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Posts Tagged ‘Jean Baudrillard’

Book Review: Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox’s Literature and the Economics of Liberty

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Communism, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, Fiction, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 23, 2012 at 4:53 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following book review originally appeared here in the Fall 2010 issue of The Independent Review.

Humans are not automated and predictable, but beautifully complex and spontaneous. History is not linear. Progress is not inevitable. Our world is strangely intertextual and multivocal. It is irreducible to trite summaries and easy answers, despite what our semiliterate politicians would have us believe. Thinking in terms of free-market economics allows us to appreciate the complicated dynamics of human behavior while making sense of the ambiguities leading to and following from that behavior. With these realities in mind, I applaud Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox for compiling the timely collection Literature and the Economics of Liberty, which places imaginative literature in conversation with Austrian economic theory.

Cantor and Cox celebrate the manifold intricacies of the market, which, contrary to popular opinion, is neither perfect nor evil, but a proven catalyst for social happiness and well-being. They do not recycle tired attacks on Marxist approaches to literature: they reject the “return to aesthetics” slogans of critics such as Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom, and John M. Ellis, and they adopt the principles, insights, and paradigms of the Austrian school of economics. Nor do Cantor and Cox merely invert the privilege of the terms Marxist and capitalist (please excuse my resort to Derridean vocabulary), although they do suggest that one might easily turn “the tables on Marxism” by applying “its technique of ideology critique to socialist authors, questioning whether they have dubious motives for attacking capitalism.” Cantor and Cox are surprisingly the first critics to look to Austrian economics for literary purposes, and their groundbreaking efforts are sure to ruffle a few feathers—but also to reach audiences who otherwise might not have heard of Austrian economics.

Cantor and Cox submit that the Austrian school offers “the most humane form of economics we know, and the most philosophically informed.” They acknowledge that this school is heterodox and wide ranging, which, they say, are good things. By turning to economics in general, the various contributors to this book—five in all—suggest that literature is not created in a vacuum but rather informs and is informed by the so-called real world. By turning to Austrian economics in particular, the contributors seek to secure a place for freedom and liberty in the understanding of culture. The trouble with contemporary literary theory, for them, lies not with economic approaches, but with bad economic approaches. An economic methodology of literary theory is useful and incisive so long as it pivots on sound philosophies and not on obsolete or destructive ideologies. Austrian economics appreciates the complexity and nuance of human behavior. It avoids classifying individuals as cookiecutter caricatures. It champions a humane-economy counter to mechanistic massproduction, central planning, and collectivism. Marxism, in contrast, is collectivist, predictable, monolithic, impersonal, linear, reductive–in short, wholly inadequate as an instrument for good in an age in which, quite frankly, we know better than to reduce the variety of human experience to simplistic formulae. A person’s creative and intellectual energies are never completely products of culture or otherwise culturally underwritten. People are rational agents who choose between different courses of action based on their reason, knowledge, and experience. A person’s choices, for better or worse, affect lives, circumstances, and communities. (“Ideas have consequences,” as Richard Weaver famously remarked.) And communities themselves consist of multiplicities that defy simple labels. It is not insignificant, in light of these principles, that Michel Foucault late in his career instructed his students to read the collected works of Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek. Read the rest of this entry »


Speculations About Baudrillard

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Economics, Humane Economy, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on November 22, 2011 at 9:54 pm

Allen Mendenhall

The following post originally appeared here at Austrian Economics and Literature.

The emancipation of the sign: remove this ‘archaic’ obligation to designate something and it finally becomes free, indifferent and totally indeterminate, in the structural or combinatory play which succeeds the previous rule of determinate equivalence. The same operation takes place at the level of labour power and the production process: the annihilation of any goal as regards the contents of production allows the latter to function as a code, and the monetary sign, for example, to escape into infinite speculation, beyond all reference to a real production, or event to a gold-standard. The floatation of money and signs, the floatation of ‘needs’ and ends of production, the floatation of labour itself—the commutability of every term is accompanied by speculation and a limitless inflation (and we really have total liberty—no duties, disaffection and general disenchantment; but this remains a magic, a sort of magical obligation which keeps the sign chained up to the real, capital has freed signs from this ‘naïvety’ in order to deliver them into pure circulation).

—Jean Baudrillard, from “Symbolic Exchange and Death”

Baudrillard’s hyperreality is fascinating. I’ve written about it here and here. I have reservations about Baudrillard, but I think his theories could be useful to libertarians and Austrian economists. What follows is merely speculation. I’m seeking feedback, not advancing an argument that I’m invested in.

What Baudrillard calls the “political economy of the sign,” economists call the “subjective theory of value.” Claiming that his term is inadequate because its signification is allusive and coded, Baudrillard seems to multiply the subjective theory of value until it (and what it evaluates: the good or service for which people exchange currency) becomes something else, something re-signified. In so doing, Baudrillard seems to mimic or participate in the very semiotic processes that he is describing.

The re-signified version of the subjective theory of value can no longer be called the subjective theory of value because the re-signified version is, to a degree, counterfeit; the same can be said of the materiality (the thing used to facilitate or complete an economic transaction) constituting the monetary unit described by the subjective theory of value. Strictly speaking, the re-signified version of this theory is itself a replacement copy of the theory, just as money and other units of exchange are merely signs standing in the place of “worth.”

The subjective theory of value holds that a thing does not possess inherent worth. Instead, worth arises because of the social value that attaches to a thing. Worth, or cost, is the price which one person is willing to pay and which another person is willing to sell. Standing in contradistinction to the labor theory of value, which Baudrillard seems to pooh-pooh (perhaps because of his disaffiliation with the Marxism of his youth), the subjective theory of value maintains that worth or cost depends upon the ability of a thing to satisfy the wants of consumers. A consumer is satisfied to the extent that a thing is useful to him. Utility here is measurable in psychological and not just “practical” terms; a person may want something because it makes him feel good. What seems to bother Baudrillard is the extent to which consumers exchange goods (themselves mediated by signs and representations) to become plugged into a symbolic network rather than to satisfy an immediate need. The satisfaction is what comes with the entrance into a symbolic order.

A thing, according to this conception of value, is not worth a lot simply because a lot of people mix their labor with it. Nor is a thing worth a lot because of some essential properties or qualities it contains. Rather, thing A is worth a lot because people think it is worth a lot: because people are willing to exchange something they own (thing B or C or D) in order to own thing A.

For Baudrillard, the subjective theory of value (a term he never uses) has vast implications for the sign in the postmodern world, just as the sign has vast implications for the subjective theory of value in the postmodern world. Because the worth or value of a thing is not tied to labor, it is, in a way, as Baudrillard suggests, subject to infinite speculation and free from all reference to production. Media of exchange (e.g., money) float outside the real—which is to say, outside of material things. They became simulacra for some temporary and contingent concept of value. Perhaps more importantly, the media of exchange are themselves distorted and fabricated by structures of symbols marking various exchanges. Fiat money brings about the complete arbitrariness of the sign, which is entirely divorced from use value. The ability of a green piece of paper (speaking in terms of American dollars) to become exchangeable for products depends upon social signification; the economy itself is dominated by signs and images, which are, after all, what producers and consumers exchange for products. Read the rest of this entry »

Nietzsche on the Writer or Artist

In Art, Artist, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 5, 2011 at 9:23 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following post first appeared here at The Literary Table.


“[O]ne does well to separate the artist from his work, which should be taken more seriously than he is.  Ultimately, he is no more than its pre-condition, the womb, the soil, possibly the manure and midden upon which, from which it grows—and thus, in most cases, something which must be forgotten before the work itself can be enjoyed.  Insight into the origin of a work is a matter for physiologists and vivisectors of the spirit: but never one for the aesthetic men, the artists!”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

It’s easy, reading Nietzsche, to fall into anachronism: to consider his comments about divorcing the author from the text as indicative of something akin to the New Criticism, a hermeneutic that isolated texts from externalities such as authorial intent and that treated the aesthetic object as self-contained and autonomous.  That is not at all what Nietzsche meant.  For Nietzsche, the text, or the aesthetic object, is not isolated from externalities, but merely removed from and, in a way, prior to the author; the text is plugged into externalities, shaped and molded by them, so much so that the author is but the incidental medium through which the text speaks.  The text, in other words, has its own authority apart from its creator, who, through the will, channels social and cultural energies to generate aesthetic output.  The writer or artist is “no more than its pre-condition, the womb, the soil, possibly the manure and midden upon which, from which it grows.”  Discourse impregnates the writer or artist, who, thus implanted with ideas and alphabets, carries vocabularies through their prenatal stages and into a rebirth—or new expression—in the form of art.  

According to Nietzsche, the objects and ambitions of the writer or artist as a thinking actor are not, or ought not to be, overstated because the writer or artist is the ultimate example of the effect of action and will.  For the writer or artist is not independent from discourse and ethos—indeed, he is constituted by them, and so, by extension, is his textual production: the aesthetic object.  We may forget the author; if anything, he or she only impedes the pleasure we derive from texts and aesthetics.  The author is “something which must be forgotten before the work itself can be enjoyed.”

Why does Nietzsche posit this view?  What is he after?  Among other things, he’s criticizing the writers and artists who would have us believe that they are above and beyond others, somehow able to divine the real and the eternal.  These writers and artists treat the ascetic ideal as part and parcel of aestheticism—i.e., they conflate the ascetic with the aesthetic to maximize their feeling of power.  Although writers and artists promote themselves in this way, as if they had privileged access to universal yet remote knowledge, they realize, Nietzsche says, that on some level their ascetic ideal is an unreality or falsity—what Baudrillard might have called a hyperreality or simulacrum.  The ascetic ideal is escapism: a fleeting respite from the reality of the will to power, the impulse that the writer or artist seeks to evade, suppress, and disguise.  The conflict of the writer or artist lies in the desire to escape both to and from asceticism; for the intoxicating powers of the ascetic ideal are sobered by the boredom and angst of knowing that the ideal is but therapy and relief.  That realization means that therapy and relief are themselves, paradoxically, the grounds for further escapism—for further therapy and relief. 

All of this suggests that ascetic ideals do not signify.  As Nietzsche says, ascetic ideals “mean absolutely nothing!”  What is so remarkable about these ideals is that they are contingent and contextual such that they amount to nothing and everything at once, and that we will, despite ourselves, and despite our longing for meaning, chase after nothing rather than not chase at all.  That, alas, is why the artist lacks independence in this world.  That, alas, is why no artist is disinterested.

Moundsville Penitentiary

In Jurisprudence, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Politics, Prison on April 29, 2010 at 6:50 pm

These articles express my frustrations about, and ambivalence toward, the tourist spectacles at Moundsville Penitentiary:

“Moundsville Penitentiary, Model and Symptom of Hyperreality,” International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1 (2009).

“Moundsville Penitentiary Reconsidered: Second Thoughts on a Small Town Prison Tour,” Libertarian Papers, Vol. 2, No. 1 (2010).

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