U&CD and World Literature #2

From Wendy Knepper, Brunel University

Dear Justin,

I really enjoyed the discussion of uneven and combined development and have been reflecting on the implications for literary and cultural studies.

Trotsky’s formulation of uneven and combined development (as outlined in History of the Russian Revolution) to some extent overlaps with the worlds-systems analysis through its emphasis on multi-scalar, differentiated, and transnational methods of analysis. The opening sentence reinforces a traditional Marxist view, which seems as if it might fit with Immanuel Wallerstein’s methods: “The fundamental and most stable feature of Russian history is the slow tempo of her development, with the economic backwardness, primitiveness of social forms, and low level of culture resulting from it” (3). Uneven development could be read in terms of the core, semi-periphery, and periphery account of world-systems analysis. This approach also seems to place emphasis on the determining influence of the base on the superstructure.

But Trotsky’s narrative account of development in Russia tells another kind of story. He begins with an analysis of topography and terrain, suggesting that Trotsky has anticipated recent ‘the spatial turn’ in the arts and social sciences. When framing the wider ‘problem’ of development in Russia, Trotsky’s takes an epic perspective, looking back to geophysical influences, nomadic traditions, cross-cultural influences, and the gradual transformation of development through the rise of capitalism. Trotsky addresses the incorporation of archaic, pre-capitalist cultures of development within the capitalist world system. In arguing for “the different stages of the journey, a combining of separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms” (5), he seems closer to the work of Braudel and the Annales School tradition than Wallerstein. Moreover, Trotsky seeks to understand development through the longue durée, notably in terms of pre-capitalist development and global capitalist/imperial expansion. Trotsky acknowledges the persistence and/or re-animation of pre-capitalist cultural, political, religious, and other ideas as well as claims on the unfolding history of development.

Does Trotsky represent a bridge figure between the historical materialism of Braudel and the Marxist-derived materialism of Wallerstein? I think the answer is yes. Trostky’s method of analysis acknowledges the emergence of global capitalism as well as attends to the sometimes unexpected ways in which archaic, (seemingly) peripheral, folk, indigeneous, and pre-scientific bodies of knowledge and planetary visions might nonetheless live on and influence development. But more than this his work accounts for the unpredictable ways in which development unfolds. While this may seem to point to a kind of return of the repressed and irrational (perhaps, here thinking of the discussion of chapter four of the History of the Russian Revolution), it seems to me that this kind of thinking also fits with the quest for folk resistance (other forms of knowledge) as well as postcolonial and feminist/queer strategies of reclamation and resistance.

Responding to Neil Lazarus’s question concerning reading the literary text under the sign of U&CD, you have suggested that this entails at least four approaches:

1. Showing how the text reflects and explores the paradoxes, leaps, disjunctures and fusions of a particular instance/experience of combined development.

2. Showing how the text itself participates in the cultural production of this combined development by creating and/or enacting new hybrid forms of consciousness and subjectivity.

3. Showing how the text furthers the interactive development of a given literary form (e.g. the novel, the sonnet, the epic etc.), taking it on from elsewhere and pushing it in new directions by combining it with unfamiliar materials or purposes drawn from its own (different) spatio-temporal location.

4. Using uneven and combined development to show how the content and practice of this text is intelligibly part of a wider historical sociology of modern world development (recalling The German Ideology’s insistence that ideas have no independent history of their own, but adding U&CDs unique ability to make sense of apparently baffling and paradoxical phenomena).

It seems to me that such an approach solves some of the issues posed in recent discussions about the relationship between postcolonial studies and globalization by calling for a more flexible analysis of development as a non-linear process, which may entail unexpected responses to various scales of development through time. The oppressive and potentially resistant or revolutionary tendencies of postcolonial aesthetics might be understood in new ways through acts of historical reclamation, cognitive mapping (Jameson), and creative combinations. But it seems that Trotsky’s own methods of analysis implicitly acknowledge the need for “thick descriptions,” which suggests perhaps the need to go beyond a narrowly framed (or vulgar) Marxist approach. Here then we find a way into recent discussions concerning the work of transnational literacies and planetary thinking, examining how transhuman or posthuman perspectives may influence the history of development.

In terms of postcolonial studies, U&CD is especially relevant for an author such as Wilson Harris who has constantly tried to envision the uneven and combined dynamics of New World history in expanded spatio-temporal terms. Equally, it might apply to more relational approaches such as Dany Laferrière’s imagined mappings of alternative temporal (Martinique in the 1930s and Haiti today) and spatial readings of Haiti (Haiti and Japan). Equally, Andrea Levy’s Small Island decentres the national reading of Windrush migration as a transformative event in British culture by examining the uneven and combined histories of the Caribbean, Britain, the USA, and India through the events leading up to World War II, the event itself, and its aftermaths. Recent works by Amitav Ghosh, Hari Kunzru, Vikram Chandra, Jhumpa Lahiri, Dave Eggers, and Kamila Shamsie seek to understand histories of development in ways that go beyond empire or even competing imperialisms. In terms of historical/magic realism, the possibilities for imagining history anew, and creative mappings of the world beyond the paradigms of empire/globalization, U&CD seems especially useful. Theoretically, the work of Walter Mignolo and Homi Bhabha might also seem to work with such approaches.

 Moreover, the seeming tensions between historical realism and literary experimentation might be reconciled through an understanding of texts as registrations and contestations of uneven and combined development. Literary texts may produce moments of dissensus (in Rancière’ sense of the term) through strategies that address, reanimate or remap uneven and combined development in material and imaginative terms. This kind of approach could contribute to new ways of understanding transnational literacies, the pressures and opportunities of literary production in the global marketplace, alternative ways of envisioning cosmopolitanism, and new understandings of biopolitics (particularly in transnational/multicultural contexts).

 New modernist studies might benefit from U&CD, especially as the question of modernity has been raised anew through globalization. For instance, we might look anew at representations of the Spanish Civil War, which becomes a way of negotiating uneven and combined development as a trans/national event. How does the related literature produce a new map of relations among various competing claims for sovereignty, resistance, and transnational solidarities? Or how might U&CD be applied to a reading of Conrad, someone who has already been read through a Marxist lens, notably by Benita Parry and Fredric Jameson? How does literature map transnational zones, real and imagined, through U&CD? How might planetary modernism (the registration of multiple spatial and temporal dimensions beyond the rational ordering of the global) be understood as a manifestation of U&CD?

How might we reframe our understanding of world literature through U&CD, particularly in terms of the third and fourth points raised above? This seems to me to be one of the most promising areas for further research, particularly in an era when we see the combination of popular, vernacular, local/global, and other forms in narrative discourses. How do authors implicitly or explicitly contribute to a global understanding of uneven and combined development? How do we read across comparable histories or transitions of development? How do we understand the ways in which the rationale of the market combines with other dynamics to shape the aesthetics and politics of the text? Might we read slipstream aesthetics through U&CD? If literary forms, language, and culture emerges through U&CD, how might such forms be mobilised to reflect critically on contemporary horizons? How might we as literary critics uncover and explain the sometimes idiosyncratic or affective literary/cultural historical maps of transcultural/transnational influence through U&CD? Finally, we might consider how U&CD contributes to a new kind of planetary consciousness – which presents alternatives to cosmopolitan approaches to world literature (even the reconstructed versions we have seen in the past decade through the work of Appiah, Bhabha, Beck, etc.) – as well as alternative ways of thinking about the work of the text on the world reader.

Best regards, Wendy


One thought on “U&CD and World Literature #2

  1. Pingback: discussions | Uneven And Combined Development

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