jueves, 16 de julio de 2015

A lively debate about the interconnections between culture and economics: information and material progress in seventeenth-century England

Getting better all the time

by Alexandra Walsham

The Invention of Improvement
Paul Slack

The language of “improvement” and “progress” is pervasive in modern public discourse: it infiltrates parliamentary speeches, policy manifestos, newspaper articles, television broadcasts and everyday conversation. Yet we rarely pause to consider when and why these concepts acquired their current meaning and became the verbal lubricant of Western capitalist and consumer society. Paul Slack’s book is a refreshing and thought-provoking attempt to do so. Its aim is to trace the “invention” of “improvement” as a shorthand for the pursuit of gradual and cumulative betterment, together with the growing application of the term to both material circumstances and mental capacities. It charts the emergence of the idea that it was possible to enhance collective prosperity and happiness through human initiative and ingenuity in the spheres of agriculture, industry, commerce and social welfare. This entailed discarding the deeply ingrained assumption that novelty was dangerous and disruptive and setting aside the precept that the best method of arresting decay, decline and corruption was to strive to restore institutions to their original purity. According to Slack, these linguistic and cultural shifts fostered forms of innovation and experimentation that distinguished seventeenth-century England from its European neighbours. In short, these emerging habits of mind both predated and engendered new forms of economic behaviour.

Building on Slack’s earlier work on plague prevention, the relief of poverty and urban reformation, The Invention of Improvement combines sophisticated synthesis of recent scholarship with extensive research on the printed literature of the period. It deftly weaves together macro-analysis of England’s changing fortunes with illuminating vignettes of the activities of particular visionaries and the texts that enshrined their ambitions. Slack begins his survey with the “discovery” of England by sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century topographers, antiquaries, cartographers and travellers, in whose writings and maps he finds evidence of evolving models of historical change and of the kingdom as an integrated entity. These not only reflected the growth of transport links, communication networks and internal trade; they also helped to create an intellectual climate in which ideas about improvement were able to gain momentum. He examines the humanist-inspired political projects to reform the “commonwealth” that marked the mid Tudor period; highlights the importance of London’s sprawling growth and the stretching tentacles of England’s overseas empire as a motor; and shows how the language of “improvement” was undergoing metamorphosis. Initially defined as the making of profit from land and used to defend enclosure and other forms of agrarian innovation, it was increasingly deployed to designate, encourage and endorse a wider range of initiatives. Slack sees the economic crisis and debates of the 1620s as decisive in loosening the traditional regulatory framework, in the formation of a “mercantilist consensus”, and in the rise of a more secular “discourse of commerce and commodities” a full generation earlier than previous historians have suggested.


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