The Location of Contemporary Literature / Václav Paris

A small fence separates densely populated Tijuana, Mexico, right, from the United States in the Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector. Construction is underway to extend a secondary fence over the top of this hill and eventually to the Pacific Ocean.

A small fence separates densely-populated Tijuana, Mexico, right, from the United States in the Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector. Construction is underway to extend a secondary fence over the top of this hill and eventually to the Pacific Ocean. Photo by: Gordon Hyde. Public Domain.

In his 1994 study, The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha suggested that the contemporary novel was characterized by “unhomeliness.”1 Where, in the nineteenth century, novels took meaning from and gave meaning to, specific nations and their representative sites, by the end of the twentieth, diasporic processes had uprooted the genre. For Bhabha, the uncanny homes in Toni Morrison’s and Nadine Gordimer’s novels were, in this sense, diagnostic of an international shift. Where once the genre was studied in terms of its rootedness in particular traditions and territories, now it was coming to be associated with minority and outsider positions in relation to those traditions and territories.

More than twenty-five years have passed since the publication of The Location of Culture, and if anything the processes of globalization and dislocation that Bhabha drew attention to have accelerated. This raises the question: what can we say about the place of the novel in the third decade of the twenty-first century? And—by extension—what is the appropriate frame for interpreting it? While almost everyone would agree that Westphalian national categories and disciplines are no longer sufficient to read today’s fiction, there is little consensus on what constitutes the supposedly new space that the novel inhabits. To what extent is it physical rather than virtual or digital? To what extent do national sovereignties remain a force for defining that space? And how can the novel coordinate the extensiveness and immaterial abstractness of its apparently universal culture—its worldhood, transnationality, globality, planetarity, or what have you—with its material dependence on, and embeddedness in, particular settings and histories—its locality, particularity, and pluralism?

These problems form the subject of two new books, both published in the summer of 2020: Marco Codebò’s Novels of Displacement: Fiction in the Age of Global Capital and Matthew Hart’s Extraterritorial: A Political Geography of Contemporary Fiction. Both books raise the question of establishing the geographical frame for situating fiction in the present day. In both cases, the authors find in the novel suggestions more of where we are, or (since “we” smacks of a common identity at least partly denied by contemporary disaggregation), of “where you are” (a phrase that I’ll come back to). Both books see the novel as a kind of compass or map, a speculative tool for orientation in unfamiliar new spaces. Reading them side by side we can begin, perhaps, to find our coordinates.

Let’s begin with Novels of Displacement. The story Codebò tells is one of “negative deterritorialization” (5). This is a process that began in the 1980s, by which forms of national capital (national markets, currencies, state-based regulations, borders, customs) were freed for global consumption, but then reorganized and reformatted by electronic means (software and its corporations). Drawing on the theoretical work of Deleuze and Guattari, Saskia Sassen, Marshall Berman, Katherine Hayles, Thomas Picketty, Jeff Malpas, Doreen Massey, as well as one of his erstwhile partisans in the Italian Potere Operaio movement—Toni Negri—Codebò argues that this capital-induced negative deterritorialization and shift in governance has now definitively “outshined” the hegemonic narrative of the nation “while simultaneously becoming the sole true great narrative of our age” (9). What in the 1990s was felt as “minoritarian in-betweenness” has now become “majoritarian displacement,” that is: “the condition of those who lose their place without even having to depart from it” (9). This contemporary displacement is ubiquitous rather than partial or interstitial, not as in Bhabha’s work, like a “stairwell between two floors in a house” but more like the famous M.C. Escher painting, “stairs leading to other stairs” (9). In this context, there is—pessimistically—no possibility to “move beyond;” there is no terrain for rooting identity. All that is left is a “mood” and, here we find the key to Codebò’s book: “the novel’s ethical commitment to narrate this mood” (9). Moods, for Codebò, are not simple or unreflective affects. Quoting Hubert Dreyfus’s reading of Heidegger, he defines moods as “specifications of affectedness, the ontological existential condition that things always already matter” (1).

The first pages of Novels of Displacement narrate the background to the novel’s deterritorialization. Beginning with the origins of the novel’s territoriality, which Codebò sees best portrayed in Balzac’s Comédie humaine, the discussion touches on Austen’s Pemberley, Latin American nationalizing romances, and Kafka’s Prague, before arriving at the advent of the era of global capital in the 1980s to introduce the significant contemporary novels of displacement of the 21st century, including, to name only a few, Simona Vinci’s Strada provinciale tre, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses, and China Miéville’s The City & The City. Chapters 3, 5, and 6 of Codebò’s book then operate as detailed case studies of a more particular selection of works in different languages: Bernardo Carvalho’s Nove noites, Daniel Sada’s Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and Matthias Énard’s Zone.

In reading each of these texts, Codebò sets up an opposition between what he calls the “globalized novel” and the “novel of displacement.” The paradigmatic “globalized novel” is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code—a work, partly on account of its phenomenal market success, that was “born and bred global” (63). Vittorio Coletti writes that where “great traditional novels… are always visibly marked by a linguistic or national culture, or in other words, by a cultural homeland that more or less corresponds to their author’s country and its history,” novels like Brown’s or Umberto Eco’s belong rather to “the land of their readers (who are everywhere)” (63). Codebò comments: “I would argue that a novel like The Da Vinci Code does much more than simply belong to the land of its readers: it is actually constitutive of a new, ideologically uniform landscape, superimposed over the territories that had once been the reader’s homelands” (63-4). The Da Vinci Code allows us to survey this territory, composing its world from the kinds of iconic places found in travel-guides (the Louvre Museum, Westminster Abbey, etc.). We find ourselves looking at familiar territory of simulacra everywhere: difference is flattened as the reader becomes spectator. In this way, argues Codebò, The Da Vinci Code mimics the administration of the world by big corporations, turning the world into “the Cloud,” putting it at our fingertips. By contrast, the novel of displacement narrates precisely the loss of place from the ground, rather than through a contrived and superimposed tour d’horizon. The texts considered in Codebò’s book offer something like authentic representations of this condition (I almost wrote “situation” or “circumstance,” but both terms imply a location that is not available), “by narrating territoriality as the experience not of a presence but of a lack of presence.” This is why it is important to read them. “Novels of displacement” writes Codebò, “narrate their characters’ efforts to make sense of spaces increasingly deprived of places.” They can help us “decode territories that are the fictional counterparts of the deterritorialized spaces created by global capital and software in the real world” (113).

Where Codebò’s book seeks to use contemporary fiction to understand an ontological and phenomenological state of displacement, Matthew Hart’s Extraterritorial: A Political Geography of Contemporary Fiction is committed to locating, describing, and theorizing a particular type of physical space. Instead of a general ruling metaphor of “stairs leading to other stairs,” Hart’s study is full of examples of not only fictional, but also architectural, geographic, cartographic extraterritories, including the open ocean, freeports, airports, detention camps, the Shanghai Links development, and various other forms of “zone” and heterotopia. The central argument of Extraterritorial is that such spaces are not exceptional—not outside the perceived usual order of things (national sovereignties), but constitutive of it. This is recognized by the contemporary novel, significant portions of which (the new weird genre, science fiction, postapocalyptic fiction, and to a lesser degree, historical fiction) are increasingly taking exterritories as their setting. Individual chapters consider contemporary art, the novels of China Miéville, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam series and Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea alongside other “archipelagic” visions of post-apocalypse, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and—at various moments—the late work of J.G. Ballard. Drawing his net around these texts, Hart concludes that the contemporary novel is “trending exterritorial” (9).

Extraterritorial’s argument splits into interventions both for literary criticism and political theory. In terms of literary criticism, the book offers a new frame for reading that avoids the “claptrap” of globalization and its ideologies while attending to the realities of governance. “It’s now hard to imagine a serious account of twenty-first-century art and literature that would not grapple with, even if it did not begin from, the question of the global,” writes Hart. “And yet, our globalizing critical tool kit remains inadequate for the interpretation of individual texts and the analysis of culture at scale. The concept and practice of extraterritoriality,” he proposes, “represent possible solutions to such inadequacy” (6). Hart’s animus is against what he calls a “sovereign-territory ideal,” which associates legitimate political authority with its territorial extension, i.e. in which the nation-state’s sovereignty is read as coherently connected to land. This has never been, he sustains, the norm we take it to be. “The truth is that state sovereignty helps produce international and transnational relations—and it’s this truth that the art and literature of the extraterritorial helps us to see” (7). In order to expose the centrality of exterritoriality to contemporary art, in the first chapter, Hart turns to the example of the Geneva Freeports – an enormous holding cell for valuable objects used by the super-rich partly in order to avoid taxes, a “fiscal no-man’s land” (32). The Geneva Freeports serves as an instance of a particular kind of space, the “zone,” an “outside within,” that offers an alternative conceptualization to that of Westphalian concepts of government (33). This space has important aesthetic implications as a keystone within the international art market: it is, in a sense, the starting point for a new theory of art which Extraterritorial outlines. Citing the work of Stefan Heidenreich and Hito Steyerl, Hart turns to the video productions of the British artist Mark Wallinger, suggesting that his works dramatize the fluidity of the UK’s administration of graduated territorial sovereignty in order manage phenomena such as immigration.

In terms of political theory, Hart insists that extraterritorial zones are produced not by a lack of law, but by its surplus, its overdetermination: through arguments, compromises, and agreements between sovereign and non-sovereign parties and institutions. For Hart, in this broad sense, extraterritories are not only not exceptional literally, but also in that they are not what we have been taught to expect from Giorgio Agamben’s “state of exception.” The best articulation of this claim comes in the second chapter, which is focused mostly on China Miéville’s The City & the City. Miéville labelled this novel “an imaginative riposte to the ‘bullshit exceptionalism of Schmitt and Agamben’” (77). Describing the political geography of the two cities that make up Miéville’s world, Beszél and Ul Qoma, Hart proposes them as versions of the classical polis. What Miéville’s setting helps us to do is to imagine extraterritoriality as a topological metaphor rather than merely situating it in political history. Where Agamben’s camp is “the historical and material shape taken by the sovereign exception when it (supposedly) becomes a paradigm for government” (96)—a literalization of the matrix of power that structures all forms of constituted power, Miéville’s twin cities do not operate as abstractions representing the will of the sovereign, but as messy entwined spaces cut across by multiple different interests. “Breach,” the force associated with keeping the cities separate, “is not an ideal but an institution” (100). The work registers how extraterritories function in practice, without a single sphere of authority and without “Schmittian formal clarity,” in weird, weak, and partial ways (103). In fact, in a move that we see repeated isomorphically later in the book for other subgenres, the weirdness of the “new weird” is itself read as the fitting medium for this realization. In other words: new genres of contemporary novel are emerging in response to the problem of the extraterritorial.

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“Where you are”—Hart quotes this phrase from Chang-rae Lee’s “speculative picaresque” On Such a Full Sea as a kind of motto (113). The phrase is simultaneously absolutely precise, pointing to one spot, and far too vague. Is it a question? Is it part of a longer sentence that has been lost? An “unassimilated verbal artifact”? If it is a question, both Novels of Displacement and Extraterritorial furnish plenty of possible answers. But the answers are often as disorienting as the prompt. “Let the cracks between things widen until they are no longer cracks but the new places for things”, reads Hart’s resonant epigraph from Colson Whitehead, “That was where they were now” (1). “Where are we once we have left the plane but not yet passed passport control?” Hart asks later (67). Somewhere between the cloud and the earth, Codebò might hazard. In part the answers of both books address the problem of understanding where we are within a temporal or historical process that we are not in control of, cannot oversee. How do we find the present when presence is denied? In Smith’s White Teeth, writes Codebò, “characters are left stranded in urban territories shaped by historical processes” that they do not have the tools to understand (140).

The question of situating ourselves in time leads to another one: to what extent are the problems of these books specifically germane to the contemporary novel? Already for György Lukács, whose Theory of the Novel is cited by both Hart and Codebò, the novel—in contrast to Homer’s epic—was the genre of “transcendental homelessness.”2 Lukács’s ideas resonated particularly in the modernist period, an age—as Terry Eagleton put it, “of exiles and émigrés.” Is displacement really contemporary? Or is it also a belated echo, a form of Nachträglichkeit, of modernism? Both Hart and Codebò draw clear connections between literature now and that of earlier revolutionary moments. Hart’s book, in particular, draws on and probes recent heuristics for reading modernism on a large geographic scale. The question of his work’s relation to modernism comes up in part when he addresses the namesake and “major literary-critical precedent” of his study, George Steiner’s 1974 Extraterritorial: Papers on Literature and Language Revolution (21). For Steiner, the paradigmatic extraterritorial was Vladimir Nabokov. The basic difference, as Hart explains, between Steiner’s work and his own, is that now the extraterritorial pulls two ways, only on the one hand does it tend to the utopian open ocean; on the other hand is the extraterritorial space of Guantanamo and the detention camp. These are not opposites. Consequently, a very different ethical commitment emerges in Hart’s Extraterritorial to the revolutionary attitude of modernism, not one of escape, but a movement inwards, into the cracks.

This is not a hopeless outlook; in fact, Hart’s prose is at times surprisingly joyful; his readings retain a kind of enchantment with the aesthetics of the zone. Equally Codebò’s work, partly in the manner of Deleuze, mixes critique and celebration, horror and wonder, although here too there is no utopia because there is no outside anymore: “If Marx could call the Parisian Communards ‘heaven-stormers,’” writes Codebò, thus implying a chance, albeit remote, for humans to reach the heavens,” now the heavens are around us: “Lukács wrote that ‘the novel is the epic of world that has been abandoned by God.’ Today the gods have returned to earth, not to Olympus, but to Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and the City of London” (58). And if there is no outside, there is also no clear, private, inside. Discussing capitalism’s replacement of essentialist ontologies with flexible and temporary positions within flows and exchanges, for instance, Codebò quotes Catherine Malabou’s claim that even “cerebral functions are no longer situated in specific areas of the brain.” The inference is that deterritorialization “concerns not only entities whose relation to a geographical space is easily recognized but also our ability to conceptualize reality at the most abstract level” (40). Displacement becomes not just a physical or emotional state, but—as we see in the last chapter on Énard’s Zone and in the fascinating postscript on novelistic truth—also a contemporary epistemic conundrum.

Nonetheless, it is possible, within the pages of Novels of Displacement and Extraterritorial, to arrive at a fairly robust picture of contemporary fiction: its genres, divisions, directions, and why they matter now. What is more difficult, however, is to establish a clear sense of the role of literary criticism in relation to this delocalized contemporary fiction. It is certainly not straightforwardly emancipatory. Drawing up the anchor on the territory-text connection in their introductions, both Hart and Codebò carry the larger issue of literary criticism’s place in the contemporary world in unexpected and adventurous directions. Throughout the various chapters of Novels of Displacement, this emerges in an eclectic mixing of sources. A postmodern de-differentiation, which is in part the subject of Codebò’s book, also becomes a formal principle of it. Here we encounter material from an astonishing range of different fields on every page. I mean not just the splendidly erudite mixing of literary texts from many different parts of the world and historical moments—Leopoldo Marechal, Virginia Woolf, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, J.R.R. Tolkien, Assia Djebar, Giannina Braschi—or the dialogic mixing of critical voices, but also a refreshing inclusion of discussions of contemporary phenomena such as Amazon wristbands or Uber alongside literary texts. In this sense, Novels of Displacement forges not just a new comparative theory of the novel for the twenty-first century, but also experiments with its own polyvocal methodology for talking about it.

Something similar happens in Extraterritorial, although—to risk the kind of critical heuristic it militates against—in a much more English fashion. I say English, not just because the focus of the work is anglophone, but also because the imaginative center of gravity of many of the texts considered is London. Where Codebò’s work emerges out of dominant (mostly continental European) narratives of comparative and world literature, and tells a story beginning with Balzac that draws on the genealogies of Moretti or Casanova, the background to Hart’s reading is more immediately that of an anglophone modernist studies. But it is certainly not uncritically so, and it is not open to trivial accusations of ethnocentrism on this account. Hart’s splendid first book, Nations of Nothing but Poetry, looked at the ways in which poets such as Hugh MacDiarmid, Basil Bunting, Kamau Brathwaite, T. S. Eliot, Melvin B. Tolson, Harryette Mullen, and Mina Loy used vernacular language to trouble the Herderian connection between nation-state and language. There is a parallel concern in Extraterritorial, although one has to read between the lines to find it, about the fate of English as a largely denationalized and deterritorialized language—the language of novels which are, in Rebecca Walkowitz’s phrase, “born translated.” On this note, it will be interesting to see the different ways in which Hart’s concept of “extraterritorial” and Codebò’s notion of displacement are taken up in different contexts, including those of different languages. There is much more to be said here, especially in relation to decoloniality and the now ubiquitous ecocritical concern for trying to think about the planet in geological terms. As the discussion continues, I imagine that one enduring mark of these two excellent books will be found not only in their explicit arguments, but in their shared tone or “mood,” simultaneously melancholy and humorously ironic, which seems to establish the key, alienated and yet inescapably involved—for talking about twenty-first century fiction. Both Novels of Displacement and Extraterritorial go in search of the contemporary novel and find evidence of where you are: a virtual-physical extraterritory crisscrossed by partial sovereignties, and also in part an ontological-affective state. Richly conversant, opening up in many directions and reaching around the world, they go deeper into the cracks. In so doing, both break the ground under our feet.

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Reviewed works:
Novels of Displacement: Fiction in the Age of Global Capital by Marco Codebò. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2020.
Extraterritorial: A Political Geography of Contemporary Fiction by Matthew Hart. Columbia University Press, 2020.

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  1. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 13-14.
  2. György Lukács, The Theory of the Novel: A Historical Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature, trans Anna Bostock (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1971), 41.