note on literature

In the latest issue of the New Left Review, professor of German literature at the University of Trieste, Claudio Magris, offers the following relatively sweeping account of the historical relationship between the rise of the novel and the emergence of modern monetary relations:

The novel is thus unthinkable without the new function of money, which accompanied the rise of the bourgeoisie. Money becomes a protagonist of fiction. The great English novels of the eighteenth century revolve around the new qualities it acquires: the rhythms of its circulation, the mobility and fluidity with which it transforms lives, erases frontiers and creates new ones, breaks and forges chains. Money seems to flow like blood pulsing in the veins, in the drives of individuals liberated from tradition and at the mercy of the world, raising them up or sweeping them away. In a passage of Goethe’s Faust, Marx recognized one of the first examples of the new demonic nature of money, an insight into the essence of capitalism, where money does not simply permit the acquisition of goods but transforms its users, becoming a way of being, capable of converting anything—including feelings and values—into anything else, as the medium of a universal interchangeability. In Defoe, Goethe or Balzac, money and its manifold opposite uses (consumption, investment, speculation) are inseparable from the seduction and violence that literature—hues and judgements varying according to author, epoch and situation—depicts as the framework of encounters and conflicts between the individual and reality.

Here, Magris presumes to offer a new theoretical framework for querying money’s historical relationship to literary form, for reading the myriad ways the novel figures money as “protagonist” and then mobilizes this historical agent to stage “encounters and conflicts between the individual and reality.” On my view, however, this passage not only crystalizes the orthodox approach to such questions, but also exemplifies a long-held tendency in critical literary studies to reduce money to various instantiations of the Liberal value form.

This reduction envisions the value form as so-many private commodity and financial “flows”–involving money’s “universal exchangeability” or so-called exchange value as well as risky forms of private debt–and then reads the history of novelistic form as variously expressing and refracting money’s lived contradictions. To be sure, the insights this project generates often teem with aesthetic and social potential. Yet all such potential stems from the critic’s capacity to trace the failures and excesses of the Liberal value form, rather than from a thorough-going critique of Liberal monetary ideology and, more importantly, from the perspective of a value form that rejects Liberalism’s fetishization of private transactions and bogus logics of scarcity.

Instead of taking bourgeois monetary ideology for granted, the time has come to trace how literary form has historically reified money qua finite commodity and private finance and see if we can’t begin to uncover unconscious chartalist impulses quivering within those same forms. The historical bourgeoisie clearly perceived and felt money relations in the limited terms that Liberal monetary ideology allowed. Indeed, as Magris inadvertently shows, Liberal suppositions about money are “inseparable from the seduction and violence” of modern literature. The question is: are there ways of reading the literary that permit us to detect money’s virtual potential as a boundless public reserve regardless of authorial intention and readerly expectations?

In other words, we must ask: in what ways can Modern Monetary Theory contribute to a new critical theory of literature?

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