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.

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