In a previous post on Progress in Political Economy, I discussed how David Ireland’s Miles Franklin prize-winning novel The Unknown Industrial Prisoner is particularly relevant for an analysis at the crossroads of political economy, radical geography and literary theory. In that same piece I noted that the latter two areas are well outside my traditional academic wheelhouse. Given that I am currently engaged in writing a book about The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, I have had to plot these fields as best I can, identifying the key theoretical currents, lacunae and opportunities for synthesis. The purpose of this piece is two-fold. First, as the most foundational step, I wish to pose the key questions with which work integrating these three traditions must tussle. Second, I sketch some very provisional pathways by which these questions might be answered. These jottings are by their nature tentative and will undoubtedly be subject to further development and revision. They represent a desire to create an anchor, even a temporary one, from which further investigation might sally forth.
A very broad survey of the fields of political economy, radical geography and literary theory reveals that the former two traditions have a history of vibrant linkages. Scholars such as Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, Neil Smith, Andrew Merrifield and Andrew Herod have produced work that asserts the significance of the social relations of capitalism in terms of understanding how the spaces of capitalism are produced and reproduced. With the so-called “spatial turn” in cultural studies, it could even be maintained that the disciplinary boundaries between political economy and geography no longer refer to an objective distinction. Capitalism is key to understanding space, whilst at the same time analyses of capitalism shorn of space miss out on one of its constitutive moments.
There is also a history of interfaces between political economy and literary theory. I argue that the most productive of these stems from the approach to literary analysis informed by structural Marxism, which broadly frames the work of scholars like Pierre Macherey, Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson. Such work proceeds on the supposition that ideology (conceived in its Althusserian sense) is the raw material upon which literature works. Through literary forms (which are themselves ideological), the ideologies of a particular social formation are put to work in texts that attempt to aesthetically resolve the concrete contradictions of that formation. In what is always a fraught process of representation, texts can demonstrate the limits, gaps and silences of ideologies. It is this capacity of literature to work with ideology and, through it, to posit the Real as its own intrinsic subtext (Jameson 2002), that constitutes its relationship to real history, rather than its sheer documentary capacity (as important as this might be for the ideological effect of certain genres).
What has become clear after a survey of these fields, however, is that they are inadequately related to literary geography, an exciting new discipline premised on the idea that ‘[g]eography pervades the content, practice and meaning of creative writing; it is simultaneously intrinsic to, while weaving its way into, the very interstices of the written word’ (Saunders 2009: 436). Literature thus ‘knows things’ (Saunders 2009: 439) about the geography of the society into which it is born. Readers of Progress in Political Economy will no doubt be acquainted with this field, given that the blog has proven a home to scholars who seek to explicitly incorporate political-economic concepts into literary-geographic research (see Literary Geographies of Political Economy).
As a first step in my attempt to synthesise political economy, radical geography and literary geography into an organic theoretical framework, I wish to pose what I consider to be the two fundamental questions:
- What is the nature of the geographic knowledge embedded in literature? What does studying literature add over and above what can be gleaned from explicitly non-fictional historical and geographical texts?
- How does literature inform the constitution and reproduction of social space?
The first question cuts to the heart of the challenge facing those attempting to articulate these three fields. With some notable exceptions, I would argue that the majority of work sidesteps the issue, proceeding on the a priori assumption that literature does contain geographic knowledge without spelling out what type of knowledge this is and how it is qualitatively distinct from other, more “scientific” spatial knowledges. This is a major shortcoming, as it can implicitly render literary analysis as of a second-tier importance. It is not difficult to envisage a critic arguing that literary geography should only be employed to fill the gaps in more scientific treatments of material spaces. Unless we can demonstrate that the study of space in literature adds something qualitatively distinct, literary geography will always struggle to transcend the status of a niche area of research.
There is already at least one ready-made answer from literary geographers – that literature helps readers “orient” themselves in the material world. Tally (2013: 2) notes that:
In a manner of speaking, literature also functions as a form of mapping, offering its readers descriptions of places, situating them in a kind of imaginary space, and providing points of reference by which they can orient themselves and understand the world in which they live. Or maybe literature helps readers get a sense of the worlds in which others have lived, currently live, or will live in times to come. From a writer’s perspective, maybe literature provides a way of mapping the spaces encountered or imagined in the author’s experience.
This is undoubtedly true, but also somewhat banal. I would argue that there is a deeper sense in which literature embeds spatial knowledge. To mine this knowledge, we must return to the literary analysis that could broadly be described as inspired by Althusserianism. Central to this approach is the contention that the “raw material” of literature is ideology. Althusser described how capitalist social formations are composed of different levels, or instances, namely the economic, the political, and the ideological. Each level has its own effectivity and creates a complex, overdetermined social whole. As Eagleton has noted, literature is affected by all the social instances (seen most particularly in his notion of a “literary mode of production” governing the production, distribution and sale of literature), but the essence of the individual work of literature is as a form-determined expression of ideology. As Jameson observes, history, or the “Real,” is in its essence unrepresentable and non-narrative, yet can only be grasped by textual means. When putting pen to paper, therefore, the author does not open a channel through which the Real flows and embeds itself, unmediated, in the text. Rather, the form of appearance the Real presents itself to creators of literature is the form of ideology, understood in the Althusserian sense as ‘a system (with its own logic and rigour) of representations (images, myths, ideas or concepts, depending on the case) endowed with a historical existence and role within a given society’ (Althusser 2005: 231). This ideology is worked into a textual product by specifically literary devices, such as narrative paradigms, genre, and convention. These constructs are themselves ideological, allowing Eagleton (2006: 85) to describe literature as an ‘ideological production to the second power.’
Through this mutual interaction between society’s general ideologies and the aesthetic modes of working them, the literary text opens incisive pathways to understand ideology. Eagleton (2006: 85) continues: ‘If the literary work can be seen as an ideological production to the second power, it is possible to see how that double-production may, as it were, partly cancel itself out, invert itself back into an analogue of knowledge. For in producing ideological representations, the text reveals in peculiarly intense, compacted and coherent form the categories from which those representations are produced.’ Through putting ideology to work, literature can, through a variety of means, reveal the limits and contradictions of these ideologies, uncovering what they conceal, ascertaining their functions and roles, and through that opening a link to the Real. Given its function and roots in all class societies, an understanding of ideology and the text in this way is, at the end, an understanding of the relationship between literature and class struggle. This conception is at the core of Jameson’s notion of the “political unconscious” of literary texts.
There is nothing in this short recount that is novel. Where a lacuna does exist, however, is in linking this understanding of the text with space. If this can be sketched, even schematically, it would strengthen a genuinely materialist literary geography. The essential precondition of this attempted linkage is to sharply distinguish between a materialist geography and a purely physical one. If space is conceived as a solely physical affair, then the only role of literature is to represent as accurately as possible this physical space, something which it is presumably less suited to doing compared to other, more scientific, treatments. If, however, space is conceived as a complex social ensemble of physical, mental and social aspects, then both the opportunities for, and value of, literary research are much enhanced.
It is on this score that the work of Henri Lefebvre, in particular his magisterial The Production of Space, becomes key. He famously sought to simultaneously differentiate and unify these levels of space through his conceptual triad of spatial practices, representations of space and representational spaces. Although the exact meaning attributed to these concepts is notoriously ambiguous, they represent the most fruitful entry-point for literary-geographic research in that they intrinsically require ideology to function (this despite the fact that Lefebvre was generally sceptical as to the meaning and uses ascribed to this term). For example, representations of space, most often conceptualised as space as it is conceived, revolve around the senses of space apprehended and deployed by agents such as planners, state bureaucrats, social engineers and cartographers. Here, ideologies of space directly inform the constitution of material spaces (in a way analogous to Marx’s observation of the superiority of the worst human architect over the bee on account of the former having a vision of what they want to achieve in their mind’s eye before undertaking the work). Similarly, representational spaces revolve around space as lived, and witness the tension between the designs of capital and the state with the actual spaces of resistance and counter-discourses that often taken shape. Again, ideology is central here in that it informs how these counter-spaces are used and how they articulate with the abstract space that capital seeks to impose. Most broadly, Lefebvre (1991: 349) notes that social space ‘is equivalent, practically speaking, to a set of institutional and ideological superstructures that are not presented for what they are (and in this capacity social space comes complete with symbolisms and systems of meaning – sometimes as overload of meaning)’ (emphasis added).
These entry points for ideology in the constitution and reproduction of space at the same time establish the value of studying literature to understand that space. To give just a few schematic examples:
- Literature can provide an ideological anatomy of counter-spaces and spaces of resistance. We might mention here “The Home Beautiful” in The Unknown Industrial Prisoner. What is the function of these spaces? What ideological world-view do they react against and/or speak to? What does it tell us about the nexus between social class and the political economy of space?
- Literature can offer a genealogy of technologies of movement and communication and the ideologies of space they beget. Here we might focus on the role of the Metro in Imagist poetry, the car in the work of Virginia Woolf, and even the (at the time) fantastical method of submarine travel in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. What do these texts reveal about the way people connected space with technology in their respective societies? How do their characters navigate their new worlds, and what social contradictions underlie this process?
- Literature can recreate and represent the explicit link between politics and space. Perhaps the most enduring example of this type is ancient Roman tragedy, which internalised the Greek division between “civilisation” and “barbarians” and allied it to an explicitly imperialist mission (Virgil’s Aeneid being perhaps the preeminent expression). How does the internal and external political situation both demand and presuppose certain conceptions of space? How does the literature of the colonised differ from the colonised in terms of their projections of space and conception of the spatial order?
- Lastly, literature can indeed serve as a proxy for material space itself. The raw material of literature is of course ideology, something which applies even to realist texts. However, that does not mean that a text’s pretensions to historical fidelity are unimportant. Indeed, realist texts demand a recognition that they do accurately represent a historical scene in order to realise their ideological effect. It would be nonsense to suggest, for example, that Joyce’s construction of Dublin in Ulysses has the same extent and value as an author who has no grounding or knowledge of the city. When we are dealing with material spaces and places that exist no longer, or at least exist only in a radically transformed state, then it seems reasonable to regard literature as one entry point by which we can attempt to recreate these physical spaces as objects of study.
To exploit these openings, the terms for a fruitful union between materialist literary analysis and radical geography must be made clear. Although one of the foundation texts of the literary geography sub-discipline was Raymond Williams’ magisterial The Country and the City, a work explicitly rooted in an historical materialist approach, it remains the case that Marxist literary analysis has generally taken a backseat to poststructural approaches (for some welcome exceptions, see Morton 2015; Morton 2018). The brand of structural Marxist literary analysis discussed here was never particularly spatially sensitive, focused more upon questions of history and time than space. At the same time, the openings provided for literary research embedded in the work of Lefebvre (an opening he explicitly acknowledged) seem to be inadequately explored (see, however, Thacker 2009).
The best way of correcting this historical lacuna is to reconceptualise the nexus point between these two approaches through refashioning Jameson’s idea of a text’s “political unconscious.” Through its handling of ideology, and ideology’s role in the constitution and reproduction of social space, we might say that the literary text has a “spatial unconscious” or, perhaps more specifically, that its political unconscious is inherently spatialized. This spatial unconscious allows us to see how the society in which a text is born perceives, conceives and lives space. Perhaps more importantly, through the fictional form, literature is freed from fidelity to a scientific truth and thus given the license to isolate the contradictions of space and push them to their limits (something Eagleton (2006: 177) grasped when he stated that ‘Real history is cancelled by the text, but in the precise modes of that cancellation lies the text’s most significant relation to history’). If we can successfully synthesize a materialist literary analysis with radical geography, we can comprehend the spatial unconscious of the text and how it coheres and/or departs from the broader spatial knowledges embedded in particular literary forms and narrative paradigms.
I have made a first attempt at such an approach in a recent article published in Political Geography. These jottings represent a further development of that piece. Undoubtedly, this schema will still be subject to further maturation, reversal and perhaps dead ends, but hopefully it does successfully act as the temporary anchor from which further investigation can proceed.