Peter Szendy – Face Value
(the prosopa of Money)
Paper presented at the conference “What is a Mask?”, 26-27 January 2017, Royal Institute of Art.
“Face value,” according to the OED, is “the value printed or depicted on a coin, banknote, ticket, etc., especially when less than the actual value.” But we could hear in this expression an imperative: “face value!”, one would say, like an injunction to consider value face to face, i.e. prosopon pros prosopon (the expression is found in the Septuagint Bible, in Genesis 32:30).
Prosopon was the Greek word for mask. Hence the rhetorical figure of prosopopeia (prosopon poiein: to confer a mask or a face). Prosopopeia, writes Paul de Man in The Resistance to Theory, “gives face to the faceless.” Like the “transformational masks” evoked by Catherine Malabou in Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, prosopopeia “open[s] . . . onto other masks.”
One of the most striking occurrences of propopopeia that the history of literature has produced is to be found in the eighteenth-century British genre that has been described as “it-narrative,” where inanimate things start to speak in order to recount the narrative of their life. It is not by chance that the first of these novels—Charles Gildon’s The Golden Spy, in 1702—gives voice to a bunch of coins. And the genre becomes self-reflexive when money itself starts to narrate its ability to “coin words,” like the autobiographical protagonist of The Adventures of a Bank-Note in 1770 (for de Man, prosopopeia is “the trope of autobiography” par excellence).
We will attempt to situate this little-known literary tradition within a long genealogy, from the myths analyzed by Lévi-Strauss in The Way of the Masks (where masks and precious metal often have a common origin) to Marx’s famous prosopopeia of commodity in Capital (“If commodities could speak, they would say. . .”). Our question will be, in its most straightforward or unmasked form: why does value need a mask?”
The conference was curated by Catherine Malabou and in collaboration with the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP), Kingston University London.
The conference received generous funding from The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences (Riksbankens Jubileumsfond).