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  • Reading Capital, Writing History: Pound’s Marx
  • Mark Steven (bio)

Epic Negation and Negated Labor

The epic is a genre of poetry that, according to Ezra Pound’s coinage from 1934, includes history. And yet, as C. D. Blanton has recently reminded us, this description drives an irresolvable contradiction deep into the aesthetic substance of literary modernism. “Implicit in Pound’s definition,” he argues, “is a paradoxical recognition that the history so invoked can never fully be represented as anything more than an expanse of quantitative detail: a bad infinity.”1 While an epic impulse might charge literature with the task of grasping historical totality, the era in which the epic underwent this modernist redefinition takes place only after history had made itself unavailable to any sort of conventional representation. This is because, to recontextualize Blanton’s argument within the space political economy, after the second industrial revolution and with it the commodity form’s historical apotheosis, global capitalism undercut the possibility of cognitively mapping its vast operations. It did so via the planet’s subsumption into an unevenly developed yet wholly combined economic system, the human experience of which is defined locally by the alienation of labor and globally by imperialist dislocation. In Blanton’s assessment, the modernist epic was therefore “devised under the force of the injunction to include history, but caught simultaneously in a history too complex and often too menacing to include straightforwardly” (Epic Negation, 4). Even if the twentieth century was no more complex [End Page 771] or menacing than any other period marked by accelerated production, economic imperialism, and internecine war, the historical moment in which Pound was writing is nevertheless distinctive because it coincides with our entry into the “world market” that Ernest Mandel once periodized as “late capitalism.”2 And it is the geographical structure of late capitalism—the fact that by the end of the nineteenth century the centers of economic accumulation and industrial manufacture existed elsewhere than the privileged sites of cultural and artistic production—that thwarts the epic’s desire to include history. Blanton’s contention is that modernist poets responded to this conjunction with what he calls “epic negation,” a dialectical form that deploys evidentiary documents and metonymic allusions to intimate the force and flux of history without ever claiming to encapsulate historical totality as such. If this is true—that in modernism the epic learned to negotiate the paradox of its own generic aspirations—in which literary forms did the modernists find their strategies for the seemingly impossible task of historical inclusion? In other words: what were the textual antecedents for developing a poetics of epic negation?

While the problem of historical inclusion is, in this instance, responsive to the machinations of the economy, my contention is that a provisional solution was found in the most theoretically evolved critique of capitalism available to modernist literature. Specifically, the argument of this article is that Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism, as conveyed by his singular account of life under capital, informed modernist poetry and poetics, and that it did so by way of Pound. “We know,” wrote Pound in 1938, “that history as it was written the day before yesterday is unwittingly partial; full of fatal lacunae; and that it tells next to nothing of causes.”3 In Marx, however, Pound had already found a way of writing history that accounts for those causes—which, he adds, “were economic and moral”—whilst simultaneously acknowledging its own partiality and lacunae, which it incorporates into a presentational method (Guide to Kulchur, 31). That is to say, Marx developed his own type of epic negation, a communist poetics for describing capitalism, and Pound knew this. This article pursues its argument in three parts. This first part zeroes in on some of the more general coherences between Marx and Pound, focusing on the two writers’ shared interest in documents and in satire as modes of historical inclusion. The second section explores the adaptation of Marx’s dialectical materialism through Pound’s redoubling of its rhetorical method. My hypothesis is that by quoting from Marx’s own quotations Pound’s verse suggests a deeper sensitivity to the political intentions of his precursor and, if...