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  • Critical Theory and the Novel: Mass Society and Cultural Criticism in Dickens, Melville, and Kafka
  • Alan Singer
David Suchoff. Critical Theory and the Novel: Mass Society and Cultural Criticism in Dickens, Melville, and Kafka. U of Wisconsin P, 1994. vii + 224 pp. No price given.

In Critical Theory and the Novel: Mass Society and Cultural Criticism: Dickens, Melville, and Kafka, David Suchoff has taken a promising step toward recognizing the special relevance of Frankfurt School methods to the ethical purport of recent literary criticism. In the last decade we have seen a resurgence of interest in Adorno and Benjamin, where literary critics have sought leverage against formalist mandarinisms. But the renewed relevance of these figures has come by and large at the expense of aesthetics. Paradoxically, a rethinking of the category of the aesthetic was key to the careers of both Adorno and Benjamin. Suchoff’s book helps to make a case that the aesthetic needs to be more fully reckoned with as an adjunct to the political agenda of cultural studies, which all too frequently tends to cast aesthetic experience/ knowledge as an antagonist to political ends.

In the instance of Suchoff’s book the scope of this project is limited to close readings of three novelists whose relation to the realm of the social either has been uncritically assumed to eclipse their “aesthetic” content, as in the case of Charles Dickens, or has appeared to exacerbate the divorce of art from life, as in the case of Melville and Kafka. The clear accomplishment of Suchoff’s book in this respect is a strategic working out of the ramifications of T. W. Adorno’s claim against Lukács: that the significance of the work of art is that content articulates itself in formal structures. Thus, Suchoff persuasively gives the lie to familiar arguments that Melville and Kafka in particular retreat from society into subjective quietism. By this means Suchoff is able to establish a compelling continuity between the conceptual enterprise of two otherwise mutually exclusive traditions of narrative prose, realism and symbolism. [End Page 926]

Following Adorno’s admonition that “to anathematize form is to turn away from history,” Suchoff scrutinizes the formal innovations of Dickens, Melville, and Kafka. Little Dorrit, White-Jacket, and The Castle are judged in their formal dimensions as modes of reckoning with cultural commodification. Realism and symbolism may be seen in this perspective as epiphenomenal of a more encompassing epistemic commodification, tantamount to a mode of social control or political containment. Suchoff indicates how the trenchant historicizing force of these works in relation to the reproductive forces of commodity culture invites rich political speculation. Suchoff invites his reader to think about how the dialogical tension between popular representations and social criticism might sustain a political commitment which would, in more monological (less vitally dialectical) works, be supplanted by a decadent aestheticism.

Suchoff is persuasive on the point that commodity culture is more cunning than any explicit political insurgency or resistant political thematic which seeks to elude it. Confrontation with the forces of political oppression is certainly a common theme in each of the novels discussed in Critical Theory and the Novel. It is also an urgent agenda of the New Historicism which is Suchoff’s own methodological point of departure. The New Historicism seeks to liberate the disharmonious voices which are otherwise repressed in the broad thematizing of cultural experience that often passes for the discourse of the novel. To his credit Suchoff expands upon the most familiar New Historicist presuppositions about the status of the other in the rhetoric of the literary. He seems to be saying that the recovery of oppositional voices which New Historicism proffers must be matched by a rigorous articulation of the means by which such recovery is made possible.

This is where the New Historicism can most astutely avail itself of the Frankfurt School’s anti-Hegelian dialectic. Suchoff does not do as meticulous a job of working through the dialectical perspective opened up by his readings of the three novels as he does in indicating the relevance of such a perspective. But he does indicate how a better understanding of the capacity of art works...

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pp. 926-927
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