Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

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

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

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

Article excerpt

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 DeBolla, 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 war 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. This criticism may help account for differences between decolonizing British "settler nationalists" and the colonized--differences normally constituted in postcolonial theory in a more strictly literary-aesthetic discourse of domination, hegemony, and resistance---as a problematic of monetary value best understood by analyzing the culture of paper credit as a form of commodity fetishism. (2)

The political impact of the advent of public credit and paper currency in the eighteenth century has been an object of study in the discipline of history for some time, and a variety of historians have attempted to describe how contemporary political theory was formulating public credit--the name for the cultural apparatus comprising the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694, government borrowing from the Bank and the public at large, and the corollary developments of a National Debt, new taxes to support payments against it, and a permanent civil service. …

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