Essay 19

The Last Call: Excavating the Perlocutionary Effects of the Monumentalization of the Oxford House Tavern, London, Ontario


Matthew Trebb


As has become abundantly evident, Western society is morphing (from the Greek morphe, "shape"—in English, morph, "to change forms"). Among academics, there is a fairly strong consensus that this nascent social form should be called the postmodern, although the debate about what exactly it is that is changing, and by how much, is still hotly contested. One thing that becomes increasingly clear in the many writings detailing and constructing Western society’s entry into postmodernity is that leftist political practice is in trouble. Traditional class-based politics and their modes of leverage (the hammer of industry and the sickle of agriculture) have weakened, dispersed, and pluralized under postmodern conditions. So too has leftist theory. Contemporary Marxism has "pluralized" to the extent that it has recognized the limits of class-reductionism and economism, and realized that there are other, non-class forms of oppression. Thus we have seen the critical practice of Marxism open up to issues of gender, race, and sexuality as specific and distinct mechanisms of oppression. Within this branching out, however, there has arisen a concomitant emphasis against the type of structuring thought that served as the basis for Marxist practice in the first place. Contemporary theory seems to insist that class-based politics as it has traditionally been conceived is an impossibility, and contemporary political practice has suffered as a result.1 This is not to claim that gender, race, and sexuality studies are irrelevant. On the contrary, they are valid and necessary. But I think that it is also necessary to recognize that although such issues cannot simply be reduced to inflections of class conflict, they cannot be approached completely in isolation from it either: the dynamics of all other struggles are shaped, however subtly, by their co-existence in a society also characterized by class struggle. Thus new discoveries in critical theory, important as they may be, should not have to be bought at the cost of forgetting the traditional role of the left: interpreting, articulating and turning into effective political action the experience of class exploitation and oppression.

In this context, the instance of the monument provides a privileged site of study for the Marxist critic. For one thing, it provides a (literal) "concretization" of history, or, more properly speaking, of the particular historical consciousness of a given system of class relations. Monuments embody ideology. The construction of any monument is always overdetermined; the historical "facts" that it seeks to remember are, in themselves, completely insufficient to recommend any one design. Other criteria must necessarily enter into its construction. Some of these criteria are relatively inconsequential to a Marxist analysis, while others are central. The point is that history alone can never justify the monuments we make to it. The choices, the desires, in short the ideological conflict of the people who interact with it—the architects and the patrons, obviously, but also the lobbyists, the editorial writers, the tourists who include it in their travel itinerary, and the vandals who deface it—all contribute to its construction.

A monument is therefore a type of interface between people and history—a means of accessing history in order to find answers to contemporary problems. As interfaces, monuments "speak" for history, and because of this they can be analyzed using J.L. Austin’s philosophy of speech acts (How to Do Things with Words 94-120). Austin distinguishes between three modes of the discursive event: the locutionary (act of saying something), the illocutionary (act in saying something), and the perlocutionary (contingent thoughts, feelings or actions brought about by the other two). It is both too easy and too tempting to read monuments only on the first, thematic level—the level of locution. The fact that their construction is overdetermined indicates that they have very important things to say at the illocutionary and perlocutionary levels as well. The proper zone of inquiry for a Marxist analysis of monuments is precisely here, underground, at these more subterranean levels of communication, the reader armed with realization that "the greatest portion of our experiences is unconscious and [as such] effective"(Nietzsche qtd. in Waite 124). It is just such an excavation that I have attempted both to theorize and to undertake in this essay on an unremarkable, out-of-business, blue-collar tavern in the city of London, Ontario that was known as the Oxford House Tavern. I consider it to have become a monument the moment its owner, Tony Zientara, posted the following bolded notice in three of the bar’s main windows: "The Oxford House Tavern opened in 1934 because of ‘The Great Depression’ will close on Saturday January 27, 1996 because of EXCESSIVE TAXATION." My analysis of the "OxBox" proceeds in three stages, each one related to the etymology of "monument" (from Latin monumentum, meaning "monument" or "memorial," but also "history," "literature" and "tomb").

Insomnia: the Oxbox as History

The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

—Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1869), 15

There is some ambiguity in the translation of the epigraph that I have chosen for this stage of the analysis. Marx writes that the tradition of dead generations "lastet wie ein Alp"—that is, weighs like a spirit that gives nightmares. Another translation puts Marx’s statement this way: "[t]he tradition of countless dead generations is an incubus to the mind of the living" (The Portable Marx 287). Although clumsier, this second translation adds a dimension missing from the first—there simile, here metaphor; there "nightmare," here "incubus." The difference is significant, for the incubus was not only a spirit of the night, but was also a spirit of the flesh. It would lie on its victims (literally "weigh" upon them) like a nightmare and would also penetrate them sexually as a nightmare. The difference can be traced back through the word’s etymology: incubus, from the Latin incubare, which is an inflected form of incubo, meaning not only "to lie heavily upon," but also "to dwell within."

Reinscribed upon our epigraph, this understanding can be said to produce a semblance of the vulgar slogan, "history is a mindfuck," which again can be interpreted in two not necessarily disjunctive ways. The first is as a paranoid conspiratorial hypothesis of a type popularized by the televisual drama The X-Files. In this schema, history is a mechanism used to keep us "out-of-the-know" and "messed-up" (presumably by somebody who is "in-the-know," although not necessarily). Since the past can be made to accommodate any number of plausible histories, the idea here is that "our" history is an implant like the memory-chips given to the Nexus-6 replicants in Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi movie Bladerunner, and for the same purpose: to pacify, domesticate, and short-circuit in advance the possibility of revolutionary impulse. The Marxist critic starting from this premise operates under the assumption that, as X-Files producer Chris Carter would say, "the truth is out there." Mindfuck can also be read, following Bertolt Brecht, as a "crude-and-lewd thinking" (das plumpe Denken). In this reading, history is no longer seen as the means by which the truth is manipulated and obscured, awaiting critical rediscovery; rather, history supplements criticism, providing "some hard truths and plain language" (Jameson, "Criticism in History" 119) to an intellectual exercise that might otherwise entangle itself in overabstraction. History, a process effected by bodies on bodies, erupts into consciousness, ejaculating an awareness of the material across a symbolized ideal, dirtying our cognitive framework like the semen stain that testifies to the nocturnal visit of the incubus. And for the purposes of this analysis, it is important to recall that one of the most significant characteristics of a stain is its persistence.

The Oxford House Tavern, May 3, 1996. (Photograph courtesy of Richard Zientara.)


The former site of the Oxford House Tavern, April 30, 1999. The sign in the foreground stands near the spot where the building stood. (Photograph courtesy of Shelley Hulan.)

This idea of a persistent dream can be explored by recourse to the well-known Taoist anecdote about Chuang Tzu and the butterfly: "[o]nce upon a time I dreamed myself a butterfly, floating like petals in the air, happy to be doing as I pleased, no longer aware of myself! But soon enough I awoke and then, frantically clutching myself, Chuang Tzu was I! I wonder: was Chuang Tzu dreaming himself the butterfly, or was the butterfly dreaming itself Chuang Tzu?" (qtd. in Roberts 548). This situation is not nearly as symmetrical as it might first appear. The fact that Chang-tzu can even ask the question at all points to the crux of the difference between the two states: as Chang-tzu, the speaker retains a consciousness of the butterfly; as butterfly, the dreamer is oblivious of Chang-tzu. Conventional wisdom would interpret this imbalance as an indication of the dream’s insubstantiality and ultimate insignificance. But conventional wisdom has long been the watchword of conservative politics. Better to share in the bewildered realization of Imogen from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: "The dream’s here still. Even when I wake it is / Without me, as within me; not imagined, felt" (4.2. 309-10). The point here is that the dream, like history, persists even after it is past, not (only) as an idea but (also) as a feeling. In other words, recalling the reference to Austin in my introduction, the persistence is not simply locutionary (thematic) but perlocutionary (effective, lived out). This distinction points to the division that scars all human experience: the fact that we live in a world of brute and insensible material while we think in a symbolic world of ideology. As in the case of Chang-tzu and the butterfly, there is a chasm separating the two worlds. A terrible asymmetry distinguishes our living in the real from our consciousness of it: the translation of the former into the latter is achieved by violently hammering it into conformity with pre-existing chains of symbolic meaning. This is not achieved without consequences, a fact attested to by such subtle, perlocutionary protests as the dream, the traumatic recurrence, the psycho-somatic symptom, and—of particular interest to us here—the nightmare of history.

It would, of course, be quite possible to analyze only the locutionary nature of the declaration by Tony Zientara that works to monumentalize the OxBox: "The Oxford House Tavern opened in 1934 because of ‘The Great Depression’ will close on Saturday January 27, 1996 because of EXCESSIVE TAXATION." Moreover, it would be easy enough to cast suspicion on Zientara’s claim, not least because, having run it only since 1946, he was hardly qualified to make any claims about its origins. Another question arises from the obvious imbalance between the pair of historical references— the first is given by year only, the second is accurate to the very day. But to raise doubt about the veracity of this claim is not my point in this analysis, at least not directly. As I elaborated in my introduction, I am much more interested in how history is being used here, and to what present effect.

"The Great Depression," whose memory the OxBox mobilizes, was, of course, a near-worldwide economic and industrial slump whose severity and duration seriously threatened the future of Western capitalism during the 1930s. This slump—characterized by over-capitalization, over-production, and general deflation— exposed the fragility and vulnerability of capitalism as a world system. Technology had displaced more jobs than it had created, the supply of manufactured goods far exceeded demand, and the staggering increase in speculative investment that occurred between 1924 and 1929 was out of all proportion to what was in reality a sputtering industrial base. Like other Canadian provinces, Ontario was severely hit by the Great Depression. Even though Ontario farmers were spared the drought that was ravaging Western Canada, their products were declared surplus and their value plummeted. In 1931, for instance, the prices commanded by Southern Ontario farmers were less than 50% what they were five years previous. The manufacturing sector suffered a similar loss as between 1929 and 1939 the value of their products fell over 50% from $2,020,000,000 to $958,000,000. Compounding matters, the concomitant plummet in demand for the mineral and timber resources of Northern Ontario between 1930 and 1933 resulted in a veritable swarm of displaced labourers heading south to try to find work that simply was not available. During the worst years of the Depression in Ontario, about a half-million people depended directly on local governments for relief, surviving on an average weekly food allowance of $4.22 per family. Almost 12% of Ontario’s population lived in conditions of abject poverty.

Disillusioned by the devastating effects of free-market enterprise, many people (both Canadians and members of the international community) turned away from inherited political and economic ideas and looked for solutions elsewhere. In sharp contrast to the downward spiraling economies of the West, the relatively new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was, under Stalin, ascending to the status of world superpower, propelled mainly by a wildly expanding industrial sector. As most people outside of the Soviet Union were unaware of the nature and extent of the means used by Stalin to achieve this growth, the U.S.S.R. came to be seen by many not only as an alternative socio-economic system, but also as the inevitable successor of a failed capitalism. In Ontario, Communism emerged as a legitimate political movement, and showed special strength in Toronto and among the recent immigrant population of Northern Ontario. Even more popular was the new Canadian socialist party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which originated in drought-devastated Calgary in 1932 and quickly spread across the country. Despite official statements to the contrary, the platform of the C.C.F. was, in important matters of policy, communist. Their advocacy of a centralized economy and public monopoly over all means of production and distribution found considerable support amongst a populace devastated by the private excesses of free enterprise.

As a system, capitalism did not emerge from the trials of the Great Depression unchanged. In reaction both to the harsh realities of the crisis and to the formation of genuine oppositional political movements, Western governments initiated a series of socialist-style reforms (such as the legal recognition of trade unions and the institution of social security and unemployment benefits) in an effort to stabilize the situation. These reforms required governments to find new sources of revenue, which they did in large part through the institution of new taxes or the restructuring of existing ones. Of particular importance for the present analysis is the fact that, in Ontario, this process also led to the legalization in 1934 of "taverns" where alcohol could be consumed in public, a strategy inspired by the promise of tax revenues similar to the huge sums that were being generated in the province of Quebec from the taxing of liquor. It is only in this context that one might reasonably contend that "the Oxford House Tavern opened in 1934 because of ‘The Great Depression’," a context that is completely ignored by the rest of Zientara’s monumentalizing notice. So what is the effect of this declaration? What in the present is produced by this subtle reconfiguration of the past?

Phantasmagoria: the OxBox as Literature

The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past but only from the future.

 —Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 18

To characterize history as poetry or as literature is to emphasize that it is open to interpretation, and that, indeed, it is itself an interpretation of something that ultimately eludes it. At least two possibilities emerge from this characterization. The first is the nihilistic and reductive tendency to abandon history altogether. From this perspective, history is nothing but literature, and thus it loses all legitimacy as a ground for political action—it is just a fiction, a linguistic construct, a story that no matter how imaginative it may be remains an insubstantial exercise. Applied to the context of monumentalization, this possibility can be read in terms of what might be called the "Ozymandias Syndrome," a model named after the 1818 sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear—
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my work, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

At first, Shelley’s poem appears to affirm the validity of monumentalization; the statue seems successful in its attempt to represent the past because it conveys the form of the tyrant’s well-read passions, "which yet survive". Yet this turns out to be an illusion. The ability to read the monument in this way relies on the supplemental inscription on the pedestal that allows for the retroactive reconstruction of the shattered visage as a "sneer of cold command." And there are no objective criteria available for judging the words on the inscription—they have no extra-linguistic content (the inscription reads, "[l]ook on my works," but all around only "[t]he lone and level sands stretch far away"). From the nihilist point of view, such an empty gesture is unavoidable, since the notion of extra-linguistic reference is an impossibility. To borrow the well-known words of Jacques Derrida, "il n’ya pas de hors-textes" (Of Grammatology 158).

The second possibility is provocative and productive: history has the power of literature, the power to shape, challenge, extrapolate and intensify, the power to work on perlocutionary as well as locutionary levels of meaning. The characterization of history as literature obtains not only because history is itself a linguistic construct, but also because, like any literary work, not all interpretations of it are equally valid. Some interpretations are necessarily more suited, more likely and more fertile than others. History may well be creative, symbolic and abstract, but this does not mean that it is completely detached from anything real. At its root persists the stain of the real that operates in all of its perlocutionary effectiveness. This insensible blot, this nightmare of history, does not go away simply because our representations of it are inadequate. In fact, it is better to suggest that this blot comes about because of the inadequacy of our process of symbolization. History, as it is lived out, does not follow the thematic strokes of its representation; rather, it springs forth from the gaps, the contortions and the ambiguities inherent in our description of it. It exploits those same traumatic lapses in language that make literature literature and poetry poetry: like these other two, the paradox of history is precisely that it uses language to locate the ineffable.

Hence, a provisional thesis: every attempted monumentalization is a response to a loss, an attempted therapy for a shortcoming in the symbolic. A monument is the social version of a "talking cure" because it represents an attempt to narrate history, to integrate the ineffable realness of the past into the symbolic terms of a cultural memory, a task that is both necessary and desperate. At stake is the integrity of the entire ideological edifice built around this absence, the consciousness of a real that nevertheless can never be equal to it. Thus, a monument is always the symptom of a certain absence. But (and here is where the work of criticism becomes especially important) it also produces a certain absence as symptom, for in psychoanalytic terms, "absence" is a hysterical symptom par excellence, a condition characterised by altered personality, confusion and intense fantasy. Fantasy works to hide the inaccessibility of the real; it is only through the intervention of fantasy that our experience of the symbolic "makes sense" and appears to us as meaningful, authoritative and authentic.2

What, then, is the fantasy set in motion by the sign posted in the window of the OxBox, by the epitaph-like tribute that works to transform a closed-down tavern into a tomb? Without being in any way facetious, we could say that it is the fantasy of a little "spectre of Communism," the possibility of a genuine working-class community. "I’ll remember it as a pretty good place to drink beer and watch a sporting event," wrote The London Free Press columnist Morris Dalla Costa when the OxBox was closed—"[i]t’s a great place to go if you are sweaty, dirty and smelly…. You blend right in" (C1). The fantasy is thus one of transparent association and acceptance: but what is the symptom? It is helpful to turn to a passage in Slavoj Zizek’s Tarrying with the Negative (1993):

[t]he element which holds a given community together cannot be reduced to the point of symbolic identification: the bond linking together its members always implies a shared relationship toward the Thing, toward Enjoyment incarnated. This relationship toward the Thing, structured by means of fantasies…appears as what gives plentitude and vivacity to our life, and yet the only way we can determine it is by resorting to different versions of the same empty tautology. All we can ultimately say about it is that the Thing is "itself," "the real Thing," "what it is really all about," etc. If we are asked how we can recognize the presence of this Thing, the only consistent answer is that the Thing is present in that elusive entity called "our way of life." All we can do is enumerate disconnected fragments of the way our community organizes its feasts, its rituals of mating, its initiation ceremonies, in short, all the details by which is made visible the unique way our community organizes its enjoyment.

If the element that holds a community together is its constituents’ particular relationship with the real of enjoyment, might it not also be suggested the element that keeps individual communities apart is their respective symptom? This is what Zizek himself seems to be suggesting when he quotes Jacques-Alain Miller: "[t]he question of tolerance or intolerance is not at all concerned with the subject of science and its human rights. It is located on the level of tolerance or intolerance towards the enjoyment of the Other… The problem is apparently unsolvable as the Other is the Other in my interior. The root of racism is thus hatred of my own enjoyment" (203). From this it follows that the symbolic order can guarantee the identity of individuals or a community only if they submit to a certain fantasy-organization of desire.3 But the real of enjoyment always resists such organization; there is always some leftover. Here is the key: the acknowledgement of this leftover as their own, as belonging to them, would threaten the coherency of their symbolic identity. They must reject and repress it, account for it as being some "secret power" of an "Other" and thus inaccessible and threatening to them. What is gained by doing so is, to quote Zizek again, the concealing of "the traumatic fact that we never possessed [our own enjoyment]: the lack is originary" (203).

From this it should be obvious how the symptom emerging from Zientara’s sign should be identified. The sign itself makes it clear that the OxBox was "killed" by "EXCESSIVE TAXATION" (even the all upper-case type is "excessive"), and it is the adjective that provides the final clue—it is not taxation itself that is the culprit, but "excessive" taxation, a qualification that implies disruption and imbalance, as if the bar were being hit by "more than its fair share" of tax. The corresponding implication is that some "Other" somewhere else down the line has managed to avoid paying its share, that it has found room to practice its own "excessive" enjoyment and that this "excess" threatens to undermine the tavern’s otherwise harmonious community of patrons. But who in this case is the "Other?"

A brief investigation of the OxBox’s socio-municipal context quickly makes it apparent that the "Other" whose excessive enjoyment is so dangerous is none other than London’s own upper-middle class. The OxBox’s location on the south side of the intersection of Oxford and Adelaide streets situates it precisely on the border of the division between London East (from Adelaide east to Hale Street, and from Oxford south to Trafalgar Road) and London North (from Adelaide west to Richmond Street, and from Oxford north to Huron Street). These divisions of the city differ radically in appearance and socio-economic make-up. London North is almost exclusively a residential area, and a great many of its residents are affluent. Geographically, it enjoys a slight rise over London Central, a feature that serves as both natural protection from the occasional flooding of the Thames river and as a visible sign of prestige. Abraham Iredell, whose 1796 commissioned survey is the earliest known physical description of the area, called it an "excellent tract of land; black rich soil; Timber of all kinds, Black and White Walnut, Cherry, Bass, Elm, Sugar, Maple, Hickory, Beech, White and Black Ash, etc.—and being well watered with springs, gravel bottom and pure water" (qtd. in Lutman and Hives 1). It is widely known that Iredell was commissioned to survey the area by the then Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, who was planning on building the provincial capital on the site. What is less widely known, however, is that the area covered by Simcoe’s plans was not today’s London (as is most commonly thought), but rather an area coinciding only with the northern and eastern limits of London North. Thus, London East was never part of Simcoe’s vision, and for good reason. At the time, London East was covered almost exclusively by swamps and thick patches of forest and bush. Later, and in contrast to the wealthy residential character that was beginning to establish itself in London North, several industrial sites (including such notables as Murray Anderson’s iron foundry, the Globe, established in 1856, and a series of Imperial Oil refineries) set up in London East, and drew a modest-size working-class population with them. The London East of today still reflects this origin, and its industrial and commercial zones are separated only by segments of relatively homogenous low-income housing.

If London North is the "Other" of London East, what is its excessive mode of enjoyment? Across the street from the OxBox, on the north side of Oxford Street, is another bar, the Palasad, which, far from closing down, is enjoying a period of relative popularity. Its location in the Oxford and Adelaide Plaza (also home to a trendy restaurant, a fitness club, a chiropractor, an orthodontist, a computer retailer…) situates it just inside the south-eastern boundary of London North. A brilliant neon-on-lacquered-metal sign reads "Palasad" in large, flowing script. Inside, the bar is a dizzying mixture of decorative styles—art deco and new international collide with industrial, Vegas and even Victorian designs. The deco-style shiny-steel trim, faux windows, sleek European-style molded stools, vaulted ceiling with ventilation piping painted and exposed, and the air-brushed Manhattan nightscape that catches the glow of several indoor neon signs, all contribute to the spectacle of the 31 full-size billiards tables that dominate the Palasad’s two main rooms. Eight television sets hang from the ceiling to lend noise and confusion to the first room; a monstrous projection-screen T.V. can be seen flickering through the glass that sections off the second. A smaller third room, identified as "the Monarch Theatre" by the neon script above its single entrance, is for private parties, and its two billiards tables are of the more traditional oak and green-felt type so as to complement the extravagant Victorian decor and false (plastic!) fireplace. Outside it all, a street-level sign describes the Palasad as an "upscale sports café."

These words point to the crux of the fantasmic division that separated the OxBox from the Palasad: operating in place of neologism, the addendum supplies extra, "excessive" description, opting for formality over familiarity. Thus, where the name "Oxford House Tavern" usually got compressed into the popular "OxBox," the Palasad sticks out like a foreign word and must be supplemented with additional description. Indeed, to indulge in semantic play for a moment, it may not be fortuitous that the name Palasad is homophonous with the word "palisade," a word that in military terms denotes a defensive position that has been fortified by the strategic organization of multiple pales. In a sense this is a fitting similarity, for the Palasad is defensive in a related manner—it never lets patrons get too close. Its aesthetic is that of an attraction, and, like tourists, its patrons are more likely to feel as if they are part of an audience than part of a community. This is the type of "excessive" enjoyment identified by the capitalized slogan in the OxBox’s window. And it is the repression of this excess that is evident in the eulogizing comments of the OxBox’s last patrons, people who use the words "trendy" and "stylish" as pejorative. As Morris Dalla Costa put it, "[t]he OxBox did well when all people wanted to do was drink. Now it must compete with bars that provide music, a dance floor, dozens of pool tables, and with bars that have a reputation as establishments where the lonely go so they won’t be so lonely" (C1). The fantasy-scenario mobilized here is telling. It is as if drinking somehow forms the basis for a "natural" or "pure" enjoyment, as if it was not at all a symbolic exercise but participated directly in the real. But it is also a lost enjoyment, one that is no longer accessible in the newer bars preoccupied with other, more disruptive activities. Its absence is made visible by juxtaposing the "chaos" of contemporary times with a retroactive construction of what is now considered "the good ol’ days." In this exact sense, "dance" clubs and "pool" halls and "pick-up" bars are all imbued with a threatening "excess," one that manifests itself in a bewildering number of social symptoms: gambling, sexual disease, the disappearance of the traditional family, and so on….

Claustrophobia: the OxBox as Tomb

The social revolution must let the dead bury their dead if it is to appreciate its own significance.

 —Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 15

That the OxBox can also be thought of as a tomb is made clear by the epitaph-like phrasing of the bar’s closing-down notice, the darkened windows and locked doors of the sealed building prior to its demolition. But what does it mean that the bar has been thus transformed? How does one go about thinking the tomb? Jacques Derrida provides a strong starting point when he writes that any tomb is

a place comprehended within another but rigorously separate from it, isolated from general space by partitions, an enclosure, an enclave. So as to purloin the thing from the rest. Constructing a system of partitions, with their inner and outer surfaces, the cryptic enclave produces a cleft in space, in the assembled system of various places, in the architectonics of the open square within space, itself delimited by a generalized closure, in the forum. Within this forum, a place where the free circulation and exchange of objects and speeches can occur, the crypt constructs another, more inward forum like a closed rostrum or speaker’s box, a safe: sealed, and thus internal to itself, a secret interior within the public square, but, by the same token, outside it, external to the interior.
                                                                                                                ("Fors" xiv)

In one sense, then, the space of the tomb is the space proper to any monumentalization: it is always "sacred ground," lying in public view yet nevertheless remaining inaccessible and secret. An extreme example would be Dennis Oppenheim’s 1980s work "Protection Piece," where he temporarily chained twelve police dogs within a section of New York’s Battery Park, claiming that the work then "infect[ed] the land with an air of preciousness, yet there was nothing there…. [It] is really about pure concentration…making by keeping away" (qtd. in North 36). But keeping what away from what? Derrida’s answer would be "the thing from the rest"—the thing that this essay has tried to confront all along, the thing that Zizek says can only be referred to via endless tautologies such as "the real thing": enjoyment.

But we must be careful to reckon with every word. The monument does not simply keep away, it makes by keeping away. What does it create? By keeping us away from enjoyment, the monument instigates our desire. Derrida, too, will say the same: "[t]he Thing is encrypted. Not within the crypt…but by the crypt" ("Fors" xxvi). The ineffable real of our desire comes to be only by being left behind. But to the subject, this "loss" is unacceptable, impossible, infinitely threatening. It must be denied, and there must be fantasmatic compensation. In psychoanalytic terms, the subject undergoes a process of incorporation: "[w]ith the real loss of the object having been rejected and the desire having been maintained but at the same time excluded from introjection….incorporation is….the only choice: fantasmatic, unmediated, instantaneous, magical, sometimes hallucinatory" (Derrida, "Fors" xvii). As Maria Torok describes it, "[a] commemorative monument, the incorporated object marks the place, the date, the circumstances in which such-and-such a desire was barred from introjection: like so many tombs in the life of the Self" (qtd. in Derrida xvii). The place, the date, the circumstances, then: "The Oxford House opened in 1934 because of the Great Depression, will close on Sat. Jan. 27 1996 because of EXCESSIVE TAXATION."

As a tomb in the life of the social self, the OxBox carves out and closes off a little niche in the public imagination, a claustrophobic space wherein a supposedly lost enjoyment operates as the object-cause of desire. This does not occur at a locutionary level: the crypt-like logic of any monument prohibits introjection, thus preventing the desire from integrating into the symbolic language of the ego. Rather, the desire persists as a perlocutionary effect—the symptom of an absence that produces absence as a symptom. Specifically, a fantasy-scenario is constructed in order to bridge the discrepancy between the ineffable real and the symbolic terms of its interpretation. Like the medieval maiden who relies upon the invention of the incubus to explain an otherwise unacceptable loss of virginity, the incorporation maintains an otherwise untenable symbolic identity by submitting to a fantastic reorganization of desire. Such fantasy, however, can never find itself in symmetrical relation with the real of enjoyment, and thus symptoms of "excess" enjoyment emerge. These excesses cannot be acknowledged as the subject’s own if the fantasy is to hold, and so they are attributed to some Other and repressed.

In the case of the OxBox, this Other is the stereotypical resident of London North, a person whose excessive mode of enjoyment includes notions of formality and flamboyant style that the ex-OxBox patron must repress in order to ensure the integrity of his identity as a regular, blue-collar London Easter. The same basic operation is likely at work (however marginally) in the academic division between traditional Marxists and postmodernists that I mentioned in the introduction. It may not be too much of an exaggeration to say that Marxism today is suffering a form of incorporation. The gesture that seeks to make a monument out of Marx inevitably also creates communism’s tomb—a premature enterprise considering that communism itself has never really existed.4 In both cases, Dennis Oppenheim’s admission that "there [is] nothing there" remains key. For Marxists, the epigraph for this section provides direction: "[t]he…revolution must let the dead bury the dead if it is to appreciate its own significance." As for the OxBox, London Free Press columnist Morris Dalla Costa says it best when he ends his "goodbye" editorial to the tavern with these words: "[a]fter all is said and done, however, we should remember that the OxBox was just a bar" (C1).




This project is informed by an outdated conception of social justice, one predicated on material equality and the possibility of human self-realization brought about by an emancipation from wage-labour. Thus, it is in all important aspects Marxist. But today, one rarely encounters the adjective "Marxist" without the attendant prefix "post" (unless it is used specifically in context as an historical designation, in which case it is politically anemic anyway). The predominance of "post" testifies to our living within conditions of postmodernity. And perhaps one of the most distinctive features of the postmodern is the paralysis of the political imagination that it engenders: alternatives to "the way things are" are difficult to conceive of, and even more difficult to defend. Traditional means of justification—among them Marxist—have lost their credibility in the face of comprehensive postmodern deconstructions, tactics that expose the weakness inherent in any language-game, particularly those that try to produce large-scale, encapsulating narratives.

I do not like the proposals for social justice proposed so far by the proponents of postmodern theory. I much prefer the Marxist version. But having been exposed to a considerable amount of postmodern work, I cannot simply ignore it; I can no longer read traditional Marxist theory without seeing all of the problems that postmodern thinking has brought to light. Contributing to the rebuilding of a viable Marxism constitutes the ultimate goal of this paper, a frustrating and possibly impossible goal. I may be a type of hubris to think that a paper written for an M.A. course should set for itself such an ambition (it would definitely be hubris to think that it had come any length towards fulfilling it). But at a time when "the proclaimed end of history has not terminated the problems that brought Communism into being as a political movement: the eradication of Hell from earth, not the construction of Heaven upon it" (Eliot 196), such ambitions are nonetheless urgently required. I offer no apologies for the severity of my views. I do, however, offer genuine appreciation to those outstanding individuals who have contributed most (knowingly and unknowingly) to my own unique understanding of the problem at hand: Geoff Waite, whose scholarship and irreverence exemplify everything still good about academia; Bruce Krajewski, for his example and even more for his continued friendship; D.M.R. Bentley, for his knowledge, his tutelage and his faith; Shelley Hulan for her proofreading and editorial skills; D’Arcy, my wife, whose patience provided me the opportunity to pursue these matters, and whose impatience brought them, finally, to an end. At least for now.

  1. A thorough discussion of how contemporary theory’s anti-systematic valorization of differences and plurality actually feeds into the logic of global capitalism is too large to deal with here adequately. A quote from the work of Slavoj Zizek will have to suffice: "the elated ‘deconstructionist’ logomachy focused on ‘essentialism’ and ‘fixed identities’" ultimately fights a straw man. Far from containing any kind of subversive potentials, the dispersed, plural subject hailed by postmodern theory…simply designates the form of subjectivity that corresponds to late capitalism. Perhaps the time has come to resuscitate the Marxian insight that Capital is the ultimate power of "deterritorialization" which undermines every fixed identity, and to conceive of "late capitalism" as the epoch in which the traditional fixity of ideological positions (patriarchal authority, fixed sexual roles, etc.) becomes an obstacle to the unbridled commodification of everyday life (216)." See also the important writings of Frederic Jameson (especially The Political Unconscious and Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism), where he insistently argues in favour of the need for a Marxist-brand of totalizing thought as the best means of conceptualizing geopolitical capitalism (a necessary precondition to any transformative politics). [back]

  2. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the notion of an ineffable real is designated object petit a, the remainder of the real leftover beyond any attempted symbolization that serves as the object-cause of desire. It can appear in the symbolic order only at the point where it is absent, which is why Lacan uses the formula S(O) to designate the intersection of jouissance (the pre-symbolic real of enjoyment) and the "Big Other" (the symbolic order): the mathem of O, the barred O, represents the lack inherent in the symbolic field, its inability to patch-up the "absences" that "haunt" it. Thus, something is needed before Lacan can write I(O), that is, before he can assert that the subject obtains identity, I, through the agency of the symbolic order, that it recognizes itself in some symbolic mandate. This intermediate step is designated S<> a, the Lacanian formula of itself due to its submersion in an overriding network of signification, simultaneously attracted and repelled by the "ghost" of a real to which it will never find itself synonymous. [back]

  3. Again, for Lacan, "S<> a" logically precedes "I(O)" as its necessary precondition. [back]

  4. The idea that communism is necessarily international in scope, and that socialism arrested in one country and in competition with many others cannot be communism, is not particularly original. In the opinion of this author, however, it is nonetheless valid. [back]


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Derrida, Jacques. "Fors." The Wolf Man’s Magic Word: a Cryptonomy. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.

——. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

Elliot, Gregory. "Analysis Terminated, Analysis Interminable: the Case of Louis Althusser." Althusser: a Critical Reader. Ed. Gregory Elliot. Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell, 1994. 177-202.

Jameson, Frederic. "Criticism in History." The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971-1986. Vol. I: Situations of Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988. 119-136.

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——. The Political Unconscious. Cornell UP, 1982.

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——. "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte." The Portable Marx. Ed. Eugene Kamenka. New York: Viking Penguin, 1983. 287-323.

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Waite, Geoff. Nietzsche's Corps/e: Aesthetics, Politics, Prophecy, or, the Spectacular Technoculture of Everyday Life. Durham: Duke UP, 1996.

Zizek, Slavoj. Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology. Duke UP, 1993.