“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

the expulsion of the court alchemists and the ascension of John Law

I'm sorry my posts have been so rare, lately. But not since I was a lad of 20, working the grass game, have I been driven as hard as recently. Surely by the end of this month my work load will have fallen, but at the moment I am sweating it out, like a dumb donkey.

So, a brief scribble...

As Derrida’s séance over Marx raised up the spirits that were in his work, in this, the era of his supposed ‘death’, so too, Marx, in metaphoric and word, raised up the spirits in the classical economists, all of which hover around the fetishism of commodities. It is odd that Derrida seems to be the first to have taken Marx’s gothic streak seriously – he was, after all, a child of German romanticism, and who learned more from Heine’s prose style? … well, perhaps Nietzsche, as Mann points out.

When Marx overlays the transformations of money into commodity and commodity into money with the parodic language of alchemy, he is following a theme that goes back not only to Faust, but to the beginning of the theory of the political economy. About which, Carl Wennerlib has written an essay entitled “Credit-Money as the Philosopher’s Stone: Alchemy and the Coinage Problem in Seventeenth-Century England.” Wennerlib proposes that the 17th century natural philosophers took the alchemical proposal of creating wealth out of nothingness – or the base – quite seriously. And, vice versa, when the Bank of England showed in 1694 how credit-money could function, there was a rapid falloff in the patronage of alchemists…”

Curious phrase, credit-money. We would now simply say money, since it wouldn’t occur to any possessor of same to assume that the material ot of which the money was made was equal in value to the money. You won’t get much for a strip of green paper that doesn’t have the magical symbols of U.S. power on it now, will you? Of course not.

“Credit-money… served as a means of payment and had the capacity to circulate widely. These paper notes were wholly or partially convertible into assets or income streams designated as security. As such, they could fully complete a transaction and serve as a store of value…” In the system of political thinking that held at the time, this was as miraculous as the transmutation of metals promised by the Philosopher’s stone – or so our author claims. It is for this reason that the two things – the bank and the alchemist – were held in the same field, as substitutes one for the other. Or rather, the bank, by the alchemical feat of creating value out of de facto currency, drove out the alchemists, who’d been patronized by the Stuarts. ‘This transition from alchemy to credit was swift and complete, perhaps nowhere more dramatically evidenced than in the Duke of Orleans’s dismissal of his court alchemists in favor of John Law’s land-backed paper currency.”

Wennerlib takes a rapid survey of the literature produced by alchemists and those with suggestions concerning wealth, and finds a mixture of terminology, particularly around money – which a seventeenth century writer compares to “Materia Prima, because, though it serves actually to no use almost, it serves potentially to all uses.”

All of which had to do with England’s problem in the Early Modern Era – a shortage of specie. The solution proposed by some members of the Hartlib circle – the most advanced philosophers in England, including Boyle and William Petty – was to fund experiments to turn tin into gold.

All of which Goethe gets right in Faust, Part 2. It was not that long ago from the time he was writing in that these notions had been floated about. Indeed, for the Gnostic historian, looking for the event that emits the intersigne, surely the expulsion of the alchemists and the entrance of John Law marks a large step towards the great transformation.

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