MLA 2013 Panel, “Narrating Value”

Here is the proposal for the panel, “Narrating Value in the Long Eighteenth Century,” which includes summaries of the three papers:

Whether we trace debates over the relationship between aesthetic, economic, and moral value back to Plato’s expulsion of the poets from the Republic or forward to the special cluster in the January 2012 PMLA, “Economic, Finance, Capital, and Literature,” value remains a central category that animates our disputes and justifies (or fails to justify) the work we do.   This panel seeks to further these inquiries by focusing on a time and place foundational to ideas of value that continue to shape our understanding and practices—the Long Eighteenth Century in Britain and its colonies.  As Mary Poovey and many others have recently established, this is where and when new institutions of credit and debt circulate new ways of valuing persons and objects that make possible imperial expansion and commercial society.  These socioeconomic changes were themselves mediated, nurtured, and critiqued by emerging discourses of value—chief among them, aesthetics, moral philosophy, and political economy.  Binding those discourses together were new ways of valuing narrative itself, from emergent genres  (“it-narratives”; Enlightenment historiography;  the historical novel) to new modes of claiming narrative authority and inculcating narrative knowledge (reviews; professorships in rhetoric and belles lettres).  This panel excavates these histories and their legacies by approaching representative narratives of value, from 1) an effort to promote colonization in 1730s Virginia to 2) debates in 1790s London print culture over the expertise necessary to grasp the financial system to 3) the British Enlightenment’s analogizing of ethical and aesthetic value as unwittingly re-inscribed by Hannah Arendt, posing a challenge to revisionist accounts too quick to undervalue it.

Our discussion begins toward the start of the Long Eighteenth Century with an investigation of the unique role narrative plays in establishing the value of the colonial enterprise.  In “William Byrd’s Hard Sell: History, Fiction, and the Making of the Global-Financial Plantation,” Rob McLoone takes up the work of William Byrd II, the heir and only son of one of Virginia’s wealthiest planters, frequent trans-Atlantic voyager, and a long-time resident of London who represented the interests of the planter elite.  In texts such as his History of the 1727 dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina, The Progress to the Mines, and Journey to the Land of Eden, Byrd sought not only to amuse his cosmopolitan audience or fashion a “Creole” self but also to invite investment in Virginia’s plantation society by countering the view of the plantations as places of debt, violence, and misrule.  In the wake of the “Financial Revolution” of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Byrd went beyond quantifiable measurements such as lines on a map and the price of goods, pegging the value of colonization to the mobile relationships, structured associations, and managed dialogues that he believed made plantation space truly valuable.  He is one of the first to envision the “global-financial plantation”—its emergence in visual and written media as well as in the material relationships and labor practices that coalesced across colonial plantation spaces during these decades.

We then move from Byrd’s informed financial amateurism to the rise of the financial expert.  In “Experts, Intellectual, and Financial Controversy in the 1790s,” Alexander Dick takes up the Act of Parliament that prevented British citizens from converting banknotes into gold to reveal battles over the expertise necessary to comprehend the financial system (a topic revivified by the Crash of 2008).  While the 1797 suspension of payments has recently become a touchstone for important scholarly accounts of Lyrical Ballads, Pride and Prejudice, and other texts, Dick departs from their unifying claim that narrative difficulty is homologous to monetary value.  He focuses instead on the overlooked figure of the financial expert:  Outside the horizontal relationships that are supposed to characterize the public sphere and yet possessing the expertise necessary to free, knowledgeable debate, the expert is essential to understanding the narrative of value in the late eighteenth century.  By looking at the heated discourse among radical journalists (including Coleridge and Paine), experts, the administration, and opposition parliamentarians generated by the Pitt administration’s  1795 loan to Austria and the 1797 suspension, Dick shows that the question at the heart of these wide-ranging debates was not “What is value?” but rather “Who has the right to answer the question?”  Accordingly, the theory of value propagated in review journalism, poetry, and fiction in the period was not trying to reflect, analogically, the complexity of money; rather, it was trying to downplay the expertise required to explain it.

We conclude by moving from economic value to a more explicit consideration of ethics and aesthetics and forward to Hannah Arendt, but we remain in the shadow (or light) of eighteenth- century debates over the public sphere.  In “Constructing Liberal Value: From the Scottish Enlightenment to Hannah Arendt,” Hina Nazar considers the parallel between ethical and aesthetic value at the heart not only of not only of British sentimentalism but of the liberal Enlightenment more generally.  This aesthetic-ethical analogy has been interpreted by a long line of materialist, new historicist, and poststructuralist cultural critics as promoting an at best nebulous aestheticism and at worst difference-effacing elision of the social and material contexts of moral value.  This paper proposes a more affirmative reading of the British Enlightenment’s turn to aesthetics by drawing out the remarkable (and underelaborated) parallels that can be found between sentimental writings and the writings on judgment of the twentieth-century political theorist, Hannah Arendt.  By showing how Arendt’s understanding of values are perspectival and relational rather than requiring Kant’s a priori reason, Nazar offers a way of recuperating  the liberal attempt to distinguish between “is” and “ought” that places the burden of value on individuals capable of complicating—rather than transcending—personal bias through critical encounters with the standpoints of others.  Like the other two papers on the panel, her essay invites the panel and our audience to consider the enduring value  of eighteenth-century concepts, institutions, and practices of value as objects of historical understanding, critique, and, perhaps, emulation.

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