Fillip 13 — Spring 2011

N. Brühl, engraving of Johannes Tetzel (1465–1519) after contemporary portrait. Courtesy of Archiv für Kunst und Geschichte, Berlin.

Faith Money Love
Jan Verwoert

Tell me why, tell me why

Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself
When you’re old enough to repay
But young enough to sell?

Money is a matter of faith. If no one put faith in it, money would have no value. Money needs you to invest faith in it. Yet it will never put faith back in you. It won’t believe in you just because you choose to believe in it. Affairs with money are one-sided: you can go out and look for money, but money won’t come round to look after you. You can hold money in your hand, but it won’t hold you in its arms. You can foster its growth. But it won’t hold your name in honour. It forgets you the second it leaves your pocket. Money is a deserter. The more love you give it, the more likely it will betray you. It’s like in life. The ones who receive a lot of love are most likely to cheat on those from whom they receive it. They are given the power to cheat on their lovers by their lovers who, by putting faith in them, give them the confidence necessary to accomplish their betrayals. Love, as we know it, is an unconditional investment of faith in the value and power of others. Those who get the power have got all they need, so who could blame them for using what they have to get more of what they want? Precisely because economies are faith based, they thrive on betrayals. Without trust to be betrayed there are no profits to be made. Without some putting something at stake, there would be nothing to gamble on. Neither now nor in the future.

Faith-based economies have a long history. Today people like to gamble on stocks and bonds when they bet on the future. In the past the Catholic church allowed you to put money on the things to come. You could purchase a claim on the harvest of life and an option on the reward of the faithful by buying a letter of indulgence. For centuries the church had already been selling sanctuary. But in the beginning of the sixteenth century, it took business to a new level. Son to the Medici banking dynasty, Pope Leo X (Giovanni de Medici, 1475–1521) got together with the then-biggest bank in Europe, the Augsburg Fuggers, to organize and expand the market for letters of indulgence. Printing them in great numbers was a primary use of the recently introduced letter presses. Distribution was facilitated by the fact that a major political player in Germany, Albrecht of Brandenburg (1490–1545), had taken on a giant loan from the Fuggers in order to pay a fee to the Vatican for holding three bishoprics (when de iure one was the allowed maximum). To redeem his debts, Albrecht struck up a deal with a task force of Dominicans led by Johann Tetzel (1465–1519). The monks would travel the lands, preach to the people, and sell them the letters. The revenue was split 50/50. Half went straight to the bank, which had its own people on the road with the monks. The other half went to Rome, where Leo put it into his main project, building Saint Peter’s.2

So faith was big business. What an incredible realization it must have been to understand that this most common and infinitely renewable resource—the faith of the people—could be converted into capital and sold off as shares! Faith, moreover, did not just imply hope for heaven, but also trust in a social order, which the church justified as God given. In this sense faith was what the social contract was built on (if we here understand “social contract” as the tacit agreement between the members of a society regarding the principles that govern their communal relations and determine their positions within the social matrix). Now, if the letter of indulgence is a piece of certified faith and faith is the basis of the social contract, it would seem fair to conclude that the letter in fact represents a copy of that contract, put up for sale. Like one would nowadays buy into a company, the purchaser of the letter would buy into the church, and thereby into society at large.

But why would you want to buy into a social contract that you are bound by anyhow? To license your dependency and receive a document to certify it. The tie between mortgages and credit works similarly today. In countries governed by a speculative economy, the best way to get credit is taking on a mortgage. In exchange for consigning yourself to a system of debt, the bank accepts you as someone worthy of credit. By purchasing a letter of indulgence you would likewise consent to your guilt, and this admission of your debt (toward God) would make you a certified creditor in the economy of salvation.3 So when you buy into the system of debt, you pay to enter—not to exit—it. For the moment the church has given you credit. But to receive it, you declared yourself a sinner. And a sinner will surely sin again. So once you have accredited yourself as a sinner, you will only get further into debt. But people must have known that this is how it would go. So it’s probably safe to assume that, rather than trying to come clean once and for all, they actually sought to further (and formalize) their entanglement in the economy of salvation through their purchase. In the name of your future assumption, the church gave you the chance to license your progressive consumption by debt. To be thus consumed guarantees a form of rapture. It is the rapture of feeling the abstract powers that govern your life enter your immediate horizon of experience and become physically tangible. (When immaterial guilt becomes material debt, you really get screwed.) 

When it reaches a certain level of social and institutional complexity, power appears to be more than merely the sum of its parts—it acquires the presence of a meta-subject; as such, it has been called “The Leviathan,” “The Machine,” “The System,” or simply “The Man.” Whether or not such a meta-subject exists—that is, whether power can take on a wholly new qualitative dimension through sheer cumulation—remains subject to debate. But the mere idea of such a subject is already powerful enough to produce strong effects, one being precisely the rapture of infinite submission.4 It works like a mystical proof of God: you need a force that is bigger than you—i.e., The System—to validate the life you are living. Without it, you would be lost. To eradicate doubts, you must therefore consolidate the existence of that force by making its presence tangible and its effects irreversible in your life. There is no force like guilt to create intense reality effects. Nothing penetrates deeper than guilt. So you let guilt fill you with the rush of The System getting real. A letter of indulgence contractually confirms this arrangement. It’s an arrangement for the future. As an accredited sinner you can rest assured that The System won’t take you only once. To formalize submission—by means of a contract—is a masochist technique for intensifying the experience. It’s a means to eroticize The System, consummate the social contract, and thereby consume a most intimate experience of power: You let the system fuck you, so you get to fuck the system. What a fest!

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Image: N. Brühl, engraving of Johannes Tetzel (1465–1519) after contemporary portrait. Courtesy of Archiv für Kunst und Geschichte, Berlin.

About the Author

Jan Verwoert is a Berlin-based critic and author of Bas Jan Ader: In Search of the Miraculous (2006) published by MIT Press/Afterall Books. Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want, a comprehensive collection of his essays, was co-published by Sternberg Press and the Piet Zwart Institute in 2010. Verwoert teaches at the Piet Zwart Institute (Rotterdam), De Appel Curatorial Programme (Amsterdam), and the Hamidrasha School of Art (Tel Aviv).

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