Queer Economies and Speculative Limits

Paper for MLA Queering Value Panel, January 6th, 2012 (Seattle).

From the poster for Staycee Pearl's dance project, Octavia
From the poster for Staycee Pearl’s dance project, Octavia

In his discussion of global modernity, Appadurai argued that “in a world in which both points of departure and points of arrival are in cultural flux,” “the invention of tradition (and of ethnicity, kinship, and other identity-markers) can become slippery.” For Appadurai, this has meant that culture is less “what Bourdieu would have called habitus (a tacit realm of reproducible practices and dispositions)” than “an arena for conscious choice, justification, and representation.” The form which cultures assume in this context, Appadurai went on to suggest, is “fundamentally fractal” rather than epidemiological.

I’d like to complicate this easy distinction between the fractal and the epidemiological, the contractual and the predisposed, and, not least, that of economics and sex. The questions of sex, desire, pleasure are everywhere in economics. More than just the persistent analogy between the circulation of bodily fluids and that of finance, the questions of reproduction and production remains central to the very possibility of capitalist futurity, driven by the continuing Aristotelian injunction against the excessive pleasure that does not result in productive issue, and the requirement for legible genealogical inscription without which the property form would not prevail.

But there is nothing certain about capitalist futurity. And so, there is a constant transformation of contingency into necessity, of speculation and conjecture into the deterministic frame of probabilities, of crisis into innovation.

In the wake of the financial crisis precipitated by the collapse of the subprime housing market in the US, understandings of finance turned increasingly to complex systems theory.

Andrew Haldane, the director of the Bank of England’s Financial Stability Division, has been arguing for a network theory of finance; while Benoit Mandelbrot – though he had been working on fractal theories of finance for some time, having invented the term fractal during his work at IBM – has renewed his calls for a fractal modelling of financial flows.

What is significant about the work of Haldane and Mandelbrot is not only that they adopt non-linear, dynamic models for the discernment and management of financial risk. Nor even that they explicitly reference biology and nature – in Haldane’s case, financial crisis is akin to the spread of infection or sexually transmitted disease; according to Mandelbrot, fractals are the “geometry of nature.”

What I find significant about these particular variants of complex systems theory in the realm of finance is that while the models acknowledge the existence of an uncertain world, they nevertheless retain an orientation toward the normative, or at the very least, the reiteration of norms which unfold as more or less stable but future-oriented systems of production and reproduction.

While fractals are often assumed to be outside the logic of reproduction, an infinite and wild variation that might be juxtaposed to the reproduction of norms, Mandelbrot’s fractals distinguished themselves from the “pathological curve” by introducing (as he puts it) “renormalization.” Renormalization makes the pattern scalable, sans the actual mutation of wild variation that, in any event, may have been taken as an initial point of departure. Fractal models are self-similar. For Haldane, the network theory of finance is directed toward identifying – in his words – the “promiscuous super-spreaders” as part of an epidemiological exercise in managing the spread of contagion through the network.

Haldane’s work sits at the intersection between virology and epidemiology, contra Derrida’s insistence on their opposition. The most recent innovation in epidemiology is that of “fractal epidemiology,” which places an emphasis on using fractals (causative complexity) to discern – through the use of computer modelling – the spread of contagion and risk. Fractal epidemiology, as compared to earlier epidemiological models, increases causal complexity rather than abandoning determinism as such, while stressing the distribution of risk in nonlinear terms. As in the field of fractal ecology, and that of fractal finance, the question of borders, norms and contagion remains intact, which is to say: fractal modelling seeks to recognise the potential for contagion across more or less naturalised boundaries. Fractals comprehend the border as irregular and uncertain, but nevertheless as recomposable; just as, it might be noted, chaos theory proffers a theory of the order that emerges from disorder.

In other words, the more supposedly cutting-edge versions of financial risk management are preoccupied with identifying emerging or non-normative patterns of attachment, contact and flow in order to evaluate risk and restore norms and limits.

Does it need to be pointed out that this financial crisis was precipitated by increasingly shaky household foundations, millions of crises at the level of reproduction that became – because of the increasingly networked world of finance – a crisis of social reproduction?

These references to Haldane and Mandelbrot are by way of illustrating an argument about the dynamics of capitalist expansion, crisis and restoration. That dynamic, briefly put, involves the incorporation, transformation and exclusion of myriad forms of generation into the specifically capitalist form of production and reproduction. Hence the not-always juxtaposed terms of contract and contagion, which point not only to different forms of subjectivity, but also of relation, transmission and generation.

Central to this is the analytical category of the household, a critical analysis of the architectures of class, race, gender, nation and sexuality constituted by a genealogical understanding of the oikos, or oikonomia, the politics or law of the household that, as I see it, serves as scalable vector in times of expansion and restorative fundament in moments of crisis.

In this, the interplay between the contractual and the contagious highlights the paradoxical condition of capitalism, simultaneously dependant upon contingency and endangered by it; a mode of production and reproduction that is historically specific but by no means the only form of generation that takes place. In this argument, the dynamic of the liquidation and re-/foundation of naturalised contracts marks a ‘double movement’ internal to capitalism, its particular predicament in which it both tends, for its very existence, toward a seemingly infinite expansion (a generative complexity) and, at the same time, requires the spatio-temporal persistence afforded by genealogical foundationalism.

The cue for this reading of finance – and of capitalist dynamics more generally – comes from a particular, let’s say queer, reading of Marx.

In his notebooks for the drafting of Capital, those published under the heading of “The Chapter on Capital” in the Grundrisse, Marx discussed at some length what he took to be the contradictory tendencies of capital to both overtake and posit limits. The tendency to “create the world market,” he wrote, in which every “limit appears as a barrier to be overcome,” simultaneously includes “the complementary tendency to create ever more points of exchange.” This “production of a constantly widening sphere of circulation, whether the sphere itself is directly expanded or whether more points within it are created as points of production,” underlined for Marx the crucial inseparability of circulation and production in the actual, historical processes of capitalism. This is what he referred to as the double movement of the limit that is inherent not to production conceived in ahistorical terms, but to a specifically capitalist form of production and reproduction – or, capitalist futurity.

In other words, capitalism is no more essentially deterritorializing than that it can survive across time and extend across space without the periodic restoration of limits. Genealogy marks those limits. And, it does so more emphatically, and often violently, in its most precarious moments and spaces.

The points of arrival and departure, the switching points that transform the generation of pleasure into the reproduction and transmission of property, are, I think, the contract. The contractual is the proliferating limit, the scalable architecture of the familial convention that makes nation into domestic economy and the house into a smaller cognate of homeland, that reproduces the apparently heritable properties of race through gender and sex, that distributes uncertainty and allocates risk, that is both fractal and norm, the reproducible pattern of capitalist futurity.

{End with the question posed at the conclusion of “Legal, Tender”}

What forms of generation – beyond the genealogical nexus of race, sexuality, citizenship, class and gender, that is, beyond the adhesions of desire to the production and reproduction of capitalism – might be furnished with plausible infrastructures in the composition of political demands for reform or movements for radical transformation? A politics of the household turns on that most materialist of propositions: we are how we live. What forms of attachment, interdependency, and indebtedness are being implemented, funded, obliged or simply and violently enforced; and what tender possibilities are foreclosed?


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