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

stand for?

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.

Paul Cantor has talked about inflation as a form of hyperreality. I have talked about hyperreality using a Baudrillardian paradigm. I did not use hyperreality to address hyperinflation, but I wonder whether such a theory would illuminate the way we talk about currency. Will couching our studies in terms of hyperreality lead us down the tired path of deconstruction toward postmodernist tactics of ideology critique? Or would it generate critical thought and theory about value and our role in creating and sustaining and exploding metaphor?


  1. Perhaps a semiotics of money? Money with and without referents -- gold standard vs. fiat money, for example. Words typically considered to be without referents would include numbers or fictional characters (unless one believes in the material existence of ideas).

    The problem of whether or not words signify arises with Jared Diamond who, in The Third Chimpanzee, asks “how do you explain the meaning of “by,” “because,” “the,” and “did” to someone who understands no English? How could our ancestors have stumbled on such grammatical terms?” (153), implying that each of these words have no referent. Some, such as Austin, suggest that words that somehow do something also have no referent, and that since all words technically do things, they appear not to have a referent either. However, Peter Farb in "Wordplay" starts us off on the right foot by refuting this idea: “all languages possess pronouns, methods of counting, ways to deal with space and time, a vocabulary that includes abstract words, and the capacity for full esthetic and intellectual expression” (12). Each of these are referents. Every word makes either a direct reference, where I can point to an actual object the word refers to, or it fits into Farbs’ categories, which are themselves ways of referring to the world. Any word that is definable is referential, and if a collection of sounds is not definable, it is not a word.

  2. We can show that any of the words Diamond lists has a referent. But first, we need to define what we mean by “referent.” This is where much of the problem of thinking of words as referring to something other than themselves comes from, because a referent does not necessarily have to be an object. A referent can be a person, place, thing, or idea (the corresponding words we call nouns), the traits of these things (adjectives), actions (verbs), or the traits of those actions (adverbs). These are the obvious divisions. But what about articles, like the word “the”? This example is the easiest, since articles are adjectives, and “the” is referring to a trait of any given noun we are placing “the” in front of. By saying “I watered the plant,” we are saying “I watered a particular single plant that, by my use of the word “the” implies the plant in question to be the only one either in the house or that you were talking about.” The plant has all the above stated traits, without all this necessary baggage. “The” is shorthand, and makes reference to all this that is understood by the person being spoken to. Just because we have been able to play with the language until we were able to come up with such shorthand as articles and “to be” verbs does not negate the referentiality of such words, or of words in general. Nor does the lack of articles in other languages imply the lack of referentiality in languages such as English, German and French, which do. The word “because” is a way of dealing with space and time, and refers to causality, which throughout most of human history was assumed to be a feature of the universe. Causality, things having a cause, or the idea of things having a cause, can be seen as a way of connecting two things. That is why “because”, from Middle English “bi cause” for “by the cause”, is a conjunction. It is part of the narrative structuring of thinking. To use a word Diamond does not suggest, but that easily falls into the trap of being considered without referent, is the word “if.” “If” has a referent, because “if” is an idea; it projects the idea of a future and the idea of possibility. “If” says, “let me posit the possibility that . . .” and is a necessary word (in its various forms as found throughout the world) for any language in that it allows for the projection of possible scenarios. These possible scenarios have in a sense a “reality” which “if” and other words can refer to, since one could easily define ideas as being imagined scenarios to test alternatives before trying them out in the real world (one could also define much fiction this way), and the ability to create alternative scenarios before taking actions (which would necessarily give any group that did this a selective advantage) requires the creation of words that could aid in the communication of those alternate scenarios, or ideas.

  3. So that would seem to take care of the comparison between words and money in semiotics -- there are no fiat words, so to speak. The only truly nonreferential words would be sounds without even ideas behind them that nevertheless proliferate. How long before meaning would be drowned out?

    Words gain meaning within context, and here is where one can argue that fiat money can nevertheless match words. Certainly even fiat money has meaning within an economic context? However, at what point does it lose meaning? How many times can you repeat a word until it loses meaning?

    Nietzsche points out in “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” that everything in the world is unique, that each object in a real sense shares nothing in common with any other, but that we treat many unlike things as though they are alike, creating concepts, which are words, which are metaphors. To categorize, conceptualize, we erase the differences we see (or smell, taste, hear, feel). Then we designate them with words, which are all always metaphors (which we forgot were metaphors). These words we see as truth – or as facts – forgetting they can change, that we can change them. It is in our power to change our categories, our concepts, our words, our metaphors. This is what art is about, and why it is needed and necessary – it keeps our languages alive, allows us to see and hear. If we stare at the same image long enough, without blinking or looking away, our neurons will fatigue, and we will cease to see. The image will vanish. We need to renew our images, our language, if we are to see and hear, if our eyes and our tongues are to remain alive.

    In the end "metaphor" means "to carry across." Without a referent, what is money carrying across? What does it represent? Good intentions? We know what road is paved with that.

  4. Troy,

    I think your response proves that hyperreality--or better yet, a semiotics of money--would be a fruitful approach.

  5. Consider this from the Wikipedia entry on simulacrum:

    "In his Sophist, Plato speaks of two kinds of image-making. The first is a faithful reproduction, attempted to copy precisely the original. The second is distorted intentionally in order to make the copy appear correct to viewers. He gives an example of Greek statuary, which was crafted larger on top than on bottom so that viewers from the ground would see it correctly. If they could view it in scale, they would realize it was malformed. This example from visual arts serves as a metaphor for philosophical arts and the tendency of some philosophers to distort truth in such a way that it appeared accurate unless viewed from the proper angle.[5] Nietzsche addresses the concept of simulacrum (but does not use the term) in The Twilight of the Idols, suggesting that most philosophers, by ignoring the reliable input of their senses and resorting to the constructs of language and reason, arrive at a distorted copy of reality.[6] Modern French social theorist Jean Baudrillard argues that a simulacrum is not a copy of the real, but becomes truth in its own right: the hyperreal. Where Plato saw two steps of reproduction — faithful and intentionally distorted (simulacrum) — Baudrillard sees four: (1) basic reflection of reality, (2) perversion of reality; (3) pretence of reality (where there is no model); and (4) simulacrum, which “bears no relation to any reality whatsoever.” Baudrillard uses the concept of god as an example of simulacrum.[7] In Baudrillard’s concept, like Nietzsche’s, simulacra are perceived as negative, but another modern philosopher who addressed the topic, Gilles Deleuze, takes a different view, seeing simulacra as the avenue by which accepted ideals or “privileged position” could be “challenged and overturned.”[8] Deleuze defines simulacra as "those systems in which different relates to different by means of difference itself. What is essential is that we find in these systems no prior identity, no internal resemblance."[9]"

    All of this of course raises the question of the effects of hyperreality on reality. What are the moral consequences, if any, of simulacra? What are the epistemological consequences?