Redeem your money here

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Bill Maurer and David Pedersen. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.2.028


Redeem your money here

Bill MAURER, University of California, Irvine

David PEDERSEN, University of California, San Diego

Comment on Dodd, Nigel. 2014. The social life of money. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

At first brush, Nigel Dodd’s The social life of money seems like an enormous literature review. A gigantic, book-length survey of everything the human sciences have had to say about money. It’s pretty comprehensive, it’s pretty interdisciplinary. Anthropologists may quibble that only one chapter really dives into “our” proprietary domain. And then to talk about “culture,” if that’s what we care about, and also only then really to present perspectives and practices from the elsewhere, the back of beyond, the colonies and the natives (though still generally mediated by the anthropologists themselves).

Read a little more carefully, however. There is something else going on.

Nigel Dodd’s contribution in The social life of money, we think, is to present a challenge to our understanding of the social itself. He makes this clear, here and there, in his treatment of Georg Simmel. We are too fast to read Simmel for his story of money’s deracinating, depersonalizing and abstracting tendencies. We are also too quick, however, to counterpoise those tendencies to “Society,” as if we all know what that means—and as if it is always an unquestioned good or moral force. Dodd is careful and particular on this point, but it’s easy to miss. Right from page 8, we know he is more interested in “sociation” than “society,” and certainly more interested in sociation, the process, the unfoldings and uncertainties and nonunivocalities than any Society-capital-S. Sociologists too concerned with the latter focused—and continue to focus—on questions of state, social structure, institutions, organizations, the family, classes. Writes Simmel, however, “there exists an immeasurable number of less conspicuous forms of relationship and kinds of interaction. Taken singly, they appear negligible. But since in actuality they are inserted [424]into the comprehensive and, as it were, official social formations, they alone produce society as we know it” (Simmel 1950: 9). Dodd’s book comes into better focus once you appreciate the place of sociation in Dodd’s philosophy.

Dodd writes that the book itself is an experiment, an adventure. He presents money as “a field of variation” (2014: 48), an “unfolding,” a “process that is inextricably social, inherently dynamic, complex, and contradictory” (88). In this, money is analogous to sociation, or a part of it, the immeasurable incidences of transaction, value, and contest that are mundane and momentous sometimes at the same time, sometimes in different phases, sometimes one or the other. The form of Dodd’s argument, his literature review, and his foregrounding of Simmel’s sociation makes evident that money, the literature or perspectives on money, and society or social life in itself and social life of money are hyperlinks to one another: hierarchized but boundary-crossing and level-jumping, muddling order and hierarchy, reinforcing them, obliterating them. One might quibble with this book that when Dodd declares that money is an “idea” and then reviews others’ ideas on money, he is playing an idealist game. We do not think so. We think he is precisely playing a game—but it’s the process, the play, the dynamism, and dueling that matter—the “Dionysian path” (205) that defines money in one of its aspects and the history of ideas in another of its, as action, movement, and challenge.

Another way to appreciate his “sociation” journey is through the book’s title and its double meaning. Like an individual subject, money has a social life. It goes to the market; it stops off at the bank; it interacts with other things, especially people, products, and other monies that it meets along the way. But money also is social life. Money is the infinite geography and history of relations that give rise to it, that maintain it, and that it could possibly have an effect on in the future. This second perspective is a tall order and not the way that the mainstream academic disciplines treat money. Versions of the first understanding of money tend to be dominant. The point of Dodd’s wide-ranging book is to bring together both understandings of money as aspects of the same, as if they are two sides of the same coin (chapeau to Keith Hart).

It is not surprising that, after describing some aspects of the 2007–present crisis in the opening pages of the book, Dodd turns to Walter Benjamin’s famous aphoristic discussion of Paul Klee’s painting “Angelus Novus” in his Theses on the philosophy of history. It also makes sense that Dodd concludes his book by drawing on Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Zahir.” Both of these essays are about how forms are internally related to their infinite content rather than separate like independent or dependent variables. Both of the stories hinge on disclosing that whatever anything appears to be rests on an endless ensemble of relations of which it is but a congealed expression. Not only is it possible to move through the form to approach its inestimable content, the real world challenge is what of this open whole should be purposefully sought through its form and how this changes all at once the form, its immediate content, and their relationship. For Benjamin, the task is to find the past in the present and rework that relationship for a different future. For Borges, the tension arises over the possibility that the whole of life could be reduced to a single object, a coin. Both stories are productive mind-benders and [425]oblige the reader to take on a more relational and dynamic understanding of part and open whole.

This is the general perspective that plays out in Dodd’s book as he ranges across a selection of writings on the relationship between money and social life produced by writers hailing from continental Europe, England, the United States, and Japan. The first chapter begins the move toward the more relational perspective by starting with some of the dominant origin stories of money. The chapter gradually demonstrates that to explain something by determining its origins is to only grasp a small part of what it is and what it means in the fullest sense. Echoing Simmel, Dodd argues for approaching money not as a single effect but as a concept encompassing a plurality of qualities. The subsequent chapters explore these varied qualities in relation to the larger social aggregate from which they emerge and to which they contribute. Chapter Two moves through money to the unfinished whole that is capital, identifying money’s sociation in the reproduction of conflict and inequality. Chapter Three relates money to credit and debt. Chapter Four travels to guilt and finds money’s sociation in its near sacred qualities; Five goes to society’s approaches to waste and excess; Six travels within, across, and beyond geopolitical territory and Seven to the plurality of money’s embedded cultural dimensions. Chapter Eight examines money in relation to its reformist and utopian aspects.

There is plenty more to say about the specific part-open whole relations that each chapter explores via sociation. But instead we would like to comment on the locus of the book’s content, the composite of locales glossed as “the West” since at least the end of WWII. Although some authors discussed by Dodd, notably the anthropologists who appear in chapter seven and in a few other places in the book, focus on social relations involving money in places outside of the group of countries labeled “West,” all of the authors ultimately are writing from within that world in a conversation that is mostly of that world. In this way, at first glance, the book would seem like a fully “Western” argument about money. Despite this appearance, especially to sensitive Hau readers, we think that the promise of Dodd’s book is to point out that this appearance, like money as a discrete object, is only half of the story.

The more dynamic and relational part-open whole relation that informs Dodd’s book suggests that the forward-looking perspective offered in chapter eight, “Utopia,” may be pushed further. If “the West” is like the discrete object-form of money, then the long history of life on the planet is the content out of which this quasi-geographical object has been extruded and reacts back upon as a seemingly external entity. As Dodd showed in each chapter, it is this relationship as sociation that has to be examined and explained. By the end of Dodd’s book, the reader appreciates the historical specificity of the relationship, its tremendous variability, and its mutability. We would do well to draw inspiration from his approach. It is quite different from assuming that “the West” is a discrete homogeneous thing exactly like its mainstream disciplinary experts believe money to be.


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

Simmel, Georg. 1950. “The field of sociology.” In The sociology of Georg Simmel. Translated, edited, and with an introduction by Kurt H. Wolff. New York: Macmillan, The Free Press.


Bill Maurer
Department of Anthropology
University of California, Irvine
3151 Social Sciences Plaza
Irvine, CA 92607-5100 USA

David Pedersen
Dept. of Anthropology
Univ. of California—San Diego
9500 Gilman Dr. #0532
La Jolla, CA 92093-0532