Literature Incorporated: The Cultural Unconscious of the Business Corporation, 1650-1850

Literature Incorporated: The Cultural Unconscious of the Business Corporation, 1650-1850

by John O'Brien

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Literature Incorporated: The Cultural Unconscious of the Business Corporation, 1650-1850 by John O'Brien

Long before Citizens United and modern debates over corporations as people, such organizations already stood between the public and private as both vehicles for commerce and imaginative constructs based on groups of individuals. In this book, John O’Brien explores how this relationship played out in economics and literature, two fields that gained prominence in the same era.

Examining British and American essays, poems, novels, and stories from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, O’Brien pursues the idea of incorporation as a trope discernible in a wide range of texts. Key authors include John Locke, Eliza Haywood, Harriet Martineau, and Edgar Allan Poe, and each chapter is oriented around a type of corporation reflected in their works, such as insurance companies or banks. In exploring issues such as whether sentimental interest is the same as economic interest, these works bear witness to capitalism’s effect on history and human labor, desire, and memory. This period’s imaginative writing, O’Brien argues, is where the unconscious of that process left its mark. By revealing the intricate ties between literary models and economic concepts, Literature Incorporated shows us how the business corporation has shaped our understanding of our social world and ourselves.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226291260
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/29/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

John O’Brien is associate professor and the NEH Daniels Family Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of English at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Harlequin Britain and the editor of Susanna Centlivre’s The Wonder.

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Literature Incorporated

The Cultural Unconscious of the Business Corporation, 1650â"1850

By John O'Brien

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-29126-0


John Locke, Desire, and the Incorporation of Money

At the outset of his Essay concerning Human Understanding, John Locke identifies the Idea as "the Object of the Understanding when a Man thinks." The statement is admirably simple, but it compresses within it so much implication that it is not much of an exaggeration to say that much of the book that follows serves in large measure as its gloss. Over the past three centuries, writers have expended tremendous energy erecting glosses upon Locke's own, unpacking the genealogy and implications of what he meant by the Idea, its intellectual history, and its significance to the philosophical movement that became known as empiricism. Locke identifies the significance of his own intervention in terms of what we might now call its value added. In two introductory epistles, one to his patron and one to "the Reader," Locke asserts that the "value" of the Essay owes everything to the fact that it has nothing to do with labor, exchange, and careerist ambition. For its dedicatee the Earl of Pembroke, the Essay serves as a gift or a "Present" that, like a "Basket of Flowers, or Fruit," from a poor man to a rich, accrues "Value" by virtue of its being offered as acknowledgment for a "long Train of Favors" that it can never hope to equal (1.1.4). For the general reader, Locke goes on, the Essay should serve as the kind of "Diversion" (1.1.7), "Entertainment," "Pleasure," or "Sport" (1.1.6) that Locke claims it was for him. The writing of the book, he says, was the "diversion of some of my idle and heavy Hours" (1.1.6). Locke disavows the Essay's status as an item in the marketplace, but he does so through negation, by defining the Essay in negative relationship to a market that the same epistles elsewhere recognize positively. For Locke also assures the general reader that his "Money" will not seem "ill bestowed" on the Essay if he has "but half so much Pleasure in reading, as I had in writing it," challenging the reader to put a cash value on his own pleasure. To Pembroke, Locke asserts that the novelty of the Essay's claims is no argument against their validity: "Truth, like Gold, is not the less so, for being newly brought out of the Mine. ... And though it be not yet current by the publick stamp; yet it may, for all that, be as old as Nature, and is certainly not the less genuine" (1.1.4).

What appears at first blush to be Locke's modesty about the Essay's claims appears on closer scrutiny to be his supreme confidence that the marketplace of ideas — the "public stamp" that will authorize his theories as fit for general circulation — can serve only to ratify rather than to determine a value that is understood to be natural. So, too, what appears to be a dissociation between the philosophical and the economic reveals itself to be an intimate and complementary relationship. And the horizon within which this relationship was nurtured is surely the Americas, the place where the gold that serves as Locke's metaphor for truth would have been mined. The surprisingly intimate relationship in Locke's writings between money, the mind, and the corporate colonialist economy of late-seventeenth-century England is the topic of this chapter.

This is the only chapter in this book that focuses largely on the work of a single author. But John Locke is no ordinary author. He is extraordinary for the range of his interests and the scope of his writings, which embrace economics, political theory, medicine, philosophy of mind, and education — and more. To the modern scholar, writing at a time when knowledge has become hyperspecialized, and when it takes the better part of a decade to be accredited at the highest levels of even a single discipline, the scope of Locke's interests, knowledge, and influence is humbling. Yet surely no small part of the reason for this is not only that Locke was extraordinarily intelligent — though he was — but that he lived at a time when the quantity of what was known and knowable about many topics was still modest enough for a single intelligent man, one with curiosity, time, and access to the means by which information was disseminated (primarily through universities, salons, correspondence, and print periodicals) to gain what was at the time fairly advanced degrees of knowledge in many of them. This is no longer the case, and the pragmatic manner in which we have dealt with the explosive growth of knowledge and information since then, by forming specialized disciplines, has had a tremendous impact on the ways we have come to understand Locke, a late-seventeenth-century polymath whose writings long precede the emergence of separate disciplines like economics or philosophy. In our time, Locke's corpus has generally been split across disciplinary lines, with philosophers concentrating on the Essay, political theorists on the Second Treatise, and economic historians the only people who are even aware of the texts on money. But Locke's work has become central to philosophy of mind and political theory. As Richard Rorty put it, "with Lockean empiricism, foundationalist epistemology emerged as the paradigm of philosophy," its attention to the relationship between the mind and the things in the world it observes forever displacing the theological orientation that the domain of thought we now call philosophy had up to that point. And political theory has credited Locke's Second Treatise with an extraordinarily influential articulation of the origins of private property, an articulation that (as we shall see in the coda to this chapter) is in many ways in excess of anything that Locke himself wrote. To many modern writers, Locke has become the general equivalent of the early modern intellectual, a figure as symbolic as he is real, and one who organizes and gives value to domains of thought and expression like empiricism and politics. This process of elevation and exclusion mirrors, I hope to show, the way in which Locke organizes the economy of the mind by importing a version of the money economy of late- seventeenth-century Britain, placing the Idea itself as the general equivalent of thought. More to the point here, it is worth noting that the edifices of commentary and analysis that writers in multiple disciplines have produced on Locke's original texts have grown to be large and elaborate, and the investments in Locke's arguments have become so great as to make it particularly challenging to use the previous readings when they are helpful but also to peel them away when they have become encrustations, concealing more than revealing his language and its historical setting. My goal is to begin this task by placing Locke's works in the context of the corporately organized political economy of his day, of which he was a major observer and participant.

For I take John Locke's essays — philosophical, political, and economic — to be the place in seventeenth-century English writing where the relationship between the economic and the philosophical becomes acutely intelligible. The analogy between thought and money, as Marc Shell argued in the 1970s, goes back to the origins of this mode of inquiry itself; it was attempting "to account for the internalization of economic form in their own thinking" that, Shell argues, led Heraclitus and Plato to invent what we now think of as philosophical discourse. What follows is indebted to Shell's articulation of the relationship between money and the mind, but my emphasis will be on how that relationship developed in the context of the corporate colonial economy of the late-seventeenth-century English-speaking world, a world in which Locke was involved as an adviser, theorist, investor, and administrator. Beginning in the mid-1660s, Locke became an adviser to Anthony Ashley Cooper, at that moment a central member of Charles II's government. Ashley became one of the Lords Proprietor of the Carolina Company in 1663 and was also an active investor in the Hudson's Bay Company and the Royal African Company. Locke was intimately involved with the administration of the Carolina Company in particular, and he played a role (how large a role will be an object of discussion shortly) in the drafting of the colony's Fundamental Constitutions; he had a financial stake in the company, and he invested as well in the Royal African Company. Colonial administration led almost inevitably to addressing issues of fiscal policy in the metropolis, not only because Ashley was, from 1661 to 1672, chancellor of the exchequer, but because the colonial ventures of all the European states, England included, were having measurable impact on the flow of persons, commodities, and national treasure, impact that found expression in the money form. Locke wrote what we might now call position papers for Ashley on topics like the rate of interest and the coinage as early as the late 1660s, when these topics were being discussed in Parliament and the court; as we shall see, those papers were repurposed, revised, and then printed in the 1690s to intervene in debates that had become more public and, in the case of the English currency, more urgent. Locke was the secretary to the Council for Trade and Foreign Plantations from late 1673 until the end of 1674, and he became a member of the Board of Trade, which had responsibility for supervising Britain's colonial ventures, in 1696; he remained a member until 1700. For decades, then, Locke had a remarkable position at a crucial moment in the interbraided histories of European colonialism and Anglo-American corporate capitalism. There are other English writers of philosophical texts who were involved with colonial and corporate entities: Thomas Hobbes (as we have seen) invested in the Virginia Company, John Stuart Mill was an administrator in London for the East India Company, and Wallace Stevens was for decades an officer of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. But no canonical writer in English was so deeply involved, for so long, in so many different aspects of both private and public aspects of English political economy, as was Locke.

It has for this reason not proved difficult for scholars in recent years to argue that Locke's political theories, in particular the crucial Second Treatise on government, owe a great deal to his involvement in colonial administration. As Jennifer Greeson has recently written, for example, "modern slave capitalism" can be understood as "the requisite prehistory of Locke's Second Treatise" and in particular its articulation of what has come to be known in our time as "possessive individualism," the argument that every man has "a Property," as Locke puts it, "in his own Person." Conceptualizing persons as property was fundamental to the slave system that European companies developed to support the colonial project. It is also critical to the development of modern property rights, which proceed from the claim, best expressed in the English tradition by Locke, that the right to own other things proceeds from the absolute right to own one's self. And the academic discipline of economics itself, as it has developed out of the work of Adam Smith in the late eighteenth century, is indebted to a strong misreading of the Second Treatise as well as of Locke's writings on money. Locke's writings on property and money, I will argue, became a foil against which Smith defined his own stance. It has proved less easy to identify how the experience of the colonial economic system shaped central or, better, constitutive aspects of the Essay concerning Human Understanding; that part of his corpus has been classed as being in the discourse of philosophy rather than political economy.

But as we have seen, Locke's own disavowals of any relationship between the economic and the philosophical are richly suggestive of the colonial context in which all of his writings were produced. Most fundamentally, European philosophical and economic thought in this period shared an abiding interest in the relationship between scarcity and desire, an interest that emerged from the environmental situation. Scarcity was widely understood by many Europeans to be a basic condition of the environment in which they lived. Whether they understood it to be a sign of the postlapsarian state of the world, evidence that humanity was on the downslope of the classical cycles of corruption and rejuvenation, or whether, more in keeping with the empiricist spirit to which Locke contributed, they had begun to notice the environmental degradation of northern Europe caused by centuries of deforestation, overfishing, mining, and other demands on the common resources of the earth, seventeenth-century English people were motivated to undertake colonial ventures in no small part because they were after goods that they believed or knew to be scarce. For his part, writing in the wake of the social, economic, political, and ecological crises that scarred England in the seventeenth century, Locke raises scarcity to be a fundamental aspect of the human condition and a constitutive part of the self. To Locke, desire, the will to overcome the limits of the natural world, poses a threat to the integrity of the social order and the individual alike.

In this chapter, I first look at how Locke has functioned as a key figure in the construction of political economy as an object of study. Then I examine more closely his role in the colonialist project, and then his position in the late debates over money, debates that are contemporary with the final drafting of the Essay. Correlating Locke's writings on the English economy with the Essay, I delineate what we may think of, following the French philosopher Jean-Joseph Goux, as the Essay's "symbolic economy." As Goux puts it, "Throughout the entire history of Western philosophy we find an insistent comparison of money and language in what is not merely a surface phenomenon but a localized, isolated perception of a real sociohistorical coherence. ... The 'common cause' of philosophical idealism and the monetary economy will become evident." In the Essay concerning Human Understanding, this common cause gets a name through Locke's use of a single concept, the Idea, as the general equivalent of thought, the single concept that serves to order and evaluate all phenomena in the mind, much as he insisted that only silver bullion could represent the value of commodities in the world outside the self. The Idea becomes the central term in the Essay's symbolic economy; it is the term that Locke uses to refer to all the contents of the subjective mind, pains and pleasures, uneasinesses and desires, abstract concepts constructed in the mind and "the natural and regular productions of Things without us" alike (4.4.4). Locke incorporates the money economy within the subjectivity of the individual, founding empiricism on the model of the early modern colonial system of corporate trade, exchange, and accumulation. This homology between the economy of Ideas and the economy of money is an unconscious rather than a conscious feature of Locke's work, a correspondence that is nowhere articulated explicitly. Yet the significance of the Idea as the cornerstone of the science that Destutt de Tracy invented a century later and called, with explicit reference to Locke, Ideologie, underscores the long influence of Locke's formulations on the unconscious, as well as the conscious, assumptions underpinning modern identity. We have become outraged at the idea that a corporation can be considered as a person for many purposes under the law, but Locke's writing demonstrates how money, the value form of capitalism as it emerged in this early age of corporate colonial ventures, had already shaped his highly influential model of the person, becoming in effect the unconscious of Locke's understanding of the human mind.


Excerpted from Literature Incorporated by John O'Brien. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Contents Introduction: The Corporation as Metaphor 1. John Locke, Desire, and the Incorporation of Money 2. Wonderful Event: The South Sea Bubble and the Crisis of Property 3. Insurance and the Problem of Sentimental Representation 4. “Bodies of Men”: Abolitionist Writing and the Question of Interest 5. Held in Reserve: Banks, Serial Crises, and the Ekphrastic Turn Coda: The Entrepreneur as Corporate Hero Acknowledgments Notes Index

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