Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Modern Language Association convened virtually this year. It was a pleasure to present new work on “Literary ASMR Media” as part of the roundtable “Twenty-First Century Forms.” I’m grateful to Brad Fest for inviting me, and to my co-panelists for good conversation. We talked about literature, video games, film, #ASMR media, and more.
Thanks to the Marxist Literary Group for including my presentation, “Friedrich Hayek’s Theory of Culture,” on the MLA 2020 panel, Contemporary Materialisms. I talked again about Hayek’s sense of culture and imagination, this time putting him in conversation with the New Left. Here’s the abstract:
In a recent review essay in American Literary History, Leigh Claire La Berge and Quinn Slobodian celebrate literary studies’ recent attempts to develop field-specific engagements with contemporary neoliberal political and economic conditions, but they argue some high-profile attempts to do so have reproduced, rather than challenged, ways of thinking neoliberal discourses promote. If oppositional critics want to avoid unwittingly endorsing views (of subjects, markets, the arts, and more) they hope to resist, La Berge and Slobodian suggest we go back and read neoliberalism’s primary texts. They encourage critics to engage with the foundational theoretical materials that have shaped both economic policy and structures of feeling across the West since at least the 1970s, instead of relying, as we often do, upon standard synthetic accounts of them, however powerful, by Michel Foucault, Wendy Brown, or David Harvey.
In this talk, I suggest literary critics might take up this challenge in part by examining anew how influential neoliberal intellectuals theorize the nature and function of our field’s object of inquiry, broadly conceived as “culture.” How, we might ask, have dominant understandings of what culture is and does changed as economic and political conditions have shifted? And to what end, or, rather, in whose interest? Questions of this kind prompt us to extend into the present the narrative Raymond Williams offers in Culture and Society: 1780-1950, still the field’s standard history for how the concept of “culture” emerged and took hold as a term central for organizing life under liberal capitalist democracy.
Toward such a project, I elaborate the theory of culture Friedrich Hayek, Nobel-prize-winning economist and influential Chicago School intellectual, developed in his late work. Hayek is best known for his influential contention that markets best organize human life without purposeful human intervention. He shares with many of his contemporaries on the left—and indeed, with the socialists he believed would doom the species if they triumphed—the view that humans are historical beings, shaped by cultural traditions we create. Hayek insists, however, that humans cannot, and should not try to, purposefully create and direct culture with identifiable collective interests or outcomes in mind. He thus simultaneously imbues culture with great power and denies we can harness that power for collective projects. I evaluate the consequences of this view of culture’s nature and function and compare it to competing views on the left.
In June, I participated in the NEH summer seminar, “Writing and Democracy in Western New York: Situating Tocqueville, Stanton, Cooper, and Douglass,” organized by Shirley Samuels and Sandra Gustafson at Cornell University. Faculty from near and far convened to read familiar and new texts on democracy in US life, spend time in Cornell’s archives and museum, and visit regional equal rights destinations in Auburn and Seneca Falls. I began work on women’s discourses of imagination and creativity, marveled over the Seward house, met new friends and colleagues, and so much more. I’m grateful to the seminar’s erudite directors for two happy weeks in Ithaca.
I organized a panel and presented a paper at the American Literature Association’s annual conference in Boston. Brad Fest and Schuyler Chapman joined me for “US Women Writers and Economic Forms, C19-C21.” Panel and presentation abstracts here:
US Women Writers and Economic Forms, C19-C21
After the 2008 financial crisis, literary critics have turned increased attention to US economic ideologies and their complicated relationships to cultural production. This panel explores how US women writing across the tradition have responded to the changing economic conditions, discourses, and values that defined their moments. Panelists argue Louisa May Alcott, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and H.D. invent novel forms that at once challenge controlling discourses of free enterprise and disclose their patriarchal valences.
H.D. and the Entrepreneurial Imagination
Racheal Fest, SUNY Oneonta
Although literary critics interested in neoliberal discourses usually focus on literary and economic texts composed after 1980, many neoliberal intellectuals writing in the US published their most influential theoretical works much earlier, beginning in the 1920s and 1930s. We might therefore productively reread US modernist writers with their neoliberal contemporaries in mind. When we do, I argue, familiar critical narratives about modernist understandings of the nature and function of human creativity shift. Critics often read modernist conceptions of imagination as romantic, transcendental, and incompatible with privileged materialist views of the human. Set against the entrepreneurial conceptions of culture that economists promoted in the early twentieth century, however, modernist writers seem to offer newly visible resources for oppositional projects interested in materialist representations of creativity. To give a sense of how, this paper puts the erotic view of creativity the poet and novelist H.D. develops in the fragmentary text, Notes on Thought and Vision, in conversation with the view of culture her contemporary, the Nobel-prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek, theorized around the same time. While Hayek subsumes creativity to transcendental market logics he believes culture at its best supports, H.D. conceives imagination as an historical and embodied faculty able to influence others through the sensuous materiality of sound and image. I explore the history of these different visions and evaluate their stakes for our moment.
Protestant Work Epic: Labor, Loafing, and Form in Alcott’s Little Women Trilogy
Schuyler J. Chapman, Glenville State College
Roughly halfway into Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a longtime servant sends a letter to the March-family matriarch, explaining that she and the family’s four daughters have “got on very economical.” The moment underscores the narrative’s persistent attention to the financial texture of the mid-19th century. Although scholars have approached this novel and its two sequels as illustrative of period-specific perspectives on child-rearing, romance, education, and more, few have attended to the novels’ economic theories. In this series, I argue, Alcott crafts a set of consciously epic novels, reflective of both Frye’s and Lukács’s conceptualizations of the genres, as the ideal form through which she can interrogate the sources of and solutions to economic tribulations resulting from early industrial capitalism. Surveying her contemporaries, Alcott urges a return to what Weber would later identify as the Protestant Ethic, rejecting outright the malingering ethos put forth by Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, and Whitman. Rather than oppose an economic system that her novels represent as inherently unjust by refusing labor, Alcott proposes undermining the capitalist mode of production and its concomitant social hierarchies through a surfeit of labor, an ideal that finds itself reflected in the prolix and rather uneconomical narrative form she adopts.
Megatextual Debris: Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts before and after 2008
Bradley J. Fest, Hartwick College
In the twenty-first century, digital technologies have made it possible for authors to create massively unreadable works, what I call megatexts, through computational and collaborative composition. The ubiquity of texts that are quite literally too big to read appearing across media—from experimental novels and electronic literature, to television, film, and videogames—signals, as I argue elsewhere, that the megatext is an emergent form native to the era of neoliberalism. But what happens to other long forms, such as the twentieth-century long poem, when written in an era of megatextuality? Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts(6 vols.; 1987–2013) readily suggests itself as a case study for thinking through the lyric’s transformations in the era of big data and financialization. A long poem that conspicuously draws upon its modernist precursors (Pound, Zukofsky, Olson, et cetera) while disavowing at every level of its composition a patriarchal will toward totality, Draftsresponds to the economic and political transformations between the end of the cold war and the 2008 financial collapse by producing a kind of fragmentary, megatextual debris. In this paper I will argue that DuPlessis, rather than simply (and futilely) resist the neoliberal logic of megatextuality, hypertrophically uses the form’s phallogocentrism against itself in order to more broadly interrogate what it means—socially, aesthetically, economically—to write a long poem in the age of hyperarchival accumulation.
This week, I took part in SUNY Oneonta’s Sustainable Susquehanna Curriculum Workshop, an annual seminar that prepares faculty to teach courses with a focus on sustainability (more here). Next fall, I’ll teach a new composition syllabus that engages with environmental humanities discourses and questions, tentatively titled “How to Live in the Anthropocene.”
I’m grateful for the support my institution offers faculty across ranks and disciplines for pedagogy and curriculum development. The interdisciplinary workshop introduced me to colleagues from other departments, fostered conversation, and encouraged collaboration. It also helped me get to know our campus and see firsthand some of the sustainability projects underway.
Student writers from my Fall 2018 composition courses at SUNY Oneonta presented work at the university’s annual Student Diversity & Leadership Conference on February 23, 2019. Students shared their final projects on the panel, “Thinking Critically and Historically in the First-Year Writing Classroom: Letters on Ability, Gender, Race.” I opened the session by saying a bit about the course and assignment:
Thanks for coming to our panel today.
Our panelists each took my course, Composition 100, in the fall of 2018. The course is required for all students at SUNY Oneonta, and most students take it during their freshman year. Because instructors take different approaches to the course, I wanted to say a bit about mine before I tell you about the projects these writers completed at the end of the semester, projects I’m excited to hear them share today.
Our section of COMP 100, entitled “Ways of Seeing,” focuses on what we call critical inquiry. The section, in other words, invites students to think critically and historically over the course of the term as they craft essays and arguments. This means we approach from an evaluative, self-interested perspective both the texts we read in class and our own experiences. It also means we turn to history in order to better know ourselves and to identify and challenge injustice in the present. Toward these aims, which humanities courses are uniquely equipped to help students master, students engage with difficult and compelling readings that have been influential within and beyond the university. Our presenters read Paulo Freire on education, Michel Foucault on power, Susan Bordo on gender, and Ta-Nehisi Coates on race. All of these writers model posing big and unfamiliar questions about our world and answering them, in part, through deep engagement with the past.
Today, students will share with you the final projects they composed after reading Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates published the book, which takes the form of an open letter to his teenage son, in 2015. In it, he confronts the dangers he and his son face as black Americans threatened by, among other things, extrajudicial killing at the hands of the state.
Coates responds to the conditions of danger he faces by describing to his son his lifelong “struggle” to answer this question: “how do I live free in this black body?” (12). He struggles to respond to it, in part, by going to the library, where he engages in what he calls “study,” a capability he frames as shocking, marvelous, and uniquely human. Coates enters the library in order to pursue, passionately and desperately, questions that concern his very life, and he shares with readers the changing responses to them that he found, abandoned, and replaced as he read and wrote.
I assign this book because it takes up and deploys with great power the ways of reading and writing students have been practicing all semester. Coates is engaged, as students have been, in critical inquiry, and his book helps us understand anew how vital and important is this practice. The final assignment for the course invites students to view Coates’s letter as a model for a project of their own. As you’ll see in a moment, each writer searches for a question suitably important to them—these questions can, but don’t have to, explore race, as Coates does—and then tries to answer it by writing a letter to someone important they know or imagine. As they stage their struggle to respond, students also go to the library and seek out resources that might help them work toward tentative answers. This work, I hope, begins to familiarize them with library resources and encourages them to go to the stacks, not only for information, but for art, culture, and history they might take up as they pursue their own interests and projects.
I’m happy to finally introduce three writers ready to share their compelling work. Each explores questions about ability, gender, and race that demonstrate their smart and significant engagement with some of the vital problems we share today.
Next week, I’ll be reading new poems at Capresso in Oneonta for Community Arts Network of Oneonta’s City of the Hills Art and Music Festival. I haven’t shared poems publicly in some time, and I’m excited to read again. Local friends, come listen from 1:30 PM to 2 PM on Saturday, August 4.
Find more on Community Arts Network of Oneonta here.
I shared new work at the Society for Novel Studies’s biennial conference in Ithaca. The paper I presented, “Friedrich Hayek’s Novel Theory,” explores why novelists play villains in neoliberal economist and Mont Pelerin Society founder Hayek’s late theory. Here’s the abstract:
A popular strain of contemporary criticism approaches the novel with the historical conditions “neoliberalism” produces in mind. In a recent review essay in American Literary History, Leigh Claire La Berge and Quinn Slobodian celebrate literary studies’ attempts to develop such field-specific engagements with neoliberalism, but they argue some recent attempts to do so reproduce, rather than challenge, many of the ways of thinking (about subjects, markets, and the arts) neoliberal discourses promote. In order to avoid unwittingly endorsing ways of thinking oppositional critics hope to counter, La Berge and Slobodian urge us to read neoliberalism’s primary texts. They encourage us to pay attention to the foundational theoretical materials that have shaped both economic policies and structures of feeling across the West since the mid-twentieth century.
This talk takes up this challenge by examining how Nobel-prize-winning economist and neoliberal pioneer Friedrich Hayek theorized the nature and function of novels, literary texts, and of culture, more broadly. Hayek is best known for his influential contention that markets best organize human life without purposeful human intervention. In works early and late, he shares with many of his contemporaries on the left—and indeed, with the socialists he believed would doom the species if they triumphed—the view that humans are historical beings, shaped by cultural traditions we create. Hayek insists, however, that humans cannot, and should not try to, purposefully create and direct culture with identifiable collective interests or outcomes in mind. He thus simultaneously imbues culture with great power and denies we can harness that power for collective projects. This paper evaluates the consequences of this view of culture’s nature and function and compares it to competing views on the left. It suggests twenty-first century novel theory might account for dominant views of this kind, and considers how and why critics might.