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Visiting Brazilian Professor Talks Money

March 2, 2010

Ruben Oliven, an anthropologist from the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, took stock of one of the most predominant aspects of American culture – money – in a recent talk titled “The Money Rhetoric in America: A Brazilian Perspective.”

Oliven began his talk by recounting his uncertainty over how to begin his project before coming to the United States last fall as Brown’s Cogut Visiting Professor in Latin American Studies. He was “unsure even of how to focus his attention.” However, from the moment he arrived in the United States he realized that he “was literally submerged in his subject” and he could “look at money as a total social fact.” In other words, he could take into consideration “any instance which would bring [him] clues.”

He found the first of these clues trying to open a checking account with the Bank of America. Oliven was self professedly “overwhelmed with the number of choices” involved in what he had in Brazil always experienced as a relatively simple procedure. He had to choose between six types of general accounts, each of which entailed further choices regarding minimum balances, interest rates, and outstanding features. In an attempt to simplify things he decided to just choose the standard checking. He was then further and unpleasantly surprised to find that he had to choose a checkbook from a nearly limitless array.

In Brazil, he said, “you have one choice, which might have different colors if you are a special client.” However there was an upside to the hassle. The response of the Bank of America representative to Oliven’s obvious bewilderment at the plethora of money management options led him to his next clue. She said “don’t worry nothing is written in blood, you can change your account plan.”

This comment immediately made Oliven begin thinking about the connection between blood and money, a connection that “reminded him of pacts.” He recounted several remarkably connotative literary occurrences of blood pacts and their relation to money, finding them in the Bible, Shakespeare, and Goethe. These instances together with his experiences at the Bank of America, he said, made him wonder “if you are expected to enter an implicit pact which involves money when you enter the United States.”

He then noted that during his attempt to get a credit card he realized that three basic documents are needed in America: “a driver’s license, a social security number, and a credit card.” To Oliven these three documents can be seen as “metaphors of American society: you are expected to move, as a tax payer you are entitled to rights, and you are expected to consume.”

Thus he said it was no surprise to him to find that the consumer is referenced and cherished by businesses in the United States in a way that is completely different from that in Brazil. Banks and airlines alike referred to their users as customers, whereas in Brazil people taking advantage of a business’s services are generally called clients. Oliven noted that in Brazil the term “customer” speaks of formality and commoditization, but the term client evokes service and sophistication. However, in America, the term “customer” is closely associated with “customization,” which effectively makes the person who pays for a good or services feel like a “master.” That is, able to control what they get and how they get it.

To Oliven the way buyers are referenced and dealt with by companies indicates an essentiality of money to American society that is reiterated and echoed in all facets of American culture, as well as public and personal relations. In his experience of America, life itself is readily and often immediately put in monetary terms both by children and sophisticated, national publications, pointing to how newspapers often describe a person “as worth so much money.” He also pointed to the fact that in the majority of circumstances money is regarded as a clean natural thing of which to be proud, discussing Benjamin Franklin and Emerson, who both seemed to have held honestly earned money as indicative of good character.

Eventually, Oliven analogized the role of money in American society to that of “blood and semen” in the body, calling money “another kind of blood.” Money circulates and keeps things running, he said. It serves as a motivation and a general end goal. It also is the genesis of industry, capital, as referenced by the term “seed money,” and frequently political movements. He further recalled, that an old Times article on human sexuality had on its first page an illustration of men sowing dollar bills and spermatozoids in a plowed field. Additionally both blood and sperm are kept in “banks.” For Oliven this terminology dramatically reveals how “bodily fluids end up being tied to a debit and credit system” and vice versa.

In distinct contrast, Oliven then presented briefly the role of money in Brazilian society and culture. Popular Brazilian music, for example, often depicts labor as something deeply unpleasant, alienating, and to be avoided if possible. Samba composers “eulogize idleness.” In the past, this even engendered idleness as a lifestyle and “an ethic.” Love and people were to be valued above all else. Popular music, Oliven said, told people “not having enough was okay,” because you had friends. The authoritarian government of the 1940s and ‘50s decided to censor such music, because they believed it was so severely reducing Brazilian productivity. Songs praising idleness were prohibited and those that lauded work were awarded prizes.

Oliven said that money itself was traditionally viewed as something ignoble and that even today it is “private and secondary.” When someone is completely broke they are “clean.” People, he claimed, simply don’t talk about money. They actually avoid the word when possible.

This is not to say that Brazilians do not value money or do not work hard. They do, it is only that “they don’t center their lives around it” as Americans do. They orient themselves around people and occasionally the immediate benefits money can bring, not around money itself. Brazil does not have a saving culture and “the best thing you can do with money is to spend it.”

Ultimately, Oliven’s talk ranged farther and deeper than any report could hope to fully elucidate. He dissected the influence of money on (as well as the monetary influence of) Christianity in the United States; pharmaceuticals; group therapy; individualism; popular phrases; God; and food. However he reached no strong conclusions. Oliven pointedly stated that his project is an attempt to paint a vivid portrait of a specific culture and initiate discussion. Thus, it seems fitting that he concluded with an acknowledgement of uncertainty, saying that “One can only speculate if monetarization is a trend which sooner or later is going to take place in countries which are going through an economic growth like Brazil or if their cultural specificities will work as counter-balancing checks.”

This event was sponsored by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Joseph Bendaña ’11