April 20, 2008

Behind the Coin

Filed under: Uncategorized — duncan @ 9:36 pm

In Borges’ fantasy story ‘The Zahir’, a snobbish lovesick narrator, ‘Borges’, becomes monomaniacally obsessed with the image of a coin. The coin, he tells us, is ‘the Zahir’.

“In Arabic, ‘zahir’ means visible, manifest, evident; in that sense, it is one of the ninety-nine names of God; in Muslim countries, the masses use the word for ‘beings or things which have the terrible power to be unforgettable, and whose image eventually drives people mad.” There can only be one Zahir, Borges tells us: “the All-Merciful does not allow two things to be a Zaheer at the same time, since a single one is capable of entrancing multitudes.”

At the story’s end, ‘Borges’ faces the certain knowledge that he will soon be unable to think of anything except the image of the Zahir, “a common twenty-centavo coin…”

“In the waste and empty hours of the night I am still able to walk through the streets. Dawn often surprises me upon a bench in the Plaza Garay, thinking (or trying to think) about that passage in the Asrar Nama where it is said that the Zahir is the shadow of the Rose and the rending of the veil… I long to travel that path. Perhaps by thinking about the Zahir endlessly, I can manage to wear it away; perhaps behind the coin is God.”


In Borges’ story the aspect or nature of the Zahir changes with the changes of history (“In Gujarat, at the end of the eighteenth century, the Zahir was a tiger; in Java it was a blind man in the Surakarta mosque, stoned by the faithful…”) and it is of course no accident that Borges chooses a coin as his and our time’s monomaniacal obsession. What I want to do over the next few weeks or months is follow some of the themes touched on in this story.

To get more specific, and tedious: we’re about to descend into a rather deep ‘Specters of Marx’-shaped hole. I’m going to be trying to understand some of the implications of Derrida’s take on commodity fetishism – and how it relates to the ‘messianicity without messianism’ that Derrida offers, in ‘Specters’, as a source of progressive hope in the face of the horrifying contemporary dominance of neo-liberal capitalist ideology. My claim, I think, is going to be this: Derrida’s ‘weak messianicity’ is not an alternative to neoliberal hegemony, but is, rather, one of its expressions. The religious themes that circulate (“like capital, or poverty”) behind Derrida’s deployment of the theme of messianicity can be connected to the hidden theological or onto-theological self-justifications of capitalist economics. For capitalism (it’s embarrassingly cliched and glib to say) is a religion without God – a religion where God, or the emotional and social forces that produce Him, inhabits the coin. So we’ll start from the Zahir, and ask, among other, better, questions: what lies behind the coin (if not God)?


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