Following Mikhail Bakhtin’s influential study Rabelais and His World, a generation of scholars have thought of laughter as subversive—of norms, institutions, religion, gender. The literary canon, however, is ripe with situations in which characters refrain from laughing at certain objects.
Joshua Clover and Christopher Nealon
“Value” is a concept structured by confusing relations between its social-ethical and its economic meanings (“I agree with your values”; “the sweater is a great value at that price”). The two meanings cannot be kept separate, but the negotiation of their relation has vexed theories of artistic and literary value since at least the rise of the discourse of aesthetics in the 18th century. Early attempts to separate aesthetic value from its economic counterpart involved analogies between what were understood to be different cognitive faculties (reason and emotion, say), and relations among competing claims to political standing (between the bourgeoisie and the sovereign, most of all). Liberal American conversations about literary and economic value after World War II worried over part-whole relations in terms of debates about the value of individual literary works in what seemed to be an ever-expanding multicultural canon. Postwar literary theories of economic and aesthetic value in a more Marxist vein turned to various narratives of the “subsumption” of social life by economic values: sometimes imagining that subsumption as a fatal error on the part of capitalism, since sociability is too unruly finally to organize according to economic principles, or as a terrible victory for a capitalism that had now transformed into something qualitatively different and more sinister, like a “bio-power.” But even these Marxist literary theories tended to ignore contemporary work in history, historical sociology, and critical theory that identified changes in the relation between what had once seemed to be at least notionally separate aesthetic and economic “spheres” not with subsumption per se, but with a crisis in capital’s ways of producing profitable surplus value, and exchangeable use values. Seen from the vantage of this scholarship, it becomes clear that not only do most discourses on the specific value of the aesthetic tend to lean too heavily on spatialized domain models of art and economics (which conceive of them as occupying, in reality or potential, different regions), but also this persistently demanded separation of art and economics rests in turn on a false distinction between politics and economics. Rethinking the specificity of art and literature without thinking of it as a separate sphere, or as necessarily resistant to capital, is a research project for the coming decades.
What is the literary marketplace, and what is the relationship between literature and the marketplace? The decades since the end of World War II have seen enormous changes in the economics of literary production: the book trade has grown, consolidated, and globalized; chain bookstores have replaced independent booksellers; and technological advancements have transformed how books are produced and how readers shop for, acquire, and read them. With these changes, questions about how the literary marketplace has mattered to literary history have been asked with increasing urgency, and the histories of those institutions that engage in producing, distributing, and selling literature have received increasing amounts of scholarly attention. Where the market was once understood to be a kind of implacable antagonist to literature, and literature once defined by virtue of its opposition to, and essential difference from, goods that are mass-produced, today the fields of book history, the sociology of literature, and literary studies itself frequently highlight the marketplace as a producer of modern and contemporary literature and—for better or worse—as a necessary context for it. What caused this shift, and what are its implications for literary study and for the idea of literature itself? How is a marketplace devoted specifically to the rarefied category of literature distinguished from the book trade generally, and how might one distinguish literature from nonliterature when both are produced by the same set of mostly commercial institutions? Answers to these questions depend in large part on the evolving, and surprisingly elusive, concept of a “literary marketplace” itself.
The problem of capital and the question of its appropriate or desired relationship with political life and civil society shapes how readers, authors, and citizens understand and experience everyday contemporary life and its cultural products. Capital, in its post-1945 incarnation, is widely held to have been either in a state of crisis or responding to crisis (both historical and contemporaneously). Depending on the critic, these crises and their impacts are varied: the collapse of the 19th-century European balance of power, the rise of Keynesian economics, the birth of biopolitics, the Cold War and the specter of Communism, the repeating “systemic cycles of accumulation” endemic to the history of capitalism. This variant of capitalism that shapes contemporary life goes by many names, though the general consensus tends to call it “neoliberalism.” Despite its varying names, neoliberalism is generally held to be an economic doctrine that understands human freedom to be best achieved through free markets and entrepreneurial enterprise, privileging the individual above all else. Government should, therefore, be minimal; its role is to enforce the rules of the game but not to interfere in it. Neoliberalism is thus both revolutionary in its insistence on rethinking social life as solely economic life and an extension of long-standing values and arrangements of economic life that date back centuries.
Contemporary fiction takes part in debates about the hyper-individualized neoliberal subject and neoliberal values in a multitude of ways and at a variety of scales. The predominant way is in its interrogation of neoliberal identity politics—either to reinforce or critique, or something in-between, the possibilities for subject formation under neoliberalism. At another remove from the individual text has been the challenge to long-standing genre conventions, particularly in the novel. If modern novelistic genres rose alongside earlier modes of capitalist accumulation, contemporary authors are reimagining them to reflect changing rationalities. Finally, at the meta-textual level, there has been a variety of critical attention given to publishing, its infrastructures, and the role of the artist for both the appearance and success of texts. Across all these approaches—both imaginative and critical—is a commitment to an ongoing examination of the ways neoliberalism in all its varied impacts inflects “how we live now.”
Networks influence practically every subfield of literary studies. Unlike hierarchies and centralized structures, networks connote decentralization and distribution. The abstraction of this form makes it applicable to a wide variety of phenomena. For example, the metaphor and form of the network informs the way we think about communication systems in early American writing, social networks in Victorian novels, transnational circulation in postcolonial literature, and computer networks in late 20th-century cyberpunk fiction. Beyond traditional literary genres, network form is also accessible through comparative media analysis. Films, television serials, video games, and transmedia narratives may represent or evoke network structures through medium-specific techniques. The juxtaposition of different literary and artistic forms, across media, helps to defamiliarize network forms and make these complex structures available to thought. Across subfields of literary studies, critics may be drawn to networks because of their resonance with histories of the present and contemporary technoscience. Scholars may also recognize the sense of complexity and interconnection inherent in networks, which resonates with experiences of intertextuality and close reading itself. In addition to studying representations of networks, literary critics employ a variety of network-related methods. These approaches include historicist scholarship that uses network structures to think about social organization and communication in different eras, quantitative digital humanities tools that map networks of literary circulation, qualitative sociology of literature and reader-response theory that analyze networks of readers and publishers, and formalist work that compares network and aesthetic forms.