Hunting Headless: Money, Matter, and Fictions of Value
There’s certainly no shortage of discourse on the pseudo-ephemeral nature of money. The medieval (or even older) malleability of meaning surrounding the ledger, and of the (negative) magnitude of debt, the disentanglement of currency from its geological-metallic weight, the ever-widening role of credit, and the more recent complexities of crypto-currency and off-shore tax shelters, have seemingly stripped the coin and bill of all materiality, if not their tactility. Yet, the feeling that money is always ‘more than,’ in some vague pseudo-magical or fetishistic sense remains, it remains to such a degree that one has to wonder if the materiality of money is an inexistent origin we are constantly defining money against, i.e., money was never material we just convinced ourselves it was/is, or, whether the tricks and games of money’s ever complicating history tell us that materiality was never what it was.
While the main interpretative axis is here is Marxist/psychoanalytic, particularly in regards to the first formulation (money was never so-material), the second formulation (how money questions materiality) is taken up, in various circuitous ways, by the performance artists Goldin+Senneby. The novel Headless, written by the non-existent K.D. created by G+S, presents itself as a novel about the ghost-writing of a story about off-shore finance and its relation to the Acéphale society, and the philosophy of Georges Bataille.
There have been numerous discussions of Headless, as well as G+S’s ongoing projects looping through (and around) off-shore finance and the general nature of money. While the book focuses on the headless/acephallic nature of covert capitalism, of essentially how far a shell game can go internationally, Bataille’s concept of base matter haunts the text, and G+S’s work, more generally. That is, the headless or hyper-efficient machinery of blame and responsibility shifting of finance is chased by the material traces of not only those quick activities, but the physical or resource-dependent modes such activities plug into (pointing to yet another Bataillean concept – general economy). This is evident most in the role of proof in Barrow’s research, the photographs, the camera, and, in particular, the search through the woods at the very end GPS in hand, looking for where a meeting for the sake of human sacrifice may, or may not have, taken place.
Bataille’s base materialism pre-figured much contemporary discourse on the activity of matter, though Bataille’s sources were as theological as they were philosophical pulling from Gnostic and Zoorastrian traditions, defining base matter as an active matter but one working in the dark, one tied to a lack of knowledge as a creative principle. Little is clear about Bataille’s base materialism, as either a means of investigation or as a set or type of stuff somewhere out there, causing trouble for all those who would to think it, know it, or ever index it as a ontology amenable to philosophical inquiry.
Base matter debases, yet acknowledges, that the activity of the material with which we are working is charged and, furthermore, it becomes quite difficult to separate this stuff, this matter’s activity principle from the meaning which we invest in it. One could think of the notion of quality in this sense, quality has the quality of being irreducible to quantity, quality has the quality of being irreducible thereby acknowledge its baseness but also its minimal articulability – it is something, it is recognizable, but we only imperfectly grasp it with our knowledge, even though is is inseparable from our most simple and constant activities. Thus, while it carries a sense of unknowability this unknowability appears radically divorced from its usability, from its everydayness. The relation to money here should become a bit clearer. We know very well it (money) is a fiction, albeit an old and pervasive one, but the exchange still functions. This of course, to point back to the nod to psychoanalysis above, was one of Zizek’s earliest well known arguments, that the Marx-Lacan axis almost merges where desire and ideology meet in any exchange: ‘I know very well x is only x but still…’ functions both in terms of buying power and desire.
Nothing here is particularly strange or new but, and what relates more directly to Headless, is once you know, or at least suspect, you are in a fiction, you are participating in such exchanges, the question becomes at least two fold – on the one hand, you can believe that maybe you have some capacity to alter the narrative, either because the whole fiction seems open to some perturbation, some activity of the human, or one can claim that the game is actually less headless than it appears, that the head is out there somewhere just doing a very good job of hiding. These of course can fold into one another, albeit imperfectly, since one can become the head, or think they have become the head, emperor’s new clothes, mad kings who know they are king, and so on, and so on.
Another possibility, and to point back to Bataille’s base materialism, is to ask whether these acts are merely fictional, whether again they are powered by, and shifting according to, something more than exchange, some activity of the substance. But, if as was suggested above, we cannot know what the ultimate character of this active matter is, than what does the knowledge of our lack of knowledge do to how we behave in the money game?
One means of thinking this is the impossibility of being above the money game or, on the other hand, of completely controlling the money game to non-monetary ends. A superb example of the first case would be the Cohen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men. As I wrote about long ago, in a very different philosophical life, the villain Chigurh embodies this perfectly. He follows rules and imperatives over and against concerns of money, even though his target has to do with money, but, in the last instance, he falls back into capitalist exchange, paying a young boy so he can make his escape. Furthermore, Sheriff Bell’s two dreams embody the attempt to combat this at the film’s end, he has two dreams about his father, the first is about owing money which he forgets, the second is about meeting his father who is tending to a fire out ahead in the darkness.
On the other hand, we can think of the function of the doubloon in Melville’s Moby-Dick. Ahab fastens a gold coin into the mast of the ship as a constant reminder to his crew to be on the look-out for the white whale in the chapter entitled “The Quarter-Deck.” Far later in the tale, the coin gets its own chapter where the sailors debate whether it is merely a round piece of gold, or whether one can read everyone’s life off of it, like a zodiac. It is the sign of the triumph of their task (finding Moby-Dick), of its exchange value (960 cigars), but also, and most curious to the sailors, a cipher, it is the navel of the ship which should not be unscrewed:
“And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the cartload, as they do hills about Boston, to fill up some morass in the Milky Way.”
Yet another example would be Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor. As with many of this films, Songs is less a traditional narrative and more a series of loosely connected vignettes. Towards the end of the film, a vague economic crisis becomes more and more apparent – a board room of nervous yet depressive people talk about the failure of their predictions while passing around a crystal ball. Soon after, the same group convinces a little girl that she needs to be sacrificed, and that all the adults know this because they’ve read all the books and have years of experience.
After nothing happens, the grown-ups lament they’ve ‘sacrificed the bloom of youth, what else can we do?’ and then get ridiculously drunk. In general the film puts the absurdity of exchange in extreme – one character is haunted by the dead he owes money (or something more) to, while those better off make ‘sacrifices’ which are always of others and not of themselves, yet they are burdened by having to make the ‘hard choices.’ The past and the future are simultaneously too expensive for the present.
To return to Moby-Dick, and the cipher model of money, its value is viewed in terms of the number of objects one could procure, which are synthesized in the endless generation of meanings and interpretations of the symbols, all of which have have some lurking significance. In crypto-currency and complex models of finance, the kind of games played in Headless, money and information, its manifold interpretations, become impossible to disentangle. Venture capitalism and investments become speculative and contingent setting or writing of price (to borrow from Ayache). It becomes difficult to return this back to the tactility of the coin, the base matter of the coin, which Ahab rubs so tenderly before hammering it into the masthead. DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (and Cronenberg’s film version) attempts to turn high frequency trading back to its absurd immaterial root by re-materializing it in the ‘wrong’ place. Or, rats become currency. Thus when one attempts to use the economy to escape it, it merely seems to pluralize the currency, and the bounds of the economy. This brings us back to the two seemingly Freudian dreams of Sheriff Bell – the first indexing the case of the Rat Man (the guilt of owing and the figure of the father) with the second pointing towards the basic function of tending to the fire in Civilization and its Discontents. Everything is made, everything can become valuable, yet not everything is exchangeable as such.
But what is it that Goldin and Senneby wish to do? They want to lead us to the absurdity through the longevity and circuitousness of the path to nowhere. Hence why G+S are interested in the process and in the act of withdrawal as others have already noted. In essence, Headless is not exactly about the elasticity of finance but how off-shore is off-shore, what does it mean to ‘island’ (imperfectly isolate) parts of a system while remaining within it.
G+S’s 10 year retrospective, Standard Length of a Miracle which culminates with their phd defense on May 13th, brings in their recent work and the issues, and even the settings of Headless. An extended discussion of the show is here. Taking from this discussion/review, it is important to engage the following:
“In Zero Magic the adaption of one discursive field to explain another seems slightly forced: yes, market speculation does create value out of nothing, but this seems to be a truism. The oak tree-installation at Tensta konsthall, and the reflections on land and capital at Waldemarsudde, invite the spectator to different levels of fictions, that in themselves can be said to create reality. I am doubtful that this is actually the case with magic, which seems after all to be a limited part of the discourse shaping our relationship to ourselves and the world around us. Magic, perhaps, is just another fiction.”
The above quote, written by Hans Carlsson, is followed by the argument that Goldin and Senneby present too closed a universe, a set of narratives and fictions which one cannot step back from. He takes issue with G+S because their artistic objects do not escape the fiction created for them. While it may be that G+S have more work to do regarding how they articulate the relations between levels and kinds of fiction, it seems odd, given the object of their focus (the strange auto-generativity of money, as well as the extreme spatial limits of capital in ‘off-shoring’), that any spectator would want them to get out of their own fictions. Isn’t the point that the escape hatch from the nested fictions is merely another fiction but one that, well crafted, can affect the bottom and top limit, the unknown, but active base matter as the ground, and the extreme open universality of the general economy on ‘top.’
It will serve to end on a bit of an aside. Quoting from the half-forgotten philosophy H. Vaihinger’s The Philosophy of ‘As If’ (1911):
“For the ponderous processes of matter the swift-winged operations of ideas are substituted. An even greater condensation takes place, with the sole object of animating, facilitating, and enriching the interchange. Only after paper-money had been invented did trade expand on a vast scale, and only with the progress from the ponderous processes of the lower world to the ever more delicate processes of thought and the introduction of the thought-instrument did the organic world develop into the history of human beings. The difficulty in either case lies in the reduction of one system to another, in effecting the exchange. Large quantities of false paper-money, many false ideas, that cannot be changed into material values, find their way into circulation; the nominal value of paper-money is not always paid, but the price which rules on the market. But all higher speculation and the whole of our intricate system of exchange are only possible by this expedient and by these fictional values” (160).
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Tags: art, art criticism, art theory, bataille, cryptocurrency, Goldin and Senneby, Headless, roy andersson