PANEL A: Time, Futurity, Periods and Phases (1.15-3.15)
Death, disposability and the eclipse of the future in the writings of Jesmyn Ward
Anna Hartnell (Birkbeck)
The writing of Jesmyn Ward bears witness to a racialized neoliberalism that shapes the fate of all of her characters. She explores spaces and peoples that have been abandoned by the state and rendered largely disposable in the context of a predatory capitalism that has halted social mobility; mobility that was partly enabled by the civil rights movement and which created a small but notable black middle class. And yet while Ward’s narratives of racialized violence work against the backdrop of the particularities of this specific moment of capitalism, the threat of death that hangs over her central protagonists is the product of a historical continuum that seems to date back to slavery. This arguably demonstrates kinship with earlier strands in African American literary tradition that have long wrestled with this legacy and centralized black identity and race consciousness as principal subjects. According to commentators like Adolph Reed and Kenneth Warren, this is a tradition that has long reified race and tended to read all manifestations of black oppression as ahistorical repetitions of slavery and Jim Crow. By this account Ward’s work not only powerfully describes the effects of neoliberalism but participates in what Reed characterizes as the ‘neoliberal left’.
Rather than intervene into thorny debates about identity politics in black thought and literature, this paper will leverage these debates to position Ward’s work as something of a new departure. While her work is tangibly haunted by spectres of the racial past, it is a past mobilized to highlight the spectral qualities of contemporary material conditions of precarity. These conditions point to the foreclosure of the future in her work, which in turn speaks to a neoliberal temporality of an endless and ongoing present. In this sense Ward’s work gestures not towards the redemptive horizons that have characterized much twentieth century African American literature, but rather to a bleaker portrait of twenty-first century survival.
Colson Whitehead’s Zone One and the No Future of Neoliberalism
Diletta De Cristofaro (Birmingham)
This paper considers, first, the influence of the apocalyptic understanding of time – time as a line directed towards utopia (I am thinking, of course, of the traditional understanding of apocalypse as utopian revelation, not its contemporary understanding as catastrophe) – on the neoliberal end of history and its construction of the future as more of the same. The paper then turns to outline how what I term the ‘critical temporalities’ of the contemporary post-apocalyptic novel subvert this construction of time by exposing the neoliberal present as stalled, devoid of alternative and hence of genuine futurity, and as the site of an ongoing slow catastrophe. Apocalypse is played against itself, for the catastrophes of the contemporary post-apocalyptic novel are used to reveal how the apocalyptic structures underlying the neoliberal end of history and its construction of the future as more of the same mask an already catastrophic present. I draw on Colson Whitehead’s Zone One to illustrate my argument. I focus on the novel’s stragglers, zombies that are stuck in a moment of the pre-apocalyptic life and that literalize the undying neoliberal present and the lack of alternatives of the end of history.
‘Neoliberalism’s Third Wave: The Digital Age of Large-Scale Customisation‘
Stephen Shapiro (Warwick)
One of the most contested aspects of neoliberalism in contemporary debates is its existence? Many on both the right and the left argue that the keyword is both imprecise and more of a slogan than an actuality.
In this talk, and drawing on two recent collections that I have co-edited, I will argue that there really is such a social movement as neoliberalism. It has identifiable traits that radically distinguish it from the prior phase of managing the economy, government, and society that variously go by the names of military Keynesianism, the New Deal, or the Welfare State. This debate about the existence of neoliberalism exists mainly because of the faulty periodization and terms of reference about neoliberalism that have often dominated Anglophone discussions. On the one hand, these conversations have (wrongly) assumed that neoliberal policies are best understood by examining the US and UK in isolation from the larger capitalist world-system. On the other hand, a tale of linear stages has been taken as commonsensical.
Reviewing the claims by Liam Kennedy, Sharae Deckard, and myself, we will see that neoliberalism has existed through long periods of 40-ish years involving a cycle of expansion and decline, and containing clear inflection points from one to the other. One phases ran from between 1929 and the mid-1960s/mid-1970s, involving an inflection period of 1944–1949, as the time between the Bretton Woods Conference and the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The next phase can be considered as existing between the manifest crises of the early 1970s of stagflation and petro-shock and the financial crises of 2008–2011, involving an inflection period around the 1989 fall of the Soviet imperial system and formal end to the Cold War, typified by the reunification of the two Germanys. Concatenating these longer phases is an overlapping phase from the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, which belongs to both of the other longer sequence.
After the 2008/11 financial crisis, many commentators felt that given the entirely obvious failure of neoliberal policies (forcing States to return to Keynesian bailouts) the time had been called on them. Unexpectedly, these policies were reinstated, in even larger and deeper ways. Why? And what characterizes this third wave of neoliberalism.
Combining recent arguments from critical digital studies and architecture, I will propose that the rise of the new social networks and platforms enabled the return of highly exploitative labor conditions that are best compared to nineteenth-century sweatshops. Similarly, new digital fabrication methods (file-to-factory fabrication sped by the rise 3-D scanning) has created conditions of labor that seem to now evade (or predate) the mechanical reproduction of twentieth-century modernism, by facilitating a return to earlier modes of artisan production.
The effect of the above is to hollow out the social institutions and cultural forms (like the novel) that arose to house and mediate the inherent contradictions of 19th and 20th century industrial society. The third wave of neoliberalism, by no means, erases the need for a world-systemic class analysis. It, rather, demands one.
Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge and the Periodization of Neoliberalism
Arin Keeble (Edinburgh Napier)
This paper reads Thomas Pynchon’s 2013 novel Bleeding Edge in relation to starkly divergent accounts of the periods of neoliberalism: the ‘four phases’ (‘economic’, ‘political-ideological’, ‘sociocultural’ and ‘ontological’) theorized by Greenwald-Smith and Huehls (2016) and the ‘two roughly 40 to 50 years long phases’ that feature repeated patterns of ‘contraction and expansion’ outlined by Kennedy and Shapiro (2019) and Deckard and Shapiro (2019). Of many striking differences, I pay particular attention to how the latter’s world-systems analysis challenges claims that neoliberalism has moved from strictly political and economic practices into cultural spheres becoming ultimately ‘ontological’ – the popular notion that a ‘market logic’ has pervaded the cultures of Western capitalist democracies. I begin with analysis of protagonist Maxine Tarnow, a fraud investigator who is frequently critical of neoliberalism while simultaneously embodying some of the most routinely-cited features of its purported cultural logic: competitiveness and obsessive consumerism. This characterization seems to broadly support the ‘four phases’ theory as Maxine has internalized this ‘market logic’ that is associated with ‘cultural’ or ‘ontological’ neoliberalism while consistently critiquing neoliberal economic practices. I compare the characterization and actions of Maxine to the novel’s chief villain, Nicholas Windust – who she actually refers to as a ‘neoliberal terrorist’. I read the characterization of Windust as drawing intertextually from Graham Greene’s allegorical character Alden Pyle in The Quiet American (1955). Like Pyle, the American agent promoting a ‘third way’ via violent clandestine operations in Indochina in the early 1950s (in the guise of an economic aid mission), Windust, we learn, is driven by ‘raw ideology’ (442). And, like Pyle, he began his career as an ‘entry level kid who didn’t know how much trouble his soul was in’ working as a government agent in South America in the 1970s (442). I read this intertextuality in relation to the global phases outlined by Kennedy and Shapiro and Deckard and Shapiro, locating Windust (and the echoes of Alden Pyle) at key points in these cycles. However, while the two key characters seem to support opposing periodizations, the strange relationship they embark on reveals a compelling alignment to the ‘two long phases’ periodization while also exploring the extent to which ‘cultural’ neoliberalism might be said to exist as distinct from economic and political practices.
PANEL B: Genres and Forms (3.30-5.30)
‘This oil thing touches everything’: Crime Fiction and the Neoliberal Energy Regime
Sharae Deckard (University College Dublin)
Near the climax of Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising, Jay Porter, a lawyer turned investigator by circumstance, explains why his discovery that a Houston-based oil company, Cole Oil Industries, has been hiding crude reserves in order to manufacture scarcity and manipulate global price shocks implies a crime of greater amplitude than the individual murders perpetrated by the company to conceal its fraudulent activities:
They’re stealing from […] working people. We’re paying more at the pump, paying more for our clothes, the shoes on our feet, the food the grocers pick up from their suppliers in those big, gassy eighteen-wheelers. This oil thing touches everything. You’re paying an extra fifty cents on that chicken breast for the cost of the plastic it’s wrapped in. That’s made from petroleum too,’ he says, looking at his wife under the dim white light of the overhead bulb. (2009: 416)
Oil, as described by Jay, touches everything, permeating the whole of capitalist social relations, from the wages of workers, to the cost of clothing and basic necessities, to the infrastructure of cheap automobility on which workers rely, to the plastic wrapping food commodities and the petrochemical inputs to industrial agriculture and its transport, to the electricity which powers household lights. As Imre Szeman has argued, oil is not merely a source of energy, nor solely a commodity, but rather a “substance that has given shape to capitalist social reality, perhaps as much as the division of labour or the dance of commodity reification” (2010: 34). This essay will explore the tropes, form, and content associated with the representation of oil, pursuing a nodal reading of world crime fictions from across different contexts of oil extraction in relation to their imbrication in the larger fabric of the neoliberal energy regime. I will compare contemporary novels that depict crimes occurring in four contexts of peripheral oil extraction or concentrated oil wealth, including Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s Shadow of the Shadow, Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising, Kwei Quartey’s Murder at Cape Three Points, and and Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ’s Nairobi Heat.
These crime novels are also petrofictions, using their content and form to foreground the nexus of oil, environmental crisis, and capitalist exploitation. Not only do their plots revolve around crimes emerging in relation to petro-political struggles or strikes against oil corporations, but their characters express affects inextricable from petrolic life, and their narrative energetics depend on oil. Their settings in different periods enables comparison of several key conjunctures in the rise of fossil capital: an early frontier of expansion in 1922 Mexico; the aftermath of the 1970s oil crisis and neoliberal turn to energy deregulation in the Reaganite era in the U.S.; the opening of a new oil frontier in Ghana in the wake of the 2007 Jubilee Field discovery; and the circulation of oil capital and corporate actors between the U.S. and Kenya. Furthermore, by juxtaposing texts depicting sites of national oil production in a capitalist core city (Houston) with those depicting semiperipheral frontiers of extraction by transnational corporations (Veracruz and the Cape Three Points offshore), I also hope to demonstrate what a comparative approach can reveal about the different capacities for representation of the uneven geographies of petromodernity in the neoliberal era from the vantage of the periphery or the core.
‘There is no Promised Land’: Sin, Power and Order in Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts
Elsa Bouet (Edinburgh Napier)
In Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghost, the spaceship Matilda has left a ruined Earth and is wandering aimlessly through space and time in search of ‘the Promised Land’, a new habitable planet. The ship is overseen by hereditary white Sovereigns, chosen by the Heavens, enforcing a “Holy Order”, a patriarchal society structured like antebellum America. As such, the ship’s economy is built on the enslavement of the passengers of colour, confined to the slummy, overcrowded lower decks, their work supervised by violent guards. The lower-deckers face food shortages and energy restrictions, their quarters left unheated.
The paper will use Walter Benjamin’s and Giorgio Agamben’s analysis of capitalism as a parasitic form of Christianity to analyse the ways in which An Unkindness of Ghost challenges the ideology that neoliberalism offers the promised land of freedom and plenty for all. Benjamin and Agamben contend that that capitalism is not an “expiatory but guilt-inducing” religion, one in which the “cult is liberated from any object and guilt from any sin”. The paper will analyse the ways in which An Unkindness of Ghost represents the fashioning of Matilda’s socio-economic system as a cult, whose object is non-other that the maintaining of racial hierarchies, justified under the guise of a neo-liberal religion, serving to legitimise the power and energy rationing to lower-deckers. The novel articulates that it is also a religion in which sin is still present, since the Sovereigns construct black identities as both guilty and sinful, and also exposes the historical continuities in forms of racial alienation ranging from slavery to neo-liberal austerity and criminalisation.
Helen DeWitt’s Some Trick and the Rise of Market Metafiction
Paul Crosthwaite (Edinburgh)
One of the hallmarks of ambitious contemporary fiction in the United States is an acute self-consciousness about the text’s own positioning in the literary marketplace – I mode I refer to as market metafiction. In this paper, I’ll begin by outlining the characteristic strategies and exemplary exponents of market metafiction, before examining a signal instance of the form: Helen DeWitt’s 2018 short story collection Some Trick. DeWitt’s text, I’ll argue, is an especially overt indicator of how self-reflexivity over the buying, selling, marketing, and promoting of books is coming to mark innovative fiction, reflecting the neoliberal restructuring of the literary and cultural fields and the economy at large in the twenty-first century.
The General Strike and the Road Novel
Myka Tucker-Abramson (Warwick)
From On the Road to Price of Salt, the post-World War II period saw theautomobile novel transform from the diffuse, experimental, and internationalist genres associated with naturalist migration novels (e.g. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath) or expressionist accounts of automotive urbanism (e.g. Ilya Ehrenberg’s Life of the Automobile) to become the “road novel” – a genre of American empire building, tethered to Cold War fantasies of freedom, individualism and development. Specifically, the road novel emerged as a genre rooted in the frontiers of 1950s capitalism: namely the massive, oil-saturated infrastructure projects (such as suburbanisation, urban renewal, the national highway system domestically, and developmentalism internationally) that the US undertook after World War II. This paper asks what happens to the road novel in the 1970s when the post-war deals fractures, its urban sensoria crumbles, and when the strategies of capitalist re-accumulation in the US shift from production to real estate. How, in other words, does the road novel transform and adapt to the rise of neoliberalism? I argue this is the question at the centre of Dhalgren,asking, what does the road novel look like, and what work can it do, when the frontiers are no longer the wide-open spaces that nourished both the Western and the Road novel, but are rather enclaved urban spaces that have become the un- or weakly commodified region? And, most importantly, it asks what is the political potential of the road novel and can it be redeemed.