Editors’ Forum Theorizing the Contemporary
In anthropology, it seems everyone has something to say about finance these days. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing because it helps break up some of the blanket generalizations to which we’ve been prone regarding “the economy,” “capitalism” and “neoliberalism.” Talking specifically about finance gets at the hows and whats, the infrastructures and operations, the channels and pathways and the ways-it-gets-done. This allows anthropologists to do what they have always done best: pay attention to the tiny technicalities, the practices and proclivities, the winks and epistemologies of everyday life in broader systems. It’s also a good thing because in the wake of the financial crisis that began in 2007-08, some anthropologists have taken on meaningful public roles and contributed to broader global discussions on financial improprieties, regulation, as well as the cultural shifts afoot in contemporary political economy: think Gillian Tett in the Financial Times, Karen Ho on MSNBC, Annelise Riles’s dialogue with the regulators, and David Graeber at Occupy. And many of us – including the authors represented below – now participate in all kinds of backoffice locations, editorial rooms, policy conclaves, using access we acquired as fieldworkers to engage in discussions that are sometimes of great import. So – all good.
What’s bad? Well, sometimes we have given short shrift to whatever it is our interlocutors are trying to do in their gardens – some of which we benefit from, should support, and are uninformed about. We also sometimes miss what’s actually been going on for quite some time in our own discipline and beyond its borders. There is a lot of really, really excellent work on finance out there -- in geography, political science, sociology -- literature that contains insights and evidence from the worlds of finance and fiscality we would do well in anthropology to heed. Sometimes in critical inquiry, there’s too much critical and not enough inquiry. Things are never so simple as “abstraction,” “fiction,” or just plain “fraud.” We are inheritors of a long tradition that is skeptical of the things of finance because we are wedded to a notion of the real that we should be equally skeptical about. We think as anthropologists we are closer to the ground than the other social science disciplines. Yet we also continually question the grounds of others’ and our own experience. So, we can’t just extoll the values of Main Street against the voraciousness of Wall Street. And yet – we forget, wrapping the warm comfortable sweaters of our 19th-century social theorists around us, clutching our warm mugs as we sit by the cracking fire and tell the children about Finance and Capitalism sapping the strength of the Social.
I don’t think this will do anymore. The matters at hand are deathly serious, indeed, but my concern is with accepting a certain comfort level in old verities rather than to really engage the vitalities of our object of study – to really engage (to boldly go! split infinitives be damned), to the point of uncomfortable and unequal collaborations, co-laborings with those who might unfold a world very different from what we imagine but who also might, just might, find that to labor with us is to open to new worlds altogether, ones we can’t yet jointly envision but toward which we may nonetheless together strive.
The contributions collected here represent a collective striving around, and with, and toward finance. I am extremely grateful to all the contributors for agreeing to write for this venture. The fields represented range from geography to sociology to anthropology, law and political science (and others, too). The approaches represent the performativity paradigm, the cultural economy orientation, the “anthropology of finance,” the sociology of material devices, journalism, risk analysis, and more. With this collection I hope to give readers in anthropology and beyond a sense of the range of work being done out there. The contributions represent a range of national origins and institutional locations, too. And you will find links here to research networks from the Southern Cone to the UK and elsewhere that are all engaging financial domains in one way or another.
In thinking about how to organize these contributions, I hit upon the matrix and the word frequency “word cloud,” Wordle. These are meant only half-seriously. Matrices have been taking up a lot of my time lately – in my role as an academic administrator and in my role as a collaborator in various projects to map “risk” of mobile-phone enabled financial services. Making a table like this forces one to think about covariation, the cross-tabulation of various categories, and the categories themselves. The categories include terms that occupy some of the general conversation about finance, like risk, fiction, crisis, credit, and terms that emerge from more “anthropological” discussions: apocalypse, otherworldly, derivation and ethnography itself. It also makes it easier to make relations. Of course, I made these myself – someone else might make different ones altogether. And word frequency charts can convey stories in a different aesthetic from normal academese. (To make this one, I took out the words "finance" and "financial” because they, well, overpowered everything else…) Matrices, frequencies and visualizations are also technologies that are of a piece with the fields of finance. Make of them what you will. But I end with Jane Guyer’s reflections upon seeing the Wordle, which themselves sing in another key to anthropology and finance:
Bill, I'm seeing this as a kind of vertical garden, like an espalier. Green, brown, latticed, with mysterious recesses behind the grid: how did “life” manage to hide so effectively? Along with “know” and “idea”, “trust” and “another”? Back to the “ecosystem,” which people tell me is now the metaphor for everything, even in the “tech scene”!
Look into that vertical garden again. Meaningless, but, well, one does learn from clouds – and phrases like, "conditions become rather Goldman" or "One power, future value." These may index standard stories of finance. Or "first just make [a] human system." This may be the anthropological story.
Arlidge, John, and Philip Beresford (2009) Inside the Goldmine. Sunday Times. Nov 8.
Amato, Massimo and Luca Fantacci. 2011. The End of Finance. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Comaroff, Jean, and John L. Comaroff. 2000. “Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming,” Public Culture 12, no. 2: 291-343
Davis, Gerald. 2009. Managed by the Markets: How Finance Re-Shaped America. New York: Oxford University Press.
The Economist. 2011. More anthropologists on Wall Street please. Oct 24th 2011 (downloaded March 21st 2012).
Elyachar, Julia. 2005. Markets of Dispossession: NGOs, Economic Development, and the State in Egypt. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Ferguson, Adam.  1966. An Essay on the History of Civil Society, ed. D. Forbes. Edinburgh: University Press.
Ferguson, James and Akhil Gupta. 2002. Spatializing States: Toward an Ethnography of Neoliberal Governmentality. American Ethnologist 24, 4: 981–1002
Grandclément Catherine, Vendre sans vendeurs : sociologie des dispositifs d’achalandage en supermarché. Thèse École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Paris, 2008
Gordon, Colin. 1996. “Foucault in Britain.” In Barry, Andrew, Thomas Osborne, and Nikolas Rose, eds., Foucault and Political Reason: Liberalism, Neo-liberaliosm, and Rationalities of Government. London: UCL 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
Hertz, Ellen. 2000. “Stock markets as ‘simulacra’: observation that participates”, Tsantsa 5: 40-50
Hont, Istvan. 1990. “Free Trade and the Economic Limits to National Politics: Neo-Machiavellian Political Economy Reconsidered.” In John Dunn, ed., The Economic Limits to Modern Politics. Murphy Institute Studies in Political Economy. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
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Hume, David. 1985 . “Of Public Credit,” in David Hume, Essays Moral, Political and Literary, ed. E.F. Miller. Indianapolis: LibertyClassics.
Krippner, Greta. 2011. Capitalizing on Crisis: The Political Origins of the Rise of Finance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Leins, Stefan. 2011. "Pricing the Revolution: Financial analysts respond to the Egyptian uprising". Anthropology Today, 27(4): 11-14.
Leong, Sze Tsun, and Srdjan Jovanovich Weiss. "Air Conditioning" In The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping. Project on the City 2, edited by Chuihuda Judy Chung, Jeffrey Inaba, Rem Koolhaas, and Sze Tsung Leong, 93–127. Cologne: Taschen, 2001.
MacKenzie Donal, D. Beunza, Y. Millo, J-P Pardo-Guerra, Drilling Through the Allegheny Mountains: Liquidity, Materiality and High-Frequency Trading, Journal of Cultural Economy (forthcoming)
Mastnak, Tomaz. 2005. The Reinvention of Civil Society in Eastern Europe: Through the Looking Glass of Democracy. Archives européennes de sociologie/ European Journal of Sociology 46 (2005), no. 2, pp. 323-355.
Murray, Oswyn. 1993. Early Greece, Second Edition. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Ong, Aihwa. 1999. Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Ott, Julia. 2011. When Wall Street Met Main Street: The Quest for an Investors’ Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Pocock, J. G. A. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press.
———. 1985a. Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
———. 1985b. “The Mobility of Property and the Rise of Eighteenth-Century Sociology,” in Pocock 1985a.
Stewart, Kathleen, 1996. A Space at the Side of the Road. Princeton University Press.
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Posts in This Series
‘An Anthropologist on Wall Street’
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The Ethics of Wall Street
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Why Does (or Doesn't) Finance Need an Anthropology?
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Coping with the Discount Rate
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The End of Finance?
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What Can Anthropologists of Finance Teach Us About the MERS We Now Find Ourselves In?
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The Fear Index and Frankenstein Finance
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Occupy Finance and the Paradox/Possibilities of Productivity
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The “Real Economy” and its Pariahs: Questioning Moral Dichotomies in Contemporary Capitalism
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The Passions of Credit and the Dangers of Debt
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Community and Money, Local and European
Much has been written recently about the relationship between money and community. The debate has been fuelled by the (re)emergence of local currencies and alte... More
For an Anthropology of Atmospheric Markets: The Exemplary Case of Financial Markets
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Life in Financial Calendrics
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Why Does Finance Need an Anthropology? …Because Financial Value Is a Reality.
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“Smart Targeting” and the Meaning of Money
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