For Clune, Frank O'Hara's "market" ode, aestheticizing his choice of this commodity over that one – a book of Verlaine, a bottle of Strega –“has a collective dimension.”· O’Hara is the great poet of city life because the critic finds “an omnipresent commerce knits everyone and everything into the fictional system’s vast nervous system.”

 

 

A review of American Literature and the Free Market, 1945-2000 (Cambridge University Press, 2010), by Michael Clune

 

Now that funeral rites for the American century have begun in earnest – a wave of austerity measures sweeping the post-industrial world, chased by riots – our uncertainty about the shape of things to come finds its complement in a growing certainty about what the late 20th century was and what it wasn’t. Michael Clune’s insightful study, American Literature and the Free Market: 1945-2000, is an important contribution to this project. Even when it is wrong about this history, it is wrong in the right kind of way.

Like much of the best literary criticism of recent years, Clune’s book is about affect. It seeks to explain the “fascination” the market held for Americans in the postwar period – the frisson of commodities and banknotes exchanged in the vast spaces of commerce. He argues that writers in the postwar period relied upon a particular “economic fiction,” composing virtual literary worlds in which the market-form undid the intransigent opposition between individual and collective. In such worlds, “the price system structures subjectivity” (4). Unlike the “actual” market, the fictive market in Burroughs and Gaddis, Acker and Jay-Z “is a self-organizing system that links every object of an individual’s experience to every object of everyone’s experience” (4).

Thus, in William Gaddis’s JR, “price can replace social communication” for the novel’s 11-year-old tycoon, whose fortune accrues less from entrepreneurial brio than through the simple fastidiousness of serial acts of arbitrage. The “price system” becomes a “structure of attention” and JR himself “a collective market subjectivity, a collective market agency” (22). For Clune, Frank O'Hara's "market" ode, aestheticizing his choice of this commodity over that one – a book of Verlaine, a bottle of Strega –“has a collective dimension.”  O’Hara is the great poet of city life because the critic finds “an omnipresent commerce knits everyone and everything into the fictional system’s vast nervous system” (63).  Purchase choice is not an expression of personal preferences – as certain postwar economists might have it – but a way of participating in collective desires. In this market, the perennial problem of reconciling the will of the collective with the will of the individual is no problem at all.

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Despite the insightful and often surprising character of Clune’s readings – which does much to upset our established sense of these writers – there are deep problems with his presentation.  As a work of literary interpretation, the book is more than persuasive, but it goes wrong when it tries to make claims about the relationship between real and imaginary markets, and then compounds these errors when it attempts to parlay its readings into conclusions about literary critical method. Clune largely accepts the tenets of marginal utility theory and related neoclassical economic theory, whereby market prices measure the relationship between various wants and needs: “Market price can tell people how hard an object or service is to get, but it cannot give them a reason for wanting it or a way of using it” (16). Unlike the fictive world where market forces constitute experience, “Price has nothing to do with whether or why I want a diamond. Price reflects the fact that lots of other people want diamonds, which isn’t surprising, since their intentions are formed by the same social dynamics as mine” (16).

Here, and in Clune’s book in general, we are missing a particularly important feature of actually existing society: capital. For the capitalist, the difference between one price and another is the object (or cause) of his desire. Production inputs and sale price; share value now and share value tomorrow; the cost of a bushel of wheat in the US and Brazil: these prices and the profits they index are what the capitalist desires, not the actual objects. The capitalist wants value, and it is largely irrelevant whether this value is realized through cruise missiles or iPads, anti-malarial drugs or an army of low-paid cleaners.  Now, Clune might respond by suggesting that such value is merely a means to an end: what the capitalist really wants is a Lamborghini, a second home in Aspen, or a boarding-school education for the kids. But such an explanation, based upon the desire for greater consumption by the owners of wealth, can’t explain why wealth multiplication continues past the point at which people can reasonably spend it, why capitalists re-invest value rather than consume it.  Indeed it ignores the fact that accumulation depends hardly at all upon individuals, as opposed to corporations and other impersonal agents. The very structure of corporations – quarterly reports, share prices, debt-to-asset ratios – means there is a systemic compulsion to reinvest, to turn value into more value, to seek out the differences between cost of input and cost of product. This is why Marx refers to capitalists as personifications of capital, as mere avatars of self-valorizing value in its relentless (and destructive) drive.

Thus the distinction between between real and fictive markets in Clune’s book is itself a fiction, a metafiction.  JR’s price-constituted subjectivity is little more than the capitalist as described by Marx 150 years ago.

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Much of the argument of his book hangs on the distinction between real and fictive market, and as a result, the extensive methodological ruminations at the beginning and end of the book begin to unravel. In separating the aesthetic from the social, the literary from the economic, Clune wants to suggest that literature constructs a kind of virtual economic world, a world that takes as primary matter the world we live in but that neither represents nor reflects it, neither deforms it through an ideological operation nor forms one point in a network of “effects” (to review some of the familiar options).  Writing of the apparent homology between William S. Burroughs and economist Friedrich von Hayek, Clune dismisses the possibility that they “are both, in their different ways, following the price system to a logical conclusion” (97). Instead, Clune sketches “a more plausible way to approach this problem”:

"Their unexpected intersection in an identical organizational model would then not provide evidence of a concern that transcends disciplinary boundaries. Rather, the juxtaposition of Hayek and Burroughs would provide evidence of how two, separate, immanently evolving discourses happen to arrive at identity and compatibility. . . While caused by dynamics immanent to these discourse, the fusion made possible by the new compatibility  of the economic and the literary could nonetheless come to have social effects by circulating a fascinating image of collective life" (98).

This is a rather artless dodge from an artful writer. Saying that these discourses just happen to resemble each other is not going to keep anyone from asking why, and coming to conclusions about what these discourses share, conclusions that will likely violate Clune’s wish for clear separations between aesthetic and economic histories.

Indeed, this account of miraculous happenstance suggests that Clune shares not a little bit of Hayek’s mysticism. Clune is right to point out that Hayek is fundamentally unlike the neo-classical economists with whom he is often grouped, especially in his hostility to mathematical formalization. Instead Hayek insists, in the famous "On the Use of Knowledge in Society," that the systemic character of economies is fundamentally ineffable – it is a kind of miracle:

"The marvel is that in a case like that of a scarcity of one raw material, without an order being issued, without more than perhaps a handful of people knowing the cause, tens of thousands of people whose identity could not be ascertained by months of investigation, are made to use the material or its products more sparingly; i.e., they move in the right direction."

The exclamation of stunned wonder, the unwillingness to name the underlying logic – these are qualities Clune shares with Hayek.

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The operations of Clune’s book thus establish a “real” economy in which there are no capitalists, and a fictive economy much like our own, in which, under the conditions of what Randy Martin calls “the financialization of everyday life,” people are colonized, psychologically, by the market in an extensive form of embourgeoisement, interpellated as the subjects of self-valorizing value, asked to imagine themselves, despite the eventual burn, as market players, with their collapsing home prices and personalized retirement accounts.

For the most part, Clune keeps his cards close to his chest and, because of his methodology, does not feel much compulsion to say much about the actual functioning of capitalism, preferring instead non-evaluative and immanent readings of the texts at hand. But there is a telling and uncharacteristic moment late in the book that should make its stakes clear. Considering what Marxist critics might say about the works discussed in his book, he briefly considers the idea that these works – as a Marxist might say – make labor invisible.  Confusing such a standpoint with the “labor theory of value,” Clune reasons as follows:

"The idea that economic fictions conceal or justify actual economic inequality is a serious and plausible one, to which I devoted serious consideration in the pages above. But there is no reason we should credit the idea that these works conceal the source of all value in labor, or that they obscure the nature of class identity as a relation to the means of production, or that they blind us to the real basis of money. I don’t think we need worry about any description of the relation between the economic fiction and actual conditions that relies on the validity of the labor theory of value. That theory has been discredited for over a century. The arguments advanced against are strong, and I know of no place where they have been refuted. I believe the labor theory of value to be indefensible. The absence of any reference to the labor theory in the economic fiction does not show us what is ideological in these works, but what is dead in Marx" (158).

Clune is nowhere else in the book as unrigorous and offhand as he is here. He cites no sources for his rejection of the labor theory of value (nor its unpersuasive defense).  Given the complexity of discussions about value both within Marxism and between Marxism and its critic, this is less an invitation to debate than it is a way of preempting it.

And yet Marx’s concept of value is really beside the point here. Under conditions of capitalism, most people must work to survive.  They are compelled to sell their labor, because they can find the necessities of life nowhere but the market. This is what is distinctive about capitalism, and, beginning from this foundation, we can observe, throughout its history, a continuous transformation of the conditions of labor (undertaken, of course, by the people who purchase labor for profit). Labor is intensified, made more technological, deskilled, fragmented, sorted according to logics of race, citizenship and gender. In Clune’s book and in the works he reads, such labor is entirely invisible. This is the point, and the argument from value is mere subterfuge. In Clune’s worlds – fictive and real – there are no workers or capitalists, no owners or people compelled to work, just people with desires and the market that constitutes them.

We can call this ideological, but we should be careful. What Clune describes is a real feature of our world. With the decline of manufacturing and the rise of so-called service sector jobs involved with the distribution, circulation and administration of goods produced offshore, most of the work people in the US do is “market” work. It is production, of course, because it involves labor, but it is the production of consumption, the production of circulation, the production of administration. Over the last few decades, most of the dynamic energy of capitalism within the US has been devoted to reconfiguring and remaking these spheres, in order to accelerate the rate of capital turnover, to borrow from one of David Harvey’s most trenchant formulations. (Information technology has remade circulation, administration and consumption to a much great extent than it has remade the manufacturing sphere.) And even most Marxist critics approach the postindustrial age from the side of the market and the commodity, from the side of exchange and everyday life, rather than production. Today the “hidden abode of production” is more hidden than ever, if only because it is right out in the open, in nearly everything we do. 




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