In his final work, The Aesthetic Dimension (1977), the German philosopher and godfather of the student revolts in 1960s California, Herbert Marcuse, undertook a lucid analysis of the relationship between art and politics. While art is always necessarily entangled with the messy relations of capitalist production, he argued, it can transcend its material relations through formal innovation. Such aesthetic experimentation opens up another realm containing the seeds of a rebellious subjectivity that gives voice to a new experience of art and of truth. For Marcuse, this truth is the Marxist commitment to revealing advanced industrial capitalism’s exploitation of the individual. Caught on an endless treadmill of alienating work, mandatory consumption, and political acquiescence, the chastened subjectivity of modern workers requires such art in order to arouse itself from what Marcuse called the performance principle.
Marcuse’s brief tract on literature’s revolutionary potential responds to an earlier debate among German intellectuals concerning the relationship between art and its social context. During the 1920s and 1930s, thinkers like Georg Lukács, Ernst Bloch, Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Bertolt Brecht, and Walter Benjamin had examined the work of art and the entangled ideological and material parameters of its production. As Sarah Brouillette writes in her new book, Literature and the Creative Economy, the examination of aesthetic autonomy that these thinkers undertook is “not a dead issue—a relic of modernism” (208). Rather, in the twenty-first century this critique has become “a vital concern for cultural producers all over again.” Focusing on the UK, Brouillette’s central argument is that since Britain’s New Labour government swept into power in their landslide 1997 electoral victory an unprecedented “incorporation of culture into governance” took place that radically reshaped the image of the creative worker and its role within the “creative economy” (1). In her three Conservative administrations (1979–90), Tony Blair’s ideological predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, had subjected cultural institutions to the vagaries of the free market, withdrawing state funding for the arts and forcing organizations to reinvent themselves as productive hubs supporting the growing heritage sector with its generation of tourism revenue. Blairite New Labour extended this discursive assault by realizing art and culture’s importance to the gentrification of postindustrial urban centers, thus boosting private investment and property development in Britain’s regenerating towns and cities.
Brouillette’s historicization is astute in its interrogation of the cultural values underpinning the privileged figure of the creative [End Page 175] worker after 1997. The rampantly growing asymmetry between capital and labor in a postindustrial economy requires a flexible workforce capable of relocating, reskilling, and surviving in an era of short-term contracts and unstable employment. Neoliberalism’s ideal worker is thus the creative worker: an individual whose independent, self-motivated style of freelance work serves the needs of an economy that requires employees to uproot themselves and live or travel as required; whose introspection and self-reflection lends itself to the self-fashioning demanded by a volatile labor market in which frequent career changes and reskilling become necessary; and whose emotional, intellectual, and frequently community-oriented labor is vital to the work of urban regeneration. Brouillette grounds her reading of the new creative worker with reference to Richard Florida’s influential The Rise of the Creative Class (2002), which charts the emergence of a creative elite in the postindustrial meritocracies that have shaped market growth in the global economy. Composed of highly trained, middle-class professionals who are mobile, cosmopolitan, and individualistic, this class became central to Blairite policy for cultural and economic revitalization. Neoliberalism relies on a confluence of the dictates of market growth with the resilient individualism typical of such creative workers, and the bohemian, nonconformist roots of this type of thinking can be traced back to 1960s counterculture and its impact on a new strain of bourgeois liberalism.
As the bourgeois genre par excellence, the novel—and particularly the genre of the Künstlerroman, which focuses on the development of the artist—offers Brouillette some fascinating insights into contemporary selfhood. Her first case study examines Aravind Adiga’s postcolonial rags-to-riches story, The White Tiger (2008), and Monica Ali’s “therapeutic biography” (102) of a chef, In the Kitchen (2009). Both texts, she argues, stage the turn toward interiority as part of a broader contemporary preoccupation with entrepreneurial subjects, in which protagonists must struggle to fashion a productive subjectivity capable of withstanding the squall of harsh economic conditions in the twenty-first century. Adiga’s narrator, Balram, reinvents himself in the new “Asian Tiger” economic landscape as a businessman whose sociopathic journey to riches embodies what Brouillette calls “the psychological harm required for conceiving of the self as a flexible, dynamic, self-regulating, entrepreneurial engine” (90). Interestingly, Brouillette reads the ruthless success of such protagonists within the context of a “global celebrification” (98) that has catapulted authors like Adiga and Ali into the heady orbit of literary prize shortlists, international marketing campaigns, and global media coverage. As Brouillette suggests, Ali’s perceived complicity with a creative elite for which critics consider her to be a “representative figure” (114) [End Page 176] signals the extent to which authors themselves have become embroiled in the commodifying process of making not only their texts salable but also their own personalities as recognizable brands in a crowded literary marketplace.
Such criticism also pertains to the thorny question of authenticity that has plagued postcolonial literature in recent years. Unlike their white counterparts, British Asian and minority writers are often tested against their perceived duty to represent essentialized communities that they are called on to depict in so-called authentic terms. This pressure to give voice to an imagined organic community of ethnic and cultural difference not only impacts a (selective) discourse of civic duty but also informs corporate interests. As Brouillette notes, successful writers such as the poet Daljit Nagra or novelist Gautam Malkani are subject to promotional campaigns that champion the dual foreignness and Englishness of these writers’ depictions of first- and second-generation BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) communities. The complicity of literary-prize culture, media portrayals, publishing campaigns, and criticism in this politics of authenticity thus reminds us that “the language of collectivity and community is subsumed into the workings of the creative economy” (150). As privileged interlocutor, the writer (and the writer’s narrator-protagonist) distills community resources in the process of forging a distinguished self, pressurized into making “salable creative content out of the experiences of underprivileged or disenfranchised populations” (152).
Perhaps Brouillette’s most interesting case study, however, is chapter 6, “The Strange Case of the Writer-Consultant.” The emergence in recent years of publically funded consultancy work for writers and artists is something that has not yet been sufficiently explored in academic scholarship, and Brouillette’s reading here is instructive. Writer-consultants are the archetypal creative worker Brouillette examines in Literature and the Creative Economy. They are hired by property developers to work with local communities in ascertaining concerns about redevelopment projects, organizing public storytelling workshops, for example, to establish narratives about a building or neighborhood’s local history and to make residents feel included in the process of design and construction. Just as commissioned public art allows artists to use their creative talents to enable property development and foster a sense of community engagement, so the writer-consultant has become incorporated into the project of civic and urban regeneration. However, as Brouillette highlights, this promotion of creative entrepreneurship—in which artists and writers vie to win contracts and commissions—supports a neoliberal agenda “whose net effect is to erode public welfare [and] valorize private property and free markets” (2). [End Page 177]
Brouillette’s study is a welcome call to arms for literature scholars to take seriously the task of excavating the ideological implications of underexamined assumptions concerning the creative practice of artists, writers, and scholars within the creative economy. Beneath the gloss of the lone creative figure—whether a writer, musician, marketing consultant, freelance software designer, or self-employed creative entrepreneur—lies a globalized precariat of overlooked and underpaid creative labor. Art’s perennially problematic relationship with commerce thus requires a fresh interrogation in our contemporary moment and a renewed attempt to open up a space of aesthetic and literary autonomy.