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Labors of Imagination

Aesthetics and Political Economy from Kant to Althusser

Jan Mieszkowski

Publication Year: 2006

This book is a major new study of the doctrines of productivity and interest in Romanticism and classical political economy. The author argues that the widespread contemporary embrace of cultural historicism and the rejection of nineteenth-century conceptions of agency have hindered our study of aesthetics and politics. Focusing on the difficulty of coordinating paradigms of intellectual and material labor, Mieszkowski shows that the relationship between the imagination and practical reason is crucial to debates about language and ideology.From the Romantics to Poe and Kafka, writers who explore Kant's claim that poetry sets the imagination freediscover that the representational and performative powers of language cannot be explained as the products of a self-governing dynamic, whether formal or material. A discourse that neither reflects nor prescribes the values of its society, literature proves to be a uniquely autonomous praxis because it undermines our reliance on the concept of interest as the foundation of self-expression or self-determination. Far from compromising its political significance, this turns literature into the condition of possibility of freedom. For Smith, Bentham, and Marx, the limits of self-rule as a model of agency prompt a similar rethinking of the relationship between language and politics. Their conception of a linguistic labor that informs material praxis is incompatible with the liberal ideal of individualism. In the final analysis, their work invites us to think about social conflicts not as clashes between competing interests, but as a struggle to distinguish human from linguistic imperatives.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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pp. vii

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pp. ix

This book grew out of work I began as a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University. I am especially grateful to my advisors, Werner Hamacher and Rainer Nägele. Peter Fenves, Neil Hertz, and David Wellbery all offered valuable advice at important stages. Completion of the project was aided by the Dean’s Office at Reed College and by a Mellon Post-Doctoral...

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pp. xi-xiv

The last twenty-five years have seen increasing scholarly interest in the relationship between aesthetics and economics.1 Particular attention has been paid to the way in which classical political economy and the eighteenth-century discourse on taste emerge concurrently from earlier moral and social thought, only to diverge in the course of the nineteenth century as the...

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pp. 1-12

Contemporary literary criticism is guided by the belief that a human act is best understood by considering the space and time in which it emerges. This idea is powerful in its simplicity, appealing to the notion that more background information is always better. It is less clear whether the assumption of a fundamental connection, if not an outright identity, between origin and...

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Chapter 1: The Art of Interest

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pp. 13-46

Throughout his oeuvre, Kant focuses on the uncertain relations between universal principles and singular events that threaten to confound the elaboration of a comprehensive model of the mind. One of the central concepts in his account of the (dis)equilibrium of the self is interest, a term that appears at crucial moments in the three Critiques, but whose very ubiquity...

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Chapter 2: Breaking the Laws of Language

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pp. 47-74

The doctrine of productive imagination that informs Kant’s theory of art would appear to complement his discourse on freedom, the cornerstone of the three Critiques. It is far from obvious, however, whether Kant’s efforts to develop a model of practical human autonomy are in any sense ‘‘clarified’’ by his statement that poetry ‘‘sets the imagination free.’’ A great deal of...

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Chapter 3: On the Poetics and Politics of Voice

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pp. 75-110

The vision of the self that emerges from Kleist’s reading of Kantian ethics differs sharply from the figure of specular self-determination generally associated with Idealist thought. In forcing us to reconsider the assumption that language can be a medium of rational activity, Kleist seems to part company from those inheritors of Kant who accord ultimate primacy to the authority...

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Chapter 4: Economics Beyond Interest

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pp. 111-146

The last fifteen years have seen an explosion of interest in Adam Smith. In addition to the fact that the success of capitalism is often celebrated in his name, his oeuvre is increasingly heralded as the key to understanding the relations between politics, aesthetics, and economics in the eighteenth century. As research on Smith has moved beyond The Wealth of Nations and...

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Chapter 5: Ideology, Obviously

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pp. 147-173

What Paul Ricœur called the ‘‘hermeneutics of suspicion’’ has become the sine qua non of literary and cultural studies. Whether one thinks in terms of an unconscious, a superstructure, or a subtext, the analysis of intellectual and social phenomena begins from the assumption that things may not be what they seem, even where our most tangible intuitions and deeply held...

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pp. 174-176

In this book, I have argued that reading the texts of classical political economy together with post-Kantian literature offers us important insights into some of the central controversies of contemporary cultural theory. Ideological debates in the humanities will benefit immeasurably once we recognize that philosophical inquiry is not a hindrance to but an essential ally of empirical history.


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pp. 177-210


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pp. 211-222


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pp. 223-226

E-ISBN-13: 9780823248063
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823225873
Print-ISBN-10: 0823225879

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2006