EN 4223 – Fictions of Space and Culture Seminar 2 Handout

Introduction: Space, Culture, Narrative

I.   Introductory thesis about space and culture in geopolitical fiction

This module seeks, among other things, to foster a multidisciplinary analytical method which can account for space, culture and narrative at the same time, without reducing any 1 of those terms into a mere object or appendix of the other terms.  E.g. space (houses, open/public spaces, landscapes) has long played a role in literature, but in literary analysis it only signifies as the object of the text’s description – i.e. space effectively gets reduced to literary description (the extent of the description; imagery used; narrative structure of description, etc).  Culture is often viewed as the context in which a text is produced: eg we speak of Victorian “consumer culture” and then look for corroborating evidence of this in a text, either as description/representation/symbol, or else as an ideological value-system lying as it were “beneath the surface” of the text.

                 I’m proposing both that we approach geopolitical writing in a different way; and that geopolitical writing itself begs/assumes this different way, in being so acutely conscious of space and culture as constitutive/defining, not merely as literary object (again, this is the geopolitical moment’s proto-modernism, or proto-postmodernism: its socio-historical participation in the fluid conceptions/boundaries of space/time/text/reality that are familiar to us.  E.g. a virtual room – is it text/image (page, code, sign), or space (something we appear to inhabit or walk into), or culture (a group, identity, economy, industry)?  Similarly reality tv, or interactive texts?

                 Thus, my thesis is that geopolitical fiction doesn’t simply talk about (or is vaguely “inspired by”) space and culture, but is also:

1.   a cultural manifestation/expression of a certain social consciousness/ideology (one formed at the nexus of expansive transnational capital, global politics, multicultural awareness);

2.   itself a text-as-space, like most travel writing creating in readers a sense of participating in the journey and experience (consumption) of that land, but also creating a space consciousness peculiar to the geopolitical moment – one that emphasizes a new speed, motility, liminality, openness (including uncertainty)

3.   therefore also a cultural praxis – a reading experience that acculturates the reader into a prevailing socio-cultural position, with its inherent values, assumptions, perspectives.

II.   Bakhtin’s notion of the “chronotope”

Mikhail Bakhtin, in his long essay “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel,” (which can be found in the collected volume The Dialogic Imagination) speaks of the “time space” (“chronotope” – Gk “chronos” = time, “topos” = place) of the novel.  Bakhtin’s main points were 1. the “inseparability of space and time,” and 2.  that “time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history” (Dialogic Imagination p. 84).  Bakhtin seems primarily to be interested in the thickening out of space and time (as they inter-relate to each other) in the literary text – he wasn’t interested in non-literary chronotopes, and he didn’t (partly as a consequence of this) really see the chronotope as a whole cultural consciousness/ideology/experience.  (Theorists like Michel Foucault, and of course the Marxist cultural scholars and geographers like Fredric Jameson and David Harvey, have more developed notions of the cultural experience and ideology of space-time, although I don’t think they use the term “chronotope” specifically – except for Foucault).

So we have to develop Bakhtin’s notion of the chronotope of the novel, in our reading of geopolitical novels.  In this, we see each literary work as inducting the reader into a specific space-time consciousness.  What is the epic chronotope – single-minded journey (to Ithaca), heroic larger-than-life protagonist (demigod-like Ulysses, who can even trick and best gods), a world filled with manifestations of the supernatural/dangers (Bakhtin actually speaks of the “Greek romance” rather than the epic poem, but there are overlaps – Bakhtin calls it the “adventure novel of ordeal”).  Epic listeners do not only receive a representation of a world that is vast and beyond human control, but they also consume and are interpellated (Althusser) into a certain chronotopic consciousness: passive wonder, receptivity, subjection, veneration of gods, limited place of everyday man.  Message (crudely put): don’t leave home, unless you’re a quasi-demigod like Ulysses, and be sure to revere the gods who control space/travel/sea.  This message is also reinforced/effected by narrative style: the Bardic authority, prophetic and visionary, almost a messenger/interpreter of the gods, who is to be listened to without subjective response or any more active participation.  (The chronotopic consciousness is rather more complex than that, of course – if the listeners fear Ulysses’s trials, he also gives them hope in the possibility of man overcoming space and the elements.  The Gk concept of “catharsis” is a vicarious purging or cleansing through the fate of a great hero, that involves both identification with and rejection of the hero’s condition.  Likewise, the epic chronotopic consciousness is both hope and circumscription – but hope within circumscription, which reinforces the circumscription of one’s spatial limits).

In contrast, what is the novelistic chronotope – say, of the mid-Victorian domestic realist novel (e.g. Middlemarch)?  Firstly, a change in actual physical setting – Bakhtin speaks of the “space of parlors and salons” in Stendhal and Balzac.  Focus on marriage as microcosm of society – gender relations, place of women, household economy, moral values.  Social forces replace “the gods” as the elements/obstacles that must be negotiated/feared; relationships of humans to space take the form, not of adventure/hazard, but of property/possession.  Relations to others not through simple “clan” loyalties (family, tribe, army) but abstract relations (patron, boss, partner). 

i.e. Space is reconceived of as a social territory.  Chronotopic consciousness is arguably a negotiation of domestic-social space in market society – emphasizing domestic spaces and the complex abstract social terrain, rather than external spaces.  Narrative form rehearses and corroborates this act of social maneuvering, by positioning the text as commodity, and the relationship between author/narrator(s) and readers as that of negotiated social compact – the reader is rhetorically persuaded, her subjective interpretation is acknowledged (to a certain extent) and appealed to, in order to try to arrive at a pleasing, agreed-upon social construction.

Can we thus speak of an ideology of spatial circumscription?  Why this inward-looking nature?  Especially in an age of actual military, political, geographical expansion, and maritime/commercial intensification, as the mid-Victorian period was?  A kind of “blind spot”? (not likely, if this implies ignorance or lack of access to information).  Perhaps we need to think in terms inspired by Marxist theory, of a kind of cultural “superstructure” which serves to further an economic-political “base.”  Victorian cultural “blindness” to outside space and cultures a kind of needful ignorance, to avoid excessive moral/ethical debates about Britain’s empire-economy and thus slow down the domestic consumption and taxation needed to sustain that empire.  (Interestingly, cultural documents expressing criticism about Britain’s overseas activities – African slave trade, sugar plantations in W Indies, shipping and mercantilism – were more widespread in the late 18th C, in the writings of Adam Smith, S. T. Coleridge, many others, but seem to have conveniently died down in the mid-Victorian era, in time with a surge in the empire-economy).


So much for space – what about time?  Bakhtin’s notion of the chronotope stipulates not just that a particular kind of spatial experience is historically-dependent (epic space for classical age of tribal territorialism and conflict; domestic space for age of advanced European capitalism), which is an important things to remember, but also that one cannot experience space without also experiencing it in time/duration – i.e. the notion of space without time/duration is merely an abstraction. 

                 Think about the timeframe of action in different genres: epic time-frame is years, commensurate with the spatial consciousness of great unknown and uncontrollable distances.  The sense of the stretch of time is emphasised by the fact that only 1 person is acting in all this period.  (Bakhtin speaks of the “empty time” of “Greek romance” – it leaves “no indication of its passing,” almost a kind of blank space between events).  Victorian time is usually shorter (weeks or months), and even when it is longer (Middlemarch takes place over several years), the stretch of time feels a lot more “full” because it is occupied by the lives and actions of many more people in a large social canvas.  So not just duration, but also the “fullness” of time, of events in time

                 Also the speed of actions – how much space is covered in the same time?  How much change in lives/physical landscape (the speed of Middlemarch is constantly emphasised by the big change that threatens the landscape – the surveying and transformation of the land by the railway).  Speed is often conveyed through travel and communications – look at the way in which travel, the experience and modes of travel, are emphasized in geopolitical fiction.

III.   Chronotope, ideology, base-superstructure

Theory of the textual chronotope offers us a way of seeing space in the text not merely as description/landscape, but of an experience, consciousness, social culture and ideology of space.  The chronotope is the actual construction of a space-time within a text – it forces us to recognize the text as a cultural construction and experience; and since space is also seen as a cultural construction and experience, it becomes possible to conceive of the textual spatial experience as being on a similar footing as (say) architecture or city streets as a spatial construction.

                 (There are obviously different economies and polities of textual vs (say) urban spaces, as well as other differences of scope, medium, dimensionality etc.  But the point is that they both involve similar social constructions and experiences.  It’s a lot easier for us now to understand this, especially after structuralism and semiotics have given us theoretical frameworks and terminologies to talk about different cultural media in common terms – but it was always possible to see texts and spaces as cultural constructions and experiences).

While large chronotopic distinctions are characteristic of large changes in era/genre, finer sub-genre distinctions are also possible.  Thus, it may be possible to see fin de siecle writing as a sub-genre distinct from the mid-Victorian novel, even though they are both under the same nominal category (“Victorian novel”).  The test would be to see if there are distinct differences in the chronotopic consciousnesses of the two sub-genres.  Comparing mid-Victorian and fin de siecle geopolitical fiction, the stark difference between their geographical settings is already a suggestion of the sub-genre difference.  But chronotopic difference is not merely/just a matter of geographical setting (otherwise Moonstone, which is mostly set in England, wouldn’t qualify as a geopolitical novel). 

                 In contrast to the “circumscribed space, inward-looking, social negotiation” chronotope of the Victorian social novel, the geopolitical novel (whether more “domestic” in setting, like the earlier Moonstone, or more venturously “foreign” like Outcast of the Islands) has a generally “expansive” chronotope, an “interaction of domestic/foreign or European/Other spheres through a variety of tropes (camaraderie, “service,” intermarriage or interracial desire, business dealings, travel and the trope of guiding, etc), an “ethnographic” engagement with various aspects of foreign cultures (especially language, religion, superstitions/rituals, racial typologies).

                  Superstructure: signals a change to a “base” that is no longer the exploitative and authoritative empire-economy, and increasingly a global economy that relies (in various ways, and to various degrees) on the participation of the racial-cultural Other.  As Byron Farwell (Queen Victoria’s Little Wars, p. 349) points out, the last stages of the Boer War (so, around 1900-1901) marked the first time in history that native forces (South African tribesmen) were recruited (by the English) to fight against Europeans (the Boers).  British in Malaya in latter half of 19th C used a “Residency” system to influence and guide the affairs of the Malay states, rather than dominate and control – the understanding was that Malay culture would be respected and left alone, rather than controlled; the main motive was effortless and trouble-free profit, rather than the expense of military enforcement.  Contiguity of colonial enterprises (e.g. English in Malaya and Dutch in Indonesia; English and Dutch in South Africa) meant a check to the old model of ruthless suppression of natives (since this would leave the colonial power open, not just to the moral scrutiny of a nearby European rival, but also to intervention and military rivalry after the incumbent colonial power was weakened by a costly native war).

                 Ideological role of geopolitical literature is thus to initiate transition in public consciousness from older authoritative empire-economy, to new “participative” global one.  (Note that, as people like Saskia Sassen and David Harvey point out, even today – fully a century after the nascent geopolitical moment – the global economy is still not level.  “Participative” doesn’t mean equal partnership – it simply means re-configuring power relations, to assign a certain significance to the Other, often a token or symbolic significance rather than empowered one, but one which is seen as necessary in order to “purchase” the continuing participation of the Other).

IV.   Deleuze and Guattari, the “flows” and “channeling” of social desire, and an alternative way of reading geopolitical culture

Marxist notions of ideology, base and superstructure have often been criticized, for being too abstract and complex, but also for not offering a realistic and accurate way of accounting for the relationship between economics, politics, and culture.  Thus, for example, even Marxist theorists disagree with each other on the way in which the superstructure relates to the base: does the superstructural culture merely mimic, echo or underscore the economic system in the base?  How do you account for the differences in medium (the cultural nature of superstructure, the economic nature of the base) – i.e. how does (e.g.) a literary text advance an economic structure?  (In addition, Marxism insisted on the fundamental “contradiction” of Bourgeois culture, the instability of capitalism – how then did the superstructure manage this “contradiction”?)

                 For these and other reasons, you might not want to follow a strictly Marxist line of inquiry on geopolitics – Deleuze and Guattari, in their massive critique on/development of Marxist and Psychoanalytic thought, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, offer an alternative, in their idea of the “channeling” of desire.  For DG, all society is to be seen of in “machine” terms – culture is a machine (production, assembly, rationalization, etc – all reduced to a “process of production”) as much as economy, technology, a tool, etc.  So there’s no problem with the difference in media between base and superstructure.  DG (crudely speaking) reduced all social processes to the same level, flattening out the distinctions between base and superstructure, high and low culture, visible and invisible/unconscious, man and nature etc – everything is desire, everything is process, everything is a machine. (This is true only of capitalist society – DG basically take the abstracting power of capitalism, and extend it consistently throughout society).

                 Once everything is on the same level, it becomes possible to see all social activity as comprising “two sorts of flows: the decoded flows of production in the form of money-capital, and the decoded flows of labor in the form of the ‘free worker.” Money is the means – “By substituting money for the very notion of a code, it has created an axiomatic of abstract quantities that keeps moving further and further in the direction of the deterritorialization of the socius.  Capitalism tends toward a threshold of decoding that will destroy the socius in order to make it a body without organs and unleash the flows of desire on this body as a deterritorialized field” (p. 33).

                 The “primitive body”: no less a process or machine, but a pre-“technical” machine: the pre-capitalist earth “is already a social machine, a megamachine, that codes the flows of production, the flows of means of production” (pp. 141-142).  But this primitive territorial machine codes flows by “marking bodies” (tattooing, scarifying, mutilating, etc).  Modernity is then the necessary obliteration of these marked bodies (by violence), in order to create “an other memory, one that is collective, a memory of words (paroles) and no longer a memory of things, a memory of signs and no longer of effects” (p. 144 – after Nietzsche).

                 Following DG, we might see the geopolitical moment as the transition from a primitive machine to a modern technological one, a systematic attempt to violently erase marked bodies (including marks of gender, race, tribe) and re-construct (through writing/signs) a new deterritorialized field (the whole earth) connected only by codes of desire and money.

                 (The consequence of this erasure of “marked bodies” – either of flesh or earth – is a universal “schizophrenia,” an “undifferentiated” flow of “continually producing production.”  Not pathological schizophrenia, but “the schizophrenic [as] the universal producer”, p. 5-7).

V.   A reading/research agenda for geopolitical fiction: or, How to Read (Again)

Geopolitical fiction, if we are correct, demands a “map of re-reading” (to adapt a phrase of Harold Bloom’s).  While we still read literary elements like plot, narrative voice, character, symbol, etc, we also and simultaneously (re)read them all as part of a larger work of constructing a new system/machine – literature as feeding and recoding a new system, that makes readers into machines (produced by writers and publishers) that in turn carry and replicate those codes elsewhere in social interaction (think Agent Smith in The Matrix replicating and reproducing himself).  All this then re-connects in an “undifferentiated” flow of producing production: thus, novels, department stores, travel companies, airlines, couriers, clothing lines, sweat shops in the third world, are all linked up in a seamless “body without organs.”

 This may necessitate different emphases/questions to guide our re-reading.  I put these in the form of paradoxical-sounding, “but-and” kinds of formulation, to provoke similar such strategies (rather than to seek an exhaustive list):

a.   Not just who does what (character/agency), but what “does” whom – what forces are causing certain characters to act in certain ways?  The key may be to look at recurring sites of madness, the fantastical, the surreal – are these indications of the breakdown of moral motive, identity, psyche, and other such discrete and rational categories?  Are they suggestions that we should read forces/flows, rather than persons/agendas?

b.   Look at processes, not just events/moments/ends – in a sense (if DG and others are correct), we don’t really have “endings” anymore, from the geopolitical moment onwards (not even as defined in Aristotle’s Poetics).  Many of our geopolitical texts (like the pomo texts they in some ways anticipate) suggest the impossibility of closure – there is no moral lesson, no organic development, no certainty, but very much of a suggestion that all this might happen all over again tomorrow, perhaps just changing a few names.

                 If so, then it is perhaps processes which should be occupying our attention, not just results/end-points.  Many of these texts focus at quite great length on “hows” – the detailed “technical” (or “machine,” in DG’s terms) processes of many actions (which, in Victorian social novels, would not happen, or would just be glossed over) – how the diamond got stolen, how a crime got carried out, how someone traveled from England to Transylvania, how this compares to how someone else did the same journey.  Process is the new great literary theme – boring, yet also compelling because it is not just about literature, but also about a new way of life.  (An analogy, but also a consequence, in our day – think about queing, not as a means to an end, but its own social praxis – the protocol of queing, the how-to, what to bring, the fights/quarrels – in a sense, the actual product at the end doesn’t matter, once we get into the process; and the process reinforces itself (we get better at queing, more used to it) as well as other process-oriented processes – i.e it reinforces process-processing!

c.   Not just inscription/writing, but also unwriting/unmaking and re-inscription – the sense, not just of the passing of an era/way (which is a clear trope in many of these texts), but also of the process/act (again!) of deliberately (sometimes violently) erasing those marks, so that new marks can be written, new codes established.  In a way, these novels are about the process of writing – not just creative writing, but writing in the sense of making (poesis – poetry) a new culture – about cultural reinvention.  Hence the deliberate sense of manipulating people and cultures (the manipulative, almost cruel aspect is significant – Holmes, Kim, Willems, Lingard are all users, in an almost cavalier way) in order to come up with a new synthesis, which somehow (without much effort or thought) becomes a new social order/mode.