Free Access to Review Symposium on The Provoked Economy

by Journal of Cultural Economy August 30, 2016

Journal of Cultural Economy is very pleased to be able to provide Free Access to a Review Symposium on Fabian Muniesa’s recent work The Provoked Economy: Economic Reality and the Performative Turn. The symposium features detailed Review Essays by Aaron Pitluck, Alberto Toscano, José Ossandón & Trine Pallesen, and a response by Muniesa.

Here follows some extracts of each, as well as links to the pieces in full.

Aaron Z. Pitluck: ‘How to embrace performativity while avoiding the rabbit hole’
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… In my reading, the book’s principal achievement is to make a single fundamental argument: social scientists should avoid a naturalistic stance where economic phenomena are assumed to exist independent of scientific observations. Naturalism is a style of thinking in which nature is singular and external: ‘the book of nature might not be easy to read, but there is surely only one and it is written in mathematical language, i.e. a language prone to scientific reading’ (p. 36). Muniesa calls this a ‘two-layer’ view (pp. 2–7) of the economy, or ‘economic naturalism’ (p. 35). A two-layer epistemology understands the social scientist (above) observing the economy (below) as akin to the natural scientist observing yeast through a microscope. ‘It is easy to recognize in economics a sort of naturalistic style: we may all have different cultures, opinions and beliefs, but we all share the same economic laws’ and these can be formulated in mathematical and formalistic languages (p. 37).
Instead, Muniesa advocates a ‘one-layer’ view in which the observer and the economy are inseparable (p. 26). Rather than conceiving of ‘economic reality [as] a type of reality,’ (p. 38) the economic is a discourse – it is what society and its artefacts signify as economic (p. 39). I intentionally gloss the one-layer view as a ‘discourse’ for two reasons: first, because it converges well with another author whom I will introduce at review’s end, and second, because some understandings of the economy as discourse are compatible with the book’s emphasis on a material semiotics (pp. 13–15) and with the author’s own pragmatist formulation of ‘signification as process and of reality as effect’ (pp. 2, 16–17). …

Alberto Toscano: ‘Structured by cows’
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… The performative turn as mapped by Muniesa involves unlocking domains of economic (or economizing) practice largely neglected, at their cost and peril, by many sociologists, economists and political theorists, happy to define finance without reflecting on the myriad operations required to stabilize and circulate a financial derivative, or to talk of commodity fetishism without pausing on the sundry tests that products meet before they get to the, or rather a, market. To paraphrase Marx, we are bidden here to explore the ‘hidden abodes of performativity’, in Muniesa’s terms to consider ‘practice as ongoing accomplishment, as acting and staging in an almost explicitly theatrical sense’ (p. 11). But taking the performative dimension of the economic out of the black box in which it is kept by many of its practitioners but also its critics, as well as by a general (and I would argue politically reproduced) ignorance of many domains of economic life, seems to involve here another black-boxing, which is to say a kind of naturalization of capitalism itself.

In Muniesa’s book, this is signalled by the various mentions, in passing, of how all of this economizing and performative activity is in the end about … making money. The bewitching proliferation of entities and vehicles for financial innovation, the invention of sundry managerial and accounting practices, all of this ontological pluralism seems to boil down to a very real and punishing abstraction, that of capitalism’s blunt and age-old imperative, making money with money, accumulating. And yet, having banned systemic or totalizing explanations, ones that would try to derive, as Marx once did, the ‘social form’ of capitalist value – the enigma of the imperatives of commensuration, exchange and profit that innervate our lives – it is somehow mysterious why or how all of these ‘economic’ practices, notwithstanding their fascinating complexity, would converge on the rather crushing banality of quantitative accumulation – mysterious, of course, only if we bracketed the question of social power to begin with, which is, after all, not the worst definition of capital or its monetary incarnation. …

José Ossandón & Trine Pallesen: ‘Testing the provoked economy’
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… As described after the first test, The Provoked Economy resembles books that re-visit and collect empirical material from different cases previously published in order to advance a more general argument. However, unlike books such as Valuing the Unique and The Sense of Dissonance, this book does not explicitly challenge an existing disciplinary discussion. Of course, as Muniesa explains, this can be associated with the explicitly non-disciplinary position of the author. We do not find this particularly problematic. The problem, however, is that, unlike the aforementioned books, it is not that clear what The Provoked Economy expects to add for those, like us, who have spent a good deal of time enthusiastically following the literature about performativity in economic knowledge. To use the language of the book: we find it problematic that this book does not make explicit what is to be gained by adding the qualification ‘provoked’ to what we have already learned about the performativity of economics. The second test tried to guess precisely that. Our impression is that with description, simulacrum, provocation and explicitness, Muniesa enters the ‘machinery of performativity’ in an original way and these concepts are probably the main contribution of this book. The Provoked Economy helps to qualify what we understand by performativity by calling attention to the ceaseless situations in which the economy is brought about as effects of descriptions, simulacrums, provocations and explicitation. The third and final test was about the book’s aim to be inspirational. Certainly, time will have the last say in this test: confirming whether the concepts suggested in this book are some among many other notions produced in the ‘moment of theory’ (du Gay 2010) or whether they will be realized by future empirical or conceptual research inspired or provoked by this book. We personally were inspired by the empirical chapters, and by its clever, intriguing insights. Indeed, we enjoyed the book, but would have liked it to be more explicitly provocative. As we could not identify the explicit argument defended by the The Provoked Economy, we cannot really judge whether the different parts that compose the text really help to test or demonstrate it. But, perhaps, this is Muniesa’s main experiment. …

Fabian Munisa: ‘You must fall down the rabbit hole’
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… Finding oneself in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a possibility Pitluck (2015) warns us against in his helpful assessment of the perils of performativity, is unfortunately unavoidable. It is firmly standing there, together with Through the Looking-Glass, in the pages of the guide that I myself most wholeheartedly recommend in The Provoked Economy (Muniesa 2014): Gilles Deleuze’sThe Logic of Sense (1990). This is where, using Alice, Deleuze advances a theory of the sign as event. This is also where he develops his affirmative take on the simulacrum, a take I cannot see how he could repudiate even if the concept as such disappears in later writings – another rabbit hole justly identified by Toscano (2015). The rabbit hole is here a path to sense, not to delusion. I am afraid that what Deleuze is trying to tell us is precisely that: ‘If you want to really get this entire thing of signification as act and reality as effectuation’ – the pragmatist mantra that Pitluck correctly spotted in my own precarious version – ‘you have to follow me down here, this way’. Do we really? Can we not just skip over the rabbit hole? We could certainly deal with the whole issue of performativity more comfortably by pursuing a straighter path, travelling down neater distinctions between what is performative and not, virtual and not, critical and not. That might have worked well for The Provoked Economy – a book that clearly does not provide a concept of performativity. Incidentally, this would have also dissipated the frustration understandably expressed by Ossandón and Pallesen (2015) in their call for a clear editorial benchmark: yes, falling into a rabbit hole is certainly a fair synonym for a lack of positioning. Why not, then, try out a more imperative tone, to see what happens? What The Provoked Economy ought to say in this symposium is this: You must fall down the rabbit hole! …