Is the Stock Market a “Camp”? Towards a Cosmic Politics 

Daniel Avatar

Arne De Boever’s book Finance Fictions: Realism and Psychosis in a Time of Economic Crisis is not providing a new psychoanalytic analysis of psychosis, which I immediately thought it might offer. But it is an important contribution to what is now a steadily growing sub-literature within contemporary philosophy and theory on the topic of the market and finance. Suhail Malik’s “The Ontology of Finance“, Jon Roffe’s Abstract Market Theory and Frank Pasquale’s The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms that Control Money and Information are notable examples within this new field. These works, as well as De Boever’s book, are developing a conceptual vocabulary for understanding the function of the market as an epistemic, ontological and biopolitical system.

De Boever’s work analyzes the literary genre of realist novels in the period of post 1970’s financial capitalism. Novels such as American Psycho, the Bonfire of the Vanities, Flash Boys and the work of Michel Houellebecq are considered. But in this short review, I want to note a few things about the speculative and philosophical insights of his book.

He argues that psychosis is, of the other two structures in psychoanalysis–neurosis and perversion–the structure that is most indicative of financial capitalism. Psychosis is not, as De Boever maintains, a structure which should be understood as somehow out of touch with reality; on the contrary, psychosis is more in touch with reality than reality itself. Since the beginning of speculative thought with Socrates, there is a split within reality as such. There is the real and the Real, the latter denoting a speculative dimension of thinking which distances reality from itself. Reality is doubled.

As a heuristic, we can say that psychosis is generally more in touch with the second level Real than the small r reality. This is why De Boever claims that psychosis “accomplishes a higher form of reality” (14) and this is also why the very genre of realism is not presenting reality as it is. Rather, realism presents “the over-determined representation of unsolvable dilemmas that disrupt the integration of reality” (16 – 17).

De Boever notes three forms of realism in contemporary novels: biopolitical, which attempts to tell tragic and finite human stories; stories that reveal dramatic events in which humans are over-powered by circumstances and power or worldly events, but still persist and strive forward. Cormac McCarthy’s work is a key example of the biopolitical genre. The biopolitical genre tries to make (procure, foster, optimize) life rather than take it – to keep life alive to the point of near death, if need be (114). The second genre is representational, which seeks to portray a representation of reality that somehow matches a generalized reality.

It is this classic modern genre that the late novelist and journalist Tom Wolfe attempts to bring back within the financial fiction genre in Bonfire of the Vanities. But De Boever is skeptical as to whether representational forms of the novel have any place within the hyper-paced life of financial capitalism. The third genre is humanistic, but DeBoever does not seem convinced that humanism has a place within the contemporary novel.

“Representationalism, biopolitics and humanism create realism as a financial instrument (for those terms name a trinity that realism can never deliver) while at the same time they prevent it from ever writing finance (since finance defies all three of realism’s key orientations)” (116).

The constant deferral of realism abides by the logic of the financial instrument itself; financial capitalism creates a reality that pushes realism towards a terroristic extreme – towards a realism that is beyond humanism, biopolitics or representationalism. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth stands out as an example of this tendency par excellence.

De Boever presents his analysis with a fairly ambiguous relation to Marxism, although he notes that capitalism cannot be thought without a specter of a global critique of capital and this critique remains Marxist, broadly understood. However, the reality of financial capitalism is different than the reality that financial capitalism presents to the subject (19). This is a reality which is somehow outside of commodity fetishism, as it emphasizes speculative capital and other more phantom forms of appearance. The formula De Boever relies on here, which is interesting given how distant it is from what Deleuze and Guattari claim, is that the reality of commodity fetishism is largely neurotic while the reality of financial capitalism is largely psychotic, or leaning towards a psychotic grasp of the real, more on this below.

D & G would claim that commodity fetishism, and the reign of capital as such, is in fact a psychotic inducing system. But De Boever is leaning on a far more general conception of psychosis, somewhere between a traditional Freudian view and a broad philosophical view. Despite this shortcoming, he does link his critique to a broadly Marxist perspective. Because capitalism cannot be thought without the specter of Marxism or communism, as he claims in the Introduction, his critique of financial capitalism is meant to think beyond the “autoimmune” structure of the contemporary financial “camp” (more on these two concepts below).

The most philosophically important part of the book comes in chapter four, where he examines the influence of Quentin Meillassoux’s theories of science fiction and the larger implications of ‘speculative realism.’ The central idea of speculative realism that De Boever latches onto is that of the “Great Outdoors.” Financial capitalism is a fresh ground for speculative realism and philosophical thinking more generally because the market produces events such as “Blank Swan’s,” or ontological productions of algorithm’s which cannot be handled effectively by algorithmic recovery systems. These are events which contain no episteme that is able to correspond to them. Blank Swan’s defy the the very recovery systems assurance that algorithm’s wre intended to offer. Blank Swan’s are unforeseen events or crashes that cannot be measured by instruments of science, and they may at times even defy consciousness as such. When such events occur they introduce us to the ‘Great Outdoors’, or

“[T]he absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers: that outside which was not relative to us, and which was given as indifferent to its own givenness to be what it is, existing in itself regardless of whether we are thinking of it or not; that outside which thought could explore with the legitimate feeling of being on foreign territory—of being entirely elsewhere” (110).

The question thus becomes the following: in what ways does financialization in fact assist (the novelist, reader, the philosopher) in thinking the Great Outdoors–or, how does this psychotic structure of the algorithmic market bring us to a speculative form of reality, within the form of the novel?

Reality with a capital R is not thinkable, and the system of Wall Street and financial markets knows this fact, which is why they immunize themselves from it by creating financial immunity processes that protect investors against in-built risk of the stock market’s algorithmic system. But in today’s stock market risk is not calculable (184 – 185). In what is possibly the most interesting claim in his book, De Boever defines the autoimmunity of the stock market as a “camp”, where the state of exception becomes the rule. We can no longer predict a panic or what a panic will produce – we are in a post panic era, and the autoimmune structure of financial markets set a terrain for a state of exception which defies human mediated protocols and measures for controlling the emergence of chance and risk. The algorithmic systems crash, not the human mediated adjustments dictated by calculated decision and risk. This is an interesting reality insofar as game theory now becomes somewhat of an obsolete framework when crashes, or hyper-crashes are no longer determined by human actors.

Towards a Cosmic Politics 

Thinking the reality of the market today means that one must adopt the mindset of a speculative, “cosmic” form of realism, a perspective that would be able to account not just for the probable, but for the absolute contingency of the market (195). This means that we are moving to a cosmic form of politics which is distinctive from the three reigning models of thinking political change. De Boever notes them as follows, including seminal theorists for each model of thinking the political:

Aesthetic: politics is akin to the regime of democracy – Rancière
Theological: politics is based in a state of exception, sovereignty and the event – Agamben, Badiou, Zizek
Epistemic: politics is a managed, rational, knowledge-driven, and ultimately technocratic affair – Neoliberal

Today, there is no doubt that the neoliberal model is (beginning?) to unravel at the seems, yet the other two ways of thinking politics and the political also face serious threats by the very logic of financial capitalism. These forms of thinking politics are rendered obsolete in a political situation in which Blank Swan’s are possible. To a degree, I see what De Boever means; how can we apply a question of political logic based on the will of the people to a non-territorial virtual space of the financial market as camp? The very notion of voluntarism vs. determinism in political theory goes out the window in such a system where crises are outside of scientific prediction and consciousness.

Hence De Boever proposes a fourth version of politics, what he calls the ‘cosmic speculative regime’ of uncontrollable algorithmic systems. This form of politics cannot be thought outside of the moment in which it occurs, and herein lies the reason that speculative realism moves towards psychosis, whereas with the camp, and the three forms of political procedures above, neurosis is the primary condition.

Cosmic politics offers a different way of understanding finitude. If, as De Boever claims in the conclusion, the autoimmunity of the market is an obsessive embrace of finitude, a denial of death, well then what if the market were gone? After all, money itself develops its profit from debt and credit, which effectively means that money is merely symbolic. Following this conclusion, we can remove negativity from the market all together. If the market were gone, we open up the possibility of immortality.

De Boever is faced with a conundrum that is common to theorizing the end of capitalism today. Do we think the end as a revolutionary event in all of its catastrophe? With the cosmic form of politics he lays out, albeit very vaguely, it seems that the question is one of realizing the fictitious and speculative system of the market has become something beyond the market, that is, it has become a precarious camp to which we are all beholden. I am not saying here that De Boever somehow de-privileges the class warfare at work in the financial markets, rather, I think what he is pointing out is that the 1% have created an artificial system in which all risk is in fact highly calculable and as such, the very integrity of ‘the market’ disappears.

There is no sensible way to preempt a total collapse of the autoimmune system of financial capitalism other than by pointing out its fictitious and artificial structure. What is called for is a sort of aesthetic education in this very artificiality of money and the market. But what remains difficult to convey in this cosmic form of thinking politics is the question of class. We may be facing an algorithmic system that is capable of producing catastrophes which are fully outside of our means of control, but what about the fact that the spoils of this artificial camp is aggressively being consumed by a small class of kleptocrats?

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