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  • Frank Herbert's Dune and the Financialization of Heroic Masculinity
  • Joshua Pearson (bio)

This article proceeds from two basic assertions

First, that Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune is useful for thinking our financialized, late capitalist moment; and second, that the concepts and concerns of our moment are useful for rethinking this science fiction classic. As a conscious reading strategy, such anachronism brings seemingly disparate elements of the novel that critics tend to treat separately (ecology, gender, heroism, politics, prophesy, colonialism) into productive new conjunctions. In Dune's protagonist, Paul Atreides, we see these threads woven into a problematic masculine subjectivity that exemplifies capacities of risk management and affective manipulation central to the postindustrial financial market system. The result is an early [End Page 155] prototype for the exemplary neoliberal subject that emerges into dominance 20-odd years later.

Reading Dune through the frameworks of immaterial labor and financial capital serves to unsettle sedimented interpretations of the novel and to illustrate its continuing relevance within late capitalism. Paul's exceptional consciousness is a model for the financialized subjectivity demanded by postindustrial laboring practices. Tracing the fraught gender dynamics surrounding Paul's heroic capacities in the novel helps us map anxieties surrounding the reproduction of labor suitable for the knowledge and service economy today. We can draw on the connections the novel makes between Paul Atreides's ascent to power and the transformation of his subjectivity to think the sociopathic, instrumental antiheroism that has risen to such prominence in our contemporary popular and corporate cultures.

Financializing Arête

Central to my reading of Dune as a metaphor for the reification of subjectivity in late capitalism is Wendy Brown's theorization of neoliberalism in Undoing the Demos. Building on Foucault's The Birth of Biopolitics, Brown theorizes neoliberalism as the governing rationality of contemporary global capitalist society, "extending a specific formulation of economic values, practices, and metrics to every dimension of human life" (Brown 2015, 30), defining both individual and institutional agents as competitors within markets of human capital (9–10, 22, 52, 70). Brown argues that Foucault's account of the neoliberal homo economicus, composed in the late 1970s, failed to anticipate the extent to which the financial practices of speculation, risk management, and investment/divestment would come to dominate the relations of human capital (70–78). As a result, the "specific model for human capital and its spheres of activity [within neoliberalism] is increasingly that of financial and investment capital" (33). In this financialized context, developing the self becomes a speculative practice, an attempt to preadapt to anticipated competitive pressures within future markets in human capital (42, 66, 109–11).

The cultural impact of this speculative model of human capital management is deftly captured by Randy Martin in his discussion of arbitrage (Martin 2007a). [End Page 156] Martin's use of the term "arbitrage" reaches beyond the multitude of highly specialized acts of arbitrage in the day-to-day business of finance—variations on the process of exploiting price discrepancies between markets, buying low to sell high—to the broader principle that animates them: the impulse to translate all human experience into calculable patterns of risk and opportunity and to derive profit by leveraging one's knowledge of those patterns. Like Brown, Martin argues this specifically financial logic has shaped discourses of strategic planning and social agency in late capitalist society, generating new ways of thinking personal and sovereign power.

In contrast to the assumptions of classical liberalism, for whom markets created perfect information and allowed rational actors to make balanced exchanges of value, in the neoliberal market "competition replaces exchange. … When the political rationality of neoliberalism is fully realized [and its] market principles are extended to every sphere, inequality becomes legitimate, even normative, in every sphere" (Brown 2015, 64). If exchanges take place under terms of unequal power and unequal knowledge, then all exchange becomes a form of short-selling that presupposes a winner and a loser. Within neoliberalism, this unequal market relationship is framed as the model for all human relations. As Martin argues, then, arbitrage—the practice of exploiting disparities in market knowledge—becomes a useful conceptual metaphor for neoliberal modes of...


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