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Dear madcelt2002

by Élise Legal

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Dear madcelt2002,

I’m writing to you concerning the order I placed with you on eBay at 4:27 PM on 25th July 2022. The order number was 10-08907-90879. The tracking number was C00HHA0240472359. The transaction amount was 13.35 GBP. The purchased item was paid for on 26th July, dispatched the next day on 27th July, and delivered two days later, on 29th July. The postcode for the delivery was SW114AN, London.

All that being said, I never actually received my order. I didn’t write to you earlier as I didn’t think I would be able to get a refund, and I didn’t want to waste my time trying to get reimbursed for a lost order. I’m not even sure ‘lost order’ is the right term here, since I never actually received anything. Also, I didn’t want to have to interact with automated chatbots which would undoubtedly have done nothing to recover the lost order but which would have gone to great lengths to give me the impression that they were doing so.

The item that I purchased from you on eBay was described as follows: vintage Lloyds Bank black plastic horse head money box 70s/80s Rare. Last summer, I carried out research in the archives of Lloyds Bank in London, one of the oldest banks in the world. Put simply, I wanted to see what the oldest forms of currency to have circulated under capitalism looked like. However, I ended up telling the archivist that I was interested in the iconographic evolution of the emblem of their ancient bank, the black horse. It appeared on cheques from the 19th century, on internal memos, on promotional leaflets: the archivist bustled back and forth to the chilled archival storage area, bringing me whatever she could find and apologising profusely, since the appearance of the horse hadn’t really changed all that much over the years.

Towards the end of this appointment, she brought me a plastic money box from the 1980s, small enough to fit in the palm of her hand. It was shaped like the head of the black horse. It was empty.

A memo from 1985 states that “The Black Horse, which has been the distinctive sign of the bank since the 19th century, is amongst the strongest symbols of any organisation in the world.” I thought your money box was really beautiful. I wanted to possess it, and I dreamt of slotting coins into it. As soon as I got home, I placed a bid in order to acquire it. I chose your one in particular since it seemed to have the best price/quality ratio. As you already know, I accepted all the terms and conditions of the sale. And yet, once again: I never received the horsehead money box.

By visiting the Lloyds Bank archives, I wanted to see how money circulated, beginning from the very origins of the Western banking system: to see where it had all begun. Whilst preparing my visit, I read that “Money and language have something in common: they are nothing and they move everything. They are nothing but symbols, conventions, flatus vocis, but they have the power of persuading human beings to act, to work, to transform physical things.”1 Words and currency are both constantly translated, as if they shared a same universal, digital and numerical grammar. The capitalist economy manufactures a sort of world language, where words end up functioning in the same way as exchange currency, according to a logic of interchangeability. At the same time, in linguistics, “as in political economy, we are faced with the idea of value, a system of equivalence between two things of different orders: in one, work and salary, in the other, signified and signifying.”2 Yet I feel that it’s more difficult nowadays to visualise this difference of orders and their supposed equivalence with the same clarity as before. Financial values nowadays are uncoupling from the physical, palpable interactions of things with one another. Electronic transfers are displacing the close relationship that persisted between money’s value and its materiality. Unpaid labour is multiplying, a development that serves businesses and institutions which play upon the definition of the word “work”. The nature of certain forms of employment prevents workers from producing a clear narrative as to what it is that they actually do. Value is a notion deployed both in linguistics and political economy where it supposedly refers to “things of different orders” – yet more and more, this idea of value seems to bring together words and money in much the same way.

Strangely, it’s precisely because of this abstraction that I loved this plastic money box. It fit in my hands, it was light, smooth, black, matte, and ready to be used. The sculpting of the black horse into a promotional bank freebie echoed money and the process of saving it. But the money wasn’t there. It was in the conditioned air preserving the cheque books from bygone centuries, it was in the architecture of the glass tower housing the archives, it was in the stomata of the gigantic indoor plant growing in the foyer. I tried to see what the bank was based upon, in concrete terms. I couldn’t see any money, but I knew that it was money’s circulation that ensured the bank’s maintenance and its perpetuation. In the archives of the bank in the basement of the office tower, I felt as if I was being tricked with these money boxes and cheques, as if they were relics put there to distract me. 

The economy requires opacity. For transactions to take place, there must be uncertainty – hence contemporary capitalism’s encouragement and commodification of risk. Businesses organise opacity, and so I don’t know where money comes from, nor where it goes. When I was a supermarket cashier, whenever the amount of the money in the register reached a certain total, we had to take out all the notes and count them out until we reached a given amount. We then rolled this stack up on itself and slipped it into a plastic bag that we introduced into a tube, which swallowed it up thanks to a pneumatic system. I never knew or tried to follow the path of the tube, I never figured out whether the bag remained stuck in the register, if there were underground tunnels that whisked it far away, or if it went up to the offices on the first floor. What I really remember, though, is the intake of air whenever we opened the tube’s little hatch, and the roll of notes disappearing in a split second. 

Anyway, it seems to me altogether logical that I didn’t receive your/my money box, even though the website says that it was delivered as planned. Once again, money has evaporated, even though the system indicates otherwise. I have to admit that this dissonance was unpleasant, but I wasn’t surprised. As I said, I didn’t know who to ask about the money box, which eBay employee, avatar or chatbot, which customer service platform, which delivery company. I really had no idea, which is why I have ended up writing to you, madcelt2002. The 13.35 GBP were debited from my account even though I didn’t receive the money box in exchange for this sum. I had planned to put in the handful of change on my desk that I refer to as my “mortgage fund”, even though I tend to use it to buy bread or scratch cards. I thought that the money box could have acted as a souvenir of my visit to the bank’s archives, that it could have been a way of embodying my research into the circulation and the transactions of words and money. I’m certain I would have looked at it every day, thinking about how beautiful it was. Dear madcelt2002, let me conclude my letter with a question: where’s the money?


Élise Legal 

Translated by James Horton