Volume 15, 2010

   Volume 5, December 2004

Volume 14, 2010
Volume 13, 2009
Volume 12, 2009
Volume 11, 2008
Volume 10, 2008
Volume 9, 2007

Volume 8, 2007
Volume 7, 2006
Volume 6, 2005
Volume 5, 2004
Volume 4, 2001
Volume 3, 2000
Volume 2, 1999
Volume 1, 1999


Michael Clune, American Literature and the Free Market, 1945- 2000 (New York: Cambridge UP, 2010. $85.00 hardback). Pp. 211. ISBN-13: 9780521513999

Michael Clune’s analysis of postwar American literature posits that a number of artworks of this period display a fascination with the market. According to Clune, these artworks fictionalize forms operative on the actually existing market, creating an aesthetic category which he terms“economic fiction” (25). Economic fiction, according to Clune, radically reorients intersubjective relations and may hold emancipatory possibilities. Clune sees this economic fiction, as well as its model of revised subjectivity, at work in a number of postwar American cultural products, including the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Frank O’Hara, the films of PT Anderson, the novels of William Burroughs and Kathy Acker, and in Clune’s most original and convincing chapter, hip hop music.

Perhaps Clune’s most daring move is to break with New Historicism and Cultural Studies by disembedding this economic fiction – an aesthetic category – from its grounding in the social and economic. To do so, Clune builds on a Heideggeran notion of the autonomous artwork, an artwork that produces its own space, that “belongs uniquely within the region it itself opens up” (qtd. in Clune 12). This artwork and its conceptual content are not determined by pre-existing social and economic paradigms; rather, they open “a hole” in these systems, offering passage into other possibilities (8).

Clune finds the source of economic fiction in Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation (1944) in which the economist reorients Marx’s struggle between social classes as a struggle between the market and social relations as such. For Polanyi, there is a conflict between the market and society; the market tends to “annihilate all organic forms of existence and to replace them by a different type of organization” (Polanyi qtd. in Clune 46). This new type of organization involves “the mythic disembedding of the economic form from the social, the utopian vision of a world in which economic relations replace social relations” (47). The market, in other words, reproduces and promulgates its forms in discourses, in the imagination. As Clune argues, “this ambiguously fascinating image circulates through the social world, shaping new perspectives and desires” (46). The process of disembedding the aesthetic from reality resembles the Romantic separation of art and life, and similarly, it poses problems for the artist (or the critic) when it is time to reconnect the two and demonstrate the significance of these aesthetic forms in reality.

Clune goes on to argue that economic fiction is accompanied by the appearance of a new kind of subjectivity. Subjectivity in the Western tradition has been described as a kind of social relation or, “intersubject-ivity”, that requires a look of recognition (28). Self-consciousness exists, as Hegel argues, because “the self perceives at the same time that it is perceived by others” (qtd. in Clune 28). Because the look establishes a space between the self and the other, the ‘you’ has a constitutive role in the shaping of the ‘I’. In a discussion of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Clune argues that Esther, the heroine, who has lost the ability to recognize herself in the mirror, escapes the type of subjectivity that depends on the look. When Esther is able to see herself in the mirror once again, the mirror cracks, and according to Clune, “the line zigzagging down the center of the broken mirror is the jagged smile of a new kind of subject” (29). This new subject has escaped into a space outside of intersubjective relations. Clune holds that Esther experiences a “radical subjectivity” (30) which reconfigures her connection to the rest of the world, and that Esther’s “intensified access to language” after this event is proof that this radical subject maintains a communal attachment (30). The over-production of language, of talking to oneself or to no one at all, however, is often associated with solipsism or even insanity, so it is not necessarily the case that language, as Clune implies, will maintain a communal element.

Among Clune’s most convincing chapters is the one in which he discusses hip hop music, a musical genre often concerned with economics and money. Clune argues that the rapper attempts to exit interpersonal relations through a display of wealth. He focuses on two generic conventions in hip hop music: the antagonistic and even violent address to a ‘you’, as well as the recurrent images of the rapper’s invisibility. E.g. “Stares of a million eyes / and you’ll never realize /you can’t see me” (qtd. in Clune 129). This invisibility is often facilitated by money, glittering wealth that blinds the addressee. E.g. “What kinda nigga / got diamonds that’ll bling blind ya?” (qtd. in Clune 128). This erasure of the other’s sight, Clune argues, is an attempt to erase its subjectivity: “If I become a subject by becoming the object of another subject, rap money makes me a subject by depriving the other of subjectivity” (133). For the rapper, money means direct access to a collective value that doesn’t require the recognition of another. This is a unique reading of hip hop, one that subverts the typical interpretation of rap culture as conspicuous consumption, which is, contrary to Clune’s assertion, an attempt to be seen by the other. Clune’s reading also radically revalues black invisibility. Here the black rapper is not held outside of social relations; instead this invisible, but “amplified subjectivity,” replaces social relations altogether (134).

While Clune’s reading of rap music involves using money to destroy social relations in favour of a new subjectivity, in his conclusion, Clune attempts to give this new subjectivity an emancipatory, communal function. Clune evokes the kind of subjectivity that would occur in Marx’s communism. A communistic utopia, Clune argues, would require a radical subversion of the intersubjective social world:

If the capitalist process is a process of objectification, the counter-process seen by Marx is a process of subjectification. Reification will be reversed, and a new mode of collective life will arise with the collapse of the spaces between subjects. (153)

This community would produce an “invisible, non-social experience” (151). While the life processes of subjectivity in this community are still material, they are no longer objectified and therefore no longer visible. In such a world, Clune holds, inequality cannot exist because individual subjects do not exist as such. Inequality disappears; it has been made irrelevant (158). It is worth considering, however, that the subversion of inequality would seem to result in a monolithic identity. If the differences between subjects collapse and there is no objective, local basis of selfhood, how in fact could identity be achieved at all? Clune, to be clear, is not necessarily endorsing this new kind of subjectivity. Rather, his position is that there is a desire for, or movement towards, this kind of subjectivity.

Clune’s economic fiction provides a useful analytical tool for reading the postwar artworks that display a fascination with economic forms. With that said, the political ramifications of Clune’s thinking are not clear. At times he seems to speak to the arrival of this new postobjective subjectivity, and one wonders if Clune expects the economic fiction to actually replace economic reality. The disembedding of the aesthetic from the social that Clune requires for his argument, however, would seem to preclude this possibility, rendering the economic fiction a kind of escapism. Furthermore, while this new subjectivity is produced by a fiction, this fiction is itself being produced and circulated by the functioning of the actually existing market. So while this utopian vision spreads, the real inequalities that the current market produces grow as well. It would seem, then, that the supposed fix to inequality doesn’t require any intervention in how the real market functions. In this way, Clune seems to reproduce Marx’s problem of the historical necessity of the revolution.


University of Calgary



 Webmasters: Neic Răzvan and Crăciun Bogdan