Neoliberalism and the Novel. The Relationship of Capitalism and Ben Lerner's "10:04"

Essay, 2018

7 Pages


“Ben Lerner’s 10:04 is either perfectly exemplary of the damage capitalism does to art or paradoxically immune to that damage. It is either a novel that overcomes literature’s enmeshment in the market, or it is a novel that was itself written only because the market solicited it.” Theodore Martin, “The Dialectic ofDamage.”

As John Ashbery states, 10:04 by Ben Lerner is “[a]n extraordinary novel about the intersections of art and reality in contemporary life” (Ashbery qtd. in Lerner). Since this intersection is one of its major themes, it seems a logical consequence that 10:04 would also point out the relationship of the novel and neoliberalism, as neoliberalism has come to “configuref... ] all aspects of existence in economic terms” (Brown Undoing the Demos, 17). Hence, formerly noneconomic spheres are economized, which would mean that literature and art in general have become part of the neoliberal logic; a view often expressed by critics (cf. Nilges 358). Neoliberalism, then, is not only a “theory of political economic practices” (Harvey 145), but has expanded into people's every-day lives and has become “a way of being” (Huehls and Smith 9). In their description of the historical development of neoliberalism, Huehls and Smith mention that, in the third phase beginning after the Cold War, writers began to describe their works as responses to the literary marketplace (cf. 8), openly acknowledging the influence of market logic. While this may have been a new development in their time, today, the entanglement of the market and literature seems accepted and omnipresent. Keeping this in mind, it would be incredibly difficult to produce a work that truly “overcomes literature’s enmeshment in the market” (Martin 2). To assume that Lerner's 10:04 exists completely autonomous from the market thus seems to be a utopian idea. Nonetheless, I would argue that there are many instances in which 10:04 employs certain “aesthetics of resistance” (Ashton 6), which shall be discussed in the following essay.

First and foremost, I would like to draw attention to Mathias Nilges' essay “Neoliberalism and the Time of the Novel”, in which he criticizes the two extremes found in the given quote by Theodore Martin, namely the categorization of art as either subsumed by neoliberalism or as autonomous from it (cf. Nilges 358f.). In Nilges' view, culture is “located in the mediatory space between economic structure and its social dimension” (365), negotiating between material structure and society as well as creating a “necessary dialectical tension” (365) when examining capitalism's contradictions. If literature were to be incorporated completely into economic thinking, this dimension would effectively disappear, an event which Nilges calls “a structural impossibility” (365). If culture, then, is in general never entirely subsumed by neoliberalism, it follows that this cannot be the case for Lerner's book either.

Having stated that, in my opinion, 10:04 is neither entirely damaged by capitalism nor completely immune to said damage, the question remains: What exactly is the relationship between the novel and neoliberalism, between 10:04 and the omnipresent market place? Avoiding the “limiting choice between subsumption and autonomy” (Nilges 360), the interrelation certainly is a complex one. 10:04 provides insight into the intricate enmeshment of art and economy, simultaneously pointing out the ways in which the novel is also a part of this entanglement. Thus, analyzing the status of totaled art in the novel (cf. Lerner 130f.), may also reveal something about the status of the text itself. In 10:04, Alena and Peter open an “Institute for Totaled Art” (131), an institute filled with artwork that has been declared damaged, and thus as having zero financial value (cf. 133). The supposed damage is not perceptible to the narrator, but the official labeling has transformed the art commodities back into simple objects of art. At this point, the narrator states that “it [is] incredibly rare [...] to encounter an object liberated from [market] logic” (133). It is in this scene that Jennifer Ashton sees a parallel between the totaled art in the novel and the novel itself. “The ingenious form of aesthetic resistance that the novel imagines for itself is based on Alena's ingenious form of risk management” (15), she states and argues further that 10:04 has overcome market pressures by becoming a totaled art work itself. Essentially, her argument is that 10:04 uses self-sabotage in order to forestall the damage that would be done to it by the market anyway. For me, this argument is problematic because it infers that, by attempting to avoid the market, the writing is actually strongly influenced by it, since Ashton assumes Lerner actively anticipated the damage the market could do to the book and then did the damage himself. If the manipulation was done solely for art's sake, the case would be different, of course, but it would also lead to a second problem: How could we - as consumers, readers, or critics - differentiate between intentional damage and unintentional damage (cf. Martin 1)?

Returning to the “Institute of Totaled Art” in 10:04, it must be noted that, even though the narrator declares the art work to be liberated from the economy, Alena and Peter nonetheless meet with an insurance company. The company decides that “these totaled artworks [are] of both aesthetic and philosophical interest” (Lerner 130) and agrees to donate works as well as to cover their cost of shipping. Additionally, the narrator incorporates the art back into market logic by stating that “somebody would probably pay a lot of money for the [art] even if [it] had legally been declared worthless” (132). This shows that even when it is officially announced that certain art has no financial value, it cannot escape the economic logic completely, which reinforces my argument that 10:04 itself is unable to exist entirely separate from neoliberalism. In other words, art in the time of neoliberalism can strive to be “art before or after capital” (134), but possibly always contains traces of it since it is actually created during capital.

There are several further ways in which 10:04 simultaneously does and does not resist neoliberalism. An example would be the short story “The Golden Vanity” which is incorporated into the novel. This story is used to show how economic pressures influence literature, because the narrator eventually succumbs to external demands and agrees to edit his story (cf. 56/57). On the one hand, economic influences are acknowledged through this story, but on the other hand, it “trains us to see the market and substract it from the work” (Brown Art, 9). Furthermore, the novel follows the narrator as he continuously tests the limits of the market in the form of a contract he has signed, stating that he will write a book based on the mentioned short story (cf. Lerner 4). Yet, even though the narrator writes a book very different from the one which was agreed upon in the contract, he never attempts to alter the fact that he has to incorporate the short story in the book (cf. 157), which can be seen as “further evidence of the novel's compromise” (Martin 3).

Literature in general contains structures “that allow us to move past the limits of neoliberalism” (Berardie qtd. in Nilges 369), for example through complex notions of time: While neoliberalism is largely based on the logic of immediacy, the novel is an art form that questions temporal dimensions. For Nilges, “the antinomy between literature and neoliberalism reaches its most pronounced form in the novel's constitutive opposition to both immediacy and in its ability to register and work through temporal crises as impasses in temporal thought forms” (371). Thus, novels resist neoliberalism in general in that they do not accept neoliberalism's temporal limits and provide a thought form that reveals temporal complexity. A similar argument could be made for space. Whereas money has become abstract in such a manner that “capital transfers today abolish space and time, virtually instantaneously effectuated across national spaces” (Jameson 252), two of the most profound narrative categories in the novel are those of time and space. 10:04 engages with these aspects for example by entangling the past, present and future. The novel begins with a scene somewhere in the middle of the narrative and then moves on to both the past and the future of that specific point in time. It plays with notions of time, but also with perception and space, for example when the narrator admits that his memories are distorted: “Whenever I walked across the Manhattan Bridge, I remembered myself as having crossed the Brooklyn Bridge” (Lerner 134). Concerning the future, the novel can be said to convey some characteristics described by Nilges when discussing (post-)apocalyptic culture. Anxieties about the future are often connected to natural disasters, such as the two hurricanes, and it is repeatedly stated that “the world is ending” (Lerner 132). While this seems to confirm that neoliberalism's “absorption of the future into the present has [a paralysing effect] on our cultural imagination” (Nilges 369), it should be noted that the novel also portrays crises of aestheticism, health and finance (cf. Ashton 11).

A further neoliberal notion with which the novel engages is that of the homo oeconomicus. As described by Wendy Brown, in neoliberalism, both person and state become projects of management that have to maximize their capital - “they are 'economized'” (22). As “financialized human capital” (33), people constantly compete with each other (cf. 36) and self-invest in order to enhance their value and attract investors (cf. 35). Neoliberalism is thus described as having a negative affect on human communities. On the one hand, it can be said that 10:04 succumbs to this view when what is supposedly left of a community is described in terms such as “[b]undled debt” and “trace amounts of antidepressants in the municipal water” (Lerner 108). The connections between humans seem marginal as well as abstract and involve economic terms. On the other hand, the narrator finds human connection in tutoring young Roberto, in his relationship with Alena and, much more profoundly, in his friendship with Alex. Far from using his money only for his economic advantage, the narrator helps Alex and Roberto financially, without any Return on Investment. He also volunteers in the Park Slope Food Coop, a supermarket from which “nobody is extracting profit” (Lerner 95). The narrator immediately states that none of the volunteers truly believe that this work makes them “less of a node in a capitalist network” (95), but since he and Alex have been members for many years, they must have at least some hope of making a difference.

Having examined several ways in which 10:04 relates to neoliberalism, what remains to be said is that it is a book filled with contradictions. These contradictions are important for this essay insofar that they show how 10:04 both does and does not resist neoliberal logic. Agreeing with Nilges, I do not think that 10:04, or culture in general, is entirely subsumed by capitalism. I also do not believe that novels can exist completely separate from economic logic in a world that is so thoroughly penetrated by it. 10:04 may be said to be damaged by capitalism in that it incorporates the short story “The Golden Vanity”, harbors anxieties about (future) natural disasters and describes people as a collective loosely bound together through economy and infrastructure. Additionally, it is quite obviously a book which is offered and sold on the market, which makes it an art commodity, even though it may have been “damaged” by Ben Lerner when writing it. As stated before, the meaning of 10:04 as a “damaged” art work also largely depends on the intention behind the damage. Nonetheless, this novel also resists capitalism, for example by revealing economic pressures and compromises which makes it possible for readers to “substract [the market] from the work” (Brown Art, 9). It also plays with notions of time as well as space and resists the gloomy concept of the homo oeconomicus. While 10:04 is neither subsumed by neoliberalism nor entirely autonomous, what certainly can be said is that this novel engages with neoliberalism in a very critical, complex and fruitful manner.


Excerpt out of 7 pages


Neoliberalism and the Novel. The Relationship of Capitalism and Ben Lerner's "10:04"
Uppsala University  (Department of English)
MA Hauptseminar: Recent Developments in Literary Studies
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Neoliberalism, Capitalism, Ben Lerner, 10:04, Theodore Martin, Recent Developments in Literary Studies
Quote paper
Silvia Schilling (Author), 2018, Neoliberalism and the Novel. The Relationship of Capitalism and Ben Lerner's "10:04", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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