Intangible Economies: An Introduction
What does it mean to speak of “economy”? Etymologically, the term stems from the Greek oikonomia (household management) from oikos (house) and nomos (law, regulation, management); only in modernity did “economy” begin to signify the wealth and resources of a country, i.e., political economy. Meanwhile, the notion of a household already conjures much more than abstract fiscal transactions: it implies people living together under one roof.
The term “intangible” reinforces an understanding of economy as made up of more than rational facts and figures. The concept 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 phenomena such as employee morale, quality of life, and copyrights. The intention of this book, however, is to focus on one particular intangible with regard to economy, that of affect.
Affect, while a common enough term, describes, in fact, a difficult-to-grasp phenomenon that alternatively could be described as an “intensity” resulting from sensory input. It is pre-Symbolic, not yet culturally coded, and based in embodied experience.1 Economic activity frequently produces affective relationships—i.e., relationships that evoke an intensity in their participating parties, for example in the process of trade and the division of labour. Conversely, affect, and in particular desire, also generates economic transactions, and can be considered a fundamental motor of any capitalist economy: it is the needing and wanting that demands to be satisfied by goods or immaterial values such as care, attention, or love.
Focusing on the interconnected nature of affect and economy would be impossible without a consideration of the gift because, as a transaction, it is explicitly bound up with affectivity. Marcel Mauss establishes that far from being an aberration of modern economies, the gift forms their very foundation. Reflecting on economic forms in the various societies on which he bases the empirical study for his seminal essay The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies,2 he states that 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..., and also before money, minted and inscribed.3
Money—this most tangible aspect of an otherwise abstract system—functions like a commodity, but does so as a universal exchange equivalent, a floating signifier that is still expressive of the affective charge inherent in the gift. While the idea that a gift “pays for something” is somewhat of a taboo, it is understood that a gift can engender a kind of debt, and thereby instantiate a social bond. Representative money—as in promissory notes (documenting a debt)4 and other currencies whose material value is less than their face value—emerged in Europe during the Dutch Golden Age, with its now famous credit crisis engendered by a craze for tulips. Money is peculiar in that it only signifies by way of circulation, asserts value only through exchange, and as a stand-in for an abstract debt we must trust that a dirty little bit of paper can be a placeholder for something that has use value, not just exchange value. This trust is by definition a social function and in the case of paper money and coins made of base metals, it performs the miracle that alchemists long pursued in order to transform lead into gold.
Parallel to personal debt being rendered abstract by the increasing pervasiveness of representative money in the early bourgeois society of seventeenth-century Holland, a change in social hierarchies took place. Social position in that society now included a burgeoning middle class of affluent merchants, and thus became also based on wealth and possession and not just on blood lines, as had previously been the case.5 The depersonalization of debt through the invention of representative money can therefore be considered as but one facet of a broader set of concerns during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that heralded the beginning of modernity in Europe.
Meanwhile, the role that the gift may have played in the proto-economic social structures described by Mauss is also inflected by a notion of giftedness—an idea that in postmodern times has become problematic in its correlation to the gifted (genius). Today the presupposition that an artist must possess singular abilities is questionable, even though the art market thrives on this assumption. The idea of the creative gift implies something supernatural, something that exceeds the artist’s skill, forming a kind of transcendent element; the fact that what the gift enables is not entirely of the artist’s own making also constitutes a debt—albeit, in a secular society, this is a debt owed to an unknown or unspecified creditor. And yet this debt must be returned, the gift’s product put into circulation.6
I suggest that economy can be regarded as a system in which, through exchange, a type of dialectical operation enacts representation. Having earlier conjured the etymological roots of economy (oikos/nomos), it is tempting to assume that nomos, the word for law and regulation, also forms the etymological root for “naming.” However, the latter term derives from a different word: onomos. Nevertheless, this etymological confusion—conflating regulation and management with naming—remains compelling when considering economy as a system where an act of representation determines what can stand in for something else. In linguistics, and by extension in naming, Ferdinand de Saussure has taught that this essentially arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified is only operative within a given system. In Saussure’s teachings, this “system” is a language—a cultural construct that, to be called a system, must underlie somewhat consistent rules, or customs. While the effect of signification is not a given and arises from its use and enaction, it is subject to constant, more or less subtle, change because signification has to be continually performed and in every instance of enaction slight changes are able to occur. It is a system that exists only through a doing.
This process of establishing signification is essentially one of trade; one could even say it involves a kind of bartering: I put forth a word and mean it to say X, you accept that word by using it in a slightly different context thereby altering its meaning minutely, rendering it X2; I say, I’ll pay you five bucks for this sack of potatoes; you say, I’ll let you have it for seven, and in the end we agree on six.
This seemingly simple establishment of a good’s value—i.e., the establishment of what it can be represented by—involves material, land, and people. All of these elements must connect in complex ways and the abstraction that is necessary for this operation to take place is at once at the base of any system of representation and is also integral to Marx’s theory of alienation. The notion of alienation also already contains the idea embodied in the Hegelian Entäußerung later mobilized by Marx to express workers “expending,” or “selling,” their labour only to subsequently encounter it in the form of commodities.
By highlighting abstraction, I may appear to be characterizing economy as a kind of inanimate, mechanized system. Yet quite to the contrary, if an economy is considered as a system of exchange, it requires actors that perform this exchange. And while fundamental to human nature, its particular formation is man-made, and economic dynamics operate as an articulation of social structures that, in turn, are based on actual individual relationships.7
In his exploration of gift economies Mauss identifies an important facet: namely the connection of the economy with the notion of (moral) values through its enactment of interpersonal relationships, once more emphasizing the aforementioned factor of performativity in representation. This type of representation may take the form of a script, as for a play, a film, or “history”—or a law or customs as expression of an ethics founded on a set of values.8 Mauss highlights how in what he calls “archaic societies” economic activity is interwoven with the social through “contractual morality, namely, how the law relating to things even today remains linked to the law relating to persons.”9 He goes on to state 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.10
Mauss mentions a crisis and, indeed, his essay The Gift was published in 1923–24, just a few years prior to the Great Depression (1929–33) and contemporaneously with the German Inflation Crisis (1914–23). By definition, a crisis is a point at which previous assumptions that ensured the smooth operation of whatever system we might consider fail. It represents a rupture in the flow of things not unlike that of a revolution, suggesting an interconnection between the precariousness of a crisis, the inherent revolutionary potential of such a crisis, and the libidinal force—expressing the pursuit of an ideal—that arises from this mix, forcing a reflection on what really matters existentially, what is of essential value.11
When I think of crises in pictures, what I conjure are often images of accumulations of people. People in lineups, people in military formations, people huddled in shelters, or people protesting. These images perhaps come to mind most immediately because I recognize in them the strange power of physical proximity—of affectivity—in large groups of people bound by a volatile energy that both fuels and seems to resist the drive of the crowd to represent itself to itself, to articulate itself as a social body.
Interestingly, recent movements such as Occupy have inaugurated new types of group engagement in the sense that they seem to employ very distinct modes of communication and discourse, as evidenced for example in the call-and-response format of public address, or the deliberate refusal to define clear, overarching demands that are otherwise considered fundamental to a productive public dialogue.12
In accepting the notion of an economy functioning as a system of representation—at the intersection of “picturing” and “representing interests”—it also becomes recognizable as fundamental to the process of subject formation. The German word “Entäußerung” offers a poignant clue to this idea because it not only translates into the English terms “divestment,” “externalization,” and “alienation,” but it also contains the German reflexive verb “sich äußern” which means to speak out, express oneself, to pronounce, or to manifest. This complex of meaning seems to illustrate the connection between cultural production, whether it be in writing, visual arts, or other disciplines. It also invokes a quality of becoming self through expression; that is, externalizing a part of oneself—Jacques Lacan’s entry into the Symbolic order.
The Slovenian philosopher Rado Riha stated, “eine Idee ist ein Lebensakt” (an idea is an “act of living,” an existential act),13 a significant statement in the context of this book. It is a project, after all, that trades in ideas expressed primarily through language, their most common vehicle. In its necessary abstraction even the most basic linguistic articulation requires an act of faith, namely that the signifier is, in fact, transmitting the signified. 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. And it is in this quality that they strangely resemble money.
It is the sometimes mind-boggling abstraction of ideas traded that points out their pivotal role in an economy of desire: the idea will always be more connective than the realization of that idea. Since it is an individually idealized 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 make it so connective, so powerful as a social bond.14
Äußerung/Entäußerung marks the moment when a subject emerges, an entry into the Symbolic order, into language, and by extension into a social matrix. At the same time, another kind of partaking in a social matrix gives rise to a much more material alienation through the Marxian alienation of labour, the expenditure of one’s labour power. This alienation, this abstraction, marks a loss.15 Yet, also connected to the word-complex Äußerung/Entäußerung is the expression “außer sich sein”—to be beside oneself. This, too, describes a loss: the dialectical losing oneself, being alienated from oneself, and at once becoming self, finding oneself positioned. It describes the quintessential affective state: an unmediated intensity.16
It is Jacques Derrida’s project in Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money (1992) to establish the notion of the gift that is so central to Mauss’s project—and quite contrary to the sociologist’s thesis—as extra-Symbolic.17 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 Symbolic order. 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.18 For Derrida, a gift given seems something truly lost, and the loss, rather than marking a privation, actually describes the entry into an entirely different order: the impossible.
If economy is an articulation of a social matrix and vice versa, one might ask whether this is a closed circuit—one always mapping the other, caught in an entropic system. It is easy to see how affect—and in particular, desire—can, as a disruptive force in this constellation, produce change or “innovation” (the latter a marketable form of the former). If it is possible to “make a loss” the way Derrida describes, sich zu veräußern, to be beside oneself, moved by an affective force, then Derrida’s gift marks a bridge between an ideal and a material reality, an impossible condition where the ideal is not rendered obsolete by its attempted realization.
It would be both naive and ignorant to position cultural production as generative of this gift, but it is perhaps the indeterminacy in relation to both where and what kind of value can arise in cultural production that gives it agency and that opens up a space for the impossible.
- For a detailed discussion of the relationship between affect, feeling, and emotion, see Melanie Gilligan’s “Affect & Exchange,” in this volume, as well as Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).
- Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (London: W. W. Norton, 1990). The gift economy and in particular the cultural form of the potlatch have inspired the imagination of artists over many decades, regardless of how well the custom was actually understood. This preoccupation is evident, 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 Rirkrit Tiravanija’s cooking performances.
- Mauss, The Gift, 4.
- See Jan Verwoert’s essay “Faith Money Love,” in this volume.
- Anne Goldgar, Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
- See Lewis Hyde, The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World (London: Canongate Books, 2006).
- The Foucauldian term dispositif, which translates into the English “apparatus,” outlines the multifaceted formations of these relationships. Foucault describes the dispositif 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, 1972–1977, ed. C. Gordon (New York: Panthenon Books, 1980), 194–96.
- See Hadley+Maxwell’s “Someone That Happens,” in this volume.
- Marcel Mauss, The Gift, 4.
- Over the past century there have been numerous books, some of them considered seminal, that touch on the entanglement of economy and affect. In addition to Marcel Mauss’s writings, there are Georges Bataille’s The Accursed Share (1946–49) and Jean-François Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy (1974), all of which were written during or around significant crises, including the Great Depression and the Second World War, as well as the Vietnam War and student revolts of the late 1960s. More recently, initiatives by artists and curators that approach the topic of the economy include 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).
- See Monika Szewcyk’s “Investing in the Blank,” and the Forum Discussion Transcript from this volume.
- 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).
- For a more complex reading of the notion of misunderstanding, consult Patricia Reed’s “Economies of Common Infinitude,” in this volume.
- I came to the term Entäußerung somewhat naively, aware only of its relevance to economy through Marx’s writings. I made the observation that the word also embraces the notion of “sich äussern”—to “externalize oneself”—and extrapolated in my own construction of thoughts a more philosophical meaning from it. Only later did I learn, thanks to Wolfgang Winkler, that this idea is extensively discussed by Hegel. I do not pretend to be conversant in Hegel’s philosophy, but nevertheless wish to indicate a source for further reading on the topic: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes, Kapitel VIII, “Das absolute Wissen,” http://fillip.ca/iz9k. Also see Karl Marx, Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte aus dem Jahre 1844, Drittes Manuskript, ”Privateigentum und Arbeit,” http://fillip.ca/c1ko.
- It seems but a small step from here to Stéphane Hessel’s outrage. Stéphane Hessel, Time for Outrage: Indignez-vous! (New York: Twelve/Hachette Book Group, 2011).
- Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).
- Ibid., 35.
About the Author
Antonia Hirsch is an artist based in Berlin and Vancouver. She is Associate Editor at Fillip.