Taking the intensified yet regulated labor of language in advanced capitalist economies—for instance, in the service industry, where affability is counted as a key part of workers’ labor power—as its point of departure, “Tokens of Depreciation: The Commerce of Politeness between British and Iranian Economies of Modernity,” begins by posing this question: when did the language of pleasantry and affability become calculable and calculated? I trace this question in nineteenth-century Britain, where new modes of calculation, measurement, and management provide the condition for the modern form of corporation. I begin, however, at the peripheries of British Empire, with a study of nineteenth-century accounts written by British travelers to Persia. Looking into British travelers’ reaction to Persian affability during the nineteenth century and their consistent warnings against the Persians’ excessive language, I argue that such warnings suggest a turning point at which the desire for calculating words, affability, and even “friendship” can be traced. At the peripheries of empire, precisely where hegemony takes on an explicit economic form, the linguistic interactions between the Britons and Persians suggest diverging economies of language and pleasantries. Because of this economic undertone, it is not surprising to find travelers’ comments on Persian social courtesy often accompanied by their observations on a “confusing” system of offering, gift-giving, and commodity-exchange in Persia. The entangled confusion caused for the travelers by the exchange of words (pleasantries) and the exchange of things (gift-giving) in Persia therefore speaks not only to the language of political economy but also to the political economy of language. Besides being symptomatic of British Orientalism, I contend, travelers’ warnings against “excessive” habits in Persia, both linguistic and economic, suggest two competing economies of social courtesy: a British one premised on an emerging conception of politeness taking shape in tandem with commerce and the growing credit-economy, and a seldom acknowledged Persian one premised on politeness as gift. Seizing a moment of encounter between a Western and a non-Western language and culture, this project shows how the idea of a commercially reliable polite character that was taking shape in long-nineteenth-century Britain became synonymous with “modernity” and “democracy,” and how it was staged in contrast with an “excessive,” “deceptive,” and “outdated” model associated with, among other Eastern languages, Persian language and culture: a teleological account that propels a global circulation of modern British polite character as a requirement for economic and political modernity.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. June 2019. Major: Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society. Advisors: Shaden Tageldin, John Mowitt. 1 computer file (PDF); iii, 208 pages.
Tokens of Depreciation: The Commerce of Politeness Between British and Iranian Economies of Modernity.
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