The simmering heat of a sultry summer’s day provided an atmospherically-symbiotic accompaniment to Birkbeck’s 'Action Writing' conference in early July.
Convened by Pippa Eldridge and Catherine Flay, the conference offered a detailed examination of the dialogue between politics and aesthetics in post-war-to-present American fiction. The central provocation for the day: can literature have a political impact? This problematic notion was considered by a wide range of students, academics and interested others. The papers were broadly united in their focus on political poetics and countercultural aesthetics within the temporal-spatial framework of postmodernism. The conference coincidentally revisited and recontextualised some of the thematic considerations addressed at Birkbeck’s earlier conference on the end of the American century, ‘Rupture, Crisis, Transformation’. The idealism, innovations and irruptions of radical American literature in the face of a sequence of socio-political crises in the late twentieth century seemed to foreshadow the bruised subjectivities of the new millennium.
The opening keynote by Martin Eve (Birkbeck), familiarised the audience with the problematic relationship between politics and postmodern literature. Beginning with an illustrative deployment of the distant reading model advocated by Franco Moretti to signpost literature’s apparent depoliticisation over the past fifty years, Martin’s paper centred upon the difficulties of applying definitive categorisations as a means to unpicking the postmodern knot. On first glance, the implications for recent US fiction, Martin suggested, were wide-ranging, deeply engrained and troubling. Convenient labels such as ‘politics’, ‘radicalism’, ‘American’ and ‘fiction’ had limited rather than liberated the theoretically and narratively complex texts produced during this era. Moreover, the ugly spectre of the ‘great white male narcissists’ (Doctorow, Pynchon, DeLillo, Wallace et al) and their dedication to an apparently apolitical metafictional mode threatened to upend the entire American postmodern literary enterprise.
But all was not lost. From the ruins of the postmodern literary movement emerged, phoenix-like, a succession of authors whose thematic preoccupations, imaginative explorations and modes of expression seemed to recapture the critical essence of the radical political text: Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, Percival Everett. Moreover, the metafictional excursions of postmodern American fiction indicate an inclination towards the enduring possibilities of critique. Martin’s identification of the extant issues which implicate the very definition, identification and, indeed, production of ‘political’ literature enabled him to determine the ethical heartbeat which guides the body of American literature: liberal humanism, freedom of speech, and the enduring necessity of critique, underpinned by the literary possibilities of metafictional egress. (You can read the expanded text of Martin’s keynote on his website. Highly recommended.)
To take one example, this ethical heart could be perceived –albeit dimly for certain members of the audience – in the writing of Dave Eggers, whose novel, The Circle, was critically appraised by Anthony Leaker ( University of Brighton) during the opening panel. The opening panel looked at fictions of political economy, specifically those novels whose narratives seem to seek new alternatives of the traditional Marxist-capitalist binaries. Anthony’s particular interest was Eggers’ deployment (intended or otherwise) of Bifo Berardi and Wendy Brown’s critiques of neoliberalism. Anthony’s persuasive paper proposed that The Circle offered a subtle satire of the post-crisis work practices of global internet mega-corporations, which, while appearing to offer a radical alternative to capital’s ambivalence toward the human, have simply restructured and reaffirmed the precarious status of labour. Following on from Anthony, Andrew Rowcroft (University of Lincoln) considered Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy from the perspective of the radical left. The nuanced narratives of Robinson’s trilogy, Rowcroft convincingly argued, offered a new blueprint for socialist action which moves away from the orthodox-contingent capitalist-Marxist dualism as a means to resuscitate critique, while resituating new and emerging social protest movements within a liberatory post-Marxist context.
Panel two considered the relationship between politics and aesthetics via the marginalised writer figure. The guiding precept for this session: just how powerful can writers really be? The combative, isolated individual exemplified by the investigative journalism and iconoclastic cultural commentary of Renata Adler was delineated in glorious detail by Nick Beck (Queen Mary University). A Republican-badge-wearing staff writer at The New Yorker who witnessed first-hand the civil rights marches and student protests of the 1960s and early 1970s, Adler’s abrasive articles, contrary persona and at times splenetic contempt for other Establishment critics such as Pauline Kael resulted in a form of splendid, self-imposed isolation from which her career arguably never recovered, only for her caustic literature of political disenchantment to find its spiritual home among the precariat cognoscenti some fifty years later. Catherine Flay (Birkbeck) looked at the possibilities and limitations of Thomas Pynchon’s deployment of genre writing as an effective vehicle of cultural critique in his novel, Against the Day. Alex Williamson, also of Birkbeck, recounted Paul Auster and Don DeLillo’s production of the post-Fatwa Salman Rushdie Defence Pamphlet, an instance of two writers collaborating on an activist text which problematized their roles as agents of critique, radical action or institutionalised authority. (Read the full text of my paper.)
The third panel session revolved around the politics and poetics of identity, with each paper paying particular attention to notions of agency, representation and subversion. Ethnic identity and the politics of grief as depicted in the Southern narratives of Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped was the subject of a fantastic paper by Christopher Lloyd (Goldsmiths University), a passionate appraisal of literature’s still-vital ability to empathically convey trauma through the aesthetics of alterity. In a second paper to deal with the Dangerous Don DeLillo, Michael Flay (University of Derby) looked at the author’s depictions of disability and dissent as a means of narrativizing social critique in two products of his ‘late period’: Cosmopolis and The Body Artist. The gendered experimentation and poetics of motherhood by the obscure poet Mei Mei Berssenbrugge were illuminated in a sensitive and sincere discursive presentation by Stristhti Krishnamoorthy (University of Cambridge). Ettie Bailey-King (University of Oxford), examined Siri Husvedt’s latest novel, The Blazing World, which explores gendered authorship and authority in the contemporary art world, with Ettie concluding that the gender activism of Hustvedt’s protagonist, Harriet Burden, is drawn from the novelist’s interest in a post-countercultural context in which visibility and voyeurism play out within the ‘confines’ of an increasingly visual global culture.
The closing keynote was delivered by Michael Hrebreniak (Wolfson College Cambridge) whose 2006 text, Action Writing: Jack Kerouac’s Wild Form, lent its title to the conference. Michael drew out a number of the themes from his earlier book, revisiting a specific moment in American mid-century culture, one where art, jazz and literature triangulated to form a radical new expressionist mode: what he termed the ‘improvised habitus’. The germination of this movement from aesthetic formalism to a poetics of improvisation found itself in the ground-breaking bebop of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, whose stream-of-consciousness soloing and formal digressions informed the nascent free jazz of trumpeter Ornette Coleman, the action painting of Jackson Pollock and the freeform Beat poesy of Jack Kerouac. The atonal patterns, textures and mixed dialectics of expressionist jazz were absorbed, assimilated and reflected back by the subterranean voices of the Beat Generation. (Here one thinks of Allen Ginsberg reciting ‘Howl’ for the first time, his reading punctuated by Kerouac’s exhilarated exhortations: “Go! Go! Go!”.) Soundtracked by bursts of bebop, free jazz, and Kerouac’s mellifluous vocals reciting his freeform prose-poem ‘October in the Railroad Earth’, Michael’s loosely-structured and linguistically-rich keynote presentation lent its own freeform aesthetic to his extended appreciation of an exemplary instance of revolutionary art in the making. An altogether apt coda to a highly engaging, thought provoking day.