Review Essay: Managing Uncertainty: The Linguistic Transformation of Markets, Governance, and Politics

Review Essay:  Managing Uncertainty: The Linguistic Transformation of Markets, Governance, and Politics 

In today’s era of finance-dominated accumulation, global governance, and increasing economic precarity, Arjun Appadurai claims the ‘spirit of uncertainty’ has reawakened. Ulrich Beck (1992) once ascribed this uncertainty to the rise of advanced modernity, an age in which new forms of wealth production produce new hazards that are asymmetrically distributed. In his path-breaking analysis, Beck described the ‘risk society’ as a ‘catastrophic society,’ focusing social scientists’ attention to the managerial technologies developed to minimize risk. Uncertainty, however, produces more than new technologies; it reflects a broader cultural sentiment that generates new market forms, modes of governing, and struggles for power (O’Malley 2012, Power 2007). If we approach uncertainty ethnographically, as a cultural backdrop for contemporary social life, how can we understand its role in constituting new political and economic arrangements?

Three recent books suggest that language plays a powerful role in mediating uncertainty, thereby producing new social, political and market formations. First, Arjun Appadurai’s Banking on Words (2015) analyzes the ‘new life’ of language in an age of financialization. In examining the ‘predatory logics of the derivative,’ Appadurai provides an ambitious, theoretically-driven account of the financial collapse and the new society born in its wake. Second, Ole Jacob Sending’s The Politics of Expertise: Competing for Authority in Global Governance (2015) undermines dominant theories of expert governance by demonstrating the contingent and competitive emergence of expert categories through a Bourdieu-influenced account of international and transnational governance. Finally, Robert Hariman and Ralph Cintron’s edited volume Culture, Catastrophe, and Rhetoric: The Texture of Political Action develops a linguistic and ethnographically-sensitive approach to understand how the master-trope of catastrophe ‘textures’ everyday political culture.

Together these authors suggest that emerging political and economic formations cannot simply be understood through ideological frameworks such as neoliberalism. Rather, by focusing on language, they reveal a powerful domain of cultural practice that may facilitate, minimize, or reproduce uncertainty. While linguistic anthropologists may welcome these books as a reminder of the constitutive role of language, for political and legal anthropologists, these authors offer an important intervention by revealing the subtle ways in which the performative, interpretive, and rhetorical dimensions of language may serve to exert control and power amidst uncertainty. Indeed, their analyses across different political and economic domains—finacialization (Appadurai), global governance (Sending), and political instability (Hariman and Cintron)—offer useful theoretical and methodological approaches for linking everyday linguistic practice with larger political and economic transformations.

Arjun Appadurai’s Banking on Words is a theoretical tour de force that attempts to develop a new social scientific understanding of financialization. Drawing on the classical European canon of social and linguistic theory, Appadurai suggests that although financialization has much continuity with industrial capitalism, it also entails a specific set of techniques that are having transformative effects on society. One of these is the derivative, a contract whose value is ‘derived’ from the performance of an underlying asset such as a stock, bond, or currency exchange rate. Although they were initially developed as a financial instrument to hedge against risk in currency markets, derivatives later became objects of trade for speculative profit and were based on a host of other complex assets. Because derivatives bear little relationship to earlier material processes of production, exchange, and profit-making, he insists, they must instead be understood as performative acts that constitute a new vision of market and society.

In this book, Appadurai challenges the dominant understanding of the derivative as technical instrument, looking instead to the derivative as an object of exchange and linguistic practice. He considers the derivative to represent a chain of promises for future exchange. Thus, he makes the argument that “the failure of the financial system in 2007-8 in the United States was primarily a failure of language” (1). The rest of his book proposes to develop a new social science of calculation as well as describe the new political subjectivities that have resulted from the predatory logic of the derivative.

At the heart of his book is an effort to describe a ‘new spirit of capitalism.’ While other critical social theorists have made similar attempts, Appadurai distinguishes his own by focusing on the role of uncertainty in Weber’s account of the emergence of capitalism. In this re-analysis of the Protestant Ethic, Appadurai reminds readers that it was uncertainty that motivated Calvin’s thought about grace, election, and salvation. For Calvinists, he argues, the pursuit of wealth was “a gamble on the felicity of a performative” (42). In this reading, the Protest Ethic can be understood as a performative act that retroactively sought to create the assumption of one’s position within ‘the elect.’

Today, Appadurai argues, ‘the spirit of uncertainty’ is once again motivating political and economic formations. While new financial tools of measurement to counter risk have proliferated in the past few decades, Appadurai suggests that the primary purpose of the tools of financialization is not to manage risk, but rather, to exploit it. Contemporary financial players, he claims, are ‘device skeptics’ who are, in fact, willing to take risks to exploit it. He therefore describes derivatives, like the ‘hau,’ as ritual co-stagings of uncertainty wherein the derivative becomes a performance that creates its own conditions of felicity. In other words, the trade of derivatives is a linguistic performance, rather than simply an exchange based on prices. Since derivatives are contracts comprised of assets that are themselves based on other assets, Appadurai attributes their failure to the unending link of performative promises. Through this argument, Appadurai opens derivative trading to an ethnographically accessible terrain of human transactions and exchanges.

A central argument in the book is that in an era of financialization, the market has become a mystified, eternalized abstraction of society. Appadurai explains, “The real mystification is the externalization of the social onto the image not of society but of the market. Thus, the market acquires the authority and logical priority of something within us that we experience as the transcendent, moral, and ethical source of order in our lives” (2015: 57). From this claim, he draws on Durkheimian sociology to build a larger argument about the constitution of the new modern financial subject. Financialization, he argues, is eroding the liberal individual once dominant in ideas of Western society, replacing it instead with the ‘dividual.’ Drawing on the writing of McKim Marriott and Louis Dumont, he argues that all of the slicing and dicing that occurs in the construction of derivatives has predatorily produced this dividual. He uses the example of mortgages, which he describes as the “mythic element of the cosmology of capitalism” (106) in the United States. Today, he suggests, mortgages are “endlessly divisible, recombinable, saleable, and leverage-able for financial speculators” (61) through asset-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations.

With financialization all around us, Appadurai concludes that efforts to resist these predatory logics, such as the debt refusal movement, are bound to fail. Instead, he proposes a new progressive dividuation, which recognizes everyday subjects as laborers for the production of debt. As a result, the political project he proposes is to “seize and appropriate the means of the production of debt” (128). He calls on scholars to study the anthropological archive to develop the alternate conditions of possibility of dividuals. Such an endeavor, he writes, “requires us to see ourselves as partial, continent, and volatile beings who can leverage and resocialize our dividuality” (119). In the remaining part of the book, Appadurai argues that financialization has produced the end of the contract as we know it, replacing cold hard logics of formal legality with the performative and constitutive process of derivate trading and swaps.

It is no doubt that Banking on Words is a provocative text, chock full of complex theoretical turns and productive conversations that require an attentive and patient reader. The strength of this book lies in its sociological description of derivative trading in a way that makes it accessible to ethnographic and social scientific study. Appadurai offers a powerful contribution by ‘bringing the social’ into a market that is seemingly technocratic and mathematical. By analyzing how the derivative serves as a performative speech act that ‘creates the price rather than vice versa,’ he offers an important insight into the sociological mechanics that analysts of financialization will surely find productive. Yet while it is clear that Appadurai has clear political prescriptions in combatting the predatory logics of dividualization, he also leaves readers wondering about the wider implications of his argument about the end of the contractual promise. Since the contract remains so central to dominant conceptions of liberal governance, how does this linguistic innovation transform dominant political arrangements and ideologies? What might this mean for uncertainty within the political realm?

In his new book, The Politics of Expertise: Competing for Authority in Global Governance, political scientist Ole Jacob Sending is interested in how particular assemblages of governance and power emerge as dominant. Sending’s account is focused on the way particular forms of knowledge become authoritative within fields of global governance. His book offers a Bourdieu-influenced analysis of governance as a field of struggle between actors who “compete with each other to be recognized as authorities on what is to be governed, how, and, why” (11). Such an approach offers a dynamic and sociologically informed method to examine how ideas and actors become authoritative. Although narrowly focused, Sending’s clear articulation of his conceptual framework makes the book useful to any scholar tracing the emergence of hegemonic governance frames and dominant actors within a political setting.

The Politics of Expertise is organized into three parts. The first part lays out his conceptual framework based on Bourdieu’s account of fields, capital, and recognition. Part two analyzes the development of ‘international authority.’ Finally, part three analyzes the development of ‘transnational authority,’ which Sending argues is different from international authority because it involves a range of polities beyond sovereign states.

In part one, Sending lays out Bourdieu’s conceptual framework and applies it to the analysis of authority. The author defines authority as “a relationship between superordinate and a subordinate actor” (12). Authority here is not simply constituted through legitimacy, as a Weberian approach might suggest, but rather through “the constant search for recognition within always hierarchically organized spaces” (11). Actors find success in such a system when they present their interests and conceptual categories as universal. Sending distinguishes this from other accounts in international relations theory, such as the ‘epistemic communities’ literature in international relations theory, which he claims are ‘actor-centered’ (e.g. Haas 2015). In other words, these theories of international relations propose that particular groups assume authority because of their expertise and policy-relevant knowledge. He argues that prior to understanding how these groups emerge as dominant, however, we need an account of the ways fields of governance are defined. It is the search for recognition that drives the dynamics of the field “since recognition is sought with reference to a shared concept of what the field is about” (25). Sending thus charts a method by which the formation of a field must be analyzed with regard to the way ‘its boundaries, logic and hierarchy’ are established through competition among various actors with different material and symbolic capital. It is through such a conceptual framework that he analyzes his two case studies.

Sending’s first case study concerns the emergence of the ‘international’ as a particular field and how the UN Secretariat laid claim to authority of this domain. He charts the formation of the international field of governance as a competition between lawyers and diplomats in the nineteenth century. In his historical analysis of the development of international law as a professional field of law, he describes how lawyers became advocates of ‘peace societies,’ which were critical of the ‘close circuits of diplomacy’ that were then dominating foreign relations. They instead called for compulsory arbitration of disputes through a more objective, rule-based system (37-38). In this struggle, the vision of the ‘international’ that became dominant was that which was not focused on national representatives, but rather a distinct realm to be regulated by “civil servants with an orientation and exclusive loyalty to this realm” (46). It was with this vision of international governance that Dag Hammarskjöld, a Swedish diplomat, eventually claimed a position of authority and established the bureaucratic practices that are still in operation in the UN Secretariat.

Sending complements this historical study with a more ethnographic account of the maintenance of international authority and rule within UN peace building operations. In chapter three, “Ethnographic Sagacity and International Rule,” he emphasizes the hierarchical dimensions of fields. He argues that ‘international’ and ‘local’ political scales are ordered in a hierarchical relation by showing how peace-builders deploy ethnographic sagacity or ‘ethnographic capital’ to generalize in ways they reproduce the dominance of stable components of the international. In other words, peace builders deploy their context-specific knowledge in ways that translate the local into the hierarchical field of global governance. As he writes, “the stakes in the field of peacebuilding revolve very much around the production and circulation of knowledge of the ‘local’ context as a product of the category of the international, where the ‘local’ assumes its meaning and subordinate position as a particular arena for efforts to implement ideals of the international” (68).

In the book’s final part, Sending moves on to analyze the emergence of the transnational field of population governance. Unlike the field of international governance, which Sending described as a space in which a particular body and form of knowledge became authoritative, the transnational is comprised of a range of “governing projects that span different polities” (81). In this field, actors participate in ‘classificatory struggles’ to define a field. In doing so, they not only struggle for authority, but to define the symbolic capital or evaluative criteria of a particular field. In chapters four and five, Sending illustrates his theory by describing the competition between actors with different social goals to define the field of population governance. In this developing field, scientifically produced knowledge became a symbolic resource, but it was not itself authoritative. Rather, he shows how only when a particularly persuasive theory emerged—transition theory—did political elites with material resources enter the field and construct institutions and organizations of population governance. Moreover, it was only when John D. Rockefeller III decided to fund the Popular Council that this particular field of governance and evaluative criteria emerge. He shows how the Population Council was active in developing expertise and policy recommendations in multiple parts of the world. Yet Sending also describes how, beginning in the 1970s, the evaluative criteria originally developed by the Council began to change, as developing countries, activists, and states critiqued the economism of the transition theory. For even Rockefeller, who had been responsible for much of the field’s formation, invested that critique with authority when he criticized the focus on fertility regulation without considering the ‘motivational aspects,’ such as development. As a result, Sending shows how the field once again shifted to a focus on ‘reproductive rights.’

Sending’s conclusion looks to the book’s contributions and limitations. He concedes that such an approach does not account for the ‘publics’ of the very fields he is studying and the ways such fields are shaped by resistance and contestation. This is indeed an important omission. The narrow focus completely evades the politics outside of expert and elite circles, ignoring the way that cultural and political norms, as well as political contestation shape fields of governance and power. Nevertheless, considering his own acknowledgement of the book’s limitations, the book lays out a well-articulated and productive contribution to the study of elites and experts in the formation of new fields of transnational governance and an important reminder of the competition that exists to define the key political terms that we may take for granted. Moreover, Sending demonstrates that in the context of global politics and governance, the process by which language acquires meaning and power is not simply given, based on actors’ social locations and roles. Rather, this is a complex and dialectical process that requires empirical analysis.

In relation to the previous two books, Culture, Catastrophe and Rhetoric: The Texture of Political Action is a refreshing reminder of the importance of social context in analyzing how uncertainty may shape social and political change. Culture, Catastrophe and Rhetoric attends to the uncertainty of our contemporary global social order by considering the way catastrophe shapes everyday understandings of political culture and action. Catastrophe, editors Robert Hariman and Ralph Cintron suggest, has become the “representative rhetorical figure for twenty first century thought” (12), replacing the once dominant trope of revolution. Like uncertainty, catastrophe reflects the anxiety that results from an age without grand narratives of social change that existed in generations past. While they acknowledge that ‘political culture’ may be a contested terrain, their focus on language emphasizes how common conventions of communication can shape shared meanings and understandings of politics. Thus, a focus on political culture, Hariman explains, “is an attempt to discern how actors become equipped for action, how they can use available resource, [and] how effectiveness can depend on timing or other situational or performative skills” (6).

Although this volume is based in the fields of communications and rhetoric, its main contribution is its theory of ‘texture.’ By texture, Hariman explains, the authors in the volume focus on the “manner in which social context is evident on the surface of an event, and how that modulation is one dimension of the overdetermined, performative, and dynamic quality of social experience” (8). Texture, although deeply context-dependent, conditions the communicative environment that shapes the potential meanings of political action. Returning to the theme of catastrophe, each of the authors in the volume are interested in the way that catastrophe, whether through disaster, everyday precarity, or political instability shapes the texture of political action today and, in turn, the dynamics of dominance, resistance, and democratic politics. T

he contributors are drawn from a range of disciplines, yet each chapter in the volume draws on ethnographically sensitive approaches to language that attempts to tease out how particular tropes, speech genres, chronotopes, sensorial expectations, or narratives create a shared political context or ‘social surface’ from which political action is understood. It is impossible to address each of the chapters in this space, however, I will mention a few to give a sense of the range of the volume and how different analytical and empirical approaches contribute to the volume’s themes.

The first three chapters all examine the way particular political tropes serve to both explain and reaffirm the status quo in Eastern Europe. For example, David Boromisza-Habashi’s chapter “The Communal Dilemma as a Cultural Resource in Hungarian Political Expression” interrogates the strategic invocation of the ‘dilemma’ by political actors in the context of a national debate over hate speech legislation. Through a detailed analysis of several interviews and speeches in the Hungarian media, Boromisza-Habashi illustrates the way the ‘dilemma’ was used to frame a discussion in political terms. He argues that this trope served to construct a ‘discursive space’ that recognized the different positions on hate speech that could be meaningfully defended, thus denying the legitimacy to absolute points of view. Hence, the language of the ‘dilemma’ became a trope through which speakers embedded speech with the texture of political liberalism.

Another set of chapters is more focused on activism, including at Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in New York City and within the digital activism of fair trade activists in the United Kingdom. Robert Danisch’s “Occupy Wall Street as Rhetorical Citizenship” examines the practices and norms of OWS’ General Assemblies. He argues that the forms of speech facilitated through the Assemblies constituted a form of rhetorical citizenship that prioritized deliberative process and the formation of democratic communities over and above technical, policy-based solutions. He therefore suggests that these speech acts attempted to ‘embody a texture of political action’ that was firmly rooted within the American pragmatist tradition. Activists, he suggests, tried to replace the existing vertical forms of democracy with horizontal ones though a new rhetorical culture.

Perhaps one of the most thought provoking contributions comes from anthropologist Catherine Fennell, who focuses on the sensorial politics of heat within Chicago public housing projects. In her chapter, “‘Project Heat’ and Sensory Politics in Redeveloping Chicago Public Housing,” she draws on several years of ethnography within a community that was being moved from closing Mid-century, high-rises into newer units being touted as ‘new communities.’ Whereas the former high-rise towers were heavily heated by the Chicago Housing Authority, the new apartments only provided minimal subsidies and required tenants to control their own heat. Fennell draws on many conversations between former high-rise residents to suggest that heat textured political action in that it became a sensorial index of the self-management demanded by neoliberal welfare reforms. Heat, she argues, became a discourse from which former residents dealt with the individualization of risk and the demise of what had been a comprehensive ethic of social care in the Keynesian welfare state.

Finally, another set of contributions turn to the African continent to examine the ways particular speech genres mediate moments of political catastrophe and relations with authority. Felix Girke’s “The Uncertainty of Power and the Certainty of Irony” draws on fieldwork in Southern Ethiopia in the state of Kara. Girke explains how people who identify as Kara both accept the legitimacy of rule from the highland Habesha, but also manipulate their social encounters with state authorities through the use of irony. He argues that Kara speakers create a texture within these encounters that is “dripping in slippery irony, so eel-like in its evasiveness and exasperating in its ambiguity, that up until today, representative of the state could hardly ever feel they were in control” (184). And yet, by using irony, the Kara also evade explicitly challenging established hierarchies of the dominant power.

The conclusion of the volume, written by co-editor Ralph Cintron, locates the text in a political intervention. Cintron draws out the implications of what Hariman had described as the replacement of the horizon of revolution with the trope of catastrophe. He suggests that we live in an age in which the rhetoric of catastrophe is overdetermined. Yet its invocation offers insight into the “unevenness, the disenchantment, [and] the incompleteness of modernity” (237). The rhetoric of catastrophe, he argues, is an index of the breakdowns in the current political-economic regime. The way it textures political action reveals the complexities and contradictions of the age.

Although each of these books was published before the recent Brexit referendum and election of Donald Trump, they offer powerful insights into these unexpected outcomes. Indeed, these political transformations have hinged on the uncertainty generated by the very economic and political arrangements examined in these texts. Yet these elections also raise critical questions about the scale and scope of shared social meanings and language amidst increasingly mediated publics.

Indeed, in previous eras, shared language has been understood as essential in shifting political formations. Benedict Anderson (2006) premised his account of the rise of the nationalism on the development of print media. For Anderson, shared language helped to facilitate the social construction of the nation-state and eventually industrial capitalism. Yet today, new information and communication technologies—those which have also enabled the rise of financialization—are producing new fragmented and mediated publics. In this social context, how do we demarcate the linguistic contexts that mediate culturally contingent understandings of uncertainty?

As anthropologists develop new field sites and approaches to ethnographic research, we are poised to better understand how the formation of new linguistic contexts may engender new governing arrangements. For example, anthropological research on new digitally mediated publics—whether diasporic groups (Bernal 2014) or transnational movements (Juris 2008)—has revealed the powerful role that virtual networks may play both forming new social groups and in social and political change. Indeed, attending to language as it circulates and is translated across social arenas is essential, given the multi-scalar and global forms of contemporary political-economic arrangements. Ultimately, as we confront new and emerging architectures of power, the books reviewed here offer provocative theoretical and methodological approaches to understand the cultural conditions of uncertainty as well as the pivotal ways in which language may mediate our ever-uncertain futures.

Matthew C. Canfield,

New York University


Reviewed in this essay:

Appadurai, Arjun. Banking on Words: The Failure of Language in the Age of Derivative Finance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Hariman, Robert and Ralph Cintron, eds. Culture, Catastrophe, and Rhetoric: The Texture of Political Action. New York: Berghahn Books, 2015.

Sending, Ole Jacob. The Politics of Expertise: Competing for Authority in Global Governance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015.



Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. 2006. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso.

Appadurai, Arjun. 2015. Banking on Words: The Failure of Language in the Age of Derivative Finance. University of Chicago Press.

Beck, Ulrich. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. 1 edition. Newbury Park, Calif: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Bernal, Victoria. 2014. Nation as Network: Diaspora, Cyberspace, and Citizenship. University of Chicago Press.

Boltanski, Luc, and Eve Chiapello. 2007. The New Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Gregory Elliott. London: Verso.

Hariman, Robert, and Ralph Cintron. 2015. Culture, Catastrophe, and Rhetoric: The Texture of Political Action. Berghahn Books.

Haas, Peter M. 2015. Epistemic Communities, Constructivism, and International Environmental Politics. Routledge.

Juris, Jeffrey S. 2008. Networking Futures: The Movements against Corporate Globalization. Duke University Press Books.

O’Malley, Pat. 2012. Risk, Uncertainty and Government. Routledge.

Power, Michael. 2007. Organized Uncertainty: Designing a World of Risk Management. OUP Oxford.

Sending, Ole Jacob. 2015. The Politics of Expertise: Competing for Authority in Global Governance. University of Michigan Press.

About Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an anthropologist and historian of science and medicine in the United States. He is author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine & Modern American Life (UMN Press, 2012), Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology (UMN Press, 2019), and Unraveling: Remaking Personhood in a Neurodiverse Age (UMN Press, 2020). He blogs at and

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