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Financial markets as occult

An illustration extracted from Aurora Consurgens, an illuminated manuscript from the fifteenth century that contains a medieval alchemical treatise.

In the February issue of e-flux journal, Philip Grant, an anthropologist and former equity fund manager, examines the pervasiveness of occult language and imagery in modern finance:

Characterizations of contemporary finance as esoteric and occult abound. For the most part, these references are casual ones, but the sheer pervasiveness of these understandings, of the vocabulary of alchemy and sorcery, should give us pause and provoke us to ask why these metaphors have become sedimented in our language.

Grant suggests that this occult language is not, as we “rationally-minded moderns” might think, a way to obscure the inner workings of finance so only the highly educated elite can benefit from them. Instead, he argues that occult thinking is an adaptive method for comprehending and acting upon highly complex systems—as with, for example, traditional indigenous magic:

It is easy for rationally-minded moderns to write off alchemy, magic, and witchcraft as premodern superstitions. Setting aside the awkward persistence of occult practices across the world despite three centuries of rationalist criticism, these practices have an important effect in the world. As we have seen, they are rational techniques that enable those who use them to act in the world, to make an uncertain place more certain. As practices which depend for their efficacy at once on secrecy and publicity, visibility and invisibility, they are strikingly similar to the financial industry. And like finance, they are simultaneously real and unreal. And just as with the occult, it is only the persistence of the dominant Euro-American process of reification that makes us resistant to such a conclusion, that makes us insist on pointing a finger at the malevolent magicians of capital markets and shouting: what you did wasn’t real—you tricked us!

You can read the full article on the e-flux journal website.

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