Monday, July 5, 2021

Charly Coleman's "The Spirit of French Capitalism"

Charly Coleman is Associate Professor of History at Columbia University. He is the author of The Virtues of Abandon: An Anti-Individualist History of the French Enlightenment (2014), which was awarded the 2016 Laurence Wylie Prize in French Cultural Studies.

Coleman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Spirit of French Capitalism: Economic Theology in the Age of Enlightenment, and reported the following:
Page 99 is at the end of chapter 2, which argues that the French government’s interventions in early modern theological debates over frequent communion—the question of how often and under what conditions it was acceptable to partake of the Eucharist—reflected more general anxieties over how to approach the sacrament as a conduit to boundless spiritual wealth. Here’s an excerpt:
Historians continue to view the fate of the eighteenth-century Gallican church and state through the prism of degenerative processes: dechristianization, desacralization, disenchantment. Yet symptoms should not be confused with causes. As this and the preceding chapter have argued, disputes in the economic-theological field involved no small measure of creative destruction. Without Arnauld’s provocative treatise on frequent communion, it is uncertain whether Jansenism would have assumed its distinctly French aspects or sheer prominence on the spiritual and social scenes. Likewise, but from the opposite end of the doctrinal spectrum, Pichon’s attempt to encourage the practice, which came seemingly as a bolt out of the blue, elevated the already high stakes of the refusal of sacraments controversy. This bitter feud laid bare the constitutive tensions of absolutism under the Old Regime.
My book argues that in early modern France, theology and the economy were deeply imbricated not only in religious matters, but also in financial relationships and affairs of state.

In one sense, the page 99 test offers a mediocre if satisfactory glimpse into this argument. It comes immediately before a major hinge in the exposition between chapters 2 and 3, as I move from an account of the sacramental economy, in which the Eucharist figured mightily, to the influence of this sacramental economy on the workings of the economy as conventionally defined. The point is crucial for my claim that, in Catholic France, theology was always already economistic, and that what I term economic theology operated alongside the material economy in consistent but contingent ways—in ruminations not only on the Eucharist, but also on seemingly profane subjects such as money, usury, and luxury.

There are limits to the test’s reliability. Much of the page is taken up with narrating how debates between the Jansenist Antoine Arnauld, who opposed frequent communion, and the Jesuit Jean Pichon, who championed the practice, drew to an inconclusive close. The stalemate ultimately compromised the monarch’s role as the guarantor of religious peace in his kingdom. Yet even this flawed resolution suggests how the sacramental economy remained of pressing importance; otherwise, it would not have drawn the attention of the king himself along with that of much of the French ecclesiastical establishment. What began as a series of controversies over the nature of the Eucharist as a universal equivalent in the production and distribution of grace established a template for understanding how consumption in all its forms could be mediated by sublimely material instruments, including money itself.

But there is another sense in which the test is surprisingly revelatory. Among the aims of the book is to historicize what Marx called the fetish character of the commodity, which he duly likened to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Fetishes work by endowing a part with the ability to conjure the whole in mysterious but intensely gratifying ways. The page 99 test operates according to a similar principle by assuming that the quality of a thing—its intellectual, if not financial value—can be grasped through an arbitrary quantity. The figures in my book speculated on how this was possible to the point of obsession.
Learn more about The Spirit of French Capitalism at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue