Literary Economy: On “The Routledge Companion to Literature and Economics”

By John MacintoshAugust 26, 2019

Literary Economy: On “The Routledge Companion to Literature and Economics”

The Routledge Companion to Literature and Economics by Michelle Chihara and Matt Seybold


THE INTRODUCTION TO The Routledge Companion to Literature and Economics, edited by Matt Seybold and Michelle Chihara, aims “to examine the complex and counterintuitive relationship between the two disciplines which gave this companion its title.” What follows is a compelling interdisciplinary history that begins with the literary inclinations of political economists Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes. Although these political economists were steeped in literature and culture, Seybold and Chihara identify two turns that sent political economy on a different path. The marginal revolution of the late 19th century brought a new theory of value: subjective value and marginal utility were in; the labor theory of value was out. More definitively, in the 20th century, the Keynesian synthesis supposedly brought neoclassical microeconomics into accord with Keynes’s macroeconomic theory. Economists “increasingly severed themselves from their disciplinary roots in philosophy, rhetoric, and politics, seeking to style themselves as scientists inspired by mathematics, physics, and engineering.” By shedding this political economic skin, the emerging discipline of economics sought to leave behind the vagaries of people and politics for the clean rationalities of math and models.

In Foundations of Economic Analysis (1947), the influential US economist Paul Samuelson solidified mathematics as the economic lingua franca. By the third edition of his textbook, Economics (1955), Samuelson consolidated the neoclassical synthesis and argued that it was “accepted in its broad outlines by all but about 5 per cent of extreme left wing and right wing writers.” Economic historian Philip Mirowski argues this consensus was won through the concerted “exile of history and philosophy from any place within the contemporary economic orthodoxy.” Mirowski writes:

After a brief flirtation in the 1960s and ’70s, the grandees of the [economic] profession took it upon themselves to express their disdain and scorn for the types of self-reflection practiced by “methodologists” and historians of economics, and to go out of their way to prevent those so inclined from occupying any tenured foothold in reputable economics departments. It was perhaps no coincidence that history and philosophy were the areas where one found greatest concentrations of skeptics concerning the shape and substance of the postwar American economic orthodoxy.

Top economics departments and journals policed a methodological orthodoxy. Economic history courses dwindled. Historical and philosophical debate were supplanted by quantitative analysis. The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, a mock Nobel established by Sweden’s central bank in 1968, helped to popularize modern economics as a scientific discourse. (Ragnar Frisch and Jan Tinbergen, two founders of econometrics, were the first laureates in 1969; Samuelson had to wait until the next year.) Mainstream economists may not self-identify as neoclassical today, but mathematical modeling retains a stranglehold on the discipline. Although traditions of heterodox economics exist, they have often been marginalized, and much debate and dissent has come from outside the discipline itself.

Where was the discipline of literary studies during this mathematical turn in economics? A through-line of Marxist literary criticism notwithstanding, Seybold and Chihara note that by the mid-20th century, “English and Economics departments each indulged their own brand of navel-gazing formalism, their repudiation of each other was characterized by apathy, not animosity.” New Criticism eschewed historical context for the unified whole of the text. The rise of structuralism and post-structuralism — the linguistic turn in literature departments from the late 1960s through the 1990s — also tended to emphasize form, semiotics, and the play of the signifier rather than political, historical, or social contexts. However, by the 1980s, New Historicism, Cultural Materialism, Ethnic Studies, Post-Colonialism, Queer Studies, and other fields sought to reestablish those contexts. While economics settled into methodological consensus and orthodoxy, literature departments began to pursue new methodologies and neglected areas of study.

Literary critics in this period also joined historians and philosophers in engaging with economics. In their preceding Routledge volume, The New Economic Criticism: Studies at the Intersection of Literature and Economics (1999), Mark Osteen and Martha Woodmansee identified a “first wave of economic criticism, which appeared during the late 1970s and the early 1980s.” The New Economic Criticism, “a second, seemingly tidal wave of scholarship investigating the relations among literature, culture and economics,” emerged in the 1980s and ’90s from the popularity of New Historicism (their own term sought to capitalize on its momentum), the make-it-new imperative of scholarly publication, and the reemergence of cultural studies. According to Seybold and Chihara, New Economic Criticism “was not a wholesale rejection of Marxist Literary Criticism,” but “New Economic Critics did tend to treat Marx as part of a historical continuum of economic thought, not an invalidation of it.” Some of these critics drew on the work of the founder of rhetorical economics — and later Chicago school civil libertarian — Deirdre McCloskey, who emphasized the rhetorical underpinnings of economics to temper the discipline’s truth claims. Some critics also followed her suggestion that literary economic criticism was stunted because its “knowledge of economics begins and ends with Karl Marx.” It is a pithy statement, if not exactly true. Marx himself was nothing if not a close reader of political economy, and for more recent critics, to understand Marx means to understand the body of thought that made up the object of his critique. In his chapter “Keynes and Keynesianism,” Seybold notes that “[o]nly a small fraction of professional economists read Keynes’s General Theory, or any canonical works in the history of economic thought, for that matter.” Put differently, the study of economic history in mainstream economics departments does not end with Marx — or Keynes or Mill or Smith — but rather before it begins.


Speaking of beginnings, it seems clear why a new new economic criticism might emerge now — whether one prefers the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 or the almost 50 years of economic stagnation that economic historian Robert Brenner has termed “the long downturn.” One certainly need not be an academic to know that the economic weighs heavily on contemporary life. But why does “contemporary econo-literary criticism” respond so widely and so thoroughly in this period? Seybold and Chihara note that

a sizable community of scholars trained in literary and cultural studies have chosen to spend the last decade (or longer) fastidiously reading political economy, economic history, business journalism, Wall St. memoirs, microeconomics textbooks, and many other tediously “unliterary” genres which make up what Leigh Claire La Berge calls “financial print culture.”

Whatever the individual reasons for their engagement, the scholars in Literature and Economics “approach economic texts and contexts with rigorous attention to the disciplinary vocabulary, methodological assumptions, and intellectual history of economics.”

Literature and Economics is expansive. It ranges temporally from premodern economics (Andrew Galloway) to the rise of finance and behavioral economics (Richard Godden and Chihara, respectively). The essays included read literature with and against paper money (Mary McAleer Balkun), energy (Imre Szeman), real estate (Alison Shonkwiler), speculation (Peter Knight), inflation (Joseph Jonghyun Jeon), social want (Howard Horwitz), and black markets (Sharada Balachandran Orihuela). Some contributors use economic concepts as lenses to read literary texts or demonstrate how literary texts illustrate or complicate economic thought. Others read economic discourse using literary tropes and devices or demonstrate how those tropes and devices function in ways analogous to economic phenomena. Each chapter is informative and brief — most are 10 pages or less — and students of literary-economic history will find more avenues to explore in each chapter’s notes and references.

Seybold and Chihara group 38 chapters into four sections. The essays that comprise the first, Critical Traditions, set the stakes for the literary study of economics and the political and economic study of literature (including a stand-out essay by Christopher Chen and Timothy Kreiner on the politics of form and poetics of identity). The Histories section periodizes from medieval ethics to NAFTA novels. Each chapter of Principles (by far the longest section) tackles an economic trope, concept, or school, from Eleanor Courtemanche’s methodical history of “classical economics” to Annie McClanahan’s characteristically incisive reading of “[s]ecular stagnation and the discourse of reproductive limit.” The collection ends with a short section on contemporary culture, which further expands the literary (represented here by Laura Finch on global finance and scale in the novel) to include multimedia mergers (Michael Szalay), the musical Hamilton (Jennifer J. Baker), the podcast (Chihara), and serial television (David Buxton).

Seybold and Chihara’s introduction draws in part on Elizabeth Hewitt, who has argued the disciplines of literature and economics tend “to alternate between devotion and repudiation” in their relation to one another. This dynamic obtains within literary studies itself. Seybold and Chihara note that Marxist literary criticism repudiates orthodox economics, while New Economic Criticism has displayed more scholarly devotion. Given the financial crisis and recession, one might expect contemporary literary economic criticism to opt for the former. However, according to the editors, this is not the case, or at least not quite. Instead, Seybold and Chihara argue (in a move both dialectical and reparative) that “the nature of this era’s repudiation is […] distinct, as it is not so much an alternative to devotion as the synthesis of shared roots.” The editors continue:

Contemporary econo-literary criticism is, paradoxically, energetically engaged with the history of economic thought and methods of economic analysis and openly hostile toward economics’ prevailing disciplinary hegemony and its perceived program of institutional and cultural imperialism.

Seybold and Chihara then set out to show “how and (why) contemporary econo-literary criticism breaks the cycle by absorbing its extremes.” This critical recovery of shared disciplinary roots — provocatively, in language not unlike Samuelson’s description of the Keynesian synthesis — characterizes their account of econo-literary criticism today.


The genesis of The Routledge Companion to Literature and Economics was a 2015 American Comparative Literature Association panel, “Literary Finance: Why Now?,” convened by Seybold and Chihara. Drawing on La Berge, Seybold and Chihara describe how finance came to stand in for the economic writ large in popular discourse (see, for instance, the ubiquitous stock ticker on cable news, the hourly NASDAQ and the Dow updates on public radio, and pundits — and presidents — who erroneously use financial markets as indicators of the health of the economy). No doubt financialization generally and the financial crisis more pointedly provided exigence for cultural analysis of the economic. Due to popular fascination and finance’s increased share of the economy, the study of finance and financialization became a key node of contemporary literary and cultural economic analysis, as evidenced by the rise of interdisciplinary Critical Finance Studies working groups, conferences, and journals.

Yet despite its origins in literary finance, Seybold and Chihara are wary of limiting the economic to finance in the collection, and for good reason. As stock prices soar, a result of low interest rates, corporate tax cuts, and stock buy-backs, wages continue to languish. The economy has recovered, and the labor market is tighter than it has been in nearly 50 years, we are told, even as the jobs created since the financial crisis have been almost exclusively in low-wage, low-productivity service work. A fault line that characterizes contemporary criticism of finance emerges here: namely, the financial sector’s relationship to production or the “real” economy. Alissa G. Karl’s chapter on neoliberalism, for instance, deftly explains the varied histories and referents of this by now-vexed term. However, casual claims that “[f]inance and production became increasingly divorced from one another through a number of means,” or that finance has led to the creation of markets that are “divorced from actual labor or material goods” give pause. Indeed, they are sharply undercut in chapters by, among others, McClanahan, Szalay, and Christian P. Haines, the last of whom cautions against critique that “call[s] financialization into question only by repeating a fiction that finance tells about itself, namely, that finance capital belongs to another ontological level, that it is free of mere existence, untethered from the concrete labour that reproduces capitalism.” Also nodding to La Berge, Haines argues that discourses of complexity and abstraction

conceal the mutual imbrication of fictitious capital (i.e., capital that derives profits in a manner not immediately tied to commodity production) and productive capital (i.e., capital invested in the production of commodities), reinforcing belief in the transcendence of finance over the social domain of labour.

No matter the geographical or temporal remove at which it seems to operate, finance remains tethered to production through claims on future value. Now that finance is firmly established in literary studies, I suspect we will see more criticism that grapples with the continued imbrication of different sectors of the capitalist world system (as evidenced in Alden Sajor Marte-Wood’s chapter on “Consumption,” which offers a strong critique of literary studies that occlude production, distribution, and circulation).

While critiques of contemporary finance are well represented in the collection, the editors’ “use of economics gestures toward economic histories that predate the metonymy of finance.” This capaciousness is an asset and is reflected in collection’s broad temporal and conceptual range. This scope supplements more period specific collections, including contributor Shonkwiler and La Berge’s Reading Capitalist Realism (2014) and Mitchum Huehls and Rachel Greenwald Smith’s Neoliberalism and Contemporary Literary Culture (2017), both of which cluster around a particular intersection of contemporary literature and economics. Although it also trends toward 20th and 21st centuries and the Anglo-US contexts, Literature and Economics brings together scholars from across literary and economic history and its longer durée opens up comparative readings and implied conversations by critics who do not often appear together in print. One wonders if these conversations might be opened up to economists, too. (The New Economic Criticism was also primarily made up of literary critics, but did feature a handful of economists, evidence of a parallel track of contemporaneous heterodox criticism.) However, literary allusions in Thomas Piketty’s surprise best seller Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013) aside, orthodox economists do not seem interested in these conversations. If midcentury economists were merely disinterested in the humanities, the apathy of contemporary economists verges on antipathy.


It should not be controversial to note how mainstream economics undervalues social and cultural life, which produces and reinforces a tendency in US society more broadly. As Seybold and Chihara note, “Economists are routinely called upon to rationalize limitations of access to education, healthcare, and legal protection which disproportionately disadvantage minorities and enable harmful upward redistributions of wealth.” The policy prescriptions economists justify, lead, in no small part, to attacks on humanities specifically. The cynical economic imperatives behind the underfunding or outright elimination of humanities departments (most recently a reorganization — read cuts — at the University of Tulsa), the casualization and two-tiered system of academic labor, and the shortsighted attempt to defund Stanford University Press are obvious. However, I may be on less friendly ground in suggesting a tendency in the literary and cultural criticism of economics to overvalue our own contributions, at least in political terms.

Let me be absolutely clear: I am not chastising scholars in the humanities working at the intersection of culture and economics (of which I am one), or the methodologically sharp, interpretively fine-grained, and historically grounded analyses evidenced here. The rigor of collection’s interdisciplinary work is no small accomplishment, and as Seybold and Chihara note, “Interdisciplinary critiques of economics can and should be used to strengthen the society built around them.” Econo-literary criticism is one of the most exciting fields in literary studies, and its value, as this collection demonstrates, ought to transcend the discipline. This is important work, full stop. Yet I am suggesting, and I suspect that some, if not many, contributors to the present volume agree, that when we remind economists of their own historical, philosophical, and rhetorical traditions, or demystify the abstractions of global finance, or insist on the lived realities of our economic system occluded by the scientistic dreams of neoclassical economics, we tend to only do those things: remind economists of their roots or demystify finance or insist economists acknowledge that mathematical maps do not correspond to the actual economic territory.

Here it might be illustrative to move from beginnings to ends, from histories to futures. Seybold and Chihara’s introduction concludes not with Marx (pace McCloskey), but with a typically literary (and typically droll) Keynes: “The reason ‘good economists are scarce,’ Keynes posited, was that while neither the art nor the science of economics ‘require a highly specialized intellectual technique,’ the mind which possesses both ‘appears to be a very rare one.’” Keynes thus suggests another sort of synthesis: good economists — and, one imagines, good econo-literary critics — exist at the intersection of art and science. But the problem of the economic is not a merely a matter of finding equilibrium between rhetoric and models, history and mathematics, or moral philosophy and physics. Seybold and Chihara anticipate this:

We do not imagine that literature can or should represent an entirely autonomous field from power or from the capitalist social relations under which is produced. We do believe in the importance of literary knowledge in the face of the political and social matrix that creates us and that today threatens to destroy us.

This moves us into the realm of politics.


The struggle over economic justice requires political contestation, not solely better ideas or histories. The greatest coup of modern economics was neither the marginal revolution, nor the neoclassical synthesis. Rather it was smuggling in an exploitative ideological project behind a technocratic front. Those who hold politico-economic power have no interest in ceding it, which is in no small part why the conversation this collection encapsulates seems one-sided. Mainstream economics has long demonstrated it cares little about being just, about being fair, about being equitable, about being egalitarian. In the lead up to and fall out from the financial crisis, it has demonstrated that it cares little about being consistent, let alone correct. It cares less about freedom, a concept it consistently evokes, than its relationship to power and its ability to reproduce that relationship. This is why “[t]he richest 1 percent alone absorbed nearly 60 percent of the total increase of US national income” since 1980, according to Piketty. No amount of historical, philosophical, or rhetorical arguments, no demystification, no study or synthesis will change this simple fact. If mainstream economics has reproduced its relation to power by making arguments that appeal to the interests of the powerful, the realm of argumentation seems limited. Making the economy more just is not, unfortunately, a matter of making just arguments to powerful people. It’s about making them do it, which amounts to taking their power away.

Many scholars in the humanities rightfully scoff at the economistic rationality of “the marketplace of ideas,” in which good thinking, well argued, must eventually win out, when it is uncritically proffered by university administrators confronted by encroaching hate speech and incitement on college campuses. The metaphor fails because it relies on bad economic thinking: free markets, equal access, and equilibrium. Like mainstream economic models, the marketplace of ideas refuses to see power — by design. Yet there is a similar market basis for the technocratic arguments offered by progressive critics — literary and otherwise — of the excesses of capitalism over the last 45 years. Calling economics to its shared roots in political economy and its relation to humanistic study is, to my mind, insufficient. Without the power of collective action, better interpretations alone will not change our politico-economic world. And, to paraphrase one of Seybold and Chihara’s literary-minded political economists, the point is, emphatically, to change it.

It is also by design that Christopher Newfield’s contribution “What is literary knowledge of the economy?” directly follows the editors’ thought-provoking introduction. Newfield’s chapter situates “literary knowledge of the economy at the center of an answer to neoliberal economization.” While the claim is optimistic, Newfield suggests how literary knowledge of the economy might turn to praxis. If literature “posit[s] that economy determines subjectivity only across a gap of incommensurability,” then “[t]his apparent paradox has the effect of constituting psychic possibilities and seeing the psyche (and its cultural effects) as incommensurable with these apparently determinate forces.” As examples of this paradox, Newfield references Judith Butler’s work on the political possibilities opened up by power’s inability to reproduce itself perfectly, as well as the “moments of revolutionary possibility that Benjamin called jetztzeit, when the flow of history is interrupted.” Both are examples of an incommensurability between economic, which is to say historical, determination, and a political subjectivity that exceeds the current economic order that conditions it.

Of course, in The 18th Brumaire, Marx also had an account of determination, subjectivity, and political praxis. He argues, in a familiar line, that “[m]en [sic] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” As scholars, students, and readers of literature and economics, it is our job to understand and explain and contest this shared history — the synthesis that Seybold and Chihara suggest in their definition of the new new economic criticism — and that there is no more capacious introduction to this history than The Routledge Companion to Literature and Economics. But, to modify Marx once more, we also must not allow history to smother our own content. When it comes to the political contestation of economics, we cannot take our poetry from the past but only from the future. No economic arrangement lasts forever, but what follows is not inevitable. Literary knowledge of the economy may allow us to see the possibilities opened up by this incommensurability, but possibilities need to be seized, not solely historicized.


Michelle Chihara, the volume’s co-editor, is the Finance Editor of LARB.


John Macintosh is a lecturer in English at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is currently at work on a book project on labor, precarity, and contemporary fiction.

LARB Contributor

John Macintosh is a lecturer in English at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is currently at work on a book project on labor, precarity, and contemporary fiction.


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