“Hybrid Prose as Politics of Form. Historical Materialism in the ‘Denkbild’ Tradition and in Richard Wright’s Twelve Million Black Voices.” Historical Modernisms Symposium. Institute of English Studies, University of London. December 12-13, 2016.
Georg Lukács argument that expressionist art acted as a complicit precursor to the rise of fascism (laid out in his 1934 essay “The Greatness and the Decline of Expressionism”) sparked what has come to be known as the expressionism debate. Yet beyond its implications for the historical role of one particular strand of avant-garde art alone, this debate foregrounds the complex interrelations between concepts of reason, representation and ideology in modernism, and raises questions about the possibility of critique in the aesthetic sphere. take as my starting point the textual practice of brief, experimental prose writing, as made prominent in the ‘Denkbild’ (‘thought-image’) tradition, to enquire into a modernist politics of form. While Lukács singles out the Nietzschean aphorism as prime example of a decadence that makes itself complicit in fascist politics, I argue that these texts offer an alternative practice of responding to change and developing a practice of thought based on difference. Texts by Ernst Bloch, Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin are not mere symptoms of experience-as-‘Erlebnis,’ but conceived as a poetics-as-practice, and demonstrate how art can engender innovative trajectories of thought.
The aim of this paper, though, is to de-denter the Denkbild, to interconnect practices in prose writing that can be compared on the basis of their liminal position, their interest in notions of history and memory, resistance to dominant ideologies, and their interpretation of materialism/historical materialism. This is going to lead to a comparison with a representative of what has been termed the “Black Radical tradition”, Richard Wright’s historical project in “Twelve Million Black Voices”.
I argue that these hybrid, transgressive textualities offer a mode of thinking, reading, and writing that allows us to inquire into the interconnectedness of language, representation and politics. These are interventions in a historical moment that saw the concept of reason itself, and its ideological implications, become the subject of a transnational debate. It is my hypothesis that these texts develop innovative modes of thought, in order to resist the threat of complicity or appropriation by fascism, racism, or patriarchal structures, and their concurrent cultures of knowledge.