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Monday, October 18, 2010

the tactile privilege

Riddle me this:

Berkeley returns to Great Britain from Italy in 1721, and publishes a pamphlet, An Essay towards preventing the ruin of Great Britain, which aims to moralize the collapse of the South Sea Bubble. Berkeley is not simply distressed by the economic collapse of the speculation, one of those annexes to John Law’s system, but is incensed at what he takes to be the symptoms of irreligion and moral decay:

“Industry is the natural sure way to wealth. This is so true that it is impossible an industrious free people should want the necessaries and comforts of life, or an idle enjoy them under any form of government. Money is so far useful to the public as it promoteth industry, and credit
having the same effect is of the same value with money ; but money or credit circulating through a nation from hand to hand, without producing labour and industry in
the inhabitants, is direct gaming.

It is not impossible for cunning men to make such plausible schemes as may draw those who are less skilful into their own and the public ruin. But surely there is no man of sense and honesty but must see and own, whether he understands the game or not, that it is an
evident folly for any people, instead of prosecuting the old honest methods of industry and frugality, to sit down to a public gaming-table, and play off their money one
to another.

The more methods there are in a state for acquiring riches without industry or merit, the less there will be of either in that state…”

Yet here is the puzzle. In some ways, one would have thought, speculation , which frees money from some supposed natural value, corresponds to Berkeley’s own idealism. Just as the value of money is no longer the value of a metal, but a social value, so, too, matter is no longer outside of the mind, as its support, but inside the mind, as its ‘game’. Why, then, does Berkeley denouce speculation in these traditional moralistic terms?

However, a careful reading of the pamphlet shows Berkeley is not denouncing any Laws-ian system per se. Rather, it is the opportunity for unearned wealth, available to all, that is Berkeley’s target. Speculation as conditioned by a lack of socially useful industry – the foundation of wealth – and a tilt towards luxury – social splendor – is, for Berkeley, much like one of those language games that metaphysicians engage in to create fictional entities, like matter, than it is a true comparison of ideas.

Later, Berkeley considers money more seriously in one of his avant garde texts, the Querist. Which I will go to next – but I want to revisit an argument in my last post. As I’ve implied, Berkeley’s notion of the equivalence between reality and the to-be-perceived gives us, or can be conceived to give us, a deeply human world. If the perceivers are, supremely, human, and if we don’t think that there are perceivers swarming in the world – rather like monads – but that there are specific perceivers, who are human like, then the world is deeply human – we really are the species designated, in Genesis, as the guardians of the world.

But of course, we are ourselves, on the deepest level, perceived – and the whole of the system depends on one great perceiver, God. And this God, as Berkeley mentions in the Principles of Human Understanding (quoting his Theory of Vision), privileges touch. We should resist the automatic way we link up of perception and sight – sight being the Occidental sense of choice. This assumption leads us in the wrong direction not only with Berkeley, but with a whole line of Enlightenment philosophers who similarly assume that touch is the deepest sense. In an odd way, Berkeley participates in this materialism. It is touch, God’s touch, which we find everywhere in Berkeley’s vision of the world. Vision is on the side of the sign, and touch on the side of the real.

Of course, the tactile privilege that runs through 18th century sensualism and materialism is not just derived from Berkeley or Newton – although many of the vibrational ontologies of the time explicitly reference Newton. This is, as well, a folk metaphysic.

More on Berkeley and money later.

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