‘Notes Towards a Critique of Money’ reviewed by Alex Cistelecan

Notes Towards a Critique of Money

Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht, 2011. 142pp., €15
ISBN 9789072076649

Reviewed by Alex Cistelecan

About the reviewer

Alex Cistelecan is a lecturer at Petru Maior University, Romania, and post-doctoral researcher at …


There have almost always been attempts to interpret money on the model of language. What changes in these recurrent endeavours is not so much the structure of the analogy, but the underlying theory of language. For his part, Georgios Papadopoulos arms himself with an understanding of language derived from the theories of Lacan and Baudrillard. With this arsenal at his disposal, Papadopoulos tries to analyse ‘the process of the articulation of desire through money and of the constitution of subjectivity in the market economy’ (7). In so doing, he places himself in a noble ancestry and sets himself an audacious task: ‘The Marxist critique of political economy displayed the mystifications of the commodity form, the Baudrillardian critique of the political economy of the sign attacked the sign form, while the current analysis sets for itself the task to combine and further these two critiques of signification and of production, focusing especially on money, which is considered to be the organizing form of the capitalist symbolic order’ (61).

At first sight, Papadopoulos’s conceptual tools and theoretical preliminaries seem to belong to the postmodernist orthodoxy: a sort of radical social constructivism, in which discourse and ideology are a necessary element for the constitution of reality. ‘Social reality’, certifies Papadopoulos, ‘is not something given, independent of human intentionality, but is necessarily constructed by and mediated through discourse’ (20). But even here, among these textbook insights, the reader is in for some surprises. For one thing, Papadopoulos has a rather bizarre treatment of Lacan’s opposition between the Real and the Symbolic: ‘The distinct types of existence that define the natural and the social and the consequent impossibility of domesticating the natural via the social and the Real in the Symbolic animates and maintains social antagonism’ (31). This is doubly weird. First, the Lacanian opposition between the Real and the Symbolic has absolutely nothing to do with the opposition between the social and the natural. The Lacanian Real exists and manifests itself only in and by means of the impossibility of the Symbolic to represent it; while ‘the natural’ must be, even before the social, the first object of symbolisation and formalisation, and quite a stable and knowable object at that. Second, the idea that all social antagonisms derive from the impossibility of domesticating the natural via the social and the Real via the Symbolic has two problematic consequences: all social antagonisms are conflicts of representation, that is, they are internal to discourse; and, because of the founding transcendental operation of discourse, they are, as such, ahistorical, necessary and unavoidable. Papadopoulos might thus explain the recurrent crises and conflicts in society, but the moments of consensus and stability become inexplicable.

Along the same lines, Papadopoulos’s understanding of Marx’s understanding of ideology is, again, strange: Papadopoulos reproaches Marx for his rationalist view, in which ideology is simply a distorted view of reality, and ‘the main obstacle in establishing a genuine relation to reality’ (22). Papadopoulos thus places Marx in the category of idealism only to criticise him from the standpoint of a higher idealism: of course ideology cannot be a distorted view of reality, since there is no immediate reality which is not constituted by a distorting discourse. From this radical perspective, Marx’s point that ‘the main obstacle’ is not ideology but the real conditions which make this ideology necessary becomes totally irrelevant.

How does this shaky postmodernist scaffold relate to money and economy? Very simply: money, prices and the market are nothing but economic versions of the transcendental mechanism of language and signification. ‘The logic of the price and the logic of signification adhere to the same structural form’ (64). Money attaches a signifier – the price – to the ‘real object’ (if Papadopoulos will forgive me this outdated term) and thus constitutes it, gives it a signification, in the same way in which language, by naming objects, constitutes them in the horizon of meaning. At the same time, this symbolic constitution of reality brings with it also the moment of imaginary identification and attachment for the subject: apparently, it is neoliberalism which is in charge of this ideological interpellation of the subject and affective attachment to the symbolic frame of the market.

So what is wrong with that? A priori, there’s nothing wrong with that, says Papadopoulos. (The problem, as we will see, is that with Papadopoulos we can never leave the a priori.) For Papadopoulos, the problem with the economic discourse ‘is not that it is ideological, but that it tends to become universalized’ (20). After all, we all need ideology and discourse so as to constitute reality and allow our participation in it. From this perspective, ‘the capitalistic economism is just one, and probably not the worst, of the possible mythologies we need in order to organize and explain social reality’ (15). The problem is when this economistic mythology becomes hegemonic and universal.

But this is where Papadopoulos gets into trouble. In order to explain this historical evolution, by which the economic ideology becomes hegemonic, one would expect him to leave the transcendental domain of the internal dynamic of discourse, and look for a solid anchorage in some material, historical conditions. But he does not. True, Papadopoulos flirts with this possibility: ‘Economic discourse seems to have finally emancipated itself from politics and culture… Globalization, imperialism, commodification, alienation, rationalization and bureaucratization are some manifestations of the intensification of economic integration’ (14). But these six words are all that Papadopoulos offers in this regard. Afterwards, he flees again into the discursive a priori and offers an internal explanation of the hegemony of the economic ideology. It lies, he claims, in the fact that the value which money expresses in prices is void and empty: ‘The vacuity of economic value, a consequence of the self-referentiality of value in general, makes the signifying operation of money dominant’ (49). But this is even more problematic. For one thing, Papadopoulos does not offer any argument as to why economic value is empty. Certainly, this is not how things stand for Marx: there is a definite social relation, which is concealed and at the same time revealed in the logic of value. The only glimpse of an argument to be found in Papadopoulos is an argument by analogy: since, for Lacan, the master signifier is the signifier without content, the price as the dominating signifier in the economic logic must also be deprived of content. But this is taking matters in reverse order, by stating that the economic signifier is not universal because it is empty, but is empty because it is hegemonic. At best, this argument is simply circular. Moreover, the spectre of history comes back to haunt and disturb the aprioristic argument of Papadopoulos: if the reason for the hegemony of the market discourse lies in the vacuity of economic value, then the market discourse should have been hegemonic from the very beginning; but if economic value has become empty, and thus hegemonic only after some historical accident, then this historical accident, and not the internal logic of discourse, should be the main focus of analysis.

But these are secondary matters for Papadopoulos. His concern is rather to raise the stakes for critical theory. We should, he says, stop wasting our time with minor issues like the critique of capitalism and neoliberalism. ‘The “real” problem is to challenge the system of the production of meaning in an economy where sign and price collapse into each other … it is the structural principle that is determinant; the rules of the bifurcation and separation of form and content, the dominance of the signifier over the signified. We can unmask and resolve the mystifications of the socio-symbolic system of production only if this artificial separation is destroyed’ (65). The problem is not class struggle and exploitation; the problem is this unbearable antagonism between signifier and signified, this unending conflict between form and content.

One might wonder how are we to challenge and destroy the system of production of meaning, the discursive mechanism of signifier and signified, form and content, when this discursive logic is deemed necessary and unavoidable from the very beginning. Papadopoulos prefers not to face this conundrum – if not for other reasons, at least because leaving it unanswered allows him to embrace the romantic and Sisyphean task of a revolution which is necessary and impossible, both at the same time. This revolution is full, total, unhindered jouissance, the jouissance beyond the symbolic castration. ‘The only revolutionary and thus the only political demand is jouissance … Full enjoyment presupposes the end of its symbolic representation, but the destruction of the semiotic code, especially of the system that produces the semiotic content is an impossible task. Revolution is impossible exactly because it has to jump over its own symbolic shadow, because it has to go beyond the symbolic order and to aim for different articulations of desire that go beyond the constitutive ideology of the social reality and that transcend even language; revolt is an embrace of the Real of jouissance’ (108).

After this fiery, romantic display, Yannis Stavrakakis’s Afterword comes like the cold shower of a graduation exam. In it, we are reminded that besides Papadopoulos’s childish, impatient and dangerous – because potentially totalitarian – Lacanianism, there is always a good old liberal Lacanianism, based on the reformist commitment ‘to recognizing and exploring the possibilities of the new in contingent encounters’, and, in general, on an ethical mode of enjoyment aimed at openness and opposed to the ideological mode of enjoyment aimed at closure (113). That much is true: as soon as we start from the absolute of discourse, we can only hope in either an impossible jouissance beyond language, or a patient and rather hopeless bricolage inside the constraints of discourse. But just to be, at least for once, as radical as Papadopoulos, perhaps instead of opting for one of the two alternatives, one should reject their very starting-point.

3 May 2012

One comment

  1. Georgios Papadopoulos writes:

    A critique should be taken as a compliment, since any critique, even a bad one takes effort, implies interest and suggests concern. Nonetheless, I have to say that I find lot of the criticism of Alex Cistelecan against my book unfounded and distorting of my argument. I do not know if this is because the reviewer did not want to understand the goals of my analysis, or simply because he did not read with the necessary care. Still, I will try to answer his concerns about my book, even though I often find it difficult to recognize my analysis in his criticism.

    The criticism starts from the ontological framework that I am trying to introduce, and here the review fails to even mention the background theory of social existence, a theory build on the notions of collective intentionality, performative acts and constitutive rules. In the proposed social ontology, which originates in the work of John Searle and Margaret Gilbert, the natural world is treated as independent of our representations, but sociality is constituted through intentionality, the ability to represent the environment, and the basis for social existence is this very act of representation. If one reads the text carefully, it is obvious there is no equivalence between the natural and the Real, as Cistelecan is trying to blame me, but rather that both the natural and the Real exist independently of our representations about them, and even more that they pose the ultimate challenge to our representations. Obviously, Cistelecan comes from a different background, where intentionality and representation, when used as foundations for social existence, are dismissed as mystifications or idealism. The related criticism that in this framework of analysis all social antagonism is a conflict of representation is of course mute, since here all sociality is a matter of representation (including political struggles). At the same time the claim that moments of consensus are inexplicable in this framework, is wrong; the very notion of hegemony, defined by the ability to universalize a specific viewpoint, and to impose a system of representation as the genuine, is what defines social constitution (the works of Gramsci and Laclau can be very relevant here). The fact that social reality is ontologically relevant, does not contradict the possibility of a consensus, rather it suggests that this is not a question of objectivity but a matter of a privileged interpretation of social reality, brought about by through antagonism, persuasion, and coercion.

    As far as ideology is concerned, I start from the common understanding of ideology as a distorted perspective of reality, as it is explained both by Marx and by Mannheim. Unlike Marx and Mannheim, I do not think that reason or even science can resolve the problem of ideology by providing a ‘true’ or objective description of the social reality. What I am arguing is that no subjectivity or class has an epistemological prerogative or privileged access to social reality, exactly because this ‘reality’ is not objective, but rather constituted by the very process of its investigation and negotiation. Of course such an understanding is inconsistent with the traditional Marxist interpretation of ideology, but that is by no means a problem for me.

    As far as money is concerned, my argument has nothing to do with post-modernism but rather with a very old and traditional theory of money, where its constitution, its value and its circulation is to be understood in political terms. This so-called state theory of money, is by no means a novelty, Max Weber, Georg Friedrich Knapp, Mitchell Innes, John Maynard Keynes in his Treatise on Money, and today Charles Goodhart and Randall Wray, are prominent advocates. The underlying idea is that the state through taxation and the rule of law makes money valuable and therefore acceptable in transactions; monetary value is thus self-referential and conventional, rather than intrinsic and ‘objective’. I am trying to illuminate further the emptiness and the self-referentiality of monetary value by looking both at the classical and at the marxist stories about the emergence of money and by indicating how these models can be re-thought for the analysis of the market as a chain of signifiers, where money functions as the master signifier that quilts the signifying chain.

    I also am being reproached for not explaining the hegemony of the market ideology. I think this is an important question, but for sure outside the scope of my analysis. Actually, my whole project is premised upon the assumption that neoliberal ideology is the constitutive meta-narrative of social existence, and what the reviewer describes as arguments for the dominance of market ideology are put forward as the indications or the symptoms of this dominance. The goal of my book is not explain the emergence of market ideology but rather to criticize neoliberalism, its professed scientificity, its supposed naturalness and also to explain how the economic discourse is structured, and how the subject is socialized and constituted in this discourse through the management of its desire.

    Finally, and probably more importantly, the political implications of the analysis of the book do not necessarily suggest that political antagonism or class struggle are irrelevant. I am trying to warn against the essentialism of labour, against the different attempts to naturalize, and thus to objectify social relations, exactly because such moves create the alibi of an external reality that is used to suppress social conflict. I am also trying to explain how political critique and praxis are appropriated and re-inserted in the system of production of meaning only to be consumed along other commodities. I point to the dangers of the glorification of labor and creativity, which enforce the productivist ideologies on the subject. I argue that the constitutive ideology of the market is integrated to such an extend to critical theories (the relation between Marxism and classical economics is an interesting example), that we may need to go beyond theory, even beyond language in order to realize potentialities of liberation. The possibility of full emancipation may seem utopian in this theoretical framework, but this is not a good enough reason for resorting in easy political solutions and in vulgarizing our theoretical ideas. This is a disservice both to political analysis and to the struggle of emancipation.

    The book is published under a creative commons license and so text is available freely on the internet. In case somebody can not find it, and wants a copy, or for questions you can email me at languagegames@gmail.com

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