What Money Wants: An Economy of Desire (2014) by Noam Yuran is an intriguing work on the philosophy of economics. What follows is one of my typically adventurous book reviews. This will attempt to situate the theory within a broader discursive problematic, and consider how such a philosophy might support the development of a future economics.
This is a mysterious book, and perhaps it is even mystical. The development of something quite original is underway here. A new conception of economy is emerging. Distinct patterns are appearing, though there is much uncertainty concerning how this might proceed. So readers of such a book are implicated in a sort of midwifery, and this calls for hermeneutic reflection on the process that is underway.
Orthodox economics assumes a common sense rationality of the everyman. By assuming people are rational in some obvious way, it aligns itself with modernization ideologies related to liberal democracies and evolutionary biology. Economic behavior is assumed to be rational, whether as a result of education or evolution. And this is a certain form of rationality, so that subjects behave like English shopkeepers, as Marx once quipped. This rationality can be a dignifying quality that separates civilized men from the savages.
But we know there is something awry with this model of Homo Economicus, and a future economics would have to conceive economic behavior otherwise. It would have to introduce some dimension of subjectivity that goes beyond this rational actor. Yuran’s book addresses this problem of how economic behavior might be understood otherwise. It proposes some conceptual shifts in how we understand market behavior in relation with money. These shifts could have profound consequences. Economic rationality is not just a concern for economists, because these models are at the core of social relations, where they affect how people communicate and interpret behavior.
This book introduces a concept of the sublime into economic theory. The sublime is normally considered an aesthetic dimension, and there is a problematic about the relationship between economics and aesthetics. This area of theory is something of a polemical minefield. There is a legacy of animosity between bourgeois positivism and romantic aestheticism, and the move of introducing an economic sublime could easily be interpreted as another episode in the age-old logos-mythos debate.
For negotiating through this terrain, it seems important to hold close to the problem of a future economics. Any viable economics ultimately can only succeed as a boring, mundane activity, and there is a danger that literary aesthetics could distract from that quotidian concerns. This is not to detract from Yuran’s lucid discussion of Dickens, but only to suggest perhaps a Platonistic distinction between a mathematical sublime and an aesthetic sublime.
The sublime dimension that Yuran proposes is analogous to Lacanian extimacy, and Heideggerian ecstasis. But this is a philosophy of the economic, so we are not talking about Dasein, or an a clinical analysand, but rather the prospect of a new form of economic behavior. The book often uses the terms “subject” and “object”, though it seems we should be very careful with these terms. These terms can have a wide range of connotations, and they are only going to be useful if their sense is very precise.
In this book, a “subject” or a “persona” is identified by certain gestures, or traits. This book is about a subject that it empties itself, that is its primary trait or gesture. And the operative question that guides most of the discussion is why this subject empties itself. I would suggest that in reading we consider this “why” as a primary question, and that further questions – such as what is it emptying itself of, how does it empty itself, where are its contents emptied too, who does it become once it is emptied – can follow later.
This emptying is presented as an ancient habit. The term “personae” is the Latin word for mask, and we can imagine that a certain form of emptying is a mask that covers earlier forms of emptying. Though the book does not include much discussion on the longer history of this trait. To access some primordial sense of emptying, one section discusses a theory of excretion and anal behavior proposed by the psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi. This reference seems to have been carefully chosen from possible psychoanalytic material that could have been discussed. Topics like anorexia or depression, or perhaps masochism, might be suitable here. And in terms of ancient civilization, this trait of emptying is associated with religious asceticism. So there is a background on this emptying gesture, where there might be some link between religious asceticism and certain forms of psychopathology.
This subject empties itself for the sake of objective processes, so this could be described as a gesture of self-sacrifice. We might think of Abraham falling on his face and uttering “Before you I am dust.” This irrational gesture is a point from which we can start to conceive the sublime as a dimension of subjectivity which an economics of the future would have to take for granted. This all comes from an elegant point: how can economics account for capitalism? How can we interpret how the capitalist gives up everything for the sake of money? The capitalist is presented as one who negates themself for the sake of financial accumulation.
One of the remarkable features of this book is its rigorous textual methodology. It focuses on an intersection between three theorists: Karl Marx, Max Weber and Thorstein Veblen. George Simmel is in the back ground. Slavoj Zizek is mediating the discussion. In what follows here, I am not going to retrace this textual conversation. Though I should emphasize that the method is quite effective. He manages to express some of Zizek’s ideas more effectively and efficiently than Zizek has ever done. I think this is partly because Zizek himself gets distracted with convoluted legacy concerns (he is an “old-style Marxist”, whatever that means), whereas Yuran moves deftly after an economics of the future.
This book is marvelously uncluttered with superfluous academic background. It makes its argument efficiently, limiting itself to a few famous textual points, and illustrates them with colorful reference to advertisements. The name George Bataille does not appear once, although Bataille’s heterodox economics prefigured much of the theoretical discussion. I mention Bataille here not for purposes of scholarly genealogy, but to suggest some connections with specific points in French literature which can mediate the development of this strain of economic heterodoxy. I am not interested in resurrecting any tired old discussions, but just to retrieve a few select puzzle pieces and set them at a distance as guide posts. This book covers ground that has been attempted in the past, and it could be worthwhile to connect it with previous work.
Near the beginning of this book, there appears the expression “veil of neutrality”. This term struck me as something mystical, and it piqued my curiosity about its origin. I was impressed to discover that the expression actually comes from…. neoclassical economics! As Keith Hart underlines in his preface, Yuran is not just importing theory from elsewhere to criticize economic orthodoxy. Instead he finds the terms for his criticism within the orthodox economic texts themselves. So this book is, among other things, a work of deconstruction.
The issue of neutrality could be a flash-point in discussions of economic philosophy. A few years ago, a renegade options trader named Ellie Ayache published a book titled The Blank Swan, and it shares some overlapping concerns with Economy of Desire, such as mediation, contingency and singularity. On this issue, the author deftly refers to Marshall McLuhan, in his discussion of how economists treat money as a “mere medium”, where in media studies the medium is anything but mere. In overlooking money, the economists have ignored the contingency of the medium. Then there are problems of how the contingency of a medium can be presented or represented within the medium.
The literary critic Maurice Blanchot distinguished the neuter and the neutral. This has to do with the legacy of Platonism in France, and the controversy surrounding the question of univocity. It’s said that Cartesian dualism emerged from a truncated univocity that was invented by Francisco Suarez. So there is this criticism that distinguishes true univocity from the false univocities that disintegrate into dualism. This area of onto-metaphysics and aesthetics could be critical background for a philosophy of economics. A future economics may end up oriented between ontologies of univocity, equivocity, and duality.
Much of the philosophical difficulty concerning the development of a future economics will probably relate to the problem of immanence. Immanence is exposed to chaos, and so any immanent development always implies risks. In speculating on the development of a future economics, perhaps we should consider what sorts of disagreements are likely to arise.
While reading this book, it crossed my mind several times that the author is apparently an Israeli. This occurred when he cited another Israeli named Eva Illouz, and so I considered the possibility of an emerging Israeli school of economics. Another time the author’s ethnicity crossed my mind was when he cited an apparently anti-semitic statement by john Maynard Keynes.
To orient the discussion at an immanent level, it may be important to reflect on a writer’s symbolic identity. Terms such as “Protestant” or “Chinese” can have an ethnographic sense, but these terms can also be ascribed to participants in a discussion. This way these symbols can be embodied or manifest immanently within a discussion, and the discussion may involve antagonism over the inscription of values and commodity relations. The future of economics might hinge on how this sort of singular manifestation becomes reflexive, and how it gets expressed in writing. Where orthodoxies have assumed the cloak of fake universality, heterodoxy would overcome this through the expression of authentic singularity.
Radical immanence exposes theory to the risk of getting drawn into obscure conflicts. By hiding behind a veil of false neutrality, orthodoxy has been able to maintain a position of aloof hegemony. But when a heterodoxy starts to expose the contingent, then the theory is likely to be imperiled by the conflicted complexities of the real.
Having said this, the theory articulated in Economy of Desire seems robust, and may withstand tests of the real, though it would emerge transformed in some ways. It has integrity in that it adheres to its own conditions. Or we could say that its expression does not contradict its content. Considering the book itself as a commodity, it would seem to be the sort of commodity that its own theory might recommend. One does not detect much irony in these pages. But going forward, the question of where irony arises may become important, because irony can provide an index of false neutrality. There needs to be a sensitivity to subtle ironies which are sure to arise.
For an example of what I am talking about here, consider Pierre Klossowsski’s last published work, a bizarre treatise titled Living Money (1972), which is an ironic tract of heterodox neo-Thomastic economics. It shares its core problem with Yuran’s book, in trying to conceive the essence of money, though the works share no textual references. I think this new book succeeds where Klossowski fails in taking a non-ironic step into heterodox monetary theory. The problem is to discover a path for economics that leads beyond the exhaustion of the Last Man, or beyond the fraying of ontology into the equivocal.
Willam Stanely Jevons was a Victorian economist whose theory figures prominently in the book, though his name isn’t mentioned. Jevons is credited with inventing the marginal utility models that characterize neoclassical economics. That was the theory which mathematicized economics in the way that it is today. The sort of artificial rationality that this discipline propounds is incessantly ironic, in that it is a supposed rationality that is in fact a madness. It is a hyper-rationalism that ends up being completely irrational, staging these drama’s of choice between… say manicures and chocolates.
One of the advantages of Economy if Desire is its narrow focus. It accomplishes a precise mission, and doesn’t get distracted. But for an erudite reader, the pages refer us to other unwritten pages. Economics was involved in a mimicry where Victorian disciplines attempted to imitate the respectability of Newtonian physics. Yuran doesn’t mention scientificism, but one can see how the apple that hit Newton on the head was a scientific incarnation of a sublime object. The scientist empties themself in a manner which is akin to the capitalist and the religious ascetic. And Newton himself was involved with gold minting, and so we can see that scientificism is implicated in the sublime object of money.
So the issue of economics’s own scientificity is related to this gesture of emptying before an objective process. Jevons emptied himself to create an automatic model of economic behavior. If we consider how the so-called “invisible hand” has been used as a rhetorical trope, then we can see how a larger problematic fits together. The invisible hand is the pseudo-religious idea that economies run automatically, or we could say objectively. It is the secular economists way of saying “leave it to God”. The book takes very particular paths, but there are many other ways to reach similar conclusions. Yuran has definitely shown us something important, but next it seems that what he has said can be worked back across a broader, and more liberal, more discursive terrain.
From a broader perspective, there seems to be a link between irony and automatism. There is a condition where society has been reduced to these automated roles, yet everyone must create the illusion that this is not the case. Zizek talks about how waiters in France behave like robots, in order to differentiate themselves from their roles, while waiters in America behave in a way that is unnaturally human, to somehow accomplish the same differentiation. So it is not simply that we must play these roles, but that we must also pretend that we are not playing these roles. Objectivity in this sense appears as something excruciating painful, and a heterodox economics could adopt the mission of bringing this kind of objectivity to an end.
The philosopher Gilles Deleuze took an interest in Jevons, commenting that his marginal utility theory was awful for an economics, but could be interesting for metaphysics. Deleuze was interested in thresholds, the point where an arrangement or exchange terminates, and some other arrangement replaces it, and perhaps he was electing Jevons as a theorist of the end of the Last Man. This would be a definitive irony at the end of neoclassical economics. This would be a point where the rational actor itself is replaced with some other role.
The Last Man is a theme in philosophy that often involves irony and humor. Consider this joke from: Child: “I hope Donald Trump blows up the world.” Old man: “it wouldn’t matter, because life would just evolve back again. It always does.” Beyond the humor of last man, it seems heterodox economics should posit the question of a new seriousness. So I am suggesting an ethics of non-irony in economics. The old economic orthodoxy has tried to remain serious about some things, even when colored with cynicism. It tries to be serious about its liberal political ideas like democracy and human rights. At the center of its doctrines, there are serious concerns with growth, inflation and sometimes employment.
So what might a heterodox economics take seriously? Which concerns might it inherit from orthodoxy? This is a question about what an economist of the future might do.
Yuran engages in historical speculation about the relation between economics and religion, taking up this topic from Max Weber. For initiating this line of economic thought, it was certainly a good idea to focus on the most well-known texts of classical sociology. But on this topic, another relevant but unmentioned philosopher is Georgio Agamben. Some of his writing, particularly Power and the Glory (2011), provides an extensive archive of rich material on the historical contingencies of religious-economic institutions, which makes some of Yuran’s discussion seem somewhat naive. For instance, Agamben’s discussion of salvation and the aesthetics of blessedness fits closely into Yuran’s discussion of monetary desire.
Economy of Desire emphasizes historical ontology, and there are some criticisms I would like to make on this point. The concern with history strikes me as a peculiar 19th century German preoccupation. Yuran places an historical absence at the heart of desire, but history should be seen as only one possible modality of absence. When he talks about the persistence of institutions, that persistence does not seem necessarily historical. Or we could say the term “history” limits the discussion in a way that might be unfortunate. Historicization is suspicious because it could be a reaction to the anti-historical attitude of liberalism. So the invocation of history might be repeating some cold war antagonism. Of course this also has to do with Yuran’s way of reading Weber (not so much his reading of Marx). History seems like precisely the sort of baggage which is most difficult to carry. My point is that our conception of the absence of desire should be opened to include other ways of relating to the past and memory, like in the ontology of Bergsonian Platonism.
The absence of desire in a future economics would likely imply geographical absence, which concerns distance rather than the past. Yuran’s discussion about institutional persistence is interesting, but the point would be that institutions are situated geographically. David Harvey has said interesting things about the space-time dialectics of capital. This is the point where we should discuss the concept of Parallax, the Zizekian concept which Yuran has adopted as a methodology. Zizek took this (originally Kantian) expression from the Japanese philosopher Kojin Karatani, who is interested in geographical relations. This problem of history and memory versus geography and distance is going to be critical for the development of future economics, and it seems that a heterodox economics could greatly benefit from the ability to think about desire geographically.
There is a point I want to mention about the contingency of desire, namely that it might be considered a uniquely French institution. In 1948, George Bataille published an article on the origins of chivalry. According to him, chivalry emerged from the encounter of Roman Catholic imperialism with the tribes of northern Europe. He characterizes the tribes as having a “shamanic” culture, and says their relation to the sublime was one of immanence. The sublime for them was not something otherworldly, but something they encountered directly, whether as threatening or invigorating. But as they came under the power of the church, they were brought under the influence of a transcendent, sacerdotal relation with the sublime. They were supposedly distanced from their shamanic sublime. So desire is this institution where Teutonic spirituality is distanced from itself. Lacan emphasized the troubadour ethic, and Deleuze was interested in Gothic architecture.
For Yuran’s discussion of the institutionalization of desire, it is interesting to consider the legacy of Roman Catholic imperialism and its ethnic connotations. The association of luxury brands with “French Romance” indicates the sort of geo-economic contingencies associated with the institution of money. Europe is of course by far the most popular tourist destination in the world, and it might be interesting to consider the sort of monetary desire which drives that industry.
I want to conclude this review with a reference to the biblical tale of the prodigal son, a story which could be of critical importance for the development of a future economics. The story is noteworthy for how it figures the ethics of excess and lack, exaltation and abjection, and situates it institutionally deep in the Christian symbolic. There are more than a few famous versions of the prodigal son, and I would like to end recount the narrative as it was staged by Heinrich von Kleist in his play Prince of Homberg (1817).
The play is set during the Thirty Years War, and the Prince is leading a battalion against the Swedes. He doesn’t pay attention to his orders, because he is distracted by random ladies, and falls into romantic reveries where he dreams of valor. On the battle field he doesn’t follow the plan, and his dreaming messes up his army’s operation. In the confusion of battle, he sees his own sovereign, the Elector, struck down by the enemy. Upon witnessing the fall of his sovereign, the Prince is overcome with Teutonic Berzerker-rage, and spontaneously leads a drive which pushes the enemy back to Sweden. After the battle, it turns out that the Elector has survived, and he summons the Prince to a court hearing, where the prince will be sentenced to death for his insubordination. As news of this spreads, a popular uprising begins, because the people desire their prince, and the common folk help him escape and harbor him so he can avoid execution. While he is in hiding, the Prince comes across a copy of the legal code, which he studies. From studying the document, the prince discovers that the rightful punishment for his behavior is indeed execution, and upon this realization he falls into another reverie, and marches off heroically to his execution.
It seems this story could provide a point of mediation for the development of a future economics. If we were going to stage this play today, then it seems we might want to cast the economist William Stanley Jevons in the lead role. In the final scene, the embattled economist would sit down to conduct some marginal utility calculations, and then reach the conclusion that he should give up on said calculations. After defending the theory for so long, it is the theory itself which prescribes its own termination, as if the invisible hand were going to gesture itself out of existence.