Review: Ali Alizadehon John Frow

Regimes of reading: The Practice of Value by John Frow

Book titles are important, albeit troubling things. I have a particular ineptitude in proposing titles for my own books, in deciding on a word, a phrase or a clause that both captures the core contention of the book and also happens to be catchy and accessible to that frightening, intangible, crucial Other of writing practice, the reader. But this conundrum may be unique to the condition of the ‘creative writer’ who has, by the very mechanism of this condition, a rather fuzzy notion of the reader. For a more specialist, academic writer, the task seems somewhat easier: such a writer can enter an existing discourse – apropos of their academic specialty – with more surefootedness, and may, instead of aiming to seduce a fickle reader, simply express the central thesis of their work and be done with it.

As such, the title of the latest collection of essays by John Frow, esteemed cultural and literary scholar and the current University of Sydney Professor of English, is a testimony to both the genre’s unique status – as a non-popular milieu with an established sense of its readership – and to Frow’s formidable skills as an academic writer. The Practice of Value: Essays on Literature in Cultural Studies articulates, with precision and clarity, the book’s argument and content. This is a book specifically about doing value or essaying – from a Latin root, which comes to English via Old French, meaning ‘weighing’ – the matter of literature from the perspective of cultural studies.

Before attempting to clarify the possible abstractions in my paraphrasing of the book’s title – and essaying, in my own right, on Frow’s approach to the central trope of value – I would like briefly to outline Frow’s previous doings, all of which have been highly significant and influential. His 2006 book Genre, for example, has been widely taught at universities. For reasons which will soon become apparent, this outline of Frow’s relevant previous works is informed by the comments made by Marxist literary analyst and Frow’s fellow cultural studies scholar, Andrew Milner.

Reviewing Frow’s book Cultural Studies and Cultural Value (1996), Milner wrote that it was ‘an attempt to locate a workable theory of value somewhere between Bloomian literary absolutism and neo-Foucauldian cultural relativism’. Almost twenty years later, this search for ‘a workable theory of value’ remains a key to Frow’s intellectual project. Another continuing aspect of Frow’s work is what Milner noted, in a review of Frow’s Time and Commodity Culture: Essays on Cultural Theory and Postmodernity (1997), as Frow’s ability to do ‘what all good professors surely should, he thinks very intelligently and he writes very well’. This observation, however, did not annul Milner’s concern with Frow’s (then) fashionable ‘postmodernism’ and with his determination to avoid ‘the [supposedly] nostalgic structures’ found in some Marxist theory in favour of ‘the prison-house of discourse’. Milner summarises his view of Frow’s book by wishing that ‘Frow had read rather less Derrida and rather more [Raymond] Williams’.

Milner’s concern – which I share – is not to do with his or my personal preference for Marx and his followers over Nietzsche and his followers. Nor does this view of Frow deploy postmodernism and poststructuralism as straw men to exaggerate the effects of the absence of a Marxian dimension in his writing. I do not wish to catalogue the well-known contentions and conflicts between incorrigible Marxists and the panegyrists of postmodernity. Nevertheless, I believe it would be fair to say that Frow’s work continues the rejection or dismissal of Marxism which was perhaps inaugurated by the ex-Marxist thinker Jean-François Lyotard in Libidinal Economy (1974); a rejection which has in turn been rejected by many theorists and writers of the Left since the inauguration of the so-called postmodern condition.

Before determining the level of Frow’s current adherence to the postures and postulates of poststructuralism – an ism deemed ‘radical’ and ‘subversive’ in the 1980s and 1990s, but arguably in decline since – I would like to point out that ‘the prison-house of discourse’ continues to feature in Frow’s writing, literally. In one of the many engaging essays in The Practice of Value, Frow provides an openly Foucauldian analysis of the philosophy of a prison built in Port Arthur in the mid-nineteenth century: the so-called New Prison. He conjures the spectre of the French thinker’s seminal Discipline and Punish (1975) in statements such as: ‘The logic of the reformed prison is that of an architecture which, working passively and continuously to shape and control experience, invests power in places rather than people’.

So it seems that Frow is indeed continuing to read and deploy a great deal of poststructuralism, and perhaps not enough Marxism. Marx’s groundbreaking theory of value is fleetingly mentioned on only one occasion in The Practice of Value, via a rather tricky semantic equation of use-value and exchange-value with ‘matter and representation’. This strikes me as quite odd and insufficient, and this deficiency becomes more apparent when we consider Frow’s blatant avoidance of a Marxian critique of ideology. I would have expected that a book titled The Practice of Value – written by the author of a book titled Marxism and Literary History (1986) – would contain a good deal more Marxism to elucidate what seems an undeniable contingency: namely, that value is shaped not only by cultural but also by ideological and political imperatives.

But one of the pleasures of reading any book is surely to have one’s expectations challenged. And is not my wish for more Marxism and less postmodernism not a sign of my ‘conservative’, dogmatic fealty to an apparently outdated ‘grand narrative’? Furthermore, Frow’s Foucauldian approach to Port Arthur’s New Prison is part of an essay on the communal suffering caused by the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, which also includes an apt reading of Kafka’s wonderfully brutal short story, In the Penal Colony. Frow is not, at least in this recent publication, a strict devotee of the postmodernist preoccupation with deconstructing all and sundry for the sake of it. In many of the essays in The Practice of Value, he is interested in such poststructurally incorrect themes as collective trauma, religious belief, and that notorious scapegoat of poststructuralist thought and the subject of Foucault’s complex critical disparagement: history.

But in my view, Frow’s overall argument and his methodology, even when dealing with highly tangible and situated actualities, remain more or less politically distant – at least according to a Marxist definition of the political. This approach impedes what I see as the logical progression of Frow’s theory of value – a theory which, to my mind, cannot be satisfactorily developed without a critique of ideology. The absence of a direct encounter with the role of commodity fetishism in the production and evaluation of cultural artefacts disables Frow’s readings – both the subjectivity of his work and the presentation of the objects of his study – and prevents them from breaking with interpretation and assuming an active and oppositional, in short, political quality.

This is the basis of my difficulty with Frow’s finely written and hugely readable essays. However, before discussing this problem – which may very well be my problem and not a problem with Frow’s book – I would like to advance a précis of Frow’s sophisticated, if also potentially incomplete, thesis on how to value things such as literature from a cultural perspective.

Many a poststructuralist fundamentalist – or Williamsian cultural materialist, for that matter – would of course deride the distinction between literature and culture as a dreaded ‘binary opposition’. Frow, however, does not propose that a short story by Kafka or a poem by Frank O’Hara or a novel by Graham Swift belong to the same category as an Elvis impersonator or a correctional facility or a policy document. According to Frow, it is precisely the ‘incommensurable’ differences between various ‘regimes of reading’ or ‘regimes of value’ – each of which is developed according to distinguishable, if also related, perceptual practices – which designate and differentiate objects as literary, cultural, social, legal, and so on. He writes:

The particular determinacy and indeterminacy of a judgment is a function of the regime of value that constitutes its condition of possibility. By regime of value I mean the set of institutional and semiotic conditions that permit the construction and regulation of value equivalence and evaluative regulations for particular ends and within a framework of shared understandings.

These regimes bring to mind Stanley Fish’s famous interpretative communities; but interpretation alone does not produce value. Value, according to Frow, emerges when two or more of these regimes, with their differing criteria and temporalities, coincide (often, it seems, through the writings of an exceedingly learned, cross-disciplinary scholar such as Frow himself). At such moments, a work which may have been seen as belonging to one particular regime becomes thinkable and assessable in light of different regimes; it comes to be seen as something possessing a value in addition to the qualities or ‘diverse judgments’ of divergent regimes of reading.

For Frow, the term value does not mean benefit or worth, as such. It instead indicates a certain social or public currency or significance or, at the very least, an intelligibility which, once granted to the work, makes the work eligible for inclusion in the spheres of study and criticism. As a very lucid and compelling instance of such an inclusion, Frow considers the moment of his own somewhat controversial evaluation of Graham Swift’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Last Orders (1996).

As Frow recounts in this fascinating essay, his letter, written in response to a review of the novel in the Australian’s Review of Books, did not accuse the British writer of plagiarising William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930). It instead questioned whether Swift’s reworking of Faulkner’s novel was ‘aesthetically effective and whether there are ethical or aesthetic constraints on the use that one text may make of another’. According to his version of the minor literary scandal that ensued, Frow came to judge Last Orders a mediocre novel that was in parts ‘pointless and flabby’ due to the overlapping of two separate regimes of reading, one ethical and the other aesthetic.

Within the context of the literary practices of homage and intertextuality a novelist may indeed more or less freely borrow thematic or stylistic motifs from another novelist, but such an imitation entails ‘the implicit agreement between writer and reader that a novel of this kind will work its material fully’. It was Swift’s writing a rather lazy imitation of As I Lay Dying – and not his right to imitate Faulkner – which compelled Frow to consider ‘the question of the limits and the ethical conditions of imitation’ and to conclude that Last Orders was problematic. The British literati’s rather hysterical response to Frow’s criticism – their accusation that Frow was accusing Swift of the heinous crime of plagiarism – was a blatant misreading. They confused Frow’s ethico-aesthetic assessment with a legal judgment.

Many other essays collected in The Practice of Value also propose an evaluative or critical framework which is produced by the tensions and commonalities of different regimes of reading at the moment these regimes intersect. In one of the collection’s most interesting pieces – ‘Is Elvis a God? Cult, culture, question of method’– Frow addresses ‘the failure of cultural studies’ to come to terms with religion and spirituality, ‘perhaps the most important set of popular cultural systems in the contemporary world’. His response to this failure is the proposal that ‘the concept of the sacred’ – or the regime of reading the numinous – be taken into consideration alongside a materialist reading of ‘the mass-representational systems of film, rock and the theatre of mass politics’ in evaluating the properly immortal figure of ‘the king’: Elvis Aaron Presley.

This examination provides a provocative commentary on, among other bizarre things – including a morbid, erotic letter written by a woman to the singer a year after his death – the phenomenon of Elvis impersonators. It refutes simplistic postmodern paeans to the kitsch and the ironic. According to Frow, the performance of the impersonators

is at once a take-off, a campy parody of a piece of cultural kitsch (this is why almost all impersonators mime the overweight, white-jumpsuited Elvis of the Las Vegas years rather than the young Elvis), and at the same time a reverential reproduction of that presence that cannot be copied but that can be evoked, alluded to, signified through the very imperfection of the impersonator, where the word ‘impersonator’ has the sense both of impostor and of one who enters into the very person of the dead and resurrected singer.

Frow’s viewing of a phenomenon from two or more different regimes of reading at the same time not only provides incisive evaluations of the phenomenon under discussion; it also enables him to make timely criticisms of frameworks which lack his bi- or multi-focal perspective. He points out the limitations of the material turn in cultural studies in the book’s third essay – in which he supplements the usual approaches to the materiality of objects with an ‘immaterial’ and ‘highly mediated’ method via poetic aesthetics. He argues against the simplistic praxis of reception theory in a terrific essay on the ‘afterlife’ of a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, where Frow proves that although ‘readers are active in making meaning, their activity nevertheless takes place within constraints set by the inherent structures of the text’. These essays are among the book’s highlights.

And as may be expected of a critic of Frow’s rigour and confidence, he is quite willing to subject his own past evaluations to the critique occasioned by his current thesis. In the book’s eleventh essay, he criticises one of his past collaborative research projects – published as Accounting for Tastes: Australian Everyday Cultures (1999) – for its methodology, which, in parts, ‘produced the most banal of commentaries’. I quite enjoyed reading this particular essay – and appreciated its call for ‘a mid-level concept’ which opposes ‘a hierarchical relationship’ between productions of disciplinary knowledge. But I was also troubled by its summary dismissal of ‘Marxist sociologies of literature’, which according to Frow ‘now seem more than a little remote’.

Remote? Why is it that Foucault – who was writing at around the same time as many of the Marxists whom Frow dismisses – is not considered ‘remote’? And how could any form of Marxist thought be considered remote when capitalism – the raison d’être of Marxian opposition – remains our ruling economic, political and cultural system? While Frow is quick to point out that he has written about Marxism elsewhere, his avoidance of, among other things, what he has termed ‘an Althusserian problematic of the ascending generalities of knowledge production’ results, in my view, in an inherent shortcoming in this book’s otherwise valuable and competent explorations.

Louis Althusser’s designation of culture as one of his famous Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) could be seen as a generality. But I am not sure in what precise sense this designation may be termed ‘ascending’. Althusser introduces his list of the ISAs in his landmark 1970 essay, Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’État, with an important caveat: ‘the order in which I have listed them has no particular significance’. I may be mistaken in my understanding of what Frow means by ‘ascending’, and he may very well be referring to, say, Althusser’s concept of levels of structure in Marxist epistemology. But these levels, again, are not hierarchical and do not describe an ascending order. In fact, Althusser’s thought is unique – and, to my mind, absolutely invaluable – for his eradication of the order of various levels of knowledge which exist in more ‘vulgar’ articulations of Marxism.

But my disagreement with Frow on his characterisation of Althusserian thought is minor, even pedantic, compared to the issue of his almost absolute evasion of the central theme of Althusser’s essay: ideology – an evasion which is evidenced by the absence of the word ‘ideology’ from the book’s index. I wonder if any theory of value – from whatever theoretical or professional discipline – can be entirely effective without tackling the ideological. How comprehensive is it, for example, to view the Elvis myth as a conflation of religious and popular-cultural regimes of practice, without pointing out that the Elvis impersonator is also, in the precise Althusserian sense, a reproducer of an object from ‘base’ level production – that is, an ideological guarantor and perpetuator of the American Dream?

Things become particularly difficult in the book’s most openly political essay, the penultimate chapter, ‘A politics of stolen time’, in which Frow brings his cross-regime reading technique to the 1997 ‘Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families’, better known as Bringing Them Home. Here he tackles head-on one of Australia’s central socio-political topics. Both the content of the essay and Frow’s performative turn – his observation that, there are ‘acts of telling that are true and acts that are false’ – are welcome breaks with poststructuralism. Nevertheless, his unwillingness to see the Report itself as an ideological practice results in a possibly moralistic – as opposed to properly political – outlook, when he denounces the then ‘federal government’s refusal of an apology’ as ‘so shameful’.

I am more than happy to describe this and many other actions and inactions of the Howard Government as shameful. Yet, as Althusser would have it, ‘there is no practice except by and in an ideology’. As such, even clearly progressive acts such as the production of the Report and the enactment of its recommendations (for example, an apology to the members of the Stolen Generations by the Australian Government) could be viewed as ideological. Seven years on from the Rudd Government’s apology, have we witnessed a radical transformation of the relations producing injustice and discrimination towards Indigenous Australians as a result of that apology? Was the Rudd Government not the very same agent that implemented a modified form of Howard’s Northern Territory National Emergency Response (the Intervention), which some have seen as a continuation of the subjugation of Indigenous Australians to the mandates of a discriminatory, non-Indigenous ruling class?

I am not suggesting that Rudd’s apology was insincere or entirely self-serving, or that an ideological regime of reading should be excessively cynical about every aspect of every text ever produced. Far from it. As Althusser’s student Alain Badiou would have it, there are conditions and moments in which the regimes of injustice and state domination may be ruptured. But based on Frow’s evaluation, I am not convinced of the Report’s political potency in instigating anything like a Badiouian event. Indeed, a more political and less cultural view of the Report might regard it as a text structured by the discourse of human rights: the very same discourse used to justify the Intervention.

I don’t wish to end on a critical note. I trust that the tenor of my review of The Practice of Value has indicated the extent to which I have found much of Frow’s writing engaging, and I recommend this book to anyone interested in any of the debates or themes alluded to in this review. To this end, I would like to evoke the final section of the final essay collected in this volume. Featuring the book’s only visual reproduction – a drawing by the nineteenth century Indigenous artist Tommy McRae – this essay concludes with a superb and moving reading of the drawing, with its promise of a community in which the Indigenous and the European, natives and newcomers, practice their values within ‘a political arrangement reconciling fractious groups’. It would be impossible for a Marxist to imagine such an eradication of antagonism for as long as we live under the aegis of capitalism. Nevertheless, I feel moved both by McRae’s drawing and by Frow’s analysis of this image, and am grateful for having participated, as a reader, in their practice of the value of hope.


Louis Althusser, On Ideology (Verso, 2008).
Andrew Milner, ‘Once Were Marxists,’ Overland, 155 (1999).
Andrew Milner, ‘The Knowledge Class,’ Overland, 145 (1996).