Exit Capitalism: Literary Culture, Theory, and Post-Secular Modernity

Edward Quipp is provoked by a portrayal of key moments in English literary and cultural history

December 31, 2009


The wishful note of Simon During's title may seduce the casual reader into expecting a work of "credit-crunch criticism" and certainly the recent financial collapse lingers just off-stage throughout this book. But rather than a call to arms, this is an ambitious collection of largely stand-alone chapters, taking in such varied topics as literary quackery and charlatanism, Stalinist literature, and the genealogy of the Left in France and England. What it sometimes lacks in coherence it recoups in energy - hyperactivity, almost - and its anecdotal element makes for an engaging read, although it's not for the uninitiated. Above all, During is concerned with the present possibilities for socialist activism, literary theory and resistance to the "endgame" of democratic state capitalism.

During's self-described method is historical sociology, of the skittish type liable to enrage both historians and sociologists. In other words, this is classic cultural studies. As a scholar of 18th-century English literature, he is on comfortable ground in the opening chapters, which describe the close connection of literary creativity to an energetic young clergy and to burgeoning commercial publishers. Although it is covered with real elan, the exact relation of this material to During's central premises is not always clear. A chapter on the rise of the catch-all term "interesting" seems to indicate the direction; "interesting" is traced to inaugurators such as Rousseau and David Hartley, then tracked through to its present-day banality, which During elaborates as politically and ethically restrictive. These pages are among the most rewarding; the tendency to flit across myriad reference points has a stronger sense of purpose here than elsewhere.

Another "interesting" aspect of Exit Capitalism is its attempt to canonise a neglected author, the Australian novelist Christina Stead. Such canon-making excursions are always brave, as they are the surest way to expose the critic's basic preferences. Given that Stead was an unrepentant Stalinist, During's preferences would seem to involve no small degree of myopia. The kind of canon he has in mind must be a terrifying beast indeed: ethically bankrupt, overtly politicised and thoroughly without joy.

Not surprisingly, During is averse to critically engaging with Stead's beliefs - a serious omission per se, but especially so because he repeatedly insists on the centrality of her Stalinism to her aesthetic practice. Whatever technical merits she possessed (and they were limited, by During's own admission), this glaring absence makes his appeal redundant, and the notion that a blueprint for "refusing" capitalism could be reclaimed from such a source is deeply questionable. A worrying inference: is this inability to self-interrogate still a frequent feature of cultural studies?

More convincing is the account of the development of the British Left and of post-Maoism in France after 1968, chiefly because the tone is more neutral here. During is an excellent narrator of crucial ideological flashpoints; the book is much recommended to readers seeking a precis of contemporary Left thought on this basis. It is strange, though, that in his description of the academy's potential in "post-secular modernity", he finds no place for climate-change activism or eco-criticism, the galvanic effects of which have positioned the academy centrally in policy movements and popular debate. This may have presented a valuable new context.

During generally over-stresses the isolation of the academy from general opinion; there is far too much evidence to the contrary after the Bush years for this to hold. But Exit Capitalism is nothing if not provocative, and is often very useful as a sophisticated survey of the contemporary Left.

Exit Capitalism: Literary Culture, Theory, and Post-Secular Modernity

By Simon During
Routledge
208pp, £75.00 and £19.99
ISBN 9780415246545 and 6552
Published 24 August 2009

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