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Vol. 32 | No. 1 | June 2023

        Special Issue: Totality and Culture

The Pot Still Boils: Introducing Totality and Culture
Nicholas Anderman and Zachary Hicks

This special-issue introduction historicizes and seeks to move beyond the antinomy between totality and culture that is today a mainstay of much contemporary critical theory. The introduction proceeds in three parts. The first examines a midcentury crisis of Marxism that, concomitant with major shifts in global capitalism, set the scene for subsequent scholarly accounts of culture that have privileged the fragment, the supplement, the remainder, the site, the margins, and the like over against the totality. The second part consists of an analysis of two works of art—by the American visual artists Allan Sekula and Ellen Gallagher, respectively—which we take to be exemplary of the affordances of art, literature, and other forms of cultural expression for accessing totality anew. The third part briefly surveys recent theoretical work that aims to put a revitalized concept of totality at the center of cultural critique. The introduction concludes with summaries of the seven articles included herein. The special issue covers a lot of ground in terms of subject matter, theoretical milieu, disciplinary framework, and style. What binds the articles together is, in effect, a shared working method, which involves thinking through the relationship between a specific cultural object (or set of objects) and the social whole in and through which it emerged.

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The Symptomatological Imagination: On Cultural Analysis as Historical Diagnosis
Kyle Baasch

Cultural and literary critics have begun to abandon a long-standing commitment to poststructuralist and deconstructive interpretative methods in favor of an ostensibly Marxist aspiration to comprehend cultural phenomena as symptomatic expressions of a social totality. This essay identifies some of the advantages and shortcomings of this symptomatological mode of interpretation by returning to a dispute in the German scientific establishment around the turn of the twentieth century concerning the applicability of biological conceptions of organic wholeness in cultural and social analysis. The dispute culminates in Max Weber’s nuanced defense of biological metaphors as indispensable heuristic devices for cultural inquiry that can nevertheless result in dangerous consequences when they are inappropriately employed. This essay ultimately argues that Weber’s contribution to cultural analysis remains an underappreciated and vital methodological resource for researchers who wish to rehabilitate the concept of totality today.

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Inverted Propositions: On Chinese Readings of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Totality, and Transnational Bildung

Roy Chan

Nikolai Chernyshevsky (1828–89) is best known for his utopian realist novel What Is to Be Done? (1863). However, he was perhaps most celebrated as a literary thinker in China as a result of the Soviet canonization of the nineteenth-century “democratic critics.” This essay discusses two Chinese critics’ engagement with Chernyshevsky’s treatise The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality (1853). Here Chernyshevsky advanced the proposition “Beauty is life.” In the 1930s and 1940s the literary theorist Zhou Yang read Chernyshevsky and produced a Chinese translation in 1942. In 1963 the philosopher Zhu Guangqian published the History of Western Aesthetics, in which he devoted a chapter to Chernyshevsky. This article explores how both Zhou and Zhu responded to Chernyshevsky’s proposition on beauty and life, with particular attention to all three thinkers’ engagement with Ludwig Feuerbach’s “transformative method” in his critique of Christianity, which sought to invert the relation between subject and predicate. Both Zhou and Zhu alighted on how Chernyshevsky’s reliance on Feuerbach led to a one-sided interpretation that needed further articulation; they marshaled the insights of Marx and Hegel to reinterpret Chernyshevsky. Finally, the essay considers the issue of transnational Bildung between Russia and China and the teacher-student relation as expressions of totality along the lines of both Feuerbachian transformative critique and Hegelian speculative retrieval.

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The Horrible Work of History: Georges Bataille and the Actuality of Hegel
Alberto Toscano

This article critically surveys Georges Bataille’s multiple engagements with G. W. F. Hegel from the early 1930s to the 1950s. It homes in on how Bataille’s conceptual, experiential, and parodic demarcation from Hegel targets not the German philosopher’s aspiration to totality but (via Bataille’s dialogue with Alexandre Kojève) his action-centered framing of the movement of history and the character of actuality. Against the dialectical mastery of history, Bataille seeks to articulate an unpolitical image of sovereignty and play that is ultimately poetic or literary in kind.

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Literature and Totality: Kritik durch Darstellung and the Crisis of Literary Production
Alya Ansari

This essay foregrounds the hermeneutic purchase of totality in contemporary literary criticism. Responding to the recent proliferation of the “gig work” novel, the essay takes up two interrelated lines of inquiry: How might we rethink the conceptual affordances of “totality” for the ongoing project of the critique of political economy? What would a rethinking of totality’s position in the conceptual architecture of literary criticism offer in the way of new heuristics for the analysis of the novel? Through recourse to G. W. F. Hegel’s Science of Logic and Michael Theunissen, Hans-Friedrich Fulda, and Rolf-Peter Horstmann’s Critical Presentation of Metaphysics: A Discussion of Hegel’s “Logic” (Kritische Darstellung der Metaphysik: Eine Diskussion über Hegels “Logik”), this essay proposes a method of literary analysis that approaches the formal aspects of the novel as defined through the historical-material conditions for the writing of the text. The essay then puts a close reading of Hilary Leichter’s Temporary in conversation with Sarah Brouillette’s account of the decline of the English-language literary novel to suggest how the formal properties of the contemporary gig work novel respond to the general crisis of novel production in the twenty-first century.

Read now at Duke University Press

Totality in a Box: The Shipping Container from Commodity to Allegory
Filippo Menozzi

This essay proposes a reading of the American photographer Allan Sekula’s 1995 essay “Dismal Science” alongside The Forgotten Space, an essay film he directed with Noël Burch in 2010. These works are still resonant today because they suggest the possibility of picturing the totality of capitalist modernity. Sekula’s representations of the shipping container and the subsequent shifts in maritime economy recuperate the prospect of a panoramic, totalizing view in an era marked by a prevalence of detail and data over meaningful grand narrative. The totality the container embodies and represents, however, is not the whole of a frictionless and seamless accumulation of capital but a nonsynchronous, polemical, and critical totality of struggle and antagonism. Sekula turns the shipping container from a stand-in for a system of commodity circulation to an allegorical sign of the continuing fight between labor and capital. Rather than envisioning this totality of struggle as a merely thematic concern, Sekula’s compositions eschew commodification on the level of form by delving into the constitutive tensions of realism and reintroducing a living context of militancy and resistance into the matter of representation itself.

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Abolish the Oikos: Notes on Incapacity from Antiquity to Marxist Feminism, Black Feminism, and Afro-pessimism
Sara-Maria Sorentino

Apparent similarities between Marxism and Afro-pessimism on questions of abstraction, social reproduction, and abolition have curiously not marked the beginning of a conversation. To gauge the dimensions of this halted conversation, this article explores the uses of the oikos in theorizing the demands of the present. Drawing from conflictual interpretations of Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Politics and reading against the grain of Marxist feminism, this article proposes a general theory of incapacity that identifies the role of capacity in reproducing the problem of slavery, the tensions of the oikos, and the inadequacies of capitalist critique. Afro-pessimism both mimics the capitalist totality by replacing it with slavery and exceeds that totality by staying with the dissolving quality that the slave qua incapacity comes to impossibly represent. This article argues that the collapse of race into a form of “reduced capacity,” like class or gender, is the way antiblackness articulates itself for political economy, but the slave’s incapacity cannot then be reducible to capital or critical reconfigurations of social reproduction. The oikos, in this reading, becomes a generative terrain for thinking tensions in intersectionality as well as antagonistic figures of liberation, from the abolition of the value-form, gender, and the family to the proposition of the “end of the world.”

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From Fetish to Totality: The Work of Art in the Age of Real Abstraction
Jaleh Mansoor

This essay argues that the artwork’s opacity and purposively purposeless quality are a tacit refusal of the compulsory division between intellectual and manual labor, which afford the artwork a unique capacity to access an otherwise occluded totality. By analyzing conceptual work by the artist duo Claire Fontaine—who deploy Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s notion of market exchangism in their work—in relation to twentieth-century intellectual debates around representation, abstraction, and social synthesis, the essay develops a model of totality in a descriptive rather than prescriptive register. At issue is the artwork’s potential for dereification, whereby a given work of art may provide perceptual experience of the transactional logic that underpins and structures the social field.

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        Review Essays

Dispossession and Totality
Christopher Geary

A review of Daniel Bensaïd, The Dispossessed: Karl Marx’s Debates on Wood Theft and the Right of the Poor, edited and translated by Robert Nichols (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021), and Robert Nichols, Theft Is Property! Dispossession and Critical Theory (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).

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Beyond Desire: Anticapitalism, Gender, and Sexuality in Eastern European Marxisms
Ruth Averbach

A review of Keti Chukhrov, Practicing the Good: Desire and Boredom in Soviet Socialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020), and Bogdan Popa, De-centering Queer Theory: Communist Sexuality in the Flow during and after the Cold War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021).

Read now at Duke University Press

Cover: Ellen Gallagher, Ecstatic Draught of Fishes (2019). Oil, pigment, palladium, and paper on canvas, 97.6 x 79.5 in (248.0 x 201.9 cm). © Ellen Gallagher. Photo: Thomas Lannes. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian. More info

Volume 32.1 is available at Duke University Press. Qui Parle is edited by an independent group of graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley and published by Duke University Press.