The Real and Total Subsumption: Review of Sebastian Schuller’s Realismus des Kapitals
23 December 2021
Evental Site, Justin Liebermann, 2020, cover image of Realismus des Capitals; Image credit: Éditions M. Obultra
Review of Realismus des Kapitals: Marxistische Literaturtheorie im Zeitalter des globalen Kapitalismus (Realism of Capital: Marxist Literary Theory in the Age of Global Capitalism) by Sebastian Schuller, Munich: Brill & Wilhelm Fink, 2021.
“The market controls everything.” (2) This fundamental assertion applies as much to literary and cultural production as it does to global trade, the creative industries, soil erosion, and commercial mining of the deep seabed. Starting with Mark Fisher’s sharp analysis (1), which despite its acuity leaves us hopelessly in the dark about the fact that “there is no longer an outside of capital” (2), Schuller takes a bold step forward – which turns out to be a step into dialectics – and also proves that this step is actually one characteristic of the basic (sadly forgotten!) tools of Marxist criticism. By pointing out that contemporary critical thought regrettably clings to a fundamental detachment from its own earlier ‘Marxist orthodoxy,’ Schuller revives dialectics as a school of thought and a technique of criticism that has long been abandoned. In this way, he refills the term ‘Marxism’ with what was once its essential characteristic, namely, the “self-awareness of capitalist society in which the totality of the historical tendency brings itself to consciousness” (372).
Through extensive theoretical reflection and close reading of selected works of “capitalist-realist literature” (11), the book demonstrates how the operation of capital in literary production coincides with the regulation of society as a whole. While simultaneously examining how J. K. Rowling’s serial manufacture of Harry Potter satisfies the needs of global readers, whose attention is regulated by an insatiable appetite for sequels, the author of Realismus des Kapitals: Marxistische Literaturtheorie im Zeitalter des globalen Kapitalismus (Realism of Capital: Marxist Literary Theory in the Era of Global Capitalism) also examines novels that the literary system more readily recognizes as ‘literature.’ He examines how these literary products conform to the rules of literature under capitalism while simultaneously working in directions that might point a way out of this servitude. Although commodities in their own right, Michel Houellebecq’s Les particules élémentaires (1998), Helene Hegemann’s Axolotl Roadkill (2010), Jonas Lüscher’s Kraft (2017), and Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 (2013) exhibit frictions, gaps, and moments of dissent, all of which represent dimensions that cannot be explained by mere profit maximization.
Schuller mantrically asserts that literary subsumption under capital is real and total. The entire system of literary production, criticism, and reception, which functions seamlessly like clockwork, is mobilized today not only to maximize publishers’ profits but, moreover, to ensure the reproduction of capitalist lifeworlds that encompass emotions, consumer needs, and horizons of aesthetic expectation. As such, literature not only functions as an expression of capitalism, but serves as one of its essential vehicles. This real and total subsumption of literature has another fatal social mission, namely, to convey the now as the supporting pillar of capitalist eternity: Freed from the ballast of historicity, literature asserts that there is only the here and now and that this immobile Jetztzeit – in contrast to the potentiality for change with which Walter Benjamin once endowed it – proves to be eternal. Consequently, what is recognized by the literary system as ‘contemporary literature’ (Gegenwartsliteratur) is a literature shaped by the forces of capital: “Literature becomes contemporary literature only on condition that capital is enacted in it.” (13–14) This rather basic definition of contemporary literature is an important point in Schuller’s intervention, which reads almost like a Marxist manifesto for 21st-century literary studies. His critical starting point is as follows: To this day, reading, teaching, discussing, and disseminating contemporary literature generally fails to take into account the pervasive forces of capital. For literary studies as an epistemological discipline, this means misrecognizing one of its own capital (!) forces. It also means renouncing the essence of our whole life on earth in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Just as Marxism is not simply Marxism, literary Marxism is not simply Marxism ‘applied’ to literature, but must be rethought if it is to come to terms with its own (literary) present. Before coming to Schuller’s remarkable historical detour by which he undertakes a revision of literary theory, I first outline some general theoretical positions that make the present stalemate seem final to us. At the very beginning of this not only extensive, but also wide-ranging study (2), in “Probleme der Gegenwart – Einleitung” (chapter 1, “Contemporary Problems: Introduction”) Schuller warns that “[t]he conditions of possibility of an inner-capitalist outside of capitalism are irretrievably lost” (31). There is no hope of conjuring autonomous spaces of free artistic expression; likewise, we can be sure that whenever artistic autonomy is asserted, it is in fact only simulated, which comes with a fatal deception. Yet – and in Schuller’s analysis there is always an ‘and yet’ – the author simultaneously claims that “[i]n the cultural production of capital [...] the art of the commune is already present” (33). How can this be? If Schuller does not succumb to the lure of the petty-bourgeois idea of a flight back to nature, and is similarly skeptical of the post-operationist, optimistic belief in the unleashed power of intellectual workers’ creativity, what options are there for oppositional political and cultural projects? I will return to this below.
I continue with a brief account of Schuller’s reckoning with Marxism and the avant-garde in the 20th and 21st centuries (chapter 2, “Marxismus und Avantgarde im 20. und 21. Jahrhundert” / “Marxism and the Avant-Garde in the 20th and 21st Centuries”). Today, Marxist attacks on the avant-garde continue to be remembered as scandalous, as something that contemporary (post-historical, post-ideological, and unbiased) theory can comprehend but never forgive. Here, above all, it is Georg Lukács whose essays on the ‘destruction of reason’ still require an apology. It is all too easy to forget that the target of Lukács’ critique was not (i. e., not primarily) the avant-garde as such, but primarily the features of capitalism that go far beyond an isolated stream of aesthetic creativity: the fragmentation of perspectives, the loss of insight into the whole, the irreversible transition into a natural time-space of infinite presence, and finally the soft colonization of the modern subject by the capitalist mindset. It is only through these later points of critique (rather than the problem of the avant-garde) that Lukács’ analysis becomes intelligible again. Schuller also revisits Peter Bürger’s analysis of the market appropriation of the neo-avant-garde and discovers related criticisms in David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity (1990), Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), and Mark Fisher’s aforementioned Capitalist Realism (2009). Finally, he reaches the conclusion that all these critical diagnoses, even when they are invested with revolutionary hopes, actually divest the avant-garde from system-changing potential. It is not that art and literature cannot be mobilized for critical and revolutionary uses, it is rather that the way in which contemporary theory strives to rescue their artistic and social gestures from the encroachments of the capitalist machine is idealistic. Whenever critics claim that art is capable of creating spheres untouched or unaffected by capital, despite its specific political and social impediments, they remain firmly entrenched in the belief that aesthetic creation can be analytically separated and ‘saved’ from the social conditions that afflict it. This is where Schuller exposes contemporary aesthetic and literary theory as idealistic: by revisiting the modern distinction between body and mind, it virtually repeats, if only unintentionally, the historical Marxist model of base and superstructure. In fact (one might add), this idealism is the point at which post-1968 aestheticized theory of the left intersects with wholly non-Marxist, neoclassical perspectives on art. This meeting, of course, is made possible by the erosion of Marxism itself, which, according to Perry Anderson’s sound analysis, moved away from revolutionary praxis and became successively aestheticized. For a variety of reasons, including the Cold War, critical thought successively diminished its anti-systemic reach and redirected it toward subversive practices, which in turn became detached from social and political action. This “formation by defeat” (3) led to a separation of theory from praxis and severely compromised the political-intellectual and general cultural work that was being pursued. Consequently, in the post-1968 period, it was not politics but (subsequently commodified) aesthetics that was upgraded as the main vehicle of emancipatory theory and practice. This then is already the reason why, even when new solutions and proposals are made, “a revision of the relationship between capital and art (and capitalism as a system) remains unconsidered” (97). To intervene in this impasse, Schuller turns to Bertolt Brecht’s fragmentary and, at the time, heretical experiments in anti-commodification, and in this roundabout way formulates substantive proposals for a dialectical engagement with art in times of and under capitalism. This is detailed in the final chapter, “Kapitalistischer Realismus und die Kunst der Kommune” (chapter 5, “Capitalist Realism and the Art of the Commune”), which I discuss below.
Literary analyses are provided in the chapter “Erzählungen im Lichte des globalen Kapitalismus” (chapter 3, “Narratives in Light of Global Capitalism”). The thesis underlying these case studies is again as follows: “There is no an outside of capital” (121). The question a literary scholar will inevitably ask, however, is: what does this maxim mean for reading literature? Here, the author shows that he knows how to recognize the specificity of the literary poetics of selected works, and yet his analyses are stringent enough to point to the specific literary politics of capitalism that are evident in all the narratives examined. Literally, this means that in contemporary literature, one witnesses an exemplary scene in which capital sets itself to work: “Literature enters the machinery of capital production and thus becomes part of the movement in which capital asserts itself as global.” (276) Nevertheless, capital is not to be understood as an external power that colonizes literature or that literature can or should explicitly problematize; rather, at best, it is visible in works that avoid direct critique and ‘merely’ depict things and lifeworlds of the 21st century: Houllebecq’s hopelessness, Hegemann’s marketable youth, Lüscher’s post-1968 Silicon Valley theodicy, and the neoliberal promise of emancipatory labor exemplified in ‘sex work’ (Mujila). This is not to say that contemporary literature is just another crime scene of the general capitalist repetition drive, or that, to speak as Mohan and Dwivedi, literature is simply one of the procedures by which the law of capital is repeated as a ‘comprehending law’ (“the Law of laws” (4)) in numerous ‘component laws.’ A dialectical reading of contemporary literature allows for more than just an illustrative reading of the capitalist-realist forces active in literary narratives. Although produced, read, and evaluated as ‘literature’ only on the condition that it is commodified literature, contemporary literary production nonetheless allows – dialectically – for a production of insights and emotions that constitute a new negativity. For “[b]ecause literature becomes a commercial practice, the capital relation becomes its immanent, formal presupposition.” (243) Yet this fundamental assertion, contrary to the deep-rooted fear of literary discipline (in line with the German tradition, Schuller often speaks of ‘philology’ (5)), does not deprive the reader of the competence to read and understand narratives. On the contrary, it is precisely in the identity of literary production and the self-production of capital that literature’s critical potential lies. Since the connection between capitalist relations and literary production is not so much visible at the level of content as in the formal dimension, it is through the analysis of literary forms that we arrive at insights into the formal organization of society as a whole. Clearly, this account of form does not correspond to purely literary questions of narrative style, character constellation, or genre. Form means, to use Caroline Levine’s definition, “the many organizing principles that encounter one another inside as well as outside of the literary text.” (6) If we take the cue from Levine’s claim that “aesthetic and political forms emerge as comparable patterns that operate on a common plane” (7), Schuller’s reading of not only the Harry Potter series but also more sophisticated creations such as Juli Zeh’s Unterleuten (2016) or Nicolai Vogel’s YouTube presentation of Angst, Saurier (2020) (8) in fact reveals that “the most strategic political action will not come from revealing or exposing illusion, but rather from a careful, nuanced understanding of the many different and often disconnected arrangements that govern social experience.” (9) At this point, Schuller shows how his book differs greatly from those Marxist interpretations that use highly complex hermeneutic practices to reveal the reality hidden behind simulacra, thus constructing the idea of a subject that is supposed to know. Rather, he insists that there is nothing beneath the surface, nothing that can or should be uncovered by the powerful hand of a Marxist interpreter: What you see is what you get is the most effective machine of contemporary capitalism. The logic of capital has become unabashedly direct and demanding, and as such it is comprehensible to all and, moreover, intuitive. It blatantly demands value creation from literary production through market competition, attention grabbing, and addictiveness on the part of the follower/reader. And value creation is synonymous with the capitalization of intellectual property, both symbolically and financially.
In this respect, Schuller reactivates the critical potential of realism, and does so in a remarkably different way than is done by the “straight man” of this book‘s title (Mark Fisher), not to mention various new materialisms that perform thingly fetishism by focusing exclusively on objects in literature, written media, archival material, etc. One can even assume that Schuller‘s interlocutor in this matter is not only Brecht, but also Lukács, from whom the extended notion of realism is adopted in the first place. In line with the grand thesis that “in the most general sense, each art is realistic” (10) Schuller concludes that capitalist realism is, as it were, a contemporary term for capitalist processes of naturalization that Lukács once saw exemplified in the avant-garde. But at the same time, Schuller‘s insistence on “oppositional realisms” (268) reveals that his elective affinity is primarily with Brecht: “With Brecht [...] we can think of capitalist realism as a historical movement of capital and at the same time as an independent force, as a practice of capital.” (270)
If one of the main characteristics of the historical avant-gardes was the dissolution of the boundaries between art and life, these destructive processes become overwhelming in times of global capitalism. Today, it is not literature that intervenes in life to challenge its own fictional boundaries; instead, it is “global capital” that develops this “avant-gardist potential” and accomplishes the “abolition of the separation of art and life” (197). This is simply to reiterate the elementary stance of this book, namely, that capitalism now has total interference in every component of our living together, no matter how hidden, and directs creative forces from within. If this is the objective state of affairs, if capitalism is indeed ubiquitous, then for an active encounter with these forces one needs an active subject. This is the point at which Schuller asserts that “[h]istory is no longer conceived as a directed evolution of objective processes” (267) and that if we want to understand history “as a permanent negotiation between objective and subjective forces” (267), we will need a subject. Given that a contemporary subject is always already bound by the forces inherent in capital, Schuller finds it only logical to use Moishe Postone’s concept of an automatic subject: “Capital as automatic subject inscribes itself in the literature of capitalist realism.” (277) Indeed, adopting Postone’s idea that only fully immersed and colonized subjects have the potential to break out of the vicious circle of self-replicating capitalist relations is really just a logical step in the edifice of Schuller’s dialectic. However, there is also a possibly critical (or perhaps insufficiently argued) dimension: despite the fact that the automatic subject is not to be equated with the individual ego, but is necessarily a mass phenomenon, Schuller is somewhat silent about organized counter-capitalist forms of this automated activity. He notes, “If for Brecht partisanship for an alternative modernity was still possible and conceivable, now the absoluteness of global capitalism reproduces itself in the subject.” (270) So, what is to be done, one wonders, and how does one rebuild that “mysterious ‘third place’” (84) that once supported Lukács’ own work and was challenged by Brecht (most famously in his didactic play The Measures Taken): the mega-organization such as was the Communist Party? Indeed, if the literary system is only one of many battlefields on which the absoluteness of capital is asserted and experienced, and if the revolutionary subject of the Party is replaced by the instance of an ‘automatic subject,’ on what basis can we nevertheless attribute oppositional potential to literature? Is it an individual subject, a collective movement, or perhaps the objective force of history after all? Whatever the answer, Schuller’s dialectic invokes the rhetoric of Faust’s (actually, Mephisto’s) line – “part of the power that would always wish Evil, and always works the Good” – and hence recognizes in literature the destructive force of capitalism, which is at the same time literature’s most productive gear.
The liquidation of literature, Schuller surmises, is not its final end; likewise, the disappearance of autonomous spaces of non-alienated creation is not the end of oppositional action; overall, the total synchronization of capital with all spheres of social production and reproduction does not lead to the end of emancipation. Schuller turns to Brecht’s essay “Threepenny Trial” (1931) and proposes to think about the liquidation of art and literature dialectically, that is, without falling into the trap of a backward-looking, potentially cynical nostalgia (Donald Kuspit) or a forward-looking but naïve accelerationism (Gilles Lipovetsky, Jean Serroy). Treating art and literature as an “experimentum mundi” (329), one can discern the truth about art in bourgeois society because one is forced to speak from within society rather than from without. In short, “[i]f with Adorno art was social because it was not a social matter, now it is a social matter precisely because it is social.” (336) Here, similarly to Schuller, an important moment for Brecht is reuse – a process and also an aesthetic and political technique of reusing the immanent negativity of capital for the sake of its abolition. In Mark Fisher’s own words, “the enemy now could better be called creative capitalism, and overcoming it will not involve inventing new models of positivism, but new kinds of negativity.” (11) (340) This, then, is the moment when Schuller rediscovers the supposedly outdated, dusty, and inappropriate elements in both Karl Marx himself and early-century Marxism as solutions to the current stalemate: “Only now, in the presence of developed, global capitalism, does Marx’s analysis come into its own.” (374)
This dialectical birth of progressive forces from the destruction of the last islands of resistance is famously foreshadowed in Marx’s own account of capitalism as both a force of destruction and a precondition for liberation (345). Indeed, the vast majority of contemporary discourses on the politics of aesthetics – from Dave Beech to Kuspit and Lipovetsky, from Antonio Negri to John Roberts, Nicholas Brown, and Leigh Claire La Berge – prove to be obsolete for the reason that they continue to postulate the autonomy of art where there is none. Art’s oppositional potential based on the idea of an outside is void because the historical formation of capitalism on which it was based is over: “Diese Formation ist vorüber” (366), Schuller asserts, laying the groundwork for a reorientation of literary studies as a dialectical discipline. Radical as this may sound, Schuller is merely articulating a necessity that has existed for decades. It is probably because of the sociology of literary knowledge and the contemporary aesthetic paradigm in general (what Martín Plot dubs the “aesthetico-political” (12) that this necessity has been ignored for so long. To be able to make this radical statement requires a comprehensive study that includes not only theoretical arguments but also close readings of selected literary texts. Written in German and considering the field dynamics of philologies in the German-speaking world, it is highly doubtful that Schuller’s contribution will revolutionize the field of Literaturwissenschaft. But perhaps this review, intended as a proxy, can address the limitations of the monolingual reception frame and help Schuller’s theses enter German debates through the back door of the impending global turn towards political and Marxist literary studies.
1. Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism. Is there no Alternative? Winchester: zero books, 2009.
2. The book comprises 419 pages, which is a page count that no Anglo-American publisher would accept because it cuts across the economic calculus of sound investment. Thanks to a different publishing practice common in German-speaking countries, however, Schuller was not forced to trim his theses to 120,000 words or less. In Germany, in fact, authors are required to co-finance their books with amounts that exceed one, often two, and sometimes even three average monthly salaries. In most cases, they do not receive a percentage of the profits in return. This is why many books, especially those by young authors, do not receive proper editing, and authors are expected to arrange this privately. Although I have been kindly asked on several occasions to bypass this element of criticism (mainly so as not to damage the author's reputation), I insist that such courtesy can actually do more harm than good: a reader who knows German is likely to stumble across the editorial shortcomings anyway. Moreover, I insist that this financial background to Schuller's intervention perfectly illustrates some crucial elements of his critique of literary and scholarly production as a system.
3. Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism. 1976. Verso: London and New York, 1989, 93.
4. Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi, Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-politics. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2019, 126.
5. For this, see also his contribution to PDW’s special issue about the pandemic, “Philology of world conspiracy: The ‘Great Reset’ and other problems of philology.” Where Do We Go From Here?” Special issue of Philosophy World Democracy. Eds. Kamran Baradaran and Ivana Perica. In preparation.
6. Caroline Levine, Forms. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP, 2015, 16.
8. See the video collection on Vogel’s homepage: http://www.nikolaivogel.com/publications/solo/2020-angst-saurier-detail.html. Accessed 26 October 2021.
9. Levine, Forms 18.
10. Georg Lukács, Die Eigenart des Ästhetischen. 2 vols. 1963. Berlin, Weimar: Aufbau 1987, Vol. II: 804.
11. Mark Fisher, “Creative Capitalism.” 2011. K-Punk. The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher. Eds. Darren Ambrose and Simon Reynolds. London: Repeater Books, 2018, 490.