The Economics of Poetry

This post is part of the Art as Gift Project

Economic registers of the poetics of tobacco (GT 109-112)

As a sumptuary product, i.e. luxurious – essentially wasteful, one could be tempted to think tobacco outside the economic cycle, resistance to this idea is possible in terms of several “registers” of the economic.
The psycho-analytic
The reason for smoking can correspond to an aim, which accomplishes real or symbolic functions, essential to the “economic balance of certain psychic organizations.”
Economy
There is a clear economics of tobacco and its state exploitation for tax purposes, which appears as beyond the poetics of tobacco. Yet there are examples of both coming together. Derrida cites a poetry magazine, Poésie 1, which produced an anthology of texts on the subject of tobacco: La Poésie ne part pas en fumée (Poetry does not go up in smoke). Subtitled Poets and Tobacco, the edition, sponsored by the French national tobacco company Seita, contained an ad for a brand of cigarettes, Gitanes Internationales, on its back page. Derrida draws attention to the publishers, who title themselves Editions du Cherche-Midi “as if they wanted to pay tribute with this title to the smoker-narrator of Counterfeit Money who is forever occupied “à chercher midi à quatorze heures,” looking for noon at two o’clock.” (111)
Symbolic
Tobacco can be thought in terms of an economics of “natural need,” expressed in terms of contract, gift/countergift and alliance, [eg potlatch] a reappropriation of an excess in the system of natural need and the labour that corresponds to it. This excess over natural need, appears to take on a symbolic function, expressed in terms of the symbolon, that which is split in two, and the alliance between two parties who share the two segments, obligating themselves, one to the other.

Tobacco symbolizes the symbolic: It seems to consist at once in a consumption (ingestion) and a purely sumptuary expenditure of which nothing natural remains. (112)

The fact that nothing remains does not mean that nothing symbolic remains: “the annihilation of the remainder, as ashes can sometimes testify, recalls a pact [of the symbolon] and performs the role of memory.” [This recalls the idea of death in relation to the gift, touched on earlier.]

Page 112, para 2, Derrida introduces the central theme for what follows, expressed through the question: “Is there an essential relation between the seduction that attracts one into an alliance, desire as desire for tobacco, and a certain work of mourning linked to the incineration of the remainder?”

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Why Counterfeit Money is a story of tobacco

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A risky promenade (GT, 114-115)

Derrida characterises his approach to Counterfeit Money, and his numerous digressions leading up to the final chapter, as a “risky promenade,” one which reflects the journey of the two friends in Baudelaire’s story.(114)

He then seeks to justify his reading of Counterfeit Money as a story of tobacco, citing Baudelaire’s repeated references to tobacco in Counterfeit Money and elsewhere. But his main justification is internal to the story, central to which is the agonistic relationship between the narrator and his friend, described by Derrida as both an alliance and a duel. This is expressed in the double annulment of the gift and of forgiveness, the gift “that seems to give nothing” and a forgiveness that is withheld. Tobacco is there from the beginning, “before the first act, before speech, there is, there was, there will have been tobacco.” Tobacco is “the point of departure,” “the first partition or sharing,” from which everything that follows comes out of. It is the origin that is departed from and left behind in the distance. as the tobacco shop is left behind by the two friends, expressed at the opening of the story: “As we were leaving the tobacconist’s…” (115)

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What is unforgiven in Counterfeit Money?

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Betrayal and the Failure to Give (GT, 116-120)

Baudelaire’s Counterfeit Money, overview
The story is a first person account, in which the narrator and his friend encounter a beggar, to whom the friend gives a two-franc coin, before confessing, to the narrator, that the coin was counterfeit. Surmising that his aim was to “pick up the certificate of a charitable man” on the cheap, the narrator refuses to forgive his friend. While it is never excusable to be mean, “the most irreparable of vices is to do evil out of stupidity.”

Derrida proposes that rather than his deceit of the beggar, it is the friend’s betrayal of the narrator that is refused forgiveness by the narrator. Following which Derrida then asks: “But in what, then, does the betrayal consist?” The answer to this question is obscure. To determine the reasoning that results in non-forgiveness for a non-gift is tricky, elliptical. (116)

Derrida’s own reasoning is based on what he terms the “libidinal drama and the apparently homosexual duel” that is played out in the story and in the narrative of Counterfeit Money. [N.B. the story and the narrative are different] He justifies this in terms of the eyes of the silent beggar, which ask for alms, in response to which the friend, in giving a counterfeit coin, feigns an answer. (117)

This narrative structure is repeated, with some differences, in another of Baudelaire’s stories The Eyes of the Poor. In which the two protagonists, a male narrator and his female companion – seated in a café, are confronted by silent poverty in the form of a father and his two children, all weak with hunger. Their six eyes interrogate the seated couple; in response to which the male feels empathy and shame, while his companion asks that they be sent away. This leads to the narrator’s sceptical conclusion on the incommunicability of thought “even between people who love each other!” (119)

Derrida now returns to Counterfeit Money, where he distinguishes between the story and the narrative. The narrative, expressed in the first person account of the narrator, is what happens to the narrator, in the form of a meditation on the event “a meditation that is not exempt from reasoning and speculation – ad infinitum.” The narrator speculates on a speculation, the money, the coin, the product of speculation given, which might lead to other speculative events, creating “an event in this poor fellow’s life.” Yet the event that has been created happens to the narrator and his relation of friendship, through which he is unable to forgive his friend. This is described, by Derrida, as a “movement of transference, the event is “created in the life of the narrator himself.”

This is expressed in the act of narration, the narrator’s comments about himself, rather than the story or the narrative it creates, it appears to say that the friend “by not really giving to this poor man, he has not given to me.” But what has the friend failed to give to the narrator? The answer to this question is delayed, momentarily. (120)

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The Narrative Structure of Counterfeit Money 1

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The economic cycle of confession and unforgiveness (121)
There is a structure of narrative relation between the friend and the narrator in Counterfeit Money. This is expressed in what the friend recounts to the narrator, “it was the counterfeit coin,” boasting and confessing, what in truth happened. This telling of the truth by the friend produces an effect on the narrator, creating an event on the side of the narrator, the narrator is provoked by his friend’s confession.

Derrida characterises this act of confession as the heart of the economic circle of the narrative, of the friend giving the counterfeit coin, then confessing his actions “without repentance and without mercy.” In doing this he gives himself to view, he gives himself over to judgment. The narrator takes no account of this gift and does not respond to it with forgiveness.

Derrida now asks “if the friend sought to provoke the narrator, what did he want to push him to do? And how?” Speculating that the relation of the narrative is there in what it withholds from seeing.

Next Post: The Narrative Structure of Counterfeit Money 2

The Narrative Structure of Counterfeit Money 2

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What happens in the story happens to the narration (122)
Derrida says that the effect of Counterfeit Money is that of an event that has taken place. This event is not the content of the story, that which the narrative is generally thought to report. What happens happens to the narration, to the elements of the narration itself. Derrida characterises the standard understanding of the narrative discourse in terms of its spatiality and temporality, saying we generally think that the events that it reports “have taken place outside of it and before it.” This is not the case in Counterfeit Money, where what happens happens to the narrator and to the narration, it provokes the narration and the narrator, who says of his friend “I will never forgive him.”

In Counterfeit Money the components of the narration are that without which the event would not take place. It is as if the narrative condition were the cause of the recounted thing, as if the narrative produced the event it is supposed to report. There has to be the condition of narrative for the events to take place. The narrative is the cause and the condition of the thing, that is, the event of gift and forgiveness and the possibility of the impossibility of gift and unforgiveness.

The possibility of narration is the condition of the story, where a story is history, what has happened, narrative condition emerges from the desire to know, which leads to the recounting of events, the story. The time of the narrative, the given time, is that the desire for narrative is in advance of the event. Its spatiality what Derrida calls its spacing, is in the distance that the friends take from each other in their steps on leaving the tobacconist’s. Each step is in the time of the event, proceeding “from given moment to given moment.” The step of the friends “scans the time of the story.”

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The Luck of the Gift

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The Unconditionality of the Gift and the Event (123)

The event…the unique, the one-off, happening now and never to be repeated.

Both the gift and the event must be unforeseeable and must be structured by the aleatory the “chancy,” apprehended in a “perception that is absolutely surprised by the encounter with what it perceives.” A gift or an event that was foreseeable would not be “lived” as either a gift or an event.

The condition common to both the gift and the event is a certain “unconditionality.” The event as gift and the gift as event must be irruptive, unmotivated, disinterested. They must tear the fabric, interrupt the continuum of the narrative that they call for. The effect of the gift and event must be in the instant, bringing into relation luck and the freedom of the throw of the dice. The gift and the event obey nothing, except perhaps principles of disorder.

Yet effects of pure chance will never constitute a gift if its meaning includes the desire to give a gift. Derrida asks “what would a gift be if I gave without wanting to give?” This is the paradox of the gift, which is explored from the beginning of Given Time. There is no gift without the intention of giving, the gift can only have a meaning that is intentional in both senses of the word. Intention as wanting to give and intentionality as being directed towards the gift and the act of giving. Yet this intentional meaning also threatens the gift with being taken for and kept as a gift, annulling it as a gift. This expresses the enigma of the gift event, which must encompass both chance and intentional freedom, “these two conditions must – miraculously, graciously – agree with each other.”

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The Fortunes of Counterfeit Money

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A scene conditioned by fate and social advantage (125-127)
The discourse of Counterfeit Money as a whole is marked by the aleatory, by chance, by fortune (tukhē). According to the narrator of the story the unforgivable action of his friend, in giving the counterfeit coin to the beggar, could only be excusable if his friend’s action was driven by a desire to create an unforeseeable event out of a single stroke of luck in the life of the beggar. (125)

In his analysis Derrida plays with the word “fortune,” the root of which is fors: “chance, luck, fate.” The seeming random gift of the counterfeit coin to the beggar is only possible because of the two friends’ fortunate encounter with the beggar. Derrida calls this poor man, who the friends come across by chance, the “fortune of the story.” Nothing would have happened, no gift, no unforgiveness without the “good fortune that puts the beggar in the path of the friends.” In addition the friends have the fortune to be in possession of a fortune, which means they have at their disposal the change from a purchase.

Derrida claims that the scene of Counterfeit Money is presided over by fate, there before the chance encounter and the gift of the counterfeit coin to the poor man. In addition to the fortunate conditions within which the story of Counterfeit Money operates there is a further condition that needs to be taken into account. That is the social condition of the two “idlers,” who have the fortune, whether by fate or by luck, to be blessed with a fortune that enables them to consider donating some of the surplus of their resources to the beggar.

Baudelaire does not comment on the origins of the social and economic condition of the two friends, making their condition appear as natural “as if nature had decided this belonging to social class.” This leads Derrida to say “fortune is nature,” it gives freely to those who have the “grace” to receive, it gives them a gift that gives them the wherewithal to give.

The narrator expresses a further gift of nature to him, the faculty of “looking for noon at two o’clock,” Derrida calls this looking for what does not naturally occur in its place a “counter-natural gift.” It is a gift that is labouriously exercised, yet this work of labour does not lead to insight. Instead the narrator’s idea, that the reason for his friend’s gift of a counterfeit coin to the poor man was driven by a desire to create an event in his life, comes to him unexpectedly, in an unforeseeable manner, “there suddenly came the idea…” This insight is given to him freely and fortuitously “as if by a chance encounter.”

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On Nature and Production

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Derrida (128) discusses the unity of fortune and nature, “fortune is nature” (126), expressed as the luck of the draw and what gives generously at birth, to the nascent being. Saying the alliance between these two dominates the narrator’s discourse in Counterfeit Money.

The primary concept of nature that Derrida calls upon is phusis [from which we get the word physic, as in physics and metaphysics etc]. Saying that nature can be either the great, generous and genial donor, which everything, law, art etc, comes back to. On the other hand nature can be the “order of natural necessities,” laws of nature in opposition to law, art etc. Here nature’s relationship to the gift is as what is given.

Similarly the concept of production can be opposed to the natural and to the gift. What is produced is not given and producing seems to exclude donation. Yet, Derrida asks, is not the “pheuin of phusis” i.e. what nature gives, the “donation of what gives birth, the originary productivity…that brings to light and flowering.” “Is it not what gives form and, by bringing things into the phenomenality of the light, unveils or develops the truth of that which it gives.”

Here we have a donating production in which fortune and necessity [the event and the machine?] are allied. It is worth noting that production translates the Greek poesis which means both to make but also has a relation to bringing forth of the beautiful, the poetic.

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Two types of luck

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Tukhhē and Automaton (133)
When speaking of fortune Derrida calls upon the Aristotelian concept of tukhē over the linked concept of automaton. The former is a chance, read into the event in terms of its outcome, of its end, which Derrida calls “finalized chance.” Whereas automaton has within it the idea that unforeseen things happen but without any intentionality.

The event of the gift as told in Counterfeit Money is prepared for in advance of its end, the friend prepares his change so that the counterfeit coin is at hand for when the right opportunity offers itself, as he knows it will.

Next Post: The Law of Alms

The Law of Alms

The demand of the beggar is the demand of the gods (137-142)

“Generosity is an obligation because Nemesis avenges the poor and the gods for the superabundance of happiness and wealth of certain people.” (Mauss, 18)

(This post is part of the Art as Gift Project)

The beggar signifies the absolute demand of the other, which is the unquenchable thirst for the gift, for alms. The giving of alms to the beggar is within a sacrificial structure. Sacrifice is different to a pure gift – it is giving is in the form of destruction, hoping for a benefit. Mauss calls the sacrifice “the present made to the gods.” Alms are a calculated sacrifice.

The poor, marginal people excluded from the process and circulation of wealth, come to represent the gods or the dead. The look of the beggar or of the poor is one of incrimination, accusation, a demand from the other. You must pay, i.e. give to stop the spirit from coming back to haunt you. The giving of alms is in order to “get in good graces and make peace with it.”

The persecution of the beggar
Counterfeit Money is marked by misfortune from the moment of the first encounter. The condition of the poor man is on account of misfortune, he is destitute, speechless. The absolute demand of the other that the beggar gives, is communicated through his eyes. His look accuses and frightens the two friends, who are persecuted by the law, by justice, in the face of which they are in turn destitute. The poor man has nothing to give, he can only demand restitution in the disquieting mute eloquence of his look, which communicates humility and reproach. Baudelaire likens this look of the beggar to that of a beaten dog. Elsewhere he invokes the image of the dog and the poor to define his “urban muse,” “his poet’s inspiration as painter of modern capital and of the modern capital.” (143) Saying the poet shares the same fate of exclusion as the dog and the poor.

The trial of Counterfeit Money
The demand of the poor man embodies the figure of the law. The two friends are indebted and guilty as soon as the beggar silently looks at them. “They are on trial, they appear before the donee’s court as before the law.” (144) They treat with gratitude whoever accepts their payment in order to acquit themselves of their debt.

The story is a trial, a process [procession, walk]. The two friends walk for the length of the story, which also contains the time of a judicial procedure: incrimination [the meeting with the beggar], law [the giving of the gift] judgment [“I will never forgive him”]. In meeting the beggar they are before the law.

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The Pleasure of Surprise

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In the story of Counterfeit Money the friend is judged by the narrator, but both are indicted by the appearance and look of the beggar to acquit themselves by sacrificing, i.e. to make a destructive gift to appease the gods, the poor. They both must give, but one gives more than the other and in this giving what they give must show itself. This is not for the poor man or for the law but for the other, the partner, the friend. This is because as friends they are not only indebted with regard to the poor man but also to each other. (145)

The comparison of their offerings is central to the story, the other elements, the poor man, the law seem as part of the conditions needed for their exchange to take place, which is constituted as a bidding war, a potlatch. What is given in this potlatch is one friend’s advantage over the other due to the surprising generosity of the donation. The narrator at first takes pleasure in his friend’s generosity, he treats himself to pleasure.

The narrator equates pleasure with surprise, the sudden coming of the new, which cannot be anticipated or repeated, it is an event. Pleasure is being surprised and more intensely causing a surprise in the other. The cause of pleasure in the other is surprise, the passion of wonder – the origin of philosophy. But the greatest pleasure is to be the cause of the cause of the surprise, by giving what gives me pleasure to the other – for example tobacco.

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The Antagonism of Friendship

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The interaction between the two friends in Counterfeit Money is fraught with accusation, which leads to the friend justifying his action of seeming over-generosity by saying he had given a counterfeit coin. Derrida speculates on why the friend says this. He may be asking to get himself excused for his prodigality and for dominance of the narrator through his larger donation. His confession may signal a naively triumphal and boastful account of his speculative abilities. Yet these hypotheses do not exclude each other, they bear the appearance of counterfeit money, as such the false-donor the narrator is free of the violence of the gift, breaking the cycle of exchange implicit in the gift. (149-150)

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The Credit of Literature

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The relationship between the narrator and the friend is uncertain, questionable, did the friend truly give counterfeit money or did he lie to his friend in a false confession? As Derrida says we will never know the answer to this question, which says something about the place of belief in writing, which frames Baudelaire’s writing. Derrida describes this frame as a four-sided border, a “dislocated frame of a triptych,” (150) which excludes a fourth term.

The narrative is framed in such a way that we, the readers, are like the narrator, in debt to the friend. But we are also his creditor, we extend the credit of belief to him that he gave the counterfeit coin as he said. There is no way we can intervene in the scene in order to ascertain the truth or otherwise of the narrator’s claim. The dual, dialogic nature of the friend’s “stroll tete-a-tete” excludes the reader’s access to the secret, as it excludes the author himself. (150-152)

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A Terrible Scene of Friendship

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The enigma of the text (152-156)
Whether or not the friend gave the beggar a counterfeit coin is the interest, the enigma of Baudelaire’s Counterfeit Money, and as such is indecipherable and resistant to interpretation. This is the secret of the text, a secret which is “unbreakable.” There is no chance of ever knowing if a counterfeit coin was given – there is therefore no sense in wondering what actually happened, whether on the part of the friend or the narrator. As fictional characters they have no “consistency, no depth beyond their literary phenomenon.” The inviolability of the secret they both carry depends on this “essential superficiality of their phenomenality.” They are “two-to-speak” [this form of words makes them a single entity] holding the possibility of non-truth “in which every truth is held or is made.” This also says the “(non-) truth of literature,” which ensures the possibility of literature.

Derrida then compares literature to money, which as long as one can reckon with its phenomenality [its appearance as money], as long as one can count with and on cash money to produce effects (alms, purchase, speculation), as long as money passes for (real) money, it is not different from the money that, perhaps, it counterfeits. There is no way of detecting the difference, between the real and the counterfeit, as long as it is framed by its conventions or institutions. Beyond this frame other possibilities, other contexts of truth and reality are opened up.

This would confirm that everything was being played out for the narrator – the friend would not have done any of this if it had not been for his friend the narrator. Everything happens to the narrator, everything is dedicated to him:

  • The time of the story is given to the narrator
  • The narrator recounts a story whose meaning is dedicated to him

This situation leads to a murder, the narrative gives and kills time. The relationship between the friends is that of a merciless war – in which each acknowledges that the other is right, exchanging the phrase “you are right.” Derrida calls this exchange a “specular reversal” (155), which he writes as “you are right”/”you are right.” They tell each other that they are right to tell each other they are right, which Derrida says could mean three things:

  1. We are right, which confirms that we have reason, we belong to the species of the rational animal (logon ekhon)
  2. We know how to count, we are men of knowledge and calculation and also good narrators.
  3. Our calculation has prevailed, we have controlled by reasoning with the other.

Yet their being subject to reason, in giving each other reason, leads them to the breaking of the contract [of friendship?] between them. In giving reason to each other they have given nothing. The gift does not obey the principle of reason, it is without foundation, Derrida claims that the gift is a “stranger” to morality and to law.

If you give because you must give, then you no longer give. (156)

The gift and the event share the same conditions; “being outside-the-law, unforeseeability, “surprise,” the absence of anticipation or horizon, the excess in regard to all reason.” Leading Derrida to conclude that “nothing ever happens by reason.”

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Three Motifs of Reverie

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Taking time (157-163)
Derrida continues his analysis of Counterfeit Money, pointing out that the narrator, at first, tries to make excusable what his friend has just confessed to him, i.e. that he gave the beggar a counterfeit coin. This search for excuse occurs in the mind of the narrator, in a reverie which is broken by the friend speaking, which leads to the narrator’s judgment of his friend; “I will never forgive him.”

Because of lack of time Derrida then proposes to explore just three motifs from within the narrator’s reverie on the possibilities of excusing the endless unforeseen possibilities opened up by his friend’s actions:
1. Excuse
The desire to “create an event” overrides the “criminal enjoyment” that the friend might take in his false gift.
2. Limit and limitless
The gift of counterfeit money appears to make the impossibility of the gift possible. The effects of counterfeit money, wealth – prison, are incalculable, as must the gift be in order to be a gift; “one can give only in the measure of the incalculable.” The incalculable, in terms of money, is also the infinite, the limitless possibilities that monetary speculation promises. Here Derrida uses Aristotle’s concepts of chremastics and economy to explore the good limit of economy and the bad infinite of monetary exchange. Economy, the law of the household (oikos), circulates within its boundary, yet requires the khrema (of chremastics) for anything to occur such as an event. The gift must go against nature’s generosity, “one may give with generosity but not out of generosity.” (162) The narrator’s speculative reverie produces the interest of Counterfeit Money as a phantasm, the illusion that limitless speculation gives.
3. What is seen breaks the contract of friendship
In his desire to excuse his friend the narrator credits him with a variety of motives that might lead him to give a false gift. Derrida characterises this effort of the narrator towards the friend as contractual. The narrator advances credit to the friend drawn on a “reserve fund” of friendship, which the narrator then sees he does not deserve. Derrida asks what proves to the narrator that the friend does not deserve forgiveness. His answer, the narrator sees the friend’s true aim in his eyes, which shine with “unquestionable candor.” (163) The place of the narrator is the place of credulity and the place from which moral judgment is proffered, in a judgment without appeal.

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