for instance, making a weak man strong or a silent one talkative” (58). And yet however much Barthes makes hay of this chain of associations and contradictions, there is a point at which the arbitrary play of significations ends. For wine is still, fundamentally, a commodity; in fact, it is big business. The analysis therefore concludes with a sort of determination in the last instance by the economy:

There are thus very engaging myths which are however not innocent. And the characteristic of our current alienation is precisely that wine cannot be an unalloyedly blissful substance, except if we wrongfully forget that it is also the product of an expropriation. (61)

Hence for this reason, if no other, Barthes is far from suggesting some kind of interpretative free play: there is clearly a right way to read the myth of wine, and a wrong way; if we leave out the fact of expropriation, we have ultimately not understood the myth or its social function.

Elsewhere the moment at which interpretation comes to an end is rather more complex, and perhaps more interesting. Take the essay on “Toys.” This is basically a critique of realism. Let us be clear: the problem with conventional French toys, Barthes argues, is not so much that they are gender-stereotyped, that for instance girls are to play with dolls and boys are given toy soldiers. It is, rather, that toys are almost always loaded with meaning: “French toys >always mean something, and this something is almost always entirely socialized” (53).

Toys constitute, in other words, what Barthes elsewhere terms a “work” in contradistinction to a “text”; they limit the range of uses to which they can be put. Indeed, they limit children’s activity and expectation of the world to one predicated on use, rather than pleasure; on interpretation, rather than creation. And for Barthes use and meaning are both forms of tyranny, and they are both essentially dead. As he says of modern toys that are “chemical in substance and colour,” they “die in fact very quickly, and once dead, they have no posthumous life for the child” (55).

What’s curious, however, is the reading that Barthes provides, by contrast, of wooden blocks. Such toys are closer to a text than a work: they have no pre-set meaning; they are not premised upon representation, and so do not depend upon interpretation; the child who plays with them “creates life, not property” (54). So far, so good. But the strange moment comes when Barthes associates the open textuality facilitated by such open-ended play with wood. In a sort of poetic reverie, he praises the many characteristics of a substance that is “an ideal material because of its firmness and softness, and the natural warmth of its touch. Wood removes, from all the forms which it supports, the wounding quality of angles which are too sharp, the chemical coldness of metal” (54).

It’s not obvious, after all, that wood is any more “natural” (or indeed, any less “chemical”) than metal. Here, the point at which the play of signification stops depends less upon a political analysis of exploitation and expropriation, and rather more on a very familiar contrast between nature and industry, tradition and modernity. In short, here at least Barthes seems to be caught in a myth that he has merely made his own.


In Viktor Shklovsky’s view, art resists and overturns the deadening effects of habituation. As our “perception becomes habitual,” he argues, “all of our habits retreat into the area of the unconsciously automatic” and as a result “we apprehend objects only as shapes with imprecise extensions [. . .]. We see the object as though it were enveloped in a sack” (15). Art promises to recover the sense of immediacy and wonder that habit slowly erodes: “The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known” (16).

Habit, Shklovskky suggests, threatens everything: it “devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war” (16). This deadening effect is clearly political: if we do not see work as it truly is, for instance, and do not resist the exploitation that it entails, it is because we accept it as simply a matter of routine. Equally, if we become immune to the fear of war then political leaders can indulge their aggressive impulses. Everything becomes indifferent; apathy reigns.

Art as a technique of defamiliarization, then, renews our capacity for perception and allows us to feel once again the true vitality of things in all their strangeness and apparent incomprehensibility. It jolts us out of our habitual ruts and “prick[s] the conscience” (16).

Yet however much the effect of art’s denaturing of perception (perhaps better, its capacity to return our perception to its apparently natural, untutored and pre-habitual state) is ultimately shocking, it’s worth noting that Shklovsky is not proposing some kind of “aesthetics of shock.” There is nothing particularly sudden about the realization that art provides; we have to work at it. Dehabituation is a slow process.

For the “technique of art is [. . .] to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception” (16). Shklovsky imagines patient readers (and viewers or audiences) who are prepared to mire themselves in apparent incomprehensibility in order gradually to improve (again, or to recover) their capacities of perception.

There is then some distance between what Shklovsky advocates and at least some of the techniques associated with the avant-garde: Buñuel’s razor in Un chien andalou, say, whose effect is immediate and visceral; or the scandal of a Duchamp ready-made such as the urinal presented as a “Fountain” to be set alongside the canon of European art. These provocations may rely on upending our expectations, but they do not quite have the pedagogical effect that Shklovsky seems to expect. Note for instance that his example, from Tolstoy, requires almost a page of quotation; and he tells us that to show how defamiliarization works in War and Peace “it would be necessary to extract a considerable part of the four-volume novel” (18).

So I wonder if it might not be better to think of defamiliarization, at least in Shklovsky’s version, as a rehabituation? We need new habits of perception, or of working through “difficult, roughened, impeded language” so that “the greatest possible effect is produced through the slowness of the perception” (19). Does this not require us to learn how to read (again), with new forms of attention that themselves have to become habitual, if not necessarily routine.

But of course the risk is that these new habits do become routine. To transpose slightly what Shklovsky is saying: if theory is difficult precisely so as to open up the text and our perception both of art and of things in themselves (or our sensation of them), then theory restores vitality to literature. But the danger is when these acquired habits themselves become routinized. In which case, perhaps, we need a new, meta-theoretical account of theory itself.