Inflationary Modernities: Literature and Economy after 1789

deadline for submissions: 
December 31, 2023
full name / name of organization: 
Kieran Brown and Wayne Stables

Inflationary Modernities: Literature and Economy after 1789

*deadline extended*

Call for papers for edited collection


Editors: Kieran Brown (Oxford University) and Wayne Stables (University of South Africa)


     One might understand our culture, Charles Newman writes in The Post-Modern Aura: The Act of Fiction in the Age of Inflation, “in terms of climax inflation – not only of wealth, but of people, ideas, methods, and expectations – the increasing power and pervasiveness of the communications industry, the reckless growth of the academy, the incessant changing of hands and intrinsic devaluation of all received ideas.” Inflation is not only “an increase in the average price of goods and services in terms of money” (as one might read in a macroeconomics textbook) but also, according to Newman, the “devaluation of all received ideas” – the need for more words to communicate less. Just as the means of exchange during hyperinflationary disasters approaches a total absence of value, so the language of our epoch seems to convey, at its extreme, nothing at all. That is not to say inflation is without its ambiguities, however. John Maynard Keynes numbers among those alive to its radical potential: “There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency,” he writes with striking candour. The thought occurs to Milton Friedman, too: “inflation is a disease, a dangerous and sometimes fatal disease, a disease that, if not checked in time, can destroy a society.”

     Whether understood as the system’s most intractable illness or as the index of its revolutionary overturning, inflation poses a threat to the very society it comes to define. Despite Newman’s insight, inflation has received remarkably little attention from scholars in the humanities, perhaps least of all from literary critics. Remarkable for the fact that the effects of inflation are felt all but everywhere; as prices continue to spiral out of control, inflation afflicts us as if with unprecedented intensity. Yet inflation has been around far longer than we might otherwise expect. We find it silently accompanying many of the crises that have defined the myth of the 20th century, if not the history of conflicted modernities otherwise known as the global history of capitalism. Start with modernity’s inaugurating event (“the non-founding foundation,” in Agnes Heller’s words), and immediately you find it. Precipitated by the 1789 revolution, France experienced a period of hyperinflation in the assignat until 1797. That country, so Dickens writes in the opening pages of A Tale of Two Cities, “less favoured on the whole as to matters spiritual than her sister of the shield and trident, rolled with exceeding smoothness downhill, making paper money and spending it.” The decline was a sign of things to come. In 1924, during the inflationary crises following the Russian revolution, T.S. Eliot would applaud the Soviets for their sensible return to the gold standard (their tchervonetz, which, as he explained in his financial column, is “only issued against definite cover in the form of gold foreign money.”) Perhaps the most well-studied case of inflation belongs to Weimar Germany. In what Gerald Feldman calls “the most famous […] and even Olympian work of fiction dealing with inflation,” Thomas Mann’s Disorder and Early Sorrow (1925), Dr. Cornelius’s wife must “take her shopping-basket and dash into town on her bicycle, to turn into provisions a sum of money she has in hand, which she dares not keep lest it lose all value.” Mrs Cornelius acts according to inflation’s demand – which is to say, she acts before it’s too late. She converts her money into provisions even as she anticipates the future impossibility of that conversion. So it is with inflation’s self-sustaining circularity: the expectation of inflation creates inflation. The other side of the increasingly abstract nature of money during inflationary catastrophes, of course, is the so-called cost-of-living crisis – borne by the poorest most of all.

     Inflation is not only an event that belongs to the distant past but is also a danger that bedevils capitalism’s present, unsettling the false promise, as Wolfgang Streek has it, of the “infinite growth of commodified material wealth in a finite world.” A similar worry preys on Samuel Beckett’s Pozzo, who holds that “the tears of the world are a constant quantity” even though “the population has increased.” At any rate, inflation is never without currency – not least the currency known as language. This is what Franco “Bifo” Berardi calls “semio-inflation”: “when you need more signs, words, and information to buy less meaning. It is a problem of acceleration.” The problem is evidently also an aesthetic one: “The bygone era of ‘gold-language,’” writes Jean-Joseph Goux, “the basis for realist and expressive mechanisms of classical representation, has been succeeded by the present age of ‘token-language’ with its vanishing frames of reference and floating signifiers.”

     Whatever its economic meaning (whatever economic solutions may be proposed to explain or eradicate it), inflation is thus also a means for thinking through crises in language – those efforts, all too evident in Modernist poetry and prose, to catch up with a signified that has long since receded from view. Inflation, we could say, is a symptom of an age struggling to draw to its end. For Walter Benjamin, the debasement of currency implies a diminution of life – “When a currency in use is worth so little that a few million units of it means nothing, life will have to be counted in seconds, rather than years, if it is to appear a respectable sum. And accordingly, it will be frittered away like a bundle of banknotes” – as though money were not merely a means for exchanging values, but rather constituted its various objects, including us, as values. What happens to that constituting power – that making of value – when money’s self-referential structure begins to decline? How might inflation influence the ways we conceive of our linguistic selves? And what does it mean for radical politics that all attempts to return to concrete meaning are threatened by emptiness? While our edited collection aims to address these issues, those wishing to contribute might extend their reach by considering, for example:

  1. The links between historical crises and inflation: the ways that inflation has influenced literature since the French revolution, but also how literature and philosophy write back to those crisis, contributing to what David Harvey call’s our “inflationary era.”
  2. The semiotic – or formal – implications of inflation: the linguistic structure of money as well as the speculative lessons literature can teach us about inflation.
  3. The predicament of Homo economicus, whose ideals of individualism, rationality and utility are, by turns, thrown into question by inflationary disasters and invigorated by them.

     While inflation orientates our gaze toward the coming crises – inflation is bound to expectations about the future as much as anything else – the task today may be to consider the havoc it wreaks on the present. What interests us in this volume is not only the historical dimension of inflationary events, nor simply the contested modernity such events may constitute, but the conceptual possibilities that accompany them – possibilities that will enable us to illuminate new dimensions of our own critical conjuncture. After 1971, with Nixon’s suspension of the gold standard, what was once the exception – confined to historical crises, as with Weimar Germany – became a regular feature of daily life. As the consumer price index reaches historic highs across the world, the need to think inflation in all its aspects has never been more urgent. In this respect the discipline of economics is not quite enough to help us.

     Scholars are invited to explore the possibilities suggested by our title: Inflationary Modernities: Literature and Economy after 1789. Accordingly, we welcome diverse perspectives on inflation, ranging between the global South and North, from the French revolution to the present, including but not limited to: political economy (contributors might wish, for instance, to approach economics from a Marxist, Weberian or Foucauldian vantage); the philosophy of language and/or the history of philosophy; technology; biopolitics, etc.


Abstracts of between 300-600 words, accompanied by a short bio or CV, should be sent to Kieran Brown ( and Wayne Stables ( by 31 December 2023. Final articles will be between 6 000 and 11 000 words.