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Reviewed by:
  • Counterfeit Capital: Poetic Labor and Revolutionary Irony
  • Steven Miller (bio)
Bajorek, Jennifer. Counterfeit Capital: Poetic Labor and Revolutionary Irony. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008. Pp. 160.

Jennifer Bajorek’s Counterfeit Capital is a superb and unexpected hybrid entity: a book that manages to make time for intricate readings of Baudelaire’s poetry even as it remains preoccupied, from beginning to end, with revolution. Bajorek makes so much time for her readings, in fact, that, upon first perusal, her book appears to be primarily a monograph. An abundance of framing devices advertise the book’s underlying political concerns, but each chapter hinges upon a sustained engagement with one or two key poems that threatens to overflow its allotted space. Nonetheless, the book is animated by the urgency of the desire to make social and political justice possible. In the final analysis, Bajorek devotes at least as much space to Marx as to Baudelaire. More than any of its arguments, in fact, this delicate and often elusive distribution of critical labor would be the book’s central statement. The point here is to show, on the one hand, that literary criticism is inseparable from the more ambitious and urgent political projects and, on the other, to “revolutionize the revolution,” that is, to demonstrate a mode of political discourse that does not sacrifice the ethics of reading.

The formal economy of Counterfeit Capital packs a polemical punch. The book presents a challenge, not only to political theory, but also to its reader. It challenges the reader, who would review or paraphrase its project, to respect its own economy--that is, not to disregard its irony, not to convert its often allusive and open-ended readings into a theory of revolution, and not to run roughshod over its critical labor in order to reach a goal that this labor renders inaccessible or problematic. There is, however, no way to rise to such a challenge. Although it is possible simply to acknowledge and admire the book’s economy from a distance, there is no way to enter into a sustained discussion of any of its elements without upsetting their delicate balance. Indeed, one of the book’s great virtues is the seductive levity with which it bears its own defiance. Bajorek knows perfectly well that no reader will be able to respect the book’s economy in the way it demands to be respected. Her epigrammatic style eschews the reproducibility of philosophical discourse that proceeds through expansive arguments according to the order of reasons. Especially when she discusses the “revolutionary irony” evoked in the book’s subtitle, her arguments tend to culminate abruptly in witticisms rather than boldly underscored conclusions. Considering the importance that Bajorek confers upon the concept of irony, it would not be unreasonable to expect that [End Page 172] she would formally introduce it as a concept, attempting to establish its history and its role within a variety of disciplinary discourses. Instead, the book’s first mention of irony takes the form of a passing remark. Bajorek slips in an aside about the way in which irony inevitably slips into Marx’s discourse on revolution:

Seen from the angle of this development, the revolution—not even the one that Marx himself prophesied—will not and cannot ever be a revolution “against” capital. And it is no longer possible to speak of a future that would not just be a repetition of the present possibilities without a heady dose of ironic vertigo slipping in. No wonder so many of the stories Baudelaire and Marx tell us about capital’s future are marked by a manifest investment in this vertigo.


Of course, Bajorek’s discussion of irony does not stop there, but it does stop and start in an inimitable manner. And even the most sustained discussion of irony tends to feel oblique.

Bajorek’s title only refers to one type of irony, but her book brings many ironies into play, on the level of both form and content. Each discussion of irony ends up feeling oblique because Bajorek makes no attempt to connect it to the others. One knows that each could be read as a clarification of the others...


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pp. 172-179
Launched on MUSE
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