JWTC
JWTC Blog

Friday, July 23, 2010

Capital as Image


Achille Mbembe. Image by Annie Leatt

Achille Mbembe began his talk by stating that the title, “Capital as Image,” is deceptive. On the one hand, he meant that he would not be addressing the issue of capital as image in any systematic way; that the ideas he would be presenting were tentative, exploratory, fragmentary, and experimental. On the other hand, his opening gambit cleverly introduced a key term in the ruminations that followed: deception. According to an important tradition of French thought, Mbembe observed, the image is fundamentally deceptive. At the same time, it is imbued with deep meaning. Through a series of personal reflections and philosophical readings, Mbembe illustrated how the image is always underpinned by the effective use of this ambiguity.

For Mbembe, the mask epitomizes the ontology of the image. Reflecting on the first time he saw a mask as a child in Cameroon, Mbembe adumbrated a number of tropes related to the image: the play of surfaces and shadows, the principles of appearance and oscillation, the dialectic of concealment and transparency, and the underneath of things. But Mbembe was more interested in a different mask: the death mask, that mould that renders the face in objective form. For Blanchot – a crucial thinker in Mbembe’s exposition – the death mask seeks meaning in death beyond its immediate context. In other words, it implies the resurrection and transcendence of physical contingency. Mbembe recalls Jesus’ injunction to the buried Lazarus: “Lazaras, come forth!” Following Blanchot’s exegesis of this Gospel, Mbembe suggests that the mission of reading and literature is to open a path, to bring forth what has been buried and give it new meaning. All of this means that the image is simply another name for exteriority, an outside so external that it can never become authentic experience. It is, as Mbembe tells us, the end of every appearance.

What happens, then, when life becomes nothing more than the accumulation of spectacles? This is a world, as Mbembe reminds us, that Guy Debord glimpsed decades ago. Under conditions where the spectacle mediates social relationships as a material force, and thereby inserts itself in the very heart of society, “deceit deceives itself” (Debord). From this double deception arise forms of separation, alienation, dispossession, and a host of prolematics at the centre of capitalist critique.

In his conclusion, Mbembe asked: “How are we to think of images and the technologies that produce them?” Moreover, how might we understand the value that images bring to capital? In this tentative talk, Mbembe did not claim to have answers to these questions. He suggested, however, that one possible line of inquiry would take up Paul Virilio’s thoughts on the ubiquity, speed, and force of images. If I understood him correctly, Mbembe suggested that a critique that seriously engages the technologies of images and perception might help us forge a freer relationship with images.

Most of the responses addressed issues of historical genealogy. One participant reminded us of William Pietz’s genealogy of the fetish, in which the magic fetish arises out of an encounter with the unknown, and in particular the magic “fetish” of Africans encountered during the slave trade. Other participants were more interested in the notion of deception. They asked questions such as: Do images hide anything these days, or they are mere simulacra? And: Is it not the case that today truth is the best form of the lie?

From my own perspective as a musicologist, I would be interested in thinking about how the sonorous might unsettle our notions of deception. Although one participant was vehement that the term “image” is not restricted to visual perception and thus that discussion of different sensorial apparatuses is irrelevant, the history of Western metaphysics does not support this view. We need only recall Derrida’s many critiques of the “ontology of presence” – which, it needs to be said, is all about the voice – to realize the problematic place of the sonorous in Western thought. In fact, despite their many differences and nuances, it is possible to argue that the properly Romantic notion of sound as unmediated presence continues to haunt much recent theory. For example, in Jean-Luc Nancy’s recent book, Listening, he claims problematically that whereas with the gaze “the subject is referred back to itself as object,” in “terms of listening, it is, in a way, to itself that the subject refers or refers back.” In a way, this privileging of listening is related to a mistrust not only of the image but of sight itself. Some have argued that this mistrust is based on a Judaic strain of theorizing epitomized by Levinas and Lyotard, whose ethics were based on the Hebraic taboo of visual representation. So Lyotard writes in Driftworks that “in Hebraic ethics representation is forbidden, the eye closes, the ear opens in order to hear the father’s word.” And Levinas will write that hearing breaks “with the self-complete world of vision and art.” For him, “sound is a ringing, clanging scandal.”

These are admittedly limited readings. But they help us to explain Mbembe’s comments later in the day during a discussion of the World Cup. Mbembe referred to two recent events in which South Africa broke productively with its nationalist clich├ęs. First, in order to participate in something we might never see again, people in South Africa picked up the vuvuzela. In doing so, says Mbembe, noise was turned into voice. “But a voice that remains to be deciphered,” he quickly added. Second, he referred to the “glossolalia” experienced at a fan zone in Cape Town. This glossolalia resulted is a kind of public community seldom experienced in South Africa. Without belabouring the point, it’s obvious that sound doesn’t elicit the same kind of mistrust that images do. In fact, sound is often understood as our only alternative.

The task, as I see it, is to demystify sound by not thinking of it as the innocent Other of the deceitful image. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that the sonorous is not equivalent to the visual. This is not simply a phenomenological matter. On the contrary, we need to develop an ontology of the sonorous at the same moment as we develop an ontology of the image. An ontology of the sonorous will not, however, reveal the “secret” of the image. And this, of course, is precisely my point.

Gavin Steingo

More on Charismatic Financialism


Image by Aude Dieude

In his opening remarks heralding the inception of the 2010 JWTC, Achille Mbembe, senior researcher at Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER), crisply laid out the key themes and critical endeavors that would provide signposts for participants in the ensuing week and a half of dialogue and reflection. Mbembe described these as:

o Conceptualizing and experimenting with heuristics for the conduct of global conversation based in the South

o Thinking critically about such a conversation’s relationship to very particular urban spaces, which in turn may provide the performative realm for the playing out of new cultural moves that offer the possibility for the production of new forms of life (i.e., self-ownership, self-creation, and freedom)

o Giving careful consideration to the unique contours of wealth and property in the South African context

o Relating this local/regional scene of capital production, mobilization, and accumulation to the global circulatory network of financial capital and its ever more technocratic and opaque techniques.

Taking direct aim at the meta-discursive theme of financial capitalism’s unique influence on the global structure of feeling, Arjun Appadurai’s paper “Charismatic Financialism” provided a pointed and powerful opening to the workshop and established an extremely productive platform upon which to begin pursuing a vision of how “theorizing from the south” may offer flashes of redemptive insight in the face of the obscene scene of contemporary capitalism’s glaring social inequities.

Appadurai began his critique by situating the audience at the moment in the early 1970s when the episodic evolution of “efficient market” theory crystallized into the hegemonic basis for a new kind of dominant capitalist business model, one based on the utilization of derivatives for the identification, calculation, packaging (i.e., securitization), marketing, and selling of risk. Bearing witness to the unexpected swing toward radical indeterminacy in financialization’s neoliberal modus operandi—an interregnum precipitated by the US-led global credit crisis of 2007-08—Appadurai’s paper advanced an implicit call for the repoliticization of high finance’s narcissistic and solipsistic conception of risk and risk-management.

In this respect, “Charismatic Financialism” represented another stage in Appadurai’s confident entry into the rich field of scholarship regarding what has been productively referred to as “cultures of finance,” a nomenclature that congeals a set of debates actively shaped by disciplines operating outside of the cloistered realm of neo-classical economics and the managerial orthodoxy of the traditional Anglo-American MBA program. With an eye toward the established literature, Appadurai positioned his account in the space between the two primary strands of non-doctrinaire capitalist hermeneutics; one exemplified by economic sociology and the social science of finance’s preoccupation with what Foucault would describe as financial capital’s “micro-techniques” of power; the other categorized by an anthropologically derived focus on contemporary capitalism’s penchant for the reanimation of enchantment, magic, and luck within the popular imagination.

Poised between these two approaches, the crux of Appadurai’s critical insurgency hinged upon what he called an “odd historical telescoping” of the economic and religious sociology of Max Weber, a rich body of scholarship which Appadurai employed as the roadmap for a sophisticated genealogy of capitalism’s ethical core. Through a close re-reading of Weber’s classic study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (viz., Die Protestantische Ethik Und Der Geist Des Kapitalismus), Appadurai traced the epistemological thread connecting Luther’s anti-capitalist Christianity to the “invisible hand” of providence in Calvin’s subsequent and decisive contribution to the Protestant Reformation. In Calvinism, the actions of human beings in the world have the ability to reflect and extend divine will, a dialectical reversal in the gift of salvation that paves the way for the market to function as a beautiful machine going about the business of what Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein infamously referred to as “God’s work.” The arc of this evolution is crucial for Appadurai for it reveals how the habitus that finance capital has fashioned in its own image emerged and ossified as common sense.

Given that Weber did not concern himself with the capitalist figure as a uniquely modern incarnation of risk and risk-taking, of what relevance, Appadurai asks, is he to the contemporary scene? On this matter, Appadurai is keen to suggest that a ghost lies embedded within financial capitalism’s quantitative risk-management devices, one that could make an uncanny and disruptive return via the eruption of model-defiant tropes of “uncertainty.” Interestingly enough, Appadurai locates this uncanny presence not within exogenous “Black Swan” events, but rather within what he calls “Device Skeptics” who operate deep within the circuitry of global capital’s circulatory motherboard. These Device Skeptics reawaken the spirit of uncertainty within modern capitalism through the dexterity with which they make daringly large bets against the herd-like behavior symptomatic of an asset price bubble. For Appadurai, the contrarian charisma put forward by “short-selling bears,” like the celebrated financier George Soros and the hedge fund apostle John Paulson, channels a kind of pre-modern ethos of uncertainty and excess reminiscent of the potlatch chiefs in traditional societies, thereby instantiating an “Uncertainty Imaginary” that lies outside of the otherwise prevailing system. Here, we can witness chance reasserting itself over “the Culture of Control.”[1]

Yet, for all of this, there remains something disturbingly unsatisfying about Appadurai’s account of these cryptic market pessimists. For, after all, we might ask, are they true charismatics, or merely synthetic facsimiles thereof? Appardauri himself confessed during the question and answer portion of the discussion that the “Charismatic Financialism” of the short-selling bears might ultimately boil down to merely just one more arbitrage opportunity among many—however colossal in scope and profitability.[2] In my own skepticism about the efficacy of regarding the proverbial “Master of the Universe” as a weirdly spectral force, I recall the scathing critique of Weber’s theory of charisma put forward recently by the late religious sociologist and cultural critic, Phillip Rieff. In his book, Charisma: The Gift of Grace and How it Has Been Taken From Us, Rieff argues that Weberian charismatic authority is merely the stuff of celebrity, a flimsy and dangerous imitation of the fire and brimstone-laced interdictions of the genuine article. So, rather than offering the “animus” of the Old Testament prophetic tradition, the Weberian charismatic merely gives a therapeutic masquerade of conflict resolution. As Rieff puts it, “our charismatics [today] are engaged in no wrestling with angels, but rather with the obeying of demons.”[3] Furthermore, he stresses, “there is no charisma without creed…there must be a conscious and intense established symbolic in the field before there can be a standard that can be used to break through that field. Doubt, skepticism, infidelity, are not charisma.” Of course, the stern ministrations of a theological scold like Rieff may in fact lead us directly to the kind of charismatic authority proffered by Osama Bin Laden, al-Shabab, and politico-evangelists like the Tea Party’s favorite son, Rand Paul.

So, ultimately, I come away from Appadurai’s brilliant exposition musing about whether “theorizing from the South” can achieve resonance by offering vigorous resistance to two diametrically opposed but tightly connected ideological systems: a) one whereby charismatic authority is wielded in the name of a market-led therapeutics where all that is solid melts into the air; and b) the other playing out as an adversarial—even violent—reinscription of a faith-based fundamentalism that Rieff describes as “holy terror.” It is from within this unlikely and harrowing aporia that the phoenix of redemption might yet arise.

Christopher Holmes Smith

University of Southern CaliforniaAnnenberg School for Communication & Journalism


[1] Jackson Lears, Something for Nothing: Luck in America (NY: Viking, 2003).

[2] Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (NY: W.W. Norton, 2010)

[3] Phillip Rieff, Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How it has Been Taken From Us (NY: Vintage, 2008).

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