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Article

Alison Shonkwiler

Realism is a historical phenomenon that is not of the past. Its recurrent rises and falls only attest to its persistence as a measure of representational authority. Even as literary history has produced different moments of “realism wars,” over the politics of realist versus antirealist aesthetics, the demand to represent an often strange and changing reality—however contested a term that may be—guarantees realism’s ongoing critical future. Undoubtedly, realism has held a privileged position in the history of Western literary representation. Its fortunes are closely linked to the development of capitalist modernity, the rise of the novel, the emergence of the bourgeoisie, and the expansion of middle-class readerships with the literacy and leisure to read—and with an interest in reading about themselves as subjects. While many genealogies of realism are closely tied to the history of the rise of the novel—with Don Quixote as a point of departure—it is from its later, 19th-century forms that critical assumptions have emerged about its capacities and limitations. The 19th-century novel—whether its European or slightly later American version—is taken as the apex of the form and is tied to the rise of industrial capitalism, burgeoning ideas of social class, and expansion of empire. Although many of the realist writers of the 19th century were self-reflexive about the form, and often articulated theories of realism as distinct from romance and sentimental fiction, it was not until the mid-20th century, following the canonization of modernism in English departments, that a full-fledged critical analysis of realism as a form or mode would take shape. Our fullest articulations of realism therefore owe a great deal to its negative comparison to later forms—or, conversely, to the effort to resuscitate realism’s reputation against perceived critical oversimplifications. In consequence, there is no single definition of realism—nor even agreement on whether it is a mode, form, or genre—but an extraordinarily heterogenous set of ways of approaching it as a problem of representation. Standard early genealogies of realism are to be found in historical accounts such as Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel and György Lukács’ Theory of the Novel and The Historical Novel, with a guide to important critiques and modifications to be found in Michael McKeon’s Theory of the Novel. This article does not retrace those critical histories. Nor does it presume to address the full range of realisms in the modern arts, including painting, photography, film, and video and digital arts. It focuses on the changing status of realism in the literary landscape, uses the fault lines of contemporary critical debates about realism to refer back to some of the recurrent terms of realism/antirealism debates, and concludes with a consideration of the “return” to realism in the 21st century.

Article

As migrants who were drawn to North America to serve as cheap labor, questions of money, economy, and class have been central to Asian American experiences from the mid-19th century, and Marx’s critique of capitalism has circulated almost as long among Asian Americans and anticolonial, nationalist movements in Asia. However, the long history in the communist movement of the subordination of racial and gender inequality to a narrowly defined class struggle alienated many in US racialized communities. Subsequent interventions in Marxist theory leading to non-economically determinist accounts of social transformation have resulted in a post-Marxist Asian American literary and cultural studies. This is a theory, though, that is largely devoid of specifically economic inquiry, and this has led to the marginalization of questions of class, labor, and whiteness that might complicate questions about resistance to domination and capitalist hegemony. These elisions are only exacerbated in the turn to global and transnational frames of analysis, since the complexities of local racial dynamics are often lost in more abstract narratives and conceptual paradigms. The history of Japanese internment provides a case study that exemplifies some of the difficulties of evaluating the multiple forces motivating racial discrimination.

Article

Lorraine York

Celebrity is the public performance, reception, and discursive interpretation of highly visible individual identities. The field of celebrity studies, which emerged from the study of cinema, has sought to theorize the celebrity phenomenon across numerous cultural sites and products, and for this reason theorists often distinguish the term “celebrity” from the more cinematically specific terms “star” and “stardom.” Theoretical accounts of celebrity have focused on the interactions of fantasy and the everyday, the negotiations of ordinariness and special status within the celebrity persona, the role of psychological drives or needs, the performance of an authenticity effect, and celebrity’s alignment with individualism in the context of commodity capitalism and neoliberal regimes of affect. Questions of celebrity agency and power have attracted special attention, as applied to specific issues of celebrity activism, as well as being more broadly considered in accounts of relations of power such as gender, race, and sexuality. In the 21st century, those analyses of gender, sexuality, and race in the production and consumption of celebrity, as well as theories of celebrity formations and practices in digital culture, have moved to the forefront of the field’s concerns.

Article

McKenzie Wark

The concepts of spectacle and détournement are closely associated with the Paris-based postwar avant-garde movement known as the Situationist International. Spectacle is meant to work as a concept that critiques not this or that aspect of media culture, but its totality. It reveals the spectacle as the double, in the world of consumption, of capitalist commodity production. Détournement is the practice which opposes spectacle by refusing all forms of private property in the production of cultural works. While the Situationist International expired as a movement in 1972, these concepts were subsequently taken up by others, although most often shorn of the revolutionary impulse their linkage was meant to forge. This is why it is important to stress the origins of these concepts in both Western Marxism and also in the radical avant-garde movements of the prewar period. Guy Debord, a central animating presence in the Situationist International, was drawing on militant Marxist thinkers such as Georg Lukács and Henri Lefebvre, as well as the lesser-known Belgian branch of the Surrealist avant-garde. Understood as keys to a unified critical theory and practice, spectacle and détournement can be retrieved from merely descriptive studies of literature and media, and also from more narrowly formalist avant-garde literary practices.

Article

Joshua Clover and Christopher Nealon

“Value” is a concept structured by confusing relations between its social-ethical and its economic meanings (“I agree with your values”; “the sweater is a great value at that price”). The two meanings cannot be kept separate, but the negotiation of their relation has vexed theories of artistic and literary value since at least the rise of the discourse of aesthetics in the 18th century. Early attempts to separate aesthetic value from its economic counterpart involved analogies between what were understood to be different cognitive faculties (reason and emotion, say), and relations among competing claims to political standing (between the bourgeoisie and the sovereign, most of all). Liberal American conversations about literary and economic value after World War II worried over part-whole relations in terms of debates about the value of individual literary works in what seemed to be an ever-expanding multicultural canon. Postwar literary theories of economic and aesthetic value in a more Marxist vein turned to various narratives of the “subsumption” of social life by economic values: sometimes imagining that subsumption as a fatal error on the part of capitalism, since sociability is too unruly finally to organize according to economic principles, or as a terrible victory for a capitalism that had now transformed into something qualitatively different and more sinister, like a “bio-power.” But even these Marxist literary theories tended to ignore contemporary work in history, historical sociology, and critical theory that identified changes in the relation between what had once seemed to be at least notionally separate aesthetic and economic “spheres” not with subsumption per se, but with a crisis in capital’s ways of producing profitable surplus value, and exchangeable use values. Seen from the vantage of this scholarship, it becomes clear that not only do most discourses on the specific value of the aesthetic tend to lean too heavily on spatialized domain models of art and economics (which conceive of them as occupying, in reality or potential, different regions), but also this persistently demanded separation of art and economics rests in turn on a false distinction between politics and economics. Rethinking the specificity of art and literature without thinking of it as a separate sphere, or as necessarily resistant to capital, is a research project for the coming decades.

Article

Central to the transformation of Israeli literature in the early 21st century is the emergence of new genres and forms of writing. In this essay, I try to relate these new literary developments to socio-econoic transformations.. I address the emergence of three genres: Israeli speculative fiction (in works by Ofir Touché-Gafla, Vered Tochterman, Gail Hareven, and others), detective fiction (in novels by Dror Mishani and Noa Yedlin), and diasporic novels—novels whose interpretive frame of reference tries to bypass the Zionist-Israeli world of meaning (in novels by Maya Arad and Ruby Namdar). I suggest that these genres emerge as a response to the crisis of older forms of literary representation, registered in Israeli postmodernism in the 1980s and 1990s. I argue that these older forms become unable to provide concrete figures for the social and a sense of historicity, the emerging genres begin fulfilling precisely these functions, taking the place of the older genres. In particular, I demonstrate how the three new genres unconsciously map the unevenly developed socioeconomic structure of Israel, developing spatial allegorical languages through which to consider the antagonism between older welfare-state social form and the newer neoliberal structures in Israel (contrasting both to utopian states of existence). I suggest that Israeli detective fiction is useful in capturing the commodification of older national political projects and the rise of new neoliberal social forms; that diasporic novels help develop new allegorical understanding of individual existence that bypass national allegories; and that Israeli SF both captures the antagonism between welfare state and neoliberalism, as well as unconsciously imagine non-capitalist futurity.

Article

Heather J. Hicks

From 1950 to the 2010s, the genre known as apocalyptic fiction has grown in prominence, moving from the mass-market domain of science fiction to a more central position in the contemporary literary scene. The term “apocalyptic fiction” can be understood to encompass both depictions of cataclysms that destroy the Earth and texts that portray the aftermath of a disaster that annihilates a nation, civilization, or all but a few survivors of the human population. The term itself finds its roots in the book of Revelation, and while contemporary apocalyptic fiction tends to be largely secular in its worldview, important traces of the Christian tradition linger in these texts. Indeed, while apocalyptic fiction has evolved over the past sixty-five years in response to historical transformations in Western societies, much of it remains wedded to Revelation’s representation of women as the cause of apocalyptic destruction. The material of the 1950s reflects Cold War anxieties about nuclear war while presenting sexually liberated women as implicated in the same modernity that has created the atomic bomb. People of color are also depicted as threats that must be contained. The apocalyptic fiction of the 1960s registers a fascination with genetic, social, and literary mutation, ambivalently treating a variety of “others” as both toxic and potentially useful ambassadors to some new, postmodern condition. The 1970s see the emergence of feminist apocalypses, works that react against the sexist tendency to conflate female power and sexuality with apocalyptic menace. The 1980s introduce the “American apocalypse,” a subgenre that imagines a disaster befalling America in specifically economic terms. The 1990s, meanwhile, find combinations of the feminist and American apocalypse, while also beginning to bring environmental peril into focus. From 2000 forward, there is a renewed interest in broader, more global disasters, in part informed by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Formally, this is the era of the “metapocalypse”—apocalyptic fictions that are self-reflexive about the conventions of the genre, including those involving gender and race. Nonetheless, several of the novels in this period still unapologetically introduce figures that recall Jezebel and Babylon from Revelation. Finally, the period since 2010 has seen a revived emphasis on economic collapse precipitated by neoliberal capitalism as well as the anthropocene.

Article

Class  

Benjamin Balthaser

Class is not a term like style that refers to a quality inherent in the literature itself, or genre, that while historically produced, nonetheless is imagined to have formal properties. Class is rather a way of seeing, an analysis of how literature has been constituted by capitalist social relations and also has responded to—and been seized by—working class movements, from the abolition of slavery to the archipelago of movements against neoliberalism in our post-Fordist age. “Class” understands working class literature in a US context, as literature that was once about working class people, from the mediated publication of slave narratives, to the middle class gaze of realism, to its transformation in the 20th century into literature about the subjectivity of working class people themselves. As Hungarian Marxist theorist Georg Lukacs notes, class has both an objective and a subjective quality: workers are both reified as alienated commodities while at the same time perceives their interests as qualitatively different from those of the capitalist who purchases their labor power. Or as Marx put it, “abstract labor” is always in conflict and in contradiction with “living labor,” the real embodied lives of workers whose persons are part of the commodity circulation process. Thus the novels that arose out of the working class revolutions of the 20th century often focus on the first person process of subjectivization, as the working class protagonist realizes their own alienation and strives to transform it in the process of personal and often social struggle. Of particular interest in the US context is the way in which race and class often function as double and mutually reinforcing forms of alienation. At the height of the working class literary movement in the mid-20th century, novels such as Carlos Bulosan’s America Is the Heart and Richard Wright’s Native Son offered engagements with this double question, with Ann Petry’s The Street and Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio furthered this question with the gendering of labor. In the post-Fordist era, the question of class and subjectivity has fragmented even further, without working class parties and large industrial unions to offer a totalized countervision of working subjectivity. Novels such as Helena Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange offer a fragmented and transnational vision of new working class subjectivities, while novels such as Philip Meyer’s American Rust pose a reification of whiteness as a way to shore up a declining working class control over their labor and fragmenting subjectivity.

Article

Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita

Latina/o cultural production has long dealt in different ways with the impact of transnational capital, globalization, and imperialism not only on immigration from Latin America, especially since the 1970s, but also on Latina/o residents (whether citizens or immigrants) in the United States, particularly with respect to social location, positionality, and labor conditions. Of particular importance to contemporary Latina/o writers is noting that transnational capital has led not only to the restructuring of the U.S. economy but also to the creation of free trade zones in the Global South, especially on the Mexican border, where workers, especially female workers, are extremely exploited and subject to feminicide. In view of the continued participation of a number of Chicana/o workers in the agricultural fields of the Southwest and Northwest, Chicana/o writers have also been especially concerned with ecological issues and the health of all workers subject to pollution and contamination of the air, soil, and water. These are all issues reconstructed in Chicana/o—Latina/o literature, past and present.

Article

Cheryl Lousley

Ecocriticism describes and confronts the socially uneven encounters and entanglements of earthly living. As a political mode of literary and cultural analysis, it aims to understand and intervene in the destruction and diminishment of living worlds. A core premise is that environmental crises have social, cultural, affective, imaginative, and material dimensions. Although ranging in its critical engagements across historical periods, cultural texts, and cultural formations, ecocriticism focuses on the aesthetic modes, social meanings, contexts, genealogies, and counterpoints of cultural practices that contribute to ecological ruination and resilience. These include myths about frontiers, progress, and human mastery over animality and nature; capitalist modes of valuing, devaluing, and radically transforming lifeworlds; and biopolitical and racialized inequalities in health, risk, development, and disposability. Ecocriticism also involves broad theoretical engagement with discursive formations and semiotic significations, including the interrogation of crisis frameworks and apocalyptic representations, considering their histories, scales, and temporalities, while also asking how any particular socioecological arrangement comes to count as a matter of concern, for whom, and in which contexts. The concept of nature is a long-standing theoretical topic in ecocriticism. While nature may seem, rather straightforwardly, to be the domain environmentalism seeks to protect, it is a concept on which hinge crucial and contested claims about ontology (the nature of something, such as assertions about human nature as an inherent, often determining set of shared qualities) and epistemology (how we know what is real, such as the scientific practices through which credible assertions can be made that the planetary climate is changing), claims whose modern authority has rested on positioning nature as a domain outside culture. While structuralist and poststructuralist theorists have destabilized the binary opposition of nature to culture, the political and epistemological imperative to engage with nature as simultaneously material and semiotic has spawned an array of theoretical developments, from Donna Haraway’s cyborg figure and other “natureculture” assemblages to new materialisms. Meanwhile, nature circulates as a commodity form and spectacle animating digital, film, and television screens as well as many other consumer products and experiences. Cultural studies approaches to ecocriticism raise questions about the relationships of visual, narrative, and sound representations to economic power, media technologies, and the material and social ecologies through which they are produced and which they form and transform.