On a beautiful Saturday in April, about 40 people walked through the eerily quiet streets of the City of London to learn, together, about financialization in one of its global epicentres.
We (Max Haiven and Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou) organized the walk, and solicited the 15 speakers who at various locations gave short scholarly but conversational presentations, based on the conviction that gatherings to cultivate research imagination should not be confined to the stuffy traditions of conventional academe.
What we found was that this method for sharing interdisciplinary perspectives, which is by no means new, helped create a vibrant atmosphere of convivial but rigorous cooperative inquiry. That’s something especially important for thinking through the complexities of a phenomenon like financialization, whose economic, political, sociological and cultural dimensions are so thoroughly entangled. Whereas all too often popular and academic discourse about finance and its effects frames it as an abstract and nebulous set of processes and pressure, grounding our imaginations in the historic geography and built environment helped us see not only its specificities and nuances but the connection between different dimensions, institutions and architectures.
The tour was named and conducted in honour of Cornelius Castoriadis, a philosopher famous for his materialist theories of the imagination as an active, dynamic and protean force at the very core of society and of each subject within it. In this age when seemingly hallucinogenic financial wealth appears and disappears with chaotic frequency, and with tremendous consequences, it feels like high time to return to Castoriadis’s work, especially his concerns with questions of collective autonomy and radical democracy that help us see beyond neoliberalism’s false monopolization of these virtues.
Our tour asked presenters to speak about various aspects and instances of financialization in the City of London, with an eye to casting them as solidifications of the social imagination, and with an eye to how these solidifications might be challenged.
Where we went
Our tour began at the Old Bailey, the former site of Newgate Prison, to draw the links between the histories of capitalism and the histories of incarceration and colonialism. Together, we made our way down Newgate Street to the London headquarters of the notorious US investment bank Goldman Sachs, where Goldsmiths PhD candidate Conrad Moriarty-Cole provoked us with a vexing question: can the high-frequency trading algorithms that today dominate the chaotic flow of speculative wealth around the globe be said to possess an imagination? With this in mind, we proceeded through Paternoster Square to the Northern steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral where Dr. Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou of UCL probed the religious and spiritual dimensions of modern financial imaginaries, asking us to consider how they bind together imagined communities of faith (credo being the root also of the word credit). One of the recurring themes of the walk was the colonial and imperial entanglements of The City and of the development of finance capital, as exemplified by Kent’s Dr. Robbie Richardson's presentation on “North American ‘Indians’ and British Modernity” at the based of a statue of Queen Anne that stands in front of St. Paul’s as a glorification of Britain’s imperial triumph.
As much as, today, The City is known for a culture of cutthroat competition and individualist profiteering, Ed Mayo, Secretary General of Cooperatives UK, in his presentation, told us another story of the Square Mile as a laboratory for forms of mutuality through the ages, from the medieval guilds to today’s effervescence of new cooperative ventures challenging the capitalist economy from within. Of course, forty academics, artists, journalists, activists and malcontents do attract attention and just as Goldsmith’s PhD candidate Carla Ibled was about to begin her presentation on “The Fear Index” in front of the offices of Black Rock (the world’s largest asset management firm) we were shooed away by the company’s private security. Around the corner, however, Ibled was able to explain how such financial behemoths have developed methods like the VIX, or volatility index, to speculate on and profit from the tectonic uncertainty of markets that, for most of us, is a cause for terrific anxiety. The displacement of such anxieties onto racialized “Others” was the subject of UCL’s Judith Suissa’s presentation, which contrasted the anti-Semitic trope of the “cosmopolitan” Jewish financier with the cosmopolitanism from below fomented by Jewish anarchists in 19th century London.
Following lunch at the former headquarters of HSBC Bank (now a Weatherspoon’s Pub), we resumed with two presentations in the shadow of the historic Royal Exchange. Brett Scott, a well-known and widely published “financial explorer” and hacker mused on the fear and fetishization that still surround gold, explaining how this almost mystical glittering substance still animated our imaginations of finance and wealth. Dr Paul Gilbert also excavated the imaginative infrastructures of finance, this time with reference to the way that, dating as far back as the transatlantic slave trade up to the present neocolonial global extractive economy, notions of financial risk have been entangled with the mythologies of race and racism. Having explored the unconscious of the speculative psyche, we then sat together in the street a few short blocks from the Monument tube stop in front of one of The City’s most luxurious yoga studios where American artist Cassie Thornton and Dr. Francesca Coin of Ca' Foscari University of Venice led us through a participatory investigation of “finance and the yogic imperative.”
The walking tour concluded with two presentations that highlighted the potential of the imagination for transcending finance: Steve Taylor, a graduate student at the University of East London, mobilized Castoriadis’s thought to beg the question of what The City would look like after financialization, when it was back in the hands of the community, rather than of global finance. Meanwhile. In a small playground just outside the old city walls, overseen by both The Tower of London and with the ghost of Grenville Tower not far off, UCL’s Dr. Rachel Rosen drew on her fieldwork with small children to reflect on the figure of the child in the financial imaginary, but also the resistance of play and the play of resistance.
Following the walk, the day concluded with four presentations back at UCL’s Department of Economics: RYBN.org, the French art and technology collective, presented their project The Great Offshore, a suite of research and creative interventions including the Offshore Tour Operator, an open-source gadget that drew on a series of leaked tax haven information to revealed the letterbox locations of a global firms specializing in helping the plutocracy hide their money. Carey Young, a world-renowned artist and Lecturer at the Slade School then spoke of the transformation of art into a financialized “Passion Asset”, the plaything of the world’s speculative oligarchs, and meditated on the consequences for art, artists and creativity at large. Then artist Tom Wolseley told us the story behind his experimental film The Shard, which tells a complex story about the financial transformation of London through the life and times of the iconic skyscraper. Finally, David Benque, a London-based designer and a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art, outlined his project The Monistic Almanac, which explores the arcana of finance through the format of the almanac, which has, for centuries, offered readers tools for forecasting the future based on a combination of myth and fact.
What we learned
We have followed-up on this fantastic day of learning, sharing and discussion in a number of ways. In cooperation with Public Seminar, the online platform attached to the New School for Social Research in New York, we have published short, public-facing written pieces from most of our contributors. Further, we were fortunate to have recorded the talks and are pleased to have worked with the UCL Urban Laboratory to make them available online as a podcast and as a freely downloadable self-guided audio tour.
Here are a few things we learned about fostering generative interdisciplinary and meta-scholarly events from this experiment.
First, the ancient Greeks had it right: walking, thinking and debating were meant to go together. It’s not just that it helps us focus our attention. It’s also that, in the in between moments, as we navigated as a group from site to site, we got to meet one another and also chat and reflect on the last presentation. As Judith Butler has put it, bodies that congregate and move and speak together “lay claim to a certain space as public space”; that certain space being the bizarrely defined, inhabited and policed zone of City of London (its strangeness underscored by the ghostly emptiness of its streets on a Saturday) – opened up especially interesting possibilities for training and expanding our social imagination.
Second, as we drifted together along our planned route, on occasion getting lost, or off-track and surprised by small unexpected ‘interruptions’., our experience of time shifted too in interesting ways. Against the grain of accelerated time in virtual (‘networked’, algorithmic or financialised) space, our tour sought to slow down the pace of movement and conversation; to open up space for reflection over the very terms of thinking and imagining. Participants invested significant time in this process, by committing a whole day (for most of us over 12 hours) including eating a meal together.
Third, though we had neither the time nor the acoustic capacity to allow for many questions-and-answers, this meant that those attending approached speakers individually and in small groups, and often had much more interesting and productive conversations than are usually afforded by the serial monologue and combative or self-serving questions format that characterizes many academic conferences. This allowed us to create an event wherein many non-academics, graduate students, as well as artists, activists, but also passers-by, felt welcome and were equal partners in the generation of discussion.
Ultimately, this participatory, exploratory format was a successful homage to the work of Castoriadis, and his faith in the power of the imagination not as an individual cognitive category but as something that animates and is animated by social fields. Autonomous and radical thought cannot be divorced from flesh and blood collectivities. For Castoriadis the ‘method’ for a true transition from heteronomy to autonomy can only be ‘relational’ and connective – exploring ways of opening up space and time for this transition is today more urgent than ever.
Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou is Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Social Theory at University College London's Department of Social Science.
Max Haiven is Canada Research Chair in Culture, Media and Social Justice at Lakehead University in Northwest Ontario, Canada and director of the ReImagining Value Action Lab (RiVAL).