MONEYNESS: THE PROPERTY WE SHARE IN THE NAME OF VALUE
From GIANT CARVED STONES
to THREADED SHELLS
from HOLY COWS to DEAR DEERSKINS and MIGHTY BUCKS
from PLUNDERED BULLION to MINED BITCOINS
from a LABOUR-THEORY of value to INGAME SWEATS
from INDIAN SILVER-RUPEES to EURO-DOLLARS
and AFRICAN AIRTIMES
from COPPER PENNIES to ELITE GOLDEN CREDIT CARDS;
or from the KINGS’ CIRICULATED PORTRAITS
to FACEBOOK-LIKES and the TRANSMITTING
GESTURES OF CYBER BODIES
NOT A SINGLE PHENOMENON
“Value will necessarily be a key issue if we see social worlds not just as a collection of persons and things but rather as a project of mutual creation, as something collectively made and remade … assuming that we do collectively make our world, that we collectively remake it daily, then why is it that we somehow end up creating a world that few of us particularly like, most find unjust, and over which no one feels they have any ultimate control?”
(David Graeber 2013: 222)
No doubt, the term ‘money’ is confusing. Thus, don’t we all know that monies (plural) are money (singular) because what they do is transforming qualitative relations between values into quantitative expressions (see Dodd 2005)? Yet isn’t this feature attractive precisely because it also works the other way round? Isn’t money – aren’t our everyday monies – the concrete means to engage with the world we live in, the world which we create and a world that we cannot pay for but must value?
Though it needs not be false to claim that ‘monetization’ is what literally ‘coins’ our liquid modern lives, monies themselves may well be as old and diverse as all humanity.
Starting to think of monies in qualitative and personal rather than abstract terms, I stumbled upon the notion of “moneyness.” The latter has been given a number of meanings – ranging from those trying to specify a ‘true nature’ of money (see, for example, Ingham 2004) up to the technical language of finance practitioneers where moneyness is identified with the time-value of derivatives. I definitely like the latter one as it describes the “condition” of a derivative – namely as being “in,” “at,” and “out” of the money. It does so by way of relating its strike price (fixed by contract as an option to be exercised up to the expiration date) to its underlying asset (at any current rate). In other words, “moneyness describes the intrinsic value of an option in its current state” (INVESTOPEDIA).
However, I cannot but think of moneyness much broader, namely as the relational qualities, the aesthetics, emotions and adjectives as well as the social and personal capacities that pertain to a monetizing world at large and hence to monies in the making of man, self, and society! Still more fundamentally moneyness pertains to the way in which money gets realized and to the (human) conditions of being “in”, “at”, and “out” of whatever money represents (see Zickgraf 2017).
Why should this be of any relevance? – Money is a useful means of exchange, but therefore it has to be a shared human property, an identity, a personal capacity and a symbol of society. It’s always (see Hart 1986) “tails” (i.e. units of account) and “heads” (i.e. authority, and what concrete people do when they are in the possession of money)! Inevitably money contains more than it can account for while it also remains multifarious in appearances, forms and functions.
In spite of this, much has been raved on money as abstract value and mere unit of account. Simmel, for example regarded money as the “the most terrible destroyer of form” ( 2005: 274). Yet, of all things, he pointed to an “empirical world” where the quality of money was precisely that “only money is free from any quality and exclusively determined by quantity” (ibid.: 281). This was also at the heart of what Simmel ( 2005: 221, 478–84) regarded as an overall socio-aesthetic process of “distancing” (Distanzvergrößerung) which he thought to be characteristic of modern life and, simultaneously, the result of monetization (see also Simmel  2009). As he argued: “The more people develop relationships with one another, the more abstract and generally acceptable must be their medium of exchange” ( 2005: 348). The use of money creates a distance between the individual and his or her possessions. This makes it possible to transfer value over long distances, across social and geographical barriers and far beyond the reach of the single agent.
It is only from this perspective that money may be relegated to the sphere of an impersonal, calculative, price- and profit-driven market. And from such a perspective it is tautological that money (i.e. the quantity) must eventually appear to be both the ultimate goal and the ultimate power (i.e. what Marx emphasized when he called money a fetish). Seen in this way, money is simply the value of all values. But is it?
I really don’t think it is. Much contrary to Simmel’s strange reference to an “empirical world” where the quality of money is that “only money is free from any quality and exclusively determined by quantity” (see above), it actually is the empirical world where money develops a myriad of qualitative dimensions. These dimensions don’t manifest predominantly somewhere in theory and ideology but in everyday life – whenever money is in our hands or minds; and because the use of money never remains without effect. Money is a medium rooted between exchange, identity and experience, between distance and closeness and also between materiality (or nature) and credit (or fantasy). Therefore one cannot simply put it to one side of the spectre. Rather money is made from within. It is the product of permanent tensions, not the agent of just one of its poles. Therefore it is useful to speak not of money (singular), but of monies (plural). And therefore I think it is also useful to understand moneyness in relational terms and with regard to the ways in which concrete monies are realized in social and economic life.
For me looking at moneyness means to address money as a chargeable medium, as a “form” of value, and – in the sense of formation – as a relational property which pertains neither to the thing as such, nor to any single idea of money, but to a continuously monetizing world. A world where money is a permanent process (cf. Dodd 2014: 6-7).
Viewed in this light, monies do not represent value as such but what we value, when, where, how and why – be it the value of gold, of labour or time, be it behaviour, social relations, goods, ideas, other human beings, equality, hierarchy, natural or divine orders, the market, the system and the human condition; distance, anonymity and abstraction, or closeness, responsibility and appearance.
Again, why is this important? Too blindly, perhaps, we seem to use money to purchase and compel ourselves into an ideology that promises “wealth” but draws weird distinctions between the economic, the social, the moral, and the emotional, or between value and values. No wonder then if money seems suspicious of circulating for its own sake. And no wonder there is a realistic danger of ending up with a money which rewards – of all things – the kind of behaviour that most people would otherwise identify as inhuman, condemnable, unsustainable or, well, worthless – “of no value”!
Certainly we must remain creative in order to keep worthwhile whatever we share in the name of value. Certainly this also means to continuously reinvent and redesign our monetary repertoires. Contemporary monies, however, are already far more diverse, far more innovative and far more human than orthodoxy suggests. The same is true for history, and we only need to look!
By Jens M. Zickgraf (originally 04.08.2017, significantly revised 09.12.2017)
Dodd, Nigel. 2005. “Laundering ‘money’: On the need for conceptual clarity within the
sociology of money.” European Journal of Sociology 46 (3): 387–411.
Dodd, Nigel. 2014. The social life of money. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Graeber, David. 2013. “It is value that brings universes into being.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (2):219-43.
Hart, Keith. 1986. “Heads or tails? Two sides of the coin.” Man 21 (4): 637-56.
Ingham, Geoffrey. 2004. The nature of money. Cambridge: Polity.
Simmel Georg. (1896) 2009. “Soziologische Ästhetik. ” In Soziologische Ästhetik, 67–80.
Edited by Klaus Lichtblau. Wiesbaden: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.
Simmel, Georg. (1900) 2005. The philosophy of money. Third enlarged edition. Edited by David Frisby.
Translated by Tom Bottomore and David Frisby. London: Routledge.
Zickgraf, Jens M. 2017. “Becoming like money. Proximity and the social aesthetics of “moneyness”.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (1):303-26.