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After Utopia: The Rise of Critical Space in Twentieth-Century American Fiction

After Utopia: The Rise of Critical Space in Twentieth-Century American Fiction

by Nicholas Spencer

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By developing the concept of critical space, After Utopia presents a new genealogy of twentieth-century American fiction. Nicholas Spencer argues that the radical American fiction of Jack London, Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, and Josephine Herbst reimagines the spatial concerns of late nineteenth-century utopian American texts. Instead of fully imagined


By developing the concept of critical space, After Utopia presents a new genealogy of twentieth-century American fiction. Nicholas Spencer argues that the radical American fiction of Jack London, Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, and Josephine Herbst reimagines the spatial concerns of late nineteenth-century utopian American texts. Instead of fully imagined utopian societies, such fiction depicts localized utopian spaces that provide essential support for the models of history on which these authors focus. In the midcentury novels of Mary McCarthy and Paul Goodman and the late twentieth-century fiction of Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, Joan Didion, and Don DeLillo, narratives of social space become decreasingly utopian and increasingly critical. The highly varied "critical space" of such texts attains a position similar to that enjoyed by representations of historical transformation in early twentieth-century radical American fiction. After Utopia finds that central aspects of postmodern American novels derive from the overtly political narratives of London, Sinclair, Dos Passos, and Herbst.

Spencer focuses on distinct moments in the rise of critical space during the past century and relates them to the writing of Georg Lukács, Ernst Bloch, Antonio Gramsci, Hannah Arendt, Henri Lefebvre, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and Paul Virilio. The systematic and genealogical encounter between critical theory and American fiction reveals close parallels between and original analyses of these two areas of twentieth-century cultural discourse.

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After Utopia

The Rise of Critical Space in Twentieth-Century American Fiction

By Nicholas Spencer

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2006

University of Nebraska Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8032-4301-4


Over the past decade the study of textualizations of space has become
one of the most widespread and influential trends in many
areas of cultural criticism. For some observers, the popularity of spatial
critique is an unwelcome sign of faddishness. However, it is, I
think, more appropriate to regard the extent of contemporary spatial
analyses as the sign of a legitimate sharing of concerns. Critical assessments
that simply repeat existent conclusions or fail to develop
their outlook in any depth should, of course, be accorded limited acclaim.
But rather than striving to curtail spatial analyses in the belief
that such endeavors are now passé, critical culture is best served by
building upon existing spatial critique and creating new frameworks
and contexts for investigations into cultural space. In this book I seek
to accomplish both these goals. After Utopia mobilizes the concept
of "critical space" to reorient scholarly perspectives on twentieth-century
American fiction. The critical paradigm that is articulated in
the following chapters is rooted in one of the most influential theses of
contemporary spatial critique. Speaking of early-twentieth-century
culture,Michel Foucault argues, "Space was treated as the dead, the
fixed, the undialectical, the immobile. Time, on the contrary, was richness,
fecundity, life, dialectic" ("Questions" 70). In a related argument
Foucault claims "that the anxiety of our era has to do fundamentally
with space, no doubt a great deal more than with time" ("Of" 23).
In other words, Foucault perceives in late-twentieth-century culture
a reversal of the dominance of temporality over spatiality that he
attributes to the earlier part of the century. Taking Foucault's theorization
as its starting point, After Utopia examines the function of
spatiality at several points in the course of twentieth-century American
fiction. Unlike the work of spatial theorists such as Edward Soja
and Fredric Jameson, which reconceptualizes Foucault's pronouncement
as a distinction between modernism's obsession with history
and postmodernism's preoccupation with spatiality, this book identifies
a continual process of transformation in fictional spatiality. In
turning away from the monolithic terminology of modernism and
postmodernism, I hope to provide a nuanced account of the rise of
critical space in twentieth-century American fiction. After Utopia does
argue that late-twentieth-century American fiction is dominated by
spatial concerns. However, such dominant spatiality takes heterogeneous
forms and must be viewed as a transformation of the spatial
thematics of radical American fiction of the early decades of the twentieth
century. Moreover, I argue that in such early-twentieth-century
American fiction, models of history are coarticulated with notions
of critical space. In the later American fiction assessed in the following
chapters, textualizations of critical space reinscribe and then
supersede principles that are central to the dominant historicity of
the earlier fiction that I discuss.

The argument of this book encompasses five distinct moments in
the rise of critical space in twentieth-century American fiction: the
naturalist fiction of Jack London and Upton Sinclair; the 1930s trilogies
of John Dos Passos and Josephine Herbst; the midcentury novels
of Mary McCarthy and Paul Goodman; the 1970s fiction of Thomas
Pynchon and William Gaddis; and novels by Joan Didion and Don
DeLillo from the final decades of the twentieth century. In each chapter
I discuss perspectives in critical theory that illuminate, problematize,
or mirror the concerns of the fictional texts that I discuss. In
so doing, I highlight conceptions in twentieth-century critical theory
that correspond at key places with examples of American fiction. In
these theoretical analyses, I posit that struggles among ideas of history
and spatiality inform the developments involving Marxism and
post-Marxism that we see in the fiction and theory discussed in this
book. By arguing that similar transformations regarding the rise of
critical space take place in twentieth-century American fiction and
continental theory, I hope to demonstrate that these cultural forms
constitute a transnational and transgeneric textual field. As part of
this project, I point out the insistent presence of critical space at many
points in trajectories of Marxist and post-Marxist theory. In Postmodern
, Soja argues that the collapse of the Paris Commune in
1871 signaled the victory of historical over spatial critique in the radical
tradition. The newly dominant historicity was, according to Soja,
"stripped of its more geographically sensitive variants (such as the
utopian and anarchistic socialisms of Fourier, Proudhon, Kropotkin,
and Bakunin [...])" (31). Soja concludes that spatial critique remained
largely dormant during the modern period, but his account
underestimates both the role of utopian spatiality in Marx's social
theory and the legacy of such utopianism in the spatial concerns that
play a prominent role in much Western Marxist theory of the early
twentieth century. In pursuing readings that are informed by the
spatial concerns of Marxist and post-Marxist theory, I do not undertake
an "application" of theory to fiction. Brian Massumi criticizes the
application of scientific theories in the humanities because, he argues,
such an approach either turns theoretical authority into "a form of
imperialist disciplinary aggression" or reduces theoretical concepts
to the status of "metaphor" and "exotic pet" (19). As an alternative to
application, Massumi advocates "treating the scientific concept the
way any other concept is treated" (20). Similarly, I seek to bypass
the uncritical and ad hoc qualities that are endemic to theoretical
application, and I strive to analyze the critical space of both theory
and fiction through their interrelation.

In the first chapter I argue that the fiction of London and Sinclair inverts
key aspects of the American utopian fiction that flourished and
quickly subsided in the late nineteenth century. Utopian novels such
as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward are dominated by depictions
of idealized social space. Representations of historical process play
a crucial role in these texts, but they are secondary in importance to
spatial descriptions. For example, in Looking Backward there are two
arcs of naturalist evolutionary process that support the laying out of
utopian space-the transition from Bellamy's own time to the imagined
world of 2000, and the movement beyond the year 2000 into the
utopian future. Unlike the idealized space of the novel, these historical
arcs are both portrayed in uncertain and inconsistent terms. In
contrast to Bellamy, London and Sinclair prioritize the representation
of naturalist process in their fiction. The naturalism of these authors is
governed by versions of socialist theories of dialectical struggle and
deterministic history. The totalized and monolithic utopian space that
we see in novels such as Looking Backward is transformed into a set of
spatial representations that express a utopian impulse. Subordinate
to the naturalistic history that London and Sinclair prioritize, these
utopianistic spaces are localized models of social practices and relationships
that serve to inspire the dialectical struggles of history. Like
the arcs of history in Looking Backward, the social spaces represented
by London and Sinclair are usually flawed and incomplete. The details
of London's and Sinclair's narrative conjunctions of utopianism
and naturalism differ greatly, but for both authors the relation between
models of history and representations of spatiality is filled
with tension, conflict, and instability. In order to unpack these varying
elements, I analyze conflicts within and between London and
Sinclair in relation to models of history and spatiality articulated by
the Marxist theories of Georg Lukács and Ernst Bloch. The novels
of London and Sinclair are not examples of utopian fiction, because
they do not privilege the depiction of fully realized ideal societies.
Nevertheless, the critical spatiality that is articulated in these novels
exhibits tendencies that exemplify the influence of late-nineteenth-century
utopian fiction.

With reference to Gramsci's writings on hegemonic processes of
transformation and the complex landscape of social space, the second
chapter demarcates key issues in the trilogies of Dos Passos and
Herbst. In the fiction of Dos Passos and Herbst, the general characteristics
of London's and Sinclair's textualizations of history and
spatiality are reiterated. All these writers prioritize the representation
of historical process and assign social space a related but lesser role.
However, the certainties of deterministic history that are at times
expressed by London and Sinclair have, in these later writers, given
way to diffidence. The problematic of history remains central in these
trilogies of the 1930s, but London's and Sinclair's promotion of singular
visions of history is replaced by Dos Passos's and Herbst's exploration
of various possible ways in which social transformation can
be imagined. Also, the role of critical space is more prominent in the
work of Dos Passos and Herbst than in that of London and Sinclair.
As strong teleological convictions give way to variegated and open-ended
conceptions of societal change, spatial representations become
an increasingly important source of social analysis and critique. The
forms of social space that interest Dos Passos and Herbst are distinct
in nature, but they share the characteristic of being less utopian
and more critical than the spatial aspects of the work of London and
Sinclair. In Dos Passos and Herbst we witness a key moment in the
rise of critical space in twentieth-century American fiction because
these authors narrate the point at which the analytical significance of
spatiality often appears to be greater than that of historicity.

Two varying theoretical analyses are discussed in chapter 3. After
reading Mary McCarthy's The Oasis in light of Hannah Arendt's conceptualization
of social and political space, I assess Henri Lefebvre's
reflections on the social space of everyday life as part of a reading
of Paul Goodman's The Empire City. In the section on McCarthy, I
argue that The Oasis represents the abandonment of the general critical
model that London, Sinclair, Dos Passos, and Herbst fictionalize.
That The Oasis takes the form of a satire on utopia indicates the dominance
of spatiality in this text. In other words, The Oasis represents
a further advance in the rise of critical space beyond the position
that spatiality occupies in the fiction of Dos Passos and Herbst. Yet
McCarthy's satirical intent means that spatiality in this novel is used
to critique bourgeois capitalism, utopianism, and theories of history
associated with Marxism. In challenging the opposition between capitalism
and radicalism, McCarthy's enfolding of historicity into critical
spatiality strives to discredit the spatial and historical critiques
that are featured in the work of London, Sinclair, Dos Passos, and
Herbst. As an analysis of the divergence of social space in midcentury
American fiction, the third chapter contrasts the spatiality of The
with that of Paul Goodman's The Empire City. Like The Oasis,
The Empire City
negates models of history and thus further suggests
the departure from Marxist models of temporality in midcentury fiction.
Goodman's novel also shares McCarthy's dual articulation of
a preoccupation with spatiality and a critique of utopianism. Such
similarities demonstrate the validity of locating these two novels at a
distinct moment in twentieth-century American fiction. But whereas
McCarthy's novel liquidates the spatial and historical tendencies that
animate radical fiction of the early twentieth century, The Empire City
revivifies the critique of social struggle through fictionalized spatiality.
Goodman achieves this end by assigning to his representation of
social space the principles of dialectical struggle that, in the fiction of
London, Sinclair, Dos Passos, and Herbst, are foundational to representations
of historical process. In its replacement of utopian space
with spatial dialectics, Goodman's novel establishes critical space as
a primary means of articulating social struggle in fiction.

In my discussion of Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis in chapter
4, I assess the ways in which these authors enlarge the spatial
dialectics of Goodman's novel. Lefebvre's theorization of the production
of space and the urban revolution provides a framework for
the discussion of these authors. Whereas The Empire City focuses on
localized struggles on the social terrain of New York City, the novels of
Pynchon and Gaddis depict larger patterns of transformation within
urban and social space. Both Pynchon and Gaddis fictionalize the
coming of what Lefebvre describes as "abstract space" (Production
49). For Lefebvre, abstract space refers to the homogenization and
fragmentation of social space that is associated with the practices of
neocapitalism in the post-1945 era. In Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow,
the events at the conclusion of World War II facilitate the emergence
of abstract social space. For much of this novel, the formation of abstract
space struggles against "lived space," which Lefebvre defines
in terms of autonomous social spaces that oppose abstract space (Production
39). Along with its negation of models of history, the novel's
treatment of spatial dialectics exemplifies its reworking of principles
that are central to the pre-1939 fiction studied in this book. The dialectic
of abstract and lived space in Gravity's Rainbow culminates in
the representation of the urban space of Los Angeles. In these final
scenes of the novel, Pynchon's descriptions of the urban infrastructure
of southern California in the 1970s evoke the seemingly decisive
confrontation between abstract and lived space. The threat of the
colonization of lived by abstract space with which Gravity's Rainbow
concludes is realized in Gaddis's JR. In this novel, abstract space takes
dominion in the urban environments of New York, and the possibility
of oppositional lived space is eradicated. As the narrative of a
failed dialectic, JR represents the terminal point of textualizations of
dialectics that play a vital role in the rise of critical space in American

The fifth chapter analyzes the novels of Joan Didion and Don
DeLillo as fictionalizations of dominant critical space that depart from
dialectical models. The first section of this chapter considers the novels
of Joan Didion in relation to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's
theorization of spatiality and territoriality. Didion's extraordinarily
reiterative novels depict fluctuations of social space in the context
of opportunistic networks of economic and political power. Conceptions
of history and utopianism are absent in these novels. The struggles
of social space, which are of major concern to Didion, take the
form of various flows and blockages of movement and communication
that circumscribe behavior and agency. Through the conflicts
of social space, Didion conducts a critique of American capitalism
that is as integral to her writing as a similar critique is in the novels
of Sinclair and Dos Passos. However, the critical spatiality of these
novels is devoid of the binary oppositions and mediated syntheses
that characterize representations of dialectical conflict. In the second
section of this chapter, I analyze Don DeLillo's Underworld as an engagement
with technological concerns that are central to the writings
of Paul Virilio. DeLillo's novel describes how media and military
technologies serve to eradicate social space. The speed of these technologies
means that spatiality enters a critical condition, a condition
characterized by the possibility of the disappearance of critical space.
As a result, Underworld involves both a critique of transformations of
social space and a commentary on the technological erosion of the
significance of distance. By concluding with an analysis of the crisis
of critical space, After Utopia emphasizes the heterogeneity and precariousness
of forms of spatiality in late-twentieth-century American


Excerpted from After Utopia
by Nicholas Spencer
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press .
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Nicholas Spencer is an associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where he specializes in twentieth-century American literature and critical theory.

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