- Insistence of the Material: Literature in the Age of Biopolitics by Christopher Breu
A new materialist ambition inspirits contemporary literary and cultural studies. If the last thirty years witnessed the ascendency of questions of culture, discourse, and language, today we are witnessing a renewed interest in questions of the biological, the material, and the real. Christopher Breu’s work Insistence of the Material, which seeks to theorize the relationship between literature, biopolitics, and materiality, can best be understood as part of this material turn. Drawing on both his own body’s refusal to conform to medical scripts (Breu has a form of intersex called hypospadias) and his previous work on cultural fantasies of the tough guy during the interwar period (2005’s Hard-Boiled Masculinities), Breu organizes Insistence of the Material around two imperatives: first, the need in an age of immateriality and biopolitics to attend to the material and, second, the inability of language to account for the various forms of materiality—from the body to the material elements of political-economic production [End Page 556] to the material objects signified by nature—of late-capitalist life. He theorizes and tarries with forms of materiality that resist, exceed, and exist in tension with the cultural and linguistic by drawing on an impressive breadth of new materialisms, including material feminisms, object-oriented ontologies, and political ecology, along with the older materialist traditions of psychoanalysis and Marxism. The heterogeneity of materiality illuminated by this materialist scholarship allows Insistence of the Material to convincingly imagine a “counter-tradition” (vii) of literature Breu calls “the late-capitalist literature of materiality” (23).
The literature of materiality offers a different conception of post-modernism. Where this category has been, for example, rejected in favor of what Marjorie Perloff terms a twenty-first-century modernism and increasingly understood as surpassed by a new form of literary practice termed post-postmodernism, Breu “posit[s] a difference or … a rift within the very category itself” (25). A particularly influential account of literary postmodernism, as represented by Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction, understands its aesthetics as metafictional, as fiction that interrogates the process by which fiction is itself made. By contrast, Breu suggests that the literature of materiality “holds much richer possibilities for thinking about the relationship of literature to our globalizing present” (26). For him, the fantasies of an increasingly immaterial, dematerialized, “metafictional” everyday existence “disavow the very real ways life in late capitalism was and continues to be characterized by the opposite, by the proliferation of the intransigently material” (26–27). The literature of materiality reveals, in contrast to the primarily linguistic concerns of metafictional forms of postmodernism, the material roots and underpinnings of the globalizing present, thereby imagining a powerful ethics and politics predicated on embracing disavowed material.
William Burroughs’s 1959 novel, Naked Lunch, with its engagement with the material registers of the linguistic, the bodily, and political economy, serves, in chapter 1, as the urtext of this tradition of materialist literature. Drawing on Jacques Lacan’s conception of language, Breu argues that in Burroughs’s work materiality itself is presented as the traumatic repressed, the real, as these forms of materiality exceed and resist symbolic coding. Reading at the level of form, as he effectively does throughout Insistence of the Material, Breu shows how Burroughs’s “language of the real” (42) both overloads realist descriptions that collapse when describing random detritus and breaks off into narrative fragments, shifting radically in content and location. Such an attention to the materiality of the signifier allows Burroughs to examine the flesh of the body deformed and reformed by social and economic production and investment that [End Page 557] “become[s] the real upon which this symbolic and material system of biopolitical production is grounded” (47). Breu’s argument that the newly formed flesh of the posthuman Mugwump embodies the potential for agency of what Giorgio Agamben terms bare life could have benefited from a deeper engagement with the antinomies inherent to Agamben’s conception. Bare life is at once powerless and pure...