April 28, 2008

Metaphor of Equivalence

Filed under: Derrida, Economics, Philosophy — duncan @ 3:44 pm

Borges’ story ‘The Zahir’ ends with his narrator’s thoughts entirely occupied by the image of a coin – and with the ambition to “wear it away”, through thought. This obsession is a metaphor, arguably, for our obsession with money. But a coin seems to give itself better than the other figures of the Zahir to the total domination of consciousness. “The thought struck me that there is no coin that is not the symbol of all the coins that shine endlessly down throughout history and fable… any coin… is, in all truth, a panoply of possible futures.” The function of a coin derives from its power of symbolism, circulation, and equivalence – because, in the system of circulation and equivalence that is a capitalist economy, a coin can in principle be substituted for or symbolise anything that falls within that economy. Thus a coin seems uniquely well placed to usurp consciousness – provided we understand consciousness as the ability to represent the world.

The coin as infinitely applicable, infinitely substitutable, infinitely exchangeable symbol; the coin as the material instantiation of an abstract power of equivalence. The coin is a material object that functions like thought. And thus the coin can take the place of thought – or, rather, the coin can make thought subordinate to it. “It is not as though the Zahir were made of glass, since one side is not superimposed upon the other” – the coin is not a medium through which the objects of possible substitution are perceived – “rather, it is though the vision were itself spherical, with the Zahir rampant at the center.” Once a concrete instantiation of absolute substitutability has been established, this instantiation becomes the still centre to which all else must be referred. It is the transcendental, empirical, final referent – because it can in turn refer to anything at all.

We are now used to thinking the necessary materiality of thought. Since Derrida – and Wittgenstein – we know that the ideality of thought always depends on the materiality of the signs and symbols that enable thought. Nonetheless – this materiality has more often than not been understood as the materiality of language – the materiality of words, of text; perhaps, for Wittgenstein, of social practices. But not the materiality of a coin, not “a common twenty-centavo coin into which a razor or letter opener has scratched the letters N T and the number 2…”

At crucial moments in Derrida’s work (I’m focussing on Derrida; we’ll get to Wittgenstein, perhaps, eventually, at which point everything, I hope, will change) the coin looms large; the coin (the infinite substitutions of capitalist economies) seems to dominate the language with which Derrida articulates his thought of infinite substitutability as language.

Near the start of ‘White Mythologies’, his essay on metaphor, Derrida quotes from Anatole France’s ‘The Garden of Epicurus’. “Polyphilos:… I was thinking how the Metaphysicians, when they make a language for themselves, are like… knife-grinders, who instead of knives and scissors, should put medals and coins to the grindstone to efface the exergue, the value and the head. When they have worked away till nothing is visible in their crown-pieces, neither King Edward, the Emperor William, nor the Republic, they say: ‘These pieces have nothing either English, German or French about them; we have freed them from all limits of time and space; they are not worth five shillings any more; they are of an inestimable value, and their exchange value is extended indefinitely.’ They are right in speaking thus. By this needy knife-grinder’s activity words are changed from a physical to a metaphysical acceptation. It is obvious what they lose in the process; what they gain by it is not so immediately apparent.” (quoted in ‘Margins of Philosophy’, p. 210)

Coin as metaphor for language. Coin as metaphor for metaphor. The sensuous meaning of language is rubbed away, to produce abstraction –abstraction conceals a hidden sensuousness.

But it seems strange of France’s Polyphilos to use this metaphor for metaphor. The coin is (of course) already an abstraction, a materially instantiated abstraction – a ‘sensuous non-sensuous’, to use the language of ‘Capital’ (or of Hegel; or, I’m told, of Goethe’s Mephistopheles). To rub away at the coin to make it abstract – to efface the head – is to remove its connection to the abstract (to the head). A coin without inscription loses its value as a coin. And so Polyphilos’s satire, that ridicules metaphysicians for effacing the real meaning of the words they use – a real meaning that is sensual, tangible, non-abstract, metaphoric; this ridicule is rerouted by the metaphor Polyphilos uses to describe metaphor – this metaphor makes metaphor already abstract, makes sensuousness already abstract. And it does so through the power of the coin.

Derrida of course critiques Polyphilos (or Anatole France) in ‘White Mythology’. But he does so while also deploying a metaphorics of the coin – of capital and surplus value.

“In signifying the metaphorical process, the paradigms of coin, of metal, silver and gold, have imposed themselves with remarkable insistence… Inscription on coinage is most often the intersection, the scene of the exchange between the linguistic and the economic. The two types of signifier supplement each other in the problematic of fetishism…” (p. 216). But this “supplement”, which imposes itself upon us, also disrupts the metaphorical strategy of Derrida’s work. For though Derrida is not a ‘linguistic philosopher’, his deconstructions of the philosophical canon focus on the treatment of the sign; and to extend the features of the sign to all aspects of the world is one of the basic manoeuvres by which Derrida aims to undermine philosophies of presence, or of ‘the proper’.

Yet this extension of the philosophy of the sign to the whole of life is also the question of the relation between philosophy and non-philosophy. And, as Derrida tells us in the passage I’ve just quoted, “the analogy within language finds itself represented by an analogy between language and something other than itself… [T]hat which seems to ‘represent’, to figure, is also that which opens the wider space of a discourse on figuration…” If it is “the paradigms of coin” that have “imposed themselves with remarkable insistence” when treating this analogy between language and non-language, might this not tell us something about the sources of Derrida’s own work – and about his strategy of extending or totalising the linguistic? For the metaphor of metaphor, the literary or philosophical space that precedes and makes possible any discourse on equivalence of non-equivalents, here seems to be the coin – or, more generally, the economic.

Derrida remains, in many ways, a transcendental philosopher, searching for the conditions of any discourse of empiricism. Yet if Derrida’s search for quasi-transcendentals leads him again and again into the realm of economic language (as I think it does), is it not legitimate to search in turn for the empirical conditions – the empirical sources – of the figures he deploys. How can coin, usury, capital be any kind of quasi-transcendental? Are these not in the first place material and social phenomena of our real world, our world of capitalist exchange and exploitation? To place Derrida’s discourse on the sign within a discourse on the economy; and then to place that in turn within the changes and self-understandings of capitalist society – this would be to historicise deconstruction to a degree that Derrida himself doesn’t seem to envisage.

And let me point you all again to Le Colonel Chabert, who seems to be doing that very thing as we speak…


  1. Lessing, Nathan The Wise:

    NATHAN: Truth! Truth! He wants it so ready-made, as if truth were a coin! – Yes, if at least it were a very ancient coin that one must weigh! That still might pass. But such a modern coin, made by a stamp, as one may simply lay and count upon a board, that it is not. Like cash in a bag, truth should be shoved into the head?

    Comment by chabert — April 28, 2008 @ 11:52 pm

  2. I think the basic impulse with derrida is to secure property without the scale, the gold, the bedrock, that is, belatedly, after all the objections have undermined its metaphysical justification. It’s like, oh yes, tragically there is no grounding, no source, but this makes things more rather than less stable and legitimate, beyond challenge…there is no enclosure, no primitive accumulation, no exploitation and no accumulation; the proper is an infinite chain, a web of chains, a market for the circulation of signs (which the language metaphor deceptively suggests don’t deplete or accumulate); thus a never ending sequence, without origin; this is convenient for infinite convertibility of everything and the infinite abstraction of property, the occlusion of proprietors, appropriators and producers; it doesn’t endanger de facto ownership but rather secures it; it can’t be illegitimate because there never was any exploitation, expropriation, etc, there was only an infinite sequence of exchanges, gifts, messages, an infinite sequence of possessions and mutual relations expressing excesses into the atmosphere, going astray. He performs these title searches, like a notaire, they go back, transfer by transfer, to the night of time and vanish into eternity.

    Comment by chabert — April 29, 2008 @ 1:20 am

  3. Thanks for this – brilliant. “the proper is an infinite chain, a web of chains, a market for the circulation of signs…” So you’re saying that the proper or property that Derrida apparently critiques is reconstituted in its dispersal?? As its dispersal?? “a never ending sequence, without origin…” and therefore without the primitive accumulation that establishes the possibility of the sequence? “He performs these title searches, like a notaire, they go back, transfer by transfer, to the night of time and vanish into eternity.” (Superb…)

    I wonder where the supplement fits into this (I don’t have an opinion – I haven’t thought it through). It seems to me that at many moments Derrida does open his chain of substitutions to something else – and not just in the Levinasian abstract-other sense. The double-movement between the empirical and the transcendental may always come to rest, for Derrida, in a transcendental principle that tries to encapsulate the double-movement (differance, or whatever) – but the empirical, the historical, the actually economic rather than the metaphor of the economy, is always one of the movement’s moments – and Derrida’s ceaseless mourning of the proper is in part a continual return to that moment. Here you find the influence of ideologies other than the ideology of purity that, as you say, Derrida’s obsessed with – and I think a focus on such moments allows a redeployment of deconstruction away from a meditation on some always-already-ruined transcendental referent, and towards a more substantive critique. In Marx, for instance, the circulation of value, the equivalence of value, is divided and created by value’s origin in surplus value – a value that is not identical with its equivalent, and that therefore seems to contradict the law of value – that is, equivalence. This supplement, this excess, is how Marx opens the discourse of political economy to exploitation – and a similar operation can at times be performed by Derrida: the sign’s excess needn’t be expressed into the atmosphere, but can be made the object of analysis – what non-linguistic, non-market forces generate this non-identity? To be sure, Derrida doesn’t follow any such route in ‘Specters’ … but I think some aspect of his work is lost if we focus only on the infinite substitutions, the necessary indeterminacy of the sign, etc. and not on what makes such things possible – the sign’s constant reinscription and transformation by actual contexts, with the ideological and practical influences and coercions these contexts always involve…

    Much more to be said. But I suppose I should in any case be saying it on your own thread.

    Comment by praxisblog — April 30, 2008 @ 9:12 pm

  4. “a similar operation can at times be performed by Derrida”

    isn’t this the point, that it is “similar” but different. It’s a changeling. And it’s a changeling in a very familiar style, the critique from the right that sought to displace the marxist critique, from nietzsche through all the french reactionaries and fascists. This is liberalism, status quo, adapting to a challenge; the adaptation is fascism. (Doesn’t have to be crudely racist or anything.) There are two things Marx’ explanation of surplus exposes which the adaptation of liberalism needs to occlude or replace with some abstract mystical figures – a) profit, b) the ruling class who accumulates it. The adaptation concedes there is surplus – one can’t conceal that entirely. So it contents itself concealing where it is, who has it, how it is produced; instead of exploitation we have some kind of gift; its also mechanically random. Derrida didn’t come up with this all by hisseff…its another statement, with a new jargon, and its armored against previous critiques; where there were some features open to empirical challenge, he replaces hardware with software…etc.. The empirical as an eternal caveat – this is his genius – is available for completely opportunistic use. Thus deconstruction is totally flexible. It can be used for a radical materialist politicised critique (Spivak sometimes, say, some parts of jd’s own work, parts of the condillac book, substantial parts of the post card, substantial parts of Glas) or it can be used for shameless apologies for capital and crimes against humanity. It’s completely up to the person running the deconstruction. In Of Spirit he even restores the hors-text to banish a spiritualised Nazism to it. The disqualification of a certain obligation of rationality, the “under erasure” option and the like, and the convenience of the genre(philosophy, rather than history, econ, sociology or marxism) for avoiding any obligation regarding evidence (rhetoric rules here in the genre) combine to this total flexibility. You can restate Marx’ own analysis of surplus in derridean terms, or you can, as jd himself does, perform its spiritualisation and exorcism. The pose of cynical naïveté or naïve cynicism smooths out the bumps.

    Comment by chabert — May 1, 2008 @ 3:17 am

  5. There is a video available somewhere of Badiou giving a kind of eulogy at an event at Irvine memorialising Derrida. And at some point -(he is quite critical, politely) he calls him a “man of peace”. After the talk, a student in the audience made an objection to this – how can you call him a man of peace? like he’s so soft and pollyanna. Look at all the violent metaphors he uses when describing literature, like ‘cut’! Badiou just stared with his mouth open, as if it was just sinking in that he was really in California, then stammered a little, saying well he didn’t mean to be insulting sort of thing. In Truth in Painting – which opens with a ghostly visitation and enigmatic question also – there are those nifty visuals of the parergon. And a few pages in, there is the delusional, naïve cynical claim that deconstruction is distinguished from an “analysis or criticism” by the fact that it “tampers with solid structures, with ‘material’ institions”. Just enough of a blurring to allow this endless flexibility that ends with the student’s psychosis, the collapse of naïveté and cynicism. In Spectres, though, Derrida rips into Fukuyama for not distinguishing between realised liberal democracy and the ideal of liberal democracy. (It’s very jarring that Derrida accepts so openly the ideal utopia evoked by “liberal democracy” as uncontroversial while he is purportedly channelling the true, reformed, repentent purgatorial spirit of Marx). The naïve cynicism is pushed beyond the point of invisibility – its suddenly there, Derrida very angry at Fukuyama for producing this vulgar and successful/popular version of his own political case, for exposing it like this, without the ornamentation and the cloud of equivocations and jargons. Because it only works if you’re a little dazed, kind of hypnotised.

    Comment by chabert — May 1, 2008 @ 3:40 am

  6. “the proper or property that Derrida apparently critiques is reconstituted in its dispersal?? As its dispersal??”

    yes as its dispersal – that is, it is in the form of derivatives. he starts saying look it looks like an archaic form of land tenure, Sieur of Septimania. Don’t be attached to that, its not necessary. You see you can treat it like swaptions. And there’s nothing to fear – it doesn’t become precarious, it’s like cantilevering.

    Comment by chabert — May 1, 2008 @ 3:53 am

  7. you could say he takes the proper public.

    Comment by chabert — May 1, 2008 @ 3:56 am

  8. [...] out Rough Theory here, here, and a bit later (notice board style), here, and then over at Praxis here.  I don’t have the time right now to follow up on this, but I should over the next week or [...]

    Pingback by Specters « Contaminations — May 5, 2008 @ 10:23 pm

  9. Wonderful piece of thought and writing in such a small space! Exciting – work provoking.
    Many thanks

    Comment by Ian Hays — April 21, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

  10. Thanks Ian!

    Comment by duncan — April 21, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

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