Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?
July 06, 2007
zero dollar bills

Several weeks ago, I made the mistake of going to sleep with a swirl of very puzzling statements in my head.

One statement was by Gayatri Spivak, about how
"Economy is not a reconciliation of opposites, but rather a maintaining of disjunction."

Another statement went something like this:
All thought, judgment, perception, considered as comparison, has as its precondition a "positing of equality," and earlier still a "making equal."

A third statement was about how
"the economic character of différance in no way implies that the deferred presence can always be found again."

Finally, floating around in the background somewhere was probably an observation by an old dude of an even older, commonplace observation,
[e.g.: "It is for this end that money has been introduced, and it becomes in a sense an intermediate; for it measures all things, and therefore the excess and the defect -- how many shoes are equal to a house or to a given amount of food."]

about how
"the different things measured by money are entirely incommensurable magnitudes."

While puzzling my slow brain over how, if at all, these statements fit together, I fell asleep. Thereafter I had a possibly stupid dream.

"Possibly stupid" but certainly tiresome to read about.

[A description of other people's dreams is almost always tiresome to hear.

Am I correct in recalling from somewhere that Laurie Anderson began a diary and drawings of her dreams at Lou Reed's suggestion? I figured he suggested it because he was sick of hearing her describe her dreams every morning, but was attempting to be too kind to admit it.

This would be natural human behavior.

cf. looking at other people's vacation snapshots]

[update 7/10/07:

To clarify and strike a less potentially wiseass-sounding note:

Laurie Anderson's dream book, Night Life, is in fact very interesting and entertaining. The drawings are really intriguing.

I suspect that her decades of adventurous public performance have given her a keen enough sense of audience response that she knows how to adopt towards dream-telling a standard of "less is more"
(a standard which this blog fails in every respect, despite its best efforts).

A video of Anderson reading from her book begins here.

My favorite of her dream transcriptions at the moment goes like this:

There's a large piece of unfinished sculpture in the middle of my loft.

It's -- a huge cheese in the shape of a flight of stairs.

It's been here for 20 years, and -- I doubt that I'll ever get around to finishing it.

Therefore, I please advise you to skip the rest of this post, dear reader -- if you exist (I include my future self).

I dreamed that the USA introduced into circulation a new line of "zero dollar" bills.

I don't remember the mechanics exactly. In fact, I began to forget almost all the details of the dream almost immediately as I woke up, as will be explained.

The zero dollar bills were notes that carried no numerical monetary value. However, everybody understood that when you paid for something, you could mix the "zero" bills in with your "regular" bills.

Roughly, the intention of the zero bills was to try symbolically to communicate a personal sense of the unspoken aspects of the transaction that the dollar amount of the agreed-upon price alone could not capture.

The more zero dollar bills you added, the more you were trying somehow, if not to "express," at least to acknowledge what you felt was being left "unsaid" by or even unsayable behind the exchange.

In this society I was dreaming about, everybody had a crazy understanding that the price tag of even the "simplest" economic transaction was merely the tip of a much huger iceberg of relations and narratives. Everyone recognized that these stories, feelings, etc. are "excess" and surplusage, and are lopped off in economics as "incommensurable" and disregarded, because they are not interchangeable, not "equal" or equivalent, and thus irreducible to a dollar amount.

Nevertheless, members of this imaginary society had for some reason decided that it was important, maybe even for its own sake, to attempt however imperfectly and absurdistly to be sensitive to this truncation. At the same time, the zero bills were a mute recognition that an attempt to pin down and capture the surplus in words or numbers would be futile and probably, on some level, overly reductive, limiting and misleading.

In the midst of the dream, I slowly woke up.

As I woke up, I began to forget the details of the dream. The imagined theory and practice of the zero dollar bill became less interesting, more oversimplified and stupider.

Accordingly, by the time I was half-awake, the nature of the "zero dollar" bill had changed.

It became a blank piece of currency on which the occasional social custom was to inscribe a little message.

The buyer could explain the reason for their purchase, or the seller could describe their thoughts or feelings about getting paid. E.g., "Here is why I just pawned my bass guitar, and here is why I will miss it."

You could exchange your story with your counterpart in commerce, but you were encouraged to reduce it to a few words and to fit it onto a piece of paper 2.61 inches wide by 6.14 inches long. However, at least the spirit of the bills was retained, with its mutual recognition, embodied in social practice, that a human being and not a dollar sign stood on both sides of the transaction.

By the time I was fully awake, the project of the "zero dollar" bill had been degraded still futher. Most of the details of the dream, for a long while, became very forgotten and foggy in my mind. I remain unsure if I recovered them faithfully at all.

The zero dollar bill had been reduced from an admirable attempt to acknowledge something mysterious and almost ineffable about the human element behind economic commerce (economic commerce -- which maybe is the only or "realest," paltry connective link we'll ever establish with most humans that we encounter in this life). The whole idea had become entirely simplistic and stupid.

The bills now became reduced to two "flavors" of new currency.

The bills bore one or the other of two symbols that had been preprinted by the government.

One bill had a big "smiley" face on it. The other had a "frowny" face.

You could throw either of these in with your other standard denominational currency, to sum up whether you were "happy" or "not happy" with the transaction. You could not deface or write on the bills.

Gradually, the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve began to count the number and ratio of "smiley" or "frownie" bills in circulation at a given time. The government published the percentage as a new sort of money supply measurement, like an "M5" or "M6."

The government gave up collecting any other info on economic activity. The government did not release public statistics of how many "happy" vs. "non-happy" bills it was itself printing, releasing into or removing from circulation.

The ratio of smiley/non-smiley bills was touted in official government press releases as a definitive rolling referendum on the health of the "economy."

News anchors announced the numbers during the 30-second business report section of the nightly TV news, and called it something like the "Smiley Index."

Financial analysis pundits explained that the number was an irrefutable gauge of the country's satisfaction and well-being, because it was determined objectively, by the "market."

Pretty soon, everyone began to rely on the number to decide whether they personally felt "happy" or "unhappy."