Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Aesthetics’ Category

The latest issue of Against the Current has a very interesting review by Nathaniel Mills of Barbara Foley’s new book, Wrestling with the Left: The Making of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  An examination of the hitherto unstudied drafts of the novel, Foley’s book argues that it actually began its life as a novel of the Black Left.  Through a process of careful revision, however, Ellison excised the novel’s radical mooring points (which included various sympathetic Black leftist characters), and transformed its picture of ‘the Brotherhood’ (the radical organization the Invisible Man joins only to discover it is as manipulative as any other institution) from a flawed but well-meaning and decent organization into the totalitarian nightmare it is in the published version.  Foley argues, and most readers have agreed, that the Brotherhood is a stand-in for the US Communist Party, with which Ellison was closely associated in the 1930s and early 1940s.  As such, the text has become something of an anticommunist classic, using a sophisticated array of rhetorical strategies to link radical politics with white racism and ultimately promote an ideology of American exceptionalism.

While appreciative of Foley’s archival scholarship in interpreting the drafts of the novel, Mills takes issue with her reading of the finished product.  His criticisms are, I think, worth thinking about, as they raise a number of issue about form and politics that are at the center of Marxist literary criticism.  They run along two main lines.  First, he argues that Foley is mistaken in reading the novel’s portrait of the Brotherhood as a mimetic stand-in for the CP, and that the institutions and figures Ellison creates at various points in the novel are, in fact, non-representational generic archetypes.  Mills argues that this non-referentiality is politically progressive, as it allows Ellison’s critique to have a greater reach.  Second, he argues that Ellison’s insistence on the formlessness and chaos of life is not an evasion of the reality of oppression and domination, as Foley contends, but rather an insight of theoretical value for the Left.

Before considering the specifics of Mills’ first argument, I think it’s worth pointing out that it is a rather strange one for a Marxist to make.  Fredric Jameson, after all, declared ‘Always Historicize!’ to be ‘the one absolute and we may even say “transhistorical” imperative of all dialectical thought,’ and while Jameson’s word is not law, it is a sentiment Marxist critics have tended to affirm.  Mills’ argument for the progressive potential of de-historicization would read more convincingly if he at least acknowledged that he was, in fact, going against the grain of most Marxist criticism.

More substantively, there seem to me to be good reasons to read the novel as mimetically as Foley has.  Mills’ argument is ‘that Ellison doesn’t document a certain historical period, certain historical events, or certain historical institutions like the Communist Party.’  Mills offers little in this essay to sustain this argument, drawing instead on the work of John Callahan, who has written insistently on the need to distance Ellison’s representations from any immediate history.  Ellison, Callahan argues, ‘puts as much distance as possible between events of history and the imagined situations of his novel.’

Mills and Callahans’ arguments here  are buttressed by the authority of Ellison himself, who frequently castigated critics for trying to link his representations to concrete historical referents such as the Tuskegee Institute or the Communist Party.  Yet there are good reasons to believe that Ellison was, to put it simply, lying (a possibility critics of Callahan’s persuasion have curiously overlooked, given their reading of Ellison as trickster).  Take, for example, Ellison’s picture of black college the Invisible Man attends in the first part of the novel, which readers have generally associated with Tuskegee.  Ellison describes

the bronze statue of the college Founder, the cold Father symbol, his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave.

Here is a picture of the statue of Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute:

a revelation or a more efficient blinding?

As much distance as possible between events of history and the imagined situations of his novel?  Hardly.

The picture of the Brotherhood is similarly laden with referentiality.  Mills cites Callahan’s argument that ‘the Brotherhood derives a measure of significance from its similarity in some respects to the relation between American Blacks and the Democratic and Republican parties.’  This is, if anything, even less convincing than the case of Tuskegee.  For example, the Brotherhood’s leadership in the book, Jack, is written as a foreigner who poses as an American, whose duplicity is revealed when he is angered and begins babbling in a foreign tongue the invisible man sarcastically describes as ‘the language of the future.’  A few lines later, he refers to Jack as ‘a dialectical deacon,’ a phrase that both symbolically links Jack with the manipulative Black churchmen who were in charge of the college and unmistakably associates him with Marxism, an ideology that, to my knowledge, has not played a large role in either the Democratic or Republican parties.  This linkage becomes even less tenable in the epilogue, when after dreaming that Brother Jack leads a lynch mob to castrate him, the invisible man remarks that ‘Jack and the boys are waiting with their knives, looking for the slightest excuse to…well, to “ball the jack,” and I do not refer to the old dance step, although what they’re doing is making the old eagle rock dangerously.’  Here, Jack the foreigner is positioned as a threat to the nation, an operation that renders the invisible man’s position in his dream as metonym for the nation.  If the Brotherhood is an archetypal representative of American political parties, these clusters of imagery make no sense – is it Ellison’s contention that political parties in general are gangs of foreigners waiting for the slightest opportunity to castrate Uncle Sam?  If the Brotherhood is read as the CP, however, the portrait fits perfectly (to the point that Ellison’s representation can be read as one species of the hysterical anticommunism portrayed in Dr. Strangelove, where the General Buck Turgidson’s reason for starting the war is precisely the threat the communists pose to his virility).

Mills argues that while we shouldn’t read the Brotherhood as a direct reference to the CP, the portrait nonetheless is of value for the Left ‘as a warning against potential tendencies (toward political dogmatism and vanguard elitism, institutional self-preservation at the cost of revolutionary creativity, etc.) that any leftist organization should avoid.’  This is unconvincing.  For one thing, Ellison shows no sign in the novel of any sympathy for revolutionary anything, so it makes little sense to assert that his portrait of the Brotherhood is a warning against stifling revolutionary creativity.  More to the point, however, is the fact that Ellison’s portrait of the Brotherhood in the published novel is unremittingly hostile – it is totalitarian, racist organization symbolically linked with white racists.  In this context, it seems perverse to read his representation as some sort of friendly criticism.  Arthur Schlesinger, Richard Pipes, and Bernard Henri Levy make many of the same criticisms of dogmatism and elitism in revolutionary groups.  Does this mean their writings should be taken as valuable advice as well?

Mills’ second primary line of argument concerns Ellison’s insistence ‘that American society is more complicated and unpredictable than most established epistemological and political paradigms allow.’  For Mills, this point is an important one for leftists.  First, he suggests it evinces an affinity between Ellison’s picture of the United States and ‘theories of social form and process articulated by European Marxists like Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci. Both Althusser and Gramsci revised classical notions of economic determinism in order to identify the complexly overdetermined realms of the social and cultural as potential sites for revolutionary politics.’  This is not particularly convincing.  Recent scholarship on Gramsci (I am thinking particularly of Peter Thomas and Timothy Brennan) has shown that Gramsci’s thought was far more a product of Third International debates and discourses than his critical reception has allowed.  This work has rendered suspect the cliched image of Gramsci as complicator of a previously simplistic Marxism.  One could say more about Althusser’s case, including the fact that his concept of relative autonomy was formulated, in part, to explain the unavoidable fact of Stalinist barbarism while retaining the idea that the Soviet economy was a socialist one, but it suffices here to remark that the two conceptions of cultural struggle I can detect in his work are both deeply unsatisfactory.  First, Althusser’s notion of theoretical practice rewrites Marxist philosophy as part of the class struggle.  Regis Debray provided the immortal verdict on this theory with his quip ‘all we had to do to become good theoreticians was to be lazy bastards.’  The second concept, that of struggle in the ideological state apparatuses, is even more troublesome, given its provenance as a theoretical justification for the bureaucratic madness of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, as well its subsequent use in the hands of Gauche Proletarienne  as a reason for regarding reformist trade unions as repressive manifestations of the capitalist state.  In short, the analogy fails with Gramsci and leads nowhere good with Althusser.

More important than this Marxological esoterica, however, is the fact that in Ellison’s novel, the fluidity and complication he emphasizes  are linked to an ideology of American exceptionalism.  We have already seen how the invisible man stands a metonym for the United States in his vulnerability to the castrating fanatics of the Brotherhood.  Ellison goes much further than this, however, in his deployment of tropes of American exceptionalism.  In his reflection on his grandfather’s words, the invisible man declares that his grandfather, who he concludes was right after all, ‘must have meant the principle, that we were to affirm the principle on which the country was built and not the men, or at least not the men who did the violence.’  For the invisible man, the lesson of his experiences is that ‘we had to “say yes” to the principle, lest they [Brother Jack and the others who have manipulated the invisible man] turn upon us and destroy both it and us.’  Ellison’s affirmation of American exceptionalism in these pages is directly linked to his conception of America as chaotic and complex.  As he remarks, “America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it remain so.”  This affirmation of American diversity is expressly linked to a repudiation of Jack and his ilk: ‘Let man keep his many parts and you’ll have no tyrant states.’

Finally, it’s worth noting that Mills proposes Ellison’s picture of complexity as a remedy for what is effectively a straw man.  He argues that ‘One must recognize the struggles of these oppressed as both literally contained by power and exceeding the grasp of power. Invisibility is both delimiting and freeing, just as oppression also contains within it (dialectically, or what Ellison might call “chaotically”) the potential for freedom.’  The idea that the oppressed are not completely defined by our oppression is one that, as far as I can tell, is universally accepted on the Left today.  Indeed, it seems to be axiomatic to any conception of Left politics that oppression is never total and complete, and people will always resist.  If this weren’t true, there would be little point in doing anything besides working for Goldmann Sachs.  In his argument for Ellison’s utility on this front, Mills ultimately assents to the caricature of the Left that informs Ellison’s novel.

In conclusion, I think it is worth considering the importance of Mills’ arguments in the broader context of revolutionary criticism.  Though as the preceding paragraphs indicate, I am quite unsympathetic to the substance of his claims, I think Mills raises crucial issues about the political valences of texts and the ways revolutionaries can relate to them.  To my mind, Ian Birchall put this point most succinctly in his review of Terry Eagleton’s work in the 1980s.  Eagleton, he said, insists on the subversive  moments lurking in all texts, which Marxist critics have been too eager to write off in favor of blanket denunciations of reaction.  Birchall noted while Eagleton was right that all texts are contradictory, this did not imply that all texts were politically equal.  The French censors recognized as much when they banned Sartre’s work but not Camus’.  This seems to me to be correct.  Invisible Man is obviously a great novel, and there are numerous moments within it that pose questions Leftists have to answer.  But we will most assuredly get the answers wrong if we imagine they are posed in an innocent way.  Recognizing the dominant political ideology of a novel is a necessary step in attempting to seize any insights hidden within.

Read Full Post »

In a society like ours, not stricken with aphasia so much as with amnesia, there is a higher priority than reading and that is history itself: so the very greatest critics of our time – a Lukács, for example, or, to a lesser degree, a Leavis – are those who have construed their role as the teaching of history, as the telling of the tale of the tribe, the most important story any of us will ever have to listen to, the narrative of that implacable yet also emancipatory logic whereby the human community has evolved into its present form and developed the sign systems by which we live and explain our lives to ourselves. So urgently do we need these history lessons, indeed, that they outweigh the palpable fact that neither critic just mentioned is a good, let alone a virtuoso, reader, that each could justly be reproached for his tin ear and his puritanical impatience with the various jouissances of the literary text.” – Fredric Jameson, “The Symbolic Inference; or, Kenneth Burke and Ideological Analysis”

It is no small irony that that Fredric Jameson’s elevation of historical criticism over the details of literary analysis comes from the critic who has, more successfully than any other, joined the two kinds of analysis. Certainly no contemporary critic has presented the theoretical case for “the primacy of History itself”1 with more theoretical elegance (or dogged determination) than Jameson. At the same time, as Terry Eagleton has noted, Jameson is one of the finest readers of literature in the critical tradition, looming “like a holdover from a grander cultural epoch altogether, a refugee from the era of Shklovsky and Auerbach, Jakobson and Barthes.”2 Yet while Jameson has been explicitly programmatic on the level of theory, propounding a hermeneutic system that seeks to formalize the procedures of Marxist literary criticism, he has been far less didactic when it comes to the critical methods that produce the close readings that are themselves responsible for so many of the moments of intellectual virtuosity one encounters in his texts. This essay seeks to fill out Jameson’s program for Marxist literary theory, as it were, by joining it with the micro-strategies of interpretation proposed by Kenneth Burke. The resulting methodology is capable, I argue, of doing justice to both the synchronic and diachronic moments of literary analysis – yielding an interpretation of both the structure of a given text (or a given literary conjuncture) and the historical development of literary practices.

Kenneth Burke’s theory of literary criticism provides the appropriate starting place for developing such a methodology, concerned as it is primarily with developing the tools of analysis for approaching individual texts. In this way, beginning with Burke can be seen as the methodological analogue of Marx’s famous ‘rising from the abstract to the concrete,’3 with the individual text here taking the place of Marx’s commodity. Though Burke’s literary theory would undergo multiple ideological and analytic revisions over the course of his career,4 here I wish to focus on the theory as it is developed in his 1941 book, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. In the far-ranging and idiosyncratic title essay of this work, Burke develops a method of reading that emphasizes the connections among themes, images, and ideas in a work that is a useful complement to Jameson’s method of historicization. For Burke, understanding the structural functioning of a text requires a mapping of the various relationships of its component elements. He argues that there are two primary means of describing these relationships: the arpeggio and the chord. The arpeggio describes the relationship of “from ——- to ——-,” describing a pattern of association in the text based on progression (Burke, for example, uses this term to analyze the linkages between marriage, murder and opium addiction in Coleridge.) The chord is slightly more complicated. Burke uses it first to explore relations of equivalence in a text, where themes or images are united not by the progression of the text but rather immediate comparability (his example here is the equation of “sunny mist” and luminous gloom” in Coleridge’s line “The sunny mist, the luminous gloom of Plato.”) Besides this function as the opposite of the arpeggio, Burke also uses the image of chordal collapse to describe the effect of a text’s totality of structural relationships, the equations that result from its various arpeggios.5

For Burke, the end result of mapping the arpeggios and chords of a text is to grasp the way the text represents “the dancing of an attitude.” By this phrase Burke seeks to capture the way a text always constitutes a communication of some sort, a stance or opinion on a given matter. The dancing of an attitude itself has three component parts: dream, chart, and prayer. The dream describes the conscious and unconscious inputs into a text, both what a writer seeks to communicate and those unconscious expressions of intent or desire which inevitably find their ways in. The chart is how the text “sizes up” its moment, how it evaluates the situation into which it intervenes. Finally, the prayer is what exactly the text seeks to communicate, the effect it seeks to produce.6

As this short summary indicates, even as Burke seeks to articulate a critical method that will describe the structural relationships of a given text, he also moves his analysis towards incorporating the historical situation of a text in the reading produced. More generally, his description of text’s as “symbolic actions” is a useful corrective to the reified methods of New Criticism, which treat texts as objects (‘a well wrought urn,’ for example). Burke’s insistence that the text “is designed to ‘do something’ for the poet and his readers,” combined with his method of incorporating dream and chart into his reading, is in important ways analogous with the methods developed by Raymond Williams – above all in the theorization of texts as moments in a process.7

Yet as Jameson himself has argued, Burke’s program for examining texts and their relationship to history is ultimately hindered by the adoption of multiple ‘strategies of containment’ that divert the course of analysis before it reaches outward to history itself. For Jameson, this is exemplified in Burke’s analysis of Keats, which traces the equations in Keats’ poems as a sort of self-criticism of romanticism. As Jameson argues, this reading, “by projecting a situation which is its own response, seals us off from any further need to consult the historical circumstances of romanticism itself, and makes this particular superstructural subtext a kind of autoreferential causa sui.”8 As rich as Burke’s method is, then, it requires supplementing by a theory capable of overcoming its own strategies of containment.

Jameson has produced just such a theory, particularly in the Marxist hermeneutic proposed in The Political Unconscious. Though Jameson’s argument in that work is much broader, ultimately asserting that even non-Marxist critical methods themselves imply a Marxist analysis as their completion, for this essay I will restrict my exegesis to the hermeneutic Jameson develops. Drawing from the medieval hermeneutic system, Jameson argues that Marxist analysis should proceed in three “concentric frameworks,” moving from “political history, in the narrow sense of punctual event and a chroniclelike sequence of happenings in time” to “society, in the now already less dischronic and time-bound sense of a constitutive tension and struggle between social classes” to “history now conceived in its vastest sense of the sequence of modes of production.” Each of these frameworks, or horizons as Jameson sometimes calls them, imply their own privileged object of analysis in the text. In the first horizon, this object is the “symbolic act”9 which responds to a given social contradiction. In the second horizon, the critical gaze is broadened, bringing more of history into the text, as the object of analysis consists of “ideologemese,” defined by Jameson as “the smallest intelligible unit of the essentially antagonistic collective discourse of social classes.” Here the class struggle itself is the social referent of the text, not social contradictions such as alienation or reification as in the first horizon. In the final horizon, the perspective is broadened once more, this time to examine the cultural revolution of a given mode of production, the logic by which old cultural forms are broken down and remade anew in the image of a new structure of society. Together, these three horizons allow the critic to map a detailed relationship between the individual text and even the broadest contours of human history.10

To demonstrate the utility of the particular combination of Burke and Jameson I’ve suggested here, I would like to examine Ann Petry’s 1946 novel The Street, and particularly the question of genre. As Jameson has argued, genre, while a somewhat disreputable concept in literary study today, is a privileged category of analysis for Marxist criticism, possessing at it does a “mediatory function…which allows the coordination of immanent formal analysis of the individual text with the twin diachronic perspectives of the history of forms and evolution of social life.”11

One of the most perceptive analyses of genre in The Street is that of Heather Hicks, who reads Petry’s novel as a sort of self-criticism of naturalism/realism. Drawing from Mark Seltzer’s work on Henry James, Hicks argues that naturalist/realist fiction, with its emphasis on mimetic principles, is fundamentally a cultural practice of surveillance. This highly Foucauldian argument reads the fiction of James and other authors working in a similar tradition as producing works which replicate in their form the disciplining gaze Foucault placed at the center of modernity. In her reading of The Street, Hicks argues that Petry thematizes this formal aspect of her novel, with the constant emphasis on regimes of vision in the life of its protagonist, Lutie. Ultimately, Hicks sees Petry as subverting the formal proclivities of realist fiction through her portrayal of Lutie’s local knowledge, grounded in the specific experience of an African American woman. For Hicks, Lutie’s refusal of a totalizing viewpoint and her constant phrasing of her experience as a question frustrate the impulse towards production of disciplined subjects in her form.12

While there are numerous aspects of this reading with which a Marxist interpretation would disagree,13 Hicks’ specification of realism/naturalism and the problematic of vision in the novel are important coordinates for any reading of The Street. By employing the combination of Burke and Jameson described above, I will demonstrate that a very different reading of the relationship between genre and vision is possible, one which does far more to connect The Street with the “twin diachronic perspectives” posited by Jameson. This reading begins by asking what are the “equations” that The Street makes with vision. Of the many that could be made, the novel itself suggests money as the most important, with its positioning of an equation between the two terms at three crucial points in the narrative. First, when Lutie is entering the apartment building that will be the most important space of the novel for the first time, she is put off by the dim light in the hallway, thinking to herself that “if you dropped a penny…you’d have to scrabble around on the cracked tile floor before you could ever hope to find it.” 14 Here, (the lack of) vision is itself is described through the search for money. Money, it appears, is a condition of possibility of vision, a code the latter must be written in to be intelligible. The second moment comes in the book’s flashback to Lutie’s time working for a wealthy white family in Connecticut. After she witnesses the family cover up their uncle’s Christmas morning suicide, she becomes “interested in the way in which money transformed a suicide she had seen committed from start to finish in front of her very eyes into ‘an accident with a gun.’”15 This moment marks the time at which Lutie became firmly convinced of the ability of money to solve any and all problems she could encounter. Given the way the incident is written, one can hardly blame her for this belief, as money’s alchemical power transmutes the suicide she saw herself into an accident. The implication here is clear – vision is dominated by money. The final equation between money and vision comes when Lutie is sitting in Junto’s bar, where her encounter with a musician sets her on her path for the rest of the novel. In this scene Lutie is sitting at the bar looking in the mirror. As Lutie looks at the bottles of alcohol on the shelves, she observes “that they were magnified in size, so that they had the appearance of being filled with liquid, molten gold.”16 Here, money transmutes the objects of Lutie’s vision even when it is absent, as she rewrites containers of alcohol as containers of bullion. The chordal collapse these equations produce is a picture of vision, in particular Lutie’s, as dominated and constituted by money.

The identification of money as a central theme in the novel is reinforced by its importance in the character system, where every character’s relation to every other is articulated either through money or lust. Even Lutie’s relationship with her son, Bub, is mediated by the efforts of both to secure money for the other. On levels of both narrative and imagery, then, the domination of human beings by money constitutes a primary theme of the novel. The identification of this theme brings us back to the question of genre, as both aspects of this theme lend themselves to a placement of The Street firmly within the genre of naturalism. On the level of plot, the deterministic narrative that is the result of Petry’s portrait of lives utterly dominated by money is a familiar one in naturalist fiction. On the level of theme, Petry’s choice of a particular commodity, money, as the subject of her investigation, can also be seen as part of the naturalist tradition of focus on the world of a particular commodity (think of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! Or Frank Norris’ project on The Epic of Wheat).

At the same time, Petry’s use of naturalist genre conventions begs the question of why many readers have insisted on assigning her work to realism. Here an unavoidably diachronic level of analysis arises, as the difference between The Street and other naturalist novels lies precisely in the co-development of American capitalism and naturalist poetics. While earlier naturalist works often oriented their narrative around a specific individual commodity, Petry chose money, the ‘universal equivalent.’17 The higher level of abstraction this focus imparts to Petry’s work accounts for the realist impulse readers have detected in The Street, as money’s role as a universal equivalent allows it to serve as the basis for knitting together a larger number of social relations than other commodities. Petry’s greater scope of narrative here is not simply the result of artistic ability: it also represents a change in the real abstractions18 of capitalism. Just as Aristotle was unable to theorize labor as the source of value in a slave society which “had as its natural basis the inequality of men and of their labour-powers,”19 earlier naturalists confronted a society which itself had not undergone the process of abstraction Petry performs in her novel. The shift from Oil! to The Street is also the shift, after all, from an American capitalism still characterized by significant amounts of craft work to an overwhelmingly industrial economy, when mass production eliminated traces of individual worksmanship from commodities and left them naked as products of abstract social labor. At the same time that Petry achieves more than other naturalists could, however, her portrait of reification suffers from the limitations of naturalism. This is evident primarily in the deterministic structure of the plot. In Petry’s narrative, Lutie’s domination by money necessarily condemns her to her fate. This one-sided portrait of the effects of reification stems, ironically enough, from a failure of abstraction on Petry’s part. While focusing on money as the determining force in her novel allows Petry to abstract from particular commodities to a broader view of social relations, it remains one step away from abstracting from all commodities to a focus on the commodity form itself. This crucial abstraction is what allowed Georg Lukács to theorize the standpoint of the working class as that position from which society could be grasped as a totality, grasping its moments of both freedom and necessity. Petry’s novel can thus be seen as a narrative written from the standpoint of the penultimate abstraction of capitalist society, with the insights and limitations that this perspective brings with it.20

The same rewriting of naturalism in terms of the development of American capitalism can be performed with regard to American literary history as a whole. Indeed, one could argue that genres are in a sense analogous to modes of (literary) production, and that Jameson’s assertion that “any individual mode of production projects and implies a whole sequence of such mode of production”21 applies with equal force to them. In this case, naturalism’s resistance to and domination by reification prompt us to look to an earlier moment in American cultural history, when capitalist social forms were not yet as dominant as the moment of naturalism. One such moment is that of American romanticism, what literary historians following F.O. Matthiessen have called “the American Renaissance.” Though this is a period in which reification has not, to use Lukács’ imagery, sunk as deeply into American consciousness, the forms of alienation which dominate later literature are visible here in lesser form. Matthiessen himself noted how Emerson’s prose style can be seen as a response to “our double tendency towards standardization and anarchy,”22 exactly the sort of social structure of feeling Lukács sees developing from the universalization of the commodity form. More recently, Carolyn Porter has conducted a detailed examination of Emerson’s aesthetic and philosophical project from a Lukácsian standpoint, concluding that although much of Emerson’s work was dedicated to resisting the consequences of reification, “the ‘mechanical philosophy’ [he] opposes infiltrates the means he designs to resist its hegemonic dominance.”23

At the same time that the marks of reification are visible in the history of the American Renaissance, it is also noticeable that the literary forms of this period do not seem to be as alienated as in later periods. Herman Meville’s novels and stories, for example, depend upon an intertwining of objective and subjective experience that became far harder to conceive after the split between aestheticism (which would become modernism) and naturalism in the second half of the twentieth century. “Bartleby,” for example, revolves around the confrontation between the narrator, whose consciousness is interiorized extensively, and the scrivener Bartleby, whose seemingly opaque consciousness constitutes the major problem of the story. As this text mounts an early investigation into the effects of reification, its form remains (relatively) free from the tendencies it seeks to diagnose.24

The contrast between the American Renaissance and modernism/naturalism demands an investigation of the relationship between reification and modernism itself. If the history of naturalism is in part a tracing of the process of real abstraction under capitalism, what is modernism? Seth Moglen’s investigation of modernism provides one compelling answer to this question with his formulation of two tendencies in the movement: the modernism of melancholia and the modernism of mourning. For Moglen, all modernist texts, from the reactionary T.S. Eliot to the revolutionary Langston Hughes, are responses to what he calls “the wounds of capitalism,” by which he means the effects of reification on human consciousness and society. The difference between the two modernisms lies in their ways of responding to these wounds. The texts of reactionary modernism, such as Eliot and Faulkner, treat the wounds inflicted by reification, the human capacities smothered and ossified by capitalist development, as irrevocably lost. As such, their response is to aestheticize this loss, praising those formal strategies best suited for this task. The result, Moglen argues, drawing on Freud, is a melancholic modernism obsessed with its own traumas, unable to think of a life beyond them. The modernism of mourning, on the other hand, responds to these wounds with attempts to redress the wounds of reification, often through projects of revolutionary change. The project of changing society thus allows these authors to move beyond their wounds towards a renewed existence. As Moglen’s work demonstrates, positing reification as the essential social horizon of American literature does not commit one to the homogenization of American literary histories, but rather to tracing the diverse formal and political configurations that result from the collision of cultural production and capitalist development.25

Moglen’s analysis brings us back to the same moment of American literary history as that of The Street. As such, I wish to conclude this essay with an examination of a text nearly contemporaneous with Petry’s, but written from a vastly different political and formal standpoint: William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! For purposes of continuity, I will also focus my reading of this text around the role of money. Using the combination of Burke and Jameson developed above, I will demonstrate that this methodology allows us to see how texts confronting the same “social contradictions” can produce quite different modes of engagement with those contradictions.

On the face of it, money plays a far smaller role in Absalom, Absalom! than The Street. Early in the novel, money is explicitly disqualified as one of the motivations of Thomas Sutpen. Describing Sutpen’s appearance in Jefferson, Rosa Coldfield tells Quentin that “a man of twenty-five does not voluntarily undertake the hardship and privation of clearing virgin land and establishing a plantation in a new country just for money.”26 Quentin’s grandfather confirms that money played little role in Sutpen’s interactions with the citizens of Jefferson, noting that Sutpen paid his last Spanish gold coin for the land that would become Sutpen’s Hundred. Sutpen’s drive to complete his plantation is similarly outside the monetary realm, as “Sutpen did not need to borrow money with which to complete the house,” since what it lacked was a wife.27

Later in the novel, however, it becomes clear that these assessments of Thomas Sutpen do not penetrate to the essence of what drove his demonic quest. Sutpen’s obsession is in fact grounded in his childhood as a poor white Virginian, and specifically in his rejection (by a black house slave) from the door of a white planter’s house. Sutpen resolves to acquire whatever it takes to possess that social standing (and social power). As he quickly realizes, this means “above all things money in considerable quantities.” Learning that white men may make their fortunes in Haiti, Sutpen sets out for the West Indies. At this point, money itself recedes in importance in the novel, and its place is taken by the imagery of the accounting book, the ledger. Specifically, the ledger appears as a metaphor for Sutpen’s conscience (and here the impact of reification becomes clear, as human conscience is reduced to an accounting balance sheet). Following Burke’s method of looking for the clusters of equations surrounding this imagery, we find two: revenge and fire. The first appearance of the ledger comes in a description of how Sutpen paid off his first wife to compensate for abandoning her. Sutpen’s effort to “balance his moral ledger”28 is immediately contrasted with his action’s result: his wife raising his son with the purpose of murdering Sutpen. The second linking of the ledger and revenge comes when that son, Charles Bon, is talking to a lawyer who kept his own metaphorical ledger “in a secret drawer” in his desk and who informs Bon that “With most of us, even when we are lucky enough to get our revenge, we must pay for it.”29 The ledger’s arpeggio then progresses to include fire, when two separate characters on different occasions call for ripping it up and burning it.

These equations link money up to the crucial plot-lines of the book. Bons’ revenge is one of the central narrative threads of the novel. Fire also plays a central role, both in the climactic burning of Sutpen’s Hundred by the former slave (and daughter of Sutpen) Clytenmenestra, and in its association with Sutpen’s suppression of a slave revolt during his time in Haiti. Faulkner’s description of this revolt centers around the burning of the sugar fields. Of equal importance, however, is Sutpen’s suppression of the revolt, which Faulkner attributes Sutpen’s “indomitable spirit which should have come from the same primary fire as [the slaves’] but which could not have.”30 Here, fire itself is linked with racial superiority, a linkage strengthened when it is recalled that the motive for Bon’s revenge and Clytenmenestra’s arson is Sutpen’s racism. Faulkner even directly links money and (racial) blood, describing the money produced by the exploitation of Black slaves in Haiti as possessing a sheen “not from gold but from bood.”31

These clusters of equations result in a chordal collapse that sheds considerable light on some of the critical controversies that have surrounded Absalom, Absalom!. Carolyn Porter, for example, has argued that Sutpen is a quintessentially American and capitalist figure, representing Faulkner’s take on the entrepreneurial myth of the self-made man. This reading allows Porter to cast Faulkner as responding to the development of American capitalism, and supports her argument that the novel’s form breaks down reified reading practices.32 On the other hand, Richard Godden has argued that slavery’s key role in Sutpen’s history denies this linkage, writing Faulkner as a descendant of Eugene Genovese’s anticapitalist slaveholders. The chordal collapse of money, race, revenge, and fire that I have traced suggests that both of these readings are correct. Faulkner’s antipathy to a society ruled by the ‘cash nexus’ is clear in the novel, as he portrays the hellish results of Sutpen’s quest for money and class status. At the same time, however, it has to be recognized that Faulkner’s critique of this quest relies on a deep-seated fear of the Black revolt that it engenders. The tragedy of Sutpen’s drive is that it creates a host of “Black Jacobins” throughout the novel, from the slaves of Haiti to the elderly Clytenmenestra.33 In this way, Faulkner’s critique of money’s place in American society can be distinguished from that of Petry, whose novel is deeply critical of the entwinement of racial and class oppression. Though both novels form complicated responses to reification in American society, the attitudes that dance in each of them could not be more different.

Bibliography

Bürger, Peter. The Decline of Modernism. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.

Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form : Studies in Symbolic Action. 3d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974, 1973.

Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front : The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. Haymarket Series. Paperback ed. London; New York: Verso, 1998.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! : The Corrected Text. Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1987, 1986.

Godden, Richard. “Absalom, Absalom!, Haiti and Labor History: Reading Unreadable Revolutions.” ELH 61, no. 3 (Autumn, 1994): pp. 685-720.

Hicks, Heather J. “Rethinking Realism in Ann Petry’s “the Street”.” MELUS 27, no. 4, Varieties of the Ethnic Experience (Winter, 2002): pp. 89-105.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1981.

———. “The Symbolic Inference; Or, Kenneth Burke and Ideological Analysis.” Critical Inquiry 4, no. – 3 (1978): 507.

———. Valences of the Dialectic. London; Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2009.

Lukács, Geörg. The Historical Novel. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

———. History and Class Consciousness : Studies in Marxist Dialectics. London: Merlin Press, 1971.

———. Writer and Critic. London: Merlin Press, 1970.

Marx, Karl and Ben Fowkes. Capital : A Critique of Political Economy. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

———. Grundrisse. Foundations of the critique of political economy. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance; Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. London: New York etc. Oxford university press, 1941.

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd and the Piazza Tales. Dolphin Book ; C307. Garden City, N.Y: Dolphin Books, 1961.

Moglen, Seth. Mourning Modernity : Literary Modernism and the Injuries of American Capitalism. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2007.

Petry, Ann. The Street. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985.

Porter, Carolyn. Seeing and being : The Plight of the Participant-Observers in Emerson, James, Adams, Faulkner. 1st ed. Middletown, Conn; Irvington, N.Y: Wesleyan University Press; distributed by Columbia University Press, 1981.

Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance : The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. 1st ed. New York: Knopf, 1988.

1Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 14.

2Eagleton, 123.

3Marx, Grundrisse, 101.

4For a brief history of Burke’s theoretical revisions with an emphasis on his engagement with Marxism, see Michael Denning, The Cultural Front, 434-445.

5Burke, 72-74. Burke’s opposition between arpeggio and chord here recapitulates the diachronic and synchronic moments of analysis in the interpretation of a specific text.

6Burke, 4-6, 9-11.

7Burke, 89. For Williams’ methodology, see Marxism and Literature.

8Jameson, “The Symbolic Inference,” 518.

9Jameson’s invocation of Burke’s terminology here, at the most local of his three horizons, lends support to my attempt to use Burke’s method as a kind of micro-foundation to the Jamesonian project.

10Jameson 75-76.

11Jameson 105.

12Hicks, “Rethinking Realism in Ann Petry’s The Street

13If Lukács’ work has taught us anything, for example, it is that mimetic aspirations alone cannot form the decisive criteria for evaluating the political valences of a text. See Lukács, “Narrate or Describe,” in Writer and Critic. Hicks’ reduction of the novel’s “chart” to a confrontation with the formal politics of mimetic fiction is also reminiscent of Burke’s reading of romanticism, and vulnerable to precisely the same critique Jameson mounts of reducing a text’s social referent to other cultural productions. Finally, Hicks’ reading of Petry as performing a typically postmodern critique of epistemology is a perfect example of what Jameson describes as contemporary theory’s tendency to displace its own epistemological break in time according to the interests of the moment.

14Petry, 6.

15Petry, 49.

16Petry, 145.

17While Zola’s L’Argent could be seen as a precursor to The Street, that novel focuses on money as finance capital, not the universal equivalent of Petry’s work.

18As Jameson crucially reminds us, abstraction in capitalist society is ultimately the same thing as alienation. The production of abstract labor is predicated on the alienation of workers from the means of production, and the increasingly abstract labor of mass production is predicated upon the alienation of workers from the work itself (see Braverman). Therefore, when I shall use the terms real abstraction and reification interchangeably.

19Marx, 152.

20For Lukács’ explication of capitalist society from the standpoint of the commodity form, and its negation from the standpoint of the proletariat, see “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” in History and Class Consciousness. Lukács’ theory depends upon seeing wage labor as a particular expression of the commodity form, an operation Petry’s failure of abstraction denies her. Fredric Jameson provides a defense of Lukács theory in “History and Class Consciousness as an Unfinished Project” in Valences of the Dialectic.

21Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 33.

22Matthiessen, 72.

23Porter, 118. Porter’s reading of Emerson appears in the context of a larger project of reading American literary history in terms of reification, from which my own reading draws a great deal. For more on the Ameircan Renaissance, see David S. Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance.

24Peter Burger provides an excellent account of the split between aestheticism and naturalism in “Naturalism, Aestheticism, and the Problem of Subjectivity” in The Decline of Modernism.

25Seth Moglen, Mourning Modernity: Literary Modernism and the Injuries of American Capitalism.

26Faulkner, 16.

27Faulkner 46.

28Faulkner, 371.

29Faulker, 421.

30Faulkner, 317.

31Faulkner, 312.

32Porter argues that Absalom, Absalom!‘s form of competing narratives of the life of Thomas Sutpen forces the reader to try and piece together her own interpretation, and since this is the role of Quentin and Shreve in the novel, the effect of this form is to break down the antinomy of seeing and being Porter sees as the primary legacy of reification in American fiction. While I find this argument compelling, I believe Porter attempts to homogenize the text’s political stance. It seems to me that while Faulkner’s novel may resist reification formally, the novel’s thematic content is deeply reactionary.

33Thus Faulkner describes Haiti as “a soil manured with black blood from two hundred years of oppression and exploitation” (313). Likewise, he condemns the South “for having erected its economic edifice not on the rock of stern morality but on the shifting sands of opportunism and moral brigandage” (325). In both cases, Faulker recognizes the injustice of slave regimes, but as the equations of the novel make clear, his primary fear of such societies is the black resistance they engender.



Read Full Post »

Faulknerian:

A term I understand to mean any story with long sentences, two narrators, italics, and incest, which is superficially more difficult to read than the feature section of USA Today.  If it is a second novel set in the same fictional county as the author’s first, or involves the killing of a large nonaquatic animal, any two of the previous provisions may be waived.  All novels concerning Mississippi, of course, are automatically Faulknerian.

Craig Werner, Playing the Changes: From Afro-Modernism to the Jazz Impulse, p. 53.

Read Full Post »

The Ecclesiarchy

Throughout the whole tawdry spectacle of controversy over the so-called ‘Ground Zero mosque,’ it has been interesting to follow the responses of American liberals.  Some have cravenly attempted to track the mythical beast known as ‘public opinion,’ hoping to capture it and save their own sorry hides.  Others have acquitted themselves well, taking a principled stand against racism.  Despite the welcome display of backbone on this issue on the part of many liberals, I’ve nonetheless experienced a certain dissatisfaction upon reading their arguments.  This feeling is especially acute regarding their treatment of the assertion that Ground Zero is ‘hallowed ground.’

People can certainly be forgiven for meeting this charge with stifled giggles.  After all, as one much-reposted blog entry has shown us, the former World Trade Center site is surrounded by strip clubs, betting parlors, and all imaginable varieties of tourist terror kitsch.  Furthermore, the repeated solemn intonations of the phrase by various talking heads have so emptied it of semantic content that one is left with the impression that it means little besides ‘no muslims allowed.’  Thus, many have concluded, this site is not hallowed ground, but rather one more piece of Manhattan where people will do anything to make a buck.  While such a response is tempting, however, it is insufficient.  For it is precisely the veneration of accumulation, embodied in the various supposedly profane establishments listed above, that makes Ground Zero a sacred space in the American imagination.

To understand why this is so, we must look, with Walter Benjamin, upon capitalism as a religion.  Benjamin made this argument in a short unpublished fragment from 1921.  A response to Max Weber’s famous treatment of Protestantism and capitalism, Benjamin’s fragment sought to demonstrate not merely that capitalism was strengthened by religious culture at key points in its development, but that it was itself a religious phenomenon.  Thanks to Michael Lowy’s erudite exegesis of the fragment in Historical Materialism last year, those of us without a complete edition of Benjamin’s unpublished writings can see this fascinating argument for the first time.

Capital's avatar

Benjamin’s characterization of capitalism as a religion relies on three main points.  The first is that capitalism is a peculiarly cultic phenomenon, one in which ‘nothing has meaning that is not immediately related to the cult’.   The cultic activities – ‘capital investment, speculation, financial operations, stock-exchange manipulations, the selling and buying of commodities’ – are the only ones invested with meaning, as all else is rendered valueless (p. 62).  The idol of the cult is money, the only object worthy of worship.  As Lowy notes, this description of capitalism is not Marx’s, focusing as it does on mercantile activity, and not the aspects of capitalism (the commodification of labor power) that Marx thought were decisive.  Nonetheless, the practices Benjamin focuses on are those which are crucial to capital’s self-presentation — its church clothes, if you like.

The second religious aspect of capitalism is its conception of time.  Benjamin’s phrase, borrowed from Weber, is “sans trêve et sans merci” (without rest or mercy) (p. 63).  Capital’s time is homogenous, rationalized.  It marches steadily forward without interruption, without pause.  For Weber, this dynamic had its roots in the Puritan suppression of holidays, when time spent for one’s self was time stolen from God.  For Benjamin, the accent is different, as the cultic allegiance capital demands, the ceaseless worship of its idols, transform every day into a sacred one, homogenizing our experience of time into a never-ending cultic ceremony.

The final religious aspect of capitalism is its production of despair.  Capital recognizes nothing beyond itself.  It forecloses on all futures except its own.  This destruction of futurity can be seen as the essence of despair, since any hope is contingent upon the possibility of a future.  Every capitalist must expand or be crushed by the competition, so that collectively the class ensures that none of its members may have any respite from this dynamic.  As Lowy puts it: “According to the religion of Capital, the only salvation consists in the intensification of the system, in capitalist expansion, in the accumulation of more and more commodities; but this ‘remedy’ results only in the aggravation of despair” (p. 68).  According to the rules of the game, the pursuit of salvation only assures damnation.

All of these cultic aspects of capitalism were on exhibit in the original World Trade Center.  Conceived in the 1940s as a means to revitalize lower Manhattan, the WTC was to act as a locus for international trade at the same time that it would be an engine of urban renewal by improving the value of the real estate surrounding it.  The cultic devotion to the realization of profit here reshaped the urban form, restructuring the city environment in ways more conducive to capital.  Architecturally, this same dynamic shaped the design of the buildings themselves.  The WTC’s distinctive design, in which the steel support beams were placed on the building’s exterior, was intended to allowed maximum flexibility for the tenants of the various floors.  The  project’s planners envisaged every sort of commercial activity within the wide open spaces of the towers’ interior, from office space to trading floors hundreds of feet above the city.  Every aspect of the project was to be devoted to the cultic practices of capitalism.

The homogenization of time was also important in the project’s conception.  The WTC was to be a command center of global capital, a place from which the expansion of markets and the battering down of trade barriers could be planned and executed.  Its purpose, in other words, was to facilitate the imposition of capitalist time upon those areas of the world still outside of it.  The WTC’s form also lent itself to the project of homogenizing time.  The skyscraper, after all, is a particular attempt to control time through a spatial configuration.  By gathering so many of capital’s prelates into one place, the planners of the WTC hoped to minimize the temporal disruptions caused by difficulties in communication.  Through the manipulation of space, time could be smoothed into that frictionless medium demanded by capitalist theology.

Crucial as the homogenization of time and the domination of cultic activity were to the WTC’s design, the production of despair was by far the most important ideological element of the project.  Minoru Yamasaki, the head architect, conceived of his design as a tribute to American democracy.  Yamasaki hoped that his buildings would be a ‘a living and active monument to world peace,’ linking the globe through trade.  Though couched in a language of liberal hope, Yamasaki’s dreams for his project reveal a profoundly desperate vision of the future.  The WTC was to be a monument to a particular kind of world peace – that established under American global supremacy.  Launched during the Cold War, the project’s goal of uniting the world through trade was a particularly American vision of global cooperation.  As capitalism works through eliminating possible futures, ensuring that its future will be the only one, so the WTC was a symbol of the United States’ bid to ensure that the world’s future would be identical with its own.

With so much cultic energy embodied in the WTC, it is unsurprising to find that the project’s design expressed certain themes in common with sacred architecture.  Portentously enough, Yamasaki chose Islamic architecture as the tradition from which he would draw.  Capitalism’s relentless reduction of everything to ductile raw materials here worked its magic on symbolic motifs of pre-modernity, transforming the sacred architecture of Islam into adornments of the church’s of capital.  This pattern was most obvious on the exterior of the towers, where transition from wide column spacing to “dense structural mesh” created implied pointed arches, one of Islamic architecture’s most recognizable motifs.  The central plaza of the WTC was patterned after the Qa’ba in Mecca, the most holy site in Islam.  All of this was quite conscious on Yamasaki’s part, as he described his project as “a mecca, a great relief from the narrow streets and sidewalks of the surrounding Wall Street area.”  Just as  other religions absorb the holidays and deities of their predecessors, capital absorbed the sacred architecture of Islam into its own hallowed ground.

Capital's Qa'ba

September 11th, as they like to say, changed everything.  But the designation of the WTC site as a sacred space of capitalism would remain untouched.  Before the wreckage had even been cleared, plans for rebuilding were already under way.  The eventual design that was settled upon, ‘Freedom Tower,’ was to be a monument to America’s determination to rebuild.  It would be, as its designer Daniel Libeskind declared, “a global symptom of optimism.”

As Oscar Wilde told us long ago, however, “The basis of optimism is sheer terror.”  In this case, truer words have never been spoken.  Freedom Tower is a bathetic expression of American supremacy.  At 1776 feet tall, its structure is meant to remind us of our hallowed past and sacred mission.  Yet patriotic numerology cannot expunge from consciousness a certain awareness of the structure’s origins in terror.  As dominating as the tower purports to be, it cannot conceal the paranoia built into its structure.  As the New York Times’ architectural critic has put it, the structure’s ’20-story, windowless fortified concrete base decorated in prismatic glass panels [is] a grotesque attempt to disguise its underlying paranoia.’  Of course, the project’s devotion to the cultic pursuits of capitalism also remains.  The current owners of the lease have hawked rental space in the tower with all the fervor of a revivalist preacher, assuring the tenants that their pursuit of profit is a noble service to their country.

So, next time someone tries to convince you that Ground Zero is ‘hallowed ground’ which would be defiled by a community center, don’t simply brush them off with a reference to strip clubs.  Instead, join with the lost soul in religious brotherhood.  There’s bound to be a Starbucks nearby where the two of you can take communion.  Though it seems like the conflict over Park51 may tear this country apart, remember: we are a nation full of faith.  With enough good works, we are sure to make it through.

Read Full Post »

News coverage of Barack Obama’s presidential victory in 2008 was dominated by one word: historic. As if newsrooms around the country had suddenly been seized by a bout of Hegelianism, headlines trumpeted the ‘unfolding’ of history before our eyes. Obama’s victory, it seemed, was the next step of the Absolute Spirit. Yet as overwrought as such rhetoric appears now, after two years of unremarkable managerial liberalism, it hints at a deeper truth about Obama’s campaign. Both Obama’s supporters and his detractors, after all, grounded their vision of the candidate in prominent narratives of American history. One thinks, for example, of the shirts prominently displayed by Harlem street vendors that read “Rosa sat so Martin could walk so Obama could run.” For his supporters, Obama embodied the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. For those opposing him from the right, however, Obama was the product of a different historical saga: the perfidy of the American Left. For these critics, Obama was the protégé of Black Communist Frank Marshall Davis1, the parishioner of Black Liberation Theologian Jeremiah Wright, the friend of Bill Ayers. If for his supporters Obama’s election was the dénoument of that most American of stories, for his opponents his victory represented the penetration of anti-American radicalism into the highest office in the land.

This double vision, seeing both radicalism and civil rights in the same person, speaks suggestively to recent scholarship on the Black freedom struggle in the middle decades of the twentieth century. One major focus of this historiography has been the relationship between radicalisms of various sorts (both class-based socialisms and race-based nationalisms) and the movement represented in popular memory by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks (which some scholars have taken to calling the ‘classical phase’ of the movement). In re-examining this relationship, many historians have concluded that civil rights and radicalism are not as opposed as the competing representations of Obama’s candidacy would lead us to believe. This essay will examine this scholarship through the lens of Jacqueline Dowd Hall’s formulation of a “Long Civil Rights Movement,” consider objections to the concept, and suggest ways it may be extended.

Hall announced her conceptualization of the long movement in her presidential address to the Organization of American Historians in 2004. Entitled “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” the address was a combative response to conservative appropriations of the image of civil rights. Hall sought to reconceptualize this history in such a way that it would be both a “more robust, more progressive, and truer story” and “[h]arder to celebrate as a natural progression of American values. Harder to cast as a satisfying morality tale.” To accomplish these dual objectives, Hall crafted a narrative of civil rights which began not with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, or even Brown v. Board of Education, but the struggles of liberals and radicals against racial oppression in the 1930s. These struggles, such as the Communist Party led campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys, or the struggle of Blacks in the CIO for a “civil rights unionism,”2 signaled a capacious understanding of the fight for racial justice, which included confronting class and gender oppression as well. In these campaigns, Hall argues, lie the origins of the civil rights movement.3

United Tobacco Workers protest R.J. Reynolds, 1946

Hall suggests that understanding the nature of the civil rights movement’s classical phase requires coming to terms with how this earlier movement was defeated. As a radical challenge to what Hall describes as “racial capitalism,” it should come as no surprise that this first wave of civil rights should have met with fierce opposition from the business class, defenders of white supremacy, and the US state. The anticommunist crusade, aided by liberal figures inside civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, broke the back of organizations which had been at the heart of radical challenges to Black oppression. Leftist figures like Paul Robeson were denounced in the the press, and groups like the anticolonialist Council on African Affairs were prosecuted by the government for being agents of a foreign power. The disorganization this repression visited on the Left led Hall to pronounce civil rights a “casualty” of the Cold War.4

Anticommunist repression thus decisively changed the character of civil rights struggle, marginalizing those with a more expansive vision of emancipation and encouraging groups like the NAACP to pursue a more narrowly legalistic strategy than they had in the mid-1940s. Even as it disorganized the left, however, Cold War repression did not succeed in completely isolating radical activists. As a great deal of research on the classical phase of the civil rights movement is now showing, figures like Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker, who were absolutely central to the movement, had substantial Old Left backgrounds and training which carried over into their work with the movement’s most recognizable leaders and institutions. Moreover, activists at the local level, who have increasingly displaced telegenic leaders like Dr. King as the focus of recent research, often brought to civil rights work their experience in the radical campaigns of the 1940s.5

Hall’s reconceptualization of civil rights thus extends the movement backwards in time, effectively positing two distinct, though intimately related, waves. The first, based in the radical challenges to racism of the thirties and forties, was closely linked with working class movements and supported by activists who often held a vision of total social transformation for the United States. After this movement was crushed by government repression, the classical phase of the movement emerged. This wave advanced more restricted goals than the earlier wave, but was still supported by a significant group of activists with ties to earlier radical organizing.

This vision of a long civil rights movement obviously has tremendous synthetic power. Yet the concept has also provoked criticism. Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua and Clarence Lang have recently argued that, in its amalgamation of 1930s and 1960s struggles, the long movement concept resembles a vampire, in that “it exists outside of time and history, beyond the processes of life and death, and change and development.” According to this critique, “the continuous 1930s-1970s timeline theorized by Long Movement scholars ignores or minimizes the ruptures and fractures” wrought by government repression. Eric Arnesen advances a similar criticism, in addition to a more broadly political point that historians of the long movement tend to gloss over the Communist Left’s defects and ignoring its critics.6

As the above gloss on Hall’s presentation of the long movement concept makes clear, the critique of overly inclusive periodization largely fails to engage with long movement scholarship. Hall’s contention that civil rights were a “casualty” of the Cold War can hardly be described as downplaying or ignoring the effects of government repression. Indeed, documenting the rupture between the character of activism in the earlier era and the classical phase of the movement has been one of the hallmarks of long movement scholarship. Penny Von Eschen, for example, provides a detailed account of the ways that the racial discourse of groups like the NAACP shifted during the Cold War. Where they had once condemned the exploitation and oppression that white supremacy entailed, by the 1950s their descriptions of racism evoked Myrdalian moral dilemmas or organic metaphors of “the virus of prejudice,” both of which took race out of history. Similarly, Martha Biondi has described how anticommunism in New York City led the NAACP to move away from popular forms of protest such as picketing, which officials feared was too open to Leftist infiltration. Finally, Glenda Gilmore’s Defying Dixie, which presents an impressively researched account of the long movement to an audience beyond the academy, argues that “virulent southern anti-Communism…eviscerated postwar social justice movements and truncated the civil rights movement that emerged in the 1950s.” In the face of this body of work, Cha-Jua and Long’s contention that “Long Movement scholars generally fail to engage these issues of postwar anticommunist repression” is simply unsustainable.7

Eric Arnesen’s criticism of long movement periodization is similarly misdirected. In an attempted reductio ad absurdum, Arnesen asks why scholars stop at World War I, and don’t include Reconstruction-era struggles or uprisings on slave ships as part of the long movement. The point of long movement scholarship, however, is not simply that African Americans fought against racism before the classic civil rights movement. Indeed, this point is taken for granted by virtually everyone who currently studies Black history. Rather, long movement scholars emphasize that, in the decades prior to the classic movement, activists challenged white supremacy in such a fashion that their struggle shaped the next wave in two key ways: first, the earlier wave of civil rights activism won a number of important victories that changed the shape of later struggle, and second, the earlier wave produced institutions and trained activists that would go on to play an absolutely central role in the later wave. These relations, not the abstract fact of struggle, are what lends support to long movement scholarship’s linking of the 1940s with the 1960s.

Arnesen’s political critique attempts to rehabilitate the perspective of anticommunist Black activists such as A. Philip Randolph, who he contends have been marginalized by long movement scholars overly enamored with groups and individuals linked to the Communist Party. These figures, he argues, were not merely dupes of J. Edgar Hoover, but important Black progressives who had a deep critique of communist cynicism towards Black rights and complicity with Stalinist repression abroad. For Arnesen, the question must be asked: “So where do Randolph and his non-communist allies fit into the new narrative of the long civil rights movement? The quick answer: awkwardly, when they fit at all.” As with the Cha-Jua and Long’s critique of periodization, this is simply a misrepresentation of long movement scholarship. Thomas Sugrue’s recent Sweet Land of Liberty, for example, which presents the civil rights struggle in the North to a popular audience, explicitly takes its cue from Hall’s long movement framework. Far from Randolph being marginalized in that text, he is discussed at length, receiving easily as much attention as the Communist Party. Nor is Randolph absent from other long movement scholarship. Indeed, it is telling that Arnesen never directly names any works that overlook Randolph’s contributions.8

A. Philip Randolph

On the political level, Arnesen’s promotion of Randolph runs into other problems. As Arnesen makes clear, Randolph’s critique of the Communist Party was not primarily based on the party’s backing off from militant civil rights struggle during World War II, but rather its support for the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939. Neither of these actions by the party, however, appear to have damaged its ability to recruit and appeal to African Americans. As Bert Cochran has noted, the war years actually saw an increase in the percentage of Blacks among new recruits to the party, so that by 1944 they constituted fully thirty-seven percent of new members. While Randolph’s outrage over the party’s shifting lines with regard to race and war may have been justifiable, it does not appear to have prevailed among broad layers of the Black working class. Arnesen may well be correct that revisionist scholarship on the CP has not fully reckoned with the party’s failings regarding civil rights, but it is clear that Randolph’s perspective provides little help in understanding these failings.9

Existing critiques of long movement scholarship thus largely fail to engage with the key claims of the historiography. However, the long movement concept, especially as theorized by Hall, does possess a notable weakness: its relation to space.10 Aside from extending the movement’s periodization and reconsidering its relationship to the Left, a major theme of long movement scholarship has been the ways African American activists related to spaces outside the United States.11 Yet Hall spends barely a paragraph on the global imaginaries of Black activists. As a consequence, the concept of a long movement expands the location occupied by civil rights in time, but does little to push the spatial boundaries of the movement beyond those theorized by earlier waves of scholarship, even as long movement scholarship has clearly called for just such a reconceptualization.

Paul Gilroy’s theorization of a “Black Atlantic” is suggestive in its ability to propose an alternative, “outer-national” space of Black struggle. Gilroy argues that the diasporic space of the Atlantic as a whole has framed Black experience in a way that simply cannot be captured through national heuristics. The international experiences and engagements of Black activists from Frederick Douglass to Richard Wright show that even when Black struggle is directed against profoundly national institutions such as American chattel slavery or the construction of Black ghettos, the contours of Black struggle cannot be explained without reference to the broader stage of the Black Atlantic. The histories of long movement activists like Paul Robeson, George Padmore, and Lorraine Hansberry confirm the importance of this “outer-national” framework.12

As helpful as Gilroy’s Black Atlantic is for moving the long movement outside the borders of the United States, it is ultimately insufficient for the task. Black internationalism, especially during the years long movement scholarship covers, ultimately went far beyond the framing of the Atlantic. Martin Luther King’s embrace of Gandhian satyagraha is only the most obvious way in which civil rights activists looked beyond the Atlantic for resources in their struggle. Gerald Horne has recently shown that King was far from alone among civil rights activists in his engagement with the Indian anticolonial struggle. Bill V. Mullen has gone so far as to propose a discourse of “Afro-Orientalism” as a sort of Eastern version of the Black Atlantic, to capture the ways in which Black activists engaged with India and China. In particular, his portrait of a “Bandung Detroit,” awash in the politics of decolonization, seems especially important for long movement scholars to take note of. If these works gesture towards the need to go beyond the Black Atlantic, none of them, in the end, provide formulations of sufficient rigor and breath to replace it.13

W.E.B. Du Bois meets the Chairman

The lack of attention that historians have paid to the formulations of literary critics like Mullen and, to a lesser extent, social theorists like Gilroy is also indicative of the ways in which the concept of the long civil rights movement can be extended. This essay will thus conclude with a comparison of Richard Wright’s Native Son and James Baldwin’s Another Country, works which could stand as representative cultural productions of the two waves of the movement. Additionally, I will consider the problems that arise from current periodizations of Black literature, and suggest how the concept of the long movement could contribute to solving these.

Native Son is easily the most famous work to come out of the Leftist milieu long movement scholars have described. Wright’s role in the Chicago John Reed Club, his relocation to Harlem and his ultimate disillusionment with the CP are all well known. Because of Wright’s prominence in the CP and the success of Native Son, the novel has come to stand in for the literary productions of the what Michael Denning has called “the cultural front” as a whole. Literary critics looking back on this movement have often seen didacticism and antimodernism as hallmarks of this literature, qualities they have often found in no short supply in Native Son. Yet such a reading does violence both to Wright’s novel and the broader movement. As Barbara Foley has argued, Native Son in fact has a much more complex formal structure than its common description as “naturalist” would imply. Though most of the novel is narrated from the limited perspective of Bigger’s consciousness, Wright also included the Communist lawyer Max’s lengthy closing argument, which presents an account of Bigger’s life that is not identical to the one to which readers have access through Bigger. Additionally, in every edition after the first, Wright included his essay “How Bigger Was Born,” which, unlike either Bigger’s story or Max’s summation, compares the book’s protagonist with the alienated and dispossessed youth of all races. As Foley notes, “[a]ll three perspectives upon Bigger’s experience coexist in the novel, vying for the reader’s consideration and judgment.”14

This multi-layered rhetorical structure places Native Son alongside works like John Dos Passos’ USA, the standard bearer for Leftist modernism. Like Dos Passos’ trilogy, Wright’s use of multiple perspectives allows his work to represent what Marxist critics have called the “totality,” or the whole complex of social processes and contradictions that compose a social formation. This aspiration to totality is replicated on the level of plot, as Bigger’s fear, flight, and fate take him from the segregated South Side of Chicago to the mansion of his white employers, and into a confrontation with the state in the courtroom climax. This plot structure allows Wright to draw a picture for the reader of the interactions of different classes and institutions in Bigger’s life, making clear the connection between the ‘philanthropic’ real estate baron and the crushing poverty in which Bigger’s family lives. Form and content thus interact in Native Son to present a total critique of American society, merging opposition to racial oppression and class exploitation in just the way that long movement activists sought to.15

James Baldwin’s Another Country is a very different sort of book. Well before it was published (1962), Baldwin had signaled his intention to create a different aesthetic from Wright. His essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” pilloried the older writer mercilessly, comparing Native Son to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The essay was published in Partisan Review (the first piece by an openly Black author in that venue), former journal of the New York John Reed Club which had, by the time of Baldwin’s piece, become solidly anticommunist. In fact, Partisan Review would go on to play an important role in articulating an American aesthetic meant to replace the literature of the Thirties. Valuing irony and ambiguity over social commitment or mimesis, the Partisan Review aesthetic dovetailed nicely with the reactionary agrarian philosophy of the New Criticism. Together, these critical currents marginalized the literary values which had inspired much of the cultural front. In effect, Partisan Review was a major part of the aesthetic wing of the ‘long backlash’ identified by Hall.16

Another Country fulfills a great deal of these critical expectations. On the most surface level, the book is dedicated to Mary S. Painter, a close friend of Baldwin’s who worked for the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA. On a more substantial level, the novel’s plot concerns a group of friends, acquaintances, and lovers coming to terms with race, sex, and love in the aftermath of a friend’s suicide. The novel’s tight focus on this group of characters, who all seem to be Greenwich Village bohemians of one sort or another, is the opposite of Native Son’s expansive vision, running as it does from the ghetto to the mansion. While the novel focuses closely on the ways that race distorts human relationships, it is, in contrast to Native Son, almost silent on the class question. As Paul Goodman noted in a review at the time, “It is puzzling how most of Baldwin’s people make a living.” Other critics with radical affiliations were similarly disappointed. Langston Hughes, while conceding the novel’s emotional power, thought it a “curiously juvenile” book that focused too much on sex. Most famously, Eldridge Cleaver pronounced the novel “void of a political, economic, or even a social reference.”17

Yet just as long movement scholarship emphasizes the rupture that anticommunist repression created in the struggle against white supremacy, it also emphasizes the continuities that remained between the earlier wave and the classic phase. Such continuities exist in Baldwin’s work as well. Baldwin himself had something of a background in the Left, having joined the Trotskyist Young People’s Socialist League as a youth. While his tenure in the organized Left was brief, Baldwin would go on to be an important voice in the journal Freedomways, the theoretical journal of the classic phase of the movement. Edited by Esther Cooper Jackson, a veteran of the Southern Negro Youth Congress and wife of CP member James Jackson, Freedomways was the site of some of the strongest links between the civil rights unionism of the 1940s and the movement of the 1960s..18

James Baldwin, Joan Baez, and James Farmer, 1965

In light of such links to political radicalism, it is unsurprising that Another Country’s politics, like Native Son’s aesthetics, are more complicated than they at first appear. For one thing, class is not so absent from the novel as Goodman and Cleaver argue. While it’s true that Baldwin’s characters seem to have access to more money than their life styles would indicate, the legacy of Black poverty and exploitation appears in the novel through its suffusion with the voices of women blues singers. Throughout the novel, lyrical fragments from blues singers like Bessie Smith appear interspersed with the dialogue of the characters. As the characters sit in a club, Bessie sings “I wouldn’t mind being in jail but I’ve got to stay there so long,” testifying to the incarceration of Blacks outside the clubs. Later, a white character awakes to his Black girlfriend (a waitress, who is, significantly, the only main character in the novel who works for wages) singing “ If you can’t give me a dollar/Give me a lousy dime-/Just want to feed/This hungry man of mine,” a song that comments both on the poverty of Black households and Black women’s consequent entry into the labor market well before their white counterparts.19

Another Country also has moments of anger that seethe as much as Bigger Thomas ever did. When the father of the Rufus, the Black jazz musician who committed suicide, is presented with his son’s body, his wife asks him to pray. He shouts in response “Pray? Who, pray? I bet you, if I ever get anywhere near that white devil you call God, I’ll tear my son and my father [who was beaten to death with a hammer by a white railroad guard] out of his white hide!” Baldwin here foregrounds the violence of white supremacy, as well as the poverty of Black men (the father’s death strongly suggests he was a hobo). Baldwin’s characters can also be every bit as didactic as Wright’s, describing their lives in such a way that no white reader could miss the message. In a moment of interracial honesty, for example, Ida, the waitress, tells her white friend Cass her true feelings about white folks:

Shit. They keep you here because you’re black, the filthy white cock suckers, while they go around jerking themselves off with all that jazz about the land of the free and the home of the brave. And they want you to jerk yourself off with that same music, too, only keep your distance. Some days, honey, I wish I could turn myself into one big fist and grind this miserable country to powder. Some days, I don’t believe it has a right to exist.

As this passage indicates, Baldwin’s emphasis on the importance of sex, which so disturbed Cleaver and Hughes, could be harnessed to an anger at American racism as intense as their own.

The ruptures and continuities between Baldwin and Wrights’ works line up suggestively with those foregrounded by the concept of a long civil rights movement. They also point to a way of periodizing African American literature that is more coherent than current efforts. The current edition of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, a text that largely sets the terms for such periodization, lists both Wright and Baldwin under the same period, which the editors (Nellie Y. McKay and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) label “Realism, Naturalism, Modernism, 1940-1960.” As they themselves readily acknowledge, such a melange of genres is essentially arbitrary. Encompassing a range of aesthetics which are largely opposed to one another, the label mixes together writers such as Baldwin, Ellison, and Wright, whose primary relations to one another were often gestures of disaffiliation. Furthermore, by using form as the primary means of dividing writers, it encourages the mis-reading of books like Native Son, whose obvious naturalist tendencies should not cause us to overlook its modernist features.20

A periodization which bases itself on long movement scholarship might look at the years surrounding mid-century differently. Recognizing the importance of the labor left to the first wave of civil rights struggle, as well as the connection of virtually every major Black cultural figure to the movement during this period, such a periodization would see a decisive break in the late 1940s. The thorough disorganization of the movement during these years, combined with the CP’s success in alienating its most talented Black authors (Wright and Ellison), could mark a transition point, when the radical Black aesthetics of the thirties and forties were displaced by the rise of a liberal Black modernism. Heartily encouraged by the institutions of the cultural Cold War, this new aesthetic would repudiate the social commitment of earlier writers in favor of protagonists who are largely equivocal about the society in which they live.21

Just as Baldwin (who had done as much as anyone to marginalize Wright and the socially committed work of the Black Popular Front) would retain important radical moments in his work, however, Black literature as a whole was not utterly purged of its radicalism by the McCarthy years. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, for example, was partially a product of Hansberry’s involvement with the Freedom group, comprised of mostly Black writers centered around Paul Robeson. By using the long movement framework as a guide to periodizing Black literature, scholars could avoid the admitted artificiality of current efforts, and account for the continuities and discontinuities in cultural production at mid-century.

The concept of a long civil rights movement thus has a great deal to offer scholarship on Black politics and culture during the twentieth century. Its ability to reshape discussions of Black cultural production has yet to be appreciated, though it clearly has a great deal to contribute in this area once literary scholars take note of what historians have been up to. Though an adequate theorization of space within the concept has yet to appear, this lacuna has not prevented long movement scholars from definitively pushing the boundaries of civil rights outside the United States. The need for such a reconceptualization is not merely academic. As the controversy surrounding Barack Obama’s birth certificate has shown, those who support America’s racial status quo have a healthy interest in questions of space as well. If long movement scholarship is to succeed in its aim of destabilizing the racial narrative that supports such controversies, it will ultimately have to grapple with the same questions of culture and space that the heirs of the backlash do.

1Ironically, Obama’s friendship with Davis was brought to the attention of the right wing partially by radical historian Gerald Horne, who described it in his talk at the 2007 reception of the Communist Party-USA archives at New York University’s Tamiment Library. See Horne, “Rethinking the History and Future of the Communist Party,” http://www.politicalaffairs.net/article/articleview/5047/1/32/

2The struggle of the Communist Party and its allies against racism was introduced into the historical discussion primarily by Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Great Depression and Robing D.G. Kelley Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. Randi Storch brings the Midwest into the story in Red Chicago: American Communism at its Grassroots, 1928-1935.

3Jacqueline Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past.” Journal of American History. 91.4 (2005) pg 1235. Though most of the scholarship Hall discusses under the long movement rubric was published in the mid-nineties or after, there were important anticipations of the concept as early as the mid-1980s. See Manning Marable, Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945-1990; and Robert Korstad and Alex Lichtenstein, “Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement.” Journal of American History 75.3 (December 1988), pp 786-811 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984)

4Hall, 1249. For accounts of civil rights casualties of the Cold War, see Risa L. Goluboff, The Lost Promise of Civil Rights, Penny Von Eschen, Race Against Colonialism, Ch. 7, and especially Martha Biondi, To Stand and Fight, Chs. 7-8.

5On Baker and Rustin, see respectively Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement and John D’Emilio, Lost Prophet. For local struggles, see Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom and Michael K. Honey, Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle.

6Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua and Clarence Lang, “The ‘Long Movement’ as Vampire: Temporal and Spatial Fallacies in Recent Black Freedom Studies.” Journal of African-American History 92.2 2007, 271. See also, Eric Arnesen “Reconsidering the ‘Long Civil Rights Movement’” Historically Speaking 10.2 2009. pgs 31-34; and “No ‘Graver Danger’: Black Anticommunism, the Communist Party, and the Race Question” and “The Red and the Black: Reflections on the Responses to ‘No Graver Danger,’” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 3, No. 4 (Winter 2006). Ironically, Kevin Boyle makes the exact opposite criticism of long movement scholarship, arguing that it exaggerates the differences between the character of struggle in the 1940s and the 1960s. See Kevin Boyle, “Labour, the left, and the long civil rights movement.” Social History 30, No. 3 (August 2005), 366-372.

7Von Eschen, 145-159. Biondi, 189. Gilmore, 8. Cha-Jua and Long, 272. Cha-Jua and Long attempt to make their case by examining Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodward’s collections Freedom North and Groundwork. Cha-Jua and Long note that only three articles in these two collections cover the period between 1947 and 1955. Yet as the above summary makes clear, such a lacuna is hardly characteristic of long movement scholarship.

8Arnesen, “Reconsidering,” 33. In his introduction, Sugrue announces that he has been “inspired by the work of a new generation of civil rights historians, most of them focusing on the South, who have challenged the tired chronologies of that region’s battle over Jim Crow.” He also cites Hall specifically for her theorization of the long movement. Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Civil Rights Struggle in the North (New York: Random House, 2008). pg xix.

9For CP membership data during the war, see Bert Cochran, Labor and Communism: The Conflict that Shaped American Unions (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977), pg 228.

10Cha-Jua and Long critique long movement scholarship on a spatial basis for its alleged elision of differences between the conditions of civil rights struggle in the North and in the South. Hall, however, is quite clear on the differences in race and class structure in different regions, noting that the “plantation metaphor” of oppression failed to describe conditions in areas where migrants from the South arrived. See Cha-Jua and Long, pg 281-283; and Hall, 1240.

11See, for example, Von Eschen, Race Against Empire and Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004); Brenda Gayle Plummer, Rising Wind: Black Americans and US Foreign Affairs, 1935-1960; Glenda Gilmore, Defying Dixie; Kevin K. Gaines, American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates During the Civil Rights Era. Interestingly, Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Roots, Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America suggests that whiteness in this period had a similarly international character, as white ethnics claimed their linkages with European homelands as a way of distancing themselves from whiteness. Thus, the ‘long backlash’ Hall describes has an international component that goes well beyond the Cold War pressures she identifies.

12Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993). Additionally, Gilroy’s theorization of the Black Atlantic is meant to destabilize nationalist discourses of race in a way that is strikingly congruent with Hall’s project of making civil rights “harder.”

13See Gerald Horne, The End of Empires: African Americans and India. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008); Bill V. Mullen, Afro-Orientalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), esp. Ch. 3. Vijay Prashad provides a broader view of Black engagements with Asia in his Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002). Kate Baldwin has extended Gilroy’s framework to include the Soviet Union in her Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain. (Durham: Duke UP, 2002), but her inattention to the actual politics of her subjects mars the attempt. Robin Kelley notes that Black history has always had a global perspective in Kelly, “But a Local Phase of a World Problem: Black History’s Global Vision, 1883-1950” Journal of American History 86.3 (December 1993), pgs 1045-1077. Gerald Horne outlines possible avenues of study for future global research in Afro-American history in Horne, “Towards a Transnational Research Agenda for African American History in the 21st Century’ Journal of African American History 91.3 (2006), pgs 288-304.

14Barbara Foley, Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941. (Durham: Duke UP, 1993) pgs 209-212. Foley also demonstrates conclusively that there was no generalized antipathy to modernism among writers associated with the CP. For an excellent account of the the relation of modernist poetry and radicalism, see Alan Filreis, Counter-Revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-1960. (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2008), Ch. 1. Michael Denning’s incredible The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. (New York: Verso, 1998) remains the best book yet written on“culture in “the age of the CIO.”

15The classic work on the Marxist theory of totality in literature is Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983). Lukács’ description of the way writers of the historical novel like Scott were able to create a picture of social totality through the interaction of their protagonists with multiple social layers is suggestively similar to Wright’s practice in Native Son, though Wright almost certainly never read Lukács. See Lukács, Ch. 1 Sec. 2.

16For more on the critical consensus of the Cold War, see Thomas Hill Schaub, American Fiction in the Cold War. (Madison: University of Madison Press, 1991); Lawrence Schwartz, Creating Faulkner’s Reputation: The Politics of Modern Literary Criticism. (Nashville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990); and Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996 [2nd Ed.]), pg 43.

17On Baldwin’s relationship to Painter, see Carol Polsgrove, Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement. (New York: Norton, 2001), pg 93. Paul Goodman review, “Not Enough of a World to Grow in,” appeared in the New York Times on June 24th, 1962. For Hughes’ assessment, see Herb Boyd, Baldwin’s Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008) pgs. 40-41. Cleaver’s attack on Baldwin, “Notes on a Native Son,” was published as part of his Soul on Ice.

18On Freedomways and the Left, see James Smethurst, SNYC, Freedomways, and the Influence of the Popular Front in the South on the Black Arts Movement.” Reconstruction 8.1 (2008). <http://reconstruction.eserver.org/081/smethurst.shtml> Smethurst’s authoritative The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2005) maps in detail the linkages between Old Left artistic practices and persons and the militant art of the Black Power era.

19On the class politics of women’s blues, see Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrue “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. (New York: Vintage, 1999).

20Nellie Y. McKay and Henry Lous Gates, Jr. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 2nd Ed. (New York, Norton, 2003) pgs 1355-1368.

21Barbara Foley’s forthcoming Wrestling with Prometheus: Ralph Ellison, the Left, and the Making of “Invisible Man” promises to provide an in-depth picture of the move from the aesthetics of the Black Left to those promoted by the New Criticism by one of the most important writers of this period.

Read Full Post »

The argument Jameson develops in Marxism and Form, brilliant as it is, contains a significant lacuna. If, as he argues, Marxism provides the key to understanding literary texts, as their forms are various solutions to the social contradictions of their time, what is the status of the numerous other critical programs which lay claim to primacy? This hole is all the more significant as its immediate answer would seem to be that, in their various evasions of history in the text, they are so many forms of critical false consciousness, exactly the model of ideology from which Jameson is at pains to dissociate himself throughout Marxism and Form.

The Political Unconscious is, among other things, an attempt to fill this void, by performing the same operation on literary theory that the first book performed on the text itself. There he argued that all texts, even those most apparently inconsiderate of the weight of history, ultimately yield on the level of form to determination by social content. If nothing else, the text’s form operates as a mechanism for repressing various historical truths, be they the violence of class society or reification and compartmentalization of social life. Here, Jameson argues that literary theories are constituted in a similar fashion, insofar as they contain similar “strategies of containment” for avoiding confrontation with history itself.

However, here he goes a step further, and ‘redeems’ these various theories by arguing that each of them retains a local validity once placed within the conceptual structure of historical materialism. His example of how these theories can be so assimilated centers on AJ Greimas’ semiotic rectangle. For Greimas, the semiotic rectangle is a tool for mapping how binary oppositions structure a given text. Greimas argued that any binary opposition actually involves four terms: the two primary contradictory terms as well as each of their contraries. Thus, the classic binary of American racial ideology, Black-white, also contains the terms not-white and not-black. Mapped on to Greimas’ rectangle, that opposition becomes

Thus in addition to the four starting positions, an additional four positions in the opposition arise. The first, between the two initial terms, would in our example be those persons of mixed-race heritage, once called mulattoes, who have been such a figure of anxiety for American racial ideology. The second, between the two contraries, would be those, from Jews to Asians to Latinos, who have failed to fit into the class scheme and thus been a cause of anxiety in their own right. The second two new positions, those of Black and not white and the inverse, are the positions of those subjects our racial ideology has always been most comfortable with: the Black brute and the pure white. By mapping the various permutations of the original opposition in this way, Greimas’ rectangle provides a tool for reading texts which operate around some such binary structure.

This model is open to some obvious objections. Most relevant for our purposes, however, is its opacity to history. The historical remarks I decorated the above exposition with rise not from the logic of Greimas’ system, but rather intrude in an extraneous manner, necessary to animate the analysis, but not springing from it. Moreover, the model itself is static, with no room for the traditional Marxist concerns with the way such binary terms interpenetrate and develop. Ellison’s famous metaphor of the paint factory, in which a drop of black paint is added to produce the brightest white, exposes the insufficiency of GreimAJ Greimas’ semiotic rectangleas’ scheme.

For Jameson, however, all this is not cause to reject it as a critical tool. Indeed, he argues that the model’s static quality is exactly what makes it most useful as a tool of ideological analysis. For Greimas’ inability to think through the oppositions he maps in a properly contradictory manner, his halting of the analysis at the level of antinomy, parallels the reified logic of ideology itself. Since the semiotic rectangle enacts the same kinds of closures as literary texts themselves, Jameson argues that it is in fact the privileged method for mapping the operation of ideological closure in a text. While Greimas developed this tool for understanding the texts themselves, Jameson reduces its scope to understanding the mechanisms of ideology within a text, rewriting the semiotic square as one moment of a dialectical criticism which seeks to map the relation between a text and history.

As this account suggests, what Jameson develops here is what Paul Ricoer has called a positive hermeneutic. While a great deal of Marxist criticism has focused on the negative side of the hermeneutic process, the demystification of ideology, Jameson tries to develop methods in which other critical traditions can be not simply dismissed, but absorbed into the conceptual apparatus of Marxism. As such, his entire project is vulnerable to the formidable critique of interpretation developed by Althusser and various postmodern thinkers. For this reason, the book’s first and longest chapter is a defense of the process of interpretation itself.

Althusser’s critique revolves around the familiar concept of the expressive totality. Here the tradition of Hegelian Marxism is condemned for reducing the whole to the essence of one of its parts. Versions of Marxism which held the superstructure to be the mere epiphenomenal expression of the economy made this critique rather easy for Althusser, who in turn insisted upon the relative autonomy between the various instants of society (economic, political, ideological). Lukács’ vision of totality, in which the social whole is primarily determined by material production through various mediations, was for Althusser one more instance of the expressive totality. It is not difficult to move from this critique to a general one of interpretive operations, which Althusser would argue simply rewrite the text so that all of its parts simply reflect the essence of one privileged term.

Jameson’s response is extensive and nuanced, but at its heart is the assertion that Althusser overhastily treats all mediations, all attempts to reconstruct the series of moves by which history exerts its influence, as homologies. Some Marxists, most notably Lucien Goldmann, have argued for a homologous vision of Marxism, in which the logic of text reflected “the everyday relation between man and commodities in general, and by extension between men and other men, in a market society.” However, homologies are only one way of relating the different aspects of society. As Jameson points out, mediation is not the assertion of identity, but rather “the invention of a set of terms, the strategic choice of a particular code or language, such that the same terminology can be used to analyze and articulate two quite distinct types of objects or ‘texts,’ or two very different structural levels of reality” (40). On this interpretation, mediation does not require that the two texts or levels operate with the same logic. Indeed, one of Jameson’s central arguments is that literary forms are various attempts to overcome the alienation and reification of modern life. An argument such as this can hardly be accused of being yet another instance of the expressive totality, as the texts are read as attempting to move against the grain of society.

Having carved out space for a certain type of hermeneutic operation, Jameson proposes his own interpretive machinery. It consists of three levels, or as he calls them, horizons, of analysis. The first horizon is the political horizon, in which the text is grasped as a symbolic act (Kenneth Burke’s term), an imaginary response to a real social problem. For example, Jameson reads Henry James’ development of the formal device of point of view as an attempt to recreate the subject. As the autonomous, individual subject of bourgeois ideology had increasingly been shown to be a fiction when faced with the crushing realities of Victorian capitalism, James insistence that texts be marked by a strong narrative point of view functioned as an attempt, on the level of form, to recreate what had been rendered unconvincing on the level of content by social development. The first horizon of analysis is thus concerned with understanding the symbolic acts through which a text responds to history.

The second horizon expands the viewing field, to include the class struggle as a determinant of the text. On this level the ideologies of the contending classes, not the various fissures of social life, form the prime determinant. Here the primary unit of analysis is not the symbolic act, but rather the ideologeme, defined by Jameson as “the smallest intelligible unit of the essentially antagonistic collective discourses of social classes” (76). For Jameson, the ideologeme is both narrative and concept, that germ of ideology which both makes a claim and tells a story. His prime example of this is Nietzsche’s “theory” of ressentiment, that process by which the slaves take revenge by pushing back upon their masters their own submissive morality. In Nietzsche’s exposition of the concept, Christianity is exhibit A, the means by which the slaves enervated the ruling classes of Europe by infecting them with the slave religion of submission. This ideologeme does a great deal of work for bourgeois ideology, as it attributes an envy to the lower classes which is easy enough to write off. At the same time, it licenses the renunciation of any social concern on the part of the bourgeoisie as the ethical equivalent of viral DNA. As both a concept and a narrative, the ideologeme is the building block of ideology.

The third and final horizon is that of mode of production, a concept which itself implies a series of such modes. Drawing on the Althusserian concept of social formation, Jameson argues that no actually existing society ever exhibits a pure mode of production. Instead, social formations are shot through with both residual and emergent social forms, forms which leave their footprints on literary texts. Jameson describes these footprints as ideologies of form, “symbolic messages transmitted to us by the coexistence of various sign systems which are themselves traces or anticipations of modes of production” (76). These ideologies of form are produced by what Jameson refers to as cultural revolutions, the immense process of reshaping of cultural forms which takes place in the transition from one mode of production to another.

This third horizon presents a number of problems absent from the first two levels of analysis. First and foremost, in the subsequent chapters of the book, where Jameson reads a number of authors through this framework, this horizon is largely absent. The occasions in which Jameson does call on it do some explanatory work reveal further weaknesses. For example, Jameson uses the idea of overlapping modes of production to, in his words, “short circuit” the debate between Marxists and feminists over the primacy of class or gender. Sexism, he argues is “the sedimentation and the virulent survival of forms of alienation specific to the oldest mode of production of human history, with its division of labor between men and women” (100). From this, Jameson concludes that there is no conflict between Marxism and feminism, since socialist revolution is about clearing away the vestiges of all the modes of production in which labor remains alienated. The weaknesses here are many. On an empirical level, Jameson simply ignores the large body of Marxist anthropology contesting the reading of present gender relations into pre-class society. On a theoretical level, Jameson’s argument supposes that sexism plays no active role in capitalism today, an assertion which is both politically disabling and blind to the role of women’s labor in the global economy.

A more useful way of conceptualizing archaic social forms would examine the ways in which they are made relevant, and indeed vital, to new modes of production. Religion, for example, was undoubtedly the most important institution of ideological dissemination in feudal society, yet it continues to play an important ideological role today. Its prominence is due not to something like historical inertia, as Jameson seems to imply, but rather to the efficiency with which it contributes to the reification of morality, the isolation and compartmentalization of ethical duty within the individual soul, even as it speaks to utopian desires for real sociality made impossible by capitalism.

As the example of sexism shows, Jameson’s attempt to develop a Marxist positive hermeneutic sometimes leads him to evade real debates in favor of a spurious assertion that the matter at hand is a “non-problem” once properly understood. Here Jameson displays the limits of any purely positive hermeneutic, in its inability to confront what his book is ostensibly aimed at foregrounding: the political itself.

Jameson’s problems with the third horizon of his analysis are, unfortunately, not easily confined to that horizon alone. His entire argument is crucially premised on the ability to place literary forms within the whole history of modes of production. Only in this manner, he argues, can we avoid the twin impulses which disable literary study today: the liberal humanist classicism, in which the texts of the past are mere antiques to be appreciated, and the postmodernist rewriting of the text in its own image (Jameson’s critique of literary theory here makes clear his appreciation of Lukács’ framework of archaeologizing and modernization). Seeing the social determinants of our own texts as a moment in the same history that shaped earlier texts is vital if we are to avoid this trap. Yet if his attempts to rewrite texts into this history fail, where does that leave the rest of his argument?

In my view, Jameson’s system is not fatally damaged by the underdevelopment of the third horizon. It seems to me that both his first and second horizons contain within them the theoretical tools to avoid the twin pitfalls identified above. His concept of literature as a socially symbolic act, intervening into a given situation, preserves the specificity of the text in a way the postmodernist rewriting cannot. At the same time, the second horizon, that of class struggle, resonates so strongly with our own time, riven as it is between the ruling class and the rest of us, that any kind of antiquarianism seems impossible. Ultimately, his attempt to write texts into the whole history of modes of production suffers from the very defect he criticizes others for seeing in Hegel: the premature establishment of identity between different terms. For as long as social life remains alienated, the attempt to establish a common thread between modes of production will be based on a shard lack, the similar crushing of freedom by necessity. Only in what Marx called the society of the free producers will the story of modes of production be held together by anything more than a wound.

Read Full Post »

Marxist theory has always had a strangely intimate relationship with the arts. As Hal Draper has pointed out, Marx’s criticisms of Eugene Sue’s novel Les Mystères de Paris formed a key moment in his development of the theory of proletarian self-emancipation. Lenin famously refused to listen to Beethoven during the Russian Civil War, claiming its beauty would sap him of the necessary resolve. EP Thompson, known for his virtual invention of ‘history from below,’ wrote his first and last books on William Morris and William Blake, respectively. Indeed, the closeness of this relationship, combined with its durability throughout the long trek of Marxist theory across the twentieth century, has served to obscure its strangeness. To appreciate the incongruity of the relationship, it’s helpful to try and imagine schools of literary study springing from Marxism’s intellectual or political rivals. Is an anarchist literary theory even conceivable? Who would be interested in a Weberian reading of Ulysses? Yet Marxist theorists have founded entire schools of criticism with scarcely a hint of embarrassment over the apparent mismatch between their intellectual pursuits.

Fredric Jameson’s Marxism and Form is, among other things, an attempt to explain this relationship. Jameson argues that even though Marxist criticism in the English speaking world has focused overwhelmingly on content, for dialectical thinkers the privileged moment in the form-content opposition is in fact form. To illustrate this point, Jameson takes the reader on a tour of the most important works of Western Marxism. Through an examination of theorists from Adorno to Sartre, Jameson shows how the work of each has been an attempt to locate in the form of various texts the traces and deformations of society as a whole.

If today that thesis appears original, but not earth shattering, it must have appeared as a jolt from the blue in the intellectual landscape of American literary theory in the early 1970s. While today any reasonably clever liberal arts student can tell you the thesis of Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in 1971 Marxists were only beginning their re-entry into the academy after the McCarthyite purges. Indeed, at the time the hegemonic theory was still New Criticism, whose explicit rejection of historical categories in criticism was as far from Jameson’s Marxism as can be.

For this reason, there is a third vital layer of Marxism and Form, beyond the argument for privileging form and the tour of Western Marxism. This is the layer of pedagogy. Marxism and Form is, perhaps first and foremost, a manual for dialectical thinking. This layer explains, I believe, most of the noteworthy aspects of the text. For while Jameson’s insistence on the primacy of form is an interesting argument, it hardly seems suitable to the conjuncture in which he intervened. Such a novel argument seems directed towards a field which is filled with Marxist critics who focus only on content, not the formalist and technocratic field of American criticism. Looked at from this perspective, Jameson’s argument can only appear misplaced. But judged according to the criteria of pedagogical potential, the argument about form fulfills its purpose beautifully, providing ample opportunity to illustrate the power of dialectical thought.

For Jameson, the argument that form is the privileged object of dialectical theories of literature does not stem from Marx, but from Hegel. For it was Hegel who first formulated the opposition between form and content in its modern guise. Prior to Hegel, the Aristotelian pairing of form and matter, in which the latter was but the passive raw stuff of the former, had dominated philosophical thinking about form. Hegel’s insistence that content itself carried its own logic, which in turn determined the form. In his system, this insight meant that the progress of the Absolute Spirit could only be expressed in certain forms along the way. His ranking of types of knowledge, from art to theology to philosophy, is a history of forms which themselves are determined by the progress of human knowledge.

In Marx’s hands, the opposition of form and content becomes not a means to understand the history of knowledge, but to understand history itself. Marx’s iconic images of historical transformation, the integuments bursting asunder, the throwing off of fetters of production, are precisely images of a content seeking an appropriate form. Without Hegel’s redefinition of the problem of form, Jameson argues, the key Marxist distinction between forces and relations of production is impossible. It is this parallelism between the key Marxist concepts and the key concepts of aesthetics that, for Jameson, explains the affinity between Marxism and art.

Hegel’s animation of content is also the driving force behind Jameson’s argument that form holds primacy in dialectical analysis. For it is precisely form’s determination by content which makes it such a valuable optic into our society. As Jameson argues, “inasmuch as the cultural is far less complex than the economic, it may serve as a useful introduction to the real on a reduced, simplified scale” (10). This formulation hints that for Jameson, the content of literary form is not so much the abstract story as society itself. Thus it is precisely because of form’s determination by content that the former holds the privileged place in dialectical criticism. For it is by reading form that we may come to see the material traces of content, which is to say society as a whole.

With this as Jameson’s central argument, it is not difficult to see why he argues that “[t]he basic story which the dialectic has to tell is no doubt that of the dialectical reversal, that paradoxical turning around of a phenomenon into its opposite” (309). The way Hegel’s subordination of form to content allows the former to stand as the privileged category of analysis is Jameson’s central example of this reversal. From this, we can begin to see its suitability not only as a worthwhile line of investigation in its own right, but also as a an example of how dialectical analysis works.

Jameson’s privileging of form carries with it some baggage, however, in his relative laxity when it comes to addressing content, or history, itself. On one level this makes an appearance with his rather loose acceptance of theories of “postindustrial society,” which often posit the disappearance of the working class (it must be said that Jameson was undoubtedly aided along this route by his endorsement of certain Maoist theorists who argued for the non-revolutionary character of the Western working classes). Forty years later, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, it is as clear as ever that the proletariat has not been absorbed into the bourgeoisie on any level.

At another point in the text, Jameson argues that Lukács faced a contradiction in his diagnosis of modernism as a symptom of a morbid capitalism, and his strident condemnations of modernist writers. Jameson reads this conflict between objective and subjective modes of analysis as internal to Marxism itself, as illustrated by Lenin’s voluntarism in attempting revolution in a more or less pre-capitalist country. As elegant as this symmetry may be, it is essentially dependent upon a Menshevik analysis of October. In endorsing this analysis, Jameson gives credence to the grossest voluntarism of all, that of bourgeois liberalism, which held that force of good ideals could create a third way between the revolution of the Bolsheviks and the barbarism of the White generals.

Unfortunately, it is this kind of disregard for history which has come to dominate literary studies today, not Jameson’s call for a Marxism of form. Indeed, his approach of reading texts as symptomatic solutions to the problems of society has not spread in the way he undoubtedly hoped. Although figures like Benjamin and Adorno (though not Sartre and Lukács) are now firmly part of the cultural studies pantheon, they now bare little resemblance the Hegelian figures Jameson presents. Indeed, the vision of totality which animates Jameson’s entire book is often the polemical target of textual readings today. In the ideologies of textualism, a work is not determined by the problems of society which it attempts to answer, but instead appears as an unstable congeries of criss-crossing discourses, none of which attains primacy.

The hostility of today’s academy to Jameson’s totalizing Marxism helps explain why even forty years later Marxism and Form remains, above all, an exciting read. In a final dialectical reversal, Jameson’s failure (and of course it is not his alone) to organize a generation of American dialectical critics has ensured that his manual for dialectical thinking retains all the urgency with which it was originally written.

Read Full Post »

Ian Birchall on Lukacs

While doing some more digging on Lukacs I discovered this excellent little essay by Ian Birchall.  It’s an attempt to evaluate Lukacs’ entire career, and while I don’t agree with everything in it (Lukacs deserves far more credit for his struggle against Stalinist aesthetics), it’s a great introduction to his work as a whole.

Read Full Post »

Let us never forget Milton, the first defender of regicide.
-Frederick Engels, The Northern Star Dec 18th, 1847.

Biographies are bourgeois. More often than not, they are little more than the supports to Great Man theories of history, in which the dynamics of historical change are explicable through the actions of the most prominent individual actors. We can see this in the tremendous academic industry of biographies of the Founding Fathers of the United States, whose every whisper and fart becomes more relevant to national history than the culture (in Raymond Williams’ sense of a way of life) of the millions over whom they ruled. (Highlighting the genre’s ideological proclivities does not, of course, render it useless).

Christopher Hill’s biography of John Milton is particularly worthwhile for its interaction with the these strictures of the genre. Milton was one of the first bourgeois radicals, and in many ways the high water mark for the tradition until Thomas Paine. It is thus not inappropriate that he should be examined through an ideological lens (partially) commensurate with his own. More important than this congruence, however, is Hill’s own subtle revision of the problematic of biography. Counterpoising the previous efforts of scholars to trace the influence upon Milton of authors like Plato, Aquinas, and Homer, Hill argues that a far more fecund source of his subject’s ideas lay in his dialogue with his fellow countrymen. By emphasizing the collective input into Milton’s development, Hill does much to defetishize the bourgeois ideal of individual genius.

This emphasis on the dialogic nature of Milton’s thought is at the heart of Hill’s argument. He argues that in the political terrain of the English Revolution, there were three main cultures contending – the Royalists (led by Charles I), the Parliamentarians (Oliver Cromwell), and the radicals (the Diggers, Levellers, and Ranters.) For Hill, Milton is located perpetually in the interstices between the second and third culture. Though of a middle class upbringing – the son of a moneylender – Milton developed enthusiasms for the democratic currents in England early in his life through friendships with many of the radicals of his day.

Milton’s contact with the radicals led him, when the revolution began, to adopt a position well to the left of many of the Parliamentary leaders. Though he did not always agree the positions of the radicals, and often criticized them, a dialogue existed nevertheless. It was partially this positioning that led Milton to take the radical position in favor of free speech he did in his famous pamphlet the Areopagitica. While older scholarship has focused on the Biblical and Greek philosophical quotations Milton uses to make his point, it has never bothered to ask why he chose to make the defense in the first place when other, no less dedicated classicists, endorsed censorship. The same contact with the radicals informed Milton’s spirited defense of regicide, the Eikonoklastes.

Milton’s radicalism was not limited to the political, however; it extended to the personal as well. Though Milton was once the bete noire of feminism (see Mary Daly), recent scholarship has placed him firmly on the side of antimisogyny. Hill was one of the earliest (1977) to argue against the received wisdom on Milton and women. Through a close examination of Milton’s relationship to both the rulers and the radicals, Hill demonstrates that the former viewed the poet as a disgusting libertine for advocating divorce on the grounds of incompatibility, while the latter saw his work as a foundation to build off. Though Milton was certainly displeased by the direction in which some of the radicals took his work, such as excusing adultery, he was nonetheless well in advance of many of his contemporaries in his views on relations between men and women[1].

Unsurprisingly, this radical in politics and romance was also a radical in theology. Though a committed Christian, Milton flirted with the radical theology produced by the third culture which even contemporary Christians would have a hard time accepting. Among other things, Milton was a mortalist, who believed that the soul died along with the body. In all his theology, Milton was far more concerned with what transpired in this world than in the next.

Even when considering the material realm Milton went farther than most of his contemporaries. Though not an antinomianist himself, Milton was strongly influenced by the plebeian theology which held that men in the community of God were not subject to laws either spiritual or mundane. While stopping short of endorsing such theses, Milton did argue that whatever heresies the people of England did commit, they were not responsible; the Bishops of an idolatrous Church who had kept the people in ignorance were. He also thought angels had pretty wild sex.

Though they occupy a large portion of the book, I cannot do justice to Hill’s readings of Milton’s great poems (Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes) in this review. Suffice to say that through a meticulous examination of the texts, Hill argues that one can find distinct echoes of the debates surrounding the English Revolution. In reconstructing the poems’ contexts, Hill maps out a compelling progression through the three works. Paradise Lost, written in the aftermat of the restoration of Charles II to the thrown, seeks “to justify the ways of God to men” That is, to examine why God allowed the English Revolution to fail. In narrating the Fall, Milton was also engaging in (self)-criticism of the shortcomings of the Parliamentarians and Radicals. Paradise Regained, the story of Jesus’ resistance to temptation, Milton offers a program for humanity in which God’s kingdom can finally be brought to earth. Finally, Samson Agonistes shows what an ordinary (fallen) man can do with the proper faith. Though the defeat of the revolution deeply shook Milton’s faith in the English people, his poetry offered him a means by which to maintain hope.

Some of the parts of Milton and the English Revolution that I found the most engaging were Hill’s little asides explaining this or that detail of his argument. Culled from a lifetime’s study of seventeenth century English history, Hill packs more insight into a paragraph than are found in many books. To take one example: in discussing Milton’s ideas on women, Hill briefly surveys middle class Puritan and bourgeois ideas concerning the family. Hill notes that although bourgeois women were often surrounded by an aura of grace and deference, this aura actually concealed their powerlessness in society. While Puritan women, as part of an economy based on household production, played a vital role in producing and reproducing society, the bourgeois woman was utterly removed from this whole process. Her husband’s employers did the producing, and her servants the reproductive work of raising children and maintaining the home. Though only an aside here, Hill’s argument introduced a whole level of depth previously lacking in my understanding of bourgeois English society.

Milton and the English Revolution stands as a testament to the ability of Marxist historiography. Though largely free of terms like ‘mode of production’ and ‘class struggle,’ Hill is deeply committed to a Marxist method which sees society as a totality and seeks to excavate the dialectical interactions of its different parts. It is perhaps a final dialectical irony that a genre so deeply influenced by bourgeois society should reach its apogee in the hands of one committed to that society’s undoing.

*For those interested in getting into Christopher Hill, I recommend his (very) early essay “The English Revolution 1640,” which is available courtesy of the good folks at Marxists.org.*

[1] In another context, Hill offers a partial explanation for the harshness with which so many contemporary commentators view Milton: “Part of the difficulty in assessing Milton is that some of his ideas are so advanced that we tend to treat him as though he were our contemporary.”

Read Full Post »

When Georg Lukács was arrested for his participation in the Hungarian rebellion of 1956, a KGB official asked him if he had a weapon. Lukács calmly reached into his pocket and handed over his pen.

It is no small irony that the legacy of Georg Lukács, genealogist of the antimonies of bourgeois thought, has come to rest upon two supposedly divergent concepts: that of totality and that of realism.  Fredric Jameson has ably condensed the biographical narrative which underlies this bifurcation: the strident Hegelianism and workerist militance of the young Lukács, which culminated in the essays collected in History and Class Consciousness, gave way under criticism from the Comintern to an aesthetic focus that represented a retreat from politics and an accommodation with Stalinism.  The key texts of this narrative are essays which are often reduced to slogans: “orthodoxy refers exclusively to method,” the proletariat as the “identical subject-object of history,” or “modernism means not the enrichment, but the negation of art.”  One reads “What is Orthodox Marxism,” then “The Ideology of Modernism,” and meditates on the gulf that separates them.

It is perhaps because The Historical Novel does not fit neatly into this categorization that it has suffered a relative neglect when compared with Lukács’ more well known texts.  This obscurity has unfortunately led to the Marxist tradition’s under-utilization of an exceptionally wide-ranging work.  Indeed, the sheer breath of topics covered in this work, which significantly opens up our picture of Lukács as a Marxist thinker, should mark it as a resource for a whole host of streams of Marxist thought.

For example, the book opens with a discussion of the formation of modern historical consciousness.  For Lukács,  modern historical inquiry began with the struggle against absolutism.  Enlightenment thinkers, particularly in France, endeavored to portray the unreasonableness of absolutist rule, its arbitrary and capricious nature.  Historical inquiry became a weapon in this battle, as ‘the lessons of history provide the principles with whose help a “reasonable” society, a “reasonable” state may be created’ (Lukács 20).  This was the role played by historical works such as Voltaire’s Henriade.

In Germany, the situation was much different.  Living in a land fractured into competing princedoms, the philosophers of the German Enlightenment found need not only for a historical explanation of their current state, but also a “national past greatness” which could “giv[e] strength to hopes of national rebirth” (22).  While Lukács is vague as to whether this past national greatness refers to some real past state or, in the mode of present studies, something imagined, he is clear that the invention of the modern nation was an act of tremendous intellectual labor, and not some inevitable form of social existence.  There is thus an intimate relationship between the emergence of nationalism as a modern structure of feeling and the emergence of historical consciousness.

The French Revolution transformed this process in two ways.  First, the rise of a reactionary historical tradition (de Maistre, Burke) forced progressive Enlightenment thinkers to deepen their historical method.  The reactionary historians countered the critique of absolutism by arguing that history evinced a slow logic of change, a gradual accumulation of shifts in tradition which were beyond the control of any one generation.  The great sin of the French Revolution, for these thinkers, was its dramatic severing of the traditions  holding the nation together.  To respond to this critique, Enlightenment historians were forced to move beyond a story of history as reason versus unreason, and instead comprehend the historical necessity of various forms of seemingly unreasonable society (this is the historical consciousness which reaches its apogee, in idealist form, in the philosophy of Hegel).  Here the French Revolution appears not as some catastrophic break from previous history, but instead as the rational form of a society which had outgrown the constraints of feudal rule.

The second transformation was of a more material nature.  The wars which followed the French Revolution resulted in the creation, for the first time, of mass armies on a European scale.  The involvement of broader layers of the population in the making of history “enormously strengthens the feeling first there there is such a thing as history, that it is an uninterrupted process of changes and finally that it has a direct effect upon the life of every individual” (23).  Later, Lukács argues that this popular involvement in history was a vital precondition of the historical novel, insofar as it furnished a means of narrating world-historical changes.

The preceding summary only covers the first twenty pages or so of The Historical Novel.  Yet I hope it is clear that Lukács’ discussion of nationalism and historical consciousness, despite its brevity, constitutes a real resource for Marxist discussions of the topic.  Its neglect is obvious in the fact that two excellent (relatively) recent articles on nationalism, both from writers sympathetic to Lukács, ignore his contributions in this area[1].

If The Historical Novel broadens our picture of what Lukács was a philosopher of, it also transforms our received image of his method.  For  example, the Althusserian concept of overdetermination has oven been deployed against Lukács as a critique of his supposed “expressive totality,” in which every level of reality is nothing but the expression a single, primary contradiction.  But compare Lukács discussion of social upheaval (in the context of a discussion of historical drama) with Althusser’s own:

Lukács: “A real popular revolution never breaks out as a result of a single, isolated social contradiction.  The objective-historical period preparatory to revolution is filled with a whole number of tragic contradictions in life itself.  The maturing of the revolution then shows with increasing clarity the objective connection between these isolatedly occurring contradictions and gathers them into several central and decisive issues affecting the activity of the masses.  And, in the same way, certain social contradictions can continue unresolved even after a revolution or, indeed, emerge strengthened and heightened as a result of the revolution” (98).[2]

Althusser: “How else should we summarise these practical experiences and their theoretical commentaries other than by saying that the whole Marxist revolutionary experience shows that if the general contradiction (it has already been specified: the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production. essentially embodied in the contradiction between two antagonistic classes) is sufficient to define the situation when revolution is the ‘task of the day’, it cannot of its own simple, direct power induce a ‘revolutionary situation’, nor a fortiori a situation of revolutionary rupture and the triumph of the revolution. If this contradiction is to become ‘active’ in the strongest sense, to become a ruptural principle, there must be an accumulation of ‘circumstances’ and ‘currents’ so that whatever their origin and sense (and many of them will necessarily be paradoxically foreign to the revolution in origin and sense, or even its ‘direct opponents’), they ‘fuse’ into a ruptural unity: when they produce the result of the immense majority of the popular masses grouped in an assault on a regime which its ruling classes are unable to defend. Such a situation presupposes not only the ‘fusion’ of the two basic conditions into a ‘single national crisis ‘, but each condition considered (abstractly) by itself presupposes the ‘fusion’ of an ‘accumulation’ of contradictions.”

It is only the relative neglect of texts such as The Historical Novel that has allowed homologies such as this between Lukács and Althusser to go unnoticed in most discussions of Marxist theory.

One could go on in describing how The Historical Novel upsets our image of  Lukács (the extended discussion of drama, which complicates the image of the critic concerned only with novels, or the concluding section on the anti-fascist novel, which surely clashes with the narrative of a critic who has retreated from politics), but the main argument of the book also deserves considerable attention.  Lukács’ task is to anatomize the historical novel as a genre, trace its evolution, and explain its decline.

Lukács locates the emergence of the historical novel in the ideological matrix described above.  While authors of the eighteenth century and before had produced works which took place in historical settings, Lukács argues that these texts contained no true historical consciousness, but merely a projection of contemporary attitudes back in time.  The true historical novel emerges with the work of Sir Walter Scott, whose novels of the Scottish clans portray the disintegration of archaic social forms in the face of capitalist transformation.  Scott went beyond dressing modern characters in kilts, and instead drew his characters in such a fashion that the various details of their personalities were linked with the basic conditions of their existence.

This change in the content of the novel necessitated changes in form as well.  While the historical dramas often focused on ‘world-historical individuals’ (think of Shakespeare’s histories), Scott’s protagonists were often persons rather removed from the centers of historical conflict.  Lukács argues that this choice allowed Scott to investigate all sides of historical change with detail, where choosing a figure closely linked with any faction of the struggle necessitated a reduction in depth of portrayal of the opposing factions.  Scott’s average protagonists, unburdened by historical responsibility, could plausibly interact with different sides, and thus allow the novel to attain a fuller representation of social totality.

This choice of protagonist also allowed world-historical individuals to appear in the novels with proper mediation.  The varied  experiences of the protagonist across the social landscape creates a portrait of social forces so that, by the time major figures such as kings and the like appear, it is clear that their importance arises not from their extraordinary personal characteristics in abstract, but from the way they represent the important social forces of the day.  Lukács combines this critique of a great man theory of literature with a critique of attempts to write “literature from below” which ignore the goings on of the higher levels of society.  In a critique of anarchist mistrust of official politics, he argues that “[t]he appeal to the immediate, material existence of the people, which had been the starting-point of a really enriched picture of the social world, is transformed into its opposite, if it remains in this immediacy” (210).  For Lukács, the best novels narrate neither from above nor below, but with an aspiration towards totality.

Though Scott was the first to articulate the historical novel, he is joined by a host of other novelists who Lukács sees as upholding its classic tradition.  Among these are Alesandro Manzoni, James Fenimore Cooper, Leo Tolstoy, and above all, Honore de Balzac.  These authors all wrote during the ‘heroic’ period of the bourgeoisie, when representatives of that class fought against absolutism and were compelled to defend themselves against reactionary romanticism.

After 1848, however, the situation changed dramatically.  Confronted by the insurgent proletariat in the revolutions of that year, the bourgeoisie began its long retreat from the modes of thought which gave rise to the historical novel.  For Lukács, that retreat would mark the aesthetic of the historical novel with two key tendencies: archaeologization and modernization.  As capitalist reification and alienation became more intense, writers turned to the past not in order to explore it, but as a means of escape from the brutalities and banalities of modern life.  To fulfill this ideological function, history had to become a zone decisively severed from modern life.  Such a conception of the past resulted in a historical portrait which was essentially static, bereft of its own dynamics of change.  Lukács named this tendency archaeologization.

Lifeless portraits of the past do not make for good reading, however, and as such, novelists turned to other means to inject life into their novels.  The subjects of these novels contain the psychology of the present, regardless of whether the mode of life of the past implied anything resembling present subjectivities.  For writers in this mode, “it is really quite immaterial  whether one attributes to Hannibal’s sister the psychology of a French petit bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century or of a Spanish nun of the seventeenth” (188).  Modernization is the dialectical other of archaeologization.

A further means of enlivening the archaeologized past is the explicit portrayal of brutality and pathology.  Lukács argues that this attempt to achieve the aesthetic effects of true historical novels without their methods ends up short-circuiting: instead of producing outrage in the reader over the tortures and executions of the past, their explicit narration only numbs the reader, further reproducing the anesthetized past (one thinks of the ubiquitous torture scenes in New Historicist texts when reading Lukács’ argument here.)

These ideological tendencies are combined with a tendency in modern life for the further development of the division of labor to isolate writers more and more from what Lukács, in good Popular Front fashion, refers to as ‘the popular classes.’  This isolation from the progressive classes of the day further impoverishes the historical imagination, as writers are further separated from the lived experience of contemporary historical forces.

While there is something to this, Lukács’ consistent use of Popular Front terminology is one of the weakest points of the book.  In describing the popular classes, Lukács too frequently blurs the line between different subaltern classes, from peasants to wage workers to artisans.  Indeed, the working class as such is by and large absent from the book.  While the presence of concepts like reification and totality point towards convergences between History and Class Consciousness and the aesthetic works, the absence of the proletariat does form a key difference.

Overall, however, the similarities clearly outweigh the differences.  The Historical Novel displays a striking degree of continuity with Lukács’ early work, especially in light of a narrative which has, to use a favorite phrase from the work, placed a Chinese wall between the two.  These links are even more significant when one considers that Western Marxism has often been characterized by its focus on aesthetic questions and its relative distance from direct political matters.  Given that Lukács is something of a progenitor of this tradition, The Historical Novel, as a text which closely combines his political and aesthetic philosophies, provides a touchstone for rethinking Western Marxism with an eye towards the key political questions of the day which Lukács, for all his faults, always kept at the center of his work.


[1] See Chris Harman “The Return of the National Question,” International Socialism 56, 1992. (http://www.marxists.de/theory/harman/natquest.htm) and Neil Davidson “Reimagined Communities” International Socialism 117, 2007. (http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=401&issue=117#117davidson_35)

[2] This last sentence also puts in doubt the picture of Lukacs as a mouthpiece of Stalinism.

Read Full Post »