The Culture of Paper Credit: The New Economic Criticism and the Postcolonial Eighteenth Century

By Moore, Seán | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

The Culture of Paper Credit: The New Economic Criticism and the Postcolonial Eighteenth Century


Moore, Seán, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


The Culture of Paper Credit: The New Economic Criticism and the Postcolonial Eighteenth Century

Peter De Bolla, The Discourse of the Sublime: Readings in History, Aesthetics and the Subject (Oxford and New York, 1989). $45.95

Colin Nicholson, Writing and the Rise of Finance: Capital Satires of the Early Eighteenth Century (Cambridge and New York, 1994). $70.00

James Thompson, Models of Value: Eighteenth-Century Political Economy and the Novel (Durham and London, 1996). $49.95/$17.95 PB

Sandra Sherman, Finance and Fictionality in the Early Eighteenth Century: Accounting for Defoe (Cambridge and New York, 1996). $70.00

Catherine Ingrassia, Authorship, Commerce, and Gender in Early Eighteenth-Century England: A Culture of Paper Credit (Cambridge and New York, 1998). $65.00

Deidre Shauna Lynch, The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning (Chicago and London, 1998). $45.00/$! 8.00 PB

Patrick Brantlinger, Fictions of State: Culture and Credit in Britain, 1694-1994 (Ithaca, 1996) $51.50/$21.50 PB

The most significant development in the field of Restoration and eighteenth-century literature in the 1990s, it has been argued, was the "new economic criticism"-works on public credit and its modernizing effects on the culture of Britain by Peter DeBoIIa, Colin Nicholson, James Thompson, Sandra Sherman, Catherine Ingrassia, and Patrick Brantlinger.1 The rise of the liberal bourgeois state occasioned by this transformation in government and Avar financing, according to these critics, not only marked an unsettling shift in authority away from agrarian landed gentry towards financiers and government civil servants-a "financial" revolution-but it also led to new forms of "virtual" property such as government bonds that created a contractual relationship between the subject and the state. What became an infectious virtualization of all property produced a crisis in the reification of securities, value, signs, and the abstract Enlightenment subject itself that provoked a nostalgia for the putative "real" security of land and "disinterested virtue" of its proprietors. This nostalgia was encoded in the Landed Qualification Bill of 1710 requiring Members of Parliament to own land and in the Tory Scriblerus Club writings of Swift, Pope, and Gay. The canonization of their satire in the eighteenth century and beyond is perhaps responsible for disseminating the heuristic fiction of the difference between the "landed" and the "moneyed" classes. Those writers like Defoe and Eliza Haywood who embraced this pervasive virtualization of property-what Ingrassia calls the "culture of paper credit"-for what it could do for the professional person of letters saw that readers of both paper financial instruments and the new commercial literature themselves reified value. Engaged in reader response and looking for an intention to govern meaning and value, contemporaries read "something into nothing" as Sherman has suggested and found in the author function a kernel of the "real" that was "the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning."

What has been an England-centered study of Defoe, Haywood, and the Scriblerians, however, can be linked productively with a new postcolonial analysis of the development of paper currencies in eighteenth-century British colonial possessions. For colonial assemblies in North America, the West Indies, and abortively in Ireland, finding their citizens short of gold and silver coin due to trade imbalances with the mother country, experimented with systems of "currency finance" that resembled Britain's public credit. They began circulating paper bills of credit with cultural effects ranging from the empowerment of colonial assemblies as guarantors of paper currency's value to the construction of distinct colonial public spheres in pamphlet literature about colonial scrip to the formation of proto-national identities. A review of the recent books on public credit and literature may aid in the creation of a postcolonial new economic criticism within Eighteenth-Century Studies.

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