Book Review

Agnew, Jean-Christophe. Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Reviewed by Steve Deng | March 27, 2003

Worlds Apart presents a cultural history exploring the relationship between developments in early modern English theater (1550-1750) and the emergence of a (centralized rather than marginalized such as in ancient Greece) market culture. Agnew begins with the premise that the market is as much an interpretable as calculable phenomenon, that one must restore the historical and cultural contingencies surrounding the development of market culture rather than just accept the neoclassical economic assumption that markets naturally inhere in all processes of exchange. For example, rather than assuming a transhistoric self-interested “self” motivating a miraculously efficient market, the cultural historian should see “self-interest” as one contingent, though compelling, response to the “cultural confusions produced by the spread of market exchange” (6). Moreover, the interested “self” was itself in flux as a crisis of representation accompanied the fluidity of relations surrounding market exchange. The restoration of the classical theatrum mundi metaphor, though transformed from an otherworldly comment on secular vanity to a “secular commentary on the commodity world,” can be explained by this need to develop a more fluid conception of identity, a practical “second nature,” in response to the fluidity of market relations (12). The “hedonistic calculus” and the “histrionic calculus” were thus two interrelated responses to the “socially and culturally subversive implications of the ‘free’ market” (5). But even before the development of the Enlightenment “hedonistic calculus,” “the professional theater of the English Renaissance became in effect a ‘physiognomic metaphor’ for the mobile and polymorphous features of the market” (11). Moreover, the theater culturally reproduced market relations and re-presented the individual “in the likeness of commodities” (12). Agnew thus wishes to undo the historically produced division between market and culture and to recover the “structures of meaning and feeling” linking material and symbolic exchange (7). He describes his book as an examination of the relation between the “practical liquidity of the commodity form and the imaginative liquidity of the theatrical form” (11-12).

In the late sixteenth century, the theater shared with the early market, which in ancient Greece and medieval Europe constituted a place before it eventually became a process, a liminal status on the “threshold of exchange.” The ancient Greek marketplace was originally located on the fringes of society, beyond the centralized practice of gift exchange and the household economy described by Aristotle. Even when markets moved to the more central agora, the place and its participants (metics) remained marginal, patronized by the liminal god Hermes who moved freely between the worlds of gods and humans. The various rites, ceremonies and festivities associated with the market can be seen as attempts, by the polis, at purification. During the Middle Ages, the market remained at the boundaries, between communities, though market towns and fairs started to establish a density that helped develop a market community and culture resistant to manorial pressure towards refeudalization and entrepreneurial pressures towards industrial capitalism. The market and the theater were closely identified in the Middle Ages as both invoked the experience of the threshold and both relied on the property of visibility. It was natural then that when, during the Renaissance, anxiety arose over the unanticipated effects of liquidity, the “Elizabethan and Jacobean theater furnished a laboratory of representational possibilities for a society perplexed by the cultural consequences of its own liquidity” (54). And the “second nature” of the stage-world, the secularized theatrum mundi, became the governing trope for representing this transformed world.

Yet this governing trope had the sinister implication that theatrical representation might mean mis-representation as the visible world of the theater might hide an invisible, underlying design. Rogue literature, and the estates literature before it, was an attempt to reveal such dangerous design and the histrionics covering it, in order to curtail threats to the current social order. Money itself seemed to be a dangerous model for the potential fluidity of social relations. One could better one’s self through investment, that is putting on the garments that would offer the most profit – the body itself had become a commodity. Moreover, Hobbes’ adoption of the theatrical tropes showed that such “personations” might become a model of authority as representation evolved from a standing in for another to an acting for another. Agnew reads the Puritan repression of the stage as a response to the threat posed by a model of authority based on Protean personation. The theater was by its nature “ontologically subversive” in Jonas Barish’s phrase. Yet the theatrical persisted after the Restoration, not only on the stage but in the “ideological mainstream as an amusing gloss on the literate ideal of the detached and impartial observer of life” (13). Moreover, as Adam Smith indirectly revealed through his two seemingly disparate works on moral philosophy (The Theory of Moral Sentiments) and political economy (The Wealth of Nations), cultural propriety became an “unintended effect or function of property” (176). Even when the purveyors of Common Sense tried to divorce market from culture, the sphere of utility from that of propriety, the cultural historian can recover the cross-functional market culture in the interstices of history.

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