Economics is often used in literary studies, but rarely free market economics. Austrian economics, with its emphasis on subjective value (Menger), human action (Mises), spontaneous order and knowledge (Hayek), and entrepreneurship (Kirzner), seems a particularly fruitful source of ideas for literary studies.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Hyperreality, Metaphor & Currency
I remember sitting in the James B. Duke Library at Furman University in December 2003 and pulling a book of poetry off the nearest shelf. I flipped through the book, admiring its contents and pausing over a particular sonnet that ended with a rhyming couplet. I can’t remember the exact words in that couplet; but I remember the poet rhymed “shore” with “metaphor,” and also that he was talking about a currency of sorts: sand-dollars.
The author’s point was that money is metaphor
and nothing more.
And his point begs the question: what does this metaphor
The answer is that in a time and place in which currency has no clear referent—such as a fixed weight of gold—the metaphor signals more metaphor. The currency becomes a seemingly endless chain of signification: a repetition of an artificial worth. Pieces of paper are assigned value, and value obtains to the paper and the polis only because the polis allows it to. The paper in itself is worthless; but as a metaphor it is powerful. I’m surprised that with all its attention to hyperinflation, Austrian economics hasn’t dealt with the literary implications of currency (fiat or otherwise). Or perhaps I’m not surprised, given that literary theorists have used the term “currency” to refer to every sort of social phenomenon without regard to the complexities of market forces or central banking or monetary policy and on and on. The case can be made that gold itself is a metaphor for value, and that’s true. It is. But at least its value is tied to rarity and demand. People do not demand paper until it bears the right syntax and becomes culturally accepted as a medium of exchange: until a centralized authority coerces and convinces the polis to accept a metaphor as something more.