Economy of Words

Abstract

In this essay I introduce the notion of “the economy of words” as the means by which central banks model linguistically and, hence, communicatively economic phenomena operating at the limits of calculation and measurement. In this economy “at large” or “in the wild,” words perform the decisive function of creating context—countless contexts—that frame data series, statistical measures, and econometric projections. Within this analytical framework—inspired by J. M. Keynes and Michel Callon—words are employed not merely for expressing interpretative accounts or commentaries: they create the economy itself as a communicative field and as an empirical fact. Through the technical mediation of an economy of words—a monetary regime has, thus, come to be endowed with reflexive voices. The current financial situation highlights the role of the communicative practices in formulating policy to influence the severity, the breadth, and the duration of the destructive storm.

Inline_moniac-1
"MONIAC (Monetary National Income Analogue Computer)."

This is arguably the world's first macro-economic computer built in the late 1940s to simulate the dynamic operations of the British economy.

Editorial Overview

In the August 2009 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Douglas R. Holmes analyzes the linguistic and communicative processes employed by central banks to model – and influence – the economy. Focusing on the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, Holmes provides an ethnographic account of how once “famously secretive institutions” began experimenting with extensive communicative practices to shape the expectations driving a central goal of monetary policy, price stability. Neither a matter of merely informing the market and the public about central bank policies and practices, nor a conventional public relations function of a government bureau, these communications have become the instruments of policy themselves.

In Holmes’s “economy of words,” the challenge for central banks is to “discipline expectations of economic actors with persuasive narratives, informed by a continuous stream of data and analyses, articulated in a measured and consistent fashion.” Holmes argues that central bankers came to adopt an experimental ethos “performed in situ within and across the economy at large…by which they worked out the means for modeling linguistically and communicatively economic phenomena.” This “experimental ethos” influences the course and magnitude of economic activity through entering public discourse and thus shaping sensibilities and expectations about the futurity of prices. 

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published other essays on finance and money. See Karen Strassler’s “The Face of Money: Currency, Crisis, and Remediation in Post-Suharto Indonesia” (2009), Hirokazu Miyazaki’s “Economy of Dreams: Hope in Global Capitalism and Its Critiques” (2006), Bill Maurer’s “Due Diligence and ‘Reasonable Man,’ Offshore” (2005c), Karen Ho's "Situating Global Capitalism: A View From Wall Street Investment Banks" (2005), Paul Eiss’s “Hunting for the Virgin: Meat, Money, and Memory in Tetiz, Yucatan" (2002), and Virginia Dominguez’s “Representing Value and the Value of Representation: A Different Look at Money” (1990).

Cultural Anthropology has also published other essays on the knowledge practices of experts, including Michael Montoya’s “Bioethnic Conscription: Genes, Race, and Mexicana/o Ethnicity in Diabetes Research” (2007), Andrew Lakoff’s “The Generic Biothreat, or, How We Became Unprepared” (2008), Celia Lowe’s (2004), Christopher Kelty’s “Geeks, Social Imaginaries, and Recursive Publics” (2005), and Stephan Helmreich’s “After Culture: Reflections on the Apparition of Anthropology in Artificial Life, a Science of Simulation” (2001). Holmes describes the knowledge practices of the bankers he focuses on as working with the logic of “experimental systems,” which are further explicated and described in Michael M. J. Fischer’s “Culture and Cultural Analysis as Experimental Systems” (2007).

About the Author

Douglas R. Holmes is a Professor of Anthropology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. His book, Integral Europe: Fast-Capitalism, Multiculturalism, Neofascism (2000), examines various radical populist movements with goals diametrically opposed to the ideals of a harmonious European Union. His current research examines ethnographically an intellectual regime that informs contemporary practices of central banking.

Additional Work by the Author

2008 with George E. Marcus. Collaboration Today and the Re-Imagination of the Classic Scene of Fieldwork Encounter. Collaborative Anthropologies 1:136-70.

2008 Experimental Identities (After Maastricht). In European Identity. Peter Katzenstein and Jeffery Checkel, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2008 Futurity European Studies Forum: The Journal of the Council for European Studies 38 (2).

2008 Nationalism and Xenophobia as Research Topics in Russia and Eastern Europe.  Antropologicheskij forum. (Russian Academy of Sciences and the European University) 8:128-34.

2000 Integral Europe: fast-capitalism, multiculturalism, neofascism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

1989 Cultural disenchantments: worker peasantries in northeast Italy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Multimedia

BBC Interview on Quantitative Easing with Mervyn King, The Governor of the Bank of England, March 5, 2009

Related Readings

October Issue of Anthropology News on Financial Crisis

Anke Schwittay, Anthropologists Take on the Financial Crisis: Interviews on Money and Finance. Anthropology News 50(7): 26.

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