9th June 2012

Aesthetics and the Performance of Political Economy Workshop, 28 June 2012

Workshop Programme

University of Warwick

S1.50 (Social Studies Building)

10.45 onwards: Registration/Coffee

11.00-13.00 Panel 1: Imagining the Economy (Chair: Shirin Rai, Warwick)

  • ‘Imagining Imaginaries’ – Christian de Cock (Essex)
  • ‘The Aesthetic in Classical Political Economy’ – Matthew Watson (Warwick)
  • ‘Authority, Vitalism and the Aesthetics of Biopolitics’ – Claire Blencowe (Warwick)

13.00-14.00 Lunch

14.00-16.00 Panel 2: Visualising Economic Subjects (Chair: Chris Holmes, Southampton)

  • ‘Apocalyptic Futures: The Catastrophic Subject and the Ethics of Exceptionalism’ – Madeleine Fagan (Warwick)
  • ‘The Spatial Architectonics of International Political Economy: Work, Body, Aesthetics’ – Matt Davies (Newcastle)
  • ‘Aesthetic Enactments in (Neuro)market(ing) Research’ – Tanja Schneider (Oxford)

Coffee Break

16.00-18.00 Panel 3: Performing Markets (Chair: Nick Vaughan-Williams, Warwick)

  • ‘Groovy like the Marketing: what Apple and Industrial Life Assurance Have in Common and What We Should Learn From Them’ – Liz McFall (Open University)
  • ‘Sexy Money: The Hetero-Normative Political Economy of Finance’ – James Brassett and Lena Rethel (Warwick)
  •  ‘Reporting Gender, Benchmarking Competitiveness: Postfeminist Politics at the World Economic Forum’ – Juanita Elias (Griffith)

Afterwards: Drinks/Dinner at Xananas

Paper Abstracts

‘Imagining Imaginaries’ – Christian de Cock

My current interest in the notions of Imagination, Imagining and Imaginary follows from an earlier empirical project aimed at somehow representing the Imaginary of Finance Capital (based on a full set of advertisements by financial institutions published in the FT during 2007-2008). When presenting the results from that study I ran into conceptual and practical difficulties, perhaps most pertinently when faced with the question: “What do you actually mean by ‘Imaginary’?” Whilst the concept by its very nature resists definition, I believe an exploration of the interlocking work of Iser, Castoriadis, Sartre, and Taylor on the Imaginary can enrich discussions on the aesthetics and performance of political economy. The main key problematic that interests me is how the expansion and pervasiveness of the financial imaginary must necessarily come at the expense of the radical imagination; and how we nevertheless might be able to activate a radical imaginary.

‘The Aesthetic in Classical Political Economy’ – Matthew Watson

There was a time when political economy appeared to be all about the study of the aesthetic.  Maybe this is to overstate the case, but at the very least it appeared to be all about the study of the individual’s attempts to place on display a pleasing representation of the self in order to signal personal economic advance. This is what the sociologist of emotion management, Arlie Russell Hochschild, has recently called ‘emotion work’, which has increasingly been incorporated into the capitalist wage relation. Albeit not named in a similar way, it is also easily recognisable in the formative eighteenth-century debates about commercial society, where concerns were expressed about the way in which the economy’s capacity to create surplus was being appropriated. The major worry was that production was being harnessed to service individual desires to seek praise in the ownership of possessions and not for the wider communal goal of social provisioning. The earliest forms of political economy scholarship were notable for their willingness to confront the incursion of a specifically self-serving understanding of the aesthetic into wider production decisions. They were aided in asking this question by what the historian of historiography, Arnaldo Momigliano, has described as a sea-change in the method of apprehending historical problems in the eighteenth century. The new technique embodied the shift from writing public to writing private histories, through which the most relevant issue became how to identify the abstract personality type whose emergence drove the next stage of economic development. The paper assesses the significance of such a methodological shift for the study of the aesthetic in classical political economy. The dominant aesthetic characteristic observed by the eighteenth-century pioneers revolved around the manifestation of bourgeois politeness, and leisure time was enlisted as a means of socialising the individual to such displays of the self. Bourgeois politeness became both the dominant representation of economic life and the impetus for the next stage of economic development.

‘Authority, Vitalism and the Aesthetics of Biopolitics’ – Claire Blencowe

Authority is a powerful concept for coming to terms with the diversity of power, and especially for highlighting the role of contexts, aesthetics and structures of experience in the constitution of both power and politics. I argue that authority is essentially objectivist. This account of authority is then developed, in order to address the question of whether biological-type knowledge and relations destroy or foster capacities for politics. Biopolitics is conceived as a historical process of constituting (and relating to) biological life and economic forces as objectivity. Arguing against Arendt’s diagnosis of the fate of authority and politics in modernity, I argue that biological knowledges and economism create new groundworks of politics, citizenship and authority. This suggests that politics is instigated not simply through breaking given aesthetic orders (Rancière), but also through aesthetic productions of objectivity.

‘Apocalyptic Futures: The Catastrophic Subject and the Ethics of Exceptionalism’ – Madeleine Fagan

This article is a response to the contemporary dominance of disastrous, catastrophic and apocalyptic narratives found in popular culture, academic, and governmental narratives about the future, particularly in the context of climate change. The article identifies a dominant discursive framing of future scenarios common to these three arenas which effectively structures debate in terms of a non-relational understanding of subjectivity via the figure of the ‘catastrophic subject’. This future-oriented framing, the article argues, has a series of implications for the possibilities of thinking both specifically about climate change ethics and much more broadly about everyday ethical and political possibilities. This discourse of disaster and apocalypse conditions the possibilities for thinking about relations with one another, with nature, and with the global South. In response to this limitation the article suggests that Jean-Luc Nancy’s understanding of subjectivity and relationality offers an alternative framework within which the ethical and political impacts of an engagement with environmental futures can be investigated.

‘Aesthetic enactments in (neuro)market(ing) research’ – Tanja Schneider

Neuroscience is increasingly considered as a possible basis for new business and management practices. A prominent example of this trend is neuromarketing – a relatively new form of market and consumer research that applies neuroscience to marketing by employing brain imaging or measurement technology to anticipate consumers’ response to, for instance, products, packaging or advertising. In this paper I explore the ways in which certain neuromarketing technologies simultaneously reveal and enact a particular version of the consumer. The revelation is ironic in the sense that it entails the construction of a contrast between what appears to be the case – consumers’ accounts of why they prefer certain products over others  – and what can be shown to be the case as a result of the application of the technology – the hidden or concealed truth. I pay particular attention to the role scientific imaging and visualisation practices play in this process and how these contribute to enacting the brain as the locus of truth. I conclude by discussing the aesthetic performance of the “brain’s viewpoint” over the consumers’ viewpoint in neuromarketing practices and problematise the ensuing conceptualisation of consumers as non-knowledgable.

‘The Spatial Architectonics of International Political Economy: Work, Body, Aesthetics’ – Matt Davies

International Political Economy has trouble with work. When the discipline recognizes work at all, it tends to be work in the form of a commodity, as in studies of whether competition for foreign investment tends to drive wages down or in studies of migration as change in the spatial distribution of the supply of labour. The field does not recognize work as creative, transforming activity. This is not simply a gap in the conceptual field of the discipline: the imaginary constitution of the global political economy as networks of circulation depends upon the erasure of work or productive labour. Moreover, this erasure of work from the discipline leaves a curiously disembodied object for analysis, a “global” space unpopulated and untroubled by actual bodies engaged in sensuous activity. How can the body be recovered – and reappropriated – for International Political Economy? The answers to this will ultimately depend on understanding the “field” of the global political economy as both the product of and the ground for work as sensuous, creative activity. Starting from Henri Lefebvre’s notion of “spatial architectonics,” the essay shows that the necessary underpinning for understanding work in International Political Economy lies in the interplay of the body and its spaces – their production, alienation, and reappropriation. But because the field has trouble with work specifically as creativity, work will also need to be specified as creative practice. This task necessarily invokes notions of aesthetics. The paper will argue that, at least under the contemporary configurations of capitalism, the aesthetic moment in work is both the manner in which sense perception is collectively organized and an object of political contestation. Thus Lefebvre’s conceptions of the body and space is brought into dialogue with Walter Benjamin’s aesthetics, especially as developed in his essay “The Work of Art in an Age of Technical Reproducibility,” to explore the contemporary forms of politics that emerge from work.

‘Reporting Gender, Benchmarking Competitiveness: Postfeminist politics at the World Economic Forum’ – Juanita Elias

The World Economic Forum is a global governance actor that has in recent years taken an increased interest in issues pertaining to gender equality and women’s empowerment. The paper critically investigates the work of the WEF in this area, suggesting that WEF produced gender and development discourse is profoundly compatible with the politics and practices of neoliberalism – not least in the way in which it aligns gender equality and women’s empowerment with national economic competitiveness.  This is, furthermore, a distinctly postfeminist reading of gender that rests upon the production of neoliberal compatible female subjectivities – such as ‘rational economic woman’ or ‘Davos woman’ who emerge as those in society best able to deliver fair and sustainable economic growth (effectively ‘rescuing’ global captalism from the excesses of hypermasculine crisis capitalism). For sure, the framing of the case for gender equality and women’s empowerment in these terms is powerful and may well be an effective way for gender advocates to present their demands. But by analysing not only how the WEF has framed/represented gender issues but also what has been left out of this representation, the paper points to the way in which simplistic representations concerning the contribution that women make to economic competitiveness disguise the double-burdens and gendered structures of socio-economic inequality that are central to the widening and deepening of the market into all spheres of social life under conditions of ‘roll-back’ neoliberalism.

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