Cultural value gone wonky ?

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 The Death of the Subject, too,  stemming from Foucault, also makes life difficult for homo economicus (, 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:

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25 comments on “Cultural value gone wonky ?
  1. Bronwen Thomas says:

    Thanks, Simon, not least for the entertaining festive puns!! I found your account of the gains and losses and ‘opportunity costs’ of reading particularly thought provoking. However, I don’t seem to have the same problem ‘watching yet another film’ to pass time as I do making time to read. For the latter, I seem to still need to plan ahead and commit myself in a way I don’t find necessary with tv, film etc. Probably something to do with reading for a living and I’d be interested to hear if anything has been written about this?

  2. Barbara Fister says:

    Not sure I can help decode an economic interpretation here, being more wonky than I am a wonk, but one way in which culture and value come together is that reading has a cultural edge over other leisure pursuits. Reading is almost always considered more valuable than, say, watching television, though you could certainly argue that a really thought-provoking and well made television show offers more value in terms of stimulation and aesthetic pleasure than, say, another James Patterson novel. (Of course, this has changed over time; reading novels was considered slothful and even harmfully addictive in the late-19th and early 20th century. Non-fiction was vastly superior. In the early 21st century that flipped; the National Endowment for the Arts in the US considered volutary reading of fiction, plays, and poetry uniquely valuable, including the novesl of James Patterson, which “counted” while The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks didn’t.

    As someone with a foot in reader and writer circles, there is also a strange situation with cultural value and economic value. Literary fiction is not financially rewarding; so-called “commercial fiction” is popular but almost because of its popularity it has lower cultural status. Status and money seem almost inversely correlated. Even in genre fiction, the awards tend to go to books that are not widely read. Add gender into the mix and it gets even more interesting. The higher status the literature, the less likely women authors will be included in it.

    Bronwen, it’s interesting that you find film easier to incorporate into your life than reading when it comes to “budgeting” your time (see? ecomomics!) I watch very few films, and guard that time I spend that way jealously. It had better be a good film if I’m going to spend two hours on it! But I read books every day, and rarely feel as if I wished I had that time back. Maybe it’s just that one thing is habitual and the other isn’t, so it counts “against” my free time in a way that the other doesn’t.

    • Simon Frost says:

      Thanks for the response, Barbara. I’m genuinely thrilled that someone has commented. I think part of the problem lies in the position from where you-we-I make our observations. None of us are modest witnesses. For example, you write that reading is almost always considered more valuable than, say, watching television. But by whom ? Certainly not by the many million of us who tune in religiously to our soaps. And why should people value ‘thought-provoking’ more highly than ‘time passing’ or emotional engagement? We would need to ask what are the values sustaining the analyst’s position from where she can say ‘more valuable’? Soap viewers are not insane, they simply conceive value in a different way than I do.

      As to an inverse correlation between financial reward and literary merit, I don’t think you can generalise. Financial reward depends on how an artist or writer has structured their revenue streams. I know of writers of highly popular (large circulation, cheap retail price) romance fiction who earn practically nothing for their work, and then writers of high literary fiction who earn a fortune. (having once served Rushdie his champagne and parmesan at a book launch.) In fine art since Pop Art, the situation is even more pronounced. An artist such as Damion Hurst has the commodity value of his work built into his expressive form: commodification is a highly significant part of his work.

      Bourdieu clearly springs to mind among all this, and it is Bourdieu who claimed that cultural production within the field of art is inversely structured to production within the field of economics. But Bourdieu was trying to think of art works solely within the field of art and trying to isolate cultural value, separate from economic value (the links were chiefly analogous). The problem with Bourdieu, as he admitted, is that although his approach works extremely well with specific works of high modernism it works very badly with industrial age literature of the nineteenth century. The Trollopes, Thackerays and occasionally George Eliots who were on the top of the literary tree did quite nicely thank you, while the several 1000 other novel writers of the age (Sutherland estimates 7000) were mostly one-hit wonders, whose profits went to Mudie’s and the publishers. As for our online age, I’m not sure if we know who earns what and for what? Lastly – as an addendum to this historical point – what do we do with works that were once considered trashy but end up as high art. I’m fond of Eric Ambler (1940s thrillers). If the current interest accelerates, perhaps we’ll see Ambler as a canon syllabus item for BA programmes in crime fiction.

      More seriously with Bourdieu, though, is that these objects of cultural production, books, rarely if ever remain entirely and solely within the field of art. They operate, as all published literature does, in the market place. We can, as Bourdieu does, respond to these ambiguous cultural-commercial items (published books) as though they were entirely within the field of art, but I’m pretty sure that many readers are responding to those same objects as they appear in the field of economics, ie. as another commodity good providing a potential benefit; responding to a work of literature in a non literary way and in the same way as you would with any other commodified service. I suppose what I’m asking for is how we might model non-literary (read: commodified) responses to literature.

      • Sue Thomas says:

        Hi Simon, just picking up on your reply to Barbara, when you say ‘I suppose what I’m asking for is how we might model non-literary (read: commodified) responses to literature’ are you implying that literature is not commodified?

        • Simon says:

          No.No. Not at all. All published literature is commodified. I’m saying that the book object has two identities (as commodity object and as site of literary-art)and is likewise available for modaly different responses. If there is, as Kantian aesthetics claims, something called a disinterested response to an object of art, then it follows that there must be the possibility for a response to the same object that is not: ie. is interested. That Other response is what I’m edging towards in a commodity reading.

      • More seriously with Bourdieu, though, is that these objects of cultural production, books, rarely if ever remain entirely and solely within the field of art. They operate, as all published literature does, in the market place. We can, as Bourdieu does, respond to these ambiguous cultural-commercial items (published books) as though they were entirely within the field of art, but I’m pretty sure that many readers are responding to those same objects as they appear in the field of economics, ie. as another commodity good providing a potential benefit; responding to a work of literature in a non literary way and in the same way as you would with any other commodified service. I suppose what I’m asking for is how we might model non-literary (read: commodified) responses to literature.

        You’re right about objects of cultural production, Simon, but I believe that your position is not so far from Bourdieu’s as you seem to suggest. Bourdieu analysed literary publishing as distinguished from overtly commercial publishing primarily in that it looks for economic profit in the longer term, so he doesn’t propose any sort of impermeable boundary between the two – moreover, it was (as he declared more than once) his purpose precisely to undermine any attempt to construct such a boundary. Also, I would argue that he provides a very productive way in which to ‘model… commodified… responses to literature’ in the form of the thesis that members of certain social groups perform their distinction as such through their consumption of works of ‘legitimate’ culture (fine art, serious literature, etc). Much of my own work on the reading of literature and popular fiction (especially this and this) has attempted to build on that approach, taking into account the ways in which it has been complicated by recent work, e.g. the controversy over whether high status consumers are still highbrow snobs, or whether their cultural consumption is now ‘omnivorous’ – and if the latter, whether omnivorousness is in itself a form of distinction – and if not, whether that is because apparent omnivorousness is in fact limited in ways that relate quite closely to the old hierarchies between more intellectual and more popular forms of culture (e.g. Buffy the Vampire Slayer yes, Twilight no).

        Incidentally, since you astutely mention Rushdie, I’ll point again (as in my reply to your earlier post on cultural value) to Sarah Brouillette’s book, Postcolonial Writers in the Global Literary Marketplace, which has some really interesting discussion of the ‘residual language of disgust in reviews of Rushdie’s work, especially when the subject of conversation is the author’s fame, wealth, or celebrity status.’ (2007, p. 82).

        • Simon says:

          Thanks again. Ah hell. I’m not happy with Bourdieu and don’t think the most productive way forward is to build on his work. Others – more skilled readers in Bourdieu than I am – might. My hope is that a new kind of discussion might emerge from a point of departure other than (autonomous) Art: ie beginning with pleasure/pain and human wants where the object’s status as Art is a minor incidental. That latter aim is _not_ true of Bourdieu.

          • My hope is that a new kind of discussion might emerge from a point of departure other than (autonomous) Art: ie beginning with pleasure/pain and human wants where the object’s status as Art is a minor incidental. That latter aim is _not_ true of Bourdieu.

            Ah – and it’s that aim that I’d like to resist. To explain why, I’ll draw a comparison with clothing. There’s a basic human want involved, i.e. to have some sort of covering for one’s body in order to protect it from the elements. But investigating this want will get us little closer to understanding the global fashion industry, its labourers, and its customers. Whether we’re talking about a silk gown by Elie Saab or a polyester suit from Primark, it’s the fulfilment of basic human wants that has become the minor incidental.

    • Bronwen Thomas says:

      Thanks, Barbara, maybe it’s because reading is generally considered more valuable that I feel it needs more dedicated time than I can fit in around work and other commitments, whereas tv especially has been said to be designed to be ‘interruptible’ (at least for female audiences, so gender may be an issue here too).

      • Simon says:

        replying to Dan’s last comment. I think the need for recognition, status, affirmation and the desire to look fabulous etc. all come under intangible human wants. Those wants are what the market satisfies through the Saab gown, not the need for warmth. I never mentioned anything about ‘basic’.

        But going beyond this I suspect we have differing perceptions of what the Art object is. I was brought up with an institutional theory of art – I’ve doubtless droned on about it before – which is an object-extrinsic theory: ie an object/phenomena only becomes art because of the institutional/discursive context (a context which also makes demands on form and on author). There are draw backs to the position but it does mean that for me the object is secondary to its context, and I can swap contexts without threatening the ArtLife of the object.

        • I added ‘basic’ because of your reference to pleasure and pain, and because I was trying to imagine wants that could arguably transcend a Bourdieusian analysis. If recognition and status come under human wants, then Bourdieu’s your man! 😉

  3. Sue Thomas says:

    Thanks for this discussion Simon. I’d like to add a new ‘literary/reading’ experience into the mix, one which to some extent is also ‘utterly below the literary critical radar’ – gaming. Yesterday I took delivery of my first gaming machine – a Sony Playstation 3. I bought it for one reason – to be able to play three games I’ve admired from afar but never been able to experience because I didn’t have the skills or equipment. They are designed by Jenova Chen and I wrote about his work briefly in my last book.

    Last night I put the PS3 together and hooked it up to the TV. I am totally illiterate in relation to computer games and even getting the game to play was really difficult but after half an hour I’d got the hang of some elements of the controller. Other functions are still a complete mystery. I’m going to be journalling this experience and writing about it in the weeks ahead.

    I’m mentioning this because, in relation to your argument, it involves allocating a lot of time and brain power to learning and then practicing a new literacy. It will also probably involve joining a new cultural group, gamers, and learning how to talk about games. So, it’s an investment of time, money and social capital. And the payoff, I anticipate, will be both pleasure and intellectual engagement. But there is also a wildcard – I may soon grow bored by it OR that it may change my life. At this early stage I have no idea which. But I will say that the most similar experience I’ve had in my life so far is learning to programme and design in the text-based world of LambdaMOO, and that really did change my life.

    So, apologies for this very personal response, but it seemed to me to be a practical instance of your topic.

    And Happy New Year!

    • Simon says:

      Sue. Yes indeed. I hadn’t thought of skills acquisition, which, as a knee jerk reaction, would seem to cross both fields of art and economics. (Business managers factor them in, too). We have to acquire the skills necessary to carry out a sophisticated hermeneutic investigation of a text, and we are taught these in institutions of higher education. We acquire skills to decode the commercial landscape, as well, and a lot of our guided learning comes (un)fortunately from advertising, alongside our experience with consumption. But going back to your PS3, the economist Jevons claimed that every want supplied creates conditions for a greater want, and it is consumer ‘ennui’ that is the driving force to economic demand. If boredom is a measure of the mode of response, couldn’t we do an experiment to see whether you want an upgrade soon or whether you remain with the game’s increasingly aesthetic complexities ? Happy gaming!

      • Sue Thomas says:

        ‘We have to acquire the skills necessary to carry out a sophisticated hermeneutic investigation of a text, and we are taught these in institutions of higher education.’

        Most people don’t reach HE, and only a tiny proportion of those that do study literature. I guess I have to ask why these skills are at all important in the wider world? What is their value – social, artistic, cultural, economic etc?

        • Simon says:

          Agreed. I think of it as questions of power. One ‘value’ of a sophisticated hermeneutic close reading is that the most influential of those readers get to say which works galleon-head the ship of state. The rest of us make it up as we go along, and I think ‘us’ deserves attention.

    • You were on LambdaMOO? *awestruck*

      • Sue Thomas says:

        Ha! It’s all in my book ‘Hello World: travels in virtuality’, now on Kindle :)

        I still have two characters there but rarely use them beyond logging on to keep them alive. Have you got a character there?

        • I haven’t, no. I briefly used to be on a couple of ‘talkers’ (Surfers and Foothills; I’ve never been clear on exactly what the difference between talkers and MOOs was), but then I dropped out of the university where I was accessing them via telnet, and the college where I eventually ended up had no Unix lab so that was the end of it. But I remember how wonderful and strange and inviting it all seemed, once upon a time.

    • Bronwen Thomas says:

      Sue, I look forward to following your progress as I too have recently bought a PS3 and share your frustrations! This piece by Jonathan Jones strikes a similar chord, and considers whether or not games can now be considered art.

  4. Barbara Fister says:

    Hi, again, Simon –

    I was generalizing more about how I hear people respond to “reading books” as an activity that has a higher social capital compared to other entertainments (in the context of the US, where I am, I should add). It’s not a position I’m arguing – that books are more valuable than film or television – but something I see generally. Children are rarely told to put that book down and go do something worthwhile, though they are told to turn off the television. (There are subtle undercurrents, though – boys are considered somewhat unnatural if they read a lot; being bookish also has some class connatations.) Reading is assumed to be exercising some faculty, practicing a useful skill, that television is assumed to be leaving unexercised. Reading is a useful skill that will help you be a better, more productive human being; watching is assumed to be passive and even counter-productive, something that will affect your brain the way junk food affects your body. Just as many people thought reading fiction was bad for you in 1900. (Public librarians in the US called it “the fiction problem.”)

    You’re absolutely right, of course, that writing “commercial” fiction is financially profitable for a tiny, tiny minority of writers. (I have personal experience with that!) But public debates about the value of literature often hinge on the idea that good literature has a small audience *because* it’s too challenging for the hoi polloi and best sellers must be awful because ordinary readers have terrible taste. It becomes a consolation for both sides. We don’t get on the bestseller list, but at least we write quality literature; we get no respect, but at least we have readers.

    On a bit of a tangent, gender and class plays an interesting role, here. I’m currently compiling an annual report on how male and female crime fiction authors fare in terms of review coverage, which Sisters in Crime has been doing since 1986. Compared to the Vida reports, which find men at a huge advantage in terms of opportunities to write for prestigious magazines or get reviews in major review sources, women in crime fiction fare quite well. But within this genre, the higher prestige the review outlet, the smaller the percentage of women included will be. Likewise, male crime fiction authors are more likely to win awards and be published in hardcover than women authors. There’s a huge prestige/gender connection that is less stark in genre fiction, but still there.

    In short, whenever I think about the economics of literature, I end up thinking about prestige and how that kind of value plays in.

    • Simon says:

      Thanks again Barbara. I’m grateful for your response. As you say there are geo-cultural, gender and historical variations. Serious Poetry (Wordsworth)in early 1800s England could be an extremely popular form – see the romantic circle’s terrific keepsake site – and/but following the explosion of print after the 1820s in England prose fiction reigned popularly supreme swapping cultural-status stakes with poetry. In the 1860s novelists were still likely to be ‘Silly Lady Novelists’ as George Eliot called the straw woman against whom she could distinguish herself. But in other countries at other times the situation followed different trajectories. Danmark, for example, did not industrialise until the later 1800s so prestiguous/non-prestigous literatures were structured differently to the British example. The same would be true of India, Australia or colonial Africa for that matter in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Dostoevsky in The Possessed, too, has Shatov lament about the late arrival of serious bound printed books in Russia as opposed to frivolous newspaper serials. My point, I suppose, is that our observations about cultural value-as-prestige are seriously skewed historically, geo-politically and as you very rightly say through gendered power-structures.

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