Academic journal article New Formations

What Kind of Subject Is the Market?

Academic journal article New Formations

What Kind of Subject Is the Market?

Article excerpt


In his short story 'Tell me who to kill', VS. Naipaul articulates the injury of suffering at the hands of an unlocatable agent of oppression. The challenge presented by Naipaul's story is that the narrator's experience of injustice is detached from anything or anyone who could be identified as the enemy and held to account. Thus at the end of the story, as the narrator watches the guests at his brother's wedding, we sense the tremble in a voice that strains to say:

   I love them. They take my money, they spoil my life, they separate
   us. But you can't kill them. O God, show me the enemy. Once you
   find out who the enemy is, you can kill him. But these people here
   they confuse me. Who hurt me? Who spoil my life? Tell me who to
   beat back. I work four years to save my money. I work like a donkey
   night and day. My brother was to be the educated one, the nice one.
   And this is how it is ending, in this room, eating with these
   people. Tell me who to kill. (1)

The narrator's anguish captures something of what we experience when faced with the insult of loss at the hands of a mysterious yet seemingly irresistible power. We find here oppression without an identifiable oppressor, mastery without a master, despotism without a despotic subject. As Jacques Lacan points out, fear of a known object is quite different from anxiety in the face of an unknown yet commanding other. (2) It is perhaps no surprise that the rise of 'the market' is associated with a particular experience of injury that knows no author.

This experience, which is the experience of so many when faced with the violence of financial markets and which rests at the heart of the concerns presented in this essay, was anticipated by Daniel Defoe in a 1701 pamphlet called The Villainy of Stock-Jobbers Detected, and the Cause of the Late Run Upon the Bank and Bankers Discovered and Considered. This text, which is among other things an interesting early example of antagonism to stockbroking, is of particular importance here for its portrayal of the processes by which the malign influence of 'stock-jobbers' is propagated and dispersed. Despair at the pain caused by stockbrokers is coupled with a sense of how difficult it is to locate the cause of that injury. Thus Defoe, an outspoken opponent of the financial speculation on the rise in his time, writes:

   What safety can we have at home, while our Peace is at the mercy of
   such Men, and 'tis in their Power to Jobb the Nation into Feuds
   among our selves, and to declare a new sort of Civil War among us
   when they please? Nay, the War they manage is carried on with worse
   weapons than Swords and Musquets ... these People can ruin Men
   silently, undermine and impoverish by a sort of impenetrable
   Artifice, like Poison that works at a distance, can wheedle Men to
   ruin themselves, and Fiddle them out of their Money, by the strange
   and unheard of Engines of Interests, Discounts, Transfers, Tallies,
   Debentures, Shares, Projects, and the Devil and all of Figures and
   Hard names ... and the poor Passive Trades men, like the Peasant in
   Flanders, are Plundered by both sides, and hardly knows who hurts
   them. (3)

This essay seeks to scrutinise this dispersal and its relation to the way that the market is so often registered as possessing a kind of subjective agency. Such a project participates in and extends the critical analysis of the attribution of subjectivity to abstract entities. If Michel Foucault wrote a history of the techniques involved in the formation of the figure of man, we also need a history, and above all a critique, of how abstract entities such as the market came to be figured as subjects. (4)

This essay first sketches the contours of the notion that the market has a voice, and then turns to the personification of things and of the market in the social studies of finance and cultural studies of the market. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.