HCCW: Work and Debt

James Kearney
UC Santa Barbara

The relation of work to debt has been relatively understudied in humanistic inquiries into early modern culture. Rather than attempting a comprehensive overview of the relation of work to debt in the history or literature of the period, this project offered a relatively narrow way into the topic, but one that aspired to illuminate crucial aspects of the changing conceptions of labor in the early modern period, conceptions that continue to shape our understanding of work in the modern world. Part of a book project entitled Original Debt: Economies of Ethical Obligation in Early Modern England, the method of this project was fundamentally historicist, but this was a theoretically-informed historicism both aware of the crucial significance of classical and Judeo-Christian texts to early modern thought and attentive to the long histories that connect early modern thought to twenty-first century concerns. In pursuing this research, the author participated in significant currents in early modern literary and cultural studies. Following in the footsteps of figures like Marc Shell, Douglas Bruster, and Richard Halpern, many early modern scholars have turned their attention to economics in the past twenty years. This project drew on this work – the so-called “new economic criticism” – especially as it attends to the ways in which the category of the economic is embedded in the ethical. Original Debt was also influenced and inspired by the turn to religion and ethics in continental philosophy, and indebted to scholars like Julia Reinhard Lupton and Ken Jackson who attend to this aspect of contemporary philosophy in their work on the early modern.