Tag Archives: John Carey

What is capitalism? Don’t ask the poets

Poetry is one of my favorite magazines and not just because it gives me the opportunity to demonstrate how very sensitive, cosmopolitan and fascinating I am.

The March issue reveals why the publication exists in its present form. It turns out that the Poetry Foundation was generously funded by Ruth Lilly.

Recently, to my surprise, Christian Wiman, Poetry’s editor turned on Ms. Lilly and her gift. He says,

I felt shocked and thankful that, because of the will of one woman, the great roaring engine of American capitalism had been made to serve the interests of learning, healing and art.

Oh, brother. The artist insists on making a dichotomy where in fact there is a lot of continuity. In this long-standing cultural construction, culture and commerce are made mutually exclusive categories, one ranked high, the other put low.

Between them goes a death valley, through which only the most intrepid undergraduate is prepared to pass. In our culture, thanks to the tyranny of this idea, the undergraduate is obliged to choose: lofty or vulgar, true to our best aspirations, or false and falsifying.

In fact, capitalism is a learning exercise. And I don’t just mean a brute experiment, Schumpeter’s “creative destruction.”  Capitalism creates rich, various and changeable problem set in which nothing is ever still. Learning here takes an order of intelligence and accomplishment that would humble the most gifted poet.

Capitalism is a healing system. Religion, folklore, politics, and even art has made themselves faithful students of orthodoxy, failed imagination, emotional and existential stasis.  Capitalism does doesn’t do orthodoxy.  Not for long anyhow.  It is constantly searching, in Levi-Strauss’ language, “for that other message” and it is prepared to reform thought entirely to get at the code from which the message springs. (That learning thing again.)

Capitalism does healing in another way.  Now to evoke Fernand Braudel, surely it can’t have been merely by coincidence that the societies that let people out of the captivities created by geography, race, age, ethnicity, outlook, religion, subculture and lifestyle are also vibrant marketplaces. 

Finally, capitalism is art, a transformational exercise that turns meaning into value and value back into meaning. Ovid would have been impressed. So were the Elizabethans who read him so avidly.

Take the case of John Wheeler, the author of A Treatise of Commerce published in 1601. In the opening pages, Wheeler observes how much of his world is now part of the marketplace.

For there is nothing in the world so ordinary and natural unto men, as to contract, truck, merchandise, and traffic one with another, so that it is almost unpossible for three persons to converse together two hours, but they will fall into talk of one bargain or another, chopping [i.e., bartering], changing [i.e., exchanging], or some other kind of contract.

Wheeler concludes with an Ovidian observation, “all things,” he says, “come into commerce and pass into traffic.”  Consider the number of conversions a bolt of cloth must undergo to pass into traffic, take on significance (fustian!), find a seller, find a buyer, adorn the wearer, define a household, fashion a self, appoint a community, with the value so created winging its way back into “some other kind of contract.”  I dare say no contemporary poet has tried.  

The thing I like about poets is how sighted they are, seeing things invisible to the rest of us. And I like how nimble they are, running the riggings of our culture pretty much at will. Except here. Where Wheeler sees things changing shape, Wiman is “shocked,” “thankful,” and the captive of orthodoxy.


Braudel, Fernand. 1973. Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800. New York: Harper and Row, pp. 235-236.

Carey, John. 2002. The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. Academy Chicago Publishers.

Wheeler, John. 2004 (1601). A Treatise of Commerce. Clark, New Jersey: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd.

Will Digital Culture ever invent a Homer Simpson?

First Observation:

Entertainment Weekly recently gave us the "100 greatest characters of the last 20 years."  The list includes Buffy, Jack Sparrow, Rachel from Friends, Harry Potter, John Locke, Miranda Priestly, and Ron Burgundy.   

Second Observation:

In his latest book, Clay Shirky suggests that we now have around 1 trillion hours of creative surplus at our disposal.  We use this time variously, offering Lolcats and, yes, blog posts.

The question:

Will Shirky’s surplus ever create a character that will appear on the Entertainment Weekly list?  Will we ever create our own Homer?

Some thoughts:

I am not being argumentative.  This is an open question. The answer could be "soon" or it could be "never," and I’ll be happy.  However we answer this question, we will have improved our anthropological understanding of contemporary culture.

There is a general presumption, I think, that we are sitting on a gusher.  Shirky’s surplus is so vast, so inexorable that the creation of an EW "100 winner" can’t be far off.  And it’s not that we are talking about the proverbial 100 monkeys.  It won’t happen by evolutionary accident.  It will happen because our use of the Shirky surplus gets better and better. This argument says "soon."

Some will say our surplus is already in evidence on the EW list.  They will say that these creatures are the result of user participation, consumer cocreation, the agency and activity of fans, transmedia assembly, textual poaching, and a liberal borrowing from the cultural commons. Homer Simpson is all about borrowing and, like any bard, his standing depends finally on our consent. This argument says "already."

But there is an argument that says "never."  The red neck version of the argument rehearses the idea that popular culture is a waste land.  Thus speak Keen and Bauerlein. But there’s a more sophisticated approach that says the creativity of the internet is a derivative creativity, that mashup culture must begin with something first to mash.  Our culture may be in the direction of the consumer-producer but it will always depend on the producer-producer as a kind of "first mover." 

Let’s push things a little further.  (And again I do this for the sake of argument only.  Living at the intersection of Anthropology and Economics, I can be ecumenical on a question like this.) What if the people who make Homers and Buffys must be funded by something other than the "creative surplus."  Must there be an enterprise that engages people to invest financial and creative capitals in a (relatively) expensive and therefore risky productions which then compete in some cultural marketplace.  

By this reckoning, the EW 100 list will not exist without the intervention of commerce (of some pretty literal kind that goes well beyond the gift economies of the cultural commons.)  

I’m just asking.  

The Upshot:

This would make a dandy topic for a Futures of Entertainment session, with Shirky, Henry Jenkins, Larry Lessig, David Weinberger, Dan Snierson, Jeff Jensen, and several other thinkers.  With Sam Ford moderating, of course.


Anonymous.  n.d.  "Lolcats" entry on Wikipedia here.

Bauerlein, Mark.  2009.  The Dumbest Generation: How the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future.  Tarcher.  

Carey, John.  1992.  The Intellectuals and the masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia, 1880-1939.  Faber and Faber.  (For an argument that anticipates and, I believe, dispatches the kind of argument made by Bauerlein and Keen)

Jenkins, Henry.2006. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Media Consumers in a Digital Age. NYU.

Jenkins, Henry. 2008. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.  NYU 

Keen, Andrew.  2008.  The Culture of the Amateur: how blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today’s user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values.  Broadway Business.  

Shirky, Clay. 2010. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Penguin Press. 

Snierson, Dan, Jeff Jensen, and many others.  2010. The 100 Greatest Characters of the last 20 years. Entertainment Weekly.  Double Issue.  No. 1105 and 1106.  June 4 and June 11.  here.


Thanks to Gareth Kay for telling me about Shirky’s new book.