Abstract: "London and Professional Society in H. G. Wells's Tono-Bungay and Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia" examines the ways in which the treatment of London in Tono-Bungay and The Buddha of Suburbia contributes to the development in the twentieth-century of the professional ideal, which is defined by a love of work, an addiction to consumption, and a carefully maintained affect. These two novels provide a productive pairing for such a project, not only because Tono-Bungay is a widely acknowledged urtext for Buddha, but also because they bookend the years encompassing the British welfare state, whose development in the early twentieth century sped the growth of the professional classes. The novels depict their respective historical moments as transitional--Tono-Bungay records the declining influence of the leisure classes while Buddha concludes with the election of Margaret Thatcher and the end of the welfare state consensus years. Using a complex of Lacanian. postcolonial, and postructuralist spatial and urban theory, the essay argues that both novels depict London as the socially contested landscape on and through which the professional classes battle for control over a new national imaginary, one in which the professional ideal replaces land, leisure, and family as the primary source of social status and enforces a set of discursive and spatial practices that Thatcher would embrace in her efforts to dismantle the welfare state.
The city has long occupied a unique position in culture and politics as a space in which social conflict is believed to proliferate. That conflict is sometimes celebrated and sometimes feared, but in either case, the city and representations of the city invite analysis of the ways in which social struggles produce the places within and through which systems of power, identity structures, and national imaginaries are created, refined, redefined, or even destroyed. As poststructuralist theorists of space like David Harvey and Doreen Massey have taught us, a political practice cannot be dissociated from a politics of space and place. (1) And, as Franco Moretti has taught us, literature cannot be disassociated from the political and geographic spaces it imagines. (2) The city in particular creates peculiar problems and opportunities for literature because it is so often conceived of as a space that resists representation. While an unbridgeable gap between representation (the sign) and the thing being represented (the referent) is inevitable--indeed, Lacan, whose theories of language and subjectivity will figure heavily in my argument, posits this chasm as the constitutive feature of subjectivity--the city tends to highlight that gap. Moreover, that gap also tends to provoke anxiety over the city's apparent resistance to political control. Anthony Vidler explains the problem: "How does one make sense of a city that offers no visual or conceptual unity, that seems to offend all the laws of aesthetics and reason, but that nevertheless demands reform?" (3)
Creating order out of the perceived chaos of the city has been a problem for both literature and politics. However, according to David Harvey in Rebel Cities (2012), it is precisely the intrinsic and overwhelming heterogeneity of the city as well as its resistance to political control that make it a potential seedbed for the development of a revolutionary political practice. In the city, he explains, "there are already multiple practices within the urban that themselves are full to overflowing with alternative possibilities." (4) Similarly, in literary practice, recent approaches to reading the city, such as Julian Wolfrey's polemic in the Writing London series (1998-2004), jettison the longing for order that motivated the eighteenth-century anxiety about the city detailed by Vidler and instead embrace the city's resistance to representation. (5) This approach to reading the city in literature continues the project of the late twentieth-century linguistic turn in literary studies that ceased to, in Fredric Jameson's words, study "the meaning of the text" and focus instead on "the limits of its meanings and of their historical preconditions." (6) It makes sense that the city, a space that calls attention to the limits of meaning, would become one of the most fascinating sources of study in such a literary praxis. For example, the two twentieth-century novels of my title, H. G. Wells's Tono-Bungay (1909) and Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), take this fascination with the city's resistance to representation and its consequent resistance to political control as a starting point for their exploration of the complex dynamic between shifting power relations and efforts to define the city, the self, and the nation. (7)
Tono-Bungay and Buddha make for a productive pairing in this essay not only because the former is a widely acknowledged urtext for the latter, but also because both are "condition of England" novels that depict their respective historical moments as moments of political and economic transition, when battles for control over British national identity, wealth, and institutions intensified. Specifically, the novels bookend the decades encompassing the British welfare state. Tono-Bungay, which narrates George Ponderevo's experiences as he helps his uncle produce, distribute, and build a financial empire out of the sham cure-all Tono-Bungay, is ultimately a novel about the increasing economic influence of London, the waning social, cultural, and political influence of the landed aristocracy, and, what Harold Perkin would later call, "the rise of professional society." (8) These mutually supporting historical processes contributed to the complex political, social, and cultural nexus out of which the welfare state began to emerge in the years leading up to World War I. (9) The Buddha of Suburbia, which narrates Karim Amir's coming of age in postcolonial metropolitan Britain, is set in the 1970s and marks the decline of the welfare state amidst the emergence of Thatcherite politics, ideology, and rhetoric. In both novels, the changing "conditions of England" are mapped onto a geographical opposition between London and its perceived other, in Tono-Bungay, the rural provinces of the landed estate system, and, in Buddha, the suburbs. In both cases, the geographical other is cast as the space, or, more accurately, place of the Lacanian Imaginary, the place where authenticity, identity, and meaning appear to be consistent and uncontested. London, by contrast, is where space happens--that is, where meaning and identity are perpetually recreated through the shifting signifying and social relations of the Symbolic. In this way, the city is depicted as a geography that calls attention to its production in and through the "Other" of the Symbolic and, by extension, the social practices of those who inhabit it. Like subjectivity itself, the city of these two novels is both a constitutive part of the Symbolic and constituted by the Symbolic in an ever-shifting network of social relations struggling for control over a new Imaginary--that is, a new British identity and new definitions of authenticity and personhood. Importantly, the historical contexts that motivate these novels' interest in the city suggest that these battles for control over a new Imaginary, which take the form of battles for control over the imaginative and social practices that produce the city, are not only attempts to bring order to the city and subject it to political rule but also to gain control over the distribution of wealth and material resources within the nation-state. In other words, the power to define the city as an Imaginary place by arresting Symbolic space is the power to control the surplus capital it produces and absorbs.
Before I begin my argument about the novels, I need first to comment on my methodology and structure. Kureishi's novel is not just inspired by Tono-Bungay, it is a complex postcolonial remix of the earlier novel, which was written at the height (and therefore the beginning of the end) of Britain's imperial power. Teasing out the nuances of Kureishi's remix allows me to historicize the changing relationship between London, subjectivity, British national identity, and capitalism that occurred in the twentieth century. As my introduction promises, to make my argument, I draw on Lacanian theory. While I have reservations about the ways in which Lacanian theory may be construed as positing an existential truth of the self and of social relations, I am following Jameson's lead in Postmodernism, or, the Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) where he responds to similar criticism about the Marxist dialectic of base and superstructure. He insists that the dialectic "is not really a model of anything, but rather a starting point and a problem, an imperative to make connections." (10) Thus, I use Lacan's trilectical schema of the Imaginary, Symbolic, and the Real, not as a model but as a hermeneutic for locating points of identity and difference between the two novels as well as for mediating between multiple discursive fields: discourses of cultural production, discourses of subjectivity and national identity, and discourses of economics and politics.
Moreover, I appreciate that Lacan's trilectical schema avoids the pitfalls of a dialectical approach, which can so easily become a facile analysis of binary oppositions characteristic of Lacan's first term, the Imaginary. The Imaginary is the register in which the subject posits its own integrity of self by constructing an opposition between self and other. The foundation for this opposition is established during the mirror phase when the infant extrapolates from the first image of bodily integrity a definition of the self. As Jameson explains, the Imaginary can be defined as "a peculiar spatial configuration, whose bodies primarily entertain relationships of inside/outside...