Pound’s and Williams’ interest in the ‘money question’ has a special relevance for the ‘modernist’ style of their poetry because it involved them in similar (though not identical) theoretical efforts to reconcile poetic and economic theory at the linguistic level and not just through criticism of capitalism or society. The money question prepared them to see money as another form of representation much like a limited form of language. If the solution to the economic crisis lay in the conundrum of money, it was therefore wrapped up with the problem of speech. The power of money was, in fact, money’s power to utter the otherwise inchoate wishes of social, political, and economic power that far exceeded the traditional poet’s linguistic and literary resources. (Marsh 5)
I need to pick up Alec Marsh’s Money and Modernity
where I left off a couple weeks ago. I always enjoy reading things with a detailed sense of economic theory, if only because it pains me to hear vapid phrases from artists and pundits like “it’s a capitalist society” to justify any and all forms of asshole-ness. How it tires me! But listen, there are as many brands of capitalism as capitalism gives us potato chips, even though the kind of capitalism usually invoked by such phrases is just a hair's-breadth from rape and pillage. And hey, there’s also socialism, which still exists, or else the vaunted 9-11 firemen would not have made it to the towers without those trapped inside having to swipe their credit cards or revealing their mom’s maiden name to telephone operators in Bombay. But I digress. Marsh’s book arrays the two primal forms of American capitalism against each other. On the one hand, Jeffersonian notions of wealth, stemming from the beliefs of the French physiocrats, posit a kind of natural wealth (which, although premised on an agricultural society, are alien to notions of bean countin’); on the other, the Hamiltonian system—upon which the entire raison d’etre
of Paterson, NJ rests—establishes money itself as the ultimate value (deracinated from land value in the form of exchange value). Marsh claims that Williams is more interested in Jefferson, but I think that there can’t but be a fascination with the kind of non-referentiality of value that the Hamiltonian city, like modernist poetry itself, encourages—even though it is roundly agreed that Paterson, NJ is the disastrous outcome of Hamiltonian planning (like the Cantos
are of modernist poetry). Marsh goes as far to say that Williams and Pound write “Jeffersonian jeremiads and partly experimental structures through which Jeffersonianism can be renovated and modernity reshaped in such a way as to allow for a truly American independence” (14). I’m still not convinced, if only because even the idea of “two capitalisms” is in the end still reductive: the true versus the false; one close to the spirit, the other pure artifice; one for the poet, the other for the plutocrat. Williams’ relation to the real and to artifice and language is too complex to merely ally him with Thoreau who dreamt of having a Realometer at his disposal “that future ages might know how deep the freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time” (qtd in Marsh 17). Maybe I give Williams too much credit. credit. credit. After all he does twice make the analogy "money : joke" in contrast to some inalienable "radiant gist." So I will have to read on in Marsh. Indeed, the relationship between the coin of language in poetry and money itself is an intersection worthy of much discussion. If you look at some early language poetry, in fact, notice how the word “capital” comes up again and again. Is it an elaborate joke on referentiality (presuming that our ken encompasses its entire system in a single utterance) or is it a more earnest attempt to foreground questions of value at the frontiers language-making?
Labels: Alec Marsh, Alexander Hamilton, Ezra Pound, Henry David Thoreau, money, nine-eleven firemen, Paterson (City), radiant gist, the real, Thomas Jefferson