Money, Magic, and Signs

Money, Magic, and Signs April 19, 2004

David Hawkes reviews a book on Literature and Economics in the Age of Milton in the April 2 TLS , and has this to say about the early modern suspicion of attempting to “do things with words”: “The influx into Renaissance Europe of precious metals from America, and the consequent inflations and debasements of the coinage, revealed that financial value was not somehow incarnated in gold bullion but was an autonomous, efficacious sign: a sign that could do things. This revelation coincided with the reaction against religious idolatry that we know as the Reformation, and also with a violent campaign against witchcraft and magic. Each of these movements involved a strenuous attempt to establish that performative signification was the work of Satan. Furthermore, an identical critique was applied to magical, liturgical, and financial representation. The people of Early Modern Europe believed that the power of the efficacious sign was fetishistic and malign, whether this power was manifested in ritual magic, or in devotional idolatry, or in money.” Hawkes goes on to say that acceptance of such notions of “efficacious representation” lead straight to the conception of man as homo economicus, the rationally self-interested man posited in some free market economics (NOT Hayek, see earlier post). Because money is a sign and financial value has “no existence outside the human mind,” coming to see signs as efficacious means ceding authority and power to objectified representations: Blair Hoxby, the author of the book under review, brings a libertarian perspective to Milton studies, but “does not understand that the process of exchange gives agency, not to human beings, but to the objectified representation of human activity that we call ‘money.’ He is blind to the idolatrous nature of such representation, which violates the biblical strictures against adoring ‘the works of men’s hands,’ and he appears ignorance of the ethical critiques to which the efficacious sign has historically been subject.”

There is an important idea to be pursued here, namely, how new conceptions of sign (deriving, in Western history, from sacramental theology) lie at the foundations of modernity. Hawkes’ particular rendition of this seems implausible: After all, medievals believed in the efficaciousness of signs, yet did not create a capitalist system or reduce man to an economic being.

In any case, it is an interesting spectacle: Hawkes, a self-avowed leftist whose review is full of Marxist flourishes, chiding Hoxby “> Hoxby , a man of the right, for not paying sufficient attention to human agency. Hoxby comes off as the reductionist and economic determinist (and Hawkes labels him such), and Hawkes as the humanist. We live in strange times.


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