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  • Servants and Semiotics: Reversible Signs, Capital Instability, and Defoe’s Logic of the Market
  • Sandra Sherman

I

Daniel Defoe was suspicious of servants, and in late tracts such as Every-Body’s Business, Is No-Body’s Business (1725) and The Compleat English Tradesman (1725–27), his animadversions assume a typically Defoean cast. 1 The “servant problem” reflects his absorption with macro-economics, particularly with the credit-based market where notes stood in for cash. Defoe’s barbs aimed at servants thus domesticate a concern with signifying practices, with a market in which remote participants are linked through texts.

In this market, face-to-face negotiation, whereby the value of a promise is validated by the promisor’s local repute, is replaced by credit relations, in which any such value is disarticulated through the mediations of blurred, serial signatures. Servants like signatories are mediators, potentially estranging a proprietor and his capital by intervening in an impersonal market, tendering themselves as texts with a “face value” of proprietorship, while no means exist to connect such purport with the face of an actual proprietor. Thus Defoe’s discomfit with servants draws on the latent irony of a credit-based market. A mode of capital circulation, deploying signs that direct capital within a proprietary class, is vulnerable to a reversal of signs: proprietorship can be disturbed, the result of accommodating structures of exchange to the stress of spatial remoteness. 2

In a market whose media are texts, the indicia of proprietorship cease to be intrinsic, the property of one having legitimate claims to property. Rather, proprietorship of a proprietary persona is itself alienated, sublimated in discourse, where eligibility for the perquisites of capital is constructed through texts. The servant with access to such texts can deflect eligibility for capital deployment towards himself. In Defoe’s late tracts, therefore, the servant is an agent of potential disruption, able to disorganize transmission of wealth within the proprietary class. 3 [End Page 551]

The extended abstract market configured by credit instruments is epitomized in The Compleat English Tradesman, most particularly in Defoe’s discussion of Bills of Exchange. A sense of the market’s ramifying, relentless impersonality emerges in this passage from the chapter “Of the Tradesman borrowing Money to carry on his Trade, and paying Interest for it: And a word or two of Extortion, Discounting, &c.”:

  Bills are drawn on him from the country, payable at the precise time that his debts are due, for the countrymen cannot stay for their money; these bills are accepted, and he cannot avoid, and his credit is at stake, and in the utmost state of depression if they are not paid; for, as I observed, if the Trades- man does not pay his bills currently when they are accepted and become due, he not only weakens his credit with his Creditor, or Employer who draws, but with the whole town. Bills run from one Tradesman to another, then to the Goldsmith, or to the Bank, and are endors’d from hand to hand, and every one of these hears of it if the Tradesman delays payment...

(ET, 1.3–4) 4

The zig-zagging reach of credit-based texts, constituting the market through fragile, unreliable discursive instruments, is rendered even more ominously in the chapter “Of Discounting and Endorsing Bills, and of the scandalous Practice of passing Promisory Notes, on purpose to borrow money by Discount” (ET, 1.22–31). For Defoe, Bills and Notes with a dozen endorsements, drawn in the country and passed through multiple trades and tradesmen, embody the attenuated, provisional quality of capital as it is subsumed by a protocol of texts. 5 Personal finance becomes a mesh of successive delays, a near-infinite regress towards originary capital that may no longer even exist.

The ultimate logical momentum of the credit-based market is towards the confounding of a sense of origin, implicating capital in a merry-go-round of texts that severs the promise to pay from personal accountability. The name on a text is disembodied, remote from the assurance of a local payor with apparent sufficient funds. Such disembodied signifiers of “credit” cease to refer to any embodied proprietor. Rather, they...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 551-573
Launched on MUSE
1995-09-01
Open Access
No
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