Wednesday, May 13, 2015

My Review of What Money Wants by Noam Yuran

Here you go then. As ever if my review does provoke the desire, make sure it doesn't take away the performance and do click the like button here . (I don't remember that many Shakespeare quotes but I can remember one related to booze and erectile dysfunction - its from the Scottish play as my theatrical friends would say).

Putting desire at the heart of some exciting original - but not wholly unique - ideas about money

"When Noam sits at home watching crap TV, I bet he keeps pencil and paper handy and excitedly scribbles down notes about how some beer advert, or an episode of Sex in the City, mirrors the socio-economic circumstances through which we create our history.

It's great that books like this are being published these days. The heady mix of ontology, psychoanalysis, social theory and money doesn't make Yuran's efforts to elucidate his 'economy of desire' all that easy to understand. However, because he occasionally grounds it in mundane examples he manages to take the reader with him as he explores some difficult and contradictory territory. All those hours watching crap TV weren't wasted. I'll come back to waste'. It's an important idea for Yuran.

There are indeed many difficulties in understanding Yuran's thesis. First up is his concept of desire. Bravely, and I think rightly, he chooses not to define the term too tightly. But the effect of this is to make his overall metaphysical picture hard to get hold of. To compensate Yuran subsumes us in talk of subject and object with desire as seemingly able to flit between these two poles. And then - somehow - the poles themselves are able to fold into one another so that an object has a kernel of subjective desire. I'm sure if you're used to talking in these terms - as Yuran plainly is - understanding the nuances of his theory is made easier by his use of subject/object metaphysics. And - as Simmel understood - money and value seem to have a special relationship to the subjective and the objective. Yuran's focus on them, and use of them, is fair enough then. But certainly for me personally, I found those sections the hardest going. He cites Žižek quite a bit.

Another element in Yuran's work is how he thinks about history and 'the truth' of history and facts. This is important not only in and of itself - he contrasts Marx's dialectical history with Veblen's evolutionary history - but because it directly relates to his conceptualization of money as desire. Money as desire is that which has persisted through change. And persistence through change is what constitutes history - when we seek the historical narrative, we are looking for something immovable within the flux of time. In this sense then, Money is outside time.

Yuran is very critical of the notion of utility. There is he says 'something fundamentally wrong with it'. He also ties this in to criticism of behavioral economics and the general way that economics tends to refract everything it observes through its own particular set of cosmological conceptions. I was cheering at this point. There were a few mentions of money's relation to secrecy and invisibility that I found very interesting and I wish he'd expanded on. Often academics cite Marc Shell's brilliant work on this, but although Yuran does cite Shell a few times its not so much in relation to these themes.

I'd give this book 4.5 stars if I could. I settled on four because, although there is some original thought and clear writing, there were points when it was struggling to maintain 3 stars for me. Yuran cites Zelizer (I gave her 'The Social Meaning of Money' an overly harsh review) but he fails to follow through Zelizer's work. Some ten years or so after The Social Meaning of Money was published, Zelizer was an early protagonist in an important debate about how the terms money and currency should be distinguished within academia. Yuran fails to make any distinction between them, nor does he mention the debate. This is a pity because I think doing so might have allowed him to separate out the idea of money from the empirical reality of currency. Alternatively, he might have drawn on Deleuze and Guattari's distinction between payment and finance money. This would been particularly appropriate given that desire is so central to their work. Whichever distinction he'd chosen and however basic it was, applying it would have enabled Yuran to tell his story more easily, I think. It certainly would have helped me.

The other author that I kept expecting to see pop up, but who never did, was James Buchan. He wrote 'Frozen Desire - The Meaning of Money' back in 1997. Oddly Buchan's book was mentioned in the most glowing terms by Keith Hart in Money in an Unequal World; Hart wrote the forward to Yuran's book. But again, Yuran doesn't mention it. I said that not defining 'desire' too tightly was a fair thing to do but it might have helped me understand a little better if Yuran had put Buchan, Deleuze and Guattri in his picture. Yuran seems to have unnecessarily isolated his work. It is original, but not wholly unique.

I'm beginning to sound like one of those annoying types that scrawls in the margins of essays in red ink 'why didn't you consider so and so'. Really though, I just wanted to enjoy the book a little more than I did. It was - at times - a little too much like hard work. Fair enough. It's for an academic audience. But with his crap TV examples, Yuran so nearly nailed it and produced something that was both readable and deep.

As a final word I'll make one more annoying suggestion. I said I'd come back to 'waste'. Yuran must read Bataille. He is merrily skipping along in Bataille's footsteps seemingly completely unaware that he's doing so. There is absolutely no shame in this. In fact, that Yuran seems to have got so far along Bataille's path without being aware of him, is cause to celebrate. Bataille is not that well known. I hadn't heard of him until a year ago, and I've only recently read him. But, for me, Bataille is where many of Yuran's arguments are heading. Bataille's themes are very much aligned with Yuran's work. Not least with the idea of 'waste'; and not to mention utility, the erotic, sacred logic, servility etc, etc. Yuran even plays around with nothing and no-thing which is a motif Bataille uses. But what Bataille does in his work is give us a clear idea about sovereignty. And this was missing from Yuran's work. Some conception of sovereignty - some mention maybe of the Nietzschean Ubermensch - would have helped ground desire in a solid form. As a reader it would have helped me understand the relation between desire, money and being. By focusing on desire I felt caught up a little in its flow around different concepts so I think a clearer idea of 'being' - or an idea of what it is to fully be - would have stopped some of the giddiness I felt when I tried to get inside Yuran's idea of desire. To be fair, he did approach these themes obliquely by mentioning movements towards perfections and pure forms but I didn't get a proper sense of how they relate to desire.

But overall its exciting to read a contemporary book that considers these sorts of ideas. I look forward to his next one very much."


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