Heads or Tails: The Poetics of Money.

By Jochen Hörisch. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000. 349 pages. $39.95.

Money has become a hot academic commodity in recent years. The sustained economic expansion of the 1990's, the replacement of Cold War politics by issues of Russian and Chinese trade and economic integration, as well as the promises and perils globalization have prompted a number of scholars to look anew at the role played by finance in the shaping of social and cultural life. This subject has been addressed to English readers from a literary-­critical perspective by, for example, Marc Shell and Patrick Brantlinger, but the German speaking world still needs, claims Jochen Hörisch, the kind of problem‑based literary analysis suited to unpacking the complex and paradoxical relations between money and literature, an approach which makes it possible "to discover the currency of meaning itself" (38). To this grand end Hörisch eschews literary history as such (it merely relates text to text) in favor of a narrative that explores intertextual (subjects, motifs, and problems "having to do with money") (36). The result is a head‑spinning tour of the literary canon through the often competing, overlapping, and discordant theories of Kant, Marx, Nietzsche, Adorno, Benjamin, and Sohn‑Rethel, among others, stitched together into an erudite and richly allusive (if frustratingly unsystematic) meta‑interpretation of money's magical disenchantment of the world.

At the heart of Horisch's argument is the idea that money defines modernity because (like the Communion rite of the preceding age and the mass media of postmodernity) it performs an "ontosemiological" function in providing a comprehensive standard by which everything can be understood and evaluated, social relations ordered, and the deepest questions about meaning and being answered. Belles‑lettres allegedly offers a unique vantage to criticize this process because only poetic expression, which operates outside the utilitarian constraints felt by scientific and quotidian discourse, can dispense with the obsessive "covering" of the naked (non)truth lurking behind a money‑ordered world. Only in a story can it be said that the emperor has no clothes.

Hörisch delivers on his promise not to write a conventional literary history, but underneath its sophisticated hermeneutics and avant‑garde theory, Heads or Tails can be seen to belong to an even older literary genre: demonology. It is the invention of money that cast humanity out of its prelapsarian innocence into a world of "universal deficiency" (152). Money is the "diabolical medium" of modernity that has dissolved all qualitative difference into a universal system of equivalence (and hence insipid indifference) (221). Money has even seized hold of time itself, transforming it into yet another scarce commodity. Hörisch is particularly vexed in this respect by the "gullibility" of so many millions to pay for life insurance in the here and now in return for a company’s dubious promise to pay out thirty or forty years hence. He sees in this enterprise nothing less than a "a stylistically problematic sacrilege" that attempts phantasmagorically to fend off "finiteness, time, and death" (128).

Of course life insurance policyholders are not remotely so naive or megalomaniacal, but Hörisch's sour appraisal of them is characteristic of the book's relentless identification of money with spiritual vacuity, social alienation, ecological disaster, political turmoil and war. Even a vigorous critic of modern capitalism and its handmaiden, money, might well pause to consider whether money might also, on occasion, confer social freedom through its anonymity, or contribute to human happiness through the increased availability and diversification of consumables, or, even if as a consequence of naked self‑interest, overcome religious or cultural prejudices—benefits Joseph Addison marveled at during his famous literary perambulation around the Royal Exchange at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

Historians will also find Hörisch's arguments weakened by evidentiary and logical shortcomings. A fundamental claim he makes is that "Western rationality and subjectivity are epiphenomena of money" (178). Accordingly, Horisch attributes rationalist, post‑Socratic philosophy to the rise of coined money both because the interposition of money created an abstract system by which "various things are associated, synthesized, comprehended and subsumed under uniform categories," and because the agora itself constituted the locus for the exchange of philosophical ideas (182). But historians may justifiably object that while the diffusion of coinage out of Lydia and Ionia from the seventh century B.C.E. did have revolutionary implications, it wasn't revolutionary in quite the way Hörisch would have us think. The idea of an abstract measure of value embodied in precious metal (in the form of ingots, rings, wires, or tripods) developed as early as the third millennium B.C.E.; and even in societies that lacked a metallic exchange medium it seems to have involved no great intellectual effort to extend common barter media metaphorically into abstract units of account. Our word “pecuniary,” for example, is derived from the Latin pecus (head of cattle). Hörisch’s argument that the circulation of money shaped Western rationality and subjectivity also fails on comparative grounds. Money developed in China at least as early as it did in Asia Minor, and coins have circulated in Islamic and Hindu lands since antiquity. If money is such a potent force in shaping philosophy, literature, and culture, can its use really explain the intellectual and artistic properties of the West?

I suspect, however, that in the end Hörisch is less interested in making a persuasive historical case than in using history selectively to suggest aesthetic alternatives to money. These possibilities are never delineated, but somehow involve the Promethean power of art to provide alternative versions of reality (150) drawn either from a paradisaical past before the advent of money or from a utopian vision of a world where gold shackles only criminals and a freed people finally (and perhaps again) savors the world in its full immediacy.

SUNY CoIlege at Potsdam                        Geoffrey Clark

SOURCE: Clark, Geoffrey. Review of Heads or Tails: The Poetics of Money by Jochen Hörisch, Yearbook of German-American Studies, vol. 38 (2003), pp. 316-318.

The book under review can be previewed via Google books:

Hörisch, Jochen. Heads or Tails: The Poetics of Money; translated by Amy Horning Marschall. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000.

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