A boom, in theory

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Gustav Peebles. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.2.024


A boom, in theory

Gustav PEEBLES, The New School

Editor’s preface to the Hau Book Symposium on Dodd, Nigel. 2014. The social life of money. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Not long ago, one could assemble a relatively short, yet exhaustive, reading list from the past one hundred years of anthropological scholarship on money. But today the literature is burgeoning, and one senses that many people have something important and productive to say about the role of money in their particular field site. Regardless of the reasons for this blossoming (we can all surely think of several), it feels vital to sustain and nurture it. We cannot ignore such a quotidian and yet powerful device in countless societies. As many anthropologists have bluntly stated or coyly implied, we cannot go back to an era where we leave something as important as money to the economists.

Nevertheless, it remains a highly technical device, and profound efforts over centuries have been dedicated to understanding it, as well as to attempting to control it. Anthropologists risk endlessly reinventing the wheel if we fail to first verse ourselves in this vast realm of study outside our own discipline. For this reason, HAU welcomes a symposium on Nigel Dodd’s latest book, The social life of money. Long a translator between various disciplines, Dodd has always shown a deep respect for the orthodox approaches to money, while equally tantalizing his readers with the heterodox ones. The social life of money does not disappoint in this regard, providing insight and information into the monetary stances of both the arcane Modern Monetary Theory and the obscure Walter Benjamin. It is, quite honestly, hard to imagine a text that seamlessly integrates such a wide-ranging array of approaches to money. In its almost encyclopedic breadth, the book stands as an indispensable, benchmark text for people who are seeking to work with the question of money in their own ethnographic and theoretical work.

[410]But beyond this benefit, Dodd’s book also pushes us further. As he says in his response to the expert interlocutors whom we assembled for the symposium, he did not want to write “just another critique of the banking system.” In this regard, he rejects the ever-present threat of a knee-jerk critique of money and its “calculating” and “objective” nature that supposedly chips away at every community it encounters. Rather, he optimistically wants us to all better understand money not so that it can be overthrown (an unlikely prospect), but so that we can ponder (and perhaps implement) novel forms of governance over it, as well as catalytic new uses of it. Much as Marc Shell (1993) argued long ago that money cannot really be disentangled from thought as such, Dodd arguably thinks that money cannot be disentangled from society as such.

Instead, in this text, we find a productive and dispassionate rejoinder to the more melancholy and somber critiques of money as a purely deadening force in society. Our kind respondents have picked up on Dodd’s foundational optimism in various ways, helpfully walking us through different angles of his expansive text. If, in the end, this produces a pluralist commentary on Dodd’s work, no one is better positioned to appreciate and embrace this than him, considering how he himself advocates a pluralistic theoretical stance toward the pluralistic world of money.

Taken together, then, our expert panelists and Dodd himself provide an excellent introduction to the many discussions and theories of money extant in anthropology, sociology, and even economics, today. The editors sincerely thank our contributors, and Dr. Dodd, for the time and care they have put into this forum.


Dodd, Nigel. 2014. Social life of money. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Shell, Marc. 1993. Money, language, thought: Literary and philosophic economies from the medieval to the modern era. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Gustav Peebles
Departments of Global Studies and Liberal Studies
The New School
66 W. 12th St, Rm 603
New York, NY 10011