The Most Mysterious of Mysteries


Some will be disappointed by the realization of what I’m referring to in the title. As in, that’s not mysterious, it’s barely even interesting. But in naming it as the most mysterious mystery the double positive is itself neither positive nor negative, but both simultaneously. It is the most mysterious mystery precisely because the reason it’s even a mystery is its most mysterious aspect.

What I am referring to thus is simply money, currency, lucre; whether based on a gold standard, fiat, or purely virtual. But we all understand money don’t we, where’s the mystery?

Of course some will admit, particularly those with a romantic view of the ancients, that while their largest buildings, placed to the best advantage, were temples, and even the dreaded medievals reserved the highest spot in the town for the highest building, which was usually the cathedral or equivalent, while most of our tallest, most striking buildings in nearly all of our great cities are, well, banks. People will wag their fingers at ‘rampant consumerism’, as if it were more than simply the necessary counterpart to the rampant productionism those same people are usually at pains to make a moral directive. Yet the difference between the overt money orientation of today’s bank cathedrals and the temples of the ancients conceals a sameness that may be more pertinent. The temples of the Greeks and Romans were also the mints, they were the banks. The Mnemosynes, “daughters of memory”, were in practical terms its bookkeepers. Even within Christianity, as ostensibly anti-wealth as any religion has openly been, paintings of the pentecost represent the “fire of the holy ghost” as something that looks decidedly like coins stuck to the back of the disciples’ unfortunate heads.

Certainly one of the main thrusts of metaphysics, throughout its varied history, has been the substantialization of the unsubstantial. Currency, no less than consciousness and the divine itself, was substantialized ruthlessly by various metaphysicians. Yet substantialization has hardly been restricted to philosophy. How else can we explain inanities like the gold standard (whose proponents still apparently fail to recognize the simple truth that whatever you use to measure the measure, whether it is gold or Saudi oil, is itself measured by that measure, and as such can never sustain any arbitrary value to the measure, precisely because its value is always purely arbitrary.

To point towards what is mysterious about money, or about the way people experience and view it, a comparison with something of a similar sort, not in myth but in actuality, might be of use. Currency as we have noted is a measure, specifically a measure of exchange, and as such a potential facilitator of exchange. Money is however not the only measure, nor is there only one form of currency. Similarly we have measures for size, on the small but human scale we use inches and feet, or centimetres and metres. Nobody is in any doubt that the absolute number of centimetres tall the Eiffel Tower is is more than a curiosity. Nor is anyone under any misconception that one measure is more real than another, they can be swapped out at will, and we use whatever we’re most familiar with. Finally, nobody beileves that measuring something affects it in any significant way (with the exception of quantum scales) and I’ve noticed no obvious desire to collect rulers (although it’s potentially a fetish, I haven’t come across any instances), never mind to collect inches themselves in some virtualized format.

Yet, it appears to be a sensible thing to say that I don’t have the money for a house, although the perfectly isomorphic statement that I don’t have the inches for a skyscraper is immediately farcical. The mystery lies in how our experience of money makes what should be a farcical statement appear as natural and common sense an expression as one could find.  

Speaking of quantum measurement and its supposed philosophical implications, it is simple coincidence that Karen Barad’s “intra-actional agent” that enacts a cut in a phenomenon, thereby setting into opposition apparatus and object, appears to be entirely isomorphic to a trans-actional teller splitting a payment into a debit and a credit, retroactively creating the “one” of the currency itself via the split, a split that “in no way implies that what is split preexists the split”? Barad’s “intra-actor” doesn’t even go as far as the bank’s “trans-actor”, since the latter doesn’t simply act within the split but across it as well, both consummating and denying it simultaneously.

But the recent move to “virtual” currency threatens precisely the substantialization of money, itself the nonsense that provides a “sense” to the financial system. If I exchange my time/labour for digits in my bank account, which are transferred to other accounts when I use my debit card, or when a pre-approved authorization takes the largest chunk of my digits and puts it in a rentier’s account, at no point is anything substantialized, currency is then truly no more than digits in a virtual system. It’s for this reason that banks have taken to gambling, and in risky ways, to try to maintain their own livelihood: running a server farm to move digits around is hardly a hugely profitable business. The fantasy of frictionless capital gave way to the reality that if you’re not actually doing anything, someone else will be perfectly willing to do nothing for less. This gambling though threatens the global financial system, and as a system that has evolved over a long period, reenacting that evolution will be no simpler than reenacting the evolution that produced a now extinct organism. It’s not simply a matter of standing up a new set of servers, you have to get the agreement of tens of thousands of different groups globally, at least 95% of which would have no significant interest in setting it back up to begin with.

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