Work and Debt

James Kearney, English, 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, the project offers a relatively narrow way into the topic, but one that aspires 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 the project is fundamentally historicist, but this is 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, I participate 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. In this project I draw 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 is 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.

Jim Kearney is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he has taught since 2006. Before Santa Barbara, he taught at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania, where he received his PhD. His teaching and research interests include: early modern literature and culture; the history of reading; early modern and postmodern ethics; early modern theology and hermeneutics; and literary theory. His first book, The Incarnate Text: Imagining the Book in Reformation England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009; winner of the CCL’s Book of the Year award for 2009), explores how the book was imagined during the crisis of representation occasioned by the Reformation’s simultaneous faith in text and distrust of material forms. He recently co-edited a special issue of the journal Criticism addressing “Shakespeare and Phenomenology” (Summer, 2012). He is currently working on two research projects: one that addresses reading as transformation in early modern England and one that addresses ethics and economics in Shakespeare’s plays.