Mutual Life, Limited: Islamic Banking, Alternative Currencies, Lateral Reason
Larson, Erik, Law & Society Review
Mutual Life, Limited: Islamic Banking, Alternative Currencies, Lateral Reason. By Bill Maurer. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. Pp. xix+217. $55.00 cloth;, $19.95 paper.
Mark Twain's short story "The Million Pound Banknote" ( 1996) concerns a bet that a person will be unable to live for one month with only a million-pound banknote. The main character discovers that he has a problem: how can he spend such a large note when it is not possible to get change? Artist J. S. G. Boggs (Weschler 1999) draws replicas of currency (with slight changes) and offers to exchange these original works of art for goods and services at their face value (and wants to get change in the actual currency in the process). On the one hand, there is a fictitious story about a real bank note whose value cannot be realized, as it cannot be exchanged. On the other, there is a factual story about fake money whose value comes about because it is an authentic, original work of art that can be exchanged.
While Bill Maurer's Mutual Life, Limited references neither of these stories, their juxtaposition provides a good hint at the substance of the book, based on a comparison of Islamic finance and Ithaca HOURS, an alternative currency in the upstate New York city. Both Islamic banking, with its principle of lariba (attempting to avoid interest), and HOURS, ostensibly based on an hour's worth of work, seem at first glance to be alternatives to dominant capitalist finance. But beneath the immediate surface, these "alternatives"-and the dominant currency-may not be so distinct. Islamic banking and HOURS are inherently bound together with the prevailing capitalist global economy. Yet Maurer is hardly out simply to unmask these alternatives as mere shadows of the dominant economy. Rather, he argues, these alternatives restage the underlying forms of the economy, bound up with questions of equivalence as a moral form and the difficulty of a distinguishing test of truth when there are multiple worlds and uses of money. In short, both the alternatives-and the dominant economy-work and are enacted by agents despite (and perhaps because of) their impurities.
Mutual Life, Limited also speaks to debates in anthropology and other social sciences about the scholarly enterprise. Maurer finds that his research subjects have debated the purity, truth, and status of Islamic finance and HOURS as alternatives. His research subjects have already made some of the comparisons that he set out to make and recommended reading lists to him before their interviews. Reflecting this experience and connecting the substantive discussion about alternative economies, Maurer aims for "lateralizations," rather than descriptions or explanations, reflecting the ways in which his field experience seems largely prefigured and anticipated.
As a strategy of lateralization, Maurer holds the book out as performance, attempting to re-create a sense of field experience:
The point here is the achievement of a homology of form and ... a ramping up of the kinds of textual achievements of my interlocutors. …