Skip to Content

Literary History of Capitalism

«Back To Seminars

Organizer: Tobias Huttner

Co-Organizer: Aaron Begg

Contact the Seminar Organizers

If literary scholars have traditionally wielded theory, not least the legacies of ideology critique, to relate cultural production to transformations in the capitalist lifeworld, historians have long avoided political economy as a core analytic in favor of concepts like “markets” and “societies.” Since the 2008 financial crisis, historians have drawn on previous work in the areas of social, economic, business, legal, and labor history, to develop a new subfield, “history of capitalism.”
At the same time, scholars working in this new subfield have been criticized for evading an analytical description of its key term, “capitalism,” and for failing to acknowledge the foundational work of radical scholars, not least in the area of capitalism and slavery. This is where literary scholarship has a role to play: In the wake of a far-reaching global financial crisis, literary scholars of various stripes have turned to more historically focused uses of the Marxian critique of political economy and to materialist analyses of race, gender, and sexuality that move beyond critiques of representation and universality to focus on the role of capitalism in the production and reproduction of racialized and patriarchal social relations.
This seminar invites participants to engage with new historical work in this vein. Galvanized especially by scholars reexamining the relationship between capitalism and Atlantic slavery, the “history of capitalism” subfield has empowered historians to tell descriptively thick, non-teleological narratives that, at their best, promise more nuanced understandings of the characters, contradictions, and conflicts that shape capitalist history on scales both local and global. Amidst this unresolved methodological terrain, we want to consider the possibilities that the “history of capitalism” presents to literary scholars.
This seminar asks how recent historical work on capitalism and slavery, finance, U.S. imperialism, environment, technology, and a host of other areas, might inform literary periodizing and reading practices. If one upshot of this work has been to move beyond linear narratives premised on rationalization, “modes of production,” and modernization, how might this help reorient our literary histories of genre, style, and form? What scales of attention does reading literary and cultural objects call for in light of the determinate yet open-ended historical forces of capitalism? And how might an emphasis on capital as organizing category inform modes of historical awareness outside the terms of narrow contextualism and literary “theory” alike? In asking these questions, this seminar asks how we might critically sharpen our literary historical narratives of capitalism.
We invite papers on individual or multiple texts and authors from any geography, period, or language, canonical or not, that engage with sources in the history of capitalism and/or its historical archives.

«Back To Seminars