Pre-Neo-Liberalisms Symposium Recap

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Pre-Neo-Liberalisms and the Novel

By: Jackie Kellish and Hannah Rogers


The Symposium

Our goal in planning this symposium was to convene a discussion among graduate students and faculty at Duke with invited speakers and roundtable participants from other universities in which consider how the novel takes and/or resists the turn from liberalism to neoliberalism. In the process, we hoped to unearth an alternative genealogy of neoliberalism. Some questions we hoped to take up were: At what point does liberalism “turn” and become something else? Can empire exist without it? How do novels explain this tipping point and the emergence of other forms of community? How far back in history do we have to go to address these questions, and how would doing so affect current histories and theories of “the novel?”


Presentations and Response

In her paper, “Submerged Under the Desert Sands of Capitalist Prose”: History, Neoliberalism, and Thackery’s Novel of Things, Zarena Aslami used Thackery’s Vanity Fair to explore the transition from absolute sovereignty to a detached liberal governance (a headless power). Using Eric Santner’s frame of a move from fetishism of persons to the fetishism of commoditites, Aslami argues that the novel charts the after-effects of sovereignty and its overlap with early British liberalism in the nineteenth-century. In showing this pivotal moment where we turn from an embodied monarchical sovereignty to a diffuse abstract sovereignty, Aslami raises the question of whether or not the novel form supports or resists this move. Her remarks described how faith in the foundation of the political sphere evaporates as power is dispersed from the body of the king to the bodies of citizens. But, with reference to Vanity Fair, Aslami finds “utopic horizons” that transcend national boundaries to produce belonging and make efforts to present a map of global networks that show systems in which Victorians live. This leaves us with questions of where these moments of utopia come from and how they “work.” Is this utopia the untheorized excess of liberalism, an example of “pre-neo-liberalism” in practice, or the undomesticated surplus of liberalism? And are these utopian glimpses unique to the novel or can they appear in other spaces, such as forms of bureaucratic busyness?

In his paper, “History’s Happy End,” Vaughn Rasberry offered an alternative to the neo-liberal conception of capitalist democracy as the inevitable “end of history” through an analysis of Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty. Taking his audience back to a Cold War-era moment, Rasberry drew attention not only to the utopian promise of socialism for many in the mid-to-late twentieth century, but also the significance of a moment in which the apparent choice between two ideologies created an open and unfinalized sense of historical possibility. But this sense of possibility, according to Rasberry, was not without its own contradictions and challenges. He highlighted the problematic elements of communist doctrine that on the one hand, supported decolonization struggles and movements for African-American rights, while also subjecting black self-narratives to yet another ideological master narrative. Rasberry’s close reading of a scene in the novel focused on a scene between a young Soviet girl and a pro-capitalist black American man at an American exhibition in Moscow, debating the merits of their respective ways of life. In the absence of a conclusive sense that one has triumphed over the other, Rasberry suggests that the value of the novel itself actually lies in its ability to re-stage the question itself. By moving beyond factual accounts of history proper and using narrative to open up imaginative possibilities that undo and re-fashion familiar teleologies, we embrace a productive, speculative “fairy-tale” genre of writing and thinking. His conclusions prompted spirited discussion from the audience, many of whom raised questions concerning the question of genre in African-American writing of the era, the relationship between self-narration and political ideology, whether alternative historical readings allow us to imagine the triumph of a system even beyond the capitalism-socialism binary, and the ways in which the novel provides a space for the kind of experimental world-making that allows us to revise our historical experience.

In her paper, “Hands off, and off with their heads! Toward an Epistemological Anatomy of Capitalism from Laissez-Faire to Neoliberalism,” Dierdra Reber questions the implied relationship(s) between liberalism and neo-liberalism, and between the respective political and economic undertones of both terms. Beginning with the age of revolutions, she charts the manner in which liberalism ushers in free-market democracy, its subsequent hybridization in the colonial period, and finally, in a post-Soviet age, the return to and intensification of free-market democratic ideals marked by epistemological affect rather than rationality. This last phase, she suggests, has been subsumed under the term “neo-liberalism” and indicates a shift away from the privileging of the political in early democracy to a privileging of the economic in the post-imperial age of democracy’s unchallenged dominance. Reber also examines contemporary political phenomena ranging from the rise of the Tea Party to Donald Trump’s candidacy to emphasize the pushback against vertical logic, organization, and any form of hierarchy in this neo-liberal era. In concluding, she pointed out the inherent paradox of neoliberalim’s staunchly free-market logic, in which trade supposedly acts as a force for freedom and equalization among peoples, and yet, in this era, we simultaneously witness the media attention--fueled by vast sums of money--surrounding a “politician” like Trump and realize that even the democratic process is at its heart, a process of consumerism driven by an incredibly unbalanced hierarchy of money and power. Discussion after Reber’s presentation considered the relationship between neoliberalism and “low” cultural elements, the accuracy of neoliberalism’s self-presentation as dispersed and non-hierarchical, and the idea of a particular affect surrounding neoliberalism.

The symposium overall raised questions both about neoliberalism and the novel form: Is the idea of “pre-neo-liberalism” actually related to liberalism or something else entirely — and, if so, how should we characterize this? What kind of alternative communities can be formed outside of neoliberalism? Does the novel have such an alternative community in mind, even when it seems most committed to the model of European liberalism? We know that empire can exist without liberalism, but can liberalism exist without empire? How far back in history would one have to go to address this question, and how would doing so alter current histories of “the novel”?



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