8.31.2009

Charity Endureth All Things

I think I know only two other people who have read Herman Melville's The Confidence Man, and one of them was my dissertation advisor. And it's probably a good thing, if what Simon Critchley said in today's NY Times is even remotely true: "There is a theological core to money based on an act of faith, of belief. One can even speak of a sort of monetary civil religion or currency patriotism." Critchley's essay is a really clear description of the situation (or "problem," as Melville might've had it).

But Critchley takes an explicitly cynical view of money:
Plato defines a “simulacrum” as something that materializes an absence, an image for something that doesn’t exist in reality, for example the god Poseidon or Bob the Builder. Such is money, in my view.
It's good that anyone is asking the question, what is money? -- but I'm not sure Critchley gets the answer right. In his view, money is effectively smoke & mirrors, and it acts to keep us from realizing that there is a giant void holding society together. (Incidentally, I think it's generally true that those on the political left in America imagine money as a simulacrum, whereas those on the political right sense that money is somehow "actual" or "real.")

That could be true, of course -- but it could also be true that the value of money is a real reflection of a fundamentally human kind of interpersonal trust: it could be that money is a real indicator of the social compact. To say that it has no real value is simply to refuse to participate in the social compact.

Maybe we are reaching that point in history (2012 approaches), but if we are going to walk away from the idea of civilization, I'd rather we do it consciously, directly, and intentionally -- not as a lack of interest in the idea of civilization, but as a purposeful endorsement of barbarism. Do we want to let the next quarter's "consumer confidence index" determine when we should stop pledging allegiance?

I wonder if the veil of the temple was woven out of money.

Critchley says later in the essay, "Money is our metaphysics. In that God we trust."

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