Friday, May 15, 2009

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, XI

Mr. Poor Richard, but how does wealth tie into virtue?

Taken as a whole, the functioning of Franklin’s virtue system is bipartite. In its direct implementation it would create the necessary stress upon individuals to self-regulate in a socio-economic system where their industry and frugality would bear directly upon the smooth functioning of that system. Indirectly, the transformation possible virtue into a thing accountable daily but never fully attainable, would render an account system of virtue in which a perfected futurity would perpetually be a motivating force because a total impossibility. The system would continuously keep moving forward because its futurity would be as unattainable as it would be desirable. And, to keep it desirable, Franklin yokes it with commercial success:

“[inculcating] Industry and Frugality, as the Means of procuring Wealth and thereby securing Virtue, it being more difficult for a Man in Want to act always honestly, as (to use one of those Proverbs) it is hard for an empty Sack to stand upright.”

But is the sack full of wealth or virtue? The answer again is exclusively neither but compositely both. The means for conveying moral instruction and checking personal corruptibility must be conveyed in civic terms and, for Franklin, there was no force more civically binding than the market economy. Virtue is not exactly commercialized, but rather the system by which virtues are reified is constructed in commercial terms to receive wider attraction.

Additionally this seems to be why the virtue system must remain undefined by the residues of religiosity and transcendental import. The mortgage in the future had to resist temptations to be conceptualized in terms that would render it an imagined future beyond the scope of secular, socio-economic relations. Franklin’s collecting the “Essentials of every known Religion” to create a substructure of religiosity whose fundamental credo is that “the most acceptable Service to God is doing Good to Man” proposes a religious frame that is multi-confessional in its essentialism and civic in its conjoining of essentials for the mutual social benefit of all persons.

When Franklin praises Michael Welfare, the leader of a particular sect for his “Modesty… perhaps a singular instance in the History of Mankind,” he is referring to Welfare’s expressed aversion to conceptualizing religion in a closed system, where it might be “unwilling to receive farther Improvement.” Franklin’s acceptable religion must retain a futurity open to secular, social change—to contingency.

Furthermore, the future must be formulated in sharable terms and the best conveyance for a sharable future in the civic weal was mutual investiture in a commercial structure of credit and character. Father Abraham was a prophet, but a prophet of a moral system that was functional because profitable. The Autobiography is a moral education and a story of success.

And the ideological frame, which contains and motivates the Autobiography as a process of self-representation—of credit and character—created its portability by historicizing futurity in most basic terms. Posterity would carry on the ethical education of everyday time because its metaphor had been constructed so as to project agency forward.

Through his writings, the Almanacs, and the Autobiography, which becomes a theoretical seed from which the purpose and potential of his virtue system is embodied, Franklin renders himself a communicable human metaphor for ethical thinking in a world of contingencies. Martha Nussbaum argues that poesis can function as a kind of training in ethical thinking, inculcating “the gentle art of particular perception” to motive and agency behind and beyond the written pronouncement, the text of the law. Franklin seems to have accomplished the reverse in rendering his written ethical pronouncements on industry and frugality into a semiological nugget encasing the possibility of futurity. Time itself was made a res publica.

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, X.V

Mr. Poor Richard, what was the implosion of the doctrine legitimating the English sovereign?

The Tories of the 1680s, in an attempt to curb the claims of the political anteriority of law, Parliament, or the constitution to the sovereign’s authority, argued that none of those things was actually immemorial, and that the sovereign’s anteriority was evinced by the feudal past. After the Glorious Revolution, this claim became harder to maintain, especially under the attendant scrutiny that the constitution was receiving, showing that it had always undergone historical change (“pre-feudal to feudal to post-feudal”), and thus contained no precedent of antiquity on which to judge allocation of authority. The sovereignty conversely had to revert to Hobbes to ground the legitimation of its presence in the present, as an absolute law without which there simply would be no law. Its polemic, however, retained the vestiges of ancient rule by constructing a present moment (which had somehow always been and would consequently always be) that was recorded in the continuous memory of the English people and their ancestors before them. Cf. Sir John Davies, “Le Primer Report des Cases et Matters in Ley Resolves et Adiudges en les Courts del Roy en Ireland (1615),” Divine Right and Democracy: An Anthology of Political Writing in Stuart England, ed. David Wooton (Indianapolis 2003), 131-143. Pocock, Virtue, Commerce, and History (Cambridge 1985), 95-6; Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge 1987).

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, X

Mr. Poor Richard, so how does this all relate to wealth?

Despite the sententiae offered earlier in this paper as examples of Franklin inveighing notions of ancient nobility, he does not seem to exhibit the kind of vehement repudiation of the immemorial constitution typified by James Harrington, who did not even believe it existed as an organizing principle for the present moment of political activity. Those sententiae are rather directed at the rural population with the intent to cultivate a sense of consequence to their actions and the subsequent responsibility they inherit to self-ennoblement.

Franklin before the revolution, to put it rather bluntly, does not particularly care about the ancientness of the doctrine legitimating the English sovereign. That line of reasoning had already been imploded three quarter centuries before by the party Franklin increasingly found himself in opposition to. His concern in disowning immemorial nobility instead seems aligned with an opposition to the greater chronotopic structure that customary antiquity imports, which delimits claims to the past as much as it does claims to the possibility of a modifiable, new future. The crown could neither perpetuate a functional continuity of the present nor could it administer a logical plan for the future.

And Franklin, from the representation he offers of himself in the Autobiography, had all along been constructing a personhood in agential relationship to its future. The devising of his reputation as economic mechanism, as when an industrious image grants him “character and credit” with his neighbors, engenders a timescale in which a futurity of beneficial economic relations is based on the shared expectations of rewarding exchange between him and his neighbors.

On a greater scale, in what he called a “Rough Draft of Affair of borrowing Money,” Franklin compares the credit of England and America in 1777, arguing that America’s national character, unlike England’s, had been positively established by its timely discharge of debts and that future procurements of debt had been guaranteed by the “Habits of Business and Ability” acquired by its citizenry’s practice of industry and frugality, which had become evident to global creditors. In establishing debt based upon the credit and character of America’s ethos of industry and frugality, America was mortgaging its future labor and thereby creating a negative balance sheet of commercial performance, which would be settled by the increasing productivity and wealth of its citizens. Its citizens, in effect, would have a future to work for.

As early as 1729, Franklin was arguing for a paper currency, which would create, among other things, a greater attainability of credit—interest being lower when money is plenty—from which a greater network of debt among the citizenry would surface. By participating in a community of credit, a citizenry would enact that expanding mechanism which Pocock terms “boomtime beliefs,” working off the expectations of each other to “credit one another with capacity to expand and grow and become what they were not.” Futurity is placed in the contained determination of individuals to create it from a collective imagination of promise and growth.

And Franklin had created the transportable metaphors of futurity by which a future might know the necessity and utility of those virtues—principally frugality and industry—which had enabled the very possibility of the existence of posterity as a speculated-upon future.

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, IX

Mr. Poor Richard, please go on.

The heart of the political crisis as Franklin received it seems to have been a perception that Britons on the opposite side of the Atlantic were not interested in creatively including the Britons on the Franklin’s side of the Atlantic in a shared futurity, but rather in keeping the American Britons perpetually in the present, to the unfair advantage of a futurity whose center and sole concern would always be the weal of those citizens in and near the metropolis, London.

As the events leading to the revolution in America escalated, Franklin repeatedly tried to promote the re-conceptualization of the colonies as included in and compartmental to English governance. The Crown, and the Parliamentary support system surrounding it, however, were making no effort to respond to the newly acquired contingency of vast Empire, and instead were relying the legitimation of their institutional structure upon dimensions of customary continuity and refutations of a shared, possibly different kind of futurity with the Britons in America.

Franklin saw the injustice of the Tax Act, for example, as an issue of improper exercise of power by one people over another when the two were supposed to be a united people. He anonymously published the following queries in The London Chronicle, August 16-18, 1768:

"QUERIES recommended to the Consideration of those Gentlemen who are for vigorous Measures with the Americans. 1. Have the Colonists refused to answer any reasonable requisitions made to their Assemblies by the Mother Country? 2. If they have not refused to grant reasonable aids in the way, which they think consistent with liberty, why must they be stripped of their property without their own consent, and in a way, which they think inconsistent with liberty? 3. What is it for a people to be enslaved and tributary, if this be not, viz. To be forced to give up their property at the arbitrary pleasure of persons, to whose authority they have not submitted themselves, nor chosen for the purpose of imposing taxes upon them? Wherein consisted the impropriety of King Charles’s demanding ship-money by his sole authority, but in its being an exercise of power by the King, which the people had not given the King? Have the people of America, as the people of Britain, by sending Representatives, consented to a power in the British Parliament to tax them? 4. Has not the British Parliament, by repealing the stamp act, acknowledged that they judged it improper? Is there any difference between the stamp act, and the act obliging the Americans to pay whatever we please, for articles which they cannot do without, as glass and paper? Is there any difference as to justice between our treatment of the Colonists, and the tyranny of the Carthaginians over their conquered Sardinians, when they obliged them to take all their corn from them, and at whatever price they pleased to set upon it? 5. If that be true, which is commonly said, viz. That the Mother Country gains two millions a year by the Colonies, would it not have been wiser to have gone on quietly in the happy way we were in, till our gains by those rising and flourishing countries should amount to three, four, or five millions a year, than by these new-fashioned vigorous measures to kill the goose which lays the golden eggs? Would it not have been better policy, instead of taxing our Colonists, to have done whatever we could to enrich them, and encourage them to take off our articles of luxury, on which we may put our own price, and thus draw them into paying us a voluntary tax; than deluge them in blood, thin their countries, empoverish and distress them, interrupt their commerce, force them on bankruptcy, by which our merchants must be ruined, or tempt them to emigrations, or alliances with our enemies? 6. The late war could not have been carried on without America, nor without Scotland? Have we treated America and Scotland in such a manner as is likely in future wars to encourage their zeal for the common cause? Or is England alone to be the Drawcansir of the world, and to bully not only her enemies, but her friends? 7. Are not the subjects of Britain concerned to check a ministry, who, by this rage of heaping taxes on taxes, are only drawing into their own hands more and more wealth and power, while they are hurting the commercial interest of the empire in general, at the same time that, amidst profound peace, the national debt and burden on the public continue undiminished?"

Americans, if truly within the British Empire, expected all rights and responsibilities to a political system that would account for them as equally invested political members. And the decisions made in London after the Peace of Paris seemed to be dispossessing Britons in America from their status as lawful Britons.

Franklin opposed the Stamp Act, but when it passed he reconciled himself to living with it. Only later, after seeing his countrymen incensed with the Acts, did he oppose it more vociferously than before, along with the 1764 Colonial Currency Act, which prohibited the colonials from paying debts to England in colonial currency, which had depreciated, and additionally from issuing more paper money.

Franklin made another attempt to conjoin the futures of Britons in England and those in America by proposing a paper currency printed in England by act of Parliament, backed by mortgage loan security, which would unite the peoples under a single money that would bear six percent interest for ten years, thus together amortizing the English national debt in terms fair to all. According to Franklin it was deemed too radical by the representatives of the Crown. But it seems that it was less a refutation of the radicalism of the idea and more that the English government was simply exhibiting a total indifference to the idea of a united monetary system or any kind of shared future with the Americans.

By 1774, he was sardonically writing to Lord North that, if the particular concerns of the colonies were not to be addressed, the English government might as well enslave and either work or sell the unruly Americans to prevent secession and procure the necessary funds to pay the national debt. North was said by Jefferson to have “betrayed an absolute indifference to the occurrence of a rupture.”

That same year Franklin assigned Joseph Galloway the task of drafting a constitution, which would detail the rights and duties Americans had as English citizens, including representation in Parliament, similar to a plan for union which Franklin had drafted in 1754 for Governor Shirley, in which:

“the people of great Britain and people of the colonies could lear[n] to consider themselves, not as belonging to different communities with different interests, but to one community with one interest, which I imagine would contribute to strengthen the whole, and greatly lessen the danger of future separations.” In the same letter Franklin asserted that there should be no difference in benefits for a smith or a hatter in old England or new—and furthermore, considering that the commercialists in America were contributing so much to the growth of the general English weal, they “ought rather to expect some preference.”

In a more radical formulation of similar logic, Franklin—following the demographic conclusions of his “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind,” published in 1755—envisioned a future in which the population of Britons in America would exceed that of Britons in Britain to such a degree that the seat of the empire would have to be relocated across the Atlantic.

In contrast to an institutional structure of continuity, as provided by the British government to legitimate its immemorial, customary rule, Franklin was operating according to the factors of contingency and the changing dimensions of the actual political state of things. And, to motivate activity in the present, he was implementing the possibility of a new shared futurity, which the institutionalization of continuity—the Crown and its supporting subsidiaries—could not follow because it had to guarantee itself that as things had always been so they must always be and there was therefore no possibility for futurity in America at all.

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, VIII

Mr. Poor Richard, what's the point of making virtue a daily issue? I mean, what's new about that?

Similarly, in the Autobiography’s program of virtue regimentation—what Franklin had proposed to Lord Kames in 1760 as his “Art of Virtue”— the cultivation of virtue is completely structured as discipline on a diurnal timescale to break the “unremitting Attraction of ancient Habits and the Force of perpetual Temptations:”

"I made a little Book in which I allotted a Page for each of the Virtues. I rul’d each Page with red Ink so as to have seven Columns, one for each Day of the Week, marking each Column with a Letter for the Day. I cross’d these Columns with thirteen red Lines, marking the Beginning of each Line with the first Letter of one of the Virtues, on which Line and in its proper Column I might mark by a little black Spot every Fault I found upon Examination, to have been committed respecting that Virtue upon that Day."

And of the virtues most stressed by Franklin, Industry and Frugality, have, as I have noted, a principal emphasis as fundamental controls of time. The day-to-day structure of the almanac’s system of virtue indoctrination is itself subsumed into Franklin’s larger project of appropriating control over quotidian time to arrive “at moral Perfection.” And the daily effort itself internalizes discipline in time consciousness, as opposed to obedience to the time consciousness of an external authority.

David Landes identifies the introduction of the portable timekeeper, watch or clock, as a revolutionary instrument, and the transition from public time to private time that it instantiated in the 17c as a long, revolutionary moment. By virtue of similar relationship of a person to their consciousness of time, Nathaniel Low’s observation in 1786 remarks on the time consciousness as occasioned by the use of almanacs:

"It is easy to prove that no book we read (except the Bible) is so much valued, and so serviceable to the community. Almanacks serve as clocks and watches for nine-tenths of mankind..."

Increasingly widespread use of the diurnal moralization, which Franklin was promoting, was operating as an instantiation of internal time-discipline, which is continuous with Franklin’s project of daily virtue cultivation, which itself was an assertion of republican agency and responsibility. Unlike time obedience—as evident in an anecdote of King Charles V of France, who in 1370 issued an ordinance that all public clocks in Paris, including those of the church towers, should be regulated around the timekeeper of the royal palace, the Horloge du Palais—the appropriation of time consciousness reputed that time should emanate from an external authority and that that authority in keeping time should be the royal imperium.

The idea of an royal imperium as having been granted by an ancient, immemorial right, thus claiming anteriority and sole rights to time, received its unwritten formulation in British polity sometime around 1600. By legitimizing its presence as immemorial concretion, the monarchy positioned itself centrally in a timescale of sanctioned perpetuity. Because it had always been it must consequently always be.

Pocock observes that, “to describe a timeless existence, a sacred origin or an immemorial continuity, are all ways of conceptualizing the continuous existence of a society.” Continuous existence is indeed legitimated—and with it the chronological anteriority of the monarchy. The monarchy, which theoretically came before time, emanated time. Time was a kind of original property of the monarchy, who alone in claiming ancient ownership of time could claim, by extension, sole rights to contingency and agency in time. In this respect, the monarchy could legitimately militate against the usurpation of time and agency by any other political body.

A sententia in Franklin’s 1745 almanac directly condemns the theoretical principle underpinning the monarchic doctrine of traditionalism and immemorial custom: “All blood is alike ancient.” In 1751, he echoed this notion by mockingly computing that for “each present Nobleman, to exclude all ignoble Blood from his Veins, ought to have had One Million, Forty-eight Thousand, Five Hundred and Seventy-six noble Ancestors,” thus showing that “the Pretension of such Purity of Blood in ancient Families is a mere Joke.” Even the Autobiography’s describing deleterious habit as ‘ancient’ seems to be an underhanded critique of ancient modes as fundamentally dysfunctional.

Greater popular control of time therefore becomes a political issue. The appearance of an instrument or a virtue system that could privately claim de facto hold on time was not only associated with a principle of self-regulation, it also brought with it a liberalizing share of legal and political agency for any person that could claim chrono-literacy and chrono-control. As early as 1637, John Suckling already associates control of time with political self-regulation:

"But as when an authentic watch is shown,
Each man winds up and rectifies his own,
So in our very judgments."

Personal appropriation of accurate, private timekeeping is operatively continuous with the legitimation of common, private adjudication. In the same manner by which each man keeps his own time, each man rectifies his own agential relationship to judgment in time. Franklin’s diurnal programming of self-regimentation in the almanac and the virtue system, which is also a tabular account of daily good doable, was suggestively politicized in a bit of advice from Poor Richard:

"In studying Law or Physick, or any other Art or Science, by which you propose to get your Livelihood, though you find it at first hard, difficult and unpleasing, use Diligence, Patience and Perseverance; the Irksomeness of your Task will thus diminish daily, and your Labour shall finally be crowned with Success."

Rather than an impersonal process, grace—or the perfection of human capacities—is seen as a historical effort, which takes place within the closed circle of private labor and is ‘crowned,’ or afforded a public exhibition of one’s imperium over one’s self, according to the successful implementation of those virtues, which are foundational to the Republic, namely controls of agency in relation to a heightened sensibility to time: “Diligence, Patience and Perseverance.”

And what these three virtues share, beyond being a control of character in relation to time, is that they are all specifically controls of character in relation to a timescale that premises a rewarding futurity as the operative stimulus to action in the present. And by this trajectory—hopefully less roundabout than I have intended—I will return to futurity and Franklin’s core issue in the political events of the mid-eighteenth century.

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, VII

Mr. Poor Richard, why exactly were the almanacs important?

The interspersion of sententiae among the monthly tabulation of meteorological forecasts, religious and national holidays, moon cycles, and general notes on husbandry, was neither an innovation by Franklin nor a feature exclusive to his almanacs. The format of Franklin’s almanac—including adjoined poems, currency conversion charts, and lists of timelines and approximations of the earth’s age by various ancient civilizations (Greeks, Romans, Jews, et al.)—was already established in the style of contemporaneous almanacs (Leeds’ and John Jerman’s, for example, in Philadelphia, the latter of the two even printed by Franklin).

Franklin’s almanacs are instead distinct in that he improved the sententiae by making them wittier and in that he completely filled any available space in the monthly tables of the almanac with them. That he differed his almanac by filling “all the little Spaces that occur’d between the Remarkable Days in the Calendar, with Proverbial Sentences, chiefly such as inculcated Industry and Frugality,” is readily evident with the most cursory glance. The July, 1734, entry in Leeds’ almanac:

Compared to Franklin's entry for the same month and year:

Leeds’ almanac has six aphorisms, five on the right column and one more on the lower left, with eight blank spaces between the text, totaling 55 words of apothegmatic statement. Whereas Franklin’s July has seven aphorisms, four on the right column and three on the left, with three (possibly four) blank spaces between the text, totaling 94 words of apothegmatic statement (including the three rhyming lines at the bottom left appended to the weather prediction, which have an apothegmatic quality). Unlike Leeds’ organizational structure, where the sententiae stand strictly uninterrupted by other information, Franklin’s sententiae run over and are ran over by the weather predictions, the moon cycles, and the astrological configurations, at times jumbling together different lines of information to bizarre result.

From July 5 to July 20, for example, the sententiae, which are always italicized, often force the de-italicization of weather predictions (‘Thunder,’ ‘hot weath’), which are typically in italics to distinguish them from the notes on special days (‘Dog Days’), which are in standard type, but which become confused with the proper names in the sententiae (‘Bucephalus’, ‘Alexand.’, and ‘Chili’ below), which have to be put into standard type to be distinguished as proper names; creating odd semiological cross-threads such as, “or rain,/ Bucephalus the/ Horse of Alexand./ sultry hot/ hath as lasting fame/ as his Master.”

Franklin crams the sententiae into the daily tabulation of contingent predictions of weather and notation of holidays, despite the jumbling, as if to afford any given day a snippet of condensed, functional moralization. As Thompson’s signboard was reduced to the utile core of a name and image, or as the character of a person might be reduced to a simple image resulting from the impression a banging hammer might make in the mind of their creditors, the concise semantic construct, the utile apothegm—the simple, moralizing sentence—is inversely offered as the holistic substance of virtue for a day in a structure of daily regimentation.

Virtue, in effect, is being promoted to the public on a daily basis.

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, VI.V

Mr. Poor Richard, Partridge?

Lemay is referring to Swift’s hoax in his Predictions for the Year 1708, in which Swift predicted (and later testified to) the death of shoemaker, quack astrologist and almanac maker, John Partridge. Partridge was tormented by the hoax—an undertaker coming to visit him and a tombstone carved—while he continued to aver that he was alive, only to suffer Swift’s rebuke that “they were sure no man alive ever to writ such damned stuff as this.”

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, VI

Mr. Poor Richard, who, by the way, are you?

J.A. Leo Lemay concludes an analytic sketch of Poor Richard with a provocative question concerning Franklin’s relationship to the persona. Alluding to Poor Richard’s prediction and subsequent assertions of Titan Leeds’ death, Lemay asks:

“Was [Franklin] like the contemporary writer he most admired, Jonathan Swift, or was he instead really like the almanac maker Partridge?”

In other words, is Franklin the heedless provocateur or the well intentioned, if somewhat wacky, moralizing almanac maker?

The easiest answer is that he is exclusively neither but compositely both. Unlike Swift, who despised the commonalty of proverbs, Franklin saturated the available space in the almanacs with them. Yet, like Swift, he appreciated the possibility that personae afforded to question absolutes by blurring the distinction between appearance and reality.

Poor Richard could therefore simultaneously register on two frequencies: That of invested embodiment of republican virtue cultivation and that of socially divested satirist of humanity. The satire and humor, however, were invoked insofar as they too could serve as a “Vehicle for conveying Instruction among the common People:” “As Charms are nonsence, Nonsence is a Charm.”

The transmissibility of humorous language—and a central tenet in Franklin’s aesthetic system is the need for language to travel easily—validates its use. And the almanac in the colonial, eighteenth-century American Northeast had the broadest distribution of any print medium, as its clientele was largely rural at a time when upwards of 95% of the population was rural.

Although Franklin stopped directly producing the almanacs in 1758 (well before the revolution), maxims like “the King’s cheese is half wasted in parings: But no matter, ‘tis made of the people’s milk” already exhibit a sense of egalitarianism and distributive justice, which would become compartmental to his understanding of republican virtue.

With this sense underpinning his endeavor, the business model of the almanac—which matched Franklin’s aesthetic of broad communicability, saturated as it was with apothegmatic commentary—could inculcate a great number of colonial residents with those virtues, which he would later come to identify as essential to a functional Republic.

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, V

Mr. Poor Richard, but how does the use of Industry and Frugality as symbols help Ben Franklin in promoting republican virtues?

Upon opening his stationary shop, Franklin begins to consider character as a communicative codification, which like credit can be positively or negatively developed. As a tradesman, he not only takes care to actually be industrious and frugal in his work, but additionally to appear so:

I dressed plainly; I was seen at no Places of idle Diversion; I was seen at no Places of idle Diversion… and to show that I was not above my Business, I sometimes brought home the Paper I purchas’d at the Stores, thro’ the Streets on a Wheelbarrow.

He then claims that the esteem he gains, being perceived to be an industrious young man, increases the solicitation of his business. The rhetoric of his own image as semiological substance is remediated as an economic unit, which can be instrumental in furthering his business in life. Positive instrumentality of virtuous behavior is not sufficient; that instrumentality has to be communicated in a clear manner— a purchased newspaper to show that he is participating as a consumer in the commerce of the community and its conveyance through the streets on a workman’s tool to show that he is indeed at work in the production of the commerce of the community.

In his reading of The Education of Henry Adams, Hayden White posits a semiological substructure to narrative from which the author’s ideological discourse emanates. Adams’ deferring, equivocating narrative mode is itself a performance of the ideological discourse of representing a historical self which had become emptied of life and personalization. Franklin’s ideological discourse not only inheres itself in the semiological substructure, it knowingly exhibits this substructure as valuable representation of the ideology in action—a republic in performance.

Franklin recodes the language of the republic into a social semiology whereby visible activity, the public display of a represented self, becomes a kind of living text by which he is to be read and interpretively received. And the controlled constructing of a personal self folds into the central intent of telling one’s story—of writing an autobiography—where one chooses to include certain elements and exclude others to the benefit of presenting a particular representation of one’s history.

Franklin’s Autobiography is exactly that, a self-story sensitive to the reducibility of character to a core representation. And the moral ambiguity of communicating an ethical system by means of an apparent and perhaps fictitious core representation is not, according to Franklin, supposed to limit a moral ethos by the aesthetic criterion. There is no sense that he was merely pretending a republic. Rather, the mode of fictitious representation, which entrenches an aesthetic criterion by the protocol of its artistry, is meant to remediate aesthetic representation as another tool for promoting the virtues of a republic.

The Autobiography was, as I have noted, a work addressed to futurity, intended to promote in that futurity the values necessary for the perpetuation of a citizenry uncorrupted and in good governance. And the conceptualization of positive aesthetic representation as instrument in promoting—despite the patent dissimulation of its ‘author’—that necessary virtue system in the population of the immediate present is a process further represented in the Almanacs.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, IV

Mr. Poor Richard, but how does the use of Industry and Frugality as symbols help Ben Franklin?

Thomas Jefferson recounted a moment in which Franklin presented the propriety of his aesthetic system in parallel to the semiology of the Republic’s founding. Noticing Jefferson’s annoyance at having some expressions in his Declaration of Independence mangled or removed by the editing body of the first Continental Congress, Franklin told him of an incident, which taught him to avoid drafting papers to be reviewed by a public body:

"When I was a journeyman printer, one of my companions, an apprentice Hatter, having served out his time, was about to open shop for himself, his first concern was to have a handsome signboard, with a proper inscription. He composed it in these words ‘John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,’ with the figure of a hat subjoined. But he thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments. The first he shewed it to thought the word ‘Hatter’ tautologous, because followed by the words ‘makes hats’ which shew he was a Hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word ‘makes’ might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats. If good and to their mind, they would buy by whomsoever made. He struck it out. A third said he thought the words ‘for ready money’ were useless as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Every one who purchases expected to pay. They were parted with, and the inscription now stood, ‘John Thompson sells hats.’ ‘Sells hats says his next friend? Why nobody will expect you to give them away. What then is the use of that word? It was stricken out, and ‘hats’ followed it,—the rather as there was one painted on the board. So his inscription was reduced ultimately to ‘John Thompson’ with the figure of a hat subjoined."

The immediate purpose of the anecdote seems to have been to console Jefferson for the depredations enacted upon his draft by the members of the Congress. But the narrative of the anecdote is structured in such a way that the figures standing in for the members of Congress—the editing body of John Thompson’s signboard—are not represented as vituperative or irrational. Each friend’s censure is conjoined to an appropriate reason and, as the various elements of the signboard are struck out according to their reasons, the rationale of reduction seems increasingly self-evident. When the sign is finally reduced to ‘John Thompson’ with a figure of hat, there is no sense that Thompson regrets his friends’ reductionism. The passage indeed suggests that all other elements to the sign were either peripheral or tautological to the communicative nugget of a name and an image, and that that nugget alone was sufficient to the sign’s communicative purpose.

The communicative rationale of the sign’s aesthetic ethos judges propriety according the most evidentiary elements of a given expression. The most evidentiary, the clearest expression, is encoded as most functional kind of communication, and therefore as most proper.

The reduction of a semiological construct to the most evidentiary elements is reorganized in The Advice to a Young Tradesman as Franklin reduces the credit of a man to the image that the man’s creditors might receive of him, remarking that the ever extraordinarily perceptive creditor will hear the “Sound of [one’s] Hammer at Five in the Morning or Nine at Night” and be lenient about one’s debt, but will see one at the billiard table or one’s wife with better clothes the creditor’s wife and will send for his money the next day. The received interpretation of the most evidentiary image of one’s character constitutes the rubric by which one’s credit is determined. The cultivation of evidentiary image acquires an economic importance.

It is with similar stress upon the instrumentation of the most evidential aspects of his public image—literally a semiology of his self in order to create a positive social value—that Franklin’s self’s story, the Autobiography, repeatedly concerns itself with reputation and self-representation.

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, III

Mr. Poor Richard, why are industry and frugality so goddamn important to this bloke?

The last Almanac prepared by Franklin and published for the year 1758 is the source for his most widely reprinted writings (more than even the Autobiography), variously printed as “preliminary Address prefixed to the “Pennsylvania Almanack for 1758,” “Father Abraham’s Speech,” “Way to Wealth,” “La Science du Bonhomme Richard,” et al. It introduces a new persona, Father Abraham, whose messianic invective against improper taxation, laziness, and profligacy quotes extensively, if not entirely, from Poor Richard’s maxims.

Franklin leaves the business of almanacs with an almanac saturated, page after page (the sermon was printed alongside the twelve months), with a rhetorical constellation of Franklin’s collected aphorisms of virtuous commercialism. And the core message, as the Advice to a Young Tradesman, Written by an Old One—again addressed to futurity (a young tradesman)—boils it down, “depends chiefly on two Words, INDUSTRY and FRUGALITY.”

One might conceptualize the argumentation behind centralizing these two words as core virtues by following their semantic content along a plausible meaning. We can take industry to denote production increased in time and frugality to denote preservation of resources over time. The former contracts time, in that more gets done in less time, while the latter expands time, in that less lasts for longer periods. Both, in their own way (one as a management of output, the other as a management of input), are controls of time. Time, we might conclude, becomes an ethical construct in the frame of a virtue system, which determines merit and demerit according to one’s use of time. We have concluded a general theme from a few contents in the text and could presume that the passage is operating according to principles of republican virtue, but the semantic layout of the passage is only half its argumentation.

Franklin breaks the code so effortlessly that we might overlook the fact that he does not identify ‘INDUSTRY and FRUGALITY’ as virtues, but as ‘Words.’ The semiological aspect of the virtues—their presence as signs—reorients the virtue system of time control into the realm of language. Franklin’s ideology of the republic is reorganized from the what, or content, to what Hayden White might call the how that what is conveyed: The ideology of Franklin’s virtue system, of industry in frugality, is inhered in even the rhetorical structures used to convey that system—the very words and the simple style of their arrangement.

In a letter to his brother, Franklin correlates the style of his brother’s ballad, which he judges to be good, with the virtues that the ballad is supposed to foster, and again we see our two words:

"I like your ballad, and think it well adapted for your purpose of discountenancing expensive foppery, and encouraging industry and frugality. If you can get it generally sung in your country, it may probably have a good deal of the effect you hope and expect from it."

The letter then suggests that a more common tune, one that a “country girl in the heart of Massachusets” might compose, will allow the song to disseminate with greater reach and its instructive purposes to work themselves more effectively throughout the population. The ethical value of the ballad is measured by the aesthetic decisions which might render it simple and therefore effective, itself industrious or frugal.

The language of the republic, its management of a system of signs, its semiology, enacts and by its communicability legitimates the larger theoretical system of the polity.

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, II.V

Mr. Poor Richard, what do you mean when you say that America sought to create a virtue system by contrasting its theory of continuity based on creative responses to contingency to the traditionalism and customary continuity of its monarchic, English forebear?

It is certainly an oversimplification to suggest that the American political crisis was simply a revolutionary inveighing of the despotic activity of King George III. The detested Stamp Act, for example, was introduced and ratified by George Grenville and the Whig coalition of 1763, and the leaders of what would become the American revolutionary movement knew this. The King, in so far as the colonialists understood him to be embodiment of a dysfunctional political system, was held in contempt for being neither able to adequately control his newly received empire (after the Peace of Paris), nor able to stave the corrupting of the political system by interests inimical to notions of English liberty and right, to the colonialists in America claiming that liberty and those rights, and in the end even to himself and his empire. “The heart,” as Pocock puts it, “of the American problem for Britain was less the maintenance of imperial control than the preservation of essentially English institutions which the claims of empire were calling in question.” Cf. Steven Watson, The Reign of George III, 1760–1815. (London 1960), 182-85; Pocock, “Political thought in the English-speaking Atlantic, 1760-1790, Part 1: The imperial crisis,” The Varieties of British political thought, 1500-1800, ed. J.G.A. Pocock (Cambridge 1993), 278; Pocock, “Political thought in the English-speaking Atlantic, 1760-1790, Part 2: Empire, revolution and the end of early modernity,” Ibid., 283-317; and Franklin’s note in the Autobiography (Part I, written 1771), excerpted from an editorial in the Pennsylvania Gazette, October 9, 1729: “by the Dictates of Reason there should be a mutual Dependence between the Governor and the Governed, and that to make any Governour independent of his People, would be dangerous, and destructive of their Liberties, and the ready Way to establish Tyranny… Their happy Mother Country will perhaps observe with Pleasure, that tho’ her gallant Cocks and matchless Dogs abate their native Fire and Intrepidity when transported to a Foreign Clime (as the common Notion is) yet her S O N S in the remotest Part of the Earth, and even to the third and fourth Descent, still retain that ardent Spirit of Liberty, and that undaunted Courage in the Defence of it, which has in every Age so gloriously distinguished B R I T O N S and E N G L I S H M E N from all the Rest of Mankind.” Autobiography, 50-51. In revolutionary rhetoric, in other words, the king became an easily contemptible symbol of a dysfunctional political system although the true menace had always been the dysfunctional political system, which the kingship represented.

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, II

Mr. Poor Richard, what's the point of creating a virtue system for the future and why the need to check corruption?

Addressing the first part of the Autobiography primarily to his son, but subsequently to a general future as suggested by the intended patrilineal extension of its virtuous education to ‘Posterity,’ Franklin frames his self-education as model “fit to be imitated” by a readership in futurity.

Reinhart Koselleck remarks that a revolution can be legitimated as “a coefficient of movement, mobilizing history in terms of the prevailing prospect of the future.” A revolution can conceptualize the propriety of its present actions by the vision of an intended future necessitating the actions of that revolution to bring that future into being. The inverted reflexivity of the argument keeps the present working for the future in so far as the actions of the present have a purpose to a proposed goal perpetually on the horizon.

Franklin, though not articulating his goal in revolutionary terms, immediately organizes the structure of his educative self-story according to the possibility of readers to come and the prospected need the lives of those readers will have for a fundamental morality. Such stress on the cultivation of virtue as a public good is a concern that came about alongside theories of balanced power and greater emphasis on moral personality within political processes.

If the model of monarchy was to be rejected, as it was by mid-eighteenth century American revolutionaries, on the premise that it was corrupt, it followed that the new political system must check corruption. And, if a new system would invest the populace with greater political agency, it would have to rely on the virtue of its citizens. It is worth saying the obvious: Preventing corruption consisted of promoting virtue. And the popularly instructive is what early readers of the Autobiography ask for more of:

Some Time since there fell into my Hands… an Account of the Parentage and Life of thyself, directed to thy Son ending in the Year 1730 with which there were Notes likewise in thy writing, a Copy of which I enclose in Hopes it may be a means if thou continuedst it up to a later period… a Work which would be useful and entertaining not only to a few, but to millions.

That the ‘rising People’ might need a virtuous education premises an otherwise corruptible state for which the proper remedy is a civic education. Pocock traces the moral requisites inhered in republican self-theorization as active historical progress by identifying the crises, which greater historical agency imparts.

To have a government perfected in personal participation and citizenship resulted in a perpetually corruptible political system as occasioned by the perpetual corruptibility of personalities in society. Pocock indicates that, “Corruption, which threatened the civic bases of personality, was irremediable except by personal virtue itself, and therefore must very soon become irreversible if action was not taken in time.” The emphasis on the immanence of agency in time is a feature of republicanism, which determines its political successes and failures according to the active, participatory agency of its citizenry. And, in its American manifestation, it did so by contrasting its theory of continuity based on creative responses to contingency to the traditionalism and customary continuity of its monarchic, English forebear.

Paine’s Common Sense inveighs the British Crown and the entire concept of kingship as brutish and completely antithetical to rational political organization. But it does so with an attendant remediation of good to immediate agency:

The present winter is worth an age if rightly employed, but if lost or neglected the whole continent will partake of the misfortune; and there is no punishment which that man doth not deserve, be he who, or what, or where he will, that may be the means of sacrificing a season so precious and useful.

The imperative to political action would alone not qualify the passage as republican. Rather, the republican tendency to conceive of the immediate moment as the contraction of a historical age—incurred by the greater responsibility to history essential to republican theorizing of time and agency—by industrious activity impregnates Paine’s revolutionary moment with the import of an age: “The present winter is worth an age if rightly employed.”

If a republic is contingent upon the activity of men and women to—as Franklin put it—“keep it,” all political activity must receive and do its work in the operative timescale of tighter, more meaningful, historical time. And that time must be dedicated to certain virtues which would keep it moving along and which Franklin increasingly condensed to two: Industry and Frugality.

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, I

Mr. Poor Richard, what's the use of simple language and why did it become an American aesthetic to write clearly and simply?

In an editorial on literary style, printed in The Pennsylvania Gazette, August 2, 1733, Ben Franklin says the following regarding the need for simplicity in written representation:

"To write clearly, not only the most expressive, but the plainest words should be chosen… The Fondness of some Writers for such Words as carry with them an Air of Learning, renders them unintelligible to more than half their Countrymen. If a Man would that his Writings have an Effect on the Generality of Readers, he had better imitate that Gentleman, who would use no Word in his Works that was not well understood by his Cook-maid."

The benefit of simple language is that it travels well. Its mobility is inhered by a broad comprehensibility, which can carry a written pronouncement from city to country in a vocabulary apprehensible to almost any reader. But, beyond portability across space, simplicity and concision additionally afford portability across time. An aphorism in Franklin’s almanacs correlates the transportability of written language across space to space’s attendant axis, time:

“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.”

The transportability of written language across time becomes a historical issue. Time, as I am using the word here, is shorthand for Franklin’s self-representation as a kind of historiography and the way that such self-representation conceives and conceptualizes its position in time as bearing upon a political system as active history. Time, in this regard, becomes an ethical construction, implicating the relationship of agency to history and the individual to a perceived role in the historical process of their society.

That a society must create and maintain an understanding of its place in history seems self-evident. That an individual, on the other hand, might have activated concepts by which a society could see its history extending into the future is much more interesting. Benjamin Franklin constructed his moral program in terms of transportability to futurity in order to afford that futurity a check on the corruption, which would become the menace to a society in which the integrity of its polity would be based solely upon the activity of its citizens. His two central virtues, industry and frugality, thus became relevant as moral ethos and aesthetic ethos, because together they could build and project the moral credit necessary in a world where the dangers of a shared investment in political contingency would only be remediable by the daily upkeep of a network of active private engagements to a shared futurity.

The republic’s citizenry would have to actively maintain the integrity of that republic and Franklin surfaces as the citizen most concerned with a broad dissemination of the virtues that would maintain and project the republic forward. Through his writings, almanacs and the Autobiography, which is an evidentiary embodiment of the purpose and potential of his virtue system, Franklin conceptualizes a timescale of agential relationship to futurity, both of an individual and a republic, to which communicability would be a founding principle.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Growth of Time and Law in the 17c

David Landes identifies the introduction of the portable timekeeper, watch or clock, as a revolutionary instrument, and the transition from public time to private time that it instantiated in the 17c as a long, revolutionary moment. Increasingly widespread use of the portable timekeeper internalized discipline in time consciousness, as opposed to the obedience to time consciousness that had been maintained by an external imperium, or authority, of time.

In 1370, for example, King Charles V of France issued an ordinance that all public clocks in Paris, including those of the church towers, should be regulated around the timekeeper of the royal palace, the Horloge du Palais. The idea seems to have been that time should emanate from an authority and that that authority in keeping time should be the royal imperium. This was a practical application of the theoretical principle underpinning the monarchic doctrine of traditionalism and immemorial custom.

The idea of an ancient, immemorial English constitution, which was said to have sanctioned a sovereign king, received its unwritten formulation sometime around 1600. By legitimizing its presence as immemorial concretion, the monarchy positioned itself centrally in a timescale of sanctioned perpetuity. Because it had always been it must consequently always be. Pocock argues that, “to describe a timeless existence, a sacred origin or an immemorial continuity, are all ways of conceptualizing the continuous existence of a society.” Continuous existence is indeed legitimated—and with it the chronological anteriority of the monarchy. The monarchy, which theoretically came before time, thus emanates time.

Time is a kind of original property of the monarchy, who alone in claiming ancient ownership of time can claim, by extension, sole rights to contingency and agency in time. In this respect, the monarchy could legitimately militate against the usurpation of time and agency by any other political entity. Within the parameters of such a timescale, the capacity for historical agency indeed is deadened by its dispensability. Historical events, like Marvell’s ‘happy Restauration,’ which I have discussed in an earlier post, will just happen.

Conversely, the appearance of an instrument that could privately claim de facto hold on time was not only associated with a principle of self-regulation, it also brought with it a liberalizing share of legal and political agency for any person that could claim chrono-literacy. John Suckling in 1637:

But as when an authentic watch is shown,
Each man winds up and rectifies his own,
So in our very judgments.

Personal appropriation of accurate, private timekeeping is operatively continuous with the legitimation of common, private adjudication. In the same manner by which each man began to keep his own time, each man began to rectify his own agential relationship to judgment in time.

Is There a Dog in This Room?

With the same mental constructs, by which a dog can come to understand the semantic register of certain commands, a dog can also begin to learn to formulate its own commands or requests by emulating or creating their own expressive constructions of logic patterns, i.e. having learned that before they are taken for a walk, their owner reaches for the leash, they begin going near the leash when they would like to be taken for a walk.

This would not be enough to suggest that dogs have a functional theory of mind. A parrot will learn to reproduce words on command, if doing so will guarantee it a treat. A dog is different in the regard that it can choose to express something rather than something else, and can likewise often choose not to express things.

An example: A dog has destroyed some papers while its owner was away and, knowing that the owner would be angry with this and would likely punish the dog, the dog hides the destroyed papers. The dog has chosen not to express, or reveal, something to its owner. Dog has inferred a certain mental process of its owner and acted according to those inferred mental constructs to behave manipulatively.

The primordial utterance of a basic theory of mind seems then to be a game of deception. Deception is a somewhat obvious marker of concretized interiority--and one might argue that it is overdetermining the machine to draw a conclusion on its nature from a single aspect of its activity--but this machine's activity, even in its most sophisticated constructs, retains the residual essence of this raw utterance of deception, duplicity, or expressed distance between one's logic and the logic behind one's logic.

Hermes Mercurius, messenger god, node of communicants, was equally patron to poets, liars, thieves and travelers. Geographic distance, as experienced by a traveler, entailed the result of being a stranger to others--like the bandit, the liar or the poet, one was always at a remove. Distance and dissimulation are the shared essence that brings these aspects into compartment. Some men, Villon or Leadbelly for example, contained all these compartments in a poetic equipoise.

Having recently concluded these things in regard to my dog, I have been interested in our shared and unsharable communication signals. There have been moments in which we are staring at each other, I trying to express something--to teach her to get the ball or the toy--, and she trying to understand but not being able to; moments that break into anxious frustration for both parties.

Knowing that she knows I have a knowledge system to impart to her, she wants to get it, to get the interior--to get behind and within my concept constructs--but the closedness of my communication does permit her to enter. This is very frustrating to her, because she wants to learn. When she learns something, she is happy to emulate that understanding to re-engage a communication point--goes to the leash, etc. When she has not learned something, she stares until she realizes she cannot get it and jitters and barks or breaks off.

In this regard, the dog is rather human. It is human to not understand, if we live with a communicative standard which stems from a theory of communication that is fundamentally deceptive, duplicitous, playfully hidden and hiding. We are invariably often the dog, staring stupidly, trying desperately to understand a foreign communicant, inscribed in the language of a stranger. Such is the difficult state, I have found, of reading and trying to 'understand' a poem. Most of the time we are either staring stupidly, trying to get it, if not completely distracted by the possibility of something else.