Friday, May 15, 2009

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.

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