Dialectical materialism and literary history

Ted Underwood’s hypothesis of literary change as outlined in his book Distant Horizons is that modernity does not bring about a significant change in literary history and that from 1700 – 2020, what we see is the consolidation of a single literary form, realism. My doctoral thesis validated this Underwood hypothesis of incremental change and also found that the findings Underwood also presents regarding the content of modern literary production to be replicable. I observed an increase in words associated with dialogue (‘said’, ‘asked’, ‘say’) and sensory perception (‘touched’, ‘see’, ‘listen’) along with an attendant decrease in words associated with politics (‘liberty’, ‘reason’, ‘title’), economics (‘lodged’ ‘owed’, ‘procured’), and religion (‘blessings’, ‘heaven’, ‘graces’); two trends which broadly align with the rise of the genre known as realism.

The continued rise of realism has significant consequences for Marxist literary criticism as practiced by figures such as Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton and Frederic Jameson, who have placed significant emphasis on breaks, especially one which is supposed to have taken place between nineteenth-century realism and twentieth-century modernism. In doing so, they have made extensive use of political, economic and historical works produced by Karl Marx as well as other works produced within the broader Marxian tradition, due to the robust conceptual framework it offers for understanding industrialisation and its social and political ramifications. However, by virtue of the fact that their foremost argument, that twentieth century literature is significantly different from literature produced in the nineteenth century does not seem to have been borne out by the historical evidence furnished by Underwood, it is necessary to return to them and consider what aspect of the Marxian framework can be retained or salvaged in our account of modern literary production. 

The origin point of this over-emphasis of the difference between the two moments in literary history can be found in the ideological predispositions of the first institutionalised schools of literary criticism of the early to mid twentieth century. Marxian critics such as Williams, Eagleton, Jameson and others working from the sixties onwards within the context of cultural studies and the New Left sought to overcome such ideological readings and to integrate more overtly political concerns into their literary critical practices. Their failure to overcome the ideological formulation of the twentieth century break can be attributed to the abiding influence of the philosophy of George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in Marxian literary criticism. Hegel’s philosophical system exerted a significant influence on Marx’s own comprehension of the social totality and the role of capitalism as a mode of production within it. It may be argued that such a reversion was inevitable for any criticism which attempted to take Marx’s writings as foundational, given the relative lack of actual works written by Marx, or his lifelong collaborator Friedrich Engels, which consider culture or processes of cultural production. Critics seeking a means of integrating Marxist theories into their critical methodologies were therefore by necessity thrown back onto Hegel’s system with its highly involved and intricate means of describing processes such as mediation, reflection and alterity in a manner which lends itself to readings of the text as developing rationally out of its own concepts in the process of being read or interpreted. What this reversion overlooks is Marx’s break from Hegel’s philosophical system. Central to Marx’s particular social critique as well as the radical intellectual circles in which Marx formulated it, was the rejection of Hegel’s foundational assumption that Spirit represents the primary agent of world history, emphasising collective social formations arising from within actual human societies to a much greater extent. 

The central objective of Marxian literary criticism, to account for the ways in which historical progress is mediated in literary art, remains the most robust means of conducting an historical literary criticism, especially when empirical methods are involved, but it has yet to manifest Marx’s break from Hegel. This has the result that literary form and content are read as more or less coeval with actual historical processes and our attention is therefore concentrated to a far greater extent on indeterminate processes of mediation rather than the historical processes which Marx identifies as determinative. The reification of textual rather than historical processes could be the reason why Underwood’s findings depart to such a great extent from the literary-critical historiography.

Realism and romanticism in literary history

Realism is a mimetic mode of representation held by Ian Watt to have arisen in the late eighteenth century and, according to René Wellek’s account, to have consolidated itself in the early nineteenth century. Some of its determinants include the development of empirical philosophy, a connection which is integral to Watt’s account, as well as its content, representing as it does individuals within a clearly demarcated social context. Realism has therefore been promoted as literature’s default mode insofar as an objective portrait of modern social reality is concerned. Indeed, Eysteinsson describes it as an effective zero-level against which subsequent aesthetic practices, associated with modernism, may be assessed. Literary modernism meanwhile, can be read as insisting on an opposition to realism’s perceived aesthetic neutrality, and posits itself as a more formally self-conscious endeavour. This greater degree of aesthetic self-consciousness finds formal expression in the autonomy that form assumes within the works of many modernist authors and poets, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (1922) and Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1922). Such works are contained or at least partially subsumed within a unified symbolic framework, derived from a classical as well as other mythological frameworks. We also see a certain degree of reflexivity in such works, an interest in representation conducted from an individual’s point of view, and an overall integration of a stylistic restlessness as though the search for an adequate means of expression has become the formal logic of the work itself itself. Romanticism is yet another literary movement which first arises in the nineteenth century, in Germany and then England and acts as a key mediator between realism and modernism. 

According to M.H. Abrams, romanticism’s emergence corresponds to a point in time in which neo-classical literary theory begins to give way to theories of expressive form, which emphasise the individual faculties and mind of the poet or author to a greater extent, paving the way for the sort of cult of the autonomous artwork operating in modernist literature. Terry Pinkard describes it as one among many of the imaginative and cultural responses to the French Revolution, a means of locating the subjective experience of the individual relative to broader discourses associated with political liberty and emancipation from monarchical authority. This manifests itself most clearly in the breaks from classical form, which Abrams has identified, but also in a manner which is less overtly obvious. Pinkard for instance, identifies the historical unprecedentedness of the centrality afforded to the individual imagination within European modernity as a distinctive aspect of cultural expression which emerges in the nineteenth century. Hegel, writing on this key juncture within the history of Spirit, identifies its arrival as indicative of the movement of Spirit more in the direction of a self-undermining scepticism, a period of time in which previously regnant ideals are dissolved. Art produced within the context of European modernity, will therefore inevitably exhibit a greater tendency towards inwardness and individuality, with the result that the critical reception of works within which the individual’s concerns are emphasised. This has the consequence that art no longer manifests a devotion to any broader Idea, such as God, society or the state, except as a partially ironised exercise. Modern art then becomes an exercise within which the subject exhibits themselves to the viewer, in a recognition of a lack of unmediated access to these ‘givens’. Eagleton has made these trends, described above, legible within the context of literary modernism, identifying Hegel’s conception of Spirit with the alienated subjectivity of the bourgeois subject. Habermas does so specifically with regard to the works of Baudelaire, describing how, as the process of modernisation begins to accelerate in the nineteenth century, established means of locating oneself relative to one’s 

environment becomes increasingly untenable. It is here that we may once more consider the potency of modernism’s attempt to develop symbolic frameworks out of mythology, as if in pursuit of some kind of symbolic framework that can make for up for the absent Idea.

Literary criticism

While accepting that the first modern literary-critical schools were composed of quite distinct personnel spread over a variety of national territories, a shared tendency towards the valorisation of literary modernism, at the expense of its precursor realism, can be perceived as a more or less universal commitment. New criticism, practiced by F.R. Leavis and his followers was particular to Cambridge in the 1930’s and 1940’s, while a branch of American new criticism propagated by John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, Allan Tate and Robert Penn Warren operated in the southern United States. Formalism held sway in Russia, while structuralism emerged in France. Identifying a root cause for this shared valorisation of modernism necessitates a consideration of the imperatives guiding knowledge production in the Fordist state in the early to mid-twentieth century. This was an imperative within which the university played a key role, in establishing evidence-based methods for scholarship, while also providing an education to a population now attending universities in significantly higher numbers. The new professionalism of academia, as well as the symptomatic literary-critical conception of the autonomous text, served the practical and ideological demands of an expanded university system during the cold war very well, especially in western states where administering the bureaucracy of the industrial state apparatus in a way which would match or exceed the capacities of the Soviet Union represented a political and economic imperative. These broader sociological changes are key in understanding how and why literary criticism moves from an appreciative and impressionistic form of appraisal more in the direction of a hard science, characterised by rigour, verification and the requirements associated with the weighing different standards of evidence. Such methodologies were influential in elevating particular literary works with specific characteristics as opposed to others into prominence. Terence Hawkes for example, points to the significant influence Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759), with its use of verbal interplay and consistent tension between form and content, had in developing Victor Shklovsky’s theory of defamiliarsation. The essential commitment of these literary-critical schools of thought to the notion that literature and language operate as more or less autonomous and self-sufficient objects and that in considering them, historical, biographical and sociological fact, should play only a nominal, if any role at all, served to extend a preferential treatment to literary modernism as a project. It is for these reasons that modern literary criticism begins to afford disproportionate amounts of attention to modernism within the history of literature. 

John Brenkman, writing on the degree to which literary criticism has historically been implicated with its object of study, outlines the consequences of the blurring of the boundaries between literary criticism and the object of its attention. Brenkman argues that the rearguard of any given moment of cultural innovation, in this instance realism, comes by necessity to be read as socially conformist, naively empirical, or simplistically mimetic, in order to allow for a subsequent work or literary movement, to render human experience once again unfamiliar or estranged, to in effect, defamiliarise it. According to this argument, literary criticism becomes invested in reproducing narratives of progressivist evolution or supercession analogous to the ways in which modernism functions, a tendency which Williams has also identified. Marxist literary critics working from the 1960s onwards aimed to challenge some of the assumptions undergirding the autonomy of cultural production in order to challenge the political conservatism of these approaches. Of course this did not take the form of a straightforward or open polemical conflict. Rather in specific national contexts, a significant amount of dialogue and interchange between the two paradigms represents the norm. In French literary criticism for example, we see Louis Althusser’s capacity to fuse structuralist critiques of empiricism with Marxian science. In an English context, Eagleton has noted the continuities between Williams’ studies of culture and Leavis’ new critical emphasis on sensibility. For the reason that Marx and Engels’ collected works offer very little in the way of direct theories of culture or cultural expression, it was perhaps inevitable that the New Left would ultimately turn to Hegel’s more abstract theories of mediation and historical development. In this way, the Hegelian dialectic became the primary means through which Marxian literary criticism operated.

Hegel and Marx in literary criticism

At the basis of Hegel’s philosophy is the development of consciousness. As Terry Pinkard notes, Hegel’s primary object of study is therefore dual in nature; it is at once fixed, in that, broadly conceived it represents a single object of study that comes to be expressed and articulated in different ways over time. From this point of view, it is therefore mutable and dynamic as it proceeds along a potentially infinite series of inflection points. It is important to note that Hegel’s philosophy is not limited to any narrow conception of human consciousness, such as that of a single individual or homogenous social collective coming into contact with any one thing outside of itself. Hegel prefers to regard consciousness as just one of the means through which more complex forms of thought are achieved, how the most basic and elementary forms of sense-data accumulate to form more complex assemblages, such as general categories within a system of logic, individual psychology, social and economic institutions, art, religion and even philosophy itself. Michael Inwood provides an example of how this might work in practice, beginning with pre-historic man without the capacity for abstract thought, knowing only a sensuous existence, coming to develop the faculties for the consideration of concepts through the use of tools, or creative expression, as in cave painting. These objects therefore facilitate man’s relation to his environment in more complex ways allowing him to mediate himself to himself, coming to self-consciousness and thereby superseding sensuous, unreflective and pre-historical being and potentially entering into more complex forms of thought, action and sociality. Spirit is the totality within which these oppositions between internal or external, universal and particular, subject and object are reconciled as they develop subjectively out of their own concepts and ultimately become equal to their concrete or objective manifestations. To put this in more straightforward terms, it could not be said that an individual who desires freedom or agency within a particular social formation is free just because they desire it; it would be necessary for social development to be objectively adequate to the subjective impulse in order for an absolute freedom to become manifest. 

Hegel’s system represents a highly involved means of describing how Spirit and its predicates are deployed in developing self-consciousness in each of its stages. As, for example, the subjective desire for freedom becomes adequate to objective freedom and becomes absolute freedom, or how appearances in cave painting provide objects for reflection and eventually prove adequate to the development of the notion. For the purposes of our argument it will not be necessary to provide a thorough account of these processes as they documented in the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) or Science of Logic (1812); it is obvious that this model of understanding in its actual component parts has played only a very marginal role in the history of literary critical praxis. In seeking to argue that it is a version of Hegel’s philosophy as regards the state and the history of culture which is far more germane to the history of Marxian literary criticism than Marx’s writings themselves, all that will be necessary is to underline at this juncture is that Hegel is a fundamentally teleological thinker and regards human history as tending towards the development of more harmonious and rational social arrangements. We see this when we compare Hegel’s writings on the place of religion in Ancient Greek society with his writings on nineteenth century Germany. Hegel regarded the folk religion, as it was practiced in Ancient Athens, as providing the means through which the individual’s desires could be mediated within the collective desires of the broader polis due to the specific ways in which religious ceremonies formed an integral and organic part of everyday social life, forming a stark contrast with religion as it functioned within Christian modernity, wherein highly cognised and intricate religious ceremonies have become removed from peoples’ lived experiences. Alienation from social practice is not a problem unique to modernity and it is furthermore integral to Spirit’s development, but from Hegel’s perspective, when industrial and commercial enterprises have developed within the straightened civic and religious institutions of the Holy Roman Empire, historically unprecedented contradictions have arisen. The solution to these contradictions is not to return to pre-Christian modes of existence or to roll back industrialisation however. The task of philosophy is rather to contribute to Spirit’s advancement, to grasp the authentic nature of bourgeois Christian society so that these tensions may be reconciled within a new totality or synthesis, a task within which art, due to it being one of the ways through which man represents the world and Spirit comes to be embodied in sensory form, can play a crucial role. As with Greek folk religion, Greek sculpture is Hegel’s paradigmatic example of an art form which provided an apposite vehicle for man’s stage of development at the time it did; a stage in human history in which there was no developed philosophy or theory of science. However, once specific paradigms of knowledge production arise in modernity, people are no longer capable of relating to art in the more primitive, sensuous form that the Greeks once did; art has become more cerebral and inwardly-directed. Hegel is here presenting a subtle critique of a regnant literary romanticism which he regarded as inadequate to the task by virtue of its interiority and focus on appearances; the work of advancing Spirit is more adequately played by philosophy.

In many respects the inclination of Marxian literary criticism in the direction of Hegelian philosophy was pre-determined by literary criticism conducted by critics working during the period of the Third International which tended to attribute disproportionate amounts of importance to the subjective experience of capitalist production, as though the effects that capitalism exerts on individual consciousness take primacy in any cultural account of them. Gillian Rose has written on the extent to which critics writing within the tradition of Western Marxism such as Walter Benjamin, György Lukács and Theodor W. Adorno misread Marx’s conception of commodity fetishism arising within the capitalist mode of production, with the result that Marx’s critique of the value-form and political economy in general are obscured. In the work of these critics and others writing in their wake, commodity fetishism and reification become mere shorthands for processes of objectification, rather than the social totality or mode of production within which these objectifications are taking place. Commodity fetishism is a concept which Marx introduces in the first volume of Capital in order to account for the ways in which capitalism’s social relations are obscured by the outputs of the productive process. The capitalist mode of production forces the waged labourer to sell their labour power in order to produce a commodity, alienating them from their own productive powers at the same time that it immiserates them from an economic perspective. The increasing presence of the industrially produced commodity in literature represents an integral part of Underwood’s findings (‘hat’, ‘chair’, ‘cigar’). One instance in which real productive processes are elided in favour of a more experiential account may be seen in Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), which he co-authored with Max Horkheimer. According to Rose’s account of Dialectic of Enlightenment, alienation specific to capitalism is discarded in favour of a more trans-historical attention account undermining it as an account of capitalism.

Rose’s argument that the first cultural theorists overlooked those aspects of Marx’s writings which pertain to class struggle and the extraction of surplus value, in favour of an idealistic cultural criticism are germane in accounting for why it is that works such as Eagleton’s Exiles and Emigrés (1970), Williams’ ‘When Was Modernism’ (1987) and Jameson’s A Singular Modernity (2002) regard the agency of the revolutionary subject as playing the same role Spirit did for Hegel. The aesthetic is furthermore foregrounded as though it were the key determinant of collective agency. Despite the greater degree of attention these critics aim to grant to historical causality in literary form, under this rubric modernism remains a paradigmatic instance due its correspondence in time with a heightened and protracted phase of class struggle on an international basis. We see this expressed most clearly in Perry Anderson’s account of social revolution as one of the three most significant influences on modernist literature. The other two include the abiding of the European ancien régimes within industrial modernity, as outlined by Arno Mayer in The Persistence of the Old Regime (1981), and the transformations wrought by rapidly developing communications technology. Anderson’s contribution to this debate is prompted by the publication of Marshall Berman’s study of cultural production within both modernity and post-modernity, All That is Solid Melts into Air (1982). In a review of the book in New Left Review, Anderson charges Berman’s text with promoting the idea that modernist literature proceeds more or less in lock step with processes of economic and political modernisation; the development of productive forces and culture are identified as proceeding continuously in a linear direction as the twentieth century advances, more in line with a Weberian than an orthodox Marxist point of view. Williams, by contrast, emphasises changes in institutions of cultural production, especially technological change. Jameson, meanwhile, extending the philosophical legacy of critics such as Jürgen Habermas and Adorno, emphasises an anti-systemic or negative perspective on Hegel’s philosophy introducing a greater degree of conceptual flexibility to the notion of the aesthetic transformation, arguing that a break may be prolonged, overlap with other periods or constitute a period in its own right.

On whatever terms one may seek to criticise any of these models outlined above, their capacity to incorporate both past and future accounts should not be overlooked. Any of the thousands of studies written on the topic of modernism’s genesis which seek to account for why there was a general growth in the sentiment that the then-established means of representing reality had become increasingly inadequate will take some facet of one or more of these three as the decisive contradiction, to which some additional points may be introduced by way of content. Some of these include a generalised societal desanctification which accompanied a decline in Christian belief, catalysed by World War I as well as the growing influence of ideas derived from the natural sciences and German higher criticism. Other critics working in a more directly historical material, identify the effects of these revolutionising changes within the sphere of cultural production, with industrialised printing allowing for the production of large numbers of newspapers cheaply, and this, coupled with an increasingly literate public and the development of mass communications, provided the infrastructural supports through which serially published novels could begin to challenge the cultural hegemony of the multi-volume realist novel, especially once Britain’s oligarchic subscription libraries had entered into a sustained financial decline. Lawrence Rainey in particular, has drawn attention to the role luxury book speculation and networks of patronage played in providing many of the most prominent literary modernists with the means of sustaining themselves.

Given the degree to which historical events and development have been incorporated into the history of literary criticism, it can be difficult to understand how it is that the break away from the Hegelian idealist dialectic has not been accomplished. The first and most significant reason could be associated with the Western Marxist tradition’s turning away from questions of class struggle from the mid twentieth-century onwards and more towards issues associated with culture and artistic representation, a process which Anderson identifies. Based on the history of international class struggle especially from the seventies onwards, the dialectic comes to be increasingly formulated as a tragic framework, more appropriate to the crises of representation and language of post-modernity than enlightenment teleology. Considered as such, Hegel does not provide any means of unifying positive phenomena or understanding human behaviour within a totality, so much as he complicates our object of study. As we have already seen, Hegel likewise regards Spirit as developing through a constant return to itself and encompassing all of its moments sequentially; over time in a motion which may be described as circular. In this way, Spirit represents an organic development out of its own concept. Hegel’s philosophical system therefore insists upon a distinction between two distinct types of teleology; Hegel’s circle returns to itself at progressively higher levels of sophistication and complexity, rejecting the ‘bad infinity’ of the straight line which ascends in a perpetual linearity, the ‘bad infinite’ which we might compare to Anderson’s criticism of Berman’s conception of cultural change within modernity. This could be part of the reason why the synonymy of political and aesthetic progress is assumed within Anglo-American Marxian analysis, a major weakness of the school which Sinéad Kennedy identifies. Eysteinsson locates the cause for this in the lack of an English-speaking avant-garde tradition. This has the consequence that the Anglosphere lacks a significant aesthetic movement, which in continental literary criticism, provides the negative riposte to institutional or classical forms of modernism.

It is necessary at this point to argue that this emphasis on complexity and further periodisation over the past half-century has in many ways been immensely productive. Some of its legacies include the more inclusive models of literary history produced by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar or Nancy Fraser, Edward Said’s studies of the literature of imperialism, as well as the general incorporation of developments within the visual arts, film, fashion, architecture, scholarship and dance. The more cultural studies inflected schools of literary criticism such as neo-victorianism or new modernist studies, which have all been decisive in challenging the value-laden assumptions regarding the distinctions between high and low art represent its contemporary iteration. However, with the emphasis on the mediations between history and literary content, it becomes increasingly difficult to retain our focus on any literary genre in and of themselves as they are made to mediate an increasing and overdetermined sequence of agents of revolution and social change. We see this in the proliferation of categories associated with modernism over the past few decades as in ‘late modernism’, ‘post-war’ modernism or ‘cold modernism’. Experimental literature of the early twentieth century therefore remains for all intents and purposes the horizon of literary and aesthetic achievement, to the extent that realism, the gothic and sensational literature are all subject to potential re-readings as modernist modes and ‘modernists’ such as Joseph Conrad or Kate Chopin are rendered as far more proximate to traditions within which such predecessors as Harriet Beecher Stowe or Elizabeth Gaskell might be placed. This culminates in a situation wherein the co-ordinates of literary history are consistently up for debate, as the old is taken to bear the impress of the new and what was formerly regarded as the new is increasingly sublimated to an abiding traditionalism. Emily Apter’s presentation of provisional, asynchronous, de-sequenced and localised models of literary history oriented in activist directions as the superior alternative to totalising approaches contaminated by their proximity to capitalist and imperialist logics of domination, may be read as symptomatic of this tendency. In this sense, literary criticism becomes itself a modernist project, steered primarily by the impulse to ‘make it new’ or overcome the conceptual reification of categories, rather than to solve or contextualise in a way which would clarify rather than facilitate further argument. One can see how poorly an authentically Marxian theory of literary history, as well as one steered by empirical approaches, with its emphasis on historical determination would fare within a literary-critical milieu within which contingency has become hegemonic. Though as Firdous Azim notes, literary criticism has been conceptually mobile throughout its history and adapting critical concerns to the imperatives of contemporary political commitments lends many works of criticism their particular novelty and impetus, the peculiarities of the predominance of theory and cultural studies in the humanities, as traced by Joseph North, now takes place at a point in the history of the humanities which is qualitatively distinct. This is not solely due to the ways in which these ideas themselves have acquired their own momentum. In much the same way as we have already attributed the professionalisation of literary criticism to the construction of the modern capitalist state, we can identify the greater amounts of interest associated with cultural as opposed to historical concerns within literary criticism as being consonant with the broader logic of third-level education in Ireland as well as other jurisdictions at the present time. This can be illustrated by referring to indicative literature produced both by the Irish government and research- oriented consortia located both within the Irish state and the European union. 

Within this literature, we see the foregrounding of the imperatives of the post-industrial ‘knowledge economy’, wherein western states intend to remain competitive internationally by incentivising universities to prioritise research which aligns with the interests of private enterprise, such as biotechnology, information technology and financial services, according to a tendency which Kieran Allen has outlined, whereby in an age of globalised capital, the objectives of industry and universities are increasingly difficult to differentiate from one another. When we investigate the figure of the discipline-specific department in this literature, we see it consistently invoked as a fetter on the development of an authentically interdisciplinary research environment, due to its tendency to inhibit the movement of knowledge across disciplinary boundaries, rendering them inadequate to tackling problems held to be of global significance, such as climate change or ‘migrant crises’. This is due to their ‘inwardly directed social dynamics’ and the fact that the frameworks through which departments assess validity originate from within their own disciplines rather than from without. This makes the task of any supra-departmental management body seeking to implement quality assurance standards from above more difficult, a mechanism which is increasingly to the fore within university administration, as documented by Wendy Brown and Stefan Collini. One can see how interdisciplinary research potentially offering the opportunity to outflank the comparatively rigid autonomous department would represent an attractive prospect to university administrators and it is in this context that the EU’s primary funding instrument placing renewed emphasis on interdisciplinary research should be comprehended. In accounting for these changes we would not wish to merely echo North’s argument that by virtue of their coinciding at a point in time when the university has been transformed into an institution run in the interests of profit that theory-driven or post-Marxist histories of literature are inveterately neoliberal; it is important to understand instead that they merely manifest the economic and financial incentives which are a function of the contemporary university’s primary stakeholders, especially when this material may maximise a particular research project’s public impact. Though such policy literature is overwhelmingly directed towards universities’ STEM outputs — it being where the more straightforwardly commercialisable research sectors are located — it is by no means clear that literary studies can be viewed apart from these broader logics. Just as Fordism was influential in shaping the institutionalisation of literary criticism as we saw above, the current precarious funding environment inevitably influences the type of research being produced. Both Max Brzezinski and Charles Altieri have for example, undertaken close readings of contemporary culturalist readings of literary genre as terminating in aestheticism, effacing differences between actually-existing schools of political thought, simplifying context and subsuming reactionary, liberal and left-wing traditions of literature and literary criticism within single categories, terminating in anachronism, the over-writing of political differences, or both. In this sense a predominantly culturalist approach to literary studies ironically comes to reproduce once again the logic which it ostensibly begins by attempting to reject, reproducing the value judgements of modernist form, the impasse which led to the attempted Marxian extrusion from new criticism in the first place. 

Naturalism and literary criticism

It is in the reading of literary genre known as naturalism that the robustness of a Marxian literary critical approach as it has been conducted within the context of the New Left is most evident. This is due to the degree to which it can be associated with the rise and development of modern state governance and the actuality of governing a population, stratified along class lines and often concentrated within the urban environment. Williams identifies one of naturalism’s key tropes, namely, the registering of the existence of the various disciplinary regimes of knowledge production which have arisen in order to accomplish this end, such as criminology, neurology and psychiatry in the sphere of literature. Joe Cleary, contextualising the milieu from which naturalism emerges in more specific terms, writes the following: 

This intellectual climate helped to mould the naturalist conception of the writer, articulated most famously by Zola in his prefaces and manifestos, as a detached, clinically objective ‘scientist’ of human nature or society, with a duty, like that of the scientist or doctor, to vivisect the tissue of conventional moral niceties in pursuit of the deeper ‘laws’ that governed human behaviour. This emphasis on scientific objectivity, and the conception of the novel as a laboratory where experiments concerning individual and social behaviour could be conducted, contributed to the much commented upon determinist sensibility that supposedly characterises naturalist fiction: its assumption that the laws of heredity and social environment, abetted by the undersell of an ungovernable sexual instinct, allowed for only a very constricted form of human agency.

Naturalism’s ‘view from nowhere’, focalised via the viewpoint of a particularly forensic narrator, is therefore aligned with the interests of state power, which accounts for naturalism’s ‘scientific’ emphasis on societal dysfunction, legible from a contemporary perspective as social crises denotative of modernity, such as alcoholism, adultery or violence. In developing these points further we might consider the work of Stephen Crane, an American writer who has been read both as a naturalist and an impressionist. Crane makes for a productive case study within this trajectory due to his being situated in two different camps at once. Martin Scofield describes how the occasion of the American civil war prompted Crane to move beyond the objectivity which characterises works such as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) towards The Red Badge of Courage (1895), which, in its representation of reality as existing in an intersubjective state of flux seems to anticipate the vacillating modalities of impressionist narrative discourse. We might further consider Crane’s status as an intermediary figure within this chronology by reading extracts from these two novels closely with words which correlate either postively or negatively to literary change in each instance are highlighted in bold, allowing the reader to identify tangible instances of these changes at their most pronounced.

First, we consider an extract from Maggie: A Girl of the Streets

The girl thought the arrogance and granite-heartedness of the magnate of the play was very accurately drawn. She echoed the maledictions that the occupants of the gallery showered on this individual when his lines compelled him to expose his extreme selfishness. 

Shady persons in the audience revolted from the pictured villainy of the drama. With untiring zeal they hissed vice and applauded virtue. Unmistakably bad men evinced an apparently sincere admiration for virtue. 

The loud gallery was overwhelmingly with the unfortunate and the oppressed. They encouraged the struggling hero with cries, and jeered the villain, hooting and calling attention to his whiskers. When anybody died in the pale-green snow storms, the gallery mourned. They sought out the painted misery and hugged it as akin. 

In the hero’s erratic march from poverty in the first act, to wealth and triumph in the final one, in which he forgives all the enemies that he has left, he was assisted by the gallery, which applauded his generous and noble sentiments and confounded the speeches of his opponents by making irrelevant but very sharp remarks. Those actors who were cursed with villainy parts were confronted at every turn by the gallery. If one of them rendered lines containing the most subtile distinctions between right and wrong, the gallery was immediately aware if the actor meant wickedness, and denounced him accordingly. 

Secondly, we consider an extract from The Red Badge of Courage

His tall figure stretched itself to its full height. There was a slight rending sound. Then it began to swing forward, slow and straight, in the manner of a falling tree. A swift muscular contortion made the left shoulder strike the ground first

The body seemed to bounce a little way from the earth. “God!” said the tattered soldier. 

The youth had watched, spellbound, this ceremony at the place of meeting. His face had been twisted into an expression of every agony he had imagined for his friend. 

He now sprang to his feet and, going closer, gazed upon the pastelike face. The mouth was open and the teeth showed in a laugh

As the flap of the blue jacket fell away from the body, he could see that the side looked as if it had been chewed by wolves. 

The youth turned, with sudden, livid rage, toward the battlefield. He shook his fist. He seemed about to deliver a philippic. 

The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer. 

The first paragraph describes the occasion of a play which Maggie attends. While this play is described in the context of a number of plays and other spectacles that Maggie is brought to by a man named Pete, this particular paragraph seems to describe a specific play or performance. This attempt to render subjective experience within a broader continuity of events seems to terminate in a certain degree of ambiguity, the villains of the piece and the reaction of the audience at once mark specific receptions or occasions and a broader continuity of reactions to other plays which seem more or less similar. The overwhelming majority of negatively correlating word types seem to relate to moral judgements or moralising language (‘affections’, ‘barbarous’, ‘benevolence’), particularly regarding the nefarious behaviour of the villain, the positive qualities of the good characters and the sincerity with which the audience’s reactions are invested. The attempt this passage makes to summon up a more generalised portrait of previous productions means that the exact nature of the evil or goodness onstage eludes precise narrative description. It is furthermore important to note that this passage identified by our automated method describes a slightly retrograde form of populist art in which good and bad characters are easily identifiable. There is a significant amount of irony in Crane’s representing this within a novel attempting to convey a more authentic portrait of modern urban life. The awkwardness of some of the syntax perhaps points towards the inappropriateness of these concepts in a modern context. 

This all stands in quite stark contrast to the second paragraph from The Red Badge of Courage which describes an encounter between two soldiers, the novel’s protagonist, Henry Fleming, and Jim Conklin, who has been mortally wounded in battle. The emphasis here is more on two individuals than the broader collective we see described in our excerpt from Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. As a result, rather than a broader account of the milieu, within which no single individual is afforded any more space or emphasis than any other, we see extensive amounts of detail being expounded on the physical appearance of these two men more or less in isolation. One of the most pronounced points of comparison can be identified by comparing each respective paragraph’s treatment of physical appearance; while in the first we see a focus on abstract values, morality and emotion, in the second we see far more concrete physical detail. The body parts which are mentioned (‘shoulder’, ‘feet’ and ‘teeth’) seem to have no broader significance beyond a commitment to representational felicity as such. The words around them, furthermore, are simple and do not introduce significant amounts of additional information or detail (‘left’, ‘tall’). It is also significant that this descriptive passage takes place at a remove from the battle itself, almost as though there is an effort being made to isolate these soldiers from a broader generality of figures and that this occurrence is set apart from the more extensive happening of the battle in and of itself. The view from nowhere we see in naturalism has almost vanished completely, but we might say that Crane’s movement from objectivity to more generalised description, and a tendency towards subjectivity, the wound looking as though it had been inflicted by dogs for example, can be attributed to Crane’s experiences of the American civil war, as if he found naturalism thereafter to give insufficient weight to the qualia of experience. 

So far this chapter has set out some of the problems involved in accommodating Underwood’s empirical findings within a broader history of literary criticism which has by its own account, adopted a more avowedly historical orientation to its approach based on the degree to which it emphasises the radical separation between nineteenth and twentieth century literary art. In a bid to introduce a significantly greater amount of the Marxian dialectic into our approach, we examined two sections from the prose fiction of Stephen Crane, the first dense with word-types which die out over time, the second with words that replace them. These serve to emphasize how sensibility and subjectivity become uncoupled from a surrounding context and begin to be explored or expressed for their own sake. This process takes place even as a greater degree or proportion of the text is simultaneously taken up by nouns and concrete objects. We then saw, through a reading of two quite distinct paragraphs written by Crane only two years apart, how impressionist prose, in its ambition to project a social totality with the shortcomings of naturalism taken into account, paradoxically terminates in its reconstruction in vaguer or more ironised terms. 

We might consider this a repudiation of naturalistic detail in favour of the individual perspective, although this may be at odds with the closing lines of the paragraph, which threaten to introduce an almost cosmic, or avowedly Christian setting for the description. We could see in the sun being cast as a wafer either as a successful re-sacralisation of subjective experience, a Jamesian symbol of a movement from the visible to the valuable, or equally we might regard it as parodic; the promised phillipic is not delivered and perhaps points more towards the breaking down of form in the process of its being constructed beyond the realm of the objective even, or especially, as the attempt is made to map it from a subjective point of view. 

We have yet to offer a secure means of identifying these changes with the more macro perspective. We will now accomplish this via materials offered by Marx in his key work of political economy, Capital. It is in the second and third volumes of Capital that Marx provides an account of the various concurrent cycles of capitalist production, beyond the familiar account of the productive process whereby a given worker is alienated from the value which they produce. This involves a further consideration of the larger-scale movements and processes that are brought into existence by capitalist competition in an expanding world market and a distinction between two different forms of capital, both fixed and circulating. The interrelation between the expansion of capitalist markets across the earth and a broader publication infrastructure, along with the uniformity of language and cultural expression has been well-documented, not only in the polemical writing of The Communist Manifesto (1848) but also by historians of print literature such as Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin. In the most straightforward terms possible, the term circulating capital refers to all capital which is used up within the period of a single turnover, whereas fixed capital carries over from one turnover period into another. A good example of fixed capital might be a machine or the factory premises on which the machine is located, while the circulating capital would represent the machine’s inputs, the component parts of the commodity which form the direct components of the productive process’ final output. As Marx emphasises, this process of circulation is put under acute pressure at all times by the requirement that a profit be realised within the capitalist mode of production. The capitalist needs the commodity imbued with surplus value to be sold and to return a profit in a timely manner so that the productive process may be initiated again, albeit at a broader scale. If the commodity circulates unsold in the market, time is wasted during which the capitalist is not recouping any profits. This places a renewed emphasis on the spatial and temporal aspects of production, as it is now in the capitalist’s interest to abbreviate the period of time between the end of the actual production process and the consumption of the product and introduces factors such as transport, retail and credit infrastructure to production as these can all play crucial roles in allowing for the realisation of profit on a more timely basis. This objective tendency towards the increasing velocity of productive and circulation processes is a significant part of the reason why capitalism is such a revolutionising mode of production as the capitalist is forced to invest consistently in new technologies to monitor and to discipline wage labourers to the greatest extent possible in order to remain competitive, resulting in an attenuation of the period of time between production and the realisation of profit, forcing the circulation of capital to as close to zero as possible and overcoming all temporal and spatial barriers insofar as they interfere. 

By demonstrating how close readings of literary texts which make extensive use of word-types identified as significant within the chronology of literary history may be rendered coherent within Marx’s theorisation of spatio-temporal compression and crisis it is hoped that the utility of dialectical materialism to literary study has been demonstrated and I therefore hope to have identified the ways in which a quantitative literary history will look both to empirical methods as well as dialectical materialism in order to advance its critique, providing as it does the most secure means of locating objective entities within an historical process and the most coherent means of incorporating statistics within a historiography of literature.

One response to “Dialectical materialism and literary history

  1. Pingback: Article: ‘Diachronic Delta’ | Chris Beausang

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