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Too Real an Unreality: Financial Markets as Occult


At the end of it all, the Queen defecates—gold bars. The queen in question is Her Britannic Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (and quite a few other places beside), but here she is presented more simply as the “Queen of England,” just like the woman she has been conversing with through the short performance. That woman too is a Queen Elizabeth, or better still, was, since she died in 1603. As befits the dead, perhaps, she doesn’t actually talk. Her image stares down at the second, living queen.

We are in Derry-Londonderry, a city with one and a half names in a place that has three: Northern Ireland, Ulster, the Five Counties, a place that is a country alongside the other three countries of the United Kingdom, but also a part of another country, Ireland; a place that is not British—unless you are a staunch Unionist—but is rather awkwardly joined to “Great” Britain by the copula “and”; at once united kingdom and asymmetrical duality. That the Queen in this script, the living queen, that is, the one represented by a local actress, Eleanor Methven, is the Queen of England is no accident. This is not to say that in Northern Ireland all life, or even all politics, can be reduced to the Troubles and their aftermath, but the convulsions of the financial crisis and their aftermath cannot, perhaps, be read in this place without reference to its troubling constitutional situation—troubling, that is, especially for those who yearn for a world with clear lines of demarcation.

The script has been written by a local playwright, Jimmy McAleavey, and was commissioned by the Swedish artists Goldin+Senneby. The performance itself is exemplary of, and a product of, the kind of division of labor that makes the panegyrists of Global Capitalism drool: funding for the performance itself comes from the profits generated by an algorithmic trading program constructed and implemented by a computer scientist in the US known only as “Ybodon,” on the basis of a design suggested by myself, an anthropologist and former equity fund manager.

The profits are modest, enough to pay the performer for a handful of performances. Still, that the algorithm made any money at all strikes me, the “expert” who proposed the underlying trading strategy, as near miraculous. What did I know about algorithmic trading? My limited expertise is in stock market investing based on so-called “fundamental research” into the business positions and financial strength of the companies whose shares we used to purchase on behalf of our clients. All the same, financial markets, despite the intimidating apparatus of “scientific” knowledge production deployed by experts purporting to explain them, are in some respects quite simple.

Read the full article here.