Speculative Enterprise

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My book Speculative Enterprise: Public Theaters and Financial Markets in London, 1688-1763 (University of Virginia Press, 2021) is available now. I recently had the opportunity to chat about the book with Paul Peppis, Director of the Oregon Humanities Center, on the UO Today podcast


Speculative Enterprise contends that the conceptual nexus of theater and finance was vital to early modern economic and political thought, and that it became a critical site for theorizations of London’s emergent publics at the turn of the eighteenth century.

The top two-thirds of the book cover show a portion of Hogarth's engraving "The Lottery," which depicts a lottery drawing held on a stage and attended by allegorical figures. The bottom third of the cover includes the title (Speculative Enterprise: Public Theaters and Financial Markets in London, 1688-1763) and the author (Mattie Burkert) framed by a collage of 18th-century newspaper advertisements related to topics of finance and entertainment.

Speculative Enterprise, available for preorder now

At a moment when the formal discipline of political economy was in its infancy, the theater and its media landscape provided a discourse zone for understanding complex economic systems—one that stressed risk, contingency, and the potential irrationality of markets rather than quantification and reason. As I find, the features of the theater that mirrored financial markets and alarmed contemporaries were the very features that allowed new kinds of counterpublics to emerge there: its hyper-commercialism, its dependence on a fragile and volatile collective opinion, its accessibility to members of different classes and genders, and its ability to circumvent processes of rational-critical debate in which cultural elites held the advantage. In telling this story, my book combines methods from literary studies, theater and performance history, media theory, and work on print and material culture to provide a fresh understanding of the centrality of theater to public life in eighteenth-century London.

Burkert demonstrates a new way of understanding the relationship between the theater and the financialization of the early modern economic system, revealing the construction of a new kind of what we might call ‘publicness’—a way of conceptualizing both the theatergoing public and the broader mass of population that this public represented. – John O’Brien, University of Virginia, author of Literature Incorporated: The Cultural Unconscious of the Business Corporation, 1650–1850

This lucid, compelling, and highly original study has the rare quality of making novel insights feel familiar. A major contribution to eighteenth-century studies, theater history, and economic history. – Emily Hodgson Anderson, University of Southern California, author of Shakespeare and the Legacy of Loss

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