- Culture, Capital, and Representation
Robert Balfour, the editor of Culture, Capital, and Representation, subtitles its concluding chapter “The Necessary Persistence of Memory in a New Century.” The appeal to remembrance reenacts a memorializing gesture common to this collection which, as Balfour writes, aims to record “a cultural history of capital” (185). In particular, these essays seek to recover those stories that have largely been papered over by the dominant fictions of rationality, disinterestedness, and self-determination promoted by three hundred years of liberal market ideology. Balfour writes, “These fictions have consequences for people not regarded as part of their fiction, who are not characters in the plot, surplus populations who are seen as cheap and disposable labor, whose unemployment and migrant status is a consequence of free market capitalist practices” (5). If the awesome hand of capitalism’s advance seemed invisible to Adam Smith, this was not the case for those displaced Irish peasants or exploited indigenous Panama Canal laborers, for example, whose stories get documented here. So even if Balfour’s volume never quite realizes its stated intention of placing the peripheral characters of global capitalism full center, its insistence that an economic-minded approach to cultural and literary analysis be attuned to a plurality of material histories is certainly refreshing.
I say “refreshing” because while the desire to recover lost histories has always been at the heart of the new historicist project, such has not always been the case with one of its closest critical siblings, the new economic criticism. Too often, the latter’s focus on the structural homologies that exist between economic and literary forms quickly degenerates into a semiotic obsession with gold versus paper, or real versus arbitrary, systems of value. Much new economic criticism also zeroes in on the language of mainstream politicians, novelists, and economists, so that those most affected by hegemonic economic discourse are those least heard from. Even Mary Poovey’s Genres of the Credit Economy, which most convincingly melds theoretical and historical modes of inquiry, traces the problem of representation as it materializes in the imperial center of nineteenth-century England. Contrarily, the international set of contributors to Culture, Capital, and Representation seek out the edges of empire, whether seventeenth-century Ireland, eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, nineteenth-century Panama, early twentieth-century Canada, or twenty-first century South Africa.
Despite its scattered geographical foci, however, the collection follows a simple linear chronology, thus implying an argument about the continuity of cultural transformation under global capitalism. It begins with analyses of Sir William Petty and Benjamin Franklin before proceeding to the poetry of Swift, Wordsworth, and Gray. It then offers readings of nineteenth-century travel literature and the novels of Dickens and Dreiser, and at last considers the theories of Jean-Joseph Goux, the cultural politics of grain elevators and world fairs, and at last the film work of Oliver Stone. Balfour hopes this mélange of texts and contexts “charts an ideological history of value in the West” (3) while offering “a unique intercultural, as well as interdisciplinary perspective” (3). No doubt, as well, the sort of textual and methodological eclecticism on display is one of the most telling symptoms of this our own thoroughly schizoid moment in “the cultural history of capital.”
Hugh Goodacre’s essay on Petty most fully achieves the kind of critical intervention called for in Balfour’s introduction. Most famous for being the butt of Swift’s satire in “A Modest Proposal,” Petty is presented here as capitalist theory’s “other” father, whose defense of primitive accumulation and the forced displacement [End Page 110] of human populations clears the ideological ground for Adam Smith’s more sentimental theories to take root. Writing one hundred years later than Petty, Smith could ignore the messy business of state-ordered violence, eviction, and land seizure that provided the enabling conditions for a “hands-off” marketplace to prosper. Ironically, Goodacre claims Petty’s callous attitude toward Irish people and their culture might be seen as a rare moment of candor in the history of western economic discourse: that is, unlike...