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Reading Capitalist Realism

Alison Shonkwiler and Leigh Claire LaBerge

Publication Year: 2013

As the world has been reshaped since the 1970s by economic globalization, neoliberalism, and financialization, writers and artists have addressed the problem of representing the economy with a new sense of political urgency. Anxieties over who controls capitalism have thus been translated into demands upon literature, art, and mass media to develop strategies of representation that can account for capitalism’s power.

Reading Capitalist Realism presents some of the latest and most sophisticated approaches to the question of the relation between capitalism and narrative form, partly by questioning how the “realism” of austerity, privatization, and wealth protection relate to the realism of narrative and cultural production. Even as critics have sought to locate a new aesthetic mode that might consider and move beyond theorizations of the postmodern, this volume contends that narrative realism demands renewed scrutiny for its ability to represent capitalism’s latest scenes of enclosure and indebtedness.

Ranging across fiction, nonfiction, television, and film, the essays collected here explore to what extent realism is equipped to comprehend and historicize our contemporary economic moment and what might be the influence or complicity of the literary in shaping the global politics of lowered expectations. Including essays on writers such as Mohsin Hamid, Lorrie Moore, Jess Walter, J. M. Coetzee, James Kelman, Ali Smith, Russell Banks, William Vollmann, and William Gibson, as well as examinations of Hollywood film productions and The Wire television series, Reading Capitalist Realism calls attention to a resurgence of realisms across narrative genres and questions realism’s ability to interrogate the crisis-driven logic of political and economic “common sense.”

Published by: University of Iowa Press

Series: New American Canon


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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I would like to thank A. K. Summers for wit and argument, Franklin Summers for the point of view of Franklin Summers, Elizabeth Freeman for unstinting intellectual generosity, series editor Samuel Cohen for enthusiasm and early support, Andrew Hoberek for timely counsel...

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Introduction: A Theory of Capitalist Realism

Alison Shonkwiler and Leigh Claire La Berge

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pp. 1-25

Capitalist realism is both an old and a new concept for literary studies. Realism, after all, has long been considered the aesthetic mode most intimate to capitalism. It is this intimacy that in the view of its admirers generates realism’s depth and incisiveness of critique. It is...

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We Can’t Afford to Be Realists: A Conversation

Jodi Dean and Mark Fisher

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pp. 26-38

Jodi Dean: With your account of capitalist realism, you took an idea that Slavoj Žižek got from Fredric Jameson and made it completely fresh. Žižek said that it was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But whereas for Žižek this observation is...

Part I. Novelistic Realisms

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Adultery, Crisis, Contract

Andrew Hoberek

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pp. 41-63

In an August 2007 Boston Globe column on the burgeoning subprime mortgage crisis, the journalist and economic commentator Robert Kuttner asserted that “irresponsibly speculative lenders should be prohibited from selling mortgages in the secondary market, even...

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Things Break Apart: James Kelman, Ali Smith, and the Neoliberal Novel

Alissa G. Karl

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pp. 64-88

This essay aims to pick up where the three texts referenced in its title leave off. For where Yeats and Achebe trouble the dis-integration of social collectivity in anti- and postcolonial moments, and where Scottish political theorist Tom Nairn argues in his 1977 treatise...

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Things As They Were or Are: On Russell Banks’s Global Realisms

Phillip E. Wegner

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pp. 89-112

When in the summer of 2009 I first read Rule of the Bone: A Novel (1995), written by Russell Banks, one of the most important radical American novelists working today, a small scene relatively late in the action stood out for me. Rule of the Bone offers a brilliant updating...

Part II. Genres of Mediation

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Capitalist Realism and Serial Form: The Fifth Season of The Wire

Leigh Claire La Berge

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pp. 115-139

When speaking about The Wire, the HBO series he co-created with Ed Burns, David Simon frequently compares the show to a nineteenth-century realist novel and suggests that any particular episode might be read as an individual chapter. Indeed, some critics, following Simon...

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Like Some Dummy Corporation You Just Move around the Board: Contemporary Hollywood Production in Virtual Time and Space

J. D. Connor

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pp. 140-176

Early in Oliver Stone’s JFK (Warner Bros., 1991), Jim Garrison is conducting his infamous “walking tour” through “the heart of the United States government’s intelligence community in New Orleans” and explaining how it is that ex-FBI man and staunch anticommunist Guy...

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Anti-Capitalism and Anti-Realism in William T. Vollmann’s Poor People

Caren Irr

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pp. 177-192

As a slogan updating the presumably spoiled goods of socialist realism for the neoliberal present, “capitalist realism” initially suggests an effort to interpret and organize reality in terms consistent with capitalist ideology. Understood in this sense, capitalist realism might prove...

Part III. After and Against Representation

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Beyond Realism -

Michael W. Clune

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pp. 195-212

“Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable.”1 Mark Fisher puts his finger on the basic problem for left politics: how is one to imagine an alternative to capitalism? Realism is our great enemy in this effort. “Realism” in this context refers both to an attitude— a...

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Capitalism and Reification: The Logic of the Instance

Timothy Bewes

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pp. 213-241

Disputes over the usefulness of the term “reification” have often been accompanied by insinuations about its fashionableness.1 “Fashionable,” in this equation, describes the decline of a concept into the very process it describes: a “thing.” However, so imbricated are the...

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Communist Realism

Joshua Clover

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pp. 242-247

“Capitalist realism” borrows its “real” from Realpolitik: the ideological closure of possibilities beyond those already ratified by the imperatives of capital accumulation, upper limit Metternich, lower limit Cheney. As a concept, it is a lovely, hard-minded way of exposing a...

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Afterword: Unreal Criticism

Richard Dienst

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pp. 248-254

“Capitalist realism”—is this an old joke or a new, serious concept? Is it a useful category or an ideological insult? There’s an uneasiness about this phrase throughout this collection, a feeling that it names something both important and elusive about the current situation and our...


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pp. 255-258


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pp. 259-260

Series Page

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E-ISBN-13: 9781609382636
E-ISBN-10: 1609382633
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609382346
Print-ISBN-10: 160938234X

Page Count: 272
Illustrations: 13 b&w photos, 2 charts
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: first paper
Series Title: New American Canon
Series Editor Byline: John Smith, Will Wordsworth See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 875819800
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Reading Capitalist Realism