Towards 2000, or News From You-Know-Where
Calendars are never innocent, but in recent times they have become positively lurid. Even the soberest temporal reckoning is open to the suggestions of political numerology, which fascinates by its very lack of reason. The year now ended was for a generation the deadline for the most widely propagated of latterday political forebodings, George Orwell’s vision of ‘Ingsoc’; and, as if that were not distraction enough, 1984 found us exactly mid-way between 1968 and the millennium, 2000. Such thoughts are whimsical, but whimsy is not random. It is a sign of anxiety, in this case a political anxiety whose real grounds are evident. The stronger probabilities of the years ahead appear dispiriting and dangerous, and, more gravely, it is increasingly widely feared that the reservoir of historical possibility is in fact a mirage. Contemporary culture is pervaded by what Raymond Williams has come to call ‘the sense of the loss of the future’—the future not as a continuation of recognizable forms of social existence but as a locus of realizable alternatives. It is ironic that capitalism should at length have ‘advanced’ to this. Familiar of the most dynamic mode of production in history, capitalist culture valorized the attainable earthly future as no prior culture could have done. The theme of ‘modernity’ was and is just this: an endless serial presentation (making present) of the future. The ambition was not empty: capitalism has remade and continues to remake the earth and its populations. But the accumulation of tomorrows is self-depleting. The physical landscapes of advanced capitalism are now littered with stalled and abandoned futures, things and people alike, much metropolitan culture is an aimless circulation of retro-chic, and apocalypse itself is just the last word.
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In response to a bold reconstruction of Anglophone literary studies challenging the political self-understanding of the reigning historicism and looking to a new, interventionist departure on the left, some critical considerations on disciplinary history, the place of ‘knowledge’ in the fictional order, as well as the discourses that address it, and the precedent of Leavis and his followers.
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The fascination of Joseph Conrad’s novels with the transformative pressures of capitalist modernity threatens a revelation so intolerable, Mulhern suggests, that it can only be contained within dense narrative strategies of deferral and disavowal.