The Word of Critique

Another slip of the pen! This paragraph from The Provoked Economy is explicitly about the grammar of critique:

“If being critical means saying that things are bad (which is one way critique is predominantly understood in the social sciences today), then it looks like there is plenty of choice in our dubious economic world (depending of course on the ‘we’ who talks). If it means considering truth from all possible angles (in the often forgotten philosophical sense of the world), it is also clear that there is still a plethora of things to be studied about the connections and contradictions that govern our thought (also with a caveat on ‘our’). If it means setting κρίσις (krísis) in motion (instituting a distinction, drawing a separation or, more prosaically, just changing things), then we surely need to acknowledge the countless interventions that purposefully aim at marking our economic reality (and our political deictics too).” (p. 130)

Why then taking the “word” for the “world”?

Foregrounding References: Another One

The Provoked Economy is controlled, implicitly and explicitly (as its author Fabian Muniesa is), by the debt owed to Javier Izquierdo (also known as A. Javier Izquierdo Martín in plain national Castilian, or as J. Izquierdo Antonio, an absurd nom de plume he claimed was his official credit card name). His old personal website is still on-line at the UNED (the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, in Madrid), with tons of papers on statistical reflexivity, financial forgery, metaphysical pranks, space tourism, cargo cult, football pragmatics and video theology. Here is a clarification from “Javier Izquierdo and the Methodology of Reality”, a short piece in which the humble disciple remembers the teachings of the master, after is death in 2010:

“In 1995, Javier Izquierdo (Colmenar Viejo, 12 June 1970 – Colmenar Viejo, 2 July 2010), then a doctoral student in sociology, initiated a liberal seminar for undergraduate students at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid […]. One of the seminar’s purposes was to have people with whom to discuss the readings he was gathering for his own research. The seminar was titled ‘La gramática de los precios’ (‘The Grammar of Prices’) and consisted of an illuminating exploration of scholarly work that was not, at that time, part of the canons of sociological education. […] The thread running through the seminar concerned the potential foundations for a moral sociology of pricing and forecasting that would take into account the technicality, artificiality and reflexivity of social reality. As the social-scientific observation of social reality in part constitutes what social reality is, so methods of measurement, valuation and accounting were to be treated as the very stuff the sociologist ought to scrutinize.” (p. 109)

It’s impressive how many references used in The Provoked Economy actually come from that foundational seminar. As it all was there already! Without surprise, it must be said, the most prominent topics that gave shape to the promising field of the “social studies of finance” in the early 2000s were already prefigured in the doctoral work that Javier Izquierdo concluded in 1999: the moral ambiguity of financial devices, the dangers of technocratic escalation, the meanders of techno-scientific reflexivity, the pragmatics of financial forgery, the politics of government through money, including the premonition of financial catastrophe. Delitos, faltas y premios Nóbel: ingeniería financiera y el sentido común de la justicia en las sociedades tecnológicas avanzadas (Crimes, Misdemeanours and Nobel Prizes: Financial Engineering and the Common Sense of Justice in Advanced Industrial Societies) is the title of the book manuscript (sadly unpublished) that came out of that work. His lucid obsession with hidden camera pranks (see here and here) translated in a most unusual argument on Las Meninas (literally considered as the “making of” documentary of a hidden camera prank). More obscure is his last manuscript, published posthumously as Marcianos, melanesios, millonarios, mochileros y murcianos: De la perdición económica o el turista espacial (Martians, Melanesians, Millionaires, Backpackers and Guys from Murcia: From Economic Perdition to Spatial Tourism, see also this):

“The book is a unique attempt at developing the potentials of a surrealist viewpoint in sociological work. It tackles the topic of Spain, especially the expression and self-observation of ‘Spanishness’ throughout the so-called Spanish touristic miracle of the 1960s onwards. The persona of the foreign tourist is presented as the candid victim of an anthropological prank (the production and display of the cultural singularity of Spain), but also as the vehicle of a very peculiar economic cargo cult (Spain’s access to economic modernity through the reception of the proverbial foreign tourist).” (p. 111)

Interested in the genealogy of The Provoked Economy? Well, it starts here.


Felicitous Review

Another beautiful review of The Provoked Economy! This time proposed by Hervé Dumez and available from Le Libellio. It’s here, pages 61 to 66 (in French). It contains a most careful reading, and a number of most relevant challenges. From the conclusion:

“In the first page of Fabian Muniesa’s book, we can read the word “felicitous”. The word comes back a few times. But the book does not seem to consider the problem of performative failure. Curiously enough, the image of the bridge is offered: “For reality is indeed constructed, but it is so as the bridge stands firmly over the water, that is, insofar as it undergoes a laborious process of material assemblage” (p. 11). But, precisely: bridges fall down from time to time, even in the context of modern technology” (p. 65)

Point well taken! Thanks, Hervé.

Elementary Review

Barbara Czarniawska, the Arthur Conan Doyle of organizational science, authored a review of The Provoked Economy that is better than the book. A quick excerpt:

“The title of the second part is ‘Elementary case studies’, but they are about as elementary as Sherlock Holmes’ cases. Indeed, Muniesa is Sherlock, and the readers are Watsons, but the explanations are engaging and convincing.”

The review is available from the Scandinavian Journal of Management. Thank you Barbara!


Recap and Critique

Putting here a summary of chapters from The Provoked Economy (see 1a, 1b, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6a, 6b and 7) is, in part, a modest contribution to the publicity of a book that nobody is really meant to actually buy, at least not directly (it costs a fortune, although perhaps an invisible friend might have wanted to do something about that). It is also a way to compensate from the lack of summary thereof in what is offered in the book’s very short “tentative conclusion” (p. 127-130). These four pages go straight to the question of the “critical edge”. It naturally sides with proposals that see in “the performative” (whatever this means) not an impediment against critique (scholarly, political or otherwise) but rather the condition of critique proper. And there are numerous such proposals: see for example recent discussions on critical performativity (a topic that is alive and well, judging from this interesting call), on the limits of performativity, or on the political performative.

Here the point is just to see how the book’s favorite notions (description, simulacrum, provocation, explicitness) do translate into a critical repertoire. They do, of course. And in order to sum up the idea, the conclusion talks about something like “experimental critique”. How this differs from standard views of what critique means (whether understood in the mundane sense of telling that something is bad or good, or in the more philosophical sense of considering signification from all possible angles), is for the reader to judge — and for the author too, certainly elsewhere:

“The point of the idea of experimental critique is to add to this but a nuance: that, in all cases, the performative condition of the critical undertaking should not be taken as some sort of demoralizing deterrence, but rather as part of its deliberate methodology. And the how and the where remains also an open question — definitely not something these pages could settle.” (p. 130)

Chapter 7: Performance Indicators and the State of Economy

The last chapter before the conclusion of The Provoked Economy (“Indicating economic action”) is about something scholars with an interest on the vagaries of public management in France recognize through a funny acronym: LOLF. That stands for a huge reform of public finance and public management carried out in the early 2000s, often presented as the vehicle of the modernization of the state, i.e. its entrance into a state of performance. And the prime fixtures in the vehicle are, as expected, performance indicators:

“Performance targets and indicators: these are the demons of today’s impulses towards a transparent, cost-efficient, governable, rational handling of economic things. We find them in all kinds of organizations. In the private sector, they usually serve management accounting and strategy precepts. In the public sector, they often accompany the orientation referred to as ‘new public management’. They are almost always involved in some movement of ‘reform’, ‘change’, ‘rationalization’ or ‘modernization’, that is, they are meant to prompt or help prompt the modification (the improvement, their advocates would say) of the things they refer to. They are certainly linked, as critical commentators like to emphasize, to the political expectations of neoliberalism (at least sometimes), but you can see them informed also by quite different ideological ventures. Their performative capacity is now perhaps a commonplace among practitioners and researchers alike: performance indicators are meant to describe things, but through the describing, the things are transformed (sometimes unintentionally, sometimes intentionally). They offer a quite fertile ground for disputes and quandaries on their semiotic purpose and efficacy.” (p. 108)

The chapter locates in the “semiotic haze” that resulted from these masses of performance indicators the particularly salient thread of “economic indication”:

“Something important in the LOLF movement had to do with the economic reality of the action of the state: its economic costs and rationales, its economic impacts and effects. Many of the struggles and quandaries that animated the semiotic haze were about the interpretation and implementation of an economic template for the state to express itself. The reform altogether was, in one way or another, about economizing. But what does this mean? Some interpreters put an emphasis on economic rationing and budgetary control while others cared more about economic drive and the provision of incentives.” (p. 113)

Some critical interpreters of the reform see indeed in it a threat. A threat to what? Not to the economic nature of the state (if it ever had one); rather to its political nature (it’s true one, some would say). The chapter contemplates these critical accounts with sympathy (the chapter refers, for example, to Albert Ogien). But it also insinuates how gloomy a praise for the political nature of the state can be, especially in the face of today’s revival of the apostle of trenchant decision against the menace of democratic softness and political emasculation — yes, that is Carl Schmitt (and here the chapter rather issues a warning). In order to tackle the complicated moral tension that there can exist between “economization” and “politicization” (a tension already pointed out here), the chapter points the reader to the problem of “politics of economization” as signaled by Michel Foucault.

The chapter examines, for example, what does “political” mean when some state practitioners talk about performance indicators that would signal and assess the “political” orientation of scientific research. It treats these sorts of semiotic situations as what Dominique Linhardt has aptly called “trials of state”. It also obeys a concern once defended by Alain Desrosières for the detailed examination of the producers of quantification (for instance, this one and this one, in the case of the assessment of the state’s performance in the scientific domain). It asks how science and innovation indicators intervene in this “semiotic haze” and how they connect or not with a certain vision of political or economic conduct:

“The LOLF’s trial of explicitness was in part about what it meant to quantify scientific production and about who was better equipped to do that. Styles of statistical work were put to the test, all with slightly different views of what quantification, science and also the state were about, and their roles in the economy. Without much surprise, indeed the state’s ‘role in the economy’ was a paramount concern in the semiotic haze, and this touched the role of scientific research, in the form of debate over state-sponsored or state-conducted scientific research and its consequences. Considering science in terms of economic effects is, of course, problematic. The name often put on that problem is ‘innovation’, a brilliant but obscure concept that conveys, sometimes hesitantly and sometimes explicitly, the idea of translating something from an area called ‘science’ (laboratories, universities, etc.) to another one called ‘the economy’ (firms, industry, technological applications, etc.). The thing that undergoes translation (knowledge?) is hard to define, but what counts are the accounting instruments that allow it to be shown that some kind of translation (or ‘transfer’ as practitioners put it) is going on: patents, revenues, those types of things which are recurrently taken as quantifiable proxies for economic effects.” (p. 121)

Finally, and linking back to the main conceptual tenets of The Provoked Economy, the chapter asks what kind of a state — a “state of economy” — is provoked through the crafts of economic indication.

“Calls for a neat distinction of outputs from outcomes generate indeed, in a performative fashion, a whole set of novel concerns, procedures and ideas of what the state is that simply did not exist as such beforehand, in my opinion. Imagine, for example, a position for which the idea of the state would be characterized, precisely, by outputs and outcomes being indistinguishable. This is a position that seems to me to be quite classical on the political identity of the sovereign state and its function in the constitution of reality, a position that is not quite sustainable now, if one is to make the state’s action explicit in line with an ‘inside/outside’, ’cause/effect’ template.” (p. 124-125)

Quite naturally, the chapter ends with a reflection on how The Provoked Economy, itself a scientific publication that enters the edifice of publicly funded research assessment, is or ought to be considered in the terms of a performance of the state.

Capitalizing on Performativity: Performing on Capitalization

The Provoked Economy is happy to claim association with “Capitalizing on Performativity: Performing on Capitalization”, a PERFORMABUSINESS symposium to be held next week, 16-17 October 2014, at the Ecole des Mines de Paris. The program is available here. The program’s opening paragraph actually seems to be a quote from the book…:

“A cogent appraisal of the spirit of contemporary capitalism and its problems calls, I believe, for renewed attention to the performative. Business schools, consultancy firms, corporations, investment banks, start-up companies, market research agencies, public administrations and other sites of business life are characterized by the presence of habits, idioms and apparatuses that constitute a significant part of the reality of business. These include techniques for the simulation of business situations, methods for the explanation of business problems, instruments for the valuation of business endeavours, and tools for the presentation of business outcomes. But simulation, explanation, valuation and presentation are not only about accounting for external states of affair. They are, at least in part, about moulding, enacting, provoking and effecting the business realities they signify.” (p. 127)

Foregrounding References: Materiality

One of the most compelling critiques of the interpretation of performativity in terms of “the power of words” — a critique with which The Provoked Economy should side enthusiastically from the outset — is from Karen Barad: “Performativity, properly construed, is not an invitation to turn
everything (including material bodies) into words; on the contrary, performativity is precisely a contestation of the excessive power granted to language to determine what is real” (in “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter”, p. 802 — see also her Meeting the Universe Halfway). Signification and matter considered together, aptly escaping the separation between words and things: that is the name of Barad’s pragmatist game.

Foregrounding References: Discipline

There is a hole in The Provoked Economy that should have been filed up with the help of Jon McKenzie‘s Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance (hat tip to Stevphen Shukaitis and to Ephemera): not just because of the connections the author establishes between cultural, organizational and technological repertoires of performance, but also, most importantly, for the link between all these and the crafts of pressure. The hole, yes, is that of discipline and precipitation. Why did not The Provoked Economy start with this beautiful piece of work? Answer: no time.