Thursday, February 27, 2014

In Defence of Simmel

One of the downsides of leaving posts unfinished is that there is a lot of issues floating around in my mind unsaid and unresolved. So this is just a quick note on one such issue. There are many others.

In his Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value, David Graeber painted a picture of Georg Simmel that I didn't recognise. Now, it's 15 years since I've read Simmel's The Philosophy of Money but I do clearly remember the feeling I got from my reading which was that there was a great connection between Simmel's thought and Freud's. I mentioned before that on my visit to the Freud museum I was scanning the bookshelves looking for a copy of The Philosophy of Money. I couldn't see one, and unfortunately the complete listing of Freud's library (available as a book with accompanying CD-ROM if I remember correctly) was beyond my means and securely shrink-wrapped.

In Graeber's work he sees Simmel as marking out a conceptual territory that has since been occupied by neo-liberalism. I think Graeber bases his view of Simmel on a couple of things, (a) Simmel's emphasis on exchange, and leading on from this (b) a notion that Simmel believes that ultimately value is subjectively determined. Now, I should say (in case you haven't read it) I gave Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value a five star review, loved reading it, and thoroughly recommend it - so my criticism of Graeber's very brief references to Simmel (the index shows three page references against Simmel) should be viewed in context.

My contemporaneous reading note was 'I'm not sure about his [Graeber's] reading of Simmel'. I'll quote some passages from Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value:

The first reference to Simmel comes when Graeber is discussing the work of anthropologist Arjun Appadurai.
"Anthropologists would do well, [Appadurai] suggests, to forget Marx's approach entirely and look instead to those developed by Georg Simmel in The Philosophy of Money (1907).
Value, according to Simmel, is not rooted in human labor, nor does its existence depend on any larger social system. It arises from exchange. Hence, it is purely an effect of individual desire. The value of an object is the degree to which a buyer wants it. It is measured by how much that person is willing to give up in order to get it" (p.31)
Then after briefly mentioning Simmel as the 'mirror image' of anthropologist Annette Weiner and her writing on 'inalienable possessions', Graeber goes onto say that 'someone like Simmel' would say that;
"the value of commodities comes from the fact that someone is willing to buy them rather than the thought and energy that went into producing something a buyer would desire to buy." (p.38)
But I think what sums up Graeber's view on Simmel more than anything is the following;
"The rejection of Marx, the emphasis on self-interested strategies, the glorification of consumption as creative self-expression - all this was entirely in keeping with the intellectual trends of the mid 1980's. But it also serves as an object lesson about why, when one catches a wave, one might do well to think where it is ultimately heading. Because the end result is anthropology as it might have been written by Milton Friedman. As James Ferguson (1988) has pointed out, there is a reason why Simmel is the darling of modern-day free market Neoliberals."
In the late 1990's I was a member of the Hayek Society at the LSE and I attended a few events at the Institute of Economic Affairs - two places where you're pretty sure to find a surfeit of 'modern-day free market Neoliberals'. They could probably tell you everything you ever need to know about Hayek, Mises, Friedman, Rothbard or any of a number of libertarians. But I'm not sure anyone I met at those places would've known who Georg Simmel was.

The James Ferguson paper that Graeber refers to is Cultural Exchange: New Developments in the Anthropology of Commodities - it's a review of Arjun Appadurai's The Social Life of Things. Using the black arts, I managed to find Ferguson's paper. Its a good read - even if, like me, you've not read Appadurai's book. I think the part that must have stuck in Graeber's mind is where Ferguson quotes two 'neoconservative economists, Laidler and Rowe' singing the praises of Simmel and saying Simmel owes an undeclared debt to the work of Carl Menger (Menger was the founder of the Austrian school of economics, father, if you like, to Hayek, Mises, Friedman, Rothbard etc ). Ferguson says that academics like to speak through the mouths of 'dead Gods' (which I think is very true) but in choosing the God of Simmel (because he stands in opposition to a Marxian theory of Value) Appaduriai has a dead God "who delivers neither the intellectual nor the politico-academic goods". Ferguson claims that Simmel doesn't work for Appaduriai as 'big name protection' to speak against Marx, and really, he just doesn't dig Simmel at all.

Now, I said earlier that I haven't read Simmel for about fifteen years. That's true. But I have picked him up a lot for the odd five minute perusal, and more importantly, he's been mentioned at some point in every other book I've read about money from across the political and conceptual spectrum. He's a big part of James Buchan's Frozen Desire on the one side, and Keith Hart's Money in an Uneven World on the other. So in the intervening fifteen years I've read a lot about Simmel from different perspectives.

And as luck would have it, the book I'm reading at the moment - Nigel Dodd's The Sociology of Money (1994) - has got a cracking section on Simmel. I'm going to quote a few passages from it to balance out those views expressed by Graeber (and Ferguson) about Simmel. For Dodd, 'Simmel 's arguments provide an important indication of how a systematic approach to the study of money in sociology might proceed'. The section on Simmel also has a great sub-title (especially for someone like me who has a monist or Pirsigian concept of Value) - God and the Theory of Value.
[The] dual quality of constancy and flux* has a philosophical analogy in Simmel's work whereby money, which in economic terms expresses 'nothing but the relativity of things that constitute value', embodies the principle of relativism. It is for this reason that he regards money as having cultural significance as well as economic importance. Money's omnipotence relative to other values excites feelings psychologically analogous to the worship of God. Just as 'the essence of the notion of God is that all diversities and contradictions in the world achieve a unity in him', so with money, 'the relativity of things is the only absolute....' p.42 
Value is 'in a sense the counterpart to being .... comparable to being as a comprehensive form and category of the world view.' p.43 
....we value things which seem beyond our reach, which resist our desire to possess them. Simmel's analysis of value is in this sense derived from a particular view of the relationship between human beings and the world they inhabit; or in his terms, the relationship between subjects and objects. p.43 
A distance is gradually imposed between the subject and object which creates the potential for friction between them. Without such friction, the concept of value would be meaningless, for our desires would meet no resistance. It would also be impossible to distinguish one thing from another, for this only becomes possible when our desires go unfulfilled. For economics, this process explains the formation of the category of value. Philosophically, it accounts for the origins of the dualism between subjects and objects. It is because humans think in terms of this dualism that they need to place formal catagories on the world around them and organize its content. This process therefore marks, for Simmel, the 'birth in experience' of form. p.44
You can see why I as a Freud-lover (rather than a rabid libertarian) might find Simmel's work appealing. Nigel Dodd address this idea that Simmel is some sort of neo-liberal godhead fairly directly.
The concepts of distance and resistance at the heart of the theory certainly bear comparison with the marginal utility theorem in neoclassical economics. Reflecting this, Smelt has argued that Simmel's theory of value simply means that 'the value of an object is what an individual will sacrifice for it'. But to reduce Simmel's arguments to this basic principle requires some effort at misreading them. p.44 (my emphasis)
When I read The Philosophy of Money I felt Simmel was trying to say something profound about money and thought or even money and being. I think that's why I didn't recognise the Simmel that Graeber described.

For Ferguson, and possibly for Graeber (although I don't think he says so directly) Simmel proceeds from the basis that first there was exchange and then came culture - in a kind of Smithian 'propensity to truck and barter way'- or a 'doux commerce civil society was built on market exchange way'. Again I didn't get this from Simmel, myself. And Dodd doesn't either. Simmel explicitly acknowledges the importance of 'structures of a higher order' (p.46) but says that analysis of social structures cannot provide a penetrating route to the study of modern society.

I think that Simmel's detractors take the word 'exchange' in too economic a sense. Yes, for sure, Simmel thinks that 'exchange is the fundamental condition of social life, for "interaction between individuals is the starting point of all social formations"' (Dodd 1994 p.45). But there's the clue; exchange is interaction. Simmel says 'most relationships between people can be interpreted as forms of exchange' (PoM p.82) - indeed he says explicitly 'Every interaction has to be regarded as an exchange, every conversation, every affection (even if it is rejected), every game, every glance at another person'. To me this seems like an argument for a reflexive approach;
'The concept of exchange is often misconceived, as though it were a relationship existing outside the elements to which it refers. But it signifies only a condition or change within the related subjects, not something that exists between them in the sense in which an object might be spatially located between two other objects." (PoM p.83)
So, as far as 'exchange' goes, I think Graeber and Ferguson define the word a little too narrowly.

As for Value being subjectively determined. Gosh, that's a biggie. Nietzsche had this idea of nature being 'valueless'. It is we who ascribe 'value'. That kind of idea sits quite neatly with a neo-liberal view - things are worth what the market says they are worth. But its not really what Simmel was saying. He does say that the ego is the universal source of value, but he also says;
"The form taken by value in exchange places value in a category beyond the strict meaning of subjectivity and objectivity. In exchange, value becomes supra-subjective, supra-individual, yet without becoming an objective quality and reality of the things themselves." (PoM p.78)
So, once you broaden your definition of 'exchange' and allow for the subtlety and complexity of Simmel's  Subject Object metaphysics, I'm not sure there's such a huge difference between what Simmel is suggesting, and Graeber's idea of 'creative potential' being a fundamentally social power realized through action and thereby creating social reality**. Perhaps I'm missing something?

I have avoided that word 'desire'. Its seems to be a key one. (One brilliantly explored by James Buchan's book Frozen Desire). I like to refer to Freud on that one. I wish Freud and Simmel had written a long series of letters to each other, it'd make things so much easier. But my view, sharply put, is that removing 'desire' from sex is nonsensical, as is removing sex from Life and Death. So creating the analytical category of 'desire' as a kind of sociological, economical, or anthropological Occam's razor will lead, ultimately, right back to the problems that Freud addresses.

I was very very happy to note Nigel Dodd saying that '....ambivalence is at the core of Simmel's analysis.' (p.51) because obviously its at the core of Freud's too.

Finally I should say that reading Pirsig's ZenMM has definitely re-kindled my Simmel fire. It's those words - Subject and Object and the way that Simmel can't quite fit Value into them. I guess academia poo-poos poor old Pirsig, and its obvious that this was/is a source of frustration for him. I don't have to worry about academia, so I'll happily to say how influential ZenMM has been on my conception of value. It seems an obvious, almost trival thing to say, but an understanding of value isn't the destination of a series of logical steps. Its not the end point of a rational discussion. It's the beginning (and the end and the middle and etc). It's what we look for and what we find. Whatever you have to do to get those ideas across is fine by me; a thesis, a novel, a film, a song, contemporary dance, a painting - they're all good.

It looks like I might have ten days at my brother's place right on the Nova Scotian coast in May. I think I might take Georg Simmel with me and do that re-reading I've been dreading. Maybe it's time.

*interesting that Dodd notes both constancy and flux in Simmel - Graeber's emphasis is squarely on flux. A theme of his work is the quarrel between Heraclitus and Parmenides.

**you know its just struck me, but that actually describes sex pretty well.

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