Economic and Literary Speculations

By Mikkel Krause FrantzenNovember 20, 2018

Economic and Literary Speculations

Finance Fictions by Arne De Boever

SOMETIMES EVEN DEUTSCHE BANK tells the truth. Asserting that the financial crisis of 2007–’08 was not a one-off event, the report “The Next Financial Crisis,” published by the German bank in September 2017, states that crises (plural) are an unavoidable feature of the current economic system. “It would,” the authors of the report write, “take a huge leap of faith to say that crises won’t continue to be a regular feature of the current financial system that has been in place since the early 1970s. The near exponential growth of finance and its liberalisation since this point has encouraged this trend.” The authors stress that while crises caused by unrestrained financial speculation have been known since the tulip mania in Holland in 1637, the frequency and severity of crises today are nonetheless unprecedented.

To be sure, this is not a new story. It has been told many times before in various forms and with different accents, although more often by critical intellectuals than by experts from the financial sector. The point is that not only does the present crisis have a long future; it also has a long past that goes back to the beginning of the 1970s at least. In 1971, the Bretton Woods system was abolished, producing the Nixon shock, which canceled the convertibility of the US dollar into gold. In 1973, the world faced a global oil crisis. In 1979, the US Federal Reserve Bank got a new chairman, who also had a shock named after him by the way. Margaret Thatcher was nominated prime minister of England in the same year. One year after that, in 1980, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as US president. The rest is neoliberal history.

So here we are. As for the economy of today, it is more than ever characterized by what Marx called fiktives Kapital in the third volume of Das Kapital: fictitious capital in the form of options, futures, collateralized debt obligations — all those terms with which most of us have become familiar in the wake of the crisis even if their opaque logic of operation escapes us somewhat. Without fetishizing the gold standard — as if money, gold or no gold, was not always virtual, as if credit was not always fictitious, as if capital was not always speculative — it is safe to say that the derivatives market has exploded after the cancellation of the Bretton Woods system, due to the subsequent state of deregulation, not to mention the technological advances made in mathematics and computational power. The site Investopedia informs that the derivatives market is estimated at “more than $1.2 quadrillion on the high end,” and that some market analysts “place the size of the market at more than 10 times that of the total world gross domestic product (GDP).” In short: It is in the sphere of speculation rather than production that capital is accumulated, value created, and profit made. As is the case in law (precrime) and medicine (predictive medicine), everything in finance is about predicting the future by using machines of stunning sophistication in order to profit from it. Prediction has taken the place of production as the buzzword of our time.

This is not just about structures, it is about subjects too. It is about how the finance economy produces a certain form of subjectivity, a certain form of affective atmosphere, a certain form of pathological structure. Human beings are increasingly fabricated as human capital, and perceived and judged in terms of their risk profile and creditworthiness. This also means, from the point of view of capital, that you are less useful when you go to your place of employment to work than when you go into a bank to obtain a loan. The credit relation rather than the wage, Ivan Ascher thus reasons in Portfolio Society, defines the contemporary economy. Debt, not work, is the condition of social reproduction.

The tentacles of finance or financialization thus reach far beyond stock exchanges and affect the lives of ordinary citizens and other areas of society profoundly. The sphere of culture, for instance. No wonder, then, that the last couple of decades have seen the advent of what is becoming recognizable as a new genre: finance fiction. Novels, films, and TV series, whether fictional or documentary, have tried to describe and understand the working of present-day financial activity and its influence on the way we live now. As Fredric Jameson already pointed out in his groundbreaking essay “Culture and Finance Capital” from 1997, any “comprehensive new theory of finance capitalism will need to reach out into the expanded realm of cultural production to map its effects.”

And that is precisely what a lot of important works from the humanities and cultural and literary studies have recently done. Leigh Claire La Berge’s Scandals and Abstraction (2014), Max Haiven’s Cultures of Financialization (2014), and Alison Shonkwiler’s The Financial Imaginary (2017) are worth mentioning. And now also Arne De Boever’s Finance Fictions: Realism and Psychosis in a Time of Economic Crisis, which engages with and expands on much of the already existing work in the field. In the book, De Boever maps the effects of financialization on contemporary literature, plotting to what extent and in what ways the genre of finance fiction is “attuned to today’s sci-fi-like economic reality.” He is interested in novels that have engaged with this economic reality: Tom Wolfe’s satirical The Bonfire of the Vanities from 1987, Bret Easton Ellis’s classic American Psycho from 1991, Michel Houellebecq’s quasi-detective novel The Map and the Territory from 2010, Robert Harris’s sci-fi thriller The Fear Index from 2011, and Ben Lerner’s acclaimed metafictional novel 10:04 from 2014.

At the forefront of De Boever’s work is the old question of literary realism, hence the first part of the subtitle. It is the question of how literature — and in this case, contemporary finance fiction — is able to give a realistic description of the workings of financial capitalism today. Some would perhaps claim — and De Boever acknowledges this — that the novel is not particularly well suited for such an account, and that one would better off considering contemporary art (Melanie Gilligan, Hito Steyerl, Claire Fontaine, et cetera), films and TV series (Too Big to Fail, Margin Call, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short, Billions, et cetera), or poetry for adequate and non-outdated modes of representations of the abstracted world of capital (Joshua Clover’s Red Epic, Mathew Timmons’s Credit, et cetera).

However, De Boever insists on the relevance of the novel. The question he ponders is: “[H]ow can the novel contribute to the adequate description of today’s digitized economy?” How can the novel, and in particular the realist novel, confront an event such as the flash crash of 2010, or deal with something like high-frequency trading, that is, acts of selling and buying carried out by algorithmic agents — those ghosts in the machines, as they have been called — with a speed literally close to the speed of light and which often surpasses the understanding of both quants (the math whizzes working at today’s hedge funds) and mere mortals? Blink your eye, and an algorithm may have made 400 orders, while you were casually sipping your coffee and checking Facebook. How can the novel — traditionally a rather slow medium, the substance of which unfolds in and through time — possibly keep up with that?

The novel keeps up because of its imaginary character — by its fictional and speculative nature, by not being realist. Speculative genres for speculative times (for a similar argument regarding literature, realism, and the current climate crisis, see here). Realism is, of course, to a certain extent always an impossible project, and any literary realism worthy of the name must go to the very limit of realism, if not leave realism behind altogether. At an important tipping point in the book, De Boever contemplates if “in order to write the reality of finance today, one may have to turn to experimental rather than realist writing.” This is the very problem, as he sees it, with Robert Harris’s financial thriller The Fear Index: it is not experimental enough, and thus, paradoxically, not realistic enough. As a finance novel, it fails, De Boever argues, in its representation of finance. Why? Because the finance economy “demands another realism, one that would push the novel to the limits of the genre” — which is where the alliance with the philosophical trajectory of speculative realism is most discernible (a whole chapter is devoted to its “founding father” Quentin Meillassoux and his overlooked discussion of science fiction). The perspective and realism of The Fear Index remains all too human in a financial world where the ones calling the shots are machines rather than men. With all the digital developments — information, speed, artificial intelligence — other literary measures are required to account for the complex entanglements of the agent and the algorithm, the human and the nonhuman, the real and the imaginary. And yet, De Boever also sees value to holding on to a realist component in these transformations, if only because finance all too often disappears into an “abstraction” and “complexity” that tend to escape realism.

The final two novels that De Boever analyzes are treated less critically in this context. In his readings of The Map and the Territory and 10:04, De Boever changes tracks and dwells on the financialization of art (in Houellebecq’s case) and the financialization of the novel itself (in Lerner’s case). Unfolding in a society of simulation and speculation, the protagonist and nameless narrator of 10:04 is a writer who receives a “strong six-figure sum” in advance for his next novel and soon finds himself monetizing and betting on the future of his fiction: “I loved this idea: my virtual novel was worth more than my actual novel. But if they rejected it, I’d have to give the money back. And yet I planned to spend my advance in advance.” Yet, De Boever cautions the reader not to take this statement at face value: “While the novelist states — with some discomfort — that he loves the fact that his virtual Novel is worth more than his actual novel, I would argue that his novel in fact teaches us the opposite, and less than the opposite even: to love our actual, irreparable novels more than our virtual ones.”

Here we see how the novel is still aligned with postmodernism. Occasionally, De Boever speaks of finance fiction’s continued tie to postmodernism, that is to say, literary postmodernism, which marked and still marks “the end of empathy, external referentiality, meaning and closure, readable plot, and recognizable character.” The irony, of course, as De Boever emphasizes (as did Jameson before him with his definition of postmodernism as the cultural logic of late capitalism), is that those key features of postmodernism are precisely what characterizes financial capitalism as well. One might add, though, that a similar, strange correspondence is at work between the philosophy of speculative realism and the contemporary finance economy.

In a new book titled Reified Life: Speculative Capital and the Ahuman Condition, J. Paul Narkunas foregrounds how the philosophers grouped under the heading of speculative realism may have offered a timely critique of anthropocentrism, but at the same time heralded and celebrated a posthuman condition that capital ushered in ages ago. The world that these thinkers sing about, is that not the world of the finance economy proper? Are the weird, withdrawn objects of derivatives and securities anything but the perfect example of a so-called object-oriented ontology? Is the dream of the speculative realists not the nightmare, our nightmare, of contemporary capitalism? Might De Boever’s discussion of these issues in fact lead to a consideration of the complicity between speculative realism and speculative finance?

What about the second part of De Boever’s subtitle, psychosis? It is the psychosis at work in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and the psychosis of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. It is the psychosis of Tyler Durden of Fight Club, the psychosis of Eric Parker in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. Defined by De Boever as a disavowal of existing reality and, consequently, a desperate search for the real, psychosis is in his view “the key affliction of our particular economic moment.” The underlying premise is that psychosis has intensified in the last four decades or so (which is less to be taken as a clinical than a cultural argument). Obviously, it is not a matter of indulging in fancy metaphors from the clinical and psychiatric field, producing statements about the psychosis of the stock market itself. Nor is it a question of replacing a structural critique of finance with psychologism, of abandoning an “objective” perspective in favor a “subjective” one. Rather, it is about unearthing and critiquing the point of resonance between structure and agent, between economy and psychology, between the material and the mental, objectivity and subjectivity. Every historical age has its own pathologies, its own set of symptoms. These symptoms are related to and derive from the economy in complicated ways. To schematize rather crudely: neurasthenia and hysteria around 1900, those very Freudian illnesses; anxiety and schizophrenia in the 1950s and 1960s (just look at this totally tasteless 1967 commercial directed at anxious housewives). And finally, in the third millennium, depression, stress, and, according to De Boever, also psychosis — the paradigmatic psychopathology in the world of finance.

Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Bernard Stiegler, and the late Mark Fisher (all present in Finance Fictions) have written extensively on this topic too, questioning the ways in which the political economy affects our very innermost being, our neuronal network, our desires, our soul as it were, and the different pathologies that flourish given such socially constructed roots. De Boever substantiates his claims with nuanced readings of literary works. In the analysis of American Psycho he draws interesting parallels to both Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho and Hitchcock’s 1960 movie Psycho, highlighting both works’ overlooked economic perspectives and their relation to psychosis. He discusses not only the psychosis of Norman Bates but also of Marion Crane, when she steals $40,000 from her boss. Riffing off a statement made by Norman, De Boever writes: “[A]ll of us can turn a little psycho when we are dealing with money.” This could be a catchphrase for De Boever’s book.

De Boever’s speculative suggestion is, one, that the finance economy renders “human beings psychotic” in the sense that they “disavow existing reality,” and, two, that the only literary form capable of indexing finance and its psychotic structure is a literary realism, which itself in turn borders on psychosis. With regards to the former, one may want to make clear which human beings we are talking about here. “All of us” — really? It’s worth pointing out that De Boever’s book mostly focuses on the Patrick Batemans of the world, the Jordan Belforts, the white male masters of the universe. He is mostly focused — and of course with good reason — on the madness of bankers and investors (in her excellent historical work on finance and psychic economies in the Victorian period, which De Boever quotes, Anna Kornbluh recounts how the asylums in the 1850s were filled with people who worked in finance, second only to people who worked in the military). But I wonder about the lives of so-called ordinary people, the “proletariat” even: Is psychosis a proper term to capture their economic and psychological misery? What about class, inequality, and what David Harvey aptly deems “accumulation by dispossession”? Are the ones at the bottom of society, the lower classes, not more likely to experience the (effects of the) finance economy as a painful conjunction of debt and depression? In a review of De Boever’s book, Annie McClanahan — whose own book on credit, debt, and 21st-century culture De Boever reviewed — concluded that “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.”

Along similar lines, I also wonder about the issue of masculinity in relation to De Boever’s book. While he almost exclusively works with male novelists (Cristina Alger is the main exception here), he seeks to distinguish the approach to the finance novel that he advocates from what Michelle Chihara, with a certain Schwung, has called “big swinging dick realism.” Wolfe is De Boever’s main target for this. But his book — which also deals with Ellis, Houellebecq, and Lerner, all of whom deal with masculinity in their work — says too little rather than too much about this complex and immensely interesting relation between psychosis, finance, and masculinity. I am thinking also of Fight Club — which receives a brief discussion in the book’s introduction — where Tyler Durden addresses a group of impotent young men as “the middle children of history” who are “very, very pissed off” and who, perhaps in a state of collective, masculine psychosis, entertain a passion for something violently real.

Still, the question of what is real and what is imaginary is what is centrally at stake here — at the intersection of aesthetics and politics, art and capital, literary and financial realism. The finance in fiction, the fiction in finance. Several thinkers have pointed out that literary realism has historically always been chummy with capitalism; today, capitalism may even have confiscated realism to the extent that capital simply is realism itself, the only realism. Yet Finance Fictions impresses upon its readers that this is not the whole story about literary realism. If the economy is, partly, the stuff of fictions, then it is only as fiction that literature will be equal to the task of not only capturing but of challenging the logic of financial capitalism and its psychotic consequences. This kind of finance fiction will be based on a realism that refuses to be realistic in the naïve sense of the term, which is why De Boever (after Antonio Scurati) speaks of a “psychotic realism.” A realism, in any case, that will not remain satisfied with describing the world as it is, but will insist on attending to what could be, the what-if and the not-yet. Despite what one might be led to believe in an age of fake news and with the fictional world of finance, we don’t need less fiction, we need more. We need more pieces of literary fiction to counter those other fictions, which destroy the world and our lives. As Reza Negarestani recently wrote: “Only a naive-realist fool wants to make literature that conforms to how things actually are.”


Mikkel Krause Frantzen holds a PhD from the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen, and is currently postdoctoral fellow at University of Aalborg, Denmark. He is the author of Going Nowhere, Slow – The Aesthetics and Politics of Depression(Zero Books, in press).

LARB Contributor

Mikkel Krause Frantzen is an associate professor in environmental aesthetics at the University of Copenhagen and Humboldt Fellow at Humboldt University, Berlin. He is co-PI of the research project OIKOS: A Cultural Analysis of Care and Crisis in the 21st Century, and the author of Going Nowhere, Slow (2019) and Klodens Fald (2021). He is also the author of the LARB essay “A Future with No Future: Depression, the Left, and the Politics of Mental Health” (2019), of which “Endgame Emotions: The Melting of Time, the Mourning of the World” is a continuation.


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