The Performative and the Capitalistic

On 16 an 17 October 2014 the Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation hosted an international event with a slightly provocative title: “Capitalizing on Performativity: Performing on Capitalization”. The purpose consisted in gathering together a number of colleagues that have played an inspirational role for PERFORMABUSINESS, a research project directed by Fabian Muniesa and funded through an ERC Starting Grant. What was this supposed to be about, anyway? An ex-post interrogation follows.

[Florence:] Why “Capitalizing on Performativity”?

[Fabian:] Well, we can interpret this title in two ways. One is, tongue-in-cheek, as a cynical pun. Yes, we are in the midst of a regime of competition in research, we need to abide by the rules of “value creation”. The very vocabulary put forward by public funding agencies (ERC, ANR, ESRC, etc.) is cluttered with calls for “capitalization”: a particular repertoire of valuation that asks that all what we do which we consider of value ought to be treated as an “asset”, that is, as something that ought to provide “return” (financial or otherwise, including “impact”, “reputation”, and so forth) and therefore serve an investment rationale. We are obsessed with this, as an object of inquiry in PERFORMABUSINESS – an obsession that can be followed through some recent publications (see here, here, here, here, here or here) and a book in preparation. What is PERFORMABUSINESS but an attempt at capitalizing on the notion of performativity?

[Florence:] Funny. But I hope you had a better reason to invite all these people to give a talk. Did you?

[Fabian:] Yes, sure, there was also a serious reason (although somewhat related). The spirit of the event was about gathering, in a very liberal and catholic way, a number of colleagues whose work and preoccupations have played a role in our thinking. We had the chance to count on Laure Cabantous, Eve Chiapello, Kimberly Chong, Barbara Czarniawska, Daniel Fridman, Martin Giraudeau, Penny Harvey, Sarah Kaplan, Andrew Leyshon, Javier Lezaun, Peter Miller, Paolo Quattrone, Michele Spanò and Signe Vikkelsø. Looking at things from different perspectives (economic anthropology, the philosophy of law, the history of science, organization studies, accounting, etc.), these authors bring contrasted light to the understanding of the practices that constitute the stuff of business. The idea of performativity, quite fuzzy indeed, served as an entry point.

[Florence:] Fuzzy performativity?

[Fabian:] Yes. We start from a loose sense of that notion, which we consider as some sort of an intellectual atmosphere rather than as a technical concept: an atmosphere that is partial to a pragmatist intuition (that of signification as act and reality as effectuation) that may be recognized in innumerable guises. This is the standpoint defended in The Provoked Economy (a recent project “deliverable”, now out with Routledge). That said, we thought that all these works could serve to reestablish in new light the link first formulated by Jean-François Lyotard and then reworked by others (Jon McKenzie for example) between managerial, semiotic and dramaturgical understandings of “performance”. We also thought that we could obtain there the materials that would allow reflecting on the connection between, on the one hand, the performative understood as the very matter of the “postmodern condition” (performativity is for Lyotard the condition of postmodern knowledge) and, on the other, the fact that this matter becomes the object of capitalization (postmodern knowledge is “par excellence” financialized knowledge).

[Florence:] So this means that the idea of “capitalizing on performativity” should be taken seriously, as a way to describe something like the financialization of signification.

[Fabian:] Absolutely, spot on: financialization of signification. Signs are considered, on the one hand, through their performative dimension, and, on the other hand, as the object of capitalistic investment. Most of the talks could actually be interpreted in that perspective. Many dealt with the managerial configuration of organizations, which relies heavily on rhetoric crafts and which also contributes to the transformation of such organizations into financial assets. The pedagogy of finance, we also saw, often requires an intimate transformation of the self through participatory, experiential means, and translates accordingly into the intimate experience of “become capital” oneself. The performative becomes “value creation” in a very financial sense of the term.

[Florence:] And did participants agree with that?

[Fabian:] Hard to tell, but I would tend to say: yes, to quite a large extent – and definitely yes on a telepathic level, since that idea was clearly in the air when we thought about them!