A scene from a drama keeps occurring to me. The roles are variables, containers for values that satisfy the problem, and can only be cast by the one imagining the drama. That is, this scene can only really be played out in the imagination and then in life, not in photographs, on the stage, page, or screen. Or it can play out in those mediums, and does, but only as a gross proliferation of the original imaginings, whose scattershot data coalesces into patterns.
The scene’s frame is close in on two hands, one hand belonging to one person and the other belonging to another. The frame is my constraint, and it’s a known trope: we know to connect an image of a hand with a sense of our shared humanness. Not as unique to our species as language, but still so characteristic of us: those mostly bald, mostly five-fingered, wrinkly knuckled, horn-tipped, articulated growths with which we gesticulate, touch, hold, manipulate materials. We’ve seen many times images of the newborn’s hand in their parent’s; the close-up of the guitarist’s or pianist’s fingers adroitly coaxing their instrument into expression; the lovers’ hands held tightly; the adult child’s hand caressing the crepey, liver-spotted one of their dying parent; the hands of two people in danger grasping before a leap of faith; the vivifying forefinger of God’s right hand outstretched to Adam’s limp left one in that famous fresco; the Dogme 95–style camerawork that rests the lens briefly on a gesturing hand or a hand worrying a brow or propping up a chin or lying still in a lap.
To connect the scene to the day I began writing this, I’ll have it open with the hands flooded in light from the super blue blood moon, either just before or after totality. The pull chain on the morning moon lamp gets yanked, and the lighting is up for grabs.
The two hands hold between them a bill, their fingers at either short end. Let’s say it’s USD, because USD has good PR, so it usually comes to mind when we think of money. Currency is interchangeable anyway, so a US dollar is already something else.
There is tension on the bill. Both hands draw it toward their person with equal force. Not so much that it will rip, but enough that a pebble pelted at it would more readily bounce off. Part of the tension comes from the fact that it’s not clear which direction the bill is going, into whose hand it will end up.
That unclarity stays while you overlay the scenarios (soon to follow) of the money changing hands. Turns out, in all cases, one of the hands is yours, by which I also mean mine. Take a look at your dominant hand for a moment, as though you were auditioning it—its angles, knobs, folds, veins, sinews, movements, touch. You’re not auditioning it, though. It’s got the part.
The other major parts—the other hand and the denomination of the bill and the goods and services for which the bill can be exchanged—change from scenario to scenario and even within a scenario.
Project onto this problem first that the bill is coming to you, but before it does you’ll have to perform some labor. (Remember, the bill is imaginary. The number value you can assign to it isn’t restricted to the standard-issue notes from the Department of the Treasury.) Think of a labor you would like to perform and how much you’d like to earn for it and how much you can reasonably expect to be paid for it. Also, over time—how secure that work is. And think of work that you believe does good, that would satisfy your idea of a right livelihood, and what its going rate is. Now, think of a type of work you’re good at but don’t enjoy but will do if you have to, and its worth. And a labor that is worth more than any of the foregoing but is, according to your standards, either dubious in itself or performed for a dubious employer. Think of the magic number that would draw you into your gray area. The number that would draw you farther from your values.
In those dealings, what does the hand at the other end of the bill look like? The hand of the boss who will hire you for your calling? The hand of the one who has work for the good? Of the one who metes out grunt work? Or a “good job” you hate? Of the suspect employer? The hustler or gangster? The supreme monster moneybags?
It’s not fair or realistic to think up what you’re worth and who you’ll work for without considering what that cash value is going toward: the range of needful and desired things. Maybe you could be persuaded into drudgery or tricky or dirty deeds if the price tag amounted to food, to health care, to rent or a mortgage, to a utility bill, to an education for your children, or a payment of a debt with a steep interest rate—to making ends meet. Or if it amounted to things that fall somewhere between needful and desired: your smartphone service (an invented need), your gym membership, concert tickets, a class for personal or professional development. Or maybe you want the luxury: the beautiful machine with endless functionalities or the bespoke furniture or the incomparable view or the world-class adventure or the impeccable wine or the stunning dish or the K9 Fit package (high-intensity fetch, splash time, and low-calorie cookie) for your poopy doggy baby while he’s at the Wag Hotel. You might feel soothed by retail therapy, like a sort of bloodletting drawing off the plethora. Or maybe you’re risk adverse or planning for your children’s future or so sick of the work you fell into that you dream daily of retirement, and, though you have no immediate need for more money, you want more to reach your savings goals.
Imagining what you’ll put your money toward is a good segue into the other direction the bill could be heading: from your hand to your castmate’s. What would make you release your grip on it? When the hand at the other end belongs to a hard worker? A skilled worker? A worker willing to do a job you’d hate to do?
When are you willing to give the value you hold—inherited, gifted, or earned—to a person whose business’s balance sheets show no net good? When they provide a product that gives you pleasure? Fills a need? A service that’s convenient, that makes everything smoother and quicker and simpler? When the thing on offer makes you feel free or powerful or sexy? Or it’s a bargain, a steal?
Will you only let go when the product appeals to your vision of an ethical lifestyle? Handmade, made in the USA, divested from x, locally sourced, independent, small-business, POC-led, unionized, co-op, worker-owned, family-owned, family-friendly, eco-friendly, made of 100% recycled materials, recyclable, repurposed, salvaged, secondhand, consignment, vintage, compostable, reusable, renewable, cradle-to-cradle, biodegradable, bio-based, plant-based, all-electric, hybrid, fuel-efficient, solar-powered, wind-powered, bulk, Rainforest Alliance–certified, certified organic, non-GMO, pesticide-free, hormone-free, cage-free, cruelty-free, free range, grass-fed, sustainably caught, vegetarian, vegan, shade grown, fair trade, sweatshop-free, conflict-free, one-for-one, giving a portion of the proceeds, united against hate, and welcoming to all (not to mention the health food categories that promise cleansing not unlike the indulgences the Catholic Church used to sell).
Will you give it away when the person is family, chosen or blood? A fellow national? When the person is in need? A friend in debt, a local panhandler, a busker or bone-breaking BART dancer, a veteran, a coreligionist, a refugee, an orphan, someone unhomed by natural disaster or war, someone starving? How much do you have to have to give freely to the hand in need, and what are your conditions on the gift? Must you consider the person worthy? Because they’re kind or clean or sober or sane or talented or willing to work or disabled or well-spoken? Or because you believe they’ll spend the money well?
And whether out of need or preference or convenience or aspiration or extravagance or moral principles, to whom will you go into debt? Who will you give to beyond your means, promise your uncertain future income, take out a loan for and pay money on money?
Whoever it is, the other hand belongs to them. Go through again and think how their hands appear. Soft, weathered, aged, turgid, grubby, ringed, gloved, polished, square-nailed, long-nailed, clubbed, slender, meaty, smooth, hairy, scarred, spidery, stubby, short a digit or two? There they are, as the one just opposite yours, mirroring. The way they’re positioned, they could almost be readied for a handshake if that bill poof-disappeared.
Speaking of: to the bill—still so taut you listen for the rip that doesn’t come. Its amount has changed depending on the deal, and if you’ve been thinking of real denominations, you’ve rotated through a few Founding Fathers, presidents, neoclassical buildings, pyramids, beaming eyes of Providence, and eagles with arrows and olive branches. But whatever amount we’ve thought was there was always elsewhere. It was loaned or invested or owed to another country; it depended on the risks taken by investment banks, quants and algorithms, another currency’s stability, bad-faith agreements by government officials, or a decision by the Fed. (I hear Louis Jourdan as Gaston Lachaille vexedly talk-singing while the bill’s cash value, played by Zsa Zsa’s sister Eva, flirts about the room: “It’s so ooh la la la la, so untrue la la la la. Oh, it’s not thinking of me.”) The cash value the two hands hold between them actually composes the frame but doesn’t remain faithful to it.
That frame does not lose sight of us, but I might’ve. I almost assumed our hand was a constant. The continuity of being ourselves can make us forget how we change. But our hand also appears different in these exchanges. We might do a kind of transaction only at a certain time of our lives, so it could be different ages—its skin and style morphing depending on when. It could also look different because of how we see ourselves during the deal. Or because of a bodily response to some dimension of the drama—sweating, relaxing, tightening, shaking because of the amount, the situation, our relationship with the other person, or our partner’s character.
Our motivations transform us, most noticeably into action. To drive this plot, this gamble on trust, we must each come up with our own complicated accounting systems weighing needs and morals and desires and cash value and work.
An example: coming home one night, I passed a beggared man I know from the neighborhood. It’s strange to say: I know him by his face alone, but I like him. (I question my reasons for liking him, but not the fact of it.) As I came up to him, he asked me for something—either money or food, I can’t remember. I was in a good mood and I wanted some bananas anyway, so I went into the Whole Foods he stood in front of to get a bunch for both of us. I got the ones signed organic and Whole Trade, the store’s branded fair-trade label, priced low at 69 cents per pound. I paid with my Discover card (I’m fantasizing now about a credit card with an antonymic name—Hide or Obscure or Lose or Withdraw, enclosed R registered trademark). I went outside to him through the automatic doors and broke off part of the bunch for him and took the rest for myself.
In that little exchange, some odd equivalencies were made, and money was skimmed off by many. I’m not sure what person or people would be the starting point of that chain of value, even if I circumscribed it artificially. For the sake of argument, I’ll begin with me. My proofreading job turned into cash that was deposited directly into my bank account (which isn’t Fort Knox—it’s not a bullion depository), and I imagined that “real” cash to be linked to what I paid with my credit card, because I don’t let the credit card charge stay as a debt long enough for it to cost me interest or fees. The credit company took a cut at any rate, because the merchant had to pay a processing fee for my purchase. My cash-cum-credit paid some part of the fair trade operation (an elaborate process of pricing, training, inspection, supply-chain management, fundraising, and marketing to stores and consumers carried out by for-profit and nonprofit organizations), and the labor of the plantation workers and fruit packers and shippers and stevedores and delivery truck drivers, and the retail-side employees (from the CEO to the cashier) and the retail space, and the electricity and gas and taxes (the cost of governance) for all of the above, and the land and water and air and banana bulb that grew into the tree that bore the fruit, and the fruit itself. The fruit meant energy and flavor and a moment of satiation for the man and me. Getting good food for him also satisfied my values around giving and human and environmental health and right spending (for me and him; I didn’t entrust the money to him, but instead managed it myself) and workers’ rights to fair wages (where “fair” is defined relatively). The labor the man in front of the store performed by being without means, maybe living on the streets, and asking became a handful of bananas. The bananas born of the earth somewhere far away from Oakland went into the hands of a man begging.
So, curating a bit and getting it down in shorthand: proofreading legal translations / Ecuadorian plantation worker’s labor and livelihood / credit card company processing fee / 501(c)(3)-ism and triple–bottom-line businesses / ISO standards / taxes / giving / the ask of the man in need of food, who wears a sign saying, “Homeless LIVES Matter Too” / my breakfast with yogurt and honey.
The example of splitting a bunch of bananas could seem trivial. What I want to ask by way of it is, how can we get into it? Like in that other known TV and film trope where the lead hovers over herself as she lies dying, watching while medical staff work like blazes to revive her, and then some otherworldly force directs her ghost back into her body and she awakens with new sight or some other sixth sense—of the dead, the past, the future, people’s private thoughts, or the lives of objects. Would it push the ghost back in the body if it became the custom before monetary transactions for all parties involved to ask, How are you valuating this money?
The way value works through money is summed up well by the story of the sunken stone in Planet Money‘s “The Island of Stone Money.” The piece describes how the inhabitants of the island of Yap used massive hunks of limestone, as much as two tons in weight, as currency. Island legend holds that one of these hunks fell over the side of a boat in a storm and sunk to the ocean floor. But the islanders called the stone good, and it’s still in play to this day, over a century later, though no one living has seen it.
Just so, the in-the-world person or thing and its way of being, what it does or can do, is turned into money when it becomes invisible, its inaccessibility is ignored, and it is made into pure metaphor to be used in a fable for the purpose of public exchange and consumption. The money then invents wealth (merit, access, accumulation, growth) and, wealth’s counterpart, poverty (worthlessness, inhibition, degradation, depreciation).
Money is a metaphor so pure, so catchall and fungible, that it has no fixed value, and also can be imagined to contain all values (e pluribus unum: out of many, one). It is a metaphor, however, that has no resonance, that does not reciprocally amplify significance in its relationship to the equated object. It flattens into balance sheets and schemata, inoculates, and finishes the strangeness of relation, so we—the living and the elemental—are estranged from each other and ourselves by it. Yet its combo of slipperiness and definiteness make it so persuasive; it persuades us to respond in kind, in thought and action. It is so motivating that it’s a primary controlling idea in all of our lives. And the way it operates as a controlling idea forms the basis for who will or won’t live a viable life—who, on the whole, will have resources, and who, on the whole, will be unsafe, unwell, obstructed—and how we account for that difference.
We are keeping the accounts as we speak: the scene is reoccurring. Our hand is in the frame—the frame is our constraint—and so is the other person’s hand. Held by the two is the bill, the ideal container for cognitive dissonance (an inward shrill sound, like metal tearing). We fill the bill with our calculations (work and free time and need and utility and health and comfort and craving and giving and fun and saving and debt and investment and style and ethics comes to…). It is going both ways, so to neither, but its cash value is consumed with thoughts of China and mortgage-backed securities. We’re both hoping if the money comes to us, the cyclopean pyramid or a dead statesman will explain the mysteries of intrinsic worth. But we may have to pay a bill with it before we get our answers.
As the scenarios play, the hands and bill switch-switch like a nonstop sped-up flip clock. The pull chain on the lighting gets pulled and pulled. The hand at the other end of the bill pulls.