Sunday, November 30, 2014

Record of Burn

I've been meaning to do this for a while.

So now if you look to the right of this post there is a link to Record of Burn - as the title suggests it lists my money burning events. And shows the total burn currency value.

First I need to do a bit of housekeeping.

There is no burn recorded in 2010. I have made a note of this on my burn spreadsheet but it doesn't seem to want to show up on the public version. So here's the full story.

My intention in 2010 was to burn £100, but I lost my nerve. When I started burning in 2007 I got the idea in my head that I would, more or less, double the amount I burned every year. An ambitious plan. I mentioned the plan in this post from 2009. And I had intended to do the £100 burn right up until the last moment as this tweet from 23/10/10 testifies. But things were very tough for me at the time. I was exhausted after finishing an extended summer tour and had returned home to considerable domestic strife. Not only was Sally extremely unhappy, but the money I'd earned, which might have offered a crumb of comfort to the both of us, was snapped up by some eager bailiffs who visited on the morning following my return. That sort of thing can test your spirit.

So anyway, burning the £100 would, I think, have been regarded as an aggressive or petulant or just plain insane act. Not only by Sally, but by my kids too. 'Why have we got no dinner tonight?' 'Because your Dad just burned the last of our money'. The fact that I would subsequently have blogged about the philosophical nature of money and what burning means would have rubbed salt into the wound. As I looked back at the archive of my tweets from that time to write this post, I do seem desperate. I was playing a lot of low-stakes poker, and tweeting about the bad beats I'd gotten.

A bit on poker. It'll make sense later on in the post.

With the exception of £100 I lost in one sitting at a cash game in the West End (straight after I attended this, and around the time Sally and I separated), I've always been pretty tight with what poker players refer to as 'bankroll management'. This issue with my poker playing has generally been about the time and head-space I give to it, rather than the money. I do win occasionally. And like all poker players, I like to think I play well.

I've always seen poker as a tax on hope. I used to say this to Sally back in 2010. If you're facing bailiffs, or if your worried the constant strain of your financial position is having an effect on your relationship, or whatever your financial woes and their effects, a poker tournament is a respite. For the time you're playing, a potential future exists where you win and your financial problems are alleviated. Of course, most of the time you lose, but when a tournament just costs a couple of dollars to enter and will last for several hours (even if you still lose) that 'tax' is a light burden for a blessed relief. (I play much less these days. The rule I have - aside from the bankroll ones - is that I must 'want' to play, that is, I must play for the pleasure of playing, rather than the pleasure that winning will bring in the form of money).

So it ended up that on the night of 23/10/10 I chose not to burn £100. Instead I wrote out my own promissory note and burned that. Somewhere, I have a record of the promise I made on it. I can't find it at the moment, but it was to the effect that when I die, and in the unlikely event I leave any money behind, someone should burn a £100 of it for me. I owe £100 to karma.

The non-burning still bugs me. Although, the fact that it does still bug me, is quite instructive. I can access the feeling I have about it every time I read 'money is just credit' or similar statements that try to wish away the profound and sacred reality of Money. There seems to be a critical point - a psychical one - between burning a bit of paper with my promise on it (no matter how solemnly made) and burning a £50 note (with the BoE's promise on it). I guess it has to do with the difference between individual and collective belief. At that critical point you pass from the purely imaginary into the very real.

Recently, I re-watched Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty being interviewed on the Irish Late Late Show (sometime around 1995). At the point I've linked to in the video Bill is trying to explain that their burning of a million quid doesn't mean there are any less apples or loaves of bread in the world. This is of course absolutely and indisputably correct.

The interviewer, Gay Byrne's line of argument is that 'there's not less, but there could have been a little more'. He then confusingly says, 'you could have bought loaves of bread for people who needed them'. Bill stands his ground as says that the only thing less in the world is a pile of paper. But you can see from this freeze frame, Bill looks uncomfortable.

The blond bloke sitting next to Jimmy is Joe Elliott, from Def Leppard. He says of Bill's argument that 'I used to talk to my dad like that when I was sixteen'. Bill's reply is 'I'm still talking to my Dad like that and I'm 42.'

If I owned any Def Leppard records I'd burn them. No. In fact, burning would be to good for them. I'd reverse sell them. I'd stick a tenner in them and sell them on ebay for a fiver. I bristle when I'm told that these arguments around the nature of money are wrong because they're naive or immature. As if, a common sense, grown up, hometown, belt and braces, bread and butter, look after the pennies, know the value of money wisdom is what really penetrates the nature of money. Its completely the other way round. All those common sense views are a distorted reflection of money itself. Money has penetrated them

Let me briefly try to unpick the argument here. Not Joe Elliot's, but Gay Byrne's and Bill's.

Essentially Gay Byrne is saying that by destroying the million quid, Bill and Jimmy have destroyed 'demand'. That demand would have caused more apples and bread to be produced in future so long as it was spent and not destroyed. This line of argument is an economic one, although in the interview it is pursued (albeit quite gently by Gay Byrne) as a line of moral inquiry. I've dealt, and am dealing, with the moral aspects of burning elsewhere (for example in my Horse Hospital post) but for now, I just want briefly to focus on the economic.

The crucial difference in the economic perspective is how you regard money. Is it a social relation or a commodity? However, the arguments that are overlaid on the basic conceptualization of money quickly become confused and twisted round one another - and that happens on TV chat shows and academic journals. Gay Byrne's argument is based on money being a social relation - demand-side economics needs money to be a social relation. And yet in his reaction, he seems to regard money as commodity - as if the money, and its direct equation into apples and bread, were a real thing that was destroyed. Bill's argument too is a little confusing. He's saying that money is all just bits of paper - a social relation - and yet he is denying the conclusion drawn by demand-side economics that increases or decreases in the amount of money in the economy have a real effect.

Current economic orthodoxy - if there is such a thing, as it does seem to be dissolving fast - is that money is neutral, so that the destruction of the million quid will have no effect on the quantities of apples or bread, now or in the future. Money for orthodox economics is a veil over the real economy. Weirdly though, and in direct contradiction, orthodoxy sometimes seems to regard money philosophically like its a commodity with inherent value, and all the time seems to regard money as a divine measure of well-being or 'the good'. Perhaps its a hang up from the days of Gold and Silver.

This 'neutrality' point of view is strongly contested. It's what underlies the recent debate in the House of Commons. To characterize the two strands of criticism, both Left and Right (Democrat and Republican, for American readers) regard money, and its creation, as non-neutral. Groups like Positive Money on the Left want to move money creation into the democratic process. They regard money as a social relation. Those on the Right - and I include alt-currencies like bitcoin in this characterization - want to liberalize money and its creation, making money a pure product of the market. Although its more popular to talk about things like bitcoin in terms of it being an emergent value from networks, essentially its conceptualization as money is akin to commodity.

[Only this morning, Francis Coppella posted 'Magical Thinking at the G20' which explores the contradictory nature of economic orthodoxy from her viewpoint. Its not a viewpoint with which I concur but the demand/supply contradiction is neatly illustrated. And of course, although Francis means 'Magical Thinking' negatively, the title really appeals to me !]

So if Bill's argument does sound a like a naive confused sixteen year old, he's in very good company with the rest of the world. The difference being that Bill and Jimmy actually did something about it. Something that still has people talking and thinking 20 years later. Fucking Joe fucking Elliott. Dick.

Anyway. my take on the economic arguments is that ultimate source of confusion lies in our ontology and epistemology of money. We seem to have difficulty in understanding being, other than in terms of possessing something of it. That's why the burning is so confusing to us. Bill and Jimmy have given up their possession of the million quid. And we're left wondering about what it actually is that they have given up possession of. The million quid only seems to be when it's possessed. The moment it's freed, it becomes a phantom that we can't quite see or grasp, As a consequence of this ontological uncertainty we also get confused as to how we know about money and it's effects. We all understand that no apples or bread were harmed in the burning of the million quid, but when you add the element of time to that basic equation of equivalence, that certainty disappears. We don't know in the future whether there would have been more or less apples and bread because of the burning. This knowledge is fundamentally unknowable. Certainty of knowledge only exists in the moment of the burn, and perversely that certainty, is about the certainty of not knowing. Burning crystallizes the unknowing. By burning money, you know you can't know.

This epistemological problem echoes through the great economic debate of the C20th. For those on the right, marching under Hayek's flag to the tune of The Law of Unintended Consequences we cannot know the effect of collective spending. So we shouldn't spend. For those on the Left under Keynes' flag life is short. We should whistle while we dig holes and fill them up again. Precisely because we don't know what its effect will be we should spend. Pessimism versus optimism, or realism versus wishful thinking? You decide.

Part of what I want to achieve with my 'Record of Burn' is to set a kind of new Cosmic Clock for myself. I've put the time and date of burning in the second column, and described it as 'a marker'. I want the burn itself to be the tick of the Cosmic Clock. Each tick being a point where we know, we don't know.

This relates back to what I was saying about poker. When we know we don't know, the possibility for hope is alive. 

I've made my own stumbling attempts to make this argument philosophically (mainly in un-posted essays) when I talk about the inside and outside of time and space and the way that a £20 note and the burning of it joins them. Particularly influential upon me, and directly connected to the ontological and epistemological status of money is the work of (a) Norman O Brown in Life Against Death (and specifically his development of a psychoanalytical theory of time) and (b) Nigel Dodd (who is also a fan of Norman O Brown) and specifically the ideas Nigel approaches in his earlier Sociology of Money where he distinguishes between Money and currency (money and monetary networks, in his words) and their relationships to time and space. Nigel also attacks 'the epistemological claims on which its [economic reasoning's] significance for the role of money in contemporary society fundamentally depends'.

What we all seem to be striving for (and I don't just mean me, Nigel and Norman, but all of us - including Bill and Jimmy) is an understanding of the relation between Money, Time and Knowledge.

[If you look at this bitcoin twitter exchange I had with Jonathan Levin while writing this piece you'll see that this issue won't go away. Its fundamental to our understanding and conceptualization money and so too, any currency... even ones that most folks consider to be radically different like bitcoin]

Between the iron gates of fate,
The seeds of time were sown,
And watered by the deeds of those
Who know and who are known;

~ Peter Sinfield Epitaph

I recently did a burn that wasn't on the 23rd of October. I thought about doing another burn since the 23rd of October and then burned £10 on 23/11/14. This happens to be the holy day of Discordianism and, as you'll know if you follow my twitter stream was the wonderful weekend of the Cosmic Trigger play and conferestival.

I'm keen to explore incorporating a burning into my life at different intervals. But I don't just want to follow a set pattern, like on the 23rd of every month, or every Sunday, or at Easter and Christmas, or on the summer and winter solstice. I want my burning to find its own path, to create its own time. So it may well be that my burnings do indeed coincide with a particular festival or cosmic event, and also that I repeat them annually. But I want to let the events lead me there as much as I can, Although I have a feeling that this awful US import of Black Friday will be an entirely appropriate Burn Day next year, 

It seems to be that the space between the burnings is the time of knowing, and the burnings themselves combine the crystallization of unknowing with a ritual of pure forgiveness. 

Looking back through my posts to write this one, I came across a little thing I did on hope. It's really embarrassing now, but it does express something important. It's the idea that there is no such thing as false hope. There is hope, and then things don't work out. The hope itself cannot be false, or else it is not hope. This seems to me quite an important philosophical point. And I think perhaps the purity of money burning, the 'certain space of unknowing' it creates, and its essence of forgiveness relate to this idea of hope being un-falsifiable. 

[If I'd read it, at this point I'd divert off for a ramble on Derrida's Given Time:Counterfeit Money. The notion of the impossibility of false (or counterfeit?) hope seems very Derrida. And no doubt there are very many other things that we talk about (like pure forgiveness for example) that are actually impossible. I'd be tempted to talk about despair and consider the idea of false despair too. And I might wonder if the 'certain space of unknowing' money burning creates manifests hope because it is a ritual of forgiveness. And wonder too if despair becomes manifest through rituals of guilt. My mind would flip back to the performance of Electra I saw earlier in the week. And I'd talk about the opposite of redemptive cycles - the cycles of vengeance manifest in Electra and how despair is manifest through the 'certain space of knowing' where there is an exact price of payment (a life for a life). Then I'd go back to the performance of Oedipus Rex I saw at the National - I'd wonder about Oedipus plucking out his eyes and think about the visibility of value, Gyges and Marc Shell's work. It would all get very messy and deeply Freudian. But fortunately I haven't read Derrida, so you can relax.]

Another thing about the burning that came home to me most especially doing the £20 burn with the GMT marker 23/10/14 23:23 (I'll try to remember to refer to specific burns in this way in future) was that doing things like taking photos during the burn really do distract from my experience of the ritual. I'm torn between my desire to share the ritual with an audience (last year's Horse Hospital burn had a powerful impact) as a means of evangelizing (and amplifying) its power on the one hand, and wanting to lose myself in the ritual itself, on the other. I don't think those two things are necessarily incompatible, but I just get the balance wrong sometimes. 

And actually putting up this public Record of Burn helps with that. I'll feel under less pressure (self-induced of course) to shout about a burn as I do it. Indeed, I think the spaces in between the burn will soon become the place where I shout about it most loudly, and the burns themselves will become the quiet points in between. 


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