Hayekian literary studies

by Rob Horning

3 January 2007


I keep suspecting MLA types will eventually seize upon Hayek for fresh philosophical underpinnings sufficient to generate new readings of the lit classics. This would perhaps satisfy increasingly whiny right-wing critics of academia’s liberal bias (Michael Berube’s dismissal of that myth notwithstanding) and provide a new direction for theory to go now that the profession is “beyond” or “after” theory. Sure enough, Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein recently published this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the alleged liberal conspiracy against Hayek in favor of Foucault (who, strangely enough, in his latter days actually went around encouraging people to read Hayek, whose ideas about spontaneous order resemble Foucault’s account of power dispersed in institutions.)

While Hayek’s defense of free markets (for which he won the Nobel prize in economics in 1974) influenced global politics far more than Foucault’s analyses of social institutions like psychiatry and prisons, the two thinkers enjoy contrary standing in the liberal-arts curriculum. Hayek’s work in economics has a fair presence in that field, and his social writings reach libertarians in the business school, but in the humanities and most of the social sciences he doesn’t even exist. When I was in graduate school in the 1980s, a week didn’t pass without Foucault igniting discussion, but I can’t remember hearing Hayek’s name. In those heady days of politically framed cultural criticism, academic intellectuals formed a vanguard of cosmopolitan insight and ideological unmasking (so they said), but their range of reference fell short.

Bauerlein concludes that “it would be healthy for everyone if the academic curriculum broadened its scope, if the lineage of conservatism were consolidated into a respectable course of study — that is, if Hayek won one-tenth the attention that Foucault receives.” He imagines such a course in conservative thought would build up from Burke and Tocqueville to such contemporary luminaries as Harvey Mansfield (author of much-derided book about manliness), cultural-literacy dogmatist E.D. Hirsch, and Dinesh D’Sousa, whose most recent book blames the “cultural left” for 9/11. Wow, the promise of such a course is almost enough to make me wish I was a graduate student again. (Not really.) When I was in school, my sense was that English department conservatives wanted to teach literary appreciation courses in the established classics and couldn’t fathom why students wouldn’t want a warm bath in the luxuriance of the great works. These people were against ideas generally (and wouldn’t have ever even considered the possibility of praxis) and preferred subjective pronouncements about aesthetic quality backed up by tradition. The entire profession of literature studies for them seemed to be about deciding which works were “great.” This led me to think aesthetics themselves were a conservative conspiracy (a view which Eagleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic did much to foster).

But a familiarity with philosophical underpinnings of modern capitalism—via classical economists Adam Smith and Ricardo and more recent apologists like Milton Friedman—to balance the Marxist critiques that often are introduced in literary theory and cultural studies classes would probably be a good thing. It’s no good citing Marxist theory without understanding which parts of it are generally held by all credible economists to be bunk. And I think that commercialism and the logic of business has a lot more to do with literary developments than the various romantic mystifications of genius and aesthetic innovation.

Anyway, I had been wondering what the trojan horse might be for smuggling Hayek into cultural studies programs. This essay is a start: Reason’s blog points readers to this article by Paul Cantor, which applies Hayek’s notion of spontaneous order to television-show development and exemplifies what Hayekian literary studies might look like. (Obviously I’ll have my eye out for the forthcoming Literature and Economics: Studies in Spontaneous Order, which Cantor co-edited with Steven Cox as well.) Cantor asserts that falling back on spontaneous order is a good way of skirting the all-too-common (I do it all the time) logical inanity of attributing agency to art works that don’t lend themselves to the kind of close reading that ascribes authorial intention to every minute choice—things like TV shows and Shakespeare’s plays, since these were likely shaped in performance and written down later. Spontaneous order can be seen as variation on the Romantic (and New Critical) ideal of organic form, which evolves dialectically in regard to content so that they suit each other perfectly. And better yet, this view demotes the lone genius working in opposition to society and replaces him with a celebration of collaboration, of art-making as not a mystical process reserved for special people (rich, elite, overeducated) but as a quotidian process of ordinary people pooling and specializing their talents. “The idea of spontaneous order always seems counterintuitive to us; as human beings we evidently are conditioned to attribute order to an individual orderer. That is why the ideas of both Smith and Darwin (not to mention Hayek) encountered so much initial resistance and are rejected to this day by many people. But if one recognizes the various kinds of feedback mechanisms at work in popular culture, one begins to see that it is possible for it to lack a centrally ordering agent and yet be self-regulating and self-perfecting.” It’s the last part that likely causes the most trouble—not only are we reluctant to grant agency to the workings of an unmanaged system, but we are unwilling to accept that as the best of all possible results on account of there being no self-interest director (or state apparatchik) orchestrating it all. And feedback loops and spontaneous orderings often yield nonoptimal results—American Idol, for instance. But yet it may be nonoptimal only to my elitist aesthetic. Cantor cites this cautionary advice from literary critic Franco Moretti: “If it is perverse to believe that the market always rewards the better solution, it is just as perverse to believe that it always rewards the worse one!” Actually there is nothing perverse about such a belief: Disdaining what’s popular (and what popular taste has shaped via the market) is a sure way of protecting the power that derives from your intellectual capital—you believe that judging what is best requires that special training that you, fortunately enough, have managed to acquire. Aesthetics are a disguised way of exercising arbitrary power, and markets thus seem democratic because they democratize the aesthetic, or make it something collectively decided. But the market is no panacea; it’s distorted by the different advantages (more money, political capital) participants bring to it. You must have the capital (the connections, the money, etc) to get your TV show made before spontaneous order can begin to perfect it, and that capital already embeds decisions that have nothing to do with what might have been spontaneously demanded. In other words, we still fight over control of where to fix the starting points and parameters within which market processes, creative and liberating as they may be, will work.


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