Literature and Political Economy

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Literature and Political Economy

Postby Jonathan Nitzan » Fri Mar 29, 2019 2:59 pm

Literature and Political Economy
by Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan
Jerusalem and Montreal, March 29, 2019

1. The Two Cultures

Most people think of science and literature as distinct human endeavours. According to received convention, science is mostly about ‘mind’, whereas literature is largely about ‘heart’. Science, goes the argument, is by and large rational, literature primarily emotional. Science is about thinking, literature about feeling.

The practical implication of this duality is that many who consider themselves scientists – particularly in the so-called ‘social sciences’ and especially in ‘economics’ – pay little or no attention to belles-lettres. As far as they are concerned, fiction, poetry and drama are diversions from serious academic work. Occasionally, when going on vacation or to an academic conference, they’ll throw a few cheap thrills into their handbag for ‘relaxation’. They’ll use them instead of sleeping pills after they are done surfing their phones and zapping their telescreen’s channels.

Now, it is true the that line between creative belles-lettres and capitalized cheap thrills has blurred in recent decades – so much so that it’s sometimes difficult to tell them apart. And it is also true that as the number of new novels exploded, their average quality plummeted.

But these shifting patterns are secondary. There is no need to read Leon Trotsky’s path-breaking book on Literature and Revolution (1925) or C.P. Snow’s warning on The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959) to realize that literature in general and novels in particular remain crucial for understanding – and occasionally affecting – the socio-scientific history of humanity.
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2. From Disciplined Science to Creative Bisociation

One key reason for literature’s crucial importance is that, unlike formal science, it is not straight-jacketed by rigid disciplinary boundaries, and this flexibility allows it to offer insights that science as such finds elusive.

The inter-disciplinary fractures of science are well known. Chemists rarely publish papers that rely on psychology – just as economists seldom base their arguments on astronomy, or mathematicians on anthropology. Intra-disciplinary barriers, although less apparent, are equally disabling; just try to imagine materialist Descartes endorsing Newton’s action at a distance, France’s Bourbaki promoting Mandelbrot’s fractals, or the neoclassical Journal of Political Economy warming up to Marxist theory.

These restrictions are rarely present in belles-lettres. Fashion and style aside, there are few if any inter- and intra-disciplinary bounds to speak of, and authors are free to imagine and create their own structures.

This freedom – and here we come to the key point – allows literary writers to engage with the things that matter most: the in-betweens.

The act of creation, argues Arthur Koestler (1964), tends to emerge through ‘bisociation’. Creativity in science, art and humour, he says, springs from attempts to metaphorically juxtapose, relate and synthesize – or bisociate – seemingly unrelated mental matrices. Scientific disciplines and subdisciplines are examples of such matrices. To work within these matrices is to engage in what Thomas Kuhn (1970) would later call normal science – i.e., to reproduce and critique the ‘knowns’. By contrast, to invent something new, says Koestler, requires that we think not only outside the matrix, but between the matrices.
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And indeed, the greatest scientific breakthroughs, or ‘revolutions’, as Kuhn famously called them, tend to occur not inside disciplines, and not even outside disciplines, but across disciplines. These breakthroughs and revolutions are created not by adhering to or critiquing one’s own mental matrix, but by bisociating it with other matrices.

Unlike organized science, whose academic bureaucracy, tribal bickering and disciplinary funding tend to inhibit bisociation, literature, by its very nature, constantly generates it. No novel – not even the lousiest cheap thrill – can be disciplined into a single box. And good novels attract and mesmerize us largely because they biosociate different boxes. Not only do they interlace different facets of the world and the ways in which we know it, they also entice us, the readers, to do the very same.

Looking back, we can see that many of our own ideas and hypotheses about political economy – from our critiques of theoretical orthodoxy and conventional histories to our notions of capital as power, dominant capital and differential accumulation – were ignited, at least in part, by bisociating political economy with the novels we read.

3. Invitation

Since very few scientists, natural or social, bring novels into their research and teaching, we thought it might a good idea to use the as a virtual space in which free spirits like you can creatively bisociate literature and science.

We are particularly interested in the bisociation of literature and political economy – although relevant links between literature and other sciences are also welcome.

The subject and form of your posts are open-ended. You might wish to focus on the literary manifestations of a given aspect of political economy, or on the political-economic insights offered by a specific novel; you can write general analyses and broad-brush impressions or concentrate on a single point; and you can post short pieces as well as longer ones. Whatever you do, try to be concise, precise and, most importantly, interesting!

Post your entries here:

References

Koestler, Arthur. 1964. The Act of Creation. New York: Macmillan.

Kuhn, Thomas S. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd Enlarged ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Snow, C. P. 1959. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. The Rede Lecture, 1959. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Trotsky, Leon. 1925. [2005]. Literature and Revolution. Edited by William Keach. Translated by Rose Strunsky. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Last edited by Jonathan Nitzan on Sat Mar 30, 2019 11:16 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Literature and Political Economy

Postby Jonathan Nitzan » Fri Mar 29, 2019 4:15 pm

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Re: Literature and Political Economy

Postby DT Cochrane » Sat Mar 30, 2019 2:18 pm

A key figure in thinking about science and culture and economy in a transdisciplinary way has to be Kim Stanley Robinson. He is a sci-fi author that thinks about the social relations aspect of technologies in a serious way. I recall thinking particular parts of the book Red Mars resonated with CasP. Robinson has identified his education in Marxist political economy as an inspiration. But because he's working in literature rather than political economy, he seems to be less confined by the theoretical strictures of Marxism.

I'm currently reading his book The Years of Rice & Salt. It starts by imagining that the Black Plague did not kill 1/3 of Europeans, instead killing 99% of the European population. Then, he follows a handful of figures as they are reincarnated into the remaining societies as they evolve free of European colonial and financial power. It strikes me as deeply informed about the actual histories of these societies and then imagines how they might have transformed. What if the Muslim world has remained the centre of scientific development? What if the Chinese has colonized North America?

In the Years of Rice & Salt, there is perhaps a dearth of political economic analysis, although it is not absent. He has not imagined a different evolutionary path to double entry accounting or the emergence of capitalized trading companies a la the British or Dutch East India companies. I'm about 2/3 of the way through, so perhaps that is still to come.
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Re: Literature and Political Economy

Postby Ikonoclast » Sat Mar 30, 2019 9:28 pm

"War and Peace" and Power

Tolstoy’s novel “War and Peace”, among other themes, contains an extended meditation on power. Tolstoy is concerned with the human determinants of power, particularly what powers cause war and what powers cause peace. The clearest proof that the novel contains a meditation on power comes from the second epilogue. The novel has two epilogues but the first is a more traditional one which simply continues certain narrative strands into a “twenty years later” coda. The second epilogue however is a philosophical essay and is expressly concerned with the issue of power and how humans might or might not direct history.

We do not need the explicit confirmation of the second epilogue. At certain points throughout the work, Tolstoy sometimes employs narrative and sometimes suspends narrative to ponder over what capacities and what powers set humans and societies in motion. He is interested in this question at the personal, family and everyday social levels but also at mass levels involving armies, peoples, nations and even the grand flow of history itself. At the personal, familial and social levels, Tolstoy tends to see love, sympathy and empathy but also sometimes hate, callousness and rejection as individually actuating his characters for better or ill. The better emotions and motives, and even the better aesthetic impulses, tend to predominate at these levels in Tolstoy’s created world and to generate a preponderance of harmony and good will. Clearly, this world view from Count Lev Tolstoy is aristocracy-centric. The travails and concerns of the serfs, so numerous at that time, are scarcely dealt with.

However, at the level of mass human action, Tolstoy begins to question if individual emotional forces alone can explain mass behaviours. He seems to suggest that other dynamics come into play and are at work in generating events. Tolstoy dismisses the “great person” theory for historic impetus of the style indulged in by Thomas Carlyle. Tolstoy consistently presents Napoleon and His Marshals on the one hand and Czar Alexander I with his Generals and courtiers on the other as vain, petty, isolated from the true or greater course of events and lacking in consistent long-range plans, understandings and strategies.

Instead, the outcomes of many mass actions, at least of the military kind, are presented as obeying almost Newtonian laws of motion. Thus, when the French Grande Armée clashes with the Russian Army at Borodino, with numerous casualties on both sides, the overall result is seen almost as the outcome of a moving cannon ball with immense momentum (the Grande Armée) colliding with a stationary cannonball (the Russian army) of immense inertia. After a few days of heavy action, the Russian army recoils and retreats along a natural path: a path of least resistance - not a path chosen by its Generals - in the natural direction where it finds supplies and temporary sanctuaries at every stage of the retreat, abandoning the national capital Moscow in the process. The French Grande Armée by comparison is almost halted at the point of the stupendous clash of Borodino but then rolls slowly forward to come to rest in nearby Moscow.

The Grande Armée, though appearing still cohesive is soon shown to be fractured to its heart by the great clash and heavy casualties. All that remains is for the Russian capital to absorb the French army as the sands of a desert absorb a spilled canteen of water. The French soldiery lose discipline and disintegrate into looting mobs throughout the Russian capital, still a wooden city in those times. In no time at all, not necessarily through planned arson or sabotage, but simply from untended fires and general anarchy, the wooden capital is ablaze. Moscow disintegrates and the French army with it. In order to restore order, Napoleon has to re-assemble the army, march it out and abandon the city.

However, this very mechanistic depiction, with events careening beyond planned intentions, is more about Tolstoy’s picture of what happens after (ill-advised) human constituted mass actions have been put together by human agency and then reach a point where humans lose control of events. At this point, fundamental law-bound physical nature and base human nature take over and nobody, especially not leaders, is in control. In this sense humans “sow the wind and reap the whirlwind” to put it in Wisdom literature terms.

Tolstoy is more primarily concerned with how humans first put such mass actions together and then how they behave when they do. He notes up front the pseudo-rationalism of supposedly perfect strategic and tactical plans. He details the clockwork-like meticulousness of the moving parts of the army and how it is first put in motion, to go into action, in a hierarchical fashion via its many linkages to moving parts. He notes the delays in the mechanism as actions rippling through these linked parts, as the “cogs” or formations take their time in turn to assemble and move out; and how the entire army becomes more and more uncoordinated as a result. He also refers to the impossibility of knowing all the variables and the many human and natural imponderables in such a risky undertaking as war, even down to the mood of the common soldiers when they sense their leaders do not really know what they are doing.

Even before military actions commence, Tolstoy wonders how it could be that the “power” of a few could command the many to leave their homes to go to another country, and against all common rules of goodness and society, kill a great number of people they do not even know. Tolstoy finds it perhaps impossible to fully answer this question but he rejects as facile the notion that the commands of a few cause the many to do this. Rather, he seems to speculate that it is a fault of individual responsibility and then of the automaticity of the hierarchical systems which men have set up which cause them to act like this. In obeying that self-built, quasi-automatic mass system, they forget their own individual humanity and normal bonds of human friendship.

When a French column is taking Russian civilian and military prisoners back with them on the retreat from Moscow, the French soldiers are depicted individually as often reasonable and kind-enough men in their actions towards the prisoners around the bivouac fires But when the order comes to march again the next day, through the snows and bitter cold, a change comes over the French soldiers, and they become seemingly automatic, inhuman and inhumane once again. Tolstoy does not pretend to solve the full paradox of this. He simply presents it, perhaps as a cautionary or morality tale.
Last edited by Ikonoclast on Sun Mar 31, 2019 3:42 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Literature and Political Economy

Postby Jonathan Nitzan » Sat Mar 30, 2019 9:49 pm

Titles

I think it would be good to title your posts. It will make navigation easier.
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Re: Literature and Political Economy

Postby Ikonoclast » Wed Apr 03, 2019 11:22 pm

North and South

One of my favorite novels is "North and South" by Elizabeth Gaskell. The phrase "north and south" resonates today as a shorthand for the world development divide in terms of the developed global north and the under-developed global south; although the global north is perhaps now being expanded to include the seaboard of China. In the novel "North and South", published in 1855, the South is London and environs, the prosperous and genteel counties, while the north is Milton a fictional town modeled on Manchester and dominated by the cotton mills.

The heroine Margaret Hale comes from a region called the New Forest, in Hampshire, where she lives contentedly, as yet unmarried, with her parents. Her brother is abroad after joining the navy. Her father, a clergyman, is caught up in a crisis of conscience, not losing his faith, but refusing to sign a letter from the Bishop concerning articles relating specifically to orthodox Church of England versus Unitarian practices. He turns out to be the only man of conscience in the Diocese who will stand up against Church authority. The other clergy sign the articles and he is the lone stand-out. Losing his position and parsonage (a genteel rural life and social position) he is forced to move his family north to smokey industrial Milton looking for a new life.

Margaret Hale witnesses poverty and industrial disease in the North, along with strikes, violent clashes and the generally exploitative behavior towards the workers by the well-to-do mill owners. Her family begin their time in the north with prejudices founded in their belief that as genteel, educated folk, they are better than the more monied, worldly people in trade like the uncultured, nouveau riche cotton-mill owners. The Hale's attitude to the poor is well-meaning but paternalistic and unconsciously condescending.

The harsh realities of Northern life progressively knock these pretensions out of Margaret and her father. She becomes more genuinely concerned about the poor and does all she can to help them. With her father, she finds herself in a role where she wishes to effect some understanding and better relations between the mill-owners and workers. Of course, all this gets mixed up with a love interest for Margaret, in a style quite reminiscent of Jane Austen. The novel is rather like a Jane Austin narrative with a clearer social conscience and several extra themes.

I don't want to give away the plot if you haven't read the book or watched the BBC Series adaptation. Suffice it to say that the themes include modernity versus tradition, different values and norms in different classes, class relations in industrial capitalism, authority and rebellion, feminine and masculine roles and the age-old one of course, romance. Or did the modern idea of romance arise only from medieval literature and enlightenment individualism? I leave that question open.

Anyway, well worth a read and Elizabeth Gaskell is an interesting figure in her own right too.
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Re: Literature and Political Economy

Postby blairfix » Thu Apr 04, 2019 7:46 am

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Re: Literature and Political Economy

Postby jmc » Thu Apr 04, 2019 3:36 pm

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Re: Literature and Political Economy

Postby Ikonoclast » Thu Apr 04, 2019 4:12 pm

Catch-22 and Chomsky

Being of a much older vintage, I read Catch-22 in the 1970s and saw the movie when it came out. I remember understanding it as a satire on war. As a young Australian at the time, I fortunately just missed out on the ballot for the next draft of the National Service, or military conscription. A proportion of Aussie "Nashos" were sent to the Vietnam war. My birthday was due to come up in the next group for ballot when our national government changed after a general election.

The new Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, and his deputy Jim Cairns, formed an emergency two-man cabinet virtually the day after the election and abolished conscription. My father, a veteran of the Papua New Guinea jungle campaign in WW2, was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War. He later revealed to me he had been making preparations to hide me in North Queensland's tropical forest if I had been called up in the draft. He was old school and a hard man in some ways. He certainly would have done it. He hated the politicians who were promoting the Vietnam war and he hated war as most returned servicemen do who saw action and/or the immediate aftermath of action.

I was not really aware of the theme and connection between circular logic and authoritarianism, in Catch-22 or in real life, until you highlighted it here. It's an astute observation. Yet, it seems so obvious once it is pointed out. As we know, the doctrine of revelation, so central to the monotheistic religions, is a case of circular logic. The "Law" uses a subset of its words as the proof that all its words are revelation. It's interesting to note that Hinduism, at its syncretist, philosophical level does not follow a doctrine of revelation. Its metaphysics basically adopts the position that the gods have left humans to figure knowledge out for themselves: even adopting the position that the gods themselves do not know anything of the paradoxically generative "Absolute Nothing" (poor translation) behind and inducing "Absolute Being" (poor translation).

Overall, you have summed up the trifecta (called a triactor in Canada and trio ordre in France). Circular Logic - Hypocrisy - Authoritarianism. Actually, the Canadian term "triactor" sounds wonderful for this purpose; a word to signify how three key modes of thinking form a tri-acting complex to reinforce each other within a dogmatism.

When it comes to Chomsky, yes he is the most brilliant anti-hypocrite of the 20th and early 21st C. I have read too little of him actually. But every essay of his which I have read and every speech of his I have watched on streaming, I can't disagree with a single idea of his, except one. In a throwaway line he scoffs at the idea that free will is anything but completely real and patently obvious. I kind of disagree on that point. I believe the free will debate is considerably more complex than that, but then it was an extempore throwaway line. New research on "intention" in neuroscience is throwing up some very interesting findings... but I digress.

I remember the WMD debate and the Hans Blix mission only too well. You will have to take my word for this, but to me at the time, it was all too obvious that the WMD charges were trumped up. I had followed the Desert Storm campaign closely and read a lot about it. It was clear from that campaign's results that Hussein's Iraq had been severely degraded in terms of industrial and military capacity. The notion that it still supported and successfully hid a significant WMD capacity, even of the chemical kind, was absurd. It proved to be so. Blix found nothing.

Our foreign minister at the time was the egregious and preposterous Alexander Downer. Those were in fact two of his favourite words when pontificating to journalists in his plummy upper class voice. Of course, all the logical points made against his government's policies and actions were either egregious or preposterous and sometimes egregious and preposterous.

Downer insisted that Hussein "had to prove" he did not have WMD. Anyone who understands even a modicum of the principles of law knows the following. Innocence is general. Guilt is particular. It is not possible to prove innocence of a theoretically plausible accusation in many cases because of the very fact that one might well have to account for every time and space instance of one's behavior and possessions over a lengthy period, with many instants and spaces unobserved. Hence, Hussein could not "prove innocence". No matter how many sheds, trucks and holes in the desert were searched, there was always the theoretical possibly that there was still another shed, truck or hole in the desert which hid WMD. Of course demanding the production of proof of innocence is another example of the spurious logic employed in the False Logic - Hypocrisy - Authoritarianism triactor. (Note: this discussion does not make me an apologist for Saddam Hussein. It's about the issue of the proper use of law as opposed to law being misconstrued and misused.)
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Re: Literature and Political Economy

Postby uma » Fri May 31, 2019 11:17 am



Image

Nice contributions so far. As for literature I still find B. Travens work, especially "The Death Ship", extremely relevant.

Is it allowed to extend the concept "literature" to "art" more generally? In this case music more specifically. (Literature is language, language is poetry, poetry is sung....)

In West Berlin, early 1980s (slightly after David Bowie resided there), there was the all-women punk band . Especially two titles are of obvious relevance: and (Youtube links).

Lyrics. I offer my translations of "Geld" and "Macht". In line with observations in the first section of , I translate "Macht" with the etymologically closer "might" rather than "power" (this also makes the text more poetic). "Steingestalt" becomes "stone formation". Ellipses, "...", indicate repetition, but I left out several, without indication.


Original German lyrics:


Achtung, Achtung! ...
Money rules the world.
Money, ...
Our belief is our world,
Our belief is our money,
Our belief is our world.
Money, ...
New religions, old religions,
There is no clarity,
There is no fog,
Blind I followed.
Our belief is our world,
Our belief is our money,
Our belief is our world.
I was seduced,
New religions, old religions.
Our belief is our world,
Our belief is our money.
Buy, believe, pay.
There is no clarity,
There is no fog,
Oh!, if I wasn't so hungry,
How happy could I be.
Our belief is our world,
Our belief is our money.


Original German lyrics (not exactly what they sing):


Life -- interesting through might.
Grand small rich life.
Courage for might,
Nothing for might,
Addiction to might.
Night in night,
Might for might.
Marble -- stone of might,
Cool sleek stone formation.
Money for might,
Bread from might,
Addiction to might,
Might for might.
Yes -- we give our life,
No one can ever take it from us.
Human, you are afraid of might?
Strong plain true human.
Courage to might,
Fear of might,
Addiction to might,
Might for might.
Human, you are afraid of might,
Strong plain true human.
Yes -- we give our life,
No one can ever take it from us.

More of "Malaria!" at the tube box. Videos: , , . Album
.

NB. Originally, the films "Geld", "Your turn to run", and "You" were not videos but shot on Super 8 small film. Also there was no "MTV" at the time. It took quite an effort to make these back then and the result counted as "experimental film".
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