Interdisciplinary humanities workshop addresses aspects of neoliberalism

by Natasha Bluth


On May 5, 2017, the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia at NYU hosted “Finance Beyond Quantity: The Humanities after Neoliberalism,” co-sponsored by the NYU German Department. The workshop brought together scholars from a wide variety of fields to discuss various aspects of neoliberalism in an interdisciplinary setting. “We decided to do this conference two days after the [U.S.] presidential election when it looked like we were headed to paleoconservatism or something else,” said Leif Weatherby, assistant professor of German studies at New York University, in his introduction. But, “[a] day before this conference actually occurred, the first success of Trump administration [the repeal of Obamacare] looks like a neoliberal success. We are still in a neoliberal society,” he added.

In the first panel, “Anthropology of Finance” Johanna Bockman, an associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at George Mason University, joined Fabio Mattioli, a faculty fellow in the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies at NYU. In her presentation, “The Financial Entanglements of Socialist and Capitalist Worlds: The Second and Third Worlds as Creditors,” Bockman spoke on the financial network spanning the First, Second and Third Worlds throughout history, arguing that there is need for a shift in perspective. “When we talk about debt crisis, we often hear it spoken about as the Third World doing inefficient things,” she said. But, she asked, how does the crisis obscure what is really going on? “The crisis obscures the fact that [it] emerged from interdependence of the Third and First World […] When we see it from the Second and Third Worlds, we see the political implications of the crisis.” Following Bockman, Mattioli spoke on “Disciplining Socialist Finance in Peripheral Spaces: The case of Macedonia.” The project stemmed from Mattioli’s 2008 visit to Macedonia, during which he noticed a large amount of construction and development and wondered how the landlocked and resource-sparse country was financing this growth without many sources of capital. Mattioli’s work, which is ongoing, will study how financial undertakings were fashioned in socialist economies and how this has affected current market conditions.

The second panel “Literary Finance,” brought together the work of Alisa Sniderman, assistant professor faculty fellow in the department of drama at NYU, and that of Maya Vinokour, a faculty fellow in the department of Russian and Slavic studies at NYU. Sniderman’s presentation, titled “Chekhovian Finance: Success Theatre and Fake News in Modern Russia,” discussed financial concepts in theatrical works. “Theater has always had a stake in putting financial ideas into practice on stage,” she began, remarking that despite the dynamic relationship between theater and economics, most scholarship focuses solely on theatrical figures’ critique of economic concepts—for instance, Bernard Shaw criticized capitalism and Bertolt Brecht favored socialism. On the other hand, both the playwrights Henrik Ibsen and Shaw have tried to stage Adam Smith’s invisible hand on stage, which has received very little academic attention. Sniderman also drew the comparison between the theater and the novel, the latter of which “has the journalistic taint of commerce because it’s being serialized,” she said. Next, Vinokour spoke on “Oil, Blood, and Capital in the Works of Viktor Pelevin,” a presentation based largely on the Russian postmodernist’s 2003 novel The Dialectics of the Transitional Period from Nowhere to Nothing and what she called “Russia’s nostalgic modernization project.” To Vinokour, the novel is, most broadly, about the commodification of culture at large, lending the belief that “capital, instead of being impersonal, turns out to be a highly reactive form of historical memory,” not just in post-Soviet states, but globally.

Finally, Leif Weatherby, assistant professor of German at NYU and Rob Mitchell, professor of English at Duke University, presented the final panel, “After the Neoliberal.” Weatherby spoke on “Transcendental Finance: Friedrich Hayek among the Cyberneticians,” a talk grounded in Hayek’s contributions to neoliberalism—an economist and philosopher whose name is “almost synonymous with neoliberalism [as he based] it in sophistication theory of communication, something that cybernetics allowed him to do,” Weatherby said. Without endorsing Hayek, the speaker contrasted neoliberalism with the left imaginary, arguing that the former is a bit more polished in its configuration of the material and the symbolic, the sociocultural systems built on these configurations and the specifically political nature of these representations. Next, Mitchell presented a paper on “Smart Finance: Populations, Ecology, and the Future of Intelligence.” Mitchell began by listing the “ever increasing number of smart devices”: smartphones, smart cities, smart credit cards, etc. “They are all driven by the “smartness mandate,” he said—“the demand that every human process become smart,” which will lead us to resilience and sustainability in our environment. Building off of the critique of the American urban planner and academic Wendell Cox, who argued that smart growth was responsible for a large portion of the 2011 housing financial crisis, Mitchell sought to locate ways that financial practices, population-oriented thinking, and technologies of smartness have become inextricably linked in finances.

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