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  • Den föreställda måxngkulturen: Klass och etnicitet i svensk samtidsprosa
  • Peter Leonard
Magnus Nilsson . Den föreställda måxngkulturen: Klass och etnicitet i svensk samtidsprosa. Hedemora: Gidlunds, 2010.

What is the fate of social democracy in a society that no longer believes it has a traditional working class? Magnus Nilsson's important new work is a defense of long-standing Scandinavian modes of literary analysis in the face of new and more complicated texts—and societies. Drawing inspiration from both earlier Swedish traditions of arbetarlitteratur (working-class literature) as well as contemporary American cultural theorists, Nilsson reads recent Swedish fiction warily—with an eye towards how it constructs ethnicity, rather than reflects it. In so doing, he weaves together a compelling argument for the continuing relevance of materialist critique in an age of imagined belongings, warning "det starka fokus påx etnicitet som genereras av föreställningen om det måxngkulturella samhället leder till att klassorättvisor ofta förloras ur sikte" (157) [the strong focus on ethnicity generated by the notion of the multicultural society leads to us often losing sight of class injustice].

In order to prosecute his point, Nilsson treats recent Swedish novels about both ethnicity (Khemiri, Bakhtiari) as well as social class (Alakoski, Linderborg). A less ambitious volume might attempt to tackle only one of these two genres, but Nilsson largely succeeds in weaving together the two. Indeed, the tension between a materialist view of history and a "post-socialist" one lies at the heart of his point. His sources reflect his argument: he identifies early on the paradox of a tentative re-birth of class-conscious literature in the midst of a frenzy for multiethnic narrative. [End Page 281] Nilsson sees these dual trends as reflective of the fact that class is being redefined through ethnicity—often times by writers, but also occasionally by critics reading against the grain of the work. Even when a novel such as Alakoski's Svinalängorna focuses on the social class of its immigrant protagonists, rather than their origin in Finland, critics "read for ethnicity" to uncover the essential Finnishness of the family's troubles. This lack of class consciousness is not restricted to critics: the protagonists of Åsa Linderborg's Mig äger ingen, according to Nilsson, exist in a world where "industries and industrial workers haven't disappeared ... they have merely disappeared from the characters' imaginative sphere" (191-2).

To explain why identity has replaced class as an analytic category, Nilsson invokes the American cultural theorists Nancy Fraser and Walter Benn Michaels for evidence that, in the aftermath of the Cold War, a "post-ideological" viewpoint positions cultural differences as a fundamental discursive category. Recognition of cultural difference, rather than remediation of class inequality, is the spirit of the times. Nilsson argues that class is economically-determined, whereas ethnicity is culturally-determined. But this distinction, he claims, is made invisible or "culturalized" by "imagined diversity"—the ethnic filter described above.

That the remediation of economic inequality (in other words, social democracy) is strongly associated with the extraordinary growth and development of Sweden in the early and mid twentieth century, and that identity politics, with the crisis of the welfare states during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, could give this book an anachronistic tinge. Is Nilsson merely arguing for a return to the good old days—at least in terms of interpretive theory?

Luckily, the book avoids this trap by finding evidence even in those works most strongly associated with ethnic identity (Khemiri's Ett öga rött) of the emptiness of what Nilsson terms the ethnic filter. Indeed, the poverty of identity politics as both an analytic and political category is the main point here: only a renewed commitment to class politics, Nilsson argues, will adequately explain Swedish literature—and, implicitly, Sweden itself.

First, of course, Nilsson must explain the temptations of the ethnic filter—for both writers and readers alike. He does this through the use of Bourdieu's notion of symbolic capital: paratextual elements such as a foreign last name, a distinctive photo on the jacket, a biographical snippet mentioning an immigrant parent, all constitute symbolic...


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pp. 281-284
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