Observation as Critique in Financial Discourse

N’est-il pas trop évident que le capital, la loi et le respect de la loi du capital, de la propriété capitalistique, est le lieu même où la distinction entre l’actuel et le virtuel, l’actif et le passif, l’intentionnel et le non-intentionnel, l’acte et son autre, en un mot, où cette distinction se brouille, où tout est fait pour que cette distinction se brouille… Là où il y a du capital, la distinction entre l’acte et le non-acte, l’actif et le passif, l’actuel et le virtuel, l’acte et le désir, l’activité et la non-activité, le travail et le non-travail, etc., toutes ces distinctions entre l’acte et ses autres perdent tout crédit. Au nom du crédit, elles perdent tout crédit.

Jacques Derrida, Séminaire La peine de mort. Volume II (2000-2001), p. 268.

I want to develop the question of ‘observation’ at stake in our “Observatoire du discours financier en traduction.”

Our interest here, as the blog’s headline reads, is to ask “how does the press participate in reinforcing the discourse of the dominant ideology of neoliberalism?” Well, the quick answer as I understand it would be in translating, re-producing, adopting and legitimizing ambiguous concepts in financial discourse, concepts which gain their currency and acceptability precisely through these ambiguities (we’ve covered transparency and flexibility among others) so as to foster an uncritical acceptance of the discourse through which the dialectic of neoliberalism maintains itself.

Now, what analytic philosophers have long called ‘the naturalistic fallacy’ holds that the ‘is’ and the ‘ought,’ the descriptive and the normative, observation and critique, indeed ontology and ethics should be kept separate. In my usual line of work, continental environmental philosophy, this distinction is one that has long been deemed unworkable for the sorts of problems we face today (and let’s not forget that ecology and economy are interrelated questions of oikos).

What is an observatory? Well, the word clearly comes from observe, bound to questions of looking, but this sense of ‘watch, perceive, notice’ is from the 1560s. ‘Observe’ enters into English in the 14th century as “‘to hold to’ (a manner of life or course of conduct)” as one observes a feast, a religious holiday. It comes to us from the 10th century Old French observer or osserver, and this from the Latin observare, the root ob (over) + servare (“to watch, to keep safe”), servare from the Proto Indo-European root *ser “to protect.”

The way I see it, ‘observation’ overruns the descriptive/normative, even the theory/practice opposition (indeed, theorein also means to look). But one must be careful here: what is it that observation keeps safe? I’ll formulate my hypothesis this way: insofar as observation sees itself as simply ‘objectively’ reporting on the facts, on the elements of discourse, it serves to keep the dominant discourse safe, in this case, that of neoliberalism, it ob-serves it. Of course, the mere drawing of attention to words and their recurrence can help develop a ‘critical language awareness,’ but to put it all too quickly, this pure objectivity is impossible. Does anyone even argue for it? In science, economics, the arts, philosophy? The myth of the pure, detached gaze from nowhere is one long debunked; as Foucault cites Xavier Bichat in Naissance de la clinique, “open up a few corpses: you will dissipate at once the darkness that observation alone could not dissipate.” (Foucault 1973: 146) Discourse analysts could substitute ‘open up a few corpuses’ without even needing to comment the shared etymology!

Conversely, I’m not arguing that a pure practice of observation (a praxis of theoria) can keep the victims of neoliberalism safe, one perhaps suggested in Marx’s famous 11th thesis on Feuerbach that “Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kömmt drauf an, sie zu verändern.” (Philosophers have only differently interpreted the world so far, what comes upon it is to change it, to transform it, to make it otherwise [my translation]). Rather, if we collapse or reinscribe the interpret/transform, descriptive/normative, ontological/ethical, theory/practice oppositions otherwise, observation allows us to keep less safe, to threaten the dialectic by which the dominant discourse of neoliberalism maintains itself, by revealing the self-heterogeneity of its tropes, discourses and mechanisms, by foreignizing neoliberalism, as a translation studies scholar might put it. But of course, as Michael Cronin has also noted, foreignization can be counterproductive in cases of extreme asymmetry, and what asymmetry could be more extreme than that between the 99% and the 1%, world wealth inequality translated into numbers?