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[harvard] Victor Pérez-Diaz

Víctor Pérez-Díaz of Harvard’s Center for European Studies is talking about his paper, Markets as Conversations. He is the author of 30 books, most recently several on civil society. [As always, I am at best paraphrasing.]

He says the most important part of this paper are sections 3 and 4 where he interprets markets as conversations. These conversations generally are implicit and non-verbal, but they help to shape the public sphere, politics and policy. [I’m sitting behind him and can hear him only intermittently.]

Emma Rothchild responds after Pérez-Diaz’s summary. She looks at various historic reactions to markets. [ I can pretty well hear her, but I’m missing some still.]

The word “market,” she says, was quite concrete in the 18th century, so stopping a market was a very concrete action: Preventing a person from taking produce for sale, e.g. Arthur Young [I’m getting this name embarrassingly wrong] she says has a diatribe against the French peasant who walked for days to sell a dozen eggs at market. The peasant isn’t valuing his time, he says. But a Marxist commentator [couldn’t hear the name] said that the diatribe misses the mark because the market wasn’t just about the transaction. It was also about getting the news and gossip, meeting friends, etc.

She talks about some of the historic worries about markets. Adam Smith was concerned about “corporations”, i.e., islands of non-market relationships. Some worried about markets backed by state coercive power. In the 19th C, some wondered if markets made people more passive — people becoming more concerned with trivial matters. She also raises concerns about unequal participation in markets by women, ethnic distinctions, etc. “This takes us to the realm of violence, of national security, of the non-market. Many of us have the sense that that realm is increasing in the past two or three years in Europe. Probably in this country as well.”

Perhaps, she says, technology has “prodigiously extended” markets. The anonymity of the Internet goes against some of the positive processes Pérez-Diaz points at. Meanwhile the technologies of persuasion work against market openness, as does the rise of the national security state.

Pérez-Diaz replies that he does not expect the market to solve problems such as universal hatred. And, he says, conversations are very ambiguous. His paper talks about Rilke’s characterization of Cezanne’s artistic process as a conversation of paint with paint. [It’s a lovely passage.]

Q: It’s not clear to me if you mean “conversation” as a way of regulating markets or as a characterization of markets. And your notion of protecting the market from politics marks you as of a particular generation of social thinkers. I think we need to protect politics from the market.
A: I don’t mean conversations as the talk around the market that regulates it. And politics and markets are interconnected.

Q: Markets are limited even when they’re at their best. Market conversations are about anything that’s for sale. But we don’t want everything to be sale, and we want to have conversations also about things are not for sale.
A: (He explains that that’s not what he meant.)

Q: I worry about the overuse of the term “conversation.” And I’m not as optimistic as you.
A: [I couldn’t hear. Plus I have to leave. Damn.]

[It seems to me that not only are markets conversations (thank you, Doc), but the Internet is erasing the distinction. When I read reviews at Amazon — a marketplace — written by people who may not have bought the book or people who already bought it elsewhere — the market and the conversation are indistinguishable. Likewise when I use local.yahoo.com and read what people write. Even when I buy a commodity from the lowest possible supplier, there may be reviews on the site or I may have gotten there by engaging in conversations on other sites. Not only are markets conversations in that we’re talking with one another, the marketplaces are themselves becoming inseparable from those conversations.]

2 Responses to “[harvard] Victor Pérez-Diaz”

  1. David, thanks for the report on this. I wonder if a “Jane Jacobsian”-type of interpretation of markets & conversations came up at all? In _The Nature of Economies_ (Toronto: Random House, 2000), Jacobs writes that “Development depends on co-developments.” (p.19) She added, “I mean that development can’t usefully be thought of as a ‘line,’ or even a collection of open-ended lines. It operates as a web of interdependent co-developments. No co-development web, no development.” There isn’t an immutable directive extraneous to the process itself, in other words. This is very important to her overall thesis, which is that economies can’t be separated out from ecologies. At the end of the book, Jacobs’s platonic characters muse about what economies are good for. The sceptical antagonist gets the final word: “Like language, economic life permits us to develop cultures and multitudes of purposes, and in my opinion, that’s its function which is most meaningful for us.” (p.147)

    What Jacobs (and I, too, am paraphrasing — in sound bites, at that) was on about had to do with growth (in ecologies: biomass expansion, say; in economies: development). It doesn’t seem implausible to think of “conversation” as part of the process that facilitates expansion and growth. In that sense, “conversations” are not something that can be reified (and then in turn marketed and sold). They are part of what, in Jacobs’s words, happens within the conduit.

    The conduit (and what happens in it) is what’s of importance — it receives energy (via imports) and discharges them (via exports), but it’s not the imports and exports themselves that matter most, it’s how what happens to those energies within the conduit that makes for what I guess one could call “quality.”

    I guess I have to read Perez-Diaz’s paper to see whether he treats the conversation as _thing_ (reified) or as part of the process, part of how energies are converted, re-converted, re-purposed, and sent on their way…

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