The big meltdown

April 28, 2007

Above all, gold is a tease; immaculate substance pleading for a form. Take the Spanish conquest of the Incas. On finding the intricately worked gold figures made by the Incas, the Spaniards melted them down into ingots. Hernándo Pizarro oversaw the big meltdown in Cajamarca in 1533. He had Indian smiths working on nine forges, and on many days they melted over six hundred pounds weight of gold. At the end of four months, they had melted eleven tons of golden vases, golden figures, golden jewelry, and golden furnishing ornaments. He then escorted the train of 225 llamas carrying the gold and silver to Lima. A load of baser gold arrived a few days later on the backs of sixty llamas. Imagine this on a movie screen; those dun-colored mountain slopes of the central Andes that stretch forever, cut across by a line of stately llamas not even knowing what they carried, other than its weight. In the Temple of the Sun in the Incan capital of Cuzco, the Spanish found a garden whose plants were made of gold and silver. This, too, they melted down.

Inevitably money – like color – makes one think of stories of transmutation of form into substance of substance into flows. The story of the Inca’s garden tells us more about money than many an economic treatise. Pizarro melts the garden down into ingots nice and square that fit into boxes in ships’ holds to go to Spain as bullion, the ur-form of money. The Indians want gold as the ultimate mimetic metal, flowing and ductile, with which they can imitate most anything. But the money boys want gold as that with which they can acquire most anything. Squared up as ingots or rounded as coins, their gold has done a good deal more than serve as a medium of exchange. It has made everything in the world exchangeable in what we now see as the big meltdown.

Michael Taussig, My Cocaine Museum

Or here is a metaphor for the polyvalence which Roland Barthes cites as the mark of great literature: ductility. Words, perhaps, are ore drawn through your retinas and shaped by your brain, in the same motion with which it rights the inverted, bifurcated image your eyes send to it, twisted into tiny dioramas and vistas. Yet this falls apart as soon as one tries to separate its auditors into the “money men” and the mimetic men, in that language is so closely tied with information. Let us melt a fact (which is inseparable from the method by whose use that fact was arrived at) into words and into benignity. Is even the poet culpable?

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2 Responses to “The big meltdown”

  1. Crawjo Says:

    Beautiful post. I love Taussig’s prose. Is language so closely tied with information? Earlier this week I went to a lecture by Helene Cixous, and for much of the time I had no idea what she was talking about; but her delivery almost melted these problems away. At a certain point, there was only the sound, and the image, often disassociated from the sound.

  2. Nathaniel Says:

    Hey Crawjo, thanks for stopping by.

    This is my first experience with Taussig, actually, but so far I’m really enjoying it. I find the connections that he draws really compelling, like when he compares chit-chat about the weather to a denuded form of magical mana. I had wanted to start with Mimesis and Alterity, but it was easier to find this book.

    My roommate went to that same lecture and also said that he hadn’t a clue what she was talking about a good part of the time. It seems to me that language which is only sound might as well be music. By which I don’t mean to disparage it, certainly, but it seems (and this may be my own “money man” sensibility talking) impossible to consider language without information – almost like it might be the glossolalia of evangelicals.


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