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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.1 (2001) 19-39



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Robinson Crusoe, Enumeration, and the Mercantile Fetish

Wolfram Schmidgen


Daniel Defoe's novels offered an unprecedented imaginative appreciation of the economic and psychological possibilities that arose in a society progressively founded, in J. G. A. Pocock's words, on "the exchange of forms of mobile property and . . . modes of consciousness suited to a world of moving objects." 1 Mobility, exchange, and a widening circulation are driving forces in Defoe's fiction, and Defoe pays tribute to the "world of moving objects" in his famous comparison of land and trade as sources of wealth:

An estate's a pond, but trade's a spring: the first, if it keeps full, and the water wholesome, by the ordinary supplies and drains from the neighbouring grounds, it is well, and it is all that is expected; but the other is an inexhausted current, which not only fills the pond, and keeps it full, but is continually running over, and fills all the lower ponds and places about it. 2

The eternally stagnant and the ceaselessly mobile form here a clear contrast, and Defoe's positive representation of trade through figures of inexhaustible currents and constant circulation has led some critics to argue that Defoe is mainly interested in undermining or, to stay with his own image, "overrunning," feudal modes of community. 3 But while this passage signals an antagonistic relationship between movable and immovable forms of property, it also suggests a relationship of cooperation in which the currents of trade replenish the "ponds" of the landed estate. Such doubleness is not resolved--not here and not elsewhere in Defoe's [End Page 19] thinking--and reminds us that the Augustan debate on land, trade, and credit "did not oppose agrarian to entrepreneurial interests, the manor to the market." 4 Even so, literary critics interested in the narrative figuration of mobility in eighteenth-century texts frequently view circulation as an independent force that challenges traditional, locally contextualized forms of community and projects the dehierarchized homogenized social space characteristic of a more advanced capitalist society. 5

The recent identification of the eighteenth century with the beginnings of a consumer society has lent this tendency additional plausibility, as it has allowed us to trace back to the eighteenth century the massive commodification and boundless circulation of things that we face under the freshly globalizing capitalism of our own present. 6 From the perspective of our thoroughly commodified culture, Defoe's complex suggestion of a simultaneously antagonistic and cooperative relationship between movable and immovable property quickly contracts into the more conflictive scenario presented by Bram Dijkstra, who asserts that "Defoe's most persistent and emphatic economic theme consisted of an exposition of the intolerable impediments placed by the remnants of a feudalist world view upon the free and full development of a modern market economy." 7 This view does more than simplify Defoe's nuanced distinction between "pond" and "spring," land and commodities. It overlooks the extent to which Defoe's engagement with the circulation of commodities reveals fundamental similarities between immovable and movable forms of property. These similarities, I argue in this essay, are symptomatic of the economic conditions of early eighteenth-century Britain and of Defoe's mercantilist assumptions. To recognize them means to recognize the distinct moment Defoe occupies in the long history of commodification.

This history has been abridged on a second front by critics such as Laura Brown, Erin Mackie, Colin Nicholson, Christopher Flint, and James Bunn, who have been drawing on Karl Marx's analysis of the nineteenth-century commodity fetish to describe the representation of things in eighteenth-century literature. 8 Such use of the Marxist analysis short-circuits, it seems to me, the historical process that leads to a cultural and economic situation where Marx's argument on the modern commodity is indeed appropriate. According to Marx, the modern commodity fetish is the specific result of an industrial capital whose complex appropriation of human labor generates a reified world in which commodities face us as a collection of opaque, alien objects whose origins...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-315X
Print ISSN
0013-2586
Pages
pp. 19-39
Launched on MUSE
2001-10-01
Open Access
No
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