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.
Modernism stands as the signal literary upheaval of the long 20th century, and yet the tenuousness of its appeal to “make it new,” as Ezra Pound commanded, entails the period or periods that follow are likewise uncertain save in their reference to modernism. However, even here there is ambivalence: contemporary authors might be charted regarding their modernist literary forebears, yet many explicitly reject modernist methods altogether; others continue this legacy, and still more look to complexly incorporate and negotiate modernist methods. Likewise, theoretical accounts of postwar fiction mark what comes after in reference to modernism: postmodernism, post-postmodernism, and the like. Modernism’s outsize shadow stems from its association with literary experimentation, aesthetic innovations elevating its austere emphasis on form above such traditional concerns as telling stories and creating characters. Though swaths of Anglophone fiction reject these modernist impulses and return to realist narratives, contemporary fiction must also be viewed as occurring within an era in which modernism has become institutionalized in university reading lists and the practices of their creative writing programs. Fiction after modernism thus might be best viewed as encompassing competing impulses, often within the same text or author: to revert to traditional modes of storytelling and thereby reject modernism; to borrow aspects of modernist technique but develop them so form might convey not only a sense of interior experience or textuality but also situate characters and texts socially (and globally); and to return afresh to those literary experiments, investing them with new relevance. These divided relations between contemporary fiction and aesthetic modernism underscore a complex and conflicted temporality operative within the very conceptions of both modernism and the contemporary.
Animals have prowled literature from its beginnings in the ancient world through medieval bestiaries and out from the margins of the novel in the modern era. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, animals’ literary presence has generated increasing critical interest. Animal studies, a relatively new interdisciplinary field, calls attention to the accelerating exploitation of animals in the period of industrial modernity and questions what it is possible to know about animals’ own experiences. Foundational theoretical approaches to understanding the historical and philosophical condition of thinking about animals—John Berger’s “Why Look at Animals?” (1972), Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (1974), and Jacques Derrida’s “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” (2002)—propose a fundamental aporia or gap between human and animal experiences, and they caution against the projection of anthropocentric categories onto animal lives. Many novels from this recent period likewise treat animals as charismatic strangers. Yet other contemporary literature sometimes reimagines human-animal relationships to insist on affinity and continuity. In such novels, animals prompt diverse and often experimental stylistic choices that put pressure on the novel’s traditional association with everyday life, the individual self, the boundaries of the nation, and empirical observation more broadly. Still, many recent novels remain essentially committed to a realist tradition. Some of these—most notably by J. M. Coetzee—depict relations of care between humans and often vulnerable or dependent animals that prompt reflection on the meaning of ethical action. In novels that purport to narrate from animals’ own perspective, writers likewise meditate on the ethics of interspecies relations as they use language innovatively in an effort to realistically evoke the sensorium of another species. Pushing the boundaries of realism, other novels reinvent the animal fable, using varying degrees of fantasy to imagine wild or domesticated animals as tropes that reflect upon human embodiment, community, and politics. Whether realist or fabulist, the novels of contemporary postcolonial and world literature particularly explore the power and limits of mapping histories of human belonging and domination onto animal figures, even as they often highlight the limitations of these comparisons. Not all of these approaches are equally invested in creating a literature that could materially impact the lives of animals in an era of diminishing biodiversity. However, uniting this varied and ever-growing array of novels is a question of how literature can represent the lives of intimately entangled bodies in a globalizing world.
Character is a property of narrative and discursive textuality, even as it is also a moral and ethical category referring to individual and collective norms of behavior and motive. This double valence has affected the concept since Aristotle and Plato first began the unfinished, centuries-long project of literary theory. On the one hand, stemming from Aristotle, there has been a tradition of formalist conceptions of character, understanding it as a device used by writers to drive narrative momentum and effect transformations within the discourse. The domain of action, and its variously entailed reactions and consequences, was thought to belong to the agents of narrative discourse by rights, while what was generally called their “character” typically concerned the incidental qualifications and explanations of their actions in speech and thought. Once that distinction is made, however, there are smaller and smaller units into which agency can logically be subdivided, and more and more arbitrary and capricious qualities of character used to flesh out an abstract narratological principle. The histories of formalism, structuralism, and poststructuralism attest to this labor of specialization and fissiparous subdivision of the bound concepts of agent and character. On the other hand, stemming from Plato, we see a centuries-long interest in the mutually interactive relations between imaginary persons, or fictional selves, and the fashioning of public or social selves in regimes of education and discipline. The question of the role of literary characters in the formation of good citizens, or indeed delinquent ones, is one that refuses to go away, since it has proven impossible to separate fiction from reality in the complex processes of self-fashioning through which every subject must go. One last matter of interest has exerted more theoretical influence over the concept in recent years, and that is the topic of affects: the qualities and intensities of human feelings can be seen to have had a major bearing on the writing and elaboration of fictional beings, and vice versa, at least since the late 19th century.
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.”
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.
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.
Modern Japanese literature emerged as Japan asserted itself as a military-industrial power from the end of the 19th through the early 20th centuries. The subject of modern literature was worthy of a seat at the table of the world’s powers, or so goes the story of a literary canon all too often focused on the legitimacy of elites. But modern literature is not only about a male alienated intellectual failing to have a satisfying relationship. During the international “red decade” (1925–1935), proletarian writers in Japan as elsewhere sought to harness and transform the technology of modern literature in order to represent the hitherto un- or underrepresented women and men, peasants and factory workers, elderly and children in order to bring the masses into consciousness of their collective power. For a decade, nearly every writer in Japan engaged the energetic but often divided proletarian movement as they sought to grasp the challenges of a rapidly modernizing society, transformation in the family and gender, dual economy, worldwide depression, and escalating imperialism.
Largely overlooked during the Cold War, this important decade of modern literature has experienced a well-deserved scholarly and popular revival in a period of 21st-century precarity, protests against privilege, and questioning of media and representation. Two exemplars from proletarian literature—Hayama Yoshiki’s “The Prostitute” (1925) and Miyamoto Yuriko’s “The Breast” (1935)—offer a frame to apprehend the richness of genre, voice, storytelling, experimentation, and ethics in proletarian literature, a vital part of modern literature.
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.
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.