Book Review: Again, Dangerous Visions

Andrew Milner,
Again, Dangerous Visions: Essays in Cultural Materialism (Haymarket, 2019)

Reviewed by Gary Pearce, RMIT University

(This is a prepublication version of this review. You can find the published version forthcoming in Thesis Eleven Journal, on the T11 Sage website)

Compared with more established disciplines, cultural studies seemed continually emergent with ongoing self-definition a prominent feature of the whole enterprise. Andrew Milner has been part of the local discussion with interventions across books and articles that have involved reminding us of the Marxist origins of cultural studies, arguing against a depoliticised focus on popular culture and advocating for the importance of Raymond Williams’s radical vision. His new book Again, Dangerous Visions: Essays in Cultural Materialism (2019), collects many of his essays, published and unpublished, since the early 1980s. The essays are impressively edited by his son James (J. R. Burgmann) and are bookended by discussions between Milner and Burgmann that contextualise Milner’s political allegiances, intellectual interests and development. The essays are ordered chronologically within each of its three themes: sociology of literature, cultural materialism and science fiction. As a socialist voice during a period of long defeat for the left, this book is a timely resource as socialist and Marxist scholarship shows signs of renewed vitality.

We learn from the opening discussion that Milner received his education in sociology at the London School of Economics and did his PhD on John Milton. The opening essay ‘Sociology and Literature’ signals his foundational interest in the sociology of literature, albeit one influenced by the Marxist writers Lucien Goldmann, Pierre Bourdieu, Franco Moretti, Fredric Jameson and Raymond Williams. He notes in this essay an incoherence in the category of ‘literature’ and literary studies dependent on value judgements and the notion of ‘criticism’. This points to the need instead for ‘systematic analysis and explanation of how writing is written, read, distributed and exchanged’ (p.19). His later essay ‘It’s the Conscience Collective, Stupid’ notes the disparity between some impressive landmarks in the sociology of the arts and its wider disciplinary underdevelopment. He concludes on the need for Williams’s substitution of a more normalised conception of writing for literature or Moretti’s ‘distant reading’ underpinning a generalised process of narrative construction. This approach gets application in ‘The Protestan Epic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ involving analysis of the English rationalism of Milton, embattled and overtaken by the English discourse of gradualism and empiricism during the restoration.

As someone who immigrated to this country as an adult, Milner’s writing reveals a relative outsider perspective on some key cultural discussions as applied to the antipodean case. His essay ‘The English Ideology: Literary Criticism in England and Australia”, for example, studies the role and function of criticism within the national culture, contrasting Leavisism in the English instance with radical nationalist historiography in Australia. His essays typically bring an important political perspective, such as when he notes that the limits of even radical positions when located within the academy rather than a socialist and feminist counter public sphere. One of Milner’s most interesting essays on the Australian context is ‘On the Beach: Apocalyptic Hedonism and the Origins of Postmodernism’. He may have been overreaching to refer to Nevil Shute’s On the Beach as ‘the great Australian novel of our time’ (p. 78), but he does make a case for how it gives voice to a sense of ‘apocalyptic hedonism’ as part of the postmodern condition. Milner argues for how postmodern culture was particularly visible in settler societies: ‘theirs has been a different experience from the European, provincial in origin rather than metropolitan, often suburban rather than urban, civilising rather than cultured, terrorising rather than terrorised (p. 84). In the Australian case, however, the affluence of commodification was combined peculiarly with fear of invasion from the Asiatic north. This foreshadows the more general postmodern condition, and Milner here adds to Jameson’s established schema by pointing to the importance of ‘hypermilitarisation’ and the subsequent threat of nuclear war.

If cultural studies emerges from a struggle within literary studies, Milner’s background in sociology meant he was able to bypass the idealism of the latter discipline and arrive more directly at the former. His essay ‘Loose Canons and Fallen Angels’ worries about polarity between literary studies and cultural studies both in the form of Harold Bloom’s reaction to the triviality of postmodern culture or in a depoliticised study of popular culture. Milner’s political perspective enables him to distinguish a more ambitious or ‘immodest’ version of cultural studies characterised by a new methodology connecting the literary and the cultural. Thus, he goes on to examine the intertextual connections between a number of elite and popular texts – Genesis, Paradise Lost, Frankenstein and Blade Runner – for contextual and textual aspects in relation to humanism and myths of the fall. His conference paper ‘Deconstructing National Literature: Comparative Literature, Cultural Studies and Critical Theory’ identifies how the pluralisation of culture under cultural studies produced in Australia a semio-nationalism as a means of situating itself within the academic market. He argues here for comparative approaches – able to engage pressing political issues such as exile, asylum and internment – not drawn from those like Bloom but from Moretti’s world systems approach or Williams’s analysis of works as ‘the relationships which works or institutions embody as part of the organization as a whole’ (p. 138).

The collection’s second section, grouped around the theme of cultural materialism, is interesting for positioning cultural materialism as both opposed to and resonant with other forms of critical theory. His ‘Considerations on English Marxism’ engages with the debate between two generations of the new left in the form of E.P. Thompson and Perry Anderson. This debate was occasioned by Thompson’s The Poverty of Theory, a critique of the influence of the Marxist structuralism of Louis Althusser on the British left. While attuned to the limits of Thompson’s positions, Milner is more sympathetic with his socialist humanism than the determinism and positivism he sees running through Anderson’s counter-critique. If Anderson’s New Left Review sought to remedy the conservatism of British intellectual life by importing Western Marxism, Milner is critical of the abstraction and theoreticism this involved. In ‘Literature, History and Post-Althusserianism’ he examines the different appropriations of French poststructuralism in the Australian context via the work of John Frow and Howard Felperin. He notes the blurring of distinction between fiction, reality, ideology and history within poststructuralism and the way it poses a discipline of critical reading that is textualist and relativist and devoid of moral and political purpose or empirical rationale in the face of the crisis on English studies. By contrast, Thompson’s stress on the dialogue of concept and evidence potentially underpins a more useful literary history of writing and reading as a social practice.

In ‘Cultural Materialism, Culturalism and Post-Culturalism: The Legacy of Raymond Williams’ he notes how Williams moved from the dual problems of literary idealism and Communist materialism to an emphasis on the materiality of culture. Williams later recognised the resonance of his work with Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, combining the wholeness of culture with the interestedness of ideology. As opposed to reductive versions of base and superstructure he came to view language, for example, as ‘a constitutive element of material social practice’ (p.285). Milner notes similarities between Williams and Bourdieu, Michel Foucault,  and Jürgen Habermas, notwithstanding their differing intellectual inheritances, in an emphasis on the materiality of culture, the operation of power within discourse and the historicity of the linguistic sign. Another essay from the first section of the book, ‘Dissenting, Plebeian, but Belonging Nonetheless: Bourdieu and Williams’, identifies particularly close affinities between Williams and Bourdieu for the way they interrogate divisions between high and popular culture and regard culture as material and central to social organisation. This is an interesting tack given his earlier critique of traditions derived from structuralism, but does disarm nicely those paradigms of cultural studies arranged around culturalism versus structuralism.

Two further essays in this section note the lack of historical memory and resulting failure of political perspective within cultural studies. ‘Cultural Studies and Cultural Hegemony: Comparing Britain and Australia’ identifies how an earlier decentring of the cultural tradition through class would be overtaken by a decentring of cultural studies through race, ethnicity and sexuality under the influence of poststructuralism and postmodernism. Milner traces how Gramscian analysis of Thatcherism, while revealing how it rearticulated working class culture, failed to maintain critical distance from the postmodernism of New Times. Things were even worse in Australia where cultural studies not only failed to produce critical analysis on the Hawke/Keating combination of social progressiveness and economic deregulation but developed into a form of laborist cultural policy studies. In ‘Left Out? Marxism, the New Left and Cultural Studies’, Milner reconstructs the Marxist origins of cultural studies whose influences he traces in the work of Williams, Roland Barthes and the Frankfurt School. This is an important reminder that Western Marxism provided the preconditions for cultural studies in its distance from both elite and popular culture. Again, invoking Thompson’s The Poverty of Theory, a book critical of much that cultural studies favoured, he posits Williams’s cultural materialism as standing in analogous relationship to cultural studies as Thompson’s historical materialism did to historiography. Milner recognises that Williams is not just interested in the politics internal to culture, but is interested in the much more serious question of culture’s political preconditions.

On the question of politics, Milner’s unpublished conference paper ‘Revolutions in Favour of Capital’ is worth noting as a political reassessment after the fall of communism. As Milner states in the discussion with Burgmann, he was a member for a time of the neo-Trotskyist International Socialists, from which he drew an anti-Stalinist and bottom-up politics, the idea of the permanent arms economy as an explanation of postwar stability and an engagement in the anti-war movement, interests that are evident in this collection. It is noteworthy that he regards the 1989 collapse of communism as falsifying various revisionist theories of the transition to socialism: Communist Marxism’s codification of Lenin’s theory of imperialism, the early idealism with which Western Marxists like Lukács and Gramsci regarded the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Troskyist theory of permanent revolution. These revolutions in favour of capital confirm for Milner Kautsky’s belief that the attempt to build socialism in a backward country would result in state capitalism. Milner states: ‘capitalism has continued to develop, and still continues to develop, the productive forces, which is to say that it is not yet ready to be destroyed; that the bourgeoisie is still on a world scale a progressive class’ (p.267). Given his more recent interest in climate change and science fiction, it would have been relevant for Burgmann to ask if he stood by this assessment.

The third and final section on science fiction references the work of Darko Suvin and Jameson in their application of critical theory to the study of science fiction. His essay ‘Utopia and Science Fiction in Raymond Williams’ adds Williams to this critical tradition as it tracks his interest in science fiction through different phases of his work. He notes Williams’s early new left engagement with Morris and Orwell, his connection of the city with the experience of the future in The Country and the City, and his employment of futurology in Towards 2000. Williams’s most explicit essays on science fiction, published in the late 70s, discuss science fiction as a modern form of utopia and dystopia, both of which are regarded as comparative rather than absolute categories. Milner’s essay ‘Darker Cities: Urban Dystopia and Science Fiction Cinema’ then employs Williams’s cultural materialism as a way to move across high/low literature/film binaries and trace some shifting structures of feeling in modern and postmodern dystopias. In the essays ‘Framing Catastrophe: The Problem of Ending in Dystopian Fiction’ and ‘Archeologies of the Future: Jameson’s Utopia or Orwell’s Dystopia?’ he returns to the question of utopia and dystopia and interrogates leftist animus towards Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. He highlights Margaret Atwood’s observation that the appendix at the end of the novel, placing the world of Newspeak in the past, suggests dystopia is not here universalised pessimism but critical warning.

Several of Milner’s essays on science fiction seek to periodise and map the field. Section one concludes with essays that draw on Bourdieu and Moretti and want to historicise not just in terms of ideas and effects, but with regard to forms and institutional aspects. ‘World Systems and World Science Fiction’ draws on Moretti’s world systems approach, examining its regional development in both core and periphery. In his essay ‘Time Travelling: Or, How (Not) to periodise a Genre’ Milner critiques the idea that science fiction emerged with generalised cognitive rationality or utopian writing. He associates it rather with the dialectic between Enlightenment’s redefinition of science made practical with the Industrial Revolution and the counter-critique of Romanticism. This explains the novelty of a work like Frankenstein, and why this work remains open to intertextual reference. Thus, his ‘Postmodern Gothic: Buffy, The X-Files and the Clinton Presidency’ examines the postmodern retelling of Frankenstein in episodes of Buffy and X-Files (noting its deployment of identity politics and the erasure of class). Milner is interested, finally, in Jameson’s association of science fiction with the decline of the historical novel and problems of historicity associated with capitalist modernity.

The final essays return to the Australian context through an examination of local science fiction and focus on the issue of climate change. ‘The Sea and Eternal Summer: An Australian Apocalypse’ draws attention to the way Australia was earlier a site of utopian imaginings, a self-contained continent island and terrae incognitae. In the twentieth century, utopias were displaced by dystopias like Shute’s On the Beach and Milner reminds us of the need to see how these can function not as pessimistic anti-utopia, but as critical warnings. Pointing out that Shute’s novel is regarded as a catalyst to the anti-nuclear movement, he attempts a critical reevaluation of George Turner’s Sea and Summer as an attempt to do similarly with climate change. The last essay in the collection, co-authored with J. R. Burgmann, Rjurik Davidson and Susan Cousin, ‘Ice, Fire and Flood :Science Fiction and the Anthropocene’, aims to test a statement by Turner that science fiction can operate as an adjunct to thinking about climate change and catastrophic futures. It catalogues different fictional treatments of catastrophic climate change involving ice, fire and flood, examining narrative strategies and the efficacy of its forms. It lands finally on whether On the Beach can act as a template for assessing whether different novels might galvanise and influence actions around climate change.

Milner is attuned to the importance of classic sociological modes as an articulation of shared collective representation, but he was never going to be contained by mere knowledge production. At several points in these essays he refers to the limits of even apparently radical positions located institutionally within the academy rather than connecting with broader counter public spheres. He was likely drawn to Williams’s work for the way he negotiates between the empirical and the evaluative, structure and subjectivities crucial to political practice, and culture and society. Some of these essays are clearly of their time, with concepts like postmodernism not as all engaging as they once were. On the other hand, when we encounter issues around ‘Black Lives Matter’, identity politics, cancel culture and the like, it is useful to bring a sense of the ground we have already covered. It would have been helpful to have some of these perspectives updated in the discussion that forms the conclusion to the text. It may have been interesting, for example, to have Milner reflect on the legacy of Althusser given the newly published translations of his work and interest from a new generation of scholars. Milner’s current interest in climate fiction, or ‘Cli Fi’, brings his interests and concerns into the present moment. Pandemic lockdown, on the back of a summer of smoke haze, has brought a note of apocalypticism to the contemporary moment. We have time to rediscover newly relevant novels such as On the Beach. Milner’s writing is one of those resources that may help us find our feet again.

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