Allen Mendenhall Interviews Gabrielle Shiner

Gabrielle Shiner studies literature at Queen Mary, University of London.

Allen Mendenhall is an editor of themendenhall.

AM:  Thanks for doing this interview, Gabrielle.  I’m interested in your research project about Ayn Rand and aesthetics.  Could you tell us a little about this project?  What are your arguments?  And where did you come up with your ideas for this topic?

When I first began studying English Literature at the university level, I was immediately struck by how heavily embedded the discipline was in a Marxist understanding of the world. During high school I began to develop an interest in free-markets, particularly Austrian Economics and Objectivism. As you know from personal experience, if you are approaching literary theory with this lens, the overwhelming bias of the field—explicitly and implicitly—is rather shocking. I became increasingly interested in how Objectivism, which is a strong influence in my life, along with the understanding of the world provided by Austrian economists, such as Mises and Hayek, could contribute to literary studies. I picked up The Romantic Manifesto by Ayn Rand, in which she develops a theory of Objectivist aesthetics, and I found the opening chapters to be the most inspiring work of artistic theory I had ever read. Pretty quickly, however, I realised that scholarship concerning The Romantic Manifesto is basically non-existent. This was, of course, pretty disheartening but at the same time it made me realise how much potential there is to work with these ideas, and how much room there is for new ideas within literary criticism.

For my undergraduate dissertation, I have decided to develop my understanding of Objectivist aesthetics and Austrian economics into a more comprehensive literary approach. The main idea I am incorporating from Rand’s work is the connection she draws between our personal sense of life and the act of both consuming and producing art. I am incorporating this idea into an understanding of culture as a spontaneous order, in order to rethink both the relationship between the author and reader, and the relationship between texts. I am, essentially, viewing authors as cultural entrepreneurs. In the market place, knowledge is created by entrepreneurs, helping us overcome, to an extent, the knowledge problem that Hayek wrote about extensively. I argue that authors are essentially doing the same thing. In a cultural context the subjective, dispersed, tacit knowledge that the market utilises so incredibly is our sense of life. In this light, authors and other “cultural entrepreneurs” are the innovators that inspire cultural change and progress, yet culture remains essentially consumer driven and, in the case of literature, the power is ultimately in the readers’ hands. I believe that we are not essentially products of our social or economic situation but individuals with incredible potential due to our reason, volition, and sense of purpose—this approach to literature and culture respects that understanding of human nature.

AM:  As you know, since Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox published Literature and the Economics of Liberty, there has been a rising interest in free market economics and literary criticism.  What do you make of this trend?  Where do you see yourself in relation to it?

In my opinion, it is vital that this trend continues to develop. These ideas are new, and at the moment there are only a few people within literary studies looking to develop them, but I see a huge amount of potential for this to develop further. These are more than simply new ideas within literary criticism; we are finally seeing the pro-liberty movement trying to penetrate cultural studies. As I see it, collectivist and socialist ideas generate a huge amount of strength from their cultural dominance. Culture is fascinating because of how subtle, complex, and powerful it is. I’m not a big believer in the ivory tower: I believe that ideas have very strong, real influence on the world. You don’t have to get a PhD to be influenced by the ideological climate concerning culture and society—it penetrates everything and is constantly reinforced all around us. Pro-liberty activists can’t just sit there and talk about how important culture is, and how big of a challenge it poses to the liberty movement. Pro-liberty ideas desperately need more people challenging the cultural bias and trying to turn the tides. It isn’t going to happen overnight, but I believe it is an essential part of these ideas taking hold politically.

I wish you could have seen my face when I first came across Literature and the Economics of Liberty—I had a ridiculous smile on my face for the rest of the day. I was so excited by the conversation that this book was opening up. I’m so grateful to Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox for publishing that book and for the work they do both to develop and spread these ideas. You know, I just spent the week at an IHS seminar with Michael Valdez Moses, a former student of Paul Cantor who is now a fantastic pro-liberty English professor at Duke University. Of course, you also know Paul Cantor and have been influenced by him. It’s really exciting! Hopefully, one day soon we will see many more professors within English and the Humanities, as well as people working within popular culture, who share these ideas. I understand that this trend is, more or less, brand new, but in many ways that is the most exciting thing about it.

Where do I see myself in relation to all this? To be honest, the more I work with these ideas and the more I get involved, the less I can see myself giving them up. I’m really passionate about seeing a pro-liberty culture develop and I know that, in some way, I will always be working to achieve that. I’m still an undergraduate and I have a lot to learn, but I have a lot of ideas and I plan to develop them in my further study and beyond. We’ll see where, more specifically, that leads me but… well, I’m pretty optimistic.

AM:  You’ve been a student of literature in London.  For many reasons, London is an excellent place to study literature.  Can you tell us about how you, an American, ended up there, and also about your future plans?

When I was sixteen my mom began working with the UN and she got relocated to Rome, Italy. I was at an amazing boarding school at the time but I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to live abroad. When I was at school in the States I was intrigued by the idea of going to university in London, and I never had a doubt that at some point in my life I would live abroad, but after spending two years in Italy the idea became really tangible. I was learning and growing so much and I just wasn’t ready to give that up. It was a good choice too—I have fallen in love with London, and it has been the perfect place for me these past couple years.

Right now I am again approaching a very important transitional stage as I research programs for graduate school and, naturally, I’ve been thinking a lot about my future plans. A couple years ago I would have bet on the fact that I would return to the States after getting my undergraduate degree but, again, I’m just not ready to leave! Will I ever be? I honestly can’t tell you. At this point, whatever I do, I really can’t see myself being confined within any national border. Of course, at some point I’ll “settle down” somewhere but travelling and interacting with different cultures has played such a huge role in my life that I will never be able to depart with that. Being American, or European, or anything else will obviously influence you a lot, but it all feels rather arbitrary to me nowadays.

I can’t guarantee much about my future plans yet, but I will guarantee you this: It’s going to be great, and it’s going to be global.

AM: I know that you’ve been involved, to varying degrees, with Students for Liberty.  Tell us something about that organization and your involvement with it.

Students for Liberty is a student-led non-profit that provides support for pro-liberty students and student organisations. SFL was started in 2008 by Alexander McCobin and Sloane Frost and in these past few years it has had a huge impact on the pro-liberty movement in the United States. SFL organises conferences, provides pro-liberty student organisations with resources—everything from leadership training to free books—and provides opportunities for students to develop their interest in liberty, through projects such as their weekly live webinars with prominent thinkers and leaders in the pro-liberty movement. SFL now has over 500 student groups in their network, over 1,100 attendees at their regional conferences, over 1,500 webinar participants, and over 500 attendees at their international conference in Washington, DC. I don’t know about you, but this blows me away. We are talking about Libertarian students!

I have known about SFL for a long time but since I have been over in Europe I never really had the chance to get involved. This year, however, Students for Liberty took on its first major international development with European Students for Liberty. After applications opened up to be on the ESFL Executive Board, my brother called me from the States and before hanging up I already had half my application filled out. I love this organisation. You know what it is like being a pro-liberty student and, let’s face it, it can be lonely. Even worse, it can be stifling. If you don’t know how to access resources, or have anyone to talk to and develop your ideas with, not only do you tend to think you must be a little crazy, but your passion for liberty can really be suffocated. We’re going to have our first European conference this November, and we’ve been working really hard to pull everything together this summer. Europe provides some unique challenges, mostly with its diversity of histories, languages and cultures, but we have a great team from all over Europe that I believe can really make this successful. One of the greatest things about SFL is that it doesn’t tell students and student groups what to do, or how to spread liberty, but instead embraces a bottom up approach and supports the various initiatives that students are taking. I think that this aspect of the organisation will allow Europe’s diversity to be a really positive and inspiring part of the movement, rather than a hindrance. This November will really kick things off in Europe—I can’t wait to see where it goes from there.

AM:  There is a wealth of possibility when it comes to integrating libertarian theory and literary theory or criticism. What do you see as some important texts to these mutually illuminating disciplines?   

I’m going to start by pointing out the usual suspect: Ayn Rand. Of course, Objectivism can’t be equated with “libertarian theory,” but I think that there is no denying that she has been a major influence to many Libertarians. What inspires me so much about her body of work is that she shows that a belief in liberty and individualism can be developed not only in a critical approach but in the actual fiction itself. Her comprehensive approach to understanding liberty has been very important to me, and one of the reasons I find her so inspiring is simply because of the potential she saw in developing her philosophy in so many different ways. I have already mentioned The Romantic Manifesto but her fiction, such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, is very important as well.

Apart from Rand, I have found the work of F.A. Hayek to be very illuminating. For example, the essays in Individualism and Economic Order, among others, have had a strong impact on the way I see “libertarian principles” influencing literary criticism. I’m not going to pretend that I have read the whole thing (I’m working on it!) but Human Action by Ludwig von Mises is a truly fascinating work that includes a lot of vital insights. I should mention, as well, Hayek’s essay “The Intellectuals and Socialism”, which really had a profound impact on me.

This isn’t anything close to a complete list but these are the texts that originally inspired me to take a closer look at the relationship between libertarian principles and literary criticism.

AM:  Thanks for taking the time, Gabrielle.  All the best with your studies.  Let’s do this again.

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