Upcoming OAC online seminar: Finance, Value, and Inequality (April 15-22, 2016)

When you think about capitalism, globalization, or neoliberalism, does your thinking stop with conventional stereotypes of greedy corporations exploiting the weak or unwary? If someone asked you how private equity investors, venture capitalists, commodity traders, and hedge fund or family office managers differ in how they conceive of markets, their investing styles and personal habits—could you answer their question? Have you thought about financialization--the process of shifting financial transactions from material goods and processes to abstractions traded and managed as if they had value in their own right? Can you imagine anthropology and archeology having important things to say about this process and the way its different forms shape social inequality?

If any of these questions interest you, the Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC) invites you to join a seminar on Finance, Value, and Inequality: Towards a comparative anthropology of wealth and poverty, a paper by Brandeis University anthropologist Daniel Souleles. The paper can be downloaded here:

http://openanthcoop.net/press/2016/03/28/finance-value-and-inequality/

The seminar is NOW CLOSED! Thanks everyone for taking part!!!

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Whoa the week flew by--I haven't been able to post, but I've been reading along at home (and work) and will be able to jump back in here, in the ninth inning of the seminar, later this afternoon! I have some notes and comments I've been writing up throughout the week. Lots to talk about here. Thanks everyone for taking part in this seminar!

I think an argument could be made that nostalgia for a lost golden age is the favored decadent pleasure within anthropology. As Norma Desmond pointed out in another context, the pictures got smaller when everyone started talking.

There is a copy of Hollywood: The Dream Factory on my bookshelf as well. It sits beside a book written in the same era and in a similar structural-functionalist style. The other book is also an ethnography of American life and was very well reviewed upon publication. That book is Modern Homesteaders by Evon Vogt.

Never in the reviews of Vogt's book is he pejoratively referred to as Mr. Vogt, the way Powdermaker is pejoratively referred to as Miss Powdermaker throughout Bierstedt's review. Never does a reviewer dismissively ask if Vogt has ever worked on a farm or dismissed Vogt's observations as blatantly obvious to anyone who grew up on a farm as Bierstedt does to Powdermaker when he wonders if she has ever worked in an office, factory, or university.  Bierstedt was a sexist ass - which comes through loud and clear in his outrageous review.

I don't mean to imply that Powdermaker's book is great, or even good. Just that, despite its comparability to contemporary ethnographies of American life, Hollywood: The Dream Factory received a radically different reception. "The Powdermaker Problem" was, in large part, a problem with the fact of Powdermaker's talking.

Hi Lee,

No worries about the name. I'd be happy to pass along a joke or two. Keep in mind though, as presented below, they're very much lacking the context of the larger article, so please don't make too much out of them. These come from an article that I've got out for review (the article is called "Don't Mix Paxil, Xanax, and Viagra: What financiers jokes say about ineuqlaity). I'm using jokes to talk about financier attitudes toward inequality. If anyone is curious to see the article, send me a direct message and I'll happily email the pdf.

Joke 1, Why work in private equity

This occurred in a side panel at a large business school private equity conference. The panel was a general one on middle market private equity funds—funds managing anywhere from $500 million to $2 billion or so, and making investments of anywhere from $25 million to a few hundred million[1]. Each panelist either worked in a private equity fund, as an investor to private equity funds, or as a lawyer to private equity funds. They had each shared their thoughts on the state of the industry and were now taking questions from the audience. It’s important to know, too, that one thing that is always on the mind of a private equity investor is how to sell the company that they’ve bought. One way they do this is by taking the company public and selling shares on a stock exchange, making an IPO or initial public offering. However, one can only do this when the market is “up” or “hot”. Over the period of my fieldwork it was a good time to sell a company via an IPO.

After each panelist had had their say one young man came up to the mic and asked, “How long will the IPO window stay open so that everybody in PE could get richer than they already are?” If you were in the room, you probably laughed.

Joke 3, Piracy and private equity

            At the core of private equity’s business model is “2 and 20”. If you spend any amount of time around private equity, you will hear about 2 and 20, whether it is too high, too low, justified, or on the way out. 2 and 20 is the proportion of money private equity investors receive: 2 per cent of whatever money you trust them with, and 20 percent of whatever money they return in profit (usually over some minimally set hurdle). So if you invest $100 million with a private equity firm, they will receive $2 million dollars for continuing to breathe and to pay their overhead costs, to keep the lights on, regardless of how their investments go. Then, if they turn $100 million into $200 million, doubling your investment with them, they will receive a further $20 million of that second $100 million, 20 percent in profit. One thing you may notice, given the industry standard is “2 and 20”, it can make a lot more money to have a bigger fund. And given the nature of private equity, 10 people can manage $100 million as readily as they can manage $1 billion. The economists might say that the incentives are a bit odd here. In any event, at an private equity conference, arranged for an industry-specific charitable cause (guiding under-privileged youth of promise into elite colleges and then into careers in finance), the conversation turned towards 2 and 20.

            The panel was filled out by limited partners—people that invest in private equity funds. Think CALSTRS (the California State Teachers Retirement Fund), or the investment branch of an insurance company. At one point someone asked about whether or not two and twenty would change, or what type of market environment would bring about a change in PE fees. After a bit of discussion one panelist chimed in and said that, “two and twenty was originally created by pirates who would divide of up 20% of the booty to the two best men who worked on the ship.” Amid a laughing room, the LP added, “but I can’t prove it.”



[1] These are rough numbers; there is no consensus on what makes a fund “middle market”.



Lee Drummond said:

Dan, 

    sorry for mis-naming you; above quote is of course yours.

Lee 

John, I think you have hit the nail on the head here. Some of the best anthropology of the last 20 years has been generated outside of the university. I would point to PARC and the IRL has premier examples from the recent past.

Anthropology has a funny relationship with the university. It is one of the only disciplines that requires leaving the university for extended periods of time. In the introduction to Liquidated, Karen Ho describes herself as an employee first and a fieldworker third. That observation reminds us that apprenticeship is unavoidable within anthropology. It is a necessary, if not fully sufficient, part of the process. And I think your suggestion below fits well within that long tradition.

John McCreery said:

 In business anthropology, we have begun to talk about the virtues of being an "observing participant" instead of a "participant observer." We envision a new career path that involves leaving the academy to become  full-time participants in the industries we study, without, however, going completely native. Anthropological training and anthropological questions shape the ways we think and write about our experience. They may even produce insights that non-anthropologists find valuable. 

Without the depth of experience that observing participation provides — exemplified so well in the works of Gillian Tett and Karen Ho mentioned above —

Hi Abraham,

Thanks for the nice note. I'm glad the article worked for you. Your point about fairly abruptly pointing to Mauss is well-taken. You're also correct in guessing that that abruptness is in part due to this coming from a larger work. When the article stands alone, I should explain it better.

Abraham Heinemann said:

Just wanted to say I read the article in full and much appreciated, so thanks Daniel. Unfortunately I didnt have time to properly follow the discussion so not much to say there. But in brief (a) the very act of making coherently visible a layer of the often mystified world of finance is in itself a solid achievement I thoroughly appreciated. (b) I also fully got your point when you compare one particular dimension of financialisation between your participants and the Inca's. (c) The only major thing I felt lacking was a better development and expansion - and thus integration - of the concept of the total social fact in relation to your explanation of current financialisation. Otherwise I think you are cutting yourself short by doing the hardwork of the 'ethnography' essentially, and then tagging on an anthropological concept at the end without more fully tying it in and thus pushing home the point your making. But perhaps you do that elsewhere in another document or I missed it :)

Hi John,

Thanks for pointing me towards this slide share. I'm right there with you in thinking about involution and comparison.
John McCreery said:

P.S. Daniel, you mention "involution." You might find this slideshare of interest. In it I compare the predicament of anthropologists studying Japan to that of the Javanese peasants described by Geertz in Agricultural Involution. As our discussion here demonstrates, the issue being addressed is not confined to Japan.

Hi Huon,

I couldn't ask for a more accurate account of my take on the peer review process:

  • It is not in fact anthropologists themselves who have become decadent, it is the bureaucracy they work in, and their continuing loyalty to it. I see plenty of energy in contemporary anthropology, but the sense in which the academic apparatus as a bureaucratic machine can crush innovative lines of thought and inquiry is desperate. The anonymous dead hand of 'you didn't cite my (or my client's) work in putting forward these ideas' is omnipresent in academic activity. That is why papers and seminars on the OAC are so refreshing, amongst other things. And it is why the crankiest off hand comment by Mary Douglas (who still sits there as amongst the most cited anthropologists of all time) is usually ten times more interesting to read than the stunted coprolite passed through the multiple digestive tracts of bovine peer review programmed by contemporary academic journals.

We might also extend this to granting agencies who, blessed with an overabundance of competent work, end up making distinction in the absence of difference in picking winners.


Huon Wardle said:

Some thoughts. Why do we want to study on Wall Street? If it is because we think it will tell us what is going on in the world at large then this is deluded. It must, instead, be because it will take us closer to the people most deeply involved in the magical process by which money that 'is worth more money, value that is greater than itself' is created -- what and how they think about the matter. This is certainly useful but, of itself, it does not provide anything like an answer to how money/financialisation actually works universally, except as a point of comparison.

The general principle of financialisation is that, once you can quantify something (anything at all) in a money vector then you can turn it into an investment and hence into the kind of money that makes more money. The power to do that is clearly a positional/historical one that takes us back to a locality -- Wall Street etc. However, the principle is extremely abstract when we try to match it up to economic processes at a notional 'global level', and it only really regains meaning in particular circumstances dependent on how quantification is understood locally as an aspect of, in relation to, other elements of social life as lived; that's why we need the comparisons. For example, the items that are financialised vary for infra-historical reasons. The Potosi silver mines were exploited by the Spanish because they were a going concern for the Inkas already. Or take the Piraha (Daniel Everett) who have no number words -- this makes them easy to play in an exchange of goods, but also rather resistant to the basic wilful self-quantification that is a key aspect of making financialisation work. Then there are the state interests, embedded tribute systems, gender relations, vested bureaucratic interests etc. etc.

From Daniel's paper: Ahab, stopped me short. He said that “family offices have different perspectives”. They have money already, so “the money rate of return does not apply to us with the same discipline as to an operating entity.” He went on to say that they “don’t teach in business school that the utility value of money is reduced once you have a lot.” And he pointed out that, “once you pay off expenses and have more than you started with, you’re doing fine.”

Hollywood the Dream Factory caught my eye because I happen to have a copy of this book on an adjacent shelf. This example makes a good point. It is not in fact anthropologists themselves who have become decadent, it is the bureaucracy they work in, and their continuing loyalty to it. I see plenty of energy in contemporary anthropology, but the sense in which the academic apparatus as a bureaucratic machine can crush innovative lines of thought and inquiry is desperate. The anonymous dead hand of 'you didn't cite my (or my client's) work in putting forward these ideas' is omnipresent in academic activity. That is why papers and seminars on the OAC are so refreshing, amongst other things. And it is why the crankiest off hand comment by Mary Douglas (who still sits there as amongst the most cited anthropologists of all time) is usually ten times more interesting to read than the stunted coprolite passed through the multiple digestive tracts of bovine peer review programmed by contemporary academic journals. Striking when you realise that peer review was only institutionalised in the 1960s. As far as I am aware, I could be wrong, OAC is the only publishing outlet for full-scale anthropological research that isn't owned by a university bureaucracy or by one of the big academic publishers.

As many of us, especially Lee, are already likely to know, an anthropologist named Hortense Powdermaker was among the first to employ ethnographic methods to study a modern industry. My concern is not with the content of the book she produced, Hollywood: The Dream Factory. An Anthropologist Looks at the Movie Makers, but, instead, at how it was received.  Kirkus Reviews (a service directed at middle-brow readers) praised the book, calling it insightful and well-written. Sociologist Robert Bierstedt panned it. His review begins as follows,

"Hollywood as 'Dream Factory' just Nightmare to Femme Anthropologist”—so runs the headline over the Variety review of this book. The Variety reviewer, Herb Golden, goes on to call it a "dull and tedious tome," remarks that it gets "downright silly" at times, and says that most of it could have been put together by any hep Hollywood correspondent in two weeks." He dismisses the author as naive and the book as a gimmick. Mr. Golden, no dope, has hit the nail squarely on the head.

A "native" has read the anthropologist's ethnography and finds it superficial, tedious, in some places "silly." What then does an anthropologist need to do, in order to be taken seriously, not only by casual readers but also by the people whose culture and social relations the ethnography purports to describe? 

I'm not sure I'm with those of you folks who'd like to keep boundaries, aesthetics, poetics, words etc. center of gravity. This stuff is absolutely interesting and important, but I think the crucial outcome is how it interacts with humans' external/interpersonal worlds. Keith wanted more dollars. Eirin asked for financializations' subjects. To roughly restate an insight I arrived at through these discussions: Inca domination transformed humanity en masse into slaves. Financial domination transforms it to waste. The art, I think, is to show the reality of such claims clearly and simply in a grain of sand. Doing so requires no big new unified theoretical paradigm (nor formal 'anthropology'-seals), just seeing the ethnography straight.

A while back, an engaging discussion was run here on OAC on 'the origins of equality'. But as it turned out, most all folks could actually talk about was inequality. Not surprising: All contemporary and archaeological evidence seems to say that humans are pretty good at equality in small groups, but that we suck at it as soon as we aggregate. Exactly for this reason I'm in with Sahlins, who recently advised that we turn our eyes on those few more exotic cases beyond hunter/gatherer-times where humans actually did/do manage to realize more equal forms of large scale social organization, and then try to explain why/how THAT could happen (and, I assume he meant to say LEARN from and TRANSMIT it).

Godspeed Daniel.

Michael:  I think an argument could be made that nostalgia for a lost golden age is the favored decadent pleasure within anthropology. As Norma Desmond pointed out in another context, the pictures got smaller when everyone started talking.

 

    On decadence in anthropology and the pictures getting smaller – tweaking a favorite quote: 

    What is the mark of every literary [read “anthropological”] decadence?  That life no longer resides in the whole.  The word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, and the page comes to life at the expense of the whole – the whole is no longer a whole.  This, however, is the simile of every style of decadence: every time there is an anarchy of atoms. 

                                                --  Nietzsche, The Case Wagner (emphasis in original) 

Whether studying financiers or Amazonian tribes, let’s keep the total picture in view. 

 

    Regarding Powdermaker’s book:  It may be that the unforgiveable sin “Miss Powdermaker” committed was not her gender, but in discussing Hollywood and its movie-dreams as though that were a legitimate anthropological subject.  

 Hi Dan,

 Thanks for a great paper and all the interesting thoughts. The discussion you have sparked and facilitated perfectly demonstrates how refreshing and unusual the OAC forum is, as Huon said by way of contrast with those images of digestive tracts and bureaucratic machines. (Well put, Huon!)

Metaphors can be as revealing as jokes, so I do have a question about Captain Ahab, who has come up twice here, first in your paper’s reference to an investor named “Ahab” and indirectly in Lee’s invocation of Melville a while back. I’m curious about the reference to Ahab, and not just because I always love it when Lee weaves a Melville reference into these discussions, but because I’m generally interested in what these water and whale metaphors might reveal about attitudes toward agency, nature, competition, God, death, life—you know, those big questions. So can you say something about whale and/or water metaphors you heard used among any or all of these various types of investors, or could you give me some citations of others who investigate this question?

I’m asking because I’ve read articles that argue that the finance folks’ common use of water metaphors (liquidity, underwater, floating rate, etc.) encodes and justifies a lack of personal agency and responsibility for human investors swimming around in the great, self-regenerating, unchanging sea of the market. (Example: Thomas Oberlechner, Thomas Slunecko, and Nicole Kronberger, “Surfing the Money Tides: Understanding the Foreign Exchange Market Through Metaphor,” British Journal of Social Psychology 43, 2004.) This interpretation seems very plausible, especially given how other nature metaphors are often used (bank CEOs and financial reporters calling the Financial Crisis a “tsunami,” or “hurricane,” etc.) Yet I’ve wondered how such a water-based, non-agentive model fits in with the apparent Wall Street (apologies, but using this sloppy term only as a starting point) penchant for celebrating the ambiguous, complicated figure of Captain Ahab, who tries to fight back against the large, natural force of Moby Dick, “to strike through the mask”--and pays with his life for it. It’s also sort of curious that they’d cite Ahab so much, a rather outdated literary figure, though obviously Moby-Dick has become so much a part of the culture that nobody has to read it to cite it. And outside of social psychology studies or decontexutalized terms quoted in the press, I'm guessing it gets much more complex when you look at how these metaphors get used in specific, on-the-ground contexts.

So how to explain the Ahab citations, and what do they show about conceptions of or ambivalence about agency, nature, money, etc.? Or maybe Ahab didn’t come up in your fieldwork, and you just added that pseudonym yourself? If so, do you still think whales and water are widespread metaphors among investors (and some types, like VC, more than others)? I’ve only seen a couple things on this, such as the references to the “London whale” (Bruno Iksil, JP Morgan) and this article: Jeffrey Insko, “’All of Us Are Ahabs’: Moby-Dick in Contemporary Public Discourse,” Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, 40: 19-37, 2007. If you can provide any other references or suggestions, I’d really appreciate it. I figured you would be a good person to ask about this not just because of this fieldwork, but also because of your previous research with Catholic monks.

For that matter, did you hear much about how investors reacted to Michael Lewis’s book? From what I heard, Wall Street folks actually liked the movie version, which I thought was quite interesting and revealing.

That movie might seem like a tangent, but I don’t think so; in fact, it’s potentially central to the OAC’s goal, repeated eloquently again by Keith and others in some recent comments, of breaking out of the usual introverted, small circles of academics. “The Big Short” represents an extremely rare opportunity for “public anthro,” especially given the fundamental confusion that it left in audiences about how exactly the fraud worked, notwithstanding various main characters’ constant charges of fraud throughout the second half of the movie. At least in talking with friends and family, and reading the reviews and online discussions by viewers on sites like Awardswatch and Reddit, it was clear to me that most viewers, even the ones who had already done some investigation into this stuff, still didn’t understand how the fraud worked—or even if it was fraud at all in a legal sense, since no banker went to jail. To state the obvious, there’s a huge opportunity here for some learning and dialogue that goes beyond the usual small circles. But I'd also be really curious to know what certain circles of "insiders" on Wall Street made of that movie or book.

Either way, I’m sorry time is running out here, and I'm looking forward to your own book!

Thanks,

Peter

Wow! What a conversation! For my money the best ever on OAC. While we are thanking Dan for this very stimulating paper, let's also thank Ryan for recruiting Dan and getting him to present it to us. That is the kind of action that will make OAC continue to flourish.

Reading through the last few comments I am stimulated to add a few additional remarks.

1. Why study business? The best answer I know is that of my Japanese friends in the Anthropology of Administration group started by anthropologist Nakamaki Hirochika and business school professor Hioki Shoichi. Historically, anthropologists have focused on kith and kin who spend their lives together in small communities; but people now spend most of their lives working for organizations. To omit those relationships makes nonsense of anthropology's claim to offer a holistic perspective on human lives.

2. Lee says that what we need is sharply focused ethnography that keeps an eye on the whole. Great! I say, but then the question arises, How do you do that? Being told to write like Melville isn't very helpful if, like most of us, you aren't Melville to begin with. We need hints, tips, recipes, oh my God, methods, to guide our explorations, and one thing we have certainly learned since Marcus and Fischer wrote Anthropology was Cultural Critique is that the Malinowski model doesn't scale. One individual, writing about one place, on the basis of a few years experience confined to that place doesn't cut it anymore. Me? In my recent work I combine social network analysis on biggish data (only 27,000 relationships linking 7019 award winning advertising creative's to 3636 award-winning ads), with observing participant experience, reading an extensive trade press, and using my industry connections to arrange interviews with important figures. But that's just one experiment.

3. Which brings me back to Powdermaker. I am fascinated that everyone who has commented has responded to the nasty sociologist-cites-industry insider critique of Powdermaker and ignored the other response, the positive Kirkus Review with which that critique is contrasted. As a piece of "PopAnth" (shameless plug), Powdermaker's book was very successful. It is easy to dismiss the critique as sexist, but I would suggest more attention to the historical context; the book was published in the fifties, when quantification was still locked in mortal combat with qualitative research for the soul of sociology. I would also suggest more attention to the parallel between the industry insider's critique of the parachuting in anthropologist and recent debates about the role of "native anthropologists," to whom traditional customs and habits may be taken for granted or, alternatively, impediments to innovation.

But once again, thanks to Dan and to Ryan. Best. Ever. Seminar on OAC.

Hi Peter,

Thanks for a wonderful sequence of observations and questions. As to Ahab, I confess, naming him didn't have much thought. More generally in my work I got tired of rather generic American male names (Tom, James, Bob, and so on). A never-ending river of these perhaps would have been more ethnoraphically accurate. But as I started to put things together into a larger work I started putting in literary names that I liked. And when I exhausted those, I started adopting names from Norse saga (I bet we could come up with something about the Ragnarok if we tried). So it's more or less accidental that the person responsible for the family office in this article is named Ahab. That said, there is something to it--he is on the extremes of investing in my schema, particularly from his endless, indefinite time horizon. This might be one Ahab who struck through the pasteboard mask and actually found something.

More generally, I didn't encounter anyone I would describe as monomaniacal. Everyone I met seemed either too comfortable for that, or too much on the make in the here and now. I did find people at career inflection points, say between business school years, or in between jobs, or freshly retired, who were reflective in ways that active workers were not. One informant was trying to write an economic paper proving all the money he made had been due to lucky timing. For better or for worse, he abandoned the effort as his career moved on and he got back into the swing of things.

As to the class of water metaphors you suggested--that's interesting. I'd never thought of it that way. I think there is something too that. Though, the metaphors I noticed were a bit more pedestrian or at least straightforward. There was a lot of life or death stuff (the seed stage of funding, angel investors). And then there is Cerberus, the name of a notorious;y hard nosed firm that often deals with companies in or near bankruptcy (guarding the gate to hell). Then there were violent metaphors--eat what you kill and the like. And then there were beauty pagents or bake sales when investment bankers went on the road. Often client relationships were analogized to marriage, dating, and the storm and strife that goes with all of that. I more or less found all these pretty transparent, though I confess, for all my interest in value symbolically figured I never did a more extended metaphor interpretation like the water one you suggested.

Among financiers, I don't recall hearing a word about Michael Lewis. I did, however, hear a bit of complaining from young financiers about Matt Taibbi and his "not getting it" (I thought that was interesting, particularly as I like Taibbi's writing). Folks would offer periodic offhand comments about Occupy from time to time. And every so often the idea of "greed is good" would be the seed of a homily or reflection on the nature of business or capitalism or something like that.

The question of fraud and the big short is an interesting one. I think part of the problem is that insofar as there was any government enforcement or sanction it happened at the corporate entitiy level and basically never at the individual level. It's hard to see justive being done when Goldman just pays a fine and is not materially affected in one way or another. Part of what is revealed when we start thinking about how money actually flows through an industry like private equity, too, is that it's not so much what is illegal that may always be the problem. Plenty of theft is perfectly legal. And often a crisis (as Janet Roitman points out) is just the system or any given financial instrument working exactly as it should.

Neither here nor there, but thank you for the Melville references. There's a book on him that I particularly like, Matt Sherrill's The Prophetic Melville.


Peter Wogan said:

 Hi Dan,

 Thanks for a great paper and all the interesting thoughts. The discussion you have sparked and facilitated perfectly demonstrates how refreshing and unusual the OAC forum is, as Huon said by way of contrast with those images of digestive tracts and bureaucratic machines. (Well put, Huon!)

Metaphors can be as revealing as jokes, so I do have a question about Captain Ahab, who has come up twice here, first in your paper’s reference to an investor named “Ahab” and indirectly in Lee’s invocation of Melville a while back. I’m curious about the reference to Ahab, and not just because I always love it when Lee weaves a Melville reference into these discussions, but because I’m generally interested in what these water and whale metaphors might reveal about attitudes toward agency, nature, competition, God, death, life—you know, those big questions. So can you say something about whale and/or water metaphors you heard used among any or all of these various types of investors, or could you give me some citations of others who investigate this question?

I’m asking because I’ve read articles that argue that the finance folks’ common use of water metaphors (liquidity, underwater, floating rate, etc.) encodes and justifies a lack of personal agency and responsibility for human investors swimming around in the great, self-regenerating, unchanging sea of the market. (Example: Thomas Oberlechner, Thomas Slunecko, and Nicole Kronberger, “Surfing the Money Tides: Understanding the Foreign Exchange Market Through Metaphor,” British Journal of Social Psychology 43, 2004.) This interpretation seems very plausible, especially given how other nature metaphors are often used (bank CEOs and financial reporters calling the Financial Crisis a “tsunami,” or “hurricane,” etc.) Yet I’ve wondered how such a water-based, non-agentive model fits in with the apparent Wall Street (apologies, but using this sloppy term only as a starting point) penchant for celebrating the ambiguous, complicated figure of Captain Ahab, who tries to fight back against the large, natural force of Moby Dick, “to strike through the mask”--and pays with his life for it. It’s also sort of curious that they’d cite Ahab so much, a rather outdated literary figure, though obviously Moby-Dick has become so much a part of the culture that nobody has to read it to cite it. And outside of social psychology studies or decontexutalized terms quoted in the press, I'm guessing it gets much more complex when you look at how these metaphors get used in specific, on-the-ground contexts.

So how to explain the Ahab citations, and what do they show about conceptions of or ambivalence about agency, nature, money, etc.? Or maybe Ahab didn’t come up in your fieldwork, and you just added that pseudonym yourself? If so, do you still think whales and water are widespread metaphors among investors (and some types, like VC, more than others)? I’ve only seen a couple things on this, such as the references to the “London whale” (Bruno Iksil, JP Morgan) and this article: Jeffrey Insko, “’All of Us Are Ahabs’: Moby-Dick in Contemporary Public Discourse,” Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, 40: 19-37, 2007. If you can provide any other references or suggestions, I’d really appreciate it. I figured you would be a good person to ask about this not just because of this fieldwork, but also because of your previous research with Catholic monks.

For that matter, did you hear much about how investors reacted to Michael Lewis’s book? From what I heard, Wall Street folks actually liked the movie version, which I thought was quite interesting and revealing.

That movie might seem like a tangent, but I don’t think so; in fact, it’s potentially central to the OAC’s goal, repeated eloquently again by Keith and others in some recent comments, of breaking out of the usual introverted, small circles of academics. “The Big Short” represents an extremely rare opportunity for “public anthro,” especially given the fundamental confusion that it left in audiences about how exactly the fraud worked, notwithstanding various main characters’ constant charges of fraud throughout the second half of the movie. At least in talking with friends and family, and reading the reviews and online discussions by viewers on sites like Awardswatch and Reddit, it was clear to me that most viewers, even the ones who had already done some investigation into this stuff, still didn’t understand how the fraud worked—or even if it was fraud at all in a legal sense, since no banker went to jail. To state the obvious, there’s a huge opportunity here for some learning and dialogue that goes beyond the usual small circles. But I'd also be really curious to know what certain circles of "insiders" on Wall Street made of that movie or book.

Either way, I’m sorry time is running out here, and I'm looking forward to your own book!

Thanks,

Peter

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