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  • Commentary:It's the economy, stupid: On the Costs of Marginalizing the Aesthetic
  • Laura Finch (bio)

"It's the economy, stupid": Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign mantra makes clear that, at least since the early 1990s, the economy has been available as "our collective environment" that, according to Michelle Murphy, "anyone might intuitively feel … as a determining yet diffuse presence" (1, 18). The reminder also implies a brisk common sense about identifying the economic in any given situation: we know it when we see it, and we see it everywhere.

The everywhere-yet-nowhere atmospherics of the economy makes the act of disciplinary-field definition a tough one, because, really, what is not economic criticism? Economic criticism can rely on neither geographic nor temporal boundedness, unlike, for example, Global Anglophone or Modernism, which have some anchoring in time and space even if these anchors are sites of deep contention. Nor does economic criticism have a methodological or object-based coherence; it is a theoretical orientation rather than a set of cultural objects that are somehow ontologically economic. Nor does it have the specific limitations of institutional entanglement in the way that some fields do: there are no job hires in economic criticism.1

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the snapshot of the field that this issue gives us is broad, covering the eighteenth century to the present day with a geographic focus on the territorial US, its formal empire, and a more expansive idea of US-backed global capitalism. A range of economic forms are also considered—slavery, the national debt, the economics of empire, microeconomics, circulation, and personal finance all make an appearance—while genre is also broadly conceived, including realism, the sublime, the epistolary, [End Page 818] personal finance guides, speculative fictions, visual art, and music videos.

The history of Economics and Literature is also made up of gaps and discontinuities as much as it is a shared genealogy. In recent descriptions of the field, including the excellent one by Paul Crosthwaite, Peter Knight, and Nicky Marsh, three key sites of intellectual inquiry are often noted: first, the Marxist tradition, a noncoherent but somewhat continuous line with particular visibility in the Frankfurt School of the 1930s, the cultural studies of the 1970s, and most recently inflected by the "long guiding shadow" of Fredric Jameson (Chihara and Seybold 5). Secondly, the New Economic Criticism (NEC) of the 1990s, with roots in the post-structuralist work on money and language that began in the 1970s. This field was accompanied (and inspired by) a rapprochement from the other side: the work of rhetorical economics (or Humanomics) that Deirdre McCloskey spearheaded in the mid-1980s, which sought to interrogate neoclassical economics' radically asocial imaginary by "us[ing] literary and rhetorical methods to unveil [economics'] buried metaphors and fictions" (Woodmansee and Osteen 3).2 While NEC did not exclude Marxist analysis, as Nicky Marsh writes, "[f]or those invested in the material histories of money, NEC's assumption of the parallel between money and language, that implied a shift from a materially reali[z]ed and socially meaningful exchange of gold or goods to the dematerial and socially alienating exchange of an abstract money form, was problematic" (317). Thirdly, Critical Finance Studies, a subfield of economic criticism arising in response to the 2007–08 credit crisis. While work on finance has dominated the field recently, it is not a term with enough centripetal force to hold economic criticism together as a field, nor does it describe all recent work on economics and literature.3

This is not a straightforward history given the large temporal gaps and dispositional variances between Marxism, NEC, and current work on finance. More importantly, it is also a somewhat geographically unmoored history, in which European Marxism, Anglo-American NEC, and finance studies (largely Anglo-American but with interest in finance's relationship to globalization) can act as signposts for surveying the shape of the field. The lack of geographic specificity in this history of the field is particularly felt in relation to this special issue, which is after all a collection of essays for the journal of American Literary History, the economy under discussion here is the North American economy, that...


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