- Labors of Imagination: Aesthetics and Political Economy from Kant to Althusser
The multiple turns in Jan Mieszkowski's Labors of Imagination might leave the reader unsure about whether s/he fully grasped Mieszkowski's argument in its complexity and implications. It is, after all, an impressive scope of names and texts that he ties together in only 176 pages. The book can be divided into two parts, each of which takes a different point of departure to cover both realms mentioned in the subtitle, aesthetics and economy/politics. Starting with an analysis of the aesthetic judgment in Kant's Third Critique, Mieszkowski quickly moves on to intriguing readings of Kafka, Kleist and Hölderlin, accompanied by a multitude of references including Baumgarten, Klopstock, Fichte, Schlegel, Schelling, Heidegger and Adorno. In his fourth chapter, "Economics beyond Interest," Mieszkowski then starts a second parallel line of arguments on Bentham, Smith and Marx, followed by the book's final chapter on Adorno, Althusser, Barthes and finally a reading of Poe's "The Man That Was Used Up."
The underlying project, however, is as clear as it is ambitious: nothing less than the affirmation of literary criticism's relevance "as a progressive political program" is what Mieszkowski puts at stake: "Any theory of culture that cannot account for the specificity of literary language is fated to celebrate the values of the status quo" (12). However, simply by virtue of a choice of phrase, the author leaves himself more vulnerable than necessary. To write of the 'political program' of literary criticism suggests the shaping of literary language and criticism according to an external 'program.' It is left to speculation, though, whether it would have made much of a difference to write of literary criticism as a political activity instead. But the term 'activity' would at least have been closer to the core of the underlying argument: What Mieszkowski concerns himself with in his examination is the question of how agency and literary language hang together and interact. It is this examination of the interplay of agency and literature in which Mieszkowski surpasses the naïve claim of political relevance: Literary language is indeed not simply a medium of agency for human subjects, but a complication of a common notion of agency, which can or should help to recognize the fallibility of those languages that have a (utilitarian) concept of agency at their very foundation: Mieszkowski chooses the languages of economic production and [End Page 770] ideology as examples. The language of economic production is thus examined as an example that can stand for any language that follows a specific notion of productivity, or as the author describes it: the discourse of "propositional identity in which sentences are articulations of attributes (accidents) connected to a fixed object, the 'subject' of the sentence" (138). The subject, by being articulated as agent of productivity (an important point in his examination of Smith's notion of the division of labor) is itself transformed into the object of the described process of production, it is "used up" by language, just like General John A. B. C. Smith in Poe's story.
This model of language that humans use only at the price of themselves being used (up) by it—"At stake are nothing less than our most basic ideas about what uses human beings make of language and what uses language makes of them" (150)—needs to be opposed by a truly "human language," a language that constitutes "a genuine alternative to the discourse of propositional identity" (138). Where is this 'human language' to be found? What would it look or sound like? Mieszkowski wisely leaves the answer open, knowing too well that any language that declares itself (i.e. is declared by its use) as 'human' is already consuming itself and the humans it assigns and designs in the discourse of propositional identity. Instead he confines himself to some comments on Marx, who himself considered Hegel's thought, particularly in Phänomenologie des Geistes, a harbinger of such a human language. It is an...