Haunted by the Other Life: Choice and Subjectivity in U.S. Economics and Fiction, 1870-1920

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2023

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This dissertation argues that the American conception of individuality underwent a significant cultural and intellectual revision between the 1870s and 1910s, which laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the neoliberal individual. Where the individual of liberalism was primarily characterized by Property ownership, the last few decades of the 1800s witnessed an increase in efforts to tie individuality to choice-making. The narrative that began to gain prominence in the 1870s was the story of an individual carefully assessing its desires and, through its choices, directly expressing these wishes to the world. This association between choice and the individual did not mean that Property ceased to matter as a category; rather, Property became so fundamental an assumption that its origins––at least to some parts of the population––ceased to require an explanation.I trace this shift from property-owning to choice-making individuality through the two genres of writing that, since the advent of modernity, have consistently articulated what it means to be the subject of capitalism: economics and the novel. Neoclassical economics famously introduced the rational, utility-maximizing individual to the discipline in the 1870s, which would come to be a highly influential narrative in the quantitative social sciences of the twentieth century. As Chapter One shows, this development in economics was paralleled by an increase in novelistic depictions of self-interested decision making as ethical, which constitutes a marked departure from the sentimental logic of earlier nineteenth-century literature. This narrative did not go unchallenged, however: Economists and novelists from Thorstein Veblen to W.E.B. Du Bois pointed out that choice-making individuality is only a believable narrative for those who fit the White middle-class mold. As I show in Chapter Two, “The Conditioned Individual,” novelists like Theodore Dreiser and Edith Wharton, as well as Veblen and the institutional economists he inspired, depicted social milieu is the primary determinant of tastes and desires. As such, they argued, what one ostensibly wants does not amount to an authentic expression of self. Du Bois and his fellow African American novelists, we see in Chapter Three, mount an even more fundamental critique: the Property presupposed by the choice-making individual, they demonstrate, relies on a long-standing practice of expropriating a racial Other. Along with Pauline Hopkins and Sutton Griggs, Du Bois shows that sharecropping and Jim Crow legislation established a social order in which Black self-ownership remained tenuous, thus reinforcing a dividing line crucial to White identity, namely the one between the Propertied and the Unpropertied. Hopkins’s, Griggs’s, and Du Bois’s insistence on the importance of Property in the White imaginary suggests that at least one reason for the rising popularity of the choice narrative in the late nineteenth century was that it served to conceal the deep reliance of Whiteness on Property and its racial Other––a project particularly urgent in the wake of the abolition of slavery.

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Benack, Carolin (2023). Haunted by the Other Life: Choice and Subjectivity in U.S. Economics and Fiction, 1870-1920. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/27658.

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