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"Very Abstract and Terribly Concrete": Capitalism and The Theory of the Novel


Source: NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 42, No. 2, Theories of the Novel Now, Part I
(SUMMER 2009), pp. 311-317
Published by: Duke University Press
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"VeryAbstract and Terribly Concrete":
Capitalism and The Theory of theNovel

Fifty years on from its publication, Ian Watt's classic study, The Rise of theNovel,
opens with a series of questions that are no less compelling today, not least in the
context of current concerns
regarding the novel's possible global horizons: "Is the
novel a new literary form? And ifwe assume, as is ...
commonly done, that it is
how does itdiffer from the prose fiction of the past... ?And is there any reason
why these differences appeared when and where they did?" (9). Despite Franco
Moretti's call to "make the literary field longer, larger and
deeper" ("On The Novel"
x), it seems tome that such questions remain ineliminable. "Traces of novel DNA"
may no doubt be found everywhere and anywhere within the history of literate
culture (Trotter 31), yet there is still something more historically specific at stake
in questions about the rise of the novel as such, whatever its lengthier "polygen
esis" ("On The Novel" x). Famously, forWalter Benjamin the rise of the novel was
the "earliest indication of a process whose end is the decline of storytelling" ("The
Storyteller" 146), a process it is now tempting to see as occurring at an effectively
planetary scale. While certain aspects of the novel may well "go back to antiquity,"
itwas only in its encounter with the "evolving middle class" of
capitalism that it
found "those elements thatwere favourable to its flowering" (147). Ifnothing else,
such an assertion indicates what, formuch twentieth- and twenty-first-century
criticism, has been thought tomost crucially delimit the novel: that it is a (perhaps
the)distinctively modern literary form.
Not for nothing, then, does Watt's final question?"[I]s there any reason why
these differences appeared when and where they did?"?remind one of certain
debates concerning the origins of a capitalist modernity. As Moretti observes else
where: "Literary sociology has long insisted ... on the relationship between the
novel and capitalism" (Atlas 16). Certainly any would-be theory of the novel today
do well to consider a broader historical at this point, one inwhich
might parallel
the problem of how to define the distinction between "aspects of the novel" and the
rise of the "novel as such" might productively mirror some not dissimilar questions
concerning the historical development of capitalism. For like Trotter's traces of
novel DNA, we can clearly find key economic and social "aspects of capitalism"?
money, the commodity, and so on?across a far
longer history than that within
which anybody would identify the emergence of "capitalism proper." Yet there
remains an obvious "qualitative difference between the commodity as one form
among many regulating themetabolism of human society and the commodity as
the universal structuring principle" (Luk?cs, History and Class Consciousness 85).
My own emphasis in this essay will, however, be rathermore upon what Moretti
calls a "history of forms" than upon a "sociology of literature" per se. It is at any rate
in such regard that Iwant to return towhat is themost immediate "philosophical"
source of Benjamin's own account: Luk?cs's Theory of theNovel and itshistoricized

Novel: A Forum on Fiction 42:2 DOI 10.1215/00295132-2009-020 ? 2009 by Novel, Inc.

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division between the classical epic, understood as the product of a social reality
whose "homogeneity" cannot be "disturbed" by any "separation between T and
'you' (Theory of theNovel 32), and the novel, born in themodern "individual in his
isolation" (Benjamin, "The Storyteller" 146). Such forms, Luk?cs famously writes,
"differ from one another not by their authors' fundamental intentions, but by the
given historico-philosophical realities with which the authors were confronted"
itsmore an assertion that
(56). Stripped of ostentatiously idealist baggage, this is
continues tomerit attention today and that, in its specifically Hegelian lineage,
opens up the question of how we might rethink the complex relation between The
ory of theNovel and its development within Luk?cs's own laterMarxist work. The
central question that it raises is: If, following "literary sociology," we are indeed
to insist upon some fundamental historical "relationship between the novel and
can we grasp this as a question not merely of the novel's
capitalism," towhat extent
more fundamentally, of its intel
ongoing "reflection" of capitalist modernity but,
as an effective "model" of it,a precisely formal equivalent, at some level,
to its social being? Can, in other words, literary form be understood as something
like a mediation of social form in this instance, themeans by which social form
appears within artistic form itself?
With this inmind, then, I propose that at least one fruitfulway of approaching
such questions would be through a critical attention to the problematic of abstrac
tion apparent in Luk?cs's early writings. Or, more precisely, a certain relation of
abstraction to the concrete at work within them. Itwould hardly be a revelation
to note that a certain account of abstraction is indeed central to Luk?cs's analysis
of the very nature of the novel form. For what specifically defines the novel's epic
ambitions is the degree towhich, within it, "totality can be systematized only in
abstract terms" (Theory 70). Hence what comes tomenace the "chivalrous novel"
in themoment that gives birth to Don Quixote is necessarily accorded a farmore
general significance:

The chivalrous novel had succumbed to thefate of every epic thatwants tomaintain
and perpetuate a form by purely formal means after the transcendental conditions
for its existence have already been condemned by thehistorico-philosophical
The chivalrous novel had lost its roots in transcendent being, and theforms, which no
longer had any immanentfunction, withered away, became abstract. (101; empha
sis added)

This is an emphatically historical proposition. If every novel must riskwhat, in an

register, Luk?cs calls "bad abstraction," this is not a contingent
explicitly Hegelian
possibility but rather a necessary productive logic generated by "the given real
with which the novel, in general, is "confronted." Yet at this point, itwould
seem, we precisely encounter an issue that The Theory of theNovel is notoriously ill
to address, given the degree towhich the book is so apparently bereft of
any specific or substantive historical detail in either social, political, or economic
terms. As a characterization of modernity?most notoriously through Johann
Gottlieb Fichte's description of the present as "the epoch of absolute sinfulness"
(152)?the book would seem ultimately no less "mythical" in form than is its pro

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jection of a lost "happy age" of perfect and unthinkable completion known only to
the ancients. Which is of course one of the key complaints of Luk?cs's own well
known preface to the book, written in 1962, a preface that attempts to articulate
and justify the subsequent development of its arguments onto a
properly "Marx
ist ground," informed by "concrete socio-historical realities"
(Theory 17; emphasis
added). It is in such terms that Luk?cs thus diagnoses in his own earlier self a fatal
weakness for abstractionism, a diagnosis thatwill be particularly key to his later
attempt to redeem a less tragic conception of the novel under the name of realism.
But it also thereby entails a farmore straightforward opposition of abstraction to
the concrete than can be found anywhere in the earlier book, something that is
perhaps most apparent in his notorious deployment of the Hegelian distinction
between "abstract" and "concrete" potentiality in the 1955 essay "The Ideology of
Modernism" (21-24), but is also evident in the 1962 critique of an "abstractionism"
that effaces the particularity of the novel's own "historical and aesthetic richness"
(13).As Luk?cs writes there:

The epilogue inWar and Peace is, infact, an authentic conclusion, in terms of
ideas, to theperiod of theNapoleonic Wars; thedevelopment of certainfigures already
foreshadows theDecembrist rising of 1825. But the author of The Theory of the
Novel. . . can . . . "more
[only]find here melancholy than the ending of themost
novels disillusionment". . ..
problematic of of Any number of such examples could
be supplied.(14)

This may be so, yet it should be noted that Luk?cs here runs together two some
what different problematics of abstraction in the earlier work: on the one hand,
an abstractionism at the level of critical or theoretical approach?which reduces
particularity to generalized models or types?and on the other, an abstraction
immanent to the text itself, which is thus countered by the claim to an "authentic"
concreteness now seen as grounded in some "real" social history. It is then but a
short step from this to an analysis whereby an increasingly simple positive-to
negative encoding of the concrete and the abstract can be mapped onto the formal
(rather than predominantly historical) division between realism and modernism
per se and inwhich "abstraction" comes tomean littlemore, in a reading of the
latter, than a straightforward "negation of outward reality" itself ("Ideology" 25).
In linewith its general lack of historical specificity, nowhere, in fact, is capitalism
mentioned by name in Theory of theNovel. Nonetheless, just as themature Marx
himself reads a certain account of capitalism out of Hegel's idealist categories, so
perhaps it
might be possible to do something very similar (and similarly produc
tive) here. This may appear a slightly redundant, even perverse, endeavor. After
all, this is in some sense precisely what Luk?cs himself appears to do after 1917.
Yet in pr?cis what Iwant to argue is that at least some of the problems this later
work is commonly thought to exhibit result from the questionable ways inwhich
he pursues such a project of "translation" of his own earlier Hegelian terms.
Conceptually, the key development ofHegel's account of abstraction to be found
inMarx's own mature work is his elaboration of the social forms ofwhat he calls
real abstraction?that is, those forms of abstraction that, precisely in the specific

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set of circumstances of capitalist modernity, come to have an actual (and thus

paradoxically concrete) objective social existence, most specifically in the real
abstraction of the value form. As Theodor Adorno puts it, if the laterMarx
apparently Hegelian "emphasis on totality," on "the ether that permeates the
whole of society," forMarx "this ether is anything but ethereal; it is rather the ens
realissimum. If it seems abstract, this is the fault not of fantastic, wilful
hostile to the facts, but of the objective abstraction towhich the social process of life
is subject?the exchange relation" ("Late Capitalism" 120; translation modified).
While what defines the novel, precisely as an epic form, for Luk?cs is that it still
thinks in terms of totality, the "objective" reality that the novel confronts in capi
talist modernity must be, Adorno's rendering ofMarx suggests, one inwhich the
social totality can itself only be understood in abstract terms. Quite apart from the
wider political issues that this evidently raises, what would itmean for a theoriza
tion of the historical development of "epic form" as Luk?cs defines it?
At the heart of Luk?cs's later account of the novel is one that sees it as the epic
form that is specific to the bourgeois "epoch," an account dominantly repeated in
themajority of postwar western Marxist criticism. (For Luk?cs himself, ifmod
ernism is the late bourgeois form of novelistic decadence and decline, following
on from themid-nineteenth-century moment of "high" bourgeois realism, a later
socialist realism is,more tentatively and inconsistently, sought as a possible space
of some opening to a future communist form thatwould restore a "true" epic total
ity.) In this regard, the novel's importance, by virtue of its distinctive epic focus
is the to which it the of a
totality, degree formally expresses perspective specific
"subject of history"?an idea (or at least an expression) that, ?tienne Balibar has
suggested, "nobody else but Luk?cs himself" "invented" (115-16). However, the
(via Lenin) of the bourgeoisie and then the proletariat as fill
ing such a role, in Luk?cs's broader political-philosophical writings, rests on some
a on his later attempts
quite questionable premises, which in turn cast harsh light
to recover an epic concreteness in realism for the modern Hegelian "world of
prose." For if there is indeed a "subject of history" inMarx's Capital corresponding
to the Hegelian Idea, it is neither strictly the bourgeoisie nor the proletariat but,
more obviously, self-valorizing capital itself. (Some of the difficulties here may
stem, of course, fromMarx's own earlier tendency, in theManifesto for example, to
effectively conflate the bourgeoisie with capital?and, in turn, the proletariat with
the "real movement" of communism?in ways that cannot in factbe sustained [see
Osborne 75-76].) In the logic of Capital, it iswhat Marx calls, in explicitly quasi
Hegelian fashion, the actual abstraction of that "self-moving substance which is
Subject" in the "shape of money" that constitutes the "real" social being of capital
ism (Marx 255-56; see Arthur). Paradoxically, it is then arguably the very idealism
of Luk?cs's earlier Hegelian theory that allows it to conceptually grasp, in way
his later self-consciously "materialist" writings do not, the immanence of an actual
idealism to themodern social relations refracted by the novel (asmaterially lived),
for all that the novel's relation to capitalism is more clearly foregrounded as a
central problematic within the latter. There is not space here to develop this point
further. But it at least raises the question ofwhether, as ismost usually claimed,
the novel is best understood as the literary form specific to the bourgeois age or

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whether it is instead the capitalist age thatmight, in somewhat broader terms,most

are not
coherently define itshistorical locatability and form. The two propositions
at any rate, itwould be worth noting, simply interchangeable.
In one of his occasional essays on modernity, Henri Lefebvre suggests that "[t]he
predominance of the abstract inmodern art accompanies the extension of . . . the
unlimited power ofmoney and capital, very abstract and terribly concrete at one
and the same time" (94).We are not so used to thinking of the novel as a kind of
"abstract art" in thisway. Indeed, formost the novel is quite rightly distinguished
an emergent bourgeois empiricism
by a new kind of concreteness: the corollary of
and secularism, with its radical devotion towhat Watt calls the "here-and-now."
(Hence, unsurprisingly, Watt himself associates the rise of the novel with the emer
gence of an "aesthetic tendency in favour of particularity" and against "abstract
and general terms" [17].)Yet it is perhaps more accurately a particularly conflicted
combination and confrontation of abstraction and concretion?at one and the same
time, in Lefebvre's words?that makes the novel such an exemplary modern art
form in this sense. If the "elements of the novel" are, as the early Luk?cs writes,
it confronts
"entirely abstract," it is the very abstraction of the "social structures"
that the novel "renders sensuous as the lived experience of the novel's characters"
and thus transforms "into an instrument of composition" (Theory 70-71). Instead of
the essay on "The Storyteller," it is thus in, for example, Benjamin's relatively brief
comments on Kafka thatwe might find the basis for an alternate development of
the account of abstraction and concretion to be found in Theory of theNovel. Kafka's
work, writes Benjamin in a 1938 letter to Gershom Scholem, is "the exact comple
ment" of that precisely social reality that presents itself "theoretically inmodern
as well as in "the experience of
physics and in practice by military technology"
themodern city-dweller" (326,325). For such a perspective, significantly, modes of
abstraction are less a flightfrom reality and more an index of the (terribly concrete)
various social forms of real abstraction constitutive of the (sensuously) unrepre
sentable totality ofmodernity itself. In itsmost radical form, something like the
later prose works of Beckett?no longer, perhaps, quite novels, but unthinkable
without the novel nonetheless?would be emblematic here, thinking, for instance,
of Comment C'est's world of undeviating organization and systematized violence,
a textual world that is in some sense no more abstract than those social relations
of the sociohistorical world it apparently divorces itself from: relations of, say,
administration, information, knowledge and power, the formality of the law, and
commodity exchange (see Cunningham^ "We have our being"). Yet this should not
more apocalyptic pronounce
be misunderstood. Despite, for example, Adorno's
ments, capitalism as a social form is never reducible to themore or less "purely"
abstract social relations determined by capital and the value form alone. Indeed,
relation as concrete forms that
capitalism positively requires other forms of social
can be reworked and refunctioned in the drive to capital accumulation. One might
say much the same about the novel's necessary overdetermination of the "forlorn
essential to itsmaterialization (Adorno, "Trying toUnderstand" 252).
It is the dialectic of abstraction and concretion unique to each work?the vari
able points at which a "concretism," as Adorno puts it, "passes directly into the
most extreme abstraction" (250-51)?that on this reading marks its own negotia

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tionwith the sociohistorical reality of capitalism it confronts and that should thus
one key site of critical judgment and reflection.
It is in these terms that the "story" of modernity that The Theory of theNovel
has to tell, then,may surely also be tied, without too much strain, towhat Marx
defines in theManifesto as the immanent of a momentum of
logic capitalism itself,
abstractivization inwhich, famously, "all that is solid melts into air"?though this
has crucially proved to be a far less totalizing process than Marx himself imag
ined. At any rate, it is arguably the social forms that such a dynamic generates
that each novel has always confronted as its specifically modern reality. Certainly
itwould be key to any thinking through ofwhat Moretti has called the "unstable
formations" and "paradoxical fusions" engendered by the novel's current wave
of internationalization (Atlas 194), following, as itdoes, those socioeconomic pro
cesses through which noncapitalist and previously colonial cultures are progres
structures of a transnational capitalism,
sively integrated into the accumulative
with its concomitant and now globally extended forms of real abstraction, both
inside and outside the traditionally determined borders of the "West." Culturally,
for the novel, this perhaps returns us to the situation already set out by Benjamin
inwhich he saw the novel, which had once deposed the story as a "present force,"
a "new form of communication" characterized by the
being itself displaced by
television and the Internet): a form he called "informa
newspaper (as today by
tion." Yet Benjamin himself underestimated the novel's ongoing capacity
to live off of, and indeed thrive on, the very crisis this would seem to produce.
For if themodern novel can imply a kind of irresistible submission of the novel's
narrative modes to capitalist modernity's newer informational forms, often itdoes
so by interpolating its definitive (nonliterary) discourses of abstraction?of adver
or technical jargon?into the very fabric of
tising copy, journalism, pornography,
the novel as the condition of its social contemporaneity (see Cunningham, "After
Adorno" 199).
In "the created reality" of the novel, the "entire structure" ofwhich can be based
Luk?cs writes, what "becomes visible is the dis
only in "abstract syst?matisation,"
tance separating the syst?matisation from concrete life" (Theory 70). Yet rather than
bemoaning this, one might instead see such visibility?its capacity to render vis
ible such distance?as in fact precisely the novel's distinctively modern strength,
between the forms of abstraction intrinsic
making apparent the irresolvable gap
tomodern social being and what Hegel called the "unendingly particular" with
which the novel has historically been most persistently associated. The dialectic
without synthesis between its abstract and concrete tendencies is, on this reading,
the very condition of themodernity of the novel as such. For capitalist modernity
abstraction to a hitherto unthink
really is "a social world constituted through
able extent" (Osborne 18).Very abstract and terribly concrete at the same time, the
novel can be no less so than that sociohistorical reality ofmodern culture that it
has always confronted.

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