There may well be a term in rhetoric or in art criticism for what is going on in this cartoon, though I don’t know what it is: What is remarkable about is that the actual meaning of the cartoon (image+text) is the exact opposite of what is clearly its intended meaning. Yes, I’m aware that there are issue in the notions of actual meaning and of intentional meaning, but we’ll leave those.
It’s from Punch, 1921. This was a satirical magazine, something like Private Eye, though without its investigative journalism. Like the Eye it prided itself in taking nothing too seriously, in mocking each and all with equal force – see the episode with the Eye’s founders in the BBC4 series Reunion (available on the BBC website) for a clear statement of this. But, as with the Eye, this claim for Punch is utterly bogus. Despite their occasional mocking at the pretention and corruption of the elite, their political stance has always been with the bossclass. On this, in relation to the whole 1960s ‘satire boom’ see Stuart Ward, ‘ “No nation could be broker”: the satire boom and the demise of Britain’s world role’, in Stuart Ward (ed.), British Culture and the End of Empire, Manchester University Press, 2001.
The political context to this cartoon is the drastic reduction in wages forced upon the miners by the owners, to whom the mines were returned from state ownership during the Imperialist War; note the pit winding-gear in the background. The capitalist has doffed his top hat and tails and is squaring up to the miner; he makes a claim of the same kind that was made in the 19th C when legislation was introduced to limit working hours: that what is at stake is not a matter of choice over which there can be negotiation, bargaining and even physical coercion; no that there are ‘iron laws’ operative here which have the same impersonal implacability as those of the physical world. This is the ‘champion’ to which the capitalist refers.
But what we actually see, round the corner, is a hired thug, labelled ‘economic law’. In other words the situation is not at all that of the actors in class war fighting within the framework of objective laws; these ‘laws’ themselves are a mystified, reified expression of human action. So what the cartoon actually illustrates is a point which is completely the opposite of the one it appears to be making. It’s tempting to say that the latent meaning subverts the manifest meaning; but the trouble with this is that the meaning which does the subverting is up there, on the surface, in yer fuckingface. I find it hard to see how this point was missed by the editors of Punch; but unless we presume that they had a level of awareness of the critique of political economy which – given their milieu – is implausible, it obviously was missed.
It’s one of Clio’s best jokes that just that political voice which never tires of asserting that marxism believes in impersonal, iron laws of history (see, for eg Isaiah Berlin, ‘Historical Inevitability’) is itself in thrall to the notion that human action is constrained by ‘economic laws’. It’s worth noting that whilst those of Berlin’s kidney always have recourse to the explanation that the marxist theory of history is a crypto-religion; marxism has a very different kind of explanation for the illusion of the objective nature of ‘economic laws’.
This explanation uses the notion of ‘fetishisation’, ie the ascription to an object created by humans of powers that actually inhere in the object’s creators. The model for this explanation is, of course, the pivotal chapter of Capital Vol 1’The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret’. This is a notion which is routinely vulgarised into a kind of moralistic sociology on the lines of ‘people make too much of material things’. I believe this is the thrust of Slavo Zizek’s use of this term. Funnily enough, a prominent member of Oxford Philosophy in Pubs had scheduled a session on ‘Is Commodity Fetishism, not Capitalism the Enemy ?’. He wisely withdrew this, as he doubtless realised that even by his standards of arrogantly ignorant bombast he would not be able to present anything on it.