Friday, October 09, 2009

Media theorists ought to study money as a medium

Steven Shaviro argues that part of our difficulty in making coherent sense of the crisis, reflects the way we experience as individuals, the market economy as something alien to us, over which we have no power. The boom and bust cycles that are intrinsic to capitalism are instrumental in instilling this sense of fatalism in people. One possible challenge to this fatalism is repoliticising one of the most ubiquitous aspects of the economy: money. Nearly all capitalist theory assumes ‘the neutrality of money’, yet rather see it as a vanishing mediator we need to understand, as this credit crisis has shown, that money isn’t a faithful ‘representation’ of wealth that exists, rather it is something that has it own intrinsic density and weight. Re-Public: Reimagining Democracy

Steven Shaviro - A modest proposal: Some thought on the crisis

But we ought to know — after McLuhan as well as after Marx — that a “medium” is never neutral. It only seems “transparent” to us because it is so ubiquitous; we take it so much for granted that we fail to notice its workings. We are unaware of the effects of money for the same reason that (as McLuhan put it) fish are unaware of water. The one thing that economics never takes into account is the materiality, and medium-specificity, of money itself. Media theorists ought to study money as a medium, in the same way that they study television, video, and Web 2.0 as media — but unfortunately, for the most part they don’t. And political economists ought to pay attention to the materiality of money, instead of regarding it just as a “vanishing mediator.”

By “the materiality of money,” I don’t just mean the physicality of gold, or of metal coins and dollar bills and paper scrip. Above all we need to consider the materiality, and medium-specificity, of money at its most virtual and evanescent: the money that’s made of 1s and 0s zipping across the network, and that takes the form of derivatives and arcane financial instruments. In none of these forms is money simply neutral and transparent. The delirium of financial speculation that led us to the current debacle is precisely due to the fact that money isn’t just a faithful “representation” of wealth that exists, concretely and tangibly, in other forms; rather, it is something that has its own intrinsic density and weight.

Lots of people, both on the Left and the Right, blame the crisis upon the proliferation of “fictitious capital”: of money that was not grounded in concrete, physical wealth. We should reject this way of thinking, and say, instead, that things like credit default swaps are, in themselves, every bit as “real” and “material” as the houses whose subprime mortgages they are supposedly, at many removes, based upon. After all, these houses would never have been constructed in the first place, were it not for the financial instruments in which their deferred debts could be embodied. The non-neutrality of money, its bias and partiality, must be the starting point for any consideration of transnational capital, and of what we have to do in order to get ourselves out from under its baleful sway. Re-Public: Reimagining Democracy