Thursday, March 10, 2016
Today, we imagine the economy as a natural system, something that can be explained and predicted, just as astronomy can explain and predict the movements of the stars. This idea was articulated in Adam Smith’s pioneering work of economic theory, Wealth of Nations, in 1776. Just 12 years earlier, in 1764, Horace Walpole published another hugely influential text: the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto. In my doctoral research, I’m studying the connections between Gothic novels of the Romantic period and economic concepts such as exchange, counterfeit, and debt.
The connections between economics and the Gothic run deep, and were clear from the start. The Castle of Otranto, for instance, is all about property, and In Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith’s uses a Gothic metaphor–the “invisible hand”—to describe the transformation of capitalistic greed into national wealth.
In my dissertation, I argue that Gothic literature pushes against the idea of the economy being a natural system by depicting economic forces not as natural, but as supernatural. In doing so, the Gothic reveals that the economy is not a product of nature, but rather a product of human imagination. This is an important distinction with real-world implications: for example, do we believe that poverty is the inevitable result of natural forces beyond our control? Or is it the result of a system we created, a problem we can therefore fix?
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a powerful example of how economics and the Gothic intersect. Throughout the nineteenth century, writers used the novel as a vehicle to describe troubled economies, calling them “frankensteins.” This metaphor implies that an economy is not a natural thing, as Adam Smith argued, but rather a supernatural monster, as shown in the slide. And, in fact, we still think of economics in the same Gothic terms: just a few years ago, in 2011, a MarketWatch article called ‘The Frankenstein Economy” used the very same metaphor to describe the global recession of 2008–2009.
So although the Romantic era seems like the distant past, and its Gothic literature the product of a different time, my research shows that we are the inheritors of its Gothic economics.