Sunday, February 7, 2016

Jean-Joseph Goux Versus Mark C. Taylor

I've just read Numismatics an essay which forms the first chapter of Jean-Joseph Goux's Symbolic Economies. It started out life as essay written amidst the turmoil and revolution of Paris in May 1968 which was to be presented as a public lecture for the famous French literary quarterly review Tel Quel. Rather joyfully for me the date of the lecture was 23rd October 1968 (there was another one the following week on the 30th). I'm not going to offer a review of the essay or book here, now. I definitely recommend reading the essay, though (not finished the book, yet). Despite the fact that I found it hard going, I felt an affinity with Goux - it's not that I agree with his conclusions 100%, but his thinking certainly resonates with my own. I remember feeling a kinship with Goux's vision when I read the other of his essays I have on my shelf - Pleasure and Pain: At the Crossroads of Psychoanalysis and the Political Economy from Loaded Subjects (the collection of essays based on contributions to the 2010 conference on Psychoanalysis, Money and the Economy hosted by the Freud Museum at Birkbeck College)

Anyway, I just wanted to briefly offer you three things here. I think they might help give an insight into these psychoanalytical modes of thinking about money (and everything else). It's just two tables and one note.

This is from Numismatics - typically no title or direct reference is offered in the text. In the later essays in Symbolic Economies, Goux does start to bring in something akin to mathematical symbols to give some explicit 'structuration' to his psychoanalytical cosmology. But I think this table is an early attempt to a mapping of his metaphysics or psycho-verse. (The title I gave it when I tweeted it out was 'Goux's Registers of Production & Circulation'

I'm not sure why, but after spending some time trying to make sense out of Goux's map, I picked up one of my 'unread, must-read books'  - Mark C Taylor's Confidence Games. Taylor is someone I've come across through pursuing theological ideas around money. I noticed that whenever I read any theological analysis of money, Taylor's name was in the mix so I picked up his Confidence Games and About Religion. I've dipped in, and they do look excellent. Anyway, it turns out that Taylor has a similar map or 'table of registers'. 

And looking in the notes to Confidence Games (p.357-8) I found the following in which Taylor directly contrasts his own work with Goux's. 
"12. In his influential work, Symbolic Economies: After Marx and Freud, Jean-Joseph Goux uses the principles of Lacanian psychoanalysis to frame an interpretation of exchange. He identifies four forms of value: elementary or accidental form, total or extended form, general form, and money form. While these categories bear a certain resemblance to the three types of theology of culture I have described (see the table Monistic, Dualistic, Complex - Jon), the preoccupation with bringing together Marx and Freud, which Goux shares with so many postwar European intellectuals (not to mention the American [!] Norman O Brown - Jon), limits the value of his analysis. There is a significant difference between the trajectory Goux plots and the one I am suggesting. For Goux, there is a movement from duality (reciprocal exchange) through multiplicity (generalized exchange) to unity (general equivalent). In contrast to this, I am proposing a scheme that moves from unity through duality to differential complexity. Goux's misleading argument on this point is at least in part the result of his lack of appreciation for the subtleties of Western religious and theological traditions. Finally, while he suggests the importance of what he describes as 'a nonphallocentric, noncentralized conception, as yet unconceived, of a network, a polynodial, nonrepresentative organization' in the context of his discussion of Bataille's effort to move 'beyond the formation of monocephalous societies,' he does not develop the implications of this potential insight.' "
Taylor's note has me in two minds.

He echoes my own thought about, not just Goux, but so much that is implicit in writing on money; the Value question. I've referred to my conception of value as 'Value Monism' and contrasted this with a Nietzschean idea of values - the idea that value is a creation of the 'price-making' mind of man and that there are many values. Taylor seems here - as does much theological work for obvious reasons - to be in accord with a notion of 'value monism'.

However, I think Taylor over emphasizes the weight Goux gives in his work to the relation between value and exchange. Goux's focus is on production and circulation and on commodity and money. Goux says that philosophical oppositions are summed up in the opposition between money and commodities. He quotes Marx explicitly as saying that 'the value of a commodity is the measure of the attraction it exerts upon all the other elements of material wealth'. I noticed Goux's lack of emphasis on exchange - or perhaps his sublimation of exchange to mean 'all interaction' -  because I was thinking about Simmel whilst reading him, wondering if he was going to be bought into Goux's argument. Two points here. First, no criticism of Goux for not mentioning Simmel - he was only 25 !! when he wrote the first draft of Numismatics. Second, as Simmel himself tries to elucidate, the relation between value and exchange is a not straightforward causal 'exchange creates value' one (see this quote from Simmel) and I don't think Goux really presented it in the way Taylor summarized it. Taylor seems to be imposing a crude Marxian idea of commodity money on Goux (who himself shows us that actually Marx's ideas weren't limited to the crude 'money came from commodity' notion that is most often attributed to him).

But the contrast with Taylor and Goux is very interesting and might be illuminating (hence I thought I best post about it). What I'm very interested in at the moment (and what in part I'm writing about) is how there is an evolutionary structuration (that word is Goux's influence upon me) in writing on money and value (and much else besides). This structuration is rarely made explicit. Both the tables that Goux & Taylor offer seem to be attempts to either uncover or give form to some deep structure that is presently invisible to us. But both seem to rely on a notion that processes unfold within time. This is what I'm interested in and what I'm trying to 'pick apart' in my work.

(In the next essay in Symbolic Economies Goux seems to be heading in a similar direction too - the next yet-to-read chapter is called History and the Unconscious. Noam Yuran also has an interesting take on these historiograhic issues in What Money Wants. Norman O Brown of course has lots to say about this. Lacan marks up REPETITION as a fundamental of psychonalysis and I think maybe conceptualizing in these sorts of terms - within the Nietzschean notion of the eternal return of the eversame - maybe the best bet to escape a temporal structuration of the psychical domain of money.)

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Money Wisdom #396

"When Freud writes that 'the two courses of development - both of the ego and of the libido' - are 'at bottom legacies, abbreviated recapitulations of the development which all mankind has passed through from its primaeval days over long periods of time,' (Freud, ILOP 16:354) he accentuates the parallel, which he continually affirmed, between ontogenetic development and phylogenetic development. The broad applicability of the logic of exchange, with its successive forms, seems to confirm the parallel indicated by Freud and Engels. The type of historical structuration illustrated in the genesis of the money form is not simply one type among many; it is the trajectory of historical structuration itself - in other words, history itself. There is an historical peak (I do not say an end point) in the accession to a recognized ratified hegemony of major symbols, the firmly established reign of general equivalents. Now it clearly appears that this reign has taken place. The summit of a certain history has come to pass. It ends in the mode of production based on monetary exchange, and what we are experiencing today is the aftershock of this culmination. This aftershock does not propel us down the other slope; it shakes the very foundations of this history, the very problematics of summit and base, including the very concept of general equivalent."

John-Joesph Goux Symbolic Economies (1990) p.41

Note: It's worth bearing in mind - especially when Goux talks about 'aftershock' - that the first version of this essay was written in Paris in May and June 1968.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Money Wisdom #395

Just as 'the value of a commodity is the measure of the attraction it exerts upon all the other elements of material wealth' and, given the position gold occupies and the corresponding valorization it enjoys, just as commodities 'aspire to gold as their hereafter,' likewise the whole world, heaven and earth, is suspended and attracted as if magnetically by an external, indestructible desire toward absolute divine perfection, which, itself immobile, sets in motion each individual being. 'All commodities are perishable money; money is the imperishable commodity' (Marx, Capital 114; Marx, Contribution 115; Marx, Grundrisse 149)

Thus the oppositions between divine and terrestrial, universal and particular, sacred and profane, the one and the many, transcendence and immanence are summed up (formally and operationally, if we reconstruct the coherent system of these metaphors) in the opposition between money and commodities. This isomorphism affords a glimpse of the all-important impact of the monetary system upon the ideological formations, or rather, of what real or ideological oppositions are constituted or affirmed in the historical period to which the monetary economy belongs.

Jean-Joseph Goux Symbolic Economies (1990) p.36

Note: I almost agree with Goux, here. First, I'd replace the word/concept 'commodity' with 'currency'. And second I'd cut off the end of the final line; it requires a narrower metaphysical conceptualization of money (as product of psychical energies and process) than I have. Thirdly, although I can read the whole thing with my own conceptualiztion of 'VALUE' intact, I think Goux himself tends towards a more Nietzschean conception of 'us as the valuers' or, 'creators of value' rather than VALUE existing as the ultimate metaphysical category. But yeah, I'm reading him very slowly but am liking Goux a lot. Very similar territory.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Money Wisdom #394

" What equivalence affirms, Marx shows, is an identical essence. The expression of value, transforming diverse products of labor into identical sublimates, is a language of alchemy, of essence and quintessence, of distillation and sublimation. This difference between use-value and exchange-value, then, exposes all the oppositions between body and soul, as Marx's frequent metaphors in this register demonstrate. Use-value is the physical, incarnated, perceptible aspect of the commodity, while the exchange-value is a supernatural abstraction, invisible and supersensible. No biologist's scalpel has ever found a person's soul or anima, just as 'hitherto, no chemist has been able to discover exchange-value in a pearl or diamond' (Marx, Capital 58) "

Jean-Joseph Goux Symbolic Economies (1990) p.19

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Money Wisdom #393

"...why and how do the fragile letters of our alphabet, forming the sign 'God', inscribing this master word of idealist thought, posit it as the place where all things are evaluated in common."

Jean-Joseph Goux Symbolic Economies (1990) p.11

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Money Wisdom #392

" During the Second War, the U.S.O. sent special issues of the principal American magazines to the Armed Forces, with the ads omitted. The men insisted on having the ads back again. Naturally. The ads are by far the best part of any magazine or newspaper. More pains and thought go into the making of an ad than into any prose feature of press or magazine. Ads are news. What is wrong with them is that they are always good news. In order to balance off the effect and to sell good news, it is necessary to have a lot of bad news. "

Marshall McLuhan Understanding Media (1964) p.229

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Money Wisdom #391

"The uniformity and repeatability of print permeated the Renaissance with the idea of time and space as continuous measurable quantities. The immediate effect of this idea was to desacralize the world of nature and the world of power alike. The new technique of control of physical processes by segmentation and fragmentation separated God and Nature as much as Man and Nature, or man and man. Shock at this departure from the traditional vision and inclusive awareness was often directed toward the figure of Machiavelli, who had merely spelled out the new quantitative and neutral or scientific ideas of force as applied to the manipulation of kingdoms."

Marshall McLuhan Understanding Media (1964) p. 191-2

Friday, December 11, 2015

Money Wisdom #390

"As a piece of technology, the clock is a machine that produces uniform seconds, minutes, and hours on an assembly-line pattern. Processed in this way, time is separated from the rhythms of human experience. The mechanical clock, in short, helps to create the image of a numerically quantified and mechanically powered universe. It was in the world of the medieval monasteries, with their need for a rule and for synchronized order to guide communal life, that the clock got started on its modern developments. Time measured not by the uniqueness of private experience but by abstract uniform units gradually pervades all sense life, much as does the technology of writing and printing. Not only work but also eating and sleeping, came to accommodate themselves to the clock rather than to organic needs. As the pattern of arbitrary and uniform measurement of time extended itself across society, even clothing began to undergo annual alteration in a way convenient for industry. At that point, of course, mechanical measurement of time as a principle of applied knowledge joined forces with printing and assembly line as means of uniform fragmentation of processes.
     The most integral and involving time sense imaginable is that expressed in the Chinese and Japanese cultures. Until the coming of the missionaries in the seventeenth century, and the introduction of mechanical clocks, the Chinese and Japanese had for thousands of years measured time by gradations of incense. Not only the hours and days, but the seasons and the zodiacal signs were simultaneously indicated by a succession of carefully ordered scents."

Marshall McLuhan Understanding Media (1964) p.158

Note: I think it's possible that McLuhan over-emphasizes the measurement of time by smell. I like the idea, but if you read Silvo Bedini's The Scent of Time - a study of the use of fire and incense for time measurement in Oriental countries (link) which was published in 1963 by the journal of the American Philosophical Society, the year before McLuhan's book was published, telling the time by smell seems to be an effect of the technology of measurement, rather than the media of time-telling itself. Interestingly though, it's reported that up until 1924 some Geisha houses measured the 'entertainment time' provided by the use of a burning incense stick (see p.28). 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Money wisdom #389

" 'Money talks' because money is a metaphor, a transfer, and a bridge. Like words and language money is a storehouse of communally achieved work, skill and experience. Money, however, is also a specialist technology like writing; and as writing intensifies the visual aspect of speech and order, and as the clock visually separates time from space, so money separates work from other social functions. Even today money is a language for translating the work of the farmer into the work of the barber, doctor, engineer, or plumber. As a vast social metaphor, bridge, or translator, money - like writing - speeds up exchanges and tightens the bonds of interdependence in any community. It gives great spatial extension and control to political organizations, just as writing does, or the calendar. It is action at a distance both in space and in time. In a highly literate, fragmented society, 'time is money' and money is the store of other people's time and effort."

Marshall McLuhan Understanding Media (1964) p.147

Monday, December 7, 2015

Money Wisdom #388

"...America seems to be a land of abstractions, where numbers have taken on an existence of their own in phrases like '57 Varieties',  'the 5 and 10', or '7 up' and behind the 8-ball.' It figures. Perhaps this is a kind of echo of an industrial culture that depends heavily on prices, charts and figures. Take 36-24-36. Numbers cannot be more sensuously tactile than when mumbled as the magic formula for the female figure while the haptic hand sweeps the air."

Marshall McLuhan Understanding Media (1964) p.118-119

Money Wisdom #387

"It may very well be that in our conscious inner lives the interplay among our senses is what constitutes the sense of touch. Perhaps touch is not just skin contact with things, but the very life of things in the mind? "

Marshall McLuhan Understanding Media (1964) p. 117

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Money Wisdom #386

"Without language, Bergson suggests, human intelligence would have remained totally involved in the objects of its attention. Language does for intelligence what the wheel does for the feet and body. It enables them to move from thing to thing with greater ease and speed and ever less involvement. Language extends and amplifies man but it also divides his faculties. His collective consciousness or intuitive awareness is diminished by this technical extension of consciousness that is speech."

Marshall McLuhan Understanding Media (1964) p. 86

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Money Wisdom #385

JC We were going to do it [burn £1 million] live on TV live, but we wanted to make it as pure as possible, that's why we went to the island...
     Laughter and derision at the word 'pure'.
MBA Fucking bollocks.
BD OK, what's a purer way of burning a million quid? Come on... pure.
MBA Taking it to Buckingham Place and burning it...
BD No, that's based on bitterness and hatred, we're talking about purity.
MBA Who wants purity, man?
MBA Why are we here?
MBA But what inspired you?
BD I actually think that everyone in here knows why we burnt that million quid, and the reason why you're here is that you know you can't explain why. In the same way as we can't put into words why we did it, you actually know in yourselves why we did it - and you're hoping that we can put into words for you.
JC I'd go along with that.
BD And I'm afraid we haven't got those words.

Chris Brook K Foundation Burn a Million Quid (1997) p.130-2

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Money Burning at the Cube Cinema Bristol of the 23rd Nov's Eve

On Sunday 22nd November 2015, I was at the Cube Cinema event 'KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds'. It consisted of a screening of an art film about the KLF, a talk by John Higgs and some ritualistic money burning. I was there to help with the burning.

The film was excellent (by David AKA hoppo or @mr_hopkinson). The audience all wore white ponchos with the cube logo on them which added a whole extra level of weird to the experience. It was a one off so I'm not sure you'll be able to see it now but the trailer below gives a taste of what you missed. I was lucky enough catch half of John's talk, which was as engaging as ever (and involved a brilliant new tale about 'prison currency'* from John's adventures talking about his KLF book). I had to leave John to it though because I needed to set up a 'burning-space' in the garden.

Thanks to Chiz at the Cube, I was offering a ritualized money burning to those that wanted it. Basically the Cube gave back to the audience part of their admission fee. They then asked that people add their own money to it and consider burning it all with me in the garden (see this image from folkhogskola's Instagram). Many people took up their offer and they met me in groups of five around the alter to make their sacrifice, where I performed a brief ritual.

I haven't written about it on my blog, but I did a money burning recently that had a more profound effect on me than normal. I've mentioned before that I wanted the burnings to be more ritualized, and I managed to achieve this with the help of Angela at a burning in Overhall Grove, Knapwell in Cambridgeshire on 23/08/2015. It was the very next morning that I got an email from Chiz at the Cube cinema telling me about his money burning idea.

To cut a long story short, I set about writing (what turned into) 'The Money Burner's Manual' in the space between the 23/08/15 Overhall Grove burning and the Cube event on Sunday 22/11/15. I managed to get it finished on the Saturday evening 21/11/15. I'd found a printer that was open 24/7 and had made 23 copies of the 105 page document. I kept one for myself. Saved another few for people that I thought must have one. And I then gave most of the rest away randomly at the Cube event. I had two left at the end of the night. But they've now gone. I was going to publish it online. But I've changed my mind. I'm leaving it at the 23 for the moment. I will eventually make something generally available along the lines of a 'Money Burner's Manual' - (perhaps with a few ideas for rituals which this one didn't have) - just not right now.

It was a great privilege to share the money burning experience with the folks at the Cube. I'm pretty sure that people gathering together in small groups to burn money in a sacrificial ritual has never happened before the Cube burnings. I hope that I can be forgiven for the times I didn't get the ritual quite right. I learned an awful lot from the night about how best to perform it and what circumstances are most conducive to it. I hope I soon get another chance to put those lessons into practice. 

Prior to burning I asked people if they'd write down the serial numbers of their notes for me. I lent them my most precious pen to do this (not £ valuable, but given to me by my kids). It felt somehow appropriate; because folks were putting their trust in me with the burning, I should put my trust in them too. Lending out my pen was the way I found to do that. I'm pleased to say it was returned to me safe and sound.

I must apologize to the first three or four groups of burners. I got so wrapped up in what I was trying to do, that I forgot to hand out some of the 23 'Money Burner's Manuals'. So they missed out. I'd meant to hand out one or two to each group. I feel bad about this because the within the first few groups there were some very powerful moments. When everyone joins in with the chanting, and really focuses on the burning money, the feeling of self-consciousness slips away, and the ritual can become a profound experience. As I say, I'm not sure I'm going to publish it online, but if anyone wants a pdf of 'The Money Burner's Manual', drop me an email to jonone100 [at] gmail [dot] com and I'll send you one privately.

I've created a 'Record of all £ Burnings'. If you subtract Bill & Jimmy's £1 million, and my £220, and Mark Sampson's £10, and Angela's £20 - then the Cube burnings amount to £190 according to this. Personally, I think it was a lot more. If you did burn, please have a look to see if I've included your money (where initials were given, I've shown them). Any additions or amendments you think need making, please comment under this post (or email me) and I'll make all necessary adjustments. I know I saw one £20 go up, and that's not there. The serial numbers appear in the order they were written down in the little book. 

And thank you to everyone who burned and help create such an extraordinary and singular event. This is what remained of the money.

I'm happy to help with any other burnings, if I can; anything from a quick chat about how the ritual might work and supporting you in performing your own burnings, to coming and performing them with you in the presence of the Staff. Just email, and I'll see how I can help. 

Oh, and one last little bit of sneaky synchronicity. When preparing the record of burn I noticed that two sequentially numbered notes were burned separately MC71 184637 & MC71 184638. I didn't notice any batches of particularly new-looking fivers among the money, so this struck me as a joyfully random event with a high degree of unlikelihood. And if he's reading this, could THE BLACKSMITH get in touch to share with me a few tips on how he managed to burn his notes in the most extraordinary way I've ever seen. By some magical trickery not known to us mere mortals he made his hand act like a hearth, and his notes burned fiercely without injuring him.

Thanks everyone. It was wonderful.

*(Money geek note: 'Prison currency' and 'Cigarettes as Money' plays a significant role in the economic/academic conceptualization of money the most famous paper being R.A. Radford's 'The Economic Organization of a P.O.W. Camp' published in the journal Economica in 1945)

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Money Wisdom #384

"In the electric age, when our central nervous system is technologically extended to involve us in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us, we necessarily participate, in depth, in the consequences of our every action."

Marshall McLuhan Understanding Media (1964) p.4-5

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Money Wisdom #383

" Language has never been more perfectly distinguished from mind, never more intimately bound to Eros, than by Kraus in the observation 'The more closely you look at a word the more distantly it looks back.' "

Walter Benjamin One Way Street - Karl Kraus (Verso) [1930-1931] (1997) p.284

Friday, October 9, 2015

Money Wisdom #382

" Any serious exploration of occult, surrealistic, phantasmagoric gifts and phenomena presupposes a dialectical intertwinement to which a romantic turn of mind is impervious. For histrionic or fanatical stress on the mysterious side of the mysterious takes us no further; we penetrate the mysterious only to the the degree that we recognize it in the everyday world, by virtue of a dialectical optic that perceives the everyday as impenetrable, the impenetrable as everyday. The most passionate investigation of telepathic phenomena, for example, will not teach us half as much about reading (which is an eminently telepathic process), as the profane illumination of reading about the telepathic phenomena. And the most passionate investigation of the hashish trance will not teach us half as much about thinking (which is entirely narcotic), as the profane illumination of thinking about the hashish trance. The reader, the thinker, the loiterer, the flâneur, are types of illuminati just as much as the opium eater, the dreamer, the ecstatic. And more profane. Not to mention that most terrible drug - ourselves - which we take in solitude. "

Walter Benjamin One Way Street - Surrealism (Verso) [1929] (1997) p.237

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Money Wisdom #381

" The trance abated when I crossed the Cannebière and at last turned the corner to have a final ice cream at the little Café des Cours Belsunce. It was not far from the first café of the evening, in which, suddenly, the amorous joy dispensed by the contemplation of some fringes blown by the wind had convinced me that the hashish had begun its work. And when I recall this state I should like to believe that hashish persuades nature to permit us - for less egoistic purposes - that squandering of our own existence that we know in love. For if, when we love, our existence runs through nature's fingers like golden coins that she cannot hold and lets fall to purchase new birth thereby, she now throws us, without hoping or expecting anything, in ample handfuls to existence. "

Walter Benjamin One Way Street - Hashish in Marseilles (Verso) [1928] (1997) p.222

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Money Wisdom #380

" But over there, on the other quay, stretches the mountain range of 'souvenirs', the mineral hereafter of sea shells. Seismic forces have thrown up this massif of paste jewellery, shell limestone and enamel, where inkpots, steamers, anchors, mercury columns, and sirens commingle. The pressure of a thousand atmospheres under which this world of imagery writhes, rears, piles up, is the same force that is tested in the hard hands of seamen, after long voyages, on the thighs and breasts of women, and the lust that, on the shell-covered caskets, presses from the mineral world a read or blue velvet heart to be pierced with needles and brooches, is the same that sends tremors through these streets on paydays. "

Walter Benjamin One Way Street (Verso Edition) [1928] (1997) p.212

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Money Wisdom #379

"When the consciousness of the latent presence of violence in a legal institution disappears, the institution falls into decay. In our time parliaments provide an example of this. They offer the familiar, woeful spectacle because they have not remained conscious of the revolutionary forces to which they owe their existence."

Walter Benjamin One Way Street (Verso) ([1921], 1997) p.142

Friday, October 2, 2015

Money Wisdom #378


If one had to expound the doctrine of antiquity with the utmost brevity while standing on one leg, as did Hillel that of the Jews, it could only be in this sentence: 'They alone shall possess the earth who live from the powers of the cosmos.' Nothing distinguishes the ancient from the modern man so much as the former's absorption in a cosmic experience scarcely known to later periods. Its waning is marked by the flowering of astronomy at the beginning of the modern age. Kepler, Copernicus and Tycho Brahe were certainly not driven by scientific impulses alone. All the same, the exclusive emphasis on an optical connection to the universe, to which astronomy very quickly led, contained a portent of what was to come. The ancients' intercourse with the cosmos had been different: the ecstatic trance. For it is in this experience alone that we gain certain knowledge of what is nearest to us and what is remotest to us, and never of one without the other. This means however that man can be in ecstatic contact with the cosmos only communally. It is the dangerous error of modern man to regard this experience as unimportant and avoidable, and to consign it to the individual as the poetic rapture of starry nights. It is not; its hour strikes again and again, and then neither nations nor generations can escape it, as was made terribly clear by the last war, which was an attempt at a new and unprecedented commingling with the cosmic powers. Human multitudes, gases, electrical forces were hurled into the open country, high-frequency currents coursed through the landscape, new constellations arose in the sky, aerial space and ocean depths thundered with propellers, and everywhere sacrificial shafts were dug into Mother Earth. This immense wooing of the cosmos was enacted for the first time on a planetary scale, that is, in the spirit of technology. But who would trust a cane wielder who proclaimed the mastery of children by adults to be the purpose of education? Is not education above all the indispensable ordering of the relationship between generations and therefore mastery, if we are to use this term, of that relationship and not of children? And likewise technology is not the mastery of nature but of the relation between nature and man. Men as a species completed their development thousands of years ago, but mankind as a species is just beginning his. In technology a physis is being organized through which mankind's contact with the cosmos takes a new and different form from that which it had in nations and families. One need recall only the experience of velocities by virtue of which mankind is now preparing to embark on incalculable journeys into the interior of time, to encounter there rhythms from which the sick shall draw strength as they did earlier on high mountains or at Southern seas. The 'Lunaparks' are a prefiguration of sanatoria. The paroxysm of genuine cosmic experience is not tied to that tiny fragment of nature that we are accustomed to call 'Nature'. In the nights of annihilation of the last war the frame of mankind was shaken by a feeling that resembled the bliss of the epileptic. And the revolts that followed it were the first attempt of mankind to bring the new body under its control. The power of the proletariat is the measure of its convalescence. If it is not gripped to the very marrow by the discipline of power, no pacifist polemics will save it. Living substance conquers the frenzy of destruction only in the ecstasy of procreation. "

Walter Benjamin One Way Street (Verso Edition) [1925-6] (1997) p.103-104

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Review of Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Higgs

This review appears here on and here (update when it appears) on If it puts the omph in your omphalos, please do pop over there and click the like button.

An Exquisitely Crafted Perspective on the C20th

The scale and scope of what Higgs presents us with in this book is belied by its easy reading.

It reminded me a little of Bill Bryson's 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' in that Higgs's writing manages to combine breadth and depth without being heavy or obtuse. Key to this, is his choice of motif. As well as the recurrent theme of perspectivism (or what readers of Higgs's brilliant KLF book might prefer to call multiple-model agnosticism), the motif of 'the omphalos' acts for the book as it did in the ancient world, as the 'axis mundi' (or, centre of the world). Higgs's history of the C20th revolves around several often interrelated and seemingly solid and concrete ideas; certainties of science, belief, social order, and culture which bedrocked our conception of the world at particular points in the C20th. As the narrative seamlessly morphs from the destruction of one omphalos to the creation of another, the reader perceives a sense of a movement between certainty and uncertainty, order and chaos. That perception of movement acts to challenge the polarizing dynamic of dualism so inherent to our Western thought. This appreciation of the meaning of the movement itself, rather than a blinkered and functional view of where the movement takes us, also serves to help Higgs avoid the awful phrase that I most dread seeing in any historical treatment of the currents of thought, science and culture ; 'We now know'.

That Higgs considers his subjects contextually, with an empathy for the contemporary perspectives - and because of his tacit challenge to dualism - any quibbles one has with him, over the details and points of focus of his historical gaze, tend fizzle out. With such a huge landscape to map out, there are bound to be moments where his perspective will not coincide with your own [for me it was his general treatment of Money and the specific chapter on Sex]. But that your own and Higgs's ideas differ, does not make them incompatible within the larger framework. This isn't to say that anything goes. The reader still gets a sense of who Higgs is, what he believes, and a feeling for his moral compass, his sense of humour and his humanity. But rather, it says that our models of the world are always and necessarily limited. Some are better than others, of course. The real danger lies though, in straitjacketing ourselves within one particular set of ideas, rather than in those ideas being right or wrong. Over time, it seems pretty likely that actually they will be regarded as wrong at some point.

Fans of Higgs's KLF book, and those persuaded to the book by Alan Moore's endorsement, might wonder quite how much magical thinking permeates it. The only overt passage that springs to mind is very near the end where Higgs applies a concept from Alchemy to explain some ideas about reductionism and holism, and how it is that the isolating drive to individualism can conclude in its counterpoint - the creation of a network society. I think though, the influences of Chaos Magic and Robert Anton Wilson run throughout the book all the same. By not being laid bare within the body of the text they are perhaps, presented in their best light - that is, hidden in the shadows. I think this is actually helpful for general reader. The exigencies of offering an overt explanation of magical thinking would've created too much dissonance, especially for readers with a bent towards materialism and techno-scientific explanations of reality. And I expect, there will be many such readers. Higgs explanations of relativity, chaos theory and in particular his brilliant metaphor for quantum mechanics (the imagined media reaction to Vladimir Putin punching a kangaroo) will really appeal to this audience. But I also expect those alternative ways of thinking that have influenced Higgs himself, will take seed quietly within the mind of every reader.

In a way, this book is a bit like an Adam Curtis documentary - but whereas Curtis has sounds and pictures to get across more complex ideas than are expressed in his simple narrative, Higgs somehow manages to do that trick with words only and still made it read easy. It's a truly impressive book. And I can't think of anyone I know who wouldn't thoroughly enjoy it.

Money Wisdom #377

" Beyond doubt : a secret connection exists between the measure of goods and the measure of life, which is to say, between money and time. The more trivial the content of a lifetime, the more fragmented, multifarious, and disparate are its moments, while the grand period characterizes a superior existence. Very aptly, Lichtenberg suggests that time whiled away should be seen as smaller, rather than shorter, and he also observes: 'a few dozen million minutes make up a life of forty-five years, and something more.' When a currency is in use a few million units of which are insignificant, life will have to be counted in seconds, rather than years, if it is to appear a respectable sum. And it will be frittered away like a bundle of bank notes: Austria cannot break the habit of thinking in Florins. "

Walter Benjamin One Way Street (Verso Edition) (1997) p.96