Jacques Derrida, who next to Michel Foucault, looms over literary discourse as one of the most important and influential thinkers of the second half of the 20th century, famously said “il n’y a pas de hors-text.” This phrase often prompts accusations of ignoring things like historical context, social discourses, and even the droll notion of “authorial intent,” which is likely due to its common mistranslation of “there is nothing outside the text.” The irony here, is that in its literal translation of “there is no outside text,” it plays upon the very concept that Derrida introduced: that there is an infinite interchange of signs. In saying “there is no outside text” it really means is, there is nothing that is not text. In short, if it can be analyzed or “read”, then it is text. In my last post, I addressed the rhetorical foundations of economics, but today, I want to address propose an investigation into the inverse: whether there are inherent economic functions to discourse.
I bring up Derrida because there is no un-learning what he introduced to the world of literary theory. Since we (Sam, Marshall, and I) all either teach or studied literature, literature will often be the subject matter of and examples used in our posts. I am seeking use my space for on the site to try and explicate a position or a theory about a new economic literary criticism, which, ultimately, is a genre of rhetoric (which is why my first post dealt heavily with Kenneth Burke). I am not going to write specifically about Derrida’s work, but he will be used in various ways because his insights are so utterly inescapable. Derrida’s philosophy of Deconstruction held that any discourse is centered around what he calls a “transcendental signifier”, or the organizing principle of the discourse. For Christianity, it’s Christ; for economics, it’s value. (I say “value”, and not “market” or “money” because without the concept of value, the market or money cannot exist. Even “scarcity” fails here because the entire premise of scarcity presupposes something is valuable for human utility.) In his famous lecture “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1966), Derrida argues that this transcendental signifier, or, the center around which a discourse is organized, has been de-centered. It has, through its very existence, become trapped by its own terms. Let me explain a little (keep in mind, I am not a Derrida scholar).
Deconstruction, as a concept, was preceded by Structuralism, a French school of thought that spanned across academic disciplines from anthropology, to philosophy, psychoanalysis, to literary studies, to social sciences, and so on. Structuralism held that every phenomenon was reducible to two dialectically opposed concepts (this site is called posthegel.com after all). For example, the sign was produced by the signifier/signified dialectic. In his lecture, Derrida brings up the text The Raw and the Cooked, a work by structuralist anthropologist Claude Lévi Strauss who was present at the lecture. There, Derrida notes that the idea of the “center” of the discourse, grounds in place and limits the “play”, or the number of substitutions of meaning, of the sign. However, these verbal permutations and substitutions, because they are enclosed within the structure, become structures themselves, with their own capabilities of play. Paradoxically, because the structure is inextricable from its center yet acts to create structures of its own that are enclosed, without the parent structure, the center lies within and without the structure. In short: Lévi Strauss’s example of the raw and the cooked as dialectically opposed concepts, from whose opposition it is possible to know difference, in Derrida’s view, is wrong. In making the distinction between the raw and the cooked, one is premising the idea of “raw” on the very existence of “cooked”. Thus, one is epistemologically impossible without the other. Derrida critiques Heidegger’s Destruktion in the same way, by saying that Heidegger is using previous conceptions of metaphysics to argue against those concepts in favor of new ones. It seems obvious, but in the structuralist heyday, it was a scandal.
So what has Deconstruction to do with economics, and what has economics to do with literature? As was mentioned previously, the “center” or the organizing principle of the discourse, occurs in any text: art, film, literature, etc. In poststructuralist feminism, for example, gender would be the center. In postcolonial theory, it would be the legacy of the colony, or the presence of empire. I am proposing reading texts with economics as the organizing principle: value is the center (and not the center, for that matter) of the text. I am obviously not the first to see the economic potential in literary criticism, Jean-Joseph Goux, Marc Shell, Martha Woodmansee, and Deidre McCloskey, among others, have sought to integrate economics into literature, philosophy and other humanities disciplines. Shell’s book The Economy of Literature acknowledges the symbolicity of money and vice versa, but it is still a piecemeal understanding of how economics functions in literature. In Money, Language, and Thought, he goes further into philosophical investigation, but again, I feel he misses the point. Furthermore, the tradition of Marxist literary criticism with luminaries like Fredric Jameson, Raymond Williams, and Francis Mulhern, and Terry Eagleton, all argue for reading of literature from a working-class standpoint. But what Marxist criticism often missed in the class determinism, is that class can’t exist without the concept of value to give rise to the system that creates class in the first place. For example, reading Dickens’ Great Expectations from a class-consciousness is a worthy endeavor and can put forward a great perspective on High Victorian social problems, but the deeper reading of such a novel would be to examine how the notion of value works in the novel to develop class itself.
I should mention first, my position that literature is a rhetorical artifact. Burke spends the first section of A Rhetoric of Motives drawing this out, and as I wrote about previously, economics itself is a form of rhetoric. If there is a “rhetoric of economics” can there be an “economics of rhetoric”? I’m tentatively arguing this case, and the point of departure will be Jean-Joseph Goux’s Symbolic Economies: After Marx and Freud. Here, he observes, with the spirit of Derrida present, the economic nature of psychoanalysis and seeks to explicate a theory of hermeneutics informed by political economy. A text like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby provides a perfect example for such a theory to be explicated, so look for the next post I write to do just that. Until then.