Models inform policy decisions on many of the most vital challenges facing us today. But while models as simplified representations of the world serve a heuristic function, they also serve a performative function by constituting what they describe. This performative agency of models has been extraordinarily powerful in the field of economics, where the predominance of model thinking in postwar economics has functioned both to constitute “the economy” as a reified object of analysis and to shore up the scientific credentials of the field. At the same time, what economists refer to as the “formalization” of economic knowledge based on abstract models calls attention to the fact that models are aesthetic designs. The heuristic and performative power of models depends on their “elegance,” suggesting that the epistemological value of models, as well as their ontological effects, are inseparable from their aesthetic value. This aesthetic component of models opens up economic knowledge to inquiries from the arts. In particular, the entanglement of economic knowledge with aesthetic practices raises a number of questions about framing, mediation, genre, and form that literary scholars trained to study the construction of imaginary worlds are uniquely situated to address.
The aim of our research network, funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) since 2021, is to investigate the intersections of literary aesthetics and economic knowledge through the lens of modeling. Of central interest to the network is how literary modeling of imaginary worlds offers different ways of conceptualizing models, and to what extent different conceptions of modeling change how we conceive of “the economy” and economic knowledge. The humanities have long defined themselves against the abstractions of modeling by stressing the incommensurability or singularity of literature as a means toward unsettling the knowledge regime of models. Departing from this anti-abstractionism, our research network thinks with models rather than against them by bringing modeling and formal processes of literary world-building into productive dialogue. Leaving models to the natural and social sciences means forfeiting the power of models as well as leaving the crucial question of how to conceptualize modeling to the sciences. While our network builds on recent forays into the relationship between form and model, we specifically direct questions of how literary modeling opens up new ways of thinking about abstraction, scale, mediation, interdependence, and representation toward possibilities of rethinking economic knowledge.