January 15, 2005

Confidence Games

Mark C. Taylor's Confidence Games : Money and Markets in a World without Redemption chops broadly and ambitiously across the worlds of economics, religion, art, and philosophy at breakneck speed. Taylor is shockingly lucid for an academic writer, and clearly both and intelligent reader and gifted storyteller. All of which almost hides the severe lack of depth behind the vast facade constructed in Confidence Games. Indeed the real con game might just be the book, although its not quite clear if its the author or the reader getting conned in the end. And either way its a pretty enjoyable ride..

Halfway through I was marveling at how well read Taylor was. By the end though I was marveling at how well he managed to splice together the last eight random books he read. I found myself repeatedly flipping back to the index hunting for various authors that could have dramatically improved book, or rendered large sections somewhat superfluous. Manuel Castells and Philip Mirowski in particular would have done wonders towards fleshing out his attempt to capture the networked economy. Delanda, Latour and Deleuze all would have helped him as well.

The one flip to the back that actually yielded results is perhaps the most telling. Robert Nelson's Economics as Religion is in many ways the perfect inversion of this book. Taylor is a theologian attempting to cast economics as religion. Nelson is an economist attempting to do the same. Taylor runs rampant yet deftly across the intellectual spectrum while Nelson delves deeply if not always with nuance. Despite the fact that Nelson is making essentially the same argument as him, Taylor shoves his one reference to him into a footnote. While Taylor is probably correct about Nelson's "unsophisticated understanding of religion", one wonders if Taylor ever considered he might be making similar mistakes in his foray into economics.

Taylor throws one more jab at Nelson when he states that "he does not even seem to have heard of postmodernism". By the end of Confidence Games though one might wish that it was Taylor who never head of postmoderism. Taylor is one of the rare authors to actually use the close to meaningless term as something other then an easy way to dismiss 30 years of theory they haven't actually read. Instead he uses his limited embrace of "postmodernism" to hide the fact that he's hasn't actually read any theory from the past 20 years.

What he has read is Venturi, Baudrilliard and Derrida, and what its left him with is a vision of a world completely constructed of signs. His solution to this absurd vision is a retreat to Hegel (someone page Zizek!). I suspect this is far better detailed in some of his other books, but Taylor's solution is a Hegelian dialectic with the synthesis aspect stripped out. Instead multiple "dialectics" phase in and out of prominence without disappearing, which to me sounds a lot like a Hegelian dialectic with the dialectic stripped out, leaving only a surface reference to Hegel. This might pass muster in Taylor's sign world but to me sounds pretty meaningless..

Thankfully Taylor keeps this personal philosophy to a minimum, and fills the book up with loads of his enjoyable prose. He's at his strongest unsurprisingly when he can pull his religious studies background into play and when telling someone else's story, from Luther and Calvin's relationship to business through the religious roots of Adam Smith and into world of daytraders and derivatives, Taylor narrates it well and drops in an occasional insight. Take it out of an academic context and place it into the world of popular non fiction and it stands up quite nicely.

Posted by Abe at January 15, 2005 10:39 PM