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Reviewed by:
  • Counterfeit Capital: Poetic Labor and Revolutionary Irony
  • Richard Terdiman (bio)
Counterfeit Capital: Poetic Labor and Revolutionary Irony. By Jennifer Bajorek. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. 154 pages. Cloth $50.00.

Counterfeit Capital examines the pervasiveness of the trope or mode of irony in nineteenth-century responses to capitalism’s perfusion of the socioeconomy. The book’s two principal foci are Baudelaire and Marx. Two studies that partially parallel Bajorek’s would be Debarati Sanyal’s Violence and Modernity and Jeffrey Mehlman’s Revolution and Repetition. But only partially. Bajorek’s study is more concertedly focused on irony than they are. Ultimately the progenitor of studies in any of these areas is Walter Benjamin, who is attended to and sometimes contested in Bajorek’s book. Bajorek’s critical examination of Benjamin’s views on Baudelaire in her final chapter is particularly original and, I think, valuable. The relationship that Benjamin was the first to foreground between the coming of capitalism and Baudelaire’s poetry here receives a remarkably insightful unpacking.

As Bajorek observes, “irony” has tended to be seen as irrelevant to political representation or the representation of politics. It has been thought to bear as its affective charge an attitude of resignation rather than one of resistance. Bajorek’s study seeks to destabilize this conception of irony’s limitation and to refigure its relationship to the political realm (understood in the broadest sense). Bajorek renews interest in the trope of irony by arguing that, beneath its protean figurality, irony exceeds “rhetoric” narrowly conceived to become something more insidious and infrastructural. It frames a view of the world. One wonders why there is no sustained discussion of the master ironist Flaubert; Bajorek might respond by saying that her interest [End Page 599] is to demonstrate irony’s importance in lyric rather than in narrative, where to be sure it has been much more extensively considered.

In any case, Bajorek makes a convincing argument for the apparent irreconcilability between irony’s constant and presumably dangerous ambivalence on the one hand and on the other the need, in political thinking, to posit subjects as purposive, single-voiced agents. How can one “do politics” if the ground on which one is standing shifts constantly and destructively underneath? Bajorek counters that the assumption of rationality itself may be reductive or inappropriate to conceptualizing the subjects of capitalism—or to their own self-conception. To reach a conclusion that Bajorek never quite states in these terms, she conceives irony not (as often discussions do) as nihilistic but—critically—as critical. In that sense, rather than undermining or disabling them, irony maintains a suggestive relationship with revolutionary political programs.

This book’s strength seems to me to reside in two fundamental elements. First, it deals in an original way with figures of absolutely first-rank importance. Second, it reconceives a crucial operator in modernist texts, irony. The readings of Baudelaire are strong, despite the degree to which Les fleurs du mal is so heavily worked over in the critical literature (the prose poems of Le spleen de Paris/Petits poèmes en prose have been much less heavily glossed and commented on). Likewise, there are insightful rereadings of de Man’s influential “Rhetoric of Temporality” and his “Concept of Irony,” of Benjamin’s broad and interrelated consideration of Baudelaire, and of rhetoric, form, and the revolutionary dynamic. Finally, the readings of Marx’s texts, particularly of volume 1 of Capital, embody powerful reinterpretations and suggestive resurrections of passages that to my knowledge have not been carefully read before Bajorek came to them. These readings are strong and suggestive. (Except in a note, Bajorek doesn’t discuss Marx’s Grundrisse, despite the importance of its relationship to her argument, or Carol Gould’s Marx’s Social Ontology, which carefully reads Marx’s theory of labor in the Grundrisse.)

Some readers will resist some of Bajorek’s theses concerning an unfoundable rationality or instrumentality, in Marx particularly. Marx’s rationalist inheritance from the Enlightenment pulls in a counterdirection to his analysis of the indeterminate character of history and particularly of any revolutionary program. But Bajorek’s (sometimes Heideggerian) ideas in her reinterpretation, particularly of Marx’s...


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pp. 599-601
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