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Deficits and Desires:
Economics and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Literature
Michael Tratner. Deficits and Desires: Economics and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Literature. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001. 238 pp.
Michael Tratner begins his book Deficits and Desires: Economics and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Literature with an admirably interdisciplinary gesture: he wants to help literary critics attend to the intricacies of modern capitalist economics in their engagements with literary texts. Tratner sees this cross-disciplinary project as a challenge to the insularity of literary criticism because "economics has become such a technical subject that most literary critics have found it as useless for interpreting texts as electrical engineering or molecular biology." Despite literary critics' indifference to what he refers to as "technical economics," and as justification for his project, Tratner points to a striking correlation between economic and sexual ideologies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The nineteenth century, according to Tratner, promoted economic restraint in the form of personal savings and investment and emphasized production as the most important feature of capitalism. Similarly, Victorians promoted sexual restraint through models of chastity [End Page 780] and the strictures of heterosexual marriage. Tratner casts the twentieth century as a reversal of these trends and highlights the promotion of models of circulation and consumption in economic theory and policy (principally in the work of John Maynard Keynes), and in models of sexuality (for instance, the work of Wilhelm Reich and Alfred Kinsey). Rather than emphasizing production, Tratner claims that the twentieth century promoted both economic and libidinal circulation and consumption.
To structure his readings of modernist authors (including Joyce, Dreiser, Fitzgerald, Woolf, Pound, and Williams) and his engagement with Keynesian economics, Tratner sets Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality: Volume I against Lawrence Birken's Consuming Desire. Unfortunately, Tratner does not convincingly engage Foucault. Tratner claims that "Foucault describes a shift from 'restraint and restriction' to 'channeling' of desire in both economic and sexual realms: he describes and condemns this shift as a 'hyper-repressive desublimation.'" However, it is not clear that Foucault is condemning this shift—Foucault claims that in light of this shift in the organization of sexuality "we must shift our analysis" of the relationships between labor capacity and sexual repression. Foucault's project is organized around the tactical and strategic analysis of the deployment of sexuality and not around the celebration or condemnation of particular modes of sexual expression. Furthermore, it is ironic that Tratner readily adopts the broad contours of the repressive hypothesis that Foucault is at pains to complicate—the narrative that associates the nineteenth century with repression and the twentieth century with liberation. Another significant lacuna in Tratner's study is that he curiously fails to engage with Marx. Despite Keynes's claim that Marx was important for the development of his own work in economic theory/policy, Marx falls completely off of Tratner's radar. Marx's analysis of capitalism (in particular the problems of commodity fetishism and circulation) could have been highly relevant to Tratner's project. Because he sweeps Marx under the rug, Tratner constructs historical and critical misconceptions that diminish the potential contributions of his work. Tratner's claim that circulation gains economic importance only in the twentieth century rings untrue; reading Marx would have situated the problem of circulation as fundamental to the dynamics of capitalism from the outset. Tratner's interest in the formal analogy between the sexual and the economic should not ignore the problem of value and the value-form both in Marx [End Page 781] and in the work of subsequent theorists. For example, Tratner's discussion of Dreiser's The Financier circles around the problems of value and commodity fetishism but does not articulate them explicitly: "The central thing on which economics had seemed to rely in the nineteenth century, objects of real value, are here presented as creations of fictions. Fiction comes first, objects of value second. Production in the nineteenth century had seemed to make objects whose solid and real...