Duly Noted: Cash as Iconographic Representation of the State

Cash is ubiquitous in the exchange of material goods or services. Besides being concerned with the Australian dollar currency value in the global financial trade, banknotes and coins play a part in fostering a distinct national identity. Cash is transacted almost daily, generating an unobtrusive reminder of the iconography of the nation and in turn, subtly validates a particular history. 

Picture Credit: Stacks of USD$100

According to Michael Billig, the normality of transactions through cash seek to “construct and reproduce specific nations and nation-states as indispensable cornerstones of international geopolitical order known as banal nationalism” (1995, p.7). The national emblems and images printed on banknotes go mostly unnoticed in commercial transactions and most people do not stop to question the ideological functions and the specificity of historical narratives. Hence, banal nationalism is the experience of a whole complex of beliefs, assumptions, habits, representations and practices to be so natural as to be unassailable.

In 2015, Russia memorialised its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine by printing newly designed 100 rubles notes that has illustrations of the Crimean naval city of Sevastopol. These images are symbols that reflect Crimea as a “rightful” region of Russia and seeks to increase political confidence.

Picture Credit: 100 Rubles

However, recent scholarship scrutinising the relationalities between banknote symbolism and nationalism suggests otherwise. Jan Penrose argues that general banknote design processes are more ad hoc and haphazard than existing presumptions towards nation-building (2011, p.438). Although banknote design and production may variate culturally across generations, in many cases, particularly where the repertoire of national iconography is established and uncontested, the state appears to have no direct involvement with banknote production at all.

For example, take a look at the new Australian $20 note. It features a portrait of Mary Reibey, one of the first successful businesswomen in 19thcentury Australia, a colourful Kookaburra and the box-leaf wattle amongst many other colonial or native flora and fauna features.

Picture Credit: 2019 AUD$20

Now, take a look at the 1966 version which features Charles Kingsford Smith, an aviator who made the first trans-pacific flight from America to Australia. The salient difference only appears to be updated typography, improved security features to prevent counterfeiting and a “remarkable” white Australian figure. 

Picture Credit: 1966 AUD$20

Also, if nations view money as the key to reinforce nationalism, why do countries print their money outside of their borders? 

While printing national currencies is a crucial process in transforming an imagined community into a recognised nation, relationalities between national currencies and nationhood are only distinct during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Penrose 2011, p.432). This period saw currencies facilitate the centralisation of state administration, fusion of state and economy and formation of national identities. However, this meant that currencies serves to regulate people, actors, practices and outcomes that validates the existence of a state through the material reality of cash (Penrose 2011, p.438). Instead, it is the “non-state” actors that make contributions to constructing and intensifying the symbolism of the state. For example, I am obliged to use Australian dollars when transacting in Australia even if I am using a credit card, thereby recognising the governmental regulatory bodies that police and legitimises Australia as nation and state.

Was Billig wrong?

No. As practitioners of anthropology, the standard against which ethnography or any other empirical knowledges must be judged according to the temporalities of persons acting in that particular social setting (Carrithers et al. 1990, p.263). Representations of nationhood are fluid and flux from time to time as meanings shift from nationalism to globalism. Anthropologists must learn to discern such evidence as partial but reliable within recognisable limits. In so, duly note the significance of cash.


References:

Billig, M 1995, Banal Nationalism, SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Carrithers, M, Barry, A, Brady, I, Geertz, C, Keesing, RM, Roth, PA, Rubinstein, RA & Whittaker, E 1990, ‘Is Anthropology Art or Science? [and Comments and Reply]’, Current Anthropology, vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 263–282.

Penrose, J 2011, ‘Designing the nation. Banknotes, banal nationalism and alternative conceptions of the state’, Political Geography, vol. 30, no. 8, pp. 429–440.

See Also:

Rita’s piece on Personhood

Maddie’s piece on Communitas

Lionel’s piece on Gambling

Lani’s piece on Collective Effervescence

Zane’s piece on Temporality

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