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Uselessness, Refusal, and Money Part 2

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Sal Randolph's Reading Between Project

Reading Between

There was a time when I spent my afternoons with the jangle of Bollywood music, stacks of books, post office customs forms, and a mountain of padded envelopes.  I would collect addresses from my email, write them out in sharpie on the envelopes, and slip in a copy of David Graeber’s “Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value; The False Coin of Our Own Dreams.”

I was sending out the most interesting book I had read in the previous year.  Graeber is an anthropologist, also an anarchist and activist, and his book is one of those where a hundred ideas spin off every page. It includes lucid critiques of postmodernism, discussion of gift economies, a really interesting perspective on Marx (which caused me to spend that summer reading Capital), a theory of social creativity, and countless lively anthropological examples. I’m still mulling over a small aside he made on the meaning of men’s and women’s fashion.

As I had turned its pages on my couch every morning, I thought about the way in which books are simultaneously social and solitary.  Graeber’s book started up a vigorous conversation in my head, but no one I knew was reading it.  My solution was “Reading Between,” an art action where I sent a free copy of the book to anyone who wanted it, creating an elusive network of co-reading [5].

One of Graeber’s projects in “Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value” is to try and make a link between moral values and financial ones, to create a theory that makes sense of why we use the same word in both spheres, even though they are in some ways quite inimical to each other (“values,” after all, are typically the things that money can’t buy: love, community, peace, honor). Values and valuables are both kinds of things we care about, things we would give up something else for; surely there’s a way to sort through how they relate to one another.

In the book he makes the distinction between forms of money where any given unit (a dollar, a bead) is identical or equivalent to any other, and valuables like heirlooms which are unique enough to have their own histories and names. Dollars work because you don’t know or care where they’ve been before you got them and because you wouldn’t, for the most part, mind trading any dollar you happened to have for a dollar someone else has. Heirlooms or treasures, by contrast, often gain value as they change hands.  The story of who has owned them becomes a part of the importance of the object and that importance can also rub off on the owners, even the temporary ones.

“Money,” says Graeber, “tends to be represented as an invisible potency because of its capacity to turn into any other thing. Money is the potential for future specificity even if it is a potential that can only be realized through a future act of exchange.”  Then he goes on to contrast this with heirlooms and treasures: “In this, [money] stands opposed to objects whose value is rooted in past actions (whatever those may be). The latter are not only often objects of display in their own right; they have a power to inspire action in others, a power that clearly has much in common with that of aristocratic display or royal splendor. “  Artworks function like heirlooms or treasures rather than money in his system, precisely because they have individual names and histories, and it matters which artwork you have (you can’t trade a Rembrandt for a Damien Hirst without anyone caring which they end up with). [6]

“Really, what one is talking is the object’s capacity to accumulate a history: hence, in our society at least, there are artifacts that are truly unique (the Hope diamond, Monet’s water lilies, the Brooklyn Bridge), and then, just below them in value, a class of “collector’s items” (ancient Greek coins, Miro prints, first-edition Silver Surfer comic books). These are not quite unique, but they have a rarity that derives from their historical origins; what’s more, when they circulate, they almost invariably accumulate a further history in the form of a pedigree of former owners—which then in turn tends to further enhance their value. In any society, one should probably be able to map out at least a rough continuum of types of objects, ranked according their capacity to accumulate history: from the crown jewels at the top, to, at the bottom, such things as a gallon of motor oil, or two eggs over easy.” [7]

Graeber’s key insight is to see the elusive relationship between values and valuable objects as one based on time.  And what mediates this relationship is action.  We may think of values as being part of the present, but really they are all about the future. They are potentials, templates for new action. They state in advance what we care about and how we intend to behave. Valuables, on the other hand, are values in the past tense.  They represent or show the effects of actions that have already happened, actions which evoke or were based on values. We can’t literally see these values when we look at the object, instead they exist in a field of associations, a cloud of knowledge and fantasy. They are projections; histories, stories, names, things we know or imagine. As Graeber puts it: “when one recognizes value in an object, one becomes a sort of bridge across time. That is, one recognizes not only the existence of a history of past desires and intentions that have given shape to the present form of the object, but that history extends itself through one’s own desires, wishes, and intentions, newly mobilized in that very act of recognition.” [8] Valuables have a kind of secondary agency because they are able, through the values they collect around themselves, to inspire action.

Graeber links money to the power of infinite potential.  We don’t know what it is capable of. In this way, it is more than a little like magic. When objects function as treasures, they tend to be displayed and used to inspire.  When they function as money, they tend to be invisible or hidden.

With the help of Graeber’s untangling, it’s clear that artists aren’t really minting currency in their studios.  Instead they’re creating the kinds of objects that collect stories around themselves. Part of what’s confusing is that those stories are, since the turn of the last century, in part about uselessness, refusal and the ideal of unalienated life–which makes them, in turn, about money.


[5] Reading Between,

[6] David Graeber, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value; The False Coin of Our Own Dreams, Palgrave, New York, 200, page 114.

[7] Graeber, 2001, p. 34.

[8]  Graeber, 2001, p. 115.

19 thoughts on “Uselessness, Refusal, and Money Part 2

  1. Pingback: Uselessness, Refusal, and Money (Why Works of Art Keep Turning into Treasures) - Art as Money Blog

  2. Pingback: Uselessness, Refusal, and Money (Why Works of Art Keep Turning into Treasures) Part 3 - Art as Money Blog

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