Ralph Clare is an Assistant Professor of English at Boise State University. He is currently researching how affect and sincerity are treated in the literature of neoliberal America and his essays have appeared in Studies in the Novel and Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction and in a number of edited collections.
Contact: [email protected]
Jeffrey Gonzalez is an Assistant Professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. His research and teaching focus on the ways that society and contemporary literature inform and react to each other. His work has been published in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction and Mosaic.
Contact: [email protected]
An Interview with Ralph Clare, Author of Fictions Inc.: The Corporation in Postmodern Fiction, Film, and Popular Culture
Published December 2015
Introduction: Ralph Clare is an Assistant Professor of English at Boise State University. He is the author of Fictions Inc.: The Corporation in Postmodern Fiction, Film, and Popular Culture, published by Rutgers University Press in 2013. Fictions Inc. offers detailed readings of a diverse body of texts that, in one way or another, push readers to think about the role of the corporation in 20th and 21st century America. Using a complex set of critical tools—historicizing the rise in the pharmaceutical industry in the 1980s to read White Noise; drawing on Slavoj Žižek and Louis Althusser to explain the model of resistance that appears in Crying of Lot 49; looking at 1980s gentrification policies and government outsourcing while discussing Ghostbusters—Clare generates a series of insights about the fears and the desires embodied in the corporation. What he finds is that older avenues of resistance to consumer capitalism have closed, but the desire to imagine new ones, and maybe create them, remains open.
Jeffrey Gonzalez: At one point in the acknowledgments section of Fictions Inc., you stated that the book came out of a shorter version of the chapter on William Gaddis’s J R you delivered at a Gaddis conference. In that chapter, you talk about how the corporation co-opts the metaphor of “family,” presenting itself as the stabilizing force in society while its growth destabilizes the solid ground on which actual families used to stand. Was it frustration with the cynicism of this gesture that drove the project, or was it the relationship between Gaddis’s critique of it and other texts? In other words, can you draw us a line from how the Gaddis chapter got you to a book?
Ralph Clare: There were a number of things—too many to list here—that came together to inspire this book. Around the time of the Gaddis conference I was also writing a paper on DeLillo’s White Noise that opened up into a general consideration of the pharmaceutical industry in the novel through the vehicle of the corporation that had tried to develop Dylar. I had been reading Gaddis pretty avidly for a couple of years by then, and the 2005 Gaddis conference in Buffalo provided me with an opportunity to write on him. I wanted to move away from what earlier Gaddis criticism had been exploring (and when I got to the conference, I happily learned that so did everyone else), and the corporate angle had yet to be treated as a theme in and of itself. Suddenly, the DeLillo paper had a dancing partner, and an overall pattern started to emerge.
Up to that point, I was interested in thinking about the relationship between aesthetics and politics in postmodern fiction. There was a problem for me in that I came of critical reading age in the late ’90s and learned belatedly that this thing called postmodernism was by then as much corpse as corpus. But I still wanted to write about the stuff, still found myself invested in it, still felt it had a pretty progressive politics behind it. I wanted to Mark Twain pomo’s reputed demise and respond in some way to critiques of postmodernism’s supposed complicity with consumer culture or its concern with mere textuality. As it turned out, the corporation became something that could serve as a focal point of analysis over a wide range of postmodern literary and pop-cultural texts. [My book’s eventual focus on the corporation] really was thanks to J R [because] in that novel Gaddis is interested in looking at the legal construction of the corporation, its discursive basis as well as its material one. That got me thinking about the corporate form itself in pretty productive ways. So I was able to make an argument that postmodern fiction, far from ignoring questions of political economy under late capitalism, engages economic concerns in its own fashion, particularly in its treatment of the corporation.
JG: In your chapter on The Octopus and Crying of Lot 49, you describe the corporation (with Pynchon’s Yoyodyne as an example) as an example of what Louis Althusser called the ideological state apparatus (ISA). It seems that this characterization of the corporation is a key hinge in your book—why, for instance, Jack Gladney’s obsession with death is traceable to the pharmaceutical industry, rather than to bourgeois malaise. Can you discuss your sense of how corporations do the “hailing” that Althusser describes?
RC: Since Althusser’s ISA functions mainly by ideology and not repression, today’s corporations are exemplary ISAs. That’s not to say that corporations aren’t involved in violent acts—they are, and their common participation in the destruction of the environment serves as a potent example—but the main point is that they function primarily through ideology. First, their very existence and status as “persons” in view of the law is obviously ideological, and the fact that even “exposing” this scandalous legal maneuver has changed nothing shows the “materiality” of this ideology and how well the fantasy functions: for while everyone “really” knows that corporations aren’t people, nevertheless everyone treats them as such. Second, multinational, for-profit corporations drive the global capitalist economy. They produce goods and services, distribute them on a massive scale for consumption, and then they reinvest the profits and the investments of others back into producing more goods and services. They are unquestionably accepted as necessary because they provide the basic necessities of life for most of us, from the foods in our grocery stores to the medicines on our pharmacy shelves. Unless you’re living in a heavily armed compound somewhere in rural Montana, you probably need, or assume that you need, these corporations to stay alive. So the corporation, like any ISA, ensures that the relations of production remain the same. “Too big too fail” was the line given to us about saving the banks during the 2007-8 financial crisis, but it would not be too far off to say this about any number of corporations in the public’s imagination.
The more direct aspect of corporate “hailing” or interpellation emerges from the branding of ourselves and our culture that Naomi Klein and numerous others have called attention to. We basically all work for these corporations, which many of us despise, yet we happily and automatically assume the titles they give us: assistant to the assistant of something or other. At the very least, we end up purchasing products from them, no matter how much we may try to avoid it. Every single advertisement hails or interpellates us as consumers from the day that we’re born. Even when we mock the Depends undergarment commercial now, we will one day fit its demographic and may have to take it seriously. Perhaps because of the neoliberal cutting of funding for social services, the worst interpellation these days occurs in the public’s need to court corporate money and support for the arts and education, for only they can save us.
But, as Althusser would probably say, it’s really an imaginary relationship that we have with corporations. Even if we see through the ideological illusion that they are “persons” and think of them as just soulless entities, we still treat them as separate from us, something “larger” than us or “outside” of our control. What ideology obscures from us is that the corporation is a form of human organization, a peculiar institutional structure, and an incredible example of what people can do when they organize for a common purpose. However, limited liability, which protects investors from being held liable for the firm’s actions, also limits the involvement of investors, reducing their concerns to finances (rather than ethics or morals). All of this makes the standard for-profit corporation beholden to exchange value. So it usually does not recognize its inherently communal structure or allow its notion of responsibility to extend to the commons as such, or to a consideration of a responsibility to and relationship with others.
JG: Follow up here: what has happened to the state in the ISA, if, as you say a few times (including the chapter on Crying), the corporation doesn’t work in lock step with the state?
RC: The state is always a corporate enabler because it’s the other side of the Althusserian apparatus dialectic—it’s the RSA or Repressive State Apparatus. The state’s influence just varies according to the amount and kinds of regulations it wants to enforce. This isn’t to suggest that there is no adversarial tension to this relationship in that capital is about continually circulating and overcoming boundaries and limits and that the borders of a nation are viewed by a corporation as a potential trap for the state to contain and siphon off capital. But these national borders also create “zones” from the corporation’s perspective that give rise to new incentives and enticements that corporations can gain by playing one zone/nation off against another. So we should really see the relationship as technically dialectical. Though from the point of view of capital, the state is a potential mark for whom the purchase of the Brooklyn Bridge would be, literally, chump change. With this in mind, it is difficult for me to accept that there could be a total “withering away of the state” under capitalism, as ironic as such a development would be, and the establishment of a corporacracy in its place. That’s why I refer several times to Foucault’s late work and his point about neoliberal governance—that the state governs for the economy, not in spite of it. As a result, the neoliberal state provides some wonderful windfalls and protections for corporations and capital while it undermines various protections and rights for its citizens, as David Harvey, Wendy Brown, and others have pointed out. The state is necessary for the corporation because it establishes, among other things, “the rule of law” and a legal system that enforces contracts (at home and, if possible, abroad) and ensures that people pay their debts; it keeps a standing army and police force to help do this; and it provides a seemingly endless stream of revenue via the taxpayer that benefits business in the form of large government contracts and potential bailouts. If corporations had to spend money on their own security forces (some do in certain countries) or armies and create their own independent transnational body—similar to a WTO or IMF, but let’s say even more partisan—which would legislate between corporations if and when they resorted to trade and real wars. That would just be bad for business. In short, the state has stability, history, and legitimation on its side, and it helps to foster, protect, and promote corporate interests—and, as an additional bonus, it can be politically influenced. The state, then, becomes all about biopolitical management and creating human resources that capital can invest in. Essentially, the state becomes an HR department for the global market.
One of the things that I find fascinating about dystopian films where a corporate world dominates (which can be very different from the older totalitarian state motif) is that we hardly see or hear anything about a political system, though we know it must exist in some form. Take Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (which I don’t look at in the book): it presents a gloomy world comprised of consumer culture, large corporations (like Rosen, which makes the replicants), and off-earth colonies. We see no evidence of government or democracy at work outside of the police and its bureaucracy (Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on which the film is based, has a touch of government television propaganda). This seems right to me—the state has “withered away” from providing any basic social services to its citizens outside of providing a standing army (for colonization), a police force, and a legal system, all of which remain in order to enforce the rule of law, business contracts, and contracts between labor and capital. [The film portrays a] government emptied of any democratic content (though patriotic, nationalistic images and rhetoric are welcome). Yet it produces and manages citizen-workers biopolitically for such organizations, just the way that the Rosen corporation produces replicants—which are basically cyborgs, part human and part technological—to be workers. Critics and viewers often ponder the “posthuman” questions the film raises: what does it mean to be human, and why are the replicants just as, if not more, worthy of our empathy? However, from the argument I’ve outlined above, we should perhaps downplay the ultimately liberal humanist concern with the distinction/breakdown between the human and nonhuman that the film ponders and understand, instead, that it is actually about the biopolitical production of bodies as labor for capital.
JG: You’ve convinced me of Ghostbusters’s neoliberalism (and made it necessary for me to give a long preface before I show it to my son one day!). Some of the films you’ve written about seem more conventional fits into a project like this—Network and Michael Clayton or Office Space, which you briefly discuss in your conclusion—than Tommy Boy or the aforementioned Ghostbusters. Can you describe your selection process here?
RC: To be honest, the selection was fairly arbitrary. A few films occurred to me right away because of their obvious concern with corporate power, but then I realized that the figure of the corporation could be found in numerous films—often as a fairly benign or hardly noticeable entity—and looking at some of these would make the study more varied. At some point, I realized that I pretty much had a film for each of the last five decades and that each film could speak for the flux of capital around the time of each film’s production. So even though I had to overlook many films dealing with corporate power, the selection process ultimately created a good, workable structure for analysis. Overall, I found that the little recessions and economic booms of each decade—what must seem like a kind of critical micro-management on my part—was actually an interesting thing to chart.
I’ll also admit to a perverse desire to want to include films like Tommy Boy, Ghostbusters, and Gung Ho, these seemingly innocuous and, probably in Gung Ho’s case, forgotten cultural artifacts. This ran the risk of alienating the reader, but overall I was a little surprised and delighted that you could find the same themes of corporate power in both a “serious” film like Network and in a buddy road comedy or a comedy about cross cultural anxieties and that each film’s genre/form would attempt to deal with the problem of corporate power in different fashions. Overall, I was struck with how deep-seated America’s ongoing concern with the ups and downs of seesaw capitalism actually is. These economic concerns are so often hidden in plain sight in popular movies that we tend to ignore the myths they play out for us again and again. In other words, it isn’t just radical leftist critics of capital or middling reformists of corporate malfeasance who are concerned with the contradictions of capitalism; the insatiable consumer who “buys” the same old pop-schlock is as well. Of course, the latter’s concerns do not often become an extended systemic analysis, but they point to specific, lingering cracks in the system. More than anything, they betray a conscious and unconscious suspicion of capitalism and a real desire to question its axioms.
If we want to be optimistic, I think that suspicion speaks to the potential that exists for political and economic change if this discontent could somehow be tapped into in the right way. Or perhaps this is more an example of the kind of “cruel optimism” that Lauren Berlant talks about in her eponymous 2011 book: in these films, the characters express frustration (content) while the genre conventions (form) repeat the myths the characters live by, and so both character and genre end up clinging to whatever diminishing returns capital still offers as the inevitable or necessary solution (as we see in Berlant’s “cluster of promises”). Yet, for Berlant, disaffection is still affect (still a form of libidinal investment), and if, according to various affect theorists, affect is the potential of a body to act and be acted upon in a “good” way, then the question becomes how to turn the disaffected into the politically active.
JG: At the end of “California Dreamin’,” you make an interesting claim about the shift from more directly economics-driven novels to ones where the “economic base becomes the given mise-en-scène of a fictional world, similar to the way that corporate capitalism has calmly proceeded to dominate the world today” (49). I’m curious about this change. Are the other post-1960s texts you’re writing about—J R, White Noise, and Gain—following this strategy as a conscious choice, as kind of a roughly unified politics of representation? Or would you make the Jamesonian suggestion that the shift is a consequence of structural social and economic changes, larger than authorial intention? A third option: could it be that the realist genre (even with postmodern exaggeration, such as White Noise) doesn’t let itself think in utopian ways, trapping it in the liberal humanist space Žižek often describes?
RC: Honestly, sometimes I’m not even sure what the realist genre is these days, whether we should consider it as a historically specific genre as Jameson does or whether realism gets to change with the times, so that the pomo-inflected work of DeLillo can be considered a new development of it. Yet that could lead to the unconvincing argument that even the most radical postmodern texts are actually just “realist” texts because they capture the true ontological complexities of our fast-paced, media-saturated, consumerist age. If you were to believe Jonathan Franzen, then a kind of traditional realism can and should be recovered by writers today (along with some tiresome high-horse nay-saying and moralizing). For Jameson, maybe a bit like Franzen, Zola’s rich and evocative description of a smelly cheese shop with its shapes and colors and resulting sensual stimulation all equals realism. But let’s face it: our postmodern cheese shop is the one from the Monty Python skit where the endless deferral of not getting any cheese is part of the joke. So, of course, I agree with Jameson that there are massive structural changes at play here that make classic literary realism insufficient to capture, through cognitive or literary maps, the complexities of a postmodern economic, global capitalist system.
However, that doesn’t mean that authors don’t attempt to imagine new ways of representing this system—especially when today’s writers have probably read Jameson on postmodernism—or that entire genres or artistic mediums are now totally outdated because of the systemic changes (that can limit the possibility of critique and lead to laziness on the part of critics, not authors). It’s almost as if representing the unrepresentable economy, or calling attention to the problems of realist representation, as Jameson does in his own readings of pomo, was a sometimes conscious move of writers themselves around this time too.
For me, the figure of the corporation in its mere appearance signifies this unrepresentable system and provides a more tangible way of thinking about it. It is figured both consciously by writers who might want to imagine capital in some way, and it is also, by default, an unconscious entryway into questions of capital in texts that think they are simply reproducing the world as it is—because it certainly is one full of corporations. So for those literary writers—Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo, etc.—who are conscious of capital and critical of it in their work, it just may be a sort of “roughly unified politics of representation,” as you suggest. These writers’ texts don’t take the corporation for granted, as many others do.
As for the failures of the realist genre to both represent contemporary times and imagine a different world than this one, I would refer readers to Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Fisher argues that capitalism, despite its many acknowledged faults, is widely viewed today as the only viable economic system and way of organizing social relations. Those who hold this view consider this acceptance pragmatic, whereas it is actually cynical. Following Fisher, one could make a strong argument that the real “new realism” isn’t an artistic one, such as a retrenched and supposedly redemptive Franzen-style literary realism, but a bottom-line neoliberal pragmatism with its logic of austerity (both moral, “tighten your belt and quit whining,” and economic, “cut government spending on social programs, etc.”) that tells us not that we’re living in the best of all possible worlds, but that we’re living in the only truly possible one. This Weltanschauung that Fisher has diagnosed is an incredibly cynical one, and dangerously so, as Peter Sloterdijk’s work on cynicism has also shown in a non-economic context. For whether it’s in cultural or political life, treating cynicism as a form of knowledge—knowledge of how things “really are,” how they “really work,” telling us “how it really is”—in which the cynic’s skepticism and fear of idealism is passed off as an objective and logical fact about the world (whereas it’s a judgment) and comes to constitute a form of realism. This is realism as form masking content. It urges people to keep the world at arm’s length—to see it as Hobbesian, as a place where we struggle for waning resources and compete for material wealth, where material things matter most and consuming and destroying these things is a necessity for enjoyment—because it’s a world they don’t think they have a hand in making.
This also might help to explain one new development in realism, which isn’t a return to traditional realism and seems to be almost a neo-Naturalism or, better, what I would call “Realism Brut.” These texts blur the genre of crime or mob films with working class themes of trying to get by and the resulting family struggles. Realism Brut even one-ups the dirty realism of a Raymond Carver or Ann Beattie, which remain more domestic than systemic in scope. I am thinking specifically of two recent films, Out of the Furnace and Killing Them Softly. Breaking Bad also figures in here, though it replaces the working class angle with the theme of the declining American middle-class. But these texts are brutal not only in their gritty portraits of crime, blood, and guts, but also in their overall visions of the death of the American Dream (even the mob motif doesn’t lead anymore to an inverted, ironic attainment of the Dream Godfather-style). Realism Brut has elements of naturalism in it, then, but it drops some of the forces—biological heredity, racial genetics—that naturalism views as shaping subjects. Further, these texts don’t always have the clear, ulterior political or social motives that a novel by Frank Norris or Upton Sinclair might have had. Nevertheless, the characters in them seem completely stripped of agency and are reduced to lives of crime or desperation due to dire economic circumstances—generational poverty, downward mobility, post-Fordist economic change, the recession, lack of adequate health care—and are forced to adapt to these new conditions, which can be summed up as the Hobbesian “all against all.” I think of The Wire too, a seemingly realist (until the last meta-season) take on the life and death of a great American city, in which what might once have been an instance of social idealism—evidenced in Hamsterdam, let’s say—is instead pitched by its strategist as a pragmatic, cynical solution to a perceived incurable social and systemic problem. And for every character who seems to escape in the show, another is dragged back down. Even the gloomy, noir-ish House of Cards, in which the tyrannical “democratic” president Frank Underwood wants to end all entitlements to get America working again, is exemplary of Realism Brut in its neoliberal version of today’s realpolitiks. In Realism Brut it’s always twelve of one, a dozen of the other, and there is no such fantastical thing as a baker’s dozen. Nothing’s for free. A wonderful Realism Brut or hard-boiled crime novel that makes this evident avant la lettre is Jim Thompson’s The Getaway (and here only the novel works as the film can’t follow through on the ending) in which an exhausted economy literally turns into one in which people must feed upon one another (cannibalism) and the capitalist promise of getting away from it all, of rejuvenating leisure-time for now (vacation) and later (retirement), is shown to be what it is: pure fantasy. You can never get away, Realism Brut tells us. Is such a brutal message a wake-up call or the last call to toughen up? Whether Realism Brut ultimately supports Fisher’s take on capitalist realism or whether it helps to expose neoliberalism’s lies and false promises is still an open question. I think, though, the inability or refusal of Realism Brut to imagine an alternative to the capitalist system is troubling.
JG: Your historicizing of the pharmaceutical industry’s aims and goals in the 1980s provides a really useful context for thinking about White Noise, and you do the same sort of in-depth rendering of US-Japanese business relationships when talking about Gung Ho and throughout the book. Is there something about this corpus that asks for such a reading practice, something that might be different if you were dealing with, say, more speculative or experimental texts?
RC: There are clearly certain postmodern texts that have a vestigial realism in them that calls for the kind of vulgar Marxism I get to indulge in while looking at these examples. If a text touches upon a certain industry via a corporate entity, which may metonymize as a CEO or a product or advertisement, why shouldn’t one grab one’s critical shovel and dig up that thing we used to call the base? And isn’t such an archaeology of an industry only a fragment of that base at a certain point in time? For me, one of the most useful aspects of theorizing neoliberalism—even if it becomes a catchall term for a number of economic and non-economic practices and ideologies for radically expanding the reach of capital—is that it allows us to “touch base” in such a fashion. I like a kind of post-Marxism that touches base, such as Althusser’s “in the last instance.” This isn’t any kind of rigid economic determinism, but a way of keeping analysis grounded—lest we forget in our digital age with its cyber capital and all the rest of it, that the base and basic means of production are still very much with us today, whether the factory floor is in Detroit, Mexico, China, or Bangladesh. In short, a vestigial realist style—even if it is an impoverished representation or fading snapshot of “reality” by traditional realist standards—should remind us that this seemingly vestigial capitalist mode of production is actually as contemporary as ever.
Basically, my approach is a symptomatic reading, so it could conceivably be used in reading any kind of text, even the most experimental or formalistically obsessed ones. But in those radically experimental texts, one should first ask what the value of their analysis might be from the standpoint of political economy and from the standpoint of aesthetics. If the experimental text becomes simply another interesting challenge to the system because of its difficulty and perceived ability to subvert the market through its reconfiguring of language and because it happens to have its own tiny niche academic and intellectual audience, then that nouveau avant-garde always wins. But I don’t think anyone can argue after Theodor Adorno that art is critically detached from the (capitalist) culture in which it’s produced, so there is always a line back to a text’s production, however occluded it is. In experimental texts, questions of form and style would obviously take precedence. How could a certain experimental novel that does not present the corporation in content produce it purely in form or style? Could William S. Burroughs or Kathy Acker come into play here? An interesting question, to be sure. One could mimic corporate-speak and advertising in a text’s style, but that would rely on a certain mimesis of the corporate voice. How could a novel be written in what could be called a “corporate form”? That said, what I like about the corporation in my study is that it acts as an entry point into the capitalist system in a wide-range of texts, from the literary, the middlebrow, to the popular.
JG: Your introduction states that Gain marks a “certain end to corporate critiques” (16) that focus on the fictionality of corporate personhood. What, for you, makes Gain the limit-case here? Is it that the text works so carefully to get readers to buy Clare as a character until it can’t be a character anymore? Or is it that Powers isn’t interested in what you call “mere condemnation of corporate capitalism” (161), which would mean taking the most obvious criticism and doing away with it?
RC: I think that any further historicization of the corporation, at least in American fiction, would be impossible. The amount of research Powers did on corporate history in writing Gain shows, and you essentially get a primer on corporate power in America that’s as thorough, in its fashion, as any of the activist books on corporations. It’s the final and full institutional analysis that Gaddis broached in J R. Powers takes the legal fiction of the corporation-as-person to its logical limits, so it would be hard to imagine any more productive critiques regarding the way this corporate person is unlike our posthuman selves. So the representation and critique is twofold: we get the hard history and a deconstruction of the legal and advertising rhetoric of personhood. In short, there is nothing left to reveal, and, yes, I think it’s additionally effective because Powers doesn’t just denounce capitalism or turn the novel into an obvious political statement; he wants to set the organic person against the artificial one and let that comparison speak for itself.
JG: One of the struggles we’ve had with putting together this special issue on corporations and culture is finding terms that describe general anxieties about corporations without using the very ideas corporate marketing and consumerism have fetishized. This manifests itself in, for instance, difficulty in trying to describe the corporation’s reduction of all value to exchange-value as seriously troubling, in part because we don’t have unproblematic terms for what value would replace it. This brings me to concerns about agency, a term that the texts you’re writing about show interest in. To what extent do fears about “authentic” agency and desire get mixed up with what we might call ideological agency/desire for which corporations want us to be nostalgic? Have the fantasies of individual autonomy that the marketing industry weans consumers on made agency seem like something consumers should have but can only get by buying?
RC: This is perhaps the materialist version of the metaphysician’s chicken and egg question, isn’t it? It’s funny to think that the idea of agency comes out of structural Marxism, which tells us we’re inevitably caught up in these intricate structural forces and then grants us some possible wiggle room through an agency that shifts depending on context. Here, let me sketch the (in)visible walls of your prison so that you can now bang your head against them. Is this ideological enlightenment itself, or enlightening us to the depths of our inescapable prison? And if there is nothing outside ideology, what then? But you’ve obviously brought up the key challenge for many of us today regarding questions of value and authenticity, which are the kinds of questions I’m asking in my current book project, tentatively titled Metaffective Fiction, which looks at constructions of sincerity, affect, and authenticity in contemporary American fiction and film.
As you say, how can we talk about authenticity when El Pollo Loco is selling us authentic Mexican food? Do we mean we want an unmediated and market untainted experience of the world? If so, we’re definitely ready to be sold a line of goods. Žižek points this out in his example of purchasing guilt-free Starbucks fair-trade coffee from The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Basically, we want to have our cake (organic, locally sourced, with ingredients that if we were to follow the supply chain would take us to a field or farm with fair labor practices) and eat it too (sans guilt, which we’ve paid extra to expunge). So it would appear that it’s a whole set of social relations that we really want to buy into and value when we purchase that cake, but these relations (and the values we hold toward them) are not commodities that can be sold without perpetuating the same cycle of capital. We’d do well to remember it’s not really the things in life that we want to be authentic—a difficult thing to remember when you walk through Simulacra U.S.A with its mall culture, muzak, and television—but our relations and being-in-the-world with others. So let the corporations have this older notion of authenticity and let’s focus on being singularities.
One thing that many post-postmodern authors (sorry for the term), filmmakers, and artists seem intent upon stressing in their work is its affective dimensions without ignoring the inescapable grip of capital. This affective dimension can come in the idea of a “New Sincerity” or sentimentalism that relies on a what’s called a return to character, emotion, and feeling; alternatively, it might rely on the desire to establish extra-textual and intersubjective relationships between reader/artist and writer/viewer; other texts (at times) insist on the value of affects in and of themselves as something valuable outside of concerns of capital. I’m not saying that this art and literature isn’t caught up in the marketplace (indeed, it knows it is) or is somehow “pure and untainted,” only that its insistence on affect and affective ties is telling.
Of course, there are problems with, and dangers posed by, this kind of art and literature. These writers and their savvy audience realize, for instance, that affective labor is neoliberalism’s new and favorite kind of labor—the kind that thrives in America’s service sector economy—but what if certain affects can be stimulated (as all art and literature does by default) in a meta-way that makes us aware of the way affect can be coded by the market, say, into Hallmark card sentimental pap or into the smile of that Wendy’s cashier? What I’m calling Metaffective Fiction provokes such questions about what value is and explores the potential for affect to be marshaled against capital’s production and containment of such value. These works could be said to attempt to create a kind of affective surplus value, for lack of a better term at present, that gets circulated in and between readers in a way that resembles more of a gift economy than a capitalist one (yes, there’s a lot of theory on gift economies that I won’t go into here. See Lewis Hyde, however). Such a transaction would participate in an economy of affects not subject to exchange value or the reification of capital.
JG: For my last question, I’d like to ask what didn’t make it into the book. I would have loved to see a longer discussion of the Dilbert/Office Space/Life in Hell combination at the end. Neuromancer gets a really interesting few paragraphs. Were these references something that you’d consider revisiting, or are you headed in other directions?
RC: There was a real possibility of this project having greatly expanded in scope and page count considering the relevant material that’s out there, though with the risk of it turning into something out of a Borges story. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest would have fit in nicely (The Pale King too). Obviously there is a lot more popular culture stuff outside of the films (though the original Robocop was very tempting) that could have made it into the book. From a broader standpoint, however, I think the book is most lacking in texts that engage with race and ethnicity apropos the corporation. I flirted with bringing in Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, for instance. While I deal with gender on occasion, the book could have dealt with more issues there too. Lastly, because I was focusing on American postmodern literature, I left out the truly transnational dimension of capital. I would have loved to have had a chapter on Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile (Chile being the site of a U.S. backed coup in 1973 that ultimately would help clear a testing ground for neoliberalism) and 2666 (with its austere take on the hundreds of murdered women in Ciudad Juárez, the maquiladoras brought to you by neoliberal economic policies [NAFTA], and the U.S.’s complicity in it all). Nevertheless, these all remain potentially busy avenues of critical inquiry that those interested in corporate studies, whatever that might be, could pursue in the future.
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