Literary / Liberal Entanglements and the Brexitrump Moment

Written by guest bloggers Corrinne Harol and Mark Simpson, co-editors of Literary / Liberal Entanglements: Toward a Literary History for the Twenty-First Century.

We undertook this project in response to what we perceived as a crisis in the discipline in which we teach and write. That particular crisis, about how many students were studying literature and how much respect (and therefore resources) we got from the culture at large, now seems rather quaint, when constitutional crisis, nuclear war, the dissolution of Europe, climate chaos (etc.) press onto us from every side. Indeed, at the point when we were competing the book, the twin phenomena named Brexit and Donald Trump -- hereafter brexitrump -- were already revving into second gear. Although we couldn’t do more than gesture in passing toward these developments in the introduction, we had always understood that this project discerned the crisis in our discipline as inescapably entangled with the larger socio-cultural crisis unfolding on either side of the Atlantic. Hence, among other things, our book’s title, Literary/Liberal Entanglements, which strives to capture as succinctly as possible this dynamic inextricably tying the history of our discipline to the history of liberalism.

The question that animated the project and the way we tried to frame it in the introduction is the same question raised by brexitrump: are we living through some categorical break from liberalism -- or through liberalism’s full apotheosis? One of the things we find so compelling about this project is the capacity of its essays, which do not focus on the contemporary moment but rather excavate the long history of the literary/liberal entanglement, to offer such surprising and provocative perspectives on this question. A central claim we make in the introduction to the book is that literary history can be a resource for the present, for reimagining and therefore reforming the present. We test this claim in this blog post by thinking about what these essays might offer the brexitrump moment.

Several of these essays offer accounts of the literary/liberal entanglement that might help to explain the electoral phenomena--the level of popular support for brexitrump-- in so far as they diagnose misrecognized dynamics of liberalism that show up, that become more obvious, in brexitrump as a phenomenon. The essays by Soni, Kunin, and Ashton challenge our received understanding of the strength of three pillars of liberal politics: judgment, subjectivity, and expressive autonomy. If we understand judgment as not decision but endless deferral (Soni), if humans want to be not subjects but objects (Kunin), and if aesthetic expression is not correlative to political action but a cypher for it (Ashton), then aspects of brexitrump might have been predicted. The popular support for a leader who is a cypher of judgment, who performs decision as rhetoric rather than promise, might be the exemplar of liberal judgment and not an avatar of its demise; the political divide based on stereotyping that we take to be problematic for liberal politics might instead indicate the centrality of type-making for questions of human desire; and the explosion of expressive forms and medias that fueled brexitrump might not support political discrimination but rather predict the potency of internet silos and fake news.

These dynamics -- expressive autonomy, endlessly deferred judgement, stereotyping -- likewise raise the matter of detail, and so the question: does detail matter? Under brexitrump, the answer must be both “no” and “yes”: a key premise of both Brexit and Trump has been that details will work themselves out later (never mind how the wall along the US-Mexican border will get built; don’t worry about how Anglo-European trade relations will unfold), yet a key refrain under each repeatedly bemoans how devilish the details prove to be (“no one knew” how complicated health care was). Several of the authors in our collection look to the matter of detail in order to emphasize just how powerful and capacious the ephemeral trace, the minor form, the marginal inscription can prove for the making (and remaking) of worlds. Thus Love finds in Patricia Highsmith evidence that care for and attention to detail becomes a vital method for living. Meeuwis analyzes the significance, for George Bernard Shaw, of relations of literary text to its paratext for political dynamics of audience, belief, and collective expression -- relations of textual detail that hold telling resonance in the era of brexitrump. And Flatley reads ephemeral textual details -- the type and layout of a strike handbill; the tone and timbre of voice over a documentary film -- in order to show how they can help to change the collective mood in ways potent enough to challenge the political dynamics in a given moment.

One especially pernicious detail in the brexitrump moment is a tendency to demonize working classes for their supposed role in triggering these crises. We would hold that mainstream media gets this story wrong, precisely by oversimplifying the complicated and volatile entanglements among media, class, and liberal politics. At the same time, essays by McCann, Hasenbank, and Potts tell us, liberal institutions of higher education and literary history have also been part of the problem as well as a potential means for its solution. McCann offers a nuanced and searching assessment about the complex history of the relations between a “liberal elite” and a disaffected working class, condemning the ways that  mid-twentieth-century US cultural leaders abdicated issues of economic inequality and justice. Hasenbank argues that the methods of book history can counter such suppression of class concerns; she does do by recovering a Canadian proletarian media culture from the 1930s that confounds liberal narratives and values regnant since at least the early decades of the last century. Potts shows how certain kinds of cultural identifications besides class--with race and region in particular--are at once traceable back to cultural histories of US literary formation and difficult to understand, because narratives of liberalism and literary history have routinely conspired to obscure not reveal the relations among various forms of cultural identification. What these essays show, then, is that we cannot simply point the finger at caricatures of class and media -- in the era of brexitrump, we urgently need new (and newly historicized) understanding of the relations of class, race, region, and media.

We would emphasize that the collection’s essays do not merely suggest that such grimmer histories are decisive in determining our potential engagements with the literary/liberal entanglement. In fact they show that moments of uncertainty such as our own brexitrump moment offer resources for the future. The essays by Flatley and Rahmani, for example,  analyze moments and events in the history of liberalism every bit as unclear about whether liberalism was approaching apotheosis or rupture. In these histories--of Imperial England’s world-making project of botany and of the persistence of modes of racial domination and resistance in mid-20th century Detroit workers movements--the authors find that the resources, tactics, and successes of culture work -- including the work of literary criticism -- can take surprising turns and have consequences at once subtle and significant. These two essays remind us  that liberalism’s predations can and need to be challenged via literary, aesthetic, and material practices. They exemplify what we take to be one of the lessons of the book overall: that it is a mistake for literary critics to cede to the force of politics, to deny or diminish the literary/liberal entanglement and our own involvement, complicity, and therefore agency in it.

Corrinne Harol is an associate professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta.

Mark Simpson is an associate professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta.