Alison Shonkwiler

Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities

20102011 Forum on Virtuality

Alison Shonkwiler


Ph.D., Rutgers University

The Financial Imaginary: Abstract Capitalism and the Limits of Realism

As the world has been reshaped since the 1970s by economic globalization, neoliberalism, and finance, the problem of economic mystification has been given, among writers, a new sense of political urgency. The anxieties over who controls capitalism have thus been translated into demands upon the novel to develop strategies of representation that can account for capitalism’s power. In my book-in-progress, I read novels from the 1990s and 2000s by Don DeLillo, Richard Powers, Ruth Ozeki, Jane Smiley, and Jonathan Franzen, among others, to examine the challenges to realist fiction posed by the apparent unrealities of modern capitalism. Just as writers such as Howells, Norris, James, Sinclair, and Dreiser responded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to a perception of capitalism as becoming more virtual, less tethered to reality, and systematically able to exceed social control, I argue that contemporary novelists have responded to the latest virtualizations of the market by revisiting the realist strategies and preoccupations of the earlier American “economic novel.” The fictions of late capitalism can be seen to stage experiments with traditional realist categories—of class, agency, and economic virtue—even as they expose the failures and insufficiencies of such forms to demystify the economic, to penetrate its abstractions, or to adequately represent a postmodern and global context.