David Alworth, Site Reading: Fiction, Art, Social Form (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018)
by Myka Tucker-Abramson[i]
David Alworth’s Site Reading: Fiction, Art, Social Form (2015) is an illuminating product of the reading debates that have erupted since Bruno Latour unilaterally declared the exhaustion of critique and the non-existence of society. It is, as Lee Konstantinou aptly notes, the first book (and certainly the first book on US literature) that “practices the new mode of reading it also proposes” (2018: 1). Where most anti-critique theorists simply criticise critique whilst proscribing other modes of reading, Alworth’s book actually enacts his. And he has been lavishly praised for doing so. Site Reading has been called “bracing and beautiful” (Konstantinou 1) and “ingenious” (Davidson 2017: np), celebrated for providing “ontological solutions” to a fundamental “fear of the other […and] the future of the West” (Raw 2017:183), and heralded as telling “the genuinely exciting story not only of postwar American fiction but also of a young scholar coming to claim a voice of his own” (Fleissner 2016: np). But while Alworth’s attempt to both proscribe and perform a New Materialist literary criticism does make Site Reading an important book, its importance lies neither in its “ingenuity” or the “exciting” event of a Harvard professor finding his scholarly voice. Rather, the book’s importance is as a case study for why academics at elite universities are excited about this post-critical turn and why the rest of us should be deeply concerned.
“Site reading,” as a new mode of reading, draws together Latourian “sociology,” “environmental criticism,” and new “textual-materialist approaches” (2015: 2) in order to answer the question: “How does literary fiction theorize social experience?” (2). Alworth argues that it does so by “transposing real sites into narrative settings and thereby rendering them operative, as figures in and of collective life” (2). Site Reading thus claims to be theorising (or perhaps simply appreciating the theorisation that the novels are already doing? It’s not quite clear given the book’s New Materialist claims that novels seem perfectly capable of theorising all on their own) the new form of sociality or collectivity that the novel, and this new way of reading the novel, reveals. I will return later to this question of what kind of new mode of collectivity such a reading generates, but first we need to lay out Alworth’s argument.
At the heart of Site Reading are four basic claims. First, that Latour’s vision of the social – which he defines as “not a constituted setting or container where anything can be situated, but a ‘process of assembling’ whereby persons, things, texts, ideas, images and another entities (all of which are considered actor or actants) form contingent and volatile networks of association” (3) – is vastly superior to the Durkheimian understanding of the social as a form of totality, “the supreme class under which all other classes must be subsumed” (Durkeim qtd on p3) and thus that Latour should be the model of sociology we use in literary studies. Second, that in fact literary fiction already does the kind of sociology Latour advocates for and so we have much to learn from novels. Third, that literature does this Latourian sociology through its engagement with “sites,” a term that Alworth draws from the confluence of Michel Foucault’s assertion in the heterotopias lecture of 1967 that “our epoch is one in which space takes for us the form of relations among sites” (qtd. on 22) and Robert Smithson’s claim in Artforum that “the unknown areas of sites can best be explored by artists” (22). And fourth, that this process is easier to see if we read literary texts through and alongside artistic texts because of the way that site-specific artworks, specifically the US ones produced in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, is so explicit in its embeddedness with sites.
It’s worth noting given the reception of Alworth’s book that most of these moves – reading literature as sociology, focusing on location or sites, and reading across art and literature – are not new. They are the standard fare of literary criticism. And this means that the stakes of the book’s repetitive claims to newness rest almost entirely on Alworth’s distinction between Durkheimian and Latourian sociology. Alworth belabors this distinction because, he claims, this distinction amounts to nothing less than a paradigm shift in literary studies. Most notably, he argues that Durkheim’s notion of the social “has been widely (if implicitly) accepted within literary studies” (3) and has even formed the basis for the form of reading that now gets called critique. As proof of this, Alworth cites Frederic Jameson’s placement of Durkheim’s definition of society as a totality as the second epigraph to Political Unconscious. In Alworth’s account, Jameson reads literary texts as “socially symbolic acts” (3-4), that are ultimately subsumed by the totality of the Durkheimian social, and thus, presumably because of Jameson’s popularity, this kind of sociological thinking has become the unconscious operation that critique-based modes of literary criticism carry out. There are serious questions to be asked about this very peculiar elision of Jameson with Durkheim, and Alworth’s lack of direct engagement with Jameson, given that Durkheim plays a quite minor and often antagonistic role in Political Unconscious.[ii] There are also serious questions about his claim that Durkheim of all people is the sociological unconscious of all Jameson-inspired literary criticism. However, we need to accept this premise if we are to engage with Alworth’s argument so we will do so—at least for now.
The experiment of Site Reading is thus to ask what literary studies (or at least post-war US literary studies –questions of scale or periodisation are never really dealt with) looks like when read via a Latourian mode of sociology in which “there is no such thing as society” (4)? What new form of sociality or collectivity will emerge? Alworth terms this new sociology “Supermarket Sociology” and whilst it is largely derived from Latour who illustrates his Actor Network Theory through the example of a supermarket, it also takes the literariness of Latour’s method. Thus, Alworth’s “supermarket sociology” comes equally from novels (namely Don DeLillo’s White Noise) and artwork (especially that of Andy Warhol), and the supermarket itself, which he ultimately argues might also be “the origin of postmodernism” (38). Here we catch a glimpse of what might be new about Alworth’s methodology: Alworth identifies the origin of social science methodologies in literary artefacts, at the same time that those literary and cultural artefacts are themselves shown to be generated at and even authored by sites themselves, which are in turn theorised by sociologists.
Having established the book’s Ouroborusian ethos and methodology in Chapter 1, Alworth organizes the rest of the book around four sites: dumps, ruins, roads, and asylums. Each of those sites, he argues, is key to understanding post-war US politics and culture, and each serves as a laboratory where he can test his new sociological-literary methodology. Each chapter presents a crowded assemblage of predominantly white and hyper-masculine novels, artworks, and spaces. For instance, in the chapter on “dumps,” William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch is put into conversation with Don DeLillo’s Underworld, John Dos Passos’s The Garbage Man, the work of the criminally underappreciated artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty; the chapter on “roads” brings together Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays with Robert Creeley’s poem “I know a Man,” the Merry Pranksters, the work of Tom Wolfe, the photographs of Robert Frank, Ed Ruscha, the crushed-car sculptures of John Chamberlain, the art writing of Michael Fried and Robert Smithson, and the urban activism and writings of Ralph Nader and Jane Jacobs. By far one of the most exciting aspects of Alworth’s experiments are the encounters, or even collectivities, that emerge between these texts. As well, these pairings and the connections he draws across them draw our attention to the rich world of objects and sites underpinning post-war American fiction – from the kotex and washing machines of the dump to the camera, brief-case, chain link, and phonograph in the asylum.
However, what is less immediately evident is exactly how Alworth is de- or re-materialising post-war American fiction through the figure of the site or why he is so keen to draw a distinction between traditional categories such as space or place. How exactly is Alworth’s new materialism, which locates the origins of postmodern in the supermarket, or minimalism’s origins in “road trip” (91) different from the kind of “old” materialist work carried out by Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey or Kristin Ross in their work on Paris? From Neil Smith’s work on New York? Eric Avilla’s work on suburbanising post-war Los Angeles? Or even Jameson’s engagement with the Bonaventure hotel in downtown LA? Aren’t all of those critics committed to thinking spatially and materially about culture, sociality, ideology, and collectivity?
I use urban examples deliberately because one of the notable things about Alworth’s sites is that they are predominantly connected to post-war processes of urbanization and suburbanization. Yet the city or urban space is inexplicably absent in his account of the site. This is particularly important given that the vast majority of his sites are located in New York City (and to a lesser extent Los Angeles) between the end of World War II and the foreclosure of what Joshua Freeman calls “Working-Class New York” with the fiscal crisis and financial takeover of the city in 1975 (often read as one of the originary moments of neoliberalism [Harvey 2005: 44-8]). What is the relationship between sites and the urban? Or for that matter, the national or the international, given the book’s completely untheorized US-focus? And why, for Alworth, is Site Reading distinct from work on what Kanishka Goondewardena terms the “urban sensorium,” that is work that theorises the crucial role that “urban space” plays in “media[ing] space and produc[ing] hegemony while aestheticizing politics” (2005: 46)? This is particularly curious given the historical relationship between situationism, psychogeography, urban studies (especially Lefebvre) and site-specific art work. Because Alworth never seriously engages with these thinkers aside from an epigraph by Lefebvre (a somewhat bewildering choice given the book’s critique of society as a meaningful category), a casual reference or two to Ross, and a few lines of Benjamin (which are filtered through other scholars), there is no explicit answer.[iii]
I suspect Alworth’s response would be that, as with Jameson, these authors’ Marxism means they subscribe to a kind of Durkheimian social totality and thus social determinism. But given Jameson’s own critique of Durkheim’s “conservative […] positivism” (288) and his fundamentally dialectical methodology, which emphasizes that Totality, the Real, or History (and thus the “social”) are always immanent, in flux, and ultimately changeable, this is not a satisfying answer. Instead, I think we have to, as Alworth himself recommends (via his second favourite sociologist, Irving Goffman), use an “inductive” (134) methodology to ascertain the actual nature of Alworth’s disagreement with Jameson and his Marxist ilk.
And I think we can posit a couple of disagreements. While all of the “old ‘materialist’” scholars I mentioned previously focus on place or space, their interest is ultimately not in space itself, which they are all careful to emphasize is not absolute but rather determined or “produced” by “actual process of capital accumulation” (Smith 2008: 113). For these thinkers, sites can never be examined in isolation, but rather are always connected to the interlinked processes of colonialism and the formation of the world market. This means spatial thinking still upholds the centrality of the human and human action. As Neil Smith bluntly puts it, “there can be no apology for […] anthropomorphism […]: with the development of capitalism, human society has put itself at the centre of nature” (8).
For Alworth, by contrast, (as with much of what is alternately called new materialism, or object-oriented ontology), anthropomorphism is one of the big failings of traditional sociology. Thus he wants to refigure sites and objects as independent actors, or actants, that are able to act upon the world, shaping societies and even authoring texts. In his reading of Smithson’s nonsite art work, for instance, he argues that “the site itself has already performed some measure of authorial labor, furnishing source materials (i.e., ‘the physical, raw reality’) as well as a certain logic that the artist, as ‘geologic agent’ is excavating and presenting” (104). One claim Alworth makes repeatedly is that society is constructed by the “flux of interactions between humans and nonhumans” (33), and that the sociology these novels and artworks do is one of theorising this flux. Thus, Site Readings is organised around these reorientations from a sociology based on social struggle to one based on the scandal of the nonhuman—consider, for example, his reading of John Updike’s short story “A&P” which narrates a psychosexual conflict when three girls walk into an A&P wearing nothing but bathing suits. But, Alworth argues, “The scandal of these girls […] is not their premature sexuality but their unwitting seizure of a display technology intended to ensure that nonhumans are always constituted as the objects of human attention” (40). Similarly, in his chapter on dumps he argues that the real shock of Naked Lunch isn’t its obscenity, but its refiguring of the “the social as rather than in a dump” (69, emphasis in original).
But this then leads to a further question. If this decentering of the human is the main intervention of Alworth’s book, then why isn’t Alworth engaging in a conversation with the vast and diverse body of indigenous scholarship, which like the urban geographers mentioned above, is also resolutely place-based, but (like Alworth) breaks down the relationship between human and nonhuman actors? We can think, for example, of Kim TallBear’s work which “pushes back” against “scientific narratives of indigenous American genetic ‘origins’ by emphasizing “their emergence as particular cultural and language groups in social and cultural relation with nonhumans of all kinds – land formations, nonhuman animals, plants, and the elements in very particular places – their ‘homelands’ or ‘traditional territories’ for example” (2007: 186). Or we can think of what Glen Coulthard terms “grounded normativity” (2014: 53) to describe the “forms of knowledge” produced by Indigenous peoples out of “Indigenous struggles against capitalist imperialism” that are not only oriented around “struggles not only for land, but also deeply informed by what the land as a mode of reciprocal relationship (which is itself informed by place-based practices and associated form of knowledge) ought to teach us about living our lives in relation to one another and our surroundings in a respectful, nondominating and nonexploitative” (60). Where the social and geographic thinkers mentioned above all make at least a cameo in Site Reading, no indigenous scholarship is present. This is striking given the obvious resonances. It also means that again we have to be somewhat speculative in our articulation of how Alworth’s book differs from already existing work.
Here too we can make a few inferences. First, whilst Alworth is interested in nonhuman actors, he does not seem to be particularly interested in land or nature. Sites are as much an alternative category to nature as they are to place, space or the urban. One thing that is striking about Alworth’s choice of sites, in fact, is that they are all human-built constructions. In fact, his sites are mostly forms of fixed capital designed and built at the moment of the US’s radical reorganisation of its own urban space and (as Alworth himself shows in his readings of Tangier in Burroughs and Malta in Pynchon) soon the world’s as it attained global hegemony. This leads to something of a conundrum in Alworth’s work: he wants to emphasize the relationship between human and nonhuman actors, but he wants to focus almost entirely on the relationship between humans and the things and spaces that humans have constructed under very specific historical circumstances.
Second is that, as with theorists of the urban sensorium, much indigenous theory insists on something like totality in its focus on interconnection and systematicity, one that often returns to questions of capitalism and colonialism. Alworth, in contrast, wholly rejects totality and in fact one of the promises of the “site” is that it can be lifted up from its larger world and studied in isolation. Ultimately, what seems to differentiate “sites” from spaces, places, or nature, then, is that sites can be extricated from the social, political, and ideological processes that produced them. Read thusly, Alworth’s meaning of “site” is more rooted in the thinking of Irving Goffman (Alworth’s other favourite sociologist), who as Mark McGurl explains pays attention to the local stripped of its determinants or “historical consciousness” (2010: 334), than the 1970s site/nonsite artists. More specifically, Alworth’s understanding of a site can best be understood as an iteration of Goffman’s idea of that “total institution” (130), which Alworth takes up and defines as a “place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life” (qtd in 182).
Indeed, throughout Site Reading, ruins, dumps, roads, and asylums are transformed into isolated, unique spaces that, while occasionally intersecting with larger social or political questions, can ultimately be extricated or separated from such questions and repurposed or resignified through individual acts of resistance. This isn’t to say these sites are entirely stripped of context: Alworth doesn’t think that context stinks. The road is mentioned alongside the Interstate Highway Act, the asylum is rooted in problems of segregation, and the ruins of Malta are tethered to the violence of World War II and the problem of how to rebuild. But while brushing up against these contexts, the sites themselves can ultimately moult these contexts to reveal broader, ontological “truths” about the nature of sites, human-nonhuman relations, or sociality.
In that vision of extractable sites, we can finally grasp one of the key ways that Alworth breaks away from Jameson. For Jameson, famously, “history is what hurts” (102). In Alexander Galloway’s wonderful gloss,
History hurts because history is full of the violence of capitalism, or what Jameson described as ‘the scars and marks of social fragmentation and monadization, and of the gradual separation of the public from the private’ and ‘the atomization of all hitherto existing forms of community or collective life.’ History hurts because of unemployment, proletarianization, and ‘pauperism.’ History hurts whenever material necessity wins out over social collectivity. (2016: 129)
In his sites, Alworth has created a history and geography that doesn’t have to hurt. Sites after all are spaces where it doesn’t even make sense to speak of a distinction between social collectivity and material necessity both because the collective is ultimately between the individual and his or her materials and because sites themselves can be isolated and extracted from any kind of necessity. This is one of the promises and seductions of Alworth’s sites: that they are enclaves, isolated spots that allow us to escape the nightmare of history and geography. Thus, at every turn the book attempts to achieve isolation in the face of the horror of interconnection.
Alworth’s operation is staged most explicitly in his reading of Naked Lunch. The chapter opens with a retreat from Tangier as the site of Naked Lunch to “the small room in the Villa Muniria where its author sat at his typewriter” (54) and ends with a description of the potential pitfall of Latour’s “actant” vision: namely “a junk world where no ontological distinctions matter because everything is destined to become a single degraded substance, call it abdicated flesh, rotten ectoplasm, or putrid lymph” (72). Most of the chapters open with some fearful vision of this “single degraded substance” – the mass of objects in the supermarket which so often end up as a putrid mass at the dump or the bomb-blasted sites that compose the ruins section – before offering a containment strategy, a “shoring up” (120) against this chaos. We can see this containment in Alworth’s focus on the equally hermetic space of the car in the Roads chapter and in the refiguring of the section on Ruins into a study of bomb shelters and the megaliths of Hagar Quim.
Perhaps the most fleshed out example of this “shoring up” is in the only not exclusively white chapter, on the “Asylum,” in which Alworth refigures the manhole where Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man concludes as a “site of refuge from” (127) both the the national “system of constitutionally sanctioned segregation” (146-7) and the “pathogen[esis]” of Harlem (139) – a questionable term given the history of urban planners deploying the public health language of “pathogenesis” in order to justify the displacement and gentrification of black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods (Corburn 2009: 27). In Alworth’s account, the narrator achieves this diminished suffering by replacing the troubled community with a community of objects, both by “tapping into the electrical grid” (146) and by “tinker[ing] with objects and fantasiz[ing] about acquiring more” (143). The site of diminished suffering, then, is one that is free of others, a site in which communities of people are replaced with the community between a man and his possessions.
This passage is important because it provides a roadmap to Alworth’s own methodology: the identification and celebration of “sites of diminished suffering” that swap out the social for the object which is really the commodity. But this strategy comes at a cost. While Ellison’s subterranean hole may offer an escape against the national problem of segregation, it is also a site of escape from Harlem itself and the actual communities and fraught collectivities therein (the communist party, the black nationalists, the rioters, and so forth). Not only does Alworth’s solution replicate the Cold War strategy of buying off and privatizing certain facets of the (largely white) working-class with the promise of private, individualized spaces and a dizzying array of goods while criminalizing and neglecting the (largely racialized) rest, but Alworth’s levelling equation of Ellison’s critique of nation-wide segregation with his critique of Harlem and specific movements therein is precisely the problem with this methodology. It flattens out very uneven histories and makes questions of power or social sedimentation illegible. And this finally brings us closer to understanding the new form of collectivity that Alworth is after: one between a man and his objects, and thus one free of social antagonism, conflict, and the messiness of actual collectivity and sociality.
For Jameson, by contrast, collectivity is a necessarily political and antagonistic project; collectivity by its very nature emerges “as a result of the struggle between groups or classes” (1982: 289). All forms of collectivity, Jameson writes, are first and foremost expressions of some kind of “class consciousness” (290-1). And while this may not be ideal, he argues, “in a fragmented social life – that is, essentially in all class societies – the political thrust of the struggle of all groups against each other can never be immediately universal but must always necessarily be focused on the call enemy” (290). It is ultimately this struggle that Alworth seeks to escape. In his luscious descriptions of supermarkets and dumps, asylums and roads, Alworth seeks to rewrite these sites – sites of some of the most pitched, collective battles over the meaning of US global power – into spaces of evenness free of social strife, or at least into space where strife is resolvable. This is a collectivity that seeks to imagine the recent past as already in this Utopian or classless society and thus one that is free of desire or demand, which is to say free of politics. But in a society that isn’t classless and that is wrenched with racial, gendered, and classed antagonisms, such a projection can only end up serving the most reactionary and conservative of politics.
Peculiarly, Alworth seems aware of, and averse to, this result. Throughout the book he wrestles with this problem of isolationism, concluding somewhat remarkably with a denunciation of it in his coda, “Site Unseen.” In this coda, Alworth turns to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which he reads as imagining another kind of site/enclave: the bunker. Alworth is at his most powerful in this coda where he argues that the fantasy the bunker fulfills is to allow the “the two main characters [to] inhabit the fantasy of a preapocalyptic ordinary. Their interactions bespeak a kind of subdued pleasure” (150). Their desire for this “preapocalyptic ordinary,” Alworth rightfully reads as symptomatic of a contemporary desire for the same, something that Alworth, here if not in the rest of the book, roundly rejects. “In such a world,” he argues, “the bunker can provide only false recuperation, until the potentially redemptive moment of the Rapture, as the scene’s final simile suggests by likening its ‘faintly lit hatchway’ to ‘a grave yawning at judgment day in some old apocalyptic painting’” (152). This seems to be the moment when Alworth “comes to claim his voice,” to return to Fleissner’s glowing review, by recognizing the fatal flaw in his own book, that his sites are ultimately a literary criticism from the position of the bunker, an attempt to “inhabit the fantasy of a preapocalyptic ordinary” (150). Its “potentially redemptive” focus on the site is necessarily false, because it is based on willful blindness to the world in which these books were written and the world in which he writes, something that becomes most evident if we turn to what is ultimately the most important “site” in the whole book: the twinned sites of the fictional room in Emma Donoghue’s Room and Alworth’s own classroom.
The introduction focuses on Room’s main character, Jack, as a model of the kind of human/non-human collectivity Alworth imagines. “It is easy,” Alworth writes, “to say that this utterly traumatized subject looks to objects, the only objects he has ever known, for stability amid stress and chaos, but there is more to Donoghue’s project […] As Jack familiarizes himself with Outside Space, he defamiliarizes our world for us, spotlighting its conventionality and artificiality” (9). Alworth is absolutely right to note that “Jack’s Room constitutes a social dystopia that nonetheless registers as a structuralist utopia” (10). But what I’m interested in here is the indirect link that Alworth draws between the Jack and his mother’s room in Room and the imagined or ontological classroom with which Site Reading opens. Alworth describes the classroom, which comes to frame the book, thusly:
The class appears to be an ordinary social unit, composed of people and their internalized protocols of behavior, and this unit appears to be acting out its own protocols in this setting (the setting of the classroom) through a discussion of narrative setting. But then, much to the chagrin of a certain student, something happens. As the instructor is introducing the novel, a loud ringtone interrupts her remarks, and suddenly everybody looks away from the Powerpoint. (4)
Alworth’s classroom is, like all his sites, buzzing with the relationships between human and nonhuman actors. And this he argues isn’t a bad thing at all. The disruptions of cellphone rings – the chagrin of all of us in the classroom– is in fact “central to the pedagogical enterprise” (5). This, for Alworth, exemplifies his claim that “it makes no sense to distinguish the class (as a social unit) from the material environment of the class” (5). Of course Alworth’s choice of the class is important because while Alworth can see the space of the class as equally important to the social unit of the class, there is a class that remains absent: the class structure underpinning both the built environment and social unit of the class. This is presumably a class at Harvard, after all.
While Alworth can think about space and technology, like Jack in Room, Alworth cannot or will not think about the Outside Space of his (class)room. He doesn’t ask if the classroom is at an Ivy League university, a state university, at a community college, or perhaps even at a for-profit university like the University of Phoenix. He doesn’t ask about who the students are – whether they’re relatively privileged students whose parents are able to pay, whether they’re crippled by debt or working multiple jobs; whether they’re mature students; UPS workers taking night classes at 3am, – or about the conditions of the teacher – is (s)he tenured, permanent, precarious, working across multiple campuses, waking at 3am to teach workers at night school – or about the city or state or country, or world that that learning takes place in. He doesn’t ask if #metoo has entered his classroom or #whyismysyllabussowhite; if the classroom is at Harvard, whether the students have joined striking dining workers; or how students are responding to the newly unveiled plaque revealing the centrality of slave money to its founding, or how any of these experiences might shape the students or teacher’s relationship to literature, history, or theory. He doesn’t ask who is calling or what the phone is being used for or what the processes are that made the phone. Object, sites, and social units all appear without a history, fully formed and autonomous within an isolated site.
Thus we are able to arrive at sentences like this: “On those serendipitous afternoons, when the discussion of literary art assumes a kind of urgency and tacks in a surprising and challenging direction, the social network can feel quite immediate and intimate: just the teacher and the students thinking together with the text” (5). But when is it ever “just the teacher and student thinking together with the text”? When is the classroom ever free of its larger pressures? This is ultimately what Alworth wants from Latour and Goffman: a “site” stripped of its determining factors. Thus, when Alworth claims that Durkheimian society is too deterministic, it is difficult not to read this as a form of willful blindness, both to the forces that shape a text and more immediately to the academic system for which he labours.
And yet, again, Alworth does smuggle such histories into his book, particularly if we consider the second text about a violent and troubled man who builds a bunker that Alworth (via Donoghue) brings into the introduction: namely Robinson Crusoe. Alworth somewhat improbably reads Ian Watt’s well known claim in Rise of the Novel that Defoe “‘annihilated the relationships of the traditional social order’” and in its place constructed “‘a network of personal relationships on a new and conscious pattern’” (qtd in 9) as referring to his protagonist’s “interactions with human others, nonhuman animals, and even material things” (9). For Watt, Robinson Crusoe is a parable of the development of “homo economicus” and “puritan individualism” (1967: 74, emphasis in original) alongside the development of capitalism, but also registers the conditions of the parable: specifically, the “fortunate decease of all the other potential stockholders” and his “looting” of tools from the shipwreck (87) and more generally, the extraction of “gold, slaves, and tropical products” from the colonies “on which the future progress of capitalism depended” (67). And indeed, if we consider the violence that led to Jack’s birth, Room’s operation is not so very different. Alworth, however, pushes this context to the side, arguing that whilst “by the end of the novel, long after he has discovered the cannibals and enslaved Friday, Crusoe certainly envisions himself as an emperor surrounded by subjects and treasures [….] his arduous journey to that point occasions one of literary history’s most searching mediations on social ontology” (9). Just like The Road’s protagonists in the bunker, hidden away from the world, Alworth’s “social” ontology refuses to engage with the social itself. This also suggests that Alworth’s imagined classroom with its harmonious collectivity between human and nonhuman actors is, like Crusoe’s Island, dependant on an erasure of the conditions of violence, enclosure, enslavement, and theft that underpin the University (and especially the elite university) system.
We can now begin to understand what Jord(ana) Rosenberg means in their stunning reading of the new materialisms or “ontological turn” (2014: np), when they argue that “the urge towards objects comports itself in a very particular fashion, one that will be familiar to scholars of colonialism and settler-colonialism, and that calls to mind any number of New-World-style fantasies about locations unmediated by social order” (np). For Rosenberg, this new form of ontology enacts: “a primitivist fantasy that hinges on the violent erasure of the social: the conjuring of a realm – an ‘ancestral realm’ – that exists in the present, but in parallax to historical time […and] a terra nullius of the theoretical landscape […that] mediate a dual intensification specific to the present: that of neoliberal forms of settler colonialism and financialized capital accumulation” (np). Read alongside Rosenberg, the seemingly disparate elisions and erasures in Alworth’s argument that I have been tracing come into relief. His erasure of the history of objects, his erasure of indigenous forms of scholarship that deal with questions of animate and inanimate objects; his erasure of social antagonisms implicit in the history of these objects, his overwhelmingly white archive, and his erasure of the conditions of the academic system he labors under all emerge as a unified and cohesive strategy to violently “wrench matter free of the social, of mediation, of relation” (np).
But Alworth’s book also helps to illustrate Rosenberg’s argument by laying bare the ideology of the ontological. Rosenberg argues that the lure of this ontological turn provides a “line of flight […] a way out of capitalist logics and repetitions” (np). What Alworth reveals is one form of fantasy this line of flight takes: isolationism. But this isolationism doesn’t get us out of the material conditions of neoliberal, financialised, and global capitalism, but only embeds us more deeply within them. And if there is any doubt about the intrinsic connection between these neoliberal forms of settler colonialism and financialisation on the one hand and the ideology of isolationism on the other, we need only turn to the new fantasy of populist political isolationism that Donald Trump has evoked through the US-Mexico wall, the increased policing of its borders through policies like the Muslim ban, and its detention of migrants and especially migrant children, all of which serve to promote the fantasy that the US can cast off globalisation, history, and even ecological limits and return to some prelapsarian state of isolated, yet all-powerful greatness.
In what ultimately turns out to be Alworth’s most important contribution, then, Site Reading provides us with an answer to the question of what exactly these new materialisms do: they conjure a literature and a literary history that doesn’t hurt, and in doing so, promise to make literary criticism great again.
Alworth, David. 2015. Site Reading: Fiction, Art, Social Form. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Brennan, Timothy. 2010. “Running and Dodging: The Rhetoric of Doubleness in Contemporary Theory.” New Literary History, 41.2, 277-299.
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[i] Thanks to Molly Geidel, Nicole Aschoff, and Arne DeBoever for the conversations and feedback that helped shape this review.
[ii] In fact, Alworth’s engagement with Jameson is limited to this comment about the Durkheim passage quoted above: “While this passage encapsulates precisely what Latour rejects, the notion of society as a sui generis totality that ‘includes all things,’ it also forms part of the second epigraph to one of the most influential works of literary criticism, Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981). The latter, as Best and Marcus explain, ‘popularized symptomatic reading among U.S. literary critics,’ establishing the protocols for a certain method of historicism that remains important to this day” (3). Alworth in other words doesn’t actually read or engage with Jameson or any of the US literary critics who engage with him. Instead he flattens all of Jameson’s work, not to mention all of the US criticism that engages with Jameson into a bad reading of Durkheim based solely on an epigraph and a single comment by two other critics.
[iii] In this, Alworth’s work is underpinned by one of the key “theoretical gestures” (280) that Timothy Brennan has identified as marking this new literary sociology: namely a retreat from the dialogic in which a statement is “always an engagement with the thought of others” (282, emphasis in original). As Brennan explains, contemporary theory has been marked by a strange tendency in which “Although its arguments are fierce and unyielding, and although it views its opponents as implacable enemies, it never argues with them by identifying a counterauthority against which new evidence of reasoning has to be offered. Instead, it associates conceptual depth and gravity with the disembodied utterance” (282).