Credit Cultures: The Business Letter and the Conversation

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Georg Simmel’s reflections on credit have gained renewed interest not least in the aftermath of the so-called financial crisis. He described credit as a new form of money in which ”the pivot of the relationship between creditor and debtor lays outside the straight line of contact between creditor and debtor and set at a further distance from them: the individual's activity and transactions thereby gain the qualities of far sightedness and enhanced symbolism”. It is a relationship that demands trust since, “in credit transactions the immediacy of value exchange is replaced by a distance whose poles are held together by trust”. In modern money economy, however, “credit has become an impersonal organisation and trust has lost its specific personal character”[Simmel 1900; 2011,520-21]. This paper takes up the challenge to reconsider conditions for “the distance whose poles are held together by trust”. At key is the active role played by commission agencies in providing impersonal ties of finance in early modern Eurasian trade. It considers the constitutive role of the business letter in terms of writing: It was first used by commission agencies as a source of reliable information about prices, product availability, exchange rates, and insurance premiums, as well as the political, military, and diplomatic events that affected trade that merchants made decisions about how, where, and when to invest[Trivellato 2009, chapter 6-9]. Later the business letter gave rise to an entire etiquette of business letters that would crystallise in ‘a language of the business correspondence’ “in the eighteenth century, when conversation replaced reasons of state as the cornerstone of commercial society”[Rothschild 2001]. We shall be reassessing the equal important role of the business letter in ensuring the enforcement of contracts and obligations. “A merchants’ letter became accepted evidence in courts and were exchanged by agents from disparate places”.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2 Jul 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jul 2018
EventXIX ISA World Congress of Sociology: Power, Violence and Justice: Reflections, Responses and Responsibilities - Metro Toronto Convention Center, Toronto, Canada
Duration: 15 Jul 201821 Jul 2018


ConferenceXIX ISA World Congress of Sociology
LocationMetro Toronto Convention Center
Internet address

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