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Showing posts from November 14, 2010

Three stories of invisibility – or Gyges wound and unwound

1. In the first chapter of Marc Shell’s Economics of Literature, The Ring of Gyges, he relates two stories about the King of Lydia, Gyges. Shell is interested in Lydia because, in Greek historiography and legend, Lydia was the birthplace of coinage, and Shell is looking for something like the primal scene of monetization. What does this have to do with invisibility? The logic of Shell’s chapter slowly brings together, through Greek texts, the power of the invisible and the power of money, or, more precisely, how money operates to introduce invisibility into society. This is the context for his analysis of Gyges. “It is not easy for us, who have used coinage for some twenty-five hundred years, to imagine the impression it made on the minds of those who first used it in their city-states. The introduction of money to Greece has few useful analogies.1° Tales of Gyges associate him with founding a tyranny in Lydia and with a power of being able to transform visibles into invisibles a

note to homo oeconomicus 1

Mill, in his influential System of Logic, devoted Book six to the logic of the sciences of human nature, which he called ethology – the science of character. His first purpose in writing this chapter is to defend the notion that social sciences are exact sciences – that is, that they express laws, in the same way that the phenomena studied by astronomers or meteorologists express laws. His second point is that ethology is a deductive science – not an experimental one: “Are the laws of the formation of character susceptible of a satisfactory investigation by the methods of experimentation? Evidently not: because even if we suppose unlimited power of varying the experiment, (which is abstractedly possible, though no one but an oriental despot either has that power, or if he had, would be disposed to exercise it,) a still more essential condition is wanting; the power of performing any of the experiments with scientific accuracy.” (517) This breathes the air of liberal doctrine. From

homo oeconomicus 1

A mystery surrounds the birth of homo oeconomicus. His ‘hour of birth” is disputed. His parents are many – and they are all males. He has been traced back to Plato’s philosopher king – and more plausibly, to the all knowing fiction devised by Laplace to explain the explicability of the mechanistic universe: “An intelligence which in a given instant would know all the forces of which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings that compose it, if it were besides of a vast enough scale to submit these givens to analysis, would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies in the universe and those of the lightest atom: nothing would be uncertain for her, and the future, as the past, would be present to her eyes.” Homo oeconomicus, of course, has not yet been elevated to a principle as universal as all that. But he is still a hero, and as such, a piece of the marvelous that no plebian copulation can explain. The hero’s birth, which is always a matter