In my last Blog post, I mentioned systems of value, each with an explanatory discourse, and that cultural value was but one of these. I would like to follow up on that remark, and end by straying into the realm of economics. By way of declaration, I should state that I’m not writing as some neophyte to neo-liberalism – quite the opposite. Like many, I can think of nothing more destructive than the reduction of cultural pursuits, including their study in the humanities, to indices serving a general metaphor of business management. The ArtWorld in its broadest sense cannot and should not be reduced to production units that can be effectively business-managed through the science of supply and demand. However, I also think that functional responses based on the intellectual and emotional enlightenment to be had by contemplating authorised cultural production belongs to an era saturated in hierarchy – where the work becomes necessarily lost without the power structures and institutions required to maintain those hierarchies and their contexts that make the work signify in ways they are supposed to. The latter response also works best with a conception of Art that peaks with the auteur’s Modernist avant garde, and has trouble dealing with the industrialised production of great literature in the nineteenth century and its increasingly crowd-sourced, sampled and collaborative production in the twenty first. It strikes me, too, that it is almost impossible to talk about the value of cultural production without encroaching somewhere on the territory of economics [production, a work – economic terminology again]. Furthermore, it is becoming increasing difficult to talk of anything – love, for example – from a space outside of commodity culture. So, if economics is a lingual gatekeeper, shouldn’t we see what we can bring back for supper when we go poaching?
OK it’s dodgy and you have to make adjustments but …
Classical Economics that is the dominant paradigm today (more usually called neo-classical economics) tends to focus on equations of supply and demand. Those equations are supposed to balance out. After the market adjusts, supply will match demand. Since the 1980s, there has been something called behavioural economics that irons out some of our wonky behaviour (if you will forgive the tangent), such as loss aversion: that on the whole we are much less willing to let go of things than we are eager to acquire things, when the ‘thing’ is of equal value. The price you will accept to give up something you already have is more-or-less always higher that the price you would be willing to pay to acquire the same thing. My ticket to tonight’s gig may have cost me 25 GBP – already bought and paid for – but all things being equal and I haven’t suddenly got to stay in I wouldn’t give up the ticket in exchange for 25 GBP. I have ‘invested’ in the coming experience, and I would want at least 30 to make up for the loss of what I have not yet had. Those human idiosyncrasies can be factored in, as Nobel economist Daniel Kahneman did. And as long as you stay with micro economics – not the macro predictions required for States and multinationals – the equations more-or-less seem to work.
Then, if you go back further to around the 1870s, with the early separation of economics from political economy, economists describe economics as a “calculus of pleasure and pain”. We want to avoid pain and maximise pleasure, assuming, and this is important, that ‘man’ behaves as a rational choice subject. The rational subject (homo economicus: often explained using Robinson Crusoe) is not especially selfish, materialistic or greedy. Altruism is easily encompassed in the maximisation of pleasure, and parents buying goods for children is another example of avoiding pain.
There are objections to using homo economicus as the standard unit of economic calculation: very pertinent ones. Marx wanted to use ‘the family’ instead, and that the rational choice subject should turn out to be a white male should come as no surprise, as pointed out by feminist economics (they/we have our/their own journal http://www.feministeconomics.org/). The Death of the Subject, too, stemming from Foucault, also makes life difficult for homo economicus (http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/en/heartfield-james.htm), but on the whole – again, as long as you stay with micro economics and not the macro predictions required for States and multinationals – the axiom of pleasure and pain seems to be the best technique we have of modelling individual behaviour.
So what would a reader hope to gain?
If we were to apply basic economic thinking to reading, then we could propose that one way of modelling reader behaviour (there are others) is that readers are hoping to maximise pleasure and avoid pain (remember even masochistic reading counts as pleasure): in short that readers’ strategies can be accounted for in terms of losses and gains. What do readers hope to ‘get out of’ their literature? Why do they do it? What do they hope to gain? Under this optic, readers read because some desires can be met by nothing better than literature. Other products (clothes, say) may promise to improve identity or status: a ticket to the fitness centre might so, too. But what if the desire is for guidance, encouragement, inspiration, a sense of belonging, or for a remedy against loneliness or boredom – I’ve seen older readers use books in this way. (I’ve seen myself use books in this way, come to think of it). What if you need simply to pass the time and you can’t watch yet another film. In such instances, fiction satisfies in a way no other sort of material good can. Such literary benefits – utterly below the literary critical radar – represent one crucial and unexplored way in which readers use and value literature. It should be possible to explain why readers accept the opportunity costs involved in acquiring literature (cost of and time spent in reading that could be used for something else – drinking, watching movies, chatting to friends, caring for kids – or maybe you can double up on some of these). If we can do that, then we can come a long way in explaining readers’ interactions with their literature.
Or can we … and all I am doing is not poaching but reducing reading to economic metaphor ?
All suggestions welcome.
And by way of a Christmas present, this installation from Michael Kontopoulos. I can’t helping seeing the (ongoing) banking collapse in here somewhere: