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Conference Review: New Research on American Literature and Neoliberalism

By Megan Kirkwood

‘New Research on American Literature and Neoliberalism’ (organised by Arin Keeble) was held at Edinburgh Napier University on the 9th December 2019. This symposium included eight papers over two panels, and launched six new books focused around American literature in the neoliberal age: Diletta De Cristofaro’s The Contemporary Post-Apocalyptic Novel: Critical Temporalities and the End Times (2020); Paul Crosthwaite’s The Market Logics of Contemporary Fiction (2019); Myka Tucker-Abramson’s Novel Shocks: Urban Renewal and the Origins of Neoliberalism (2019); Arin Keeble’s Narratives of Hurricane Katrina in Context: Literature, Film and Television (2019); Liam Kennedy and Stephen Shapiro’s Neoliberalism and American Literature (2019); and Sharae Deckard and Stephen Shapiro’s World Literature, Neoliberalism, and the Culture of Discontent (2019). Speakers covered several genre forms, ranging from short stories to post-apocalyptic fiction. In a wide-ranging discussion, the speakers covered topics varying from racism to the use of algorithms in everyday life. That said, every speaker was interested in exploring the possibilities and limitations of literature in contemporary neoliberal capitalism, and sparked debates about where these possibilities and limitations may lead us in future.

Neoliberalism is a notoriously contested buzzword, as it relates to economics, ideology and everyday life. Neoliberal governments champion free-market economies, the reduction of state intervention in trade, privatisation and reduction of government spending in general. How neoliberalism is expressed within culture is often described as a pervading individualism, through framing the self as a consumer rather than a citizen within a community, and competitiveness being seen as virtue rather than solidarity. Neoliberalism established itself as the political, economic and cultural mode of America from the presidency of Ronald Reagan onwards, persisting even throughout the 2008-2011 financial crisis. Today, it has become the dominant economic and political philosophy in most capitalist democracies. Academics and novelists alike have aimed to capture the essence of life in modern neoliberal culture, which was the focus of this one-day symposium and collective book launch. Creative and critical texts which engage with neoliberal focus on the implications of an all-pervading capitalism where every aspect of life is characterised by market logic. These implications range from the problems of identity in societies where the citizen disappears into mere data-producing consumers; Francis Fukuyama’s infamous theory of ‘the end of history’ [1]; and the effects of privatised and deregulated government and economics, and which groups might be most economically and socially damaged by this [2]. Many of these important themes were explored during the symposium, which examined the way literature has both represented and modelled concepts of neoliberalism.

The symposium was split into two sections. The first section titled ‘Time, Futurity, Periods and Phases’, focused on the themes of time and the different phases of history in general or phases of neoliberalism specifically. A concept which was found in almost every paper in this section was Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’. Fukuyama, in his original article ‘The End of History?’ (1989), argued that the neoliberal age has signalled the end of the development of ideology. He claimed that the success of liberalism and the ‘Western idea’ has left no room for alternatives and thus heralds the end of historical development. He saw liberal democracy as the final form of government, with no possible alternative. The theme of a lack of possible future development, and inability for historical alternatives, ran throughout this first section of the symposium. The first speaker, Anna Hartnell from Birkbeck, University of London gave a paper titled ‘Death, Disposability and the Eclipse of the Future in the Writings of Jesmyn Ward’. Hartnell examined the ways in which Ward’s work portrays a racialised neoliberalism. She discussed how the threat of death hangs over Ward’s characters; which both encapsulates the contemporary moment in which the works are set, but also places their struggles within a historical continuum dating back to slavery. This threat of death, and lack of opportunity, a literal ‘eclipse of the future’ for Ward’s characters, uses an end of history temporality. This temporality is the continual struggle for Ward’s characters to survive, rather than aspire for any semblance of ‘the good life’. This temporality, Hartnell argued, appears in Ward’s work to critique modern structural racism in neoliberal societies.

‘The End of History’. Image Licensed under Creative Commons

Hartnell’s presentation complimented the themes of the following speaker, Stephen Shapiro from the University of Warwick. He presented ‘Neoliberalism’s Third Wave: The Digital Age of Large-Scale Customisation’ which generated much debate concerning how algorithms online have equally become a cultural mode in the offline world. Shapiro’s paper was a shortened version of his chapter in one of the books launched that day, Neoliberalism and Contemporary American Literature. Shapiro follows the timeline of how neoliberal society has progressed into what Antoinette Rouvroy calls ‘algorithmic neoliberalism’. Using Michel Foucault’s genealogical method, Shapiro traced the socio-cultural implications of the progression of liberalism and neoliberalism from the 18th century to the present day to argue that we are moving away from a ‘discipline’ society towards an algorithmic one. He argued that whilst liberalism’s project of distinguishing between the deviant and the citizen, the separation of the norm and the anomaly, marked the societies of discipline, we are now moving towards a neoliberal mass, not society, of what Shapiro called ‘wave-particle’ subjects. He argued that subjects within algorithmic neoliberalism are not part of a collective whole, with identities that can be defined against a norm, but rather, constantly shifting pieces of data. Subjects are not individuals but ‘dividuals’ whose function is to consume products.

The aim of Shapiro’s analysis of this shift into an algorithmic neoliberalism, is to ask how contemporary literature is able to respond or capture this culture. He argues that the liberal novel both produced and expressed liberal society, and aimed to bring together a collective readership. In a world without community, but mere masses of data points to be collected, how will literature respond? Shapiro takes the theme of phases to situate the current cultural climate and touches on the theme of the end of history. He argues that the novel as we know it is unable to progress in a similar way to how Fukuyama argues that society is unable to progress beyond neoliberalism. However, Shapiro concluded by suggesting that contemporary writers must aim to respond to, and capture, algorithmic neoliberalism by creating new forms of literature. Though using a similar concept of the never-ending present, Shapiro offers possible hope in future literature, whilst Hartnell argued that Ward does not offer a redemptive hope in her work, but rather, a neoliberal struggle to survive an endless present. These two opposing conclusions opened up the space for the following speakers to make further arguments regarding the progression of literary opportunity.

Image Licensed under Creative Commons

Ending the first section of the day’s symposium, Arin Keeble presented on ‘Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge and the Periodization of Neoliberalism.’ This paper used Mitchum Huehls’ and Rachel Greenwald Smith’s analysis of the four phases of neoliberalism and the ways that the new edited collections by Kennedy, Shapiro and Deckard challenge this periodization, in application to Bleeding Edge (2013). Keeble argued that, ostensibly, the characters in Bleeding Edge embody different phases of neoliberalism through their adoption of certain neoliberal values. For instance, the protagonist from the novel, Maxine Tarnow, both opposes and embodies popular features of cultural neoliberalism such as competitiveness and obsessive consumerism whilst criticising the economic and political forms of neoliberalism. The main villain of the novel, Nicholas Windust, is represented as a political and economic neoliberalist who believes in a purely ideological approach. Using Keeble’s periodizing approach to characterisation, the attendees gained an insight into how different characters embody different forms of neoliberalism, yet the relationship between these two main characters allegorically challenges the notion that such periods are as neatly separate as they have been thought to be. Keeble’s presentation ended the first half of the symposium by linking back to Shapiro’s presentation, who also analysed the progression of neoliberalism in terms of an evolution rather than separate epochs. Shapiro linked liberalism to neoliberalism, and then followed this progression into algorithmic neoliberalism by constantly referring to the differences in each stage but placing it within a historical continuum. Similarly, Keeble recognises the differences between economic, political, cultural and ontological neoliberalism, but connects the relationship that these phases have with each other. This allowed the first half of the symposium to be concluded by questioning the attendees on where the historical continuum will take us next. More of the same as argued by Fukuyama and analyses inspired by his arguments, or further development as suggested by Keeble and Shapiro’s presentations.

The second half of the symposium, ‘Genre’s and Forms’, explored how form and genre has changed, or required change, in the neoliberal age. Paul Crosthwaite from the University of Edinburgh began the second half with his paper ‘Helen DeWitt’s Some Trick and the Rise of Market Metafiction’. Crosthwaite was presenting research related to, but not drawing directly from, his newly released book The Market Logics of Contemporary Fiction. His paper used the short story collection Some Trick (2018) by Helen DeWitt as an example of what he calls ‘market metafiction’. This term relates to literature which is self-reflexive of its place within the market, a form resulting from the pressures of contemporary conglomerate publishing houses. Market metafiction uses the medium to critique the medium itself, and the implications neoliberalism at large, which values profit over creative merit.

Continuing discussion of genre and novel forms, Myka Tucker-Abramson from the University of Warwick gave her presentation on ‘The General Strike and the Road Novel’. This paper was based on research from her recent book Novel Shocks: Urban Renewal and the Origins of Neoliberalism. Abramson discussed how the road novel as a form became a frontier for the fight for freedom during the Cold War era and represented the values of individualism and progression. Abramson questions how the road novel can progress in neoliberal society, where urban spaces and capitalism look much different than it did in the 1970’s, during the height of the road novel’s popularity. She discussed the novel Dhalgren (1975) by Samuel R. Delany, as an example of the changing nature and political potential of the road novel. The novel is described as an ‘inverted road novel’, as it is set under a road rather than on one. Based in a fictional and almost abandoned town called Bellona, the reader follows the lives of citizens stuck in a town with no transport or communication, where reality and the laws of physics are constantly altered, and time is experienced differently by everyone. Authorship of the narrative is fractured, as part of the narrative is written by the protagonist, Kid, who finds a notebook which contains the beginning of Dhalgren itself. The narrative form itself splits and fractures, as part of the pages of the novel are the original notebook, another part is the writing of Kid, whilst in other chapters the writing of Kid appears alongside the novel. Whilst the narrative structure is fractured and blurred, so too is the genre form of the novel. Inverting the setting of a traditional road novel, the novel takes place within a capitalist system where there is no work and no money, inverting the road novel’s traditional progressive themes. Abramson argued that this inversion critiques capitalist systems through Delany’s creation of an absurd ghettoised community who holds on to the remnants of their capitalist past. Abramson’s research aims to analyse the political potential of the road novel and its ability to critique neoliberal systems and values. Both Crosthwaite and Abramson analysed the use the novel form to look at itself as a product within a capitalist system, and its ability to provide a critique of itself. Both speakers argue for the political potential of the continued progression of postmodern forms and genres

The following genre to be explored was that of crime fiction, in the paper ‘“This oil thing touches everything”: Crime Fiction and the Neoliberal Energy Regime’ by Sharae Deckard from University College Dublin. In her presentation, Deckard discussed Attica Locke’s novel Black Water Rising (2009), which uses the form and tropes of crime fiction to investigate corruption in Big Petroleum. In the novel, oil companies create a false scarcity of oil to raise prices, and whilst the company has also been found to have carried out murders, as Deckard argues, the large-scale fraud and corruption are suggested to be the real crime of the narrative. Rather than the investigation of a single murderer, the novel investigates the corruption of big business and the victimisation of whole communities. The fraud committed effects all aspects of life for the average citizen and raises the price of everything from the price of gas at the station; the importation costs of everyday goods, as the vehicles rely on oil; and even plastic, which is used from everything from wrapping food to furniture. Thus, the meaning of the quote ‘this oil thing touches everything’, is used as a striking image of the parasitic infection that is capitalist exploitation.

Ending the symposium, Elsa Bouet from Edinburgh Napier University presented new work, entitled ‘“There is no Promised Land”: Sin, Power and Order in Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts’. She discussed Solomon’s novel and its representation of structural racism within capitalist societies. Solomon’s science fiction narrative depicts humans residing in a generation ship in search of a new planet to call home. The ship adopts a race-based hierarchy, with darker skinned passengers serving as slaves of the ships and living in the lower decks, whereas lighter skinned passengers live at the top of the ship and, therefore, the hierarchical structure. The ship is led by “sovereigns” who construct a narrative that black identities are inherently sinful and therefore, deserving of their enslavement. However, the ship leaders promise the possibility for social progress which leaves blame for continued inability to progress within the hands of the enslaved. This false promise, as argued by Bouet, is parallel to that of capitalism, our modern-day neoliberal religion, which promises similar possibility for progression and places blame on those who fail to do so. The socio-economic system of both the ship and modern-day capitalism only works to maintain the current hierarchy with the illusion of the possibility of progression. Bouet explained the parallels between the images of slavery in the novel and how the novel connects this historical racism to the racism of modern-day America, where lower-class black workers are treated as cheap labour and the prison industrial complex takes advantage of vulnerable black people in socially and economically abandoned areas. This biopolitical analysis of the novel, draws attention to the history of the construction of racial inequality in modern-day neoliberal society. Overall, Bouet’s analysis of this science fiction text showcases what science fiction does best; represents the political, social and economic real world and conducts a thorough critique of it by creating an imagined one.

This symposium invited discussion of social and economic racial inequality; the end of social and historical progress; the illusions that capitalism is progressive rather than merely maintaining the status quo; the effects of algorithmic governmentality; and how market logic has infiltrated every aspect of life, including creative expression and identity itself. Using the themes of time periods, phases, genres and forms, the effects of neoliberalism on literature was explored to uncover new forms of writing, such as ‘market metafiction’ and the various changes undergone by genre fiction. How different authors have approached the changing face of modern neoliberalism, and what new forms of writing might be expected in the future, were examined and questioned by each presenter, with the final question for the panel (‘what new genres can we expect in future?’) being met with an open and tentative answer. Whilst scholars will continue to analyse the changing neoliberal novel, novelists themselves have been urged by the speakers of the symposium to continue to innovate new forms of writing to respond to, capture and shape the ever-shifting modern world.

Notes

[1] This idea is explored further by Stephen Shapiro later in this article. In the full version of his paper, which appears in Neoliberalism and Contemporary American Literature (2019), Shapiro uses the example of shoppers from the American store Target. Parts of the identity of the shoppers, for example, being a mother, are gathered to create a profile to target adverts and spur the shopper into spending more. Extending this example, data collection is now considered common practice. Data is now constantly accumulated on smartphones and by social media giants, collecting everything from health data to music taste, to create digital profiles in order to advertise and encourage constant consumption of goods and services. Thus, identity is enveloped into data.

This theme is discussed in various forms by several speakers, all focused on how neoliberalism, race and economic inequality interlink. Anna Hartnell, the first speaker of the day, looks at the works of the author Jesmyn Ward who explores how black Americans are often deserted by the state, and later, Sharae Deckard uses petro-fiction to discuss how communities are financially exploited so that large oil corporations can gain more profit. In both cases, neoliberal disinterest in welfare and privatisation of energy companies create social inequality which exist in both fiction and real-world capitalistic societies.

Citation

Megan Kirkwood, “Conference Review: New Research on American Literature and Neoliberalism” Alluvium, Vol. 8, No. 1 (2020): n. pag. 5 May. Web. https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v8.1.05

About the author

Megan Kirkwood is a Graduate from Edinburgh Napier University where she received a First Class Honours Degree in English Literature and Film. Since graduating, Megan has kept an academic film studies blog and won Highly Commended at the Global Undergraduate Awards in 2018. The paper submitted for that award has now been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

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