The Way of the World

Franco Moretti, The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature

Verso, 224pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781781680858

reviewed by Luke Davies

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.

Franco Moretti suggests that the vanished bourgeois has been replaced by a middle class distanced from the conditions of subjugation that define capitalism, and so with diminished responsibilities: 'once placed "in the middle", the bourgeoisie could appear as a group that was itself partly subaltern, and couldn't really be held responsible for the way of the world.'

Moretti's task is to demonstrate the fictive nature of this conspicuous absence. He does this by recovering a sense of what defines bourgeois culture through literary texts - finding a '"fit" between cultural forms and the new class realities,' in this way exposing the subterfuge: the bourgeoisie may have outwardly disappeared, but its values are more fully integrated into dominant culture than ever. At points this becomes explicit, when comparisons are made between Moretti's own conclusions about bourgeois culture and contemporary realities like Enron and the banking crisis.

Moretti's hardnosed empiricism (his methodology, developed from previous works on cartography and quantitive analysis, involves using 'keywords as clues to bourgeois values') presents him with multifarious literary characteristics that he is determined to make fit into a conception of the infiltration of bourgeois values into literature. An idea of how this is works might be developed by demonstrating Moretti's approach to one particular instance of a bourgeois cultural form - the idea of 'fillers' - in the context of its immediate surroundings within the text.

This analysis follows on from a detailed analysis of Robinson Crusoe and other texts. The general focus here has been on the industriousness of bourgeois culture: the assimilation of work and leisure, for example, in the semantic ambiguity of the word 'comfort' - a compromise between 'the ascetic imperative of modern production' and 'the desire for enjoyment of a rising social group'.

Leaping ahead, Moretti develops the idea of the 'filler', following Barthes's use of the word 'catalyzers', to describe what happens in a narrative between 'turning points in the plot'. Moretti's argument is that the filler was 'the only narrative invention' of the 1800s (in Zola, Fontane, Maupassant, Gissing and others). He links the emergence of 'fillers in paintings, novels and narrative theory' to 'the realm of bourgeois private life'. He demonstrates that the shift towards the everyday contiguous with the preponderance of fillers brought about the creation of a 'protected yet open space, ready to generate a new story with every new day ... But a story intersected by the growing regularity of private life.'

Moretti makes the link explicit: 'Why fillers, in the nineteenth century? Because they offer the kind of narrative pleasure compatible with the new regularity of bourgeois life. They are to story-telling what comforts are to physical pleasure: enjoyment pared down, adapted to the daily activity of reading a novel'. This example demonstrates Moretti's almost Foucauldian conception of power. Regulation, rationalisation, normalisation: bourgeois realism as both a contribution to and a product of the biopolitical.

It also demonstrates Moretti's cynicism regarding the current popularity of the everyday. Henri Lefebvre claimed that 'in poetry since Baudelaire, there is a demented hope which is disalienating in terms of the everyday life they reject, and the bourgeois society they despise, but alienating and alienated in all other respects'. Perhaps - contra Lefebvre - Baudelaire and others were right to oppose bourgeois values with a rejection of the everyday. Heralding the everyday, paradoxically, might then be seen to be in support of the bourgeois values that are supposed to have obscured it.

Moretti is unrelenting in exposing the bourgeois associations behind all that we cherish, in critical theory and in literature. He even takes on the modernists. Free indirect style, understood by most to have 'detached European literature from its didactic functions, replacing an all-wise narrator' is shown on the contrary to be the ascendance of a more sophisticated exercise of authorial control: 'Far from generating uncertainty, free indirect style is a sort of stylistic Panopticon, where the narrator's "master voice" disseminates its authority "by qualifying, cancelling, endorsing, subsuming all the other voices it lets speak."'

What way out, we might ask? Moretti has two suggestions. The first is a kind of radical resistance borne out of agonism: working within the framework of bourgeois values and forms in order to distend them, to deform them, and hopefully to implode them. The example offered here is Dostoevsky: 'We act on the basis of what we recognise as useful ... nowadays the most useful thing of all is rejection - and we reject.' Nihilism, as a form of total rejection, grounded in the bourgeois principle of utility.

The second option is to expose the internal contradictions within these bourgeois forms. Moretti's example here is Ibsen, and his final chapter is dedicated to the disjuncture, in Ibsen's plays, between these bourgeois values of restraint and the capitalist values of excess - indicative of a wider contradiction between 'bourgeois realism' and 'capitalist megalomania'.

The suggestion we might derive from Ibsen is that culturally prevalent bourgeois values - work, utility, restraint, submissiveness - are incompatible with the expansive, destructive logic of the capitalism, which at the same time depends on the perpetuation of these bourgeois values for our submissiveness and its survival. From Dostoevsky we learn that that we must operate within the logic of bourgeois values in order to reject them. Exploiting the obscene obverse of bourgeois culture; exposing the contradictions at its core: these are Moretti's proposed models of resistance.

As an industrious, rigorous and useful text - Moretti's book is exemplary in this way: a perfectly bourgeois rejection of bourgeois values; a defiant act of implosion; resistance.