Joshua Clover and Chris Nealon / Letter One: on Value and Poetry

Joshua Clover

Dear Chris,

I have been thinking almost without interruption about value. Part of this is the attempt to understand value theory: to understand, at the stratum of social existence known as “the economic,” where value comes from and what its fate might be. But part of my thought concerns the tragicomically easy slippages allowed by the word’s ambiguity, so that it takes on some ethical or moral or just sociological component. Certain versions of this are easy to pick out and dismiss: “he has good values,” or “she values time spent with her pet iguana.” We can just say, well, these are different words that just happen to have the same spelling.

But other slippages are less distinct. Occasionally someone says, “we need to reconceive of what our values are, as a society.” People actually say shit like this all the time. And that kind of formulation actually requires the supposition that the economic meaning found in “surplus value” and the cultural meaning found in “he has good values” are of a kind, or at least commensurate, that one can become the other through a transformation along some conceptual continuum.

This strikes me as a significant problem in at least three ways. The first is, I think it would be great if everybody had a theory of value in the economic sense, and had some purchase on the vital debates around the Labor Theory of Value, whether it has purchase on our world, and — close to my heart — who holds to it. As you know, my answers are: no, it doesn’t have much purchase; its clearest and earliest critic was Marx (who is endlessly accused of being both its progenitor and prime adherent); and Marx’s revisions (sometimes called a Value Theory of Labor) are very much worth getting a handle on.

The second problem is the way in which such a slippage offers a textbook example of idealism: by collapsing these two values into a single kind, it suggests that we can simply change our values — and here I really mean, leave behind the extraction of surplus value on which capital’s existence depends, an extraction also bearing the trade name “exploitation” — by changing our mind, by having an event entirely within our consciousnesses. This understanding suffers for being an error.

But in some sense the third and nearest issue raised by this elision is that of the place of the literary, of literary thought, and beneath that the late modern understandings of the linguistic in general. Is “literarity” part of what allows this misunderstanding? Is the error in fact a metaphor? This would not be to justify the error, but to damn the metaphorical.

Of course we have many good reasons to make the mistake. Many of us profit from the current value form. Many of us do not wish to take up the material tasks that might end it, and are all too willing to fall into the idea that it takes only mental exertion. And many of us write poems, and want to believe that the literary and linguistic can do things in the world. I am not suggesting that the literary pushes us into the error, but that it is part of the enabling condition of that error — and that the indulgence we feel regarding the literary might be problematic in confronting this question of value.

What is poetry’s relation to this problem? I expect that one answer that might present itself is: nothing, that’s not what poems are for, or what poems do. If that is your answer, let me leap ahead: if poems are disarticulated from this problem, I am not personally interested in poems, so we should change the topic to Ke$ha. Gauntlet: thrown down.

love, Joshua

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