Utopian Generations: The Political Horizon of Twentieth-Century Literature

Utopian Generations: The Political Horizon of Twentieth-Century Literature

Utopian Generations: The Political Horizon of Twentieth-Century Literature

Utopian Generations: The Political Horizon of Twentieth-Century Literature


Utopian Generationsdevelops a powerful interpretive matrix for understanding world literature--one that renders modernism and postcolonial African literature comprehensible in a single framework, within which neither will ever look the same. African literature has commonly been seen as representationally naïve vis-a-vis modernism, and canonical modernism as reactionary vis-a-vis postcolonial literature. What brings these two bodies of work together, argues Nicholas Brown, is their disposition toward Utopia or "the horizon of a radical reconfiguration of social relations." Grounded in a profound rethinking of the Hegelian Marxist tradition, this fluently written book takes as its point of departure the partial displacement during the twentieth century of capitalism's "internal limit" (classically conceived as the conflict between labor and capital) onto ageographicdivision of labor and wealth. Dispensing with whole genres of commonplace contemporary pieties, Brown examines works from both sides of this division to create a dialectical mapping of different modes of Utopian aesthetic practice. The theory of world literature developed in the introduction grounds the subtle and powerful readings at the heart of the book--focusing on works by James Joyce, Cheikh Hamidou Kane, Ford Madox Ford, Chinua Achebe, Wyndham Lewis, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, and Pepetela. A final chapter, arguing that this literary dialectic has reached a point of exhaustion, suggests that a radically reconceived notion of musical practice may be required to discern the Utopian desire immanent in the products of contemporary culture.


Whoever hasn't yet arrived at the clear realization that there might
be a greatness existing entirely outside his own sphere and for which
he might have absolutely no feeling; whoever hasn't at least felt ob
scure intimations concerning the approximate location of this greatness
in the geography of the human spirit: that person either has no genius
in his own sphere, or else he hasn't been educated yet to the niveau
of the classic.

—Friedrich Schlegel, Critical Fragment 36

Modernism and African Literature

This book argues for establishing the interpretive horizon of twentieth-century literature at capitalism's internal limit. in the classical Marxian conception this limit is the rift between capital and labor, but this rift knows many displacements, the most important of which is the division of the globe between wealthy nations and a much larger and poorer economic periphery. the literary texts primarily considered here come from each side of this divide: British modernism between the world wars, and African literature during the period of the national independence struggles. the following pages will insist that neither of these two literatures—each produced in a period of extraordinary political possibility—can be understood on its own; rather, the full meaning of each only emerges in relation to the other and to the rift, both internal and external, which they each try in different ways to represent.

But what does British modernism have to do with African literature? Provisional answers are not hard to come by. First, the prestige accorded modernist literary texts by colonial-style education at mid-century cannot be overestimated. the relationship to modernism of the African literature that emerged with the great national independence movements (a relationship not only to modernism proper but also to the entire new-critical canon, itself an enlarged and domesticated modernism then in full hegemonic bloom) is deeply ambivalent. the critical edge of the great modernisms presents a model, while their institutional weight as the vanguard of European culture presents both an obstacle and a formidable spur to new and sometimes aggressively oppositional literary production. One need only think here of the well-known kinship between négritude and European . . .

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