Thanks to Dan, Al, and the folks at The Faculty Lounge for letting me spend some time with them. I’m looking forward to hanging out here for a bit. One of the areas I teach and write in is contracts, and in this first post I thought I’d share my (perhaps idiosyncratic) reaction to Al’s post on Confederate money and its imagery. In particular, Al’s post reminded me that the most salient feature of contracts – the language – can be the least interesting.
Let me explain: The imagery on Confederate money brought to mind imagery I've seen on some late-19th and early-20th century bonds. Especially when the issuer was a sovereign state, bonds like these were effectively unenforceable through formal legal (as opposed to reputational) mechanisms. But they sure were ornately decorated. Check out this bond, for example, or this one, issued to finance railroad construction in Ethiopia and Ecuador, respectively.
There is a fairly sizable literature, with which I have only passing familiarity, on the symbolic and communicative function of financial iconography. Much of the literature emphasizes more quotidian functions, such as anti-counterfeiting. But it also highlights that contracts are complex social phenomena - artifacts, in Mark Suchman's terms - that sometimes derive value more from what they communicate than from what they say. Here, I presume the imagery was intended to resonate with investors in a way that would both legitimize these bonds and distinguish them from other speculative investments. But whatever the purpose, it's hard to deny that one can't fully understand the meaning of the bonds simply by reading their terms.