Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"British Asignats": Debt, Caricature and Romantic Subjectivity in 1797

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"British Asignats": Debt, Caricature and Romantic Subjectivity in 1797

Article excerpt

It would be of great theoretical interest to establish the conceptual link between this genesis of self-consciousness and the modern notion of paper money.

--Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative, 1993

IN LIGHT OF ITS PARADOXICAL DEFINITION AS BOTH A MATERIAL AND AN immaterial thing, debt is continually subject to a crisis of definition and representation. (1) This made for an interesting visual problem in the eighteenth century for graphic satirists who, in search of a suitable visual language, often thought about debt in terms of credit or belief, trust, and faith in either a person or an institution. In 1797 Isaac Cruikshank, following a print designed by Gillray two months prior, etched "British Asignats [sic]" into the print Billy a cock-horse or the Modern Colossus amusing himself (fig. 1). In so doing, he envisioned that William Pitt, tasked with funding the war against Revolutionary France, replaced Britain's material wealth with spurious immaterial wealth. That is, Pitt had usurped the remains of real physical money in Britain and replaced it with paper money. Perhaps some viewers might have been reminded of the forged assignats produced by Britain between 1793 and 1795 as a furtive means of further debasing France's economy, but in this print Cruikshank reveals the fear that British bank notes might meet with the same desperate fate as French paper money. (2) The public's faith in Pitt to repay this paper debt in specie remains doubtful. Tied to his lack of creditworthiness lurks the fear of financial collapse.

Much like our current debates about financial crises, fiscal cliffs, and quantitative easing, debt was frequently the subject of heated debate throughout the eighteenth century, notably during the South Sea crisis in 1720 and the Bank Restriction Act of 1797. (3) The fact that money and public credit were based on both faith in government institutions and individuals created a deep sense of anxiety that graphic satirists, Gillray in particular, exploited in representation. This anxiety stemmed from the fact that money in all its variants maintains its value due purely to human agreement. Money is an "institutional fact" (existing within human institutions) and not a "brute fact" (existing independently of human institutions). (4) That is, money carries what Georg Simmel called "the psychological fact of objective value" and not objective value itself. (5) In late eighteenth-century Europe paper currency made this structure of belief ever more apparent because the difference between coin and paper remained a crucial distinction (even though this very structure also maintained the value of coin). Britons were particularly fixated on the negative example set by Revolutionary France since the failure of assignats had recently laid bare the fragility of a system based on trust and agreement. (6)

The groundwork for this trust and agreement, or the culture of paper money, much like the topic of financial forgery, has been overlooked in recent scholarship and deserves further attention in relation to the graphic arts as well as Romanticism (despite Kevin Barry's pronouncement that on "February 26, 1797, a run on the Bank of England precipitated English Romanticism"). (7) This article argues that the increasing proliferation of paper money, itself a representation of social relationships, helped occasion a change in Romantic subjectivity. Acceptance of a paper note implied trust in the bearer of the note (not to give a forged note), in the issuer of the note (the legitimacy of government and/or a bank), in neighbors and friends to accept the note in the future, and in the self as a performing member of this network of anonymous paper exchanges. Taking Pitt's small domination notes after the Bank Restriction Act forced individuals to perform outward signs of trust and trustworthiness in depersonalized monetary exchanges. Concurrently, what came to be known as the "depth model" or canonical model of Romantic subjectivity developed at this time, for instance identified in Wordsworth's The Prelude as the "depth of human souls. …

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