Matthew Wilkens, Revolution: The Event in Postwar Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2016), 176 pp.
Jul27

Matthew Wilkens, Revolution: The Event in Postwar Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2016), 176 pp.

MATTHEW WILKENS, Revolution: The Event in Postwar Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2016), 176 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies 63.1     Readers of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man will remember a pivotal scene in which the narrator—the Invisible Man of the title—witnesses an elderly black couple being evicted from their Harlem apartment. An angry crowd gathers. The Invisible Man watches in fascination, alternately dismayed and enthusiastic, as the crowd corners the white marshal tasked with executing the eviction. “The marshal was spun this way and that, then a swift tattoo of blows started him down the street. I was beside myself with excitement.” The Invisible Man is conflicted. Does he want to pacify the crowd, preventing an outburst of violence that will surely bring harsh reprisals? Or is mob justice the only way of redressing the wrong of the eviction? Later on, the Invisible Man encounters a man named Dupre, who sets fire to his Harlem apartment block in protest against living conditions in the slums. Dupre, the Invisible Man says, is “a type of man nothing in my life had taught me to see, to understand, or respect, a man outside the scheme until now.” The apparent senselessness of the riot both appalls and attracts him. “They did it themselves, I thought, holding my breath—planned it, organized it, applied the flame.” But what, exactly, did they do? Start a revolution? Or merely a riot? What’s the difference? How do we know a revolution when we see one? These, more or less, are the big questions Matthew Wilkens takes on in his Revolution: The Event in Postwar Fiction, a work at once formidably intelligent and, at times, frustratingly abstract. Nominally a study of American and British fiction of the 1950s—a period, Wilkens says, confusing to literary historians because neither fully part of the modernism that preceded it nor of the postmodernism thought to follow—Revolution has consequences for the study of all twentieth-century literature. The book’s largest quarry is a sort of unified field theory of change across different domains of cultural production and of politics. What, Wilkens asks, does revolutionary political change have in common with “revolutions” in other spheres, like science or the arts? For Wilkens, the Invisible Man’s description of Dupre as “outside the scheme until now” is “exactly the formula of the event” (110), “the event” being a term of art closely related to or even synonymous with the concept of “revolution.” The violence Dupre initiates has at least the potential to inaugurate a new situation—to accomplish a revolution. Wilkens’s definition of “revolution” builds on and synthesizes two influential theoretical models of change. First, there is Thomas...

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Joel Pfister, Surveyors of Customs: American Literature as Cultural Analysis (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016), 276 pp.
Jul27

Joel Pfister, Surveyors of Customs: American Literature as Cultural Analysis (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016), 276 pp.

JOEL PFISTER, Surveyors of Customs: American Literature as Cultural Analysis (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016), 276 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies 63.1     Joel Pfister’s Surveyors of Custom: American Literature as Cultural Analysis is a timely contribution to the current debate around critique and post-critique. In his monograph, Pfister makes the case for an understanding of literature as critique, foregrounding the “critical work” that literature is doing: literature, he argues, is cultural analysis and writers are analysts, or, as he phrases it in the title of his book, “surveyors of customs.” This guiding metaphor, equally inspired by Hawthorne’s and Melville’s day jobs in custom houses and Thoreau’s work as surveyor, is explained by Pfister as follows: “‘surveyor’ signified one who oversaw resources and assessed value” (5). “[C]ustoms,” meanwhile, should be understood as punning on to “become accustomed to structures, processes, and relations that damage themselves or others” (5). The structures and processes that Pfister is interested in are specifically those of capitalism. Riffing on Walter Benjamin’s famous seventh thesis in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Pfister substitutes “capitalism” for “barbarism” to state that “in industrial and corporate America there has never been a document of culture that was not also a document of capitalism” (14). In order to promote such an understanding of American literature as a “document of capitalism,” he introduces the term “systemic reading.” Taking his cue from Fredric Jameson, Pfister argues that “society […] disables people […] from perceiving the outlines, interactions, and movements of the system that reproduces them” (27). Systemic reading renders these invisible structures visible. More specifically, Pfister proposes what he calls systemic reading as a method for understanding the workings of soft capitalism through a reading of American literature published between the end of the eighteenth and the middle of the twentieth century. In Surveyors of Customs, Pfister contrasts soft capitalism with hard capitalism: the latter is found, for instance, in literary representations of “alienating workplaces, strikes, and poverty” (33), whereas the former is characterized by modern forms of management that pay attention to the cultural and psychological elements of work. Systemic reading, Pfister argues, shows that what Americans get out of capitalism is more than just “hard” economic rewards, it also includes “soft” rewards that are emotional and subjective. In the first chapter, “Inner-Self Industries: Soft Capitalism’s Reproductive Logic,” Pfister “investigates how American literature and capitalism’s investment in culturally producing […] ‘interiorities’ have been intertwined” (40). The dominant concept that is proposed by Pfister is Raymond Williams’s “incorporation,” which, he argues, based on his reading of a wide range of primarily canonical, mostly nineteenth- and some twentieth-century American literature, “should...

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Sonja Schillings, Enemies of All Humankind: Fictions of Legitimate Violence, Re-Mapping the Transnational: A Dartmouth Series in American Studies (Hanover: Dartmouth College P/UP of New England, 2016), 302 pp.
Jul27

Sonja Schillings, Enemies of All Humankind: Fictions of Legitimate Violence, Re-Mapping the Transnational: A Dartmouth Series in American Studies (Hanover: Dartmouth College P/UP of New England, 2016), 302 pp.

SONJA SCHILLINGS, Enemies of All Humankind: Fictions of Legitimate Violence, Re-Mapping the Transnational: A Dartmouth Series in American Studies (Hanover: Dartmouth College P/UP of New England, 2016), 302 pp. Amerikastudien/American Studies, 63.1     Can acts of violence ever be legitimate, and how have claims of legitimate violence been theorized and represented in legal theory and philosophy on the one hand, and in (Anglo-)American narrative on the other? And how are legal-theoretical and literary discourses related? These are the guiding questions Sonja Schillings asks in her monograph Enemies of All Humankind: Fictions of Legitimate Violence, which is based on her dissertation at the John F. Kennedy Institute (FU Berlin) and published in the Remapping the Transnational series of Dartmouth College Press, a prime location for transnational American Studies. The issue of legitimate violence has vexed political theorists and philosophers, historians and legal scholars in the West ever since classical antiquity. Taking heed of the many discursive sites in which it has been debated, this interdisciplinary study traces answers that have been presented from antiquity to the present day through examining the “hostis humani generis constellation,” as Schillings calls it, the idea that there are “enemies of all humankind” against whom any form of violence—thus cast as universally defensive—is sanctioned. Its scope is impressive not only with regard to breadth (the texts discussed go far beyond the Anglophone world and reach back ad fontes) but also to theoretical depth, which makes it all the more remarkable that it never loses sight of the fundamental, even foundational question of legitimate violence in its political, social, and cultural dimensions, especially also with regard to its (post-) colonial entanglement in imperial contexts. In the course of her study, the author demonstrates how ideologically and theoretically flexible and adaptable the “hostis humani generis” constellation has proven through the centuries—more specifically, the pirata-praedo-innocent triangle in which praedo represents the possibly legitimate, pirata the illegitimate pole and innocents are needed as the to-be-legitimately-defended. The three most important focal points that Schillings explores in four parts are the age of early modern colonial expansion, the nineteenth-century frontier, and contemporary scenarios of international terrorism. In its urform, the pirate was the figure that came to be constructed as (almost) congruent with the enemy of all humankind, but Schillings convincingly argues that the flexibility of the constellation has not been limited to any specific historical agent. After a concise introduction, in which the author defines central terms of her study and situates its design by comparing early modern and contemporary piracy and civilization debates, the first part, “The Emperor and the Pirate: Legitimate Violence as a Modern Dilemma,” highlights...

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Sybille Machat, In the Ruins of Civilization: Narrative Structures, World Constructions and Physical Realities in the Post-Apocalyptic Novel (Trier: WVT, 2013), 330 pp.
Jul27

Sybille Machat, In the Ruins of Civilization: Narrative Structures, World Constructions and Physical Realities in the Post-Apocalyptic Novel (Trier: WVT, 2013), 330 pp.

SYBILLE MACHAT, In the Ruins of Civilization: Narrative Structures, World Constructions and Physical Realities in the Post-Apocalyptic Novel (Trier: WVT, 2013), 330 pp. Amerikastudien/American Studies. 63.1     Contemporary culture is awash with images and narratives anticipating its own demise or, as the case may be, documenting its on-going decay. Scenarios depicting the aftermath of civilizational collapse have been a staple of popular entertainment, from feature films to comics and video games, at least since the 1990s; with novels such as John Updike’s Toward the End of Time (1997), Margaret Atwood’s Madaddam trilogy (2003, 2009, 2013), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) or Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011), they have now become securely entrenched in the precincts of “serious” literary fiction. If this development reflects a growing anxiety about the future prospects of contemporary society, it is only too easy to generate a litany of concerns which are fueling it. Sybille Machat’s study In the Ruins of Civilizations forgoes such a bid for topicality, suggesting instead that the current vogue for the post-apocalyptic be seen as a continuation of modernity’s long-standing fascination with the material remnants of earlier civilizations—a fascination which, from the very outset, was accompanied by attempts to imagine how the material infrastructure of the present, having likewise fallen into ruin, might appear to an observer in the distant future. While this “ruin lust,” as art historian Brian Dillon has called it,[1] reached an early peak already in the eighteenth century with the aesthetics of the picturesque and the gothic, the era since the end of the Soviet Union may qualify as something of a second flowering. This is a compelling premise which sets In the Ruins of Civilization somewhat apart from much extant scholarship on post-apocalyptic fiction, which tends to frame the genre in terms of the historical traumata of the twentieth century and to employ approaches from psychoanalytic or neo-marxist criticism.[2] To fully explore its implications would require a close engagement with theories of historical consciousness and of the post-histoire, and it would lead into the territory explored, for example, by Frederic Jameson in Archaeologies of the Future, where he praises Science Fiction (of which the post-apocalyptic constitutes a subset) for its ability to transform “our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come,” thus “enact[ing] and enabl[ing] a structurally unique ‘method’ for apprehending the present as history.”[3] But Machat takes a different tack. Her chief complaint with regard to previous studies of the post-apocalyptic is that they have generally failed to take full account of the physical environments in which such stories are set, treating them merely as a passive back-drop against...

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Philipp Löffler, Pluralist Desires: Contemporary Historical Fiction and the End of the Cold War (Rochester: Camden House, 2015), 190 pp.
Jul27

Philipp Löffler, Pluralist Desires: Contemporary Historical Fiction and the End of the Cold War (Rochester: Camden House, 2015), 190 pp.

PHILIPP LÖFFLER, Pluralist Desires: Contemporary Historical Fiction and the End of the Cold War (Rochester: Camden House, 2015), 190 pp. Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 63.1     Philipp Löffler’s Pluralist Desires seeks to rethink historical fiction after the end of the Cold War. As Löffler argues, the novels he discusses share a belief that “when we write about history we essentially write about ourselves” (6), and for them the point of writing about history is “not to establish true accounts of particular historical events but to express the particularity of an individual life or an individual culture” (5). This is, as the study makes clear, more than an argument about particular books: it is a periodizing argument that situates these texts in the post-Cold War as a distinct cultural period. The texts Löffler discusses, key novels by Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, and Richard Powers, “offer thoughtful and provocative portrayals of what it means to write about history in the post-Cold War world” (10). Pluralism, of course, has a longer genealogy than just the immediate post-Cold War, and Löffler traces what he calls an “alternative and often neglected historical perspective” on the question of what he calls “cultural pluralism,” one which returns to the philosophical tradition of Friedrich Nietzsche and William James. Löffler ultimately suggests three interlocking reception contexts for his writers in the moment after the Cold War, and by extension that of cultural pluralism as a dominant discourse: the waning of postmodernism, the increasing importance of identity politics for academia, and the similarly increasing centrality of minority fiction to the literary market (32-33). Pluralist Desires’s claims about what historical fiction is after the Cold War are appropriately cautious. The philosophies at work in the texts Löffler discusses argue that “the truth of history derives from the contingencies of life itself” (28), so that DeLillo, Morrison, Roth, and Powers do not figure as an “organic group of writers,” but rather as individual writers sharing a problem. At the same time, Löffler recognizes that the three contexts of reception he identifies are not deeply related to the end of the Cold War as such; rather, the “significance of 1989 as a global historical event is central, but only to incorporate a rather hybrid bunch of transitions into one overarching narrative” (29), offering a sense of simultaneity rather than a singular determinism. Against this backdrop of a carefully measured, but theoretically, philosophically, and historically informed understanding of what pluralism means, Löffler’s admirably concise book marshals an impressive number of challenging new interpretations. Through his readings of DeLillo, Morrison, Roth, and Powers, he firmly establishes the way post-Cold War historical fiction...

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