Texts that trace capital's contours

Modern Epic

June 20, 1997

Human society has been short of neither empires nor epics. Empire-building is, indeed, rather an epic business, and poets have not shunned it. That capitalist imperialism should somehow find "epical" expression ought not to be so very surprising, then, but the specificities of how it does so are not at all predictable. The most salient point to make is that what makes capitalism special in respect of its imperialism is its remorseless globality, both horizontally (conquest of territory) and vertically (deep economic and cultural permeation). The Ottoman empire had its moments, it is true, but never constituted a world economy, never a "world system". We have Immanuel Wallerstein to thank for the insight that while other economic systems have produced empires, only capitalism has generated a world economy, or at least the potential for such. Franco Moretti's Modern Epic: The World System from Goethe to Garcia Marquez is indebted to this notion, and explores it with acuity and suppleness.

It is the ambition of this fine book to map a canon of secularly sacred texts (epics of modernity like Goethe's Faust and Joyce's Ulysses) onto the contours of the capitalist world economy, an economy in which the Occident has lorded it over the "historyless" peoples of the earth ever since the very globality of the planet was discovered. Moretti takes the reader on an epic journey, from Faust's study, through the curiously compact landscapes of Wagner's Ring and the fantasian space of Joyce's Dublin, to the "marvellous reality" of Marquez's Latin America and of Rushdie's India: a journey that enacts the flight of artistic culture from an increasingly reified capitalist Europe to other continents where "reserves of magic ... apparitions, and pacts with the Devil" still hold out within the world system. In constant focus are the shapes that transnational, transcontinental capitalism imparts to human life, and the ways in which these shapes are shadowed forth in the inevitably flawed masterpieces of those baggily monstrous texts of transition that constitute Moretti's super-genre of the "modern epic". A typical footnote registers, for example, Moby Dick's lucid apprehension of the necessity to western hegemony of the simultaneous addiction to and disavowal of violence. Chronologically sweeping though Modern Epic is, then, its chief concern is to foreground the spatiality of the world system, especially its characteristic encapsulation of different temporalities in the same parcels of space.

In his various analyses Moretti is well served by two concepts that derive their inspiration at once from Darwinism and Russian formalism, and to which are given the terms bricolage and refunctionalisation. The former refers to the do-it-yourself inventiveness characteristic of path-breaking artistic production, and the latter denotes the endowing of tools selected during bricolage with new functions that subserve cultural evolution. Thanks to an ingenious interweaving of these concepts Moretti is empowered, for example, to furnish a bravura interpretation of Ulysses as a modern epic text that refunctionalises the stream of consciousness technique in such a manner that it yields the second half of that novel to polyphony, to multivoicedness.

Modern Epic is an attractive book, but there is something rather irksome about its colloquial chumminess, its verbless sentences, its fireside expansiveness, its repetitiousness. There are few regular contributors to New Left Review as beguiling as Franco Moretti, yet it seems as if the same qualities that render this critic a brilliant essayist render his discourse a little tiresome over the long haul of a full-length book. There can be little doubt, though, that this book does cast a new beam of light on the nature of modernism, in the context of the world-system of capitalism, and that is no mean feat.

Brian McKenna is a junior research fellow, Wolfson College, Oxford.

Modern Epic: The World System from Goethe to Garcia Marquez

Author - Franco Moretti
ISBN - 1 85984 934 2 and 069 8
Publisher - Verso
Price - £44.95 and £13.95
Pages - 268

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