News from Nowhere, Modernism, Postmodernism
I am going to borrow from Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious and apply to William Morris's utopia News from Nowhere the “organisational fiction, that we never really confront a text immediately, in all its freshness as a thing-in-itself. Rather, texts come before us as the always-already-read; we apprehend them through sedimented layers of previous interpretations, or―if the text is brand-new―through the sedimented reading habits and categories developed by those inherited interpretive traditions.” It will thus not be a question in this essay of benignly allowing News from Nowhere, in Heideggerean fashion, to be in its being, but rather of asking how we may reach out for this distant text from the 1890s―it was published in weekly parts in Morris's socialist newspaper Commonweal in 1890 and in book form in 1891―across and athwart the great cultural forcefields of modernism and postmodernism that so deeply shape the art, literature and thought of the twentieth century. To curl up in an armchair with News from Nowhere for a supposedly unmediated, eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the work will be simply to read it through the inherited paradigms of modernism and postmodernism without realising it. Any adequate contemporary encounter with Morris's masterpiece must go through a laborious theoretical detour, self-reflexively paying as much attention to its inherited reading frames as it does to the text itself; we must, in the work's own terms, be “Obstinate Refusers” of any supposed textual self-evidence. To read News from Nowhere as a modernist or postmodernist reader, or, better, in a gesture of Jamesonian meta-commentary, to read ourselves reading it as such, is to open new angles on this excessively familiar work, to make it speak beyond its avowed political intentions, to have it read us just as busily and challengingly as we read it.
The detailed story of the actual historical relations between Morris and modernism is a patchy, tangled one which still needs much further scholarly and theoretical sorting out. I intend therefore to stand well back from such investigations and to try out various reframings of News from Nowhere in the light of modernist aesthetics. For Morris’s text represents a profound mutation in the utopian tradition which it might well be fruitful to think through in terms of emergent modernism. The classical utopia, from Thomas More onwards, tends to be centrally planned (at an extreme the work of a single mastermind, as with More's Utopos), to give a meticulously detailed blueprint of political and economic institutions, to be characterised by severe symmetry and geometry in its architecture and town planning, and (possibly as a consequence of all this) to display considerable conformity and anonymity among its citizens. Such tendencies are still strongly present even as late as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888), the immediate spur to Morris writing News from Nowhere.
But News from Nowhere breaks from this classical model in profound ways. It has always been felt to be alarmingly vague in its depiction of social institutions; we get some genial accounts of how post-revolutionary democracy works in debates over bridge-building, and some glimpses of “banded workshops” or transformed factories, but not much else. But, on the other hand, critics have nearly always concluded that such institutional unclarity is more than compensated for by the uniquely intense feel Morris gives us of what it would be like to live under his mode of neighbourly, decentralised, environmentally aware, arts and crafts-orientated socialism. The top-down institutional utopian blueprint gives way to bottom-up lived experience, to an internal phenomenology of utopia, where the question “how does it feel?” replaces the traditional “how does it work?” Miguel Abensour has well captured this lived dimension and intensity of News from Nowhere in speaking of it as centrally concerned with the “education of desire” rather than with classical institution-building. Later critics such as Perry Anderson have raised some necessary political questions about the laxity of the notion of “desire” at work here, but as a heuristic hypothesis about Morris's text, as a handy thumbnail way of marking its difference from the classical utopian tradition, Abensour's phrase could hardly be bettered.
And this epoch-making shift in the utopian genre might well be described as a modernist one and modelled on analogous narrative shifts elsewhere. As the stately 900 page edifices of classic Victorian realism give way to the cryptic indeterminacy of modernist fiction, so the top-down authority of the omniscient narrator famously crumbles to plunge us into a world of multiple perspectives and bottom-up subjective viewpoints which cannot any longer be simply added up or sublated into some overall totalising account. News from Nowhere certainly has its worries, as expressed in Ellen's great speech on the topic, about the subjectivism and psychologism of the novel as a genre, yet there can be no doubt, surely, that it itself in some way participates in the phenomenological “turn” of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century fiction, though at a collective rather than individualist level. Virginia Woolf or James Joyce's “stream of consciousness” is still a long way off; yet, in the vivid Leavisian “felt life” of its depiction of the new object world and of new human relations under socialism, and in the relative fading of the organisational-bureaucratic concerns of the classical tradition, News from Nowhere certainly gives utopia as a genre a significant fillip in that direction.
One vein of News from Nowhere criticism has looked for modernist features in the narrative disjunctions of the text, its self-conscious playing with its own fictional form. Patrick Brantlinger was an early voice in this tradition, dubbing Morris’s utopia an “anti-novel,” though for him this means that it is more “a work of non-art” (in terms of Morris’s theory that there can be no genuine art under capitalism) than a full-blooded precursor of modernism as such. Bernard Sharratt sees Nowhere as an “artefact declaring itself as made, self-conscious in its own devices” and draws a brief parallel with Brecht, though clearly for him Morris’s work is only a pale shadow of the German playwright’s full-blooded Marxist modernism. James Buzard has suggested that his examination of “narrative interruption” in News from Nowhere and turn-of-the-century ethnography will lead to “a freshly complicated view of the relationship between Victorian and Modernist aesthetics”; but his essay actually demonstrates the full depth of Morris’s formal challenge to the “autoethnographical” practices of the nineteenth-century novel, so that News from Nowhere becomes―in Buzard’s beautiful phrase―“a kind of Minerva’s owl for the novel” rather than a modernist breakthrough in its own right. There is then, it seems to me, limited mileage in this kind of argument; and I shall accordingly launch my own modernist reworking of Morris’s text mostly at the level of theme and motif rather than form, as qualities of its achieved socialist world rather than of its own structure.
If there is one great impulse common to all the diverse, mutually competitive modernisms and avantgardes, it is surely that summed up in Ezra Pound's rousing slogan, “make it new!”, which is then theorised in the concept of defamiliarisation or estrangement in Russian Formalism (itself so close to Russian Futurist language experiments in those years). How much of this iconoclastic modernist impulse can we trace in Morris's utopia? Well, the whole society in Nowhere has “made it new” on a spectacular scale, and critics have long singled out Morris’s account of the English revolution, in chapter XVII ‘How the Change Came,' as a brilliantly detailed modelling of social upheaval which gives his utopia both a local narrative impetus and a political groundedness unique in the utopian tradition, classical or nineteenth-century. This is not only how you modernistically make it new, but how you actually and actively make a utopia, as opposed to just passively happening upon one after a shipwreck in some distant ocean or a spot of serendipitious time-travelling to some far-flung future you'd never previously had an inkling of. William Morris, so hands-on in his own dealings with tapestry, stained glass or fine books, here applies the same craftsmanly precision to the business of making a revolution; and all the intense personal epiphanies in the fiction of Woolf or Joyce or in T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets look small beer indeed, after this epiphanic remaking of an entire culture.
It was always a question for modernism, though one that it rarely asked itself, as to why, exactly, you needed to make it new? Why, after all, was social experience so jaded or automatised or inauthentic in the first place, so that it needed all this strenuous jolting into Adamic renewal? Modernism may point to this or that local cause or symptom of the anaesthetising of experience, of its transformation from Erfahrung to Erlebnis in Walter Benjamin's terms―the rise of mass culture, say, or the emergence of a new white-collar working class (Eliot's typists and house-agent’s clerks)―but it could never have any overall social theory of the process and therefore beyond its local defamiliarising rearguard actions, an Imagist lyric here, a Vorticist painting there, it could have no overall solution. Morris has a formal diagnosis: capitalism, and thus an appropriate solution: make it new once and for all by making a revolution, and this (chapter XVII) is how you do it.
But once you have made it new on this vast scale, where does the modernist motif of defamiliarisation fit in to the new culture? It seems to be operative in News from Nowhere more spiritedly at the environmental than at the social level. As Guest travels upriver in the later chapters he discovers that the rural Nowherians “were eager to discuss all the little details of life; the weather, the hay-crop, the last new house, the plenty or lack of such and such birds, and so on; and they talked of these things not in a fatuous and conventional way, but as taking, I say, a real interest in them.” As the intolerable oppressions of capitalism are lifted from the spirit, so the object-world of rural Nowhere gleams with a quite new intensity. The natural object is not made over to human purposes with the brashly casual gesture of the Romantic egotistical sublime―as with W.B. Yeats’s magisterial “Another emblem there!” when he sees the swans take off in his Coole Park poem―but is rather delivered up, to the newly Adamic-socialist eye, in its full startling haecceity or quidditas (“the little forest ponies―there’s one of them now!” [NfN, 29]). What the tiny Imagist lyric could do in miniature, Nowhere can now do across the natural environment as a whole.
To achieve defamiliarisation in modernist fiction or poetry one has to exercise “organised violence upon ordinary language,” in Roman Jakobson's memorable phrase, so that the transparent referential medium of realist fiction or Romantic poetry coagulates into one that, in startlingly drawing attention to itself, simultaneously estranges and renews its object, “handing over sensations bodily” (T.E. Hulme) or “making the stone stony” (Viktor Shklovsky). The extraordinary linguistic contortions of G.M. Hopkins's poetry or the notorious Lawrentian four-letter words embedded in Mellors’s Midlands dialect in Lady Chatterley's Lover thus as it were make windhovers “windhovery” or orgasms “orgasmy,” redeeming experience from its wider social banalisation. News from Nowhere is itself moving in this modernist direction, though it is asking the underlying question here in reverse form: not, social experience being anaesthetised, how can we salvage little utopian bits of language here and there; but rather, our culture having been made definitively new, how will language mutate to reflect and enact that fact? For it is clear that some slow but fundamental linguistic shift is indeed under way in Morris's Nowhere: abstract Latinate polysyllabic terms―Old Hammond's “long-tailed words” like administration and organization―are giving way, in yet another of the book’s Great Clearings, to monosyllabic Anglo-Saxonisms from “the ancient tongue of the times before bureaucracy” (NfN, 88)―sele of the morning, carle, mote, bight―which the text sees as a direct language of physical entities and processes. Had News from Nowhere been set in the twenty-fourth rather than twenty-second century, after the further development of this socio-semantic process, it might have ended up as challengingly unreadable as ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ itself; and we still need the detailed account of Morris's relation to Victorian philology which critics have successfully undertaken in terms of Hopkins's or Thomas Hardy's radical word experiments.
You can defamiliarise language in order to renew experience or, for another vein of modernism, you can let the contemporary world, as it hurtles exhilaratingly towards modernity, do that for you under its own momentum. It would seem that there could hardly be any Italian or Russian Futurist impulses active in Morris's utopia. The hectic celebration of the dynamism of city life, of new technological breakthroughs in transport and communications, of speed and violence, hardly sits well with our vision of William Guest and Dick Hammond genially pottering across a green, spacious, garden-city London on a horse and cart. Shades of the rag-and-bone men Steptoe and Son (for a British audience) rather than of Futurist skyscrapers, ocean liners and machine guns! And yet for all this we can detect certain Futurist impulses at work in Morris's text. It might be doubted whether, without some such impulse, any utopia would ever get off the ground in the first place; and the traces of Futurism in Morris are much more specific than this. It is not, for example, that the dynamism of the city is denied or despised by News from Nowhere; it has simply been redistributed across Nowhere as a whole. After the revolution of 1952 the city-dwellers make a mass exodus to the countryside―indeed, they “flung themselves upon [it] like a wild beast upon its prey,” in the novel’s striking simile (NfN, 71)―but far from simply vegetating there in Marx’s “rural idiocy,” their vitality and skills prove crucial in redeeming rural life from its stagnant late nineteenth-century condition; Futurism is thus vindicated about the city, but in ways it could not have foreseen, and finds itself generalised across the whole society.
Something similar may be said about Futurism's “technopastoralism,” its relentless celebration of new machinery. Certainly there does not on the face of it seem much of this impulse at work in Morris's Nowhere, where trains have been replaced by horses and carts in London or rowing boats on the Thames. But there have, for all that, been major new technological breakthroughs in this socialist utopia, where a new power source―presumably electricity―has made the banded workshops possible and where enigmatic but energetic “force-vehicles” plough their way up and down the Thames as well as Dick Hammond on his skulls. So if, as Guest states at one point, it is the new work-practices or “work-pleasure” of Nowhere which are its most fundamental social innovation, and it is the new power source which has in part made such practices possible, then clearly technological creativity has at least at one point in its history been crucial to the consolidation of the Morrisian utopia. We may need here to invoke the distinction which the text itself makes in its opening sentences between the immediate Morrow of the Revolution and its later, fully consolidated mature self. In the former phase, it seems, Futurist technological dynamism still played a significant role, and Dick, Bob, Boffin, Annie and Ellen are still living on its benefits.
But it may be that we should look for the most fundamental Futurist impulse in Nowhere elsewhere, in a certain accelerated quality of living rather than in banks of gleaming machines. For it is a notable aspect of Morris’s utopia that a remarkable fluidity and mobility characterise the lives of its inhabitants. After all, the very first building we encounter there is a Guest House, which certainly suggests a culture in transit, perhaps even approaching the velocity of E.M. Forster’s “civilization of luggage” in Howard’s End; and appropriately enough, a mere twenty-four hours after he has materialised in twenty-second-century London William Guest is being shuttled 120 miles up the river Thames to Kelmscott. An intense voluntary dynamism has entered the work process: “it’s right down good sport trying how much pick-work one can get into an hour,” Dick Hammond cheerily informs us (NfN, 47); “excuse me, I must go on,” Philippa the carver blurts out compulsively (174). An impressive amount of building and rebuilding is going on across Nowhere; and it is the whole culture, rather than just Dick Hammond, which is “a little cracked on this subject of fine building” (33). Nowherians swap jobs with remarkable alacrity, doing a stint on the Thames here and a spell of mowing up country there (Dick), or migrating down from a weaver’s loom in Yorkshire for some muscle-building manual work in London (Robert). They seem to swap sexual partners fairly casually too, if we can take Clara at the beginning of the book as a representative case. People move into and out of each others’ dwelling places almost at will (“no door is shut to any good-tempered person,” 55), with Ellen and her (grand)father planning to leave Runnymede and set up home up north by Hadrian's Wall. “All that is solid melts into air” was Marx's evocative phrase for the dynamism of capitalism itself; but it is more true of the acceleratedly diverse social experience of Nowhere than it is of what we see of Victorian capitalism in the book―there isn't much mobility of any kind, after all, for the old agricultural labourer who tips his cap to Guest at the close of the text. One of Raymond Williams's great political insights was that life under socialism would be more complex, not more simple, than under capitalism; and Old Hammond concurs, since “our life is too complex for me to tell you in detail by means of words how it is arranged” (67). The extreme of this tendency in the book, its ultimate symbol of provisionality, unfixity and instant mobility, is life in a tent: children camping in Kensington wood early in the volume, visitors camping in the grounds of Hampton Court, the tents that Guest and party take with them upriver, or the labourers camping in the Kelmscott fields to help with the mowing in the closing chapters. There are even hints that this cult of mobility is getting out of hand; for “there was getting to be rather too much of tenting on the open field” at Maple-Durham (164). Futurism is thus after all alive and well in Morris's utopia, though it has become the texture of day-to-day experience, the “invisible colour of everyday life,” rather than a great bank of new machines in the outer world.
I would defend the principle of the above reading of a variously modernist News from Nowhere against the powerful contemporary fusion of Morris and modernism in the visual art of David Mabb, whose works typically clash together Morrisian floral imagery with the tougher, more abstract designs of the early twentieth-century avantgarde. Most memorable of them all, perhaps, is his Rodchenko Production Suit (2002), which uses Morris's Fruit fabric to produce the Constructivist's design for workers' clothing, and in which Mabb has had himself photographed posing as Rodchenko with iconic pipe in a Morrisian Production suit. In such works, a dialectical exchange of energies is set up across the two terms of the montage which will never finally settle down into an Hegelian sublation: the harsh dynamism of Constructivism derides the Morris fruit pattern as too wistful, too regressive, as lacking the steely resolve which makes genuine aesthetic or political revolutions, while the lush Morrisian organicism, in its turn, softens the cold geometricism of the avantgarde suit, opening “up its rationalised, democratic forms to an aesthetic of care, vivacity and plenty.” It is certainly a powerful interchange that is set up here, as in Mabb’s other works where Morris wallpaper patterns are played off against Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist squares-within-squares. Yet in both cases the Morris designs, however counterbalancingly necessary they are in their organicism and ecologism, remain stubbornly pre-modernist; it is the Russian avantgarde movements which monopolise the modernist label, however much they may then need to be taken to task by their “green” Morrisian forbears. I have felt it incumbent on me to break down that sharp binary opposition, rather than to play nimbly across it (as David Mabb does in his works), by construing some aspects of News from Nowhere as modernist in their own right.
But we in the early twenty-first century cannot simply read News from Nowhere through the grid of modernism(s). The high-modernist moment is nearly a century ago now; and we are the necessarily postmodern inhabitants of a postmodern culture who will accordingly need to narrate our own versions of 'How [our] Change Came' and what its implications for the reading of Morris's utopia are. Where Morris in Nowhere predicted the English revolution as occurring in 1952, what we actually got in the 1950s were the very earliest stirrings of post-war “affluence,” “embourgeoisement” and youth-cultures that signalled that the old classical-Marxist class landscape was dissolving and a whole new baffling postmodern and apparently classless world was just beginning to come into being. In turning now to construe News from Nowhere within the framework of postmodernity I want to begin narrowly, with what might be considered the postmodern “turn” in literary or textual studies, and then later to broaden out to more general cultural or social accounts of the postmodern; both, I shall argue, enjoin new approaches to News from Nowhere upon us.
We might regard postmodernism in literary or cultural studies as being the moment of “theory,” that exciting phase in the late 1970s/early 1980s when it seemed that every week brought us in the Anglophone world a new translation of Lévi-Strauss, Althusser, Lacan, Barthes, Kristeva, Foucault or Derrida. Relatedly, a whole series of earlier theoretical resources became available: Russian Formalism, Walter Benjamin, the Frankfurt School, Mikhail Bakhtin, and others. The younger Morrisian could hardly wait, in those years or immediately afterwards, to apply this dazzling new analytical toolbox to News from Nowhere. Diverse as all these theoretical tendencies were and are, they mostly have underlying them a new concept of the literary or cultural text, which radically broke from high-modernist New-Critical definitions of the “well-wrought urn” or “verbal icon.” However many subtle strands of Empsonian ambiguity the inventive modernist critic teased out from his or her text, this whole complex interplay of formal and semantic factors always in the end closed itself back down in the “organic unity” of the successful work of art, which thus became, in Coleridge’s neat metaphor, a snake with its tail in its mouth. As we moved from criticism to theory, however, so the snake vomited out its tail, or had many other snakes’ tails in its mouth, or never had a tail to bite on in the first place; and thus emerged the postmodern notion of the decentred, radically incomplete, intertextual and self-conflictual text, classically expressed by Roland Barthes in ‘The Death of the Author’: “We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God), but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash … a text is made up of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation.”
Younger critics have accordingly turned to News from Nowhere in such a spirit―all the more readily in that Morris’s title page, announcing that this is only ‘some chapters’ of a utopian romance, declares the text’s radical incompletion avant la (theoretical) lettre. Yet whether they have gone as far in this direction as their theoretical underpinnings demand may be doubted; often a residual political piety kicks in and stops the exploration of radical textual indeterminacy in its tracks. Let us take, as a recent example of this process, Marcus Waithe’s fine essay on “News from Nowhere, Utopia and Bakhtin’s Idyllic Chronotope”. Waithe very plausibly demonstrates how illuminating Bakhtin’s notions of folkloric and idyllic chronotopes are in evoking the achieved world of Nowhere: the former capturing the agricultural cyclicity which governs the gentle pace of life there, the latter injecting a modest element of “becoming” which manifests itself in the creativity of Nowherian work practices.
But Waithe does not simply want his text to embody his theoretical model, as an inert individual instance of the latter’s lofty Platonic Form, but―in true postmodern textual fashion―he requires that it challenge the model too. News from Nowhere will thus “put the narrative structures which threaten [its spatial model] into new relief;” it will achieve “formal hybridity” by compromising its preferred idyllic forms and violating their territorial values. This is indeed the language of the self-conflictual text and it leads to some very imaginative readings in Waithe’s essay. But we should note that most of the ways in which, in his view, the text disrupts its idyllic chronotope―through the role of Guest, internal dissent, irruptions of passion, stress on incompletion, and generic overlappings―are ultimately recuperated as serving the greater political project of Nowhere, its demonstration in practice, as well as its assertion at the level of content, of what a genuinely open, decentralist, libertarian socialism might look and feel like. Only right at the end of his essay does Waithe open the more unsettling―and genuinely self-conflictual―possibility that such hybridities of form are “in danger of rebounding and producing meanings in conflict with [Morris’s] own steadfast political beliefs;” and his hasty instances of what such meanings might be are too truncated to carry conviction. Thus an opening of the text to the point where it enriches its own official political significances is acceptable, and makes News from Nowhere all the more politically available to our own multicultural present; but the more radical postmodern model of the text, which would see it as hollowed out by its inner warrings of signification, is by and large ruled out of bounds. Even Morrisians of a strongly theoretical bent are in the end held back by their political allegiances and often a well-nigh personal love for their text and author. I am not criticising this trend in Marcus Waithe, far from it; and it may well be that my own later “postmodern” reading of Nowhere is subject to the same caveat.
While literary and cultural theory were transforming our notion of the “text,” prising apart New-Critical organic closure in favour of what Fredric Jameson has colourfully called “a virtual grab bag or lumber room of disjoined [textual] subsystems and random raw materials of all kinds,” a new generation of extraordinary utopian writings was radically opening up the genre of utopia. With such works as Ursula LeGuin’s seminal The Dispossessed (1974), Joanna Russ’s aggressively disorientating The Female Man (1975), Samuel Delany’s “ambiguous heterotopia” Triton (1976) and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), a whole new epochal mutation of the genre burst forth in the 1970s, which Tom Moylan has memorably captured in his notion of the “critical utopia” in Demand the Impossible. Utopia has always been an intensely intertextual mode, with later works contesting this or that social custom praised by their predecessors, or turning the entirety of a predecessor text inside out (as Morris does to Looking Backward), or even on occasion allowing this principle of intertextuality to become the determining impulse of the text, as in H.G. Wells’s The Modern Utopia (1905), which thereby metamorphoses into a meta-utopia, a systematic reflection on the history and structural necessities of the genre. The careful tracking of such relationships is then crucial to the adequate understanding of the later text and may transform our valuation of the particular feature challenged in the earlier work. But with the powerful remaking of the entire genre of utopia in the 1970s a more thorough-going intertextuality comes into being, which transforms not just this or that detail of a particular predecessor, but rather requires of us an energetic rewriting of the whole history of utopia in the light of the new mutation, of the “critical utopia”; and those earlier texts which resist such a metamorphosis will fade beneath the horizon of contemporary readability, just as Swinburne’s poetry vanished into oblivion after that extraordinary remaking of the English poetic tradition which was The Waste Land.
Among the characteristics of the critical utopia, according to Ruth Levitas, are: 1. its more detailed presentation of the “bad old” society; 2. its depiction of the “good new” one, utopia itself, as ambiguous and imperfect; 3. its opening onto possible dystopian futures; 4. the more developed and activist role of the visitor to the new world (who may often be in some sense socially “off-centre”); and 5. its denial of the uni-directionality of time and its consequent chronological shifting in both directions, past and future. I have sought elsewhere to rewrite News from Nowhere as a “séance fiction” which would satisfy many of these criteria. On this showing, the Nowherians in the Hammersmith Guest House are holding a collective (albeit unconscious) séance to summon back the Ghost of Socialism Past, the 55-year-old William Guest, whose active function in their own threatened society is to liberate Ellen from effective incarceration at Runnymede. She can then be reintegrated into her society, as symbolised by the church feast at the end of the book, so that she may redeem it from those tendencies to entropy or even political regression which so pervasively menace it. Such a reading of Guest-as-ghost is in the spirit of a dominant “spectrology” in cultural studies at the moment, but does none the less recast Nowhere as a Moylanesque critical utopia, as being decidedly edgy about the supposedly ideal world it presents to us, and as needing to allow the visitor to intervene transformatively in, rather than just learn wonderingly from, the new society. And it is as a critical utopia that I shall continue here to approach News from Nowhere, though I shall Jamesonianly transcode my argument from spectrology to a modernism-postmodernism framework.
The emergence of a new concept of the decentred text and of a new breed of critical utopias―both of which, as I have argued, require of us updated reading practices in relation to News from Nowhere―are themselves just local moments within a much grander cultural and social shift into postmodernity which we must now turn to address head on. The classic diagnosis of such an epochal transformation is Fredric Jameson’s great 1984 essay on ‘Postmodernism―the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,’ and it will, I suggest, be both illuminating and troubling to see the extent to which the achieved socialist utopia of Morris’s Nowhere dovetails with several of the dominant postmodern motifs sketched out in Jameson’s essay. I will first demonstrate that this is indeed the case, in some textual detail, before reflecting on its political import, which may well, as with Coleridge’s organicist snake with its tail in its mouth, involve us looping back to the question of modernism after all.
Jameson notes that another powerful contemporary term for postmodern late capitalism is Daniel Bell’s “post-industrial society,” and it is certainly clear that Bell’s adjective also characterises Morris’s Nowhere. It is not, of course, in Morris’s text, that First World industrial production has been transferred to the Third World, with its weaker or non-existent trade unions and environmental legislation; rather, once the material damage done by Nowhere’s civil war has been remedied, machines are voluntarily abandoned for many social productive processes in favour of a creative, hands-on, “arts and crafts” approach to generating use-values; manufacture, in this society, returns to its etymological roots. It is also crucially the case for Jameson that the aesthetic, or cultural production, occupies a very different position within the postmodern than it did in the high-modernist epoch: if previously it scandalised the bourgeoisie from the social margins, it is now incorporated into the very routines and rhythms of bourgeois production. The aesthetic is thereby thoroughly reintegrated into everyday fashion and commodity production. If, as Peter Bürger argues, the early twentieth-century avant-garde sought to achieve such re-integration as an explosive social ideal, returning art to the factories and public spaces in a project of radical democracy, postmodernism achieves this―the second time round―as farce, as consumerist “repressive desublimation” and instant aesthetic gratification. And yet here, too, there are significant structural parallels with Morris’s Nowhere. Art, the aesthetic, creativity―all have there been blessedly restored to the practices of work and thus to its everyday wares and products, as with the gorgeously decorated clothes the Nowherians sport or that gloriously crafted pipe―“something like the best kind of Japanese work, but better” (NfN, 37)―which Guest acquires from Piccadilly market. “Autonomous” art, or high art divorced from production, has come to an end in Nowhere because, as Patrick Brantlinger succinctly puts it, “experience itself is the chief art in utopia.”
A postindustrial society in which the aesthetic has been reintegrated into economic production: the description will suit both postmodernity and the world of Nowhere, a fact which might already give us political pause. And we can extend the parallels further. The notion of postmodernism first surfaces in debates about architecture, where, as Jameson notes, the forbidding rigour and monumentality of the International Style gives way to a cheery aesthetic populism by Learning from Las Vegas with Robert Venturi (1972). If Nikolaus Pevsner, in the subtitle of his famous study of the Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936), takes us From William Morris to Walter Gropius, postmodernism in the person of Tom Wolfe conducts us genially back From Bauhaus to our House (1981). Morris’s utopia does not have austere LeCorbusian houses or Miesian skyscrapers to turn its back on, but its rejection―to the point of literal rebuilding―of the cast-iron Thames bridges of the Victorian period sufficiently testifies to its contempt for the high-tech impersonality of that type of construction. In the case of bridges, Nowhere’s impulse is perhaps straightforwardly anti-modern, since they are replaced with oak and stone equivalents; but its buildings veer closer to a postmodern practice of historical pastiche and eclecticism, as with the great hall at Broadway, which “seemed to me to embrace the best qualities of the Gothic of northern Europe with those of the Saracenic and Byzantine, though there was no copying of any one of those styles” (NfN, 24). The final assertion―“no copying”―surely comes through as merely gestural in the face of the evidence of concentrated historical eclecticism here.
Foremost among the stylistic features of all the postmodernisms, for Jameson, is “a new depthlessness” or “waning of affect,” and we can find traces of this too in Nowhere, in terms of aesthetic preference and, more crucially, as a character structure. The complex psychologism of the realist novel is powerfully rejected in Ellen’s great commination on the genre, and it has been replaced in the new culture by the one-dimensionality of Grimm’s fairy stories or of the historical friezes that decorate the walls of the Hammersmith Guest House.
It is true that “depthlessness” has always been a significant generic feature of utopian characterisation, and utopians from Thomas More’s foundational work on have rarely been more than anonymous exemplars of the all-embracing social system under which they live. In an Abensourian utopia devoted to the “education of desire,” the figures will necessarily not be as bland and indistinguishable as that; News from Nowhere may reject the Victorian novel, but the very fact that it needs to testifies to the fact that it has experienced its rival’s gravitational power, that it has itself been Bakhtinianly “novelised,” and its characters accordingly individuated, at least to some minor extent. Yet clearly a new (i.e., non-generic) depthlessness characterises this latest stage of Nowherian society. Old Hammond certainly feels that the heroic and impassioned reconstructive phase immediately after the civil war is long since over, as we bump down from the epic Morrow of the Revolution (in the book’s early phrase) to socialism’s fully established later self; and the only anxiety which troubles the Nowherians in the text’s present is the vague worry that work may be slowly drying up around them (for which there seems little objective evidence). The settled “neighbourliness” that now characterises Nowhere, and which is signalled in its favoured mode of personal address, is a generalised good will and benevolence which precisely precludes subjective intensity. Such occasional intensities as there still are, above all around the issue of sexuality, are on the whole dissolved away in the new society. The subjectivity of the Nowherians is not locked inside themselves, within a self-contained monad from which it might subsequently explode outwards, as with the central figure of Eduard Munch’s Expressionist The Scream; it is, rather, sufficiently spread across the multiple benign surfaces of their social world for even the wrenchings of sexual jealousy and loss not to leave them overly flustered (though the odd isolated act of atavistic sexual violence does still occur). As Old Hammond puts it, “we shake off these griefs in a way which perhaps the sentimentalists of other times would think contemptible and unheroic … there is not by a great way as much suffering involved in these matters either to men or to women as there used to be” (NfN, 58-9). Over lunch in the British Museum market Clara sums up and bemoans the one-dimensionality of Nowherian affective life, dolefully wishing that “we were interesting enough to be written or painted about” (103).
A further major aspect of the Jamesonian postmodern (and particularly galling to him as a Marxist) is the loss of historicity, of an active engagement with history, in the image-obsessed retro-culture of postmodernism, of which nostalgia movies and architectural pastiche are key indicators. Now it is clear that a certain fading of historicity is a very overt preoccupation within Morris’s utopia. That an active sense of history is already in effect lost within Nowhere is very clear to Old Hammond, who notes that “I don’t think my tales of the past interest them [the younger Nowherians] much. The last harvest, the last baby, the last knot of carving in the market-place, is history enough for them. It was different, I think, when I was a lad” (NfN, 54). The most vivid image of this in the text is surely that of the girl singing Thomas Hood’s ‘Song of the Shirt’ during the East London Clearing of Misery feast, while “all the time she does not understand what it is all about―a tragedy grown inconceivable to her and her listeners” (66). But if this is indeed the case, if the younger utopians are so thoroughly immersed in a vividly defamiliarised sensory present, then the evident historicism of Nowhere―which is impressed upon us from that early moment when we learn that Dick Hammond’s clothing “would have served very well as a costume for a picture of fourteenth-century life” (7)―becomes mere image or pastiche, the cultivation of a stereotypical “fourteenth-century-icity” (along the lines of Roland Barthes’s connoted Sinité or Chineseness in his Mythologies); and a culture in which such references are so pervasive―“I fairly felt as if I were alive in the fourteenth century” (23)―is in grave danger of becoming a Chaucerian theme park or heritage industry. This might not matter, if such a culture of the medieval simulacrum did not have an ominous political effectivity of its own. But if “people are too careless of the history of the past,” if history is not a robust intellectual and political presence rather than a laidback nostalgic period-style, then, as Ellen warns Guest, “we may be bitten with some impulse towards change, and many things may seem too wonderful for us to resist, too exciting not to catch at, if we do not know that they are but phases of what has been before; and withal ruinous, deceitful, and sordid” (194). Postmodernism may be the cultural logic of late capitalism for Fredric Jameson; but it is potentially the aesthetic logic of a new capitalism, for Ellen.
There are other important dimensions to Jameson’s analysis of postmodernism―its bewildering new “hyper-space,” as manifested in his view in the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, and a new, distinctively postmodern sublime―and I have myself tried to put these analytic tools to use in the reading of News from Nowhere in an earlier article on “Postmodern Space and Morris’s Utopia”. I do not want to repeat the substance of that analysis here, which was in the service of a negative reading of Morris’s utopia, one which saw it as mutating, despite itself, into a dystopian warning to us in a thoroughly postmodern present which it presciently adumbrated. Not that that earlier interpretation is just plain wrong, I suggest, but it may be possible to construe the text as itself being aware of the dangers to which I had previously seen it as succumbing. For in her capacity to diagnose the political danger of Nowhere’s loss of historicity, Ellen may also be part of the solution to it.
I have argued elsewhere (true to the postmodern spirit of the disseminated text) that News from Nowhere is not one utopia but two, that the journey up the Thames in the final third of the book inaugurates a quite new utopian project, leaving behind the unstressed but in the end too static garden-city of new London and its genial Hammersmithians for the extraordinary new world―utopia to the second power, as it were―represented by Ellen herself. “I have often troubled men’s minds disastrously,” she informs Guest (NfN, 188), and the surface meaning of the claim is mostly sexual (she will disturb Guest in this way too). With an enigmatic vigour and dynamism well beyond anything Dick, Annie, Bob or Clara can muster, Ellen is an entirely new breed of utopian in Nowhere, incandescently alive in the present but mindful also of the long perspectives of history (she has been a pupil of Old Hammond’s). She breaks open stale enclosures at every point in the text, flinging open the casement window to dispel her grandfather’s dusty bookishness, bursting under the bridge at Wallingford in pursuit of Guest, creating general mayhem among her male admirers. We might well, then, in the theoretical frameworks I have been working with in this essay, read Ellen―“this strange girl … in all ways so strange and interesting” (182)―as an allegorical figure for the turbulent estranging energies of modernism itself; she, no less than it, “makes it new” with formidable force in the final third of the work. The earlier modernist features I have identified in the social world of Nowhere―environmental defamiliarisation, Futurist mobility of life-patterns, the congealing of language into Anglo-Saxon sensoriness―thus take final shape and form, at the level of character, in the figure of Ellen herself.
Ellen has often been construed as Guest’s Muse, and if so, she is a modernist Muse, injecting aesthetic as well as sexual dissonance into a culture that has nearly collapsed into one-dimensional postmodernity. “I wonder what she will do for us,” Dick muses about Ellen early in his acquaintance with her (155). Part of the (inevitably speculative) answer to that is that she may emerge as a political figure of the stature of Vera Allwen, leader of the woman-dominated Survivalist Party in Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975), or perhaps as someone who, like the physicist Shevek in Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, can reactivate the Nowherian revolution through a Syndicate of Initiative and turn it decisively against those counter-revolutionary trends that may be insensibly gaining upon it. But another part of the answer, allegorically speaking, is that when she says “I shall have children; perhaps before the end a good many” (194) she means that she, as the pure principle of modernism, is going to spawn avantgarde after avantgarde, that new and as yet unimaginable successors to Cubism, Futurism and Surrealism are going to be “disastrously troubling” the cultural Lebenswelt of Nowhere for generations to come. We have already noted the text’s aesthetic formulations whereby, unpersuasively, it attempts to defend Nowherian artefacts from the accusation of pure nostalgia and pastiche―“something like the best kind of Japanese work, but better”; Ellen, in her modernist dynamism, will be that “but better” or “no copying,” that crucial modicum of making new that propels us towards an undefined future rather than André Malraux’s Imaginary Museum of the simultaneously available styles of the past.
I have thus, no doubt, fallen foul of my own earlier critique of Marcus Waithe, in that I have floated a postmodern, decentred and self-conflictual textual model of News from Nowhere―two utopias within a single set of covers, one postmodern in its cultural features, the other, centred on Ellen, radically modernist―but have done so only in order to fold all this supposed semantic free play back into an overarching political meaning: the pastiche-ridden depthlessness of Nowherian culture needs gingering up with a brisk new injection of modernist iconoclasm, of Dadaist (or Ellenist) shock and nonsense, in order that it shouldn’t imperceptibly slide back towards the capitalism it thought it had left definitively behind. Well, so be it, since I am as committed to News from Nowhere’s eco-socialist political goals as most of its close readers have been. But, none the less, I don’t believe that one can serve those political ends by leapfrogging back behind modernism and postmodernism, by reading the book as if those two great tectonic shifts in twentieth-century Western culture had not taken place, as if there were a pristine late-nineteenth-century reading of the text to which, with enough scholarly devotion, we could finally win our way back―as bright and untarnished as that which existed in William Morris’s own brain as he penned some of its chapters by the sparkling waters of the upper Thames at Kelmscott in 1890. I therefore want Morris’s magnum opus to be responsive to strong currents within modernism and postmodernity; and if it takes ingenuity and hermeneutic violence (from the viewpoint of traditionalist readers) to make it so, then again: so be it! We cannot not approach News from Nowhere as postmodernist readers: better, certainly, to do so as a conscious hermeneutic project than as the necessary cultural “unconscious” of a would-be E.D. Hirschian or objectivist reading of the text. We must Obstinately Refuse the latter and, with Ellen herself, “disastrously trouble” the history of Nowhere’s 118-year-long reception, if we are to make it fully a text of our own time.
 Fredric Jameson. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1981, 9.
 A promising recent vein of argument here is Jerome McGann’s path-breaking discussion of the relations between the materialist poetics of Morris’s Kelmscott Press and the various small-press and typographical experiments of modernism itself. See his Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993.
 Abensour’s argument is best known to us from E.P. Thompson’s presentation of it in the 1976 Postscript to his monumental William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (1955).
 Perry Anderson. Arguments within English Marxism. London: Verso, 1980, 161.
 Patrick Brantlinger. “News from Nowhere: Morris’s Socialist Anti-Novel.” Victorian Studies 19, no 1 (1975): 48.
 Bernard Sharratt. “News from Nowhere: Detail and Desire,” in Ian Gregor, ed., Reading the Victorian Novel: Detail into Form. London: Vision Press Ltd, 1980, 303-4.
 James Buzard. “Ethnography as Interruption: News from Nowhere, Narrative, and the Modern Romance of Authority.” Victorian Studies 40, no 3 (Spring 1997): 446-7.
 William Morris. News from Nowhere in May Morris, ed., The Collected Works of William Morris. London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1992, Vol. XVI, 171. References are hereafter included in the main text as NfN.
 Dave Beech. “As It Might Be: The Radical Legacy of William Morris in the Work of David Mabb,” Journal of William Morris Studies Vol. XVI, no 1 (Winter 2004): 12.
 Roland Barthes. The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986, 52-3.
 Marcus Waithe. “News from Nowhere, Utopia and Bakhtin’s Idyllic Chronotope.” Textual Practice 16. 3 (2002) 460, 471.
 Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1991, 31.
 Tom Moylan. Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1986.
 Ruth Levitas. The Concept of Utopia. London: Philip Allan, 1990, 172-3.
 See my “News from Nowhere as Séance Fiction,” Journal of William Morris Studies, forthcoming, winter 2009.
 Jameson’s 1984 essay is reprinted in his Postmodernism,or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991, 1-54.
 See Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde. Trans. Michael Shaw. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.
 Brantlinger. Op. cit., 44.
 Tony Pinkney. “Postmodern Space and Morris’s Utopia.” News from Nowhere: Journal of Cultural Materialism no 9, Special Issue on Utopias and Utopianism, Autumn 1991, 28-49. Also relevant is my interview with Frederic Jameson in this issue, 7-17.
 Tony Pinkney. “Kinetic Utopias: H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia and William Morris’s News from Nowhere,” Journal of William Morris Studies 16, nos 2 and 3 ( Summer-Winter 2005): 48-55.
|Previous article / |