Monday, March 30, 2009

Mercantilism vs. hazard

Sorry it's been so long... doing some pro bono work, as it were, for the local school.

Now according to most economic histories, early modern England is supposed to be deeply mercantilist, believing that wealth and money are synomous, and interested in hoarding specie [the word itself incorporates the mercantilist view of money] via a positive balance of trade.  I've rarely seen this belief expressed in early modern English texts, though, and a nice article by Mark Notzloff helps explain why. He argues that by the end of the 16th century, mercantilism had become associated in English minds with Spanish policies, and the English colonists weren't finding gold anyway, so they were more likely to laud domestic production and circulation. I disagree with his ultimate claims about the Merchant of Venice (his literary text), but I like the broad historical claim. It reinforces the protocapitalist nature of risk. At this point I don't think there is any historical resolution to the contradictory economic aspects of risk: a) legitimizing because divine and b) the logical end of an idolatrous economic trend.   Tomorrow I'm going to declare a temporary end to the purely economic stuff and turn to games of chance (not literally - a pox upon the new Firekeepers casino down the road!).

Notzloff, Mark. “The Lead Casket: Capital, Mercantilism, and the Merchant of Venice.” Money and the Age of Shakespeare: Essays in New Economic Criticism. Ed. Linda Woodbridge. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 159-172. 

Monday, March 23, 2009

Risk and inequities of wealth

I've been reading the book Suellyn lent me, Eric Beinhocker's The Origin of Wealth. I'm struck by the role he accords to chance within an economic system. According to him, it "above all" explains inequities in wealth and perhaps even the dynamic quality (not tending to equilibrium) of the whole system (86). I wonder if this chance is the same as the risk which is managed and cultivated within the system itself?  In any case, if Beinhocker is right, the relationship between risk and return in a capitalist system is mathematically valid (some have claimed that it's only a convention). 

I haven't read far enough to say for sure, but I'm not sure that Beinhocker's model successfully explains the major cooperative undertakings of essentially egalitarian societies in the paleolithic period. If economic systems tend toward the inequality of wealth and if wealth and power are socially synonymous, it's hard to imagine an egalitarian society commanding the kind of complex economy necessary to build, say, Stonehenge. No doubt there's an answer to this further on...

Beinhocker, Eric D. The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press, 2006. 

Friday, March 20, 2009

Bending the soul

This may be babble. Tell me.

I was reading Colin Renfrew's new book The Prehistory of Mind, and his discussion of the growth of religion in the context of "cognitive archaeology" set me to thinking about concepts of freedom or captivity in the soul in the Renaissance. Given Hawkes' insistence that religious and economic discourse in the period should never be separated, any presumed inclinations of the soul may also be understood as a kind of warping influence upon an at least conceptually neutral (or random) model. This is true even if the inclination in question is "natural" because one can only be inclined from some original imagined position. That some kind of alteration of form is implied seems clear when you look at the early popularity of the word "bent" to describe an inclination as Milton does in his famous sonnet XVI ("When I consider how my light is spent"): "my Soul more bent / To serve therewith my Maker," his speaker says. The "bent of the soul" was a popular phrase in the period.  Donne also alludes to it in his Holy Sonnet "Batter my heart, three person'd God." "Bent" means inclination, but it implies bending, which comes ultimately from binding (and a "bend" in nautical speak is still a binding knot).   There's lots more that could be said about the use of the word in those two poems, but there are epistemological implications as well. The dissolution of Aristotelian teleology in the 17th century could be seen as a kind of unbinding of the soul (and resented as such by many).  I'm thinking that chance, understood in discrete terms followed a similar path.  Chance in an earlier world is bent away from the verticality of the random by the will of God. But that means the concept of such verticality is there, even if it is never supposed to be in operation.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Early modern center conference

This was a great little conference with some wonderful papers. I was intrigued by the fact that so many other presenters used some form of Powerpoint. It's true that the topic was image-friendly, but the tradition in history/literature conference papers is simply to read a paper. Maybe the discipline is changing! My favorite presentation was by Rachel Crawford. She demonstrated connections between English formal gardens and Milton's garden of paradise in Paradise Lost. I'm excited to be able to use this in teaching.

Here's a picture of flowers near the beach at Coal Oil Point from my morning run.

Crawford, Rachel. “Simplex Munditiis: English Formality and the Seventeenth-Century Garden.” Conference Paper, UCSB Early Modern Center, 2009.