The economic turn in cultural studies might be marked by the late twentieth-century theoretical work by thinkers such as Raymond Williams, Pierre Bourdieu, Rosemary Hennessy, and many others. Williams deconstructed the classical Marxist understanding of culture as a "superstructure" determined by the economic "base," demonstrating that culture itself plays as powerful a part in class struggle as the union hall or the factory floor. Bourdieu's concept of "cultural capital" marks the function of culture as a resource, much like precious metals or food, which subjects struggle for, exchange, and invest—and which can structure their lives as profoundly as any pecuniary inheritance. Hennessey and other materialist feminists argue that gender oppression cannot be understood apart from the economic systems in which it operates.
In our own field of American Literary Studies, the influence of this economic turn has been profound. Mid-twentieth century critics had located an essentialized "Americanness" in particular literary types (Lewis's American Adam), plots (Fiedler's escape from the domestic), or moments (Matthiessen's American Renaissance) that existed apart from or transcended ephemeral concerns, including economic ones. Materialist literary study, on the other hand, placed the material—including the economic—at the very centre of its critical practice, refiguring authors, texts, and readers as entities deeply embedded in economic ideologies, practices, institutions, and relations. Significant consequences of this shift include the recovery of American mass and popular culture, previously deemed "unliterary" because of the market logics that governed its production. If all textual productions are implicated in market logics and processes, then it no longer makes sense to exclude mass culture from the purview of [End Page 161] our discipline. American literary history has since been radically redrawn: students and scholars now read tremendously popular nineteenth-century domestic and sentimental fiction alongside "classic" texts, they examine the ways in which American modernists participated in celebrity culture, and they attend to the ways in which commodity forms—pulp magazines, cheap paperbacks, electronic books—structure literary production.
As fruitful as these inquiries have proven to be, it may be time to reflect on the potential downsides of the materialist turn. A fundamental premise of materialist critique is that recognition of naturalized economic beliefs and practices is a precondition for dismantling them and imagining something better. Yet, the pervasiveness of neo-liberal ideology in the new millennium suggests that we need to revisit this premise. Indeed, we need to ask whether the economic turn in cultural studies may well have had the unintended consequence of shoring up the very forms of authority that it set out to challenge. The financial crisis of 2007–8 is one example of what can happen when the explanatory power of certain economic paradigms is taken for granted. That the university itself is more subject than ever to "marketplace" logics is evidence of the hegemonic power of economic theories and categories in contemporary North American society and elsewhere. Neo-liberal thinking continues to undermine the traditional role of the university as a site of critical thought at arm's length from prevailing power structures. It threatens disciplines and forms of knowledge that do not present students and politicians with obvious paths to monetization.
In light of the increasing subordination of the cultural to the economic under neo-liberalism, it may be time to rethink the widespread application of economic models, metaphors, and concepts in cultural studies, and to reassert the value of "cultural" modes of understanding and knowing—including the artistic, the humanistic, the aesthetic, and the sacred. We use the term "reassertion" because, as the essays in this volume demonstrate, the economization of everything—and its critique—is nothing new; rather, it is a persistent threat in cultures that privilege capitalist ideals. Nineteenth-century American anti-slavery activists, for example, widely regarded slavery as a symptom of the excessive authority of capitalist thought in American society. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe represented slavery as capitalism run amok and Christian salvation as the ultimate means of bringing capitalism to heel and ending the [End Page 162] commodification of human flesh. Whereas Stowe saw capitalism as a force that cultivated the baser human...