Unlearning Value: Praise, Risk, and Repetition in Paradise Lost
What’s the value of valuing? That’s certainly a central question for an epic that insists that only God knows how to value things aright. Perhaps even more so for one that has been read both as a testament to the rising spirit of capitalism and as a reaction against the satanic creativity characteristic of finance capital. So why do humans and angels keep valuing things in Paradise Lost when it so clearly reserves such an activity for God? Treating this phenomenon as evidence of created beings’ obdurate perversity seems ultimately self-defeating, a tacit denial that the epic could teach anyone anything. This paper argues, instead, that the poem seeks to lead readers away from the cancerously productive tendencies of value, its inclination to generate ever more of itself even when it counsels austerity and restraint. In the end, Milton’s epic demonstrates that valuing is the antithesis of risk and that it always offers the same crippling, if nonetheless reassuring lesson: tomorrow, once again, you’ll be evaluating, critiquing, and transvaluing things.
This paper is part of a monograph project on what seventeenth-century poems of praise can teach us about the act and structure of valuing, especially their role in creating modern notions of economic, financial, and aesthetic value. Paradise Lost, I argue, forces us to reconsider some of our more cherished notions about the value of valuing, not only those degraded procedures that humanists are fond of deriding—counting, measuring, assessing—but also the nobler versions that we think will save us from bureaucratic tyranny—deliberating, analyzing, thinking critically. In short, even when we’re valuing God, we’re doing it wrong, because that activity hinges on value’s productive expansion, its replacement of speculative risk with the repeated certainty of creative destruction and future profit.
Coffee and refreshments will be served before the seminar.
Learn more about the speaker: Ryan Netzley, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.
The Milton Seminar is organized by Stephen Fallon, University of Notre Dame; Christopher Kendrick, Loyola University Chicago; Paula McQuade, DePaul University; and Regina Schwartz, Northwestern University.
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