Free Market Formalism: Reading Economics as Fiction

Free Market Formalism: Reading Economics as Fiction

American Literature and the Free Market, 1945-2000
Michael W. Clune
Cambridge University Press, 2010.

“What would a history of postwar U.S. literature look like that did not take society as its major organizing principle?” Daniel Worden reviews Michael Clune’s American Literature and the Free Market, 1945-2000, which traces the emergence of the “economic fiction,” in which the market is neither a mystified form of social relations nor an expression of individual values, but a virtual economy that structures experience.

Ryan Brooks:

In a recent response to Walter Benn Michaels’ “Neoliberal Aesthetics,” Michael Clune ponders the political consequences of the gap between actual economies and the “economic fictions” described in American Literature and the Free Market.


When literary critics invoke economics, they often think in terms of circulation and marketing. For example, recent scholarship in modernist studies has focused on how writers such as T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway made use of marketing strategies and established themselves as literary celebrities. Similarly, work on postwar U.S. literature has brought attention to the roles of institutions such as creative writing programs and book awards in the literary marketplace. Circulation and reception studies invoke the market not only in terms of the dissemination of literary texts but also as a kind of democratic, cosmopolitan public, one that counters older conceptions of the literary text as inviolate, impersonal, and distant from the contaminations of mass culture. These ways of thinking economics into literature are vital to literary studies today. Michael Clune’s American Literature and the Free Market, 1945-2000 persuasively argues for a different, formally sophisticated mode of engaging with economics and literature that provocatively posits an intimate relationship between literary aesthetics and the free market.

In the book’s introduction, Clune argues that critics and theorists have trouble thinking of the free market in and of itself. “In various forms, in the intense discussion about the free market that has ranged across a dozen disciplines and in the public,” Clune writes:

One of the surprising features … is how quickly the market is displaced by something else. For the left, for writers like [Fredric] Jameson or David Harvey, market relations are simply a mystified form of social relations. What lies behind the market, what is real or valuable or important, is society, intersubjectivity, community. For the right, for neoclassical economists like Milton Friedman and conservative philosophers like Robert Nozick, the market simply and transparently reflects the personal values of sovereign individuals. What lies behind the market, what is real or valuable or important, is the individual. (2)

Clune’s critique applies to literary studies as well. By focusing on circulation and marketing, literary critics invoke the economy only to then push it aside for more familiar concepts like reader reception and authorial style. Instead of moving so quickly from economics to society or the individual, Clune asks what literary texts themselves have to tell us about the free market. Rather than charting how literary texts circulate within the marketplace, Clune charts how literary texts themselves imagine the free market. Accordingly, the works that Clune interprets tend to share some features: first-person narration, an impersonal narrative voice, a disinterest in history, and themes of shopping, mobility, and invisibility. The focus of the book is predominantly on novels and poetry; the works analyzed include Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless and In Memoriam to Identity, Amiri Baraka’s poem “Das Kapital,” William S. Burroughs’ Nova Trilogy, William Gaddis’ JR, and Frank O’Hara’s “personal poems.” Along with these literary texts, the book develops readings of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film There Will Be Blood as well as rap music predominantly concerned with showcasing expensive cars, extravagant jewelry, and money. Key to his account of postwar U.S. literature is the way in which the abstract model of the free market parallels, crosses, and intertwines with literary, or aesthetic, form.

Clune poses an alternative to literary criticism’s quick moves from the economic to the social by taking seriously the free market’s nonsocial character. In the imaginary of late capitalism - and especially in the economic theories of F.A. Hayek and Karl Polanyi - the free market transcends social structures like the nation, as well as identity categories based on race, gender, sexuality, and religion. Under the rule of the free market, all subjects participate equally, and inequality is tied not to identity but to money. Free market economics posits a “fictional market … the existence of the fiction that market price, buying and selling, are not social phenomena” (15). Clune then finds in postwar U.S. literature the emergence of “economic fiction,” a “genre of aesthetic works in which the market organizes experience” (25). Drawing from Heidegger’s aesthetics, the “economic fiction” dramatizes subjectivity organized not socially - in relationship to others, constituted through the logics of identity - but economically - in a world where price is the only mode of difference, untethered to social and even historical concerns, and where the individual subject and the collective blur into one mass of economic agents.

Clune’s designation of “economic fiction” as a literary form is compelling because it can be found at work in so many different texts and different writers, and the book is provocative not just for its analysis of literary form but also because of the texts with which it does not engage. While Clune devotes a chapter to rap music, punk is notably absent, especially in the chapters on Acker and Burroughs. While Gaddis’ experimental narrative technique stands in for a developed version of the “economic fiction,” readings of Joan Didion, Bret Easton Ellis, and Richard Powers are not to be found here, even though these writers also seem to employ lots of the techniques ascribed to “economic fiction.” Most interestingly, Clune’s history of postwar U.S. literature does not include many of the writers that one conventionally associates with postmodernism and contemporary literature, especially practitioners of historiographic metafiction such as Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, Toni Morrison, and Philip Roth. This absence is less of a problem with the book than one of its most compelling provocations - what would a history of postwar U.S. literature look like that did not take society as its major organizing principle? After all, writers like DeLillo and Morrison are valued precisely because of how their novels engage with U.S. history and identity, and Clune constructs an alternate literary history that takes as its organizing principle the abstract fiction of the market, the forward-looking, even utopian vision in free market economics that renders all of the historical, social concerns ubiquitous to the novel moot.

The “economic fiction” that the book elaborates is one form among many in the postwar United States. By isolating the “economic fiction” as a nonsocial mode of organizing experience, Clune is able to give form its due. While the texts that Clune analyzes might not be best read as social, they can be read as having a pedagogical function. Clune’s book can be generatively placed in a negative, yet dialectical, relationship with Bruce Robbins’ study of the upward mobility and aspiration in his “literary history of the welfare state,” which concludes with the hope that “people may begin thinking in terms of entitlements not based on paid employment” (Robbins 243). While Robbins’ reading is overtly social in focus, it does model a vision of collectivity that emerges from a non-economic vision of society, just as Clune’s collectivity emerges from a non-social vision of the economy. What Clune and Robbins share is an account of literature’s ability to organize experience, to produce models of subjectivity to which readers can then aspire.

One of the reasons that historiographic metafiction - the novelistic form most closely identified with postmodernism - does not figure into Clune’s reading of the free market and U.S. literature is due to his focus on poetics over and above narrative. The book’s first chapter analyzes familiar features of Frank O’Hara’s poetry - urban space and O’Hara’s lyric, poetic persona. In particular, lyric serves as a central component of Clune’s “economic fiction,” which seems to adapt lyric to the free market. Along with O’Hara, nearly all of the texts that Clune identifies as “economic fiction” are written in the first person, and Clune reads these first person texts, whether poetry or prose, as lyrics that produce new accounts of the subject. In O’Hara’s “Ode to Joy,” for example, Clune finds a radical overhaul of how one might think of the subject’s relationship to the market:

In the conventional understanding of the market, desire forms in a private space, only to be confronted with the tragic gap between unlimited human desire and the limits of the world. The economic desire does not shape desire, but places cruel limits on the private desires of individuals … But in the aesthetic space opened up by this poem, there is no possibility of such a gap between what I want and what I can have. Desire forms out among the things themselves, not in an interior vacuum. I choose whatever strikes my eye in an environment organized by commerce. Shaped by the economic, desire is wedded to the world. In this aesthetic space, the world we encounter will always be enough. (65-66)

While this reading of the poem might, on the surface, seem to be arguing that O’Hara fantasizes about an individual with infinite credit - a fantasy that might even be interestingly explored as a model for the subject in late capitalism - Clune persuasively argues for a far more nuanced conception of lyric as articulating a “virtual collective” that is decoupled from “the liberal individual” (66). So, a world organized by price is not a world where individuals have desire, but instead is a world where desire merely identifies objects in the world. Price becomes the mode through which subjects identify objects, and desire emanates from, rather than exceeds, the market. Clune’s reading of O’Hara is quite persuasive, especially since it is mindful of both form and history. As Virginia Jackson has argued in her book on Emily Dickinson and lyric poetry, “precisely because lyrics can only exist theoretically, they are made historically” (Jackson 11). Clune’s reading of O’Hara situates the poet within postwar economics and urban planning, while reading the poems as theoretical elaborations of the subject becoming collective within the free market.

While Clune draws attention to the impersonality of the first-person voice in postwar U.S. lyric, many of his examples seem to be explicitly coded as masculine. This gendering of the “collective subject” imagined in economic fiction is most noticeably present in the chapter on rap music, where the first-person lyrics produce a persona that strives not toward social visibility and esteem but to invisibility through the blinding presence of jewelry and the tinted windows of luxury cars. For Clune, this invisibility evidences the ways in which the free market displaces conventional ideas of identity and subjectivity. Clune’s examples all blend invisibility with aggression, and even female rappers from Queen Latifah to Nicki Minaj appropriate masculine styles. Clune reads these moments of aggression as dismissals of and indifference to the other, but it seems equally plausible that aggression is a form of engagement with the other. Moreover, many rap lyrics emphasize the importance of fraternal, homosocial bonds, a quality that seems to lie outside of the logic of invisibility and the evacuation of identity. It is, then, unclear how the collective subjectivity that Clune finds in fictions of the free market can have an ethics of any sort since his focus on the collective subject turns away from social relations. The overtly masculine character of the economic fiction gestures toward what Terry Eagleton has described as the “ideology of the aesthetic” even a radical aesthetic formalist such as Adorno, in Eagleton’s view, must negotiate rather than merely negate the social: “Every artefact works resolutely against itself, and this in a whole variety of ways. It strives for some pure autonomy, but knows that without a heterogeneous moment it would be nothing, vanishing into thin air. It is at once being-for-itself and being-for-society” (Eagleton 352). In his reading of Adorno, Eagleton emphasizes the way in which the aesthetic is always bound to society, even and especially when the aesthetic object negates the social. If the “economic fiction” imagines subjects as masculine subjects - whether they are flaneurs in O’Hara’s poems, genre types in Burroughs’ Nova Trilogy, or rappers flashing bling - then the aesthetic merges with the heterogeneity of the social.

Clune’s reading of the free market as a lyric form that transforms the subject into a collective parallels Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s theory of globalization as well as Leo Bersani’s account of the dissolution of the self. On the surface, Clune’s account of the free market lacks the activist and manifesto core of Hardt and Negri’s work on globalization, but there are moments where Clune’s account of the “collective subject” in the free market looks a lot like Hardt and Negri’s “multitude.” Clune’s focus on the impersonality of the free market’s collective subject, though, can be read as undoing Hardt and Negri’s emphasis on the multitude as a synthesis, even revival, of older, obsolete class categories - the peasant, the industrial worker - with a collective subject: “each mode has a singular essence, yet they all participate in a common substance” (Hardt 125). In contrast to Hardt and Negri’s collectivized singularities, Clune’s account of the nonsocial, collective subject articulated by the free market demands a more radical overhaul - rather than a synthesis - of the liberal individual. While linked to economics rather than erotics, Clune’s free market subject resonates with what Leo Bersani has labeled “impersonal narcissism,” which he develops in a reading of Plato: “Phaedrus undoes the opposition between the active lover and the passive loved one by instituting a kind of reciprocal self-recognition in which the very opposition between sameness and difference becomes irrelevant as a structuring category of being” (Bersani 86). Bersani’s account of the liberating dissolution of the self into aesthetic, bodily, and erotic practices resembles Clune’s reading of Kathy Acker, especially, and the ways in which “she is committed to a radical individual difference that is compatible with a no-less-radical sameness” (124). As such, Clune’s book makes a provocative contribution to studies of the subject in the late twentieth century by charting how the free market dissolves identity while redirecting desire.

While I find Clune’s treatment of form compelling, bracketing the aesthetic and the economic off from history raises more questions than are ultimately answered in the book. The title of the volume periodizes his account from 1945 to 2000, and this periodization goes without a clear explanation. In fact, the treatment of aesthetic and economic form in the book often seems incredibly abstract and universalizing. Concepts like the subject, recognition of self by other, and the erasure of historical inequalities clustered around race and gender all grant aesthetic form a transcendental or ahistorical quality that seems, at best, dubious. While the above concepts seem oddly ahistorical in a book about the free market and American culture from 1945 to 2000, others are curiously absent. Neoliberalism, post-fordism, the welfare state, even finance capitalism are not discussed at length, despite a rather interesting engagement with the work of F.A. Hayek, one of the major figures in the development of neoliberalism. This lack of engagement with, for example, David Harvey’s history of neoliberalism, Wendy Brown’s work on neoliberal subjectivity, and Nikolas Rose’s analyses of biopolitics is unfortunate, especially since Clune’s reading of Hayek makes the economic thinker far more sophisticated than Milton Friedman has made him out to be. Likewise, engaging with some of these other thinkers might have yielded exciting results.

The book concludes with a question: “What will be the social effects?” (164). After explaining at great length that the “economic fiction” displaces society for the free market, Clune plunges the reader back into the idea of the social with a provocative and, I think, rhetorical question. I read the question as rhetorical because it seems obvious what the social effects of free market ideology have been and continue to be. The social effects of the free market include: neoliberalism, disastrous and negligent privatization, the erosion of the welfare state, and the production of vast economic inequality. While I admire Clune’s focus on literary form, and his resistance to the New Historicist method of treating literature as an epiphenomenal symptom of social tensions, Clune’s formalism reveals its own shortcomings in this question, which is easily answerable but also impossible to answer given the constraints of Clune’s method. The fact that Clune’s book proves unwilling to account for the free market’s “social effects” leaves the reader to question whether aesthetic form is ultimately uncoupled from ethics or morality, or if the “economic fiction” is a lyric form not because of its interest in staging the collectivization of the subject but because of the egotistic, monstrous, neoliberal subjects at its center.

Works Cited

Bersani, Leo and Adam Phillips. Intimacies. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2008.

Eagleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1990.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Jackson, Virginia. Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005.

Robbins, Bruce. Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007.