Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Anat Rosenberg reviews Noam Yuran’s What Money Wants: An Economy of Desire

Noam Yuran. What Money Wants: An Economy of Desire. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press 2014. 320 pp.

Reviewed by Anat Rosenberg

Noam Yuran's new book is a philosophy or, as Yuran prefers, social ontology of economy, offering a heterodox alternative to orthodox individualist economic thought. Two claims lie at the heart of the analysis. First, economy is an impersonal context of action in which one's activity is necessarily set against one's self-perception. This claim is based on insightful readings in Marx, Weber, and Veblen, who, on Yuran’s account, expose basic economic concepts: profit-seeking, accumulation, and waste, as impersonal drives. Second, and in fact an application of the first, money embodies an impersonal drive, a desire embedded in the money-object itself. While a product of social relations, the desire for money confronts each of us as an objective reality, one which cannot be fully reduced to subjective ends. Claiming that money is entangled with desire is at once trivial – we know from experience that people want money, and unutterable – there is no theoretical knowledge of desire as a constitutive element of money's existence. Since money is customarily viewed as a means rather than end, desire for money itself (and not the things it can buy), which for Yuran is the very structure sustaining money, remains unrecognized in economic thought except as pathology. This impasse provides a powerful foundation for Yuran’s alternative account.

After a theoretical exposition founded chiefly on Marx in the first chapter, the book offers brilliant analyses ranging as far and wide as Dickens’ Hard Times, classical and modern economics, communications theory and reality TV, advertising and brand theory, and finally original readings in Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class. Yuran's moves from the mundane and contemporary to high theory and historical myths, and across conceptual divides, are effective. An important strand of argument emerging from these explorations ties money with the consumer economy by showing that money’s quality as endlessly exchangeable depends on every other commodity not being so. This structural argument, developed from Marx, offers deep insights about the commodity at the same time that it traverses the material/symbolic dichotomy informing histories of money, and shows a continuity between our own form of symbolic money and older ones based in material substances like gold.

Two elements central to the analysis constantly challenge the reader: Yuran’s philosophy of history and his claim that the social structures sustaining money are traumatic.

Yuran treats history as persistence through change. Money, to take the main theme, is always already made of desire. This element transcends the individual; it is crystallized and carried through history as a blind inheritance. There is thus no moment of historical formation in What Money Wants. Historical changes, to the extent they can be excavated from the book, concern the form of (un)awareness of historical subjects of the logic of the economy. I was often challenged by Yuran’s refusal to historicize (in the familiar sense), and his prioritization of abstract ontological claims; after all, the main theorists on whom he builds wrote in a particular era of Western capitalism; they themselves attempted to historicize their moments. Admittedly, Yuran’s view of history is both theorized, most fully in chapter 4, and has ideological resonance: a revolution would mean overcoming the money-object; history, says Yuran, is the opposite: a story of a revolution which never occurs. Still, he leaves you wanting concrete anchors.

Yuran’s philosophy of history relates directly to trauma. If history is persistence, the thing which persists above all else is a traumatic oversight. Economic action cannot be fully understood by those who engage in it; it embodies elements alien to everything individual, concrete and local. To take a non-money example, conspicuous leisure in Veblen’s theory is a case of a status system which coerces individuals to engage in a waste they cannot comprehend. An element of disavowal and foreignness to oneself is thus constitutive of the economy. At the same time, the economy is everywhere: the things that money can’t buy are themselves a crucial economic category for Yuran, hence there is no escape from this traumatic and inherently threatening form of social crystallization.  

While What Money Wants advances a compelling critique of orthodox thought and an alternative account of economic phenomena, Yuran's emphasis on persistence and inescapable trauma left me wondering whether What Money Wants offers a route out of the social structures it critically theorizes. Critical theory has often flagged the social as theoretical remedy. Yuran, however, conceptualizes a social which is not only incomprehensible to individual subjects but also persisting (diachronically) and all encompassing (synchronically); the social itself thus becomes a malady which cannot, on these theoretical terms, be overcome. Perhaps the sense of suffocation which emerges despite the many beautiful and humorous moments in the book is where Yuran wants to get us in order to begin a wholly new search for an alternative imagination.