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Geopolitics and the Anglophone Novel, 1890–2011 by John Marx (review)

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 45, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 722-723 | 10.1353/sdn.2014.0004

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John Marx’s Geopolitics and the Anglophone Novel positions the modern anglophone novel as a “species of governmentality,” aligning literary criticism and literature with social scientific research in the spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration for purposes of reciprocal insight (9). Marx founds his study on an important, if uncontroversial, claim: literature is best seen as a “practice or manner of producing the world” (11). Turning away from narrow constructions of fiction as (sub)genres or periodized artifacts or ideological constructs, Marx focuses on the novel as a highly mimetic intervention into how humans shaped and continue to shape their societies on an interpersonal scale in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Marx concurs with Woolf’s oft-cited declaration that “on or about December 1910” a lot changed (19). For him, this singular change revolves around the twentieth-century novel’s interrogation of classic liberalism with its apotheosis of the rational man, the self-regulating individual, hierarchical governmentality, colonial administrative order, etc., and, collaterally, its delimning of new forms of human association and organization. “Where Mill’s liberalism tended to legislate a distinction between autonomous actors and communal populations,” he writes, “twentieth-century writing blurs this distinction” (46). Geopolitics and the Anglophone Novel attends to novels that challenge established modes of governmentality in political and economic life, with their emphasis on experts and specialists, and their concomitant diminution of the role that (mere) citizens play in the (re-)structuring of social forms. In particular, this study looks at the interactions of professionals and nonprofessionals in four contexts: “failed states,” inequality, entrepreneurship, and women as economic actors.

For Marx, political scientific discourse around “failed states” privileges the formative remedial powers of “professional intervention” and the epistemologies that support it (47). On his account, fiction preoccupied with failed states contests the shibboleth that only experts qualify as crisis managers. For example, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) details the lives of ordinary people caught up not only in the horrors of Nigeria’s Biafran War (1967–1970), but also productively ordering their quotidian affairs through personal relationships, writing poetry, debating political issues, etc. Such novels provide rich qualitative narratives that complement the quantitative methods of social science with its statistics, charts, and graphs, and general metrification of the human condition. They provide “local color,” demonstrating how locals move beyond service as mere “native informants” for researchers and public policy analysts, and help to “democratize expertise” (50).

For classic liberalism, inequality is a problem to be managed through formal political administration, that is, by the state and state-like actors, and not particularly by individual citizens. Marx is especially interested in novels that depict the operation of international agencies and university-sponsored research personnel within domains of inequality and their dealings with the local citizenry. NGOs and universities promote experts and professionals as agents of understanding and remediation but, as Marx demonstrates, members of the local (subject) population can themselves advance the work of such expert teams and also, more importantly, comity in their locales through their own “non-expert” understanding and acuity. Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost (2000) depicts one such alliance of external researchers and a local sculptor, working together against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s civil war. Marx reads Ondaatje’s novel along with others such as Tagore’s The Home and the World (1915) and Forster’s Howards End (1910) as small-scale case studies that re-imagine existent hierarchies that have traditionally shaped relationships between experts and locals.

In his last two chapters, Marx examines two facets of economic relations that have received considerable coverage in modern world fiction: entrepreneurship in (post) colonial and diasporic communities and the shifting economic identities of women. In a wide-ranging discussion of historical novels by Amitav Ghosh (The Glass Palace [2000]), M. G. Vassanji (The Gunny Sack [1989]), Ahdaf Soueif (The Map of Love [1999]), among others, Marx traces how people help to shape a meritocratic “global civic society” under the highly unstable conditions of what he calls, after Zygmunt Bauman, “liquid modernity” (168, 146). In his final chapter, Marx turns away from the matter of (mostly) male economic agency, to consider novels that depict, respectively...

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