Arne De Boever. Finance Fictions: Realism and Psychosis in a Time of Economic Crisis. New York, N.Y.: Fordham University Press, 2018. 256 pp.
Review by Annie McClanahan
30 May 2018
Few moments from Karl Marx’s oeuvre have been as pored over as the passage from volume one of Capital on the commodity fetish. Arne De Boever’s Finance Fictions: Realism and Psychosis in a Time of Economic Crisis begins by asking how well Marx’s idea of fetishism can account for the particular pathology of twenty-first century financialization. De Boever’s conclusion is that it cannot. Marx, De Boever writes, was “on the track of the ultimately psychotic, reality-disavowing effects of money, capital, and (ultimately) finance,” but Marx’s “neurotic” emphasis on “the material commodity” is inadequate to a financial capitalism characterized by “complex financial instruments . . . high-frequency trading, and the unbridled intensification of speculative economic practices.” For De Boever, ours is thus an era not of neurosis but of psychosis. If the pathological personification of Marx’s nineteenth-century capitalism was Charles Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge, neurotically repressing his id as he lives on gruel (or, on the other hand, like Carl Barks’s Scrooge McDuck, with his libidinal mania for gold), Finance Fictions argues that the pathological personification of twenty-first century capitalism is American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, whipping out his credit card as he flings around blood.
To make the case for psychosis as the “key affliction of our particular economic moment,” De Boever turns to what he terms finance fiction—fiction “realistically” about finance capital. Drawing on Bernard Stiegler’s rather idealist notion of “proletarianization”—which De Boever glosses as a process that happens “not only when someone loses their home, but also when people feel they no longer understand how ‘the economy’ works”—Finance Fictions argues that in fact, such understanding remains possible even in an age of complex financial instruments. In the first three chapters, he traces the link between this imperative to describe realistically and the pathological excess of psychosis in Thomas Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Robert Harris’s sci-fi thriller The Fear Index. Through these readings, De Boever contends that it is precisely in its dalliance with psychosis that financial fiction is most realistic, since finance—violent, fast, nonhuman, and inhumane—is itself psychotic.
Having set up the relation between realism and psychosis, however, De Boever then proceeds to problematize it, arguing in the second half of the book that the intrusion of psychosis—unfettered by the demands of reality—also undoes conventional realism, rendering it either speculative (à la Quentin Meillassoux) or psychotic (a la literary theorist Antonio Scurati). Chapters four through six turn toward these antirealist realisms, using novels by Michel Houellebecq and Ben Lerner as well as conceptual poetry and art to map writers’ attempts to “hold up a kind of impossible mirror to [financial reality]” so as turn its representational limits “into a new art of representation.” A richly theoretical conclusion, finally, shifts from art and literature to theory in order to argue that Giorgio Agamben’s notion of the camp—wherein the state of exception becomes the rule—might be used to theorize what the book calls “market fortification.” Such fortifications ensure that “immunizing financial strategies” like hedging (a term that one wishes De Boever pursued more thoroughly for its etymological origins in spatial fortification) protect the market from failure. Only when the walls are breached by way of what De Boever terms negativity—“the fundamental fact of loss” does it become possible to imagine “not . . . the ‘big short,’ where a profit can still be made, but the ‘really big short,’ when the market implodes.”
Finance Fictions believes steadfastly in description, and its insistence that literature (and literary critics) can explain “what is going on” offers a useful rebuttal to the familiar bromide that the most we can know about late capitalism is that it is hard to know anything about it. But as György Lukács’s work on realism reminds us, not all descriptions are created equal. Lukács was responding to Ernst Bloch’s argument that realism should mirror the fragmented, disrupted subjective experience of life under capitalism, and Finance Fiction’s Blochian gambit is that by illuminating finance’s psychotic subjectivity, finance fiction offers us a clue to “how [finance] really works.” Yet Lukács incisively problematizes this assumption that the subjective can stand in for the objective: “If literature is a particular form by means of which objective reality is reflected, then it becomes of crucial importance for it to grasp that reality as it truly is.” It may well be that finance “makes human beings disavow existing reality,” as De Boever puts it. Yet that reality—including finance’s relationship to the enduring materiality of global commodity production, wage relations, and national monetary policy—nonetheless persists, abetted precisely by finance’s false appearance as “hallucinatory” or “essentially spectral.” Although both finance fictions and Finance Fiction skillfully illuminate the subjective experience of finance, neither has much to say about the materiality of production and exploitation on which finance continues to depend.
The difference between subjective appearance and objective reality is also the point of the scene of commodity fetishism in Capital with which Finance Fictions begins. For Marx, fetishism refers neither to neurosis nor psychosis; indeed, his claim is that to understand commodity fetishism as pathological desire for the object itself is to fall prey to commodification’s ideology. Rather, the “magic and necromancy” that suffuse the commodity are products of the (obscured) social labor that created the object in the first place. Likewise, Marx’s writing on “fictitious capital” in volume three of Capital, which Finance Fictions cites, insists that finance is “fictitious” not in the sense of being fictional (dependent on our subjective belief in it) but in the sense of being fake (dependent on labor as the real source of value). Like the dancing table, financial accumulation—the apparent making of money from money—is a mirage obscuring the ongoing reality of the exploitation of labor, an exploitation from which finance continues to derive its value.
To treat the “noisy sphere” of alchemical financial instruments, or the pathological greed of their creators and traders, or even the inhuman speed of the high-powered computers and institutions through which they circulate, without attending to the modes and abodes of production on which such instruments depend is not merely a matter of subjective “perspective.” Rather, it is to take at face value finance’s own fictitious claim to be a new form of value production, lofted free from the materiality of labor and from all previously ineluctable limits. It is thus also to miss the chance to account for why what De Boever terms negativity is inevitable: not because the economy is “absolutely contingent,” newly “ontological,” or fundamentally “speculative” but because it is not; not because we have “moved beyond . . . Marx’s general formula for capital” but because we have not; not because “credit’s value . . . never fully arrives” but because eventually it must. And if one is looking for the people most likely to know all these objective facts already, we might find that the “proletarianized” subjects who “have lost their homes” know at least as much as the novelists or the characters of finance fictions.