The following is to be presented on the “Reading with Negri” Panel at the 129th MLA (Modern Language Association) Conference, 2014.
“Realizing a Materialist Literary Criticism: Hardt and Negri on the Politics of Literary Inquiry”
Two invocations in Hardt and Negri’s Empire and recently published Declaration call for a fundamental revisioning of the place and function of literary criticism. Toward the formation of a ‘materialist literary criticism,’ Hardt and Negri conceive of literary criticism as a political act. Figured as a call for a non-prescriptive, anti-programmatic relation between theory and its object of inquiry, materialist literary criticism does not reduce literary production to a by-product of socio-political or economic relations, nor is it simply an attempt to understand literature in and of the milieu of its production. Rather, the import of a materialist literary criticism lies in producing a kind of expressive ground–an experimental landscape from which theoretical inquiry into aesthetic production might produce or assist to produce actually existing alternatives to Empire.
Of this form of literary criticism, Hardt and Negri identify particular literary genres that perhaps most immediately oppose or embody their political objectives. Intent on articulating an immanent desire that organizes resistance here and now rather than as a program manifesting a utopic vision of the future, Hardt and Negri’s second invocation opposes the manifesto to the pamphlet. Where the manifesto is a prophetic genre, calling forth a future and a subject of that future, the pamphlet names subjects of resistance existing in the present and works to transform the present. Out of this literary and theoretical opposition, I give a cursory overview of the manifesto’s use and function, focusing on The Communist Manifesto and moving quickly to manifestos recently produced in the context of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. On the other hand, I give a focused reading of the genre’s political imperatives. I conclude with a meditation on Hardt and Negri’s proposed political and generic difference, speculating that if a materialist literary criticism is to be effective, it must forefront experimentation and transformation rather than division and opposition. Despite its condemnation, the manifesto may still have a future in radical political thought and practice.