Fillip 13 — Spring 2011

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!

But what about those who profit from this arrangement? What sets them apart? Is it their freedom from faith? For this is how it would seem to work: if the exploited carry the social economy by investing faith in the conditions of their own exploitation, the profiteers will reap the power and capital into which this faith can be converted. To reap it, they don’t have to feel it. By definition, the powerful are unbound from the shackles of faith. Or, at least, this is what Machiavelli candidly asserts in The Prince, a manual for the use (and sustenance) of power, which he dedicated to Leo’s father, Lorenzo de Medici, and drafted in 1513, the year the former became pope. Regarding faith, Machiavelli recommends: You must realize this: that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things which give men a reputation for virtue, because in order to maintain his state he is often forced to act in defiance of good faith, of charity, of kindness, of religion. And so he should have a flexible disposition, varying as fortune and circumstances dictate.5

If Machiavelli were right, then the “flexible disposition” toward matters of faith and religion would indeed be the prerogative and trademark of the selected few who are on top of the structures that all others submit themselves to. But is this really so? Consider two examples: Legend has it that a man by the name of Hans von Hake (1472–1541) purchased a letter of indulgence for two future sins yet to be committed from the notorious monk Johann Tetzel and confidently produced the letter a day later, when he waylaid Tetzel on the road between Königslutter und Schöppenstedt to rob him of all his revenue. Hake then donated the booty to the city of Jüterbog, where Tetzel’s stolen money shrine (the actual box) is still on show today in the local Nicolai church. Was Hake a man of faith or flexible disposition? Or what about the peasant Peter Swyn (1480–1537), from the North German region of Dithmarschen: he was respected among the local peasants and serfs as their spokesperson and, at official functions, reportedly used to cockily wear atop his sturdy peasant pants the silk gambeson of a nobleman he had slain in battle. It is also noted that he saved enough money to acquire a letter of indulgence in 1516 and travel to Santiago de Compostela on a pilgrimage in 1522. Faithful or flexible? What if, as Swyn’s story would seem to suggest, the possession of a letter of indulgence, more than anything else, was a mark of social distinction, equivalent to a nobleman’s coat or the ability to undertake an epic journey? We may have to assume that a more flexible, business-like attitude towards matters of faith (then as maybe now) is a stance that is equally also adopted by people who would still be among the faithful many.

For does the very act of buying a letter of indulgence not presuppose and require such a flexible disposition? Faith is the subject of the letter. Yet its purchase, strictly speaking, is a matter of technicalities. Is it even possible to consolidate matters of sheer technicality and matters of faith? In principle, one should exclude the other. When faith is brokered as an asset, it is commodified, not felt. To commodify faith is to betray it. So, technically, faith brokers are unfaithful. By the same token, being unfaithful is a question of technicalities. Betrayals require expert logistical skills (to coordinate a double life, concoct alibis, cover up traces). The unfaithful tend to be savvy, and vice versa. But what if that savviness were a disposition that accompanied conventional faithfulness? Is it not a recognizable trait that many people both like to invest faith in a given social system—for the sake of stability, be it at the price of their oppression—and at the very same time try every trick in the book to get the better of that system? Is that not actually the most common, conformist way to engage with society: to believe in the game and to keep it going, but still not miss any chance to cheat on its rules? 

With the expansion of the market for letters of indulgence around 1500, increasing numbers of people would have taken the chance to educate themselves in the techniques of doing business with the church, brokering faith/guilt. Access makes a difference. Since advanced Internet connections enabled real-time engagement in the stock exchange from home, day-trading has become a popular pastime (which in 2000 already accounted for 15% of NASDAQ trade). The New York Times reports that a Japanese housewife in her late thirties, Yuka Yamato, recently became a celebrity as she made over a million dollars when, bored with household chores, she started day-trading from her home computer.6 That 75% of all day-traders continue to lose money in the risky game of acquiring and (short)selling stocks and futures online within minutes, if not seconds, does little to curb the popularity of this trend, reports Forbes magazine.7 A parallel development is the rise of Internet gambling, which, according to the Economist, has changed the world of professional poker.8 The paradigm shift is marked by the symbolic date of May 23, 2003, when Phil Ivey, known as “one of the sharpest and most ruthless players of his time,” lost the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas against an accountant from Nashville, 27-year-old Chris Moneymaker, who came to embody the hope that poker could indeed be the everyman’s road to riches.9 Worldwide online gambling revenue soared to $26 billion in 2009, writes the Economist, which, to explain, cites psychological studies showing “similarities between gambling and faith: both expressed a need for reassurance, order and salvation.”10 So people like to be players. And believers, too.

A similar case could be made for real estate speculation. In the US, setting up shop as a real estate agent seems to be the profession people naturally default to when they rely on common sense as their key qualification. Accordingly, I recall a London cabbie telling me it was a good time to invest in property in Poland. He’d already done so. The conversation came back to me when I recently received a letter from a British real estate agency informing me that the flat I rent in a Stalinist building on Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee had not been bought by a Swedish family, as I had thought, but by them, and that they were going to sell it on to an Italian gentleman, whom—together with his younger companion and the Swabian representative of the British agency—I later had the pleasure of guiding around my apartment. Duefully elucidating the pros and cons of Soviet architecture, I couldn’t help feeling like a roulette ball chatting with the expectant players while bouncing through the wheel. The perplexed look on the men’s faces, however, seemed to indicate that they were somewhat unsure whether this was all still part of the deal they had expected. I haven’t heard from them since.

But how can it be? How can a player be a believer? Would a savvy player not always hope to outsmart the naive believers who faithfully play to the rules? Now, what if all believers were secretly players who would then still invest faith in the social relations that everybody seeks to reap their profits from? In the end, it seems, it must again be everybody. When all believers are players, all players must also be believers. Otherwise there’d be no game. On the one hand, the “flexible disposition” Machiavelli recommends for princes is ubiquitous: put into play in the smallest manoeuvres and deals people come up with every day when they seek their advantage. On the other hand, no one would trick anyone if they didn’t believe something could be gained from it. And in order to be able to enjoy the fruits of one’s betrayals, one must still invest faith in the belief that what one did was worth the effort.11 There is no real gain without faith in the fact that what one won was worth the price paid. This is why the notorious cheat will most passionately invoke the ideal of self-sacrificial love, why the CEO who just fired hundreds will give an ardent speech about corporate culture, and why anyone who believes in their capacity to outsmart The System will equally religiously practice their submission to it. Faith gives you the power to interpret and experience the outcome of your deeds as meaningful, even (and especially) when the inherent logic of those deeds contradicts the very values you profess to have faith in.

To succeed in this game, one must therefore learn to accommodate the contradiction between playing and believing in one’s actions without ever being troubled by them. There are ways to do this. It takes a skill akin to sleepwalking. You go through life performing little betrayals in an elegant silence that protects the integrity of the dream you remain in. You do what needs to be done and preserve the power to interpret it as you like. If some things won’t work out as planned, don’t stop, keep walking! This is how pickpockets do it. I learned this in Spain waiting for a train. One guy asked me for the time while another passed me by, his leisurely stroll remaining perfectly paced, as he slid one finger under the grip of my bag and started to walk away with it. When I saw it happen from the corner of my eye and grabbed the bag, he gazed back at me with a look of supreme tranquility, let go of the bag, kept walking, and disappeared among the people on the platform. Throughout the entire scene the tempo at which the events unfolded was never for a second out of synch with the lazy pace of a hot afternoon. It showed: an elegant crime creates no interruption in the order on which the sense of normality is based in a given social environment. Like a sleepwalking ballet dancer, a skilled pickpocket will know how to attune his motions to the rhythm of his surroundings so that whatever he does won’t stand out as an event, but blend in with the general flow of things. 

One of the reasons why Michelangelo Antonioni is so unbelievably good is that he can sustain such a tranquil pace for the duration of an entire movie. While watching, your mind will slowly be put in such a state of calm apperception that anything that passes will be part of a temporal continuum in which nothing and anything constitutes an event. In L’Eclisse (1962) this perceptual state perfectly matches the protagonist’s state of mind. Vittoria (Monica Vitti) sleepwalks through the movie, leaving her partner, finding a potential lover, Piero (Alain Delon), whom she does or does not love, but eventually stops seeing as neither she nor he can determine whether anything happened between them or not. Even for the viewer it’s impossible to tell whether it did or didn’t.

Crucially, however, the movie is not just about how love (and faith) work, but also about how money works. Piero makes a lot of it as a broker at the stock exchange. It’s where Vittoria’s mother goes every day to gamble on stocks. This is how Vittoria meets Piero. She wants to find out about her mother’s obsessions and joins her at the exchange, where she meets the man who embodies what her mother loves most: The System of money. She gives him a try to see what it means to make love to The System that her mother puts her faith in. The System then proceeds to betray the mother. There is a crash, and she loses all. She is devastated and expresses her frustration with the voice of the faithful reproaching God for his whims. Piero, however, remains untouched by the crash. When later a drunk steals his Camaro and dies, driving it into a lake, he similarly shrugs it off as inevitable expenses. Loss and gain are all the same to him. For he is The System, and The System, as such, remains unaffected by the ebb and flow of money, commodities, and lives within it. The House always wins.12 Piero knows it and exudes it in his confidence. In being with him, Vittoria comes to be with The System. Now, precisely because he is what her mother loves, he can make her feel like she is in a place sheltered from her mother’s worries. In a sense he is the empty centre in the whirlwind of her mother’s love. In him she can feel the emptiness at the heart of that love, which mirrors the nothingness at the centre of The System. But since nothing is all there is, there neither is very much to hold on to. And as the circulation of stocks is what he is about, she acts like proper stocks do and goes on to further circulate.

Are there any good reasons to interrupt the circulation? After all, it keeps you in motion. And as long as you keep moving you won’t feel your mother breathing down your neck, insistently inquiring about faith, love, and money.13 Of course you might ask: How much fun is it really to fuck The System and get fucked by it? And the answer is: lots, if you get to ride the wave. The only catch is that the fear of The System one day ceasing to love you will continue to loom large on the horizon. This fear feeds paranoia. But since this paranoia is the drug that boosts the performance of all players in the game alike, there is also nothing ostensibly dysfunctional about consuming (and being consumed by) it, is there? Now, if health presents no obstacle, then maybe happiness does. But what happiness? It cannot be the kind of redemption that The System promises as a reward for savvy machinations and faithful submission. What else could it be?

Could there be a happiness that lies beyond the economy of faith? Is that even possible when faith in some value is what one would have to have if one were to experience gratification? If it were possible, it would then have to be an invaluable happiness that exceeds the economic calculus of fulfilled expectations and success. The key to un-economic happiness may be to stop eroticizing The System and instead make love to someone in particular. But how do you even recognize this particular someone? It can’t be a question of faith, because faith is anything but blind. Quite on the contrary, the faithful read too much into what they see. In the eyes of the faithful, people are defined by the status The System assigns them. As saints or sinners they are either good on the page or good for guilty pleasure (the pleasure of guilt). Savvy in their use of saints and sinners, the faithful always know which cog in The Machine they are presently turning. They must know. If they don’t, they can’t plan. And being able to plan is of the essence when you want to be on top of the game and in it.

If faith and savviness produce double vision, awareness of the world around you might only start with a blindness to faith and savvy options. It might come through smell, taste, and listening. It’s how we sense the presence of other creatures when they move in our vicinity; they make sounds and smell and taste of sweat, joy, fear, hunger, or food. There is something about the smell, taste, and sound of living creatures that reminds you of the fact that they can live and die, because sound dies away, smell dissipates, and taste is lost after a while. It’s good to know that creatures can gain or lose: weight, for instance. Because as we see in L’Eclisse, The System can neither gain nor lose. To it, and those who embody it, it’s all the same. For them life just goes on. But it doesn’t. It ends, eventually. But before that it goes through all kinds of irreversible changes, each of them marked by gains and losses that defy any common measure. Because even if you sense that your life is filled by something new or marked by losses, how would you ever know whether any of it was good for something, when in the end all you might be doing, as a creature, is wiggling your way towards your eventual exitus. Yet that wiggle is a common motion. It’s a sign of life all creatures produce. Gods don’t wiggle. All that wiggles is mortal. To sense the vivacious mortality of a fellow creature is a peculiar feeling. Being alive is a sheer fact. And as such it is a sheer quality. There is no measure to quantify it. Where is life in the body? What makes water wet? These are qualities that make something, as it is, what it is. But science knows no way to quantify them.14

Unquantifiable as it is, sheer quality computes in no value system. You can’t own it or turn it into capital. Like the very particular smell, taste, and sound that evinces the particular vivacity and mortality of a singular creature, you can only avow it, gently, through an alertness to the potential of ever-renewed stupefaction in the instant of encountering it. You can’t put faith in what stupefies you. There are no economic profits to be reaped from your own stupefaction. Neither is final gratification to be found in sheer qualities. Their experience does not resolve itself that easily. It would hardly seem apt to conclude indulging in them with a resolute “Amen.” More likely it will be an “Umm...Err...Ihh...Ohh...Ahh.” Spelling those sounds out, letter by letter, will hardly look good on a page, let alone fill it. Still, they may show: You indulge! Not in faith but in the fact of the sheer quality of someone’s particular vivacious mortality. Outsmart that. You can’t. Love and be loved, in that manner and key. If you dare. And indulge in it. Indulge!

  1. Neil Young, “Tell Me Why,” After the Goldrush (1970).

  2. It is this market monopoly that Luther sought to break; ironically, his writings were effectively printed on the same presses as the letters that he condemned, while the man who painted his portraits, Lucas Cranach, was also on the payroll of his nemesis, Albrecht.

  3. Tellingly, German does not really distinguish between “debt” and “guilt.” Both are Schuld, the only difference being that for financial debt the plural Schulden is used, while moral guilt is referred to in the singular as Schuld. To express that someone “owes” you something, however, irrespective of whether this debt is of a financial or moral nature, one would indiscriminately use the verb schulden.

  4. In the following I essentially paraphrase the argument Slavoj Žižek unfolds throughout his book Enjoy Your Symptom (New York: Routledge, 1992). Žižek here suggests that the “spectacle of belief” evident in Socialist party support and show trials, for instance, could be understood as a desperate attempt to—against better knowledge—conjure up the “essential appearance” of a “big Other,” a symbolic order that would bestow legitimacy on the prevalent social order. See, for instance, page 46f. (The terminology Žižek uses here is Lacanian. Notably, however, he employs it in an unorthodox manner, since contrary to Lacan—who would seem to maintain that a symbolic order defines the very structure of desire and thus pre-exists and predetermines all its manifestations—Žižek here insinuates a reverse dialectical twist whereby the very notion of an all-powerful symbolic order may itself be seen as the product of a desire for such an all-authoritative structure to exist.)

  5. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (London: Penguin, 2003), 57.

  6. Martin Fackler, “In Japan, Day-Trading Like It’s 1999,” New York Times, February 19, 2006,

  7. Michael Maiello, “Day Trading Eldorado,” Forbes, June 12, 2000.

  8. Jon Fasman, “Shuffle up and deal: A special report on gambling,Economist, July 10, 2010. I am indebted to Melinda Braathen for alerting me to the issue and lending me her copy (together with the Žižek).

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid.

  11. This is one way of understanding the overall gist of Derrida’s meditations on Baudelaire’s short story “Counterfeit Money,” in which the poet recounts witnessing a drinking companion give a beggar a large sum of counterfeit money, which the man keeps ready for such occasions in one of the many pockets of his vest. Baudelaire takes offence at the fact that, rather than having done this out of sheer perversion (which he would have liked), his companion actually professes to have done it to buy himself a ticket to heaven at a good price. In his book Derrida speculates on ways to escape the economy defined by these double standards of savviness and faith. In search of a gratuitous act that would defy these standards he arrives at an embrace of writing (the spouting of letters) as an un-economical perversion. I will try to rephrase this concern at the end of this essay in terms of the question of the possibility of a gratuitous love. See Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). I thank Ines Schaber for pointing this book out to me.

  12. The house indeed always wins: As the principle of corruption won’t corrupt itself, its cruel consistency renders it highly stable.

  13. I am here paraphrasing observations Lacan formulates in the seminars XVI to XX concerning the basic desire to be (recognized as) desirable that, according to Lacan, defines one’s entry into the symbolic order of society. One of the multiple undercurrents of Lacan’s thoughts here seems to be that the expectant gaze, in relation to which one wants to redeem oneself as loveable, is coded female/maternal, while the system of status inside of which one tries to prove one’s worth is coded male/paternal. See Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (London: Penguin, 1994), 203f.

  14. Unquantifiable qualities that characterize something as what it is, as a whole, and that cannot be explained by any function of its parts—e.g., water being wet—are, according to Wikipedia, scientifically referred to as “emergent qualities.” Giorgio Agamben goes back to medieval scholastics to explain those sheer qualities as the exemplary modality of rising forth that makes a being singular, and gestures towards a particular kind of love that would express a form of sheer attunement to that modality in which singular qualities emerge. See “Whatever” and “Maneries,” in Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 1–4 and 27–30.

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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