The thought before the economy

08/06/2012 Comments Off on The thought before the economy

A stomach bug got the better of me earlier this week. Looking for something to occupy myself, I pulled Borges’s Labyrinths off the shelf and read ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ (pdf).

In this fabulous world of Orbis Tertius — a story within a story —  there is no concept of cause and effect. Things are as they are now. Later, they are as they are then.

This monism or complete idealism invalidates all science. If we explain (or judge) a fact, we connect it with another; such linking, in Tlön, is a later state of the subject which cannot affect or illuminate the previous state. Every mental state is irreducible: the mere fact of naming it – i.e., of classifying it – implies a falsification. From which it can be deduced that there are no sciences on Tlön, not even reasoning.

How would an economy in such a world function? It would be difficult to have a sense of ownership. How would this thing be mine now, even if it were mine in the past? The sophism of the nine copper coins (a parable in a story in a story) makes it clear that I couldn’t even know that it is the same item. It would also be difficult to organise production. Without cause and effect, how would we decide which seeds to plant when and where, or how to construct a house frame? Production would have to proceed by habit and custom — not because these actions are productive but because we have always done them.

Borges gives some suggestion of the economy. There is production of ‘lost items’ and invented archeological artefacts.

These secondary objects are called hronir and are, though awkward in form, somewhat longer. Until recently, the hronir were the accidental products of distraction and forgetfulness. It seems unbelievable that their methodical production dates back scarcely a hundred years…

The result is something we would now call postmodern simulacra:

The methodical fabrication of hronir (says the Eleventh Volume) has performed prodigious services for archaeologists. It has made possible the interrogation and even the modification of the past, which is now no less plastic and docile than the future.

Our modern economy largely relies on materialist and scientific thought, as opposed to the monism of Orbis Tertius. We need scientific materialism to tinker and reorganise, creating new products and organising new processes. Paradoxically, we first have to have the idea to do it — the economy seems to exist first as ideal, then as manifestation.

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