Publishing April: Can The Market Speak? – Campbell Jones

Apr 3rd, 2013 | By | Category: Book News, Extract

Chapter One - The spirit is a bone

If ‘the market’ is an ever present reality in daily life today, it is a mysterious and enigmatic presence. Being at once omnipresent yet ineffable, it is not surprising that attempts to symbolise the market have been so fantastic. This book investigates the idea that the market might be able to speak, and along with this that the market is a kind of person, above all the kind of person that should be listened to and obeyed.

prosopopoeiaWhen a body is attributed speech, it is given much more than voice. The power of speech tends to bring with it an idea of personhood, in such a way that a body that speaks is taken to have a soul or ‘spirit’ from which that speech issues. The attribution of speech typically involves the attribution of personhood and an interiority which issues forth a motivating force or will. Thus when it is said that something like the market can speak, it is also generally attributed particular subjective states. With the attribution of speech comes the idea that the market can want, will, desire, and respond to the actions of us mere mortals. Giving speech to the market comes hand in hand with giving the market a sense of personhood. What follows is therefore an investigation of the attribution to the market of the capacity of speech and at the same time the treatment of the market as a kind of person.

The figure by which speech is attributed to imaginary or absent persons or to bodies or abstractions not normally considered to be able to speak is known as prosopopoeia. This takes place when human or non-human animals are attributed the power of speech, and also when material objects or abstract entities are treated as if they can speak. Prosopopoeia of the market happens when, for example, it is said that the market has spoken, has given its verdict, or when it is said that one needs to listen to the market. Alongside this prosopopoeia comes a personification. Personification of the market happens when, for example, it is said that the market ‘wants’, ‘demands’ or ‘needs’ this or that, and also when market analysts interpret the market as bearer of intentions behind its surface manifestations, signs that originate from the deep interior will of the market.

In 1936 John Maynard Keynes spoke of the way that participants in markets are driven by a spontaneous optimism that goes well beyond mathematical expectations of reward. Drawing on ancient ideas, he called this set of motivations the ‘animal spirits’. In recent years there has been considerable interest in such ideas, in order to understand market volatility and also to provide a more realistic picture of market actors. Thus there have been various efforts to ‘put people back in’ to accounts of how markets work. In the areas of behavioural economics and behavioural finance there have been various efforts in recent years to understand market behaviour based on a more realistic conception of the human subject, in which participants in markets are taken as persons with all of their properly human frailties and limitations.1jmkeynes

The goal of this book is not to put people back into markets, but almost exactly the opposite. Today the market has taken on a life of its own, and has become too much like a person. Hence the focus is not on putting people into markets, but rather on understanding the idea of the market as a kind of person. Today the market itself has become an agent in its own right and has been invested with animal spirits.

The prosopopoeia of the market raises profound philosophical questions regarding who and what can speak. According to a way of thinking that goes back at least as far as Aristotle, it is thought that humans alone possess the power of speech. It is because of the presence of this idea that Spinoza, for example, will say that ‘those who do not know the true causes of things confuse everything and without any conflict of mind feign that both trees and men speak’.2 To imagine speech where there is none, to think that things other than humans could speak, is to take a whimsical flight of fancy, if not to display signs of delusion or outright madness. In the prosopopoeia of the market rests if not a madness then a peculiar cultural poetics that becomes visible in the way that entities such as the market are widely symbolised.

The personification of the market also raises complex questions regarding what it means for specific bodies to be counted as persons. The question of what it means to be a person is one of the founding questions of philosophy, and questions of the creation or the invention of persons have been central in philosophy and social theory over the past century. Recent considerations around ‘the question of the subject’ have raised powerful challenges to common ways of thinking about what it means to imagine things such as persons, and provides important grounds for the investigation to follow. I will seek to show that questions of personhood and the subject find fertile grounds not only in the consideration of bodies that most obviously appear to be persons – you, me, specific others. Questions of personhood and the subject can equally illuminate the dynamics of the attribution of personhood to entities such as the market.

Some will argue that the idea of the market as a kind of person with the capacity of speech is an insignificant turn of phrase. Others will excuse it as an innocent figure of speech through which the complexities of the economy can be made comprehensible to a broad audience. For others, this kind of speech will provide firm evidence that our masters are delusional, speaking in twisted and irrational ways. Against each of these positions, I will seek to establish firstly that the prosopopoeia and personification of the market are neither irrelevant nor innocent. Equally, I will argue this figure of speech is not purely false, and when taken seriously can expose some important truths about the ideological symbolisation of the market and beyond this of the place and the function of the market today.

I will therefore propose that the idea that the market might speak is not be dismissed out of hand as a mere illusion. If it is possible to account for something of the symbolic structure of the world in which we are all today invited to live, then this goes beyond the judgement that such manners of speaking are true or false. More socially and politically important is to notice how and why people at a particular point in time might have imagined that something like the market was something that was imagined to have the attributes of speech and personhood. Through the analysis of ideas such as this that may appear trivial, innocent or false it is possible to expose truths about our present predicament.

The task of criticism is, as always, to unearth the presuppositions that lie behind the presentation of things. This task is made difficult when the thing that lies behind appearance is an abstraction. Scrutiny of the idea of the market will reveal that behind the category ‘the market’ lies abstraction upon abstraction. Behind the idea that the market could speak is the abstract idea that speaking involves intentionality. As will be seen, behind this abstraction rests a series of further abstractions regarding agency and about wishing for inexpressible things. Behind these are abstractions regarding presence and absence, condensation and disappearance, and the coding of speech as speech. To pursue these abstractions is the task of this book, which is done not for the sake of intellectual curiosity but because abstraction is the object of the investigation.

This is so because the market is not an immediately solid body but an abstraction. Its outward manifestations are the materialisation of abstractions. More generally, it should be stressed that to live today is to live amongst abstractions, the origins of which are often obscure and the means by which they could be shrugged off are unclear, even if their power to reorder our lives is painfully apparent. This does not mean that abstraction cannot be contested. It is against these abstractions that others can be invented. As Marx stressed, ‘in the analysis of economic forms neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of assistance. The power of abstraction must replace both’.3

Economic categories such as the market and finance present the most pressing philosophical problems of our age. This is because real historical processes, central amongst which is the rise of the market, have created an array of abstractions and have transformed the nature of what is. This real process has resulted in a profound transformation at the ontological level, at the level of what is. As a result of economic, political and cultural changes, there has been an almost complete reversal of the previously held place of the concrete and the abstract. A set of abstractions have risen to centre stage in economic, political and cultural life and among these one abstraction in particular, the abstraction that is ‘the market’. The market has become a reality unto itself, at the same time that human bodies and the very existence of the material world have become increasingly incidental when faced with the market.

This is the sense in which the market today ‘is’ a ‘thing’, and a thing of utmost importance. The market presents a clear case of the materiality of the spiritual. The market manifests something that Hegel identified more than two centuries ago when he noted how in the course of history, the ways in which an age understands itself, which are externalised in cultural images and fantasies, can become a real active force. We live today amongst abstractions that have taken on the form of things, at the same time that things can appear as mere abstractions. Today Hegel has quite literally been confirmed, such that today spirit is, spirit exists, it steps forward in the form of objective reality. Spirit, culture, the realm of the most apparently abstract, has become a real active force, with a concrete sense of material reality. Today it can truly be said, with Hegel, that ‘the being of spirit is a bone’.4

webberThese are some of the reasons why accounting for capitalism today requires confronting both its brutally physical presence and equally the ‘spirit of capitalism’ that accompanies it. It should be stressed, though, that the spirit of capitalism is not a capacity that rests in particular individuals. When Max Weber wrote of the spirit of capitalism, and when such notions recur today, there is often a sense that capitalism involves a particular ethos or sense of personhood that is principally embedded in individuals. The central issue here is not the force of ‘psychological sanction’ or the logics of justification deployed by individuals, but rather the kinds of symbolic forces that manifest themselves in figures such as the market.5

Many have oriented themselves to global economic changes since the 1970s by speaking of neoliberalism, a process through which capitalism secured a reorganisation of economy and politics. To this must be added that during this same period there has been an often unregistered transformation in the cultural criteria by which the function and purpose of economy and politics are understood. As Randy Martin puts it, political economy and cultural economy form the ‘twin towers’ of the current situation, that of finance ascendant.6 The reminder is that capitalism involves both bloody expropriation and also ideas, fantasies and abstractions that exceed reason. We do not live in a ‘spiritless’ age or in a time in which the market has been separated from society. Rather, we are surrounded by the deepest and most outlandish fantasies and the most abstract notions. Capitalism is not purely an economic and political matter but is a cultural and ideational force. Yes, capitalism is bloody, but at the same time circulates in the fantastic and the abstract.

Although the prosopopoeia and personification of the market present a task of social, political, cultural and historical understanding, this book is above all a work of philosophy. Here I seek to comprehend and critically analyse the structure of the ideas and fantasies that come with the category of the market. As always, philosophy is today again threatened, not just by those who would reduce it to logic but equally by the conclusion that holds that reflective thought is not particularly useful. Indeed, if one were to apply the criteria of the market to philosophy then clearly philosophy will never deliver returns. But philosophy always promises to bite back, here by clarifying the remarkable oddity and indeed perversity of the idea that the market could speak. Here we have the edge – even if in the end the market cannot think, at least we can think the market.


canthemarketspeakcoverCan The Market Speak? - This book attacks the ideological foundations of capitalism, starting with the mystifications surrounding the idea of ‘the market’.

978-1-84694-537-3 (Paperback) £7.99 $11.95

978-1-78279-085-3 (eBook) £6.99 $9.99

It is said the market has moods and desires. It is said that we must listen to it and must anticipate how it will respond to our actions. What is the significance of these peculiar forms of speech? This book investigates the conceptual underpinnings of the idea that the market has intentions, consciousness and speech, and identifies the social and political consequences of this attribution to the market of capacities generally thought to be uniquely human. At once a work of philosophy, a cultural and social archaeology and a diagnosis of one of the central ideologies of our times, this book cuts to the heart of the linguistic forms through which our collective futures are decided.

‘This remarkable little book teases apart modern market language, and offers a compelling critical reading of the personification of financial markets. There could have been no better time for its publication than in the midst of the current financial crisis. Through its reflections on the culture and history of the market’s personhood and personality, Campbell Jones offers new modes and avenues for dissent and resistance.’
Professor Marieke de Goede, University of Amsterdam, author of Virtue, Fortune and Faith: A Genealogy of Finance.

‘The wisdom of our age tells us “Shut up and let the market speak”, but market talk betrays a certain mindlessness. In this piercing and piquant book, Campbell Jones invites us to “think the market” when it can’t actually think itself. This book will unleash the critical spirits to keep the beasts at bay and engage the most salient philosophical entailments of our moment along the way.’
Professor Randy Martin, New York University, author of Financialization of Daily Life.

Campbell Jones is Senior Lecturer in sociology at the University of Auckland, Aotearoa (New Zealand).


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