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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.1 (2001) 43-68

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In the Country of Contradiction the Hypocrite is King: Defining Dirty Realism in Charles Bukowski's Factotum

Tamas Dobozy

Dirty Realism: Background and Theory

In 1973, ten years before Bill Buford invented the term "Dirty Realism" 1 in issue eight of the literary magazine Granta, Roland Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text made a startling, and prophetic, observation on literary consciousness. Though Barthes located this consciousness in "the reader of the text at the moment he takes his pleasure" (3), Buford's dirty realism transfers it to the writer at the moment his or her pleasure requires. The dirty realist hypocrisy aesthetic--demonstrated in Charles Bukowski's novel Factotum--flagrantly enacts the Barthesian fantasy: "Imagine someone [. . .] who abolishes within himself all barriers, all classes, all exclusions, not by syncretism but by simple discard of that old spectre: logical contradiction [. . .]" (3). Bukowski not only "discards [. . .] logical contradiction," but flaunts his disdain for consistency, logic, and accountability. He is not only conscious of contradiction within his text, [End Page 43] but celebrates a willful hypocrisy, indiscriminately exhibiting (and conscripting to his own ends) the incongruities of postindustrial capital. Bukowski turns passivity into a subversive practice by self-consciously displaying his subjection to capital's indeterminacy, in effect replicating and co-opting that indeterminacy to empower himself.

While Factotum does provide a model of subversive operativity within postindustrial capital, its radically individualistic approach to such subversion arises as a response to what Fredric Jameson calls the loss of "the future and of the collective project" (Postmodernism 46). In Jameson's estimation, the lack of a sustained historical narrative (where history itself has been co-opted, distorted, and commodified to the point that it has become unverifiable, a "mirage" [46]) within postmodernity prevents the emergence of a viable communal ideology from which to mount concerted subversion; the indeterminacy of past and present obstructs the necessary formation of a vision for the future. Since Marx, in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, conceives of history as a social relation (118), the lack of a stable, verifiable history stymies the social identification upon which a "collective project" might rest.

Bukowski's novel illustrates the last possibilities available for subversive action in a society in which we all, as Jameson points out, dimly feel that not only punctual and local countercultural forms of cultural resistance and guerrilla warfare but also even overtly political interventions like those of the punk band The Clash are all somehow secretly disarmed and reabsorbed by a system of which they themselves might well be considered a part (Postmodernism 49). Just as The Clash ultimately translated its "political interventions" into money for the record industry, so, too, Jameson suggests, does any "countercultural" movement of the present day ultimately channel its energies back into the system it seeks to redress. Fans of The Clash (who are what Walter Benn Michaels calls the "desiring subject[s]" of the capitalist economy [20]), with their political convictions, prove an ideal target market for buying a certain kind of CD. Dirty realism finds itself in a culture crying out for a "countercultural" program at the same time that the culture feeds off such countercultural forms. Opposition to such a system will therefore require the abandoning of logical, anchored operative models. The hypocrisy aesthetic so visible in dirty realism and, in particular, Bukowski, mirrors the hypocrisy of capitalism itself. [End Page 44]

Ultimately, capitalism, at least in Jameson's contention, proves so slippery because it lacks the integrity of a conceptual base that would order, differentiate, and systematize its program; it aims only at extending itself. To this end it presses into service whatever product assists that aim, regardless of the product's ideological status. As Marx points out, the process of circulation of commodities, rather than the status of the commodities themselves, informs capital; and capital's effectivity arises from its indeterminate position within this process: one's "development into a full-grown capitalist must take place, both within...


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