Shell Money

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Brett Scott:

"‘Shell money’ tokens - also called Tabu by the Tolai people who use them in PNG - are not just shells. They are shells carefully and arduously manufactured into long strings of shells, a process governed by very strict production rules to produce set denominations (see this video for footage of the production). They are far more akin to jewellery than they are to some raw material.

At first glance, this places ‘shell money’ into that broad paradigm of ‘commodity money’ - money that's apparently given its power by the physical body of its token. In this case, the body of the token is a kind of ornament (the token is only a token when the shells are manufactured into strings), and - unlike a voucher, which is retired when it is returned to its issuer - they remain in circulation ‘for all time’ (perpetually). They are somewhat like artistic creations that are slowly produced, and then left to circulate amongst collectors. By all appearances, then, Tabu are a ‘commodity money’, but here’s where the language politics kick in.

In the imagination of someone who has been immersed in a large-scale capitalist economy, ‘money’ has a particular connotation. It is imagined to be general-purpose: money tokens give you access to all the other things, and are primarily transferred in private settings to obtain a huge range of goods and services. Furthermore, there are historically various taboos on what it can be spent on. For example, if you insulted your mother-in-law, handing her $20 in compensation is not going to heal that social wound. It will probably make it a lot worse.

Tabu ‘shell money’ (and many similar things like Wampum) on the other hand, is - historically at least - limited purpose, and historically was used publically at elaborate events and rituals to ‘pay’ for existential things that normal money simply cannot buy. This includes ‘paying’ for ‘bride-price’ at weddings, compensating for injury and insult, commissioning cult members to raise spirits, paying tribute to invisible forces, and hosting elaborate memorial ceremonies to display power and status.

Not only is the production of Tabu ritualistic, but the ‘exchange’ is too. There are set ‘prices’ (not truly set by supply and demand) for specific things - for example, a bride ‘costs’ 4 Mars, which are bound wheels of many strings of shells. The exchanges are more like performances, with almost comical affectations, with people feigning outrage and making jokes as if to reject the offer (see 2:14 below).

Fetishistic tokens activated by cultural forcefields In the traditional ‘commodity money’ imagination found within capitalist societies, it is imagined that the token value is ‘self-apparent’ due to the material the token is made from (or - failing that - from some almost mystical property generated by its ‘scarcity’). But, the power of these shell strings is not self-apparent to any random stranger. Indeed, colonial officials used to see these as ‘primitive’ money, as if the tribal people were like silly children imagining that shells were valuable.

But this inability to recognise the power of the shell pendants is because they only have power within a particular cultural field. An Australian officer saw a string of shells as a mere tricket, but within the Tolai cultural field these objects have deep political power, and are even seen as a political agents, or ‘power tokens’.

When I use the term ‘cultural field’, I mean it literally, like a forcefield. We are all social creatures, and all of us frequently experience that feeling in social settings where you sense that you are part of a collective that extends beyond yourself. Indeed, your individual perceptions and judgements seem connected to some looming ‘entity’. Imagine a simple line from a novel, like ‘a heavy silence descended on the room as he ate before the others. Looking up, he sensed he’d done something wrong’.

That ‘sense’ is generated by the social forcefield. (As an aside, in occult circles this is referred to this as an ‘egregore’, a looming feeling generated by the interconnections between individuals in a group that can be personified into a being.) These ‘fields’ exist around us all the time - because, as discussed in my tribute to David Graeber, we are never just individuals. We are normally enmeshed in many of these fields - some large, and some small. They can even be generated between just two people (many couples have private languages and symbols they only use around each other).

Crucially, these fields have the power to ‘activate’ objects into more than just objects. Imagine, for example, a couple picked up a piece of driftwood on a beach where they fell in love. Now they keep it as a sentimental token imbued with deep meaning. Imagine then that a friend, house-sitting their house while they are away, decides to burn it to make a barbeque. Upon returning they are outraged. The friends says ‘come on, it was just some wood, I’ll get you more from the forest’.

This obviously doesn’t cut it. It wasn’t ‘just a piece of wood’. Within their private social field, it was a material embodiment of their relationship. The friend, who is not part of that field, can’t see that. To him, it is just wood.

Now imagine the social field generated by a much larger collective of people. It’s in this setting that the anthropological concept of ‘fetish objects’ emerges. Webs of human relationships are often tense and amorphous - we barely even understand ourselves, never mind the complex and subtle power dynamics with others, so it’s very common for people to take these vague semi-visible dynamics and focus them into objects that are concrete and easy to see. This then enables you to manipulate the objects as a way to concretely and visibly negotiate the invisible relationships.

We have fetish objects all around us, and some of them span public and private settings. Consider, for example, a wedding ring. In reality it’s just a piece of metal, but within certain cultural fields it is publically recognised that it’s not just a piece of metal. It is - supposedly - a physical embodiment of a relationship between two people - complex and changing - manifested in an object, simple and unchanging. This public understanding permeates into a private one. Upon a divorce, the bearer might go to the ocean and ritualistically hurl the object into the sea, metaphorically giving up the relationship."