‘Identity, Politics and the Novel: The Aesthetic Moment’ reviewed by Marlon Lieber

Identity, Politics and the Novel: The Aesthetic Moment

University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2013. 210pp., £90 hb
ISBN 9780708326060

Reviewed by Marlon Lieber

About the reviewer

Marlon Lieber is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for English and American Studies at the …


In the final pages of this book that consists of readings of eight novels by four distinguished novelists, political philosopher Ian Fraser asks a series of question about what the experiences of these novels’ characters have made their readers feel (178f) It is entirely clear that anyone who has read the novels will have an answer to that question; it is not entirely clear, however, whether this answer – in other words, the readers’ feelings – should be relevant for our understanding of the novels. Fraser certainly thinks so, and so do a number of other contemporary thinkers (say, Martha Nussbaum) for whom the experience of literature can produce ‘radically different ways of contemplating identity, politics and culture’ (2). While Fraser aligns himself with this project, he promises to give it a Marxist twist, in order to make it attractive for ‘those of us who want to challenge the status quo of capitalist social relations’ (1). The challenge for Fraser then is to produce a Marxist account of aesthetics and politics in which our feelings do matter – and as I will argue below, he is ultimately unsuccessful.

In the Introduction, Fraser presents the two interrelated concepts of ‘aesthetic self’ and ‘aesthetic moment’. The former is based on a dialectical understanding of identity, according to which ‘the self is a social self’, and, hence, always partly constituted by its relations to others. If this is acknowledged by the self, it ‘can experience epiphanic moments of spiritual and moral uplift’, and assume a different perspective – presumably a more critical one – or, in other words, experience the ‘aesthetic moment’ (1). Hence, Fraser is interested in literary characters who ‘embody’ the possibility of experiencing ‘aesthetic moments’ that ultimately function to produce ‘a change in the reader’s consciousness’ (3). In other words, Fraser treats literature as providing the occasion for a sort of pedagogical process that has a specific use-value for readers. If we read about characters who become more mindful of their relationships to others – especially to ‘others less fortunate than themselves’ (4) – we will also re-evaluate our perspective on the social world, and on our relationships to others.

In the following chapters, Fraser provides analyses of the novels in order to illustrate how these ‘aesthetic moments’ are produced. Each novel is approached from the perspective of one particular theory that Fraser thinks best suited to reveal something about the ‘human condition’ (3) as understood by the novelists. 

In Part I, Fraser discusses two novels by Czech-born author Milan Kundera. In his reading of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), he draws on Nietzschean concepts such as the ‘free spirit’, which are perpetually scrutinizing ‘habitual evaluations and valued habits’ (Nietzsche, quoted in Fraser 14) to make us try to imagine ‘a world free from despotic rule’ (29). In the following chapter, Fraser discusses Kundera’s Identity (1998). This time he uses Hegel’s famous dialectic of ‘master’ and ‘slave’ to analyse the relationship between the novel’s protagonists. Fraser points out the many instances of ‘misrecognition’ that destabilize their romantic relationship in order to argue that the novel can teach us to be ‘on guard to stop us from becoming either master or slave’, and that a desirable society should be based on ‘mutual recognition’ (44).

Part II then consists of a reading of two novels by the English writer Ian McEwan. Using E. P. Thompson’s theory of class, he looks at Atonement (2001) as ‘a re-examination of class conflict’ in which the class structure of interwar Great Britain is represented on a microcosmic level by the relations of the novel’s characters (49). Fraser also discusses McEwan’s subsequent novel Saturday (2005) with the help of Julia Kristeva’s concept of ‘abjection’ to make sense of the encounter between an upper middle-class neurosurgeon and a member of the working class. Since the discussion of McEwan in many ways most explicitly reveals the political stakes of Fraser’s book, I will return to it later in this review.

Fraser turns to French novelist Michel Houellebecq in Part III. He first discusses the latter’s Atomised (1998), with the help of Henri Lefebvre’s understanding of alienation. The novel’s protagonist begins as ‘the epitome of an alienated self’ (99), but through a romantic relationship ‘experience[s] the disalienating effect of elective love’ (110). The other novel discussed by Fraser is Platform (2001). Fraser summarizes the discussion around Platform’s alleged Islamaphobia and usefully insists on making a distinction between the novel’s characters and Houellebecq himself. Drawing on Albert Camus, Fraser asserts that the protagonist Michel is ‘the embodiment of the absurd man’ who ‘attempts to make sense of the world, whilst realizing its incomprehensibility’ (114-15).

The last author whose novels are discussed by Fraser is South African writer J. M. Coetzee. In the best chapter of the book, Fraser uses Thomas Aquinas’s notion of ‘Disgrace’ for analysing Coetzee’s 1999 eponymous novel. David Lurie, a professor of literature, who is dismissed from his university after having had an affair with a student, subsequently begins to develop ‘empathy’ and a ‘conscience’ (140), thereby performing a secularized version of Aquinas’s ‘movement back towards God’s grace’ (139). Ultimately, Disgrace ends with its protagonist being ‘far more sensitive to the plight of others’, which turns him – a white man in post-Apartheid South Africa – into a symbol for ‘the white minority’s need to confront their brutal and racist past’ (159). A reading of Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year (2007) then provides the last of Fraser’s analyses. Drawing on Theodor Adorno’s aesthetics, he shows how the novelist protagonist creates works that refuse didacticism and an immediate ‘commitment to the world’ and, thus, become politically committed after all (165), producing ‘inspiration’ (169) for their readers.

Ian Fraser is a political philosopher – the author of books on Hegel, Marx, and Charles Taylor – rather than a literary critic. The brief summaries of the theories he draws on are very concise and useful, but the readings of the eight novels for the most part remain on the level of content, and do not engage in discussions of formal features beyond a rather superficial level. However, a more significant issue is that Fraser often relates elements of his theoretical inventory and passages from the novels in a manner that is too immediate. For instance, a fight between two lovers becomes a Hegelian ‘life and death struggle’ (41) without regard for the very precise role that the latter plays in Hegel’s dialectic of lordship and bondage. Similarly, Lefebvre’s dialectical understanding of ‘alienation-disalienation-new alienation’ (96-7) is certainly more complex than Michel feeling isolated (alienation), entering an intimate relationship (disalienation), but then neither immediately wanting to sleep with his partner nor really enjoying oral sex (new alienation), as the discussion of Houellebecq’s Atomised seems to suggest (108). The point, to be sure, is not that Kundera’s Identity cannot be discussed in terms of ‘recognition’ and ‘misrecognition’, or that Atomised does not describe an alienated world. Nor is it to say that Fraser does not draw some very interesting conclusions about the dynamics of interpersonal relationships in these and other cases. It is to say, however, that closer attention to the novels’ formal features, and a less immediate linking of literary and theoretical content, would have improved Fraser’s analyses. 

When reading the chapters of Identity, Politics and the Novel it becomes clear that Fraser is very invested in his characters, whom he treats more like beings of flesh-and-blood than characters in a text (hence, not quite heeding his warning to Houellebecq’s critics himself). When they experience an injustice he feels with them; when they act unfairly towards others, he wishes for them to realize their mistakes in order to become better people. This would not be a problem – after all, a certain degree of identification with the characters is part of the experience of reading works of fiction – if it didn’t tacitly shape Fraser’s understanding of society and politics. However, his readings time and again seem to suggest that the major injustice existing in contemporary – read: capitalist – societies is the unfair and discriminatory treatment of individuals – rather than the fact of class difference and hence exploitation. 

So in his reading of McEwan’s Atonement what seems to be the scandal is merely the fact that Robbie Turner is not fully accepted by the upper-class members of the household that his mother is working for as a housekeeper because of his lower-class origin, and is thus ultimately falsely accused of rape. In other words, what is unfair in this reading are “class misperceptions” (65) that make wealthy people think poorly of their inferiors. Similarly, Fraser seems to suggest in the case of Saturday it is neurosurgeon Henry Perowne’s ‘lack of awareness’ of the conditions he is living in (80) that ‘draws the boundary between himself and the “abject” other’ (81), rather than the boundaries being always-already drawn by the class structure of capitalism. Hence his use of E. P. Thompson and the idea of ‘class experience’ at the expense of treating class as a ‘structure’ (52), or his reduction of Marx’s notion of ‘fetishism’ to a mere subjective mistake of vision (68-70), reveal much about Fraser’s understanding of capitalist societies.

Of course, if a false or stereotypical way of seeing someone is considered the problem, then the solution will be to make people replace their false vision with a more appropriate, i.e. non-stereotypical and non-discriminatory one. Or, in Fraser’s words, we should ‘think differently about the conventional wisdom that governs our respective worlds in all their complexity’ (177). This is why Fraser can applaud the daughter of a wealthy family for being more respectful of the workers in her household, or Perowne for ceasing to view Baxter ‘as an abject “other”’ (90). And hence he can correctly point out that ‘anyone who reads the novel’ (or any other novel, that is) might be ‘humanized’ in turn (91), and thus change their view of ‘others less fortunate than themselves’ (4). But ‘the damage done to the poor is produced by an economy, not a vision’, as Walter Benn Michaels succinctly puts it in his latest book (2015, 61). Fraser, who after all has written about the concept of need in Hegel and Marx, is certainly aware that the poor need more than kind behaviour. However, his focus on characters and the experiences and feelings that they produce in readers in the end seems inadvertently to lead to this kind of position, which makes it incompatible with Marxism, despite Fraser’s best intentions. For the Marxist critic, who is concerned with the capitalist mode of production as a structure that exists independently of our feelings about it or the individuals caught within it, the point should not be to see differently, but to see correctly.

7 December 2015

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