Anna Kornbluh, Realizing Capital: Financial and Psychic Economies in Victorian Form

Anna Kornbluh, Realizing Capital: Financial and Psychic Economies in Victorian Form (New York: Fordham University Press 2014) 232 pp. $50.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780823254972

As the world slowly recovered from the devastating financial crisis of 2008, accounts of the catastrophe reflexively blamed investors for recklessly abusing byzantine financial instruments culminating in global hysteria. While everyday market performance has long been measured in terms of expectations, confidence, or foreboding, the presumption that the latest recession could be directly tied to the mental states of economic actors – rather than to missing regulatory oversight or flawed investment strategies – continues to shape our narratives of the economic disaster a decade later.

Anna Kornbluh’s Realizing Capital: Financial and Psychic Economies in Victorian Form takes its cue from this language of introspection as it applies to finance and its discontents, and traces the troubled alliance of capital and psychology to the era of financialization between 1830 and 1880 when speculation volume began to supersede that of industrial production and consumption. Kornbluh argues that the difficulty in pinpointing 'the real' after capital had become virtual led writers to retreat into the self to make sense of economic crises. As Victorian observers found themselves mired in a state of permanent ontological and economic disruption, unable to 'realize' fictitious capital, they developed the concept of 'psychic economy' to ground reality, 'the idea that subjectivity is fundamentally economic and that the economy is fundamentally psychological' (3).

'Psychic economy', a concept enjoying an inflated, and often unreflected, presence in contemporary scholarship, as Kornbluh notes, imagines that humans possess a limited cache of psychic resources – such as sympathy and attention – that we invest in others or ourselves to reap certain benefits. Within the psychic economy, the logic of the market shapes social relations and naturalizes finance as the ruling paradigm of human activity. Kornbluh shows that Victorian genres such as finance journalism, social science writing, political economy, early psychology, and, crucially, the realist novel imagined and consolidated the convergence of economic reality and psychic interiority. According to Kornbluh, we seem to have forgotten that the conflation of capitalism and psychology began as a rhetorical performance, and have inherited the resulting normalization of an innate psychic 'drive' or 'desire' to accrete capital. Kornbluh posits that historical milestones of financialization, such as the invention of corporate personhood in 1844, fatally occur when we get our 'thoughts entangled in metaphors', as George Eliot’s narrator famously warns in Middlemarch. This warning is the book’s epigraph and discloses Kornbluh’s methodology, a 'financial formalism' indebted to the 'strategic formalism' recently popularized by Caroline Levine.

Realizing Capital consists of six chapters that move from the withering away of a 'structural critique of finance' (23) in favor of psychologism in journalistic and psychological writing, via the mobilization and ironization of psychic economies in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-61), Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871), and Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875), towards Marx’s and Freud’s absorption of the novel’s formal wrestling with finance and the economy into their own oeuvres. Kornbluh’s first chapter stresses that finance journalists, as they investigated the material and psychic shocks caused by economic crises, were initially convinced that speculation had become wholly unmoored from facts. However, by 1860, the very same writers took the psychological instability that accompanied economic crises for their cause. This metaleptic 'substitution of effects for causes' (7), Kornbluh suggests, eventually dispensed with analyses of finance 'in favor of generalizations about investor emotions' (38) that are still observable today. The idea that finance regulation is 'libidinal' rather than a matter of complex policy paved the way for mid-Victorian psychologists such as Herbert Spencer, Alexander Bain, and George Henry Lewes to theorize the psyche, the subject’s 'inner economy' (40), via financial tropes.

The next three chapters trace novelists’ engagement with economics, particularly in the rhetorical, temporal, and narratological structures of their works, and finds that each author perpetuates the metaphor of psychic economy even while questioning its efficacy. Victorian realism, Kornbluh posits, is a fundamentally 'economically astute way of thinking' (20). In her chapter on Great Expectations, Kornbluh asserts that Dickens critiques laissez-faire capitalism by retaining the fundamental ethical unreliability of Pip, the novel’s first-person narrator. Pip is the walking, talking embodiment of the 'corporate person', a subject 'wholly produced by the psychic economy model of subjectivity' (64, 62). The novel never clarifies from what point in time the more mature Pip offers the retrospective on his own Bildung which leaves Pip’s account radically unresolved and forestalls his moral redemption (54). Because Pip fails to abandon the financial thinking that fueled his exaggerated expectations in the first place – because he remains wedded to his 'compulsive investment scheme' (58) – the novel, like finance capitalism itself, never cashes in on its promise to redeem the subject.

Kornbluh argues in her next chapter that Eliot’s critique of psychic economy manifests in the many self-reflexive intrusions of Middlemarch’s narrator, moments of 'parabasis' (70), during which the narrator negotiates her allotment of sympathy to individual characters. In Middlemarch, sympathy – especially Dorothea’s and the narrator’s – is treated as a rare psychological commodity and, thanks to Eliot’s use of metaphor, becomes 'subject to laws of scarcity and clamoring for regulation' (68). If sympathy operates economically, some people will not be entitled to ethical treatment, the novel warns, because sympathy is expected to pay off. The novel solves this impasse by transforming the metaphor of economy into 'metaphoric excesses projecting ever outward' (69). However, as Kornbluh notes, this shift nevertheless consolidates psychic economy as that which anchors sympathy.

Kornbluh’s third case study on The Way We Live Now finds that the economic model of subjectivity occasions a 'modal crisis' (91). Trollope abandons the novel’s sustained satire for the final two hundred pages in favor of psychological realism because he recognizes that the exaggerations of satire are powerless to critique the equally 'distended hyperbole of finance' (90). Yet again, the novel’s shift to psychological interiority as the supposedly more grounded object of narration performs the very grounding of finance in the psyche Kornbluh traces: the novel’s 'modal crisis registers financial crisis' (91).

The book’s final two chapters on Marx and Freud bring us closer to the ever-elusive 'union of psychoanalysis and Marxism' (20). Kornbluh reads Capital’s first volume as if it were a Victorian novel and records instances of metalepsis and personification that highlight Marx’s unease with the ungroundedness of capital. As Kornbluh shows, capital itself becomes the 'novelistic protagonist' (114) of the capitalist Bildungroman in which we all participate. Economic actors are capital’s readers; they identify with its rises and falls, and emulate its expansionist drive. Lastly, Kornbluh carefully draws out Freud’s ambivalence about the use of economic analogies to describe psychic phenomena, and traces his many moments of hesitation regarding their descriptive power. She argues that Freud’s translator, James Strachey, is largely responsible for later misapprehensions of Freud’s subtle economic metaphors. Freud in fact doubted that the psychic economy was an adequate descriptive model as humans are not to be considered as innately acquisitive.

Kornbluh’s book, beautifully argued, makes the case for a return to material and psychoanalytic critique through formalist methods allied with the 'best historicist impulses' (14). Her dismissal of historicism might strike some readers as too sweeping; however, Realizing Capital is invaluable for its reminder that 'the financial metaphors' of the Victorian period not only structured realism itself but continue to fundamentally 'corrugate our world' (64).

Doreen Thierauf, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill