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The constrained affectivity of finance

The terms of finance can be read in terms of their implications for human relations. If we reduce finance to what I have elsewhere thought of as an ongoing multilateral conversation about our property rights, what becomes clear is that each statement in that conversation has a sort of reductive quality, where the only topic of conversation can always and ever be simply what we "own," what is proper to us, what is ours. Dialogue about what is of one person and what is of another must, under this logic, finally resolve into a decision, a resolution of what is whose, and this marks the termination of the dialogue. The exchange is prevented from having other meaning, for example by the substitution of market practices for non-market practices. One might look at some of the examples of @graeber11, who shows that gift exchange is an alternative to market exchange, and that much of the character of gift exchange has to do with the ongoing nature of the relationship.

More generally we can observe the way that the vocabulary of finance, the terms of art and the ways in which it is thought about, serve to orient affect into its patterns. Thus we might notice a term like contract, and the relevant affect of obligation, which can be fulfilled or not fulfilled. With obligation goes the sense of commitment. Finance offers versions of all of these terms, a financially meaningful form of commitment. But such commitment is like the two-dimensional beings in Edwin Abbott's Flatland, who are unable to perceive anything that exists orthogonal to them. Financial commitment, for example, can be transferred: a novation is legally the transfer of a commitment from one party to another. Such a transfer is entirely possible within the legal framework of finance, but is nonsensical in terms of the many other human relationships that involve commitment. Changing commitments of marriage, or parenthood, or even of a teacher, are full of affect in a way that has no representation in finance. Indeed it is a sign of the breakdown of finance when such terms come to have significance. ("Our trading desk would prefer to stay facing Hayman. We do not want to face Bear" [@fcic11, p. 288].)

Interest has an entirely comparable projection onto the financial plane. A financial interest is an ownership interest: it is the statement, within the framework of the relevant legal system, that a thing is owned. But again, this is a dramatic reduction of the more general quality of interest, the captivating sense of possibility, of unflagging affective lure. Here I think of happiness as written by @ahmed10, the interested acceptance of what might be brought by the uncertainty of the future. Financial interest is foreclosed in much the same way as commitment: for a financial interest, an ownership stake, can be sold and transferred, as everything can be in the complete markets of the financial world. Yet interest, as happiness, in the more general sense is not at all anonymous; it is the product of a history, a memory, a self. Interest is an affective state, one which draws us in and which compels attention, but that fact depends very much on what has come before, on what we have already seen. And so there can be nothing anonymous about it; if it is transferred, then much is lost. The projection of interest as a broad category onto the reduced plane afforded by the strictures of finance loses much of what is essential to the more general kind of interest, leaving only a much diminished shadow.

I am reminded of @simons48, who sought to reduce the force of precisely this aspect of capitalism, that all debts must end in delivery of money payment. Simons hoped to open room for the operation of free enterprise in the expanded interstices of payment deadlines. One might, he argued, loosen those interstices by indefinitely delaying the moment of payment, or one might equivalently loosen those interstices by reducing the fixity of the quantitative patterns of payment. It is more radical than his student Minsky was ever willing to propose. What Simons thought could flourish in the expanded place was the entrepreneurial spirit, the desire to push forward with new ventures. But of course these were were motivated by the desire to profit, and if the entrepreneur expected one day to be rewarded for their efforts, would it not be the case that that would come in the form of payment? What Simons is arguing for might be thought of as meaning form entrepreneurship, that the if one could expand the bounds of payment one could allow more work and expansion and business to emerge in that position. What he does not notice is that such dialogue is still in the end about what is one's own, about property rights, and so the possibilities for meaning are inherently closed.

Minsky was more astute on this point. From Minsky [-@m54;@neilson19], we can understand that the defining feature of capitalism is its orientation around the modalities of payment, or in Minsky's term the survival constraint. The constraint is the requirement to pay, the necessity that debt be eventually resolved by delivery of the means of payment. That many debts are deferred or avoided only affirms the underlying truth that the day of reckoning is coming; it can be deferred only to a point. And at every moment, past debts are indeed maturing and must be paid, or the consequences must be faced in the legal system. It is just this orientation that represents the limitation of finance: commitment must be commitment to pay, interest must be interest in getting paid. The logic provides this answer to all questions, and so payment becomes something of an attractor, a destination to which all roads lead:

We may feel deeply anxious about money, but it is nonetheless likely that our practical attempts to deal with this emotion will be directed to the procurement of money; that is, not the reconsideration of our relationship to money but rather an intensified engagement with it. Our frequent encounters with the limits of symbolic order lead us to generate new meanings and solutions that connect, cluster, and layer to produce iconic signs, and it is through this process that we participate in the elaboration of the discursive edifice of power. [@konings15, p. 37]

Where this seems to point, for now, for me, is work on understanding the affective dimension of finance, and to find ways to write it and communicate in and around it. Ultimately it must offer possibilities for resistance and writing will be the way in.