On ‘Thin Air’: Money, Metaphoricity & Metatheatre (Essay)

By Rob Hawkes

Last year, I gave a talk on literature, money, and trust in George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) which the MotL Editorial Collective kindly shared as a podcast. Gissing’s novel tells the story of a group of writers struggling to survive in the harsh literary marketplace of the 1880s, one in which artistic merit seems to count for very little and authors who wish to achieve success must regard literature as a trade. The two characters who most clearly embody the plight of the artist who cannot ‘supply the market’, Edwin Reardon and Harold Biffen, both die in poverty by the end of the book and, significantly, both recite the same lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest as they approach death: ‘We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.’ This is not simply a coincidence; Biffen is present at the moment of Readon’s death and he later recalls his friend’s last words as he reaches the end of his own life. However, I find the appearance of these lines in this text especially intriguing because they point towards a set of pressing issues in our present-day debates surrounding money.

This is the longer speech from The Tempest that the lines recited by Reardon and Biffen are taken from:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

At this point in the play, the sorcerer Prospero has called a halt to a ‘masque’ which he has conjured to celebrate his daughter Miranda’s engagement to Ferdinand, the Prince of Naples. As Prospero explains to Ferdinand during the performance, its cast are: ‘Spirits, which by mine art / I have from their confines call’d to enact / My present fancies’. One of many instances of a play-within-a-play in Elizabethan drama, this scene in The Tempest exemplifies the thoroughgoing ‘metatheatricality’ of Shakespeare’s works. That is to say that Shakespeare’s plays frequently contain moments of self-reflexive awareness of their own theatricality and, by extension – as in the famous ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech from As You Like It – of the theatricality of life beyond the theatre. Furthermore, as William Sherman notes in the Literary Encyclopedia, ‘Our revels now are ended’ is a speech: ‘which many critics have been tempted to read as Shakespeare’s own farewell to the stage’ occurring as it does in one of the ‘late plays’. As it happens, this speech is also the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for the ‘transferred and figurative’ use of the word ‘thin’, to mean: ‘Wanting body or substance; unsubstantial; intangible. Also in to vanish (melt, etc.) into thin air: to disappear completely from sight or existence (formerly only of spirits). More rarely to come (etc.) out of thin air.’ As Money on the Left readers and listeners will know, ‘thin air’ is a much-repeated phrase in conversations surrounding money, and especially in discussions of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). In Declarations of Dependence, for example, Scott Ferguson celebrates the ‘resolutely public capacity to generate money out of thin air‘ that MMT makes manifest.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the topic of money creation to widespread public attention – perhaps as never before – as a result of the vast increases in government spending that were necessary to protect lives and livelihoods around the world and, within this broad discussion, the notion of ‘thin air’ has continued to feature prominently. In April 2020, for instance, still in the early months of the pandemic, an article in the New York Timessought to explain ‘How the Government Pulls Coronavirus Relief Money Out of Thin Air’ as follows:

“The United States has responded to the economic havoc wrought by the coronavirus with the biggest relief package in its history: $2 trillion. It essentially replaces a few months of American economic activity with a flood of government money […]. And where is all that cash coming from? Mostly out of thin air.”

The language used here is fascinating in a number of ways. First, the idea that the US government ‘pulls’ money ‘out of thin air’ connotes the pulling of rabbits from hats, while the ‘flood’ of government money evoked next supports the image of money as a liquid that flows (or sometimes sloshes) around the economy. However, this notion of liquid money sits awkwardly alongside the idea of money being ‘pulled’ from somewhere (or perhaps nowhere) – might money in a liquid form be imagined more plausibly as needing to be scooped or pumped than pulled? Having evoked the idea of a flood of money, however, the article goes on to refer to ‘cash’, suggesting that the $2 trillion ‘package’ of coronavirus relief took the rather more solid form of coins and banknotes (which might be better imagined as a stack or a pile than a flood). Finally, it is intriguing to note that the covid relief money is described as coming ‘mostly’ from thin air – which presumably means that some of it was already lying around somewhere – although the exact proportions remain mysterious. This analysis of the article’s phrasing may seem facetious, but (perhaps unsurprisingly as I am a literature scholar) it is my contention here that words matter. Furthermore, I assert that the difficulty that can frequently be observed in any attempt to put money into words – as in the above example and, more broadly, in the mixed metaphors and confused figurations that abound in public discourse surrounding money – is extraordinarily telling.

In a 2020 interview with the Financial Times, Stephanie Kelton asserts that: ‘we don’t have a debt problem, we don’t have a deficit problem […] We have a language problem.’ Kelton, furthermore, is not the only MMT economist to underline the importance of language and especially of metaphor in the way that money is imagined and discussed. In ‘Framing Modern Monetary Theory’ (2017), Louisa Connors and Bill Mitchell ‘provide a conceptual basis for understanding how the language we use constrains our thinking’ and ‘examine some of the key metaphors used to reinforce the flawed message of orthodox economics’. These approaches tend to present the ‘language problem’ identified by Kelton as something to be overcome in the pursuit of more effective ways of explaining how modern economies work. By contrast, I want to suggest that money is hard – perhaps even impossible – to put into words for a reason and that this is an aspect of money that warrants further exploration and understanding rather than circumnavigation or avoidance. Indeed, it may be that money is necessarily ungraspable, both literally and figuratively.

It is particularly interesting to note that, unlike the image of the ‘magic money tree’, which has repeatedly been evoked in recent years to ridicule those who support increases in public spending, the idea of money coming ‘out of thin air’ has been used both to champion and to poke fun at the MMT approach, despite its equally magical connotations. In a recent review of The Deficit Myth for Forbes, for example, Nathan Lewis caricatures Kelton’s argument as follows: ‘as long as there are unused productive resources in the economy (basically, unemployment), the government can print money out of thin air, spend it, and everything is okey-dokey.’ Lewis’s accusation in this piece is one of naivety, as the phrasing ‘everything is okey-dokey’ underlines. Nevertheless, his characterisation of Kelton’s argument – that ‘the government can print money out of thin air’ – is both intriguing and baffling. If the process of creating of money ‘out of thin air’ involves printing, then it is very hard to imagine how this works. Does air get fed into one end of the printer, where blank paper would usually go? I suppose this at least explains why the air has to be thin (gathered at high altitude, perhaps?) – thick air would no doubt clog up the printer. On the other side of the argument, in another piece written in the early stages of the pandemic response, Thomas Fazi deploys the idea of ‘thin air’ in support of MMT:

“The coronavirus crisis has now revealed the austerity logic to be an utter sham: as advocates of modern monetary theory (MMT) have been saying for years, states that issue their own currency and issue debt in their own currency […] can never ‘run out of money’, nor can they become insolvent because, unlike households or firms, they can literally create money out of thin air.”

In the light of the origin (or, in other words, the coining) of the phrase ‘thin air’ in The Tempest, Fazi’s assertion that governments literally create money out of thin air is a curious one. As the OED highlights, the phrase relies on the figurative use of the word ‘thin’ and much of its impact, I would suggest, derives from its metaphoricity. As the image (or non-image) of thin air going through a printer more readily than thick air was intended to emphasise, the word ‘thin’ in the phrase ‘thin air’ is not a reference to its thickness as such. In the OED’s terms, it means ‘unsubstantial’ or ‘intangible’ and thus the idea of something substantial appearing out of unsubstantial air suggests the involvement of a sorcerer such as Prospero.

Given that, as Kelton observes in The Deficit Myth, ‘money is no object’, I would argue that it makes little sense to describe money as being ‘printed’, ‘literally created’, or even ‘pulled’ out of thin air, because all of these formulations represent the production of money as a physical process. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that the link between Shakespeare/Prospero and ‘thin air’, via Gissing, remains significant. After all, while the spirits that perform Prospero’s ‘masque’ both come from and vanish into ‘thin air’, there is no need to imagine that they achieve substantiality in the interim. As I noted above, the ‘Our revels now are ended’ speech has often been regarded as a moment of metatheatrical commentary. Interpreted in this way, plays and, by extension, other works of literature also come out of thin air (and it is remarkable how little time most of us spend worrying that we are going to run out of plays, novels, or poems). As the literary theorist and scholar Derek Attridge puts it: ‘A literary work is not an object or a thesis; literature happens’. This is one of the reasons, as Attridge also explains, ‘that all attempts since the Renaissance to determine the difference between “literary” and “non-literary” language have failed’ and yet, as he goes on to assert, ‘this is a necessary failure, one by which literature as a cultural practice has been continuously constituted.’ In my wider research, I pursue connections between literature, money, and trust and argue that rethinking this trio of terms and the dynamic relationships between them can shed important new light on each concept. I do so not to suggest that literature and money are the same, but to affirm that literature and money can be thought of as sharing the generative potential to emerge from thin air, a potential that frequently defies articulation. Perhaps, then, the difficulty of putting money into words discussed above is also necessary, because money is no object; money happens.

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