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Economic Fiction, 1945–2000

michael w. clune, American Literature and the Free Market, 1945–2000 (Cambridge: Cam-
bridge UP, 2010), pp. 211, cloth, $93.00.
Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Michael W. Clune claims that Joshua Clover and
Jasper Bernes misrepresent him in their response to his review of Daniel Stedman Jones’s
Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics. Clune writes that
while he appreciates Jones’s central argument (that neoliberalism resulted from the largely
ad hoc pragmatism of politicians on the left as well as on the right), Jones ‘‘fails to interpret
the broader cultural context’’ of the rise of neoliberalism. ‘‘In particular,’’ Clune writes,
he gives short shrift to the troubling ascendance of free market thinking in the west after World
War II. I did not have time in my review to spell out my own sense of the reasons for that
transformation. I refer interested readers to my American Literature and the Free Market
(Cambridge University Press, 2010). In the conclusion to that book, I venture a large-scale
analysis of the problem, drawing on Marx’s insights in his ‘Critique of the Gotha Program.’ In
my view, Marx continues to be an indispensable resource for leftist thought about the economy.
(Clover, Bernes, and Clune)
These are curious remarks, for readers picking up Clune’s study will find nothing like an
account of ‘‘the broader cultural context’’ that gives rise to neoliberalism and nothing like a
‘‘large-scale analysis’’ of ‘‘the troubling ascendance of free market thinking’’; nor will they
find any indication that Clune finds that ascendance troubling, let alone an account of how
Karl Marx might function as ‘‘an indispensable resource for leftist thought about the econ-
omy.’’ What Clune’s study does is read poems, novels, and films alongside counterintuitive
interpretations of Marx, F. A. Hayek, Karl Polanyi, and Hannah Arendt to suggest that a
strain of postwar literature represents less a background for the rise of free-market thinking
(Clune is dismissive of those who read literature and film as cultural context) than some-
thing like the distillation and perfection of free-market thinking. Clune does not argue that
his subjects are ‘‘neoliberal.’’ That word does not appear in his book. He is not interested in
placing his objects of studyon any predictable political continuum. Rather, he is interestedin
showing us how some postwar culture—including writing by Kathy Acker, William Bur-
roughs, William Gaddis, William Gibson, Frank O’Hara, and Sylvia Plath, as well as films
and music by Paul Thomas Anderson, Jay Z, Dr. Dre, andthe Notorious B.I.G.—understands
the promise of free markets (truly free markets) in what Clune thinks are strikingly inno-
vative ways.
As Clune sees it, neither the Left nor the Right can understand why ‘‘the market’’—or, as
he will alternately call it, ‘‘the economic’’—exerts such a powerful allure. Terms like ‘‘the
market’’ and ‘‘the economic’’ remain abstract andamorphous in Clune’s hands. But this does
not prevent him from opening his study with a series of categorical assertions. ‘‘Behind the
economic, all parties agree, lies something else’’ (2). The Left is against the market because it
conceals and mystifies social relations. The Right is for the market but sees it as little more
than a mechanism for reflecting the values and desires of sovereign individuals. Only prop-
erly aesthetic renditions of the market—‘‘economic fictions,’’ Clune calls them—reveal it to
be not just an object in its own right but a transformative space that makes available radically
newkinds of experience. Borrowing fromHeidegger, he argues that economic fictions ‘‘open
a space outside the social world’’ (7) and thus allow us to escape into something potentially
transforming. In such fictions, he writes, ‘‘interest and desire play across an environment
already organized by price. Instead of imposing a limit on one’s ability to procure what one
already knows one wants, the limit imposed by price acts to shape one’s perception of what
one wants. . . . In the space opened by these works, the market is a self-organizing system
that links every object of an individual’s experience to every object of everyone’s experience.
One sees things through price.’’ In short, in such works, ‘‘price structures subjectivity’’ (4).
A subjectivity structured by price is a subjectivity freed from the tyranny of ‘‘the social’’
and its regime of intersubjectivity. The social is dependent upon reciprocal acts of recogni-
tion; in it, we become subjects by virtue of being seen and acknowledged by others. The
economic fiction affords us access to an incipiently collective mode of being defined, how-
ever paradoxically, by its indifference to or removal from the recognition of others. Price
provides ‘‘an interface between an embodied awareness and a global collective’’ (22). ‘‘In the
economic fiction,’’ Clune writes, ‘‘the collective rises in the moment-by-moment organiza-
tion of first person experience by market forces’’ (25). For Clune, price tells us all we needto
know about ‘‘market forces’’ and the assemblages produced therein: when he speaks of the
collective brought forth by his objects of study, he refers to aggregated individuals who find
release from intersubjectivity by following the ebb and flowof their desires as they confront
fluctuations in price.
Clune reads The Bell Jar as an early postwar example of the escape from intersubjectivity.
‘‘For Plath,’’ he writes, ‘‘the dialectic of recognition is evil’’ (32). It is therefore less a problem
than an opportunity when Esther Greenwood looks into a mirror and fails to recognize
herself there. She breaks the mirror and produces fromthe ruins of its shards ‘‘the image of a
new subject not defined by recognition.’’ This new subject possesses a ‘‘radical conscious-
ness’’ freed from any dependence on ‘‘an object, a body, a face, or a position’’ (29). On the
other hand, this radical consciousness promises access to language andforms of ‘‘communal
value’’ (30) that Clune does not specify. What we do not find in this account of The Bell Jar,
moreover, is any discussion of market or price. Clune understands this novel as an early and
not fully elaborated version of the economic fiction that emerges most fully in his chapter on
rap and hip-hop, and so it is perhaps understandable that this particular reading would
confine itself to an isolated moment, the better to establish the ‘‘evil’’ his authors find in the
dialectic of recognition. It is worrisome, though, that much of this book’s argument proceeds
in patchwork fashion, andthat ‘‘the market’’ functions for Clune, in one reading to the next,
pretty much however he needs it to.
‘‘Using a variety of techniques,’’ the works in his study ‘‘remove the economic fromwhat
Hannah Arendt calls ‘the public world,’ the social space where visibility confers reality. This
transforms the market in basic ways’’ (147). So transformed is this market that it often
appears like no market at all. So, for instance, Clune has fascinating things to say about the
relation between perception andsymbol inthe experimental fiction of Burroughs. It will turn
out that price functions in the writings of Hayek in the same way that symbols do for
Burroughs: it ‘‘ ‘places’ the elements encounteredinthe immediate context of embodiment in
terms of the context of the entire market, considered as the aggregate of all exchanges across
the world’’ (94). Aversion of this account motivates Clune’s short reading of Gaddis’s JR, in
whichthe market functions as a self-correcting mechanismthat inhabits and speaks through
the boy whose transactions the novel chronicles. In his analysis of Burroughs, however, ‘‘the
context of the entire market’’ vanishes, as does anyengagement with price: here, Clune has a
great deal to say about color and phenomenology but nothing at all to say about ‘‘the eco-
Just as frequently, Clune’s readings turn on curiously insubstantial thematic invocations
of markets. The index sends us to eight mentions of Gibson in the main text, for example,
six of which anticipate Clune’s account of Neuromancer. The market ‘‘structures’’ the act of
‘‘touching’’ (4) in Gibson, we are told in the introduction. Later, by way of explaining why it
makes sense to include in his study an analysis of Plaththat makes no mention of the market,
we are told that the ‘‘economic fiction’’ consolidates itself over the second half of the twen-
tieth century, ‘‘as we move fromPlathto O’Hara to Acker, Gibson, and rap’’ (41). Later, Clune
lists Gibson as a chief innovator in ‘‘the project of fictionalizing the market’’ (78). But the
short reading of Gibson, when finally we get to it, focuses on Gibson’s vision of ‘‘cyberspace.’’
Clune argues that ‘‘critics have obscuredthe meaning this term has for Gibson.’’ He is intent
to show how the body ‘‘frames information,’’ as he does in a strong reading of Acker, and
howcyberspace, as ‘‘data made flesh’’ (117), represents for Gibson something like the escape
from the social that we found in Plath. The punchline, though, is this: ‘‘Gibson’s model for
cyberspace is a fictionalized market.’’ By wayof proof, Clune cites a passage fromthe start of
that novel in which Gibson describes a street market, andthen Clune concludes that, in this
novel, ‘‘bodies moving through the shops and bars and arcades show ‘the intricate dance of
desire and commerce,’ a free circulation of embodied knowledge that provides the template
for cyberspace’’ (ibid.). And that is it. Nothing more about a novel, by all appearances cen-
tral to Clune’s larger thesis, that is from first to last about the depredations inherent in what
Gibsonelsewhere calls ‘‘end-stage capitalism, inwhichprivate enterprise andthe profit motive
are taken to their logical conclusion.’’
Clune does not read Gibson against Fredric Jameson, for example, who finds in Neuro-
mancer an ‘‘expression of transnational corporate realities’’ and ‘‘an exceptional literary real-
ization’’ (38) of the cultural logic of late capitalism. Clune makes no mention of those real-
ities. Unwilling to understand the economic as an expression of social relations, he rejects
Jameson’s practice of symptomatic reading; he will not move through or beyond a novel or
poem, the better to arrive at something prior or antecedent to it. But it is hardto understand
what justifies turning such a blind eye to the social relations actually represented within
particular works. If we can speak of ‘‘the market’’ as Gibson conjures it, then why can we not
speak of the capitalism that he conjures, of which that market is an expression?
We first meet Gibson’s protagonist, Henry Case, ‘‘hustling fresh capital with cold inten-
sity’’ in an ‘‘outlaw zone’’ that is a ‘‘deranged experiment in social Darwinism’’: ‘‘stop hus-
tling and you sank without a trace, but move a little too swiftly and you’d break the fragile
surface tension of [a] black market’’ in which ‘‘death [is] the accepted punishment for lazi-
ness, carelessness, [or] lack of grace’’ (7). Gibson’s outlaw zones exist in the shadows of more
familiar forms: ‘‘Power, in Case’s world, meant corporate power. The zaibatsus, the multi-
nationals that shaped the course of human history, had transcended old barriers. Viewed
as organisms, they had attained a kind of immortality. You couldn’t kill a zaibatsu by assas-
sinating a dozen key executives; there were others waiting to step up the ladder, assume the
vacated position, access the vast banks of corporate memory’’ (196). To be sure, cyberspace
provides Case with a temporary respite fromthe outlaw zones andurban slums to which he
is consigned, but it does not facilitate his transcendence of the social into the beautiful ether
of price. And it most certainly does not allow Case to transcend corporate power. In
cyberspace, Case facilitates the merger of two Artificial Intelligences, and Gibson casts that
merger as the evolution of a family company into a corporation freer than it has yet been to
conduct its business with no reference to human want or need. Indeed, that merged entity
will remain safelyoff-planet, a removedlocation far more like our own offshore profit havens
than the kind of free market nonspace into which Clune imagines Gibson transporting us.
Cyberspace does not free Case from ‘‘the economic’’; quite the contrary, it gives him a
clarifying access to the forces and relationships that organize his life.
This is not what Clune would have us see. As he has it, ‘‘From Adorno to Deleuze to
Jameson to the New Economic Critics to Agamben, to refer to the economic is to refer to
capitalist society. To refer to money is to refer to a set of social relations.’’ Against these
thinkers, Clune wants to argue, ‘‘in the most implausibly strong fashion, that the very fabric
of the social might come apart in the fragile textures of artworks’’ (162). But it is by no means
obvious what it means for the social to ‘‘come apart’’ in these works. It is clear enough that
Clune abjures describing social relations. But this does not meanthat novels like Neuromancer
and JR, or films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, themselves refuse to do so.
Any claim that they do would indeed be implausible.
To be sure, the social relations in a given novel are not necessarily the same as the social
relations out of which a given author writes. It is more than possible that, when representing
social relations, works of art obscure or mystify something about them. We might imag-
ine, for example, that the radical libertarianism that Clune discovers in the works of Acker
obscures somethingessential about the way in which free markets function beyondher texts.
But Clune is uninterested in arguments like these. His ‘‘significant finding’’ (159), his ‘‘rather
immodest critical intervention’’ (160), is that ‘‘the economic fiction does not cover up or jus-
tify actual economic inequality. These works transformeconomic relations in sucha way that
inequality ceases to be of conceivable interest to anyone’’ (159). He rejects ‘‘a possible ideo-
logical relation between’’ the works in his study and ‘‘social forces’’: ‘‘The economic doesn’t
work here in the way it works in society, and this discrepancy is not determined by a social
logic. The economic fiction simply isn’t in the social world. It’s somewhere else. This is an
important social fact, with important social consequences’’ (163).
The categorical discrepancy between the economic in art and the economic in society ‘‘is
not a modest one,’’ Clune announces before urging us to become ‘‘less comfortable with
modest claims about what art can do’’ (ibid.). But the reader might be forgiven for remaining
hazy about ‘‘the important social consequences’’ of Clune’s own demonstrably immodest
assertions. In his introduction, he claims that the economic fiction constitutes ‘‘a significant
social phenomenon’’ (7) in its ability to ‘‘represent a material alternative to the social’’ (8).
Having carefully constrainedthe manner in which his works of art might be saidto be about
‘‘the economic’’ at all, Clune tells us that the economic does not work inthese works as it does
in society, only to tell us that this nonrelation constitutes a profoundrelation: the economic in
art promises to transform something about how we understand or experience the economic
in society. How to understand that transformation? Perhaps by way of these rapturous sen-
tences, which conclude his study: ‘‘The woman reading Neuromancer onthe subway, the man
driving to work with B.I.G. on his stereo: little sections of the market wink in and out of
visibility. With the first experiences of such works, a fault line appears down the center of
every actual exchange. An invisible economy detaches from the visible economy. What will
be the social effects?’’ (164).
If in one sense it is impossible to know where this leads, in another sense it is very easy.
Clune has produced an intricate system in which the economic as we might conceivably
understand it winks in andout of visibility, a veritable Rube Goldberg machine whose twists
andturns return us, finally, to a familiar place. We need, Clune insists, to free ourselves from
the outdatedthinking of Marx. That thinker’s baleful influence stems fromhis reliance onthe
labor theory of value. As Clune sees it, ‘‘[f]rom the perspective of the labor theory of value,
money and circulation add nothing but malevolent illusion to the value placed in things at
their birthby the productive process’’ (158). But the labor theoryof value ‘‘has beendiscredited
for well over a century. The arguments advanced against it are strong,’’ Clune writes, ‘‘and I
know of no place where they have been refuted. I believe the labor theory of value to be
indefensible’’ (ibid.). For Clune, much follows from this assumption: out the window goes
Theodor Adorno, for example, whose notion of negative, autonomous art might otherwise
have appealed: ‘‘Adorno’s theory is predicated on the labor theory of value,’’ alas, ‘‘and
involves a distinction between the subjective character of the evaluation of things produced
by market processes, and the objective value placed in things by labor at the scene of pro-
duction’’ (160).
Surely it matters, even in the midst of this categorical certainty, that Clune is simply, flatly
wrong: value is for Marx a social relationship, not a substance placed in objects at their birth.
Clune attributes claims made by Adam Smith and David Ricardo to Marx, whose three
volumes of Capital insist, again and again, that a given commodity’s value derives not from
the concrete labor responsible for its production but fromthe relationship betweenthat labor
and the total labor of society, as that relationship is concretized in given acts of exchange.
Value is not a tangible characteristic of objects but, as Marx has it, ‘‘the social relation of the
producers to the sumtotal of labor as social relations, which exist apart from and outside the
producers’’ (1:165). Readers wanting a more thorough refutation of Clune’s misconceptions
about the labor theory of value should readthe response by Joshua Clover and Jasper Bernes
to Clune’s LARB review, mentioned above. Here I will add only that Clune’s misreading
returns us to what is so curious about the rest of his study: ‘‘social relations’’ appear only to
vanish before appearing again in an unrecognizable and distorted form. Clune argues that
the economic fiction rewrites the market by severing it fromthe social, in the service of some
social end we cannot yet fully imagine. One wishes that these abstract and abstracting
involutions took shape in a more concrete relation to actually existing social relations. While
Clune believes that postwar literature transforms inequality until it ‘‘ceases to be of con-
ceivable interest to anyone,’’ many of his readers, and readers of that literature, will likely
remain interested in it all the same.
michael szalay, University of California, Irvine
DOI 10.1215/00295132-2647230
Works Cited
Clover, Joshua, Jasper Bernes, andMichael W. Clune. ‘‘Response to ‘What Was Neoliberalism?’:
A Debate between Joshua Clover/Jasper Bernes and Michael W. Clune.’’ Los Angeles Review
of Books 4 Mar. 2013 <
-debate-between-joshua-clover-jasper-bernes-and-michael-w-clune >.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1986.