Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Bowie, McLuhan and John-Joseph Goux

Watch the above 1999 interview for one minute (from 10.45) and you'll hear - in response to Paxman's claim that the internet is 'just a tool' -  David Bowie saying 'no'; that the internet will, in fact 'crush our ideas of what mediums are all about'. I've heard another interview with Bowie where he said he wanted to be a medium - in the sense that he wanted to be the embodiment of, or vessel for, a trend.

Back in 1999 I was similarly excited about the prospects for the internet. I'm sure I can remember seeing that interview at the time and no doubt I hurled abuse at Paxman's 'internet is just a tool' comment. Even several years before then, around 1995/96, I'd fallen out with a friend of mine over his dismissal of the world wide web as 'just a glorified shop window'.  By the time I left the LSE in 2000 the internet was absolutely where I wanted to be. I'd first been online in 1994/95 and I felt my foray onto it as an entrepreneur had been a long time coming. 

You'll recognize in the above a theme that relates directly to my work on money; that phrase 'just a tool'. My first complaint about it is the idea that something is 'just a tool'. Most accounts of human evolution mark the development of tools as one of our defining characteristics. Simmel said that money was the purest example of a tool. The passage below from The Money Burner's Manual 2nd edition, shows how significant a thing Simmel considers a tool to be:
For Simmel, the idea of a tool symbolizes what it is to be human. We stand between an animal, who depends upon the mechanism of instinctual drives, and a God, whose will is identical with its realization. Thus the tool illustrates both the grandeur of the human will and its limitations. Simmel even suggests that the tool, by introducing and recognizing the practical necessity for a series of intermediate steps between ourselves and our ends, creates ‘a watershed between past and future’.
My second complaint is that functional explanations of money tell only a very small part of the story. This is something I regularly go on about.... off the top of my head try this review of Dave Birch's book. They define money within a very tight boundary of rational, logical and mathematical thought, and thus ignore what is obvious to each and everyone of us in our interactions with currency, which is that money sits deeply within our psyches, our lives and what it is to be.

And undeniably, the internet has a similar depth of relationship with how we are as humans and how we relate to each other, as money does. Bowie gets the measure of this depth, straight away.


I posted the above image of the first edition cover of Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media on Twitter recently. I did so for my Cosmic Trigger friends, pointing out the synchronicity of a number 23 appearing on the cover. McLuhan reportedly gave Tim Leary the phrase 'Turn on, tune in, drop out' (or at the very least encouraged Leary to develop a catchphrase by which to market his .... er.... philosophy). McLuhan was one of the most famous academics in the world during the sixties. He was interviewed by Playboy, met the Beatles, and was a regular on the television. And it was of course the television and its effects which were the object of his study, and in part, the reason for the massive interest in what he had to say. In a sense, the television was to the sixites, as the internet was to the noughties.

McLuhan's methodology of study was to class phenomena such as radio, tv, written word.... and nearly every other representational form you can conceive of...  as 'media'. And it wasn't  just representational forms - basically for McLuhan media were the extensions of man, of the human body and so anything outside of the body therefore became 'media'. He then sought new ways by which he could understand and classify those 'media'. And he recognized that although new media shared elements with those of the past, it was also impossible for us to know or predict where new media would take us, because we would always see them through the lens of old media. Our understanding of the new is necessarily built upon our vision of the past.

McLuhan recognized in television, what Bowie recognized in the internet.


John-Joseph Goux was a young man in the sixties. He attended Jacques Lacan's famous lectures in Paris and they had a profound effect on him. Like many others (including Norman O. Brown) Goux wanted to marry the thought of Freud and Marx. In May 1968, just as the protests erupted in Paris, Goux sat down to write an essay in theoretical numismatics.

By this time, McLuhan's masterwork Understanding Media had been out for 4 years. It was published in 1964 the same year that the Beatles played Paris, appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, and made A Hard Day's Night.

McLuhan's academic heritage was Cambridge University where his focus was on literature. As he took up various academic positions his obsession was not with Marx and Freud (via Lacan), like Goux, but with Joyce's Finnegans Wake. His study of it, he claimed, yielded some of the most important discoveries in media studies.

You'd think then that McLuhan's and Goux's views on money would be an ocean apart. But they're not really. And the differences and similarities between them are quite elucidating.


The key point of difference is Freud. Or rather, the recognition of Freud within their respective works. In Goux, Freud's influence is explicit. In McLuhan it is disavowed. The only point in Understanding Media where Marshall McLuhan mentions psychoanalysis directly is in the opening lines of the chapter entitled Money. And then he quickly dismisses it.
“ Although this idea [of Ferenczi’s] of linking ‘filthy lucre’ with the anal has continued in the main lines of psychoanalysis, it does not correspond sufficiently to the nature and function of money in society to provide a theme for the present chapter. ”
[I agree with the idea that McLuhan's work is essentially psychoanalytical - see Alice Rae 2008]

For McLuhan, of course, money is a medium. He draws parallels between the turning from commodity money to paper money with the switch from oral and hieroglyphic cultures, to written and alphabetic cultures. “Money”, he says “is an adjunct” of alphabetic technology that raises even the Gutenberg form of mechanical reproduction to new intensity. “As a translator and amplifier, money has exceptional powers of substituting one thing for another.”

Goux doesn’t rely on the psychoanalytical association between shit, gold and money (that McLuhan thinks insufficient and that we see explored elsewhere in Norman O Brown's work). He goes much deeper. His analysis is based on Lacan’s idea of three registers of psychical subjectivity. These registers are three mental fields within (and between) which, we experience what it is to be. Lacan named them the imaginary, the symbolic and the real. In this way, the psychical ‘content’ of any object - in other words, our subjective understanding of things - must be understood in terms of their relations to these three registers.

Goux suggested that money possessed the special quality of being the universal equivalent, above all others. This is very much in accord with McLuhan’s idea of money having exceptional powers of substitution. However, Goux said that the reason for this power relates to money’s psychical development from the Father (whom Goux says plays the role of universal equivalent in the Oedipus complex). Money arises from the movement of the Father within and between the registers. He appears to us symbolically as the phallus - also a universal equivalent which Goux says is ‘erected [!] as the general equivalent for objects of desire’. And then, perhaps in its most powerful form, the Father appears to us as Gold - the God of all commodities. Commodities ‘aspire to gold as their hereafter’.

And of course the movement continues. The process repeats itself. Gold becomes a symbol of itself in paper money. And now paper money which was a symbol of gold is abstracted further into digital representations.

The residual quality in that movement is not primarily to do with physical features of precious metals (such as rarity, portability, durability etc) - it is the conception, quality or 'psychical feature' of universal equivalence. [Here one can draw parallels with more mainstream idea that the most fundamental feature of money is that it is 'a unit of account'.] Alongside the quality of universal equivalence - isomorphic to it, as Goux says - is the relation between the ideal of universal equivalence and less-than-ideal forms. This is the relation we can perceive say, between the Heavenly Father and his Son on Earth. It’s worth pointing out that logically, what is ideal and what is less-than-ideal can only exist in relation to one another. One without the other would have no meaning and no existence. Goux emphasizes the significance of this to money in the following:
“ ...the oppositions between the divine and the terrestrial, universal and particular, sacred and profane, the one and the many, transcendence and immanence are summed up … in the opposition between money and commodities. ”
Goux’s says that the ‘march of history is the evolution of the social organism as a whole towards its arrangement, in all domains, under the general equivalent’. We have climbed, he says, to an historical peak. And this culmination - this ecstasy of the idealization (or perfection) of the money form - shakes the very foundations of history itself. We are, insists Goux, experiencing a ‘crisis of representation’. And, reminiscent of McLuhan’s ‘reversal of an overheated medium’, Goux suggests that our response will be, in part, a reversal. We will re-discover ourselves in a repetition that is simultaneously regressive and progressive.


I'm not wholly convinced by either McLuhan's or Goux's stories. I tend to find psychoanalysis at its most powerful when its metaphysics are laid bare and its implications are considered in broad and general terms. I find myself turning off to tightly-specified highly-technical analysis. For me what McLuhan did in Understanding Media was side-step a lot of those problems by creating what were in effect representations of psychoanalytical ideas. But the language and those ideas soon became as complex and difficult to understand as Lacanian-based psychoanalysis.

It was when I read more widely about McLuhan the man, watched some of his TV appearances, and most importantly learned about his devotion to his faith that the penny really dropped for me and I began to see quite how important his contribution and thinking was. 

McLuhan was a devout convert to Catholicism. He was devoted to the Church, more so than the Bible, because he considered the Church as an institution to be closer to the Divine than the written word. In other words, the medium between his experience of the divine in the ritual of the Eucharist (which he took daily) and THE DIVINE itself, was the most transparent and least distorting. It was the purest extension of man (towards God)

[ All of this has had an impact upon my own money burning rituals. It's led me to de-emphasize the ritual words, and instead to allow (as much as I'm able) the theatre of the ritual to form itself around the doing of it.]

Goux, comes from completely the opposite direction to McLuhan. For McLuhan VALUE ultimately comes from God, but for Goux VALUE is a creation of the human psyche. (I did a post on this in relation to Mark C Taylor's analysis). In the most basic of terms, McLuhan has effectively developed a theology of media, where as Goux has created a science of media. (I make no judgement here on the efficacy of theology vs science, or their individual work, nor on what each of them claims for their work, I'm only talking about their 'perspectives' as they relate to ultimate values.).


The section above perhaps goes some way to explaining why we expect to see differences in McLuhan's and Goux's conception of money. But its when we get to the question of how those two perspectives work themselves out in the their arguments that something really worthwhile is revealed. It's about that 'secret connection' between money and time that Walter Benjamin noticed and I set out to explore in The Money Burner's Manual.

McLuhan’s chapter on money is always sliding towards the telling of an origin myth for money. He is a little coy about it, perhaps because it overly simplifies the origin of currency and conflicts with evidence that was available to McLuhan. But McLuhan’s story of money is about cause & effect and function. It says that the language developments, especially from speech to the written word, had an effect on our consciousness and that this in turn was reflected in money. McLuhan’s money is not a fundamental psychical fracturing like language was. For Goux however, language and money develop in a' logico-historical simultaneity'; money is more than an ‘adjunct’ of alphabetic technology. In treating money as he does, Goux manages to escape somewhat the evolutionary cause-effect way of thinking - or economic thinking as I refer to it in TMBM. Although the same is true for McLuhan generally --- in that his conceptualizations of 'media' are helpful in terms of facilitating an escape from the dominant economic function-obsessed thinking that Paxman displays to Bowie in the opening video --- I think that as far as money itself goes, McLuhan's conception falls very short. Perhaps this is why he fell so far out of favour in the 1980's amidst the resurgence in ' naturalized economic thinking' whilst the post-structuralists and Continental philosophers (having a coherence of theory and backed by an explicitly Marxian and Freudian framework) to were at least able to flourish in opposition to the rise of free-market ideology?

No comments:

Post a Comment