- Writing and the Rise of Finance: Capital Satires of the Early Eighteenth Century
Colin Nicholson’s Writing and the Rise of Finance is one of several recent studies integrating imaginative production and the machinery of public finance in the early eighteenth century. It is joined by James Thompson’s Models of Value: Eighteenth Century Political Economy and the Novel (1996), Patrick Brantlinger’s Fictions of State: Culture and Credit in Britain, 1694–1994 (1996), Thomas Kavanagh’s Enlightenment and the Shadows of Chance: The Novel and the Culture of Gambling in Early Eighteenth-Century France (1993), William Dowling’s The Epistolary Moment: The Poetics of the Eighteenth-Century Verse Epistle (1991), and my own Finance and Fictionality in the Early Eighteenth Century: Accounting for Defoe (1996). Of course, it is plain why scholars of eighteenth-century literature in the 1990s are drawn to a period of soaring government debt, failed expedients, and epic stock market losses. Nicholson argues that the transition to a credit economy, inimical to traditional measures of worth based on landed property, produced a milieu of moral and financial uncertainty resonant with our own time. He reads works by Swift, Pope, and Gay as registering the deracination of the self implicated in market relations, detached from sources of autonomy and concrete value imputed to older modes of proprietorship.
In The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (1975), J. G. A. Pocock established that the politics of emergent financial credit entailed a backlash against “moneyed men” dependent on paper profits, ultimately allied with the City and Walpole. Ideologues opposed to government’s expansion asserted that its insatiable demand for funds promoted “corruption,” the civic ascendancy of mobile property lacking fixed, determinable value. Committed to hierarchies based on claims of perceptual transparency, they denounced what to them was a politics of perceptual derangement, a regime that floated on financial simulacra, subordinating “intrinsic” value to speculation, opinion, imagination. Pocock’s analysis, now classic, examined contemporary polemics, but said little concerning the engagement of imaginative literature with antimarket ideology. Howard Erskine-Hill’s explorations, especially of Pope, provided a stimulus, but until Nicholson no one comprehensively mapped this terrain in its most prominent feature, satire. His scrupulously historicized study recovers formerly vibrant resonances; demonstrates the imbrication of Scriblerian satire with opposition discourse; and establishes the necessity of a an informed economic hermeneutic. Unlike, for example, Christine Gerrard in The Patriot Opposition to Walpole: Politics, Poetry, and National Myth, 1725–1742 (1994), Nicholson approaches opposition discourse specifically through literary/economic relations.
The crux that animates his analysis is the Scriblerians’ dissociated sensibility: while Swift, Pope, and Gay join with the Opposition, stung by their own marginalization from centers of power, they are playing the market they attack, buying stocks, risking their fortunes, giddy at the rise of South Sea shares. They enact, indeed embody, the liminality of the emerging order, satirizing its avatars while seizing its opportunities. As Nicholson comments, “the ego is itself compromised when what was once a classically derived and coherent moral structure based on terra firma is called into question by new forms of capital liquidity increasingly held and passed in paper pledges of credit that were by definition and practice uncertain and socially unstable” (89). The essential interest of this observation is its ramification in Nicholson’s analyses of Scriblerian texts, which emerge, both in subject matter and form, as implicated in fracture and fragmentation.
Clearly influenced by Lukacsian models of reification in emergent capitalism, Nicholson argues that Gulliver disorients the reader: “Gulliver and those who read him are subjected to discomfiting permutations of perception and construction, so that the threat to individual integrity and self-knowledge which corruption had always implied and which was reinforced by the rise of forms of property seeming to rest on fantasy and false consciousness becomes [End Page 144] both a central topic and a structural principle of the text” (109). Long ago, critics cited “reader entrapment” in Gulliver, but never linked it to broader, ontological dilemmas posed...