Exchange of persuasions and excitement

“From salesman to client, from client to salesman, from consumer to consumer and from producer to producer, whether competing or not, there is a continuous and invisible transmission of feelings — an exchange of persuasions and excitement, through conversations, through newspaper for example — which precedes commercial exchanges, often making them possible, and which always help to set their conditions.” (Gabriel Tarde in Bruno Latour and Vincent Antonin Lepinay “The Science of Passionate Interests”, 39)

My ‘festive season’ reading has largely consisted of Bruno Latour and Vincent Antonin Lepinay’s “The Science of Passionate Interests: An Introduction to Gabriel Tarde’s Economic Anthropology”. It makes for fascinating reading. The extent of my Tarde reading consists of his Laws of Imitation and the special 2007 issue of the journal Economics and Society on his work. (Oh, plus Tarde’s post-apocalyptic science-fiction novella!)

In The Science of Passionate Interests, Latour and Lepinay have produced a diagrammatic reading of Tarde’s masterwork Psychologie Economique (1902). They set up Tarde’s core problematic in terms of developing an adequate critical theory (or ‘science’) of economies that does not fall into the same mistakes as ‘economics’. Here are my notes to part one (1-32). The science part of it is a development of the notion that everything can be measured according to measures appropriate for their terms.

Latour and Lepinay begin with Tarde’s theory of value, and demonstrate its relation to subjectivity. For Tarde subjectivity refers to the “contagious nature of desires and beliefs, jumping from one individual to the next without ever […] going through a social context or structure” (9). Value extends to all desires and beliefs; it is made up of all the continual assessments we make. Bourdieu’s theories of cultural capital is also another way of critically engaging with non-economic economies of social and cultural value. The difference between the two is that Bourdieu’s focus is squarely the deployment of cultural competence and social esteem within structurated fields. Tarde and Bourdieu have different takes on the aquisition of value, for Bourdieu it is learnt as a product of imbrication in a field, for Tarde (immanent social) value is produced through the special interference effect of congruent practices of ‘imitation’, what he calls ‘invention’. Tarde’s value is a mmeasure of talent, Bourdieu’s is a measure of competence.

Tarde argues that economists did not make use of all the possible ways value can be quantified and they instead relied on, firstly, reducing all human behaviour to an ‘objective’ realm and, secondly, extending this reduction to all domains of human activity. Latour and Lepinay argue that economists format social relations. They do this by confusing two orders of measuring. The actual measured measurement that “captures the real state” (15) and the measuring measurement that formats the social world. Latour and Lepinay quote Tarde’s example of how the value of ‘belief’ is (re)produced by monks:

Priests and the religious have studied the factors involved in the production (meaning here reproduction) of beliefs, of ‘truths’, with no less care than the economists have studied the reproduction of wealth. They could give us lessons on the practices best suited to sowing the faith (retreats, forced meditation, preaching) and on the reading, the conversations and types of conduct that weaken it. (Tarde in L&L 15)

For Tarde it is a question of the laborious work of seeking out the specific values of any activity. Latour and Lepinay introduce the term valuemeter to refer to all devices whose specific function is to make visible and readable all the value judgements of what Tarde calls economics (16). The result is a metrology produced by chains of valuemeters. They provide the sociology of science as an example, where a metrology of learned literature “made visible and readable by the very extension of the quasi-currency we call credibility where, better than anywhere else, the very production of the finely differentiated degrees of belief plays out” (19).
The flaw in the approach of economists is to imagine they had to pursue a line of inquiry characterized by a “progress of detachment, objectivity and distance” (20). Latour and Lepinay provide money as an example of a ‘measuring measure’. What money measures, as a process of simplified registering for the purposes of capture (money as an ‘apparatus of capture’?), has kind of link to what is indicated by the numbers (21).

It would be a mistake to imagine, Latour and Lepinay warn, that as the number of metrological chains of valuemeters increases, there is a danger of shifting from passions to reasons, from the inter-subjective of Tarde’s social economy to the anemic economics of neoliberal markets, etc. Nor is it about finally recovering economic reason, but about how the economic rational is always thoroughly irrational. The solution to ward off the epistemological problem of false distance, built on a scaffold of irrationalities, is to properly appreciate value “from up close, in small numbers, and from the inside” (28). Latour and Lepinay are clear on this:

If there is, for Tarde, a mistake to be avoided, it is to take social facts “as things,” whereas, in other sciences, if we take things “as things,” it is for lack of a better alternative! How could sociologists abd, more surprisingly, economists, have had the crazy idea of wanting to imitate physicists and biologists through an entirely artificial effort at distancing, while the very thinkers they tried to imiate would give their right hands to find themselves at last close to particles, cells, frogs, bodies with whom they try top come into intimate association with the help of their instruments? (29)

The central problem has been to mistake the discipline of economics for the economy (31-32).

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