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. This rejoinder engages with the commentaries delivered by Sarah Comyn and John Frow.
I really want to thank everyone for coming today and also to thank Sarah Comyn and John Frow for their very generous and incisive commentaries on Space, Place and Capitalism: The Literary Geographies of the Unknown Industrial Prisoner. They have both given me a lot of food for thought.
To begin, I think both John and Sarah have picked up in their comments the notion of literary form as distinct from the content of the text. John mentioned how he likes to start with the question of genre, and positions The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (hereafter TUIP) in the context of Menippean satire, the comedic, the carnival etc. Sarah also raised the question of how the new scholarship linking political economy and literature can avoid rendering instrumentalist treatments of the latter that neglects what it “does”, which I take also to be a call to remember matters of literary style, genre, aesthetics and not render them a junior partner in the analysis.
These points are well-made and before I start singing any praises of my work I need to make a mea culpa. This project started a couple of years ago when a colleague and I had vague plans to write a book about representations of industrialisation in Australian fiction. We started doing some reading and as part of that effort I read TUIP. Now, my academic wheelhouse is political economy and legal history – I’m not a geographer or a literary theorist, or at least I wasn’t when I started. But I read TUIP and knew I had to write this book, so one of those rare kind of love projects which we are sometimes privileged enough to undertake as scholars.
In preparation for this roundtable, I reread the book, and I’ve realised that there is no doubt I do privilege the content, in terms of themes, over literary structure. I certainly make structure an important part of my theoretical framework, and I do make gestures towards it at various points in the book. For example, I make comments about the necessity for historical authenticity to the genre of realism, I explore the significance of magical realist episodes in the book, I look at rhythm and poetic register in relation to certain vignettes. But I think with the little bit of distance I have gained since the book was actually written, I can see that literary form and genre still need to be integrated into the analysis in a more holistic way.
That notwithstanding, I do want to isolate Sarah’s comment, where she zeros in on Tally’s observation, to the effect that literature takes ‘the data of life and organising it according to this or that plan’?’, before she goes on to ask what happens to considerations of genre, form, narrative, and poetics. I think the brand of structural Marxist literary theory which I employ is capable of handling this question. It is Jameson who argues, for example, that ‘[g]enres are essentially literary institutions, or social contracts between a writer and a specific public, whose function is to specify the proper use of a particular cultural artifact.’ In specifying rules around the deployment of language, typical characters and expectations around structure and the temporal development of the plot, Jameson notes how genres can carry ‘ideological messages of their own, distinct from the ostensible or manifest content of the work …’. More broadly, Macherey reminds us that there is no literary text that walks alone – it is defined in part by its relationship to a whole host of other texts, such as texts of a similar genre, similar historical period, from an over-arching national tradition etc.
I think what structural Marxism does, however, is to historicise these kinds of literary forms by linking them to ideology, and indeed to the broader structures of a capitalist social formation. So, for example, in the days of the old lending libraries authors would deliberately stretch out their storylines to cover multiple volumes because that attracted greater remuneration. Obviously, that can crystallise as its own type of literary form, complete with its own type of ideological message. However, structural Marxism historicises those effects.
For lack of a better expression, I think the content and the form of literary analysis have to be genuinely dialectically related. In my book I have probably privileged the content. However, if we bend the stick too far in the other direction, and focus exclusively on matters of style, poetics, genre, then we are left with a kind of pure, ahistorical “art for art’s sake” type of aesthetics.
I think John’s comments about both the promise and pitfalls of structural Marxist literary analysis can be situated in this bundle of issues. John made an observation earlier in the week when I was talking to him that he liked how the book almost reintroduced structural Marxist analysis to a modern audience, as a lot of this work is by-and-large forgotten. Now, my mentality has never been to use or not use concepts on the basis that they aren’t in vogue. I think a much more salutary test is whether or not these concepts, whatever their provenance, help in the analysis at hand. Obviously for my own biased reasons I think structural Marxist concepts are fruitful in the way I use them in the book. However, I do think John’s question about Althusser and the nature of scientific knowledge is important to address.
For those who aren’t familiar with Althusser, a point for which he comes in for criticism is his use of the language of science to describe the Marxist theory of history. As a scientific theory, Marxism produces its own concepts, its own object of analysis, and its own forms of proof. Althusser basically positions Marx as the Galileo or Lavoisier of the study of human society. The criticism from people like E.P. Thompson was that this made Marxism essentially immune from actual historical research and was in fact the cogent theorisation of Stalinism.
Now, to be honest, I always found Althusser’s discussions of science, and his lengthy explorations of the difference between scientific knowledge and ideological knowledge, to be one of the least interesting parts of his work, mainly because I never really saw the link between this theory of science and his other ideas, for example the notion of social levels of a totality, overdetermination, relative autonomy, ideological state apparatuses, all things I find really useful. For me, these useful ideas don’t stand and fall with Althusser’s characterisation of Marxism as a science strictly conceived.
Now, I use the work of scholars like Eagleton, Macherey and Jameson as my main structural Marxist people, even though, as John has noted, Jameson is really there by dint of his intensive use of Althusser’s notion of ideology rather than as a card-carrying member of the structural Marxist project. Of that trio, Eagleton is probably the one who most appeals to the language of science, at least in the works I cite, but even then I don’t think it is in the sense of him saying “this is the scientific truth, everything else is by definition wrong”. I just don’t think any of these scholars’ analyses fall down if you deprive it the status of a science like chemistry or physics.
Of course, this debate depends in large part upon how you define science, which is one of those questions that sounds like it should be really easy because it is so commonsensical, but is actually extremely difficult if you try and answer it. I think the slipperiness of the term is what allows John to say that there isn’t really any privileged access to the Real, just discourses that mobilise different relationships to it.
This is where I have to demur somewhat and if this involves me staking a special claim for Marxism then so be it. John mentions that I cite Jameson when he notes that the Real is non-narrative and nonrepresentational and he notes as a corollary that ‘different discursive regimes produce different kinds of truth-effect but…none has a privileged or unmediated access to the Real.’ I think what is important to note in this context is that Jameson goes on to describe the Real as ‘an absent cause, detectable only in its effects.’ I think this mention of effects might be the key term that allows us to negotiate a middle way between “I’m doing science and everyone else is wrong”, on one hand, and “all discourses have essentially equal claims on the Real”, on the other. I’m reminded here of critical realism, which I talked about quite a bit in my research on law. Key to critical realism is the notion of retroduction – it’s the knowledge that, in studying societies, you can’t isolate the variables and model it in a lab. Instead, you have to come up with explanatory concepts that can account for the phenomenon in front of you. I’m ripping off Wikipedia here, but what this means is that ‘retroductive conclusions are thus qualified as having a remnant of uncertainty or doubt, which is expressed in retreat terms such as “best available” or “most likely”.’ Now, in that conversation with John I referenced earlier, we somehow got to talking about climate change models and how they are probabilistic in some way. I suppose I would argue for Marxism as a science in this specific sense – according to my analysis of society, Marxist concepts do the best job of explaining the world as it is. Do I think that it is the only route to that? Certainly not. But I would be more than prepared to assert the superiority of my method compared to someone who attempted to explain the social structure through original sin and the fall of man. So, I am claiming a special privilege for Marxism, and that is, for good or evil, an animating essence of my work.
Anyway, now that we have the Marxist arcana out the way, I want to move on to a number of observations Sarah and John make around the constitution of social groups and identities, both as they are presented within TUIP and my treatment of them. John notes that the novel ‘sets up a highly schematic world consisting of two economically defined classes – the workers, and the absentee investors, the representatives of foreign capital…mediated by a foreman class and a managerial class.’ He then goes on to suggest that when Henri Lefebvre, who I rely upon a lot in the book, talks about the action of political minorities being part of an expanded sense of class struggle, he is being reductive and maintaining an essentially two-factor model of class struggle. John instead prefers Antonio Gramsci and his notions of hegemony and class fractions.
I’ve got a couple of thoughts in relation to this. First, I agree about the utility of Gramsci, who also influenced Althusser, despite the fact that the latter didn’t give him his full credit. John, with Gramsci, insists that class struggle occurs at all levels of the social structure, and I wholeheartedly agree. I think that is really part of the essence of the structural Marxist project – Althusser and his followers always maintained that a social formation was composed of different instances, or levels, including the economic, the political and the ideological. Class struggle was waged across all these spheres, without really being reducible to any one of them. Althusser certainly never subscribed to the idea that class was a purely economic phenomenon – in fact, he decried that as economistic and showed the deficiencies of that economism in his analysis of Stalinism. I don’t think I fall into the trap of economism in my book, Space, Place and Capitalism – Chapter 5 is all about political struggles and the centrality of the state, and the political and cultural aspirations of the working-class are central to Chapter 6.
Now, to John’s point about the two-factor model of class struggle – I think it is a fair characterisation of TUIP, even if Ireland generally depicts the workers as incapable of mobilising as a class. I think we can all accept that this model is simplistic, but to the extent that it was true, I think it is true of the world that Ireland depicts. The interesting thing is that that view in itself might be an effect of ideology – Ireland is perhaps buying into orthodox Marxist theory positing that the class structure is that simple. If that is the case, then it tells a story in and of itself. However, and this is where I have to pin my colours to the mast, I would argue that class, however broadly we want to construe it, is a primary pivot upon which the social structure turns. As Holly Lewis argues, exploitation by capitalists is a mathematical fact, and is an invariant feature of a capitalist society. That is of course not to say that things like gender and ethnicity aren’t, but informs how I tend to read them in relation to class, particularly as moments of the reproduction of capital.
This is a good point at which to pivot to some of Sarah’s questions specifically about race and gender, which I talk about in Chapters 4, 6 and 7 of Space, Place and Capitalism. In relation to race, Sarah picks up how I make the silences of TUIP on the Indigenous status of the land of Puroil speak, and here I accept John’s point that the identification of the silences of a text is a task only the reader can do. Sarah also asks more broadly about how the notion of racial capitalism and literary geography can speak to each other. I think that, as a broad point, we should note that in settler-colonial societies space and race are inextricably intertwined. The capacity of the colonial state to capitalistically organise space, to create a regime of abstract space, is premised upon its dispossession of Indigenous peoples. So I think that is a useful, and uncontroversial, departure point.
Specifically regarding the literary impress of this, my argument is that it is ideology which gives us the key term to link the two. So, the clash between Indigenous peoples and colonial powers is in many respects a clash of ideologies of space, of how to use and occupy space, and for what purpose. In the terms I use in this book and which I think Neil Smith also employs in his famous text Uneven Development, Indigenous conceptions of space are welded to its specificity and particularity – I think the concept of “country”, for example, doesn’t really have any Western analogue. This is a fundamentally different world view to that of abstract space, which sees space as more or less fungible and capable of homogenisation.
My argument would be that we could trace the literary clash of these ideologies and garner spatial knowledge. For example, I think a book which would be ripe for a spatial analysis from this perspective is Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia. As those familiar with the book would know, one of the central characters, Norman, is part white and part Aboriginal, and the contradictions in his identity are kind of mirrored in terms of how he moves through space, exhibiting a certain attitude when he is in town versus when he moves with his indigenous relatives on country.
I think this type of analysis will also address somewhat Sarah’s concern that the kind of spatial analysis I engage in risks always reifying the power of abstract space and reproducing its spatial referent in the imperial metropole. I think part of the reality of abstract space is that it does have this colonial, corrosive logic – as I mention in my book, it does seek to subjugate other spaces and remake them in its own image. Ireland is essentially at the hard edge of this process, so it is completely understandable to fear that an analysis operationalised by reference to this particular book will just everywhere see the same story of inevitable capitalist victory replayed. However, I think by keeping an ear open to those other conceptions of space, and realising they too have capacities just as abstract space has weaknesses, then that danger can be averted. I think I make motions at that already in the title of Chapter 4, which I kind of playfully titled “Abstract space (with antipodean characteristics?)”. So, even in the midst of what appears to be this force of great homogenisation and abstraction, the particular context ensures that the Australian experience of abstract space is not going to be the same as that of other societies, in part due to the fact that it has to deal with unique social forces with their own conceptions of space.
Sarah also raises the point of the gendered spaces of capitalism, which I would subject to a broadly similar treatment. Within the fabric of capitalism, men and women have occupied different roles within different spaces and Ireland obviously brings that to the fore in his depiction of the misogyny of the Home Beautiful. Interestingly, as some of the David Ireland fans in the audience may know, he has a couple of books written specifically from the perspective of female protagonists, including A Woman of the Future (his third Miles Franklin prize winner) and City of Women. I think the latter is especially interesting, as it is set in Sydney after it has become a female-only city, with the realm of men becoming this dark, dangerous outlying region. As a mind experiment, I think Ireland is toying with what a fundamentally different arrangement of space re gender might involve ideologically. Of course something like that is never going to happen in reality, but therein lies one of the chief values of literary handlings of these ideologies – they can be pushed to their conceptual limits to reveal their contradictions.
In broad terms, I think the theoretical model I have outlined here can continue to speak not just to a delimited time and place in Australia capitalism but beyond, too. Through looking at how literature’s spatial unconscious registers the tensions between space, place, ideology and political economy, I think the model itself can render some really interesting accounts of what is going on right now, in terms of the political economy of COVID, the rise of far right nationalism, social movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.