Focusing on economic actors—whether ordinary consumers or financial experts—Guyer traces how people and institutions hold together past experiences (legacies), imagined scenarios and models (logics), and situational challenges (logistics) in a way that makes the performance of economic life (on platforms made of these legacies, logics, and logistics) work in practice. Individual essays explore a number of topics—including time frames and the future, the use of percentages in observations and judgments, the explanation of prices, the coexistence of different world currencies, the reapplication of longtime economic theories in new settings, and, crucially, how we talk about the economy, how we use stable terms to describe a turbulent system. Valuable as standalone pieces, the essays build into a cogent method of economic anthropology.
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Legacies, Logics, Logistics
Essays in the Anthropology of the Platform Economy
By Jane I. Guyer
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
The Themes of Legacies, Logics, Logistics
As the financial crisis of 2008 set it, the Economist published a brilliant cartoon on its cover, under the title "Redesigning Global Finance." It depicts global finance as an intricate, and leaky, Heath Robinson or Rube Goldberg type of machine, complete with bellows, hammers, pulleys, candles, boilers, drive belts, and four tiny human attendants in lab coats with national flags on their backs, who are trying, with hectic gestures, to keep it synchronized and generally under control. And there are two other creatures: a pig, also in a lab coat, and a scientist with the American flag on his back. They are scrutinizing what looks like a very sketchy blueprint for the machine. The human-pig appears to be pointing out the place in the plan to which the American should devote attention. The whole thing is directionless, in that the mechanism simply drives a globe of the world up and down, again and again, on a kind of roller-coaster track. A boiler is labeled WTO. Some kind of large monitor box is labeled Bretton Woods. At the bottom, a spring propulsion lever, positioned for sending the globe back up again, is labeled IMF. And a small bucket-like container in the middle is full of banknotes which seem to be flying in from behind the Bretton Woods monitor box, but then just piling up, unattended by anyone.
Even in the centers of the economic public sphere, then, "the financial economy" was no longer being represented as a market, and its trajectory was not one of growth, although it was still a system, of sorts. But then there were no beneficiaries of this circuit, no indication of the rapidly differentiating situations of different populations, and as yet no obvious way in which the whole thing might just collapse into a useless and irreparable heap of junk. Both of these possibilities, growth with differentiation and collapse, were certainly intimated already by then, but the detailed works on differentiation in the age of finance capital (Stein 2010; Piketty 2014) and those envisaging possible imminent collapse (Harvey 2014; Amin 2011; Wallerstein et al. 2013) were mainly published subsequently. There was no "logic of capitalism" depicted here in the cartoon. It simply depicted a contraption from the first machine age, with inexpert experts trying to put out fires (Germany), fix gauges (France), and hammer an improbable-looking mechanism to start the ball — the globe — rolling (Japan). The whole globe was on the same roller coaster, rising and falling and stalling, as one.
The idea of a concatenation of "parts and labor," to take a craft image I will draw on later, is appealing, but the imagery has to be taken out of the realm of the ridiculous, the partisan, and the technologies of the first machine age. The advantage is that the image creates a space for imagining another, more workable, image for those of us who keep a focus precisely on parts, labor, and craftsmanship, but who also retain attention to the historical nature of the architectures, the central importance of differential access and control to both the structure and its outputs, the possibilities of localized chipping away and undermining rather than comprehensive collapse, and the need for an imagery better suited to the third machine age. "The platform economy." This was the title of the paper I developed in 2012 for a conference in Buenos Aires, in part provoked precisely by this cartoon. Clearly there is a structure of some sort to the global economy, but built out of a vast variety of moving components, constantly tinkered with, diverted and mined for advantage in some places and shored up against erosion in others. A platform can be a highly technical framework that can support many specific applications (but perhaps not all, or not at the same time); a stage for amplification of some voices and presences over others; a focus of close collective access and attention, by everyone; a way of enabling specific owners and engineers to reorient it for new purposes; and a place for announcing originality. And the platform as an image also evokes an architectural structure in the most literal sense: vulnerable to heedless neglect of the need for repair or updating; weakened by zealous hacking into its foundations and pillars; open to renovation and embellishment; and inviting to those finding advantage in perceiving it under the rubric of a commons, as this was depicted in Hardin's "tragedy of the commons" (1968) view: willing to divert apparently (to them) underused properties, in their own interests, for their own benefit. It could also be seen in terms of different localized structures, or with each one as part of a vast and interconnected network, each with its own platform qualities, especially in the globalized and Internet age. The historical fact is that many of the "parts" of our current economic platform(s) have endured for a very long time. The recombinatory rebuilding and reconnecting process has involved the kind of tragedy, occasional insurgent improvement, and moments of demonstrative occupation that Hardin depicted for the medieval commons, where different groups inhabit it in their own way, and, in historically changing circumstances, sideline the access avenues, block or open up specific benefit routes, repair and restore, privatize, and so on.
A platform imagery also allows the notion that a particular performance or event in time depends on those past resources and successive occupations and is always one among several possible ones, on that particular grounding at that particular time. Which exact set of pulleys and levers will be mobilized, with what immediate effects and reparable retrievals from clumsy incompetence or deliberate sabotage, depends on which exact version of A Night at the Opera is occupying it, with which players. The structure, however, with all its pulleys and players, must be in the picture, somehow. Like any son et lumière act, it is powered through circuits of energy: in this case, by money. So a platform, as an image, may be hokey in its own way, but it necessarily draws attention to its own historical, structural, and variable properties. It is very basic in its fundamentals, highly adaptable in its components and capacities, and cannot be studied without all of its craftsmen, inhabitants, users, and viewers. I take up the analysis further in chapter 5, "From Market to Platform," but I introduce it here to indicate how some of the components of the argument that I draw out of these papers now fit together, retrospectively, as persuasive imagery as well as an eventual theoretical impulse toward detailed ethnographic research into specificities of current political economy and enactments in the formal sector; broad interdisciplinary engagement; and an open horizon, but not an ungrounded sense of orientation, toward the future, both in the world and in the discipline.
Many other colleagues in economic anthropology have been describing the novel component parts of this architecture and the applications they make possible: Maurer on mobile moneys (2012a) and "the payment space" (2012b); Hart on money in all its varieties (the MITMOWS network); Graeber (2011) on the range of relationships implicated in what has become the ramifying field of debt (Han 2012, for a case study); in the expanding anthropology of finance, Zaloom (2010), Miyazaki (2013), Riles (2011), Lepinay (2011), and Ortiz (2014). And many others. Looking back over the themes in my series of papers on the West, collected for the first time here, I see that their own central concern has been with existing specific architectures, their inhabitation and retooling, and with our disciplinary methods for cultivating a close focus on striking phenomena, personnel and locations within this architecture, and its repertoire of operations. Hence the book's title, which focuses on moving parts: there are legacy components, brought forward by reprise or simply immovably present; logics, put forward theoretically and ideologically about the workings of the whole, but also, particularly importantly for us in anthropology, locking entailments together even in very small parts; and the logistics of making it work at all, in life, day-to-day, with or without blueprints, master scores, open access to the energy sources, and human or nonhuman guides. I have found these concepts parsimonious enough to be productive to think with, separately and together, in the concatenated relationships within and between different "devices" in platforms, and in their varied tensions in lived lives, under turbulent, and also slowly reshaping, conditions that encompass the situations and imaginations of ordinary people, at every level: from experts to all others.
This framing also allows me to engage theoretically with perhaps the most prominently novel approach in recent economic anthropology, namely the Actor Network Theory (ANT) group on economics, broadly taken, which has been pioneered by Michel Callon, who has also engaged analytically with my Africa work. As in my own work, the "composition" of "elements" is one key theme for the members of this group. For them, composition creates assemblages: a term they take from Gilles Deleuze and Bruno Latour. For myself, there are advantages to the approach, and at the same time there remain questions and lacunae, which I discuss later. My recent interactions with members of this group and my recently expanded knowledge of their work can explain the prominence that I give to their work in two sections: at the end of this chapter and at the end of chapter 12. None of the papers was engaged directly with this school of research at the time, although its initiatives were increasingly in the air over the period they were written and I brought out a possible engagement with their work in a precursor (Guyer 2007a) to the paper included here on ordinality. I argued there that the hybridity of modernity had been its normal condition in Africa, thanks to mercantilism and colonialism. My focus on ranking scales, their cultural-ideological bases, and the asymmetries at monetary interfaces provoked by, and rippling outward from, the "modern"/"traditional" interface might then be more pervasively relevant to the present phase of capitalism. This applies particularly to the "legacy" component of compositional dynamics. The political economy, social anthropology, Africanist, and people's history perspective from which I come, and which is explained in the next section, informs this engagement, in ways that I hope can be analytically productive through identifying consonances, dissonances, and differences of emphasis and lacunae.
To pull these disparately written papers together, I offer here three frames for the reader's connection to them: first, a "life and times" biography of the circumstances in which they were written; then the rationale for their thematic organization here; and finally some particular theoretical engagements that arise. This last theme is picked up again at the end of the collection, so in a sense the last section of this chapter and the last section of chapter 12 could be read as a single argument. In my own situational and responsive style of thinking with respect to topics that do not arise from my own research project, from which these papers result, the two parts are best kept within the context that provoked them, which threw specific aspects into relief. The reader can splice them together, as needed.
The next section is a chronological account, over almost twenty-five years; the following section profiles the themes of the papers and their grouping in the collection; the final section is analytical and theoretical.
Life and Times
I start from a rather full intellectual-biographical profile, since this alone explains the sequence of the papers, the variety of topics, and their cumulative momentum. As I was writing these papers, my field and historical research were still focused on Nigeria and Cameroon, while several other professional commitments drew me increasingly into much broader arenas, from about 1980 onward. So these papers on Western economic dynamics all arose from my own disciplinary and temperamental/experiential response to the world: both the intellectual world and the "world out there," in changing interaction with them over a particularly intense period of global economic history. The period they cover saw the growing prominence of the policies generally grouped under the heading of "neoliberalism." This move toward applying theories of open markets and international trade to the entire world was initiated by policies of the international financial institutions around 1980, as structural adjustment, and applied at large to what was then still the "third world." These were the places where much economic anthropological research — including my own restudy of an urban hinterland over the twenty years from 1968 to 1988 (Guyer 1997) — was still undertaken. Many of us had already been drawn deeply into oral historical, archival, and ethnographic-historical study by current theories of colonialism, especially for places and themes where the necessary empirical work had not yet been undertaken. The neo-Marxist concept of the articulation of modes of production (Foster-Carter 1978) demanded deep immersion in the actual devices and processes by which articulation was crafted, maintained, and transitioned from one mode to another. The imagery of "articulation" could be taken as organic, mechanical, or expressive-performative, but the theory always assumed, foundationally, that differential political and social control of the elements, and of the processes of composition, would never be irrelevant to their mix and their application. My own first journal publication (Guyer 1978) was on the colonial history of food supply to the capital city of Cameroon, since, without this, no ethnographically based account and interpretation of the current food system seemed plausible to undertake. This then informed our edited collection of regional case studies of African urban food supply (Guyer 1987).
Expanding the scope of historical and political dynamics, in addition to ethnography, during the policy shifts of the 1980s, was a simple logical step, after the decline in the structuralism of the basic theory, by straightforward conviction of the importance of the empirical as a source of inspiration. The policy shifts of the 1980s, and their effects in local arenas, brought contemporary world economic dynamics yet more broadly and forcefully within the range of public attention. I brought into the response papers in this era a similar empirical sensibility and commitment to engaging with experience on the ground as anthropological training and practice had already instilled. Kathryn Barrett-Gaines (2004) entitled her introduction to a collection of historical essays taking off from my ethnographic book An African Niche Economy (1997), "A Keener Look at the Evidence." This has been exactly my orientation, and also my hope for the promotion of grounded analytical and theoretical engagement with others.
After 1989 and the dissolution of the "second world" as another system altogether, and then particularly in the twenty-first century, the political-economic philosophy of neoliberalism became more clearly enunciated for the "first world" as well as the rest, within an integrated theory of global markets. At each juncture, for those of us working back and forth between theory and evidence in European and African history and ethnography, emergent points of similarity and difference necessarily provoked our minds and opened up pathways from puzzlement to investigation of all kinds of relevant materials in domains that were relatively new to anthropology, such as macroeconomic debates in the public arena, government administration, and taxation, and formalized activities in new markets (such as currency exchange rates). Our early training in Bronislaw Malinowski's ethnography urged us to notice "inponderabilia of actual life," which now emerged at all interfaces between the people and an opaque and powerful formal sector, and kept our perceptions permanently open to a quality that I recently depicted by using Nigerian novelist Ben Okri's concept of "the quickening of the unknown" (Guyer 2013b).
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Table of ContentsPreface
Part 1: Foundations
Chapter 1 The Themes of Legacies, Logics, Logistics
Chapter 2 “Toiling Ingenuity”: Food Regulation in Britain and Nigeria
Part 2: Public Economic Cultures
Chapter 3 “The Craving for Intelligibility”: Speech and Silence on the Economy under Structural Adjustment and Military Rule in Nigeria (with LaRay Denzer)
Chapter 4 Prophecy and the Near Future: Thoughts on Macroeconomic, Evangelical, and Punctuated Time
Chapter 5 From Market to Platform: Shifting Analytics for the Study of Current Capitalism
Part 3: Cultures of Calculation
Chapter 6 The Eruption of Tradition? On Ordinality and Calculation
Chapter 7 Percentages and Perchance: Archaic Forms in the Twenty-First Century
Part 4: Platforms
Chapter 8 Intricacy and Impasse: Dilemmas of Value in Soft-Currency Economies
Chapter 9 Indexing People to Money: The Fate of “Shelter”
Part 5: Toward Ethnography and the People’s Economies
Chapter 10 Composites, Fictions, and Risk: Toward an Ethnography of Price
Chapter 11 Soft Currencies, Cash Economies, New Monies: Past and Present
Chapter 12 Is the “Real Economy” Disaggregating, Disappearing, or Deviating?
What People are Saying About This
“Legacies, Logics, Logistics is a tour de force. With a fantastic, theoretically astute, and groundbreaking introduction, it situates some of Guyer’s most important work in light of new approaches to economies and markets coming out of anthropology, sociology, and science and technology studies. Central to the whole is a searching empiricism and Guyer’s own toiling ingenuity as she patiently pokes, prods, and pulls apart the compositions of economic platforms and theoretical pedantry that make up much of our world. For, as Guyer writes, it is of course the case that economics performs the economy. But ‘equally self-evidently, not alone.’”
“Guyer is one of our most brilliant anthropologists, and for decades her thinking has deepened our understanding of economic life. Legacies, Logics, Logistics focuses in on the contemporary financial economy, attending to its crafting across scales from conceptual invention to everyday practice. The book’s original theoretical ideas present inspiring new ways to think about the most fundamental economic forms. A masterpiece.”