Critical Theory and Dystopia tracks dystopia as a genre of fiction which occupies the spaces of literature and of politics simultaneously. Using Theodor Adorno’s critique of the situation of writing in the twentieth century, this volume uses the notion of a ‘negative commitment’ to situate the potential and the limits of dystopia. Examining classic dystopias by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, McManus follows the mutation of the genre in dystopias by Margaret Atwood, J.G. Ballard and William Gibson in the 1980s. A sample of twenty-first-century dystopias are then read for their efforts to break with the politics of the present, and their inability to realise those breaks. Tracing lines of continuity and of discontinuity within the genre, McManus ends by exploring the dystopias of Michel Houellebecq, Lionel Shriver and Gary Shteyngart.
This chapter historicises the term ‘dystopia’ before tracing its emergence as a genre of fiction. The chapter makes an argument for using the critical theory of Theodor Adorno to understand the existence, the history and the contemporary popularity of dystopian fiction. The classic dystopia is positioned as marked by a form of negative commitment which helps us understand its political work. Adorno’s sensitivity to the situation or dilemma of language, brought about by the culture industry’s dragging of language into the exchange relation, is used to focus the novum as the signature formal feature of dystopias in the early decades of their development. The chapter asks if contemporary dystopias still operate such a novum.
This chapter reads three dystopian fictions: E.M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909), Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1952) and Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks: A Novel (2018). The readings are used to create a historicising argument that the early forms of dystopia are shaped by a negative commitment to the present which involves their erasure of the past. Contemporary dystopias lose that commitment to the present and turn to the past.
This chapter creates a reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four which is focused on the novel’s treatment of history and its longing for memory. Orwell’s style is dwelt on as something which requires critical treatment rather than admiration. Adorno’s understanding of class in the mid-twentieth century as something simultaneously naked and invisible is used to help understand the limits of socialism in Orwell’s dystopia.
This chapter argues that, in the 1980s, the English-language dystopia begins to lose its relationship with utopia. It no longer has an antagonist. The sadness which is a consequence of this failure to imagine a future, even an unwanted future, is the signature style of the three dystopian fictions read in this chapter: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), J.G. Ballard’s Hello America (1981) and William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). Each of these novels is read in a way which explores the dispersal of the dystopia’s negative form of commitment and the opening up of the present as something which allows of no access to the past or to the future.
This chapter reads Michel Houellebecq’s 2015 dystopian novel, Submission. It situates the novel in relation to contemporary forms of Islamophobia. The relationship the novel has to the concept of ‘civilisation’ is used to read Submission’s adherence to and parodying of the conventions of the genre of dystopian fiction.
This chapter argues that contemporary dystopian fictions are marked by a relationship to the past which differentiates them from the classic dystopia. Their political commitment is volatile but in each case is difficult to achieve. The chapter makes its argument by reading the genre work of two contemporary dystopian fictions set in America: Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (2010) and Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family, 2029–2047 (2016). This chapter concludes the volume by asking readers to consider the relationship to the past as the distinctive historicising feature of twenty-first-century dystopian fictions.
‘Solidarity as an absence’ traces the blindspots in Theodor Adorno’s understanding of the valences of solidarity as a sickened value of modernity. It makes the case for the political potency of Adorno’s treatment of solidarity as that which enables a breach in the logic of self-preservation. Historicising Adorno’s understanding of his own refusal to practice solidarity in the tumult of the 1960s, the chapter suggests Adorno’s thought was both powered and hobbled by his theoretical understanding of a modernity which, being without its colonies, was without the contradictions they held. The chapter suggests some of the political charge of Adorno’s understanding of solidarity is embedded in his model of autonomous art, of what art has to do and to be to secure autonomy. Any materialist understanding of the work of culture in articulating solidarity will benefit from the challenge and the limits Adorno’s thought poses.