Back in June, while I was in Los Angles, I took a visit to the Annenberg Space for Photography and saw the show “Generation Wealth” by Lauren Greenfield. The show examines the influence of affluence, both locally and how it has influenced (and maybe we could say has even been exported to) other countries around the world. The idea wasn’t to simply look or catalogue the so-called “lifestyles of the rich and famous”, but more so to examine and highlight the pervasive desire for more.
It was a good show (and it will be going on until Aug 13th if you can visit before then), and there was a lot to take in. There was one particular caption for a photo, however, that really stuck with me. To paraphrase:
“Girls at a young age learn that their body has currency.”
“… has currency.” That strikes me as a really interesting concept, and I think there’s juice there, well worth looking into. So this post will be just that – I don’t have a particular ending point or great conclusion I’m driving towards. I just want to explore it and see what might open up.
Currency. Noun. Something that is used as a medium of exchange. If you have currency, you can spend that currency as capital to get something else.
Homer: Oh, twenty dollars. I wanted a peanut.
Homer’s Brain: Twenty dollars can buy many peanuts.
Homer: Explain how.
Homer’s Brain: Money can be exchanged for goods and services.
I’d surmise that most of the time when we think about currency, we only think about the “paper” kind: money. But if we step back for a second and look, there’s really a lot of things that we can (and do) use as currency. Things we attain, culture, try to make grow, and even horde, so that we can use them in some way to get something else. Yet they’re such a part of the fabric of the/our culture that we don’t even notice that or when we’re doing it.
We are social creatures. In the same way we’ve declared and agreed that a particular piece of paper is worth “10 dollars”, we’ve also placed values on all sorts of intangible things. And we’re exchanging those things all the time to get other things.
If we go from there… “ok then, what do we value and consider as currency in our society?”
Bodies. A particular style/type of body. Access to bodies. Certain clothes. A style. Type of language. The way we act: macho, sultry, partier, etc. Fan of a particular thing/team/singer/etc. Likes and shares online. Followers. Goods of a certain calibre, or brand. Connections or people we know. Favours, of all types. Philanthropy. Notoriety or infamy.*
What’s the price to pay (pun semi-intended), though, when they become wrapped up in the same contexts we have in our head for currency/economy/exchange? Because we can get decidedly weird and act very bizarrely around money… So too then will we around anything that fits in our minds as a currency. Often including actions and decisions that don’t always turn out to be in our best self-interest.
And then things can get even more entwined when we spend actual currency to bolster and increase these “virtual” currencies… (Which, again, in reality, are just as much of a fiat currency as is the “real” currency of money.)
It is that craziness wrapped up in the way we operate around money that has me so intrigued about this distinction and calling out of the other things we traffic in as currency. Why I think it’s valuable. Especially since so much of it we just inherit from our surrounding culture and society. There’s nothing necessarily good or bad in any of the things we might hold as a currency, it’s just how we might be impacted when they get caught up in the notions of an economy. We can form barriers that limit us from being and acting in ways that are expressed, fulfilling, creative, related. Something that is authentic for us can instead get hijacked by our subconscious machinations around money.
Like anything, taken too far to one side or the other it can become destructive. There’s what we hoard, the inappropriate and inaccurate meaning we can place on it, the judgments, the pathological pursuit of it, the crushing despair of not having it, the dying a thousand deaths if what we put so much of our energy into begins to slip away and we realize we are bankrupt (in many metaphorical ways)…. Likewise too there’s what we spend it on, how we spend it, and the misguided ways we try to spend it, perhaps attempting to gain companionship, attention, agency (ie the feeling of power), self esteem, all things that too easily also flit away.
Perhaps above all this is also just the basic, absolute, deadening of anything that gets reduced to a mundane transaction, a footnote in a ledger, all forced into perfectly equal rectangles and an eye on zero-sum games.
And if things we cherish and derive genuine self-actualization from gets supplanted by that kind of everyday mundane monetary economic context, then that is an unfortunate thing indeed.
Creating a window that allows us to see what would otherwise be hidden is always a first step in not getting trapped. That little caption is opening up a whole new realm for me to check out and examine. A brilliant little distinction by Lauren.
What do you see? What else do we/you use as currency? Or spend it on? How might it be acting as a straightjacket? If you have any insights or thoughts, please share… I’d love to explore this more.
* Another photo by Lauren noted the rise of some celebrities who are famous almost entirely and only for being famous. They gained their fame through a sex tape or other item that went viral, and rather than being a scarlet letter it instead became the foundation of their fame. A fame that becomes capital to be spent… acquiring more fame and capital, and so on.