This second issue of Lapham’s Quarterly presents a plan of escape from the same county jail. Let men employ money as energy made by mortal men for the use of mortal men—as the active and productive wealth underwriting Hamilton’s projections of the public good, in the form of the Medici loans floating the speculation of the Renaissance—and money enlarges the sum of man’s humanity to man. Money gathers its meanings from the uses to which it’s put, and its lesser accomplishments become clear in the pages of yesterday’s newspapers. Who now can remember the deifications of Nicholas Biddle and Robert Vesco? Who can name the ten most powerful men in St. Joseph, Missouri in 1845? When I look at the billionaires smiling down from Olympus on the photographers from Vanity Fair (“The Power Brokers,” “The Men Who Really Count,” etc.), I think of the gentry in fifteenth-century Florence dressed up as saints in the foregrounds of Fra Filippo Lippi’s religious paintings. They gaze at the Madonna with expressions like the one President George W. Bush brings to the television cameras for a press conference at an army or air force base. They have paid for the space, and they expect to be introduced to the best people in heaven.
Over the course of time, it is the power of mind over matter that shapes the clay of civilization. Money follows with the baggage, traveling with the flute players and the dancing bears, bribing the pope, and putting up the tents. It can maintain the status quo, whether of tyranny or democracy; it can employ four hundred thousand automobile workers or Benvenuto Cellini; it can buy Panama or Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer. It is a power worth the having, but without the greater power of thought, it amounts to little more than the temporary dominion of a bully.
The bully is bigger than it was, bigger and harder to see in the massive cloud of metaphor circling the globe at the speed of light. How then identify the perp with a name, age, license number, and last known address? By breaking down the engine into some of its smaller moving parts. Exchange Rates borrows its organizing principle from Marshall McLuhan’s note on money (page 31) as both a language and a technology translating forms of work into forms of property, the “bridge” of numbers that supports the weight of the world’s desire; Earnings and Expenditures are self-explanatory; Liquidity demonstrates the theorem of Jackson Lears’ essay (“Fortune’s Wheel,” page 192) touching upon money’s function as the buoy that marks the rise and fall of social name and standing in the sea of chance and circumstance; Derivatives points to a few of the consequences—among them the collapse of the Roman Empire and last year’s bursting of the credit bubble—that follow from the rule of money unhedged with positions of reasonable doubt. The five-part improvisation can be read as an attempt to restore power to the American dialectic; it also can be read as a gloss on the bull market in superstition, along the lines of what the watchers at the bedside of the Dow Jones Industrial Average like to call “a technical correction.”
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