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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.1 (2001) 255-276

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A Theoretical Afterword

Asha Varadharajan

[W]e are structured by social relations, spoken by pre-given linguistic structures, thought by ideologies, dreamed by myths, gendered by patriarchal sexual norms, bonded by affective obligations, cultured by mentalités, and acted by history's script. None of these ideas is, in origin, absurd, and some rest upon substantial additions to knowledge. But all slip, at a certain point, from sense to absurdity, and, in their sum, all arrive at a common terminus of unfreedom.

--E. P. Thompson, "The Poverty of Theory or an Orrery of Errors."

The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing . . . .

--Karl Marx to Schweitzer, 13 Feb. 1865.

[T]o realize to what degree thought asphyxiates in our culture, with its absolute inability to imagine anything other than what is. It therefore falls to literary criticism to continue to compare the inside and the outside, existence and history, to continue to pass judgment on the abstract quality of life in the present, and to keep alive the idea of a concrete future. May it prove equal to the task!

--Fredric Jameson, "Towards Dialectical Criticism"

I like to think of afterwords as necessarily belated and inconclusive, refusing the seamless narrative continuity between backward glance and teleological gesture. Despite this critical modesty on my part, however, [End Page 255] there will be some, no doubt, who will cavil at my quaint defense of an antiquated notion such as class as an indispensable if not necessarily subsuming category of literary analysis, my embarrassing faith in the utopian promise that animates the rhetoric of revolution and the dynamic of class struggle, and my naïve, even unregenerate, recourse to the heuristic possibilities of an orthodox historical materialism.

Even as I write these words, they seem distressingly and disconcertingly familiar, recalling as they do every call to arms against "theory's" continual failure to translate itself into a material force, and not only, I might add, in these unapologetically post-Marxist times. This problematic, after all, was the foundation of Karl Marx's desire to discover the rational kernel in the mystical shell of Hegel's philosophical enterprise and to make critique inseparable from the dissolution of the order of things in the name of the human. As his brilliant The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte demonstrated, Marx was already painfully familiar with the uncanny transformation of revolution into repetition (to borrow Jeffrey Mehlman's words), and his mordant, disillusioned text has served as the model simultaneously for the diagnosis of revolutionary failure and for the resilience of an albeit timorous optimism.

In these circumstances, I think it wise to claim neither groundbreaking polemical fervor nor unique historical urgency for this collection of essays; instead, I want to suggest, and I think my fellow contributors would agree, that in their writing, as in mine, like proletarian revolutions, they "criticize themselves constantly, [. . .] seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again, more gigantic, before them, recoil ever and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible [. . .]" (Eighteenth Brumaire 332).

It is a critical commonplace that The Eighteenth Brumaire is as much about the aesthetics of revolution as it is about the politics of representation. Content and phrase go beyond each other in a vertiginous world of proliferating "remplaçants" (351) in which things become their opposites and signifiers lack corresponding referents. The situation, however, is not simply one of discursive performativity, of "turns of speech"; instead, Marx is careful to elaborate upon the distinction between solving the riddle and formulating it differently, between, for my purposes, the [End Page 256] explanatory power of representations and their capacity to enthrall the imagination. My intention is not to indulge in yet another reading of an all too familiar text but to insist on the significance of the materialist contention that the articulation of estranged reality is not tantamount to its elimination. It is this realization upon which, to...