Works of literature resemble financial investments in the sense that they also demand the participant’s trust in a process that by its nature is unavoidably risky, uncertain, unverifiable. Literature too plays a confidence game. In Genres of the Credit Economy, Mary Poovey presses on this resemblance in order to argue that literature has performed what the New Historicists used to call “cultural work.” Literature has taught us to trust, or to live by suspending disbelief in, those financial instruments that began to pervade society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: paper money, bills of exchange, banker’s checks and so on. It has helped naturalize the “credit economy” that began, innocently enough, with paper money and culminated, spectacularly, in the derivative. It is the part literature performed in this history, Poovey argues, that has made it important.
There are many things to argue with in this astonishingly rich, deeply erudite, and brilliantly timely volume, including its willingness (again like the New Historicists, though Poovey disavows membership in the movement) to barter literature’s supposed ethico-aesthetic transcendence for a meager portion of historico-functional significance, and this despite the fact that the history to which she sees literature as functional is one in which she finds nothing whatsoever to approve. That bleak historical meta-narrative is another point of contention, at least for this reader. The much-publicized disasters that the financial industry has visited upon the rest of the world since 2007 might seem to have made Poovey’s historical point. I’m not sure they do, though they have certainly created an ideal environment for this book to get the intense discussion it deserves. If you made a bad investment in a novel, you used to be able to get up from your chair thinking that, though you might have thrown away some time and some affect, at least your pension was still secure. Those days are gone. Poovey’s audience will surely be swelled by the new general insecurity.
Insecurity, or what she prefers to call “anxiety,” is in fact one of the major themes on which her book invites readers to reflect. (Poovey has put unusual weight on the term anxiety throughout her extremely distinguished career.) To begin with, there is the perverse proposition that literature has won its significance only by doing something that Poovey manifestly wishes it had not done: by assuaging an anxiety that, she implies, society would be better off feeling more keenly. Literature’s aesthetic function (the suspension of disbelief in fictions) is consistent for Poovey with its historical function (the naturalization of the credit economy), but both are inversely proportional to literature’s ethical or political value, assuming such a concept remains relevant. That is, Poovey doesn’t think the suspension of disbelief is a good thing. We should not allow ourselves to be reassured about our investments. We should try to be as anxious as possible. In this sense, anxiety is Poovey’s highest value. One might think of it as her substitute for aesthetic value.
This is logical enough given that her target is naturalization: how these new financial instruments, which seemed alien and dangerous to people when they were first introduced, came to be accepted and integrated into normal life. She implies that this acceptance was a prolonged mistake, that major social harm was done by, say, the passage from coins to paper money. It’s because she assumes this social harm that Poovey also assumes that naturalization must be countered by reader-citizens committed to perpetual vigilance. It’s a questionable assumption. Even those who do not need to be reminded that vigilance is called for in the case of capitalism may wonder whether it is similarly required in the case of paper money. Poovey’s own treatment of the alternative currency schemes of Robert Owen and others suggests that after the revolution, so to speak, society would still need to circulate paper money, or something like it. In other words, like other financial instruments paper money is not in itself the name of the problem. Neither is abstraction. Poovey puts a lot of weight on paperness, a material fact which to her mind makes paper money as much a written “genre” as the novel, and thus presumably as open to re-writing. This is arguably carrying the program of literary constructionism a bit too far. Yes, money is a construct. But some constructs are a lot more difficult to imagine out of existence than others. The serious conversation begins only when you start talking about what factors did the constructing of construct X, but not Y, and what factors hold X in place. Also, as has often been observed, constructedness is not in itself a sufficient critical argument against any particular construct. Which is to say that anxiety, understood as both cause and effect of de-naturalization, is not as politically useful a state of mind as it may seem.
In any case, perpetual anxiety doesn’t sound like much fun. Who wants to be the sort of hyperactive, untranquilizable citizen who would steadfastly refuse any offer of reassurance on any subject? Most of us already carry staggering amounts of anxiety. Luckily, anxiety is not the only recourse. Poovey gestures toward another when she asks the reader to re-value the place of “information” in Defoe and in unspecialized novel-reading generally. The faint suggestion (one would like to see it developed) is that information, which might produce anxiety, might also assuage it. Another solution takes us further away from the domain of the novel. That solution is the state. Ordinarily, we ask the state to manage some of our anxiety for us, thereby allowing us not to feel it ourselves. There are certain activities, including the financial sector as well as the inspection of our food, air, and water, that it’s more efficient, both practically and emotionally, for the state to pay attention to on our collective behalf. It was of course the state’s deliberate decision to turn its gaze away from financial markets, otherwise known as “deregulation,” that allowed the inventors and salesmen of derivatives and other deliberately opaque bits of artifice to make stupendous profits while injecting into the world financial system so-called “toxicity”: unpayable debts which have translated into massive unemployment and literally incalculable suffering. This is something that, if pressured from below, the government can both correct and stop from happening again. It would be a self-aggrandizing mistake for humanists to think that doing so is their particular disciplinary responsibility. The point is especially relevant because Ian Hunter, to whom Poovey appeals for her model of “historical description,” embraces Foucaultian governmentality, conceived however in a morally neutral rather than a pejorative sense, as a more eligible version of humanistic education. Hunter’s suggestion is that humanists think more about their common ground with the state.
Genres of the Credit Economy is framed by an argument about the discipline of literary criticism–where it comes from, where it should go–that emerges out of its still more ambitious argument about the “credit economy” and literature’s place within it. There are, I think, problems with both arguments. But it is a rare pleasure to be able to engage with so much intellectual ambition in one book. Poovey’s effort to define something called “the credit economy”– not, as I understand it, a term that historians or economists rely on in an everyday way– and to make this somewhat obscure category central to a new meta-narrative of modernity depends on the suggestion that things were fundamentally different before its arrival. When was this before? For Poovey, the transition doesn’t come with the mass availability of credit cards after World War II and the debt they made possible, as some might have thought, or with the availability of cheap mortgages, or with the invention and legalization of derivatives, or for that matter with the nineteenth-century invention and legalization of the limited liability corporation. No, the dividing line comes when paper money began to take over from gold and silver. This is a strange piece of periodization. If the point is, as it seems to be, that money in paper form falls prey to an unprecedented uncertainty or anxiety and that this anxiety enters in turn into the culture, where it must then be managed, the choice of starting-point is instantly challenged by the example of the great Elizabethan inflation. This much earlier experience of inflation notoriously undermined faith in the value of (metallic) money. If money was a promise to deliver goods or services of equivalent value at some later date, then inflation demonstrated that this promise might well not be honored. Scholars of the early modern period have been pointing out the effects of this demonstration for a long time.
The “rise of the novel” story that Poovey pins to the rise of the credit economy is one in which the genre, beginning outside the fact/fiction divide, falls into it, coming eventually to specialize in fiction at the expense of information. Defoe wanted to inform. Information was not necessarily on the side of the angels. The text formerly known as Roxana taught its eighteenth-century readers (Poovey doesn’t go into why we would read it now, a crucial question for “historical description”) “the kind of evaluation that everyday credit transactions required” (120). In any case, this impulse is gradually lost. Tom Jones is still a virtual handbook on the use and abuse of credit. But academically-trained readers (Poovey still has hope for the common reader) no longer read novels for information, even information about the potential abuses of financial instruments. They read for some version of aesthetic form, which, by definition, is a denial of worldly reference.
This is anti-academic populism (populism of a sort that the academy itself often adores), but it’s also an argument against literature as such. Is there any literature for which what Poovey claims as unique to Austen– that her writing “gestures toward extratextual events but so carefully manages these allusions that the reader is invited back into the text instead of encouraged to go outside its pages” (363)– would not be true? (Brecht was not protesting about Austen, or about the modern period, or about the novel as a genre, when he called for a theater experience that would send spectators out into the world afterwards in a more active frame of mind.) As evidence of the novel’s aesthetic turn, Poovey gives the nineteenth-century habit of avoiding specific place names (by printing the first letter followed by a dash) as well as dates and other verifiable particulars. But who ever said that literature’s reference to the world depended on verifiable particulars? Since Aristotle, it seems to have been clear enough that what literature is good at is generalizing about the world. History gives you particular details, yes, but it often gets lost in those details, surrendering thereby what is most meaningful about them, while literature steps back from them and deduces more general patterns.
Poovey does not articulate any objection to this line of thought, though one might infer that she takes all generalizations and abstractions to be lies– an unconvincing position, in my view. She accuses Dickens in Little Dorrit of distracting attention from the actual financial scandal that he and his readers would have seen behind Merdle because “he did not want curiosity about the real-life financier to interfere with the moral lesson about the redemptive capacity of love that his reconfigured novel was shaped to deliver” (375). Well, okay. But couldn’t you as plausibly give Dickens credit for wanting to write his own story, whether or not it happened to be redemptive? Doesn’t a novelist always have the right to do so, and even the need to do so if he or she wants the work to transcend the moment and place of its publication? At some risk to her argument, Poovey spends some wonderful pages on Charles Reade, a fascinating experiment in writing so dependent on the topical value of its facts that it has no means of outlasting its immediate occasion. It’s as if the only good literature, for Poovey, had to imitate and rival the daily newspaper. This desire for factual reference seems misplaced. What would be the value of taking on such a task in a slower-moving, longer-lasting genre that can also do so many other things? It’s not aesthetic ideology, but merely generic specificity, to propose that literature is only literature if it outlasts the moment of its utterance, if it can be applied to more, as yet unforeseen circumstances by more, later listeners. It has to be more transhistorical than, say, “pass the salt” when addressed to someone at the dinner table who is sitting closer than you to the salt shaker.
Some of the book’s most memorable sections are those dealing with alternative theorists of currency, like Robert Owen, the “Ricardian socialist” John Bray, and W. Stanley Jevons. This stuff will seem a little crazy even to those who think the current financial system is the very height of craziness. (For example: Jevons thought that financial crises were caused by sunspots.) What Poovey has to say about economic writing and the split between economics as a discipline and financial journalism is worth the price of admission by itself, as is her account of William Cobbett and Harriet Martineau. The latter figures are crucial to her argument because both could write in a style that worked as well for financial topics as for literature. Thus, both resist the gap that Poovey sees widening between financial and literary contexts in the course of the nineteenth century. When information and aesthetics part company, the result is the emergence of what she calls, with persistent hostile capitalization, “the Literary,” and this has undesirable consequences both for the ordinary citizen’s command of economics (economic ignorance gets justified) and for literature itself, which specializes itself into social unimportance.
Martineau is discussed in a very self-conscious “interchapter” that also offers a critique of the New Historicism as embodied both by Catherine Gallagher and, in a sort of coup de theatre, by Poovey herself in her earlier writing. Gallagher is accused of being “formalist” on Martineau. This involves hiding behind a “we” that, joining critic and reader, is credited with the ability to discover nuances and contradictions of which Martineau herself was not conscious. Poovey seems spot on in describing a rhetoric that remains standard operating procedure in literary criticism. But what exactly is wrong with it? And by what would it be replaced? To be properly historical, Poovey argues, would mean following instead the actual reception of Martineau’s writing, or what she calls its deployments. Well, that might be interesting. But the suggestion obscures the meaning of the word that Poovey probably uses more than any other: value. Why is it valuable to know Martineau’s reception history? Suppose that history peters out early? Suppose Martineau survives, after a certain point, primarily in university seminar rooms? Would that mean she has entirely lost her value for the present? If so, this is a fate she would share with many other writers from past centuries, probably the great majority of them. Are we supposed to confine our attention to Jane Austen and Adam Smith? After all, what’s wrong with the idea that the humanities might be accomplishing something by keeping the memory of these writers alive for the teachers of the next generation, and doing so by pointing out the ideal best that can be wrung from reading them?
In her account of the discipline, Poovey tells the story of the Literary seeking to differentiate itself from the factual as if literary criticism’s specialization were unique. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries everyone was trying to specialize, or was having specialization thrust upon them. Why leave the other disciplines out? And why not inquire into the motive behind all this differentiation of knowledge? Specialization may have been the result without specialization being either the motor of history or the privileged name of modern injustice. Like Pierre Bourdieu, who seems to sponsor much of the thinking here (though he gets only one mention in the index), Poovey has trouble naming the deep motives behind her story. Yet they need to be named. At a time when economic pressures are clearly undermining trade presses and general readerships just as much as they undermine the world of specialized scholarship, there is a real question as to whether specialization is really the name of the problem and thus also whether a return to the untutored pleasures of the unspecialized reader (which include pleasure in acquiring information about the world) is really the name for a solution.
Poovey’s disciplinary history assumes that the present inequality of authority between, paradigmatically, economics (fact) and literary criticism (fiction) can be explained by choices made in the process of specialization. Her case for the significance of literary criticism depends on the premise that authority in society rests, unjustly, on facts, or on the fact/fiction dichotomy. But what if it does not? What if capitalism, to name one relatively uncontroversial site of social authority, can and does work as well as it does–this is neither its first nor its last recession–without any special reliance on the fact/fiction divide? That would of course take away the importance of denaturalizing, or showing the apparently factual to be secretly fictional. The economic crisis, which is ongoing as I write (April 2009), has surely undermined the notion that the discipline of economics reposes on the solid authority of facts.
The villain of Poovey’s pre-history of the derivative is the market. Inside the discipline of literary criticism, which established itself in opposition to the market, Poovey will always find a great many people eager to agree. Over the past decades, her signature effects have involved an ability to engage those outside the discipline as well, if only by learning their disciplinary languages with such seriousness that even a (literary) de-naturalization of their concepts seems to occur at a high disciplinary level. But so much success gives the reader the courage to ask for still more: a critique of the market that will not simply offer de-naturalizing literary critics the best role, but will join us together with citizens who don’t necessarily read novels and who may be less eager than we to reshape themselves in the image of perpetual anxiety.
Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor of the Humanities in the department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His most recent book is Upward Mobility and the Common Good (Princeton 2007). He is also the author of Feeling Global: Internationalism in Distress (1999), The Servant's Hand: English Fiction from Below (1986), and Secular Vocations: Intellectuals, Professionalism, Culture (1993). He has edited Intellectuals: Aesthetics, Politics, Academics (1990) and The Phantom Public Sphere (1993) and co-edited Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling beyond the Nation (1998). He is co-editor of a forthcoming collection of essays called Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World. His current research is on versions of cosmopolitanism.