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  • “Beings that have existence only in ye minds of men”: State Finance and the Origins of the Collective Imagination
  • Robert Mitchell (bio)

Nearly a decade ago, Robert Markley positioned “the new economic criticism” as one of the most significant recent theoretical developments in eighteenth-century studies, describing a series of now classic studies—James Thompson’s Models of Value: Eighteenth-Century Political Economy of the Novel, Sandra Sherman’s Finance and Fictionality in the Early Eighteenth Century: Accounting for Defoe, and Patrick Brantlinger’s Fictions of State: Culture and Credit in Britain, 1694–1994 —that emerged from the “current scholarly fascination with debt and credit.”1 Since Markley’s assessment—and no doubt assisted by the subsequent fin de siècle collapse of the dot-com and biotech speculative bubbles—scholarly fascination with debt and credit has persisted, producing a new series of studies on relationships among eighteenth-century finance, material culture, and literature. Focusing in even more depth and detail than their predecessors on the specificities of eighteenth-century finance, accounting, insurance, and monetary instruments, and often linking finance to questions of colonialism and labor, scholars of this newest wave of the new economic criticism have interrogated “Whig” modalities of emotion and affect, the postcoloniality of the eighteenth century, and epistemological structures that linked slavery, finance, and modern historicism, among other topics.2

In the spirit and wake of these recent studies of eighteenth-century debt and credit, this essay focuses on a theoretical category that has been central to both the older and newer waves of new economic literary criticism: the “collective imagination.” Intellectual historian J. G. A. Pocock was the first to highlight the importance of the term imagination for the Financial Revolution of post- Restoration England, arguing that speculative financial instruments developed in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries fundamentally transformed the relationship between individual psychology and the state. Pocock argued that within a state increasingly reliant on annuities, lotteries, [End Page 117] and other speculative sources of capital, “[g]overnment was maintained by the investor’s imagination concerning a moment [i.e., the return of an investor’s principle] which will never exist in reality.”3 Pocock also noted that the importance of imagining for the functioning of state finance was not lost on contemporary observers such as Charles Davenant and Daniel Defoe, who explicitly attributed fluctuations of public credit and the stability of the state to the fickleness of the imagination. New economic literary criticism has drawn heavily on Pocock’s claims about the central role of the imagination in eighteenth-century finance, even as it has also developed more nuanced analyses of the relationships, and differences, between economic and literary modes of imagining.4 For both Pocock and literary critics who have taken his approach as a starting point, eighteenth-century finance is important in large part because it was a key mechanism in transforming the British state into an “imagined community”—both in the sense that the imagination served as the faculty of temporal projection that committed individuals to the state to which they had lent their money, and in the sense that the imagination bound national investors to one another in “real time” by facilitating contagious investment panics.

Yet even as these readings of the roles of the imagination in eighteenth-century investing culture have significantly deepened our understanding of the relationships among finance, literature, and culture, there is something a bit uncanny about the way in which more or less the same theory of imagination has functioned as both an object of analysis and a methodological resource in these studies. When Pocock, for example, explained why Defoe and Davenant attributed financial phenomena to the imagination, he appealed to essentially the same understanding of the imagination deployed by his eighteenth-century authors; Defoe and Davenant, in other words, apparently got it right when they attributed fluctuations of stock prices and public confidence in government institutions to the workings of the imagination. Such a convergence of object of study and theoretical tool is arguably consistent with Pocock’s explicit attempt to explain past beliefs in terms that would be recognizable to those historical actors, rather than attempting to “unmask” the ideological...


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pp. 117-139
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