Modernism and the Abstraction of Value:
Poetry and Political Economy in transition (1927-38)

During this recent era, linguistic understandings of political economy found purchase for a wealth of reasons, many of which have a grounding in actual conditions. Nonetheless [. . .] the literarity of such conceptions ended up participating in, and sometimes generating, serious analytic errors . . . . The misrecognitions of value engendered by modes of literarity thus pose a radical limit to the history of the present. —Joshua Clover, “Value/Theory/Crisis” (107, 109)


In my lecture at the Poetry of the 70s conference at University of Maine (under the rubric “Late Capitalism and Language Writing”; 2008), I made a strong claim that the “turn to language” in poetry must be seen as simultaneously a response to the emergent horizon of neo­liberalism after 1973 along with an anticipatory illumination, undertaken at the level of form, of what the new order of intensified commodification and mobility of capital would look like—and how it might be comprehended and opposed. The experience of poets and other intellectuals working in the 1970s was of necessity framed by a new political and economic horizon, with the end of the long wave of capital accumulation after 1945; parallel recessions in the major industrialized nations; increased capital fluidity through changes to the monetary system; and the combined authoritarian/free market repression in Chile and elsewhere to come. The “turn to language” in poetry (as in other arts and cultural theory) that followed was an irreducibly complex negotiation between literary and philosophical influences and historical conditions that did result in a structural analogy between poetic form and political economy at that formative moment. This analogy has been overly simplified, however, in casting the saturation of commodity culture and global penetration of the market in terms of the separation of signifier from signified within a dominant postmodernism, to the extent that it can be reduced to a portable operative term. To see the “turn to language” as a form of “literarity” that functions within political economy like some kind of computer language or system still requires an historical account in the Marxist sense—how was this new language produced? Refunctioning the “turn to language” may both open up its historical determinants and resist its reduction to obsolete hardware to be gone beyond, even as the materiality of signification suggests a possibly unmediated approach to real conditions as our history of the present. (I also argue that we need to renarrate Language writing’s reception so this does not occur.) [. . .]

[MLA Boston, 4 January 2013]

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