Friday, November 26, 2010

Simmel on money and the devil

In early modern Europe, money was the determining factor in creating the literary and moral character types of the spendthrift and the miser. Characters are not vocations, but vocations can accord with or be in discord with characters – and evidently the miser was the character type drawn to middleman professions, ones in which the circulation of commodities, or money itself, is privileged at the expense of production. Misers are also associated with age – whereas the spendthrift was associated with, on the one hand, disdain for a profession – a sort of aristocratic pretence – and youth. Simmel’s essay on the avaricious, the spendthrift and the poor takes its bearings from the social meaning of money as a medium of exchange – as a means – which is why he also includes the poor, a group “in its purest and most specific appearance” defined by “the measurements of the money economy.”

Simmel comes at the problem from the perspective of philosophical anthropology: man is a purposive – a purpose setting – animal. But in as much as purposes give birth to intermediate stages – in as much as the mechanism that leads to a purpose can, in fact, create a middle ground of steps that have to be taken until the purpose is achieved – man is also an ‘indirect being’, the one who is always struggling with the means to ends, as Laocoon and his sons struggled with the snakes. The snakes, in the story, won – they strangled the prophet. Means, in Simmel’s story, also tend to win, as our social lives become so entangled in them, accommodate the distancing of ends and purposes so much, that ends and purposes become faint, distant, and irrelevant.

I think of Simmel’s essay (Über Geiz, Verschwendung und Armut, which is here), evidently hived off the great mass of Philosophy of Money, as being one kind of interpretation of a phenomenon – the role of the cash nexus as the great modernizing element in the world - that, from another side, was interpreted by Weber as inner worldly asceticism. Of course, in Marx, the penetration of all spheres of private life by exchange value receives another interpretation, for Marx sees the role of the cash nexus as a thing, in modernity, that can’t be understood without bringing it into relation to class differentiation, the division of labor, and the freeing of labor from feudal constraints.

Simmel recognizes that unlike the barter economy (or what he romantically calls the ‘natural’ economy), the money economy is not characterized by simply making money another kind of commodity. Rather, it is a commodity that loses all the sensual and, as it were, hedonistic features of a commodity in order to embody, as it were, substitution itself. He makes an interesting remark about that feature of money in relation to ascetic religions – a remark that foreshadows (and conflicts with) Weber’s thesis. Simmel is explaining the irreplaceability of money for living in a society that is fully monetized even though the gaining of money is only the gaining of a means to the things that make for living:

“It is because of this fact, where in principle only indifference reigns against all external things, that it is easy to slip into hatred against money.
Thus, secondly, the tempting character of money works all the more decisively. Because it is ready in every second to be applied, it is the most terrible trap of the weak hours, and since it seems to serve to create everything, it represents to the soul the most seductive of things; and all of this is such an uncanny danger as money, so long as it simply remains as money in our hands, is the most innocent and indifferent thing in the world.

Thus, for the ascetic sensibility, it becomes the appropriate symbol of the devil, who seduces us in her mask of harmlessness and impartiality; so that against the devil, like money, the only security lies in absolute distance, in the renunciation of any kind of relation, so harmless as it may seem.”
To be continued.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

as astronomers to the stars, are economists to the economy.

We can easily imagine DNA replicating itself without molecular biologists, and the planets revolving around the sun without astronomers. But can we imagine capitalism without economists?

On the one hand, we are always identifying proto-forms of capitalism without contemporaries making a formal theory of it. On the other hand, would the kind of capitalism we know, that which appears in the 17th and 18th century in Europe and America, have developed as it did without the appearance, at the same time, of the political economists? And as political economists developed their discourse – as economics began to regard itself as a science – was capitalism merely a parallel development, one that they studied, or was it a development in which they played a role?

Marx, in the Grundrisse, working in the shadow of the disputes in Germany about theory and ‘materialism’, wrote:

daß die einfachre Kategorie herrschende Verhältnisse eines unentwickeltern Ganzen oder untergeordnete Verhältnisse eines entwickeltem Ganzen ausdrücken kann, die historisch schon Existenz hatten, eh das Ganze sich nach der Seite entwickelte, die in einer konkretem Kategorie ausgedrückt ist. Insofern entspräche der Gang des abstrakten Denkens, das vom Einfachsten zum Kombinierten aufsteigt, dem wirk||16|lichen historischen Prozeß…

“…the simpler categories can express the dominant relationships of an undeveloped whole or the subordinate relationships of a developed whole, which historically already exists, before the whole has developed towards the side that is expressed in a concrete category. Just in so far may the course of abstract thought, which ascends from the simplest to the combined, be correspondent to the real historical process.” – Marx, Grundrisse

I take it that the intellectual space, here, is opened up by the uncertain position of the ‘categories’ by which social life is understood vis-à-vis the dominant relationships of the social whole. Marx doesn’t seem to believe that there is a natural tendency within the social whole to move in a given direction – in this way, he does not have a classically liberal view of progress – but instead, given the presence of subordinate and dominate relationships, posits conflicts in which some agent figures.

Boldly, I take the concrete categories to be expressed in character-making. Or as all the boys and girls like to say now, in the construction of the subject. However, for obscure reasons, I prefer the vocabulary of the character to the subject. Maybe I will be able to explain this later.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

the miser to the egotist

This morning I am finishing up my query letter on the book. I’m going to blog a lot of my work in progress, naturally. I’ve been thinking, over the last couple weeks, about misers. To this end, I’ve been reading Moliere’s L’avare and watching Louis de Funès version of it – which is quite funny. I was interested in seeing how Funès would make it funny, as, if you go by the play’s critical interpretation, it is a play in which the unfortunate spectator is put in the grip of an unrelievedly horrible monster, the miser Harpagon. Marcel Gutwirth begins his 1961 essay on the play – perhaps the best essay in English – like this:

“L'AVARE is probably Moliere's harshest play. Scheming love suits, openly rebellious chil-dren, an unloving father, a sordid theme hardly leave our sympathies any acceptable resting-place. Harpagon, moreover, is a monster who, unlike Tartuffe, is firmly anchored to the center of the stage. No jail, not even an omniscient King can rid the unhappy family of the man who is its head. His power may wither, as it must for the comedy to end on a note of relief, but his presence cannot be so decisively expunged from the lives of those around him. When Tartuffe is dragged to jail in Orgon's stead, justice is restored in the state, as is solidarity to the once bitterly divided family. Har-pagon leaving the stage to go see his chere cassette is merely shedding his family without another thought, allowing it to find unhoped for reunion under the wing of a new father, Don Thomas d'Alburcy, as generous and loving as the real father had been mean and hateful. “

It is easy to see, from the text, Harpagon’s meanness and lack of family feeling. In the very first scene, Harpagon’s daughter, Élise, mentions to her brother that the family has changed since their mother died – and certainly one feels that the death of the mother sets the mood for the entire play, which, in some ways, plays out an Oedipal struggle between father and son that the mother no doubt suppressed. Yet as Funès’ version shows, what may be monstrous, judged from the viewpoint of bourgeois drama, can be transformed into comedy when we remember how closely comedy is connected to puppetry. Wyndham Lewis remarks, somewhere, that he constructed the characters in his novels as puppets, in order to display both their monstrosity and their inherent ludicrousness. Lewis’s novels have never been popular for that very reason – but on the stage, especially a stage that has just emerged from the people’s plays of the foire, this works very well. Even as a text, it works – a couple of nights ago, reading the scene that plays out between Valere and Harpogon after Harpagon’s treasure has been stolen, I couldn’t stop laughing. Moliere knew how funny misunderstanding is – and – this is the uncanny thing about him as a writer - how it erodes our confidence in understanding.

So my next post will be about the miser. I think I will, firstly, bring into the discussion Simmel’s essay on Geiz – avarice, and then advance to Moliere.

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...