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…