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Robert J. Balfour, ed. Culture, Capital and Representation. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. ISBN: 9780230246454. Price: US$80.00/£50.00

  • Kathleen Blake

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  • Kathleen Blake
    University of Washington

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Robert Balfour’s collection is a welcome contribution to the new economic criticism. It offers interdisciplinary, as well as historical, national, and imperial span. Contributors include scholars of language and literature, art history, communications and media, and finance as well as the history of economic thought. Historically, the range is from the seventeenth to the early-twenty-first century. Three of the ten essays focus on the nineteenth century. The collection ranges from Britain and France to colonies and ex-colonies such as Ireland, Canada, the United States, and Panama. This is very much a collection, of the nature of a medley or miscellany, but some themes recur, including themes of representation that link economics—the focus is capitalist economics—to other systems of representation such as language, literature, figuration and tropes, and representative government. Also linking economics and other representational systems is the factor of time which generates themes of temporal dynamics and the bearing of history. As to approach, one must speak again of medley or miscellany—close reading, image studies, historicism, cultural studies, Jungian archetypes and mythopoetics, Marxist analysis, gender, race, and class, post-colonialism. There is a tinge of the distaste commonly found in literary and cultural scholarship on the Romantic, Victorian, and other periods when it comes to capital. Still as a work of new economic criticism the collection widens perspective.

Romanticists will find special interest in György Fogarasi’s essay on epitaphic cash flow, which addresses the language of economics built into the English language and literary expression in Thomas Gray’s and William Wordsworth’s poetry. Fogarasi is concerned with the idea of payment within “paying attention” (68). More particularly, he is concerned with paying attention to the dead, as in melancholy contemplation of gravestone inscriptions, memorials of the departed, ruined monuments, and other epitaphic signs and signifiers. Attention paid to the dead makes very evident the factor of time involved in payment in general, as almost no exchange is instantaneous. Nor does it provide instant gratification. Where there is working, producing, bringing to market, money, credit, a contract, there is temporal displacement—an interval of deferred benefit between incurring expense or giving away and getting back again. In Fogarasi’s readings, the exchange for remembering in honor, which takes its toll in tears, is to be, in turn, so remembered in honor, to enjoy like tribute. But in the case of such stark temporal displacement as divides the living and the dead, the parties to exchange will not remain the same; payers and payees of attention will also be displaced. With these displacements, what secures the deal? “Tintern Abbey” (1798) perhaps provides the best illustration, though it is not the poem Fogarasi spends the most time on. The poet pays sad attention to past time memorialized by the ruined abbey and also by living figures who are withdrawing, losing substance as part of present life, the Hermit and “vagrant dwellers” in the abbey’s surrounding landscape. Where is the poet’s repayment to come from? It cannot come from the past but, if it is to come, must come from the future, from a new party, from his sister Dorothy’s paying sad attention to him years later when he is absent, maybe dead, through her revisitation of Tintern Abbey. Different time, new party—the security of exchange is indeed uncertain. This is wonderfully suggestive. I would say Fogarasi’s analysis turns more on gift exchange than capitalist economics as such. However, the imponderables of time—deferral, shifting parties, uncertainty—such as capitalism seeks to control for, still remain.

Victorianists will find interest in Ruth Livesey’s essay on money, mankind, and suffrage in Our Mutual Friend, which locates Charles Dickens’s 1864-65 novel in the historical moment of 1850s-1860s debates on the political franchise. These formed a run-up to the second of England’s three major Reform Bills, that of 1867, and concerned political representation. Livesey reads Our Mutual Friend in the context of Benjamin Disraeli’s 1859 suffrage bill and Frederick Denison Maurice’s 1866 The Workman and the Franchise. Disraeli proposes an extension of the vote that is still property-based, as in the 1832 Reform, while also making money in the savings bank or government funds a basis for enfranchisement. An additional proposed basis is membership in certain professions. Maurice calls instead for representation based on universal manhood, the manhood of the “freeborn Englishman” (97), supposed legacy of pre-Norman times and promising to grow through expanded exercise of the vote. Neither so romantically conceived nor backward-looking to a golden age, the third reform bill of 1884 moved close to universal male suffrage. Livesey shows Dickens’s novel to be full of concern for assessment of people in terms of property, money, and professional status. There are references to the funds, as well as references to Parliament and elections. Livesey cites a passage that ironically describes Mr. Veneering during his bid to become an MP as a “representative man.” This is interesting though not quite the same thing as showing that the novel addresses extension of political representation as such. Like other critics, Livesey sees critique of a property/money standard for people, and building more particularly on work by Lauren Goodlad, of a professional standard. This comes in the portrayal of Bradley Headstone, the lowborn schoolteacher on the rise via the professionalization of teaching in the period. She sees more faith on Dickens’s part in a universal standard of intrinsic character. Perhaps Maurice has some relevance here. I would think of Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1867-68), which began serial publication in 1867, year of the Second Reform Bill, and calls for a stripping away of class to form a “best self” open to every man. Arnold is much more explicit than Dickens in linking this to matters of representative government. Livesey is right about Dickens’s relentless probing of difficulties in such class stripping for the upwardly mobile Headstone. Neither she nor other critics sees this probing carried so devastatingly far for the downwardly mobile gentleman Eugene Wrayburn. Genre analysis helps her trace the difference in handling of the Headstone and Wrayburn stories.

Another essay to treat nineteenth-century material, not British but American, and imperial in thrust is Marian Aguiar’s on the railway across the Isthmus of Panama. Here popular travel writing is examined, and image studies provides the approach. Aguiar uncovers a complex of attitudes attending America’s mid-nineteenth-century push to advance trade and national-imperial sway through rail access across Panama to the Pacific Coast, most importantly California at the time of the Gold Rush. Images of fever connote the danger of a Panamanian space of excess, jungle, animalism, irrationality, sexual and racial mixing, and degeneration. At the same time such images attach to American travelers to this space, now connoting the fever of speculation, the gold fever that took them there, and again dangerous excess, natures out of control, irrationality, indiscriminate mixing, and degeneration from civilized norms of economic conduct.

It is a strength of the collection that this and other essays extend new economic criticism to encompass empire. There should be more work along such lines. I will close with a mention of Hugh Goodacre’s strong contribution on colonialism, displacement, and cannibalism in early-modern economic thought. This looks back to seventeenth-century Ireland, under British rule, and to little-known economic writing by William Petty, penned initially in service of Thomas Cromwell. I will not detail Petty’s colonial schemes for Ireland, only noting that that these lead with their economic-demographic rationales for advancement by means however ruthless towards ideas satirized by Jonathan Swift in “A Modest Proposal” (1729). Goodacre calls for more such historical tracing back of economic thought. And yes, historical roots tend to be scanted within the current discipline of economics. Here again interdisciplinary new economic criticism has something to offer. So Goodacre’s and other instances of historicism in the collection are to be lauded.

Still, as a collection, the book jumps from historical moment to moment, without marking out very clear through-lines. There is some jumbling. For instance, Goodacre suggests a soft-pedaling by economists of colonialist thinking that is part of the heritage. I believe he may have a fleshed-out story in mind, but a reader of Culture, Capital and Representation might come away thinking that Petty is a capitalist expositer of the seventeenth century, as Adam Smith is of the eighteenth, and remain oblivious to the latter’s break with prior mercantilist theory. This generated a substantial critique of colonialism that carried forward into post-Smith classical-school capitalism.

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