Fictions of Finance

by Peter Knight March 3, 2015

Debt and her Debtors (2013), by Molly Crabapple. Used under a Creative Commons License.

Peter Knight provides an overview of the Fictions of Finance Special Issue of Journal of Cultural Economy (Volume 6, Issue 1, 2013). The summary builds on extracts from his introduction to the collection, which can be accessed in full here.

Manifestos in this journal and elsewhere for a distinctive ‘cultural economy’ approach have welcomed the insights of other disciplines into the increasingly technical and closed world of finance in particular and economics in general. With this widespread ‘cultural turn’ it is ironic that the fields most obviously engaged with cultural approaches – literary, historical and cultural studies – have tended not to be included in the mix. In ‘cultural economy’ research projects, ‘culture’ is often taken in the broad anthropological sense of a deeply embedded set of social norms, everyday practices and symbolic systems within particular circumscribed ‘tribes’. The Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett, for example, has talked about using her training as a field anthropologist to translate the world views of the tribe of derivative banking to the outside world, while recent articles by Donald MacKenzie explore the idea of diverging ‘evaluation cultures’ in separate departments of banks. While welcoming this appeal to anthropological and sociological notions of culture, this special issue asks specifically what the disciplines of cultural history, literary studies and cultural studies can contribute to an understanding of finance and economics.

Looking from one side of the divide, the humanities have much to learn from social scientific approaches to the economy, not least because the economy has at times fallen off the former’s radar. The broad project of cultural studies, for example, grew out of a poststructuralist revision of Marxism that insisted that the realm of culture was not merely a side show to the main action of economic determinism, but could be a vitally important site of social struggle in its own right. What has now become apparent is that, in focusing too exclusively on the expressive dimensions of identity politics, there was a tendency to forget the issues of political economy that had animated the project of cultural studies in the first place. If there has recently been a ‘cultural turn’ in studies of economics and finance, then it is arguable that there needs to be an ‘economic and financial turn’ in cultural studies. There is much work still to be done in the humanities on the kinds of culture that feed on and feed into the regime of economic abstraction and financialisation. This inquiry would need to consider not only more institutional modes of cultural production (such as literature and film), but a raft of other vernacular epistemologies and everyday material practices of the markets. It would need to focus not only on the ways in which the market has been represented and imagined, but also on what the market’s numbers themselves represent. Furthermore, not only have cultural studies and cultural history tended to position themselves at too far a remove from the everyday culture of economics, but economic history has in recent decades become too close to economics, often quite literally moving out of the history department and relocating itself as a cliometric enclave within the economics department.

Conversely, the humanities have much to bring to current conversations in the social sciences about the culture of the market. In thinking about finance and its fictions, for example, some fascinating recent scholarship has followed J. G. A. Pocock’s pioneering work on the epistemological underpinnings of the financial revolution in Britain in the eighteenth century by exploring how the emerging genre of the novel did not merely provide representations of how everyday life was becoming transformed by market interactions but actively taught its middle class readers how to think about and engage with a credit economy. The wider contention of this recent work is that cultural forms such as the novel do not merely provide epiphenomenal reflections of the pre-existing market, but through their imaginative work help shape the very forms of capitalism they narrate.

One of the central contributions that cultural history can make to the project of ‘cultural economy’ is thus to historicize – and thereby to demystify – the categories of economic knowledge that are all too often taken as natural. The task is to examine not just the immediate technical contents of the black box of finance, but to consider the narratives, tropes and foundational metaphors as well as the institutional contexts that have made particular modes of economic knowledge dominant in different historical moments. This requires an attention to the broader historical imaginary, an anatomy of the necessary fictions that underpin financial innovations, rather than merely dissecting the technical assumptions within the black box. As the UK’s Financial Services Authority’s Turner Review insisted, ‘Intellectual challenge to conventional wisdoms [that the market is “efficient, rational, and self correcting”] is essential’. This special issue makes a contribution to that project by considering some of the underlying fictions of finance.

Special Issue Table of Contents