Pre-Modern Joking Relationships in Modern Europe: From Le Neveu de Rameau to Le Neveu de Lacan
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Pre-Modern Joking Relationships in Modern Europe:
From Le Neveu de Rameau to Le Neveu de Lacan

Two decades ago, midway between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Twin Towers, Franco Moretti offered a geographical sketch of modern European literature. A decade later, halfway between Moretti’s sketch and this article, Rastko Močnik proposed a theoretical formalization of modern European politics. Writing at a time when Europe fell “in love with Milan Kundera,” Moretti (“Modern” 109) sensed the end of modern European literature, including its novel. Writing in a time when the “implicit philosophy of the Council of Europe” entrusted culture to “the invisible hand of the ‘free market’,” Močnik (“Regulation” 201, n. 3) announced the eclipse of modern European political institutions, including its nation-states. In my article, I will use these respective histories of the European novel and the European nation-state in order to trace and comparatively read a set of modern texts on the relationship between uncles and nephews: Denis Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau (ca. 1761–74), Karl Marx’s Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte (1851–52), Louis Althusser’s L’avenir dure longtemps (1985), and Jacques-Alain Miller’s Le Neveu de Lacan (2003).

I will thus delineate this Parisian topos of uncles and nephews against the background of Močnik’s theoretical formalization of the paradigmatic political institutions of modernity, which I will in turn read alongside Moretti’s historical sketch of the modern institution of literature. Moretti traces modern European literature as it is being terminated by the postmodernism of Milan Kundera’s kind; conversely, Močnik grasps modern European politics as it is being sublated by the new paradigm [End Page 370] of institutional identity politics. In short, while the former announces the death of the modern novel, the latter declares the demise of the modern nation. For my part, I will sketch a certain dimension of both the literary and political modernity in Europe, namely a set of political as well as literary renditions of emblematic uncles and nephews as it was recently finalized by Miller’s return to Diderot’s initial introduction of the theme.

Močnik speaks about key modern political institutions—monarchic authority, nation, and identity community—by comparing them to pre-modern ones, particularly the so-called joking relationships between, for example, uncles and nephews. I will use this account of modern politics in order to speak about modern European literature, which is Moretti’s concern. This will allow me to delineate a set of texts that belong not only to the literature that interests Moretti, but also to the politics that concerns Močnik; texts that, as it were, reflect on Močnik’s political institutions by means of Moretti’s institution of literature. The object of my inquiry will hence be found somewhere between Moretti’s and Močnik’s objects, that is, between the literature and the institutional politics of European modernity. Moreover, not unlike the object of my inquiry, the inquiry itself will be something between Moretti’s and Močnik’s, as my synoptic reading of the former’s geographical sketch and the latter’s theoretical formalization will serve to yield a kind of theoretical sketch.

Moretti starts his essay on “Modern European Literature” by negating a certain persistent notion of European literature. From Novalis’s Christianity, or Europe, through T.S. Eliot’s “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” to E.R. Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, European culture was perceived as anything but modern: as Moretti notices, and as the titles themselves suggest, European literature was considered to be an entity as long as it was not modern. Be it Christianity, the Odyssey (as the pre-text of Ulysses), or the Latin Romania, this pre-modern Europe is the pre-nationalist Europe, according to Moretti (“Modern” 87). This hostility toward the nation-state is easy enough to understand, given that these three texts have respectively been written “during the Napoleonic Wars” and “after the First and Second World Wars” (“Modern” 87). However, beside these circumstances Moretti also finds a structural reason for this hostility: in all...