[All art by Tatiana Plakhova. Review in pdf here]
Élie Ayache, The Medium of Contingency: An Inverse View of the Market,
Palgrave-Macmillan, 2015, 414pp., $50.00 (hbk), ISBN 9781137286543.
Ayache’s project is to outline the ontology of quantitative finance as a discipline. That is, he wants to find what distinguishes it as a genre, distinct from economics or even stocks and bonds—what most of us associate with ‘finance’. Quantitative finance, dealing with derivatives, is a whole new level of abstraction. So Ayache has to show that economic and social concerns are exogenous (external) to derivative prices: the underlying asset can simply be treated as a stochastic process. His issue with probability is that it is epistemological—a shorthand for when we don’t know the true mechanism. Taleb’s notion of black swans as radically unforeseeable (unknowable) events is simply an extension of this. Conversely, market-makers—those groups of people yelling at each other in old movies about Wall Street—don’t need probability to do their jobs. Ayache’s aim is thus to introduce into theory the practice of derivatives trading—from within, rather than outside, the market. And it’s reasonable to think that delineating the ontology of this immensely rich field will yield insights applicable elsewhere in philosophy.
This is not a didactic book. People coming from philosophy will not learn about finance, nor about how derivatives work. Ayache reinterprets these, assuming familiarity with the standard view. Even Pierre Menard—Ayache’s claim to fame—is only given a few perfunctory mentions here. People coming from finance will not learn anything about philosophy, since Ayache assumes a graduate-level knowledge of it. Further, Ayache’s comments on Taleb’s Antifragile are limited to one page. The only conceivable reason to even skim this book is that you’d like to see just how abstract the philosophy of finance can get.
I got interested in Ayache because I write philosophy of economics. I wanted to learn what quantitative finance is all about, so several years ago I read through all his articles in Wilmott Magazine, gradually learning how to make sense of sentences like “Only in a diffusion framework is the one-touch option…replicable by a continuum of vanilla butterflies” (Sept 2006: 19). I’ve made it through all of Ayache’s published essays. Now I’ve read this entire book, and I deserve a goddamn medal. I read it so that you don’t have to.
Much of Ayache’s reception so far has been quite silly. I recently came across an article (Ferraro, 2016) that cited Ayache’s concept of ‘contingency’ as an inspiration behind a game based on sumo wrestling. (You can’t make this stuff up.) Frank Ruda (2013), an otherwise respectable philosopher, wrote a nonsensical article comparing him to Stalin! Philosophy grad students occasionally mention his work to give their papers a more ‘empirical’ feel (which is comparable in silliness to the sumo wrestling), especially Ayache’s clever reading of Borges’ short story on Pierre Menard—from which these graduate students draw sweeping conclusions about capitalism and high-frequency trading.
Ayache expects the reader to have already read The Blank Swan, which itself is not understandable without reading Meillassoux’s After Finitude. Thus, for most readers, decreasing returns will have long set in. My goal here is to summarize the main arguments and/or good ideas of each chapter, divested of the pages and pages of empty verbosity accompanying them. I try to avoid technical jargon from finance and philosophy except as needed to explain the arguments, though I do provide requisite background knowledge that Ayache has omitted. So first, let’s cover the most important concepts that the reader may find unfamiliar.
Only Élie Ayache could take something as tedious as plugging variables into a formula and turn it into something charming. The costs of entry to his corpus are high—readers must be familiar with avant-garde Continental philosophy plus actively interested in the materiality of options markets. Nevertheless, Ayache earns a place alongside such thinkers as Bataille, Klossowski, Baudrillard, Deleuze/Guattari, and Lyotard, who smash the concepts of political economy into brick walls to see what remains intact—the concepts or the wall. And yet, The Blank Swan is so much more. The syntax of options (‘optionetics’, to pilfer a lovely phrase) lies entirely outside the purview of post-Marxist ‘critical’ theory that has grown crusty at best, procrustean at worst. “Cantor’s transfinite seems to be materially operative in our derivatives world,” notes Ayache (après Meillassoux), as derivatives create new intensive ‘surfaces’ on which yet more exotic derivatives can be written. The market is therefore untotalizable, im-probable (beyond the very category of probability); it is not meaningful to speak of ‘capitalism’ as such.
As with Nietzsche or Niels Bohr, to write ‘about’ Ayache places the preposition in conflict with itself. “The market proposes a way of thinking of the future that is no longer mediated by knowledge” (2006: 34). One tries to find a position from which to describe, or critique, but finds the ground pulled out from underneath: “The market never starts. You are immediately in the middle of it or you are nowhere.” (Local, 12:27–12:44). Philosophical ‘depth’ has no meaning for the surface of the market, in which “the infinite is often the best approximation of the finite” (2007: 262). Thus the following interview is not an introduction to Ayache’s work, but outlines some less obvious aspects that help to illuminate the whole.
In one of your essays you said that Meillassoux referred to your notion of the market as an ‘arché-market’, but it’s not clear to me how it’s analogous to the arché-fossil. Could you explain the link?
If I understand Meillassoux well, arché-fossil is what provides evidence to science that dates back to days when thought and as a matter of fact life didn’t exist and when givenness of being to thought didn’t exist; so arché-fossil is the light reaching from the outermost recesses of the universe or the fact that decaying isotopes can help science to establish contact with periods of time that predate thought, etc. Arché-market is something different. In conversation with Meillassoux, I once pointed to him that the ‘market’ wasn’t limited to my eyes to the financial market or even to the market in the sense of exchange of goods against prices. Rather, the market was a new logic or a new category of thought, a medium that conducts contingency ‘instantaneously’ without the apparatus of possibility and probability. Ideally, I wanted to convince him that my ‘market’ is the register where his whole factual (i.e. non metaphysical) speculation should be conducted. He then advised me to no longer call this category by the name of ‘market’ but, in order to avoid confusion, by the more venerable ‘arché-market’. For one thing, a contingent event can make the ‘market’ disappear; however, the arché-market as higher category and register cannot disappear as it is the very medium of contingency.
How does your philosophical position account for the fact that relativistic effects cause minute differences in the ‘same’ price in different regions of the world, noticeable only on the nanosecond scale in HFT? This strikes me as a crucial issue for your own theory, especially since you focus on the market as ‘surface’, whereas relativistic arbitrage would imply ‘ruptures’ in this surface.
HFT is not really my cup of tea. It is a necessary and unavoidable development of the technology and this is all that I have to say. Financial theory holds that prices should verify arbitrage instantaneously and I can only welcome a technology that now applies this ideal requirement of financial theory. Doubtless financial theory understands ‘instantaneous’ arbitrage in pre-relativistic terms and doubtless there must be interesting extensions of arbitrage to relativistic physics, and doubtless the HFT technology may be hitting on that limit. However, all this is of no interest to me; the market is not equal to HFT. Sadly, HFT is distracting the attention of thinkers and of philosophers away from the hard problem of the market, which is the real metaphysical and ontological problem that derivatives pose. Surely HFT is attracting money and investment from the banks and surely the sociology of finance should look into it. However those banks are (in my opinion) investing in HFT because they have abandoned the thought of derivatives. The hard problem of the market is the smile problem. To solve the smile problem you need something else than probability; you need a new metaphysics. This is what I am trying to develop both technologically in my company (ITO 33) and philosophically in my personal research and writing. The smile problem is simply that statistics and the corresponding paradigm have to be replaced by the prices of contingent claims. The smile problem is that we imply volatility from the option instant prices and not from the historical series of prices of the underlying. Why this is essential and not accidental, why this is a crucial problem and not just an ‘approximation’ or a temporary defect of the theory/technology, is a question that I am still amazed that neither the bankers nor the quants nor the philosophers of probability have started to tackle. And why are derivatives so important? Because the definition of the market to me is the place where underlying and derivative trade on the same level and floor. Why a surface? Because of this identity of levels and absence of depth or hierarchy between underlying and derivative. There are no possibilities and states of the world underlying the prices of the underlying and consequently evaluating the derivatives. All there is is the surface of prices of derivatives and derivatives on derivatives. While derivatives can certainly be traded by HFT as proxys of the underlying, the problem which they pose really, or the smile problem, is a very ‘slow’ problem in the sense that it requires calibration and recalibration to all the prices of all derivatives written on that underlying at once. To repeat, time and time series are not the proper dimension here. Place and writing is.
What is your opinion of Taleb’s latest book Antifragile?
I think Antifragile is a very clever concept. Taleb is trying to generalize convexity (of options) to life and beyond the strictly financial realm. But with this he is becoming less and less of a dynamic trader and more and more a fan of static hedging (take care of your losses and your profits will take care of themselves). By contrast, I advocate dynamic hedging and the dynamic trading of derivatives. There is a constant battle between convexity and time decay (the cost of convexity) which Taleb seems to (want to) ignore. This battle is what the dynamic market is all about. My work is to try to generalize the matter or the category of the market beyond the financial realm.
How did you discover philosophy? When did you become interested in writing?
At the age of six, on my way to school, I once wondered whether the pedestrian crossing the street in front of me would have accomplished the same act and crossed the street if, for some reason that day, say because of illness, I had not gone to school. Then I realized that I wouldn’t have been there in the first place to even notice the pedestrian and even conceive of his being.
When I found myself stuck in a military camp in Lebanon in 1982 with nothing really interesting to do and wasn’t allowed to travel to France to study. I then discovered how writing was there and had nothing to do with time.
Like many readers, I have a hard time getting my bearings in Part III of your book, despite your insistence that it’s the most important part. You claim that the virtual cannot be theorized, only narrated, which is understandable (and reminiscent of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy), but your writing often reads more like a Hegelian bildungsroman than like Deleuze. Could you perhaps spell out what you’re trying to do in Part III? Why did you choose Barton Fink, of all films?
Barton Fink is the key to my philosophy. From possibility (Barton Fink in his room) to the total of possibilities (Karl Mundt) to the writing surface (the liberation of Barton Fink at the end). Also notice that he ends up writing the same play as in the beginning of the movie, in true Menard fashion.
Part III: The book is the arché-arché-market
Most of your essays over the past few years have been revisions to The Blank Swan. Have you thought of writing another book, perhaps a sequel of sorts? (Or does your book place under erasure any attempt at doing so?) If so, what sort of problems and material would you want it to address?
I am currently completing a book. More strictly critical of financial theory. More metaphysical. Better. Harder.
There is no economic world. There is only an abstract economic description. It is wrong to think that the task of economics is to find out how the economy is. Economics concerns what we can say about the economy…
This thesis (adapted from Niels Bohr, the father of quantum theory) is, to anyone not thoroughly debauched by philosophy, clearly nonsensical—the sort of postmodern tripe that embodies everything wrong with ‘theory’. Yet, it is quite the opposite. François Laruelle argues that any notion of ‘world’—as a priori/mnemotechnic cognitive mapping—is a product of philosophical thinking; in fact, he often uses the words ‘philosophy’ and ‘world’ interchangeably. Therefore, if the corpus of economics has a ‘world’, this implies that any worthwhile statements it makes are translatable into philosophy, which thus becomes privileged as a meta-discourse in relation to the ‘regional knowledge’ of economics. Such a role has been traditionally claimed by Marxism, as well as obliquely by disciplines such as psychoanalysis, whose proponents believe that they can have knowledge of the economy by imposing their concepts a priori upon whatever data is at hand (regardless of whether said theorist knows minutiae such as the difference between stocks and bonds…). To subvert this hierarchy—to argue that economics is properly non-philosophical, thus eliminating all grounds for the use of postmodern tripe—the thesis that ‘there is no economic world’ becomes essential. This paper presents a unified theory of economics and philosophy, arguing that economics consists of nonknowledge rather than knowledge (episteme/technē), that economics operates through unwriting or deconceptualizing the material of the other social sciences, and that economic models should not be viewed as attempts to represent the world, but as a radically non-Bayesian method of framing events in their contingency.
§1. World versus ‘World’
There is a famous story involving the British analytic philosopher A.J. Ayer and the French continental philosophers Georges Bataille and Georges Ambrosino, in a midnight conversation in January 1951 (Bataille, 2001: 111-3). Ayer introduced the simple proposition that “the sun existed before man,” which as a scientific realist he saw no reason to doubt. Ambrosino, a physician steeped in French phenomenology, insisted that “certainly the sun had not existed before the world.” Bataille, on the other hand, was agnostic. As he wrote afterwards (111):
This is a proposition that indicates the perfect non-sense that a reasonable proposition can assume. A common meaning must have a meaning within all meaning when one asserts any proposition that in principle implies a subject & an object. In the proposition: there was the sun and there were no humans, there is a subject without an object.
The easy way out of this dilemma (or as Bataille put it, this “abyss between French philosophers and English philosophers”) is to say that while Ayer was talking about the sun (as a well-defined scientific object composed of various elements, etc.), Ambrosino and Bataille were talking about ‘the sun’ (as ideal representation of the Real). While Ambrosino had taken a purely idealist position, Bataille’s stance is much more interesting: he had, in fact, hit upon a problem that would later become known as the ‘arché-fossil’. This idea would be central to Quentin Meillassoux’s attempt to philosophize in a way that avoids what he calls ‘correlationism’—that is, the idea that “we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (2008: 5), with ‘thinking’ and ‘being’ meant in the sense of ‘models’ and ‘objects’. In more visual terms, Meillassoux is searching for a way of doing philosophy that doesn’t just involve the imposition of a ‘grid’ of concepts (or ‘syntax’) upon the mass of data comprising the world—as has been the norm in philosophy since Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. An arché-fossil is any sort of scientific object or datum describing the state of the universe prior to the existence of subjects (e.g. humans) that could experience it—or, recalling the above anecdote: the arché-fossil describes the state of the world prior to ‘the world’. After introducing this concept, Meillassoux goes on to outline the ‘mechanics’ of why this idea is so immediately absurd to philosophers in the phenomenological tradition. The existence of ‘ancestral’ data implies (15):
- that being is not co-extensive with manifestation, since events have occurred in the past which were not manifest to anyone;
- that what is preceded in time the manifestation of what is;
- that manifestation itself emerged in time and space, and that consequently manifestation is not the givenness of a world, but rather an intra-worldly occurrence;
- that this event can, moreover, be dated;
- that thought is in a position to think manifestation’s emergence in being, as well as a being or a time anterior to manifestation;
- that the fossil-matter is the givenness in the present of a being that is anterior to givenness; that is to say, that an arché-fossil manifests an entity’s anteriority vis-à-vis manifestation.
The notion of the arché-fossil underscores the tension between the world and ‘the world’. From the perspective of ‘the world’ there is either ‘world’ or ‘non-world’, whose boundary is set by the existence of an experiencing subject. Yet, by carbon-dating a meteorite (for example), it is possible to state that the ‘non-world’ and the world existed simultaneously (or: co-extensively), and moreover, that the evidence for this is given to us within ‘the world’. Philosophically, this is clearly unacceptable. Yet, it sheds some light upon an old Daoist koan:
“Hide the world in the world and the world will never be lost—this is the eternal truth.” ~Zhuangzi
Zhuangzi is the same person who, upon waking up from a dream that he was a butterfly, wondered if he was actually a butterfly dreaming that he was a man. The anecdote is no doubt as popular as it is because of its stark opposition of ‘world’ (dream) and world (reality). A dream, after all, proceeds according to an internal logic where any sort of (arché-)hints that it is a dream, e.g. words on a page changing the second time you look at them, somehow don’t count. The most absurd events may occur in the most bizarre of settings, but any sense of contingency (the idea that it could be otherwise) is lost. If we take the lack of contingency in dreams as a principle, however, the very fact that Zhuangzi can ask whether he’s a butterfly or a man proves he isn’t dreaming! Zhuangzi’s query creates a false partition—with ‘dream’ and ‘non-dream’ as the only members of the state space—and is thus self-defeating: nonknowledge is in fact the most useful kind of knowledge he can have. So in order to avoid a performative contradiction, Zhuangzi must accept that the principle can’t be psychologically necessary. This gives rise to a fundamental contingency, where in order to make a convincing case that he is a butterfly, Zhuangzi has to argue that the current rules of psychology (and perhaps even of nature) would have to be able to be other than they are—the same position as Meillassoux!
For Meillassoux, this division of world and ‘world’ is the problem, and ought to be gotten rid of; Zhuangzi’s stance is similar, though his method eliminates this opposition in an entirely different way—which is the same as that of economics. Anyone accustomed to think in philosophical terms may be inclined, on reading the following sections, to suppose that the argument rests on a tacit assumption of this dyad. If such a supposition is found helpful, there is no harm in the reader’s adopting it as a temporary working hypothesis. In fact, however, no such division is made.
To verify the claim ‘oil prices are manipulated by the USA’, a researcher could (in theory) physically go to each stage of the oil production/distribution process, from oil wells to spot or futures markets, to various nodes along logistical networks, to gas stations, etc. In the above claim, ‘oil price’ is well-defined as a variable; moreover, its role as subject of the sentence makes the former claim ‘economic’ in its genre. (Cf. the political statement ‘the USA manipulates oil prices’, with its focus on agency.) ‘USA’ is of course vague, but suffices for the problem at hand. The verb ‘to manipulate’ reifies (in this context), but is in principle observable. Our researcher could measure the ‘value added’ in each stage as it is expressed in price, then perform an (unavoidably qualitative) analysis of how fluctuations in the magnitude of this value-added (with respect to production costs, etc.) can be causally traced to the USA. In this context, economic methods would not per se be needed, only mercantile arithmetic. Economics is often thought of as simply an armchair version of our poor researcher’s task (implying that an ideal model is one that is just as complex as the real world). Yet, in the above statement economics acknowledges not the subject, verb, or object, but the preposition ‘by’: in a sort of econo-fiction, it shows the numerical properties that make ‘manipulation’ meaningful.
Economics can be defined as the science of non-discursive social relations, with a broad definition of ‘discourse’ such that one could equally say ‘non-conceptual’. In fact, economics takes place through a process of deconceptualizing the findings of business, finance, and politics. As soon as you think you can understand an economic notion (e.g. an algebraic relation) intuitively and talk about it lucidly, economists develop a way to formalize it (via econometrics and so on) so as to make it entirely untranslatable into normal language. John von Neumann once remarked: “in mathematics you don’t understand things. You just get used to them.” This is exactly what Bohr was saying! By continually deconceptualizing its former results economics systematically prevents itself from creating a ‘world’. As in Roland Barthes’ famous formulation, the task of economics is to inexpress the expressible.