Shelves Full of Bread: On Joan Ramon Resina’s “Cultures of Currencies”
By Christoph WulfMarch 5, 2023
Cultures of Currencies: Literature and the Symbolic Foundation of Money by Joan Ramon Resina
Presenting historical perspectives as well as perspectives from other cultures, the book emphasizes the historical and cultural character of money, currencies, and social exchange relations. With reference to Max Weber’s analysis of Calvinism, it elucidates the religious dimension of money-making in capitalism. In Calvin’s view, economic success frees people of a sense of “debt”—and that makes them feel free of sins and able to experience the grace of God, which shows in their affluence.
Drawing broadly on Marcel Mauss, Resina’s volume examines the relevance of the effect of gift exchange today as a “total social service” in the market economy, and shows how most human relations are shaped by money. Indeed, money is “the motor-force of abstract thought,” and even of “abstract forms of social interaction.” Cultures of Currencies looks at the close connection between economy and law, in terms of their dynamics and productivity, and makes it clear that seeing culture in economic terms leads to a drastic reduction of it to something that is strictly evidence-based and measurable.
One of the most refreshing things about this volume is a new understanding of the 2008 financial crisis as one of trust, which only intensified the trauma of the crisis damaging traditional institutions. Engaging with the German sociologist Georg Simmel, Gabriela Badica shows that “it is the act of exchange that gives an object its economic value.” In certain situations, a golden ring may not be enough to buy a small loaf of bread, whereas in others it will be more than enough to buy shelves full of bread. The value of a loaf of bread is determined through exchange, and a sense of belonging to a community is created as part of the same process.
Money, as we came to realize during the 2008 financial crisis, is a social phenomenon. It enables exchange between people and state. If there is a crisis in the monetary system, the whole social system, based as it is on confidence in the value of money, is threatened with collapse. Language itself shows evidence of this close relationship between money and confidence in its value. Etymologically, “credit” involves “faith”—if you have faith in someone, you will give them money. That’s why the social system is endangered if there is a loss of confidence. In other words, the 2008 crisis was not simply a financial crisis, but also a crisis of the “social-psychological-quasi-religious faith” in the value of the European Union.
Cultures of Currencies raises the question of our future in the postcrisis world. Many of the essays look back at historical events in order to reveal the extent to which the role of money in today’s society cannot be understood without some reference to developments in the Renaissance and Protestantism.
The essays show how our relationship with money, and our need to calculate the value of everything in monetary terms, influences how we relate to the world around us and to other human beings. It explores analogies between burning people, books, and money, and makes it clear how the creation of national currencies is related to the establishing of liberal states and democracies.
The book discusses Adam Smith’s ideas concerning the choice between wealth and greatness, wisdom and virtue. Each decision we make is a choice between two fundamentally opposed values: “the one, of proud ambition and ostentatious avidity; the other, of humble modesty and equitable justice.” Elsie Michie uses examples from literary works to show how money-related decisions are libidinal in character, and she explores the extent to which the desire for wealth and greatness determined everyday life in the 18th and 19th centuries. The fairy tale “Cinderella” is a good example. The two ugly stepsisters, who have only their own interests at heart, are juxtaposed with the “poor but virtuous heroine,” whose higher moral stance is eventually rewarded.
Cultures of Currencies argues that it is important for us to confront the economic and the cultural spheres if we are to understand the dominance of economic factors in how we think and act today. Economic actions are deeply embedded in the realm of culture; money and law mediate social relations.
Along with the legislative, judiciary, and executive worlds, the financial world has become a fourth system in its own right, a system in which there is a special relationship between excessive spending and social prestige. Modern entrepreneurs such as Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk are expected to invest part of their accumulated personal wealth into charitable projects if they are not to lose social recognition. In his analysis of semiocapitalism, Philipp Kleinmichel shows how a voluntary economy comes about in the form of a gift economy that transgresses the norms of the prevailing social and economic system.
Given its importance for society, money is an all-pervasive topic, of interest not only to economists but also to all those who seek to understand society and culture. That’s why the book’s insights are important for those working in the humanities, especially anthropology, literature, philosophy, and history. It should also be attractive to readers seeking to better understand the social and cultural dynamics involved in money and economic exchange, including unconscious cultural and social dynamics. Since the essays’ authors come from several countries and different academic backgrounds, the material basis, the examples, and the arguments presented have a broad scope and pertain to global issues. Furthermore, the book’s scholarship is outstanding, not to mention the fact that it is quite readable, well structured, and well designed, its claims clear and convincing.
Framing money, markets, and the economy as culture is an innovative and challenging perspective. This approach sparks a new discourse that is of special significance in our age: as the dangers posed to our planet by perpetual economic growth, technologic progress, and the general acceleration of life have become too substantial to ignore, they require increasingly novel insights, like those in Cultures of Currencies, in order to properly address them.
Christoph Wulf is professor of anthropology and philosophy of education at Free University Berlin.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Hugh Charles O’Connell reviews China Miéville’s “A Spectre, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto.”
Writer Cal Turner and Sara Van Horn interview Adrienne Buller, author of “The Value of a Whale.”
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!