What follows is the speech I gave at Victoria University and posted on Overland last Friday for the launch of Dougal McNeill’s Forecasts of the Past. I reproduce it here mostly because I am keen to expose a few more potential readers to a very fine book, but also because Dougal’s work has helped me better understand some of the things I have been trying to do on this blog. Regular transmission will resume next week with an anniversary post.
I hope we timed this right. The idea was to have this post come up on Overland to coincide – ideally, but hopefully literally – with my launching Dougal McNeill’s new book, Forecasts of the Past, in what used to be called the staff club at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. I would like this to be (have been) the case because I see our connection with this blog, that university and each other as mapping a broader set of relationships and concerns.
A blog is a place that isn’t really a place. A university is a place that is actually a place (with a few exceptions) but also serves as a nexus of knowledge and knowledge professionals that are abstracted from the territory in a number of complex ways. I would argue for instance that people like Dougal and I have been trained to think of ourselves as academic free agents, speaking the world’s closest thing to a universal language and claiming the prerogative to apply for work wherever English or its literature is taught.
In the era of globalisation, the peculiar characteristics and interests of the academic free agent have come to be neatly aligned with theories about economics, society, politics and the arts. In literature, we are told that every contemporary text can or ought to be able to consumed at any set of coordinates on the planet by virtue of the capacity of technologies both old and new to deliver them everywhere at once. This ubiquity of texts and digital cultural artefacts is one of the most immediate ways in which globalisation is apprehended and understood, leading to the diffuse belief that we live in a sort of universal postcolonial of uncertain geography.
In a passage from Hardt and Negri quoted by Dougal in the book, the empire is described as ‘a kind of smooth space across which subjectivities glide without substantial resistance or conflict’. It is tempting to see the blogosphere as one such space, and the space where academic articles and books circulate as another. We can certainly train ourselves to see them that way, and act in ways that will make those spaces smoother for us as well as for our readers, and easier to glide across. Or we can resist the description. We can act and write and read in ways that run counter to the bias of the digital medium and global institutions towards immediacy, transparency, displacement, homogenisation, and conversely highlight discontinuities, asymmetries, inequalities and above all what Dougal calls ‘the dense specificities of lived political legacies and situations’. Make that smooth space rough again.
The central contention of Forecasts of the Past is that a contemporary literary realism is not only possible but also desirable and ultimately necessary. The framing is both a dialogue with and a departure from the work of Fredric Jameson – who, in spite of having declared realism exhausted, no longer able to represent the world we live in, has made a number of suggestive remarks over the years concerning its possible revival. This is the task taken up by the book: to expand on these suggestions and explore the possibilities and limitations of contemporary realism; to respond to the challenge that the alleged ‘end of history’ poses for this most time- and history-bound of forms; to argue from a classical Marxist perspective for the uses of realism and the necessity to produce, access and study a literature capable of sending back ‘reliable information’ (the phrase is Jameson’s) about the world we live in.
David Peace, James Kelman, Kerstin Hensel, Pat Barker, Maurice Gee: these are the authors in Dougal’s meticulous catalogue, whose works allow him to explore what Raymond Williams has called the ‘working class fiction of fully developed class relations’; the challenges of representing the neoliberal city; the new guise of the realist historical novel; and finally what realism in the age of globalisation might mean and look like. The picture that emerges throughout these close readings is by necessity not one of a hegemonic genre, as realism was when the bourgeoisie went through its revolutionary phase, or by fiat under Stalinism; but rather of an ‘embattled, residual-emergent, ‘minor’ oppositional form.’ A realism that lurks through the fissures and cracks of late capitalism and yet is capable of producing useful, working models for thought and political action.
Dougal and I used to share an office at Victoria. That’s how we met, nearly ten years ago. He was doing his Masters on Brecht, and I was writing a PhD on memory and digital media. Consequently, predictably, we occupied that office a little differently: he with a lot of books, and I with very few. Most of my readings were electronic and the shape of that knowledge organised my thinking as well. His research seemed steeped in realism and traditional scholarship, whilst mine seemed at home with globalisation. What I later (much later) came to realise is that we were working on the same problems, and posing ourselves and the texts that we studied very similar questions about time, meaning, memory and politics. Even searching for the same answers, I suspect. We were just doing it from opposite directions.
We kept in touch when Dougal left first for Melbourne, to work on the PhD that later became this book, then for Japan. And I was happy when he started blogging, because I knew he was going to be really good at it, and even more so when he and his wife Shomi moved back to Wellington and he got a job at Victoria. That we were both invited to write for Overland was a further welcome development, an opportunity to work together. It just had to be someplace else.
I wanted to speak in both places today, at a university and on ‘our’ blog, and in a transition that I hope will be perceived as anything but ‘smooth’, to acknowledge that when I first read the draft of Dougal’s book, it suggested ways of thinking about what I had been trying to do with my own writing but whose full political import I hadn’t grasped until that moment. The need to cultivate an incredulity towards the myth of a smooth globalisation and the dominant narratives of internet time and space, as well as to document the systematic occlusion of class and class relations and recover the collective and personal histories that are excluded by the dominant forms of representation of our time: these are urgent tasks and constitute the key demand that this book makes on its readers.
The political in Dougal’s work isn’t so much a dimension as the organising principle, the very structure of the thing; and in this respect Forecasts of the Past is also, like the realism it advocates, a most useful model for thought and (critical) action. In the best tradition of letting the book speak for itself, I leave you to read a brief extract from the concluding chapter that will illustrate to this point better than I can.
I am proud and delighted to launch Dougal McNeill’s Forecasts of the Past.