TOPIA 30/31 “The Financialized Imagination” (April 2014)

I am extremely pleased to announce that, after many months of work, a special double issue (30/31) of TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies has been released.  Purchase it and get more information here:

Jody Berland and I co-edited this theme issue, which includes a host of phenomenal contributions from a wide range of scholars, established and emerging.

There will be a launch party on April 12, 2014, 5pm-7pm at the Melody Bar in Toronto, which will also be the Toronto launch of my new book Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power.



Max Haiven and Jody Berland – The Financialized Imagination (In Memory of Stuart Hall)



John Clarke – Imagined Economies: Austerity and the Moral Economy of ‘Fairness’

Mathias Nilges – Finance Capital and the Time of the Novel or, Money Without Narrative Qualities

Matthew Flisfeder – Debt: The Sublimated Object of Capital

Rob Aitken – Games and the Subjugated Knowledges of Finance: Art and Science in the Speculative Imaginary


Andrew Calcutt – Fictitious Capital: London and the Financial Imagination

Cathy Greenfield and Peter Williams – From Shadowy Zone to Daily Routine: Finance Culture in Australia

Sarah Blacker – “Your DNA Doesn’t Need to be Your Destiny”: Colonialism, Public Health, and the Financialization of Medicine

Chris Arthur – Financial Literacy Education as Public Pedagogy for the Capitalist Debt Economy


Mark Hayward – Settling Accounts: On the Subject of Economic Confessions

Michelle Stewart and Jason Pine – Vocational Embodiments of the Precariat in The Girlfriend Experience and Magic Mike

Robert Hutton – The Gamification of Finance

Sarah E.K. Smith – Making Sense of the “Endless Play of Signs” in the Work of Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge

Jamie Lynn Magnusson and Elizabeth Abergel – The Art of (Bio)Surveillance: Bioart and the Financialization of Life Systems


Michael Stein – “Do You Own an Oil Company?” A Political Consideration of the Financialized Subject

David E Maynard – Finding Financialization in Satire

Simon Orpana and Evan Mauro – First as Tragedy, Then as Ford: Performing the Biopolitical Image in the Age of Austerity, from the G20 to Toronto City Hall

Matthew Tiessen – Giving Credit Where Credit’s Due: Making Visible the Ex Nihilo Dimensions of Money’s “Agency”

Review Essays

Toni Pape – Writing Resistance: Sleeplessness, Poetry and the Right to the City under Financial Capitalism

Susan Pell – A Puzzle Constantly Changing Itself: Cultural Studies in the 21st Century

Colin J. Campbell – “Progressive” Canadian Politics and the Paroxysm of Identity


Stephen Gray – Does He Know It’s Neoliberalism After All?

Paulina Mickiewicz – Deconstructing Disability

Trevor Holmes – Feasible Utopias, Frustrated

Matthew Ryan Smith – Toward the Indigenization of Canadian Museums

Sharday Mosurinjohn – Language, Politics and the Novel: Rancière’s Aesthetic History of Problem-Solving in Poetics



From the Editor’s Introduction (By Max Haiven and Jody Berland)


Narrowly defined as the so-called “FIRE” industries (high finance, insurance and real estate), finance has gained tremendous power over the global economy in recent years. Critics describe “financialization” as a profound and far-reaching social and cultural shift. Advances in financial modelling, computing and communications technology have changed the nature and power of financial speculation, while the vast expansion of new forms of debt, credit and everyday financial services has had dramatic impacts on daily life. From credit cards to sub-prime mortgages, from student debt to the privatization of pensions, from pay-day loans and other forms of “fringe finance” to online stock trading, financial practices have become mainstream issues. Films, biographies, novels, television shows and online content about finance and financiers (lionized or demonized) are more popular than ever. Indeed, the logics of finance shape public policy and social institutions, from hospitals and schools, to scientific research labs, to the field of cultural production, where they promote “risk management,” “return on investment” and “market efficiency” as key weapons of neoliberalism. Driven in part by immaterial, speculative, leveraged wealth, this new financialized capitalism normalizes precarious labour and life in material and immaterial forms, so that each of us is expected to manage our own risk portfolios and embrace a life of endless speculation. While the politics of debt, predatory lending and speculative capital have long shaped geopolitical realities, especially in the developing world, this unapologetic “age of austerity” threatens new intensities of inequality and exploitation, with dramatic human and ecological consequences.

Social movements such as Occupy, and broader anti-austerity struggles in Athens, Chile, Nigeria, India, Korea and Montreal, have waged public, culturally innovative struggles over the meaning of debt, the uses and abuses of banking, and the nature of economic power. Critical films, fiction, blogs and other genres seek to probe finance, financialization, finance-based charisma and the financial crisis with varying degrees of success. Facing continuous global financial crises, cultural studies has important questions to ask about the financialized imagination. To launch our investigation of these issues, we invited contributors to address a variety of topics: the cultural representations of finance, financialization, financiers and the financial crisis in and across media; the cultural politics of debt and credit in everyday life and the cultures of political participation; the question of whether finance might be understood as a form of representation of the world; the spread of the spirit of speculative calculation as a new common sense, informing the idiom of speculation and practices of “risk management”; the impacts of the rise of finance capital(ism) on the politics and economics of cultural production; the cultural politics of crisis and response in the age of austerity; the interplay of finance and oppressions related to gender, sexuality, race, class, ability and citizenship, from racialized, predatory sub-prime lending to women-focused microcredit schemes, from the “Wall Street Man” to the legacies of debt-bondage and slavery; the roots and legacies of colonialism and imperialism in finance (and vice versa); and the affective dimensions of finance, financial labour and financial speculation. What does financial wealth represent? What kinds of affects and sensations are produced when wealth is speculated upon, displayed or lost? What is the interplay between material and immaterial capital, labour and culture, and money and power. Finally we asked contributors to consider the shape of struggles against finance, financialization and austerity, including their spaces, strategies, narratives, potentials and limits.

We were pleased at the enthusiastic and thoughtful responses that were offered to this challenge. We summarize the contributions to this issue below.


The power of the imagination in the reproduction of a financialized order is at issue in John Clarke’s contribution. Drawing on critical literature that explores how shared economic landscapes are conceived, Clarke considers the austerity revolution in England under the Cameron government as an “assemblage of economic and moral imaginings” that “combines virtuous political choice, an appeal to obvious economic necessity…and a zealous enthusiasm for diminishing public spending at record speed” (PG#). Clarke argues that the austerity imagination capitalizes on a moral economy of “fairness,” which turns this once-emancipatory term “into a disciplinary moral and economic framing that presses on the poor” and displaces, subordinates, or worse, incorporates dissent (PG#).

As Matthias Nilges aptly asks then in his contribution to this volume, what “happens to the cultural and literary imaginary as well as critical and theoretical thought once our imagination has indeed become financialized? And further: what are the elements and consequences of what we may call a financialized imagination, and how can culture in general and literature in particular provide us with the means for probing the limits of such a form of thought”? If money has lost its narrative properties, how can the story of finance be told? For Nilges, answers may be found in contemporary literary form, in particular, the way in which finance and financial processes are addressed by key authors including William Gibson, Don Delillo, Joshua Ferris, Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney. Indeed, for Nilges, the Zeitroman, or time-novel, emerges as a literary form germane to an age of speculative capital and the compression of the future into present-day commodities.

For Matthew Flisfeder, this imagined dimension of financial wealth (what Marx, instructively, called “fictitious capital”) is crystalized in the power of debt. Drawing on a Lacanian framework, he suggests that “debt is the sublimated object of capital in the sense that it is, itself, a pure nothing that attains object form [and] makes possible the global expansion of capital and capitalist class interests.”  By objectifying a thing that does not “actually” exist, debt holds the system of global accumulation together and allows it to grow. Removing or resisting debt is then key to overcoming capitalism’s power.

In a similar fashion, Rob Aitken is concerned with the way the field of financial “science” is constituted through an often-artificial disassociation from gaming, both historically and in the present. He shows that gaming is a “subjugated knowledge” of finance, following Michel Foucault’s idea that earlier, dismissed forms of knowledge are residual in their more “modern,” “scientific” counterparts. Examining board games based on financial markets from the past 200 years, Aitken argues that these ludic practices contain clues to the cultural and imaginative politics, and weaknesses, of the financialized system. He turns to recent artistic efforts to bring financial practice and games into a more truthful proximity, and underscores their potential for creative and cultural resistance to finance’s rational claims of order.


The financialized imagination is something produced, lived and learned, not only through formal statements and policies, but also through cultural practice, production and daily life. It is also a set of spatial phenomena, with specific patterns and ramifications that shift as it is taken up in local contexts.

Today, London is both constitutive and symptomatic of the shift towards financialization. Andrew Calcutt argues that sith the city’s role as a colonial metropole and manufacturing hub long past, London and its citizens have become nodes of financial circulation: they are mediators of transnational flows, with implications for the spatial politics and forms of labour that cohere there. Noting the historic and contemporary importance of London as a financial hub, Calcutt seeks to understand the way the constrictions of finance capital are lived and reproduced through two case studies: the fate of professional journalism and the rise of the DJ as musical entertainer. In both cases, cultural production reflects and enables the financial sector (The City of London district), but can also be read as a site of generic tension or contradiction: on the one hand, the London of transnational flows, capital circulation and exchange value; on the other, the London created by its inhabitants and their multitudinous cultural vitality. Calcutt does not lament the passing of a time when the “real” city was free of the spectre of finance, but he does make a call to recognize the way abstract, specialized and ephemeral processes of financialization capitalize and depend on material cultural labour that extends well beyond the financial sector’s formal borders.

The interplay between debt, finance, everyday life and the fate of the common and public spheres is at issue in Cathy Greenfield and Peter Williams’ retrospective exploration of the processes whereby financial codes, practices and ideological dispositions have been normalized in Australia. Charting policy, technological and cultural tendencies since the mid 1980s, they argue that financialization is advanced through incremental, everyday and sometimes seemingly minor shifts in perception, representation and interaction. Finance has come to be seen less as a “shadowy zone” of elite skullduggery and more as a set of rational personal responsibilities, predispositions and habits, a process that also shapes a broader sense of national and political agency and belonging. They outline how the current debate around financialization is defined by a trio of critical positions: calls for the rationalization and expansion of this process, advocacy for reform, and arguments for new forms of definancialization.

For Sarah Blacker, financialization in daily life can be traced in the neoliberal construction of “care” for the body as a privatized responsibility. Comparing a public health campaign designed for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children to promotion by a private health clinic in Toronto, Blacker notes the bifurcation of bio-financial imperatives: “the wealthy are interpellated as ‘health investors’ and urged to take preventive measures against future disease, while marginalized and racialized communities are asked to take on the role of self-management to make incremental and necessarily short-term improvements to living conditions that are determined by the multifarious effects of colonialism”. Revisiting early insurance models from the transatlantic slave trade, Blacker links the birth of the modern financial apparatus to contemporary forms of financialized subjectivity, which cannot be separated from the birth of new forms of biocapitalism in present-day colonial contexts such as Canada. As she puts it, “the processes through which health is being financialized work to shut down our understanding of the complicated relationships between an uneven distribution of environmental pollutants, access to food, water, medical care, and uncontaminated living spaces and patterns of gene expression, restricting these interactions to a too-simple causal narrative.”

As with health, so too with education. Chris Arthur posits that “Financial literacy texts (curriculum documents, editorials, television shows, speeches and policy documents), naturalize both the offloading of economic risk and the consumerist practices which purport to offer individual and collective economic security,” and “are thus part of the continual primitive accumulation of the moralized subjectivities necessary for the capitalist economy’s financialized accumulation practices.” Examining the intertextuality of reality TV shows about debt and high school financial literacy curricula, he shows that the imperative for individuals to become effective, self-reliant risk-managers obscures both the larger paradigm of exploitative neoliberal insecurity, and the deeper, more human forms of debt we owe one another: “The debt we owe ourselves and those who came before us and will come after,” he writes “is to preserve and extend the social commons won from capital: health care, education, social security, unemployment insurance, parental leave, vacation time, the minimum wage and a reduced workweek.”


This issue’s turn towards the complicated relationship between financialization and cultural production begins with Mark Hayward’s genealogy of the Wall Street confessional, which traces the development of a popular genre that reflects on the folly and hubris of the financial sector, but forecloses any substantial possibility for its transformation. Hayward illustrates the neoliberal shift in Wall Street confessional discourse since the 1980s and its connection to the rise of deregulated and frenetic financial cultures. Before this time, he argues, confessions were characterized by values of rationality, calculation and sobriety, often in contrast to Wall Street’s periodic and catastrophic deviation from these ideals. Whether they decry or celebrate finance culture, today’s narratives highlight the (a)morality of individual traders, driven as they are by inhuman and inhumane pressures to compete in ruthless and volatile markets. Hayward asks us to consider the function of the confessional in the reproduction of the financial sector: confessionals may purport to reveal the truth of markets so that action—regulation, maneuvering, avoidance, etc.—can be taken, but tend to conclude by repositioning the author and reader as helpless bystanders. As a contrast to this genre, Hayward concludes with a turn to recent activism by the New York–based Strike Debt and other anti-debt campaigners to identify a possible transformative confessional, wherein abject debtors create new narratives of resistance by articulating the torture of their experience,

For Michelle Stewart and Jason Pine, the recent films of Steven Soderbergh “present a symptomatology of contemporary economic culture” (PG#). They argue that the main characters in The Girlfriend Experience (2009) and Magic Mike (2012), both of whom are sex workers, emblematize a form of “vocational embodiment” whereby the body becomes the vehicle of speculative investments, and immaterial and material accumulation. The authors also suggest that Soderbergh’s own career is a unique but telling example of creative labour within the financialized culture industries. Here the tendency towards networked, precarious and affective labour under what Luc Boltanksi and Eve Chiapello call the “new spirit of capitalism” intersects with a speculative ethos that encourages each of us to view our lives, our bodies, our relationships and our communicative capacities as assets to be leveraged towards personal gain (Boltanski and Chiapello 2007). Examining both the content and form of these films, Stewart and Pine note the way the financialization of the film industry is echoed in the speculative practices of the characters and the spectral aesthetics of the films themselves: “These films do more than merely echo the conditions in which we live,” report the authors; they “aesthetically evoke the subjectivation processes under review here and, in the process, reveal the investment of the self in the production of evanescent value”.

Similarly, for Robert Hutton, contemporary video games tether together finance, cultural production and the process of subject-formation germane to our speculative moment. Focusing on the idea of “gamification”—the “imposition of a game-like perspective onto a non-game context”—, Hutton traces a feedback loop between the cultural logic of popular computer games and their “atopian” simulacra of perfect, risk-managed markets, and the cultural logic of derivative-driven financial fields, with their abstract and virtual manipulations of wealth. Hutton further draws our attention to how the video game industry, like the financial industry driving the gamification of everything from health to education to everyday stock trading, is itself a financial venture, with rampant speculation driving corporatized digital innovation. While gamification promises to export rationality, skill, fun and interactivity to various fields of practice, it also spreads a competitive, adversarial and individualistic idiom. When imported into the world of finance, this contributes to the ruthless, narrowly focused practices of fiscal accumulation that drive austerity and cause crises, which, for most, are no fun at all. For Hutton, “we need to reject the logic of gamification and encourage a new kind of critical literacy that would call attention to what is excluded from this framework”.

The cultivation of such a critical literacy is explored by Sarah Smith in her examination of the work of Canadian artists Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge. Smith argues that Condé and Beveridge’s practice overtly challenges, in both form and content, what Mark C. Taylor (2011) characterizes as the “financialization of art,” a reigning paradigm embraced by many artists in which art is seen as a speculative asset. For more than thirty years, these artists have worked exclusively in collaboration, employing methods of working with non-artists and community members (notably workers, trade-union members and activists) to create large-scale photographic tableaus that illustrate key social and political issues. Condé and Beveridge aim to create work that illuminates the otherwise obscured power relations that link the vicissitudes of financial speculation to colonial processes, the history of capitalist imperialism, the conditions of migrant workers, the dismantling of the welfare system, the increasing caliber of police repression and state surveillance, the depletion of natural resources and the impoverishment of everyday life. They are also keen to reveal and celebrate the forms of resistance, resilience and creativity that arise to challenge the financialized world.

Likewise, Elizabeth Abergel and Jamie Magnusson’s study of the financialization of biotechnologies addresses the potential of art to express and challenge bioeconomics: “the relocation of genetic, microbial and cellular productive processes within the capitalist system [and] the expansion of the life industries into every domain of society”. Contestational bioart “addresses the ways in which the life sciences are shaping market agendas through neoliberal politics and financialization and its reliance on alienated publics and non-specialists as a means of obtaining consent” (PG#). Such art explicitly challenges “biosurveillance,” a term that refers to the proliferation of technologies for biometrically analyzing and controlling pathologized bodies, and describes broader cultural paranoias about contagion, contamination and purification. The latter play into the revanchist xenophobia, racism and fortress mentalities that can be actualized as biotechnology. Examining artists like Heather Dewey-Hagborg and the Preemptive Media group, Abergel and Magnusson explore tactical aesthetics as a means of destabilizing, revealing or reversing the processes through which life itself becomes the target of securitization.


To supplement these explorations, this special issue features four briefer offerings. In his analysis of a TV ad for the Chevron corporation, Michael Stein shows how viewers are hailed into a financialized relationship with the company; they are encouraged to understand themselves as partners in Chevron’s fossil-fuel driven mission thanks to the probable investment of their pension funds or savings in the company’s shares. Stein argues that this interpellation forecloses democratic possibilities for addressing climate change and other global issues; indeed, democracy itself is rescripted as a financialized practice. David Maynard offers a related discussion of the ways in which contemporary popular media delimit and shape the possibilities for critical thought. Taking up the staggering popularity of American satire in financialized times, to be found in TV shows such as South Park and The Daily Show, and in publications such as The Onion, Maynard traces the appearance of financial characters and themes, as well as tropes of life and work in precarious times. In these texts he characterizes a deeply felt but still nascent Marxist consciousness about the bankruptcy of the financialized present and future.

Perhaps far-right politicians such as Toronto Mayor Rob Ford are best characterized as the bitter residue that remains when the everyday existential discontent and insecurity of financialized times decays into the fatuous miasma of reactionary politics. Such is the point of departure for a stimulating scholarly dialogue between Simon Orpana and Evan Mauro, “First as Tragedy, then as Ford.” The authors object to the fat-phobic and dismissive anti-Ford sentiments of Toronto’s “chattering classes,” and call us to a deeper interrogation of his quixotic success through an exploration of recent theorizations of sovereignty as they intersect with imperatives of austerity. While neoliberal embodiment amongst the precariat takes the form of painfully strategic self-construction in Stewart and Pine’s reading of Soderbegh, Ford’s spectactular performance embodies excess and unmanageability, the grotesque underside of that same neoliberalism. Toronto’s recent political assets also include the legacy of racial profiling and racialized violence by police, the surveillance and security unleashed on the city during the G20 summit in 2010, the speculative property bubble that is playing havoc with neighbourhoods and homes, the seemingly uncontested and self-satisfied claims to depoliticized notions of “diversity” and the “creative city,” and, more generally, the capitalist order of excess of which Ford is merely one artifact.

Finally, Matthew Tiessen offers a provocative, counter-intuitive intervention that asks us to consider the possibility that money possesses a “debt-driven agency all its own, one that effectively operates in the shadows and beneath the surface” (PG#). Operating “below the threshold of general perceptibility,” the mechanisms of money act “as imperceptible ‘tractor beams’ that work upon human subjects and societies” . By reversing the neoclassical approach to money, which sees currency as a manifestation of human activity, Tiessen draws our attention to the way debt itself functions to drive society and individuals further into debt, redoubling money’s power and authority. To the extent that the fulfillment of human desires is mediated by and dependent on money, and actualized more and more often in debt, money’s own “desires” come to preoccupy social and individual agency.