9Marxism and Cuarxism and Cultural Materialism stephen shapiro
This chapter focuses on books published in the field of Marxism and Cultural
Materialism in the years leading up to 2013 and is divided into four sections: 1. Reading World Literature; 2. Materialist ‘postcolonialism’; 3. Sleep: An
Emancipatory Ideal; 4. Collectivity; 5. Poetics of Modernism. 1. Reading World Literature ‘Reading’, that keyword for claims of disciplinary expertise by literary and cultural studies, has once more become a theme of hothouse activity in materialist criticism. Franco Moretti’s experimental essays have been key touchstones in these discussions, as he has almost single-handedly revivified materialist conceptions of literary form for Anglophone critics. One starting point is his 2000 essay ‘Conjectures on World Literature’ (now collected in
Distant Reading), which turned the page on older forms of left comparative literary studies.
While comparative literary studies have an intellectual tradition going back to the nineteenth century, its dominant institutional form was shaped by the Cold War United States academy. Conventionally understood as the study of analogous cultural themes or illustrative examples drawn mainly from texts written in the main West European languages, alongside recalls of
Greek and Latin, modern comparative literary studies is perhaps best seen as a discipline actually magnetized by the desire to form a counterweight to communist and socialist cultural alternatives. This form of soft power existed even as the field provided sanctuary from what was, well into the 1970s, the overall right-wing tilt of English language-nation literary studies (some might say this is even the case in the contemporary moment).
These remnants of Cold War blockages were even felt by the New Left
Review when it renewed itself with a new series in its January–February 2000 issue. This fresh signature had less to do with the fad for millenarian nomenclature than a broader recognition of the need to evacuate the residues
The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory, 22 The English Association (2014)
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D ow nloaded from of ‘1989’, the fall of Soviet state socialism, and to experience this clearance as an emotionally and intellectually liberating gesture. In ways perhaps not entirely foreseen at the time, the issue might also be viewed as part of a conjuncture involving the collision of forces including the return to bellicose imperialism, the realization that the larger implications of ‘globalization’ were better conveyed through the term ‘neoliberalism’, State-abetted corporate criminality and bubble economies, and the post-Seattle resurgence of anarchist-led activism. Moretti’s ‘Conjectures’, which appeared in that issue, additionally implied that we needed to call time on the Cold War form of comparative literary studies and that progressives forces needed to reconverge, not least by using the rubric of world literature to overcome the created division between postcolonial studies and European-focused comparative literary studies.
Moretti’s ensuing articles on ways of reading world literature have become necessary to read not only for their intrinsic worth, but equally so as a lightning-rod of reactionary energies that seemed dormant or happily superseded but have been brought into the open by Moretti’s interventions.
His work has lent itself to this purpose given its form in short essays. Despite his interest in developing new interpretive models for reading, Moretti is not himself a full-blown systematizer. His articles are self-confessedly exploratory more than forensic or conclusive. They are truly essays rather than magnum opus monographs. A pathway prober, a question-setter, an encourager of left lightness of spirit, Moretti rarely seeks to shoulder the weight of a new ‘science’ in the Althusserian sense. The paradox here, though, is that his arguments often exemplify the computational turn in literary studies, created by the new availability of data sets through mass digitization and the visualization of information through maps and charts. Along with what often seems at times to be his celebration of the heteronomizing bourgeois literary commercial marketplace as evolutionary force, Moretti often leaves himself open to charges of a lack of rigour, despite the use of quantitative measures.
Moretti has said that the issues of ‘evolution, geography, and formalism’ are the over-riding themes that have informed his work for the last few decades. Each vector flows into his proposition that world literature may be the only relevant category for literary studies now, as language/nation/periodbased studies can be witnessed as in a terminal, Kuhn-like paradigm collapse. ‘Conjectures’ then builds on his previously published Atlas of the European
Novel, 1800–1900 (Verso ), but the essay is now prepared to stand fully as a manifesto for world literature. The phrase refers not to a transcendental category that would broaden the canon, but looks to the world-systems perspective known mainly through Immanuel Wallerstein’s work. 166 | Marxism and Cultural Materialism at N orth D akota State U niversity on January 18, 2015 http://yw cct.oxfordjournals.org/
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Beginning with Goethe’s ‘we are all moderns’-like inauguration of world literature as a category, Moretti broadly asks how the cultural can be understood in relation to the historical when we abandon nation categories and singular events as defining literary studies. In a certain sense almost every response to Moretti can be tracked to the degree that it perceives the relation of this longer-duration materialist problematic to his propositions.
Those critics who have little familiarity or sympathy with left cultural studies or Annaliste historiography typically respond to Moretti by foregrounding the sanctity of literary translation or geo-ethnic identitarianism, which depends on varieties of semiotic and racializing essentialism. Yet these ideological counter-replies largely miss the target. For by dismissing the older comparativist model, which relied on a maestro reader of multiple languages, who establishes harmony in the space of the scholarly study, Moretti proposes that modern literature is fundamentally a product of a unitary (capitalist) system contoured by inequality and that the use of new data-driven models is an attempt at a more democratic form of criticism. Whether access to these digital tools is, in fact, truly egalitarian is, however, a question left unasked by Moretti.