Following Mikhail Bakhtin’s influential study Rabelais and His World, a generation of scholars have thought of laughter as subversive—of norms, institutions, religion, gender. The literary canon, however, is ripe with situations in which characters refrain from laughing at certain objects.
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.
What is the literary marketplace, and what is the relationship between literature and the marketplace? The decades since the end of World War II have seen enormous changes in the economics of literary production: the book trade has grown, consolidated, and globalized; chain bookstores have replaced independent booksellers; and technological advancements have transformed how books are produced and how readers shop for, acquire, and read them. With these changes, questions about how the literary marketplace has mattered to literary history have been asked with increasing urgency, and the histories of those institutions that engage in producing, distributing, and selling literature have received increasing amounts of scholarly attention. Where the market was once understood to be a kind of implacable antagonist to literature, and literature once defined by virtue of its opposition to, and essential difference from, goods that are mass-produced, today the fields of book history, the sociology of literature, and literary studies itself frequently highlight the marketplace as a producer of modern and contemporary literature and—for better or worse—as a necessary context for it. What caused this shift, and what are its implications for literary study and for the idea of literature itself? How is a marketplace devoted specifically to the rarefied category of literature distinguished from the book trade generally, and how might one distinguish literature from nonliterature when both are produced by the same set of mostly commercial institutions? Answers to these questions depend in large part on the evolving, and surprisingly elusive, concept of a “literary marketplace” itself.
The narrative mode of world-representation and world-building is omnipresent and far exceeds the domain of literature. Since literature is not necessarily narrative and narrative not necessarily literary, the study of narrative in a literary context must confront narrative and literature in a dual way: How does the presence of narrative affect literature? And how does literariness affect narrative? The basic terminology needs to be clarified by comparing English with the vocabulary of other natural languages. No consensus has been reached, even in the West, on the nature of narrative discourse.
The entire history of poetics shows that, before the middle of the 20th century, little attention was paid to the narrative components of literary texts qua narrative—that is, insofar as the same narrative elements could equally be found in non-aestheticized uses of verbal and non-verbal languages. Aristotelian poetics, based on the mimesis of human action, keeps its grip on narrative theory. The post-Aristotelian triad separated more sharply the lyric from the epic and dramatic genres, but modern narrative theories, mostly based on the study of folk tales and the novel, have still failed to unify the field of literary narrative, or have done it artificially, dissolving narrative discourse into the undifferentiated experience of human life in linear time.
The Western “rise of the novel,” in Ian Watt’s sense, and its worldwide expansion, turned the question of fiction, not that of narrativity, into the main focus of narrative studies. Later, the emergence of formalism and semiotics and the “linguistic turn” of the social sciences pushed the narrative analysis of literary texts in the opposite direction, with all of its efforts bearing on minimal, supposedly deeper units and simple concatenations. The permanent, unresolved conflict between an analytical and constructivist view grounded in individual events and a holistic view concerned with story-worlds and storytelling leaves mostly unattended such fundamental questions as how narrative is used by literature and literature by narrative for their own ends.
Literary narrativity must be thoroughly reconsidered. A critical, transdisciplinary theory should submit to both logical and empirical trial—on a large number of varied samples—and narrative analyses that would take into account the following concepts used to forge methodological tools: discrimination (between the functions of discourse genres and between pragmatic roles in literary communication); combination rules (whether linear or not); levels (as spatial placing, as interdependence and hierarchical authority); scale and spatiotemporal framing and backgrounding, especially the (dominant) time concepts in a particular cultural context. The preconditions for analysis begin by investigating the relation between aesthetic emotions and narrative in other cultural domains than the West and the English-speaking world.
Literary narrativity and social values concur to link the rhetorical manipulation of narrative with its aestheticization. The pleasure and fear of cognition combine with strategies of delusion to either acquiesce to the effects of time and violence or resist them; routine and rupture are alternatively foregrounded, according to needs.
The problem of capital and the question of its appropriate or desired relationship with political life and civil society shapes how readers, authors, and citizens understand and experience everyday contemporary life and its cultural products. Capital, in its post-1945 incarnation, is widely held to have been either in a state of crisis or responding to crisis (both historical and contemporaneously). Depending on the critic, these crises and their impacts are varied: the collapse of the 19th-century European balance of power, the rise of Keynesian economics, the birth of biopolitics, the Cold War and the specter of Communism, the repeating “systemic cycles of accumulation” endemic to the history of capitalism. This variant of capitalism that shapes contemporary life goes by many names, though the general consensus tends to call it “neoliberalism.” Despite its varying names, neoliberalism is generally held to be an economic doctrine that understands human freedom to be best achieved through free markets and entrepreneurial enterprise, privileging the individual above all else. Government should, therefore, be minimal; its role is to enforce the rules of the game but not to interfere in it. Neoliberalism is thus both revolutionary in its insistence on rethinking social life as solely economic life and an extension of long-standing values and arrangements of economic life that date back centuries.
Contemporary fiction takes part in debates about the hyper-individualized neoliberal subject and neoliberal values in a multitude of ways and at a variety of scales. The predominant way is in its interrogation of neoliberal identity politics—either to reinforce or critique, or something in-between, the possibilities for subject formation under neoliberalism. At another remove from the individual text has been the challenge to long-standing genre conventions, particularly in the novel. If modern novelistic genres rose alongside earlier modes of capitalist accumulation, contemporary authors are reimagining them to reflect changing rationalities. Finally, at the meta-textual level, there has been a variety of critical attention given to publishing, its infrastructures, and the role of the artist for both the appearance and success of texts. Across all these approaches—both imaginative and critical—is a commitment to an ongoing examination of the ways neoliberalism in all its varied impacts inflects “how we live now.”
Networks influence practically every subfield of literary studies. Unlike hierarchies and centralized structures, networks connote decentralization and distribution. The abstraction of this form makes it applicable to a wide variety of phenomena. For example, the metaphor and form of the network informs the way we think about communication systems in early American writing, social networks in Victorian novels, transnational circulation in postcolonial literature, and computer networks in late 20th-century cyberpunk fiction. Beyond traditional literary genres, network form is also accessible through comparative media analysis. Films, television serials, video games, and transmedia narratives may represent or evoke network structures through medium-specific techniques. The juxtaposition of different literary and artistic forms, across media, helps to defamiliarize network forms and make these complex structures available to thought. Across subfields of literary studies, critics may be drawn to networks because of their resonance with histories of the present and contemporary technoscience. Scholars may also recognize the sense of complexity and interconnection inherent in networks, which resonates with experiences of intertextuality and close reading itself. In addition to studying representations of networks, literary critics employ a variety of network-related methods. These approaches include historicist scholarship that uses network structures to think about social organization and communication in different eras, quantitative digital humanities tools that map networks of literary circulation, qualitative sociology of literature and reader-response theory that analyze networks of readers and publishers, and formalist work that compares network and aesthetic forms.
Claire A. Culleton
For almost four decades, from 1936 to 1972, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, fueled by intense paranoia and fear, hounded and relentlessly pursued a variety of American writers and publishers in a staunch effort to control the dissemination of literature that he thought threatened the American way of life. In fact, beginning as early as the Red Scare of 1919, he managed to control literary modernism by bullying and harassing writers and artists at a time when the movement was spreading quickly in the hands of an especially young, vibrant collection of international writers, editors, and publishers. He, his special agents in charge, and their field agents worked to manipulate the relationship between state power and modern literature, thereby “federalizing,” to a point, political surveillance. There still seems to be a resurgence of brute state force that is omnipresent and going through all matters and aspects of our private lives. We are constantly under surveillance, tracked, and monitored when engaged in even the most mundane activities. The only way to counter our omnipresent state surveillance is to monitor the monitors themselves.
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.
Time is not a strictly literary category, yet literature is unthinkable without time. The events of a story unfold over time. The narration of that story imposes a separate order of time (chronological, discontinuous, in medias res). The reading of that narrative may take its own sweet time. Then there is the fact that literature itself exists in time. Transmitted across generations, literary texts cannot help but remind us of how times have changed. In doing so, they also show us how prior historical moments were indelibly shaped by their own specific philosophies and technologies of timekeeping—from the forms of sacred time that informed medieval writing; to the clash between national time and natural history that preoccupied the Romantics; to the technological standardization of time that shaped 19th-century literature; to the theories of psychological time that emerged in tandem with modernism; to the fragmented and foreshortened digital times that underlie postmodern fiction. Time, in short, shapes literature several times over: from reading experience to narrative form to cultural context. In this way, literature can be read as a peculiarly sensitive timepiece of its own, both reflecting and responding to the complex and varied history of shared time.
Over the course of the 20th century, literary time has become an increasingly prominent issue for literary critics. Time was first installed at the heart of literary criticism by way of narrative theory and narratology, which sought to explain narrative’s irreducibly temporal structure. Soon, though, formalist and phenomenological approaches to time would give way to more historically and politically attuned methods, which have emphasized modern time’s enmeshment in imperialism, industrial capitalism, and globalization. In today’s critical landscape, time is a crucial and contested topic in a wide range of subfields, offering us indispensable insights into the history and ideology of modernity; the temporal politics of nationalism, colonialism, and racial oppression; the alternate timescales of environmental crisis and geological change; and the transformations of life and work that structure postmodern and postindustrial society.