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On Evolution

Sunday, March 17, 2013


Editor’s Note: By all accounts, Dr Sanscravat has never progressed beyond the navel-contemplation stage. He has, however, pushed digression well into the realm of obsession.

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I’ve spent many years—too many, perhaps—thinking about money.

Nothing useful, of course, such as how to get my hands on some, but about the stuff itself. Nor do I care about the reasons why some people are so driven to the acquisition and accumulation, or spending and wasting, of filthy lucre. Such concerns would only take me into realm of psychology (or worse, pop psychology), a mental exercise in which I have no interest. 

The numismatic aspect of the subject was slightly more intriguing, but only because of the interweaving of art, technology, and history. It is oddly pleasant to hold a Roman coin, to feel the ancient cold metal slowly take on the heat of one’s hand, a hand the existence of which no Roman citizen could have ever imagined. However, while the coin is re-warmed, the coin is not actually revitalized. The idea of the coin does not acquire new life. Admiration of the artifact is a shallow kind of love, if love it is at all.

I was only interested in money as a concept.

The first “money” was not money at all. The earliest transactions were literally exchanges; they were barter. One had a surplus of something, and traded it for something else of equal value. We’ll ignore, for the moment, the capitalist notion of exchange for something of greater value than that which is traded (as I said, mere acquisition and accumulation doesn’t move me).

Barter had one significant limitation: it only worked when items of equivalent value were traded. If one had an extra cow, but needed only a new hat, matters became more complicated. That is when the first money was invented. One could trade that cow for something that stood for the cow’s value—a large number of beads, brightly-colored feathers, whatever—then exchange just a few of those items for the hat. What was traded was an abstract slice of cow for an actual hat. Over time, we discovered that the accumulation of beads or feathers was inconvenient, so we invented special pieces of metal that stood for beads and feathers. Later, we developed pieces of paper that stood for accumulated piles of metal stored somewhere else. More recently, we developed pieces of plastic that stood for the pieces of paper, that stood for the piles of metal, that stood for the feathers and beads, that stood for that much put-upon cow. Today, most of our exchanges are made of nothing more than virtual ones and zeros, passed electronically from machine to machine, with no need to shovel cow manure at all.

What has happened is that the notion of money has been increasingly abstracted, refined to an essence so ethereal that the connection to its bovine roots is completely lost.

What has happened here, in this essay, has little to do with money. Well, in a way it does—but we don’t want to dwell on unpleasant thoughts, so we’ll ignore them. I suddenly realized that my career has followed the same evolutionary path as money.

When I was young, I was a painter and photographer, using media that consumed more money than they could ever earn. I was accumulating a large number of cows that were not exchangeable for hats (or food or rent). As a result, I turned to drawing. The fact that, with nothing more than a pencil and paper, one could make art, was fascinating. Drawing led to a career as an illustrator, which—unlike painting—occasionally brought in actual income.

Illustration is a curious mixture of concept and technique, and technique has a lot to do with physical facility. The muscles of one’s hands, like any other muscles, get better and better at doing certain things through repetition. A lot of what is considered an artist’s “style” is what the artist calls his/her “hand.” The muscles really want to go where they always go, so the kinds of lines one makes—their curvature, their weight, their varying thicknesses—are decisions made, automatically, by one’s muscles. After a time, the conscious mind has little to do with it.

Eventually, I began to lose interest in drawing. It felt like I was no longer learning new things about the craft. Perhaps I was dissatisfied with the limited range of things those finger muscles would let me do. Whichever it was, I longed to spend more time on the conceptual part of drawing, and less on the merely physical. I craved the same sense of exhilaration I’d experienced when I traded camera and paintbrush for pencil and pen.

The transition to writing has accomplished some of that. Writing, by its very nature, is more conceptual, less physically-driven. That makes it very appealing to those of us who are basically lazy (at least in the physical sense). Significantly, writing is a skill that can never be mastered; one can always learn something new. It offers an opportunity for unlimited growth, something I wasn’t feeling with illustration.

What’s more, a writing career pares one’s focus down to an essence, a life that—like money—is evolving into something that is ever-more abstract.

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Editor’s Addendum:  Dr Sanscravat does not seem to have carried his analysis to its logical conclusion. A career can only achieve a perfect level of abstraction upon the death of its practitioner.

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