Joachim Kalka’s 2009 New Left Review article on the waning presence of tangible coinage in credit card capitalism is a delightful read. Kalka enlists Scrooge McDuck to illustrate a monetary carnality opposed to the fluid meaninglessness of the exchange principle. In Scrooge’s Duckburg vault, money isn’t just something you get to get something else (and that “something else,” once given a monetary value, is itself imperiled by this reduction to mere abstract quantity). For Scrooge, money feels deliciously good and offers an exhilirating physical encounter in which he revels. In his direct encounter with his money Scrooge finds life.
Kalka regards Scrooge’s sensuous encounter with money as a form of polymorphous perversity. To the extent that we emphasize the sheer immediacy of how money feels to Scrooge as he dives through it, there is indeed such an autoerotic moment, a closed universe bounded by Scrooge’s ecstasy and loving fascination with the feeling of money. However, Scrooge’s investment of his cash transcends immediate sensuality. Each coin and greenback in his eighty-foot deep reservoir acquires a history, it is individualized and takes on a life gained through the history of Scrooge’s adventures in acquiring his money and renouncing the temptation to spend it. His veneration of his own experience imbues and personifies each coin with reflected life. Therein lies the rub of rubbing coins, and it’s worth briefly diving into.
Kalka sets up his analysis of Scrooge’s fascination by referring to Benjamin’s concept of aura:
It could be that in the near future Benjamin’s concept of aura—which in simple terms means that something assumes a particularly intense and melancholy power of fascination at the moment of its disappearance — might apply to money. Are not those of us born before 1990 the last generations that really know money, the last for whom familiarity with it is second nature? Not in the sense of a monetary economy at large — which is certainly not vanishing, but flourishing as never before, indeed celebrating the most disastrous victories—but that of an intimate, daily contact with coinage and banknotes. (p. 66)
Benjamin proposed the concept of aura to define a quality of art — its investment with cloistered exclusivity, ultimately tied to its origins in mystified ritual — that prevented appreciation by the common people. Instead of being a hallowed object, art was to inspire a new form of life.1 Benjamin’s critical intention is lost track of in Kalka’s reference, and we will pick up that trail shortly. For now, we will follow Kalka in his description of Duckburg that brings out an auratically-enhanced experience of money:
“…in the counter, parallel, ideal and delusionary world of Duckburg all manner of sensuous everyday gestures and childhood myths congregate under the rubric of ‘money’… we are in a world where our experience of money is extremely haptic and attracts all kinds of rumours and legends. Fine in its naive affectivity is the way the Duck family, after a stroke of luck or a successful coup, tends to kiss the coin or the banknote so easily and unexpectedly come by, or acquired through hard work (plump little red hearts fly all around this touch of the lips). In such enthusiastic appropriation, the elated possessor reacts not so much to cash value, as to the sum of his adventure with this singular piece of money—a quite particular unit of currency.” (p. 74)
In this light, the sensual immediacy Kalka frames as polymorphous perversity is caught up in a broader narrative, the conclusion of an adventure, a successful acquisition of something desired. Sensual immediacy works into stories of the self in its relationship to objects that can be gained or lost.
But what objects? The amusing money frolics through which cartoonist Carl Barks introduced Scrooge are only playful recreational moments interrupting the burdens of privilege. Piles of money will of course draw the envy and desire of others, and these interventions in Scrooge’s primary relationship with his wealth unfold in each issue. In these routine adventures with crooks and scoundrels Scrooge’s innovative investment of money with meaning fades out: he’s a rich duck who defends his wealth.
There are more ways of navigating the envy of others. Already in the first issue Scrooge advises his nephew that he should emulate Scrooge himself to solve his financial problems. It is not just that Donald should save more, but that he should join Scrooge in his perverse devaluation of “silly pleasures”:
After his launch in 1947 Scrooge’s life was a round of such enjoyments and escapades. Scrooge’s fending off of challenges and demands on his money pile seems to flow inevitably from the distribution of wealth and scarcity. But the humorous banality of these plots undergoes an abrupt turn with the introduction of Magica de Spel in December 1961, fourteen years after Scrooge first swam in his money pool. Magica, a sorceress, is unlike Duckburg’s other characters in that she also invests Scrooge’s money with transcending significance. Her interest is exclusively oriented to the first dime Scrooge earned, over which he dotes:
Magica’s fascination with the dime is not preservative, however. She sees it as an incarnation of Scrooge’s money-making power, and if she can forge it together with coins obtained from other rich men she will herself have gained the power to become rich.
To dwell on what appears obvious — Magica’s pursuit of a phallus that will allow her to do what the richest men do — misses the point, as is intended. Instead of considering Magica’s delusional hope to conjure, we need to weigh how Magica herself is conjured up within the dynamic of Scrooge’s perversity, and how her desire is formulated within its terms.
Perversity as defensive circumscription of desire
Magica’s appearance calls for a foray, via a theory of child development, into areas penumbral to Scrooge’s enthrallment. If anything, psychoanalytic theory is now more insistent than ever on the idea that the child’s encounter with his or her caretakers, typically the mother, mobilizes the infant’s sensual experience and synthesizes it into erotic object relatedness. Recent discussions in US journals of the writings of Jean Laplanche, who stresses the intrusiveness of the mother’s desire in the infant’s life, continue longstanding themes explicit in the writings of object relations theorists like Winnicott, who in turn was only giving better definition to trends in Freud’s thinking. For our purposes here, from these writings we can draw out a pivotal ambiguity in the idea of polymorphous perversity and perversity in general. Is it to be thought of as a diffuse, infantile sensuality that is “pre-genital” in the sense that it is eventually normatively organized into a coital conclusion? In this rendering, the infant’s “perversity” is part and parcel of their journey to a genital destination. Along the way they stop briefly and enjoy nongenital pleasures that are eventually left behind or subordinated in the foreplay overture to genital sexuality. “Perversity” comes about when the developing child lingers too long at one of these stations and becomes, for example, orally or anally fixated on that form of pleasure. Like a bird that is supposed to migrate to Brazil but lingers in Florida, Scrooge sticks to his money.
This seems to accord with the connotation Kalka intends. Scrooge opts to enjoy the caresses of his money and no lack is evident, other than his wish to acquire more. But I would argue that the appearance of Magica points to a feature of perversion that Scrooge’s frolics implicitly epitomize: it is a defense against other forms of object-relatedness and associated anxieties, i.e. it is not a lingering over a certain form of pleasure, but also a denial of other forms.
In a basic respect this is utterly obvious. Even in Duckburg, where the amnesia of latency sexuality reigns, there are hints of coupling that raise questions about Scrooge’s lust. Donald has Daisy and the nephews, forever visiting. But Scrooge appears to be all set — loneliness is something the reader and solicitous Donald might be concerned with — and then along comes the threat of Magica.
What is the nature of this threat? On the surface, Magica engages Scrooge in terms that accept his hypervalorization of his dime, but in impersonal, concrete terms. Instead of the dime being tenderly loved as a first acquisition, for her it is a power to acquire power. It is a conviction of hers alien to Scrooge’s way of thinking, a conviction that is never tested but which exercises a disruptive force in Scrooge’s life as she schemes to get the beloved little dime. Compared to Magica, Scrooge appears sentimental.
However, if we take a step back from this imbroglio, we can see that Magica is simply a woman entering Scrooge’s life in terms that are defined by the aims of his perversity. The real disruptiveness she threatens is to remind him of the original sensuality his money craving replaced, that with his mother. Magica, by threatening to revive a more genuine object need, threatens to take away a very different power from Scrooge, by which he has exchanged the anxieties of desiring his own kind for the certainties of his own trove. His power lies not in his cash piles, but in his ability to replace his original love object for a dime. This is the qualitative shift underlying the quantitative antics.
Aura: mystery, nostalgia, inspiration?
Where are we now regarding Kalka’s enlistment of Scrooge to illustrate resistance to the exchange principle? Is the auratic signification of money inevitably accompanied by a transformation of mother into Magica, or is this adventitious, contingent on the cartoonist Banks’ idiosyncratic psychodynamics?
Away from Duckburg, Kalka’s examples of money’s mundane import — the heft of coins in the hand, the thump of wadded money angrily plunked down on the table of a creditor — all speak to a yearning for certainty of place within bourgeois relationships shakily grounded in the cash nexus. The heft of coins gives substance to a subject who would disappear without them, pushed aside by someone with money, and even the monied may gasp at how little they might matter without it. The sheer materiality of the coin is like that of a handhold on the edge of a cliff.
Isn’t this strongly resonant with the plight of the child, understood without recourse to the routine reassurances of love by dutiful parents? The work of two psychoanalytic writers comes to mind here. First, in her 1976 critique of Freud’s account of female sexuality, Chasseguet-Smirgel dismissed Freud’s phallocentrism as self-consolation in response to the child’s essential helplessness. While it is undoubtedly the case that a young girl might (but not necessarily) come to feel that acquisition of a penis is a “cure” for her plight, this would only be one possible to a solution to a dilemma faced by all children, male and female, as they confront the tremendous disparity between their powers and capacities and those of their parents. Thus even though she is most concerned with challenging Freud’s emptying out of female sexuality in a way that comforts males, Chassegeut-Smirgel believes “the theory of sexual phallic monism (and its derivatives)… eradicate[s] the narcissistic wound which is common to all humanity, and springs from the child’s helplessness, a helplessness which makes him completely dependent on his mother.” (p. 281) Chasseguet-Smirgel goes on to argue that this leads to the formation of an omnipotent maternal image that, although often consciously framed as benevolent, still recalls abject helplessness.
In this light the power of Scrooge’s money has two moments:
– As a focus of abstinential striving, wherein nonaccumulative pleasures are regarded as “silly”
– While simultaneously embodying a hidden, unrealized potential for boundless acquisition that recalls the joy of the relationship with the lost mother. Here the fantastic aura of money depends on that potential never being actualized by a purchase because that acquisition would fail in comparison with mother herself.
In a roundabout way, in this context Kalka’s nostalgic formulation of the concept of aura begins to converge with Benjamin’s. As it stands, Kalka’s emphasis on a sense of something missed at the point of its loss is, as far as I can tell, immediately antagonistic to Benjamin’s interest in the term, which is to identify and dissipate a sanctimonious excresence on the work of art that muddles engagement with it. Thus Benjamin affirms the Dadaist defilement of art — for example, sticking newspaper scraps and ribbons on their work — as a shattering of the traditional attitude of stupified veneration. In this spirit, hard coinage might be seen as a falsely substantial moment in the fluidity of exchange that is best be done away with if we are to experience capitalism transparently. However, for a sharpening of this experience to have any critical potential it must evoke a countermovement, something that pushes beyond mere recognition of the catastrophe — “Oh, yeah, that’s right, I’m nothing” — to interpersonal grounding. Here the recollection of “mother” serves to create and charge an aura that is both nostalgic and critical. It is the experiential site where that affirmation can become manifest. At the same time it must be transcended if we are to come up with something more than nostalgic pining for what was lost in childhood.
Magica’s intrusion into Scrooge’s world is aura gone bad. His longing is resurrected via projection into an Other who tries to steal from Scrooge ensconced in his retreat. Scrooge is immediately thrown into a defensive posture, thoughtless strategic action… [to be continued]
Kalka, Joachim. (2009) Money As We Knew It? New Left Review November-December 60, pp. 65-76.