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ColoradoGuy
11-25-2008, 09:25 PM
I just read a lengthy review (http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article4990340.ece) in the Times Literary Supplement of a book that, according to the review, advances the quirky notion that fiction--all fiction--somehow is a paean to the free marketplace. The book is called Fiction Sets You Free, by Russell Berman. I haven't read the book. For one thing, it costs $42.50, and I doubt it will show up many places besides university libraries.

Berman's thesis appears to be that the human act of writing down a story, even the first ones millennia ago, is one of the foundation stones of free market capitalism. Primitive oral literature, recited to a group, apparently is a sort of socialistic enterprise. In contrast, the individual act of composing a written story represents a key foundation of the notion of individual freedom. Eventually this kind of individualism leads inexorably to capitalistic free markets. He even states that the market economy is "most definitely the precondition for artistic freedom." (What?)

Now, this hypothesis seems preposterous when laid out this way. On the other hand, I think I do see Berman's point buried in his hyperbole. That is, a lone individual creating a story and writing it down is akin to somebody beginning any other sort of risky enterprise--risky because the author never knows how it will be received.

Here are some additional tidbits from the review:

"[Berman] insists that cultural trends are epiphenomenal reflections of economic interests [that actually sounds kind of Marxist to me]. Anti-Americanism is “really” anti-capitalism, and in Fiction Sets You Free, Berman suggests that anti-capitalism is the true source of an intellectual anti-humanism which opposes imagination, enterprise, even literature itself. His argument is based on the thesis that literature assumes, and thus helps to create, a capitalist mentality in the reader. He is convinced that, by its very nature, literature “contribute[s] to the value structure and virtues of a capitalist economy”, and to “the dissemination of capitalist behavior”, because all fictional writing “cultivates the imaginative prowess of entrepreneurial vision”. It does this, Berman suggests, simply because it is not true. By describing situations other than those that actually pertain, “literature imposes an economic choice on the reader”. All fictional texts are thus “indispensable sources for capitalist psychology” because they address themselves “to entrepreneurial risk takers who have the will to imagine”.

Anyway, I suppose it's about time that we had right-wing literary criticism. And the review did make me think about fiction in new ways. I recommend you give it a look.

Higgins
11-25-2008, 09:57 PM
I
Anyway, I suppose it's about time that we had right-wing literary criticism. And the review did make me think about fiction in new ways. I recommend you give it a look.

Doesn't everything contribute to free-market capitalism? Since that's where we seem to have ended up...

That certainly was Karl Marx's view, ie that free-market capitalism was an inevitable stage in the evolution of modes of production. I guess that's the right-wing Marxist view. It's always puzzling when the right wing decides that the stuff in its head might be ideas after all. They wake up thrash around and ascribe Adam Smith's ideas to Marx and then they see a piece of money and hurry off to invest it. Next thing you know, we've all been Capitalists and/or Marxists since the dawn of something or other.

Claudia Gray
11-25-2008, 10:28 PM
I wonder how people managed to come up with stories before capitalism existed. Yet somehow the Arthurian legends, Greek drama, Gilgamesh and the tale of Genji all seem to have happened.

kuwisdelu
11-25-2008, 10:58 PM
What a bunch of hogwash.

Undertaking something risky isn't inherently capitalistic.

What about those who don't seek to make a living off their work? Or those who are happy simply to be published and don't care about the paycheck?

What about fan fiction?

What about unpaid or severely underpaid short story markets?

Sorry, Mr. Berman, but there's more to imagination than entrepreneurial risk. I wouldn't consider either an inherent or necessary part of the other anyway. Talk about ruining childhood dreams with economics.... Many of us don't consider writing to be our personal "business" but rather an art. And until you quit your day job, there's no financial risk. It's possible to imagine solely for the sake of imagining. It's possible to tell a story solely for the sake of telling a story.

Higgins
11-26-2008, 12:26 AM
I wonder how people managed to come up with stories before capitalism existed. Yet somehow the Arthurian legends, Greek drama, Gilgamesh and the tale of Genji all seem to have happened.


What a bunch of hogwash.



It's true that Berman's arguments barely reach the level of hogwash, but the reviewer is correct in noting that there are perfectly good structuralist arguments for associating contingencies in narrative with the growth of exchange networks and the symbolic functions of capital and writing.
The reviewer puts this all under the lame heading of "Derrida"...but a lot of good work has been done in this area that Berman would find unthinkable for all kinds of reasons.

Ken
11-26-2008, 01:16 AM
...there are some novels in which the author argues for the elimination of human freedom, I'm guessing. I'd be interested in reading some, out of curiousity. Anyone know of any?

Perhaps works produced under fascist regeims might afford examples, if I could stomach them, though no doubt a good number of these books would be instilled with subtle satire and mockery.

As a group, artists and writers adore personal freedom, which goes hand and hand with their craft, unless one considers the handmade items of Puritans to be art, which is arguable.

Higgins
11-26-2008, 06:53 PM
...there are some novels in which the author argues for the elimination of human freedom, I'm guessing. I'd be interested in reading some, out of curiousity. Anyone know of any?

Perhaps works produced under fascist regeims might afford examples, if I could stomach them, though no doubt a good number of these books would be instilled with subtle satire and mockery.

As a group, artists and writers adore personal freedom, which goes hand and hand with their craft, unless one considers the handmade items of Puritans to be art, which is arguable.

I don't think most art or narrative is as ideologically charged as Berman seems to think. When writers address ideology directly, as I think Robert Lowell does in this poem from the early 1960s...the results can appear confessional and focused on the writer's own direct experience...which is about as far from Berman's ideas about writing as you can get:

http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/for-the-union-dead/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Lowell

C.bronco
11-26-2008, 07:10 PM
Stories are observations of the human condition. We share them because we want others to know what we are thinking about.

I like that the words author and authority have the same root; a good writer has great knowledge of interpersonal relations, and societal causes and effects. That is the main reason why Shakespeare is still relevant. Human nature has not changed, and he had our number, baby!

robeiae
11-26-2008, 07:11 PM
What a bunch of hogwash.

Undertaking something risky isn't inherently capitalistic.
Yep.

This kinda of stuff is silly, imo. And it's a consequence of not understanding what "capitalism" is, first and foremost. A market economy is not capitalism, as a matter of course. Really, capitalism is a process, not a state of being or even a system.

lexxi
11-26-2008, 09:09 PM
...there are some novels in which the author argues for the elimination of human freedom, I'm guessing. I'd be interested in reading some, out of curiousity. Anyone know of any?


Hm, the first thing that came to mind is Plato's Republic, but that probably doesn't count as a novel and doesn't specifically argue for elimination of human freedom, although it does imply limits on human freedom.

Higgins
11-26-2008, 10:00 PM
Hm, the first thing that came to mind is Plato's Republic, but that probably doesn't count as a novel and doesn't specifically argue for elimination of human freedom, although it does imply limits on human freedom.

I suppose both Plato and Xenophon didn't much care for some of the aspects of Athenian merchantile life. They might have both agreed with
the supposed Persian view that the prime virtues were shooting accurately (with a bow from horseback is implied) and telling the truth. The advantages of freedom come far below the advantages of attending the duties of one's social station, in the opinions of Plato, Xenophon and Xenophon's Persian heros.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyropaedia_(Xenophon)

Ruv Draba
11-27-2008, 01:16 AM
Writing large fictional works is a very entrepreneurial exercise. You build intellectual capability by investing large amounts of a non-renewable resource (your time), often first accumulating experience and knowledge researching, then designing and developing some product. Presumably you want to parley the effort into some sort of benefit (a sale-able or popular product, or at the very least, your own insights). There's a fair degree of risk that the outcome might not be all that you wanted.

But entrepreneurialism isn't capitalism; it's just endeavour. It only becomes capitalism when social convention says that the means of production and distribution are privately ownable, and that ownership of the means conveys ownership of the product.

Staff writers, for instance, doesn't get much ownership of the fictions they produce. During the last writers' strike, on the topic of writers' royalties one studio producer was quoted as saying "I don't want to pay the plumber every time I flush the toilet". In other words: the labour is paid for; the investment risk is already owned by the studio; writers aren't entitled to royalties for their work.

Bards didn't necessarily own the stories that they told either. Often the community would see the stories as their own property, and punish the story-tellers for getting the stories wrong, or telling them badly. They might reward a good story, but that doesn't mean that the story remained the bard's property after the telling.

As for writing small fictions, all humans do that all the time in compliments, flattery, lies, excuses and amusing stories about their day. I don't see that as entrepreneurialism so much as social grooming: a sort of reciprocal levy that we contribute to remain socially connected, and sometimes exploit for minor gain. There's a social expectation that we do it at certain times anyway (nobody tells a bride on her wedding-day that she looks dumpy and has lousy skin); so it's not so much an endeavour as a hurdle.

And in terms of fictional content supporting capitalism, well heroic myth (perhaps our oldest surviving fictions) support endeavour, but sometimes the main beneficiary isn't the hero, and often the endeavour results in high cost and little benefit.

I'd conclude that these claims are a crock.

Ken
11-27-2008, 01:42 AM
...cool poem, Higgins.
Robert Lowell is a personal fave.
Never read Union Dead, though.
Like the imagery, though I don't get much of it. Will have another go at it.
Like Nantucket it also features fish:
http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-quaker-graveyard-in-nantucket/

I think I see what you mean, Lexxi, about Plato's Republic. Plato does remove freedom by postulating eternal laws that reality and we must abide by, to some an extent.

Ruv Draba
11-27-2008, 01:47 AM
...there are some novels in which the author argues for the elimination of human freedom, I'm guessing. I'd be interested in reading some, out of curiousity.I suspect that 'human freedom' is a mass of cultural bias and contradictions -- but you might have something specific in mind Ken, so I'd ask what you mean first. In my experience it often means nothing more than 'maintaining my existing social conventions'.

In the meantime, rather than using 'freedom' (which I confess that I don't entirely understand), I'll talk about 'privilege' -- which I think is a bit easier to handle. Privilege is a benefit or advantage not enjoyed by everyone all the time. Generally speaking, the more privilege we enjoy, the freer we feel; the less privilege we enjoy, the more burdened we feel. I believe that much of a culture's moral sense revolves around what privileges are considered to be 'rights', and what are considered to be 'rewards', 'gifts' or 'blessings', and how these things are earned and lost.

Fiction has a lot to say about privilege.

Heroic writing often gives its heroes special privileges in reward for endeavour -- so that does suggest capitalism. On the other hand, what makes heroes heroic is that they're quick to sacrifice privilege for their community -- which suggests socialism. And many heroes are born to privilege -- having special gifts by right of unique birth -- which suggests some sort of Nietzschian übermensch ideal.

Writers of war-stories and frontier adventure stories often laud sharing privilege to build community; or forgoing privilege to sacrifice for the community's future.

Humanist writers often explore inequity in privilege.

Futurists often explore the development, abuse or loss of privilege.

Satirists often equate privilege with corruption.

Tragedians always emphasise destruction or devaluation of privilege as part of a hero's psychological collapse.

Absurdist writers often portray privilege as illusory.

Socialist writers often write for the elimination of privilege.

From the above, I conclude that writers are deeply confused and conflicted about privilege. And if they are, then I'd argue that societies are too -- and that therefore, everyone is probably also confused and conflicted about 'freedom'.

Medievalist
11-27-2008, 01:55 AM
No, I don't think it's inherently capitalist--there are, and always have been, too many starving writers for that to be true.

I do think telling (or writing) stories is one of the basic qualities of humanity.

ColoradoGuy
11-27-2008, 02:39 AM
For myself, I wonder how much of his Quixotic project is related to his need to carve out some unique spot of his own in the Lit/Crit academic sandbox. Mark Twain once made a quip to the effect that it isn't easy to be eccentric--it takes real work. Hence this book.

Still, I found the TLS review interesting because I had no idea about any of this. And a discussion of a silly notion can lead to non-silly insights.

Ken
11-27-2008, 03:54 AM
I suspect that 'human freedom' is a mass of cultural bias and contradictions -- but you might have something specific in mind Ken, so I'd ask what you mean first. In my experience it often means nothing more than 'maintaining my existing social conventions'.


..."freedom" in the ultimate sense of the term, not as a privledge to do this or that, but as a pre-condition of human existence. A person contemplating committing a crime, for instance, would usually be held in check by its being ethically wrong. But if there are no real ethics to speak of, as some existential authors like Camus have argued, than there ultimately isn't anything holding them back from committing the crime and they're completly free to act as they will.

Plato was the first to rally against this over-bearing freedom and for but a brief lapse society has continued to slap on the shackles in futile attempts to enslave its citizenry at their bequest.

Four walls do not a prison make, nor ever can.

C.bronco
11-27-2008, 04:03 AM
Sometimes I write things because I really need to laugh, and I know I can usually come up with something funny. It's cheaper than IO and blockbuster.

Ruv Draba
11-27-2008, 04:44 AM
..."freedom" in the ultimate sense of the term, not as a privledge to do this or that, but as a pre-condition of human
existence.
I'm still not following. We inherit certain constraints just by birth and circumstance. I will never carry a child to term in my womb for instance -- because I don't have one. I'm also never going to become a great tabla (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tabla)-player, because that requires training from childhood, and as a child, nobody I knew had even heard of a tabla. :) It's highly likely that adults three generations from now will be able to replace diseased organs with those grown from their own stem-cells, but much less likely that any of us will -- if our lungs fail today, for instance, we die. I know plenty of people who can never lead the country I live in because of their spiritual beliefs, and I can't drive a car without the use of spectacles.

Is freedom really a pre-condition of human existence, or is that just rhetoric? We could argue one way or the other, but maybe the real question is: so what? How does it bear on the role of fiction?

Ken
11-27-2008, 04:58 AM
...freedom as a postulated pre-condition figures in the novels of a number of acclaimed authors, as Camus, Dostoyevsky, and Sartre, who have had an impact. So if freedom, as defined, is indeed just empty rhetoric, and easily shown false through arguments as those you raise, it still has some bearing on fiction and should be taken into account.

Ruv Draba
11-27-2008, 05:58 AM
...freedom as a postulated pre-condition figures in the novels of a number of acclaimed authors, as Camus, Dostoyevsky, and Sartre, who have had an impact.It also plays an important role in mythology -- with respect to good, evil and moral responsibility for instance, but that's more at the individual than societal level.

At the societal level we've seen rhetoric that 'capitalism = freedom', 'democracy = freedom', when clearly that's not quite true. The working poor put the lie to the former, while citizens in unelectable minorities put the lie to the latter.

Perhaps closer to the mark is that 'capitalism offers privilege to the enterprising', while 'democracy allows us to squabble over the distribution of privilege'. And privilege -- its morality, ethics, uses and abuses, plays a big part in the construction of fiction. :D But I think we've seen that a lot of fiction doesn't suggest that privilege should be managed in either a capitalistic or a democratic way.

Writers like privilege -- especially the privilege to investigate, think and communicate in whatever ways they see fit -- but really, everyone likes some sort of privilege. That doesn't always make us good defenders of privilege in others.

Certain_Entropy
11-27-2008, 01:22 PM
at some point i'll read the article after finals are over. but i love the irony of authors critiquing capitalism and then profiting from the capitalist market, as their books bring in the big bucks. I'm looking at you zizek, traversing the fantasy to the bank lol.

Jerry Cornelius
03-17-2009, 12:31 AM
Not that this is a straight contradiction of the article, but I would say that since patronages became unfashionable and literature became an industry, roughly around the same period as Augustan satire, something selling well has generally been an indicator of what to avoid if you're looking for imaginitive richness, quality and originality. Obviously there are exceptions (Aphra Behn, I think, was well received at first and forgotten later, and of course there's Dickens) but I'm not a Daniel Defoe fan. Ernest Hemingway used to outsell William Faulkner and be outsold in turn by Mickey Spillane. Read the bestseller charts today and you'll find a list of mediocre to terrible books. By contrast, James Joyce relied on a patronage, I believe. Most high-quality literary writers get by on a small dedicated following of "ivory tower" intellectuals. There's very little that suggests to me that the free market helps creativity, if anything it rewards hacks and those who churn out airport pot-boilers.

Angelus
03-17-2009, 05:27 AM
Oh, dear lord (wipes my glasses with a hanky that I paid for and was produced by someone who earns a living manufacturing hankies).
If the notion of capitalism and writing is an absurd combination then write for free. You don't have to accept payment.

Higgins
03-17-2009, 04:59 PM
For myself, I wonder how much of his Quixotic project is related to his need to carve out some unique spot of his own in the Lit/Crit academic sandbox. Mark Twain once made a quip to the effect that it isn't easy to be eccentric--it takes real work. Hence this book.

Still, I found the TLS review interesting because I had no idea about any of this. And a discussion of a silly notion can lead to non-silly insights.

I don't think the notion (which I would phrase as "Captialism and writing grew up together") is silly. Berman's rhetorical elaboration of it seems incredibly lame, though.
But it is true, that in Mesopotamia, the first writing is a matter of accounting and literally sealed contracts (in Egypt the first writing is religious, in China it is involved in divination, in Mesoamerica it is calendrical)...

Is writing inherently religious? Involved in Divination? Calendrical? Captialist?

shackleton
08-12-2009, 01:05 PM
I'd say the opposite. Capitalism hinges upon disconnecting the worker from the products of his production. For instance, a worker in a chair factory cannot take a chair home with him, and does not sign his name on the finished product*. As writing is an extension of art, the writer is always connected with his product. His name is on the cover, it is his own expression, and he has the final say over what happens to it (in theory).

*The chair factory owner profits off the value of the worker's labour exceeding the worker's wage, so if the worker took away the products of his labour, the chair factory owner would probably have to get a job at a cornershop.

RG570
08-12-2009, 09:44 PM
I'd say the opposite. Capitalism hinges upon disconnecting the worker from the products of his production. For instance, a worker in a chair factory cannot take a chair home with him, and does not sign his name on the finished product*. As writing is an extension of art, the writer is always connected with his product. His name is on the cover, it is his own expression, and he has the final say over what happens to it (in theory).

*The chair factory owner profits off the value of the worker's labour exceeding the worker's wage, so if the worker took away the products of his labour, the chair factory owner would probably have to get a job at a cornershop.

This is true.

That doesn't mean that capitalism doesn't affect art, though. The relations of production in writing are a bit more insulated than making a chair, but the "market" still dictates what people write most of the time. Also, since every single writer is captivated by capitalist ideology as a matter of everyday praxis regardless of their overt political opinions, that ideology is always going to be the basis of their work, unless they've gone out of their way to become unpopular "Marxists."

On the other hand, capitalism is so corrupt and anti-social that it will even sell you the noose with which to hang it, and corporations will gladly sell literature, movies, and art that in theory would contribute to a shift against capitalism, if it were something people would buy.

Romantic Heretic
09-07-2009, 04:26 PM
Doesn't everything contribute to free-market capitalism? Since that's where we seem to have ended up...

That certainly was Karl Marx's view, ie that free-market capitalism was an inevitable stage in the evolution of modes of production. I guess that's the right-wing Marxist view. It's always puzzling when the right wing decides that the stuff in its head might be ideas after all. They wake up thrash around and ascribe Adam Smith's ideas to Marx and then they see a piece of money and hurry off to invest it. Next thing you know, we've all been Capitalists and/or Marxists since the dawn of something or other.

And I thought I was the only person who saw how similar 'Marxists' and 'Capitalists' are.

I'm not alone! ;)

Higgins
09-08-2009, 06:30 PM
And I thought I was the only person who saw how similar 'Marxists' and 'Capitalists' are.

I'm not alone! ;)

Marx did all his work on how capitalism works. A lot of his analysis had to do with how commodities are defined. Not all that easy to do really.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surplus_value

The standard answer to this bit of Marxist analysis (ie "surplus value" in commodities) (according to the above), is that value is "subjective"...so I guess capital is whatever you think it is.

Romantic Heretic
09-12-2009, 08:11 PM
In my opinion, that's true.

Value is entirely a matter of perception. What's valuable to me may not be valuable to you, and vice versa. It's this difference of opinion that makes trade possible.

Higgins
09-14-2009, 08:22 PM
In my opinion, that's true.

Value is entirely a matter of perception. What's valuable to me may not be valuable to you, and vice versa. It's this difference of opinion that makes trade possible.

So any capital I have is in a sense fictive until somebody else buys it. For example, if I paid one million dollars for all the notes of a particular currency backed by a regime that may or may not ever be legit or if legit have a "real" currency, then my one million (plus?) in fictive/imaginary/real X currency is imaginary/fictive capital until the moment it is exchanged for something else. So the value of any capital is set by some range of external social circumstances and it is that range of external social circumstances that Marx sought to analyze.

Romantic Heretic
09-15-2009, 02:58 PM
Pretty much.

I'll say more when I'm awake enough to be coherent.

Ruv Draba
09-17-2009, 05:22 AM
To me the apotheosis of capitalistic entertainment is reality TV. The problem with 19th century capitalism has always been that acquiring the means of production exposes you to capital risk. This is as true for authors who spend 18 months writing a novel as it is for industrialists who buy factories that make goods nobody may want to buy.

Reality TV outsources much of its creative risk to people who'll work for free. The talent can vary from extraordinary (on some of the dancing/singing/cooking shows) to atrocious (on the lock-you-in-a-house shows). It doesn't seem to matter. If writers want to become proper capitalists we really need to stop writing, and instead become middle-men. Write books that give others permission to write, or publish critiques, or take slash fanfic and find ways to get it published at no cost to ourselves.

Or if we can't do that, we should at least try and rehash other writers' proven formulas using the marketing memes of the day. Preferably copy another writer's proven style if possible and edit as little as we can. :D

Higgins
09-17-2009, 08:41 PM
To me the apotheosis of capitalistic entertainment is reality TV.

Or if we can't do that, we should at least try and rehash other writers' proven formulas using the marketing memes of the day. Preferably copy another writer's proven style if possible and edit as little as we can. :D

Or if not that then the Jeff Koons commodity broker approach to art which has worked very well for him at least.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeff_Koons