Thursday, May 5, 2016

My Review of Mark C Taylor's 'Confidence Games'

This review appears on amazon here so if it immanentizes your eschaton do be a dear, pop over there and hit the like button. This van-driving philosopher-of-money really appreciates those little one-click ego-boosts, they really help get him through the day. Thank you most kindly.



Religion never goes away. It just takes on new forms.

"For a good deal of this book I speculated that a five star review seemed a certain outcome. I've ended up giving it four. If it were possible with Amazon's star system, I'd give it four and a half. The half-star loss relates to the divide between Taylor's exposition of theory and his application of theory.

In his exposition of theory Taylor delves in to the minds of the most exciting and perceptive writers on money in the last hundred years or so; Georg Simmel, Georges Bataille, Norman O Brown, and Marc Shell are my among personal favorites. Taylor also gives as clear an exposition of the philosophy of Hegel as I believe is possible. On his home ground of the philosophy of religion and in explaining the various strands of theology, Taylor in a magnificently clear writer. For me, the general picture of money that he paints in the book - that metaphysical ideas about Being underlie philosophical theories, which in turn underlie a further layer of economic theories, about money - is uncontroversial and irrefutable, although simultaneously largely ignored or forgotten by mainstream thought.

However when he applies those ideas and theories to create a financial and economic history, the book falters just a touch. It's certainly as good as most things I've read, and in many respects (largely because of his grasp of theology) much better. But it just didn't quite chime for me. The financial and economic histories that dominate the middle section of the book seem like a literature review that has too narrow a focus.. To say I was disappointed would be overstating it - this is still a brilliant book of exceptionally clarity given the complexity of its subject - but what I felt was that he didn't quite manage to deliver on what he (implicitly) promises. The beginning of the book situates the reader quite intimately within Taylor's life. It is written as a response to his young son's question to him after the 1987 stock market crash; 'Where did all the money go?' And although Taylor does reference one of his own financial adventures, as a reader I felt a little short changed in terms of an intimacy with Taylor himself. If the book had been a conversation, I'd have stopped him halfway through and said 'Yeah, but what do *you* think? What does money mean to you?'

Perhaps a more grounded criticism than the book's lack of intimacy could be leveled against Taylor's fluid use of the terms money, currency, finance, capital etc. They tended to meld into one another without a proper attempt to delineate, or at least describe each phenomena in terms of their differences to one another, This is a common problem with work on money. It's just a little surprising here, because Taylor seems so interested in the relation between language and money. For example, near the end of the book he gives a brilliant and persuasive dissection of the etymology of 'speculate'. One of Taylor's key notions can be summed up in the psychoanalytical phrase 'the return of the repressed' - or perhaps in philosophical terms the Nietzschean 'eternal return of the eversame'. He is right to highlight these ideas especially in relation to money which has a particularly mysterious relation to time and space.

In relation to these ideas. Taylor makes the key point that religion is not 'replaced' by art or capitalism, but rather merely 'displaced' and that each of them continue to work through one another. However, I'm not sure he manages to escape framing reality in evolutionary perspective - especially when he moves from the exposition of theory to its application. I think that he may have been helped if he could have teased apart money (the idea, outside time and space) and its representations as currency, capital, finance etc (the manifestations of the idea within time and space). A final niggling criticism might be his use of William Gaddis's novel as the theme to link the book together. It felt a little tagged on, rather than organic or intrinsic to the run of the text.

Often in my reviews I tend to criticize rather than praise. So to redress the balance a little I want to end on a more positive note. I was pleased to see him bringing together the work of Freud and Simmel. This is something few academics have done despite, what seem to me, the obvious affinities between their work. Even now, a decade or so after the publication of Confidence Games, and amidst a surge in interest in the brilliant 'Philosophy of Money' by Simmel, there is little written about what is shared in the thought of Freud and Simmel.

'Confidence Games' would be a book I'd put on every Economics 101 course. Making it required reading for economics students would reveal to them what lies underneath the surface of their area of study. Thinkers like Taylor (I could mention here Joel Kaye too) draw out the theological roots of economic analysis. Its to the detriment of the academic understanding of money that thinkers like Taylor and Phillip Goodchild (Theology of Money) are, for the most part, ignored by mainstream economic thought. This is especially true here in the UK where the theological perspective is often treated with some derision even by the broader social sciences (its only really in Literature studies that such works find a home). I have quite a large collection of books on money, and Taylor and Goodchild appear in no more than a couple of bibliographies. In the two best, most recent books on money - Dodd's 'The Social Life of Money' (2014) and Graeber's 'Debt' (2010) - their names and work are entirely absent. This is no criticism of Dodd or Graeber, it merely indicates that there is a gulf between studies of the social, and studies of the divine, that needs to be bridged.

Finally, as proof positive that Taylor has hit a home run with me (despite his mere four stars - he's in the best of company, I gave Norman O Brown's Life Against Death four stars too!!) I've added 'About Religion' to my bookshelf and I'm very much looking forward to reading a book by Taylor where he's writing on home ground. "

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