Leaky Economy


The following is a nervously humorous exchange from No Country for Old Men:

“Chigurh: What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?
Proprietor: Sir?
Chigurh: The most. You ever lost. On a coin toss.
Proprietor: I don’t know. I couldn’t say.
Chigurh: Call it.
Proprietor: Call it?
Chigurh: Yes.
Proprietor: Well – we need to know what it is we’re callin for here.
Chigurh: You need to call it. I can’t call it for you. It wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t even be right
Proprietor: I didn’t put nothin up.
Chigurh: Yes you did. You been putting it up your whole life. You just didn’t know it. You know what date is on this coin?
Proprietor: No.
Chigurh: Nineteen fifty-eight. It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And it’s either heads or tails, and you have to say. Call it.
Proprietor: Look… I got to know what I stand to win.
Chigurh: Everything.
Proprietor: How’s that?
Chigurh: You stand to win everything. Call it.
Proprietor: All right. Heads then.
Chigurh: Well done. Don’t put it in your pocket.
Proprietor: Sir?
Chigurh: Don’t put it in your pocket. It’s your lucky quarter.
Proprietor: Where you want me to put it?
Chigurh: Anywhere not in your pocket. Or it’ll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin. Which it is.”

The sometimes remembered French Marxist Jean Joseph Goux remarked on the homology of money and the psychoanalytic phallus – that both are essentially nothing special in and of themselves, but simply point to a kind of presence as presence. In addition and in relation to this, the coin/phallus (and we could also add Levinas’ face of the Other here) circles around a certain conglomerated social (as discussed in my last post) which serves as access to and a bar from the social as such.

In a related way – No Country for Old Men is just as much about debt and payment as it relates to a kind of social momentum. There is essentially no fair trade in the film – there is always a loss, always to much to gain and too much to loose. Several critics of the film have pointed out that we are ripped off cinematically – we don’t receive the death scene of Llewelyn or his wife and we are given the continuing life of Chigurh. We feel ripped off because we don’t receive the payoff from our (emotional and temporal) investment – as is the case with the drug deal gone bad. Even Chigurh’s potential clean up goes beyond its bounds – he kills everyone who gets in his way or even annoys him. Chigurgh attempts to remain outside of the economic, out of the buisness of everything, and acts as a kind of angel of potentiality, going to the very end what he has set out to do, regardless of whether the terms have changed or not. This is summarized best by Chigurh himself when he asks: “if the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”

In the final scene of action, however, Chigurgh is lowered to the same economic plane as everyone else – he escapes and survives through the use of money.

The endlessness of debt and the impossibility of paying it off, of owning up to the very cost of living (to take it in a literal sense). We might borrow from Adrian Johnston’s Zizek’s Ontology in regards to what he posits as the antimony of the psyche: that on the one hand I know I will die, I am finite in that my life had a definite beginning and it will have a end and yet, at the same time I am infinite because I neither experienced that birth nor will I experience any death, there is a gap in between where my subjectivity, my sensible existence slips through the fingers of god and reason and everything. The infinite in between the frame of reason and the failure of the sensible bears a plasticity which, for our purposes here, can be defined as monetary.

Sheriff Bell tells his wife about a dream at the end of the film:

“The second one, it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night, goin through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and snowin, hard ridin. Hard country. He rode past me and kept on goin. Never said nothin goin by. He just rode on past and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down, and when he rode past I seen he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. Out there up ahead. Then I woke up.”

The Sheriff’s dream tarries with the same plasticity of our leaky economy of being but instead of the movement towards death or life, the constant motion of flipping the coin a la Chigurgh, the Sheriff sits comfortably or uncomfortably in the middle. It’s important to remember that Sheriff Bell’s dream, which he didn’t remember, was about money. His father carrying the fire, carries civilization with him (and tending to the fire is a very Freudian image of civilization) and the Sheriff is not privy to where it came from (birth) or where the path will lead him (death), only that he has to follow.

Regardless of our knowledge we always have to, in no certain terms, discern our place between the two uncertainties – we must grip the fact that value is painfully elastic between these two poles. We are always forced, with or without a Chigurgh before us, to call it.

8 Responses to “Leaky Economy”

  1. 1 Nathan Franklin


    The film’s end, for me, smacks of Zizek’s “How Did Marx Invent the Symptom” thesis–that is, suppose the film itself is precisely the Sheriff’s latent-dream thought (which is only accessible to the audience) while his interpretation he articulates to his wife, the manifest dream form, is precisely the key moment where we hear his desire to follow, the desire to embody plasticity as such.

    All and all, perhaps the film is attempting to address, among other things, why uncertainty takes the form of a forced choice?

  2. 2 battleofthegiants

    But Isn’t Chigurh the ‘navel’ of Sheriff Bell’s dream? They keep missing each other – The first is in Llewelyn’s trailer. And what does he find? That’s someone’s been into mother’s milk before him! “Isn’t that frustrating” (or whatever he says). It’s as though his rival, the little other , (little a) has beaten him to the punch.

    The second time they almost meet is at the scene of Llewelyn’s murder – they find themselves on the opposite side of the door. This makes their relationship sound like the ‘coin’ that Zizek’s always on about – two sides that can never meet, but are tied together…

    The final coin-toss scene is precisely the questioning of the forced choice. Where the gas station owner buys into the game from the beginning (“Well – we need to know what it is we’re callin for here”), Carla Jean (Llewelyn’s wife) refuses the choice: “It has nothing to do with the coin; it’s just you!” or whatever she says.

    And it seems to me that the ‘just you’ is the death drive (that’s pretty obvious, I suppose…), the thing that just keeps going no matter what gets in it’s way. And It also seems to me that we don’t see Carla Jean die because she has become “undead” – she steps into the place between the choices, and so becomes homologous to Chigurh: The profile shot of his face so blatantly calls for him to get hit by a car – that is, to be taken out by fate. But he survives fate, and so too, perhaps, does Carla Jean…

    I may have this wrong, but Zizek seems to say that the death drive and the lamella are the same thing, or at least very close. And the lamella isn’t death, but immortality – the thing that will outlast us…

    And the image of Chigurh limping away is somewhat similar to the description of the father in the dream, wrapped in a blanket with his head down, riding forward in “hard country”…


  3. 3 naughtthought

    My reading is that Chigurh is less an embodiment of the death drive (the lamella as you said) and more as a unsavory embodiment of the phallus. Your point about the dream navel is interesting – I read their missed encounter’s as having to do with Bell’s nostalgia for the ‘old timers.’ Chigurh and Bell miss each other because of what they represent for the Law – Chigurh is the obscene underside which, while giving the Law its presence, cannot be acknowledged publically. I think his comment about the use of the rule speaks to this – he is the force of the rule devoid of its specific content. This is also how I would explain Carla Jean’s comment of ‘It’s just you!’ Chigurh as an ‘ultimate badass’ is frightening because he is impersonal, but I do not think this makes him undead – he depersonalizes as being the agent of the Law – what is so damaging to him, at the end of the film, is the fact that he must resort to payment at the end – he must submit himself to the phallic economy instead of being the bearer of it.

  4. 4 battleofthegiants

    I’m not totally sure I buy that he’s the underside of the law… in what way is he the call to ‘enjoy’? Other than in the scene where he first kills the cop, there’s absolutely no trace of enjoyment in him. He just keeps killing, keeps pushing ahead based on a set of laws that are outside that of the accepted order – he works not as a supplement, but as his own logic. (like when he kills Woody H – paying him off won’t work, he’s subject to laws beyond that of money/jouissance…)

    The underside of the law is more like the head of the mob, who works in an underground economy who’s aim is to create jouissance (surplus-value/cashmoney). His organization is where the money/enjoyment that everyone is chasing comes from in the first place.

    Perhaps Llewelyn is Chigurh’s counter part as drive rather than deathdrive. That is, Llewelyn is stuck on a particular object (the stolen cash) and refuses to submit to either the law or the underground law of the mafia. Chigurh just keeps going, even after getting the money. He has to kill Carla Jean because ‘them’s the rules’, and for no other reason. The money has nothing to do with it; it just happens to be the object that holding together the whole situation.

    I think a ‘phallic figure’ would be running around abusing people for it’s own enjoyment, one that refuses enjoyment to others. That just doesn’t seem to be the case for Chigurh.

    And I think that Chigurh as death drive would fit better with the title of the film: What is the death drive but ‘w/out country’, plodding along in black space…?

    But you’ve got something with the handing of the money to the kid at the end… I’m not sure what to think of that. What does he say when the kid says “I’m happy just to help, mister”?

  5. 5 naughtthought

    I think that Chigurh embodies the kind of extra-legal violence which founds the law – he is the law outside of the law (something very apparent in McCarthy’s other works) and I would say that his enjoyment is, in a paradoxically feminine way, one of speech.

    He is the force of money and therefore outside of it – this is why he keeps killing without payment and even against payment. Llewelyn’s death is caused not by taking the money so much as attempting to redirect value itself with Chigurh acting as a kind of surplus value run amok. He attempts to be the force/cause of desire while somehow remaining outside of it – outside of the regular exchanges. That is, as the phallus, as soon as he reveals himself as the phallus he is no longer it. Essentially he wants to continous fail to found a new law – he embodies the violence which ‘clears the field’ but then moves on trying to not to ever be caught in the sedimentation of the Event. Maybe like a Che Guevarra of radical evil?

    Now I’ve confused myself…

  6. 6 battleofthegiants

    What does ‘redirect value’ mean?
    ‘surplus value run amok’? I need more on that for it to be clear…

    I can’t see Chigurh as the ’cause of desire’. I’m pretty sure the money is in that role: it’s the reason anything is being done at all. The murder of it’s original possessor makes the jouissance available for someone to come and take; maybe the murder is like a castration that sets desire in motion? It seems to me the difference between Chigurh and Llewelyn is in their relation to that object, to the money that makes the story possible…

    If Chigurh’s ‘clearing the field’, doesn’t that mean he’s the death drive – i.e constant negativity?

  2. 2 Hunting Headless: Money, Matter, and Fictions of Value | Naught Thought

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