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Insistence of the Material: Literature in the Age of Biopolitics.

Insistence of the Material: Literature in the Age of Biopolitics, by Christopher Breu. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. 264 pages.

The material world has been garnering a lot of critical attention recently, and for good reason. In the waning decades of the twentieth century, all that was solid seemed to melt into air as scholars emphasized the linguistic play, discursive construction, and/or ideological encoding of texts both literary and cultural. But as thinkers such as Lawrence Buell, Bill Brown, Eve Sedgwick, Bruno Latour, Wai Chee Dimock, Cary Wolfe, Franco Moretti, Elisabeth Grosz, and Graham Harman have all observed over the past two decades, those critical moves left a lot of stuff out: ecology, things, affect, science, animals, bodies, technology, geology, and so on. Of course, one corner of the humanities, occupied by committed Marxists like Fredric Jameson and David Harvey whose work reliably attended to contemporary political economy, never lost sight of the material at all. And yet, the materialism in today's "new materialisms" veers away from that long-standing tradition of dialectical materialism, emphasizing instead the excesses of matter that surpass human subjectivity. (1) That's what makes these materialisms "new." (2)

Clearly committed to both kinds of materialism, Christopher Breu's Insistence of the Material: Literature in the Age of Biopolitics stages a provocative encounter between the two. He celebrates the vibrancy of matter, the volatility of bodies, and the primacy of ontology while at the same time seeking out "the material underpinnings" of contemporary capitalism's "avatar fetishism"--that is, our fetishization of immaterial transcendence (21, 22). To do so, Breu turns to a corpus of twentieth-century literature that he describes as "the late-capitalist literature of materiality"--William Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959), Thomas Pynchon's V. (1963), J. G. Ballard's Crash (1973), Dodie Bellamy's The Letters of Mina Marker (1998), and Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead (1991)--that he reads as a "counterpractice of writing in the postmodern era" (23). Insistence thus makes two interconnected claims: first, we should not be seduced by the immateriality of a capitalism gone virtual but must instead appreciate how contemporary commodity culture relies on the biopolitical management of material bodies, the offshoring of material production, and the real-life immiseration of marginalized populations across the global north and south; second, we should not reduce later twentieth-century literature to postmodern metafictions linguistic turn and must instead appreciate the counter-tradition of authors who foreground the materiality of contemporary existence. Connecting these two claims, Breu hopes that his investigation into the materialist literature of the mid- to late twentieth century will make us more clear-eyed and political in our thinking about the status of the material world here in the twenty-first.

After deftly clarifying and constellating his key terms--new materialism, biopolitics, political economy, and postmodernism--in the book's introduction, Breu turns in his opening chapter to Burroughs's Naked Lunch as "the founding text in the tradition of materialist literature" that Insistence chronicles (38). One is not surprised to find Burroughs here, championing the graphic muck and physical intractability of the human condition. But even as Burroughs affords Breu an initial fleshy foray into the irreducible materiality of the self, the writing in Naked Lunch also introduces a complication that Breu will be at pains to parse throughout Insistence: the difference--in terms of political utility--between the materiality of language and the materiality of the physical world. Because Breu juxtaposes the insistent materiality that he valorizes to what he tends to caricature as "the primarily linguistic concerns of much metafiction," texts that highlight the materiality of language (e.g., every book included in his study) pose a problem (38). To solve that problem as it relates to Burroughs, Breu suggests that Naked Lunch's emphasis on "the materiality of the signifier" avoids the narcissistic solipsism of a John Barth or an Italo Calvino because it "analogically stand[s] in for the other forms of materiality engaged by the text"--namely, the materiality of the body and its relation to political economy (41). Despite its linguistic play and experimentalism, then, Naked Lunch resists the linguistic turn and sounds Burroughs's barbaric yawp against the biopolitical violence that late capitalism applies to exploited bodies across the globe.

In a similar vein, Breu describes V as Pynchon's warning against reducing materiality to subjectivity. But whereas the sexualized flesh of young boys hung front their necks embodies the intractable materiality of Naked Lunch, in V. Pynchon highlights the material irreducibility of the colonial body subjected to European imperialism and the obdurate object world of midcentury industry and technology. Or, as Breu puts it in this chapter's attempt to downplay the late-capitalist literature of materiality's consistent interest in language, "While a cursory perusal of V. may seem to indicate the novel is of a piece with the linguistic playfulness and self-consuming, metafictional qualities that have been associated with canonical postmodernism, a closer look reveals a novel that is about the violence and pain of the twentieth century" (90). In particular, Breu's closer look highlights not only how "various subject populations in Pynchon's narrative refuse to correspond to the fantasies of passive objecthood that the colonizer projects onto them" (82), but also how actual objects--Rachel's MG, the test dummies SHROUD and SHOCK, the component pieces of the Bad Priest disassembled on Malta--exceed the subject's attempt to control her material surroundings. Taken together, these insistent materialities demonstrate "the irreconcilability of the object world and those who have been objectified in late capitalism to subsumption under the logic of subjective control" (87). Transforming that political argument into a literary one, Breu locates that same "logic of subjective control" in "authors of postmodern metafiction" who view the physical world as "degraded material for the working out of authorial desire and the concomitant fantasies of control that they underwrite" (90). By resisting this apparent solipsism, by refusing the narcissism of full-blown metafiction, Pynchon's V. achieves an ethical relationship to objects and objectified subjects that "begin[s] to recognize and respect the vulnerability and power of the material as an actant" (73).

If Naked Lunch introduces an initial encounter with abject materiality and V. articulates an ethical stance toward the world of objects, then Ballard's Crash, with its relentless focus on the infrastructural base of capitalist production, injects materialist politics into Breu's investigation. Acknowledging but then bracketing the metafictional fact that the protagonist of Crash shares its authors name, Breu reads the novel as Ballard's materialist response to a pervasive desire for immaterial transcendence that Breu links equally to postmodern aesthetics and late capitalism. The twisted metal and steel of Crash's crashes constitute the intractably tangible flip side of contemporary culture's pursuit of "endlessly malleable" avatars, images, and simulacra (95). This chapter, which reads Crash as the "material unconscious" of postmodern fantasy, is Breu's most overtly Marxist. He explicitly draws on Marx's distinction between the base and the superstructure, arguing that Crash functions as ideology critique because it reveals the material conditions of existence (the base) undergirding the "ideology of dematerialization" (the superstructure). This revelation resonates diachronically as well, as Breu suggests that the base-superstructure dynamic also organizes the relationship between early twentieth-century Fordism and late twentieth-century post-Fordism. Revealing the Fordist substratum that continues to operate (albeit in a displaced and generally invisible way) in our post-Fordist moment, Breu posits a continuity in the twentieth century's economic development and cultural output that he thinks postmodern metafiction and late-capital immaterialism all too frequently ignore.

Given Breu's clear interest in the intersection of bodies, economies, politics, and the built environment, you might next expect a chapter on Kathy Acker. Instead, Breu introduces the lesser known New Narrative author Dodie Bellamy, a welcome move that expands the canon of Breu's "late-capitalist literature of materiality." As in previous chapters,

Breu explicitly directs our attention away from Bellamy's obvious investment in the thick play of language: although "Bellamy's text seems, at first glance, to be exemplary of the metafictional postmodern aesthetic," he argues, it actually offers "an alternate aesthetic organized around attending to the materiality of the body and other forms of abjected materiality that make up the flip side to the sublime promises of neoliberal commodity culture and the forms of biopolitics that accompany it" (123-24). (3) This chapter, in other words, introduces real bodies living in our contemporary moment (as opposed to the dehistoricized bodies of Naked Lunch and the colonized bodies of V), bodies reduced to bare life by a form of violent capitalism that distinguishes between expendable and vital subjects without compunction. Consequently, Bellamy's work moves Insistence even closer to a critical politics. In describing "the experience of all those who feel that they have fallen out of the fetishized grid of the socially dominant symbolic," Bellamy "imagines an ethics and the beginning of a politics that is predicated on an orientation toward and embracing of the material body and the material limit of death itself" (148).

That politics finally comes to fruition in Breu's concluding chapter on Silko's Almanac of the Dead, a novel that depicts "new forms of insurrectional and revolutionary struggle" (156). This is another text that readers might be surprised to find here, but its presence makes a lot of sense given Breu's ultimate commitment to a materialist politics. Aware of the critical tendency to read Silko through an identity-based, multicultural lens, Breu in her case accentuates the literary experimentalism that he downplayed for previous authors. But again, Breu's real investment, the thing that makes Silko experimental in the same way that Burroughs, Pynchon, Ballard, and Bellamy are, involves the transgressive content of her narrative--its preoccupation with violence, death, and indigenous bodies--and not its formal play. The material that insists in Almanac, then, are those "indigenous forms of subjectivity and political community that cannot be completely reduced to the space and time of modernity" (152). Moreover, this irreducibility to "the space and time of modernity" opens up the indigenous subject's link to the deeper time of ecology and geology (an idea that might be offensive if it didn't come from Silko herself). This in turn establishes a more complicated, and presumably more honest, relationship between the human and nonhuman world, one that Breu offers as a necessary political vision for the twenty-first century.

By the end of Insistence, the proliferation of veins and blood, corpses and illness, rocks and wrecks, will have convinced you that twentieth-century authors were most definitely interested in the physical world. You might be less convinced, however, that these authors belong to a counter-tradition of late-capitalist materiality distinct from postmodernism. To be fair, Breu initially indicates that his "late-capitalist literature of materiality" will thicken and complicate our understanding of postmodernism, affording it the "complexity and heterogeneity" it deserves (25). An admirable goal, as we can all surely point to bodies of literature--the New Journalism, the protest novel, suburban realism, multicultural and global fiction--that theories of postmodernism ignore. In executing his readings, however, Breu tends to caricature the very concept that he's supposedly working to expand. He consistently highlights his texts' material concerns by juxtaposing them to a reductive version of postmodernism that, according to Breu, naively "privilege[s] the linguistic and the textual as able to fully account for the social" (67). He does the same thing when he acknowledges but then explains away the materiality of his texts' linguistic play. Rather than developing a truly complex and heterogeneous notion of twentieth-century fiction as deeply invested in both politics and play, the material and the facade, Breu endorses those authors who dwell in material politics and dismisses anyone caught playing with facades.

Breu's dismissals would be more plausible if we knew precisely what he was dismissing. But except for a few nods toward John Barth and his ilk, Insistence provides no examples of those postmodern texts that might be "representative of the solipsism produced by a hegemonic positioning that fantasizes no resistance to the dominant subject's construction of the world" (91). This quotation is actually quite telling, because it also shows us the precise point of Breu's oversimplification. He views postmodernism and its interest in language as a misguided Machiavellian belief in the subject's capacity to remake the world in its image. This is metafiction as fascism. But that account fails to appreciate that the linguistic turn, and the social constructionism it engenders, are born of the subject's inadequacy to the material world. The turn to language is not imperious; it's humble. It's the best we can do when confronted with intractable reality. Thus, the new materialist responses to the linguistic turn share a sense that, with the help of science, affect, technology, ecology, cognitive psychology, and so on, we can do better.

Of course, Breu's tendency to be mutually exclusive in his thinking about twentieth-century literature doesn't vitiate his readings or the political and economic critiques that he locates in his archive. The materialism that he finds in these texts is most assuredly there. But the political and economic critiques his readings distill also raise important questions about the new materialism that frames Breu's project. Namely, how compatible is the new materialism with a Marxist materialism? Do we need Marx to give the new materialism more political heft? Or does the new materialism's commitment to the agency of the object world actually preclude the materialist politics of Marxist critique? Can Breu deliver his classically Marxist critiques of political economy in spite of, or because of, his theoretical allegiance to new materialist theories such as those proposed by Jane Bennett, Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, Sarah Ahmed, Bruno Latour, Quentin Meillassoux, Ian Bogost, Cary Wolfe, and Timothy Morton? Breu makes a fair bit of the fact that "the late-capitalist literature of materiality engaged questions of materiality long before the materialist turn was made in literary and cultural studies" (23). But maybe these are just different materialisms. That would certainly explain why Breu's readings come out so Marxist despite his immersion in the new materialism.

Put differently, I'm not convinced that Breu needs the new materialism to make his point. He just needs Marx. And yet, as the new materialism instructs, a Marxist analysis might not sufficiently distance us from the problematic dominance of subjects over objects responsible for everything from metafiction to late capitalism. The new materialism provides Breu with the language to avoid that dominance, but the Marxist framework of his analyses ultimately reinscribes it. Here's an example of what I mean. Breu praises a character in Almanac of the Dead for his ability to understand "the heterogeneity of the material world and its irreducibility to identity," contending that this character "points us toward a different understanding of the relationship between the human and the nonhuman and the constructed and the material" (179). This is new materialist discourse at its best: the ontology of the object world forces us to develop an entirely new epistemological mode. We're not just thinking about new stuff in old ways; we're actually thinking in new ways, some of which we might not even recognize as thinking. I personally find this super exciting, but it's not the direction Breu moves in. Instead, he emphasizes the importance of thinking about new things--bodies, ecology, the built environment--without allowing those new things to change the way we think about them. Instead, he continues to think about them in representational terms, as potential sites of resistance and ideology critique. This is why the conclusions of Insistence all concern new things that we need to "recognize": "part of a sustainable political ecology and political economy is about recognizing the political import of the nonhuman and the material, whether this recognition involves an awareness of the animal and plant world...; a recognition of the qualitative materiality and irreducibly material genesis of the resources we use...; or a recognition of the forms of action exerted by all these nonhuman beings and materials" (179-80). So even as Silko's novel teaches us that we cannot reduce the material world to "identity," Breu's project reduces the material world to identity, making of it just another new thing that we need to recognize, attend to, and take into account. His deployment of the ontological turn introduces new content but doesn't change our ways of thinking.

In this way, Insistence embodies one of the defining tensions of our critical moment: the conflict between ontology and politics. (4) The stakes of the conflict are high: it raises questions about the nature of power, the possibility of politics, the form of resistance; and these questions resonate bodily, economically, and ecologically. Together, we will have to figure out whether we live in a new world demanding a new politics, a new world in which the old politics suffice, or just the same old world. As a Rorschach test for this debate, ask yourself what you think about Foucault's late-in-life Lectures at the College de France. If you read Foucault's take on neoliberal governmentality and biopolitics as distinct from his earlier work on the disciplinary society, then you probably believe that the postnormative world he describes demands a new politics that abandons, or at least rethinks, critique and resistance. If, however, you view the Lectures as more or less continuous with Foucault's earlier work, then you probably believe that politics should remain committed to the projects of critique and resistance. Insistence subscribes to the latter perspective, which is why Breu's take on biopolitics (and thanatopolitics) remains amenable to ideology critique in the same way that his take on late capitalism does. (5) For Breu, "materiality can form one site of resistance to and divergence from the dominance of biopolitical forms of governance and economic organization in twentieth- and twenty-first-century life" (x). It's entirely possible that he's correct. But if he is, then we don't need object-oriented ontology, queer phenomenology, or vibrant matter. We might not even need biopolitics. We just need to keep reading Marx.

DOI 10.1215/0041462X-3154116

Works cited

Brown, Nathan. 2013. "The Nadir of OOO: From Graham Harman's Tool Being to Timothy Morton's Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality." Parrhesia 17: 62-71.

Campbell, Timothy, and Adam Sitze. 2013. "Biopolitics: An Encounter." In Biopolitics: A Reader, ed. Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze, 1-40. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Collier, Stephen. 2009. "Topologies of Power: Foucault's Analysis of Political Government beyond 'Governmentality.'" Theory, Culture and Society 26:78-108.

Coole, Diana, and Samantha Frost, eds. 2010. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Edwards, Jason. 2010. "The Materialism of Historical Materialism." In New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, 281-98. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Galloway, Alexander. 2013. "The Poverty of Philosophy: Realism and Post-Fordism." Critical Inquiry 39, no. 2: 347-66.

Lemm, Vanessa, and Miguel Vatter, eds. 2014. The Government of Life: Foucault, Biopolitics, and Neoliberalism. New York: Fordham University Press.

Mussell, Simon. 2013. "Object Oriented Marxism?" Mute 28,

Ronda, Margaret. 2012. "Agency without Subjects." ELN 50, no. 1: 249-53.

Rosenberg, Jordana. 2014. "The Molecularization of Sexuality: On Some Primitivisms of the Present." Theory and Event 17, no. 2,

Zamora, Daniel. 2014. "Can We Criticize Foucault?" Jacobin,


(1.) For notable exceptions to the new materialism's general disconnect from Marxism and dialectical materialism, see Edwards 2010 and Mussell 2013.

(2.) On the new materialism, see Coole and Frost 2010.

(3.) Breu uses this rhetorical move a lot, frequently juxtaposing the way things appear "at first glance" to the way they really are, or the way we should really see them. Unfortunately, the move allows him to sidestep interesting tensions--between, say, a text's linguistic play and its material preoccupations--rather than directly engaging them.

(4.) For compelling leftist critiques of the ontological turn, see Brown 2013; Galloway 2013; Ronda 2012; and Rosenberg 2014.

(5.) In particular, Breu views Foucault's lectures as "a crucial development" of the earlier History of Sexuality (15). For competing takes on the Foucault Rorschach test, see Campbell and Sitze 2013; Collier 2009; Lemm and Vatter 2014; and Zamora 2014.

Mitchum Huehls is associate adjunct professor at UCLA. Working at the intersection of contemporary literature, culture, and politics, he is the author of Qualified Hope: A Postmodern Politics of Time and the forthcoming After Critique: Twenty-First-Century Fiction in a Neoliberal Age.
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Author:Huehls, Mitchum
Publication:Twentieth Century Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2015
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