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Political Economy and the Novel

by Sarah Comyn on Aug 21, 2018

When Richard Sheets advises his victim, Eric Packer, protagonist of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (2003), that he should have listened to his prostate, he not only diagnoses the asymmetry of economic information that has thwarted Packer’s speculative activities, but also points inwards and more universally, to the hidden, unknown responses that affect the decision-making faculties of human beings. Beyond the fictional realm of Cosmopolis, these psychological and somatic impulses have implications for the supreme figure of economic theory: the resolutely rational homo economicus.

The psychological and socio-political inadequacies of this economic model have begun to be more closely studied and recognised. In The Cash Nexus (2001), for instance, the conservative economic historian Niall Ferguson acknowledges a critical failing in the model of homo economicus with which economists work, arguing:

The true homo economicus – constantly aiming to maximise his utility with every transaction – remains a rarity, and to most of us a rather monstrous one. Every day, men and women subordinate their economic self-interest to some other motive, be it the urge to play, to idle, to copulate, to wreck.

The limitations of this concept of rational, self-interested ‘economic man’ have been emphasised in the most recent crises to shake the financial world. Writing in response to the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2009, Paul Krugman suggests that ‘the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth’. Despite these deficiencies becoming ever more apparent, this model of homo economicus as the basic unit of an efficient market society persists.

In my forthcoming book, Political Economy and the Novel: A Literary History of “Homo Economicus”, I use the Anglo-American novel as an evaluative medium through which to examine the creation and evolving construction of this celebrated subject of economic theory. Adopting a transhistorical approach, through the juxtaposition of economic and literary texts that illuminate historical moments crucial to the development of both discourses, the book examines the manner in which the novel offers an investigation into and a critical account of the psychological, socio-cultural, and moral aspects of homo economicus that the economic vision of rational egoism often ignores. Recognising and exploring the discourse of moral philosophy that political economic theory emerges from, and the emotional and imaginative insight of economic theory’s origins, my analysis, simultaneously, identifies and investigates the category of what I term the ‘empathic imagination’ in the origins of political economic theory and the novel, and its implications for the development and understanding of homo economicus.

Literature and economic discourses share a primary anxiety: the changing nature of value, whether aesthetic, cultural or monetary. Additionally, the novel and political economy emerge during the same period, and their interrelatedness consequently deserves further inspection. Both discourses, therefore, are preoccupied with attempts to represent and thus stabilise value. This primacy is reflected in the attention it is given in the recently developed form of literary criticism labelled ‘new economic criticism’ by Mark Osteen and Martha Woodmansee in their chapter to The New Economic Criticism: Studies at the Intersection of Literature and Economics, particularly within the category they identify as ‘production’. Examining the socio-cultural and economic contexts in which works are produced, this form of criticism recognises that value is not a static concept, nor is it confined to the financial realm.

The novel’s use of character also makes it a prime vantage point from which to examine the emergence and contested construction of a subject with defined characteristics such as the rationality and self-interest prized by economic theory. The characters in novels invite the reader to examine their motivations, actions and relationships within a specific social context. Whether it is through an omniscient narrator or a stream-of-consciousness mode of narration that flits between various characters, for instance, the characters of a novel are endowed with different degrees of interiority that compels a reader’s inspection. The novel can, therefore, present a stark contrast to the psychologically deficient depictions of homo economicus in economic theories, as evidenced in the Ferguson statement above. As opposed to the increasingly abstracted individual of economic theory, characters in novels most often depict a complex nexus of ethical, emotional, cultural and socio-economic factors that influence their actions.

The novel’s intricate relationship with the economy and class structures means that contradictions within its own construction can underscore anxieties and conflicts present in society. The novel, moreover, is engaged in making ‘some sort of truth claim about mundane life’ and one that is often in opposition to the truth claims posited by economics. The novel is, therefore, both participant in and critical of economic theory and practices. Charles Dickens, for instance, mastered the production of the periodical and was at the forefront of developing a successful market for his novels, while simultaneously delivering harsh critiques of the market system. Equally, the emergence of aesthetic man and theories of ‘art for art’s sake’ are interwoven with the rise of consumption as the primary determinant of economic success. It is these instances of contradiction and the dialectic created between complicity and critique that form the basis of my argument in my book that the picture of homo economicus is unfinished without the inclusion of his/her literary equivalents.

The period of history that my book examines is an extensive one, beginning with Adam Smith and finishing with the post-GFC rhetoric engulfing contemporary economic debates. The literary discourse is equally wide-ranging, beginning with the emergence of the novel, moving through Romanticism, mid-Victorian literature, Modernism and finally Postmodernism. I do not provide a detailed history of either discourse, nor an historical overview of the periods under examination, but am rather concerned with snapshots in the histories of both that define and contribute to the development of homo economicus. Each of the literary texts chosen as case studies – The History of Tom Jones (1749); Sanditon (wr. 1817); Great Expectations (1861); Mrs Dalloway (1925); Atlas Shrugged (1957); and Cosmopolis (2003) – represent epochal moments in the history of political economy. From moments of financial celebration to crises of economic faith, my book follows the evolution undergone by the primary agent of economic theory. By examining the origins of this complex and originally rounded figure of the human, my book illuminates the continuing relevance of eighteenth-century cultural forms for understanding contemporary life and culture. In light of recent concerns with the model of homo economicus, I argue that examining the manner in which homo economicus is imagined and transformed over time is the ideal mechanism through which to explore the concomitant changes in value, representation and ethics.

Sarah Comyn
Sarah Comyn is an ERC Postdoctoral Fellow on the SouthHem project at University College Dublin. Her monograph, Political Economy and the Novel: A Literary History of “Homo Economicus” is published with Palgrave MacMillan as part of the series ‘Palgrave Studies in Literature, Culture and Economics’. In 2016 she held a Chawton House Library Visiting Fellowship where she researched the political economic writings of Jane Marcet, Maria Edgeworth, and their literary networks. Her research interests are in Romanticism; Victorian literature; the transhistorical relationships between political economy and literature; and literary institutions in colonial Australia. Dr. Comyn is currently researching the cultural and literary history of Mechanics’ Institutes during the gold rush in colonial Victoria.

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