Speculative Endeavors: Cultures of Knowledge and Capital in the Long 19th Century


This conference investigates the ways in which cultures of knowledge and forms of capital intersect in the US during the long 19th century. Epistemological and economic concerns complexly intertwine in the US, which by 1900 had emerged as “the land of speculation” (Stäheli). Influential publications such as Thorstein Veblen’s A Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Women and Economics (1898) bear witness to the culmination of a growing interest in the commodification of the supposedly private sphere, in which personal information and confidential communication are intricately tied to economic concerns. At the same time, the rise of Wall Street, boom markets and financial panics, and the increasing incorporation of America leads to an experience of widespread economic volatility which pushes people to seek potential “insider
knowledge” about the machinations of markets.

Different knowledges, as Burke contents, “may coexist, compete and conflict within a given culture." Responding to the recent interest in histories of scientific, scholarly, legal, and otherwise official knowledges in this era, this conference instead seeks to address a variety of illicit, tacit, oral, unofficial, or subjugated knowledges. These might be marginalized by their association with racial and gendered minorities. Or they may find expression as libel, slander, innuendo, rumors, gossip, and any number of other ‘speculative’ or supposedly ‘baseless’ modes of transaction and information. Often these knowledges result from “connected knowing” (Adkins) and contain multiple “small, shared truths” rather than one “generalizable truth” (Spacks).

Yet despite their tenuous relationship to facts or publicly available evidence, these forms of knowledge are inextricably linked to economic concerns, while contributing to covert informational labor. Mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion closely regulate access to and speculative value of such information, as when in 1890 E.L. Godkin commented on how “a particular class of newspapers […] has converted curiosity into what economists call an effectual demand, and gossip into a marketable commodity.”

To understand these intersections and tensions, the conference aims to facilitate a discussion of how these modes of knowledge relate to new forms of economic transactions and economic thinking (e.g. speculation). The conference furthermore seeks to discern how this connection influences and depends on innovations in cultural productions such as new literary techniques, new publishing formats, or new media like photography, telegraph, or telephone. Finally, it is interested in considerations of the specific archives scholars  draw on to trace ephemeral and illicit forms of knowledge production and transaction.

Keynote speakers are Peter Knight (Manchester), author of Reading the Market: Genres of Financial Capitalism in Gilded Age America (Johns Hopkins UP), and Lori Merish (Boston), author of Archives of Labor: Working-Class Women and Literary Culture in the Antebellum United States (Duke UP)