I encountered this wonderful image on the Psychoeconomy! Blog, which explores all sorts of strange monetary activisms, alternatives and anomalies:
I was particularly excited by it because I had been using the example of disrupted and represented money in a recent talk in Cairo about the paradoxes of representing absence. Modern money itself has no material existence (and has not needed one ever since the beginnings of ‘imaginary’ or ‘ghost’ moneys in the 15th century) other than the token forms we give it as notes and coins. These objects are, therefore, already very peculiar because they are material things used to represent immaterial things – metrical signs of value guaranteed in law. It is perhaps a sign of our deep insecurity about these indeterminate objects that prompts us to try and make them look like ‘valuable’ things. So it is that most of our coins, for example, which are made of metals of no ‘intrinsic’ worth are made to look like gold, silver and copper/bronze. We know our coins not made of these ‘precious’ metals, of course, but we seem to need to be reminded that they used to be.
What this means, among other things of course, is that money already occupies a paradoxical space in our lives – bringing together (in the literal sense of the word para-dox) two distinct and often incompatible conceptions of reality. Money intermediates between a world of things and people and a world of laws, economy and power and, as a consequence, is a very special class of object – a meta-object that creates rules and relationships for and about other objects.
It is because we do not routinely reflect on the paradoxical nature of money that makes it such a useful target for the sort of activist paradoxy illustrated by the ‘Occupy George’ note above. It helps, of course, that banknotes are also ubiquitous and easily drawn or printed on – extraordinarily ordinary things. Psychoeconomy! also uses an example I drew on in Cairo – that of the artist Joseph Beuys who used to alter notes by writing on them in a thick black pen “Kunst=Kapital” or “falsche” and signing them.
In doing so he redoubled the paradoxical nature of the notes many times over because, of course, such ‘damaged’ notes immediately ceased to circulate as money of a fixed value determined by law, and entered a completely different domain of value shaped by the art market, fashion and the authenticity of the artist’s signature. And, of course Beuys, was being ironic about all of that too, though that has not stopped his notes continuing to be sold through the auction houses and galleries at ever-increasing prices.
The Occupy dollar is different because it is a political statement rather than an ‘art work’ as such (though for my money (pun intended) it is that too) and thus does not enter into the same domain of value as the Beuys notes. It’s still a dollar bill, and is still worth just a dollar. But in its altered state it is now a dollar that reflects on its own immateriality (its a political flier and a dollar bill) and the material iniquity it is a part of. What the Beuys and Occupy bills have in common, however, is their capacity to enter, expose and subvert that strange present/absent socio-legal spatiality that banknotes represent and which we all carry round in our pockets.