Friday, September 13, 2013

A Ramble on James Buchan's Frozen Desire

My rave review is here.

What a marvelous book. If you're a money freak what are you waiting for? Go get it. There's stories you'll already know but upon which Buchan puts a literary twist. What was really unusual was the chapter Floating World on Japanese ideas about money. And the piece on Terezin (the WW2 concentration camp) was very moving.

Anyway, to a short ramble.

In surveying Buchan's money mindscape, a problem is immediately apparent. There is no solid ground. It's a metaphysical morass. Is frozen desire a metaphor? Or does it describe something real. I'm not sure. And I don't think Buchan is.

But let's walk out anyway. Albeit carefully. We'll take the final chapter, his most heartfelt and passionate, Money: A Valediction as a map to Buchan's mindscape. Here we find what looks like firm ground. Buchan believes that money was born of humanity. It hasn't existed, he says, for all eternity. You'll know that I disagree with that.

But let's push on. Buchan has a solid understanding of Money's amorality. He considers on many occasions throughout the book that thorny subject of the relation between money and sex. He points out that sex was right there at the birth of currency. The first written words known about money mention it, in its relation to the prostitutes of Lydia. My impression is that paying for sex, and being paid for sex, is something Buchan has thought about deeply. Good. Its FUCKING important.

And then there's War. Buchan understands the reflexive way that political power can manipulate currency to create an image of itself. And whilst this process goes on in peacetime too, it is more exposed in the time of war, and in the death throes of States. Buchan says that in such times money is destroyed and then born again. Here I find being literal helps. It is currency that dies and is born again.

In Buchan's mindscape the eternal aspect - that I ascribe to money and he denies - is pushed instead wholly into his conception of Value. He claims that money has skewed our understanding of Value. The final few pages of his book could have been written by Pirsig if he'd turned his mind properly to money.
"We need to break the compulsory nature of money and make possible a future in which we are not at permanent war with nature and with one another.
For that we must seek values, not in any moralistic or censorious set of meanings, let alone in the Russian dolls of the economists; but values that cannot fit on the monetary scale; that record objects and sensations that are priceless in the sense of both precious and beyond a price in money; that are set above the yapping jaws of money like a pie left to cool on a high kitchen shelf. Those values have nothing to do with either utility or price."
Religion, claims Buchan, has been the traditional home to these non-monetary values and he believes that in some guise or another religion will be restored in the West. Like Pirsig's Zen.

Of course, no-one disagrees with Buchan's feelings about Value.

But for me, what Buchan (and Pirsig) do is extract the eternal from Money. For Buchan Value is as old as humanity (for Pirsig Value is beyond time itself), whereas (for both Buchan & Pirsig) money is born of humanity.

Our coins, notes and 0s&1s are seen as evidence that we created money. They are of course, evidence of currency rather than money. Even so, an echo of the eternal still remains in the crystalisation of money as currency. It's right there in the numbers. The numbers we use to describe the universe we can see, and predict the universe we cannot.

To get over this stumbling block of 'money as an invention of an earlier time' - a view expressed by the ancient Greeks as well as Buchan - we need to flip around the conception that number created money. It didn't. Money created and creates number - even today. (Check out the work of Joel Kaye and Tim Johnson for an examination of the money/number nexus).

There is an oddness to this. Number is abstract and yet it seems to form our reality. It is the measure of our physical world. That hard reality reflects back onto number, and so we crown it as the King of truth. We assume that money's power as a measure - its truth - stems from number. The real and the unreal seem to twist around each other.

And so Buchan's book leaves us in this same quandary. Our Values - our feelings, justice, the unpriced - are what we want of our reality; Buchan says, 'A father's kiss is real, precisely because it is not priced'. And so, our actual reality - the world of property, possession, wealth - becomes, in some sense, unreal. Money for Buchan is a mundane reality that we must transcend. Through this transcendence we can achieve connection to a deeper (or perhaps, higher) reality. At the centre of Buchan's money mindscape is a metaphysical paradox. Does money create our reality, or does it prevent us from realising it?

This is something we all experience everyday.


My solution to this paradox has been to place Money between Value and Mind. I've arrived at this idea through reading Pirsig which allowed me to place Value outside Subject Object metaphysics. But also through burning money; this visceral act has made me think about the difference between Money and currency.

I know we keep coming back to the same place on these rambles - Money&currency. I'm trying to find a way out of the maze. Buchan's money map provides us with a clue. A fundamental difference between currency and Money (at least with Money as I describe it) is the aspect of time. Currency exists within the time-frame of human existence, Money does not. To quote Grierson (without looking it up) 'behind coinage lies money'.

Near the end of his book Buchan quotes the famous Keynes line 'The importance of money essentially flows from its being a link between the present and the future'. I'll head over into that territory soon, armed with my description of money, and see if I can get a new view.

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