Patricia McManus, University of Brighton

4 February 2020

This paper will return to Theodor Adorno’s understanding of a ‘committed’ literature and why he rejected (or had to reject) that notion of political engagement in favour of an understanding of what was posited as a more potent ‘autonomy’. Why the hostility between these terms? Is the castigation of a literature which sets out to be ‘committed’ of interest only as a historical moment in the reception of modernism or could it be reconfigured for contemporary work? In particular, is Adorno of any use in understanding the ‘turn to politics’ within great swathes of both popular and ‘literary’ culture over the last few years? The paper will engage with Adorno’s aesthetic theory to understand the meanings of ‘autonomy’ and the art-work it imagines. But it will do so as a way of contributing to a literary-historical project to read ‘dystopia’ as a genre. What both threads share will be brought together in the paper’s conclusion, which will bring to a focus the difficulties of either identifying or doing away with questions of aesthetic ‘value’ in work on the novel.


Trish McManus’ core research interest is the history of the novel, the difficult practices involved in conceptualising and analysing such a multifaceted and global narrative form. Within this large problematic, she researches specific genres and movements in the novel (dystopia; science fiction; modernism and contemporaneity). She has a related interested in the intersection of literary and social history in terms of how the novel addresses/readdresses its public, and how the latter erases class forms of identity.

To work historically but with a sensitivity to formal differences and patterns, she uses critical theory, in particular the work of Theodor Adorno and contemporary practitioners of marxism – Fredric Jameson, Franco Moretti and Sianne Ngai.

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