Saturday, December 4, 2010

I am extraordinarily edgy about the current section of dissertation. I'm not precisely sure why -- but then, there may not really be a good reason -- it may just be overflowing edginess. (If neurotic energy could be converted into heat, I'd have a cozy apartment.)

I might as well say something about it here, and maybe that will get me over the obstacle. I write about 18th century English poetry that engages with economic development. (I write about 19th century English poetry that does the same thing, but we'll save that for another day). Perhaps, when you read the above, you thought, "Oh, she's dealing with Pope and Swift, or Johnson and Gay" -- but you'd be wrong. I deal with Young, and Blair, and Beattie, and Yearsley. I'm exhuming the Graveyard School*, and sorting out rather wilder, more mixed economic perspectives. Critics have usually dismissed them as being little more than continuations of 17th century Puritan spiritual commerce metaphors, exhibiting little more than an obsession with the binary of earthly and eternal value, and a desire to frighten readers into conversion.

I've got plenty of material to hold a discussion suggesting that it's more complicated. I'm even discussing several reasons why we've failed to see the nuances within this poetry as relevant to economics.

What makes me really nervous is the stance that I'm taking in regards to capitalist thought. Late 17th - early 18th century England is seen as a turning point in capitalist development. Whether you argue (as Appleby and Weber tend to do) that it's the turning point, or whether you're aligned with Sombart and others who see capitalism emerging much earlier in the Mediterranean states, it's hard to deny that capitalist thought is present in England at this point. I certainly don't want to deny that. But capitalism doesn't suddenly take hold universally. To analyze reciprocal exchanges, pursuits of profit and loss, and attentiveness to economy as capitalism is, as Barbara Herrnstein Smith notes, both ethnocentric and reductive. This sort of analysis tends to group everything that progresses towards modern capitalism as important, and everything else as less relevant.

It's easy enough to be wary of this pitfall when analyzing non-Western societies or ancient societies without clear connections to the rise of modern capitalism.

However, I'm taking the position that it's just as important to be cautious of such reductionism in looking at texts from 18th century England, because it's unwise to assume that merely because capitalist economics were on the rise, all or most individuals exhibited capitalist views. Being incautious of middle grounds in economic thought (that are arguably not modern capitalism, but that are also arguably not mercantilism, either) is part of what's led us to contemplate two possibilities for economic development. 1): the homo economicus, for whom all commerce is instinctive and natural, or 2), what Herrnstein Smith (though she's certainly not the only person to draw this distinction) refers to as the "fall into Commerce," wherein all economic behavior becomes earthly and temporary, and all value is classified as sacred or profane.

The Graveyard School is practically created by the opposition between these two possibilities. I'm being a bit extreme, putting it like that, but I'll stand by it. It's more like a combination between the two, but if analyzed in terms of whether it's progressing towards capitalism or not, then it looks as though it isn't, and immediately gets shunted into woo-woo-divine-economy territory.

I suppose that taking this position makes me nervous because in some ways, it's a pretty basic error.

Let me be clear -- I'm not saying in the least that all critics of economic lit have botched this, or that it invalidates analyses of Swift, Pope, etc. -- though the commercial satires themselves did contribute to this problem, because they set a precedent that imaginative depictions of finance would be seen by later critics as mocking and sharply criticizing economic structure, instead of being considered as theorizing about the structure itself.

Back to the basic error of studying through the lens of "capitalist/smart" vs. "not capitalist/primitive," it excludes a lot of data that's relevant to economic decision-making. And even if it is primitive (because arguably, in a number of cases, it is), the problem is that primitive, in the case of these poems, has been synonymous with Not Worth Studying. To be fair, there's pressure from the econ. side of things, where ideas and principles are constantly churned, with the new replacing the old. This is just one of the factors that contributes to a fractious relationship between humanities and economics.

This largely why the position I'm taking makes me jittery, I suppose. In asserting that certain aspects of the way critics have handled the history of economics have been reductive, I'm also pursuing knowledge that the discipline of economics would not consider relevant. That's not the end of the world, though.

The other thing that makes me nervous is that it feels challenging to set up a useful framework for discussion for texts that I'm claiming are middle ground. Pre-capitalism isn't necessarily the best description for them. In some ways, it's accurate enough, and maybe you could argue that to link them with capitalism would be useful in expanding what capitalism is, and how it developed. Maybe. I don't think so at the moment, though. In the poems that I'm working with, it makes much more sense to me to describe the authors as working to construct different forms of economic authority. I really do think that's the best way of characterizing them; it finds a common feature (which I know, I'm not fully explaining here), and yet gives me room to discuss how each author establishes and wields this authority differently. But it makes me jittery, because, after all, I'm not trying to construct an argument that they do so in a capitalistic fashion.

Getting that off my chest was useful.

* Why yes, it is risky of me to use one umbrella for all of the poets who've been classified or associated with the graveyard school! Bear with me, though. For now, think of it as including poems that prominently feature the opposition of eternal and earthly value, and a moralistic, scolding commentary on commerce and consumption.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know if this will help with the boa constrictor, but some of the recent posts here might be interesting to you, specifically the one on granularity and the one on merchant capital.

    (Ok, now I will stop commenting on blogs and get on with my proper work...)