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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

Matthew Garrett

The ethics of reading connects with but is not identical to the field of ethical criticism. Often pursued as a normative inquiry into morality, ethics may be better understood in historical terms. From this point of view, the inquiry into ethics is not a matter of good and evil (or universal moral correctness) but rather of understanding historically variable and socially conditioned regimes of subjective self-construction (ethics). Thus, moral thought may be taken to be one specific modality of the ethical, not its essential feature. A social and historical inquiry into the ethics of reading must then examine the ethical impulse itself, the recurring attraction of ethical questions, normative moral claims, and the search for moral models in literary and cultural texts. Various strands of ethical criticism have treated literary characters as approximations of persons or have considered the way reading itself may be a morally healthful act. Understanding these approaches and their limitations helps one recognize an alternative ethics of reading, focused on the social and historical reconstruction of the category of the ethical, as well as a more specifically literary-critical style of reading, focused on a single ethical injunction: fidelity to the object of critical attention.

Article

Mary N. Layoun

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.

Article

Roderick A. Ferguson

Queer of color critique is a critical discourse that began within the U.S. academy in response to the social processes of migration, neoliberal state and economic formations, and the developments of racial knowledges and subjectivities about sexual and gender minorities within the United States. It was an attempt to maneuver analyses of sexuality toward critiques of race and political economy. As such, the formation was an address to Marxism, ethnic studies, queer studies, postcolonial and feminist studies. Queer of color critique also provided a method for analyzing cultural formations as registries of the intersections of race, political economy, gender, and sexuality. In this way, queer of color critique attempted to wrest cultural and aesthetic formations away from interpretations that neglected to situate those formations within analyses of racial capitalism and the racial state.

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

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

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.

Article

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.