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date: 20 April 2018

Literary and Economic Value

Summary and Keywords

“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.

Keywords: value, politics, economics, political economy, aesthetics, bourgeois thought, Marxism, subsumption, capitalism

Value and the Defense of Literature

Given the sheer variety of ways in which literature has been valued or defended, not to mention the universe of values literature has both championed and rejected, any attempt at comprehensiveness would be mad, and a linear history would either never arrive at its 21st-century destination, or arrive there at the cost of a vitiating generality.

Instead, this is a reflection on the relationship between literary and economic discussions of value, focused on later 20th-century debates in each discussion that dovetail, implicitly or explicitly, with the question of whether literature, or the values it might express, can be said to be separate or autonomous from the economic and social system in which it is embedded—that is, global capitalism, limiting it, for the most part, to material in English and on translations from some European languages, and homing in on an even more particular set of conversations internal to Euro-American Marxism in the last several decades.

Why this highly specific, arguably presentist, and directly political approach? On the one hand, the intermingling of political theory, ethics, and the analysis of literature is ancient. Reading literature has long been championed as a medium for enlightenment or self-cultivation, that is, for its ethical value: but of course Aristotle concluded in the Nicomachean Ethics that ethical inquiry necessarily led to the study of politics.1 On the other hand, we are persuaded by the spirit of Karl Marx’s remark in the Grundrisse, regarding a method that reads past history out of the most involute conditions of the present, that “Human anatomy is the key to the anatomy of the ape.”2 This metaphor of Marx’s feels applicable, not only to the practice of reading backwards from the present, but of reading outwards from it. That is, if ethics is the study of how we might best live, and if global capitalism is, in the words of Susan Sontag’s story of the AIDS epidemic, “the way we live now,” then the ethically focused tradition of championing the value of literature should welcome a new chapter that takes seriously the analysis of exactly how we live together, not least how we live together in a complex political-economic system. And since, as Robert Heilbroner has noted, the modern discipline of economics has been built around a refusal to name capitalism as the medium and object of its study of “economies,” the Marxist tradition has distinct advantages—not least its insistence that politics and economics are not separate domains, and that value is a constitutive feature of their unity rather than a virtue of one or the other.3

In other words, any attempt to answer the oldest question about “value”—that is, what is the good, or what makes a good life?—must sooner or later be immersed, as it were, in the particulars of how we have ended up organizing life so as to produce value. That is to say that, like all other questions, that of value does not preserve some metaphysical immutability, but takes on different dimensions in different historical circumstances. The question of literary value for us cannot be addressed without passing through at least some of the particulars of value production under capitalism. Some of the Marxist debates have been absorbed into a “critical theory” that has tended to deemphasize the economic origins of its criticality and, because those traditions themselves have fallen behind more recent developments in capitalism, and the study of capitalism. Conversations about literary value demonstrate the usefulness of thinking through the general question of value by way of particulars in 20th- and 21st-century Marxist conversations about value, but also show that those conversations have tended to be more philosophical and less historical than they might best be. An irony is that, in order to press for a more historically focused study of how value production under capitalism shapes discussions of literary value, we skip over a lot of history.

A final idiosyncrasy is that we will also be bookending the specific question of literary value with discussions of aesthetic and economic value. This is because, whatever their specific interest, discussions of literary value have depended on ideas developed in prior philosophical conversations that eventually congealed into the category of aesthetics. Especially important is the way in which defenses of literature in the modern era have deployed a language of mental faculties that is explicitly analogical to political relations of sovereignty. This is perhaps easiest to see in the run-up to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous declaration, in “A Defence of Poetry,” that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” This declaration is framed by an extraordinary passage that makes a link between relations among mental faculties, and relations of material production:

The functions of the poetical faculty are twofold: by one it creates new materials of knowledge, and power, and pleasure; by the other it engenders in the mind a desire to reproduce and arrange them according to a certain rhythm and order which may be called the beautiful and the good. The cultivation of poetry is never more to be desired than at periods when, from an excess of the selfish and calculating principle, the accumulation of the materials of external life exceed the quantity of the power of assimilating them to the internal laws of human nature.4

Writing in 1821, during the first heyday of British industrial capitalism, Shelley takes for granted that an inwardness marked by harmonious relations among faculties or “principles” can serve as a stay against the predations of that capitalism. Shelley figures capitalism as a usurpation and a disproportion alike.

A political language of sovereignty and a spatial language of domain, in other words, shape Shelley’s critique of 19th-century capitalism and serve as the basis for his counter-valuation of poetry. This literary-critical hinging together of intellectual faculties and social roles depends in turn on a prior philosophical history in which a key feature of the good life is the achievement of sovereignty over one’s emotions. The championing of literary value depends on the philosophical framework that will develop into “aesthetics” even more clearly in the history of defenses of poetry in Sir Philip Sidney’s “Apology for Poetry,” first published in 1595. In that essay, Sidney argues that poets are better moral guides than philosophers because poetry accesses a desire or motivation that is anterior to reflection:

For suppose it be granted—that which I suppose with great reason may be denied—that the philosopher, in respect of his methodical proceeding, teach more perfectly than the poet, yet do I think that no man is so much Philophilosophos [a friend to the philosopher—ed.] as to compare the philosopher in moving with the poet. And that moving is of a higher degree than teaching, it may by this appear, that it is well nigh both the cause and the effect of teaching; for who will be taught, if he be not moved with desire to be taught? And what so much good doth that teaching bring forth—I speak still of moral doctrine—as that it moves one to do that which it doth teach?5

Indeed, Sidney continues, poetry allows for precisely the kind of moral education that the philosophers claim to value: an education that leads to the rule of reason over passion. This argument (along with many others in the same vein) allows Sidney to remark, a moment later, “Now therein of all sciences … is our poet the monarch.” The anticapitalist pivot between faculties and social arrangements seen in Shelly finds its precursor in Sidney’s argument among the disciplines, which, like Shelley’s, is also an argument about the faculties. And literary value, in both these essays, is intimately linked to the idea of sovereignty, where “sovereignty” is meant simultaneously to indicate hierarchical arrangements of human capacities and arrangements (hierarchical or harmonious) of social roles.

This mode of championing the specific value of literature by way of analogizing relations among faculties to relations among social types, or social arrangements, is alive and well today. For instance, Martha Nussbaum’s advocacy of a “perceptive equilibrium” in novel reading, which she believes can create an ethically productive balance between fine-grained perception and impulses to universal moral laws: her argument is that ethically attuned novel reading can calibrate both emotion and cognition, and a harmonious relation between literary theory and philosophy.6

This style of argument—the defense of literature—endures in literary debates. While the separating of literary value (conceived as immanent to the text) from other modes (understood as imposed on the text by force and thus as instrumentalizing literature for other ends) remains a persistent feature, such defenses are varied in whether they purport that such an approach makes literature more effectively critical or happily “postcritical.” Such approaches are so resolutely spatial in their conceptions that they cannot accommodate much in the way of thinking about time, expect perhaps as individual literary bildung, or as a story of successive, quasi-mythological Ages (as in Shelley). Such defenses also tend to remain locked in a disciplinary battle between literature and philosophy that can make very little room for other disciplines, such as history. And, when this style of arguing for literary value does attempt to think historically, it tends to raise the question of economic relations, only to imagine them as yet another domain—separate from, or parallel to, history and politics alike.

There is however a more adequate way of thinking about value, one that is centered on the vicissitudes of value production in capitalism, rather than on a parable of the war of the disciplines, or a struggle among the faculties. We want to think about how forms of struggle that are simultaneously political and economic give the lie to such parables, while honoring that they touch on desires that life under capital continually solicits and harries. As suggested above, this departure from reading literary value out of the tradition of defenses of literature will involve suggesting very different coordinates for thinking about the value of a poem or a novel, or of deep reading, or of joyous reading on the fly. But in order to maintain a sense that these coordinates, drawn from scholarship on the history of capitalism, might speak to literary-critical projects, we will take a look at a moment in literary theory and criticism that feels like a near miss, as it were—a moment in the 1980s when debates about the status of the literary canon provoked conversations about value that necessarily included reflection on the history of literary criticism, as well as the history of literature. Following that, we will turn to debates in so-called “critical theory” that begin with a sense of the intimacy of economic and literary value, and therefore get much closer to the problem as we would like to see it reframed. We will suggest in closing, though, that critical theory has tended to fall into the same trap as the defense-of-literature tradition, in that it keeps trying to champion literature as other than capital, perhaps because it predates capital. This tends to bifurcate critical-theoretical positions into those that imagine utopian possibilities for literature, and those that can only imagine literary value as crushed under the weight of capital. These positions tend to gloss over the scholarship that focuses not just on the expansion of capitalism across the globe over the last few centuries, but on the vicissitudes capital suffers as it pursues its compulsion to expand forever. First, though, let us look at a literary-critical brush with thinking value and history together.

Literary Value and Literary Politics: The Moment of the Canon Debates

In his landmark 1990 study The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Terry Eagleton traced the history of an influential and primarily German discourse of aesthetic value that ranged from Alexander Baumgarten and David Hume to the work of Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, and Friedrich Schiller, and on to the theories of Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, and Theodor Adorno. Though the discourse Eagleton describes takes different shapes across a political spectrum, two of its features remain constant—it is a philosophical discourse, and it tends toward allegory. Writing about the first great wave of aesthetic theory, for instance, Eagleton turns to a formulation of Baumgarten’s that is clearly meant to describe the political relations between a people and a sovereign through the idiom of the relationship between reason and sensory delight:

“Science,” writes Baumgarten, “is not to be dragged down to the region of sensibility, but the sensible is to be lifted to the dignity of knowledge.” Dominion over all inferior powers, he warns, belongs to reason alone; but this dominion must never degenerate into tyranny. It must rather assume the form of what we might now, after [Italian Marxist Antonio] Gramsci, term “hegemony,” ruling and informing the senses from within while allowing them to thrive in all their relative autonomy.7

Eagleton’s achievement was to identify, at the end of the 1980s, a common thread of political tropes around relative autonomy and hegemony in the complex and multifaceted discourse of aesthetics—a philosophical discourse about intra-cognitive capacities that, at first glance, would seem to have nothing to do with politics at all.

So Eagleton’s work allowed scholars to see many of the twists and turns taken by an “ideology of the aesthetic” on the left and right, especially in European traditions. In North America, things looked a bit different. At the same time Eagleton was writing about the political underpinnings of attempts to set literary value over and against politics or economics, the question of the political meanings of aesthetic experience was at the heart of raging debates in the United States over which texts should count as canonical in higher education. These debates were themselves downstream from the tumultuous political challenges to the global order posed by decolonizing movements, by the rise of modern feminism, and by anti-racist activism. Major scholarship in English challenging the contours of the canon, and calling for altered ways of assessing literary merit, appeared throughout the period, from Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing (1977) and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in The Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979) to Houston Baker’s Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature (1984) and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988).

In the United States, this wave of activist scholarship was met with a forceful conservative pushback during the Reagan era, led by, among others, William Bennett, Allan Bloom, and Dinesh D’Souza; but it also gave rise to a variety of critical and theoretical glosses on the concepts of value that, although not themselves activist, could be said to range from something like the center-right to the center-left. Work like Barbara Herrnstein-Smith’s Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory (1988), Charles Altieri’s Canons and Consequences: Reflections on the Ethical Force of Imaginative Ideals (1991), and John Guillory’s Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (1993) attempted to summarize and give theoretical closure to these debates. By and large, however, this body of work demurred from the kind explicitly class-based analysis developed by Eagleton, even though the question of “canon” was quite clearly related to the question of “taste.” In a definitive issue of Critical Inquiry devoted to the question of literary value in the age of canon reformation, where each of these authors first tested out the ideas that would lead to their monographs, Herrnstein-Smith, Altieri, and Guillory lean toward a broad pluralism: Altieri advocates a self-reflexive ethics of value that tests itself against the value judgments of others, Herrnstein-Smith pushes back against attempts to define axiomatic criteria of literary value, favoring instead a model of fluctuation and dynamic interplay among kinds of evaluation, and Guillory frames postwar literary-critical history in terms of a devolution from orthodoxies about literary value, in which a latter-day “heterodoxy” of competing value claims and proliferating canons is to be neither lamented nor prized so much as acknowledged and studied as evidence of a play of differences that he takes to define culture.8

A notable exception to this demurral from pursuing the connections between economic and aesthetic value was Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s 1985 essay, “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value.” In that essay, Spivak attempts to historicize struggles of literary canons in the American academy by turning to the deep background of a longstanding international division of labor in which “comprador countries” provided cheap labor power to “advanced” nations: labor power kept cheap, most recently, by the subjection of poor women in the global South to the regime of the wage. Startlingly, even prophetically, Spivak counterposes these deep and recent histories with a critique of mid-1980s advances in telecommunication whose aim was to reduce the circulation time of capital. In contrast to capitalist futurists like Peter Drucker, who imagined the emergence of the “knowledge worker” as the overcoming of the division between manual and intellectual labor, or Marxists like Antonio Negri, who predicted the machine-driven expansion of an anticapitalist sphere of “nonwork,” Spivak insists that under current geopolitical conditions, any overcomings of the divisions between mind and body, subject and object, fact and value, are not only provisional but extorted:

whereas Solomon Brothers, thanks to computers, “earned about $2 million for … 15 minutes of work,” the entire economic text would not be what it is if it could not write itself as a palimpsest upon another text where a woman in Sri Lanka has to work 2,287 minutes to buy a t-shirt.9

Spivak’s point in bringing the gendered international division of labor to bear on the utopian prospects of computer technology is to argue that, inasmuch as canon debates in the literary academy had involved a “materialist” desire to include histories of oppression and struggle alongside “idealist” celebrations of genius and formal beauty, that “materialism” was inadequate. It was inadequate because the “material” and the “ideal” in these usages were co-implicated expressions of a system of value production in which “ideality” for some was achieved at the price of enforced “materialization” of others. Until that division of labor was overcome, she argues, and that regime of value production destroyed, the “materialism” of adding Toni Morrison to a list of great texts would be subsumed under the idealism of a range of related ideas: that canons are finite lists, that mind and body are opposites, that the goal of the good life is to overcome the divide between them by sheer technological power.

Spivak’s essay was in many ways years ahead of its time, but the sheer difficulty of her attempt to link questions of canon formation to problems of the geopolitics of value production may have limited its reception. It is also marked by a commitment to reading Marx’s understanding of value production as an open-ended “text”—in particular, as a textuality that is by definition, and before any history, recursive and aleatory. This effectively predecides the priority of text to value and undermines critiques (including its own) that seek to understand literary value in materialist terms. So the great wave of literary-critical self-scrutiny around “value” came to an end without a deep transformation that work like Eagleton’s and Spivak’s might have inspired.

Value in Critical Theory

These transformations were happening elsewhere—and though they were multiple and contradictory, they were loosely gathered under the idea of the “new economy.” As Robert Brenner has detailed, profitability in manufacturing, commonly understood to be the leading source of value able to drive capitalist expansion, waned decisively in the shift from the Long Boom (1947–1973) to the Long Bust (1973–).10 This was true not only in the United States but across the leading industrial powers, and while this decline was uneven, it was a global phenomenon. Though some low-wage nations attempted to enter into the labor-intensive sectors grown fallow in leading economies, in general jobs lost from manufacture and ongoing losses from agriculture could not be fully absorbed elsewhere.

In the 1983 Time magazine article generally regarded as the origin of the phrase “new economy,” its authors wrote,

Every industrialized country is looking to high technology for its salvation. But competitiveness, high productivity, innovation—or their lack—will be even more decisive in the New Economy than in the old; an inefficient chip-maker will suffer just as much as an inefficient steelmaker.11

This is, however, a somewhat misleading account; the force of information technology would not be that it provided a new line of leading commodities overseen by a comparable raft of producers. Rather, the new economy proposed to generate new value from greater coordination of both social and economic activity, a coordination enabled by advances in information technology. Notably, both critics and proponents of capitalism offered accounts of this change. For example, the theorists of the Italian workers’ movement reasoned early on that, as all life (beyond the formal work day) was increasingly brought within sphere of capital, value would come to derive from social relations as such:

The more capitalist development advances, that is to say the more the production of relative surplus value penetrates everywhere, the more the circuit production—distribution—exchange—consumption inevitably develops; that is to say that the relationship between capitalist production and bourgeois society, between the factory and society, between society and the state, become [sic] more and more organic. At the highest level of capitalist development social relations become moments of the relations of production, and the whole society becomes an articulation of production. In short, all of society lives as a function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination over all of society.12

Meanwhile, the prophets of what would be called Toyotaization or “Just In Time” production strategized to increase profits via a new integration of subcontracted production and supply chains within an expanded global division of labor—logistics, in sum—to minimize any unused time or materials from the sequence leading from demand to production to sale. Further, as traditional production declined, the financial sector ascended, no longer an adjunct to industry but its replacement as a profit source. This offered a different but corresponding sense of “social” value production, given that finance made profits from neither producing nor exchanging useful commodities but via a series of enchained beliefs about the future value of such commodities, beliefs themselves produced and propagated by communicative or discursive practices, emphasizing the idea that information itself was able to generate new value.

The context for the “new economy,” then, was a shift in the early-industrializing nations away from a declining manufacturing sector toward service work and financial profit taking, and an increased pressure on labor to conform to new conditions even as the work/life distinction was subjected to ongoing erosion. This dream of informationalized and “socialized” value production was also, from the start, a dream of the conquering of labor: making it not just less expensive but more flexible, more fluid, more disposable, more “efficient.”

In cultural and literary studies, these changes were noted early on, not least in Fredric Jameson’s epochal 1984 essay, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” It is difficult to imagine a more influential periodization of literary studies than Jameson’s. Jameson’s periodization depended in turn on the work of the German economic theorist Ernest Mandel, whose 1972 volume Late Capitalism laid out a three-period scheme for the history of capital that ran from “market capitalism” to “monopoly” or imperialist-led capitalism, and on to “late” or consumer-driven capitalism oriented by financialization, that figure of value-from-discourse par excellence. This clean, schematic history lent itself well to a similarly bold narrative of cultural periods. As Jameson put it, “my own cultural periodization of the stages of realism, modernism, and postmodernism is both inspired and confirmed by Mandel’s tripartite scheme.”13

Jameson, like Mandel, was careful to avoid the implication that capitalist value is produced by technology; indeed, he insisted that even the greatest technological revolutions are themselves expressions of shifts in the relations between capital and labor. But Jameson’s caution was largely set aside in the literary-theoretical discussions on value that were to follow—partly because, despite his own scrupulousness, his and Mandel’s periodizations were built around the idea that capitalist technological revolutions subsumed what came before them—that is, they believed that each wave of innovation resulted in more capitalism, extensively and intensively. Jameson called it “a prodigious expansion of capital into hitherto uncommodified areas”; regarding the value of art, he argued that “aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally.”14

This slippage wherein subsumption came to name commodification or marketization was useful for thinking about the subjective conditions of making art—indeed, of thinking and acting—under the then-latest organization of capitalism. But it blurred the difference between production and exchange, one organized by value and the other by price, in ways that would allow further confusions regarding value’s relation to literature. For Marx, subsumption was a way to think about compelled transformations of particular labor processes, more than about periods in capitalist history, much less the making social of market relations; but the impulse to periodize according to a subsumption narrative—rather than one focused on the instability of capitalist social relations, for instance, or on capitalism’s perennial need to stave off crisis—proved dominant in the literary-theoretical discussions about value from Jameson onward.

A confusion of price and value, and a drift in the meaning of subsumption, would have profound consequences for later debates about the relation between literary and economic value. Beyond liberal demand that literature should stand outside economic determination and thus serve as a repository for “social” values, much of the critical discussion has drifted since the 1980s toward one of two poles: a broadly optimistic sense that technological advances and the unfettering of human creative potential would sow the seeds of the overthrow of capitalism, and a pessimistic sense that until some political force emerged to replace the defeated working classes of the mid-20th century, only minimal forms of existential autonomy from capitalist value production would remain.

The high point of the optimistic discourse on aesthetic value remains Michael Hardt’s and Antonio Negri’s 1999 volume Empire, which rode a wave of anti-globalization protest to achieve a readership that extended beyond the academy. In that volume, Hardt and Negri leaned on Michel Foucault to argue that an earlier age of the disciplining of labor had been subsumed by an era of “biopolitics,” a concept applied now to their old colleagues’ ideas of the “social factory.” Now life as such and society were organized according to the demands of capital:

Power is now exercised through machines that directly organize the brains (in communication systems, information networks, etc.) and bodies (in welfare systems, monitored activities, etc.) toward a state of autonomous alienation from the sense of life and the desire for creativity … Power is thus expressed as a control that extends throughout the depths of the consciousnesses and bodies of the population—and at the same time across the entirety of social relations.15

But because capital has touched on life itself, Hardt and Negri argued, it has unleashed life’s own power with Pandora-like consequences that it cannot control:

The analysis of the real subsumption, when this is understood as investing not only the economic or only the cultural dimension of society but rather the social bios itself, and when it is attentive to the modalities of disciplinarity and/or control, disrupts the linear and totalitarian figure of capitalist development.16

Hardt and Negri, reinterpreting Marx’s “real subsumption” as a penetration of capitalist social relations, not into artisanal labor processes, but into something like “life itself,” begin to imagine what they helped make famous as “immaterial labor”: work that purportedly adds economic value without newly making a physical commodity. They elaborated “three primary aspects of immaterial labor in the contemporary economy: the communicative labor of industrial production that has newly become linked in informational networks, the interactive labor of symbolic analysis and problem solving, and the labor of the production and manipulation of affects.”17

In this narrative, the socialization of labor—that is, its extension into realms of existence previously not “labor” at all, but part of social life—in this narrative, the becoming social of labor is always a potentially Pyrrhic victory for capital, since “sociality” is taken to be unruly by definition: it is uncontainable, excessive. The Italian Marxist Paolo Virno put it this way: “It is enough to say, for now, that contemporary production becomes ‘virtuosic’ (and thus political) precisely because it includes within itself linguistic experience as such.”18 Via small tags like the “itself” in Hardt and Negri’s “the social bios itself,” or the “as such” in Virno’s “linguistic experience as such,” literary and social value are imagined as contrary to economic value by definition, as though the literary, the social, and the economic were innately at odds.

This quietly tautological understanding of literary value reorients the discussion around literature and capital, rendering it more triumphalist but more ambiguous. Literature preserves a privileged claim on extra-economic value in these arguments. Moreover, because it now helps constitute value production, it takes on new potentials of opposition. Writing in 2012 about the same supposedly “immaterial labor” identified by Hardt and Negri, Italian theorist Franco Berardi imagines its disruptive power as poetic:

In order to accelerate the circulation of value, meaning is reduced to information …

But language and information do not overlap, and language cannot be resolved in exchangeability.

Poetry [in particular] is language’s excess: poetry is what in language cannot be reduced to information, and is not exchangeable, but gives way to a new common ground of understanding, of shared meaning: the creation of a new world.19

Berardi’s celebration of literary “creation” as a priori un-capitalizeable finds a strange counterpart in pro-capitalist narratives about the “creative classes.” Management theorist Richard Florida, for instance, argues that the presence of a “creative class” increases the possibilities for economic growth in a given area.20 The implication is that, even if creative work does not directly produce economic value, its non-economic values—the social norms and arrangements it engenders—are economically desirable and will draw investment. This is the practical obverse of the argument, à la Berardi, that poetic thought and poetic uses of language can be a relatively direct source of anticapitalist struggle.

The Breadth of Value Discourse and Its Limits

There is, however, a basic problem for these arguments, no matter their valences. Their validity rests on a misrecognition of capital’s development of new sources of profit as a capitalist invention of new sources of value. However, there is only the most limited support for the existence of a “new economy” that features a new kind of value production. While firms specializing in what is deemed immaterial production may themselves make profits—the sectors of finance, real estate, and insurance provide the clearest examples—this appears to be zero-sum redistribution of extant value. No new use values are produced, much less exchanged, and nominal price increases are subject to instant devaluation. In the era of the new economy, there is little indication of economic expansion either in the leading economies or at a global level in comparison to previous waves of industrialization—a development outlined by thinkers as diverse as Brenner, the Marxist sociologist Giovanni Arrighi, and former secretary of the U.S. Treasury Lawrence Summers.21 Thus the suggestion that literature has a new and privileged relation to value production via its relation to new modes of production seems more an ideology of the age than a truth; these new modes qualify as production in the sense of neither new uses nor new surplus value.

At the same time, it is inarguable that the form and phenomenology of work have changed in the face of deindustrialization in ways that have had profound effects for literature. Increasingly, waged work begins to look like data entry and word processing. As Jasper Bernes argues, the forms of employment that post-Fordist firms offer resemble literary making far more closely than they do manufacturing labor.22 The field of literature registers this clearly enough. New technology firms such as Facebook and Google, having become influential companies operating at the intersection of data, discourse, and affect, increasingly come to be site, source material, and model for literary production and innovation (suggestive examples of this include the early 21st-century “Flarf” poetry, built up from the verbal detritus of blogs and comment boxes, or poet-artist Kenneth Goldsmith’s project of “printing out the internet”).

While it can seem as though literature, under these conditions, is either a redoubt for some older form of artisanal value, or on some cutting edge of performing and critiquing an emergent, “biopolitical” form of value, it is more historically accurate to understand these literary forms as responding to a secular decline in capitalist value production: whatever the “value” of their craftedness, or their wit, or their critique of craftedness and wit, it is not an opposing form of value so much as a lively human activity that takes place in a powerfully shaping political and economic context. It is possible, in other words, to notice that the problems addressed by literature, and literary form, may shift in radical and startling ways, without taking this to imply that we have entered some new and qualitatively different phase in the relations of value. This is, however, what critical-theoretical discourse on capitalism and art has tended to do—both in the optimistic Italian discourse of poetry as countervalue, and in the more famous pessimism of the Frankfurt School.

Arguments on behalf of the anticapitalist potential of the aesthetic would seem worlds away from the pessimism of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, for instance; but they share with the Frankfurt school a reliance on the idea of subsumption as the way to simultaneously mark epochs in capitalism and describe them in terms of a new subjectivity. In the case of the work of Adorno in particular, subsumption and value are intimately linked, and the linkage has fostered recent arguments that attempt to extend his thinking into the era of so-called neoliberalism.

Though Adorno’s writing has been steadily translated into English since his own lifetime, it was not until the 1990s that interest in his work expanded beyond German-studies contexts and into the Anglophone humanities at large. In the United States, this was due in part to the 1989 publication of Jameson’s Late Marxism, Or, The Persistence of The Dialectic, which positioned Adorno as the preeminent thinker of political defeat on the left, and therefore perfectly suited for the tail end of a decade of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The revival was apt: for just as Adorno had witnessed the political defeat of the German working classes between the two world wars, so too was the end of the Long Boom accelerated by the rise of a right-wing coalition bent on destroying the power of labor unions.

In the English-speaking world, at least, Adorno is read most closely for his account of the negativity that any aesthetic experience must suffer if it is to have any integrity; he is best known as the theorist and proponent of self-cancelling, agonized reflexivity in art. But less attention is paid to the historical framework in which Adorno makes his arguments on behalf of negativity. It is a framework that depends on the idea of subsumption as a psychic and political experience, in particular the subsumption of the category of “the individual” under the demands of capital. It is loose and flexible, more of a philosophical anthropology than a history per se, and its polemical aim is to invert Enlightenment narratives of universal human progress: in Negative Dialectics, he writes, “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.”23 Earlier, in his Minima Moralia, he specifically analogized the transformations wrought by capital in worker’s bodily movements—the kinds of transformations stylized earlier in the century by Charlie Chaplin—to what Marx’s account of subsumption in the labor process. “Only when the process that begins with the metamorphosis of labour-power into a commodity has permeated men through and through,” writes Adorno, “is it possible for life to reproduce itself under the prevailing relations of production.” Then, in a nod to Marx’s idea of the “organic composition of capital” (OCC)—roughly, the ratio of the value of machine to human power in a given production process—Adorno adds,

The organic composition of man refers by no means only to his specialized technical faculties, but … equally to their opposite, the moments of naturalness which once themselves sprung from the social dialectic and are now succumbing to it. Even what differs from technology in man is now being incorporated into it as a kind of lubrication.24

This analogy between transformations in the labor process and deep existential transformations (“the organic composition of man”) has proved costly. Of course changes in the character of work create corollary changes in people; but for Marx, OCC was a way to describe the ratio of means of production to living labor in the production process, and therefore part of an attempt to track the value productivity of different capitalist sectors and enterprises: it offered a glimpse of the different roles that cheap labor and cheap means of production had to play in facilitating capitalist profitability.25 It can be understood as a ratio between the value of machines and labor inputs; and for Marx, its tendency was to rise over time, as inter-capitalist competition obliged ever-greater mechanization to lower unit costs while reducing wage expenditure. Unlike the subsumption of “life” to machinic regularity in Adorno’s analogy, however, OCC is for Marx a way of describing the labor process in production, not “life itself,” and its tendency to rise is not, as for Adorno, an irrevocable loss; it is always met by various counter-tendencies (expansion of the labor market, lowered wages) that keep living labor profitable to exploit. So Adorno’s figures of “permeation,” “incorporation,” and (widely used elsewhere) “liquidation” take what in Marx is a description of the countervailing forces at play in producing value and transform it into a modernity story. In this story, “life” has always aimed at “progress” but found only snatched moments of happiness in a complex devolution. The concept of value in Adorno—expressed as anti-progress, as “damaged life”—hitches a ride, as it were, on Marx’s analysis of capital, but its aim is to articulate something that became a more generalized tragic sensibility.

This modernist anguish about “subsumption” in discourses of aesthetic value has retained a great deal of power in the decades since Jameson’s reintroduction of Adorno to the English-speaking world. But the discourse of subsumption still tends to end up thinking in terms of “relative autonomy,” much like the liberal, pluralist languages it meant to oppose. It drifts quickly into an ontology of social life, rather than an analysis of value production under capital, and this drift registers in its metaphorics of integration and penetration. Further, because “commodification” rather than value production is its analytic lever, subsumption language gets caught in a game of determining which art objects are and are not fully commodified.

Even in work that expressly critiques ontologized narratives of subsumption, it proves difficult to escape a metaphorics of commodification as a kind of saturation or penetration of social reality, in a way that questions the over- or under-estimation of art’s autonomy from commodification without questioning whether “autonomy” is the best way to discuss artistic value. In his 2015 volume Art and Value, a high-water mark in the contemporary analysis of aesthetic and economic value, Dave Beech explicitly rejects languages of subsumption that are simply versions of modernity discourse: “Subsumption in Marx’s economic analysis is never abstract or general but always refers to the subsumption of labour.”26 Because commodities and markets existed before capital, he argues that the social relations around commodities, rather than commodification itself, should be the critical vantage point from which to understand the relationship between artistic and capitalist value. But his framework remains one of asking to what degree art is “free” in the sense of freedom, and of imagining art and capital as domains. As he puts it,

Throughout this study … I will not ask whether art is or is not economic, or whether art is or is not exchanged as a commodity, but in what ways precisely art is subjected to or remains free from economic rationality and how exactly art enters or resists commodification.27

The arguments regarding literature and value are many and frequently offered in entangled conjunctions. They may suggest that literature (and the aesthetic more broadly) is increasingly subsumed by economic value materially and/or ideologically, or contrarily that its incommensurability with economic value is ever more distinct and pressing; they may suggest that as economic value production has transformed, literature and the aesthetic offer an increasingly privileged role either against or in support of capitalist value production; they may suggest that literature and the aesthetic are, in comparison to other regimes and practices, ever more able and obliged to preserve other discourses of value.

The Unity of the Political and Economic

What all these arguments share is a domain model of “economics” and “art” that endlessly worries over their degree of separation or intermixed-ness, worries about the dominion of one over the other, without grasping that “the economy” is not a space, virtual or otherwise, but a set of historical relationships. Even when this discourse acknowledges the relational character of capitalist value production, it tends to read history in linear terms akin to its spatial ones: that is, it interprets the history of political struggles over capitalist value as a story in which there is simply “more capitalism” now than there once was. This domain model, with its linear historiography, comes from the sovereignty tradition of Baumgarten, with a faculty-psychology apotheosis in Kant and a decline-narrative apotheosis in Eliot, and it fails to contend with the vicissitudes faced by capitalist expansion, which is never guaranteed beforehand, and whose victories are less “subsumptions” of one domain by another than costly applications of force designed to preserve profitable class relations.

This presents a final set of puzzles for the question of literature and value in the contemporary era. At the broadest historical level, this expansion of economic value is not just a core feature but the differentia specifica of capital against previous economic relations: its compulsion to expand at the peril of ceasing to exist altogether. Capital is, after all, defined properly as value in expansion. But mourning the expansion of capital after the fact, as the domain and subsumption models do, loses sight of how effortful and tumultuous it is for capital to expand in the first place. So narratives of economic and aesthetic value as separate modes, the former always threatening to impinge on the latter, also keep re-installing the economic and the political as separate categories, when they are entangled from the start.

This attempt to distinguish politics and economics leads to a kind of ultimate—which is to say, an initial—confusion. One can certainly argue persuasively that value production is expanding or contracting, that commodification is expanding or (in very rare cases) contracting, and even that more and more labor processes are really subsumed in the technical sense. However, these expansions and contractions are not expressions of an opposition between two different kinds of value, two autonomous regimes locked in some ageless conflict. Rather, they are expressions of a dynamic that is immanent to capital itself. While value production or commodification may rise or fall, these developments are compelled by a value relation that is already generalized once the great majority of the population is dependent on the market for goods, and dependent on work for access to the market—and in turn once both goods and labor become value-bearing commodities, and once firms are compelled to reinvest profits and increase productivity to survive intercapitalist competition. Insofar as these are compulsions that unify the totality of social relations behind the back of consciousness, they render a new unity of the political and the economic that provides the mutually constitutive development of political economy.

In this circumstance, an artwork is or is not a commodity, art making is or is not labor, aesthetic production does or does not take part in the accumulation process. However, it is not possible to conclude as a consequence of any of these that there is some kind of value external to capitalist value. Indeed, the division of the political and the economic into discrete domains is a fetish of bourgeois thought: for example, in the idea that we are politically liberated in the sense of formal freedom, while we are at the same time economically unfree. This might be understood by analogy to an equally implausible separation of use and exchange value, implausible because under capitalism use values will be produced only because they have exchange value, while things can have exchange value only if they offer a use value as well. This is their material basis. Use and exchange are part of political-economic value as a whole, just as the two initial values proposed are part of political-economic value as a whole. They can be separated only in the movement of the ideal. Modernity, to the extent that remains a term that reveals more than it obscures, is not the name for the asymptotic victory of one side over the other but of the era defined by their unity.

The basis, therefore, of the demand that we recognize, valorize, and produce other sorts of value existing beyond political-economic value is a demand that literature and the aesthetic remain a space where the idealist conception of the world is preserved. Of course it is easy to be sympathetic to this forlorn desire for there to be an outside to the value relation. One might argue that our sympathy for literature derives precisely from the ways in which it provides an arena for this desire to move. However, there is little gain in confusing this pathos for real conditions. Until those conditions change—whatever the impressive range of new forms of profit-taking capitalism invents, and whatever the equally impressive inventiveness of the aesthetic responses to them—the form of “value” under which we live will remain the same.

Further Reading

Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life. Translated by E. F. N. Jephcott. London: Verso, 2005.Find this resource:

Adorno, Theodor. Negative Dialectics. Translated by E. B. Ashton. London: Routledge, 2004.Find this resource:

Alexander, Charles P. “The New Economy.” Time, May 30, 1983.Find this resource:

Altieri, Charles. “An Idea and Ideal of a Literary Canon.” Critical Inquiry 10.1 (1983): 37–60.Find this resource:

Arrighi, Giovanni. The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and The Origins of Our Times. London: Verso, 1994.Find this resource:

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. May 28, 2017. Available online at the Internet Classics Archive.

Beech, Dave. Art and Value: Art’s Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics. Boston: Brill, 2015.Find this resource:

Berardi, Franco. The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Bernes, Jasper. The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2017.Find this resource:

Brenner, Robert. The Economics of Global Turbulence: The Advanced Capitalist Economies from Long Boom to Long Downturn, 1945–2005. London: Verso, 2006.Find this resource:

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

Florida, Richard. The Rise of The Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books, 2002.Find this resource:

Guillory, John. “The Ideology of Canon Formation: T.S. Eliot and Cleanth Brooks.” Critical Inquiry 10.1 (1983): 173–198.Find this resource:

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Robert Heilbroner and William S. Milberg. The Crisis of Vision in Modern Economic Thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Herrnstein-Smith, Barbara. “Contingencies of Value.” Critical Inquiry 10.1 (1983): 1–35.Find this resource:

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism: or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146 (1984): 53–92.Find this resource:

Marx, Karl. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Translated by Martin Nicolaus. New York: Penguin, 1993.Find this resource:

Nussbaum, Martha C. Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Summers, Lawrence H. “The Age of Secular Stagnation.” Foreign Affairs. May 28, 2017.Find this resource:

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value.” Diacritics 15.4 (1985): 73–93.Find this resource:

Tomba, Massimiliano. “Adorno’s Account of The Anthropological Crisis and the New Type of Human.” In (Mis)readings of Marx in Continental Philosophy. Edited by Jernej Habjan and Jessica Whyte, 34–50. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.Find this resource:

Tronti, Mario. “Fabbrica e la società.” Translated and cited in Harry Cleaver, “The Inversion of Class Perspective in Marxian Theory: From Valorisation to Self-Valorisation.” In Open Marxism, Volume 2: Theory and Practice. Edited by Werner Bonefeld, Richard Gunn, and Kosmas Psychopedis, 106–144. London: Pluto Press, 1992. Originally published in Mario Tronti, Quaderni Rossi (1962).Find this resource:

Virno, Paolo. A Grammar of The Multitude. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.Find this resource:


(1.) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, May 28, 2017. Available online at the Internet Classics Archive.

(2.) Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (New York: Penguin, 1993), 105.

(3.) Robert Heilbroner and William S. Milberg, The Crisis of Vision in Modern Economic Thought (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

(4.) Percy Bysshe Shelley, "A Defence of Poetry," 1821. The Poetry Foundation.

(5.) Sir Philip Sidney, "The Defence of Poesy," 1583. The Poetry Foundation.

(6.) Martha C. Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 190–193.

(7.) Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1990), 17.

(8.) Charles Altieri, “An Idea and Ideal of a Literary Canon,” Critical Inquiry 10.1 (1983): 58; Barbara Herrnstein-Smith, “Contingencies of Value,” Critical Inquiry 10.1 (1983): 11–15; and John Guillory, “The Ideology of Canon Formation: T.S. Eliot and Cleanth Brooks,” Critical Inquiry 10.1 (1983): 195.

(9.) Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value,” Diacritics 15.4 (1985): 88.

(10.) Robert Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence: The Advanced Capitalist Economies from Long Boom to Long Downturn, 1945–2005 (London: Verso, 2006).

(11.) Charles P. Alexander, “The New Economy”, Time, May 30, 1983, 70.

(12.) Mario Tronti, “Fabbrica e la società,” trans. and cited in Harry Cleaver, “The Inversion of Class Perspective in Marxian Theory: From Valorisation to Self-Valorisation,” Open Marxism, Volume 2: Theory and Practice, eds. Werner Bonefeld, Richard Gunn, and Kosmas Psychopedis (London: Pluto Press, 1992), 137.

(13.) Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism: or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146 (1984): 78.

(14.) Jameson, “Postmodernism,” xx.

(15.) Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 23–24.

(16.) Hardt and Negri, Empire, 25.

(17.) Hardt and Negri, Empire, 30.

(18.) Paolo Virno, A Grammar of The Multitude (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 56.

(19.) Franco Berardi, The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 147.

(20.) Richard Florida, The Rise of The Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

(21.) See, for instance, Brenner, Turbulence, Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and The Origins of Our Times (London: Verso, 1994), and Lawrence H. Summers, “The Age of Secular Stagnation: What It Is and What to Do About It,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2016.

(22.) Jasper Bernes, The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization, forthcoming.

(23.) Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (London: Routledge, 2004), 320.

(24.) Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 2005), 229–230.

(25.) For an excellent discussion of Adorno’s idea of the “organic composition of man,” see Massimiliano Tomba, “Adorno’s Account of The Anthropological Crisis and the New Type of Human,” (Mis)readings of Marx in Continental Philosophy, eds. Jernej Habjan and Jessica Whyte (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 34–50.

(26.) Dave Beech, Art and Value: Art’s Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics (Boston: Brill, 2015), 243.

(27.) Beech, Art and Value, 10.