Monday, October 29, 2012

A ramble on Derrida and Money Burning

Last night I watched this documentary on Jacques Derrida the French/Algerian Philosopher who died in 2004.

Derrida first popped into my conciousness in some correspondence I had with Bill Martin over a book he wrote called Music of Yes: Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock (it's a good book by the way - if you love Yes, like I do). We discussed Yes Music and the impact it had on the way we thought about the world. Bill is a philosophy professor and an expert on Derrida. Alongside Blake, Marx and others, Bill called upon Derrida to help analyse Yes Music.

So anyway, Derrida was now lodged firmly in the back of my mind by being associated with my favourite music. Around the same time (2000/2001) I was a fairly regular contributor to an internet discussion group called Orgdyne. It's an experience I'll write about at some point but briefly it was a kind of free-form group psychodynamic experiment - well, at first anyway. Like many such things it was exciting for a while but often descended into arguments about this and that. Plus with so many psychoanalysts in the group there was no shortage of people telling others why they were saying what they were saying. That was bit like trying to put out a fire by pouring petrol on it.

Inevitably Derrida - alongside Lacan, Foucault etc - was mentioned in the discussion. Being somewhat carried away with it all I did try to get Bill involved with the group. Someone had referred to Derrida's work as 'undiluted swill' and I thought he might want to come back at that. Bill wisely declined, and our correspondence fizzled out after that.

Anyway, unrelated to Orgdyne I'd contacted Professor Manfred Kets de Vries. He's a professor at INSEAD the French management school, an expert in group psychodynamics and wrote (with Danny Miller) one of the early books on the psychodynamics of the firm - The Neurotic Organisation. I'd sent him a speculative email of my early work on Money. He was kind enough to take a look at it and get back to me. Those interested in the psychodynamics of groups were few in number back then, so I guess that worked in my favour. Basically I'd created a model of a firm as a mind using Freud's architecture. I then speculated that Money was like a force or energy that moved through this architecture. His criticism was basically that my work was structuralist, and he and most within the psychodynamic community were now Post-Structuralists. (I don't think I explained my conception of Money very well, but let's not worry about that for now). I later learned that Professor Kets de Vries was also in fact a member of Orgdyne - albeit it a silent one. And in fact these day he works with the consulting group that Anil - the founder of the Orgdyne - built off the back of the Orgdyne experiment. (The consulting group is also called Orgdyne)

If you know about this sort of thing, you'll have got the link back to Derrida already. Derrida is generally thought of as one of the leaders the Post-Structuralist movement.

I was (and still am) stuck between a rock and a hard place. Economics was never going to take my ideas about money seriously - that was a complete non starter. The hope that I might be able to explore my ideas in a psychodynamic framework - which had been a slim one anyway -  was also blocked. I was all about Freud's basic mind architecture and the life and death instincts; a very simple model. Group psychodynamics on the other hand, wasn't; it had a heuristic approach backed up by complex post-structuralist type arguments.

So not to put too fine a point on it, whenever I heard Derrida's name mentioned I sighed. I did attempt to get to grips with what Derrida (and Lacan) were saying but found them confusing. I also picked up Foucault, and put him down again. My intellectual heroes basically spoke with a Germanic accent. The strange brew of Freud, Jung, and Hayek were my guys in those days and all those clever French blokes just did my head in.

And if Derrida hadn't been enough of a thorn in my side then, a few years later my wife's exposure to him (and Foucault) whilst doing her MA in Gender Studies and our subsequent 'discussions' - I use the term as loosely as possible - sealed the deal. I really didn't like the guy. Deconstruction, my arse. The meaning of the meaning of the meaning. If you want a taste of Derrida's prose try this from the film - don't ask me what he's on about.


The film has changed my view. I enjoyed it. And I tip my hat to Derrida. There is no reason why philosophy has to be in books. In fact, I think its a fair to say that if Philosophy is only in books, and those books are only in the auspices of university departments, Philosophy is to all intents and purposes, dead. Thankfully this isn't the case.

The film attempts to de-construct itself. There's a scene where Derrida is shown watching a scene where Derrida is shown watching himself being interviewed in a kind of infinite televisual loop. He also talks a lot about the context of the making of the film within the film. There's a wiki about it here

A couple of things Derrida said really got me thinking.  This is him during a tour of South Africa talking about forgiveness. He says that pure forgiveness is impossible. To truly forgive, one must forgive the unforgivable - which is impossible. This reminded me of David Graeber's book on Debt and Rospabe's Primitive Money theory in particular. There's a quick summary here but the important point is that;

" can be seen, in human economies, as first and foremost the acknowledgement of the existence of a debt that cannot be paid” (Graeber 2011 p.136).

So I wondered what Derrida would make of money burning. In my ritual I've certainly began to think about it as an act of forgiveness - in fact, I've presented it as the ultimate act of forgiveness because nothing comes back to the forgiver. The forgiveness causes only loss in the forgiver. 

I've been told that my money burning is selfish. It's my little project, so all this stuff I say about it is really about me and my ego - I want to write about it, challenge people etc. That may be true. However, it doesn't really get to the philosophical point. 

Suppose I was alone on a desert Island with no hope of rescue. I continue with my money burning ritual. Would that make it pure forgiveness? There would be no possibility of any gain from me destroying currency. But then again the currency would have no meaning. So we're really back to Derrida and his much misunderstood 'there is nothing outside the text' (meaning that there is nothing outside context). This seems particularly pertinent when applied to currency.

Another point that Derrida makes a little later in the film is about the who and the what. So in the context of money burning the question becomes are we forgiving the Bank of England itself (the who)? Or are we forgiving the Bank of England for something it has done (the what)? That's an interesting point. My view has been that in burning currency I am forgiving the promise the Bank of England have made. I realise that's a bit odd. To forgive a promise. It kind of sits right in the middle between the who and the what. The little mantra I say when I burn is in fact 'Release all', rather than 'Forgive all' (It references a Yes song)

The video I made last year touched (or perhaps stamped) on some of these issues:

What really endeared me to Derrida though came near the end of the film. As I've explained, he had a lot to do to win me over. The points he scored for making me think about forgiveness and the who and the what hadn't quite tipped the balance. There was too much rock star stuff; all the walking along with camera crew, entourage in tow, the academic groupies. That just proves he's famous, he's desired, not that what he says is of value. And I've spent enough time doing press with rock stars in my last job to know that maintaining a moderate size ego in the face of adoration is a tricky thing to do. At points I expected Derrida to stride straight in to the lecture hall, grab the microphone and shout 'Well alright!' Neil Kinnock style. Fortunately he doesn't.

The balance tipped in Derrida's favour when he sat down next to a pile of books and said in reply to the question "If you were to watch a documentary about a Philosopher what would you want to see in it?" that he'd want to see their sex lives. Last week on this blog's 'About Page' I wrote;

"I have some vague idea about understanding one's sexuality as being a key to self-realisation...... [sex's] mysteries are not revealed through reflection alone. I think the same is true of Money."

So I can't help myself, I like Derrida now. Sorry, Friedrich.

That doesn't mean I'm going to read his books though. Even today, I've tried to read the wiki page on Derrida before writing this piece and couldn't get through it. 

I'm happy to consider that documentary as his masterwork. After all it was released on 23rd October (2002). If you've been paying attention you'll know that's a special day for me.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Money Wisdom #55

"Numbers are words. This may seem trite, but the full significance of the fact is lost as much to linguists on the one side, as it is to mathematicians on the other."

Thomas Crump Money and Number :The Trojan Horse of Language (1978)

Friday, October 26, 2012

Money Wisdom #54

Who will provide the grand design?
What is yours and what is mine?
'Cause there is no more new frontier
We have got to make it here

We satisfy our endless needs
And justify our bloody deeds,
In the name of destiny 
And the name of God

Don Henley, Glen Fry The Last Resort (1976)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Money Wisdom #53

"What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions- they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins."

Friedrich Nietzsche On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense 1873

Monday, October 8, 2012

Money Wisdom #52

"Money is human value expressed in figures; it is the mark of our slavery, the indelible brand of our servitude. Money is the congealed blood sweat of the miserable wretches who bring to market their inalienable property, their most personal capacity, their life-activity itself, to barter it..."

Moses Hess The Essence of Money (1845)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Sticking up for Skidelsky (in a rambling kind of way)

I've been blog lite for a month or two. I thought I'd kick start what will hopefully be a busy few months of writing with a little miscellaneous/money post.

I've been struggling to write an 'About' page for this blog for a while. 2/3rds of the way there now. I think that's been the block to my writing.

Anyway, I've just read Oh no, not happiness again! on Diane Coyle's The Enlightened Economist's blog (my favourite economics blog). I read it when she first published it, but just came back to view the comments.

It's about what good old Robert Skidelsky says in his review of Adair Turner's new book. The links are all in the piece if you fancy reading it, but basically its about the correlations (or lack of) between GDP & happiness. I saw another piece asking us to stop calling Skidelsky (& Turner) economists. I can't find it now but, you get the jist; proper economists hate Skidelsky. So of course, I like him.

I have a soft spot for Skidelsky - he got a mention in this post about Hayek (2/3 of the way down) - because he's one of the only people I've ever heard try to draw out the connections between Keynes and Freud. And to regard them as important. So despite me not agreeing with the good Lord, I'll stick up for him in a fight. That's how I roll.

There's one more thread to this little ramble, before I get to the point. I stumbled across this - Value Judgements in Economics. I'm not a fan of this site - too much economic jargon - but can't seem to stop myself coming back to it.

So anyway, there I am amongst all this econo-babble. And then Diane Coyle says "Growth doesn’t mean more handbags and bigger cars, it means innovation"

Now bear in mind that this LSE-educated money burning pervert - i.e. me - spent last night carry water in plastic bottles up several flights of stairs to some of the richest people in the world (in SW1X). We've had mains water for a few hundred years. We have water filters. And yet economic innovation seems to says that somehow utility is maximised by putting water in a bottle, sending it to Hatfield, driving it from Hatfield to London, and then having some underpaid and over-educated Burk - i.e. me -  haul it up 4 or 5 flights of stairs to a toff's kitchen.

You can perhaps see that my recent personal experience doesn't support the idea that growth = innovation.

Maybe I'm just unlucky. Or bitter? Or maybe the economic idea of what Growth is, is wrong. I did this A Ramble on Growth and Value post on it a while back (it been surprisingly popular). So I guess in terms of our questioning of the link between the human condition and GDP, Skidelsky and I are in the same camp.

'Economic Growth' is one of those terms - like Value or Quality - that can be described but not defined. Of course, you can define them if you want, but any Economist worth their salt will baulk at saying Economic Growth is such and such. Because the simple truth is we don't know.

This GDP thing that's accessible to measurement isn't Growth itself. Just like a price isn't Value itself. It looks like there's some relationship between the two things, but no-one has figured out what it is yet.

So leave Skidelsky alone. Like his hero Keynes, he makes moral arguments. He thinks what's good is right, rather than what's right is good. (That's my shorthand for the metaphysics of Keynes/Hayek debate)

We'd do well to remember the limits of our understanding. And to remain open to alternative explanations of the links between the human condition and economic growth.

(NB That's defending Skidelsky with an argument that sounds very Hayekian)

(NBB I'm super happy to say that I mentioned ZenMM to @Sam Bowman in relation to our conceptions of Value and he downloaded it straight away. There is hope for economics' understanding growth & value, yet)