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Alluvium Editorial 8.2

Alluvium Editorial 8.2

Jul 13, 2020

Special Issue: Locating the Centre in Contemporary Literature

Guest Editors: Daniel South and Lola Boorman (University of York)

This special issue of Alluvium takes as its subject contemporary literature’s relationship with the political centre. As alluded to in the issue’s title, part of our concern has been with locating this centre, and the range of contributions our call for papers attracted had that most familiar effect of academic enquiries in reminding us that there is more than one answer to this question. Indeed, locating this ideological ground is in part so difficult because of the constantly shifting discursive environment concerning centrism, and its relationship with both the left and the right. As the papers in this issue show, a number of authors have taken this uncertainty as their starting point for interrogations of where ideas, norms, and values sit on our contemporary political spectrum. To take one example, in the opening sections of Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School (2019) the novel’s central protagonist Adam Gordon observes his high school debate partner take the floor:

For a few seconds it sounds more or less like oratory, but soon she accelerates to nearly unintelligible speed, pitch and volume rising […] she is attempting to ‘spread’ their opponents, as her opponents will attempt to spread them in turn—that is, to make more arguments, marshal more evidence than the other team can respond to within the allotted time, the rule among serious debaters being that a ‘dropped argument,’ no matter its quality, its content, is conceded. (22)

The “spread” represents a fundamental subversion of the purpose of debate, a technique that tries to actively obscure communication, instead aiming to overwhelm one’s opponent with a flood of language. The spatial and political logic of the “spread” is one of radical obfuscation, a strategy that is designed precisely to thwart an opponent’s attempts to locate the rhetorical and ideological centre of one’s speech. Both linguistically and ideologically, it characterises a permeability and dissolution of formerly stable boundaries. Lerner views this “glossolalic ritual” (23), which tries to effect maximum impact with minimal accountability, as the governing order of both the present day and the 1990s when the novel is set: “Even before the twenty-four-hour news cycle, Twitter storms, algorithmic trading, spreadsheets, the DDoS attack, Americans were getting ‘spread’ in their daily lives; meanwhile, their politicians went on speaking slowly, slowly about values utterly disconnected from their policies” (24). 

If the public sphere is beset by this topical “spread,” and discussions of the centre are predicated on unstable terms and values, our enquiries into the political centre may at least begin with its most prominent ideological association: liberalism. In recent years, we have become accustomed to hearing that liberalism is in crisis – yet as William Davies (Forrester and Davies 2019) has pointed out in a recent interview for the London Review of Books, in certain aspects (particularly in British politics) liberalism seems more active than ever. If proponents of the arguably centrist ideas and ideals of the rule of law, separation of powers, and liberal political mobilisation are in fine voice, then, might we find some of contemporary literature’s treatment of the centre manifesting as positive articulations of these values? This is a pertinent question – after all, as Davies argues in the same interview, asking what it means to say that liberalism is in crisis is a question of narration. He suggests that the differing narratives of liberalism’s crisis point to its waning ability to provide grounds for consensus, an argument borne out and built upon by the articles presented here. 

“Spiral staircase – view up”. Image by K. H. Reichert on Flickr under a CC BY-NC licence.

Rather than offering a defence of a categorically liberal centre in crisis, the articles in this issue suggest that contemporary authors are more engaged in critiquing the very concept of the centre instead. Jacob Soule, pointing out how recent shifts in domestic and international politics have led many “centrists […] to fight for their centrality,” takes aim at Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005), a novel he suggests embodies many of the tenets of an overtly and uncritically liberal literary establishment. Soule’s primary focus is how the novel stages centrists’ (and McEwan’s) ideological indecision over the Iraq war, the “primal scene” of what he argues has been the centre’s contemporary demise. Engaging this primal scene from a different perspective, Sarah Collier interrogates the sustaining liberal mythology of the “trauma hero” which emerges as a means of assuaging “collective national guilt” surrounding the liberal failings of post-9/11 American foreign policy. Reading Nico Walker’s debut novel Cherry (2018), and characterising its eponymous veteran as “scumbag” rather than “hero”, Collier argues that the novel erodes these liberal cultural strategies that present the soldier as a “scapegoat for collective national guilt.” Clare Fisher and Hannah Karmin both engage with these problems of political centrality as questions of scale, revealing the subtle intertwining between dominating political crises and the rhythms and disruptions of everyday life. Reading Jenny Offill’s novel Weather (2020)Fisher negotiates these questions of scale — between the immeasurability of the climate crisis and the mundane challenges of daily life — through the notion of the “trivial”, making a case for its place as a pervasive contemporary affect that questions boundaries between the personal and the political. Tackling this problem from a different angle, Karmin’s examination of Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (2019) asks what happens when our “attention” is radically challenged, on a political, personal, and grammatical level. Engaging the same kinds of contemporary distraction that Fisher identifies in Offill’s text, Karmin suggests that Ellmann’s text moves between a simulation of the contemporary psyche’s will to be distracted and a formal imposition of a particular kind of sustained, close attention. Each of these contributions suggest that authors tackle the idea of the centre with their own attention directed towards a range of other relevant concerns, and that, crisis or none, the centre must be understood relationally – as a multifaceted political realm with associations that extend beyond the obvious. 

As Katriana Forrester (2019) has argued elsewhere, liberalism “does not just occupy a place between left and right; it cuts across both.” In reading these articles, we see that the same could be said of the centre’s location in contemporary literature – it shifts depending on its subjects, with its relevance to other, apparently marginal concerns guaranteed by a definitional relationship. As British, European, and American politics find themselves increasingly dominated by voices once considered extremes, we surely cannot neglect the idea of the centre that these movements seem so often to define themselves in opposition to. All of the articles in this special issue point to the need for a broader reconsideration of the notion of the centre. As Forrester (2019) concludes in her piece for The Guardian, clearly “liberal centrists aren’t wrong that their institutions, parties and ideas are being challenged. But the problem may be a deeper one: that the categories of mainstream politics as we know it can no longer explain the world.” It is not just on the terms of liberalism that we must interrogate the centre, then – as scholars of literature, wide-ranging examinations of how writers treat the political centre may give us valuable insights into our moment’s reconsideration of its political labels, and indeed even help us identify new categories with which to explain the world.

Yet this renegotiation of political poles and polarities also reopens time-old conversations about the relationship between politics and aesthetics. The perception that art should be fundamentally oppositional and anti-institutional is a modernist legacy that has survived in spite of the de facto institutionalisation of these forms in the postwar period. The political inflection of the modernist avant-garde (either through fascist or communist association) was likewise undermined by the movement of these previously marginal political movements into positions of geopolitical dominance. In the post-1960s period, the institutional absorption of the modernist avant-garde’s coupling of linguistic experimentalism with the notion of political opposition (if not its specific, more dubious political affiliations) manifested, as Sean McCann and Michael Szalay have shown, in a move away from a view of art as an instrument of political action and towards a “mystification” that envisaged “a necessary relation between self-realisation and revolutionary social transformation” (445). The mystification of linguistic experimentalism that characterised the literary expression of the “New Left” is most visible in Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture (1993), in which she contrasts dead “statist language”, which is only interested in preserving “its own exclusivity and dominance”, with a transcendental “unmolested language”, that is “like a cry without an alphabet” (Morrison). This conscious divorcing of language from the realm of “meaning” (i.e. tangible ideological positions) becomes a political act in and of itself.

“Spiral staircase at County Hall”. Image by Matt Ritchie on Flickr under a CC BY licence.

More recently, what Rachel Greenwald-Smith has described as the contemporary turn towards “compromise aesthetics” diagnoses an end to the familiar division between literary experimentalism, which is by definition oppositional, and mainstream forms (Greenwald Smith 2014). In its place we find an aesthetic reconciliation between “experimentation and tradition, difficulty and marketability, formal play and easy digestibility” (Greenwald Smith, 2019), one which reaffirms art’s political utility. As Greenwald-Smith suggests, the arrival of “compromise aesthetics” is met with a kind of critical relief, a resolution of a historical polarisation that intrinsically linked political progressivism with linguistic obscurity (2014) and the denunciation of the radical “avant-garde” tendency to be just as cloistered and illiberal as the institutions it purported to oppose. Cathy Park Hong’s essay “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde” identifies another, far more contemporary, opposition, between literary experimentalism and “identity politics poet[ry]”, which is seen to be:

 

anti-intellectual, without literary merit, no complexity, sentimental, manufactured, feminine, niche-focused, woefully out-of-date and therefore woefully unhip, politically light, and deadliest of all, used as bait by market forces’ calculated branding of boutique liberalism. 

Close reading Hong’s final call to “Fuck the avant-garde,” Greenwald-Smith identifies a peculiar reversion, a call for the institutional rejection of an already institutionally hostile sentiment. What does it mean, then, when these ideological labels become interchangeable, when they become unmoored from their fixed place on the political spectrum? What do these critical and aesthetic double negatives mean to us now and how do they help us negotiate and diagnose the role of art in the political sphere? If we are living, as Lerner suggests in The Topeka School, in an age of the “spread”, literature might provide some answers to these questions and more by recentring and regrounding readers; reestablishing and reinterpreting norms and values; reminding us, in other words, where we are and how we got here.

CITATION: Daniel South and Lola Boorman, “Editorial 8.2: Locating the Centre in Contemporary Literature”, Alluvium, 8.2 (2020): n.pag. Web. 13 July 2020, https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v8.2.01

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Dr. Daniel South holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of York, where his research focussed on contemporary novels’ treatments of (and contributions to) the public sphere in the internet age. He is an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and currently works for a widening participation charity in London. 

Dr Lola Boorman is an Associate Lecturer at the University of York where she also completed her PhD in January 2020. Her research focusses on the role of grammar in twentieth-century American literature through the work of Gertrude Stein, Lydia Davis, and David Foster Wallace. 

Works Cited

 

Forrester, Katrina and William Davies. “The Crisis of Liberalism.” LRB Conversations. 16 October 2019 (accessed 10 May 2020): https://www.lrb.co.uk/podcasts-and-videos/podcasts/lrb-conversations/the-lrb-at-40-the-crisis-of-liberalism

Forrester, Katrina. “The crisis of liberalism: why centrist politics can no longer explain the world”. The Guardian, 18 November 2019 (accessed 10 May 2020): https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/nov/18/crisis-in-liberalism-katrina-forrester

Lerner, Ben. The Topeka School. Granta, 2019. 

Greenwald Smith, Rachel. “Fuck the Avant-Garde”. Post45 (May 2019): http://post45.org/2019/05/fuck-the-avant-garde/

Greenwald Smith, Rachel. “Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics”. The Account (Fall 2014): https://theaccountmagazine.com/article/six-propositions-on-compromise-aesthetics.

Hong, Cathy Park. “Delusions of the Whiteness in the Avant-Garde”. Lana Turner Journal, 3 (November 2014): https://arcade.stanford.edu/content/delusions-whiteness-avant-garde.

McCann, Sean, and Michael Szalay. “Do You Believe in Magic? Literary Thinking after the New Left”. The Yale Journal of Criticism, 18.2 (2005) 435–468.

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