Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Toe-in-the-Water Ramble on Magic Myth and Money

I've been putting off reading William H Desmonde's Magic, Myth and Money. I expect that once I make a proper start on it plans, domestic duties, and now Christmas preparations will have to be put on hold.

You're Making it Up

I've already put up a couple of Money Wisdom quotes from it (Nos #57 & #58) and I've barely opened the book up to check all the pages are there. My excitement stems from the fact that it uses a psychoanalytical framework to answer the question What is Money? I wish I'd known of its existence 15 years ago. Funny how these things remain hidden. I'm quite used to reading about the relationship psychoanalysis sees between Money and Shit, and 'anal' characteristics. I'd never really found them convincing - Money seems too big and too remarkable a phenomenon to be explained in this way. But a psychoanalytical perspective that draws on a broader view - the sort Freud gives in Totem and Taboo or Civilisation and its Discontents - now, that's my cup of tea.


You might have read this piece where I briefly looked at the idea that Money was 'invented'. I've also done a few other things (and want to do a few more) on the Economic life of Florence the Jack Russell. I ask if bones are a Dog's Gold. Whilst you may greet that idea with a wry smile, there are plenty of 'serious' experiments carried out by doctors in white coats which examine economic behaviour in monkeys.

Anyway, let me give you this quote:

"For money, in all its varied, mysterious, and abstract forms, is our own creation, and has no meaning apart from the needs and desires of men."

William H Desmonde Magic, Myth and Money (1962)

It might be fair and accurate to make such a claim about currency. Note, I say might. But making it about Money? That's unjustified and unnecessary. Why make such an assumption? Why not just keep the question of creation open? Desmonde has made a rod for his own back.

Now, if you're finding the suggestion Money wasn't created by man a bit weird, try to think about it a bit differently. I'm not talking about it in a kind of David-Icke-lizards-and-aliens way. I'm just saying that as a phenomenon Money might not be the creation of the human mind. It's not that radical. Do you think for example Love or Hate are 'our own creation'? Or are they part of the experience of sentience? Something for example that an animal might experience. Or what about something less abstract? Like Fire? Is that 'our own creation'? Or is it a discovery?

My view simply put, is that currency helped us to connect to Money.

Now to be fair to Desmonde, he's not alone. This assumption that Money is a creation of the human mind has been made in everything I've ever read about Money. Most of the time it is entirely implicit. You may think that might force me to examine my own ideas - and it does - but more so, it makes me ask the question 'Why do you think Money is a human creation'?

(Btw, I think the reason that we like to believe that Money is a human creation is because it helps us feel in control of our destiny. To imagine Money is outside these boundaries is too scary.)

So, at the very least we should mark the idea that we 'created' money as an assumption. There is, after all, no evidence to support that view.

Accordingly my (latest quasi-technical) description of Money doesn't require a creation story; Money is an aspect of reality that mediates Value and enumerates certain relations through currency.

Anyway, this is supposed to be a ramble. So far its been more like a yomp across hostile metaphysical terrain. That's the thing about Money, it's up there in the most abstract mind-bending metaphysical high ground and down here too, in the little mundane things that make up everyday life. Those little things can be revealing too, though.

A Small Dog and her Bone

Florence hadn't had any bones for ages. Wife (and Son when he's back from Uni) grumble about me giving her bones. They say it makes her aggressive. This is plainly nonsense. Florence is my wife's dog. I've tried explaining to her (Florence not my wife) that as the Alpha male, it's me she should regard as the leader of our pack. I'm the biggest, strongest and hairiest. However, my rational arguments have fallen on deaf ears. So I live with a grudging acceptance that to Florence, my wife is the leader of the pack and I am merely a competitor for said leader's affections.

Anyway, as I'm want to do occasionally, I broke the rules. I'd popped across the road to the butcher's to buy some bacon for my lunch and small piece of steak for my supper. For some reason, I decided to ask him if he had any dog bones..... well, I nearly asked him that. We shared the joke about him not selling dog, which must happen every day in every butcher's shop across the country and beyond. The butcher popped into his freezer and pulled out a bag of small bones.

When I returned home, I began to fry the bacon - the smell of which drew Florence to the kitchen. "Ah, Florence," I said "I have a nice surprise for you." I pulled out a bone and held it to her, for her to take in her mouth. She just looked at me unimpressed. So I put it on the floor infront of her and put the rest of the bagged-up bones in the freezer.

I was a little surprised that she wasn't more enthusiastic about the bone. In fact I was a bit miffed. I knew buying the bones would get me a stern look from the wife at the very least. I felt that I should be rewarded for my acceptance of this risk with some doggie enthusiasm. I wasn't expecting excited yelping, but a wag of the tail would be appreciated.

Later I was in the kitchen preparing the evening meal. The dog's bone was untouched on the floor. On hearing my wife's return from work, Florence ran downstairs to give her a brief excited greeting then immediately went to her bone, picked it up tail wagging furiously, and took it to my wife.

"What have you got there", my wife asked Florence. This caused Florence to bow her head, tail down but still wagging, and shiver with excitement. My wife then reached out her hand so it was underneath the bone, ready to catch it. "Give" said my wife. And sure enough Florence dropped the bone into her hand. My wife briefly inspected the bone, said how nice it looked and what a lucky girl Florence was, and told her to "Take it".  Florence did so, took the bone off to beside her bed, and proceed to gnaw at it for the the entire evening.

Florence's display of enthusiasm and love for her bone, must have ameliorated my Wife's annoyance at my flouting of the bone-buying-ban because no mention was made of my blatant non-conformity.

The Discovery of Currency

A small dog and her bone, and the idea that currency connects us to money, are just a few hop, skip and a jump away from some very big ideas indeed.

You may have to close your eyes and hold my hand for this bit.

I believe Florence gets 'meaning' from her behaviour around the bone. And I also think she anticipates that this meaning is shared with us. You could parade as many white-coated scientist to persuade me that this isn't so, you could talk about genes, and Pavlov's dog but in that moment of exchange, when Florence, ears down, tail down tight over her rear-end, but wagging quickly at the tip, gave the bone to my wife, I know the act has meaning. I can't provide you with an adequate explanation of how I know. I can only tell you that I believe it more strongly than I believe in the description of life offered by Genetics, or in the explanation Physics provides for the Birth of the Universe, or in the descriptions of Reality provided by Philosophy.

Somehow the 'meaning' is shared between Florence and me. We may interpret it different ways - I may anthropomorphosise it, she may "canine-pomorphosise" it - but the crucial thing is that somewhere underneath our interpretations is the same meaning (or, more precisely, the same Value). The bone - acting as a proto-currency - is something which helps to make this explicit. It marks the fact that 'meaning' has been shared. (This echoes the ideas of Laumian theory of the Origins of Money)

And, honestly, I think we all have mundane moments of this type of knowing. Of a certainty greater than the sum of human knowledge. It's not a rare thing. It behind every opinion, it's in the things we stand up for, it's seed of our morality.

This seed of certainty that accompanies shared 'meaning' seems intimately, inherently linked to Money. It is what we desire of currency.

What does it mean to be certain?

Certain knowledge is a funny thing. I've generally found that the more I look into a subject the less certain my knowledge about it becomes. Knowledge seems to suffer from it's own version of inflation. The larger a body of knowledge becomes the lower it's density in terms of value. At university I noticed that the smartest Professors and Lecturers I met, were those who said 'we really don't know' most often. Intelligence is as much about what we don't know (and how we cope with that) as it is about what we do know (and what we do with that knowledge).

My explanation for this knowledge-inflation is that Knowledge actually dilutes meaning, rather than creates it. Although most of the time we need that dilution in order to make the meaning 'palatable' to us.

Anyway, I'm in danger now of getting lost in my own thoughts. That happens when you start to talk about the meaning of meaning. But I'm supposed to be your guide on this little ramble so let's just pretend I know what I'm talking about for a few more lines, then we can get back to the relative safety of Money and Value.

Meaning is a way we experience Value. We connect to Meaning through Knowledge.

Money is another way we experience Value. We connect to Money through Currency.

Currency and Knowledge are planets in orbit around the sun of Value. Money and Meaning are the gravitational fields that connect them.*

So in a few brief paragraphs we've gone from Money and Currency to a small dog and her bone and ended up with a description of Reality. Money does that. Its hard to maintain a grip on it. It easily wriggles free. The only way I can get it to stay in my hand is by holding it loosely. With a statement that's broad, but also is the only truthful way I feel I can describe money at the moment; Money mediates Value and can enumerate certain relations through currency. That's as much as I know.

I think the weirdness - the bat-shit-craziness (as I described it on Twitter) - of thinking in this way about Money is why whenever when people try to get a grip on Money they invariably end up with a grip on Currency rather than Money. Returning to the primary subject of this post - Desmonde's book - I have a feeling this is what precisely he's done (or is going to do).

Effectively, in that short quotation above, he's described Currency as an social institution. This is misleading. It is clearly a phenomenon that is very different from say, scientific or religious institutions. Whereas institutions do connect to Value and build structures around their understanding of it, currency seems to be less bound to any particular set of structures or way of understanding. Currency is adaptive and responsive. Whilst we often express a desire for those qualities in our institutions, the fundamental nature of an institution, as something that exists across time, seems in conflict with them. Currency on the other hand can take any form it needs in order to connect through Money to Value.

All of this is something more easily appreciated IF you don't make the (erroneous) assumption that Money is a human invention, and instead regard it in a simpler philosophical context, as 'an aspect of reality'. Proper 'professional' economists - those who lay claim to the sacred knowledge to the workings of Money - would scoff at the idea that Money is anything other than a human invention. They of course can call upon the authority of Science bestowed upon them by the holy men of academia to refute such an fanciful suggestion. What they can't do is prove what they're saying is true. A bit like priests.

And there's another thing. We want believe that Money is a human invention - when it isn't. Whereas Science, on the other hand, that great discoverer of Truth is a human invention. An invention built around measurement - and enumeration. (Check out what Joel Kaye says about the impact of Money on Proto-Science in the C14th - my review)

Value is the fissure that running through the subject/object metaphysics that underscores Science's explanation of reality. Money is currently a form magic that connects us to Value through currency. It's not just notes and coins, it's gold and dog's bones too.

"If there is one conclusion of overriding importance to be drawn from the increasing realization in recent times that science is a human product, it is that, like other human products, the only way it can ultimately be evaluated is in terms of whether it contributes to the thriving of the sentient beings in this universe."

John Dupre The Disorder of Things (1995) p.264


*I'm referencing the Pirsig quote here:
"The sun of quality does not revolve around the subjects and objects of our existence. It does not passively illuminate them. It is not subordinate to them in any way. It has created them. They are subordinate to it."   (ZenMM p.234)

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