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New Left Review I/164, July-August 1987


Franco Moretti

The Spell of Indecision

In the past two decades, there has been a complete change in the dominant attitude of Marxist criticism towards Modernism. Essentially, Marxist readings of avant-garde literature are increasingly based on interpretative theories—Russian Formalism, Bakhtin’s work, theories of the ‘open’ text, deconstructionism—which, in one way or another, belong to Modernism itself. This sudden loss of distance has inevitably paved the way to a sort of interpretative vicious circle. But what seems to me even more significant is the transformation which has occurred in the field of values and value-judgements, where recent Marxist criticism is really little more than a left-wing ‘apology of Modernism’. We need only think of such pioneer Marxist work as that of Benjamin or Adorno, and the extent of this cultural somersault is evident. Benjamin and Adorno associated ‘fragmentary’ texts with melancholy, pain, defencelessness, loss of hope; today, they would evoke the far more exhilarating concepts of semantic freedom, de-totalization and productive heterogeneity. In the deliberate obscurity of modern literature, Benjamin and Adorno saw the sign of some kind of threat; nowadays, it would be taken rather as a promise of free interpretative play. For them, the key novelist of the modern world was, quite clearly, Franz Kafka; today, just as clearly, he has been replaced by James Joyce, whose work is just as great, but certainly less urgent and ‘uncanny’.

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