Last week, I organized a panel and presented a paper at the American Literature Association’s annual conference. 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.