Month: June 2013

Rhetorics of Debt

Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2011.

Anthropologist David Graeber points out Aristotle’s use of the term symbolon to argue that “coins are merely social conventions” (298), and observes that symbolon originally meant “tally” and often referred to “an object broken in half to mark a contract or agreement” (298). Think of the heart-half necklaces young couples wear today that serve as reminders of their relationship: from Graeber, we understand that those were instances of what Aristotle was talking about. So coins literally symbolized social relationships between people, even as today they have become (according to Marx and his successors) the ways to abstract those social relationships, to wrench those relationships from their interpersonal contexts. Graeber then extends his analysis to set up a parallel with language, which exists as an interpersonal communicative link but is also arbitrary: the word has as little intrinsic meaning as the half-heart necklace—it is an arbitrary set of sounds—and only carries meaning in its social context. It is at once deeply particular and remarkably abstract. Words, like money, are “arbitrary tokens of agreement” (Graeber 299) that spring up among individuals. Consider Graeber’s observation in a Burkean context: Burke’s Grammar breaks down the terms by which we engage one another, whereas his Rhetoric examines the systems of persuasion by which we allow ourselves to identify with one another. Graeber’s remarkable book offers an extensive historical grammar of debt and money as instantiations and abstractions of social bonds and relationships. How, then, might I work towards a historical and technological rhetoric of debt and money as instantiations and abstractions of social bonds and relationships?