Anna Kornbluh joins Money on the Left to discuss the politics of form and literary realism as theorized in her provocative book, The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space (University of Chicago Press, 2019). In The Order of Forms, Kornbluh lays bare the problematic “anarcho-vitalist” underpinnings of neoliberal discourse which, she argues, also inform much critical theory and left critique. In contrast, she upholds the necessity, malleability, and contestability of social form. Focusing, in particular, on English novels from Wuthering Heights to Alice in Wonderland, Kornbluh reads myriad nineteenth-century literary realisms as at once speculative and generative abstractions, capable of newly mapping and scaffolding social space. At the same time as forms might oppress, she concludes, abstractions also liberate. Wrapping up the conversation, Kornbluh considers how the politics of form reorient our approaches to contemporary academic labor, pedagogy, and learning.
Kornbluh is Professor of English at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Her research and teaching center on the novel, film, and theory, especially formalism, marxism, and psychoanalysis. Kornbluh is the author of Marxist Film Theory and Fight Club (Bloomsbury 2019), and Realizing Capital (Fordham 2014), and has just completed a manuscript “Immediacy, Or, The Style of Too Late Capitalism.” She is a founding facilitator for The V21 Collective (Victorian studies for the 21st Century) and InterCcECT (The Inter Chicago Circle for Experimental Critical Theory).
Find Anna Kornbluh on Twitter @V21collective
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The following was transcribed by Richard Farrell and has been lightly edited for clarity.
Scott Ferguso: Anna Kornbluh, welcome to Money on the Left.
Anna Kornbluh: Thanks for having me. It’s so fun to be here.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, it’s so great to have you here, and especially since you are a dear, old friend of mine who I have learned so much from throughout the years. It’s great to finally have you on our podcast.
Anna Kornbluh: It’s really exciting to listen to you guys and see the conversations you’ve been creating.
Scott Ferguson: Thanks. So maybe to begin, I know you, but our audience doesn’t necessarily know you. Maybe you can say a little bit about your scholarly background and maybe your personal background if you feel like that’s relevant?
Anna Kornbluh: Sure. I live in Chicago–the best city–where I teach at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I’m in the English department and teach a lot of literature, especially focused on the novel and the history of the novel, as well as film, and then a fair amount of literary and critical theory when I’m lucky to do that. I earned a PhD in English with a focus in theory at UC Irvine. I met Scott when I lived in Los Angeles and when I was getting a Master’s in Film at UCLA. Before that, I had an undergrad degree in political theory. I love the Midwest. I’m stupidly lucky that I am a person who got a job in 2008, and a job with job security and research money. I just couldn’t be more fortunate and wish nothing but these conditions for my fellows.
Scott Ferguson: Perhaps more so than some of our regular guests, your work is deeply critical and theoretical. I think you have a grammar and a style that is very precise, and it does a lot of rich important work. And so, we can improvise it a little bit and that’s cool, but we decided we were going to put together some more formal questions in order to kind of honor the complexity of your thoughts. So perhaps unlike some of our other episodes, we’re going to unabashedly read these questions, just because we wanted to make sure we were getting it right. And with that, I’m gonna hand it off to Billy to take the first one.
William Saas: We’ve invited you here to speak with us specifically about your brilliant scholarly monograph The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space, which was published in 2019 with the University of Chicago Press. In that book, you articulate a scathing critique of what you deem the “anarcho-vitalist tenor of much contemporary critical theory.” Inversely, you develop a comparatively capacious political formalism which you uncover in the modern novel. We would love it if you could flesh out some of these reciprocal moves for us. How do they intervene in debates in critical theory past and present, and what do they tell us about the construction of what you term social space?
Anna Kornbluh: Thanks for the question. Yeah, so it is a book that’s integrating a lot of different things, right. Chiefly, it is trying to integrate aesthetics and politics, and trying to think about the ways that the traditions of critical theory, and of humanistic interpretation, especially for people who work in the aesthetic humanities–literature, film, art and so on–how they have tended to think about what is that relationship between aesthetics and politics. What does art have to teach us about politics? What is artistic about political arrangement and political dispensation? Maybe I’ll try to put my finger on some of the kinds of biases or habits that have emerged in some of those traditions.
So specifically, I tried to track a position that would associate freedom with formlessness and would privilege a lot of artistic forms of dissolution, disintegration, fragmentation, hybridity, irony, instability, and so on. It has this whole aesthetic vocabulary about those things, because one imagines that those are actually political virtues or values, or that they’re emancipatory. So what gets built into that reinforcing framework then, are some judgments about what kind of art is good. What kind of art is politically educational? What kind is politically not conservative and innovative? Then, there are also some mistakes, maybe, about politics, and chiefly some biases against institutions, such as a kind of reflexive anti-statism we see across aesthetic humanist positions and a horizon in which what we understand to be the nature of a political act is to disrupt something, to break something, to suspend something, rather than to hold it in place or build it up.
Scott Ferguson: I wonder if you could follow up specifically about your critique of Giorgio Agamben’s idea of “destituent power,” is that correct?
Anna Kornbluh: Yeah, so I sort of take him as exemplary of some of these habits of mind in the opening of the book, because he’s such a tremendously influential theorist in the 21st century. I think Homo Sacer is Stanford University Press’ best selling book of all time. In his consummating of Foucault’s biopolitics, in his really trans-historicizing of these tendencies of the state, and of institutions to control life, he has this consummation of an idea that all of Western political power could be schematized according to its constituent tendencies, to make things, to contain things, and to bring things under the purview of control and under the purview of power. And the alternative for him is destitute power, or taking it apart. This is the realm of play, the realm of freedom, and the realm of dissolve for him. If constituent power is violent–like he thinks any active kind of making, forming, putting into place, and instituting is always going to be violent–then, if you want to be on the side of the good, you have to be on the side of the unmaking. So I take him as just kind of emblematic of, or a crystallization of, these habits. Again, I find humanist method and interpretation that have built in these aesthetic and political suppositions insufficient, really.
William Saas: So you’ve named Giorgio Agamben. Are there any other sort of leading lights of this position that you are, in fact, taking a position against?
Anna Kornbluh: Yeah, this is such an interesting problem, right? It’s like when you’re trying to put your finger on a structure of, not feeling, but of ratiocination, or a kind of prevalent form of argumentation. And in one that crosses disciplines and schools, then who are its leading lights? Does it have leading lights? Is an episteme identifiable with a person? And what’s the frame of argument in which you would say there are figureheads of this movement, and then their bodies of thought are consistent with it entirely and so on. Because, obviously, I have friends who deeply love Agamben and who are unhappy about this characterization. But I think some of the other positions that I might name in the book, or certainly in schematising the field, would be queer antinomianism, certain kinds of queer of color critique and feminist critique of institutions, a kind of immediatising, anarchic tendency in certain strains of Marxist theory, in the tradition of thinking aesthetics and politics, the almost messianic or ceaselessly negative kinds of positions of certain texts in the corpus of, and then certain interpretations of, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. I also identify the most recent real innovations in the theory of aesthetics and politics from Jacques Rancière and Caroline Levine as also continuing to privilege disruption, dissolution, unmaking, hybridity, collision, aleatory, and unpredictable as the kind of value pole, or the good side. We don’t like what stands in place. We don’t like what is sustainable. We don’t like what is form.
Maxximilian Seijo: So then contra this anarcho-vitalist unmaking, your political formalism emphasizes building, making, and structuration as not just a possibility, but as this sort of constitutive engine or motor of politics. Could you perhaps talk more and spell out then what your, dare I say, positive articulation of that critique forms and what it means for thinking the aesthetics of politics or the politics of aesthetics?
Anna Kornbluh: For sure. So the little word vitalism is doing a lot of work for the imaginary that life just springs forth, right? And that there is a kind of Eden of effulgent plenitude that we could be liberated to if only we stopped having the state, or if only we stopped having law, or we stopped having the symbolic. The alternative, the formalistic position that I try to propose and substantiate, and indeed, try to argue that the history of ideas provides plenty of fodder for and eloquence about, is one in which we think forms are not opposed to life, forms are actually infrastructure for life, and forms are essential to life. Human beings have no given format for their existence. It takes a village, should we be in small states, or how should we be organized? But we’re interdependent animals and that’s something that actually differentiates us from other animals. We have this prolonged infantile need of one another in order to survive, not just to live well, but to live at all.
So what shape should that take? There have to be arrangements, patterns, and orders for the making of life. So there’s a kind of ontological claim that form is essential for our well being and for our existence, and that we can recognize and admit that necessity and that essence without having to naturalize particular forms or without having to give up on, forget, or repress the contingency of particular forms. So historical materialism is something like a procedure of accounting for the contingency that human social experience takes. And the content of the formalist doctrine, as it were, also is necessity and contingency at the same time. Human beings need form, but there are no given forms.
But also thinking that every form has been made, every form has been contrived, instituted, and can be remade, and that we can have a horizon of political activity which is about reformation, not in any anti-revolutionary sense, but in the sense of like actually contriving and designing the structures that will enable human wellbeing and that will facilitate flourishing. What’s the best shape? What should be our voting system? What should be our governance? We’re confronting this question now on ecocide, and your previous guest, Kim Stanley Robinson, is very good at thinking about this problem. Is there something about ecocide that requires a super state formation, or an international confederation and what should that look like? That’s a speculative problem for us. And you can’t solve that speculative problem if a priori, or out of the gate, you think forms are bad, forms are oppressive, and we just need to burn it all down. We just need to get out of the purview of power or something.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, absolutely. I think before we dive into your specific, sustained literary focus in your book, I just wanted to draw attention to something that I think is implicit here, but we can tease out, which is the convergence and unintended complicity between anarcho-vitalist, destituent modalities that are anti-formal, or are about pushing to the limits, or accelerating past extant forms, with neoliberal logics, if not broader modern capitalist logics of disruption. Marx has a dialectical gambit in mind when he says, “All that is solid melts into air.” He thinks that history is going to generate something out of it, but I think you’re holding us back from that precipice and saying, “Well, wait a minute. This is actually the dominant regime. It has a hegemonic logic of dissolution. Maybe that’s not what we should be doing.”
Anna Kornbluh: Exactly. And I think one wants to articulate not in an idealist sense. We don’t want to say, “Oh, theorists are causing these conditions in the world.” We want to do it in a materialist sense, and say, “The structure of theory is determined by the structure of the world.” The ideas in every society are the ideas of the ruling class, and the vocation of theory is to make a cut from that determination. The vocation of theory is to know from which it speaks, and understand its conjunctures, and then figure out what some other logics might be. So if we are supplied, since 1973, with the abundant logic of the dismantling of social institutions, and the highly minimalist vectoring of state power towards the purpose of accumulation and away from the purpose of flourishing–and of course, people will argue that’s never been the purpose of the state, as Marxian anthropology would suggest–but if we cannot see this affinity of our thought with the kind of empirical practices of power, that is an aporia in our reasoning and an insufficient self scrutiny.
The whole gesture of critique, as Kant, Hegel, and certainly Marx produce it, is to look back on the conditions in which your thought is possible. So I do want to articulate that affinity is true. And I do want to point out the underside of that. I think the political theorist, Jodi Dean, is really eloquent about this. We have actually lived through a revolution in the United States in the last 40 years. It’s been a revolution of incredibly disciplined exercise of collective sovereignty by the collective that is against us. It has been incredibly disciplined from the level of school boards and local elections on up to the presidency and the Supreme Court, and the interpreting and mobilizing of institutions for the sake of oligarchic and plutocratic wealth transfer, and anti-democratic consolidations. It’s not the truth of those institutions, necessarily, but they’re mobilizing for that. This has been a highly disciplined and effective practice. That has to be a lesson to us, that our suspicion of the vehiculations of collective agency haven’t gotten us anywhere.
Maxximlian Seijo: So moving from one revolutionary context to perhaps one of a different kind, in your book, you focus, as Scott sort of already mentioned, on literary realism in general, and then on the Victorian realist novel in particular, which the latter you suggest is a rich historical vehicle for thinking through the stakes of what you just diagrammed as political formalism. So against certain currents in Marxist literary theory, as you’ve already mentioned, you argue that literary realism is irreducible to a certain metaphysics of representation, where, in the novel, its various signs, affects, and grammars are judged according to whether they succeed or fail to correspond or refer to an extant historical reality. So then, in this context, what exactly is literary realism on your analysis and how does this particular mode of political formalism work?
Anna Kornbluh: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I’m extremely interested in thinking about literary realism as an experiment, as speculative, and as a wild kind of thought that isn’t available to us in ordinary life. Who gets to think in the third person? Who gets to produce an omniscient perspective? Who gets to survey broad swaths of psychic interiority, social expanses, social depths, different social classes, and long historical arcs and stuff? Only these made up, realist narrators. And this experimental quality is taking into account or giving itself certain constraints. Realism could be defined as against, say, an irrealism of infinity. We take time and space constraints seriously in realism. Nobody lives forever. There’s a lot of death and birth and sex in the realist novel. We’re not on other planets. We’re just stuck on Earth. Like this is what we have. But within these constraints, the great moment of ferment of literary realism in the 19th century is one of tremendous social transformation with the Industrial Revolution, imperial expanse, and then imperial contraction and contestation, democratizing movements, great explosions of literacy, and the urbanization of mass population for the first time in world history.
So there’s all this social churn going on, and realism is this experimental form for trying to figure out like, what should society be shaped like? What should we be doing all day long? Given the constraints that human beings are mortal, and that they’re vulnerable, what should our societies look like? So I like to think about realism as a kind of theory of institutions, a theory of limits, and a theory of human sociability that maybe has some different precepts than the reification that might be attributed to it, or the kind of boringness or un-imaginativeness that might be attributed to it, but also has some different precepts from say, the anarcho-vitalist imaginary. The realist novel is super into schools, banks, governmental agencies, churches, and the places where banal existence is produced and the offices where it happens. And somebody has to think about those banalities. There’s a lot of power there and a lot of possibilities there.
William Saas: So is it possible that the mode of literary realism is conflated with the limited imagination, or the constrained perspective, of the author when it’s sort of at the expense of the mode itself? Would that be fair to say?
Anna Kornbluh: Yeah, I think that’s right. We end up with these kinds of approaches to realism and literary study where we want to correlate it to the context of the author, or correlate it to the biography of the author. We want to sort of say, “Well, the realist novel is only a voice box of the values of its time,” instead of, “No, there’s an immanently critical operation that’s possible in any kind of literary production, and these people are involved in an extremely voracious and demanding kind of imagining of what the world should be like.” I like to say, I know I say it in the book, that all of the major Victorian realist novelists were all journalists, and they were all successful journalists. They all gave that up, because they wanted to do something else. Trollope a little bit less so, he was a bureaucrat his whole life, or a postman. But Thackeray, Eliot, and Dickens, they had jobs writing how things were, they wanted to say something else, they wanted to know something else, and they started writing how things could be.
Scott Ferguson: Okay, so I have the big doozy of a question. I’m just gonna start reading. And hopefully I can get it off the page. With the caveat that we don’t wish to simply conflate your project with the work we do within the Money on the Left editorial collective, we nevertheless find many areas of sympathy and convergence between us. Perhaps above all, we find that your emphatically anti-lapsarian insistence on the speculative and political generativity of abstraction resonates greatly with our conception of money as an abstract and constitutive political form. While you don’t overtly thematize this in your book per se, you come closest to doing so in a passage on page 46, which if you don’t mind, I’m going to read for our audience. Differentiating your theory of literary realism from other influential Marxist interlocutors, you write:
“Prominent recent efforts to advance Marxist aesthetic theory of the contemporary have once again taken up realism, and here too Alberto Toscano, Annie McLanahan, Leigh Claire La Berge, Alison Shonkwiler, and Joshua Clover generally prize reference above all else. For Marxists, realism thus paradoxically occupies two poles simultaneously: the paragon of ideology–the imaginary resolution of real contradictions, the false suture of a partiality as a totality–and the paragon of artistic truth-telling, the gold standard representing actualities behind the veil.”
This is supercharged language for us. So what’s striking for us in this passage is how it links a problematic metaphysics, a literary reference, to what is, in our view, an equally problematic metaphysics of money qua passive representation. Money is regularly imagined to be a veil over real extant relations and private resources, and the gold standard as a system of signification in which truth telling is somehow guaranteed. Against this monetary representationalism, we would contend that money is constitutive. It’s transformable and it’s public. And it is, above all, an abstraction that is contestable. As such, it enables radical forms of political activation, including urgent contemporary struggles for abolition, reparations, universal healthcare, and an expressly anti-imperialist global Green New Deal. So what we’re wondering is, would you be willing to reflect a bit on this language and some of these resonances that we’re picking up on?
Anna Kornbluh: Yeah, I think that’s a really great question. That may be the best question of all the ones that you guys prepared for me because it speaks to how generative and creative you guys are that you can think about the capacity of abstractions across disciplines, and that you can think about the affinities of different kinds of arguments. I’m just a lowly literary form person. I did write a book about the history of finance, but that’s not this book. But I think that you’re fundamentally right. My most favorite sentence in this whole book, it’s only three words, maybe you guys liked it too: “Abstractions also liberate.” We’re very familiar, as aesthetic humanists, with the position that generalizations are bad, that abstractions are bad, that institutions are bad, and that big ideas exclude the particulars. We think that we can only have this job of championing the particular, the content, the substance, the real, and the body.
So the work that I’m trying to do in terms of pointing out that viewpoint and mindset, and how pervasive it is in the aesthetic humanities, I think, is a parallel logical move and parallel critical move to the work you guys are trying to do you in suggesting that the way that we regard the institution of money is really impoverished, that given the social circumstances of the late capitalist state, and given the tools available to us of the Fed, for instance, that there is a possibility to activate the political determination of what money represents, or how money functions, and that that possibility should be seized by people. And it should be articulated and named by our leaders. So I think that there’s a lot of affinity, or a lot of parallelism, between the approach to institutions, the approach to the state, the approach to representation, the symbolic, and so on, that I’m interested in and you’re interested in.
If one was to try to articulate a possible point of disjuncture, it is how we acknowledge the outside of that position. So I say the existing forms that are available to human beings can be repurposed, re-constellated, they’re malleable, they can be mobilized for different ends, that politics is the work of collectively deliberating what kind of shape for our lives we should have, and that we don’t have to have a kind of revolutionary iconography of the endless horizon of messianic new forms or non-forms. We can work with some of our available forms. How do we articulate that dialectical capacity, that existing possibility, that political prospect, while also acknowledging that this is a delimited horizon of action. Of course, people who want to abolish the value-form are always going to be unsatisfied with your work and with Stephanie Kelton’s work. Of course, our radical, anarcho bro colleagues are always going to think that Stephanie Kelton is insufficient, that Bernie is not enough, and so on.
So what is the kind of gesture intellectually, but then also rhetorically, that gets us to avow money as an instrument in this concrete situation which we find ourselves, that the available determinants of the situation permit to be used and deployed quite differently? That’s a different question from: should we have a society with no money or should we have a society with no abstraction? So what I really find exciting is the insistence by your working group, and by some of its great, accomplished scholars and leaders, that we could do different things with these tools. I got super excited when Janet Yellen gave her induction speech. That might be something you have to delete, I might get fired, haha. I mean, the things that she said about what state power actually has available to it to produce values that benefit the greater good, the greater masses of the people and so on, those were really exciting formations. So yeah, I think there’s a lot of affinity between our projects.
Maxximilian Seijo: I think to that last point on Yellen, at least in the context of the COVID response and the seeming ongoing crackup of the orthodox monetary policy mold that has been dominant for the last 40 to 50 years, this, as you say, sense of the potential for malleability, it’s interesting to see in context with your work that opening and potential thinking. We had KSR on the show a while ago about the way that opening in a formal sense, in the political economic sphere, is also producing all different types of openings in literary spheres. I think that it’s a really interesting way in which there’s almost like a dialogic phenomenon between the different disciplines or areas in which we’re thinking along these similar terms.
Anna Kornbluh: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. Different aesthetic formations are possible and different aesthetic practices are possible when you have a different relationship to mediation. So if you can understand money as a collective sovereign driven determination of value, that doesn’t have a substance behind it in large part, but that can be deployed, you have a kind of orientation towards what forms are able to do that isn’t predicated upon their transparency of representation or their presencing function.
Scott Ferguson: What you just pointed out there, I just want to, not really pushed back, but just kind of clarify something. I know when you say that we think money as not being backed by a substance in the standard understanding of gold or silver, or whatever it is, but I think our relationship would be to say that it is not non-substantial in the same way that I think a lot of us would probably treat language. Language is not without substance. Language really organizes the world. But it doesn’t have to be a chit or a finite thing. We don’t have to presume a chit or a finite substance somehow behind language. The language of the world is participating in the whole of the world in heterogeneous ways. So again, I just think breaking with the metaphysics of representationalism is something that you do quite well. And I think other humanities scholars can do, but not when it comes to money. Money is this kind of blinding social form in that way.
Anna Kornbluh: Yeah, I think so. One way that I like to think about that is that there is a material efficacy to money. There is a performative power, there is an agency of the symbolic that isn’t reducible to a fixed substance behind it, as you say, or that isn’t conflatable to the presences. It does produce things. It does act. And we can have more or less collective exertion of power around those acts given that it’s the vehicle of valorization in our society–within these constraints of what this society is. So yeah, what’s our vocabulary for thinking about that performative efficacy, thinking about forms that produce things, activations of materiality, or what Lacan refers to as the letter has a material substrate? That’s not a substance, that’s not a solidity, and that’s not a concrete thing. It’s an abstraction too, but it is one that takes hold of us.
William Saas: I want to get to our next question, but I want to get there by way of some editorializing and maybe recontextualizing some of the conversation so far. So returning to Jodi Dean’s comments on the revolution of the last 40 to 50 years, we might call that neoliberalism. It strikes me that it might be reasonable to call the folks who are at the head and have orchestrated and been instrumental in that revolution as being really good at political formalism. So I think the sympathy between our projects boils down to this fundamental question that cannot be probably articulated as beautifully as, “Abstractions also liberate,” but, “How’s that worked for you?” might be another way to pose it. So another similarity or affinity between our projects, I think, is, in the face of frustration and ultimately calling for violent revolution or exodus or refutation, we’re up to recovery, re-examination, and re-discovery. And one of the ways that your book demonstrates this is through case study. We’d love for you to walk us through your second chapter in which you reread Marx and Engels’ Manifesto of the Communist Party through the lens of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, which I think is a very strange pairing, but wonderfully done. But what theoretical or meta-methodological moves are you making here? And how do they serve an alternate history of political form, which can be, as you put it, necessary, malleable and constructible?
Anna Kornbluh: Okay, that’s great. So I think the issue is almost like what is the middle distance? What is the mid-level that we can think about that isn’t total abolition of the value-form or the complete hypothesis of a realm without abstraction or of unstructured life, of anarchic, primordial chaos? And then, on the other side, just only adhering too closely to the smallnesses is where nobody ever wants to think about what power is actually available to us. So I think that mid-level is tactical thinking. I think that it is strategic thinking. It is about what are the tools available in a situation and how do you use them. And the thing that I’m really interested in as a problem between the Manifesto of the Communist Party, which is a document that Marx and Engels produced in late 1847, that comes out in the winter right before 1848, and then has, arguably, an exhortative relationship to the springtime of peoples across Europe in 1848, that document, which comes out at the same time as Wuthering Heights, is exactly this problem of what is the distance or what is the middle? How are we thinking about the constraints of a situation? How are we thinking about the absolute quality or the openings in the political horizon?
So, to make that more clear, in the manifesto, there is an assertion that all of human society is a history of class struggle. And there is also a kind of concluding gesture that the communist revolution will bring with it an end to all antagonism. So what is, I think, a problem of the rhetorical strategy there, of the exhortative anti-capitalist strategy there, is a reduction of the expanse, or this total set as it were, of social contradiction and social antagonism, to the specifically capitalist version of it. Because it simply isn’t true that if we did away with capitalist antagonism, we would have a non-antagonistic society. And it simply isn’t true that we would have a motivated or immanent or natural logic of how to be organized, to go back to our earlier discussions about how there isn’t a given form of human life. And if Marxism implies this, which I don’t think Marx at all consistently does, but I think he deleteriously does at points, then it’s failing the bar of historical materialism, of understanding what is contingent about the capitalist articulation of social antagonism and what is contingent about its managing of social antagonism through the class system.
It’s a problem of how, yes, we can organize a phase theory of history according to the kind of basic class relations, and, yes, we can particularly tell the progressive kind of development of capitalism according to this simplification, he calls it, of class relations, but this isn’t all of human history. And if we represent history in these bombastic ways that he does, as all of this, then we lose the underside or the underlap of history with capitalism. We lose the other part of the set of human antagonisms. And what I think is so amazing about Wuthering Heights is that it has this repertoire of vocabulary of images and tropes that let it think about antagonism as a kind of transhistorical problem for human beings. The basic problem of the hearth, where so much of its action is set, of architecture, of construction, of house holding, of familial shape, all of these are just inexhaustible dilemmas in that book.
And at the same time, there’s this just exuberant, hyper-stylized, incredibly beautiful, and uncanny kind of production of symmetry, of forms, of doubles, and the kind of problematic of formalization itself that just helps us to think about how you can have infinity of social contradictions, and the ability to inscribe and formulate the fact of that infinity of contradictions, such that your proposed political solutions don’t imagine or fantasize that you would ever be away or be done with contradiction.
Maxximlian Seijo: Thank you for that. I think that is a really cogent way of saying that. I wanted to dig in a little bit into some of what you mentioned about the spatialization in Wuthering Heights in an architectural sense. You also motivate this through a photographic analysis, as well, in the way photography as a forming medium does this too. In Wuthering Heights, as you said, we think about the construction of homes, rooms, window frames, this doubling that you mentioned, which these forms seem to shelter, maintain, and then also open social space in ways that even outstrip domination and antagonism at times. Can you give us a little bit more detail or taste of this specifically architectural analysis? And why, in the context of this ontological argument about antagonism, and this ontological argument, essentially, about historical materialism that outstrips these very specific immanent capitalist class antagonisms, why you see these architectural mediums and modes as so important for thinking that transhistorical problematic?
Anna Kornbluh: Yeah, so architecture is kind of a master trope throughout the book. There is, as you are getting this in an hour in a kind of a Frankenstein sense, a lot in the book, but architecture is one of the spines of it. And that is partly because it is a trope of construction, and I’m interested in constructive criticism. It’s a trope of building and I’m interested in putting things together. It is art that straddles the line between necessity and contingency. It’s Hegel’s first art for that reason. Human beings need shelter. But how are you gonna make it? What shape is it going to have? These are questions that are on that threshold of materially and necessarily essential, but also kind of open to variability, to different formations, and to the different processes of creativity. So, for me, architecture just holds so much of this problematic up, of how we need shape to live, and how we need shelter to live. Should you have a triangle roof or A-frame? How should you be living?
And in Wuthering Heights, it’s just part of the absolute, extreme–I can’t even find adjectives for it–sublime force of that book. It keeps constantly trying to juxtapose highly textured, extremely attentive figurations of the made environment, of the built environment, of fence posts, window frames, lintels, doors, hearths, walls, and house structures overall. It just cannot stop lavishing attention onto those things. And that is a whole vocabulary of ideas and images. What is that doing in the same book with stuff about the arrival of the bourgeoisie, stuff about the insufficiency of the family form, and stuff about immoderate desires? So there’s all this stuff in the plot that is excessive and wild and unsolvable, and then there’s all this stuff in the form that is detailed, material, instantiated, and installed. And then, you can trace the contour of it and you can study it.
So this is how I think novels work. They kind of produce these weird combinations where you’re like, “Okay, so, what do those things have to do with each other?” That is the thought the novel is trying to have. So, what is Wuthering Heights doing with this incredible lavishness of form and this just incredible immoderacy and un-containability of passion and of antipathy and of fighting and of economic transformation and of the slave trade? It is trying to tell us that form is a technique for managing antagonism and a necessary one and a useful one and not a dispelling of antagonism, not one that means that you have to lose track of its extent or its scope.
Scott Ferguson: So one of the things I really appreciate that’s coming out here is, to kind of come back to the critique of anarcho-vitalism, what you’re showing throughout the book, but in this chapter that we’re talking about in particular, is that vitality is with form. It’s shot through form. You’re not arguing against vitality. You’re saying, it seems to me, that form is a question of vitality. It’s not the expunging of vitality.
Anna Kornbluh: Yeah, not the containing of it. That opposition that form constrains, form contains, that institutions police us…
Scott Ferguson: Which they do.
Anna Kornbluh: Which they do, but it’s not the limit of what they do, or containment is not the only thing we can say about what they offer us. That the whole value that emerges, the negative Rubin’s vase illusion of that, formlessness, lack of containment, and lack of constraint is what freedom is. As opposed to, freedom is the meaningful deployment of forms for human flourishing or capacitating our management of necessity so that we don’t denigrate necessity.
Scott Ferguson: So speaking of books that hold very different things together, on the opposite end, maybe, from Wuthering Heights, we have your chapter on Alice in Wonderland. Which you, very provocatively, in a super cool way, you’re trying to convince us that it’s a realist novel. Which, I’m not sure that anyone’s ever made that case before. But you’re not just being shocking for the sake of being shocking. You’re drawing something out about the abstractness of the realist novel that we tend to repress or not avow by calling Alice in Wonderland a realist novel. That’s my initial gloss, but maybe you can unpack what you’re doing here and why it’s so important?
Anna Kornbluh: Sure. Yeah, that’s totally the chapter where I’m talking nonsense, except that the point of the nonsense is to produce something by this dramatic inversion. And it’s less saying Alice in Wonderland is realist as a text, but that its own internal properties of form function as a kind of distillation or crystallization of realist form, that it is something like the symbolic logic, the reduction to the minima, of what realism tries to do. Because Alice is such an experimental investigation into what words are and who fixes the meaning of words. What is social order? And who puts it in place? What is sovereignty? And to whom does it belong? How do we undo it? And what do these things have to do with each other? Why is the question of beheading, and “off-with-their-head-ness,” and the sovereign decision on life, also a question of punning and of the containment of, or the proliferation of, semantic quality? So it’s a kind of prismatic intensification or hardening of the tendencies of experimental inquiry into how society should be that I think realism performs. So that’s the kind of force of it. And then, it’s also kind of playing with some of the historical events of its author having been a mathematician and a revolutionary advent of symbolic logic in relation to other kinds of mathematics in the 19th century. So what does it mean to think about distillation as a representative strategy? And what does it make possible even as it is boiling things down? It’s, yeah, a little bit bananas. But hopefully it’s a breather in the middle of the book, too.
Maxximilian Seijo: I just really appreciate how you boil down to something like Alice in Wonderland is asking ontological questions. By necessity, your political formalism then can kind of feed into that nonsense with a certain logical structure. I just really appreciated the way you took on that so paradoxically. Moving from that context, I wanted to talk about your final chapter, which reads states of psychoanalysis, formalization, and the space of the political. Within it, you plumb deep impulses within psychoanalysis, which in case listeners haven’t sort of picked up on yet, is another one of these combinatory substrate themes in this book. So you plumb these impulses to theorize what might be called the inescapable psycho-political problem of the polis. On your account, why is psychoanalysis such a meaningful tradition through which to confront this indelible, political problematic?
Anna Kornbluh: Sure. Psychoanalysis is like another one of the bolts in Frankenstein’s neck. So I think the first thing to say is psychoanalysis is a discourse of the objective. However much we would want to assimilate it to an egoistic, self help, personalizing kind of pathological formation–bourgeois, insidious, etc–it is an account of the structure of social relations. It is an account of language as the medium of social relations, of ungrounded non-theocratic reason, and of the problem of secular modernity as the structure of the kind of scaffold against which the human subject emerges, or the void that the human subject answers. So it’s an extremely descriptive kind of project in this course of trying to understand the contradictions of modernity that also attend capitalism. It has a kind of different register and a different idiom for investigating those contradictions. So in the biggest sense, it makes sense of social relations. And it puts the arbitrariness of social relations first and foremost, front and center. Why do human beings suffer? Why is there discontent in culture? Why is there discontent in civilization? Because there is not an immanence to it. Because there’s not a groundedness of it. Because we can’t make the words coincide with the things. So it has affinities with the formalist project I’m articulating, as well as affinities with what I think a historical materialist project is. So that’s why it’s so important.
But then, more specifically in that chapter, I’m working with some of the Lacan and Freud’s own thinking about institutions and their own thinking about the relational space of psychoanalysis. You can’t do psychoanalysis on yourself. It’s not self help. It is a dyadic relation that has to take place within very specific formal conditions, the conditions of the clinic, the couch, the two people, the variable session, and usually with the authorization of the institution that will enable the analyst to have been trained, and the patient to transmit what it is that they have done in their processes that they are working on. So there is a lot in the history of psychoanalysis of meditation on what an institution is and why you need it for this practice of health and human beings suffering less. So that makes it an intrinsically political theory. And then, of course, Freud wrote a whole number of political and theoretical texts, as did Lacan. So that’s why I look at psychoanalysis in a way. Then, there are also slightly more historical reasons. Like Freud was one of the great appraisers of the realist novel. He said that Eliot, Dickens, Trollope and Thackeray had invented psychoanalysis before he had. So there’s a kind of according and an esteem for the realist novel in psychoanalysis that is also really enabling for me.
William Saas: Thank you. To get us to the end of the interview, we want to step out of The Order of Forms, or get a little bit adjacent to it as you have in other articles. You’ve written about everything from the so-called method wars in literary studies to reflections on what you have named the climate realism of contemporary novelist, Kim Stanley Robinson, who was a recent guest on our show. So throughout these articles and publications, you place front and center the question of theory, or better, of theorizing as a social formation. And through this writing, it appears that for you, theorizing is not simply a specialized mode of academic labor within the Academy. But it is rather at once a critical and generative activity that takes place through fiction as much as through nonfiction. We like this commitment, and partly, because it links the labor of the humanities to constitutive world building, while pushing back against certain self-loathing impulses in the neoliberal Academy. See before: “how’s that working for you?” Is this a fair characterization of your work? Or are we way off base? If it is fair, could you say more about why it is that you prize this kind of unconventional, even promiscuous approach to theorizing?
Anna Kornbluh: Yeah, I think that’s very fair. And I appreciate it very much. I’m so glad that you guys could read that. I just think that creative, speculative, wild utopian inventiveness is a deep, deep faculty of the human. I really do, I am a humanist in that way. I think humans enjoy play and abstraction. I think it’s a staggering truth that human beings made abstract cave paintings before they knew how to make houses 70,000 years ago, before they knew how to bury bodies. Abstraction is a faculty of our creative power and our creative capacity to make things. So I love that I have labor conditions that afford me the security and the time and the venue to try to take my mind wild places. This is equipment for living. Our ideas clearly haven’t sufficed till now. We live in a society of mass immiseration with more and less brutal instantiations of it and spectacles of it, more or less viciousness, and mass inequity. And we are rapidly losing the ability to live. And that’s not a generic problem of human beings, that is a problem of our oligarchs, but it is going to be true and unevenly distributed that people won’t be alive. This is a fact that in 20 years billions of people will live on land that will be uninhabitable or hot or underwater or both. This is a recipe for mass death, a recipe for forced extinction, and a recipe for mass violence as well.
So shit is not working. People are miserable and the earth is burning up. So we need new ideas. And we need ideas that aren’t just messaging and telegraphing and DMing what’s already here. There’s a kind of real collapse of both the theoretical and the aesthetic imaginary right now into this just endless, sadistic documenting of how bad shit is. And that’s not really galvanizing as art, that’s immobilizing as art. So I would kind of just defend ontologically, politically, tactically, and libidinally what theory has to offer us, what big ideas, what speculation, what thinking abstractly, what defamiliarization, and getting outside the normal frames of reference have to offer us.
William Saas: I just wanted to acknowledge and show some appreciation for your own acknowledgement of the conditions of the labor that you’re doing. And I’ll maybe invite you to say a little bit more about theorizing and the space-time labor value that is required into this essential labor of theorizing our way out of this climate mess and out of all other associated messes. What do we need to do that?
Anna Kornbluh: Right, so we obviously need lots of collaborative time, I think, because none of the available idioms are working. And that includes that the engineers don’t know how to convey the crisis of value that we’re living in even if they know how to decarbonize. They don’t know how to motivate the political action. But the storytellers haven’t quite figured out how to galvanize a mass insistence on decarbonisation or on other ameliorative measures, because maybe they don’t have enough riveting facts or they don’t have a good enough sense of what the functional storytelling is. But we need a lot more collaborative, imaginative, and technically inventive work together across disciplines. I do think that’s true. And I think that individuals need time to spend reading, to spend marinating, and to spend producing collaborative knowledge in the space of the classroom. I don’t at all oppose research and teaching. I think that is just totally not what I mean when I say like we need time for thinking.
But people need time for teaching. And that means that they need small class sizes, they need workable loads, and they need the ability to have preparation that involves reading new things and changing their course syllabi all the time and like genuinely encountering and making ideas happen in the classroom. There’s this line in Rachel Buurma and Laura Heffernan’s book, The Teaching Archive, about how like in the humanities you deal with students saying like, “I couldn’t make it to class, what did I miss?” And they say, “You missed everything and you missed it forever.” Because we make the knowledge happen in that haptic, collaborative, and dynamic moment of mutual determination of meaning. That is what you missed. So I think we need time for research driven teaching and research generative teaching. And what we also know is that it is just emphatically and empirically good for students, about small class sizes, about a lot of individual attention, about a lot of dynamic kind of evolution of what’s on the syllabus, and a lot of in-person collective work.
The other thing I might say about that, because I really, really care about this, is we need people who think about our conditions of labor and who are willing to do the work to make the place where we work, work. Service in the institution, being the associate head of my department of a hundred people, working in my academic union, these are things that have taught me so, so much about big ideas, about communication, about pattern, about organizing, about power and politics. It is a formal problem, how should you organize a class, make a budget, or at what level should departments cooperate, and so on. And I wrote two books in the last five years while I was doing really heavy administrative work, and I think that every faculty member must do it, and also must do it in their union. Because self governance has to mean something and because making our institutions functional and habitable is also content.
William Saas: Just wondering, returning to the self-loathing academic and the neoliberal Academy, part of that being potentially linked to perpetuation, and throwing one’s hands up at the structure as it is and saying, “I can’t do anything about it. I can’t create that space that I know is necessary in the classroom. Let’s just burn it all down.” Right?
Anna Kornbluh: No, I think that’s absolutely pervasive. And some of it is a response to feeling themselves burnt out. Burnout is a generational and cultural structure of feeling and so on for lots and lots of reasons. We, again, have a society that is immiserating people on a mass scale. The amount of overwork that is extracted from people no matter what their level of compensation is, or the level of job security is, is just intolerable. And I think it’s really, really vivid in the pandemic that academics are like essential workers in how much they’ve been asked to over function, how much they’ve been asked to overproduce. Many people, not all, were insulated from the dangers that say healthcare workers or grocery store workers had in the last 20 months, but not from the extremizing intensification of the demands on our work, and certainly not from the emotional toll of what it has taken to try to be there for students and invent new modalities and respond to our employers contempt for our survival and so on. So you can understand what the burnout is, you can understand what the dissolution is, but your fellow people have some power to join with you and transform a lot of those conditions.
A lot of these power structures are actually open and available. It’s not that hard to be a department head, it really isn’t. And people can do that work together. And that’s what faculty governance, another beautiful promise of it, is. It is really, really, really rewarding to make a faculty union. And it is really rewarding to do that in relationship to student unions and in relationship to graduate employees unions and in relationship to staff and janitorial unions and in relationship to your public school teachers union. And to think about 4 million people work in higher education. That’s more than in the airline industry, or the restaurant industry, these giant sectors that got COVID bailouts, that we did not in the same way or that we didn’t have value for. We serve 20 million people nationwide. Like our work is incredibly valuable. There’s a lot of power in that value that we can collectively seize up together. I know everybody’s tired and everything is terrible. But I really think that affirming the good stuff that we have and the agency that we have is the only way out.
Scott Ferguson: Anna Kornbluh, this was an incredible conversation. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Anna Kornbluh: Oh my god, I’m so honored that you guys read my work and I’m such an admirer of the efforts you guys are making to just think differently.
* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: William Saas (audio editor), Richard Farrell (transcription), & Meghan Saas (graphic art)
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