How to do things with realism

Thinking Literature 2, Week 6, Lecture 2

Natalia Cecire |

these slides available at

  1. Realist form (recap)
  2. Realism: a wider view (on Fredric Jameson’s The Antinomies of Realism)
  3. Political implications: realism and imperialism (on Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism)
  4. Political implications: realism and imperialist feminism (on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism")
  5. Peripheral realisms (on the special issue of Modern Language Quarterly edited by Joe Cleary, Jed Esty, and Colleen Lye)

1. Realist form: the naturalization of capitalist modernity

realist style

  • a style that hides the fact that it’s a style by presenting an unmarked vision of capitalist modernity
  • popular, democratic, and “accessible”
  • unmarked style is generally accepting of the status quo

modern time

  • secular, linear, "homogeneous, empty"
  • created using simultaneous plots, specific dates, references to national historical events
Opening shot of Star Wars.

fairy tale: "Once upon a time..."
Star Wars: A New Hope: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..."
Robinson Crusoe: "I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York..."

One of these is not like the others!

Modern space is homogeneous, mapped, gridded, and locatable. Created through:

  • real place names
  • typical descriptions
  • a sense that some places are more modern than others

Modern subjects are individual, "well-rounded," psychologically complex. Created through:

  • ordinary (non-allegorical) names
  • plot choices (character as motivation)
  • narrative techniques, e.g. free indirect discourse

These are not universal laws; they're just common enough to be unmarked.

When two things happen at/near the same time, does that mean they're related? And if they're related, how?

When two things happen at/near the same time, does that mean they're related? And if they're related, how?

  • Does capitalist modernity produce the realist novel (art work as effect of prior economic and political forces)?
  • Does the realist novel produce capitalist modernity (wholly or partially)?
  • Is the realist novel part of capitalist modernity?
  • Is it just a coincidence that there seem to be so many correspondences?

[F]or all their social presence, novels are not reducible to a sociological current, and cannot be done justice to aesthetically, culturally, and politically as subsidiary forms of class, ideology, or interest.

Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, 1993

2. Realism: a wider view

on Fredric Jameson’s The Antinomies of Realism (2012)

realism vs. romance, realism vs. epic, realism vs. melodrama, realism vs. idealism, realism vs. naturalism, (bourgeois or critical) realism vs. socialist realism, realism vs. the oriental tale, and of course, most frequently rehearsed of all, realism vs. modernism. ... Most of these binary pairs will...arouse a passionate taking of sides, in which realism is either denounced or elevated to the status of an ideal (aesthetic or otherwise).

Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism, 2012 a hybrid concept, in which an epistemological claim (for knowledge or truth) masquerades as an aesthetic ideal.

Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism, 2012

Realism: récit and affect

récit: narrative drive, temporal sequence of action, forward motion

affect: "the insurrection of the present against the other temporalities" (Kluge); sites of investment and significance that halt narrative forward motion

What we call realism will...come into being in the symbiosis of this pure form of storytelling [récit] with impulses of scenic elaboration, description and above all affective investment [affect], which allow it to develop towards a scenic present which in reality, but secretly, abhors the other temporalities which constitute the force of the tale or récit in the first place.

Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism, 2012

This means that we now have in our grasp the two chronological end points of realism: its genealogy in storytelling and the tale, its future dissolution in the literary representation of affect. A new concept of realism is then made available when we grasp both of these terminal points firmly at one and the same time.

Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism, 2012

[For theorists of the novel,] it is never very clear whether that [realist] form simply registers the advanced state of a given society or plays a part in society’s awareness of that advanced state and its potentialities (political and otherwise).

Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism, 2012

[T]he literature of realism has the ideological function of adapting its readers to bourgeois society as it currently exists, with its premium on comfort and inwardness, on individualism, on the acceptance of money as an ultimate reality (we might today speak of the acceptance of the market, of competition, of a certain image of human nature, and so forth).

Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism, 2012

3. Political implications: realism and imperialism

on Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993)

As a reference, as a point of definition, as an easily assumed place of travel, wealth, and service, the empire functions for much of the European nineteenth century as a codified, if only marginally visible, presence in fiction, very much like the servants in grand households and in novels, whose work is taken for granted but scarcely ever more than named, rarely studied..., or given density. [...] In all of these instances the facts of empire are associated with sustained possession, with far-flung and sometimes unknown spaces, with eccentric or unacceptable huan beings, with fortune-enhancing or fantasized activities like emigration, money-making, and sexual adventure. Disgraced younger sons are sent off to the colonies, shabby older relatives go there to try to recoup lost fortunes (as in Balzac’s La Cousine Bette), enterprising young travellers go there to sow wild oats and to collect exotica. The colonial territories are realms of possibility, and they have always been associated with the realistic [read: realist] novel.

Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, 1993

imperial view

departmental view

consolidated vision

The [realist] novel is an incorporative, quasi-encyclopaedic cultural form [containing] both a highly regulated plot mechanism and an entire system of social reference that depends on the existing institutions of bourgeois society.

Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, 1993

contrapuntal reading

England was surveyed, evaluated, made known, whereas ‘abroad’ was only referred to or shown briefly without the kind of presence or immediacy lavished on London, the countryside, or northern industrial centres such as Manchester or Birmingham.

Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, 1993

[I]mperialism and the [realist] novel fortified each other to such a degree that it is impossible, I would argue, to read one without in some way dealing with the other. [...] For the British writer, ‘abroad’ was felt vaguely and ineptly to be out there, or exotic and strange, or in some way or other ‘ours’ to control, trade in ‘freely,’ or suppress when the natives were energized into overt military or political resistance. The novel contributed significantly to these feelings, attitudes, and references and became a main element in the consolidated vision, or departmental cultural view, of the globe.

Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, 1993

This obliges critics to read and analyse, rather than only to summarize and judge, works whose paraphrasable content they might regard as politically and morally objectionable.

Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, 1993

The appropriation of history, the historicization of the past, the narrativization of society, all of which give the novel its force, include the accumulation and differentiation of social space, space to be used for social purposes.

Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, 1993

4. Political implications: realism and imperialist feminism

on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism" (1985)

Hundreds of women began as the eighteenth century drew on to add to their pin money, or to come to the rescue of their families by making translations or writing the innumerable had novels which have ceased to be recorded even in text-books, but are to be picked up in the fourpenny boxes in the Charing Cross Road. The extreme activity of mind which showed itself in the later eighteenth century among women—the talking, and the meeting, the writing of essays on Shakespeare, the translating of the classics—was founded on the solid fact that women could make money by writing. Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for. It might still be well to sneer at ‘blue stockings with an itch for scribbling’, but it could not be denied that they could put money in their purses. Thus, towards the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses.

The middle-class woman began to write.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own, 1929

"feminist individualism in the age of imperialism"

"child-bearing":romance, companionate marriage, domestic love
"soul-making":moral influence, the imperialist civilizing mission

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism," 1985

In the novel, we encounter, first, the Reeds as the legal family and Jane, the late Mr. Reed's sister's daughter, as the representative of a near incestuous counter-family; second, the Brocklehursts, who run the school Jane is sent to, as the legal family and Jane, Miss Temple, and Helen Burns as a counter-family that falls short because it is only a community of women; third, Rochester and the mad Mrs. Rochester as the legal family and Jane and Rochester as the illicit counter-family. ... It is during this sequence that Jane is moved from the counter-family to the family-in-law. In the next sequence, it is Jane who restores full family status to the as-yet-incomplete community of siblings, the Riverses. The final sequence of the book is a community of families, with Jane, Rochester, and their children at the center.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism," 1985

“One night I had been awakened by her was a fiery West Indian night...

“‘This life,’ said I at last, ‘is hell: this is the air—those are the sounds of the bottomless pit! I have a right to deliver myself from it if I can. ...Let me break away, and go home to God!...’

“A wind fresh from Europe blew over the ocean and rushed through the open casement: the storm broke, streamed, thundered, blazed, and the air grew pure. ... It was true Wisdom that consoled me in that hour, and showed me the right path....

“The sweet wind from Europe was still whispering in the refreshed leaves, and the Atlantic was thundering in glorious liberty....

“‘Go,’ said Hope, ‘and live again in Europe....You have done all that God and humanity require of you.’

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, 1847

first edition cover of Wide Sargasso Sea.

Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, 1966

MLQ cover.

5. Peripheral realisms

on Peripheral Realisms, a special issue of Modern Language Quarterly (2012) edited by Joe Cleary, Jed Esty, and Colleen Lye

How should we think about realism after modernism?

Young Steel Workers. Ivan Bevzenko, 1961.
(Example of socialist realism.)

Yellow Islands. Jackson Pollock, 1952.
(Example of abstract expressionism. Tate.)

On the positive side, realism remained associated with the humanist or left-wing democratization of culture and the mimetic representation of the lower social classes. On the debit side, the mode might equally be associated with a conservative adherence to nineteenth-century British or French colonial literary traditions and with dubious forms of ethnographic reportage. [...] Where...decolonizing societies possessed strong vernacular oral traditions or venerable high-classical literary languages, classical European or Soviet-style realisms might be regarded either as defeudalizing literary solvents or as alien western impositions.

Joe Cleary, "Realism after Modernism and the Literary World-System," MLQ 73.3, 2012

With these institutional and intellectual histories in view, it is clear that any reconsideration of peripheral realisms now has to situate itself within a genealogy of ethnic and postcolonial studies and within an expanded field of literary practice not solely organized by the historical referent of the nineteenth-century European nation-state.

Jed Esty and Colleen Lye, "Peripheral Realisms Now," MLQ 73.3, 2012

...revived attention to novelistic practice outside the libidinal horizon of the middle-class subject; the remapping of the world-system as a positive, if partial and mediated, object of representation; the problem of gendered, migrant, and caste labor in transnational space; and the possibility that peripheral standpoints themselves afford distinctive epistemic advantages in descriptions of global capitalism in the post-Cold War period.

Jed Esty and Colleen Lye, "Peripheral Realisms Now," MLQ 73.3, 2012


  • realist style encodes a modern sense of the everyday, an ordinary, secular, unmagical world in which well mapped and gridded space extends through homogeneous, empty time, to be peopled by individual, psychologically complex modern subjects
  • realist vision indexes the logic of empire, representing colonial territories in marginal but revealing ways (Said)
  • realism also indexes how the cultivation of white western women’s entry into liberal personhood relies on imperialist logics (Spivak)
  • the Cold War and the institutionalization of postcolonial studies have shifted realism’s political meanings (Cleary, Esty, and Lye)
  • realism’s political meanings are historical and dynamic (Jameson)

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