THEORIZING THE CONTEMPORARY - GUYER
Jane I. Guyer, Johns Hopkins University
According to popular renditions of Maya calendrics we are hurtling towards the apocalypse on 21st of December 2012, the end-date of a 5,125-year-long cycle in the Long Count Calendar, when astronomical alignments and numerological formulae somehow coincide (so it is said, apparently not accepted by mainstream expertise).  The famous Native American spiral teaches us to imagine ourselves in the deictic logics of life in such multiple nested temporalities. Anthropologists are trained to have a sensibility, unique within the social sciences, to what I have referred to as “intricacy and impasse” (Guyer 2012): that is, internal complexities and experiential (dis)orientations, formal semiotic fractals and Kafka-esque trajectories, socio-spatial landscapes and the “space at the side of the road” (Stewart 1996). This is rather different from the holistic imagination that The Economist attributed to us, appreciatively, in their article entitled “More Anthropologists on Wall St. Please” (2011). At the center of the article was another idea that I think captures our disciplinary skills more accurately. The author noted that Gillian Tett, now credited with being the first to predict the 2008 crash, had focused on a “fascinating corner” that had been unnoticed by others, and that was about to burst forth into a spiral cyclonic force.
In an article published in 2007, before the Financial Crisis, I wrote of the decline of the “near future”, the rise of the distant horizon, and the filling in of the temporal gap by the calendrics of “punctuated” or “dated time”. Although we now have a robust anthropology of financial institutions, actors, technologies and so on, I’m not sure that we have yet delved into the arcane calendrics of dated time in the financial world. And yet it is surely a topic for us all: the social-cultural anthropologists, the ethnomathematicians, and the textual specialists. What language is this, and how is it used in the contractual terminology of “deals”?
A conversation with an economist colleague about how the “money supply” is calculated revealed the following surprising information. Derivatives are valued at their projected due date. What if one wants to cancel the contract (or is it writ in stone?)? Apparently, one technique is to simply reverse the terms, and rewrite the same contract by simply inverting the parties to it. This is legally acceptable, cheap and rapid. The problem for quantification is that then the “same” transaction is counted twice. And both are in dollars.
I leave the quantification and dollarization/money supply problems aside, to pick up the crucial factor of temporal definition and the nesting of durations and cycles. Very long commitments—such as 30-year mortgages, student loans, life insurance and, of course, prior to all of these, sovereign debt—created a solid platform for financial development of various apps on shorter time scales. The observation that Amato and Fantacci (2011) have made is that the term “finance” itself derives from the Latin “finis”, meaning “end”. That is, a date on which the debt falls due. The innovation they see in modern finance is that the “finis” is constantly redefined: deferred, renegotiated, and simply changed. What then is commitment in a world of dated time that becomes more and more arcane? We may have an ethical vocabulary proper to a platform whose apps now work otherwise.
Can we delve into the intricacy of at least one “corner” of this platform of finance to study and extrapolate the calendrical logic and its ethical languages: not only of the immediate actors who manipulate it but also of the nexus itself and all who fall within its workings? We know that every temporal unit has a price in the charging of interest, but how do the temporal horizons for all the new instruments work? And work together? This is a problem comparable to classic anthropological work: deciphering glyphs, noticing generative or recurrent details, projecting the regimes they presuppose, and thereby imagining the human “channeling” of those apprehended dynamics into futures on a human scale: whether the horizon lies along a step-by-step dance of “from now to tomorrow (or the next milli-second)” or a vista from “The First Five Thousand Years” (Graeber 2011) towards another apocalypse five thousand years from now… or next December! Is it an irony or an insight of our professional practice that Graeber’s life history of debt and the Mayan life cyclical calendar differ by only 115 years, a mere 2% … which is very close to classic interest rates that fell within the virtuous dispensations against the sin of usury? Bringing ethics and temporality together is a skill that anthropology has been practicing for a very long time and which is still very much needed for the future.
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_phenomenon (consulted March 29th 2012)
Amato, Massimo and Luca Fantacci. 2011. The End of Finance. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Graeber, David. 2011. Debt, The First Five Thousand Years. Brooklyn: Melville House Printing.
Guyer, Jane I. 2007. Prophecy and the Near Future. Thoughts on Macroeconomic, Evangelical and Punctuated Time. American Ethnologist 34, 3: 409-421
Guyer, Jane I. 2012. Intricacy and Impasse. Dilemmas of Value in Soft Currency Economies. David Skomp Distinguished Lecture, Department of Anthropology, Indiana University. April 3rd. 2012
Stewart, Kathleen, 1996. A Space at the Side of the Road. Princeton University Press.
The Economist. 2011. More anthropologists on Wall Street please. Oct 24th 2011 (downloaded March 21st 2012).