Navigating Finance and the Imagination:
Walking with Castoriadis in the City of London
A collaborative, exploratory, theoretical walking tour
London – April 14, 2018
Registration and logistics
- Registration for the tour is limited to ensure the assembled group is a managable size. Preference will be given to those who wish to participate in the entire tour.
- If you would like to participate, please pre-register at the following link: https://goo.gl/forms/axzCXByBZwFig6Ql1
- The event will be available in audiotour format in the near future.
- A Google map of the locations can be found here: https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=1IDCsTDDrXh3XzgdUBA0dW6puPaeZGN4J&hl=en&usp=sharingA full program and map will be released in the coming days.
Presentation abstracts (in scheduled order)
Machine Learning and the Financial Imaginary
The Speculative Spirit of Finance
What is the religion of today’s capitalism? What is the relationship between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘spectral’ in the world of financial speculation? This talk will consider the overlooked affinities between religious and financial engagements with uncertainty and risk in the City of London. To do so it will draw on the late writings of Cornelius Castoriadis on Max Weber, religion, and the question of political autonomy, exploring their relevance to contemporary transformations of/in finance capitalism. The talk will focus specifically on the socially-generative ‘spirit’ of finance, its capacity to produce new social relations and contradictions through its radical endorsement of the future’s indeterminacy. It will consider the possibilities of ‘counter-speculation’ as a transformative force of engagement with the future, able to address the atrophy of political imagination in the face of financialisation.
North American “Indians” and British Modernity
This talk will consider the statue of Queen Anne in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral, with particular attention to the figure of “America” as an Indigenous woman with the severed head of a European beneath her foot. I will consider the role of the North American “Indian” in the eighteenth-century imagination and its relationship to emerging discourses of modernity in the period. Furthermore, it will consider the imaginative constructions of empire fueled by representations of Indians, and the importance of these images to the self-imagination of a benevolent trading state rather than a violent and expansive imperial nation. This statue, which signifies both terror and subjugation, embodies both the European ambivalence to “savages” and the ambivalence of modernity itself.
The Origins of Mutuality
Work, money and business in the city of London for hundreds of years was regulated through guilds, which dominated trades and the economy of the mediaeval City. Open to members, closed to outsiders, self regulating on standards, subject and servant to royal prerogatives, these were mutuals that offered a vision of work and of a moral economy. Over time, the guilds, like Goldsmiths, one of the primary liveries (or ‘mysteries’) faded into the sideline, private, wealthy clubs, but new mutuals emerged in the city. Friendly Societies, Trade Unions, co-operatives drawing on self help and drawing in workers such as journeymen and shipwrights, like John Gast who worked in the docks along the Thames. Practical action went hand in hand with ideas of freedom, equality and common wealth and faced repression as a result. Now on the margins, the guilds today represent dead capital, uprooted from working communities – wealthy, munificent, endowed charities renting their halls. Meanwhile a new generation of co-ops are also on the margins, but at an opposite point, linked to social change and organising freelancers, crowd sourcing capital using democratic models of business and hopeful of a different imaginary, a social in which capital is again a means and not an end.
“No Gods, No Masters”: Antisemitic Tropes and Utopian Ideals in Imagining and Resisting the Capitalist State
The world of global finance represented by the City of London has, at different historical periods, been associated in the popular imagination with both negative and positive images of cosmopolitanism; an idea which, in turn, often serves as an antisemitic trope. As several historians have documented, at the height of the British Empire the City of London and its global financial power was regarded as reflecting a cosmopolitanism that constituted a threat to British interests and identity. The figure of the “cosmopolitan capitalist” was often a euphemism for the “Jewish financiers” who played leading roles in the City. Yet not far from the City, in the East End of London, socialist and anarchist activists established, in the early 20th Century, alternative schools where the radical imagination, as a faculty to question what is given, was reflected in the curriculum, ethos and teacher-student relationships. These educational experiments were both an exercise in utopian imagination and an attempt to prefigure a mode of social organization beyond the structures of the capitalist state. In promoting ideals of mutual aid and internationalism, and resisting the logic of capitalism, nationalism, militarism and religion, these educators and activists, often within working class Jewish communities, invoked the same images of the “rootless cosmopolitanism” that, in Claire Hirshfield’s words, “symbolized all that was shady and disreputable in this new era of international capitalism”. Standing on the invisible site of a medieval synagogue at the heart of what is now the financial centre of the City, this talk will explore the ways in which the ideas associated with the figure of “Jew”, “cosmopolitan” and “international financier” serve as what Bar-Yosef and Valman describe as “an unstable web of signifiers” in both the imaginaries of finance and capital, and the radical imaginaries of resistance.
The ‘Fear Index’: The Autonomisation of the Social Imaginary of Finance
Castoriadis’ work can be understood as a celebration of the ‘radical imaginary’, a force of creation at the heart of all processes of institutionalisation. However, this stirring impetus remains fundamentally ambivalent because of its inherent connection with alienation. This paper illustrates these issues with reference to the use of algorithms in finance capitalism. Focusing on the Vix (CBOE volatility index), also known as the ‘fear index’, it explores how algorithms are designed to creatively translate human feelings and emotions in mathematical terms, and by extension to find (market) solutions to social problems. As such, these algorithms can be compared to the institutions created by the radical imaginary, which are meant to bring fantasised answers to societies’ existential questions. On the other hand, the central role that these algorithms played in the recent financial crashes (as recently as in February 2018 in the case of the Vix) marks them out as examples of what Castoriadis had in mind when writing about autonomous imaginary orders alienating societies. Contrasting the social imaginary of finance with the social imaginary of entrepreneurship, this paper will conclude that the inherent tendency for financial instruments to escape human agency results from the peculiar relation that the financial imaginary has with the act of creation. Whereas the act of creation is continually renewed in the case of the entrepreneur, the actors of the world of finance set it aside to apply the algorithmic formula in a settled and instrumental form, leading to their autonomisation.
Alchemy and the Gold Underground
The London Bullion Market Association is a secretive host to the ancient cult of gold hoarders, and a magnet that attracts conspiracy theories and dubious theories of money. It has long dabbled in the art of turning paper into gold via synthetic financial alchemy. In this talk we will take a trip into the gold underground – viewed by some as the centre of London’s financial universe, and by others as an outdated club from a bygone era – to see if it still glitters.
‘Political Risk’, Imperial Nostalgia and Technologies of the Imagination
On the corner of Leadenhall Street, the Lloyd’s Building occupies the site that was once East India House. Lloyd’s of London is an insurance market that flourished during the 18th century, as a provider of cover which slave traders required to make their journeys profitable. It is now home to underwriters and syndicates whose experimentation with insurance products has helped to define new forms of risk, such as ‘political risk’. By insuring and pricing ‘political risk’, the Lloyd’s underwriters also provoke new geographical imaginaries: countries and territories are ranked and rated according to the risk that their people and governments pose to the ongoing profitability of transnational enterprise. Influential political risk analysts like Ian Bremmer have even come to argue that contemporary political risk insurance is simply an extension of the East India Company’s commitment to managing commerce through war, describing Clive’s 1757 victory at Plassey as “an early corporate attempt at risk mitigation”. In this presentation, I discuss political risk ratings as examples of what anthropologist David Sneath terms “technologies of the imagination”. These technologies do not just help to ‘mitigate risk’ for transnational investors; they rely upon and nourish a geographical imagination according to which certain territories are populated by ‘unruly’ subjects and beset by a deficit of the ‘rule of law’ (or alternatively, have benefited from their imperial past by acquiring the rule of law). I conclude by reflecting on how these same geographical imaginaries underpin efforts that contemporary pro-Empire historians make to rehabilitate Britain’s imperial past.
Finance and the Yogic Imperative
It costs so much to close our eyes. We go to the bank and we go to the yoga studio, and it feels the same. During the 2008 financial collapse and its aftermaths of austerity, yoga industries (like the Lululemon brand and highly commercialized yoga studios) boomed, offering a slick and asocial form of compassion and escape for financialized times. So your cynicism about the yoga industrial complex is justified: it reflects the hyper-individualized, commercialized “ethic” of financialized capitalism, offering privatized therapies and trainings–social technologies–for debtor-subjects. But, in an age when capitalism hacks the imagination as never before, can we afford to entirely dismiss these ancient social technologies?
A Post-Financial London Imaginary
The architectural and spatial forms of The City – the towers, named ‘iconic’ buildings, swathes of privatised ‘public realm’ and so on – seem to epitomise Cornelius Castordiares’ observation that ‘it is the economy that exhibits most strikingly the domination of the imaginary at every level.’ But does this mean that all other imaginaries of the city are irrelevant, powerless, redundant? If that’s not the case, then what other imaginaries could there be? And could an alternative imaginary embody a kind of teleological potency, energising economic and political transformation beyond neoliberalism? I want to explore a speculative imaginary that projects forward to a future in which London has lost its status as an nexus of global economic power: a city where unsold and unlet residential towers and luxury apartment blocks have been appropriated as autonomous spaces for living, educating or organising; where abandoned office spaces house a shifting population of inventors and innovators freed from the constraints of capital accumulation to solve real problems; where creators of art and culture are supported by self-managed, decentralised, distributed organisations; where independent retailers, street food outlets, pop-up bars and clubs in quirky venues have replaced long-gone luxury shops; where no-one is homeless amidst so much unused, yet usable, space; where urban industries flourish, using technology to make real things that real people need; and where the practice of urban planning has become all about creating openness and possibilities whilst securing the basic conditions of humane living for the everyone who inhabits the city.
Lying in the heart of the City, Tower Hill Playground represents the contradictory character of the project of global capitalism: its grinding stability and its fraught fragility. The playground is at once a symbol of the creation of a growing market of child consumers or those who purchase in the name of the child (Cook, 2004) as part of the neoliberal drive towards responsibilization of parents (and more precisely mothers) not only for social reproductive tasks but for their child’s every ‘success’ and ‘failure’. Parents and children alike are tasked with inoculating themselves against risky and uncertain futures and engaging in rampant investment and speculation in the ‘becoming’ child. Such speculation, driven by anxieties about securing security in a competitive and increasingly unequal world, is more likely than not enabled by a lifetime of debt repayments which lie at the heart of financial capital (Adkins, 2017). The playground also marks the increasing generational segregation of public space in advanced capitalist countries, where children are viewed as matter out of place unless installed in sites of ‘child protection’, part of the project of schooling and child development which intensifies the quality of labour power available for surplus value extraction (Rikowski, 2003). Right next door to the green grass and shiny new playground equipment, where the children of wealthy investors and tourists play with abandon, lies the borough of Tower Hamlets, where close to 50% of children are living below the poverty line and funding for public provision of services has been slashed in the UK’s austerity climate. Such retrenchment, drawing on decades of similar structural adjustment in the global south, mean that responsibility for making lives, and lives worth living, is increasingly shouldered by individuals, with a differential impact on impoverished communities who cannot afford to pay for such services (Katz, 2002). Indeed, the playground marks a space of contradiction and inequality. Yet the playground simultaneously suggests a space of possibility. The playground is a site marked for play, an engagement where the world it is taken apart and built anew (Henricks, 2006). Without negating the pressing and ever-present pressures of the quotidian world of finance capital, play offers a possibility for reworking generational power relations, recognising the fissures in finanicialisation and the future as open possibility, and enacting embodied imaginaries of social and economic justice (Rosen, 2017). Drawing on Castoriadis’ conceptualisations of imagination/creative imaginaries and Henricks’ theorisations of play, this talk will ask participants to consider: what sort of post-capitalist futures can we bring into being through play and what are the limits of play as a site of radical remaking?
Offshore Tour Operator
This is a presentation and demonstration of our prototype for “The Offshore tour Operator”. We call it a psychogeorgaphic GPS : it is a micro-computer, that internally centralizes the databases of the Panama papers, the Bahamas leaks and the Offshore leaks, to organise drifts in any city, dictating to the user through audio indications, the direction to take to explore the financial offshore network adresses, jumping from a shell company to a ghost bank, from a nominee to an offshore domiciliation. The tool helps to reveal the uncanny architecture that composes the offshore world, finding operators in parkings, small shops, luxurious private buildings, banks, vacant lots or even churches sometimes. The project is fully open source and is part of a larger investigation project on the offshore industry RYBN.ORG have led last year, called The Great Offshore, leading us to visit Jersey, Guernsey, Nassau, Grand Cayman, Wilmington, the City of London, Dublin, Zurich, Pfäffikon and Vaduz. More information: http://rybn.org/thegreatoffshore/index.php?ln=en&r=2.PROTOTYPES
The Shard, Global Imaginaries in Local Cities
While artist in residence at UCL Urban Lab I focused on The Shard, Western Europe’s tallest building, to make an artist film, Vertical Horizons. The film explores the spectacle of capital in the broader social, psychological and material ecology of the city. Looking at the Shard we may think of the fiscal necessities of globalisation but a key quote form my film was from Saville’s Head of Global Research, ‘the Shard is less a product of global financial imperative than of nostalgic political will’. This was demonstrated by New Labour’s facilitation both bureaucratically and financially of the Shards genesis, enabling planning consent and using an early transport for London tenancy to underwrite the project. How do we imagine globalisation, how is that imagination used in our culture. As part of the film’s research I participated in a reflective practice group at No. 42 Psychotherapy Practice, intersecting ideas of the compensatory fantasy and Lacan’s mirror phase with group dynamics. This led to exploring how we visualise these capital dynamics, as both a factor with dramatic influence on our lived lives, and may also be re-imagined as an artefact of our culture. During the talk I will cross reference Castoriadis ideas of a self reflexive society and self-instituting society, taking responsibility for creating its own laws and institutions, as opposed to projecting them into religious, historical or in this case fiscal contingencies. I will explore by example of the Shard how we imagine capital and how capital imagines us.
The Almanac as a site for critical making
In this talk I will present The Monistic Almanac, an ongoing research project which investigates the blurry boundaries between data-science and divination. Almanacs are guides to the year ahead, published since at least the 15th century to provide practical information about the future in areas like farming, nautical navigation, trading and many more. As designed artefacts they materialise what Ashworth (1994) calls an “accountant’s view of world” which took hold in the 19th century as scientific advances in astronomy were borrowed to legitimise speculative finance. In almanacs, astronomical tables were printed next to interests on loans, life insurance annuities, and all sorts of unit-conversions. This view of the world is rooted in monism; the idea that both natural and social worlds are governed by the same set of universal laws. These ideas are alive and well today, as physics PhDs rule Wall Street, and the same computational statistics are applied to predict virtually every domain of science, business, and society. This research aims to push monism to its absurd extremes through critical design practice. This project revisits the almanac as a site for practice-based experimentation. It applies the Farmer’s Almanac motto “Useful with a pleasant degree of humour” by constructing absurd predictive rationalities with the tools of contemporary data science, and visualising them as a web-based publication. Through critical investigations with data and code, it ultimately aims to question our beliefs in predictive algorithms.
Presenter bios (in alphabetical order)
- David Benqué is a designer/researcher from Paris(FR) living and working in London(UK). His design practice aims to creatively and critically question the roles science and technology play in society. He is currently a PhD candidate in Information Experience Design at the Royal College of Art where his research investigates predictive algorithms through critical design practice.
- Francesca Coin is a lecturer in Sociology at Cà Foscari University of Venice, where she teaches Neoliberal Policies and Global Social Movements. Her research focuses on money, labor and subjectivity. She has published extensively on the evolution of precarious, unpaid and digital labor in a neoliberal society. Her latest book is “Keep the union at bay. The racial dimensions of anti-union practices in U.S. agriculture and the long fight for migrant farm-labor representation” (ECF, 2018) and her current research project is titled “The nature of money and its social perception in times of crisis.”
- Paul Gilbert is a lecturer in international development (anthropology) at the University of Sussex. Most of his research focuses on speculative finance, international investment law and the extractive industries, with a particular interest in the role that London-listed extractive industry companies play in perpetuating corporate harm on a global scale, and in visualizing financial flows and their impacts. He was part of the Occupy London Tours collective from 2014-2016, co-running the City of London tour.
- Max Haiven is Canada Research Chair in Culture, Media and Social Justice at Lakehead University in Northwest Ontario and director of the ReImagining Value Action Lab (RiVAL). He writes articles for both academic and general audiences and is the author of the books Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power: Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons, The Radical Imagination: Social Movement Research in the Age of Austerity (with Alex Khasnabish) and Cultures of Financialization: Fictitious Capital in Popular Culture and Everyday Life. He is currently working on a book titled Art after Money, Money after Art: Creative Strategies Against Financialization.
- Carla Ibled is a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths College. Her current research explores the imaginaries of neoliberalism, drawing on political theory, psychoanalysis (and the work of Cornelius Castoriadis and Jacques Lacan in particular) and economic history.
- Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou is a political sociologist, Assistant Professor of Social Theory, and Head of the Sociology & Social Theory Research Group at University College London. He completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2013. He is the editor of ‘Re-Imagining the Future in Finance Capitalism’ (forthcoming in the Journal of Cultural Economy). With Judith Butler and Chiara Bottici he edits ‘Imaginal Politics’, in collaboration with the International Consortium of Critical Theory Program at UC Berkeley.
- Ed Mayo leads the national network for co-operatives and mutual businesses and has written the books on Values (Routledge, 2016) and A Short History of Co-operation and Mutuality. He is also Chair of Involve, the democratic participation charity, Vice President of Cooperatives Europe and formerly Chair of Jubilee 2000 campaign and CEO of the New Economic Foundation.
- Conrad Moriarty-Cole is a PhD student and associate lecturer in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London working on a thesis titled, “Machinic Imagination: Automated Decisional Reasoning and the Social Imaginary.”
- Brett Scott is an economic explorer and financial hacker traversing the intersections between money systems, finance, digital technology and cities. He is the author of The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money (2013). He is widely known for his media commentary on banking, financial reform, digital finance, financial inclusion, blockchain, hacker culture and the dynamics of cashless society.
- Robbie Richardson is Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature at the University of Kent and a member of Pabineau First Nation. He is author of The Savage and Modern Self: North American Indians in Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Culture (University of Toronto Press, 2018).
- Rachel Rosen is a Senior Lecturer at University College London whose research focuses on unequal childhoods, social reproduction, and migration in late capitalism. Her recent co-edited book, Feminism and the Politics of Childhood: Friends or Foes? (2018, UCL Press), offers a critical exploration of perceived commonalities and conflicts between women and children from a wide variety of geographical contexts, academic disciplines, and activist organisations to address injustices faced by both groups.
- RYBN.ORG is an extradisciplinary art collective and experimental research group, founded in 1999 and based in Paris. RYBN.ORG leads long term investigatations on contemporary complex phenomena, such as High Frequency Trading (ADM8, ADMX, ADMXI), financial flashcrashes (flashcrash sonification, knightmare), the Occult economy networks (The Great Offshore), the kabbalistic origins of binary code (Dataghost 2), the labor architecture of computational systems (human computers), etc. Their work has been shown in numerous contemporary art exhibitions and institutions, such as ZKM, Centre Pompidou, Transmediale, Ars Electronica, HEK, ISEA, LABoral, etc.
- Judith Suissa is a professor of Philosophy of Education at the University College London Institute of Education. Her work focuses on the intersections between political philosophy and educational thought and practice. Her research draws on political and moral philosophy, with a particular focus on anarchist theory, questions of social justice, the control of education, utopianism, social change, and the role of the state.
- Steven Taylor is a full-time MRes graduate student in Architecture at University of East London who worked for many years as an innovation consultant for corporations and startups worldwide. His focus is on urban re-industrialisation, post-growth economics and what William Davies has described as “innovation without entrepreneurism,” with a special interest in the City of London.
- Cassie Thornton is a feminist economist and artist working under the title of the Feminist Economics Department (the FED). Miranda Mellis wrote: “Her genius is simple, but not easy: she tries to find the soft spots, the loopholes, the places of possibility and sets up shop exactly where things seem the most intractable and impossible.” Cassie is co-director of RiVAL in Thunder Bay, Canada.
- Marina Vishmidt is a writer. She is a Lecturer in Culture Industry at Goldsmiths, University of London and runs a Theory seminar at the Dutch Art Institute. She is the co-author of Reproducing Autonomy (with Kerstin Stakemeier) (Mute, 2016), and is currently completing the monograph Speculation as a Mode of Production (Brill, 2018).
- Tom Wolseley is a professional artist who works across a range of mediums; text, photography, film, sound and installation and engages with architecture. His work has a strong link to place, environment and city. He has shown internationally for over 20 years, with his most recent work increasingly using film to explore the changing city in which he lives. Tom has been Leverhulme Artist in residence at the UCL urban Lab 2015-17. He produced Vertical Horizons, a meditative film about Western Europe’s tallest building, the Shard, exploring our tendencies to verticality in architecture, wealth distribution and identity in London.
- Carey Young is a visual artist based in London. Her solo exhibitions include Dallas Museum of Art (2017), Paula Cooper Gallery, New York (2017) and Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich (2013) and group exhibitions include Centre Pompidou (2015), Tate Liverpool (2014), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2012), the New Museum, New York (2011), MoMA/PS1, New York (2010) and Tate Britain (2010). She is a Lecturer in Fine Art at the Slade School of Fine Art (UCL), and an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Law, Birkbeck. www.careyyoung.com