First used in post–World War II historical accounts as a designation for the period that followed the independence of successful anti-colonial struggles in Asia and Africa, the origins of the postcolonial as a category of thought are multiple and diversely located: in anti-colonial movements such as Pan-Africanism and the Négritude movement and thinkers and writers including Amilcar Cabral, Aimé Césaire, W. E. B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, and Léopold Sédar Senghor; in the work of Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, founded and directed by Richard Hoggart in 1964 and subsequently directed by Stuart Hall; in the analysis of colonial discourse introduced to the Anglophone world by Edward Said’s Orientalism; in the work of a generation of well-known scholars of the postcolonial (and, often, of literary studies) that include Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Aijaz Ahmad, Ranajit Guha, and Robert J. C. Young and drawing from the Central and South American intellectual and political traditions of anti-colonial and postcolonial struggles that began over a century earlier, Mary Louise Pratt, Walter Mignolo, and John Beverly; and in the colonial historiography and history of anti-colonial resistances in South Asia of the Subaltern Studies group. After some three decades as a category of thought in and beyond the academy, a capacious and diversely defined postcolonial has produced a plethora of studies, academic and otherwise, as well as a marketing category, and a now-conventional use as a journalistic descriptor. Broadly, however, the postcolonial as a category of thought can be understood as a situated response to shifting apprehension and efforts at comprehension of the complex inequities of the late 20th and 21st centuries in the wake of European colonialism. And as important as the what of the postcolonial is the when; where; and by-, to-, and with-whom.
Mary N. Layoun
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.
Bill V. Mullen
Proletarian literature is best understood as strongly anticapitalist literature by or about working-class people. As a cultural form, proletarian literature is an expression of the experiences of working-class people under capitalism, an index to the social relationships created in and against capitalism. As a genre, proletarian literature was formalized in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917 as the cultural arm of the Bolshevik Revolution, amid intense debate about the nature and function of workers’ culture under socialism. Yet its roots run much deeper, coinciding with the development of capitalism, industrialization, and the making of class society itself. In the 19th century, for example, both the slave narrative and nonfiction writing by factory workers can be counted as expressions of working-class life and subjectivity. Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861, may be taken as one of the first full-length, self-conscious examples of proletarian writing. That Davis’s book was written by a woman is also significant: proletarian literature reflects the disproportionate experiences of women, immigrants, migrants, African Americans, colonial subjects, and other people of color as members of the working class globally. Indeed, because the genre has historically been tied to the development of communist and socialist movements worldwide, proletarian literature is necessarily a global phenomenon, and an insightful indicator of the relationships between workers in different nations and colonies yoked together by global capitalism. Thus, proletarian literature should be studied as corollary to the development of capitalism across time and space; as an index to the lived experience of race, gender, sexuality, and class; and as one of the most important expressive forms and historical records left by members of the working class as a whole.
Lourdes Casal (1936–1981), award-winning poet, fiction writer, editor, social psychologist, and activist, contributed to the articulation of multiple interdisciplinary fields including Cuban studies, Latina/o, Latin American, black, and women’s studies, yet her work has not received the attention it deserves because she published different kinds of writing in two languages, each directed to disparate, sometimes conflicting or overlapping, audiences. Alternatively, it could be said that her writing addresses an emergent readership more visible today decades after her death, who see—as she did—the need for dialogue across disciplinary, linguistic, and political divisions. Although Casal has remained in print primarily in Latina/o literary anthologies, Casal made her living as a social scientist and a psychology professor, and she remained engaged with Cuba through editorial work and what scholars call today “publicly engaged scholarship.” Casal’s work exemplifies a transnational attention to both homeland (Cuba) and residence (New York) that has become a distinguishing quality of Latina/o literature. In 1978, Lourdes Casal defined herself in “Memories of a Black Cuban Childhood” as learning to assert herself as an “Hispanic Black” (p. 62). In an interview with Margaret Randall that prefaces translations of her poetry into English, she defines herself as a “Latina,” and she asserts her claim to speak as a Cuban, despite living outside the island. During the Cold War, this combination of identifiers constituted a paradox, which Casal asserted both against the mainstream of the Cuban exile community and against heteronormative cultural nationalisms. Casal’s bilingualism and skillful diplomacy provided her with the salvoconducto to weave across multiple borders, despite the walls that became almost impossible to scale after the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 and Cuba began relocating people to the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP) camps in the mid-1960s. A queer feminist of African, Chinese, and European descent, Casal’s writings and editorial projects map the participation of a diverse group of Cuban exiles in the articulation of latinidad; yet even as she becomes legible in certain ways, she remains largely illegible, precisely because she ventured into uncharted, sometimes life-threatening, border spaces, in step with an unexpected ideological itinerary.
Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) was situated among a constellation of early-20th-century radical Jewish thinkers delving into questions of German culture and philosophy in Mitteleuropa. Within this Jewish Central European radical culture, a complex network of links, of “elective affinities,” as Johann Wolfgang Goethe called them, brought together romanticism, Jewish messianism, anti-bourgeois cultural rebellion, and revolutionary (socialist and anarchist) utopias. This messianism is not the one of Jewish orthodoxy but a new, highly political version, seen through the lens of German romanticism. Benjamin should thus be viewed as a religious atheist with anarchist leanings, who only discovers Marxism in the mid-1920s, following the lectures of Georg Lukacs’s that were published as History and Class Consciousness in 1923. He became the first Marxist to break radically with the ideology of progress. Benjamin’s thinking has a distinct critical quality that sets his apart from the dominant and official forms of historical materialism and gives him a formidable political and intellectual superiority as a Marxist critic. This philosophical peculiarity comes from his ability to incorporate into the body of Marxist revolutionary theory insights from Jewish messianism and from the German Romantic critique of modern civilization.
Alan M. Wald
At the start of the last century a modern tradition of literary radicalism crystallized with inspiring results. From 1900 onward, socialists and bohemians yoked their ideals to become a marathon of forward-thinking activist cultural workers. For the next three decades, writers and intellectuals of the Left, such as Max Eastman (1883–1969), were oracles of enchantment in a world increasingly disenchanted, initially by the international war of 1914–1919 and subsequently by a decline in popular political defiance as capitalism consolidated. Still, the adversarial dream persevered during the violence and later, often in little magazines such as the Masses, Liberator, Seven Arts, and Modern Quarterly. Since the 1920s, literary radicalism meant creativity in the service of an insurrection against political power combined with a makeover in human relationships. With the economic catastrophe of 1929 and the triumph of Nazism in 1933, what might have been a generational succession morphed into a paradigm shift. This previously self-governing literary radicalism was now multifariously entangled with Soviet communism during its most awful hour. An unofficial state of emergency escalated so that a range of journals—this time, New Masses, Modern Monthly, and Partisan Review—once more served as barometers of the depth and breadth of radical opinion. Bit by bit, a strange new ethos enveloped the literary Left, one that blended heroism, sacrifice, and artistic triumph with fifteen years of purge trials in the Soviet Union, mortifying policy shifts in the international Communist movement, and relentless domestic repression against the organized Left in the United States. By the end of this phase, in the reactionary post–World War II years, most adherents of communism (not just the pre-dominant pro-Soviet Communism, but the other varieties of communism such as Trotskyism and Bukharinism) desperately fled their Depression-era affiliations. The upshot was a blurring of the record. This occurred in ways that may have seemed clever for autobiographical concealment (by one-time literary radicals who feared exposure or embarrassment at youthful excesses) but became maddening for future scholars wishing to parse the writers’ former convictions. As literary radicalism passed through the Cold War, 1960s radicalization, the late 20th-century culture wars, and into the new millennium, the tradition was routinely reframed so that it faces us today as a giant puzzle. New research and scholarship emerge every year to provide insights into a very complicated body of writing, but there is a fretful ambivalence about its actual location and weight in literary history. Not surprisingly, most overall scholarly histories, chronicles, and anthologies do not include the category of literary radicalism as a well-defined, principal topic. This is because enthusiasts of the last twenty-five years brilliantly championed the tradition less under the rubric of “literary radicalism” than as the fertile soil for a blooming of gender-conscious, multicultural, and polycentric legacies connected to the Left but primarily rendered as eruptions of American literary modernity onto the world stage. These revisionist images came to us in discrete volumes about black writers, women writers, regional writers, children’s writers, Jewish writers, and so forth. Nonetheless, such celebratory portraits remained in competition with a dark double, a notion that nearly all literary radicals were wanting in artistic value. This skeptical appraisal was entrenched in an older scholarship, a point of view that is partly an aftereffect of the long shadow that the Communist imbroglio cast on its entire legacy.