CULTURE AND MONEY IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY: ABSTRACTING ECONOMICS by Daniel Bivona and Marlene Tromp, eds., Reviewed by Matthew Rowlinson
 

CULTURE AND MONEY IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY: ABSTRACTING ECONOMICS
Eds. Daniel Bivona and Marlene Tromp
(Ohio UP, 2016)
Reviewed by Matthew Rowlinson on 2017-02-04.

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Daniel Bivona and Marlene Tromp have assembled one of the most sheerly enjoyable and informative scholarly books I have read in the last year. Its eight lively chapters and introduction have been carefully edited and are a pleasure to read; the topics covered range from the influence of classical economics on Darwin to Walter Scott's writing on textiles and radical weavers and to American monetary politics after the Civil War. One effect of such a sparkling and various collection, at least for this reader, was to make me feel personally interpellated: having sometimes wondered if I were professionally anomalous in having this specific set of interests, I'm especially pleased to find a collection in which they are brought together.

I begin with this personal reflection because the book is illuminating in its weaknesses as well as its strengths. In their introduction, Bivona and Tromp offer the usual survey of the field into which they intervene, closing with the claim that within this field there remains unmapped terrain, which will be explored in the chapters that follow. This terrain, on which the editors stake their claim for the volume's coherence as a unified contribution to our understanding of the relations between "economic concepts and other cultural phenomena" (2), is the topic of abstraction. The volume, they announce, will study abstraction both as a characteristic of classical economic thought in the wake of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and also as part of the popular reception of economics, as in the abstracts of Smith and Thomas Malthus provided by Harriet Martineau in her serial Illustrations of Political Economy. Much as I admired the individual essays in the collection, it doesn't completely fulfill this promise. While several of the essays touch on different kinds of abstraction, it doesn't emerge as a unifying theme--and the volume never really launches the project of explicating the processes of statistical and conceptual abstraction that produced terms such as population, labor, and value in classical political economy.

A source of the difficulty lies in the original assumption that the relation between culture and money already exists as a determinate field of inquiry, with well-defined protocols about what constitutes a contribution to knowledge. The evidence of Bivona and Tromp's survey suggests that if such a field exists, its governing paradigms and objects of study are still in considerable flux. The survey begins by recalling The New Economic Criticism (1999), edited by Martha Woodmansee and Peter Jaszi, which appeared ten years after The New Historicism. With contributions by Stephen Greenblatt, Joel Fineman, and Catherine Gallagher among others, The New Historicism substantially succeeded in effecting a methodological revolution in literary and cultural studies. The New Economic Criticism did not. Calling for an economic criticism of culture based on study of the historically contingent forms of what we today term intellectual property, Woodmansee and Jaszi laid out a road for the field which, Bivona and Tromp's narrative suggests, it did not subsequently follow. The later works that Bivona and Tromp discuss in their survey include Mary Poovey's Genres of the Credit Economy (2008), on how the need to read money in a credit economy affected the genres of writing; Regenia Gagnier's The Insatiability of Human Wants (2000), on the historical conjuncture that produced the marginal revolution in economics and aestheticism in the field of culture; Victorian Investments (2009), a collection of essays edited by Nancy Henry and Cannon Schmitt on the rise of finance capitalism in the second half of the nineteenth century; and Catherine Gallagher's study of bioeconomics in The Body Economic (2006). All of these are important studies, but rather than fitting together in a narrative of developing knowledge within a single disciplinary paradigm, they reveal instead a continuing dissensus on how to study the relations between money and culture in the nineteenth century. Specialists in this field have yet to resolve some key issues including the grounds of historical periodization, whether the study of money should be focused on economic discourse or on the history of money and credit, the role of class, the relation of the history of copyright and intellectual property to the history of culture, and the relation of the field to other modes of historical analysis.

Given this dissensus, in which the major works in the field are marked by their lack of engagement with each other, it is neither surprising nor blameable that the essays in this collection do not entirely succeed in articulating a shared project.

The most directly political of the essays is one of only two whose authors aren't professors of English. Roy Kreitner examines the U.S. debate over the monetary system in the aftermath of the Civil War, which the Union government financed by a 30-fold increase in the national debt and by the issue of inconvertible greenbacks. After the War, Americans had to decide whether to continue to use a single national currency issued by a national bank, and also to settle the terms on which the currency would be made convertible again. As Kreitner shows in detail, these were deeply political questions with real stakes for the participants. Like several other contributors to this volume, Kreitner heeds Foucault's injunction that history should be history of the present. Fundamentally, he demonstrates that the emergence of money as an apparently neutral medium of exchange, and the depoliticizing of monetary policy, were crucial steps in the intensification of capitalism in the early twentieth century, and required the forgetting of the politicized money of the late nineteenth century.

Other standout essays in the volume include Bivona's reading of The Origin of Species, which shows how Darwin used the ideas of Smith and Ricardo. In adopting their explanations of how trade works to promote specialization, Darwin found himself caught in the same dilemma as their popularizer, Harriet Martineau: torn between a tragic view of the process of competition that drives the unspecialized out of the market, and a utopian view of a society of cooperation. Jennifer Hayward's "El Metalico Lord," on the British naval mercenary Thomas Cochrane, traces his role in the liberation of Chile, Peru, and Brazil from Spain, and discusses his 1859 Memoir, in an acute analysis of the relation between imperialism, celebrity, and narratives of adventure. And Marlene Tromp shows how preoccupied late Victorian culture was with "bad" wills: wills making bequests outside the immediate family. This preoccupation, she argues, reflected a broader economic anxiety about British investments abroad.

Every essay in this collection has something to offer. Like Kreitner, Suzanne Daly brings to light a forgotten piece of the history of the present by showing how the writing of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, turned Robert Owen's philosophy of co-operation into advocacy of labor camps. Daly shows how Booth's son-in-law, Frederick Booth-Tucker, deployed concentration in practice for the management of South Asian beggars. Turning back to Britain, Kathryn Pratt Russell sheds a fine historical light on references to textiles in the fiction of Sir Walter Scott as well as on his hostility to radicalism among weavers in his own time. Two other essays shed further light on money and Victorian culture: Aeron Hunt treats the supposed hereditary transmission of business ability in Margaret Oliphant's Phoebe, Junior (1876), and Cordelia Smith shows how the Art Union movement transformed the cultural status of gambling in the Victorian era. By using lotteries to fund cultural activity, she explains, the movement laid the groundwork for the present-day British National Lottery.

This is a strikingly various collection, many of whose essays speak to topics of ongoing relevance in our current historical conjuncture. They cross boundaries between different subfields within the nineteenth century--Romantic and Victorian, history and English--and, without fully articulating its aims or methods, make visible the outlines of a still-emerging interdisciplinary field.

Matthew Rowlinson teaches in the English Department and the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism at Western University.


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