restricted access Comic Transactions: Literature, Humor, and the Politics of Community in Twentieth-Century Britain (review)
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Reviewed by
James F. English. Comic Transactions: Literature, Humor, and the Politics of Community in Twentieth-Century Britain. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994.

What a difference a few years make! The formalism of the 70s and early 80s has given way to an interest in representation and contextualism that leaves the concept of art as aesthetic objects in the dust. In this review I want to use James English’s book as a paradigm of the kind of work that wears the mantle of cultural studies and suggest-by quoting him generously-what he does and does not do. English often creates a splendid dialogue between the political and historical, on one hand, and the literary and cultural, on the other. As English puts it, his goal is to

contribute something to our understanding of the politics of literature in twentieth-century Britain. . . . The starting point for my readings in the modern British novel is the recognition that a literary text is a political event inasmuch as its underlying function is to engage with the problematic of community—and hence the very logic of the modern social imaginary—in a series of witty operations. . . . My objective in this book is not directly to advance the ongoing theoretical discussion of this problematic, but to present a few microhistories of cultural struggle in twentieth-century Britain which might gain us some useful, some strategic knowledge about the functions and effects of communitarian thinking.

English’s Preface has two parts; its first section, “Humor as Social Practice: Rethinking Joke Work,” addresses humor as social practice and the second, “Community: The Politics of a Paradox,” discusses the concept of community. He discusses six novels in separate chapters arranged in chronological order: The Secret Agent, The Apes of God, Between the Acts, Lucky Jim, The Golden Notebook, and The Satanic Verses: “Each novel, moreover, can be usefully articulated with the century’s major literary moments or categories—modernism, postmodernism, and postcolonialism—an articulation that makes it possible to rethink these in terms of the fundamental struggle over who or what constitutes the ‘community.’” He is interested in what these novels [End Page 185]

do, what work they perform, as social and political events. And my overarching assumptions will be, first, that some of the most important work they perform is “in the nature of a joke” and therefore needs to be addressed as comic practice and, second, that from The Secret Agent in 1907 to The Satanic Verses in 1988 the specific conditions and contradictions upon which this work is performed are without exception and at the most fundamental level interwoven with the problematic of “community.”

Joke-work, he shows, answered political needs, and became a site where notions of community are examined, tested, discarded, modified, and redefined. Yet, we should note how different English’s concept of doesness is from formalist ones which stress how the text shapes an ideal reader to an evolving process of responses, a process built into the text by specific decisions made by the author.

Beginning with Leavis’s Education and the University (1948), British intellectuals have made claims for the centrality of English studies in their cultural and educational debates. English’s own work is in the tradition of Leavis-Williams-Eagleton project, although English’s approach is heavily fertilized by Foucault. Leavis believed that civilization and culture, including written and spoken language, had declined. Like Arnold, he believed that the study of English literature could be a major part of discovering the necessary values for the maintenance of English civilization. In a famous exchange with Rene Wellek in Scrutiny (1937), Leavis insisted on the presence in literary criticism not of philosophy but of issues that the reader could recognize from his life experience and which therefore had relevance to the growth of his moral development. But unlike his successors Williams and Eagleton, Leavis was ostentatiously anti-Marxist, and English follows in that tradition.

Isn’t English’s own project elitist—as he accuses Leavis’s of being—in the sense that it is another academic project and one written in an idiosyncratic tongue? For, as my foregoing quotes make clear, while English can be pungent and...