Mathias Nilges and Emilio Sauri, eds., Literary Materialisms (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) reviewed by Ronald Paul

Crisis and Criticism

In Post-Marxism: A Reader (1998), the editor Stuart Sim declared: “Perhaps it is time to admit that Marxism is beyond revision, either as a method or body of principles (monism and pluralism do not, cannot, mix), and that all that remains is a nostalgia for the ideal it appeared to be offering […] perhaps that is the most one can say: that post-Marxism marks not a new beginning nor a way out of a theoretical cul-de-sac, but the recognition of defeat.”1 The list of attendants at this post-marxist funeral pyre included well known revisionists such as Laclau, Mouffe, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Bauman, Aronowitz and Derrida, among others. Now these old aficionados of postmodern iconoclasm are themselves on the receiving end of the same sort of historical trash-canning in the end-of-theory debate that has caused so much hand-wringing within academia recently. One prominent example of this kind of final settlement of critical accounts can be found in Terry Eagleton’s After Theory (2003), which opens ominously with the claim that the “golden age of cultural theory is long past.”2

A similar sense of paradigmatic loss can be discerned in this latest collection of critical essays, Literary Materialisms, despite its aim to rekindle the flickering spark of radical literary theory at an “apocalyptic moment” in its history. The prognosis looks grim, however, as the range of comments in the first few pages of the introduction indicates: “exhaustion,” “failure,” “crisis.” A further admission of “defeat” is also included, albeit later on in the book. Referring to Perry Anderson’s negative characterisation of Western marxism as the “product of defeat,” Imre Szeman concludes in his essay “Marxist Criticism, Then and Now” that “[i]n the context of our own circumstances, it is easy enough to see the depth of this defeat as something we are still in process of coming to understand” (58). The rest of the responses, given by thirteen university professors, eleven male and two female, don’t give very much hope as to a successful resuscitation of the patient. The treatment recommended for marxist literary criticism is, not surprisingly in this context of political demise, mainly palliative: finding a methodological middle way between what is described as “thin materialism” on the one hand and “literary readings” on the other (2). What this “third option” seems to boil down to, however, is some sort of amalgamation of political and narrative analysis:

Faced with what presents itself everywhere as a zero-sum game, Literary Materialisms begins with the premise that the crisis of futurity that underlies contemporary literary studies stems primarily from the commitment to the irreducible duality of these positions, and asks what a third option for a future literary criticism might look like. The point, to be sure, will not simply be to advocate for one over the other, not even to argue for a wholesale rejection of both, but rather to determine how we might maintain a commitment to both positions while avoiding the reduction of one to the other. (4)

The critical strategies on offer in the individual essays that follow are all variations of a radical, if somewhat idiosyncratic, reader-oriented approach: from close reading (Brown); reading “better,” more “dialectically” or even in a “perverse” mode (Lesjak); reading according to the “principles of immanent critique” (Larsen); reading “difference” (Floyd); reading as “world narration” (Hitchcock); to a whole section on the “new formalism,” a critical turn that dominates the book’s final section (Nilges, Schwarz, Bosteels, Potts and Wegner). Unfortunately, there is nothing particularly new or marxist about all of this. Conservative critics like Valentine Cunningham have already called for a similar back-to-basics return to close reading as the new post-theory strategy of survival for literary critics:

[R]eading can only proceed effectively, properly, truly, when much of what Theory alleges and Theory gets up or has got up to, is left behind. Reading needs to go transalpine, beyond Theory, to cross Theory’s Alps, or its Pyrenees, those High Pyrrhonisms Theory has thrown up around texts and the reading experience. Theory’s Pyrrhonisms break up the reading relationship – get in the way of the respect for the otherness of the other person and the other person’s text.3

Another thing that strikes the reader of this anthology is the heavy, jargon-laden prose in which many of the contributions are written. This kind of convoluted theoretical writing is what characterised much of the postmodernist project, undermining the democratic credentials of its promoters and finally bringing it into disrepute. One would have hoped that in a book that seeks to reclaim the relevance and persuasiveness of marxist criticism, not least in terms of its student appeal, the editors would have made an effort to keep reader-friendly communication as their guiding star. The authors should therefore have been encouraged to apply some of their self-proclaimed close-reading skills in critically editing their own texts before the volume went to publication. One short but nevertheless representative extract will give an indication of the level of self-indulgent abstraction of too much of the writing:

If there is a definition of Marxist literary theory it lies within these processes (the literary in class as mediation), and not necessarily in the myriad and laudable theoretical excursions that may yet be their formal effects, the Erscheinungsform, as it were. But then again, perhaps all Marxist literary theory has already internalized this intricate formation and symptomatically and/or dialectically expresses the substance of its possibility so that indeed it might be said it is a figural representation of the figures it represents, a critique that is at once chiasmatic and contradictory in its elementary profusion. (125)

If there is a real crisis to be addressed within academia, it is linked to that of global capitalism, which is undermining the very foundations of society in more and more violent and ecologically destructive ways. The system is also trying to force through a social, political, economic and cultural counter-revolution that is provoking gigantic class struggles all over the world. As part of this, the neoconservative attacks on the Humanities form a concerted attempt to roll back the democratic cultural gains of the past by strangling an institution of learning that has been a thorn in the side of the system since the 1960s. Since the so-called profit margins of subject areas like literary studies are negligible, the neocon wreckers are more than willing to let such critical disciplines go to the wall.

It is nevertheless an indication of the actual success of marxism within academia – together with that of other critical discourses with which it is linked, such as feminism, postcolonial and Black studies – that there is this ruthless onslaught against the Humanities. Marxism and feminism for example, after struggling together in what was described as an “unhappy marriage,” now seem to have resolved some of their conceptual differences in a new and more fruitful awareness of the need to integrate the categories of class, gender and race within the much more flexible dynamic of intersectionality,4 a point of progressive development that is almost completely ignored in this collection of essays.

A renewed upsurge of interest in marxism is certainly discernible today, not least in the wake of the financial crisis, the Occupy movement, the Arab spring and the struggles against the vicious austerity policies that are being implemented throughout Europe – in particular Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy. Marxist cultural theory has a role to play in all of these radical contexts, especially since students from Chile to Germany, Canada to Britain are also mobilising against the privatisation of schools and universities and the concomitant closure of Humanities departments. This is partly why even a maverick cultural critic like Slavoj Žižek can attract such big audiences around the globe. Recently for example here in Gothenburg (a small town in Sweden), he managed to fill the old opera house with over a thousand people, mainly students, who were keen to ask him some down-to-earth political questions about what to do now and where we go from here.

Another radical discourse which is sweeping the world, both within and without academia, and which has successfully amalgamated both critical theory and a commitment to activism is that of ecocriticism. This is also a research field that has benefited from its ongoing dialogue with marxism and within which many students and teachers are politically and pedagogically engaged. I was therefore pleased to read Leerom Medovoi’s contribution to the collection, “The Biopolitical Unconscious: Towards and Eco-Marxist Literary Theory,” which advocates the sort of radical integration of marxism and ecocriticism that has occurred between marxism and feminism. It is an inspiringly positive piece of critical debate, which helps open an academic window on the world and really faces up to the challenge of how to make marxist literary theory something that readers can relate to in a more compelling way. As Medovoi writes, applying a creative spin on the “classic Jamesonian term” of the political unconscious:

In redescribing ecocriticism as the analysis of modern literature’s determination by the category of the “environment” within the successive iterations of the capitalist mode of production, however, I will also argue that Marxist literary criticism must be inflected in a new way. Insofar as politics, understood in their broadest sense, designate social struggles over how life (human and nonhuman alike) will be used as a means to a collective end that is also life, I will propose that the “absent cause” of history, which in the proverbial last instance determines the form of modern literature and culture, must be understood as a biopolitical unconscious. (79)

In contrast to what is overall a rather disappointing collection of critical essays, Medovoi’s intervention reflects a much needed sense of urgency and ambition to connect more clearly and directly with those radical students, teachers and researchers within academia who are using the study of literature as a critical starting-point for the broader struggle to make another, more equitable and sustainable world possible.

Reviewed by Ronald Paul
University of Gothenburg, Sweden


1. Stuart Sim ed., Post-Marxism: A Reader Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998, 9-10 (italics in the original).

2. Terry Eagleton, After Theory London: Penguin, 2004, 1.

3. Valentine Cunningham Reading After Theory, Oxford: Blackwell, 2002, 140.

4. See Cinzia Arruzza Dangerous Liaisons: The Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism Pontypool: Merlin Press 2013.


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