The Commodification of Creativity in the New Labor Era
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The Commodification of Creativity in the New Labor Era
Sarah Brouillette, Literature and the Creative Economy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014. ix + 238 pages. $45.00.

Sarah Brouillette’s Literature and the Creative Economy takes as its starting point the nagging worry that many creative people with progressive politics have felt since about the end of the Cold War: is it not true that our various forms of creative expression, even those oriented toward critique, can all be appropriated by neoliberalism in support of the market and a state ideology that favors entrepreneurs over organized labor? To address this question, Brouillette offers materialist close readings of a series of Anglophone postcolonial novels that explicitly engage this problematic, often in surprising ways.

Brouillette’s introductory chapters respond to policy shifts in the British government’s orientation to the “creative industries,” as well as to ideas from Marxist theorists of the Autonomia school, whom Brouillette shows to be surprisingly aligned with the prevailing neoliberal attitude toward labor. Subsequently, Brouillette devotes several chapters to interpreting specimens of ambivalent creativity in mainly contemporary multicultural British fiction (with a prominent contemporary Indian novel also included, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger). The key buzzword in this transformation, in both the United Kingdom and the United States, has been the idea of the “creative economy.” The latter term has been explored in one way or another by sociologists in the past, but Brouillette suggests that it became ubiquitous with Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative [End Page 380] Class and came to guide both American and British New Labor discourse about changing class dynamics and the new urbanism. For Brouillette, the fact that “creatives” emphasize individuality (as against state control) and embrace entrepreneurialism (as against state support for the arts) makes them particularly appealing to New Labor theorists, as it creates a new element in the old class battle between Britain’s establishment and the urban poor.

Along these lines, Brouillette writes about the various ways in which literature’s capacity to be a space of critique of “the excesses and inequities of neoliberal capital” (13) is at times overwhelmed by the logic of the market: in the new creative economy, even the critique of neoliberalism can be instrumentalized by policymakers and appropriated as an image of “culture” that supports, and is in turn governed by, the market. Even aspects of literary expression deemed to be resistant to market forces, such as the emphasis on the production of an “authentic self,” as well as the exploration of forms of interiority in highbrow fiction, can be appropriated by the market under the aegis of self-actualization and self-help. Brouillette’s phrasing on this topic is particularly suggestive:

Embrace of the primacy of the therapeutic self, motivated by nonmaterial or postmaterialist goals and committed to constant indeterminacy and self-evolution, converges with the neoliberal image of the flexible creative worker whose career is her primary site of self-discovery. In this light, if writers mark their own distance from art’s instrumental applications, they find particularly rich material because readers of literature are themselves inclined to disavow instrumental goals as secondary to, or as inhibitors of, immaterial goods like self-knowledge, authenticity, originality, and happiness. So literature’s anti-instrumental and self-critical gestures may exemplify and model larger cultural mores and may be highly marketable for precisely this reason.

(14)

Brouillette’s framing here illustrates why the market can be such a sticky problem for aspiring writers and artists. The “creative economy” literature as well as the prevailing market discourse emphasizing “self-knowledge” make it difficult to see how conventional understandings of literature as a space of autonomy from the market could continue to adhere in the present moment. (It may well be arguable that this was ever so, with the brief avant-garde flourishing [End Page 381] in high modernism being a tantalizing exception.) Indeed, the deeper story here seems to be that of a colonization of traditionally libertarian or even anarchist modes of thought by mainstream policymakers both supporting and exploiting the creative class. If we are all defined by our (bourgeois) individuality and capacity for self-criticism...