Cultural Currencies

Although the notion of currency is usually associated with the financial system of a given society, its scope is far wider, encompassing not only financial units of exchange but created objects, ideas and even desires. By considering certain characteristics of currency as a financial system, it is possible to rethink these latter domains of human production and subjectivity. This can then show us both the power of currency and the limits that it generates, limits that are explored by both artistic and psychoanalytic practice.

Understanding currency as the given monetary form of a specific society, it involves at least two crucial qualities. First of all, the principle of conversion entails that once the basic units of exchange have been defined, everything should in principle be convertible into anything else within the currency system. Secondly, that for any form of transaction or evalutation to take place, this currency system will supply the parameters of what is possible and what is not. It sets a standard or benchmark, or, to put it another way, it offers a framework for thinking. As a system, it determines what is possible and what is not.

These features illuminate not only the workings of currency in its monetary sense, but also cultural systems in general. Currency in this broader sense determines the form of human transactions. If one currency holds, others must be converted into it or evaluated in relation to it. With the currency of ideas, for example, if one style of thinking doesn’t use the dominant currency, then it will have no way of finding expression and dissemination. And this will have effects at the most basic level of human communication.

Let’s take two simple examples. In some areas of research in the so called behavioural and medical sciences, the framework in which ideas are not publishable but thinkable is that of ‘evidence-based’ practice, which will involve the dominance of quantitative models. Any research which does not use this currency is unlikely to find funding or publication, if it is carried out at all. Studies, for example, which aggregate subjects’ responses to certain treatments and then analyse this data mathematically will count as research, while those which emphasise the variability between subjects and avoid statistical summary will tend not to. The key here is to see what the conditions of possibility of an enquiry are. It is these that will form the currency of research.

A second example can be found in the history of computer generating systems. Although today conversion and compatibility technologies are changing the landscape of IT, traditionally there was an incommensurability between systems. This would determine what could and what couldn’t be done within the parameters of ones’ operating system. The operating system would establish a currency of possibilities. Currency here controls the range and, significantly, the content of transactions.

Both of these examples show how a currency determines content. The very possibilities of expression and communication are affected and shaped by the currency. And this can apply to thinking, to making and to the investments of our desire. In ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, Freud explores the difference between the manifest and the latent content of a dream. He introduces the expression ‘considerations of representability’ to account for how certain material cannot enter consciousness in the manifest scenario of a dream and so has to undergo distortion to be able to find a route towards representation. This means submitting to a dominant currency, a framework which will determine what is possible and what is not.

This psychological mechanism shares something with censorship, and there are many resonances with the ways that writers and artists have used dominant visual and literary languages to smuggle their own messages and techniques. The currency is apparently respected, yet within it the dominant system is challenged. Disparate material finds representation not in spite of this system but because of it.

If these are examples of how a currency can be used to work, in a sense against itself, there are also crucial moments when a currency system breaks down. Just as Freud studied how unconscious material could smuggle itself into a dream by using its currency, he also gave a special importance to those parts of our mental life that could not be represented at all. These points of unbearable suffering or intense investment would only appear as gaps in the system of representation, broken stitches or impediments to the whole process of exchange and conversion that regulated the rest of one’s libidinal life.

A currency relies on a principle of conversion. Once the units of exchange are defined, transactions and equivalences become possible. But there is a difference between a currency of desire, unique to each individual, which sets up its own system of equivalences, and those other investments that are absolute and unmovable. Freud showed how certain details would be fixed on and selected unconsciously, generating desire for anyone who became connected with those ideas (for instance, being married, having green eyes etc). But there would also be investments which were not susceptible to displacements and exchange of their object. We might be surprised, for example, if someone were to lose their partner and then immediately declare that they would go and find another one.

These questions of equivalence and unmovable investment were often a theme in classical tragedy. What could be given up and exchanged and what was irreplaceable? And they are also a common feature of contemporary discussions of money as universal equivalent. The idea that currency systems came to historically replace gift exchange networks meant profound changes in human relations. Gift exchanges generated relations between people, but purchase via currency would not, despite the mythology of communities based on trade. Even though money may be given as a gift, it excludes the claims of reciprocal generosity. The socially recognised power of currency would replace this set of personal dependencies created by gift-giving. And this would mean a change in libidinal relations between people.

This loss is often contrasted with an apparent gain: as universal equivalent, currency relates the variety of goods to a single measure and so introduces order and coherence. It replaces the arbitrariness of gift giving with a fixed system. But since currency is also an abstraction, there is no limit set regarding its accumulation. Conversion and exchange may thus become secondary to the pursuit of power: currency acquires a status unchecked by social codes yet still deployable by individuals. We thus see the same set of problems emerge, the same tension between the register of conversion and equivalence and that of fixity and overinvestment, the latter challenging the circuit of exchange and circulation.

The concept of currency involves both an internal and an external tension: on the one hand, its power to determine what can be expressed and what can’t, and on the other its inabilty to subsume certain elements which are not susceptible to its framework. Both artistic practice and psychoanalysis explore these tensions in their own ways. What matters here will be the points of fracture, of incommensurability between the currency system and that which resists it. Think, for example, of the difference between using a dominant artistic medium to express something critical of this medium and, on the contrary, proposing an entirely incommensurate medium, as we might find in the early years of Impressionism.

These fields also continue to show us what our currency actually consists of. Although its very generality suggests that we are conscious of its scales and values, don’t both analytic and artistic practice demonstrate that currency is for the most part something that eludes our conscious awareness? To recognise the currency of an ideology or of an unconscious desire will invocle a certain distancing from ourselvces, a distancing that can be painful and difficult. We need this, perhaps, to render strange what is so deeply familiar as to be unnoticeable.

This process of defining currency will bring to light both exclusions and incommensurabilities, and these exclusions and incommensurabilities can be articulated and voiced. Although this runs the risk of simply imposing the currency once again, as a way of subsuming whatever is unmeasurable back into its system, this effort at articulation is vital to generate new possibilities and to allow a challenging of fixed parameters.

Darian Leader, psychoanalyst and founder member of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research in London, for Zamyn 

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