Interim Report on Recessional Aesthetics
Authorized: First Committee, INS
Authorization Code: TMcCSC140109
We begin by congratulating the Obama Administration on commissioning this report from the INS. Turning to an organization whose thinking is steeped in literature, philosophy, and the arts in the hope of acquiring insight into the economic recession and suggestions as to how this hardship might be overcome may to some smack of desperation. Yet the INS commends the administration’s decision to do so as both courageous and enlightened. In (implicitly) acknowledging the critical role played by art in creating (and subverting) value, President Obama has, symbolically at least, righted the wrong done to the poet Seanchan in W. B. Yeats’s play The King’s Threshold. Seanchan is denied a place at the king’s table on the grounds that poetry does not constitute the “proper” business of state—to which he retorts
that the King’s money would not buy,
Nor the high circle consecrate his head,
If poets had never christened gold, and even
The moon’s poor daughter, that most whey-faced
Seanchan’s argument is incisive. As we hope to show, not only is art (as any second-rate Marxist literature professor will tell you) haunted by the language of economics, but economics is also haunted by art—that is, by aesthetic processes of creation, narration, speculation, value-generation, skillful condensation, occlusion, and just plain old lying. On behalf, therefore, of Seanchan and all the other barred poets in history for whom he stands, we accept the president’s invitation with a sense of entitlement and also with trepidation: the length of our spoon has yet to be determined. Below, then, we present four interim findings, which hint at the content of the full report, scheduled for delivery in April 2010.
1. I Owe Therefore I Am
It is the INS’s resolute conviction that there is not a single aspect of the current crisis that is not anticipated in The Merchant of Venice. For Shakespeare, credit is the economic judgment on the morality of man. In the credit system, man is transformed into money, and money has literally been incorporated into him, into his blood and pounds of flesh. When Shylock says that Antonio is “a good man” and Bassanio asks if he has heard otherwise, Shylock replies,
Ho no, no, no, no: my meaning, in saying he is a
good man, is to have you understand me that he
That is, Antonio has a sound credit rating and is therefore “good.” Antonio echoes this moral judgment when, in speaking to the object of his desire, Bassanio, he elides the words “purse” and “person”:
My purse, my person, my extremest means
lie all unlock’d to your occasions.
Personality is pursonality. The problem is that Antonio’s purse is empty, for his argosies with portly sail are far-flung, all abroad, to the Indies, England, andthe whole globalized geography of the commercial orb for which the urbs of Venice is both the mirror and the marketplace. The trading floor of the Rialto is the prospect of what Shakespeare’s Elizabethan London might turn into and a fortiori the latter’s hypertrophy in New York some centuries later. Its economic logic is one not of self-sufficiency in the here and now but rather of overstretched indebtedness with promises of returns to come in the future. The cash-strapped Bassanio’s hoped-for acquisition of Portia’s inheritance helps solicit Antonio’s loan, which itself is “guaranteed” by his own ships’ prospective return, which in turn secures a new, three-month loan underwritten by his body—a set of deferrals and suspensions, of withdrawals and disappearances as joined up and mutually dependent as the networks of global capital itself.
Not only is Shakespeare’s Venice, like Madoff’s New York, a giant speculative system, steeped in avarice and expectations and underpinned by assurances that are themselves far from solid; beyond this, attraction itself is an economy to be both experienced and expressed in purely economic terms. What is going on in the drama of The Merchant of Venice is the transformation of the language of courtly love into that of commerce, the moneying of desire. And when it all goes wrong, then (as now) some Jew is going to have to pay.
2. Then Must the Jew Be Merciful
Sticking with Shakespeare’s play for a while: when Shylock calls the whole caboodle in, returning the speculation-based Venetian economy to its gold (or, rather, flesh) standard, disaster looms. The strategy initially advanced to avert disaster is not a sudden injection of resources but rather the invocation of a bottomless reserve of mercy. Portia, cross-dressed as the young lawyer Balthazar, announces a mercy that “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven”—that is, without measure, infinitely. Portia (an impostor, let’s not forget) supplants economic law with a “higher,” moral order. And yet Shakespeare, good etymologist that he is, is all too aware that the mercy that cannot be strained, that should season justice, that the Jew Shylock should show, and that is even—according to Portia—an attribute of God himself, is derived from merces, meaning “payment,” “price,” or “fee.” Mercantile revenue is revenu in moral talk of mercy. Christianity (and, by extension, the moral rhetoric of liberalism into which it has mutated) is the hypocritical spiritualization of the originally material.
To avoid such Portian impostures, which, besides masking brutality (Shylock, it will be recalled, is viciously dispossessed by the court’s judgment), merely reboot the cycle of credit and bust by reinstituting its founding lie, we would urge the president to abandon his unconvincing Christian faith and embrace instead the doctrine of necronautical materialism expounded by the INS in numerous platforms and on numerous occasions.
3. Joyce’s Pawnography
There is an anti-monetary tradition in philosophy that extends from Aristotle’s Politics to Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx, wherein money is the principle of corruption of all social relations (an ideal communist society would be one purged of money altogether). Yet there is an opposing tradition, culminating in the thought of Levinas and Derrida, in which money operates, to quote the Bard again, not simply as “Thou common whore of mankind” but also as “Thou visible god,/That solder’st close impossibilities./And mak’st them kiss”—that is, as both ontological and ethical enabler. The INS celebrates this second view and finds its supreme literary expression in Finnegans Wake, which we would urge the president and his aides to keep by their bedsides at all times. Not only is Joyce’s masterpiece suffused with monetary language (“shelenks,” “haypennies” and “dogmarks,” “sylvan coyne” and “ghinees”); it is also mired in the rhetoric of debt: of pawnshops, unpaid loans, “wallstrait” crashes, and what Joyce, theo-neologizing, calls “deblinity.”
The most debt-ridden of the Wake’s characters is Shem, who “lives off loans.” Shem is both an artist and a forger. Perusing other writers’ work, he decides to
study with stolen fruit how cutely to copy all their various styles of signature so as one day to utter an epical forged cheque on the public for his own private profit
—the “cheque” in question being the text itself, the “profit” that ensues being self-evident (Joyce’s work, the most celebrated in the history of prose, not only sells decades after his death but also inspires other writers to write, criticsto publish, teachers to teach, and so on). For Joyce, then, the creative act—an act of forgery—translates the negative space of debt into positive, “epic” productivity, returning us to credit. The implication for the president is simple: far from cracking down on counterfeit currency, he should encourage its circulation, since it gives the economy the creative fillip it so badly needs.
4. Recessional Epiphany
In Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in the middle of her stunning monologue about negative space
and negational language, Addie Bundren, a dark emissary of pure negativity, of death itself,
uses the word “recessional.” Faulkner’s obtuse—indeed, jarring—use of the term here
sends a diligent reader to the dictionary, which defines “recessional” as
Of or belonging to the recession or retirement of the clergy and choir from the chancel to the vestry at the close of a service; belonging to a recess (e.g., of Parliament).
“Recess,” in its turn, is given as
The act of retiring, withdrawing, or departing; a period of cessation.
Recession, then, is temporal and spatial: an interval at once legislative and sacred; an end that guarantees a new beginning. These meanings are doubly significant in relation to the overall structure of Faulkner’s novel, which sees every action come around again, all life’s cycles repeating around Addie as she slips away, recedes. Between each cycle, at the heart of a dead woman’s silent speech, recession intercedes, a death between each life. Read allegorically, recession, like a sacristy or harem, is the intimate space at the heart of all economics, its muted truth. Celebrate it as you would the revelation of godhead itself.
Simon Critchley and Tom McCarthy
—from Harper’s Magazine, June 2009