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Utopian Generations: The Political Horizon of Twentieth-Century Literature (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 3, Spring 2007
pp. 613-620 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0012

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Among the most compelling books on either modernism or postcolonial literature published in recent years is Nicholas Brown's Utopian Generations, which brings both fields into dialogue. Neither (thankfully) influence study nor comparative analysis, Utopian Generations seeks to understand British modernism and African decolonization literature as facets of the larger process of global capitalism. Brown's professed project—to "reconstellate . . . modernism and African literature in such a way as to make them both comprehensible within a single framework in which neither of them will look the same" (3)—is striking enough in its ambition but even more remarkable given the fluidity with which Brown moves among analyses of texts from Ireland, Senegal, England, Nigeria, Kenya, and Angola.

Accomplishing such geographic and cultural leaps, as well as bridging a chronology of texts that spans a period from World War I through the 1990s, requires a foundational concept of totality that some readers might initially resist, notwithstanding an established history extending at least as far back as Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel. Given the relentless march of the saturation of global capital in recent decades, this intellectual resistance may be blunted by most readers' immediate experience, but Brown is careful to avoid the charges of reductionism which would equate the category of totality with the elision of significant difference. His painstaking work is no doubt due in part to his expressed desire to rescue dialectic methodology as applied to postcolonial criticism from the desuetude into which it lapsed following the debate between Fredric Jameson and Aijaz Ahmad that took place in the pages of Social Text in the mid-1980s. The argument, which began with Jameson's unequivocal assertion in his essay "Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism" that "all third-world texts are necessarily . . . to be read as . . . national allegories" (69) and ended with Ahmad's ringing rejection, "[w]e are not each other's civilizational Others," surely checked such a totalizing methodology for decades of scholarship (25). Brown's defense of Jameson is as nuanced as was Ahmad's initial contention with Jameson's essay; those familiar with the published debate will recall Ahmad's apparent puzzlement that a critic writing from a Marxist orientation and with such demonstrated engagement with non-western literature should produce so reductive an approach. For Brown, Jameson's failings were primarily rhetorical and situational. Had Jameson's essay appeared as a section of The Political Unconscious, Brown speculates, a work to which it is most closely allied, scholarly history might have taken a different turn.

If the subtlety and originality of interpretations of individual texts argue for the authority of a theoretical model, Brown's invocation of the totality of global capitalism proves a solid epistemological grounding indeed. Organizing his book's sections along the three axes of subjectivity, history, and politics, Brown pairs British modernist texts with those of the literatures of African nations (an underrated aspect of dialectical criticism is that it lends itself to tidy chapter divisions), exploring how each text engages with a Lukácsian-derived version of the "modernist sublime," in which a utopian aesthetic experience resolves the antinomies inherent in capitalism (15). Texts of colonial and postcolonial African nations by dint of their situated-ness cannot afford the luxury of the purely aesthetic compensation of their imperially centered counterparts, and thus their strategy, in Brown's analysis, is the "evacuation" of the modernist sublime (22). It is in these tripartite pairings that Brown's method of textual selection merits particular attention. Eschewing the notion of "typical" texts, Brown prefers instead the principle of identifying authors who constitute an "event" that redefines their field (31). Thus Brown juxtaposes predictable choices—Joyce and Chinua Achebe—with such surprises as Cheikh Hamidou Kane (whose L'aventure ambiguë holds the distinction of being written without the intent of publication ), Ford Madox Ford (an eccentric modernist at best), Wyndham Lewis (in this chapter, Jameson's influence is apparent), and Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Pepetela (here the pairing is, in turn, paired, with the Kenyan dramatist and novelist set alongside the Angolan writer). In highlighting the manner in which literary history has been—or might be—constructed, Brown's privileging of...

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