Fillip 13 — Spring 2011

Intangible Economies
Antonia Hirsch

Desire implies want; it is the appetite of the mind, and as natural as hunger to the body.... The greatest number (of things) have their value from supplying the wants of the mind.—Nicholas Barbon1

The emergence of the recent economic crisis has generated widespread discussion of topics such as value, credit, debt, and exchange. Yet just as “the economy”2 seems to begin its slow and arduous climb out from the bottom of the statistical curve that tracks gross national products, employment rates, and stock market profits, the effects of this crisis are still felt everywhere, not least by way of curtailed social services, tax increases, and a dearth of opportunities to earn an income, whether in “regular” jobs or in the particular sphere inhabited by the artistic precariat.

What I describe above are only the more practical aspects of said crisis. By definition, however, a crisis is a point at which previous assumptions that ensured the smooth operation of whatever system we might consider fail. In the case of the recent financial crisis, the banking system, as well as its attendant regulatory systems, proved to be spectacularly inadequate. While governments tried to find quick fixes to prevent a further slide into a depression-era catastrophe, what seems to have arisen as a result is not only the questioning of the financial system, but, though more quietly,3 an interrogation of “values” in a broader sense. In popular media, this did not extend much further than a public pondering of the ethical integrity of stockbrokers and financial institutions. However, prior to the crisis numerous theorists from diverse disciplines had begun to smell a rat, namely, that the financial crisis is but the very tip of an issue larger than even “mere” neoliberalism. At the core of the issue at hand seems to lie a perceptual problem that considers the economy and the social as separate. Certainly, even after the briefest of reflections, it is understood that the economy and the social stand in an inextricable relationship, and anybody who has had even a hasty look at the Wikipedia page on Karl Marx,4 understands the ways in which societal structures are enacted, as well as created, through an economy. It seems clear that in the pursuit of scientific or academic analysis certain processes must be isolated in order to be properly understood. It is also evident that the sciences for a long time shied away from acknowledging such amorphous and unquantifiable forces as affect or desire. However, if the inquiry is not approached based on what makes sense as a neat abstract theoretical construct, but instead is concerned with the understanding of an experiential—or even existential—reality, an isolated examination of social, affective, and desirous mechanisms and those that constitute what we call “the economy” cannot be sufficient. Perhaps what I wish for is a unity of terms: eciety/socienomy. 

When I bemoan the lack of emphasis on the links between economic and social structures what I mean to articulate is the lack of focus on the fact that fundamentally, the social is based on relationships, and while in larger societies these take on more structured and organized forms, be they as discourses, associations, unions, and all that contributes to the Foucauldian dispositif5—up to the complexity of governmental structures—they all are rooted in interpersonal relationships. These relationships are affective and frequently produced by economic activity, for example in the process of trade and the division of labour. Conversely, affect, and in particular, desire, also generates economic transactions: it is this needing and wanting that demands to be satisfied by goods or immaterial values such as care, attention, or love, all of which entail multifarious forms of exchange.

What this particular interrelation between the economy and the social attests to is what Marcel Mauss articulated in his exploration of gift economies:6 the inexorable connection of the economy to the notion of (moral) values through its enactment of interpersonal relationships. Importantly, Mauss establishes that far from being an aberration of modern economies, the gift forms the foundation of these same economies. In the introduction of his seminal essay The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, Mauss, in setting out the parameters of his inquiry, writes of “contractual morality, namely, how the law relating to things even today remains linked to the law relating to persons.”7 Reflecting on the various societies on which the empirical study for his essay is based, he states: the market is a human phenomenon that, in our view, is not foreign to any known society—but whose system of exchange is different from ours. In these societies we shall see the market as it existed before the institution of traders and before their main invention—money proper. We shall see how it functioned both before the discovery of forms of contract and sale that may be said to be modern (Semitic, Hellenic, Hellenistic, and Roman), and also before money, minted and inscribed. We shall see the morality and the organization that operate in such transactions. As we shall note that this morality and organization still function in our own societies, in unchanging fashion and, so to speak, hidden, below the surface, and as we believe that in this we have found one of the human foundations on which our societies are built, we shall be able to deduce a few moral conclusions concerning certain problems posed by the crisis in our own law and economic organization.8

I raise this set of concerns in order to introduce a series of essays that will appear in the current and following two issues of Fillip, with Candice Hopkins and Jan Verwoert inaugurating the project. The series’ title, Intangible Economies, points to a key aspect I have asked the invited writers to consider. The term “intangible” has entered into the conventional teachings of economics and various other discourses such as law, where it variously describes such assets that cannot be physically measured—that literally cannot be touched. The word is used to describe such phenomena as employee morale, quality of life, and copyright. The intention of this series, however, is to focus on one particular intangible: the affect of desire.9 Where it was Mauss’s endeavor to lift what “cannot be touched” into a scientific discourse, it was Derrida’s project in Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money to establish the notion of the gift that is so central to Mauss’s project as extra-symbolic.10 For Derrida, any gift understood as such or intended as such by the donor or recipient ceases to deserve the designation of “gift”—something freely given without implied obligation (of return). Hence Derrida’s gift defines itself as external to an economy of exchange, of tit for tat; it refuses the representation that is fundamental to the notion of the symbolic order. In other words, any form of representation can be regarded as an economic transaction, a measuring and valuing of what can stand in for what, and consequently one must conclude that the symbolic order itself is an economy of sorts. Derrida writes: A gift that would neither give itself, nor give itself as such, and that could not take place except on the condition of not taking place—and of remaining impossible, without dialectical sublation of the contradiction? To desire, to desire to think the impossible, to desire, to desire to give the impossible—this is obviously madness. The discourse that orders itself on this madness cannot let itself be contaminated by it.11

So why attempt the impossible? During a recent talk, Slovenian philosopher Rado Riha stated, “eine Idee ist ein Lebensakt” (an idea is an “act of living,” an existential act),12 which struck me as a profound statement, particularly in the context of this series, a project, after all, that trades in ideas expressed through language, rather than, say, images, objects, or gestures. In its necessary abstraction, even the most basic linguistic articulation requires an act of faith, namely that the signified is, in fact, being transmitted by the signifier. The exchange of complex abstract ideas multiplies this miraculous transmission of meaning to the nth power. Yet ideas can signify only in a dialectical matrix, an exchange, and they accrue value only in their circulation.

It is the sometimes mind-boggling abstraction of ideas traded, especially in the métier of philosophy, that points out the pivotal role that ideas play in the economy of desire: the idea will always be more connective than the realization of that idea. Since it is an individually idea-lized construct, it is embedded in a desirous libidinal order. And, ironically, it is precisely the misunderstandings on which a shared idea is inevitably based that makes it so connective, so powerful as a social bond. 

The mechanisms I describe above with regard to language and ideas could neatly be transferred to money, which functions like a commodity, but as a universal exchange equivalent, a floating signifier. It, too, signifies only by way of circulation, asserts value only through exchange, and faith is similarly involved insofar as we must trust that a dirty little bit of paper stands in for something that has use value, rather than just exchange value. This trust in fact, I might add, is not only by definition a social function, but it performs the miracle that alchemists long pursued in order to transform lead into gold. We perform this miracle every day. However, this philosopher’s stone thought to be capable of turning base metals into gold was sometimes also believed to be an elixir of life, that is, a basic creative force, thereby pointing us back to the Jungian libido.13 It is easy to recognize this character of money as a “universal stand-in.” Its seductive power and the libidinal transaction that plays upon its surface, however, is poignantly condensed into a scene of Casino Royale (2006) that has Eva Green—as the drop-dead beautiful but sketchily drawn leading lady—introduce herself to 007 with the words: “I am the money.”14

Over the past century there have been numerous books, some of them considered foundational, that touch on the entanglement of economy and this particular intangible: desire. Although this is neither the focus of my text nor of this series, it is useful to consider when these books first appeared. In addition to Marcel Mauss’s The Gift (1923–24), there were Georges Bataille’s The Accursed Share (1946–49) and Jean-François Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy (1974), all of which were written during or immediately after significant crises, including the Great Depression and the Second World War, as well as the Vietnam War and student revolts of the late 1960s. What thus seems obvious is the inextricable interconnection between the precariousness of a crisis, the inherent revolutionary potential of such a crisis, and the libidinal force that arises from this mix, in which a forced reflection on what really matters existentially, what is of essential value, opens into a kind of messy utopianism. Whether the recent economic crisis cuts deep enough to produce texts rivalling the impact of the ones previously mentioned remains to be seen. Regardless, there have been numerous recent initiatives by artists and curators that approach the topic of the economy, among them Harald Szeemann’s exhibition Money and Value/The Last Taboo (2002), the 8th Periferic Biennial, Art as Gift (2008), and publication projects such as Ted Purves’s book What We Want Is Free (2005).15

One of the difficulties in dealing with the topic of economies of desire lies in its cross-disciplinarity. Conventional theoretical texts on the economy seem to have a blind spot regarding such notions as desire or affect, unless they are considered in terms of their marketability, quantifiability, or in the ways in which they may increase or decrease productivity.16 To understand the machinations of desire and its fundamental libidinal force, it is useful to be conversant in psychoanalysis; to trace the complexities of semiotics within economic exchanges (in the broadest sense), one ought to have a good grasp of at least Western history; that an understanding of applied economics and its history are also useful goes without saying.

The topic at hand forms a crucial point of confluence that not only requires a certain grasp of numerous areas of knowledge, but necessitates attempts to transcend their attendant epistemological structures. Only by mobilizing the irreverence of the libidinal will it be possible to reckon with this fundamental and complex theme.17 Of course, a series such as this can put forth propositions with only limited reach, and the aim is neither to present a complete picture nor to summarize or take the temperature of this discourse (such as it stands) and the art activities that could be considered within its purview. In a sense, what I have asked of the authors is a task fraught with pitfalls, because to do this topic justice, one must likely approach it speculatively and embark on ways of writing that are deeply contestable. Yet perhaps the task of tackling this expanded notion of an economy falls to artists, writers, curators, and others in the “cultural industry” precisely because here is a field of inquiry where categories are fluid, a certain mixture of dilettantism (i.e., fearlessness) and extraordinary expertise meet, and use value is relatively irrelevant even if exchange value is not. 

This series does not set out to tackle what perhaps first comes to mind when one thinks of cultural production and the economy: the art market. Rather, as is already evident in the first two contributions in this issue of Fillip, the essays look at modes of production and the cultural forms that arise from this particular consideration of economy. While Jan Verwoert’s essay “Faith Money Love” eponymously deals with affective forces that circulate through a monetary economy, it, perhaps inadvertently, also invokes the striking affinity between early paper money and art prints, which both found accelerated dissemination through the invention of the printing press. After all, both banknotes and artworks are often equally editioned, numbered, and signed. Candice Hopkins, while reflecting on the traditional potlatch and its subsequent historic permutations, also invites reflection on other, more contemporary art forms, such as performances and parades. These forms of cultural and artistic expression are strikingly echoed in this issue’s conversation between Jesse McKee and Claire Tancons, which, even though not part of this series, centres on exactly such contemporary formats.

Intangible Economies’ contributing authors have come to this project also through an affective network of sorts. All of them are involved in that precarious cultural economy that is predicated, at least for most of us, not on the prospect of material gain, but by a desire—to know, to connect, in other words, to live socially and with awareness, that is, with criticality. Had it not been for these affective forces, the authors may not have engaged in this process, inevitably having to wrestle with the inherent problem of the topic: that of writing about something fundamental, yet ephemeral in its embodiment.

  1. Nicholas Barbon, A Discourse of Coining the New Money Lighter, In Answer to Mr. Locke’s Considerations etc. (London, 1696), quoted in Karl Marx, Capital (New York: Vintage, 1977), chapter 1, “The Commodity,” 125.

  2. I use quotation marks here in order to acknowledge that the set of operations that are popularly known as “the economy” are only one small facet of what an economy can be understood to be: a system of production and exchange of all manner of values, in all manner of ways, whether they involve conventional money instruments, favours, or such intangible phenomena as attention.

  3. Theorists and critical thinkers love a crisis. After all, there is nothing like the urgency of an impending catastrophe or near-miss to sharpen the mind. It is therefore curious how comparatively quiet this thinking outside of the fiscal/regulatory discourse has been. One of the reasons may perhaps be found in what I describe later in this text, the inherent cross-disciplinarity of the topic that causes conversants to remain hidden in seemingly unconnected areas of inquiry, a situation in which it seems currently not possible to “name” this discourse.

  4. “Karl Marx,”

  5. The Foucauldian term dispositif translates into the English “apparatus.” Foucault describes it as a thoroughly heterogeneous set consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral, and philantropic propositions—in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the network that can be established between these elements. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 19721977, ed. C. Gordon (New York: Panthenon Books, 1980), 194–96.

  6. The gift economy and in particular the cultural form of the potlatch (however well understood) have inspired the imagination of artists over many decades, evidenced, for example, in the bulletin entitled Potlatch, which ran from 1954 to 1959, issued by the Lettrist International and affiliated with the Situationist International, or, more recently, in works associated with Relational Aesthetics, such as Rikrit Tiravanija’s cooking performances.

  7. Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (London: W. W. Norton, 1990), 4.

  8. Ibid., 4.

  9. Sianne Ngai asserts in her book Ugly Feelings (page 25), quoting Brian Massumi, that affect can be defined in comparison to emotion: emotion requires a subject while affect does not, but…the former designates feeling given “function and meaning’ while the latter remains ‘unformed and unstructured.” In her examination of cultural forms, she goes on to state that feelings are as fundamentally “social” as the institutions and collective practices that have been the more traditional objects of historicist criticism…and as “material” as the linguistic signs and significations that have been the more traditional objects of literature’s formalism. Although feeling is not reducible to these institutions, collective practices, or discoursive significations, it is nonetheless as socially real and ‘infrastructural’ in its effects “as a factory.” See Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), and Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 45. I thank Jeff Derksen for pointing out Sianne Ngai’s book to me.

  10. Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

  11. Ibid., 35.

  12. Rado Riha, “Die Idee als Denken der Politik,” lecture, KW Institute of Contemporary Art, Berlin, March 2, 2010. Riha’s statement stands, of course, in close connection to Schopenhauer’s notion of Will. See Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Presentation, ed. David Berman (London: J. M. Dent; Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1995).

  13. C. G. Jung and Beatrice M. Hinkle, “Part II,” in Psychology of the Unconscious (New York: Moffat, Yard, 1916).

  14. Casino Royale, film, directed by Martin Campbell (2006). Thanks to Olaf Nicolai for pointing out this scene of the movie to me. It may be significant to note that Bond’s opposite in this movie is the only female character in the entire series with whom the agent ever develops an emotional bond.

  15. Harald Szeemann, Money and Value/The Last Taboo: Geld und Wert/Das letzte Tabu (Chicago: Art Stock, 2002); Dòra Hegyi and Zsuzsa Làszlò, Periferic 8 Biennial of Contemporary Art: Art as Gift (Iasi: Asociatia Vector Iasi, 2008); Ted Purves, ed., What We Want Is Free: Generosity And Exchange In Recent Art (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2005).

  16. Cf. Keynes’s “liquidity preference” and “propensity to consume” in John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (New York: Classic Books America, 2009). Thanks to Joachim Hirsch for alerting me to these specific aspects of Keynes’s theory.

  17. Cf. Preface, Georges Bataille, 
The Accursed Share, vol. 1 (New York: Zone, 1991).

Image: Fifty pfennig emergency mark, Konstanz, Germany, 1919.

About the Author

Antonia Hirsch is an artist based in Berlin and Vancouver. She is Associate Editor at Fillip.

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