- American Literature and the Free Market, 1945–2000
In this, the 158th installment of the Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture series, Michael Clune considers our national fascination with the free market. This obsession, he asserts, “is grounded in the desire for a nonsocial mode of relation” (5). His thesis is as bold as it is compelling, and Clune sweeps aside everything from the labor theory of value to neoclassical economic theory in building a case for literature’s role in eliciting our free market fascination.
Clune begins by rejecting the notion that money and the price system are somehow fictional constructs; rather, he contends, they are “actual formal structure[s] of our world” (3). The fictionalization of the market (that is: the rendering of the economic in an aesthetic space), meanwhile “has helped make the idea of a purely economic world an object of cultural fascination” (4). Clune sets his sights on a body of work he dubs “the economic fiction” (his insistence on the definite article is fairly consistent), and holds that the category “consists of artworks that open a space in which market relations are set to work organizing experience” (15). In short, Clune argues that, in much postwar American fiction, “the price system structures subjectivity” (4).
Throughout, Clune moves dialectically, stringing together a series of “neither/nor, but rather” constructions. For example, he characterizes much contemporary criticism as “a new sociology of literature,” which either “argues that the production, exchange, and consumption of aesthetic works occupies a distinctive place in society” or “argues that the aesthetic form enables a distinctive perspective on society.” His approach, meanwhile, eschews both positions in order [End Page 346] to consider fiction that “open[s] a hole” in the social world (8). “We need,” he insists, “to be capable of seeing that literature’s value is not always a social value” (12).
Clune closes his introductory remarks with a short reading of William Gaddis’s JR (1974), a novel he views as something of a paradigm for the economic genre. JR, the novel’s eponymous eleven-year-old protagonist, has, by Clune’s reckoning, “an awareness completely tuned to price” (21). Clune underscores JR’s inability to conceptualize the world in any other way, and he convincingly argues not only that JR’s acute awareness of price accounts for his entrepreneurial success, but also that the novel substitutes the price system for social communication. Price, in other words, replaces intersubjectivity, interjecting “a collective dimension into JR’s immediate first-person awareness of the world” (20). And this, ultimately, is the seductive possibility Clune finds in the price system: it represents “an ambiguously fascinating alternative to social and individual life” (26).
While the breadth and diversity of Clune’s source material is impressive, it does, on occasion, encourage accusations of cherrypicking. The first chapter, for example, considers Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar (1963), Paul Thomas Anderson’s film There Will Be Blood (2007), and Amiri Baraka’s poem “Das Kapital” (1972)—three titles, I daresay, that have never before been uttered in such close succession. Clune utilizes these three texts in an attempt to limn the motivating animus for the economic fiction: our “desire for an alternative to social relations,” which, in these particular texts, manifests itself in the form of madness (27). While the texts may be a disparate gaggle, Clune succeeds in sketching “a radical subjectivity where the failure of recognition produces an expanded access to communal value” (30).
Chapters 2, 3, and 4 focus on the work of Frank O’Hara, William S. Burroughs, and Kathy Acker, respectively, and Clune continues in the same vein, advocating for a radical subjectivity that is independent of recognition. The economic fiction, he argues, opens an other-space—collective without the social, personal without the individual—as purely price-based relations collapse the social space between subjects. In Clune’s estimation, O’Hara’s personal poems are examples of the economic fiction by virtue of their obsession with a particular kind of personal choice that is...