An Ontological Turn

An Ontological Turn

Kieran Smith

In this review of Mitchum Huehls’ After Critique, Smith situates Huehls’ “ontological approach” to the study of contemporary literature as arising from and standing in opposition to the “zombie plague” of neoliberalism.

After Critique: Twenty-First-Century Fiction in a Neoliberal Age
Mitchum Huehls
Oxford UP, 2016 

In a recent essay on the “contemporaneity”of contemporary literature, James F. English contrasts his “small-scale approach” of statistical analysis to Fredric Jameson’s famous “large scale explanation” in Postmodernism (1991), stating that “[o]ne is tempted at every little step to take the familiar shortcut of appealing to ‘larger social forces,’ to ‘the cultural logic of late capitalism,’ to ‘contemporary society’ as a whole. But at this stage in the evolution of literary studies, that shortcut has begun to look like a dead end.” English accurately summarises the burgeoning concern for many current literary scholars—that “large scale explanations” often oversimplify the complexities and aporias of contemporary life. Instead, in an attempt to illuminate how fiction can credibly engage with current political issues, recent publications have adopted similarly downsized approaches to literary analysis, despite them being “more laborious” and “less certain of arriving at any terminus.” 

Mitchum Huehls’s “ontological approach to literature” in his recent study, After Critique: Twenty-First-Century Fiction in a Neoliberal Age, exemplifies this “smaller” scale. “Reject[ing] the representational logic of critique” that configures neoliberalism as an ideological manipulation through the representation of norms, Huehls contends that neoliberal power primarily functions ontologically, charting the autonomous individual’s actions inside of “a regulated social sphere committed to efficient profit maximization.” As this non-representational form nullifies critique’s interpretative methods, Huehls wagers that to find “meaning” and “value” alternative to profit, we must first “become neoliberal,” that is, approach neoliberalism ontologically. This eliminates English’s “familiar shortcuts”: Huehls enters politics into a Latourian world of “actants” (everything that “has an effect,” human or not) that continuously move and collide to create new networks and configurations. This is “politics in perpetual motion” in which nothing is completely explained, but “requires constant negotiation.”

Huehls’s wager hinges upon tracing an “ontological turn” across a wide-range of literary forms and genres, which he argues is an “organic” product of the growing scepticism towards the political affects of largescale ideological critique. Inspired by the theories of Bruno Latour and Michel Foucault, Huehls claims that neoliberalism nullifies critique through a “totalizing grasp on normative representation.” Relying on exposing hegemonic political systems that manipulate and control our “ways of seeing the world,” critique opposes neoliberalism by illuminating the “values and practices” it embeds in social institutions. By accepting an antithetical relationship between object and subject positions, however, this interpretative method traps critique within what Huehls calls a “neoliberal circle;” normative neoliberalism functions by bifurcating the subject and object, and then, when appropriate, “vacillating” between both, irrespective of their incompatibility. As neoliberalism is then able to represent individuals as “subjects replete with entrepreneurial agency or as systematically aggregated objects,” critique cannot propose a viable alternative that has not already been assimilated into the logic of neoliberalism. In the end neoliberalism “wins either way.”  

Borrowing a term from Mark McGurl’s “The New Cultural Geology,” Huehls proposes that an “exomodernist” strain of “post-critical’ and “posthumanist” contemporary literature has attempted to move beyond the “representational impasses” that impeded both postmodernism and post-postmodernism by accepting our neoliberal hybrid subject-object ontology. By doing so “exomodernism” ostensibly risks complicity with neoliberalism’s treatment of individuals as the “free ontology homo œconomicus, the simultaneous subject-objects of laissez-faire.” As neoliberalism is yet to codify all modes of being, however, Huehls postulates that authors can harness literature’s stylistic and formal attributes to produce new meanings and values.

In chapter 1, Huehls analyses Uzodinma Iweala’s Beast of No Nation (2005) as complicating the victim-perpetrator dichotomy that conventionally structures the rhetoric of human rights through simile, which allows his protagonist to simultaneously be “like” something and “not,” thus representing a “contingent person” who “remains too enmeshed in the given configuration to be exclusively subject or object.” Following on from this, the formal configurations of Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange (1997) and Helena Maria Viramontes’s Their Dogs Came with Them (2007) are shown to articulate a politics of space before neoliberalism’s “purified” representation of public and private ownership. The hazy temporality caused by Viramontes’s ambiguous structure constitutes properties as a “dusty materiality” that is caught between the “privately possessed knowable past”  and “public unknowable future.” In Tropics of Orange, on the other hand, the itinerant oranges of the text signal the possibility of alternative value production by mapping out a global network of affiliated objects that “derive new forms of agency, power and force born of [their] connectedness.”  Although Tropics, like Dogs, seemingly recreates post-normative neoliberalism through its hybridization of space, “global neoliberalism”  is diminished to one of the many “configurations” within its network of objects.

In the next two chapters Huehls shows that “exomodernism” can think differently about the widely contested topics of race and ecology by taking a “non-representative” approach. In chapter three he contends that Adam Mansbach’s Angry Black White Boy (2005) is trapped within the neoliberal circle: by “imagining race representationally,” Mansbach can only oscillate between the binaries of “colorblindness” and “multiculturalism.” Contrarily, Colson Whitehead and Percival Everett “refuse to see race as a sign—as an object of meaning, interpretation, or consciousness,” and instead portray race as “just another thing in the world’ on the “homogenous plane of reality.” As race, in this formulation, is “guaranteed to look different from one day to the next,” the reader must continually re-assess the “value” this “thing” can give “to a configuration of objects.” Similarly, “exomodernist” fiction moves beyond the bifurcation of culture and nature that dogs all “ecological writing and ecocriticism” by altering the way it “represents” objects; rather than speaking “of” objects, “exomodernist” fiction acts as a “lobbyist for the world’s excluded objects” in an attempt to “expand the world that gets taken into account.” This “representative representation” or “spokesperson” technique alters the readers approach to fiction by “reorient[ing] the production of knowledge and value around a different kind of difference: the difference between excluded and included objects.” Thus, the reader does not “interpret” the “exomodernist” text, but “survey[s]” it “top to bottom” like a “forensic scientist,” evaluating which objects to include in her “grids and diagrams” that will “explain and discover a world.” For Huehls, this is exemplified by Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005) because it turns the reading of fiction into “an archaeological dig” in which the reader “excavate[s]” and “rank[s]” the many objects that pervade the surface of the text. 

Apropos of English, the quasi-scientific approach to reading that Huehls proselytises is somewhat tedious. Outlined in his reading of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (2011), Huehls compares the ideal “ethical” reader of “exomodernism” to Wallace’s IRS employees, who endlessly “sort, process and scan” document after document. On the other hand, After Critique, like The Pale King, shows that this “laborious” method can yield “values” that are not determined by neoliberal “bottom-line thinking.” Huehls’s erudite close-readings successfully demonstrate that contemporary authors have utilized the unique aesthetic attributes of literature to consider new, post-critical ways to challenge neoliberal ontology. A lot of work is still to be done to completely map out “the ontological turn” in recent fiction, indicated by the “exomodernist” authors named in the introduction that do not resurface (Uwem Akpan, Paul Beatty, Salvador Plascencia, Teju Cole, Helon Habila, Jennifer Egan, Ben Lerner, Rivka Galchen), however, by constructing a “small-scale approach” with which to analyse this incipient field of study, Huehls has armed scholars with an innovative form of “political” opposition that befits the modern decentralised and networked configuration of power.