Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Series on Socializing Finance Blog - Bill Maurer and Lana Swartz. Post #3: Considering Money Stuff

Socializing Finance, a blog on the social studies of Finance, recently invited IMTFI Director Bill Maurer and Lana Swartz, the authors of Paid: Tales of Checks Dongles, and Other Money Stuff, to write a few posts. This is the third and final post in the series, written by Alexandra Lippman, Whitney Trettien, and Jane Guyer, contributors to the book, who respond to the book as a whole. Lippman’s section includes a link to the playlist she created for the book.

Alexandra Lippman on the Art of Money

Money is the most commonly circulating art form. At the same time, payment objects are unstable and excessive, frequently transforming their status from money to trash to art (and back again). Argentinian artist, Máximo González—who I write about—weaves out-of-print Mexican pesos and discarded scraps of currency into fabrics like The World’s Garbage (2012) and creates collages from out-of-circulation currency into Landscapes with Landfill (2003, 2005) transforming the trash of cash into art (potentially convertible to cash).

Through our repeated handling, however, the art of money stuff becomes unremarkable. U.S. dollars—through their uniform color and dimensions—appear particularly adept at fading into the background. By curating payment objects in Paid: Tales of Dongles, Checks, and Other Money Stuff, Bill Maurer and Lana Swartz take these things out of circulation. Each of the chapters sets a particular type of “money stuff” aside and asks the reader to take a moment with it. The chapters reveal the personal stories, history, memories, and beauty bundled up in diverse objects of payment. We, the readers, must pause to consider the complex ways in which we keep track, tally, make jokes, create art, and remember through objects of payment.

Money stuff also inspires art. While Square may have killed the signature—how can we take our finger-painted “signatures” seriously? —it also gave birth to electronic signature art. When asked for their e-signature, artists, as Bill Maurer relays, instead draw scenes such as “the sun setting a house on fire and people running away and one guy on fire.” Not only are these “signatures” accepted by merchants, but also collected in ‘zines devoted to this new art form. More than 250 years prior, Benjamin Franklin pressed foliage—raspberry leaves, fern fronds—into the printing press to prevent the counterfeiting of bills. Printing from nature—as beautiful and seemingly whimsical as it is hard to replicate——Whitney Trettien suggests, “authenticated the strange materiality of money” (2017:163).

Inspired by Maurer’s and Swartz’ remarkable work editing Paid as if curating an imaginary exhibition of money stuff, I ask what the possibilities for curation are within scholarship. To mark the publication of Paid, I have experimented as a collaborative scholar-selector by curating an unofficial soundtrack to the book. I asked chapter writers to send their favorite songs about money to mix with my own. The playlist explores some of the ways in which payment is represented and debated in different genres, time periods, and places. From Horace Andy’s dubby repetition of “Money, money, money is the root of all evil,” to Wu-Tang Clan’s “Cash Rules Everything Around Me,” money stuff inspires music. Not only that, but money—as the sampled clink of coins or whir of bills being counted—becomes music.

Money—or often the idea of if—is also sonified. On YouTube, a two-hour-long track of water bubbling, rain, and whirring, “Sleep Programming for Prosperity-‘Millionaire Mindset’ -Attract Abundance & Wealth While You Sleep!” boasts 2 million hits. Hundreds of other (very popular) tracks promise to attract money to the listener through subliminal binaural beats, hypnosis, or spoken affirmations in various languages. In a very different vein, artist and writer, Jace Clayton, is planning a project to sonify the data of financial markets. Gbadu And The Moirai Index, which will take place on Wall Street, by using an algorithm to translate the financial market’s movements into a musical piece for four voices. Each singer plays a mythological character — the Moirai are Greek goddesses of fate and Gbadu is a Dahomey fate deity, and the performance will reflect on the history and architecture of Lower Manhattan.

Whitney Trettien on Print and Money

I’m a book historian, which tends to raise eyebrows when I say it; but it simply means I study the history of print and other text technologies. I’m particularly interested in the ways people have used reading and writing technologies to create communities.

As part of this research, I think a lot about words like “publication,” “circulation,” and “value.” Publishing simply means to make something public; but who gets to make information public any given time fascinates me. For instance, one of my primary research projects right now addresses a set of cut-and-paste biblical concordances — essentially radically “remixed” collages made from fragments of printed bibles and engravings. They were produced by a group of women at the religious household at Little Gidding in the 1630s and 1640s, a time when women had limited access to traditional print publication. How does one get around the injunctions for Renaissance women to remain chaste, silent, and obedient? If you’re at Little Gidding, you “print” with scissors and paste. This clever book-hack (literally!) has the added bonus of making their concordances into boutique, speciality objects, available only to powerful patrons. Et voila: ideological restrictions have become a strength. It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.

I didn’t think of my work as having much to do with the history of money or finance until working with the editors of Paid and reading the other contributions. Across our various fields, we share an interest in circulation as a social process, and value as contingent on some sense of a public. We also share an interest in the objectness, the brute materiality, of cultural transactions. In my own short chapter, I drew on book historians’ research on nature printing in the eighteenth century to show how trust in colonial currency was tethered to innovations in printing technology — innovations that were not themselves the natural outcome of the history of printing but which in fact happened in tandem with social and financial pressures. I’m thrilled to see this work alongside chapters on dongles and Bitcoin. In this fabulous tangle of interdisciplinary interests lies the future of the humanities, and I’m honored to be a part of it.

Jane Guyer on Trust and Money

Materiality is the central, and inspirational, theme across all these contributions. It provoked me to search into the rich details to explore the socio-spiritual properties imbued into these materials. Not unlike the classic “spirit in the gift”, its hau, the trust in monetary transactions, which lives in these objects, seems to have a life of its own. In God We Trust was first stamped into the American currency, a coin, in 1864, and onto every paper bill after 1956. Does this convey to the users that what we do with cash/money is under the oversight of God? “Trust” also pervades the financial vocabulary: as trust funds and trustworthy partners, whose qualities can also be nuanced from the Old Norse term for confidence, traust, into the Latin-origin fidelity, from fides, for faith. There has been a continual nuancing of these terms and their referents, and here we have material forms that are infused with their qualities. Does a “token of value”, as Maurer and Swartz put it in their Introduction, have a “life” of its own, and, if so, what is understood by this “life”, especially – perhaps now – when “part of their job is to be invisible”? Maurer suggests that signatures evoke “wonder”. Hau, trust, what words now circulate for the inner qualities of money materials? The papers about the past – Graeber, Trettien and others –  and about elsewhere – Urton, Hart and others – invoke, or imply, older, and non-European, terms. The articles about new technologies bring us into a new linguistic world: “ether” (O’Dwyer), the transfer of “trust” to “trust in yourself’ through the cryptocurrencies (Brunton). By ending with a current experience with silver (Brunton), which can take us back to the past, this collection prompts the reader to return to every paper, bringing close attention to the infusion of immaterial qualities into the Money Stuff of the title. The whole book deserves reading with close attention, inviting each reader to enter their own unfolding monetary experiences and perceptions into the collective conversation.

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