treasure hunting - the archaic economy of tomorrow!

Remark, here, on the double aspect of this transaction, at once modern and archaic. The modern aspect is found in the whole question of value: Pons and his fellow experts in bricabracology are commodifying, instead of monumentalizing, the past. About this aspect, I want to say a lot in this essay. I’m more interested, here, in the archaic aspect – that “merchandise of chance” - implicit in the very activity of treasure seeking in what the economists would call a secondary market. What is premodern here – and what, in fact, was never liquidated in modernity – is a way of thinking about treasure, about gifts, about bargaining, and about value.

I know about treasure from childhood, and from some vague memories of my grandmother, who was, during part of her life at least, very much the antique collector. In fact, one of my strongest childhood memories is reading in a rattan chair from the Philippines that erected itself, like a queen in shabby exile, on her back porch, during hot summer days. Surely I read Treasure Island sitting there.

In childhood, wealth is treasure, from the money saved in piggy banks to digging for imaginary pirate’s loot. I went on expeditions into the ‘woods’ around our neighborhood in suburban Atlanta with my friend Mark, tracing back streams into land that was already surveyed for the next wave of housing, looking for likely caches of Confederate gold.

The connection between the hidden and wealth reveals a mode of thinking about wealth from the point of view not of earning it – not of labor – but of finding it, of cutting the all too mortal tie of work. Yet the utopian, land of cockaigne aspect of things is only one determinant of the treasure myth. Treasures are guarded. Treasures are wealth in their most guarded form from the evil eye of the other. Treasures are about the powerful notion of wealth that has prevailed in agricultural based economies before the world of economic growth – before the world, that is, in which economic growth was expected, even assumed. This was a world ruled over by Nemesis – in which all the things of the world were scarce.

As Balzac explains, the pleasure that Pons took in his objets d’art, or the pleasure taken by the real collectors of Balzac’s acquaintance, or, I daresay, the pleasure taken by my grandmother, was greatly increased by the disparity between the price he (and them) acquired the piece for and its ‘value’. That value, like the value of any commodity, is realized in the market place. But the pleasure is realized in the finding of the treasure, which is materialized in the history of the bargain. Here, the forces engaged have to do with something like the hau of the Maoris, the spirit of the thing mentioned in Mauss’ Essay on the Gift. That spirit is engaged in the contests of ‘prestation’ – of giftgiving – that are at the center of Mauss’ essay. It is also engaged in the fan given to Presidente Marville, a fan bearing a signature by Watteau affirming its authenticity.
Anthropologically, these forces, these exchanges, are not captured within the framework of capitalist rationality.
In “ Treasure-Hunting: A Magical Motif in Law, Folklore, and Mentality, Württemberg, 1606 –1770”, by Johannes Dillinger and Petra Feld, there are a number of accounts of treasure hunting in Europe in the early modern era. One begins with a certain Margaretha Schütterin, the wife of a stonemason in Schwaikheim, who saw a ghost on day in the Winter of 1704. The ghost asked her to help him and 16 other souls (who also, apparently, appeared to her) who had been walking for 240 years by finding a treasure they had deposited in Schütterin’s house, hiding it from rampaging soldiers. They were monks in life, and needed the release in the afterlife which would follow upon Schütterin uncovering the treasure and using it, in part, for charitable works.

One of the monks explained that she had been chosen to do this because she had the same horoscope as Christ. Schütterin did what she could, which was to gather money from her friends and family to comply with the various tasks that would free the ghosts and lead to the treasure. This included paying for masses to be read, buying candles, and giving alms. By these means she extracted 912 Gulden out of a local baker, David Fischer.
“When he doubted her assertions, she made him believe that there was a competition between potential creditors. Margaretha Schütterin managed to establish a sort of `investment trust’ of treasure-hunters by promising them profits of up to 100,000 Gulden. The use she allegedly made of the money given to her, i.e. to donate it to pious causes in Catholic churches, could not easily be checked by the creditors. She finally left her husband whom she probably managed to deceive with her ghost story, too, and fled with the money. When Fischer denounced Margaretha SchuÈ tterin after her flight, he was sentenced to a fine of 14 Gulden for unlicensed treasurehunting, although he maintained that she had assured him that the treasure hunt had been permitted by the duke.”

Dillinger and Feld turn here, to explain the obsession with treasure, to George Foster’s work on the limited good – or the zero sum economic attitudes of Mexican peasants. Foster’s paper is a famous and disputed foray into the peasant mentalite. Clearly, he is working in the same vein as Mauss and – though Foster might never have read him – George Bataille, who developed a metaphysics of the abject and the sovereign built on the kind of generosity and madness inscribed in the society of the limited good. This is Foster’s explanation of it.
In this paper I am concerned with the nature of the cognitive orientation of peasants, and with interpreting and relating peasant behavior as described by anthropologists to this orientation. I am also concerned with the implications of this orientation-and related behavior to the problem of the peasant's participation in the economic growth of the country to which he may belong. Specifically, I will outline what I believe to be the dominant theme in the cognitive orientation of classic peasant societies,* show how characteristic peasant behavior seems to flow from this orientation, and attempt to show that this behavior—however incompatible with national economic growth—is not only highly rational in the context of the cognition that determines it, but that for the maintenance of peasant society in its classic form, it is indispensable.4 The kinds of behavior that have been suggested as adversely influencing economic growth are, among many, the "luck" syndrome, a "fatalistic" outlook, inter- and intra-familial quarrels, difficulties in cooperation, extraordinary ritual expenses by poor people and the problems these expenses pose for capital accumulation, and the apparent lack of what the psychologist McClelland (1961) has called "need for Achievement." I will suggest that peasant participation in national development can be hastened not by stimulating a psychological process, the need for achievement, but by creating economic and other opportunities that will encourage the peasant to abandon his traditional and increasingly unrealistic cognitive orientation for a new one that reflects the realities of the modern world.

2. The model of cognitive orientation that seems to me best to account for peasant behavior is the "Image of Limited Good." By "Image of Limited Good" I mean that broad areas of peasant behavior are patterned in such fashion as to suggest that peasants view their social, economic, and natural universes—their total environment—as one in which all of the desired things in life such as land, wealth, health, friendship and love, manliness and honor, respect and status, power and influence, security and safety, exist in finite quantity and are always in short supply, as far as the peasant is concerned. Not only do these and all other "good things" exist in finite and limited quantities, but in addition there is no way directly within peasant power to increase the available quantities. It is as if the obvious fact of land shortage in a densely populated area applied to all other desired things: not enough to go around. "Good," like land, is seen as inherent in nature, there to be divided and re-divided, if necessary, but not to be augmented.


Anonymous said…
Roger, I have to comment again as I love the Margaretha Schütterin story, which I wasn't aware of! I love for instance that her husband was a stonemason, a worker of stone, nothing more material than that, while she was telling ghost stories, nothing more immaterial than that! It would be interesting to know if the stonemason husband's work involved tombstones.

The thing that strikes me about the story is that it is a story. The ghosts appear and tell their story and she tells the story to others. It helps that the ghosts are monks to give authority to the story but belief in ghosts - or stories - is not necessarily and only the authority of monks. So in "exchange" for the story she is able to get money for the after-life of the monks and their buried treasure, and also to leave, move, run, abandon. A deception say, but who is deceiving who in the story? One could say, for instance, that such deceptions are very primitive or archaic, we moderns wouldn't fall for such stories or accounts, we know how to balance them in our accounting books of economic science which have nothing to do with stories or fables. And yet, recent "economic crises" makes one wonder doesn't it?

I'm not familiar with George Foster's work, though I want to look it up after reading your post. I wonder if in the society of the limited good he mentions stories and their means of transport, in every sense of the word, including the one you mention of "orientation". What does orientation mean?

roger said…
Justine, definitely the stories that circulate on the surface and under the surface of the modern economy are just as full of dreams - just as much the Es shrugging its shoulders in its sleep (although does the unconscious sleep?)

My email box is flooded, every day, with spammers - those modern ghosts - sending stories in which immorally earned money is just waiting for me if I will simply accept it by sending information tot he spammer about my bank. Or whatever. In Vidocq's 'dictionary' of criminal argot, published in the 1830s, there is a beautiful entry under charrieur - those who steal by mystifing - which I should go into some time. Vidocq gives an example of charriage which involves just this - theft through story. One member of the con gang plays the "american', rich, a bad speaker of french. Another is the 'gardener'. The mark - a 'fripon' - who bears a mysteriously recognizable outer appearance of being naive - is approached by the American, who is working for a rich foreigner who died upon arriving in France. He of course left the American many "yellow" coins - which the American wants to trade for "silver" ones.

Well, the fripon sees how this will work out - he'll just sell silver coins against gold and make out like a bandit. He is helped in this decision by a man who has joined him - the gardener - who suggests that maybe the gold pieces aren't right. They should check them out, of course, and he knows just where they can go to do so. Well, they go to a dealer, who takes the gold piece given by the American and gives back 8 five franc pieces. So it looks like the deal is doable, and the gardener and the dupe take the rolls of gold coins and put in their place rolls of silver coins - when the American says, wait a minute, I want to see if the silver coins are good. The helpful gardener, of course, tells the dupe that he'll go with the American and leave behind the gold coins as a surety.

Well, you know the story - one of the oldest cons in the business. But isn't it interesting that the story is meant to orient and disorient? It involves telling and changing places, physically.