PRINT December 2013

Books: Best of 2013

Hal Foster

“The bourgeois . . . Not so long ago, this notion seemed indispensable to social analysis; these days, one might go years without hearing it mentioned. Capitalism is more powerful than ever, but its human embodiment seems to have vanished.” So begins The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature (Verso) by Franco Moretti, who, with the aid of Marxist predecessors such as Georg Lukács and Fredric Jameson, goes in search of this apparently missing person. A witty comparativist, Moretti tracks this paradoxical figure from the desert island of Defoe to the equally lonely dollhouse of Ibsen; along the way we glimpse the bourgeois as sketched by a host of authors, some familiar (Austen, Dickens, Balzac, Flaubert), others less so (Machado de Assis, Benito Pérez Galdós). “Prose is its only true hero,” Moretti says of his book, “prose as rational polemic.” But the bourgeois is not always rational; almost from his emergence, Moretti argues, the pragmatic businessman was bedeviled by his double, the fantastic risk taker (both are already embodied in Robinson Crusoe), and when it comes to definitive accounts of the bourgeois character, Moretti gives the final nod to Joseph Schumpeter over Max Weber: “The good Bürger will never have the strength to withstand the creative destroyer.”

This diagnosis of the bourgeois as split personality is not new; it recalls the rational–irrational “dialectic of enlightenment” proposed by Adorno and Horkheimer seventy years ago. Nor is the ambivalence that Moretti feels for the bourgeois unusual: Most famously, in The Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx and Engels both lauded and damned the brash bourgeoisie in its rise to power. Yet Moretti believes that this ambivalence also lies deep within the bourgeois as an “unresolved dissonance”: In his view the bourgeois has trouble with the bourgeois as well. Distinctive, too, is the method on display here. Faced with a historical narrative whose protagonist may be extinct, whose signature form, the classical novel, may be “a fossil,” Moretti proceeds by reverse engineering, delving into “stories and styles” in order “to understand the problem [each] was designed to solve,” trusting that “formal analysis may unlock . . . a dimension of the past that would otherwise remain hidden.” What else is one to do, he asks, when “questions disappear” and only “answers survive”?

Marxist criticism can be clunky in its connections, and sometimes Moretti moves too quickly from bourgeois values to bourgeois forms, as if a realistic approach to life necessitated a realist mode of literature. But most of his insights are precise and persuasive, as in his discussion of how in free indirect style, the prized device of the bourgeois novel (think of Pride and Prejudice), character and narrator seem to speak as one in the “slightly abstract, thoroughly socialized voice of the achieved social contract.” And even here Moretti finds dissonance: “The more radical and clear-sighted its aesthetic achievement,” he writes of realism, “the more unlivable the world it depicts.” And he picks at other paradoxes too, such as why, at its most dominant (Victorian England), the bourgeoisie would cloak its culture in historicist styles. This points to the greatest mystery of all: Why go “vanishing at the moment of capitalism’s triumph”?

But did the bourgeoisie disappear, consumed by the dynamic of its own modernity, yet another solid that melted into air—or was this vanishing act just that, its own best ruse? As Marx had argued already in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), the bourgeoisie was content to sacrifice its social values of Liberté, égalité, fraternité in order to maintain its economic control, and soon enough, as Adorno once remarked, capitalism became its own ideology: No need to inculcate political beliefs when one has glamorous commodities to offer. Yet the question remains: Did the bourgeois disappear or just go into hiding? It is a question for today, too, which is why Moretti wrote his essay in the first place. Like Moretti, I teach at a Ruling Class U, and most of our undergraduates could not tell you what bourgeois means. (They can talk about “the middle class,” but that is another story, one of endless obfuscation, of American Dreaming.) They don’t know what bourgeois means, but they are confident they will fill bourgeois shoes—if not as captains of industry, then certainly as managers of financial markets.

Hal Foster is the author, with Rem Koolhaas, of Junkspace With Running Room (Notting Hill, 2012).