This article suggests that by viewing world-historical situations recursively, we disclose links between apparently separate but structurally similar historical conjunctures and the cultural forms that mediate them. By examining three late-imperial texts—Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer (1995, trans. 1998), and Jonathan Franzen's 2001 The Corrections—the article shows that works from the residual or “late” phases of two successive hegemonic cycles, the British and the American, reveal formal similarities that enable them to be grouped across standard literary-historical periods. Each text draws on allegory to dramatize how brute physicality emerges with an almost mechanical inevitability in conditions of imperial transition. Whether it arrives as a dark double (Stevenson), an atavistic exception (Agamben), or a degenerating patriarch (Franzen), this encoded violence finds each text allegorizing the dialectical interinvolvement between order and force that characterizes moments of imperial transition. Seen in light of Giovanni Arrighi's discussion of long-duration historical cycles, these formal similarities authorize a grouping across standard historical categories, an asynchronous contemporaneity that itself refocuses our attention on mediation as a critical category. By seeing texts as tactically reconfiguring their moments rather than mechanistically “reflecting” them or ambiguously “engaging” them, we reposition the critic in relation to the object and disclose the text's ability to use form (here, allegory) to mediate its contemporary situation.
Nathan K. Hensley; Allegories of the Contemporary. Novel 1 August 2012; 45 (2): 276–300. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-1573976
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