Forecasts of the Past: Globalisation, History, Realism, Utopia
What is the appropriate literary form for us to represent the modern world, with all its clashes and confusions, its currents and eddies, its triumphs and tragedies?
For much of the twentieth century, the two opposing answers have been either realism or modernism. In the socialist movement, these two responses came to be associated, however fairly, with the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs on the one side, and the German playwright Bertolt Brecht on the other.
For Lukacs, the great realists of the nineteenth century like Emile Zola not only gave readers a sense of the totality of the world, but helped forge their sense of themselves as active subjects. For Brecht, it was essential to highlight literary form as just that, a material production in a specific situation – and this required the breaking down of the false reality of realism.
More recently, cultural theorist Fredric Jameson has suggested that it is not modernism but science fiction that is sending back ‘more reliable information’ than ‘an exhausted realism’. In Jameson’s scheme, capitalist society has gone through three great phases, the early phase of liberal capitalism spanning the last half of the nineteenth century, a phase of monopoly capitalism, spanning the first half of the twentieth century, and that of late capitalism, running for the last sixty years or so. According to this schema – and here I’m simplifying terribly – there are three great cultures that correspond to each era: realism, modernism and post-modernism (including modern science fiction, especially cyberpunk).
Dougal McNeill’s new book, Forecasts of the Past, takes issue with Jameson’s overall argument. For McNeill – using some of Jameson’s own stray comments as a starting point – an oppositional realism is equally capable of producing the ‘knowledge of history, industrial politics and the metropolis traditionally central to literary realism’s concerns’. Indeed, for McNeill, there are already signs that a turn to realism may be upon us. Where postmodern fragmentation was the name of the game in the ‘80s and ‘90s, a new totalising turn of thought has been brought on by globalisation, the ‘war on terror’, the global financial crisis and the Arab revolutions.
These new realisms, existing in the interstices of the cultural field, take over from traditional realism’s role of deprogramming the ruling elite’s ideological hold over the rest of us, positioning readers into new subject positions, breaking down the reifying logic of the world system, and offering reliable information about the world. In a rather grandiose gesture, McNeill says realism’s role in the realm of literary forms is ‘analogous to that of the revolutionary [socialist] party.’
It attempts to develop … consciousness out of existing conditions and resources, maintain opposition within the current order and cultivate totalising knowledge among those with access to the forces of change.
But McNeill isn’t interested in claiming some special vanguard role for realism against the other forms, but rather envisages, in a lovely turn of phrase, a ‘readerly united front’ between them.
There’s not enough room here to discuss McNeill’s evidence for his position, contained within his fine readings of Peace’s GB84, Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late, Hensel’s Tanz am Kanal, Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, and Gee’s Plumb trilogy. Suffice to say that McNeill is a sympathetic and subtle critic and these chapters will certainly interest readers of those books.
But what are we to make of his argument as a whole?
Forecasts of the Past is a significant, perhaps even essential, contribution to the question of politics and literary form. His arguments for an oppositional realism are both compelling and cogent. In particular, McNeill’s refusal to present a hierarchy of form by rating one form or genre above the rest is a salutary decision. Indeed, we might develop the argument a little more. It seems to me that the decisions a progressive writer makes about which form to use are partly contextual. It depends, if you like, on what is happening at the moment. Just as a progressive might choose to participate in one movement (environmental, women’s, trade union, anti-globalisation, etc.) rather than another depending on what had the most charge at the time, so we might choose between literary movements depending on which (magic realism, realism, surrealisms, steampunk, science fiction) is alive at the moment. To privilege one over any other is purist formalism.
Still, while agreeing broadly with McNeill’s argument, we might also note dangers in these kinds of positions.
Most importantly, there is a danger of inflating the role that literature might play in developing political consciousness. While McNeill himself is careful on this point, there is a tendency in many of these arguments to overvalue the ideological and political aspects of literature. Are novels, we might ask, really there to send us ‘accurate information’ about the present? In the most extreme versions, literature itself begins to stand in for politics. It becomes a surrogate for other kinds of activities – whereas, in reality, it clearly plays a more attenuated role.
Bu contrast, it seems to me that most readers read primarily to have an emotional experience brought about by the forms and structures of narrative itself. While we might hope that reading brings about a new, totalising mode of thought in which a reader can grasp the real relations in society and see things anew, the reader’s primary goal is rather to feel various emotions vicariously. I’m not arguing here that the two aren’t related (and indeed McNeill shows that they are, in his readings), simply that most theories of literature don’t relate them. What is missing (in McNeill’s book as in most literary theories) is a sense of the connection between our theories of the political role of from and narratology. Thinking through this connection, it seems to me, is one of the central tasks for literary theory.
Having said that, McNeill’s book is a terrific place to start both to understand the debates about politics and literary form. He not only sketches out those arguments, he shows us in a startling argument, that there is life in realism yet.