Manchester symposium follow-up

Three distinct ideas (among many others) emerged at the Manchester symposium. The first is the converging interest in the notion of the performative nature of economics from both the Social Studies of Finance movement, and those influenced by poststructuralist literary theory and cultural studies who find it echoes the long held conviction that cultural categories construct the world they also purport to reflect. Although Karel Williams and Ewald Engelen issued a strong warning against a particular version of the performativity hypothesis (because it is in danger of just seeing the mistakes made as merely the application of the wrong model rather a problem with the underlying structures of contemporary financialised capitalism), the notion that the material and epistemological particularities of financial capitalism are neither timeless nor inevitable but are historically and ideologically grounded is tremendously useful for those of us interested in exploring the narratives, images and metaphors through which the very idea of the abstract, placeless, efficient market has been constructed.

The second strand that came to the fore was the specific set of questions and methodologies that literary and cultural-historical scholars can bring to the table, and the consensus was that we have now moved beyond the obsession with finding homologies between literature and money as twinned systems of symbolic representation that was the main thrust of the work that came under the label of the New Economic Criticism (see the podcast from the first conference that features Mary Poovey’s warning against the Five Mistakes made by literary scholars working in this area).

The third notion that struck me was that while some colleagues are issuing a rallying cry for a new History of Capitalism (see Michael Zakim’s post on the Oxford conference), others feel that there is something quite distinctive about the History of Financial Capitalism.

My question, then, is whether the research questions being pursued by the Cultural Economy and Social Studies of Finance researchers can feed into or feed off the concerns of the turn to a more historicised form of the New Economic Criticism, and whether the focus is more accurately thought of as financial capitalism rather than captialism per se. And this relates to a question raised by Leigh Claire LaBerge in the final roundtable, of what we think is at stake in the work we are doing. For my own part, in some ways I’m trying to work out the genealogy of the personification of “the market” as having a mind and a will of its own, in order to suggest that the ‘myth of the rational market’ (in the title of Justin Fox’s book) it is a historically contingent category that has been shaped through a wide variety of everyday material and textual practices.


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