The Birth of Currency
Wang Min An
Georg Simmel points out that appearance of the monetary economy is the demarcation line between modern society and ancient society. In the ancient society before the appearance of the monetary economy, people exchange commodities with other commodities (bartering). However, once the social and economic life was dominated by the monetary economy, tremendous changes would take place in the whole society. Not only would the means of exchange become different, but also there would be changes in the relationship between men and men, men and commodities as well as commodities and commodities. In addition, there would be changes in the spiritual temperament and state of the whole society. To sum up, society would enter its modern state, which is significantly different from its ancient state. But what changes has the monetary economy given rise to?
An important principle for bartering is a direct and affinitive relationship between men and commodities. However, once the currency was born, there would appear a distance between men and commodities, and men can possess commodities indirectly. Possession of currency means the capability of possessing countless commodities from remote areas. These commodities may not necessarily be right here and right now in the hands of the men. Furthermore, the currency gives the men the right to choose among the commodities. All commodities have their values measured in terms of the currency, and currency becomes completely a symbolic denotation of the commodities. As the symbol of value, the currency makes the exchange and circulation of commodities and the difficult calculation relationship between commodities and commodities as well as between labor and labor more convenient, smooth and flexible. Currency is the common denominator of all values. It “completely hollows out the core of all things, their individuality, special values and incomparability. In the torrents of the stream of currency, all things float with the same gravity and are on an equal footing”. Thus, currency becomes a medium for exchange. Its status as the medium of exchange, together with the dominating position of such exchange in modern society, renders men its slaves. Currency was supposed to be a means of exchange in people’s economic life and serve the purpose of exchange. However, this means has become an end itself, to which all human activities are directed. It has become the ultimate and only goal of modern people. Monetary value is the only value recognized by people while other values are suppressed. Currency becomes the “God” of modern society. The monetary economy has also brought about drastic changes in the interpersonal relationships, organizational relationships, people’s individuality and even the whole social cultural life of the modern society. The cultural life of the modern society, driven by the monetary economy, proceeds along the following two lines: On the one hand, currency links up everything and leads to the uniformity and objectivity of all things; on the other hand, currency makes it possible to maintain independent character and freedom in that it frees people from their reliance on the feudal lords and replaces it with the reliance on commodities and properties. Wealth in the form of currency instead of commodities is much easier, freer and more flexible.
This is the monetary philosophy of Georg Simmel. As the medium of exchange, currency has become the goal of secular life. Currency is the abstract sign of all material wealth. In the meantime, it is just because of its role as the sign of wealth that it has assumed practical functions. It is just because currency can measure the value of things that it can circulate and exchange. In this way, currency has symbolic value (its representation of material wealth) on the one hand and use value (rendering various kinds of exchange possible) on the other hand. Currency, the God of the human world, is the point of departure of Zhang Liyu’s thinking: Why not do some reflective thinking on currency? Why not pull currency out of the track of exchange? Why not pull it out of the holy spot where all the attention of the secular world is focused? Why not pull it out of its constant market system? These works of Zhang Liyu represent a new utilization of currency, but this utilization no longer has anything to do with exchange. He cuts the significance of currency off from the market of circulation and, therefore, hollows out the significance of use of currency. Currency is liberated from the myth of its daily functions. It becomes the material for another object, just like brick is the material for a wall. Therefore, currency is relieved of its mythological atmosphere and its destiny of being pursued and becomes a pure material existence. Zhang Liyu patiently sticks, arranges and organizes the currency, to be more exact, these coins together. This is full of fun, just like the mud games played by children in the old time. Zhang Liyu piled the coins into the shape of various objects: the crucifix, clock, penis, organs and other daily utensils. The coins are the element that makes up these objects. They are only the necessary material for these organs and penises of various sizes.
These objects made by Zhang Liyu from coins are no longer the currency in economics used for exchange. Then, are they the penises, clocks and crucifixes? Obviously, they are not real penises, clocks and crucifixes, and they do not even “look like” the real penises (too big for that). Neither are they an “imitation” of the real objects, a “reproductive” expression. Then, what are these things which are neither penises nor currency? Do they have nothing to do with either penises or currency? These objects are, in the words of Gilles Deleuze, the “becoming” of penises by currency. Currency is becoming penises, crucifixes, clocks and all other conceivable things. This is an everlasting process of becoming and change. Zhang Liyu puts the currency in the continuous process of becoming, without stop, without purpose and without time limits. The currency is in the eternal process of becoming, and there is never an end or a fixed image. Therefore, these works had better be regarded as the becoming, creation and production of some objects through currency rather than the imitation of some objects with the material of currency. These works are not specific works, but the becoming of works one after another. These works are not tangible objects, but are, with Zhang Liyu’s huge plan as well as the diversity of the objects and their potential, a pure process of becoming. It is just in this process of becoming and change that both currency and penises change their nature: These objects are neither currency nor penises, or to be more exact, they are currency-penises.
Why currency? Why is the process of becoming of currency selected? Zhang Liyu manages to separate currency from the exchange system, from its system of functions, from the market, in a word, from its process of actual use. However, its symbolic value still exists, and its significance as the sign of wealth still exists. In other words, it still retains its meaning of money. It is still the common denominator of value, though not the common denominator of value for exchange. In this way, Zhang Liyu strips currency of its functional value, but maintains its symbolic value. If currency is in the constant process of becoming politics, religion, body and daily articles, then, what Zhang Liyu is trying to convey is that the latter cannot be separated from currency. Politics, religion, body and all daily objects have to rely on the forces of currency, on the becoming and creation of currency. Maybe there is nothing that can remain free of the immortal force of currency. This is a simple truth, which is often overlooked just because of its simplicity. Besides, various ideologies are always trying to conceal and cover up this fact about currency. Ideologies often aim at achieving the following effect: Axioms and justice seem to be natural and maintain their autonomy. They are not related to currency. The works of Zhang Liyu constitute an exact retort to this and seek to unveil the true nature of these ideologies. In fact, they are all an manifestation of currency. Currency is the mother of value, the mother of becoming, and the source of events and material. But on the other hand, currency, in a similar sense, has never been pure or self-contained. Instead, it is always in the process of becoming towards some targets, though never definite targets. Besides its use in exchange, currency is always becoming, creating and conceiving. Social production is the production of currency.