Hallam Potts: Utopia and its Discontents

river, mountains, and clouds

My summer research has been on the contemporary Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six volume autobiographical novel cycle, My Struggle. During June and July, I travelled throughout Norway and Sweden, visiting a number of the cities and towns where Knausgaard lived and in which his novels take place (namely Oslo, Bergen, Kristiansand and Stockholm). Although this part of my research was admittedly motivated out of personal interest, it’s nevertheless been beneficial in so far as the experience itself has changed my apprehension of what Knausgaard’s text represents and thematizes. By familiarizing myself with the political, social and historical dimensions of Norwegian and Swedish culture, I at least got closer to what Knausgaard’s text in part contends with. The social reality of class disparity in Norway as well as recent ideological shifts in Sweden are both elements that Knausgaard engages with, but which remain alien to the average Anglo-American reader. As with any text, the representation of these concerns cannot be confused with the material reality of them, and while this is largely a task for disciplines such as sociology or human geography for instance, these representations can nevertheless be read on a symptomatic level and for this reason, as being iterative of certain socio-historical contradictions that are worth investigating.

While there are many ways one could go about approaching this text, for the purposes of this project, I’m interested in pursuing issues regarding the limits and possibilities of representation in different historical periods; implicit then are questions relating to mimesis, cultural production and the status of the author with respect to the task of textual interpretation. This problematic and its attendant complications is one that largely emerges within the tradition of Marxist literary criticism, beginning with Marx and Engels, and extending into a significant part of 20th century aesthetic theory – in some ways most prominently with the Frankfurt school and their forbears. I’d like to read more sociological literature over the next month but for now have primarily been engaging with the work of Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson. Both of these theorists have helped me think about the ways in which the form of the autobiographical novel itself allows Knausgaard to put certain philosophical questions into relief, how these discussions are influenced by the aesthetic properties of the text and the ways in which the theoretical and the formal dimensions of the work speak to a set of historically specific ideological concerns that are either encoded within Knausgaard’s novels or have equally influenced the production of it.