Oxford University Press
240 Pages; Print, $65.00
In a recent essay on the "contemporaneity"of contemporary literature, James F. English contrasts his "small-scale approach" of statistical analysis to Fredric Jameson's famous "large scale explanation" in Postmodernism (1991), stating that "[o]ne is tempted at every little step to take the familiar shortcut of appealing to 'larger social forces,' to 'the cultural logic of late capitalism,' to 'contemporary society' as a whole. But at this stage in the evolution of literary studies, that shortcut has begun to look like a dead end." English accurately summarises the burgeoning concern for many current literary scholars—that "large scale explanations" often oversimplify the complexities and aporias of contemporary life. Instead, in an attempt to illuminate how fiction can credibly engage with current political issues, recent publications have adopted similarly downsized approaches to literary analysis, despite them being "more laborious" and "less certain of arriving at any terminus."
Mitchum Huehls's "ontological approach to literature" in his recent study, After Critique: Twenty-First-Century Fiction in a Neoliberal Age, exemplifies this "smaller" scale. "Reject[ing] the representational logic of critique" that configures neoliberalism as an ideological manipulation through the representation of norms, Huehls contends that neoliberal power primarily functions ontologically, charting the autonomous individual's actions inside of "a regulated social sphere committed to efficient profit maximization." As this non-representational form nullifies critique's interpretative methods, Huehls wagers that to find "meaning" and "value" alternative to profit, we must first "become neoliberal," that is, approach neoliberalism ontologically. This eliminates English's "familiar shortcuts": Huehls enters politics into a Latourian world of "actants" (everything that "has an effect," human or not) that continuously move and collide to create new networks and configurations. This is "politics in perpetual motion" in which nothing is completely explained, but "requires constant negotiation."
Huehls's wager hinges upon tracing an "ontological turn" across a wide-range of literary forms and genres, which he argues is an "organic" product of the growing scepticism towards the political affects of largescale ideological critique. Inspired by the theories of Bruno Latour and Michel Foucault, Huehls claims that neoliberalism nullifies critique through a "totalizing grasp on normative representation." Relying on exposing hegemonic political systems that manipulate and control our "ways of seeing the world," critique opposes neoliberalism by illuminating the "values and practices" it embeds in social institutions. By accepting an antithetical relationship between object and subject positions, however, this interpretative method traps critique within what Huehls calls a "neoliberal circle;" normative neoliberalism functions by bifurcating the subject and object, and then, when appropriate, "vacillating" between both, irrespective of their incompatibility. As neoliberalism is then able to represent individuals as "subjects replete with entrepreneurial agency or as systematically aggregated objects," critique cannot propose a viable alternative that has not already been assimilated into the logic of neoliberalism. In the end neoliberalism "wins either way."
Borrowing a term from Mark McGurl's "The New Cultural Geology," Huehls proposes that an "exomodernist" strain of "post-critical' and "posthumanist" contemporary literature has attempted to move beyond the "representational impasses" that impeded both postmodernism and post-postmodernism by accepting our neoliberal hybrid subject-object ontology. By doing so "exomodernism" ostensibly risks complicity with neoliberalism's treatment of individuals as the "free ontology homo œconomicus, the simultaneous subject-objects of laissez-faire." As neoliberalism is yet to codify all modes of being, however, Huehls postulates that authors can harness literature's stylistic and formal attributes to produce new meanings and values.
In chapter 1, Huehls analyses Uzodinma Iweala's Beast of No Nation (2005) as complicating the victim-perpetrator dichotomy that conventionally structures the rhetoric of human rights through simile, which allows his protagonist to simultaneously be "like" something and "not," thus representing a "contingent person" who "remains too enmeshed in the given configuration to be exclusively subject or object." Following on from this, the formal configurations of Karen Tei Yamashita's Tropic of Orange (1997) and Helena Maria Viramontes's Their Dogs Came with Them (2007) are...