Youssef, Sharif M. The Defoean Moment: Actuarial Causalities in the Long Eighteenth Century. The University of Chicago, 2011.
In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin names Daniel Defoe’s An Essay Upon Projects as one of two books “which perhaps gave me a turn of thinking that had an influence on some of the principal future events of my life.” “The Defoean Moment” takes up this “turn of thinking” that Defoe inspires in Franklin to argue that the critical focus on the eighteenth-century tradition of the sentimental novel has obscured a counter-tradition of anti-sentimental writing that began, and was associated, with Daniel Defoe’s consideration of the problem of risk. I examine Defoe’s fictional works through a lens informed by the archive of his published theology, journalism, and political economy to contend that his work recasts the theological notion of sin into an economic model for risk. Poorly assessed risk is enormously costly in Defoe’s work. His examples of the consequences of unattended risk include: the devastation of London by the Great Plague; the loss of tens of thousands of lives; war; death by cannibal consumption; rape; the inadvertent killing of one’s child; and even the loss of one’s soul. His is an activist and interventionist Christian theology based upon a new form of responsibility—to adopt an actuarial system of risk management that eschews sentimentality for actuarial planning. I assert that Defoe blames what he sees as an archaically feudal culture of sentiment for perversely injuring both individuals and the national interest even as it purports to act in their interests. In light of this, I show that he advocates for a modern actuarial logic that reinterprets such misfortunes as consequences of poorly assessed risk, which, as such, can be mitigated by a rational system of risk management. Because critics either have viewed the phenomenon of Defoe’s realism from a formalist perspective or have examined his fiction in relation to singular historical discourses (law, economics, theology or journalism), scholarship has missed this centrality of risk management to Defoe’s literary project, and thereby disregarded the reason for which later writers like David Hume, Tobias Smollett and Benjamin Franklin have heaped both praise and opprobrium upon Defoe.
In chapter one, “The Death of the Body and the Birth of Market History,” I argue that Defoe chooses to mimic political economy in his fiction in order to demonstrate that the reactionary sentimental policies of provincial parish administrators paradoxically exacerbated the devastation of the plague and impeded the Lord Mayor’s civil relief programs. I show that Defoe models A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) after early political economic tracts by John Graunt and William Petty, both of whom sought to devise the ways to advance the nation’s economy while accounting for mass casualties of the plague. Participating in the discourse of political economy, his novel levels an accusing finger at the parish system, showing that it fostered a “supine negligence”—now known as “contributory negligence”— through a systematic misuse of statistics that perversely encouraged citizens to court unnecessary risks, thereby contributing to their own harm. At the juncture of legal notions of harm and economic plans to mitigate it sits the figure of the mass casualty, which is an organizing trope for Defoe’s novel.
In chapter two, “The Risky Business of Redemption,” I further argue that Defoe’s use of the concept of contributory negligence to critique sentimentally driven public policy represents a larger concern for the stability of a civil society that he sees as threatened by the moral hazard implicit in perverse social contracts. In the English tradition, Defoe characterizes the perverse social contract as the proverbial “deal with the Devil.” By examining the depictions of tribal rituals of cannibal communion in Robinson Crusoe (1719) and The Political History of the Devil (1726), I contend that Defoe wrote both texts to critique the resurgence of Arianism, which was a heretical creed that claimed that there was a singular God rather than a Trinity, and that Christ was merely semi-divine. Controversy around the subject of Arianism in dissenting churches subverted the reconciliation of Nonconformists with the established church in 1718 and 1719 to Defoe’s chagrin. Specifically, I read both texts as rebuttals of Paradise Lost, the poem that Defoe identifies as the source of modern Arianism. He accuses both Milton and the Devil of the same ethical breach—moral hazard, which is an attempt to cheat risk through fraud and misrepresentation. Against the poetry of Milton’s theodicy, Defoe proposes prose realism as the genre and mode best suited to accurately gloss scriptural history. According to Defoe, Milton’s use of poetic license allows for the intentional inclusion of non-scriptural elements that support the doctrine of Arianism. For Defoe, the mission of prose realism was to correctly present scriptural history so that it could be instrumental in teaching colonial subjects like Friday how to best assess and manage risk before they bring harm to themselves and others. Robinson and Friday eventually elaborate a system of risk assessment that permits them to redistribute risk as widely as possible so that no one person bears the sole burden of a risk.
The master-slave relationship between Robinson and Friday is only one of Defoe’s case studies on the pedagogy of risk management. In chapter three, “A Vicious Liberty; or Defoe and Machiavelli on How to Make Use of One’s Maid,” I examine the mistress-maid relationship that evolves between Roxana and her maid, Amy, in Roxana, or The Fortunate Mistress (1724). Defoe’s interest in the general principle of risk management leads him to see that any crisis can be managed in such a way that it produces a benefit. According to his actuarial cost-benefit analysis, Defoe sees rape as one kind of crisis that can be ruthlessly transformed from a loss into an economic benefit within a capitalist state for both perpetrators and victims alike. I focus particularly on the scene in which Roxana abets in her landlord’s rape of Amy, which Roxana justifies as an action taken on Amy’s behalf to show that Defoe had developed a working theory of ‘involuntary benefits’ well before Adam Smith. Amy later retaliates by murdering, in her capacity as Roxana’s agent, Roxana’s daughter. I compare Roxana to The Mandrake, Machiavelli’s version of the handmaiden’s tale (in which a mother aids a rake in the rape and impregnation of her daughter, an action which she justifies to the audience as for the benefit of all the city’s women including her daughter), to show that Defoe revisits Machiavelli’s themes in order to explicate a version of realism that looks less like a cautious, prudential assessment of the world and more like a paranoid causality that recognizes risk in order to promote and commodify it. The characters in Roxana dramatize the management of crises to argue for the adoption of state reforms that have short-term costs but produce long-term benefits. Defoe’s revision of the handmaiden’s tale shows that the sentimental bonds of natural motherhood which nearly subsumed Roxana in poverty are superseded by the contractual relations between an employer and her employee. These contractual relations are based on the establishment of relations of mutual exploitation for mutual gain.
Finally, I produce a reading of Smollett’s The Adventures of Roderick Random, a book which not only follows in the anti-sentimental tradition inaugurated by Defoe, but which also alludes to the imprint of Defoe’s legacy within the novel. Roderick Random is a sentimental character in an anti-sentimental world. His constant attempts to bond with others through sympathetic identification backfire upon him. Smollett, though, is by no means an unambivalent heir to Defoe’s novelistic form and interests. Whereas Defoe demonstrates that an actuarial consciousness could be pedagogically instilled in colonial subjects, servants and slaves, Smollett uses Random’s experiences of abjection to underscore the cruel limits of this pedagogy. In particular, Random’s impressment permits Smollett to critique one of Defoe’s great hobby-horses— namely, “the happy violence” of impressment—by subjecting it to the same scathing actuarial gaze that Defoe directs against so many other practices. The chapter shows that the representation of impressment in Roderick Random appears to be in conversation with Hume’s essay, “Of Some Remarkable Customs,” in which he criticizes Defoe’s proposal to use the actuarial office to manage the impressment of sailors. Smollett’s novel does not merely advance a political critique of Defoe’s favored policies; rather, it uses scenes of impressment to create a satirical literary form in which Random’s archaic faith in the good nature of impersonal state institutions becomes a source of comedy. Random is always paranoid after the fact, never beforehand when the aspect of risk assessment within paranoia could benefit him. The comedic effect delivers payoff for Smollett by allowing him to make a political critique of the treaties that unified Scotland and England under one government. In addition, Smollett is able to produce that comedic effect because he uses Defoe’s notion of the pedagogical potential of the anti-sentimental novel and transforms it into a satirical form that continues to teach lessons about risk-management to the reader while also pleasuring the reader with the folly of the protagonists’ ineducability. Smollett is a perfect case study of the Defoean Moment because his work highlights the versatility of Defoe’s concerns—risk-awareness and anti-sentimentality— to show that satire is another mode within the same tradition as Defoe’s non-satirical picaresque novels.