Joshua Ramey’s book, The Politics of Divination, is one of the most incisive accounts of neoliberalism currently available to scholars in the humanities and social sciences. While the book has a number of strengths, what I find to be the most novel aspect of the project is the way it situates neoliberalism in a materialist history that has entangled origins in the archaic practice of divination.
For Ramey, neoliberalism is not solely a 20th century concept—as it is for thinkers like Michel Foucault, Wendy Brown, and Philip Mirowski—but is rather the latest expression of a “politics of divination” that can be appreciated since at least the time of ancient pagan societies. This divinatory politics centers on the ability to draw upon “more-than-human knowledge” in order to tame chance and make claims about what matters to society (Ramey 10). By drawing upon signs, traces, and patterns found in physical environments, and privileging the rites and ritualized performances of spiritual leaders (such as shamans and tribal elders), a politics of divination seeks to manage uncertainty in relationship to an always shifting and changing future horizon.
For Ramey, both the western metaphysical tradition, in general, and neoliberalism, in particular, correspond to particular regimes of divinatory politics. What becomes clear beginning with the western metaphysical tradition, however, is a colonial logic that seeks to capture and symbolically overdetermine how divination can be deployed. Whereas for archaic tribal societies, divination was viewed as a fundamentally pluralistic and ecologically entangled practice, with the western metaphysical tradition, divination is captured by transcendent mathematical and theological frameworks that seek to subordinate the dynamic unfolding of change and chance to universal laws.
In the context of neoliberalism, for example, the politics of divination is organized around the ritualized practices of derivatives traders and the complex algorithms that they use to make predictions about future market behavior in an increasingly global and networked society. Hence, while a politics of divination can be said to always have a performative character that co-constructs the spatial and temporal reality that it acts upon, important changes occur beginning with the metaphysical tradition, in general, and neoliberalism, in particular.
As a scholar that is currently writing a book on the material history of neoliberalism, I am in complete agreement with the overall method and thesis that is developed in Ramey’s book. At the same time, there are three aspects of his project that I find underdeveloped in relationship to my own research, which I would like to focus on for the remainder of this short essay.
The first undeveloped implication of Ramey’s project is his contribution to the rhetoric of economics. While Ramey only briefly mentions the term rhetoric (and related concepts such as kairos and metis), I would argue that the politics of divination that he describes in his book is concerned with an ontological account of the rhetoric of economics.
As my co-authors and I have argued elsewhere, to say that economics is rhetorical at the level of ontology is to say that it operates as a praxis that “simulates or ‘performs’ a world that is imagined in its models.” In my view, Ramey’s book supports this reading of the rhetoric of economics both in terms of the way it conceptualizes truth in the context of neoliberalism and in terms of how it situates neoliberal truth regimes in a larger genealogical framework of divinatory politics.
With respect to truth in the context of neoliberalism, a clear argument developed by Ramey in his book is that neoliberal regimes of power are sensitive to the performative and rhetorical character of markets. Whereas the western regimes of power preceding liberalism conceptualized truth as the necessary unfolding of a religious or social totality, neoliberal regimes approach the truth as something that is produced emergently out of market fluctuations and crises.
This conception of neoliberalism, which is epitomized in the writings of economists such as Friedrich von Hayek, Frank Knight, and Milton Friedman, sees the market as an “information processing” machine that can reveal the truth through processes that are always incomplete, partial, and contingent (Ramey 60). In this view, the market operates as a utopia, or regulative ideal, that must be realized through the spontaneous choices and behaviors of the individuals that comprise society.
Unlike the Greeks, who put forward a conception of truth that was governed by a predetermined telos that is eternal and never changes, neoliberals conceptualize the truth as a process that is fundamentally temporal, stochastic, and characterized by crisis and contradiction. Scholars, such as Thomas Nail, have explored these contrasting logics at the more general kinetic level, particularly in relationship to physics, quantification, and western metaphysics.
At the same time that Ramey shows how neoliberalism conceptualizes the truth as a rhetorical process, he also illustrates how this regime of power delimits in advance how truth and rhetoric appear in relationship to society. Put differently, if neoliberalism gives rise to a particular vision of the market that is fundamentally rhetorical and contradictory, it is ultimately for the purpose of foreclosing other ways that humans might collectively relate to the past, present, and future.
For example, by approaching the market as a performative structure that is governed by rational inputs and outputs, neoliberals privilege certain capitalist axiomatics (e.g., private property, labor, and money) that negate the colonial violence of the past and define the future in ways that reify the subjectivities and values of the status quo. This logic of erasure, which is consistent with the problematic that Marx identifies as the “so called primitive accumulation,” helps to clarify how neoliberalism produces a certain vision of rhetoric, chance, and contingency that perpetuates and consolidates power and inequality.
From the perspective toward neoliberalism developed by Ramey, economic rhetoric would be a “supplement” that is necessary to the constitution of truth and, at the same time, a practice that must be shaped, bounded, delimited and managed in relationship to neoliberal, neoconservative, and neocolonial values and objectives. Traces of Derrida and Agamben resound here.
For Ramey, the clearest example of this paradox in the present can be appreciated in terms of the derivatives market. As an enclave of society that relies upon complex algorithms to tame the future in the face of unstable and unanticipated market fluctuations, the derivatives market is a secular space where the people most analogous to the divinatory prophets of the past reside. As Ramey shows, however, the privileging of this enclave is not predicated upon a truly universal conception of futurity but, rather, a performative model of space and time that delimits in advance how the future is conceptualized in a way that always iteratively privileges the information asymmetry of the derivative traders.
As became all too glaring in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the individuals that benefited the most from the downturn were the derivative traders that caused the crisis in the first place. Whereas America’s most vulnerable populations were left off worse than ever before, derivative traders positioned themselves to thrive in the future whether the economy expanded or contracted.
This brings me to the second undeveloped implication of Ramey’s project, his contribution to approaching the rhetoric of economics from a genealogical perspective. Ramey’s rhetorical account of neoliberalism is not just an argument with contemporary ramifications but also a historical one that draws upon what Nietzsche and Foucault have termed genealogy. While I have already shown that neoliberalism is discontinuous with the western metaphysical tradition—insofar as it begins with a performative vision of the market that is rooted in the unpredictable affects and passions of populations—it is also continuous with this tradition insofar as it situates these practices in universalizing frameworks that enable the relationship between the past, the present, and the future to be defined in particular ways.
Just as the derivative traders of today produce “accounts” of futurity that benefit from information-asymmetry and insulate them from the risks associated with precarious economic subjectivities, so the philosophers of ancient Greece privileged ideal mathematical forms that, in turn, informed a particular conception of futurity that feigned universality and benefited their own mortal bodies.
Moreover, just as derivative traders embrace a certain conception of rhetoric, while at the same time delimiting how rhetoric was practiced and expressed, similar arguments can be made about the Greeks and their formulation of rhetoric as an art limited to the pre-given civic domain of the polis. Hence, although derivative traders are unique in their embrace of a rhetorical ontology that pushes beyond the boundaries of the polis and collapses into the indeterminate domain of the market, or chrematistics, their effort to manage and capture futurity—under the pretense of objectivity, neutrality, and universality—is as old as the western tradition itself in many respects.
This brings me to the final underdeveloped implication of Ramey’s project: the need to rethink divination in new materialist terms. By framing divination as practice that can be traced back to at least archaic pagan societies, Ramey’s project implies that divination began as a politics that was embedded in and entangled with material environments and ecologies. While, throughout western history, the politics of divination becomes increasingly quantified and abstracted from the lived environments that made such practices possible, in ancient pagan societies divination was a practice fundamentally linked to the performativity and dynamism of the physical material world.
As Jeremy Lent illustrates in his book, The Patterning Instinct, ancient pagan societies did not see the spiritual world and physical world as ontologically separated and divided. Rather, such societies saw the spiritual and physical as fully relational and immanent to one another. Similarly, as James Scott argues in his book Against the Grain, civilization and the evolution of the state form have always been entangled with, and dependent upon, material environments.
What is framed by humans as a sequence of historical events predicated upon a purely rational, deductive, and procedural causality, is shown by Scott to be a process driven by ecological processes and irreducibly contingent material circumstances. In this way we might also think of the approach developed by Scott as consistent with what new materialist philosopher Karen Barad terms an “entangled genealogy.”
With these insights in mind, I believe it is important to flesh out more fully the implications of theorizing a politics of divination in new materialist terms. Would such an approach require conceptualizing divination in non-anthropocentric ways and seeing all matter as, in some ways, having the capacity to draw upon signs, traces, and patterns found in contingent physical environments? Would this framework offer a different avenue for problematizing the mathematical, theological, and rhetorical frameworks that inform the politics of divination in the West and the genealogy of neoliberalism in particular?
Finally, what would these implications mean for the decolonial political project advocated by Ramey at the end of his book project? If the politics of divination is always bound up with the economic and rhetorical practices that humans develop in relationship to their material environments and ecologies, then it seems that formulating the politics of divination in fully new materialist terms is very important to the practice of “decolonizing divination.”
To conclude, The Politics of Divination is an pathbreaking book that multiplies and radicalizes the ways in which we can analyze neoliberalism as a material practice. While its account of neoliberalism in the present is insightful in its own right, what I find particularly productive about the book are the historical perspectives toward neoliberalism that the book provides. Such an orientation not only sheds light on why neoliberalism is an important concept for critiquing power in the present, but can also be helping for thinking through divination from rhetorical, genealogical, and new materialist standpoints.
Just as neoliberalism is a concept that should never be approached in a vacuum, so the rhetoric of economics, genealogy, and new materialism ought to be approached in relationship to one another and in relation to neoliberalism and divination. Ramey’s book is incredibly generative in this respect, and its impact in all these areas has yet to be fully appreciated.
Joshua Hanan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at The University of Denver. Hanan’s scholarship examines the biopolitical function of institutions, technologies, and economic rationalities in the governance of public communication. Dr. Hanan’s work is published in a number of journals both inside and outside of the discipline of communication studies, including Communication & Critical/Cultural Studies, Quarterly Journal of Speech, Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Cultural Economy, Environmental Communication, and Argumentation & Advocacy. He recently edited a book (with Mark Hayward) titled Communication and the Economy: History, Value, and Agency, a special issue of Cultural Economy (with Catherine Chaput) that examines the intersections between rhetoric, economic performativity, and neoliberalism, and a Review of Communication special issue (with Chris Gamble) that engages the burgeoning “new materialist” conversation in the discipline of rhetorical studies. Professor Hanan is also in the early stages of a book project called The Logic of Arbitrage: A Rhetorical Theory of Biopolitics, a manuscript that explores the relationship between rhetoric and power in terms of the material contradictions between politics and economics.