June 3, 2020

Nielsen on Literary Form and Limited Liability: It-Narratives and the Context of Corporate Law in the British Public Sphere, 1860-1880

Jakob Gaardbo Nielsen has published Literary form and limited liability: it-narratives and the context of corporate law in the British public sphere, 1860–1880, in Context in Literary and Cultural Studies. Here is the abstract.
‘What philosopher can explain to me the nature of the causes of which I am the vile effect?’ Laurence Oliphant. ‘Autobiography of a Joint-Stock Company (Limited)’. 1876. Since the 2008 financial crisis, it has become common to imagine corporate and financial bodies as autonomous or even cognisant entities. The concept of ‘corporate personhood’, the idea that companies, as ‘artificial persons’, are, in fact, legal subjects separate from the humans who form them, underscores this metaphorical autonomy, even if it remains a somewhat controversial concept in corporate law. The legal definition of a company as a ‘corporate person’ is useful insofar as it safeguards individuals from personal liability and thus facilitates investment, but it also sits uneasily with ethical and legal concerns about corporate responsibility. As a legal concept, as well as a cultural metaphor, corporate personhood also mediates a fantasy of containment – a fantasy of a separate and autonomous place known as ‘the financial sector’ in which the business of trade takes place according to obscure rules and conducted by experts who are functionally if not ethically ‘in the know’. Even so, incorporation is a lot less controversial today than it used to be. In the late nineteenth century, when incorporation was deregulated and gradually became a common form of business organisation, the idea of a corporate person was still highly controversial and gave rise to an inflamed ethical and political discussion about corporate responsibility. The debate took place in several discourses but became particularly nuanced in fiction, where the abstractions of high finance could be interpreted, questioned, and concretised by the narrative and rhetorical devices of imaginative writing. In this article, I shall focus on the late Victorian period, when rapid financial development afforded new and controversial ways of making money in corporate enterprise. One of the most controversial developments, propagated by deregulatory legislation in the 1840s and 1850s, was the increased availability of company incorporation and the extension of ‘limited liability’ privileges to smaller and smaller private companies. Corporate personhood was a highly controversial topic (economically, politically and ethically) in the 1870s and sparked debates across the public sphere. In this context, narrative fiction, I shall argue, played a key part in negotiating the ethics of these new financial institutions. Literary discourse was able to shed light on the concrete influences of changing economic structures on social and interpersonal experience – to displace finance from its rhetorical obscurity and resituate it in a domain of cultural and aesthetic visibility. Literary devices such as anthro-pomorphism, narrative form, and prosopopoeia helped common readers understand how corporate finance worked, paradoxically enough by representing companies as fundamentally uncanny or contradictory entities. More specifically, I shall analyse the relationship between the new developments in corporate law and a contemporary literary text that built its internal structure directly on this logic of corporate organisation. In his short fictional essay from 1876, ‘Autobiography of a Joint Stock Company (Limited)’, Laurence Oliphant lets a joint stock company be the narrator of its own biography, thus giving narrative authority to an abstract, immaterial financial entity. This anthropomorphic perspective, typical of object tales or ‘it-narratives’, dramatises the issue of corporate ‘personhood’ in a highly specialised and direct way. Oliphant’s text is entangled, formally as well as contextually, in its historical moment and gives literary form to a discussion about incorporation and liability that was not possible in the financial press, in political economy, or even in novels – a form that engages formally with the economic context in question. In this article, I aim to demonstrate that Oliphant’s text offers a unique take on the public debate about joint stock companies in the 1870s. The formal nature of its intervention in an economic context puts it within something of a blind spot in the field of literary studies of economics and finance, which has been predominantly organised around studies of the realist novel.1 It draws on different generic structures – differently orientated connections between writer, text, audience and context – that are difficult to reconcile with either formalist or historicist methodologies and thus, I argue, calls for an analysis based on an extended concept of form. In the first section, I briefly introduce the field of literary studies of finance and argue for an expansion of its traditional empirical horizon to include, on a more consistent basis, financial it-narratives. In the second section, I briefly flesh out the specific aspects of late Victorian corporate law which relate to corporate personhood. In the third section, I analyse Oliphant’s text with an emphasis on the nature of its engagement with this financial context. In the fourth, fifth and concluding sixth section, I discuss these insights by reflecting historiographically on the use of the ‘context concept’ in the field and, referring to recent scholarly works on form, suggest a methodological reorientation towards the historicity of economic and aesthetic forms.

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