1. The Historical Genre: Critical and Practical Discourse
Gramsci, The Modern Prince
In analyzing the local struggle among publishers, critics, and writers to define the meaning of the modernist venture, Antonio Gramsci's concept of "hegemony," with some adaptation, will prove useful. Hegemony derives from the Greek egemonia and egemon--a leader, a ruler; importantly, most often it refers to a ruler over a state other than his own. In political discourse the word has come to connote a diffuse kind of domination, at once coercive and consensual, institutional and ideological--something akin to what Max Weber meant by "legitimacy." Gramsci's elaboration of hegemony sought to reconcile certain discrepancies in Marxist theoretics: it appeared to him all too evident that the powerful appeal of fascist ideology and party organization across class lines refuted any dogmatic contention that ideology reflects, or merely masks, class interests directly rooted in historical modes of production. Gramsci's concept of hegemony is, on its face, applicable to the analogous situation in which we seek to explain the permutations of another ideological discourse, that of the novel. Like politics--indeed, a politics of representation in its own right--the discourse of the novel transpires at some distance and independence from the more economic and socio-historical forces the genre purports to represent and embody. As it happens, "hegemony" is a concept we need not import to literature. The term first entered critical and literary discourse, along with the manifesto, as part of the "revolutionary" rhetoric of modernism. The "avant garde" modeled itself upon the "vanguard."
"The Revolution of the Word Proclamation," as it appeared in 1929 in transition 16/17, employed "hegemony" to express the same diffuse domination Gramsci sought to explicate in The Modern Prince. Eugene Jolas and company listed their twelve point program for literary modernism under the heading:
Tired of the spectacle of short stories, novels, poems and plays still under the hegemony of the banal word, monotonous syntax, static psychology, descriptive naturalism, and desirous of crystallizing a viewpoint...
We hereby declare that:
1. THE REVOLUTION IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE IS AN ACCOMPLISHED FACT.
Three years later, in 1932, transition 21 offered another manifesto, "Poetry is Vertical":
(1) In a world ruled by the hypnosis of positivism, we proclaim the autonomy of poetic vision, the hegemony of inner life over outer life.
In the first transition usage, "hegemony" suggests something insidious, a dispersed, naturalized domination which conceals its origin in antecedent "viewpoints" by preventing the crystallization of new "viewpoints." In the second usage, "hegemony" appears on a more affirmative basis, as that which triumphs over the "hypnosis" of a prior hegemony. Perhaps the passage of three years rendered the partisans of transition more certain of their own ultimate hegemony.
I will modify both the modernist and Gramscian use of the phrase, but I retain the sense in which "hegemony" is a descriptive, value neutral term--a tool of analysis, rather than term of outrage. In Gramsci's usage, all groups, including the proletariat, aspire to exercise hegemony:
This is the most purely political phase, and marks the decisive passage from the structure to the sphere of complex superstructures; it is the phase in which previously germinated ideologies become "party", come into confrontation and conflict, until only one of them, or at least a single combination of them, tends to prevail, to gain the upper hand, to propagate itself throughout society--bringing about not only a unison of economic and political aims, but also intellectual and moral unity, posing all the questions around which the struggle rages not on a corporate but on a "universal" plane, and thus creating the hegemony of a fundamental social group over a series of subordinate groups.
Axiomatically, all serious writers and critics desire to exercise "hegemony" over their fellow writers, critics, and readers. This desire is neither "good" nor "evil," as if there were some "true" literature that ought triumph or some anarchic utopia where all writers and critics might co-exist in blissful, appreciative indifference to each other's work.
Applied to aesthetic debate and the promulgation of standards of literary taste and methods of critical analysis, hegemony--this value neutral term--is doubly suggestive, revealing the structure and stakes of a struggle in which the vocabulary of value is anything but neutral. First, continuous with Gramsci's use of the concept, it suggests the general importance for literature, as for culture generally, of the activities of a relatively small, elite group of men and women--novel writers and novel critics--elite by virtue of participation in the Arts, if not also by class origin. Their efforts order aesthetic perception and production through persuasion more than force, drawing "'spontaneous' consent" by "posing all the questions around which the struggle rages." Second, focusing more tightly upon the activities of those already singled out by their ambition and opportunity to shape literary values, the concept of hegemony, applied in a homologous way, suggests the extent to which the dominant values of this elite group, which in turn dominate culture generally, are the subject of internecine conflict and debate. If anything, the ability to persuade and put oneself in a position to "pose all the questions about which the struggle rages," is more dispositive in this narrow elite where all are more or less on an equal footing than throughout culture generally, where persuasion depends upon having already secured access to guarded educational, publishing, and advertising institutions.
The concept of hegemony allows us to focus upon mediating debates and institutions which shape the history of the "historical genre" without granting credence to participants' claims to represent and embody the forces of social, economic, and general cultural history. Whatever emerging consensus we may detect among the modern novel's critical advocates and practitioners is a precipitate of a multidimensional struggle for authority, ranging across publishing, critical, and literary institutions. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the nature of "High Art", aesthetic value, the canon, and the tradition was contested. The future of literature was, so to speak, up for grabs. My focus is somewhat provincial, upon the British-American branch of that broad "modernist" debate. The legacy of that struggle is Scribner's, Knopf, "New Criticism" in all its varieties, and the canonization of such figures as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. The task of literary history is to return to the scene of the aesthetic battle of the early twentieth century, analyze the disposition of forces in their original strength, and narrate the series of mediations that brought about the formation of "Modern Literature" as we know it. Specifically, this return entails the recovery of competing modernist voices, pushed aside and obscured by the eventual hegemony of what, for the contributory parts played by certain critical and literary innovations of the 1920s and 1930s, I call with deliberate prolepsis "New Critical modernism."