Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Liquid Power

In last week's readings, we considered Thomas Willis's incredible conception of blood being heated and pumped up from the heart, through the body like water through a fountain. Warmed until they separate from the mass of the blood, the animal spirits act for Willis both as purveyors of life and as the medium of thought insofar as they can be impregnated with impressions of species propagating from objects in the sensory field. Circulation, a concept drawn from William Harvey's then-recent physiological studies, thus acts for Willis as the substrate for understanding intelligence and its liquidy forms.

But, as the reading for this session by literary scholar James Thomson shows, metaphors of circulation were also readily taken up by British political economists who aimed to understand the nature of money and its relation to wealth. The story that Thomson tells follows two major shifts in a general movement toward liquidity as circulation of currency comes to be seen as a means of nourishing economic growth as a river does parched land. (Thomson 71; 75) First, Thomson traces a "dematerialization" story—a shift in the conception of monetary value from a "materialist" notion focused on the weight of bullion to a "nominalist" position wherein money is only a sign for the denomination printed on it. Value becomes radically detached from the material of the currency itself. (Thomson 43; 77-8; 83) Secondly, Thomson argues for (although he does less to demonstrate) a shifting conception of wealth as treasure, which should be buried in the ground at the least sign of market instability or military threat as Samuel Pepys does in the later 1660s, to money seen as capital—as a means for producing more wealth through circulation. This point comes across most powerfully with Adam Smith where the wealth of nations lies not in its hoarded coins and currency, but in the goods and production it generates annually. (77-8)

But, how might we understand this conception of "liquid" values and capitalist circulation in relation to the royal/aristocratic flows described by Meredith Martin? Are the "economies of flow" detailed by Martin in her recent study of ancien régime pleasure dairies (such as that at Versailles at left) and their rituals performances of milk-pouring coextensive with the Lockean pastorals described by Thomson? That is, in Thomson's telling, Locke advances a theory of coinage whereby weight equals monetary value; he is strongly against paper money and bills of credit. For Thomson, this is all apiece with a "conservative," aristocratic agenda that seeks to emphasize an image of stasis, continuity and tautological identity above all. "Silver is silver," in Thomson's paraphrase of Locke; aristocratic privilege begets aristocratic privilege. (Thomson, 61-1) Yet, in the Absolutist context described by Martin, patriarchal authority is asserted by ritualized performance of liquid pours. Visible only to his most privileged courtiers, the milk Louis XIV pours in his laiterie stands in as much for his fertile semen as for the purity of the blood running through the French royal line. (Martin 74-5; 86-93)

Flows of money and flows of patrilineal, bodily fluids are brought together in truly ghoulish ways in the person of Noah Cross in Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974). Especially in the last scene at Evelyn Mulwray's house (from which the still at left is taken; see ca. 2:00:30), private detective Jake Gittes lures Cross to his daughter's house to swap money (by phone, Gittes asks "do you have your checkbook ready?"; so, he's not even getting paper currency—let alone bullion—but a bill of credit) for Cross's daughter who, though incest, is also his grand-daughter. Cross's is no exogamic kinship, let alone a bourgeois model of political economy that takes value from the circulation of its currency. Instead, his is a straight, "pure" line of genetic material. Like the grail legend by which Polanski was partly inspired, the grail is not an object, but a person, a flow of pure blood from Christ to the future.

We are deep in religious waters here. Like the maimed, dying Fisher King of the grail story, Polanski's Cross is frail; he walks with a cane and reads with bifocals. (Indeed, these are the glasses that incriminate him in the murder of his ex-partner, Hollis Mulwray, after Gittes finds them in the salty "tide pool" in the backyard). Where the Noah of the Bible commands the waters of the Flood, Polanski's Noah holds court at the Albacore Club; a massive tuna is its ensign. Yet, we're mistaken if we conflate the flows of currency through which Gittes reads (or, more to the point, repeatedly misreads) motives for action and the drift of Cross's intent. When confronted by Jake in this scene by the pool, after all, Cross scoffs at the idea that he wants money. What does he want? "The future! The future, Mr. Gits"

So, to bring this all together, I wonder if we might use Chinatown to articulate two kind of power-flows in the early modern context. First, we have the rising middle class model with its complex instruments of credit, its paper currency, etc., that all serve to dematerialize value—to release it from mere weight and to relaunch it as capital that generates wealth through circulation. Second, we have the older "aristocratic" model in which milky, bodily fluids are carefully guided through highly-prescribed channels to reproduce the same, tautological result over and over again. Silver is silver, aristocracy is aristocracy, Cross's grail/blood is Cross's grail/blood into "the future!"

All of this might be related to Tiepolo in the telling of Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall in subtle but compelling ways. At the most direct level, we could say that Tiepolo possess complete command of the watery elements of his medium, executing wash drawings with an almost athletic brilliance. (Alpers/Baxandall, 51-3; 58) However, the real target of the authors' investigation is a "pictorial intelligence" that exceeds this mere material wetness and expands it into a fluid aesthetics of mobility and light. These points come across most powerfully at the end, where one of Tiepolo's greatest successes—a harnessing of light reflecting off the watery canals onto his ceiling painting, seen at left, at Santa Maria dei Gesuati in Venice (Alpers/Baxandall, esp. 84-88; 92)—is contrasted with his failures at the Venetian Palazzo Labia. There, his design is described as inhibited, paralyzed and incapable of bringing the "fluid potential" (p. 94) of Tiepolo's sketch into the domain of the mobile light and moving viewer needed for his art. (p. 97)

So, although this work by Alpers/Baxandall seems (intentionally) ahistorical, is there a way in which we could draw a historical relation between Tiepolo's privileging of a circulating, mobile beholder and his general, "liquid" aesthetics with the Smithian/political-economic conception of money (also coming into realization in the mid-eighteenth century), which acquires value only as it moves?

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