Genealogy of exchange / By : Vincent BOUNOURE

Genealogy of exchange

[Excerpt from The Surrealist Civilization Bounoure, Payot, 1976 – Pages 148 to 156 ]

With rare unanimity, economics theorists, whose dissensions on every subject are festering from Aristotle to the present day, describe the origin of exchange as linked to the existence of surpluses that are left unused after the satisfaction of needs. The various editors of the theory tell us nothing of the nature, of the extent of these needs, except to refer to the rather notoriously yet devoid of rigor notion of vital minimum. Its only evocation is enough to clog the most robust appetites and to turn upside down the gourmands stomachs. Thus is the surplus of uncertain volume; its quantity is unmeasurable; it is evaluated only in the judgment, in an abstract fringe identifying hypothetical shortages of unknown caliber and which vary when they are observed, in the same time and place, according to the individuals, their customs or, it must be admitted, the particular modalities of their psychological life. Moreover, in the technical societies,  the reduction of the individual differences in the statistical examination shows, needs that are three or five times higher than those whose satisfaction ensures the survival of so-called developing societies (1).
Whatever may be the indeterminacy of this necessary minimum for the individual within his group or for each social group among its neighbors, political economy derives the origin of the exchanges from  the autarkic model, from its adiabatic functioning, in turn marked by the shortage or the plethora. The fact that it exposes such large imaginative costs would be encouraging, if by an unfortunate comparison it suggested that gates crack under the effect of flagrant pressure differences and that this gap, without really altering the autarkic nature of the systems, allows the flow of waste and surplus between closed groups that are considered to be primordial entities. In order for exchange to occur between individuals and between groups, it is hence necessary that a disruption of the autarkic law occurs, that the primordial social unit, whose stability is guaranteed by the territory it occupies and the work that it is doing in it, and whose equilibrium was likely to drag on for an exact match of production to needs, was caught by a foreign evil. Who would have hence been the first to break the law by looking over the walls? By what artifice of reasoning may exchange be deduced from systems regulated  to exactly cover their needs and characterized by the constant and rigorous nullity of surpluses?

This scheme, commonly exploited by all doctrinaires, does not fail to surprise anyone who less cleverly first  sees communications between individuals or between social groups in the economic facts. After all, is making them the by-products of the individual activity or of the productive work of a social unit, the right side to approach them ?  Has one not necessarily  lost sight of  the anthropological sense of the circulation of materials and goods, when it comes to appear as an unfortunate consequence entailed by the decompartmentalization of the sociological entities, where any matter of exchange, was born due to some sort of mistake ?

Whence would any overproduction, which is now given the determining value, be attributed to anyone,  if it is in an economic system that history has probably never known, but that is described by serials as a bottle thrown on a few clods of earth? Whence would the fever of commerce have fallen on those human strains predisposed to the perpetuation without truce and without error of their numerical quantity by the exactitude of the autarchic regulations between needs and matters?  In other words, from the conception of closed and supposedly primitive units, can we draw the key to the exchange (and to the dimensions that are now globally affected to it); is not this search for paternity among theoreticians, significant of the ideology of the owner, of his aspirations for economic and emotional sufficiency, of his refusal to speak for free and to offer a surplus without reciprocity guaranteed by a notary? The other does not exist in this astonishing mythology. 

The explanatory virtue of surpluses in the birth of the first exchanges led to imagine these societies as strictly closed on their consumption and production cycle, and to give them a genealogical precedence. But if we may doubt that exchange can find its source in the juxtaposition of economically closed units, if we have to deny that the sense of exchange could emerge from social entities organized  to avoid it, then one must consider as a romantic fable too, the evolutionary lineage that locates the autarkic economy in palaeontology, only gives it access to historical status through the production of surplus, concedes the more recent periods to the development of trade, and then, gradually, to the fortune of the notion of exchange value. Would not this then be marked by a formidable ambiguity?

It is not useless to point out that the learning of individual life coincides with a particularly durable state of economic dependence in a zoological species that is characterized by the slowness of its maturation. The individual is the first example of a social entity for whom economic autarky can only be an acquired fact, because as soon as the conquest of economic independence is achieved,  to one-way exchanges succeeds a double flow of rather brief exchanges, with a centrifugal balance, until the decrepitude which sees reversing the trend and recovering the lazy receptivity situation of childhood.

Rigorous autarky thus takes on all the features of an abstraction deprived of reality in individual life. In the coalition of their competencies, pediatricians and gerontologists are responsible for two-thirds of the common life. The interval is active. Economic autarky represents only a theoretical limit of the behavior spectrum, unless it rather expresses a vertigo of retrenchment that has its roots into affectivity. Also, with regard to ontogenesis, is it superfluous to debate whether maternal milk constitutes a surplus of production in itself, so that to give rise to exchange, it suffices to note that the gift received is the original economic experience and that material dependence creates a situation of exchange which must be considered as a first and autonomous dimension of homo economicus, constituted before the experience of its labor force, its productive faculties and the painful storage of his surplus stocks.

How then not to wonder whether the rationality of doctrines which privilege energetic quantities at the expense of communication, and reduce it to the standard of a conquering mercantilism, does not remove from exchange what necessitates it as a primary practice ? They would then only reach a numerical model of exchange whose actual reality would be described only in a few of its singular results. Ethnologists whose temptation is a reducible  sensational and who, moving in search of the Other, have no more trouble than to exhibit the Same, freshly taken out of the holds, during family Sundays. The travelers themselves, even, when they described the Kula of the archipelagos bordering on eastern New Guinea or the British Columbia potlatch (1), could not avoid seeing in it  a modality of exchange prior to any economic necessity deriving from shortages or surpluses.

The survey of these peculiarities among peoples without our technical equipment and designated as “primitive” doubtless does not in itself authorize any evolutionary genealogy; but it turns out that the ancient history of the Middle East and the Mediterranean still justifies the timid glimpses of Mauss that materials not destroyed by use, and who were the first gifted with purchasing power were “almost all magical and precious”. More significantly, Mauss specified that these materials, “in addition to their economic nature, their value, have rather (?) a magical nature and are mostly talismans … In addition, these materials have a very general circulation inside a society and even between societies; but they are still attached to persons or clans (the first Roman coins were struck by gentes), to the individuality of their former owners, and to contracts between moral beings. “

But the last of the observers who found themselves to describe the Kula () is much more precise when he declares that the barter of bodily ornaments, necklaces made of small shell disks progressing from island to island clockwise and large seashell armbands circulating in the opposite direction, that this barter, “useless in itself, opens the establishment of peaceful relations between virtually hostile populations … Quite providential, we are told, the love of exchange for itself sets up a system of trade protection, in an area torn apart by the fear of black magic, mistrust and hostility “. And again: “the love of exchange is one of the great characteristics of the Melanesian culture … Some villages of the Admiralty Islands that do not make pottery, exchange their products for a number of pots that exceeds by far what they can use. ” Others, “driven by this disproportionate love of exchange, even barter the water of their respective habitats and bring it home to cook their food.”

Nothing authorizes today to refuse a general scope to such facts. The exchanged subjects are at first symbolic of an interrelation which they establish, and that is why, the reciprocity of the gift which cancels the balance sheets, and, sending back the free partners of any engagement, hence putting at least temporary an end to their exchanges, it is frequently delayed. The exchange contract then develops over time as a conversation where the interlocutors, far from authenticating a single document, sign only their own sentences, only attest the value of their own currency and open alternately to their partner a credit which seals their alliance by the uninterrupted double circulation of objects often useless, but, even if they answer to needs, that carry a sacred value related to the communication which they institute.

However, this chain of trade is likely to break if restitution cancels the debt exactly. In a circuit like that of Kula where very different nations are associated , nothing prohibits the perpetuation of exchanges, nothing threatens the durability of the alliances in their operation. The qualitative heterogeneity of the objects exchanged guarantees its renewal. But it is very different as soon as the objects exchanged are produced within the same civilization, thanks to elaboration techniques that are the same for all the partners. Restitution then removes the alliance of the individuals that the gift had established.

As soon as the materials of the exchange are brought to homogeneity, either identical in the restitution, or equivalent by their quantification in units of account, the one who pays off subtracts from the exchange its primary function, he abruptly  ends the continuation of the speeches which, until then, made a polyphony of the expression of a certain number of individuals , or at least a collective practice. ; the collective modes of existence would be compromised if his “I owe nothing to anyone” was definitive and if no regulatory mechanisms  did not urgently intervene; of which two examples jump to the eye, each of them tending to proroger the bonds of obligation and the contractual correlation beyond mere restitution.

Indeed, I do not believe that the institution of the potlatch (in the strict sense of the term, within the boundaries of British Columbia, or through all “primitive” economies), that required to give back more and better than was  received, has any other purpose than to keep the public discourse open, by the amplitude of the successive oscillations on both sides of the nullity of the restitution reports. On the other hand, in Sumer, when no coinage was yet instituted, at the end of one year, the borrower owed an additional third to the sack of grain which had been given to him, (*). Thus was the donor present at sowing and harvests, covering them with an anxious and lasting solicitude. Thus, what we only know in the degenerate form of usury, tended to maintain the connivance of legal persons throughout a temporality that was inscribed in the frame of the contract. The customary obligation to give back more than what was received , arises from the necessity of making the alliances unalterable and attesting them by endless exchanges, much more than from the imitation of the growth of the cattle, foolishly invoked by classical archeology. 

An archeology of exchange would therefore show quite easily that economic relations were at first a discourse; the essential objective of  this foreign policy discourse,  of its interlocution,  was its own perpetuation; and the means were often useless and sometimes useful objects, the latter alone corresponding to needs or surpluses which no one could have known without questions and answers, without  well or badly welcomed present as specified by the presents given back. In the same way, the first metallic currencies were used as signature for the authentication of the contracts,  long before measuring the volume of contracts. But a considerable shift has occurred, substituting in monetary species an accounting value instead of a value of discourse, in the same way as the exchange which essentially  tended to the creation of a web of interrelations and guaranteed its solidity was stripped of its sociological meaning through the circulation of utility goods.Thus, to the extent that it may be reconstituted, the evolution of money and of the exchange value,  illustrates the passage,  from a sacred relationship between human groups, from a relationship in which the monetary sign is the late symbol, to an idolatrous deification of the symbolic object, accompanied by the disuse of the discourse relations  that it had established and maintained. This evolution is undoubtedly significant of the chemistry of the sacred in its symbols, or rather, of the over-valuations by which the signs are cut off from their symbolic correlates, and deprived of their sacral effectiveness.

The contemporary economic discourse has now reached that point where it is a word that only  refers to itself, a word that everyone pronounces and that does not address anybody, a word whose meaning withdrew and which interminably  leads its din overcoat over the heads of those who utter it. The rupture accomplished between the symbol and the network of sociological relations of which it used to be as an abbreviation, the concomitant glorification of the symbol deprived of its active functions, the singular dilation of its role in the social functioning, contribute to the creation of human aggregates which would have to be named non-civilizations, in the sense that their activity is wholly devoted to a cult which, by construction, excludes the relations that constitute a society or grants them only a marginal career. The object, the commodity, if you will, this initial word that we spontaneously use, as soon as when going  abroad we find ourselves in the situation of childhood, the object is in crisis because it does not vehicle any longer more than the figures that characterize it, the energy parcels that constitute its use value, the abstract properties that determine its exchange value. In the vocabulary of the political economy, this exchange value means that, in the full sense that the surrealists give to this word, no exchange takes place: only figures are agitated in order to move in the columns of what is called the ledgers

It would be tedious and probably futile to retrace in their anatomy, and to film in their joint play, the material, sociological, religious and psychoanalytic mechanisms that transported in a few centuries the human economy in its present situation and little surpassable chatter . Yes, the origins of capitalism are probably identifiable in Luther. Yes, Spartacus and Münzer have experienced the pangs of need. And doubtless the allegorical thought, turning empty in the tireless reformulation of its tautologies, supplanted the symbolic thought during the sixteenth century. Today, the species transported by the object have evaporated to such an extent, that the tonnage of trailers or tankers serves as a standard in the painful displacement of dead substances whose exchange value testifies that any real exchange has ceased. A long series of historical derailments has made of the object a word without reality and perhaps is it in a mirroring effect  that the words of the public discourse, which are addressed only to the abstract interlocutor that politics defines as elector, philosophy as worker and catechesis as negro, increase as their content becomes indistinguishable.

The emptiness of the public discourse, its amplification thanks to the machines of non-communication, its incessant development in a sort of elsewhere, that is absolutely independent of the men or their conversations, answer to the autonomy of the current economic discourse which, also, increases as much in volume as it ceases to satisfy interrelations and requires artificial needs. The parallelism of these two stories is not fortuitous, but does not encourage optimistic predictions. The speech sickness is only the manifestation of a more complete perversion just as obvious to the economist and which makes it possible to only grant little effectiveness to the local interventions of the specialists, in front of a question of which populations health doubles the numerical scope every thirty years. Human activity takes place to the benefit of a machine which has ceased to mesh with the human substance. At least forbidden cities subsist where the exchange is practiced without any concern for exchange values, and where the interlocution continues, just like in love after all, neglecting to run after the objective statement of indifferent facts sacralized under the name of truth. Where,  on the contrary,  the interlocution remains significant of the real in the exercise of the collective expression and the installation of the conducting wires that it implies. Located aside along the path of the historic journey, these cities which were and remain the workshops of expression and the forges of the eternal Vulcan, have for too long abandoned their speaking time to parrot bands and troops of pigs.



(1) This is for example what Jacques Attali  asserts, in his book  La Parole et l’outil (Paris, P.U.F., 1975) on basis  of seemingly very modest estimates. This work by a specialist, which, by its very nature, rejects profane appreciations; while it may appear as a recusation of economism, remains the work of an economist. If I pass on the sloppy execution, Attali’s book seems to me to be indicated by a number of new insights, by formulas whose brilliance will mainly  dazzle their author (as the project of an “implosive society” evokes an already widespread mental vacuum ) and by a lack of knowledge of the nature of human communication. To regret an era when, one does not know what sort of direct relationship from man to man used to take place, to deplore that this relationship is today  established through the object, is to refuse their meaning to things, and consequently to words. And to refuse to things and words  their messenger properties, and to only  leave to men, although they live in societies, the inexpressible enjoyment of their affects. On the contrary, the gradual transformation of the message-object into a screen-object and even into a cork-object, must be questioned.

(2) On the Kula, see MALINOWSKI, The Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Paris, Gallimard, 1963, and the famous Essai sur le don by  Marcel Mauss,   (L’Année Sociologique, 1923-1924) reprinted in Sociologie et anthropologie, Paris, PUF, 1950. This text also deals with the potlatch, a topic on which Georges BATAILLE came back for important interpretations, in La Part maudite, Paris, Ed. Midnight, 1949.

(3) R.F. FORTUNE, Sorcerers of Dobu, London, 1932, translated under the title Sorciers de Dobu, Paris, Maspero, 1972.

(4) C. Leonard WOOLLEY, Les Sumériens.. Paris, Payot, 1930.

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