Thursday, January 20, 2011

interdisciplinary pedagogy for literature and economics: some background

I'd like teach classes that integrate literature and economics. Not just classes where the theme is credit satires of the 18th century or Victorian portrayals of the working class, but classes where it's foregrounded that literature and economics are two different knowledge producing disciplines, and that share methods. In both, imagination, metaphor, and logic are vitally important tools.

There's a lot of fractious posturing and well-rehearsed conventional thought about how literature* and economics aren't compatible. Those wacky poets and novelists, they have no head for money; while the cold-blooded economists have no heart, and maybe even no soul.

Among academics, there's also a lot of discussion about how both literature and economics are genres that could be called creative writing -- you write a poem, I write a check, and hey, both of them are creating something that isn't really there!. Money is valuable because we agree that it is, says John Locke; we agree that "a little piece of yellow metal, which would keep without wasting or decay, should be worth a great piece of flesh, or a whole heap of corn" (Sec. 37). It's really no different than the suspension of disbelief that we use when we're reading novels.

It became trendy a while back to suggest that lit. and econ. were rather two halves of one discourse, separated at the fall like the original humans in Aristophanes' account. Mary Poovey goes the farthest in that regard, writing that imaginative writing (as we would define it today) was one of three genres in existence at the end of the seventeenth century, whose main purpose was to mediate value. (The other two were money itself, and writing about money: shipping ledgers, economic theory, etc.) Marc Shell and Kurt Heinzelman, who produced some of the earliest writing on the genre, made similar moves; Heinzelman, if I recall correctly, is the first to wonder whether it would be possible to identify a point at which the discourse of literature and that of money really and truly parted ways for the first time. Money and fiction, like Sophie Zawistowska and Nathan Landau, the original star-crossed lovers. Or maybe more like George and Martha.

This idea of the two as separate halves of the same discipline has been made credible in part by the recognition that the Romantic poets and writers weren't quite so staunchly anti-commercial as previously thought; that their views on the subject were more complex than those of the stock character artists and writers in La Boheme. I'm summarizing here, and compactly, but Philip Connell's Romanticism, Economics, and the Question of 'Culture' provides a lot of historical data on the details.

Truthfully, I'm a little leery of the positioning of lit. and econ. as sundered discourses, because, as Rob Mitchell writes, "while metaphors, tropes, and modes of perception originating in finance may infiltrate literary discourse (and vice versa), if such slippage characterizes every other cultural discourse -- law, politics, medicine, etc. -- then finance and literature begin to seem like arbitrary points of departure and analysis" (8). But it might be right. My problem with it, and this is something I bring up because it's central to the question of a pedagogy uniting the two, is that it ends up being more distracting than useful. It's a move that feels defensive to me, like the lit. side is trying to passively and subtly assert its own importance in relation to finance, by connecting the two.

The conflict between them is huge -- let's acknowledge that. It's not just a catfight -- professional organizations in the humanities are counseling academics to find ways to "emphasize its practical and economic value." It's being called the "Crisis of the Humanities," and looking back over the multitude of articles covering it in the last three years (more than I can list here), there's been little or no development in the argument. It just gets more and more dire as arts and foreign language departments are shuttered.

I don't have an answer to that conflict, or some big insight that solves that problem. But I do think that it, meaning the conflict between the two, needs to be actively considered in the process of developing courses and pedagogy that brings the two subjects together, because otherwise, I don't think those arguments can move forward -- or at least, it's much less likely that they will.

I'll start addressing how we might surmount this problem in my next post in this series.

*(which, for today's purposes, I'm using to mean both the creation of fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction AND the study of said literature)

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