History and Refusal: Consumer Culture and Postmodern Theory in the Contemporary American Novel

History and Refusal: Consumer Culture and Postmodern Theory in the Contemporary American Novel

History and Refusal: Consumer Culture and Postmodern Theory in the Contemporary American Novel

History and Refusal: Consumer Culture and Postmodern Theory in the Contemporary American Novel


This book examines the ways six remarkably disparate novels formulate critiques of a late-capitalist consumer culture proclaimed in recent years to be all but unassailable. Beginning with a consideration of John Gardner’s October Light and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho—two novels demonstrating the poverty of traditional (or essentialist) right- and left-wing attacks on mass culture—the volume later turns its attention to the more postmodernist and poststructuralist critiques of Thomas Pynchon (Vineland), Mark Leyner (Et Tu, Babe), Bobbie Ann Mason (In Country) and Don DeLillo (White Noise), connecting these novelists’ ideas to those of such cultural theorists as Fredric Jameson, Jean Baudrillard, Gayatri Spivak, and Jean-François Lyotard, among others. With their assertions that neither capital (which becomes analogous to language itself) nor the simulation-laden culture it spawns must be razed or escaped before we can build a more humane society, these novelists and thinkers illuminate the “post-Marxist” habits of mind our culture’s most serious dissenters will have to employ from now on.

Offering close and insightful readings of the aforementioned novels and providing a refreshingly lucid introduction to significant critical and philosophical trends of recent decades, History and Refusal will be useful to both instructors and students of contemporary literature and theory. It will also be of interest to thinkers in any field concerned with how best to advance progressive political interests in a United States—and, indeed, a world—as thoroughly corporatized a the present one. Like the novelists and postmodern theorists it examines, this book draws out attention to the progressive possibilities inherent in the market and the susceptibility of “dominant” discourses and media to appropriation by those with non-corporate agendas. In doing so, it works to alleviate the “politics of resignation and despair” Douglas Kellner has named, illustrating that corporatism and progressivism do not have to be mutually exclusive terms; that media-shaped subjectivity does not have to be passive subjectivity; and that capital is a language that can be used to speak any will, forward any cause. It is a book well-suited to a cultural moment when more and more citizens want alternatives to the over-reductive, left-versus-right paradigm that has dominated our critical and cultural imaginations too long.


In 1906, socialist fiction writer upton sinclair was able to conclude The Jungle, his exposé of the hell of working-class life in turn-of-the-century Chicago, with this remarkably optimistic forecast, delivered by an orator at a socialist workers’ meeting who “seem[s] the very spirit of the revolution”:

We shall have the sham reformers self-stultified and self
convicted; we shall have the radical Democracy left without a lie
with which to cover its nakedness! and then will begin the rush
that will never be checked, the tide that will never turn till it has
reached its flood—that will be irresistible, overwhelming—the
rallying of the outraged workingmen of Chicago to our standard!
And we shall organize them, we shall drill them, we shall marshal
them for the victory! We shall bear down the opposition, we shall
sweep it before us—and Chicago will be ours! Chicago will be
ours! chicago will be OURS!

Sixty-five years later, E. L. Doctorow, another leftist American novelist, would cast a considerably warier eye at the prospect of an effective radical politics in America. in The Book of Daniel (1971), Daniel Isaacson, son of a fictional version of the Rosenbergs, reflects on the volumes produced about his parents after their executions, telling us “all possible opinions are expressed [in them], from Sidney P. Margolis famous Hearst philosopher (SPIES on TRIAL) to Max Krieger liberal bleeder (THE isaacson TRAGEDY).” Daniel goes on to quote both of these:

For all the hysteria drummed up by the commies, their fellow
travelers, and their dupes, the Isaacsons received a fair trial….
Who but the very ideologues committed to overthrowing our
democratic way of life can dare claim in view of the defendants’

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