In the current Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal Michael W. Clune1 writes about odd small episodes, “particularly ephemeral perceptual experiences” we have that may alert us to the gap between how things seem and what they are. Riffing on Rei Terada’s Looking Away, he lists mirages, after-images; “clouds taken for mountains … looking at a landscape with one’s eyes half-closed so that it appears underwater.” He notes that we have nothing to say to each other about these experiences even if we share them, but that they remain with us. They remind us that if we pay too much attention to the mechanism by which we draw meaning from appearance we attenuate that meaning. One of Clune’s examples is an imaginary exchange with a sales clerk about money.

Suppose you tender the clerk a twenty.

She picks it up, examines it, and says:

“This appears to be money.”

… by drawing attention to your money’s appearance, the clerk opens a potential gap between what your money looks like and what it actually is. It is as if the clerk is withholding … judgment about whether the piece of green paper in her hand is money. You might get the feeling that the clerk is not entirely satisfied with your money. You might get the sense that she is somehow dissatisfied with it.

“That’s real money,” you mutter angrily.
“Never said it wasn’t,” says the clerk, putting it into the drawer and counting out your change.

Imagine that as you leave the store you can’t quite leave the scene behind. This appears to be money.” What the hell did she mean by that? That was real money you gave her. What’s she trying to say? What’s her problem?

This thought experiment shows that too great an interest in appearance is easily identifiable with a certain dissatisfaction. But perhaps the clerk’s dissatisfaction isn’t with your money in particular. Perhaps her dissatisfaction is both vaguer and more far-reaching. I vividly remember the time when I was 16 or 17 and I took out a 20-dollar bill and thought—this is just a piece of colored paper. It felt as if the world was an iceberg that had just slid into the ocean.

I understand why Clune used money as his example. This vague discomfort with currency is surely something many, if not most, of us experience at one time or another.

But teenage Clune was wrong: the $20 is emphatically not “just a piece of colored paper.”

Consider an incident from the introduction to James Buchan’s Frozen Desire (which Henry has once or twice recommended). Buchan recounts walking through a flea market in Hampstead and spotting amid the bric-à-brac a sheaf of notes, “biscuit-coloured.” The seller asks £25; he pays £20. She tries to tell him why they are worth something.

“They’re…” I knew what they were.… these currency notes, which never bought anything.… These notes which were signed by the Chief Elder of the Council of Jews in the concentration camp of Theresienstadt … barely circulated, according to the historian of the town, and were used chiefly as counters in card games.

The concentration camp currency was, near enough, worthless because it had so little to buy, because the institution that supported it—the Council of Jews—had so little power.

Consider the US dollar in the spring of 1933, just after Franklin Roosevelt ended convertibility to gold and had yet to institute a full, new set of rules for determining the currency’s worth. Talking to querulous advisors who wanted the gold standard back, Roosevelt held up a $10 bill.

“How do I know that’s any good?” the president asked, and answered his own question. “The fact that I think it is, makes it good.”

(Did Roosevelt mean “I” as in “anyone who has this belief about the bill,” or did he mean “I” as in “the President of the United States”? This is perhaps a very important question, but one to which we do not have an answer.)

Roosevelt had that belief about the bill because of the institutions that—he knew better than anyone else—backed it. There is a very good reason John Searle uses money as a principal and recurring example in his Construction of Social Reality. Functioning paper currency signifies the existence of institutions, of power. The bill Roosevelt held, and in which he believed, was an established bit of social reality because of those institutions and the power behind them. Even in that peculiar moment, the US dollar was not “just a piece of colored paper”—unlike the Theresienstadt currency.

And yet, of course, neither was the Theresienstadt currency, which was worth £20, or maybe £25. With its imitation of functioning currency it signifies fragile, maybe always fraudulent, and certainly historically failed hope that might yet be redeemed.

1Evidently not Michael C. Clune, as the cover has it, but maybe this is another comment on appearances.