Brian Rotman, Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987), pp. 87-107.
Absence of an Origin
For Lear the question: 'What need one?' is an open wound that cannot be healed. As the rhetorical origin of his madness, the question's answerzero - becomes the name of his condition and the means by which he is reduced to a cypher, to the nothing that comes from nothing; zero is an image, a sign outside 'natural' language, that points to a source of horror that, for Lear, is unsayable. In the twentieth century where Nothing comes ubiquitously into its all too sayable own, where moral, intellectual, theological, artistic, and cultural vacuums have each spawned their own insistent nihilisms, such a unified and particular image for emptiness and nothing seems no longer possible. None the less, though zero is no longer an alien sign, the mask of an inhuman otherness worn by mercantile capitalism that it was for Shakespeare, but a commonplace constituent of speech, the figures it produces - degree zero, zero countdown, zero- sum game, absolute zero, zero option, ground zero - still convey a charge of absence, origination, finality, annihilation, the sense of a beyond which nothing which permeates its iconographic associations.
And what in the early seventeenth century was metaphorised in tragedy returns in the twentieth century naked in melodrama. The metaphor is literalised into a name the central character of Elmer Rice's expressionist melodrama, The Adding Machine, is called, with a simple blank directness, Zero. He is not a noble figure, a king writ tragically large, but a banal nobody, a dull and obscure everyman, an annihilated self whose life is to be nothing, to achieve nothing, and to leave nothing behind. A grotesque and dramatically lurid wage slave of industrial capitalism, Zero evacuates his days meaninglessly adding up columns of numbers. Sacked to make way for a mechanical adding machine, he murders his boss, dies, is tried, goes to paradise, enjoys a brief transcendent moment of knowing and love - only to learn that he must return to life, as he has returned before and will do so again, washed clean of love and of all he has learned, to live another zero existence operating the adding machine of modern, 1923, capitalism.
The melodrama (if that is the form it will be) of the contemporary adding machine, the computer, has yet to be written. Certainly the form of capitalism the computer engenders is no longer confined to the arena of wage slaves, it is no longer mechanico- industrial but electronic and financial. Financial capitalism is distinguished by the buying and selling not merely of goods, labour, and services but of money. Money which in order to transact itself has to be of a radically new kind. Now changes in money are, as we have seen, intimately connected to the semiotic medium in which it is counted and accounted. And since both the language and logical structure of computers privilege zero in a very profound way, it is reasonable to expect that a phenomenon recognisable in terms of zero will be at the centre of the shift in money signs that constitutes the emergence of financial capitalism. It is also reasonable to expect that radical shifts in other Western codes contemporary with the emergence of financial capitalism will echo its transformation of the structure of money signs. To pursue this expectation I shall discuss first the economic code in which the new money occurs and then, in the light of this, the code of written language in which, so it is claimed, a new form of text, a change in 'writing' itself, must be recognised.
It was in the early 1970s that a fundamental shift took place in the financial practices that underpin and create the circulation of money- signs. What occurred then was an historically unique confluence and structural integration of four separate monetary phenomena, none of which was novel, but which together created a multi- billion dollar a day global money market and a radically new highly volatile, world monetary order. A realistic description of the workings of these phenomena --floating rates of exchange, an inconvertible world currency, the growth of off- shore money in the Euromarkets, the emergence of secondary markets in financial futures/options contractswould need much esoteric discussion that lies far outside the scope of this book. However, the phenomena themselves, forming the basis as they do of widespread commercial and market practices, are operationally simple. Moreover, from the present perspective interested in identifying changes in money as a sign, only their semiotic characteristics need be explicated.
The present world currency is de facto the United States dollar. What is a dollar? What sorts of money signs are called dollars? What, to reach for the most palpable and concrete, a piece of paper, does a one dollar bill signify?
A dollar bill is an item of paper money, a written promissory note issued by the United States Treasury to an unnamed bearer. Promising what? In terms of our earlier discussion, paper money guarantees absent but potentially recoverable specie and, until 1973, such was the dollar's promise. The US government had formally obliged its Treasury to deliver 1/35th of an ounce of gold on receipt of a dollar bill if the bearer of the bill so requested. In short the dollar was a convertible currency: one dollar could be converted into a specific amount of some anterior 'thing'--gold --which was held to have a fixed, unchangeable, intrinsic value. In 1973, after much crisis ridden confusion and financial turmoil in the wake of the Vietnam war and amid the moves which led to the four- fold increase in world oil prices, the US government cancelled its self- imposed obligation to deliver specie. The dollar was cut loose from any fixed equivalence with gold (or indeed anything else): a dollar bill presented to the US Treasury entitled the holder to an identical replacement of itself. As a promissory note it became a tautological void. The dollar became, in other words, an inconvertible currency with no intrinsic internal value whose extrinsic value with respect to other currencies was allowed to float in accordance with market forces.
Thus a dollar's 'value', what traditionally as a paper money sign it is supposed to signify to its bearer, becomes what it is worth on a day- to- day basis to those who hold it. Inside the United States, as on- shore money proclaiming itself in circulation es 'regal tender', its value is whatever goods, necessarily priced in dollars, it will purchase. Outside the United States, circulating as off- shore money in the so- called Euromarkets, its value is whatever goods the local currency exchanged for it will buy. Within this simple formulation of a dollar's value there are two fundamental points that need elaboration. The first concerns the nature of the Euromarket, in particular, the relation, in terms of signs, between on- shore dollars and offshore Eurodollars. The second relates to the fact that characterising the value of a dollar, what it sign)fies as a money- sign, in terms of its momentary exchange- worth inserts a radically new time- bound element into what is meant by the term 'money'.
Off- shore money, that is money of a country held outside that country or by a foreign bank inside the country, has been a feature of commercial life since at least the sixteenth century in Europe and much longer elsewhere. It was not uncommon, for example, in the commercial centres of Europe of that period for foreign currencies (Ducats in London, Sovereigns in Amsterdam) to circulate freely alongside the home currency providing the means to denominate and settle transactions. In its modern incarnation it appears in the mid- twentieth century as the Eurodollar, since it was in Europe and in dollars that the present global money market has its origin and initial development. The market is said to have started in the early 1 950s when the Soviet Union, fearing that the USA might freeze deposits of Soviet dollars held in US banks, transferred its dollars out of the United States to the European banks who still trade them today. The market in these and other foreign held dollars grew rapidly, principally through banks in London. First, multiplicatively through the 1960s, then exponentially in the 1970s as banks in London started to on- lend the billions of dollars of extra revenues deposited with them by the newly rich oil producers to third world borrowers. It has continued growing to the present by facilitating more of the same - globally recycling credit from medium- term surplus trade balances into long- term debts.
For 'Euro' and idollars' one should write 'xeno' end 'money' respectively. The Eurodollar has long since shed its attachment to Europe. It is, in fact, no longer geographically located but circulates within an electronic global market which, though still called the Eurodollar market, is now the international capital market. And its attachment to dollars is denominational rather than actual: not only can all currencies be swapped instantaneously in and out of the dollar, but there is also a growing volume of other instruments within this new market, such as Eurobonds, issued in Yen, Deutschemarks, Ecus and so on.
As a mechanism for recycling financial imbalances (petrodollars in the 1970s, Japanese and German trade surpluses in the 1980s) the Euromarket has been highly instrumental in increasing the stock of world debt. Critics of the market point out that while debt in itself is not undesirable, since capitalism could not function without it, the quality of Euromarket debt and the underlying reason for its production by the market is the source of a dangerous, possibly fatal, flaw in the world monetary order.
The quality of a debt concerns the possibility of its default. Any debt has risk attached to it: one can always imagine real circumstances under which money lent will not be repaid. What is of interest to the lender is the prior calculation of such risk based, obviously, on the lender's reading of the borrower's financial status. If this reading fails to take place, if for example there is a baffle between creditor and debtor masking the latter, an intervening mechanism that separates the source and destination of the money being transferred, then the borrower and lender will be unknown to each other and the rational assessment of risk by the lender will be impaired: with the consequence that the propensity to bad debt will increase. The Eurodollar market, by allowing debts to be spread, split up, swapped, syndicated, traded and reassigned, provides precisely such an intervening and anonymising mechanism. 'We are all joined together in one long chain of credit; but we can't examine the balance sheet of every link, and we never know who the ultimate borrower is', is how one Eurobanker has described it (Davidson, 1983, p. 137).
Semiotically this masking of the borrower results in a loss of deixis, a reduction in the idexicality of money signs. Recall how in an earlier shift paper money differed from the imaginary bank money it displaced precisely in terms of such a reduction. But though it dispenses with the apparatus of signature, personal witness, and attachment to an original owner, paper money retains its domestic, national indexicality; it relies as a sign on its use within the borders and physical reality of the sovereign state whose central bank is the author of the promise it carries. In contrast, xenomoney is without history, ownerless, and without traceable national origin. If paper money insists on anonymity with respect to individual bearers but is deictically bound on the level of sovereignty, xenomoney anonymises itself with respect to individuals and nation states.
Not knowing ultiTnate borrowers and the disguising of risk such ignorance entails increases bad debt. And bad enough debt, as is well known, leads to bankruptcy, and bankruptcies lead to closures of banks, which in turn create runs on other banks, a state of monetary crisis, financial panic and total breakdown of money system. Within domestic, on- shore banking there is a traditional means of cutting short the flight into panic and financial collapse. Each domestic economy has an ultimate lender, the central bank of that sovereign state who, to stabilise its system and avoid the onset of panic, will act as the lender of last resort and underwrite, that is buy, bank debts. In the Euromarket there is no single lender of last resort. What then would be the result of a major Eurodollar default? How likely is it, on theoretical grounds, that one might occur?
Very likely, according to the authors of The Incredible Eurodollar (Hogan and Pearce, 1984) whose journalistic subtitle, or why the world's money system is collapsing, belies the seriousness with which it defends its thesis, viz. that by masking risk and allowing trade surpluses to be transformed into potentially bad debts, the Euromarket is a self- enhancing mechanism that perpetuates itself by subverting the very forces which would diminish debt and bring about the balance of world trade. There are two basic possibilities. A major default can occur, for example a 100 billion dollar debt of some sovereign state goes bad. To avert a crisis the banks who own this debt are forced to appeal to their own central banks to act as lenders of last resort. They would do so by 'rescheduling' the loan into the future, thereby deepening the debt still further with their own reserves, and so increasing the likelihood of the next default occurring. Or, the process will be slower and less explicit: debt servicing activity will gradually enlarge until it depresses 'real' commercial activity into recession. And, since world currency - the dollar in which these debts are denominated - has no intrinsic value, the irresistible response to this recession would be to print money. The Federal Reserve would manufacture the required number of dollars. This would lead to a worldwide increase in inflation and so deepen the recession into a commercial and monetary collapse.
Either way the scenario is dire. The Incredible Eurodollar offers only one, fundamentalist, solution: eliminate 'false' money, dissolve the whole institution of xenomoney, terminate the unregulated conversion of trade surplus into debt, return to bilaterally balanced trade, re- establish fixed rates of foreign exchange, and beyond all else re- introduce a monetary order based on a convertible world currency. In effect, the authors advocate a return to a gothic world order (Aquinas is embraced as a forebear) in which a sane monetary 'realism' based on physical goods repudiates the ontological abuse involved in the printing of money unbacked by specie, and insists on a palpable origin, some 'thin"' with intrinsic worth, as the source of money's value. To be truly gothic, to reachieve the iconic monetary order of medieval Europe, the 'thing' would have to be gold. But metallic economies, they admit, are no longer practical. Instead, they propose a 'Commodity Pound': 'defined as an imaginary fixed basket of goods in the proportions of the weights in the cost of living index'. A solution, in other words, which requires a total and atavistic dissolution of the present- day monetary system.
Meanwhile the world monetary order rests on xenomoney, the above is just a scenario, the solution to it perhaps in the end no more than a modern Gold Bug's fantasy of return to the iconic simplicity before the onset of mercantile, industrial and now financial capitalism. We are left with the question: what, as a money sign, does xenomoney signify, given that it cannot identify itself in terms of some prior, intrinsically valuable icon?
In traditional terms money functions as a unit of account, a store of value, and most importantly --since this is taken to be its defining characteristic--a medium of exchange:
Since a barter system may be very cumbersome and inefficient, it is generally found useful to have some good or token which is widely accepted as payment in settlement of debts. Goods can be exchanged for money, which can then be exchanged for other goods, and hence money serves as the medium through which exchange is facilitated.(Bannock, 1984, p. 302)
Such characterisation works through the difference between goods, the anterior things whose exchange money exists to facilitate, and money, posterior to goods and standing as a token in place of them. It breaks down and becomes semiotically counter- informative, as we observed earlier, when this distinction disappears: when money enters the category of 'goods' end is itself bought and sold through the medium of money. As both object and medium, thing and token, both a commodity and a sign for a commodity, money is a dualistic and self- reflexive sign. The duality as a manifestation of xenomoney's status as a certain kind of meta- sign will be elaborated on later. For the present one can make the self- reflexivity of money, its capacity to act as a medium of exchange for itself, the basis for what it signifies.
As a sign one can say that xenomoney, floating, and inconvertible to anything outside itself, sign)fies itself. More specifically, it signifies the possible relationships it can establish with future states of itself. Its 'value' is the relation between what it was worth, as an index number in relation to some fixed and arbitrary past state taken as an origin, and what the market judges it will be worth at different points in the future. For what it sign)fies to be a market variable, and for it to be 'futured'in this sense as a continuous time- occupying sign, xenomoney must be bought and sold in a market that monetises time; a market in which there exist financial instruments that, by commoditising the difference between the value of present money (spot rate) and its future value (forward rate), allow 'money' to have a single timebound identity. In the early 1970s, the appropriate instruments, that is tradeable financial futures and options contracts, came into prominence in the Chicago Financial Futures Market.
Futures and options contracts in themselves are not new: the forward buying and selling of currency in the foreign exchange markets, and the forward buying and selling of physical commodities (grain and meat in midnineteenth century Chicago, tulip bulbs in seventeenth century Amsterdam), have long been essential elements of international trade. Such contracts were agreements between individual traders detailing the obligation (in the case of futures) or merely the right (in the case of options) to buy or sell a particular commodity at a given price either at, or at any time before, some point in the future. And though the movement of prices could obviously cause such contracts to become more valuable to their holders, this gain in value could only be realised by closing the original deal. In other words, such contracts were not liquid or liquifiable assets in their own right: they were not priced, they could be negotiated but not bought and sold in a market. And it is precisely this, the ability to trade them, to buy and sell them in a secondary financial market, that makes present- day traded financial futures/options not only a new and far- reaching monetary instrument, but also the means through which money - xenomoney - establishes itself as a sign able to signify its own future.
A traded option is a double object: a commodity which is bought and sold which itself promises to buy or sell some other commodity. The proclaimed point of options, their financial legitimation, is that they are instruments that create a form of insurance, a means of hedging against and managing risk. A trader holding commodity X is exposed to a loss if the price of X falls. The trader buys an option which gives him the right to sell X at current price at any time in next three months. If the price of X goes down, then the value at which such an option can be traded goes up thus the trader recoups the loss in holding X. If the price of X goes up, the option will have provided a hedge against an unrealised risk and its value will diminish to zero at the end of three months. But the same mechanism that is proclaimed as insurance can, and certainly does, function as speculation. There is of course nothing to prevent a trader who does not hold nor ever intends to hold X from buying such an option and gambling on a fall in the price of X to be able to sell the option at a profit.
Whether a form of insurance or speculation (the difference is unreal and for the present purposes irrelevant), options/futures trading has grown at a near vertical rate since the early 1970s, since, in fact, money became inconvertible and exchange rates floated against each other. Trade in them is now an essential and uneliminable component of the world money market (see Illustration 22).
Million Contracts Traded Source Futures IndustryAssociation
Illustration 22 Volume of futures trading, 1960-84.
What, then, is this multi- billion dollar a day market doing? What purposes is it serving? The conventional view of money, as the medium of exchange for goods, would have to answer that the billions flow in the service of world trade, that they finance transactions in goods and services. But few commentators would maintain this, and some version of the following seems generally accepted: 'Less than five per cent' perhaps only one or two per cent, of the tens of billions traded on the currency markets each day mirror an equivalent transaction in goods or services' (Stephens, 1985a). The rest of these tens of billions - the bulk - must therefore make up the secondary money market; a market devoted to the buying and selling of money and of futures/options on money. The significance of this is that the conventional vector of cause and necessity which points from trade to finance, from things to money, has been reversed: it is the financial tail that wags the dog of economy and trade:
The divorce between foreign exchange transactions and the trade flows which used to be their raison d'etre has resulted in an underlying volatility which ensures a steady turnover in expansion. The markets are now driven by capital rather than trade flows, and currencies have become commodities whose value depends more on the buyer's expectation of its resale value than on underlying economic developments.
This overturning of traditional causality, whereby the dynamics of purely monetary events influences the course of world trade rather than the reverse, where the epi-phenomenon and phenomenon are interchanged, is, in terms of signs, very familiar. It is the result of what has persistently presented itself as the loss of anteriority. As soon as the category of goods and commodities, with respect to which 'money' acts as a posterior medium of exchange, contains that money itself as a commodity, the distinction between prior 'things' end signs or tokens for these things disappears. And it only reappears, irrevocably altered, in the relation between signs and meta- signs. Money is always a sign, certainly when it is a medium, but also when it is a 'thing', a commodity, being bought and sold. The duality here is an inherent feature of money used to buy and sell itself. But it has a special character in the case of xenomoney because such money, being floating and inconvertible, is forced as a sign to create its own sign)ficance: one which is written in the only terms available to it, namely future states of itself. Xenomoney is thus a certain kind of meta- sign. Recall that the scandal of paper money for its detractors was its ability to increase the supply of money, in effect to create unlimited money, at the same time as the promise that it carried, to deliver palpable, uncreatable specie, denied this possiblity. Xenomoney, by making no promise to deliver anything, avoids such double dealing. Its scandal, if such exists, is the fact that it is a sign which creates itself out of the future.
This reflexivity of xenomoney is already implied by its independence, that is money governed by purely financial dynamics, from the physically determined constraints of underlying trade. Since what is implied by the separation of finance from so- called real trade is that any particular future state of money when it arrives will not be something 'objective', a referent waiting out there, determined by 'real' trade forces, but will have been brought into being by the very money- market activity designed to predict its value. The strategies provided by options and futures for speculation and insurance against money loss caused by volatility of exchange and interest rates become an inextricable part of what determines these rates.
Those antagonistic to xeonomoney take this last point to its causative limit and assert the following. Insurance against volatility through a multi- billion dollar futures/options market is directly and inevitably responsible for further volatlity; this in turn will be insured against, thus causing further volatility, and so on in an increasingly unstable spiral. If the xeno part of xenomoney threatened collapse of the world money system from the past, from unsupportable debt generated within the Euromarket, then the money part of it threatens, on this hostile view, a world monetary collapse from the future, from an unsustainable mutability of money signs created by the financial futures markets. Thus xeonomoney, to those convinced that it is not 'real' money but a dangerously unstable kind of pseudo- money, will either be drowned in the debt weight of its past or burned up in vertiginous and anarchic volatility derived from its future.
The semiotic shift in money signs from gold- backed paper money to xenomoney replicates and finalises the earlier move from gold itself to imaginary money. The emergence of xenomoney, in other words, signals the absolute exclusion of gold from the economic code, the final form of the relative and merely temporary severance between money signs and gold initiated by the institution of imaginary money. This exclusion is, as we have seen, fundamental: it is the loss of transcendental origin, the end of a '"rounding' of money signs in some natural thing imagined to have a premonetary worth; the necessary absence of any intrinsic iconic value which supposedly precedes the money signs defined in relation to it. Semiotically such a termination corresponds precisely to the loss of anteriority which zero achieves in relation to number signs. Recall that by drawing attention to the failure of the anteriority of things to signs in the case of itself (what possible prior'thing' can it be referring to?) zero demolishes the illusion of anteriority for all numbers. Once zero enters the scene numbers can no longer be paraded (however much they can be practically considered so, which is an entirely different question) as aggregations of some exterior, pre- numerical 'unit' which serves as their prior, definitional origin, but must instead be considered, as Stevin so pentratingly saw, to be elements of a system created by zero; or rather, created by the counting subject whose presence as a signifying agency zero witnesses. In short, zero numeralises the 'unit' es xenomoney commodities gold: a process whereby gold and the unit lose their claim to be transcendental origins and become rewritten and unremarkable as just signs within their respective systems.
The status of language, the nature of the signifying limits and possibilities of spoken and written signs within late twentieth- century philosophical and literary discussion is a fought- over terrain - problematic, undecided, and contentiously indeterminate. Language is said to be corrupted by metaphysics, opaque to its own incoherence, to be in crisis, to display symptoms of frenetic unbalance and hyperactivity, to live under a false and selfsustaining image, and to be incapable of offering, this side of silence, any description of itself that is not implicated and immediately nullified by what is 'described'. What, if there is a problem, is its source? Is language in a state of sickness, deluded and blind to its own imprisonment? Where, supposing that to be the case is the way out, the solution? The philosopher Jacques Derrida, responsible more than any contemporary figure for insistently articulating and diagnosing the 'problem' of language, locates the recognition of it (which of course dictates what a 'solution' if any would be) at the extreme boundary of Western rational thought, on the horizon of Occidental metaphysics:
However the topic is considered, the problem of language has never been simply one problem among others. But never as much as at present has it invaded, as such, the global horizon of the most diverse researches and the most heterogeneous discourses, diverse in their intention, method, and ideology. The devaluation of the world 'Language' itself, and how, in the very hold it has upon us, it betrays a loose vocabulary, the temptation of a cheap seduction, the passive yielding to fashion, the consciousness of the avant-garde, in other words - ignorance - are evidence of this effect. The inflation of the sign 'language' is the inflation of the sign itself, absolute inflation, inflation itself. Yet by one of its aspects or shadows, it is itself a sign: this crisis is also a symptom. It indicates, as if in spite of itself, that a historico- metaphysical epoch must finally determine as language the totality of its problematic horizon. It must do so not only because all that desire had wished to wrest from the play of language finds itself recaptured within that play but also because, for the same reason, language itself is menaced in its very life, helpless, adrift in the threat of limitlessness, brought back to its own finitude at the very moment when its limits seem to disappear, when it ceases to be self- assured, contained, and guaranteed by the infinite sign)fied which seemed to exceed it.
(Derrida, 1976, p. 6)
Thus Derrida, writing at the beginning of the 'The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing', which begins his own book, Of Grammatology, whose purpose is to demonstrate that there is no beginning, origin, first being, initial presence within the world of language and written signs. Derrida proposes a whole new order of the 'text', of what is meant by saying that something is a text, an interpretable piece of 'writing'; an order intended to negate, overturn, unmask the illusion of what he calls logocentrism: the metaphysical belief that writing is a secondary, posterior activity, an activity that comes after, represents, transcribes, is a sign of other necessarily prior signs. These signs possess the special 'presence', the originating selfconfirming palpability, the fullness of 'hearing (understanding)- oneselfspeak' that is accorded traditionally but falsely to the logos, to spoken language (Derrida, 1976, p. 7).
What for Derrida sustains the traditional and misguided account of the opposition speech/writing, allowing writing to be characterised in terms of its secondarily, as the transcription of psychologically and epistemologically prior speaking, is the parallel acceptance of a whole series of oppositions - identity/difference, presence/absence, reality/image, thing/sign, literal/ metaphorical - basic to Western conceptions of the linguistic sign. In each of these oppositional categories there is assumed to be a degree zero: one of the terms is privileged as original, generic, and primary, the other subsidiary and specified in relation to it. Thus difference is the lack of a priorly conceived identity, absence is non-existence of a primary presence, images represent a given and already existent reality, signs are tokens of pre-signifying 'things' which precede them, the metaphorical is a species of the more fundamental category of the non- literal.
Derrida's thesis is that all such binary orderings are misplaced and illusory and that the priorities they take for granted must be dismantled and overturned. His strategy is to deconstruct each of these oppositions, to read texts depending on and structured around them, and show, through a certain mode of textual attention, that what at first appears as the privileged originating term is as secondary and dependent as the minor term it supposedly gives rise to. The category of literal is incoherent except in relation to the figurative, the idea of presence cannot be explicated except in terms of absence, what we call reality is already permeated by so- called representations, talk of 'things' cannot be rationally mounted except in terms of signs (of things). Such a deconstructive programme is to be achieved through a kind of anti- reading, a reading of texts against themselves, an interpretive activity which, much like psychoanalytic listening, ignores the text's own protocols of reading, its preferred, official, ostensive, declared modes of interpretation, in favour of what is not said nor intended to be said through these oppositions. In the sign)ficance of the text's silences, gaps, hidden denials and disavowals, in its excesses and circumlocutions, in the breaks and continuities of its narrative, in what the text avoids and what it insists on, in its apparently 'neutral' choices of metaphor, and so on.
To understand what is meant by and what is at stake in the process of 'deconstruction' it would be natural, then, to explicate it, and with it Derrida's notion of the 'text', through a description and replay of his readings. I shall not do this, but instead adopt a different procedure, and focus as Derrida himself might advocate on the metaphors he himself uses in the passage quoted above. He speaks of 'devaluation' end 'inflation'of the sign. These are of course monetary terms describing the ways a currency loses its value in relation to other currencies and in relation to itself. If his gloss on'devaluation'- loose vocabulary, cheap seduction, passive yielding to fashion, avant- garde and ignorance - makes it no more sign)ficant, perhaps, than a passing swipe at the demi-monde of cafe intellectualism, the same cannot be said of 'inflation'. Its obsessive and impacted repetition, equating inflation of 'language' with inflation of linguistic signs with inflation itself, seems to telescope the text into itself in a way that asks for elaboration. Inflation occurs when money is worth less than it was; it indicates that the relation between money signs and what they signify -- value -- is put into question and, if continued, threatened with a dissolution in which ultimately money becomes worthless. Now the 'value' of a written sign, in the present case a text, is presumably the signified of the sign, what the text means or can be made to mean. But since it is precisely the notion of a text's 'meaning' that the Derrida programme has to interrogate, his monetary image seems to blow itself up. The metaphor of inflation seems itself inflationary as it spirals from language to the sign to absolute inflation to 'inflation itself'.
Faced with this sort of vertigo, and mindful of Derrida's own scheme to dismantle the figurative/literal opposition, let us be simple- mindedly 'literal' and agree to dissolve the distinction between money and writing: treat texts, interpretable results of writing, as if they were circulating money signs, and look at money signs as pieces of writing. We might ask, for example, what in the world of the text corresponds to --'Literally' is -- paper money? Or, where in the field of money signs does logocentrism, that is the metaphysical belief that signs are always grounded in some ultimate originating beginning experienced as a full, self- validating presence, make its appearance? Thus Derrida's tracing of the metaphysics of presence back some twenty- five centuries to the pre- Socratic philosophers, becomes, within our assumed literalness, an equivalent dating back to Croesus, to the sixth century BC Lydian invention of circulating gold money. In which case the myth of presence gold gave to money signs, that is the origin of value, the source of transcendental 'intrinsic' worth, the value in kind (specie) and not token, the preciousness incarnate and palpably present, finds its image in, and in fact is, the logocentric fantasy of an originating transcendental presence behind written signs.
For money signs the resting place of this myth, as we saw, was convertible paper money. The US Treasury, by promising the bearer of a dollar redemption in gold, located the absolute value and origin of its money- signs in a material, physical presence stored in Fort Knox. How and in what sense are texts convertible or inconvertible? What sort of redemption does the convertible written sign, which we might call the paper text, promise? Paper texts are a medium of exchange for 'real' items; tokens for goods and services that are physical and palpable; signs standing in place of what can be experienced, consumed, made present; secondary vehicles representing an original presentation, delivering a direct, tangible immersion in some world of experience before signs. They point to, indicate, and refer to this world, outside themselves and the order of signs they constitute, for their authenticity and validation. They are convertible into what this world determines to be 'reality'. The specie they promise to deliver is the icon of pure speech, meaning- originating speech, speech that is unmediated, filled, presemiotic, real to itself without the agency of signs. And the sign)fied of these texts, their monetary value, is a 'meaning', some determinate entity that issues from the supposedly referential relation between the signs of the text and events in this pre- signified originating world.
But what if the existence of such a world is an illusion? What if there is no world before signs, no ultimate presence, no pre- semiotic speech, no possibility of specie, no redemption by gold, no grounding of signs in an origin, no intrinsic self- signifying icon of value? If all signs owe their being to, and are necessarily preceded by, other signs, if the signs are in principle inconvertible into non- signs,if the promise to deliver specie is necessarily void, then paper texts cease to be what they claim - secondary tokens representing a prior world - and become instead items in a world from which signs can never be absent. If such is the case, then what they took to be their 'meaning', to be delivered up as a relation to that signless world, becomes a phantom, a reification of an illusory presence. In short, paper texts would cease to 'mean' in the sense they themselves give to this term: they would not be able to be redeemed in terms more original, more 'present', more palpably 'real' than themselves: they would therefore be signs in a state of unacknowledged and irreparable dislocation from what they take to be their signifieds.
Such, as we saw, was the fate of paper- money signs from the point when the US dollar ceased to be convertible into precious metal. And such is Derrida's account of the status of the logocentric text as a form and practice of writing blind to the possibility of any reading of itself that would release it from its metaphysical attachment to presence. Paper-money signs were replaced, usurped by those of xenomoney, and a new world order of money signs came into being. What replaces the paper text? What would the order of linguistic signs appropriate to such a xenotext look like? Can it be equated with that of the deconstructed text, with Derrida's conception of writing conscious of the secondarily of all linguistic signs? What would be the protocols for reading such writing? Where would what it sign)fies come from? What is there, gold and originating presence having been repudiated, to guarantee that a xenotext has any significance?
For xenomoney the answer, as we saw, was brutally simple: it guarantees itself. Or rather it ceases to offer 'guarantees' outside itself. Divorced by fiat from any source of 'intrinsic' value outside its own universe of signs, it is forced as a sign to engage in the creation of its own sign)fied - one written in the only terms available to it, that is future states of itself. By buying and selling itself through time, that is commoditising the difference between its spot and forward values, xenomoney achieves a certain sort of self-creation. It is a time- bound sign that scandalously manufactures its own signified, what it insists is its value, as it goes along.
Now the problem of linguistic value, what it is and should be, is not new. Saussure long ago insisted on the necessary absence in relation to language of any intrinsically valued, extra- lingual item which was supposed to serve as an origin for the meaning of a sign. On the contrary, it was essential, he argued, to give a purely structuralist account of the value of signs, one encapsulated in his slogan that there are no positive terms in language but only differences, that the meaning of a sign lies in and can only lie in its relations of identity and difference with other signs. But in Saussure there is still the primacy of speech. It is spoken language, the sign system that purports to directly transmit thoughts, ideas, signifieds from the mind of one speaker to another (as opposed to writing which inscribes such speech) that is the place of differentiation. But if, as Derrida claims, speech is subject to the same secondarily traditionally the preserve of writing, if speech is a sign of a sign, then Saussure's structuralism is inadequate, and a more complex notion that difference is required, conceived as it is in terms of opposition to the prior category of identity and buttressed by the parallel priority within the opposition speech/writing. This more complex principle of signification Derrida neologises in French as 'differance' to convey the sense of deferrence, spacing, postponement, placing into the future, that necessarily lies behind and within any difference. Unlike Saussure's 'difference', Derrida's deferrence is not locatable in the supposed primacy of speech; it recognises difference as a secondary phenomenon. Difference is the trace of other semiotically prior differentiation. The temporal element that deferrence has to convey cannot then be confined to the purely static, geometric structuralism governing difference within Saussure's theoretical linguistic space. It indicates, in other words, an event, a creation in time.
What is the effect of deferrence at the level of interpretable writing: how does the signified of a text in Derrida's story of writing postpone itself? Answer: by becoming a time- bound sign which continually manufactures - just as xenomoney, faced with the loss of gold's intrinsic presence, is obliged to manufacture - a signfied, a value, from the possibilities of its own future.
Paper texts point backwards: they offer to deliver that which has been deposited, something buried in a vault in the past. Their value stems from the promise of this redemption, the possibility of retrieving at least in principle some original full serf- affirming 'meaning'. The xenotext offers no redemption, no written promise of hidden treasure, no icon of value, no delivery of some precious, proto- signifying, specie. What was a past meaning, waiting intact and whole to be claimed, independent of the act of retrieving it, is displaced by a de-mythologised future significance, fractured, open and inherently plural. For the xenotext there is nothing to retrieve; there is only language in a state of potential and never actualised interpretation. What it signifies is its capacity to further signify. Its value is determined by its ability to bring readings of itself into being. A xenotext thus has no ultimate 'meaning', no single, canonical, definitive, or final'interpretation': it has a signified only to the extent that it can be made to engage in the process of creating an interpretive future for itself. It 'means' what its interpreters cannot prevent it from meaning.
Postponing meaning into the future has the result of displacing the text into a foreign off- shore version of its previous, paper, self. The yet to be deconstructed domestic version, which is seen as insisting on a reading within its own sovereignty, within the orbit of its declared 'natural' interpretation, becomes as soon as it is read against and through itself alien, a foreign sign de- centered from the logos and all the self- confirmation it finds there: what was 'difference' in the presence dominated conception of the text is displaced into the xenotext's 'defference', what was self- present speech becomes reinterpreted and reconceived as a 'writing' in which all signs are already signs of other signs, and so on.
But if Derrida writes of signs acquiring a fully fledged secondarily, of signifiers being already sign)fieds as soon as they 'enter the game' of language being played against itself, one cannot, however, interpret either the establishment or practice of xenowriting in the absence of the writing which gives rise to it. For like the Eurodollar, which is both host and parasite on the dollar, the xenotext can displace but never entirely substitute for the domestic sign it appears to repudiate. In the market where the game of texts is played, the semiosis of writing in relation to itself occurs through a circulation of texts which are at once objects and medium of exchange: commentary and text, writing and writing about writing, literature and criticism, become no longer distinguishable as opposed and separate categories. Neither can claim any autonomy from the other, and those who write texts abut a text by reading it against itself, can be seen to enact and thereby perpetuate on the level of interpretation the very secondarily of writing which their readings insist upon uncovering. Like authors of futures contracts, market players whose predictive speculations about the future value of the money commodity they trade are perpetually in danger of being instruments which bring this value into being, deconstructive readers produce strategies of reading that operate through the fiction that the results of their readings are somehow independent of the interpretive presumptions and manner of their production.
What this means is that text in Derrida's account of 'writing' exhibits precisely the principal semiotic characteristics of xenomoney within financial capitalism: it marks a new order of inconvertible, floating, futured, offshore signs.
It is worth mentioning at this point a related, but less synchronically based, homology to the structure of present- day money signs. Thus, there is undoubtedly a parallel between the order of signs constituted by xenomoney as given here and the order of the 'pure simulacrum' described by Baudrillard in his essay The Precession of Simulacra. Specifically, one can map the diachronic stages of money, (i) gold, (ii) imaginary, (iii) paper, (iv) xeno, on to the 'successive phases of the image' of some 'basic reality' in so far as the image, (i) is a 'reflection'of this reality, (ii) 'masks and perverts this reality', (iii) 'marks the absence of this reality', (iv) 'bears no relation to this reality . . . and is its own pure simulacrum' (1983, p. 11). Unfortunately, Baudrillard's seductive insistence that the 'real' has finally become precisely what can be simulated is too totalised and his characterisation of 'images' too amorphous for one to be able to determine what, for example, would follow from the claim that xenomoney is (or indeed is not) its own pure simulacrum.
The semiotic connection between money and Derrida's notion of writing on the other hand is by no means so nebulous. Within their respective domains, in the codes of writing and money, 'text' end xenomoney function as cognate meta- signs. Each appears on the scene as a denial of anteriority, the negation of the transcendent value that underpins the code it disrupts. Derrida's repudiation of an 'origin', of an'infinite signified' which exceeds language, destabilises the possibility of a text having a 'canonical' privileged meaning in precisely the same way that financial capitalism's reduction of gold to a commodity among commodities contradicts the possibility of money having an 'intrinsic' privileged value. And if, for its opponents, xenomoney moves always on the edge of total monetary chaos, it is no less so that, to its detractors and critics, deconstructionism pushes writing ever nearer to senseless vacuity.
Articulating a structural morphism of this sort just)fies giving an art)ficially 'literal' reading of Derrida's metaphor, if that is what it is, of inflation. But if my treatment of his thesis (squinting at it in a mirror which reflects only monetary images) produces a grotesque metonym, a cartoon reading of his attack on Occidental metaphysics (for after all, writing is not transacting, speech is other than buying and selling, linguistic signs admit infinitely more subtle, multi- dimensional, rich, diverse, conscious, and universal interpretations than those of money) it none the less assumes a particular interest in relation to the signifying structures explored in the present essay.
This is because, on the one hand, the existence of connections, morphisms, and parallelisms between monetary value and textual meaning is hardly unexpected. As Mauss (1969) in his essay, The Gift, famously demonstrated, they both can be seen to emerge from much older archaicly structured circulations of cultural meanings centred on the forms of exchange governing honour, duty, obligation, and so on, which antedate the invention of textual writing - 'Men could pledge their honour long before they could sign their names'- as well as the use of money- signs (Mauss, 1969, p. 36). Indeed, the parallelism between the circulation of meaning and money is so long standing and rooted in common usage that the metaphors which express it, including 'bankrupt' points of view, words being 'coined', 'spent' meanings, 'inflated'and 'devalued' ideas, intellectual 'debts', have all but lost their imagistic power. Moreover, the simultaneous emergence of a new form of money and a new form of textual writing which, so I have argued, share a common semiotic explication can be seen as a fresh extension of the parallelism; an extension that could be further elaborated by identifying the new, still imagistically alive, textual homomorphs of option contracts, credit risk, volatility, ultimate lender and the like.
On the other hand, what is unexpected is the re- emergence, within Derrida's account of linguistic signs, of the same semiotic mechanism and matrix of formal connections, that is the emergence of a meta- sign whose disruption is precisely the loss of a transcendental origin and with it the loss of anteriority, first identified for the mathematical sign zero.
Unexpected, and unlooked for, for the following reason: the entire analysis of zero presented earlier in this book is given within what might be called a pre- theoretical undeconstructed vocabulary and is, presumably, therefore riddled with and invalidated by the very metaphysics of'presence' it is being used to characterise. The semiotic formula given of zero, that is a sign for the absence of other signs, not only works from a rudimentary and theoretically simple reading of 'sign' as a signifier/signified coupling, an event, thing, gesture which is accorded significance by a subject, but more importantly explicitly invokes and indeed constitutes itself in terms of the logocentrically tainted opposition of absence/presence. Furthermore, contrary to the whole persuasion of Derrida's thesis that origins are always mythical and looking for origins of signs is the central illusion of Western metaphysics, zero is depicted here as a sign which, though it demolishes the anteriority inherent in the idea of an absolute and transcendental origin, is nevertheless itself nothing other than an origin. Again, in order to talk of zero as a mesa- sign, a sign about the absence/presence of other signs, it is necessary to ascribe to zero a secondarily denied, necessarily, to these other signs. One must, in other words, reject the idea that the inherent secondarily of all signs (their signifiers always being sign)fieds of other signs) implies that some signs cannot, like zero, be more signs of signs, more secondary, literally more significant, than others. And finally, the very function which zero enjoys within mathematics as the mark of an origin requires there to be, as we saw, a certain sort of subject present, a conscious intentional agency, whose 'presence' et the initiation of the process of counting is precisely what zero signifies.
To present matters in such a way is in no sense to suggest that by being undeconstructed our account of zero must be illusory. Rather it is to point out, as a final gloss on the 'text' here, that deconstructivism is a species of global absolutism which, in the end, does not impinge on a text which claims no more for its oppositions than that they are local and relative. Thus Derrida's arguments tell us that there is no absolute origin to signs (signs are always already there) that there is no absolute category of meta- sign (all signs are meta-signs since they refer to and invoke other signs) that there is no absolute sense of the literal (what is figurative and non- figurative interpenetrate) that there is no absolute signifier (signifiers cannot but be sign)fieds of other signs, and so on). But there is in these denials no reason why a sign such as zero cannot be a relative origin, why zero cannot signify absence relative to the presence of certain signs, why, that is, zero cannot be privileged as a meta- sign with respect to other signs not so privileged.
Observe, finally, that zero is an origin at a very primitive, parsimonious and minimally articulated, level of sign formation. Signification codes difference, hence the need for more than one sign. How to produce, with the minimum of ad hoc extra- semiotic means, two 'different' signs? Answer: let --there be a sign - call it 1 - and let there be another sign - call it 0 - indicating the absence of the sign 1. Of course, such a procedure produces the difference it appears subsequently to describe; and the use of absence to manufacture difference in this way is a viable sign practice only through the simultaneous introduction of a syntax: a system of placing sign)fiers in linear relation to each other in such a way that it allows signs to be interpretable in terms of the original absence/presence sign)fied by 0.
The sign 1 can be anything. If 1 is one and 0 is zero and the syntax is the standard positional notation for numbers, then what results, as the limiting case of the system, is the two- valued descendant of the Hindu decimal system. Leibniz, who spent much time formulating the rules for binary arithmetic, was deeply impressed by the generative, infinitely proliferative principle inherent in such zero- based binarism: so much so that he refracted the binary relation between 1 and 0 into an iconic image for the Old Testament account of creation ex nihilo, whereby the universe (the infinitude of numbers) is created by God (the unbroken 1) from the void (the cypher 0) (see Illustration 23).
Illustration 23 Title page of Mathematical Proof of the Creation and Ordering of the World by Leibniz, 1734.
Again, if 1 signifies the presence of a current in a circuit and O signifies the absence of such a current and the syntax is 2- valued Boolean algebra, then what emerges is the binary formalism within which the logic and language of all present- day computer programs are ultimately written. Thus, to pursue zero further, would be to have to say more about its role at the origin of this formalism. But such a project would require a critique of mathematical logic. In particular, one would need to unravel the assumptions behind the claim that is made for Boolean logic, with its referential apparatus of truth and falsity, to be the grammar of all mathematical, hence all scientificotechnical, hence all supposedly neutral, culturally invariant, objective, true/ false assertions about some prior 'real' world. To do this would require a semiotics that went beyond zero to the whole field of mathematical discourse. A semiotics which, in order to begin at all, would have to demolish the widely held metaphysical belief that mathematical signs point to, refer to, or invoke some world, some supposedly objective eternal domain, other than that of their own human, that is time bound, changeable, subjective and finite making.