- Insistence of the Material: Literature in the Age of Biopolitics by Christopher Breu
Contemporary literary theory has a periodizing problem. The postmodern continues to die a thousand deaths, post-postmodernism is both terminologically clunky and needlessly tied to the object it attempts to kill, and contemporary often seems to expand into vacuousness. In his Insistence of the Material: Literature in the Age of Biopolitics (2014), Christopher Breu maps a theoretical trajectory that troubles some of the standard delineations between postmodernism, post-postmodernism, and the contemporary. In each of his close readings he argues for paying attention to the obduracy of the material in an increasingly seemingly immaterial world. Breu wants to look at what he calls the "material turn;" these texts, according to Breu articulate a different set of problems and conditions in the contemporary moment and combat the "fetishism of the immaterial" (22). Tackling authors not often grouped together like William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, J.G. Ballard, Dodie Bellamy, and Leslie Marmon Silko, Breu excavates a space for a different trajectory for contemporary literature. Like what Timothy Murphy calls "amodernism," Breu posits an alternate literary history where the waning of political commitments are not the only possible route through contemporary writing. He notes, rightly, that "materiality is… the unacknowledged preoccupation of experimental literature that we inadequately call postmodernist" (23 italics in text). So much time has been taken up by the arguments around postmodernism that it is important to realize that the stranglehold postmodernism has held on contemporary literary and cultural theory. Crucially, Breu recognizes that literature operates before theory to describe and critique the world.
A central claim of Insistence of the Material is that contra the cultural and linguistic turn a politically engaged literary theory must interrogate the material turn. For Breu, this means critically engaged with a "literature of materiality" where the embodiment of subjects bleeds out on every page. The messiness of bodies, along with the messiness of theory intersects each text under discussion. Think, for instance, of William S. Burroughs's famously messy physicality. As Breu notes, Naked Lunch brims with bodies in common (although not always with consent) who are also interpenetrated by the material detritus of the world around them. Thus, Naked Lunch like all the texts under consideration is riven with the biopolitcal and thanatopolitical, which forms the crux of a literature of materiality. While each chapter offers an engaging close reading, it is in the final chapter on Leslie Mormon Silko where Breu seems to fully articulate what a politics of a literature of materiality might look like. Silko, according to Breu, articulates the importance of "recognizing the political import of the nonhuman and the material," which helps produce an understanding of the "qualitative [End Page 529] materiality and irreducibly material genesis of the resources we use in constructing our late-capitalist imagescapes" (180). Here Breu reaches to a utopian version of the commons that, while borrowing from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri goes further through an understanding of the materiality of the commons themselves. Having said this, it would be nice to see Breu engage more critically with what these utopian spaces might look like, perhaps through an articulation of utopian theory. Here, though it goes unremarked upon, Breu is very close to Fredric Jameson and Phillip Wegner's formulation of utopian space (anti-anti utopian), not to mention José Muñoz in Cruising Utopia. (While it was published too close to Insistence's publication date, it would be very interesting to put the Silko chapter in conversation with José Muñoz's exception article "Gimme Gimme This…Gimme Gimme That: Annihilation and Innovation in the Punk Rock Commons" as Muñoz also insists on the crucial role negation plays in the production of a utopian commons.) Attending more closely to a utopian turn in combination with materiality would add a thickness to the readings while also gesturing to the radical openness of Breu's theoretical commitments.
Along with its close readings, Insistence of the Material is an extended theoretical intervention that argues for an...