Due to unexpected circumstances this event has been canceled. (The April 5 panel discussion also featuring Arjun Appadurai has been canceled as well.) We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience.
Join us as anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (NYU) discusses his latest book, Banking on Words: The Failure of Language in the Age of Derivative Finance, recently published by the University of Chicago Press. In this provocative look at one of the most important events of our time, Appadurai argues that the economic collapse of 2008—while indeed spurred on by greed, ignorance, weak regulation, and irresponsible risk-taking—was, ultimately, a failure of language. To prove this sophisticated point, he takes us into the world of derivative finance, which has become the core of contemporary trading and the primary target of blame for the collapse and all our subsequent woes. With incisive argumentation, he analyzes this challengingly technical world, drawing on thinkers such as J. L. Austin, Marcel Mauss, and Max Weber as theoretical guides to showcase the ways language—and particular failures in it—paved the way for ruin.
Appadurai moves in four steps through his analysis. In the first, he highlights the importance of derivatives in contemporary finance, isolating them as the core technical innovation that markets have produced. In the second, he shows that derivatives are essentially written contracts about the future prices of assets—they are, crucially, a promise. Drawing on Mauss’s The Gift and Austin’s theories on linguistic performatives, Appadurai, in his third step, shows how the derivative exploits the linguistic power of the promise through the special form that money takes in finance as the most abstract form of commodity value. Finally, he pinpoints one crucial feature of derivatives (as seen in the housing market especially): that they can make promises that other promises will be broken. He then details how this feature spread contagiously through the market, snowballing into the systemic liquidity crisis that we are all too familiar with now.
With his characteristic clarity, Appadurai explains one of the most complicated—and yet absolutely central—aspects of our modern economy. He makes the critical link we have long needed to make: between the numerical force of money and the linguistic force of what we say we will do with it.
Arjun Appadurai is the Goddard Professor in Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, where he is also Senior Fellow at the Institute for Public Knowledge. He has authored numerous books and scholarly articles, including The Future as a Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition (Verso 2013), Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (Duke 2006) and Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, (Minnesota 1996; Oxford India 1997). His scholarly honors are numerous, including residential fellowships at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto (California) and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and an Individual Research Fellowship from the Open Society Institute (New York). He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1997. In 2013, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Erasmus University in the Netherlands. He has also served as a consultant or advisor to a wide range of public and private organizations, including many major foundations (Ford, MacArthur, and Rockefeller); UNESCO; UNDP; the World Bank; the National Endowment for the Humanities; the National Science Foundation; and the Infosys Foundation. He currently serves on the Advisory Board for the Asian Art Initiative at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum and on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Forum D’Avignon in Paris. Appadurai’s latest book, Banking on Words: The Failure of Language in the Age of Derivative Finance was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2015.