Urs Staheli, Spectacular Speculation: Thrills, the Economy, and Popular Discourse

By Cosgrave, Jim | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Urs Staheli, Spectacular Speculation: Thrills, the Economy, and Popular Discourse


Cosgrave, Jim, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Urs Staheli, Spectacular Speculation: Thrills, the Economy, and Popular Discourse. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 299 pp., 978-0-8047-7132-0 pbk.

The case can certainly be made that the financial crisis of 2008 made speculation a hot topic for analysis and a serious cause for public concern. Also, the associations between speculation and gambling reappeared in full force: the pejorative "casino capitalism" has often been used to characterize the neoliberal era of deregulated markets and banking, with the concomitant rise of financialization and its destructive global effects. But speculation has accompanied capitalism from the beginning, with spectacular early examples, such as the Dutch tulip craze of 1637 and the South Sea Bubble of the early 18th century. Spectacular Speculation analyzes the historical and popular relationship between speculation and spectacularity: speculation not only has effects on the broader society--plainly evident post-2008, it cannot be understood without grasping its "outside" to which it attempts to draw legitimizing boundaries--in this case the realm of the popular. Thus, the book, while contributing to the sociology of finance and economic sociology, is also a cultural and historical analysis. It is to be credited for this: while behavioural economics, for example, has sought to move beyond the abstract rationality of mainstream economics, showing awareness of "animal spirits" and crowd psychology, it does not adequately address the collective, communicative, and "non-rational aspect to economic processes" (p. 7). Spectacular phenomena are not only social, but emotional: they are spectacular because they draw many people communicatively into their orbit, and capture public attention at the affective level. Spectacular economic phenomena are thus too "non-economic" to be left to the economists; speculation requires sociological and cultural analysis.

Spectacular Speculation traces the rise to legitimacy of speculation in the period 1870-1930, an important period in the development of stock markets. In the introduction, Staheli challenges cultural studies, noting its reluctance to consider the relationship of the market to the popular. The market needs to be examined for its popular, and not just ideological aspects, and Staheli provides examples of where the popular has been mobilized through market discourses. While Foucault and Derrida are called upon as methodological supports for discursive analysis, Staheli's approach is informed primarily by Luhmann's systems theory. The communicative aspects related to the legitimizing of speculation, and the emphasis on inclusion/exclusion and boundaries surrounding the question of who can or should and should not speculate are of primary interest. The emphasis on inclusion/exclusion generates some interesting insights, for example, the relationship of gambling to the economy: if economies are functionally organized around scarcities of goods and money, gambling does away with the goods to orient to money alone. Gambling not only grows alongside the modern institutionalizing and reflexivity of money, it manifests an "entertaining" orientation to money and celebrates contingency. In contrast to speculation, gambling's "non-economic" discursive status prevented it from being included in legitimate market discourse.

While the book explores the popular and affective aspects of speculation, it also contributes a genealogy of homo oeconomicus. The first two chapters examine the relationship between speculation and gambling. In the early development of capitalism, social values did not discriminate between the two, as they were both antithetical to social order. Gambling and speculation are both conceived as "parasitic" on the legitimate productive economy and the "wild contingency" of these activities is a threat to rationality. As markets develop, the conceptualizations and moral framings of gambling and speculation take interesting turns: speculation manages to take on the "disguise of economic responsibility . …

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