Tuesday, August 24, 2010

When is a shoe no longer a shoe?

Noam Yuran at JWTC
‘What is Money?’ This was the title of the one of the last seminar sessions of this year’s JWTC Workshop, presented by Noam Yuran. Ah, money: so immediately personal, so globally pertinent. Each of us was bound to be hooked by the topic. Yet what difference does it make who asks that question and where and when it is being asked? What does it mean, for example, to ask ‘what is money’ in a context of wealth and high-end consumption, or in truly precarious times and places – and what might be the relationship between these?

Ask an ordinary Zimbabwean in Zimbabwe this question these days (if indeed anyone who has survived the past decade there could be called ordinary) and she or he would probably laugh or grimace or both, but anyway have countless ways of talking about how one goes about finding it, keeping it, using it, losing it. Everyone would have a take on those who have it, don’t have it, hoard it, share it, convert it, divert it.

In the worst period of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe, which reached its unimagineable, world-historical peak of trillions of percent in late 2008 – before the ‘Zimbabwe dollar’ was officially cancelled and replaced with the Real Dollar (USD and other exchangeable foreign currencies) – there would be endless tales, or advice, on how and where one might access cash itself (which was a near-impossible feat for many), or how one might carry or count it. People would literally queue outside banks for days waiting to cash their salary cheques or simply draw out enough to pay for food or school fees. And as they waited, either outside banks or in queues for just about anything, their money literally disappeared since the actual bank notes (not Zimbabwe dollars as such but what the Reserve Bank denoted as ‘bearer cheques’) lost value almost at the speed of light. In a recently published novel, The Hairdresser of Harare (Weaver Press, 2010), in the course of making a surreptitious payment for a few kilos of ‘illicitly’ bought sugar from behind the back of a supermarket, the narrator recounts: “[Lucy] took the brick-like bundle of cash I had and stuffed it into her own large handbag. She did not need to count it. We can tell the value of money by its weight. It wouldn’t even matter if it was a few hundred thousand short anyway, the way its value was falling by the hour.”

So when Noam was poised to address the question, ‘What is Money?’, this paradox of the weight and weightlessness of money in contemporary Zimbabwe was partly what I had at the back of my mind as context. At the same time, knowing that Noam came from a very different historical-spatial reality and disciplinary milieu, I was intrigued by what his thinking, and the collective engagement this would evoke in the seminar, would bring to my own struggles to understand the changing value, exchangeability, modes of exchange and multiple meanings of money in times of both dramatic and sustained crisis and displacement. That specific interest aside, here was something both at the very core of the notion of ‘capital’, and basic to most people’s everyday lives and futures. Noam’s aim was to somehow unsettle the assumed universality – and economism – of much thinking about money; to turn the familiar strange, or at least provoke us to ‘rethink money through desire’, as part of a broader project of exploring ‘the object as the medium of the history of the subject’.

In Noam’s broad framing, money is no longer a means to an end (as asserted in orthodox economics), but rather ‘has become the ultimate end’. Money, he argued, is no longer distinct from commodities but is itself a commodity, to be accumulated for its own sake: much like a brand, whose value-added extends beyond its mere utility value. In this lies a sense of money’s indefinite desire, which Noam linked partly to ‘the nature of money itself’. With regard to his definition of desire, he said he rejected a psychological reading of the notion of desire, allying himself with Zizek in proposing that part of our subjectivity is imbued with objects. He further suggested that ‘that money itself wants to grow’. This latter idea was challenged by a number of commentators in the seminar for its disconnect from the social. In response, Noam asserted that the impossibility of the fulfillment of desire is what made it social.

The identity (or symbolic value) of an object, or brand, he continued, is linked to the way it is desired. The images or symbols of the brand are not mere symbols, but become part of the thing itself. At the same time, an object or brand’s worth is in its uniqueness, its UN-exchangeability. This is not an entirely new phenomenon Noam noted, giving the historical example of the leisured classes learning Latin at a time when it no longer had any utility value, but had social-symbolic value. In a more contemporary vein, he proposed that ‘when a kid asks for a Nike shoe, he [sic] wants the symbol itself’. In this scenario, ‘a shoe is no longer a shoe’.

This last phrase turned out to be particularly provocative. Of course a shoe IS still a shoe for those too poor to afford even a basic pair, several people noted. Yet it was among several points that generated animated responses (and even some degree of animosity) from seminar participants. My own unvoiced question at the time was, ‘where and when would such a phrase have purchase? (no pun intended). Others vocalized a range of challenging questions that took on different aspects of the broad arguments presented. These are not reported here comprehensively or verbatim (with some exceptions), but rather in loose translation through my own reading of what was at stake:

In what historical, spatial, social, economic, political and cultural context has this overall theoretical formulation emerged? What is its analytical reach and relevance? What does it take for granted, and what are its blind spots? What are its implications for whom? Where is ‘the social’ in this approach? Where and how do material and institutional realities fit in this perspective? How does it help us understand how politics and economics affect social relations of power? Where does money fit into a revolution? Can we talk about ‘Capitalism’ (or ‘late Capitalism’) as a universal phenomenon with overarching trends, even with so much spatial/social diversity in its global and local manifestations? What is the distinction (and/or relationship) between an economics of need and an economics of desire? Can one separate desire from need in such an abstracted way?

Many of the questions posed by participants reflected not only different disciplinary or theoretical perspectives from Noam’s explicitly philosophical (and Northern) one, but some also came from an overtly normative position linked to an impassioned politics around issues of poverty and exclusion. In this sense, the seminar provoked valuable reflections at the core of JWTC’s overarching project: namely, what does it mean to think and theorise ‘from the South’. It would be interesting to trace the diverse results that might emerge if each of us was to pursue (empirically and theoretically) this same question – what is money? – in a range of contexts. What would our own answers be?

On a more personal note, this seminar fuelled my curiosity and concern – as did so much of the workshop – about why and how we ask the questions we ask. How questions are conceptualised, where and when and by whom, has profound consequences for our ways of seeing, methods of investigation and modes of representation. It affects the visibility and legitimacy of certain experiences and the political space for particular struggles. It also implicates us, as knowledge producers, in the ways the world is constructed. This forces me to keep asking myself what kind of scholar I want to be.

Amanda Hammar
Centre of African Studies, Copenhagen University