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The Reform Aesthetic: Political Futurity and the Novel


“The Reform Aesthetic: Political Futurity and the Novel” reads a group of narratives that appeared during and helped shape Britain’s long moment of democratic reform. What I call the reform aesthetic adumbrates realist projections of transformed futures—figured as utopian fantasies, speculative futures, alternate histories—that the narrative ultimately refuses to see through, returning to an ostensibly unchanged reality. In a familiar move, the novels I read thus constitute themselves as realist by first playing out and then disavowing moments when it seems like they might become something else, when a generic shift seems in the offing. But if they depict the failure of political and social transformation, they do so in order to translate what would otherwise be an unbounded democratic impulse into the formal preconditions for reform. Far from merely affirming the status quo, these novels’ forays into the transformed future discernably alter the baseline ‘reality’ to which they return. In refusing their own refusals, they re-form the prevailing mode of liberal governance for a democratic age.

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