The Department of Political Economy and The Novel Network, both at the University of Sydney, co-hosted a roundtable focus on Space, Place and Capitalism: The Literary Geographies of The Unknown Industrial Prisoner by Brett Heino, which represents the first time that a literary economy approach has been applied to the work of David Ireland, who is perhaps the pre-eminent Australian novelist of space. Below are the commentaries delivered in turn by Sarah Comyn and John Frow. The rejoinder by Brett Heino will be published on this blog subsequently.
I would like to begin by thanking Adam Morton, Brett Heino, the Department of Political Economy and the Novel Network at the University of Sydney for inviting me to be a part of this roundtable and to join in the launching and celebration of Heino’s new book: Space, Place and Capitalism: The Literary Geographies of the Unknown Industrial Prisoner. Heino’s book makes a significant contribution to the emergent field of literary geography through its discussion of the intersections of space and place in contemporary forms of capitalism. The book does this by developing an innovative methodology that combines theories of radical geography (especially the theory of abstract space advanced by Henri Lefebvre) and literary geography (drawing on the Marxist literary tradition, in particular the work of Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, and Pierre Macherey) to examine David Ireland’s Miles Franklin Award-winning novel, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971), and the post-WWII Australian economy: or what Heino theorises as ‘antipodean Fordism’. And within this fusion of geographic theories, the book also draws on legal studies and theories, environmental history, and the history of industrial planning. No small undertaking. This combination of radical and literary geographies allows Heino to ‘fundamentally interrogate spatiality in a class-cognisant way’. I will, inevitably, quote frequently from the book as I progress, because amongst the many attributes of the book (including its methodical and incisive account of radical geography) is the quality and clarity of Heino’s writing.
As the event description, and the book itself, point out: this is a timely moment to return to Ireland’s novel: not only is it the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Ireland’s novel, but its prescience in examining the spatiality of class and gender, the environmental implications of extractivism, and the foreign domination of Australian capital seem to be inescapable themes of contemporary Australia. But while Heino’s book focuses on a single novel and a single nation at a particular point in economic time, the implications and applicability of the methodology developed are in no way limited to Ireland’s novels or the Australian case study. It has been a strange experience reading Space, Place and Capitalism from Ireland (the country, mind you, not the novelist) as while I have been reading it, I’ve had this uncomfortable ‘too close to home’ feeling that the theory of spatial take-over by capital that Heino theorises is unfolding before our very eyes in Dublin in the most dramatic fashion. Just this weekend there was a protest in Dublin about the loss of significant cultural and literary sites to the ongoing encroachment by and engorgement of corporate hotels, all indistinguishable by their banality. In one of the many tragic ironies of Dublin: the sites invested with value by its chief literary celebrity and tourist attraction, James Joyce, are being erased by hostile international hotels. Talk about abstract space confronting the place of literary geography. Heino’s application of Lefebvre’s spatial triad captures this process:
Functioning ‘objectly’, abstract space ‘erases distinctions’ and histories as it colonises other spaces and subordinates them to its logic, a process that is always alienating and sometimes violent. Abstract space is in this sense the unfolding of the political economy of capital…towards fragmentation, homogenisation and hierarchisation of an economic and political space within which surplus value can be produced and appropriated.
But Space, Place and Capitalism is also clear to give us a sense of hope: ‘no matter how omnipotent abstract space appears to be, it can never totally extinguish the possibilities of resistance through place’.
Heino’s book, then, is not only contributing to the fields of radical geography, literary geography, and political economy but has much to offer urban studies. Equally the book has the potential to make a profound contribution to the field of economic humanities. The book’s study of the intersection of literature and political economy through the framework of space and place provides important insights into the landscapes of capitalism shared by literary and economic discourses, the different scales at which they intersect, and what Heino argues is the ‘distinct value of the literary analysis of space’: ‘Literature can serve as a spatial anchor, helping to structure our view of the world’. Literature has the power to encourage us to ‘think our spaces in particularly poignant ways’, and in turning to the power of The Unknown Industrial Prisoner’s spatial imaginary, Heino writes of the fractured, episodic style and form of the novel as:
creating a kaleidoscopic vision of the lives of these workers, with Ireland painting a simultaneously tragic and darkly comedic vision of post-WWII Australian capitalism, presenting in sharp relief its most reprehensible features; its waste, its environmental damage, its mediocrity, its subjection at the feet of foreign interests, and above all its physical and psychic destruction of the workers fed through it.
As Heino’s list captures here, the novel’s episodes act as their own form of claustrophobic containment. As a reader you, too, occasionally feel as if you are suffocating within the penal colony of the oil factory. The novel form, then, has the ability to help us think and critique the homogenised yet fragmentary spaces created by antipodean Fordism.
The themes of waste and environmental damage explored by Space, Place and Capitalism are also indicative of what the methodology developed in this book has to offer the environmental humanities. The prescience and poignancy of Heino’s discussion of the Puroil explosion in Ireland’s novel was especially felt while reading the book given Amplify Energy’s spill of thousands of gallons of oil in the Pacific Ocean, recently. Deftly applying Lefebvre’s theory of abstract space in combination with Neil Smith’s theory of first and second nature, Heino writes that ‘the social relations of Australian capitalism, in particular the degree to which the Australian state is beholden to foreign capital, is [in the novel] inscribed spatially, reflected in the destruction of mangrove swamps before their parcelisation into units of land on which the Puroil plant shall be erected… the investment of sensuous first nature with the logic and rhythms of an abstract second nature equates to environmental destruction and the profound precarity facing life trying to reconstitute itself in a world of abstraction’. In Heino’s analysis of the extractivist logic of Ireland’s novel in relation to oil and antipodean Fordism, I’m reminded of Patricia Yaegar’s challenge to literary scholars to rethink literary periodicity by considering the energy sources that made the texts. The model of literary geography advanced by this book, I think, provides an important approach to ‘knowing the real constitution and elements of the text’ in these materialist terms.
I was particularly struck by a footnote in which Heino relates his personal experience of growing up in Wollongong and of the impact of industrial pollution on communities (especially working-class communities) and their environments:
These impacts range from fires and explosions, pollution and harmful effects on the health of the community, including cancer clusters in working-class suburbs adjacent to industry. Perhaps the most enduring image in my mind of the domination of these suburbs by industry comes from the Saint Patrick’s Catholic School, located only a few blocks away from the Port Kembla copper smelter. A board displaying a red and green light stood in the playground. When the red light showed, it indicated that sulphur dioxide was in the air and the children must remain inside.
I think this footnote beautifully encapsulates the power of what is at the heart of Heino’s book: a class consciousness that argues for a radical and ‘genuinely materialist literary geography’ through which we can, not only examine, but also resist the colonising impulses of capitalism’s abstract space. Heino’s attunement to the spatial and materialist value of Ireland’s novel, emphasises more broadly the significance of literary studies and the humanities in providing us new ways of thinking and unthinking capitalism, disciplines, that at least in the UK are under profound threat. To say this is a timely publication is an understatement.
I will finish with some questions for Brett which will hopefully allow him to speak more articulately than I can about the methodology of his book:
- There has been an interdisciplinary move towards literature in scholarship from a number of different fields in recent years which is very exciting for literary scholars. I’m thinking not only of literary geography (as is the case with your book), but also the economic humanities more generally. This certainly makes for a far richer, dynamic scholarship, but how do we ensure that this doesn’t simply result in instrumentalist readings of literature? I’m thinking in particular, here, of the tendency of certain economists in recent years to treat literature as a sort of condiment to give their work a humanities flavour. And the novel especially seems to lend itself to these interdisciplinary engagements with an intense focus on plot. Do we risk losing the specificity of what it is that literature ‘does’ if we focus on what Robert Tally describes as literature taking ‘the data of life and organi[sing] it according to this or that plan’? What happens to considerations of genre, form, narrative, or poetics, for example?
- Related to this, how do we construct models of literary geography that don’t simply reproduce the cannibalistic and colonial logic of capitalism’s abstract space, producing so many abstract models of Western, metropolitan literature as modular? The Victorianist, Lauren Goodlad, for example, revises Fredric Jameson’s concept of the ‘geopolitical aesthetic’ in order to recognise literature ‘not only as structure or process, but also as form’ but she also rejects the ‘Jamesonian tic of viewing the classical metropole as an autochthonous structure’ that can be modularised elsewhere.
- Your book demonstrates how the carceral geography of Australia is foundational to the state’s economic formation, and the ‘juridic forms of capital’ exemplified by the legal myth of terra nullius, but you are also clear to note The Unknown Industrial Prisoner’s relative silence about the expropriation of Indigenous land. I’m thinking here in particular of the Home Beautiful episodes. But also while the novel frames Puroil as a penal colony, there’s also this additional neglect of the racial forms of indentured labour that was essential to the development of Australian capital. How might we incorporate theories of racial capitalism into the methodologies of literary geography you outline?
- Your book captures the misogynism inherent to the failed project of the Home Beautiful in ways that speak directly to the current state of Australian politics and economics more generally. Can you finish by discussing how the innovative methodology you develop can help us better understand the gendered spaces of capitalism, especially considering how the global Covid pandemic has reinforced this spacialisation of capital?
My thanks to Adam Morton and Brett Heino for the incentive to reread The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (TUIP); my copy is dated 1972, the year after it was published, when I was a graduate student at Cornell, and I bought it at the International Bookstore in Melbourne. The novel represents a world with which I was all too familiar at that time, because I worked for a couple of months in the late 1960s at the Shell refinery in Clyde. My job was to time the entry and departure of tankers: it was of course a Taylorist study, undertaken to rationalise the flow of vehicles – rather different, then, from the work undertaken by the denizens of TUIP, but the people I associated with then are fully recognisable in the novel. The structure and functions of the Shell refinery closely approximate those of the Puroil refinery, which is a thinly disguised version of the Caltex refinery at Kurnell. That whole industrial sector has now more or less been abandoned, as refining has been moved offshore, primarily to Singapore; the world of the novel is the lost world of the industrial manufacture that was then a considerable part of the Australian economy (along with agriculture), and of the predominantly male working-class workforce it sustained.
The thematic structure focused on the refinery is embedded in a particular generic tradition, and later in this talk I want to raise questions of the genre within which TUIP works and of its relation to other texts that were critical of antipodean capitalism. First, however, I want to concentrate on a more immediate question of methodology. What I have in mind is Brett’s use of methods of analysis developed in the wake and under the influence of Althusser: Pierre Macherey and Terry Eagleton, in particular. Brett includes Fredric Jameson amongst the structural Marxists, but although Jameson makes gestures towards that tradition, his brand of Hegelian Marxism was always inherently hostile to Althusser.
The literary theory associated with structuralist Marxism represents an enormously fruitful break with the previously dominant Marxist model of reflection theory, the notion that literary texts do, or should, faithfully reflect a pre-existent reality and can be measured against that reality, which exists ambivalently both as a prior and external substance and as a “content” embedded within the text, the representative of reality within the text, the signifier of the absent presence of reality. The Althusserian alternative, to put it very briefly, argues that literary texts are representations not of an extra-textual real but of other representations.
The productive activity of the text is thus understood as a labour of transformation carried out on a raw material of ideological values, including the aesthetic ideology which governs the limits of textual productivity. Literature is conceptualised both as an institution which is within ideology and as a practice that distances itself from ideology by working it and changing its function. In Macherey’s words, “the text constructs a determinate image of the ideological, revealing it as an object rather than living it from within as though it were an inner conscience; the text explores ideology” – ideology in its Althusserian sense, which understands it not as a false consciousness but rather as an “imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.”
What Brett does, very fruitfully, is explore the spatial dimensions of the ideology worked out in the novel – that is, he explores a spatial imaginary, grounded in class struggle, consisting on the one hand of the creation of abstract, homogeneous, fungible space by the institutions of capitalism, of which the Puroil refinery is the text’s key example, and on the other of the place-making activities of the workers who seek to domesticate that abstract space; the two key figures of that alternative place-making are the rural or outer-suburban home, of which the home in the country that Blue Hills remembers is the key example, or, more centrally, the collection of huts – the so-called Home Beautiful – that the workers, under the guidance of The Great White Father, have built in the mangrove swamps across the bay from the refinery. Each of these figures of an alternative kind of space is ideological in the sense that it both promises and ultimately fails to challenge the power of the world of the refinery; and of course the abstract space that flows from the refinery is ideological in the sense that it is shot through with power.
The key methodological question here is that of the kind of knowledge that is specific to literary texts; the book cites Angharad Saunders’ proposition that literature “knows something,“ but that proposition raises difficult questions; it’s necessary to work out what kind of knowledge this is.
This is a key issue for Althusserian theory; what Althusser calls “real,” “authentic” art is not to be classed as ideological; it “does not quite give us a knowledge in the strict sense” – that is, “in the modern sense: scientific knowledge” – but it does let us “see,” “perceive,” or “feel” the ideology to which it “alludes,” through an “internal distantiation.” This is the model of a specifically aesthetic mode of knowing that Brett explores.
Yet that model has its own problems. As Eagleton frames it, the text is able to “invert itself back into an analogue of knowledge”, to “yield us a sort of historical knowledge” which, however, “is not, to be sure, knowledge in the strict scientific sense”. This “sort of historical knowledge” is located in the space of a concession which nevertheless does nothing to modify the general distribution of discourse between the true and the false. That distribution is deeply rooted in Althusser’s epistemology and in his relation to the French Communist Party.
Despite his recognition that knowledge is produced within a determinate network of economic, political, and ideological relations, Althusser consistently withdraws knowledge (or rather the form of knowledge that he calls “science”) from its social determinations. His commitment to the status of scientific Marxism as a privileged mode of access to the real generates an insoluble problem for both Macherey and Eagleton: that of defining a mode of literary cognition which has its own validity and yet which falls short of knowledge “in the strict scientific sense.”
That unresolved problem at the heart of structural Marxism seems to me to resonate in this book, perhaps because Brett doesn’t challenge the shortcomings of Althusser’s epistemology. At one point he cites Fredric Jameson to the effect that the Real is only ever accessible through its discursive representations; the corollary of this argument is that different discursive regimes produce different kinds of truth-effect but that none has a privileged or unmediated access to the Real. Despite this, the book displays a continued privileging of one discursive regime, speaking of an “objective historical situation”, of “real history,” or contrasting novelistic discourse with the “more scientific treatments of material spaces,” such as that of historiography.
This privileging of a discourse of objectivity is mirrored in the novel itself, when it explicitly deploys the language of political economy; this, for example:
At the Refining Termitary and Grinding Works man was alienated from his true essence; he became functional in the service of a handful of far-off anonymous shareholders. His labour, his opinions, his family were for eight or more hours a day, depending on his local status, owned as a means of wealth by someone not himself.
It goes without saying that we can read this novel as a critique of industrial capitalism, since it has already internalised the language of political analysis. But this descriptive “realism” is detached from the play of characters and plot; it’s as though the novel can’t trust its own discursive mechanisms and is forced to resort to some more authoritative metadiscourse to make its point – and in that sense shows itself not to “know” what its fictional world is putting into knowledge. The corollary of this is that textual criticism becomes a tautologous repetition of concepts that the text has already elaborated.
A related problem is that of the notion of a symptomatic reading that Brett takes from Macherey: the notion that literary texts can reveal the contours of an ideology as much by what they don’t say as by what they do: by their silences and lacunae. The key examples here are the novel’s silences about the Indigenous history of colonisation, and the place of women in the fantasy world of the Home Beautiful – a world where “the women are easy and always say yes.” Texts are silent about a multitude of things, of course; what matters is that silences be in some way significant. It’s certainly the case that these two silences – about the displacement of Indigenous people and the place of women in a patriarchal working-class culture – matter deeply to the way the novel works. But these are part of the novel’s unknowing, its political unconscious; it’s we who ascribe significance to these silences, we who know what the novel cannot or will not know; and the role of the reader in bringing knowledge to the text sits uneasily within a mode of analysis that seeks to understand what it is and how it is that literary texts themselves know.
My preferred way of answering these issues of literary cognition is to start with questions of genre; so this is my second methodological question: the question of the genres that this novel puts into play, or which we impute to it. Let me notice first the novel’s very distinctive mode of characterisation: in particular, its use of elaborate nicknames (Blue Hills, the Great White Father, Samurai, the Good Shepherd, the Glass Canoe) in place of proper names, bringing about a play of semi-allegorical personages, like the Vices and Virtues of the medieval stage.
The closest analogy to this that I can think of is in the work of Frank Hardy, and especially a novel published in the same year as TUIP, The Outcasts of Foolgarah. The Outcasts makes a similar use of nicknames – Chilla and Little Tich and the Red Dean, on the one hand; Sir William Bigears and Lord Mayor Bumperbar on the other. There’s the high farce of the clash between the silvertails and the garbos, the affluent society and the effluent society (setting up a similarly reductive class structure); and there’s a similar spatial antinomy, contrasting the commanding heights of the city to the urban lower depths. That binary structure operates in the same way in TUIP: above all in the contrast between the repressive space of the refinery and the liberated space of the Home Beautiful in the mangrove swamps.
This is the classic contrast of the romance genre: an opposition of the urban world to the green forest, the wild wood, to which the hero retreats and where the plot complications are resolved (think of the Forest of Arden in As You Like It, or the Athenian woods in A Midsummer Night’s Dream); here it’s treated in the comic mode of the Menippean satire, with its anarchic politics of rebellion and disruption. In this wild wood the presiding spirit, The Great White Father, is a carnival king, a lord of misrule, restoring what he calls the “natural state of man”; he is, he says, a leader “of revels, not rebels,” “the local emperor of rollicks, bollocks and beer,” and the disrupter of a space of power that is conceived in totalising terms: the refinery as penal colony, the workers as convicts.
The political limitations of this vision are clear, and Brett brings them out with considerable clarity. That vision of a world of total control from which one can only escape into an alternative space is in part a consequence of the novel’s reductive account of social class. TUIP sets up a highly schematic world consisting of two economically defined classes – the workers, and the absentee investors, the representatives of foreign capital; those two fundamental classes are mediated by a foreman class and a managerial class.
Brett’s discussion of class broaches some of the complexities that are missing from the novel; “efforts of place-making mobilise a constellation of social forces outside what might be considered the orthodox Marxist definition of class as an economic category” – that is, the binary model of classes representing labour and capital. It’s surely a long time since this was an orthodoxy, however; it overlooks more recent Marxist theorisations of class by, for example, Nicos Poulantzas, Claus Offe, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Adam Przeworski, Erik Olin Wright, Mike Savage, and many others. Citing Lefebvre’s addition to the binary class model of “the political action of minorities” merely has the effect of keeping intact the model of the fundamental classes; adding struggles in the realm of reproduction doesn’t disturb it, since for Marxist orthodoxy the reproduction of labour power doesn’t in itself produce value and thus doesn’t ground a class position. Adding the categories of gender, ethnicity and sexuality to the two “fundamental classes,” that is to say, doesn’t integrate those categories into a genuinely complex class model – a model that’s missing from the novel and that’s not adequately challenged in the analysis. A more useful model, one that gets away from the totalising conception of social power that’s implicit in this novel, might be that of Gramscian hegemony, which understands class struggle as operating at all levels of the social (the economic, the political, the ideological), with shifting relations between them such that the power of the dominant class is never monolithic.
Finally, and briefly, let me address the book’s claim that literary geography – the analysis of a literary text’s projection of spatial categories – represents a valuable way of getting at the ideologies they embody. I can only agree: it is indeed valuable; but, precisely because spatial categories do embody ideological values, their analysis has been central to a range of methodologies of textual analysis. I’m thinking for example of Bakhtin’s theorisation of the chronotope, or of new historicist accounts of the spatial structures underpinning early modern colonialism, or of ecocritical accounts of the divide between country and city. To adduce these counter-examples is not to be critical of the project of this book, however: it’s a genuinely helpful shift of emphasis to foreground the ideological weight of spatial categories; and it works particularly well for this long-neglected Australian novel.