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Bruno Latour & Vincent-Antonin Lépinay

Invention before Accumulation

2009

CHAPTER FROM THE SCIENCE OF PASSIONATE INTERESTS:
AN INTRODUCTION TO GABRIEL TARDE’S ECONOMIC ANTHROPOLOGY

The solution Tarde offers to this question may seem fairly perplexing to us: it consists in thrusting the economy back into the general movement of monads he developed in his other works. The pullulating of living societies whose intertwining forms the texture of the world is not chaotic but ends up by creating interferences, rhythms, and amplifications, on condition that one agrees to discern three stages in this proliferation: the repetition of a first difference, the opposition created by the repetition, and, finally, the adaptation making it possible for it to temporarily get out of these oppositions thanks to new differentiations. We must be careful not to read into this movement a return of Hegel’s dialectic. No superior law guides this world towards a denouement through the play of negativity and contradiction. There is, contrary to the notebooks of the young Marx, no adventure of subject and object at play in these issues of capital and labor. Let us not forget what Tarde says against all philosophy of identity as contradiction: “To exist is to differ.”

As a result, the supreme law for him is not negation – and even less the negation of negation – but rather invention, which, once repeated obstinately, brings about countless struggles, which can only be gotten out of through other inventions. Fifty years before Joseph Schumpeter, eighty years before the development of the economics of technical change, Tarde places innovation and the monitoring of inventions at the heart of his doctrine. Follow innovations from the mesh woven in the brain of individuals – a brain itself conceived, as we have seen, as a mass of neurons; analyze by which canals they spread; document the conflicts they give rise to when they enter into a struggle with those innovations previously repeated; observe how they end up combining, piling up one on top of the other, adjusting themselves, and you will have the whole economy, whether it be of new religious convictions, new plants, new legal codes, railways, financial tools, or political opinions.

The problem can be summed up as follows: to grasp as closely as possible the genesis of inventions and the laws of imitations. Economic progress supposes two things: on the one hand, a growing number of different desires, for, without a difference in desires, no exchange is possible, and, with the appearance of each new, different desire, the life of exchange is kindled. On the other hand, a growing number of similar exemplars of each desire taken separately, for, without this similitude, no industry is possible, and, the more this similitude expands or prolongs itself, the more production is widened or reinforced.

The notion of accumulation does not do justice to this process of differentiation. It describes a phase – but only a phase – of the industry during which only the author of the repetition is active. It only marks a moment, albeit one necessary to development, which allows markets to grow, but never to change paths. It is also the product of an economic science – starting with economic sociology – which treats entities – humans and assets, services and technologies – as interchangeable, since they are seen from a distance, without capturing the small differences that would explain that change is not an exogenous shock suddenly befalling monomaniacal capitalists. This is what Tarde criticizes in Darwin:

His mistake […] seems to me to have been in relying far more on the struggle for existence, a biological form of opposition, than on cross-breading and hybridization, biological forms of adaptation and harmony. A function just as important as the production of a new species would not be able to be a continuous and daily function, while the simple production of a new individual – generation – is an intermittent function. An exceptional phenomenon, and not a daily phenomenon, must be at the base of this specific novelty. And […] a fertile hybridization, as an exception, is far neater than a hereditary accumulation of small advantageous variations, through competition and selection, to explain the formation of new types of life.

If accumulation is not the relevant point of entry to understand the dynamics of the economy, one must look elsewhere. The interference and intersection of the paths of desire which inhabit individuals are much better suited to provide information on the probability of inflexion points. Herein lies the problem of the notion of accumulation: it does not provide information on the intensities of the economy.

When, at the crucial moment, on a battlefield, just the right glance from the general lets an uncertain victory tilt to one side, the victory is due to this sudden idea, not to the accumulation of the prior efforts. And when, out of a thousand researchers, a single one, through a sudden intuition, discovers the solution to the enigma posed to all, it is not the long and sterile efforts of the others, not even the duration and intensity of his own efforts – often lesser than theirs – to which credit for the discovery should be given.

Accumulation is not a good candidate, and effort alone guarantees nothing. So what are econo- mists left with to explain the shapes of the economy? Genius, of course, but a type of genius that is attained first of all through the interference of all the lines of imitation. Genius does not guarantee anything; it is simply a quick way to sum up what we have observed, not what we may predict. In hindsight, the unique configuration which brings into existence the solution to a recalcitrant mathematical problem, or the general’s glance that saves his troops from death, now that is where genius lies; it does not reside at all in the author of the theorem, nor in the general himself. Tarde mentions genius fairly often as if he gave importance to the outer wrapping of the individual “genius,” but this is a linguistic simplification and a way of evoking the ability to compose using lines of influence. Genius is not a point of departure; it is no more a place of action than it is one of passion. It is more precisely a moment of incandescence that can only ever be described, never recreated. Here again, Tarde does not set up an opposition between the mysterious origin of the individual genius and the slavish imitation of past models. He shifts levels: a genius is an individual in whom the multitudes of repetitions and imitations (those lively firings of the brain) lead, dare we say, a life of their own.

Let us note, in passing, that trade, which so often serves as a pillar for the economic robinsonnades of the 19th century, does not find its place in Tarde’s economics. Trade does indeed exist, but it is brought back to its proper role in the genealogy of markets. What launches a market, what builds an economy, is not trade, which is but a zero-sum game; it is rather the pooling and the coordinating of previously scattered energies. Tarde places faith and trust at the center of this pooling effort.

Only half of the truth is being told in seeing the trade contract as the essential and seminal economic event. Trade, in truth, favors and develops directly only consumption. The direct agent of production is another contract, which is no less seminal and no less fundamental: the loan contract. Through trade, we do each other favors, but all while defying one another: give and take; through loans, we place trust in one another.

Thus, we can see a very singular relationship between faith and invention: a shared movement consisting in connecting and gathering previously separate entities. It is necessary for there to be trust for the first transactions to come into being; it is necessary to loosen the fixation of Homo economicus on the lure of profit because there needs to be also passion and risk-taking in order to bring the economy towards new paths through the emergence of small differences. Trust, much like invention, creates new groupings; it folds the economy in a certain way which will then be confirmed through repetition.

Difference and Repetition is both the title of Gilles Deleuze’s thesis and Tarde’s fundamental principle. Invention produces differences; repetition allows for their diffusion; conflict is inevitable; no pre-established harmony allows for a solution (as we shall later see): it is necessary to invent yet other solutions in order to temporarily generate other innovations, which, by repeating themselves, will produce other differences, and the cycle will begin again. That is the fundamental rhythm, the back beat that, alone, allows economic activity to acquire realism. What we need to follow in order to establish an economic science are “states of mind” and “logical duels.”

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 newspapers, through example – which precedes commercial exchanges, often making them possible, and which always helps to set their conditions.

The fabric of vectors and tensors which defines the attachments of people and assets consists – and here lies Tarde’s truly innovative character – of arguments whose premises and deductions form practical syllogisms which are, in fact, the whole substance of economics.

Either through authoritarian suggestion or through demonstration, we can only communicate our thoughts to others (which is equivalent to a gift of assets, the unilateral beginning of an exchange of goods) on condition that we present them through their measurable and quantitative aspects. If it is a question of forcing our judgment into someone else’s head, through demonstration, we will need a more or less explicit syllogism, that is a relationship between species and genus or between genus and species, established between two ideas, which means that one is included in the other, is of the same type (undetermined or determined but real) of things which are similar, and perceived as similar, that the other, the general proposition, encompasses and contains.

For Tarde, the economic matter – this is what remains so difficult for us – is a real force because it is a rhetorical power: it is indeed a question of persuasion, syllogism and conviction. Or, rather, rhetoric attains in it such power because it encroaches, so to speak, on the ability of the monads themselves to assess and to calculate. It is because of this background of “calculable forces” that the addition of calculative devices, of metrological chains, can have such a performative, explicatory capacity, that they can even become forces of production. It is because the monads calculate at all times and in all possible manners that the addition of calculative devices, which are minuscule prostheses, brings about such a prodigious amplification of evaluations. Tarde’s cleverness lies in adding, to the intertwining of calculations, the decisive role of theories and doctrine.

Nowhere can his acumen be better seen than on the widely-discussed subject of “fair price.” At no time does he think it possible to appeal to nature – to natural law – in order to establish the difference with “real price,” but neither does he ever have recourse to the objectivity simply of the markets to define this price.

Economists, in viewing as the natural or normal price the price to which the freest, most unbridled competition leads, believed they were in so doing eliminating the bothersome idea of fair price. But, in reality, all they did was to justify in this way the real prices precisely, often the most abusive ones, formed under the tyrannical rule of the strongest. And the problem is that this way of seeing things, which is in itself an unconscious way of conceiving of fair price all while denying it, in fact acts, in quite a regrettable way, on real price. When everyone has been persuaded, on the strength of the work of ancient economists, that the price automatically determined by the “free play of supply and demand” is justice itself, there is no doubt that this general belief plays a part in making it possible for exorbitant prices, or prices so minimal that public conscience would have rejected them other times, to be established without protest, or even with general approval.

As always for Tarde, the sciences do more than just know: they add themselves to the world, they involve it, they fold it, they complicate it on numerous points all while simplifying it on others – but we should never assume that we can trust them to eliminate morality, that “bothersome idea” of social justice. Even if one succeeds, through scientific claim, in aligning power struggles, or objective science and the nature of things, the fact remains that millions of gaps, judgments, small differences, and criticisms would force everyone to reevaluate the relation between the “justified price” and the “fair price.”

Besides, how can we deny the action of the idea that each period or each country has on what is just as regards price? To what type of consumption is morality entirely foreign, if by morality we mean the superior and profound rule of conduct in accordance with the major convictions and passions which guide life? And, if we set aside these convictions and these dominating passions which, silent or conscious, are the social and individual forces par excellence, what are we explaining in political economy?

Nothing will cool passionate interests. Imagining an economy that is wise at last, reigning coolly over individuals who are rational and reasonable at last, ruled by good governance, is like imagining an ecological system with no animals, plants, viruses, or earthworms.


Posted: December 2018
Category: Essays