Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Money Burning Talk at the Cowley Club

Last Wednesday night, 5th November, I took the sexy Berlingo down to The Cowley Club in Brighton to this event:

It was organised by @econoklast (aka Michael) with whom I've exchanged a fair few emails about some mad money stuff. I was honored to be asked down to say a few words alongside +John Higgs, author of the incredibly brilliant The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds

[I forgot to mention it in my Stick to Staff post, but John's book was a cheeky stowaway on my recent pilgrimage to Snowdon. I knew nothing about it until we were at the end of our trek when I caught a glimpse of the tell-tale yellow spine poking out of my daughter's bag.]

I most hugely grateful to Michael for coming up with the idea of the event and putting it all together. And of course for being foolish enough to ask me along. 

This is Mouse. I wonder if her use of eggs
was referencing
Bataille's 'Story of the Eye'?
I haven't given a talk in over a decade. The last time was in 2002 at the Sexual Freedom Coalition (SFC) conference at the Round Chapel in Hackney. Sally and I were asked to talk by virtue of Naturalsex winning an Erotic Award. I remember finding the place and taking as a good omen, 'Harris' appearing in big white letters on the corner just opposite the Round Chapel. Egoism and optimism can combine to attribute positive meaning to coincidence. In this case though, egoism and pessimism may have been more appropriate. A good omen, it was not.

The theme of my talk was commerce and sex. It was basically arguing that money and a 'commercial ethic' should be a conscious element in the events and organisations of those committed to the ideals of the SFC. My feeling was that a propagation of the SFC's ethical ideals - which were fundamentally pansexual* - required a greater engagement with the moneyed world. A rejection of the commercial may provide an effective legal buffer against aggressive police action targeting organizers of sex events (something to which the SFC had themselves been victim). A rejection of commerciality may even reflect the political sentiment of the members of the SFC, but it should not become an ethical end in itself. Well, at least not for the SFC as an organisation. Obviously, individually we make our own choices.

It didn't go down too well. The SFC has a very close relationship with Outsiders - a charity which 'helps support disabled people with their lifestyles'. 'Being conscious of a commercial ethic' was the new song at greatest hits gig. In fact, it probably wasn't even that. More like, a prog-rock cover at a punk gig.

Then came Mouse.

The SFC conference is made up of speeches interspersed with performances by erotic artists. Mouse gave a very memorable performance. Initially it involved over-sized wooden spoons and eggs. For the finale her aptly named partner, Cat, administered a milk enema. Mouse received this whilst on her hands and knees, then turned herself round so her bum was pointing at us and then expelled explosively drenching everyone on the front few pews in bottom milk.

I not sure the founding fathers of the United Reformed Church had this sort of thing in mind when they built the Round Chapel in the 1870's for their Clapton Park congregation. Still, I'm sure Mouse's energetic ejaculation served to wash any trace of my commercial ethics speech from people's minds. Even the unshockable Tuppy Owens was lost for words.

So that was the last time I gave a talk.

Anyway, Michael's 'Ghost Money' talk at the Cowley Club was an enema free event. I didn't count but I'd guess there were 25 or 30 people there, which was a fantastic turn out. Doubly so, given that many Brightonians were heading to neighboring Lewes for the Bonfire Night Celebrations - described as 'the biggest celebrated Fifth November Event in the world', There seemed to be a wonderfully resonant symbolism in having a small event devoted to the burning of money happening simultaneously and next door to a huge event devoted to the burning of effigies. Breaking taboos and controversy seems common to both; in Lewes, kids black up, crosses and effigies of political leaders both historic and current are burned. In 2012 Angela Merkel received the Lewes treatment and this year Alex Salmond was only just saved at the last moment from the flames. The tradition stretches back beyond Guy Fawkes in 1605 to some fifty years earlier when 17 Lewes men were burned at the stake under the reign of Mary Tudor. And like most such rituals and festivals you can look to even earlier origins, as events and our reactions to them are overlaid upon one another, and we struggle to assimilate into our conscious being, the darker psychical undercurrents of our mindscape.

Its also worth noting that Lewes was a very important town for the creation of money a thousand years or so ago. Records of moneyers go back to c.930 during the reign of Æthelstan, and Lewes was made an official mint town in 1006.

All seemed to bode well for a night of talking about Money Burning, then.

John opened with a reading from his book, and then talked about Money Burning and the KLF. Michael introduced the concept of Ghost Money, And then I chipped in with my bit which was essentially a pitch to persuade people to take up money burning as a ritual.

Here's a bullet point summary of my talk;

I opened with an explanation of why, how, and when I burn money. I claimed that the ritual is a transcendent experience of pure forgiveness. I then talked about some different ways of perceiving it. Namely;
  • Literal - by burning a note you are literally forgiving the promise made on it by the BoE. The interesting thing about the promise is that it is perpetual. It's a promise, to keep a promise, to keep a promise, etc, etc. By burning the note you forgive that perpetual chain of promises.
  • Visceral - there are a range of reactions to money burning, both within the burner and those around him. Pitch the amount you burn to the edge of painful and you'll be able to assimilate the emotions and feelings it provokes. This is very important and only accessible to those who have done the ritual. 
  • Aesthetic - there is a primal beauty in the burning. Everybody has stared at a fire. In burning money the new and the ancient coexist in powerful combination. Similarly juxtaposed are the mundane and the profound. Paper currency is ubiquitous and everyday, setting fire to it is deeply symbolic and uniquely taboo.
  • Intellectual - the intellectual response to money burning reveals a relation and differentiation between money and currency. Quickly one is confronted with deep philosophical issues about the nature of reality. Currency is inside time and space, MONEY is outside time and space, and the note you burn seems to straddle these two worlds.
  • Spiritual/Magical - rituals are creative of time, marking death and allowing rebirth. Money burning is so powerful in this respect because of its purity. It is an irreversible self-sacrifice that will - literally, on your first burning - reform and give a new meaning to your relationship with money.
Then the good folks who'd blessed us with their time asked questions and discussed with John, Michael and myself everything money burning. And there were some excellent questions, and thoughtful and interesting discussion. I just found it so heart-warming that people seemed genuinely interested in the KLF's million quid, money burning generally and what it all means.

On the drive home, I was thinking about a couple of the questions and wishing I'd said such and such and kicking myself for not mentioning something else. That's inevitable I guess. The joy of writing a blog though is you get to have a second go.

So this is my attempt to do justice to a couple of those questions.

The first one was about forgiveness. Whom or what was money burning forgiving? Forgiveness, the questioner pointed out, was really about self-forgiveness. 

Gosh. That's a good one. As a matter of fact, Sally always asked the same question of my money burning, albeit more directly; 'Do you feel you need to be forgiven?' I doubt there is a question that cuts any deeper spiritually, emotionally or psychologically. My answer to Sally was, 'Yes. I think we all do.'

The money burning ritual is not about a specific forgiveness. There is no object or action, internal or external, that its target. It's about the impossible idea of pure forgiveness.

Most people are used to the psychoanalytical emphasis on the importance of guilt in culture. But guilt of course, is not just about bad things we've done. It's not even about taboos we may have broken in thought but not in deed. Guilt exists in our psyches and in our cultures for potential acts buried so deeply in our subconscious, we may never be fully aware of them. And yet somehow, we feel guilt for them. Guilt is the cosmic background radiation of the psychical universe. 

These ideas, of course, annoy the hell out of materialists. Their key argument against Freud's work is that there is no material method of transference between the historic feelings that the deeds of our ancestors provoked, and our own psyches today. Genes simply cannot carry that sort of information. 

In my exploration of money I'm very clear about not being bound to materialism. I won't allow ideas born of the exploration of matter to restrict or dictate my imaginings of money's metaphysics. To do so would seem foolish to me. The maxim of my 'general ontology' is Marc Shell's opening sentence to his seminal The Economy of Literature

"Those discourses are ideological that argue or assume that matter is ontologically prior to thought."

So I see forgiveness as fundamental and primal to existence itself. At the Cowley Club I think I said 'its like the ether of the universe' - not the best way to put it, but gives the idea. If guilt is the cosmic background radiation, then forgiveness is what absorbs, transforms and purifies it. Forgiveness is the green-blue earth absorbing the radiation-waste of the guilty sun. Forgiveness is a name we give to one side of primal and universal duality, guilt is the other.

Or, something like that.

If I were to talk about the importance of forgiveness to morality, or in the mindscape, or even in the moral universe, none of this would seem so odd. Forgiveness is - or should be - at the heart of religion. We all understand that its the process through we achieve any truly meaningful and vital form of psychological rebirth.

But even within this 'mindscape' interpretation we still tend to straight-jacket forgiveness. To conceptualize it we have to place it in the realm of subject and object; subjective in the sense that it is an action that takes place within our thoughts, and objective in the sense there must be someone or something toward which the forgiveness is directed (I cover similar ground to this in my Intent and Intentionality essay)

Georg Simmel noted that Value and Money seem to occupy a special place between, or beyond subject and object. I think the same is true for pure forgiveness which is why I think burning money connects to it in a special way. As I say, burning money is as close to pure forgiveness as we can get.

Another question raised was about the distinction between money and currency. I emphasized this as an important intellectual response to money burning. 

What I said was that 'currency exists inside time and space and money exists outside time and space'. But I didn't think the explanation I gave, of my view or of the wider academic debate, was particularly coherent.

I've threatened on a couple of occasions to write a brief (@1K words) summary of the academic debate**. I'll not do that here, but briefly:.

The two key protagonists are Nigel Dodd and Geoffrey Ingham. It's Cambridge versus the LSE again. But unlike Hayek and Keynes, Nigel and Geoffrey are sociologists not economists***. In fact, these days the interesting stuff on money doesn't come from economists at all. Dodd, Ingham and Zelizer are sociologists, Hart and Graeber are anthropologists, Shell is a literary critic, and Seaford is a classicist. Economics seems still stuck on the question of whether money is neutral, or not (it's not).

In his recent (2014) The Social Life of Money, Nigel describes early on (p.5) the problems we have conceptualizing money in the face of it's changing forms, and our inability to satisfactorily define even the most basic of distinctions, that between money and currency. 
During the past two decades or so there has been a growing interest in the changing nature of money. Researchers have been looking into the emergence of new monetary forms: for example, complementary currencies, and Internet or electronic monies. Scholars have been predicting that the relationship between money and the state is coming under increasing threat from ‘alternative’ monies. But for all the empirical richness that these recent contributions add to our understanding of money, there is no common view of what counts as money in a general sense. There never has been a consensus about this: the extant literature on money is replete with debates over competing definitions. Even our language is confused. Take the distinction between ‘money’ and ‘currency’. While most scholars accept that the second term is narrower than the first, they are divided as to whether it should refer simply to legal tender, or whether currencies are monies that – literally – circulate in the sense of being passed from hand to hand.
In his earlier work The Sociology of Money, Nigel split his conception of money into 'money', and 'monetary networks' which I suggested in my review was akin to the notion of money (outside time and space) and currency (inside time and space). In The Social Life of Money he develops a conception of money as a 'socially powerful' and 'socially necessary' fiction or illusion, albeit one with a huge and diverse empirical richness (the empirical richness bit is where you'll find currency). You can think of Nigel's MONEY as an impossible conceptual perfection and of currency as our bound-to-failure attempts to achieve it.

For Geoffrey Ingham on the other hand, written into the essence of money is authority. In his The Nature of Money (review, ramble) the story is about how 'the very idea of money' (by which I think he means our ability to ascribe abstract value to objects) becomes manifest in currency through authority, institutional rules, and 'collective intentionality'. Collective intentionality, as Ingham means it, is a conception about shared mental states originally suggested by philosopher of language John Searle. Roughly put, it's the idea that we all believe something because we all believe something.

As far as my ideas about money and currency being outside and inside time and space goes....

My thinking about the distinction between money and currency began way before my money burning. It stemmed from wondering why there were two words for, what economists and economic historians were telling me was, the same thing. All those monetarist attempts to define M0, M1, M2 etc seemed arbitrary to me, bolted on after the fact. The two words seemed to point up some essential distinction, one which an economic conceptualization of money couldn't put its finger on. Bluntly, I just knew money and currency meant different things, as I think we all do. That's why we have the two words. (It might not be correct to describe money as a thing but you get my meaning).

What money burning brought home to me was that the twenty quid I burned seemed straddled across two worlds; the inside and outside of time and space. As currency, it seemed to be anchored in the here and now, burning it seemed to be directly connected to the manifest value of people and things. As money though, it seemed connected to the eternal, burning it seemed akin to releasing it from its earthly chains rather than destroying it. The twenty quid contained both the theoretical and the empirical. Burning it forced or facilitated an intellectual appreciation of that duality. I'm not claiming that this is a particularly unique intellectual insight. Far from it. Actually I think you can see it in all sorts of places. Most recently I've come across it in Albert Tauber's description of Freud's work straddling of the two worlds of res cogitans and res extensa, consciousness and matter, subject and object'.

Mervyn King the previous BoE governor used to have a video on the their website where he said that 'money is all just bits of paper'. This understanding of money is built upon a materialist rationalist perception of the world. There is little evidence to suggest that such an ontological conception is sufficient to understand money. Mervyn King might have found that out if he'd burned some of his own bits of paper.

When I was giving my answer I said that 'it was difficult to express all this in words'.

That does feel like a cop out. I still think its true - I reckon it's impossible to define the nature of money in words - but its also an easy excuse for my inability to find the right words.

Anyhow, to tie up these two themes of money/currency and forgiveness I thought it might be easier to draw a burning map. So here you are. Just remember, (as Robert Anton Wilson, Robert M Pirsig and Alfred Korzybski will all tell you) the map is not the territory!

The left-hand side is outside time and space; it is those things materialists would describe as unreal (although of course paradoxically they are the things that appear as most real to us, our values and the constraints placed upon our actions). The right hand side is inside time and space; we tend, in our day to day life to regard all these things as real (although spiritually of course were are always at pains to remind ourselves of their ephemeral nature, and even in a materialist mechanistic world view all these things disappear into the quantum soup). I tend to think the whole unreal/real thing whilst being in practical teems quite handy for day to day living, is conceptually pretty useless. Especially when it come to money.

In the middle of the picture is the twenty pound note you're going to burn. It's sitting there happily with one foot in the here and now (as currency), and the other in eternity (as money). I find it quite useful to think of the twenty quid as an axis around which a moral universe spins. (Kenelm Burridge said something similar).

Now imagine a circle drawn from currency (on the right hand side) that goes inside the outer circle passing through the sex and money of your twenty pound note. This circle would represent what I call a redemptive cycle - a series of events that creates the experience of time and space. Onto this smaller circle you could attach terms like debt, remorse, guilt, sacrifice and ritual - all the emotions and feeling that seem to arise from exchange (in the very broadest sense of the word). And at some critical point, at some balancing, or turning of psychical energies, you could mark a point of forgiveness.

So you can see that for me, forgiveness is not only a spiritual, emotional and psychological idea - as it is for all of us - but its also a term by which we understand a metaphysical marker as it were; a critical point where things turn back in on themselves. Pure (or perhaps it is better understood in this context as infinite) forgiveness would be represented on the map by a line whose circumference was equal to the outer circle and passes directly through VALUE.

In Life Against Death Norman O Brown speculates on a psychoanalytical theory of time
"In the id there is nothing corresponding to the idea of time.... ...If therefore, we go beyond Freud, and speculate seriously on the possibility of a consciousness not based on repression but conscious of what now is unconscious, then it follows a priori that such a consciousness would not be in time but in eternity" (p.97
This escape from time - and I love saying this its my favourite claim for money burning! - can be glimpsed when you burn your money.

If you give your twenty quid to your favourite most deserving charity you may well be helping those less fortunate than yourself, but what you are also doing is closing down the redemptive cycle. You are in effect binding the future to the past - you will experience the eternal re-occurrence of the eversame (as Nietzsche might say). And anytime time you spend your twenty quid, whether on a charity donation or blood diamonds and guns, you are - I think undeniably - supporting the very structures that give rise to injustice, and hence the need for charity, in the first place (we easily forget that charity is a means to justice, not an end in itself - this post has quite bit on this idea).

Burning money - active nihilism - stops the turning of that redemptive cycle, so that maybe, in that moment, you can glimpse new possible futures. It is the only action by which your twenty pound note can be truly subversive of the structures of capitalism.  By virtue of its purity, it is an act of forgiveness that expands the circumference of the redemptive cycle to the largest we can bear. A donation to charity, no matter how large, how deserving, or how kind-hearted will never be able to reveal those futures. Indeed, the true price you pay for the good feeling your donation manifests within you, is the closing off of those new possibilities.

The picture of the world I paint here, linking a moral universe to a material universe through money, comes directly - intellectually speaking - from recognizing that distinction and relation between money and currency.

Just before the halfway point of the talk John Higgs asked the question 'Has anyone here burned money?' And to my delight and surprise we found that there was another money burner among us. I was not alone ! I had a quick chat with the burner during the break. I'd love to recount the story here but stupidly, I didn't get a name, nor seek permission to tell the tale. The circumstances of the burning may reveal the identity of the burner, so I won't tell it here without permission.

But if my fellow money burner reads this and wants to share, perhaps you can post your story in the comments? Or maybe email me, so I can tell the story? We are a rare breed, but one day we shall be legion.

There was so much else we could have talked about on the night. Not least, as John Higgs pointed out, was the idea of sacrifice. As well, the themes of debt, guilt, sacredness and time were only really touched upon. There's a lot involved in the simple act of setting fire to twenty quid. And there is too the potential for an entire library of metaphysics and philosophy treatises to be written on the differences and similarites between burning £20 and burning 'ghost money' .

Thanks again, Michael.


* Pansexual is a tricky word by virtue of its inclusiveness. It got the SFC into hot water with the tabloids in the past. But their political vision of pansexuality did not include the most taboo and morally repellent of the philias. It was - in my experience of the organisation - about including those folks (especially the mentally and physically disabled) who have difficulty in expressing and realizing their sexual life.
** I think this may be helpful in several respects. It will expose the deficiencies in my own understanding of what is quite complex debate - and hopefully allow me to rectify them. It will also, I hope, be useful to those coming to the subject afresh. And it might point up the differences and similarities between my inside/outside of time and space distinction and the distinctions drawn in academia.
*** There is a debate to be had about whether you can describe Keynes and Hayek as economists. Hayek thought Keynes a great thinker but not much of an economist. Certainly neither of them were the narrow technical economists that the word conjures up today. 

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