Thanks largely to the recent recession, economics has become—for perhaps the first time since the 1980s—a central part of public discourse in America. Economists such as Paul Krugman have become household names, difficult economics texts such as The Black Swan have topped the New York Times Bestsellers list, and hard-to-grasp financial issues such as debt ratings and currency valuations have made it into presidential stump speeches. Within such a context, the de facto position of the humanities with respect to economic logic—that it is either exterior or antithetical to humanistic thought—has been increasingly hard for literature and other humanities disciplines to maintain. The last few years have thus seen an increased interest by both humanities scholars and scholarly organizations in the possibility of a rapprochemont with the discipline of economics.
In both my scholarship and my less formal writing, I have many times argued that it is in the interest of literary disciplines to develop and esteem a market or economics-oriented approached to the study of literary texts. As universities have faced drastic budget constraints and parents (and students) have come to demand “practical” or job-oriented coursework, literature departments have found themselves stuck in the position of having to defend the value of an ends-agnostic humanities education. Though I do not discount the value such an education offers, it has seemed to me that a more effective response to these external pressures would be to re-fashion literary studies so that it attends to—without being fully determined by—the actual industrial and labor needs of the book industry. In practice, this would involve little more than adapting and incorporating key educational and scholarly practices already developed by communications and media studies departments: a publishing industry (or history of the book) course, for instance, as part of English major requirements and a national English/industry working group and journal. Not only would such practices satisfy the external demand for “practical” output, but they would likely inform and strengthen more traditional humanistic work. Indeed, work on the 18th-century publishing industry and copyright law have already begun to re-shape scholars’ understandings of key literary movements and texts from that era.
Judging from the latest issue of PMLA, however, the Modern Language Association (or at least the journal’s editorial board) has a very different vision of how to respond to the greater place of economics in the public sphere. The January 2012 issue devotes its special “Theories and Methodologies” section—which publishes only solicited material—to the topic of “Economics, Finance, Capital, and Literature.” The seven pieces contained in the section are largely idiosyncratic, though the titles of the first two, “Value | Theory | Crisis” by Christoper Nealon and “Value | Theory | Crisis” by Joshua Clover suggest some form of shared research question, even if the pieces do not explicitly refer to each other. While it is difficult to identify in these very different pieces a shared or common understanding of the relationship between economic thought and literary work, it is clear that none of them understand literary economics as involving either a commodity or product-based interrogation of books or a labor-market-oriented approach to writing and authorship.
In two of the pieces, economics is incorporated as highly general macro-economic (national) histories that are used to provide historical context for the narrative form or plot details of specific literary texts or work by specific authors. Two more overtly theoretical pieces understand economics in entirely Marxist terms—which is to say in terms that are not in consonance with those of public discourse or the professional work of economists, politicians, or industry professionals. Only one of the pieces, Christopher Nealon’s strange but compelling comparative reading of Benjamin and equilibrium theory, devotes significant attention to “mainstream” or professional economic concepts and history.
None of these pieces is bad—and on their own terms most are actually quite good—but as examples of economics or finance-oriented developments in literary methodology, they are extremely disappointing. None of them provide examples of the methodological contributions or inventions economics can bring to literary studies; and worse, none of them (save perhaps Nealon’s piece) construct economics as something outside of, challenging to, or even different from literary studies in the first place. Joshua Clover’s piece is exemplary in this regard as it builds its interrogation of the “contours and character of the global economic collapse” upon theories of economic logic (by Marx, Derrida, Zizek, and Hardt and Negri) whose primary place of circulation is literature departments. Regardless of his piece’s value—and I am not suggesting that it has none—it immediately raises the question—an obvious one, I think, to anyone outside of an English department—of why English as a discipline is equipped to answer questions about the economy and economic collapse. Is explaining the economic crisis (instead of say literary representations of it or the crises’ effect on the book industry) really the proper object of English scholarship?
My biggest disappointment with the PMLA section, however, is that there are plenty of literature scholars who do consciously make use of economic principles, research orientations, and methodologies in a way that both the general public and economists would recognize as economics-based. James English’s book on literary prizes, The Economy of Prestige, is one example. Simone Murray’s The Adaptation Industry is another. Since PMLA is the journal of record for a very large segment of the humanities, should we understand its omission of such work as accidental oversight or an indication of the enduring place of anti-economics and anti-industry prejudice within the humanities today? Either way, PMLA would do well to bring greater attention to such work and to the potential role economics might play in the humanities of the future.