You are on Érudit's new platform. Enjoy! Switch to classic view


Matthew Rowlinson. Real Money and Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0521193795. Price: US$89

  • Evan Gottlieb

…more information

  • Evan Gottlieb
    Oregon State University

Article body

Matthew Rowlinson’s absorbing and intricately argued new book, Real Money and Romanticism, begins with a deceptively simple epigraph attributed to a long-serving, twentieth-century congressman and then senator from Illinois, Everett L. Dirksen: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” Presumably, Dirksen was referring to the almost inconceivably large sums of money that constitute the U.S. federal budget; as such, the adjective “real” was for him synonymous with “substantial” in the colloquial sense of being significant. For Rowlinson, however, Dirksen’s ironic one-liner serves the double purpose of unintentionally drawing our attention to the substantiality (or lack thereof) of money in its more literal sense. The “billion here” and “billion there” to which Dirksen refers, after all, do not exist anywhere in material form, which is to say, they are not “real” in the usual sense. As insubstantial digital blips, they would appear to register the distance we have traveled from what many of us assume was money’s original, “real” existence: coinage whose face value reflected its metallic composition as measured against some standard (usually gold). Yet as Rowlinson demonstrates throughout his book, money has almost never been “real” in this sense, and the specie that is generally understood to be money’s embodied form has, for most of its history, often been little more than its residue or remainder. Through detailed excurses into money’s historical and theoretical existences, followed by three “case studies” of the influences of the period’s monetary system on the works of Walter Scott, John Keats, and Charles Dickens, Real Money and Romanticism makes a compelling case for the deep psychic as well as social and literary role of money in our lives.

Rowlinson’s introductory chapter could and should find its way onto many graduate-level syllabi as an advanced primer on the history of money. It is not without an agenda – Rowlinson clearly finds some accounts more convincing than others – but it is nonetheless balanced and lucid. Perhaps most importantly, it not only traces the history (or rather, competing histories) of money, but explains the stakes of these varying accounts. If money begins its social life as merely a method of recording debts and credits, as in Marc Shell’s account of the development of “the broken coin [symbolon]” as that which “merely provided the necessary symbol of credit or trust” (qtd. in 1), then its eventual slide into becoming itself a part of that transaction represents a falling away from the purity of the original exchange. By contrast, if money has always had a symbolic as well as real dimension – here, Rowlinson invokes the fact that medieval tally sticks, employed to record government debt, were apparently used from their start as instruments of transferrable debt, since creditors could pass their “stock” (the longer piece) to third parties – then the idea of a society free from the original sin of “impersonal” monetary transactions must be abandoned.

This leads Rowlinson to revisit the old question of the relationship between gift exchange and monetary exchange. Although these two modes of transaction have often been contrasted, Rowlinson sheds light on an important structural homology: just as gift exchange is always open (insofar as no gift is precisely equal to its counterpart), the appearance of money’s embodiment of economic rationality is always belied by its symbolic remainder or excess. Thus we must forego the illusion, especially popular in times of economic distress (when, as now, the market value of gold shoots up extraordinarily), that symbolic money is only as recent as the demonetization of gold in 1971. Instead, as Rowlinson puts it, “In the anthropological narratives we have discussed that represent the displacement of symbolic by economic exchange as a historical event in the past . . . I suggest that we are encountering the allegorical projection onto history of a process that is in fact continuously at work in modern money” (27). This returns us to the insight, mentioned above, that money is always already simultaneously real and symbolic.

As these terms suggest, the other theory of money that particularly interests Rowlinson is the psychoanalytic. Here, however, he takes something of the reverse approach: instead of theorizing what has been taken to be a historical narrative, Rowlinson historicizes what psychoanalysis has frequently theorized to be the perversely “sublime” aspect of money: the way it is believed to hold an “incorruptible” value despite the evident corruptibility of its material form (e.g. clipped coins, torn bills, etc.). In fact, as Rowlinson demonstrates in his second chapter on the specific history of the British monetary system, this apparent incorruptibility is less the symptom of a “pre-phallic” obsession than the result of a long historical process in which, as he puts it, “an apparently homogeneous supply of circulating money is precipitated out of a heterogeneous mass of tokens of individual or institutional obligation” (27). At the same time, Rowlinson is well aware of the various ways that Freudian and Lacanian theories both inform and rely on notions of debt, exchange, fetishization, and waste (to name just a few of the relevant concepts), and he is not afraid to factor these into his readings. His brief discussion of Lacan (29-30) is highly clarifying in this regard; more, it is matched, from the perspective of money’s “real” history, by his welcome explanation at the start of the next chapter of the evolution of the bill of exchange.

The bill of exchange, in fact, may be the key “vanishing mediator” between specie and today’s modern credit economy. Originally designed to allow traders to pay for merchandise at a foreign port without having to transport solid currency (by drawing on an already existing debt at the point of purchase), bills’ capacity “to transfer debt between places” (35) soon became the preferred method simultaneously to extend credit along multiple circuits of exchange, and to express differences between various currencies (since the ease or difficulty with which one could obtain a foreign bill of credit, and therefore the premium one paid for it, generally reflected the trade relation between the countries in question). One of the most obvious results of the tremendous growth of bills of exchange was that individual banks then began issuing their own bills; another was that paper money became increasingly detached from the specie that supported it. Ultimately, Rowlinson demonstrates, homogeneous national currencies were created less by purposeful internal consolidation than by the pressures of international trade: a neat argument for the long-durational effects of early globalization.

Of course, in the period of the book’s main critical focus – the Romantic era – no such homogeneous national currency was in place in Britain. Instead, the combination of coins, bills of exchange, and bank bills made for an unstable, highly dynamic financial environment. In fact, the legislative enactment of a gold standard for the pound did not occur until 1817; for the previous 20 years, the Bank Restriction Act – which was supposed to have been a temporary emergency measure – had prohibited banks from redeeming their notes in specie (so that more was available to the government to pay British soldiers fighting abroad). Almost as a side effect of the Restriction Act, the various paper currencies circulating in Britain were forced to begin articulating “not only their differences from one another, but also their identity as different instances of a single abstraction [the British pound]” (50). Although there were certainly plenty of skeptics and detractors – William Cobbett’s fulminations are especially well known – the end result was a consolidation of British national feeling under the aegis of the wartime necessity of paper circulation. The end of the chapter draws attention to how even differences between the English and Scottish banking systems eventually led to more, not less, national unity.

During and directly after the Napoleonic era when this consolidation was taking place, however, the situation was not so clear. This is precisely the period when Scott, Keats, and the early Dickens were making their different ways into the literary marketplace. In each of their cases, Rowlinson effectively demonstrates how their productions bear multiple imprints of their differing relations to the market, and frequently their specific economic situations. What makes Rowlinson’s approach particularly insightful, moreover, is that instead of looking only for thematic lines of influence, he frequently locates formal features of these authors’ oeuvres that speak to their economic experiences, especially with regard to writing and publishing. His chapter on Scott’s Waverley Novels, for example, revolves around the insight that both Scott’s infamous ruse of anonymity (he insisted on not having his name on his title pages until 1827, long past the date when his authorship was much of a secret), and the serial quality of the novels themselves, reflect Scott’s unusually complicated arrangements with his printers and publishers. To simplify greatly, Scott was not only a silent (and dominant) partner of the press that printed most of his novels, but also in the habit of paying himself with discounted bills drawn from his publishers, sometimes even before his latest novel would begin to sell. Superficially, this was merely the equivalent of taking advances on his share of the profits; but each time Scott endorsed one of those discounted bills he was also taking responsibility for its credit. In other words, as Rowlinson puts it, “In taking payment for his fiction by means of bills, therefore, Scott legally made himself liable to pay again the very payment he took” (64). Rowlinson thus reads Scott’s unwillingness to be named publicly as the author of the Waverley Novels, along with the overlapping, serial quality of his novelistic output, as both symptoms of the “indeterminate series of future transactions and obligations” in which Scott was always involving himself, and as a shrewd ploy to avoid having the bills in question retired. Not until the financial crisis of 1825-26 did this system collapse, subsequently obligating Scott to write even more furiously to attempt to pay off his (and his partners’) finally-due debts.

Combined with a bravura reading of The Antiquary (1816), Scott’s third and possibly most self-referential novel, Rowlinson’s chapter on Scott is a fine example of scholarship that is simultaneously entertaining, informative, and challenging. So too are many parts of his subsequent chapters on Keats -- which features illuminating readings of how the poet’s changing relationships to work, leisure, and indebtedness are reflected in poems like “The Fall of Hyperion” and the late fragment known as “This Living Hand” -- and Dickens, where his focus returns to the question of money’s “two bodies” in The Old Curiosity Shop (serialized 1840-41 in Master Humphrey’s Clock). In a brief coda, Rowlinson turns to the question of Romanticism itself, defending his inclusion of Dickens by arguing that Romantic writing is best conceptualized as a mode characterized by “self-referentiality . . . [as] a historically specific response to the newly abstract commodity-form assumed by the writing in the period and to the exceptional indeterminacy of the forms of money for which it was exchanged” (192).

Like the book as a whole, the conclusion of Real Money and Romanticism amply demonstrates Rowlinson’s impressive strengths as a critic with an equal grasp of historical and theoretical materials. But it also bears traces of what may be considered the book’s most serious drawback: its relative lack of engagement with the wealth of recent criticism on the history of money in general, and on specific authors in particular. In his acknowledgments, Rowlinson discloses that previous versions of several chapters were published or delivered at conferences more than a decade ago. This does not make them less accurate or interesting, but in some cases it does make them less incisive than they might have been when they were first put forward. A number of critics (myself included, I should add) have written about the Scottish contributions to Britishness since Rowlinson published on the subject in 1999, for example, and more engagement with those more recent arguments would have strengthened his materials on Scottish banking and Scott’s novels considerably. Moreover, while Rowlinson admirably takes on some of the very heaviest hitters of monetary theory (especially by returning repeatedly at the start of chapters to engage with Marx), with the exception of his opening pages on Marc Shell’s work, he pays relatively little attention to the “New Economic Criticism” of the 1990s and 2000s. Again, I am far from thinking that this inattention invalidates Rowlinson’s ideas. For the most part, I find his combination of historical and theoretical approaches more productive than the generally more literal-minded, less politically committed approaches advanced by critics like Shell, Mary Poovey, and Martha Woodmansee. Had Rowlinson taken the opportunity to engage more fully with their body of work, however, he might have avoided the charge of irrelevance that, for example, Poovey has made in her recent review of Real Money and Romanticism. (For Poovey’s review, and Rowlinson’s response to it, see The charge itself is quite wrong, in my opinion, and I hope it will dissuade neither Rowlinson nor others who want to follow his path from pursuing future syntheses of historical and theoretical scholarship.