Monday, October 31, 2016

On (giving and taking) money

Image:'Money' by Kyrill Afonin 13 September 2011
(Flickr/Creative Commons)

I am fond of Georg Simmel’s formal sociology: his notion of ‘forms’ as separated from ‘content’ in the increasing rationalisation of social life. More recently, I took an interest in his approach to money to consider the issue of economic quantification of social interaction. This is peculiar for someone primarily interested in cultural productions of togetherness, if one does not know that I explore utopian visions of the future. Unfortunately, most would see money (or, rather ‘wealth’) as integral to productions and destructions of hope. Hence my interest: in reflecting on the ways money passes hands in everyday life; how different cultures conjure up different transactional rituals; and, more specifically, what ‘rationalisation’ might mean in contemporary contexts of association. I forgive Simmel’s absence on the last point, as he is not our contemporary, but wonder if treating money as ontologically exterior (to us) ‘things’, or if bracketing exchange as rational action would address issues of culture. Simmel himself admitted in The Philosophy of Money (1900) that ‘the possibility of finding in each of life’s details the totality of its meaning’ is possible. For me culture is not structure but an interplay between structure and agency – which is why Simmel’s generic conclusion on ‘rationalisation’ is not enough. Nor is the treatment of ‘money’ as objects excised from performances of giving-and-taking.

OK, maybe I am more interested in philosophies of giving and taking. But Simmel is still to be considered. I am only interested in offering vignettes and ‘glimpses’ at a programmatic statement on money as the gift encompassing the donor’s essence. Holders and recipients of money are, for me, part of a system not exactly ‘autopoetic’ in form.  On this, I remain incurably Maussian, tracking the notion of monetary exchange back to so-called ‘primitive’ reciprocal cycles (of material and immaterial things commonly recognised as ‘gifts’). Anthropologists have furthered Mauss’ (1954) work in the most intriguing ways - amongst them, we can count Sahlins (1965, 1972, 1976, 2013) and Gudeman (1986, 2001, 2008, 2015) for a start. So I wish to observe on form that conceals variations in content (of monetary exchange).

 Image: 'Transaction' by Erwin Schoonderwaldt 12 February 2012 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Cultural fast-tracking: in British society money changes hands in everyday settings in such a tactile style that one wonders if we got the stereotype of the ‘cold Englishman (or woman)’ all wrong. English people are not afraid to fondle money when they give them away – in fact, pointing them to customers in an exaggerated manner seems part of the professional etiquette (of a seller). Not a problem if hands touch or fondle either. Once I held a note at the tip of my fingers to pass to a bus driver, and he responded in the grumpiest manner by refusing to return coins to me (he placed them on he till). Brits are virtuosos of tactile connectivity when it comes to returning coins – a phenomenon one never encounters in some Mediterranean countries. Greeks slam coins on the tray they have in front of them, often counting them for you in disdain (amusingly, if you thank them, they may think you mock their custom). Counting change (in your palm) is popular amongst Pakistani taxi drivers, in a public display of honesty. Often, however, the same drivers adopt the ‘middle ground’ approach between the direct British touch with the customer’s hand and the distance of a Greek ‘cash dispensing’ attitude. Other Asian cultures, such as the Indonesian, might favour touch but react to visual directness – there are less limits to accidental bodily connectivity and many to its visual measurement and apprehension. So, even though the content of transaction remains the same, the form changes. But variations in form may also have a story to say about differences in content: what the/form act of giving/returning/receiving stands for in culturally specific human interactions.

The global advent of Westernisation-as-modernisation counters a neat separation of ‘things’ to use in transactions, transactional networks and global (within a society) socialisation patterns. Money can become an actant in human interactions, mediating affect, emotion and reason in various combinations. And if we want to understand its place in a culture, we must consider relationalities between the form and content of transactions – their performative patterns in everyday life.

Gudeman, S. (1986) Economics as Culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Gudeman, S. (2001) The Anthropology of Economy. Malden: Blackwell.
Gudeman, S. (2008) Economy’s Tension. New York: Berghahn.
Gudeman, S. (2015) ‘Piketty and Anthropology’, Anthropological Forum, 25 (1): 66-83.
Mauss, M. (1954) The Gift. London: Free Press.
Sahlins, M. (1965) ‘On the sociology of primitive exchange’, in M. Banton (ed.) The Relevance of Models for Social Anthropology. London: Tavistock, 139–236.
Sahlins, M. (1972) Stone Age Economics. Chicago: Aldine.
Sahlins, M. (1976) Culture and Practical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sahlins, M. (2013) ‘On the Culture of Material Value and the cosmography of riches’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 3 (2): 161-95.
Simmel, G. (1900) The Philosophy of Money. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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