Parallel Session 1: Representing Capitalism

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‘Is Representation Possible Without Reification?’
Tim Bewes (English, Brown University)

In his famous essay on reification, Lukács writes that thought and existence are ‘aspects of one and the same real historical and dialectical process’. What are the implications of this statement for the thought-form known as reification? Taking issue with other recent attempts to ‘rescue’ the term, I will argue that only an immanent theory of reification can have any validity today, and consider what this might mean for the critical usefulness of the concept.

‘The Historical Novel of Contemporary Capitalism’
David Cunningham (RP/English, University of Westminster)

In a recent survey of the historical novel published in the London Review of Books, Perry Anderson charts a history of the genre, indebted to both Lukács and Jameson, which tracks its development from early nineteenth-century narratives of progress and the emergence of nationhood to ‘the ravages of empire’, ‘impending or consummated catastrophe’, in the second half of the twentieth century. What later forms of the historical novel come to transcribe, ‘essentially, is an experience of defeat’. This paper suggests a different angle on Anderson’s characteristic overview by refocusing it on the ongoing question of the novel’s problematic attempts to represent or ‘map’ the social totality of capitalism. In his lecture ‘Reading Balzac’, Adorno argued that, from its beginnings, the novel already depicts, in its ironic repetition of epic ‘wholeness’ and collective ‘fate’, the ‘superior power of social and especially economic interests over private psychology’, in the ways in which, through the ‘form of a medium of circulation, money, the capitalist process touches and patterns the characters whose lives the novel form tries to capture’. As such, the novel necessarily struggles with the problem of how ‘to conjure up in perceptible form a society that has become abstract’. Approaching this problem of novelistic representation from the perspective of some of its most recent manifestations, this paper argues that an alternative trajectory of the historical novel may be located in the ways in which the novel comes to be rewritten as an epic of capitalism itself, which works to grasp a society’s becoming-abstract via the narration of its historical emergence and pivotal moments of transition. In this fashion, the transcription of ‘defeat’ also becomes the critical ‘success’ of rendering ‘perceptible’ some aspect of capitalism as an ‘impossible’ object of epic form.

‘Marx’s Realist Intention’
Kristin Ross (Comparative Literature, New York University)

The project shared by Marx and his contemporaries, the realist novelists, a project at once analytical and critical of a certain historical process of becoming, is the attempt to grasp the contemporaneous as part of an historical process. If Marx’s ‘circumstantial’ texts like The Civil War in France and the letters to Vera Zasulich play, as I will argue, as important a role in that project as a text like Capital, then what I am calling Marx’s realist intention is best thought of as one of narrating rather than representing Capital.  It was the Paris Commune that brought Marx to a confrontation with actually existing alternative social forms (freely associated labor) and which I will try to show constituted something of a full ‘redistribution of the sensible’ (in Rancière’s sense) for Marx.