The Ghost in the Financial Machine
This essay lays out an argument that leads back from some debates in contemporary social studies of finance to arguments that have not been fully developed in some classic writings of Marcel Mauss (1990 ) and Max Weber (2009 ). My starting point is Jacques Derrida’s (1994) famous argument about the “impossibility” of the gift, which annuls itself by its implicit expectation (a negative performative) of a return. I focus here on the idea of the “return” as one entry into a new approach to contemporary financial devices.
Derrida’s argument about the logical impossibility of the pure gift is in fact anticipated in the very first pages of Mauss’s classic essay “The Gift,” in the perception by Mauss of the inner contradiction between the voluntary and the compulsory as well as the disinterested and the self-serving elements of the gift. Two facts about Mauss’s study have been lost from view. One is that his entire and fundamental interest throughout his essay is in the question of the force behind the obligation to return. The second point is that Mauss’s thorough archaeology of the gift (in both primitive and archaic societies) was wholly motivated by his interest in the moral force behind the modern contract (legal, impersonal, obligatory, etc.). Bearing these two points in mind allows us to understand better what may have been Mauss’s rich and only partial answer to his question, that is, that the obligation to return lay in the spirit of the thing given (the famous hau of Polynesia), which in turn provided a dynamic and forceful connection between giver and receiver, and the first giver and the second giver/returner, and so forth.
I draw two conclusions from this reading of Mauss. The first is that Mauss was quite aware of the inner affinity between archaic and modern forms of binding obligation to return. And he was especially interested in the “spirit” behind the archaic gift, which he was also convinced was the “spirit” behind the modern contract. He found this spirit in a series of cosmologies (themselves dramatically different), all of which see some things as imbued with the spirit of the giver and thus as capable of exercising a moral force on the receiver. This spirit is what animates the specific devices or forms taken by the gift. Notice here that his sociological strategy is to induce the spirit not from the device but from some other nonmechanical source. This sense of spirit closely resembles Weber’s notion of the “spirit” of capitalism, by which usage Weber sought to capture the spirit, the anima, behind specific capitalist forms and devices (such as double-entry bookkeeping and the rational calculation of profit).
Both Mauss and Weber stand on one side of a great divide that we also see before us today. On the one side, we have Michel Callon (1998, 2007; Callon et al. 2007 ; Callon and Muniesa 2003) and his many colleagues and collaborators (Beunza and David Stark , Latour , MacKenzie [2006; MacKenzie et al. 2007], and many others ) who argue that the best way to understand new economic devices, especially the devices of the market, is to account for their performativity as devices. On the other side stand thinkers like Mauss and Weber (but also Franz Boas ; Joseph A. Schumpeter [2008 (1942)]; and Albert O. Hirschman  ) whose contributions dispose me to think that there is something akin to a Gödel-type problem in inducing the spirit that animates a particular set of mechanisms from within the properties of the device itself. The rest of this essay is an extension of this “animistic” argument and its relevance to modern financial markets.
Weber’s use of the word spirit (Geist), most famously in his work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, has nowhere clearly been analyzed. It belongs to a family of Weberian terms, which include ethic, ethos, and habitus. This last word, most often seen as part of our debt to Pierre Bourdieu, has been noticed by Jean-Pierre Grossein (1996), whose translations into French of some of Weber’s important writings might be one key to the relationship between Weber and the work of Bourdieu and his collaborator Jean-Claude Passeron. The other (discussed later in this essay) is Bourdieu’s explicit debt to Mauss, who was the first modern user of the term habitus.
Weber’s discussion of the “spirit” of capitalism in chapter 2 of his famous essay demands a close rereading. “Spirit” in Weber’s usage is most often read as belonging to the nineteenth-century sense of the German word Geist and is thus assumed to refer to the worldview of an epoch or historical age. This assumption is not wholly wrong, and Weber’s own use of the word ethos, which is related to his use of the word spirit, refers to a cultural sensibility associated with a group, class, profession, or sect and is more diffuse than a mere ideology or doctrine in that it conveys a sense of a bodily disposition, a sensibility, a moral style, and elements of a cultural psychology. In this sense, when Weber speaks of the spirit of capitalism, he does not mean its explicit doctrines, or its ideology, or even less specific technical orientations to market, profit, and calculation. He means something less formal, more dispositional, and moral, something that also makes sense of its crystallization in a particular “ethic.”
As Weber, in The Protestant Ethic, sets out to describe the spirit of capitalism, he embarks on an interesting methodological exercise, in which the key elements of the “spirit” of capitalism lie outside its technical or professional expressions and speak to a disposition that is somehow anterior (both logically and historically) to its concrete calculative expressions in nineteenth-century capitalist behavior. This anterior “ethos” begins to anticipate Bourdieu’s use of the term habitus. Various scholars have touched on the links among the ideas of style, deportment, disposition, and spirit in Weber’s corpus.
If we look at spirit in this way, as a matter of disposition rather than of worldview, it comes closer to an embodied moral sensibility, which precedes action or organization and amounts to a collective psycho-moral disposition. In this sense, the “spirit” of capitalism, in Weber’s argument, is external to and prior to any and all of its distinctive devices, both technological and institutional. The content of this spirit is what will lead us back to Mauss’s thoughts on the gift.
End of Excerpt | access full version
I am grateful for conversations with the Cultures of Finance Group at the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University for many stimulating debates and readings that helped me clarify the ideas in this essay. I am especially grateful to Benjamin Lee (a longtime interlocutor and fellow investigator of many of these problems) and Robert Wosnitzer, whose ongoing research on these subjects has been a useful asset to me. Eric Klinenberg asked me some questions that forced me to refine and clarify the argument in some key regards.