The Economy of Form

The Economy of Form

Special Issue: Editor Nancy Armstrong

We are calling the first of two special issues in honor the canceled 2020 Society for Novel Studies Conference “The Economy of Form,” a title inspired by the impressive number and range of abstracts for presentations at last May’s SNS conference that took up some aspect of this concept.  What distinguishes these essays is their willingness to read novels as quite literally a form of economic theory in their own right, as texts that tried out the economic theories of the time to reveal the degree to which they relied on misbegotten assumptions, magical thinking, and figurative language.  The essays in this collection contend, further, that as novels use fiction to counter the fictional (in the sense of “untheorized”) aspects of economic theory, they demonstrate—in the manner of Marx’s personified commodity—how capitalism necessarily remodels the way they model the world, thus how readers imagine life within it.

Abstracts (in alphabetical order)

The Death of Artemio Cruz and the Mapmaking of Modern Mexico

Pavel Andrade, Doctoral Student, University of Pennsylvania

In this essay I study the literary mapmaking of modern Mexico through Carlos Fuentes’ landmark The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962). Working at the intersection of literary analysis and critical geography, I argue that, in Fuentes’ novel, a dialectics of enclosure and openness gives spatial form to Mexico’s transition toward industrial society. I read the opposition between outside and inside in The Death of Artemio Cruz as the spatial expression of the emergence of a national bourgeois consciousness. I argue that the novel makes sense of the world as it continually separates the external from the internal, the realm of the social from the realm of the individual, and popular from bourgeois interests. In particular, I analyze how the novel projects the consolidation of a domestic market by mapping the historical process of the incorporation of soil into capital. I argue that The Death of Artemio Cruz registers the gradual displacement of the spatial imagery of the Mexican Revolution and, in doing so, gives form to the end of the class alliance that cemented the national import substitution industrialization project throughout the 1940s and 50s. I demonstrate that, as a transitional novel, The Death of Artemio Cruz provides a unique account of the unstable reconfiguration of the national space in the aftermath of World War II. I focus on the formal solutions the novel offers to the problem of how to address the limits to Mexico’s national quest for capitalist modernization. Ultimately, I argue that, in its spatial composition, The Death of Artemio Cruz accounts for the reconfiguration of the nation according to a new hegemonic set of class interests and, in doing so, offers a powerful reflection on the contradictory character of Mexico’s economic dependency.

‘Too domestic to admit of calculation’: Jane Austen and Narrative Economics

Sarah Comyn, Assistant Professor and Ad Astra Fellow at University College Dublin

To address in economic terms what D. A. Miller calls Austen’s style, and Anne Toner, following G. H. Lewes, identifies as Austen’s ‘economy of art’, I shall use the major novels and the final unfinished manuscript of Jane Austen to examine the changing relationship between literature and economics in the early decades of the nineteenth century. How, more specifically, does her fiction participate in the critical debates emerging between David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus about the purpose and disciplinary style of political economy? What do Miss Bates’ verbal surplus or Diana Parker’s incessant interruptions of domestic life that is ‘too domestic to admit of calculation’ have to say about the paper currency crises that dominated most of Austen’s writing career? How do the necklaces offered to Fanny Price draw readers into the debates about enclosure and the economic consequences of the abolition of slavery? Challenging the nineteenth-century commonplace that while ‘Miss Martineau understands the science,’ Austen ‘plays by ear,’ I will insist that Austen’s narrative not only offers an explanatory but also a critical account of the narrative strategies of the political economy of her time. Examining the marked stylistic distinctions between economic exertion and exhaustion, agency and dependency in Austen’s women characters, I will assert that Austen reshapes the domestic economies of rural English life to resist the increasingly abstract calculations of political economic discourse.

Finding the Center: Mrs Dalloway’s Bureaucrats and State Centralization

Marius Hentea, Professor of English Literature, University of Gothenburg

Although the rise of the bureaucratic state was one of the most startling transformations of early twentieth-century British society, novelists raised on a diet of laissez-faire liberalism tended to shy away from direct representations of bureaucracy (with some prominent exceptions, such as the Circumlocution Office in Dickens’s Little Dorrit or Trollope’s Three Clerks). Although squarely set within the “governing-class spirit” of Westminster and populated with a bevy of civil servants, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) tends to be read as maintaining a strict public/private division, with a marked preference for the richness and beauty of private life. This essay argues that Woolf, no stranger to the Civil Service through her family and personal networks, had a more strained and ambivalent response to bureaucracy as an idea and government form. A close reading of the structural importance of the character of Hugh Whitbread, a minor character who is often read as an empty, flat Dickensian caricature of the “gentleman,” shows a more ambivalent response to how bureaucracy and its forms impacted the wider concerns raised about governmentality in Woolf’s novel.

Beckett in the Big House: The Novel Laid Waste

Michael McGurk, Doctoral student in English, Duke University

How can an economic model designed to eliminate waste produce nothing but waste? The answer, according to Samuel Beckett’s Watt (1953), can be found in the system of economic relations presupposed by the Anglo-Irish “big house” novels that emerged after the 1800 Acts of Union. An enduring tradition within Irish literary history, the big house novel contrasted the profligacy and neglect of the absentee English landlords to the social harmony and economic self-sufficiency of the homegrown (and increasingly powerless) Anglo-Irish Ascendency. The big house, holding out the promise of local political autonomy and economic equilibrium, allowed an Anglo-Irish readership to imagine a self-sustaining political economy invulnerable to the devastating cycles of scarcity and wastefulness inherent to an unevenly developed empire. Watt takes place in just such a big house, the manor home of Mr. Knott, to which apparently “nothing could be added… and from it nothing taken away.” As his servant Watt soon discovers, however, the internal equilibrium that sustains a high quality of life inside the home is ensured by the continual production and ejection of waste: human waste, leftover food, lost time, and unnecessary energy. The even-keeled manor house, moreover, lays waste to an ever-expanding network of territory and labor to feed what is ideally a perpetual motion machine. I am interested in how Beckett exploits this model of national political economy to dismantle the form of the novel itself. As I will show, Watt produces its own unassimilable waste in the form of aimless digressions and addenda that earlier Anglo-Irish novelists would have had to scrap in order to produce an orderly big house novel. Rather than discard the “exhausted” form, as critical tradition would have it, I see Beckett releasing the novel to explore the exogenous play of contradiction and unevenness that inevitably overtakes an ideal domestic equilibrium and stability.

The Scarcities of Udolpho

Scott R. McKenzie, Associate Professor, University of Mississippi

This essay identifies the telltale symptoms of scarcity’s historical emergence in Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, which grants its ruthless logic a primary narrative function under the aesthetic cover of romantic love. On this basis, I argue that Radcliffe’s novels generate occult phenomenologies of scarcity, which manifest as affect, as epistemic structure, as economic process, as social relations, and as transcendent force or metaphysic (both natural and supernatural). I argue that Radcliffe’s technical elaboration of narrative suspense builds generalized scarcity into her narratology. Suspense replicates the social operation of generalized scarcity by carrying us from one particular “conflict of choice” to the next, keeping a veil over the governing logic that conditions the whole process. If we treat crises as unpredictable and singular events, rather than effects of identifiable systems, we avoid reckoning with capitalism’s normalization of continual disruption and reorganization, its “[c]onstant revolutionising of production, [and] uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions” (Capital). The scarcity-inflected narrative apparatus privileges personal volition — individual choices that lead to specific outcomes — over collective or systemic determinations, a distinction key to the coercive social power of scarcity. It is not just Radcliffean gothic, but narrative in general that comes under the sway of this logic during the last decade of the eighteenth century.

Corporate presence in late Victorian financial fiction

Jakob Gaardbo Nielsen, Doctoral student in Comparative Literature, Aarhus University

In the past decade, new research has emerged on the concept of ‘corporate personhood’. Scholars in the humanities have explored the historical permutations of the ‘catachresis’ through which we imagine corporations and states to be ‘artificial persons,’ the forms of group agency and group being associated with the modern business corporation, and the entanglement of corporate business and the cultural imagination in the nineteenth century and beyond. At stake in this body of research is not only the question of how corporations act, operate, and exist in history and imagination, but also the fundamental idea of what corporations are. I use this work to launch my own interrogation of the ‘corporate ontology’ that found expression in late Victorian financial fiction. Despite the fact that the legislative base for the limited liability company was established in the 1840s and 1850s, levels of incorporation in Britain did not rise significantly until the 1880s and 1890s. Novelists so diverse as Charles Dickens and Charlotte Riddell commented on the Limited Liability Acts and questioned their moral significance, but the sensational novels in the 1890s and early 1900s responded more directly to the lived experiences of shareholders, directors, and companies at the moment when the business corporation achieved cultural ubiquity. These ‘corporate City novels’, as one might call them, focus intensively on the manner in which corporate entities become (and are made to appear) real for human persons through such ‘prosthetic’ images as the telegraphic stock ticker, the human crowd, or the prospectus that body forth the corporate entity. Attentive to Rachel Buurma’s call for a more carefully historicized concept of novelistic omniscience (2007) and recent work by Dennis Tenen on ‘distributed agency,’ I aim to show how questions of corporate intention and ontology informed new experiments with omniscience at the intersection between the novel and financial journalism in the fin-de-siècle.

The Missing Matter of Revolution: Hydroelectric Dams and the Terrain of Postcolonial Politics

Christine Okoth, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Warwick

In Peter Abrahams’ 1956 roman a clef A Wreath for Udomo, the titular character returns to a fictional nation in Africa after a stint abroad to make good on the revolutionary promises of the anti-colonial period. But when Udomo sides with international funders in a conflict which pivots around the construction of a hydroelectric dam, political and economic interests clash, leading to a betrayal that ultimately results in Udomo’s murder at the end of the novel. Based loosely on Kwame Nkrumah’s pursuit of the Akosombo Dam project, the denouement of Abrahams’ novel points to a central predicament faced by governments of newly independent nations: reconciling revolutionary, anti-imperialist political demands with the continuation of extractive regimes that were established during the colonial era. Through readings of Abrahams’ A Wreath for Udomo, and Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift (2019), this article demonstrates how the African novel reaches for what Shaoling Ma identifies as the novel’s capacity for immanent critique in order to grapple with the tensions between extractive infrastructures and revolutionary politics. Unlike A Wreath for Udomo, where the dam’s construction materializes the end of revolutionary anti-colonial political thought at both a thematic and formal level, The Old Drift leverages the critical capacity of the historical, genealogical novel in order to evade the analytical impediments produced by the structure of the hydroelectric dam. It does so by drawing out two divergent paths towards a theory of revolution: one for its characters and another for its readers, one which disregards the specific composition of the Zambian economy in favour of a critique aimed at an amorphous global capitalism and another which is informed by the novel’s use of the construction and collapse of Kariba Dam as its primary framing device. The dam then is a formidable structure which impedes an analysis of political economy for the novel’s characters whereas the novel acts a formidable structure which enables such an analysis for its readers. By constructing parallel revolutionary methods on the levels of characters and readers, content and form, The Old Drift effectively recasts the problem of revolution not in terms of ideological contradiction, as Abrahams does, but as a tension between the constituent components of novelistic and revolutionary totality.

The End of the City and the Coming of the Urban

Jacob Soule, Postdoctoral Fellow, Auburn University

Georges Perec’s short experimental novella An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1975) documents, with inert fascination, everything that passes through the busy Parisian square of Place Saint-Sulpice over the course of several days, from pedestrians to the continuous stream of buses and taxis. Why, this article asks, does Perec present this magisterial and oft-storied city in centrifugal terms as a place through which things only pass on their way to somewhere else altogether? Once characterized as a rich tapestry of architecture and possible encounters, as seen from the perspective of this novelist, Paris in 1975 has been transformed beyond recognition by the infrastructure of circulation. No longer the imagined centre of a productive economy that draws people and objects into its orbit in order to assign them places as characters in the vast amphitheatre of class relations--as in the classic city novels of Balzac or Eugène Sue--Perec’s experiment shows the social space of the city in the process of becoming only one site among others in the post-war project of urbanization.  On this basis Perec’s novella marks the 1970s as an important transition point in the history of the city novel, in which the old city, once a site of social possibility and conflict, seems to be in its final stage of “exhaustion” by the centrifugal forces of urbanization. As the process of urbanization becomes legible through its disfigurations of the traditional city novel, the novel forecasts what happens when the spatial development of global capitalism eclipses national culture and its arrangement of people and things.

Capital Fictions in the Age of Fictitious Capital

Ryan Trimm, Professor of English and Film Media, University of Rhode Island)

Money has long been one of the “big subjects,” in the words of Elaine Showalter, associated with literary realism and linked with money’s roles as store of value and index of wealth, themes largely abandoned in modernist and postmodernist fiction. However, a steady drip of contemporary fiction operating in non-realistic modes explicitly invoke money as an issue in ways that foreground other—and new—roles for money: Tom McCarthy’s peculiar blank fiction novel Remainder (2005); Hari Kunzru’s “translit” Gods Without Men (2011); Ian McEwan’s fantastic reworking of Kafka in The Cockroach (2019) are all examples. Here money itself operates in a new way, as a seemingly autonomous force with an imperative to reproduce itself, a drive that Noam Yuran calls “what money wants.” What Marx had named “fictitious capital,” an apparent divorce of speculation from actual production, is now increasingly central to money itself and no longer something separate. If realism representing money as a “big subject” helps to map a social world, then increasing financialization makes it necessary for novelists to develop new narrative means to show money as a seemingly isolated entity: one fractured from its social milieu, a storyline splintered off from linear time, a plot detached from the web of intersecting stories that characterized nineteenth-century realism. In sum, the new narratives of money operate in a speculative mode themselves, investing uncertainly in plot strands that sprawl, fracture, and make risky wagers. In tracing this new mode of money, my account of this genre lends substance to recent theories of money by showing the magical thinking required by models of political economy where money appears to refer only to itself as a force of in its own right, a universal solvent and sign of desire, rather than a medium of exchange.