Monday, 22 February 2016

Contradiction and ideology (children's books)

One important aspect around interpretation is contradiction. We see in literature again and again that characters appear to say the opposite of each other; one scene may well appear to have an outcome that contradicts another. You might even say that it's a measure of complexity of a given text. Very young children might well be less able to cope with or understand a text where characters or scenes contradict each other. 
But where do these contradictions come from? Sometimes, it's clear that the author 'intended' them. However, several writers have made the claim that a work contains contradictions that writer may not have been aware of. There is, say some, a political unconsciousness that reveals a contradiction between, say, the evident outlook of a text and what underlies it. I've made the observation that Hans Christian Andersen appears to represent contradictory views towards the aristocracy in 'The Tinder Box'. On the one hand the chief character is in love with a representative of the ruling order, on the other hand it requires their destruction. The two viewpoints co-exist within the story. And that's fine. Perhaps these co-existing contradictions can serve as examples of Keats's 'negative capability'.
Other contradictions might appear around how a problem is overcome. Traditionally in fiction, problems are overcome by individuals. This is itself problematic if the problem can in real life only be overcome collectively. Or, the way the individual overcomes the problem in the end is through the intervention of an agent who themselves is not really interested in fundamentally changing anything other than we should all be a bit nicer to each other. This is the case where the social problem is solved through the intervention of one lone good authority figure and not through any collective action on the part of those of those experiencing the 'problem'. 
Marx talked of contradictions within capitalism, and one of particular significance to writers and readers is the one about individuals and collectivities. In brief, this is an observation that in a capitalist society, everything is ultimately made (or it is possible to make it) private. Money is the means by which we can do this because it makes everything 'equivalent'. Everything has its price. In particular, the process of producing the things we need and use and want ends up with the owners making 'private' a great chunk of the value of the work that people (workers) put into making these things. In other words, the owners take the 'labour power' (hand and brain) and ultimately convert it into money which they pocket. 
However, to do this, owners and rulers have devised systems of production which bring people to act together to make things. Consider how even freelancers and the 'self-employed' (like me) still have to act together with others to get anything made, and 'out there' being sold. Marx argued that the collectivity of production ran in contradiction to the process of making everything we see and use private. And - here's the important bit - in the consciousness (or ideology) of doing things collectively - especially when we struggle or fight or campaign collectively - we envisage another way of doing things. But this 'envisaging', this ideology may well be in contradiction, co-existing with the view that we want or need or have to behave privately or as 'individuals'. 
This contradiction may well play out inside individual characters, scenes, whole books, in a variety of ways. We should also remember that in one key part of where consciousness is produced 'education' this contradiction plays out ever day. Teachers and pupils are brought together in large collectivities in order to privatise knowledge itself in the form of tests and test scores. Given that schools are a great subject for children's books, this then can be an interesting prism through which to view what we write and read and think about in relation to the 'school story'. 
Just to be clear, this is not an essay 'against' contradiction. It's a note on the fact that it exists, and we co-exist in it, and with it.