How the nation is in your pocket?


There is always a story in any national banknote. Printed on a white sheet of paper, there is a tale expressed by images and text, “a rebus or pictorial puzzle” (Freud, 2003: 9), that makes the difference between white paper and paper money. Accordingly, behind the monetary credibility there is a message. However, the prominence of this message, of this kind of tale, would usually be present when a new story would be issued by the printing of another series of banknotes. Thus, the tale could only last a while. The awakened narrative that the bill shows would unavoidably fall into silence from the moment that it could be integrated into the everyday life of the people, as another cultural object of the social group.


Perhaps only the child would pay attention to the meaning of the image because in order to become subjects and to be able to refer to him/herself in the social world, the child should acquire all the pre-existing means of signification (Freud, 1910), and one of these is the institutional one. For him/her, the banknote would be learned as one introductory medium of the national embodiment. Then, for a child a banknote would be part of his/her significant environment, and he/she would be visually in touch with the institutional message of the note, and thus incorporate some discourses into his/her system of meaning.


In fact the message would be kept hidden most of the time, underneath the concrete “exchange value of the token” (Gallie, 1952: 21). Even though the banknote is handed from one hand to another, the exchange value is the reason for its existence, and the reason for its power. These contradictions of the importance and the non-importance of the printed story are where the discourse of paper money is sustained.


But a banknote is not a book, a film or a song but it has a chain of symbols like musical notes, which are written on both sides of the paper. Furthermore, they also compose a kind of symphony on the totality of the picture with content and rhythm. That content often provides crucial information in the message and the rhythm provides a dynamic that visualizes the story.


As has been mentioned, even though the banknote is not exactly a book or a film because the scene on the note is frozen and the character cannot move in space and time, it has the same multiplicity and a similar form of working. In the bank note, there is a static narrative which plays with the before and after of what we know about the symbols. As a transitional door it plays with the projection of what we infer could happen and what actually happened. In the example of the banknotes, the frozen image is always the same, but the movement in time and space, cause and effect, runs in our minds.


In a Lacanian sense, these information, these tale that the banknote is carrying on, these are the key signifiers, which act to seal the meaning to the participant’s sign use. The registers become sealed in a political (and cultural) discourse. 


Being conscious that an image triggers a potentially infinite chain of associations, the rhythm of how the composition is read of any image could constrain the openness of interpretation. In this way, the image of any banknote links one symbol to another, trying to control what could be interpreted as a whole and a definition of a hegemonic situation.


In this way, the image carries a certain myth which is a social constructed one, and places oppositions (like the savage-civilised one) (Hall, 1997) and naturalizes history.  Thus, the myth (like the one printed in a note) also contributes to the forgetting of the defeated party because there is always a mainstream idea in the interpretation of history.


Furthermore, the hegemonic dominant ideology of the dominant social groups is present in the printed myth of a banknote, which would mean that the message would be spread among all the Argentineans, more specifically located in their pockets.


As a balance, a banknote can support the essential myths of a nation. Then, printed on its surface those myths are giving shape to the sentiments that people are depositing in their nation. In this way, it is important to emphasize the following sentiments. First, the banknotes articulate the logic of property, by being the medium from where this logic is expressed. Thus, banknotes are the material token from which the state is translating value of thought.


Second, the banknote supports national myths, and those myths are embodying what joins society together, the will or the joy of being part of that group. In this sense, those myths make people remember the social practices, while the national myths are nothing more than the way in which the subjects of a given community organize themselves.


Third, banknotes also awaken spiritual sentiments, in fact all banknotes’ credibility depend on the belief that this printed piece of paper is what it says it values, and the reason why one can believe that is not only rational but also a question of faith in the state.

Fourth, banknotes are part of the organizational dimension of the national sentiments, because a banknote gives the person something to hold on to, a representation of the national organization. Such a principle of organization underlies social and commercial relations, structuring the social existence possible.

Finally, the visual symbols are the visual actors and background of the national narratives, the local heroes and the muses, the time and the space, all disputing the imagination of the society.

©Sebastian Guerrini, 2009