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Journal of Cultural Economy

ISSN: 1753-0350 (Print) 1753-0369 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rjce20

Pragmatics of Money and Finance: Beyond


Performativity and Fundamental Value
Melinda Cooper & Martijn Konings
To cite this article: Melinda Cooper & Martijn Konings (2016) Pragmatics of Money and
Finance: Beyond Performativity and Fundamental Value, Journal of Cultural Economy, 9:1, 1-4,
DOI: 10.1080/17530350.2015.1117516
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17530350.2015.1117516

Published online: 29 Dec 2015.

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Date: 08 February 2016, At: 03:41

PRAGMATICS OF MONEY AND FINANCE:


BEYOND PERFORMATIVITY AND
FUNDAMENTAL VALUE
Melinda Cooper and Martijn Konings

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(Received 4 November 2015; accepted 4 November 2015)


Contemporary approaches to nance as diverse as performativity theory and Marxist valueform theory have a tendency to lapse into a dogmatic structuralism that merely replicates
the orthodoxies of nancial economics. These approaches are unable to account for the
possibility of either systemic failure or historical rupture in the organization of nancial
markets. This introduction considers several possible ways of exiting this impasse and
presents an overview of the papers in this special issue.
KEYWORDS: money; nancialization; performativity; value theory

In the recent growth of social and cultural approaches to economic life, the notion of
the performative has been front and centre. The problematic of performativity has been
developed as a critique of economistic essentialism and has typically emphasized the
need to understand economic phenomena in non-reductionist ways, as contingent assemblages that acquire a degree of stability through processes of iterative association (Callon
2008; Mackenzie 2008; Mackenzie et al. 2008). The performativity agenda has thus effected
a shift away from ontological questions about the nature of institutions or the value of identities towards the practical constructive effects of cognitive devices, affective afliations
and discursive techniques. Although this research programme has been highly successful
and productive, as the notion of performativity has found wider application in thinking
about the nature of economy, it has tended to accrue exactly the kind of essentialist
valences and idealist connotations that it was initially meant to serve as an antidote to.
This trend has been diagnosed most prominently in Judith Butlers (2010) highly publicized
article in the Journal of Cultural Economy, which argued that theoretical articulations framed
within the performativity problematic have experienced considerable difculty differentiating themselves from more conventional sociological notions of social construction. They
have increasingly reverted to idealist formulations of the relation between norms and practices, so undermining the distinctive promise and critical potential of a pragmatic, nonessentialist and post-representational approach to social theory.
As part of the movement that Butlers essay diagnoses the tendency for the pragmatic critique of economism to collapse into a neo-Kantian idealism the intellectual relevance of the critique of economism has undergone a transformation. The substantive
inuence of materialist foundationalism on social and cultural approaches to economy has
been minimal, and so it would be hard to argue that the tendency for performativity scholarship to continuously position itself in contradistinction to such approaches is a response to a
real intellectual danger. Increasingly, the preoccupation with the critique of economism
serves as a rhetorical means to divert attention from the importation of and implicit reliance

2015 Taylor & Francis

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MELINDA COOPER AND MARTIJN KONINGS

on orthodox concepts and formalistic images of economy. The insistence on the performative character of social constitution becomes less and less itself a critical stance and comes to
serve more and more as a legitimating element in a problematic movement from materialist
foundationalism through pragmatic anti-foundationalism to an idealist foundationalism.
The concern with avoiding essentialism has not so much resulted in an effective
capacity for non-essentialist theorizing but rather serves to rationalize the reliance on
orthodox conceptions of economy. At the limit the idealist impulse at work here results
in an hagiography of knowledge (Bryan et al. 2012, p. 307) that attributes self-actualizing
capacities to cognitive models. This signals the danger that performativity scholarship
might be following in the tracks of economic sociology, which over the past decades
has established itself as a eld not by rethinking the nature of economy but by insisting
on the importance of social, cultural and political factors, so substituting a critique of
economism for a critique of economy during the very era that saw a dramatic expansion
of economic rationality and its penetration into new areas of human life.
A similar idealist impasse can be found in Marxist value theory, which has undergone
something of a renaissance in the last decade or so. Closely associated with the journal Endnotes in the USA and UK and Thorie Communiste in France, a new generation of Marxist
theorists have sought to return to the critical value-form theories of the 1970s and
beyond this, to the heterodox Marxism of the Russian theorist Isaak Rubin (1972). Throughout the twentieth century, Rubins anti-foundational value theory has inspired a wide array
of value-form theories that include the early work of Diane Elson (1979), Moishe Postone
(1993), the open Marxists, Thorie Communiste in France and Neue Marx-Lektre in
Germany (cf. Gawne 2014). In their different ways, these theorists offer an anti-foundational
theory of the value-relation and a critique of Marxist productivism. Following Rubin, they
reject the canonical interpretation of Marx as a proponent of the labour theory of value,
arguing that this represents a conation of Marxs critique of political economy with the
classical theories of Ricardo and the left Ricardians. What they instead extract from
Marxs posthumous work is what Diane Elson termed a value theory of labour that highlights the determinative role of abstraction in the disciplining of labour.
Yet value-form theory too demonstrates a tendency to relapse into structuralist stasis
(cf. Knafo 2007). Even the most recent exponents of value-form theory have tended to read
the abstraction of value in terms of an unchanging script and have had trouble coming to
grips with the periodic crises of value that are a hallmark of modern capitalist history. With
their exclusive focus on the question of measure and equivalence, value theorists have
proved incapable of grappling with the various uninsured, contingent and derivative
value-forms that have proliferated in the post-Bretton Woods era.
One way of exiting this impasse is suggested by the work of Elie Ayache (2010), whose
theory of value begins with the derivative or contingent money claim rather than the
exchangeable equivalent and revises value theory in terms of an ontology of price. For
Ayache, the calculation project of modern capitalism can be formulated as a mathematical
paradox: how are we to theorize the exchangeability of the non-equivalent or the liquidity
of the uninsured money claim? Ayaches elegant solution takes its bearings from Deleuzes
(2004 [1968]) ontology of non-metric difference, which is in turn inspired by developments
in modern mathematics ranging from Mandelbrots theory of fractals (2006) to topologies
of non-Euclidean space (de Landa 2002). Yet it hardly escapes the structuralist impasse. For
all its anti-foundationalist claims, Ayache ends up with an ontology of price which is as
radical in its self-referential closure as any other orthodox theory of nance.

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PRAGMATICS OF MONEY AND FINANCE

Crucially, having dismissed the idea that labour constitutes the foundation of value,
Ayache can nd no other way of theorizing their relationship and offers little insight into
the connections between wages, debt and nance. This is a striking failure when one considers the ever closer imbrication of wage and capital ows in the structures of contemporary nance; even more striking when one considers the role played by ballooning
consumer debt and stagnant wages in precipitating the global nancial crisis. Piketty
(2014) reminds us that the power differential between income from capital and income
from labour is what denes a regime of accumulation as capitalist. Structured nancial
instruments serve precisely to channel income from labour into income from capital,
without reducing the power differential between the two. The payment streams generated
by mortgage or student-loan backed securities, for example, are accumulated from the
unpredictable wages of an entire generation of precarious workers. How then can we
develop a non-foundationalist theory that is still capable of conceptualizing the relationship between capital and labour and allows us to understand how growing wealth and
income disparities are connected to the immanent possibility of crisis within contemporary
nance?
Without venturing to provide an answer here, we can at least point out that the ontological closure of Ayaches model excludes these questions from the very outset. The same
could be said for performativity theorys self-referential and self-actualizing model of nancial knowledge which is unable to conceptualize the ways in which wages are captured
within the structures of securitized nance. With their exclusive focus on income from
capital (the interests, dividends and rents produced by nancial assets), both approaches
seem to have implicitly accepted the idea that workers are now equivalent to investors
and labour no different from any other income-generating asset a fallacy that lies at
the heart of the various capitalist utopias of the last few decades, from asset-based
welfare to shareholder capitalism and the ownership society.
In all of these instances, avowedly anti-foundational and performative theories of
value end up in an idealist impasse which makes it difcult to address the possibility of
economic failure, crisis or antagonism.
This special issue seeks to make an intervention into the evolving problematic of the
performative constitution of money and nance by foregrounding the pragmatics of their
production. To recognize the contingency of order should not be the occasion for a
renewed idealism whether that takes a liberal-pluralist form, as in performativity scholarship or, as in Ayaches work, invites a positive theology of capitalism but should rather
prompt a non-formalistic engagement with the contradictions of contemporary nancialized capitalism. It is important here to recognize the limits of endlessly rehearsing the critique of economism and foundationalism. That money lacks fundamental value is
something that market participants and central banks already know all too well, and the
innovations and adjustments they undertake should be seen as responding to the
absence of such foundations. The difculty of identifying money is key to its practical operation and this special issue seeks to theorize the ways in which the complex quality of
moneyness is constituted through its various derivative forms.
In this respect we are following recent post-cultural turns that have been central to
the Journal of Cultural Economy project and propose to examine themes of materiality and
affect and their relation to issues of culture and representation through an exploration of
the paradoxical character of money, nance and economy. After all, at the same time as
value forms have proliferated and it has become impossible to specify an essential

MELINDA COOPER AND MARTIJN KONINGS

repository of value, money has assumed a distinctly non-representational force, which


works in ways that do not rely on economic actors believing in its fundamental value or
objectivity. And yet, even if moneys complexity is pervaded by an affective force that
ensures that a dollar is a dollar (Negri 1999, p. 82), we know all too well that money can
fail, as it so manifestly did in the run on shadow banking that precipitated the nancial
crisis. By engaging these questions, we hope to give an impetus to the kind of cultural
economy that does not get sidetracked with the critique of economism but remains
above all concerned to offer a critique of economy.

DISCLOSURE STATEMENT
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author(s).

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REFERENCES
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BUTLER, J.

Melinda Cooper (author to whom correspondence should be addressed), Department


of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Sydney, NSW, Australia. Email:
melinda.cooper@sydney.edu.au
Martijn Konings (author to whom correspondence should be addressed), Department of
Political Economy, University of Sydney, NSW, Australia.

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