The Matter of Capital.
by Christopher Nealon
Harvard University Press, 2011.194 pages
Does a poet's belief about the world, expressed in a poem, have any special claim on us? Adorno thought not. He labeled such beliefs "opinions" and segregated them from that dimension of poetry that does have a strong claim to truth: form (228). Adorno represents poetic artifacts the way the labor theory of value represents commodities: the meaning and value of the work derives from the process of its production. For the modernist literature Adorno considers to have the highest value, this process involves a linguistic imitation of the structure of the commodity fetish. The poem bootstraps itself up and away from the social world, presenting itself as a hermetically sealed monad. Adorno describes the cognitive value of the work in terms of the unique perspective it offers to the analyst's trained eye. In reading, we learn about the world the poem makes visible by detaching itself from it. Literary form alone generates sociological knowledge. Adorno would have us react to poets' manifest ideas about society the way some of us react to a beloved, conservative grandfather's ideas about politics. We politely ignore them.
In The Matter of Capital, Christopher Nealon attempts to break this decorum by arguing that we should put poets' beliefs about and attitudes towards capitalism at the center of our critical conversation. Nealon is an acute and discriminating reader of poems, and one comes away from his book convinced of the centrality and depth of late twentieth-century poetry's engagement with the topics of money, exchange, and labor. One of the best features of his thematic approach is the way it makes room for such vital younger poets as Jennifer Moxley and Kevin Davies alongside more familiar figures like Ashbery and Auden.
Nealon's decision to look for poetry's engagement with capitalism in what poems actually say about capitalism is a powerful and necessary gesture. But it ultimately fails to acknowledge the force of Adorno's implicit questions about the status and value of these statements. For example, Nealon interprets as a statement about actual money lines by Gary Snyder that describe money in terms of a "dazzling," incalculable, quasi-magical power (29-30). Assuming that this is indeed a statement of the poet's belief about how money works, should we believe him? If we do believe him, have we learned something about money we didn't already know? Should we give the poet's words the same weight we give an economist's? More? Less? What evidence should we use to evaluate the poet's claim? Is it possible that the poet could be wrong, that money is not a form of dazzling magic? Or are poems machines for making poets' opinions true? Is this what poetic form does?
These questions arise in relation to explicit poetic statements about economic topics. Poets like Ashbery create a different set of problems by not making such explicit statements. Nealon typically reads these poems as evasions. The poem's economic truth lies not in what the poet writes, but in what he doesn't write, and how he doesn't write it.
But Nealon's ability to tell what Ashbery conceals about the economy in 1970's NewYork depends on knowing what that economy was really like. And here one questions the nature and status of Nealon's economic knowledge. Should we give his claims the same weight we give an economist's? More? Less? What evidence should we use to evaluate the critic's economic claims? Is it possible that the critic could be wrong? Or is literary criticism a machine for making the critic's economic opinions true? Is this what the form of the critical sentence does in the context of the modern research university? Does it work?
The Matter of Capital begins with a chapter devoted to the modernist poets whose work shapes postwar poetry's handling of economic matters. Ezra Pound and W. H. Auden respond to the catastrophes of the early and mid-twentieth century by developing two different models. The former creates a "humanist writing-as-pedagogy retooled for the 20th century" (50) and thus develops the prototype of poetry as container for the poet's economic beliefs. Nealon provides an overview of Pound's use of portions of the Cantos to explicate the social credit theory of Clifford Hugh Douglas. This is hardly an auspicious start for a new humanist pedagogy and Nealon. notes Leon Surette's description of that theory's crippling contradictions.
By contrast, Auden's contribution to postwar poetry's engagement with economic matters lies not in the articulation of explicit beliefs about the economy, but in the fashioning of what Nealon calls a "middle" tone, by which the poet acknowledges historical trauma while avoiding the risks of Pound's apocalyptic register. This middle tone is especially interesting as a response to what Auden sees as modernity's "universalization of specialization" (39). Specialization is, in many ways, the central, if under-acknowledged, problem of Nealon's book. The mid-century poet wants a language adequate to an increasingly complex socio-economic situation. But he faces the challenge of finding a discourse that will be authoritative in the context of a proliferation of expertise that threatens to trivialize the generalist perspective traditionally associated with literature. To meet this challenge, Auden and Pound adopt two different, equally exemplary postures. In a move that much postwar poetry will replicate, Pound seizes on a big-picture economic theory that is derided by academic economic experts. The payoff is a discourse that is both total in scope, and so institutionally marginal that elite poetry can plausibly claim to be among its most effective means of circulation, especially in the academy. The risk is that the theory's incoherencies will qualify, rather than amplify, poetry's claim to social knowledge. Auden's way is less risky. He adopts a stylistic solution, finding a "campy" tone that ironizes its own claims about the state of the world.
John Ashbery, the subject of Nealon's second chapter, follows Auden's way, though with several surprising Poundian feints. This chapter is the heart of the book, and illustrates both its achievements and flaws. Nealon's readings of the poetry are often, as throughout this volume, splendid. Ashbery's work famously resists attempts to extract a program, method, or message. His poems can seem like ingenious machines for making nearly any statement look faintly ridiculous, especially any statement about the principles of the poetic machine's construction. Nealon's approach succeeds by for the most part wisely eschewing the temptation to take Ashbery's lines as propositions. Instead, the critic investigates how the poet "builds a textual matter ... that works more by cross-reference than by argument, more by the recurrence of topoi than by syllogism" (86). The outcome of this investigation is a persuasive account of Ashbery's "optional apocalypse, in which a judgment, or crisis, is simply walked away from, or converted from looming catastrophe to consumable spectacle by the choice of spectatorship" (89).
The chapter culminates in perhaps the best reading ot Ashbery's curious sense of time yet. "Ashbery," Nealon contends, "relies on the notion that time is fluid in order to dodge the implications of punctual, public event" (98). This assertion admirably illuminates a key feature of Ashbery's work, powerfully drawing together the poet's fascination with crepuscular hours, his way of catching objects in the midst of changing, people in the midst of leaving, voices at the point of disappearing. Nealon's deft account of the attitude projected by the poems' temporality emphasizes the way it provides Ashbery with a tough and mobile "resistance to politics" (79). But two problems arise when Nealon tries to tie the catastrophes Ash-bery wants to look away from to particular features of the economy of seventies New York. The first problem concerns Nealon's attempt to extract definite, Pound-style economic statements from Ashbery. As an example of such a statement, he cites the following lines: "For the factory, deadpanned by its very existence into a / Descending code of values, has moved right across the road from total financial upheaval / And caught regression head-on" (77). Nealon declares that these verses "describe exactly the parameters of the struggle of the American city in the seventies: would they remain industrial, or become financial?" But the lines do not appear to suggest the either/or Nealon finds in them. Rather, they show the financial upheaval as part of the same space, and the same process, as the factory. And of course Ashbery's tone in these lines is, to say the least, ambivalent. His spastic ratcheting up of the metaphors by which we habitually attribute agency to abstractions might caution us against discovering here a sober intention to diagnose the challenges facing city planners in the seventies.
This leads to a rather fuzzy sense of the "exact" description Ashbery purportedly offers us. Nealon habitually presents vagueness as precision. We are told for example that "Ashbery, like Moxley, is keenly aware of what it is, precisely, he's looking away from--in his case, something like the consolidation of capitalist spectacle in 1970's New York" (10). The dissolution of precision into something-likeness is the result of the collision Nealon arranges between Ashbery's verse and the analyses of several authorities--such as David Harvey and Harry Shutt--on which Nealon relies for his understanding of the economics of Ashbery's urban context. Harvey, at least, is exact where Ashbery is slippery. Nealon says that he finds Harvey to be "especially persuasive" (76) in his account of the causes of the crisis that afflicts NewYork in the seventies. One never learns why, because Nealon doesn't subject the economic authorities in this chapter to the same scrutiny that he applies to Pound's social credit theory. And yet Harvey's economic analysis is founded on the classical labor theory of value, a theory long discredited among leftist economists even in Pound's day.
One wonders what criteria Nealon uses to ascertain the degree of Harvey's persuasiveness. Of course, as is especially clear now, the marginality of a theory with respect to academic economics hardly implies falsity. In fact, this moment, when economists' conventional wisdom is undergoing radical revision in the wake of the financial crises, offers an especially auspicious opportunity to argue for the necessity and validity of alternative approaches. But marginality does not immediately confer validity, either. If Nealon has a reason for finding analyses predicated on the labor theory of value persuasive, he needs to make an argument, or at least cite someone who is making such an argument. But there is nothing like that here, and no acknowledgement of the economic debates currently raging on the left.
Instead, Nealon's method is to translate Ashbery's language into a loosely Marxist idiom. For example, he cites the following lines by Ashbery: "Self service / And the honor system prevail, resulting in / Tremendous amounts of spare time, / A boon to some, to others more of a problem" (95). Nealon comments that these lines concern "the problem of free time, surplus, and relief in shared alienation." On the next page Nealon suggests that Ashbery "turns his surplus into use value" (96). Here Nealon develops his own method for dealing with the "universalization of specialization." The problems of labor, capital, and exchange are complex topics, not easily mastered by what Frederic Jameson, describing his own baffled attempt to understand economics, has called disciplinary "tourism" (267). The critic's translation of the language of the poet into the language of an institutionally marginal economic theory substitutes for argument. But this leaves the status of the critic's economic knowledge in question. And since the plausibility of interpreting Ashbery's poetry as economic statement depends on convincing the reader that Nealon has described Ashbery's actual economic context, the absence of an attempt to convince undermines the status of his reading.
Several times in The Matter of Capital Nealon attacks what he sees as. the attempt to discredit critique. Yet he offers sympathetic readers no way of crediting the economic opinions on offer here. As Benjamin Kunkel has recently noted, the critique mounted by left social science against free market ideology has made almost no reference to the economic ideas current in English departments. (1) The resistance to the critique of capitalism is very real, as is the resistance to imagining an alternative to it. But Nealon is not yet at the point of facing that resistance. He needs first to overcome the resistance of leftists in and out of the academy to the idea that literary criticism and poetry can offer valuable economic knowledge. This requires different tools than those Nealon brings to bear.
If in Ashbery Nealon examines an Audenesque writer whose central response to economic conditions lies in fashioning a style of avoidance, his final two chapters take up poets who work in the Poundian tradition of poetry as economic pedagogy. Unlike Ashbery, poets from Michael Palmer to Claudia Rankine and Kevin Davies make explicit and unambiguous statements about the economy. For Palmer, for instance, "capital makes use of a continuity marked by the analogy" (1.32). To challenge capitalism's oppressive rationality, the language poets create a "linguistic mass," a "termite art" that includes everything, rejecting the categories and boundaries of the administered society (134).
In his description of this "mass," Nealon offers more evidence of his nuance and skill as a reader. Indeed, it is from the perspective of these chapters that one can measure the scale of the challenge to traditional aesthetics condensed in the book's title. Nealon's method seizes on what has appeared to critics from Adorno to Perloff as poetry's detritus: poetic "matter," defined both as explicit subject matter and as the "linguistic mass" exemplified by language poetry.
But again, Nealon runs into problems concerning the status of the poets' beliefs, and of the creative practices motivated by these beliefs. Here the absence of any reference in this book to Frederic Jameson becomes a serious impediment, as such a reference would enable Nealon to describe the discursive context in which language poetry's economic thinking matures. Jameson's sense of the central economic problem is diametrically opposed to that of the language poets. For Jameson, the complexity and chaos of the privatized world are the problem; "cognitive mapping" is the solution. For the language poets, by contrast, the categories and continuities of the capitalist state are the problem, and the generation of chaos and complexity is part of the solution. By the end of his penultimate chapter, Nealon shows Palmer and the others gradually coming to believe that their attention-dispersing methods are in collusion with capital. But why do they come to believe this? Are they right in believing it? Does this switch have anything to do with the assimilation of key language poets into the university literature departments where Jameson's influence held sway? Or have they learned something about capitalism itself? How have they learned it?
The absence of any consideration of the economic theory that most influenced literature departments in the eighties and nineties is even more disabling to Nealon's arguments in his final chapter, on the post-language writing of Davies and Rankine. "Davies," Nealon claims, "has written the most powerful account of--and argument against--contemporary capitalism in English language poetry" (155). How good is this argument? What criteria does Nealon use to call it "powerful?" In fact these questions are misplaced. Davies's writing cannot be assessed from a perspective that occludes its relation to theory--and to Jameson's work in particular. Nealon and Davies have both been reading Jameson. When Nealon reads Davies's work, he sees it as saying just what Jameson said about late capitalism, but even more so, and concludes that we are now in a period he dubs "late late capitalism." But the first question for Davies is not what he says about capitalism, but what he says about Jameson's view of capitalism, and how he mobilizes, and ironizes, this theory in his poetry.
In an article Nealon cites with approval, Oren Izenberg characterizes language poetry's innovation in terms of a new relation to theory, such that the poetic line serves as an example illustrating a theoretical proposition. Post-language poetry arguably reverses this relationship, turning theory into a resource for poetry. The scope of this review does not permit demonstration of this point, but it will be clear to anyone familiar with his work that Davies is a poet whose work, even with respect to other post-language writers, is especially finely attuned to the institutional situation of contemporary avant-garde writing. Nealon attends to Davies's engagement with one aspect of this situation, when he writes of the poet's representation of the work of non-tenure track instructors of composition in Comp. But by missing Davies's complex relation to another facet of this situation--the tense institutional and intellectual proximity of theorists and avant-garde poets--he misses an opportunity to describe the political work this poetry carries out. (2)
In addition to its often powerful readings of key poets--some of whom, like Moxley and Davies, Nealon has done more than any other critic to bring to wider attention--Nealon's book mounts a persuasive argument against reigning models for understanding poetry's relation to the economy. By rejecting Adorno's formalism, in which every good poem must say the same thing about capitalism, and new historicist homology, in which everything looks like everything else, Nealon clears the way for an appreciation of poetry's economic thought. If the book ultimately fails to establish the status and value of the thoughts Nealon finds in the poems, it does demonstrate the scale of the challenge facing progressive criticism in the context of the specialization of the modern research university Ne-alon's dismissal of this challenge is unfortunate. In the long aftermath of the Sokal hoax, the idea that the widespread contempt for literary critics' forays into other disciplines is motivated by hostility to critique as such has come to seem increasingly implausible.
To find a viable mode of making the kinds of interdisciplinary interventions vital to literary criticism, perhaps we need to look beyond the mimetic approach Nealon shares with Adorno and the new historicists, and focus instead on poetry's creative dimension. Nealon shows how Gary Snyder creates a poem in which money is endowed with a "dazzlingly" ethereal quality. Instead of seeing this as an image of actual money, perhaps we should begin by exploring the means by which Snyder conjures this dazzlement, and the desires that this dazzling elicits, frustrates, and makes vanish. The poem's ethereal money opens complex and conflicted relations both to actual money, and to other discourses about money. By exploring these relations, perhaps we will discover something new about life under capitalism.
Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1998. Brown, Nicholas. "Response to Neoliberal Aesthetics" Nmsite. March 21, 2011.
Izenberg, Oren. "Language Poetry and Collective Life." Critical Inquiry 30.1 (2003): 132-59.
Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.
Kunkel, Benjamin. "How Much is Too Much?" London Review of Books 33.3. (2011): 9-14.
(1.) One of Jameson's students, Nicholas Brown, recently suggested that Kunkel should not be surprised that the anti-capitalism of left economists and the anti-capitalism of literary critics share no common ground. Brown writes that critics like Jameson are not actually interested in economic issues at all, but in "cultural" problems. If this were true, it would explain why Jameson and his followers refrain from arguing for their economic positions, and show no interest in the history of economic debate over problems of value, exchange, and labor. But it seems to me that the entire thrust of Jameson's work has been to argue for the inextricability of economic and cultural questions.
(2.) I do not mean to restrict the political work of Davies's poetry to the context of the academic labor wars. I do think it important to register his especially conflicted position in that context, serving both as exploited adjunct teacher of composition and subject of the essays of tenured professors. But understanding how his poetry represents critical discourse does not preclude understanding how that poetry represents broader economic conditions. My own sense is that the richness and complexity of the economic thought that animates Davies's work can best be grasped by observing how he fashions an autonomous poetic economic perspective out of the materials of nineteen-nineties critical discourse.
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|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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