In Paris this weekend for the marvellous SASE conference, I spotted this on the Metro:
'Wall Street English', eh? If Karin Knorr Cetina and other anthropologists of finance are to be believed, this suggests Paris will soon be filling up with chohorts of aspirational anglophones, uttering phrases such as "I 'ave just been raped by zee market" and "today I successfully - 'ow you say? - fist-fucked zee derivatives spread!"
I suspect the advertised language school is a little less nuanced in its understanding of what 'Wall Street English' actually consists of. Of course the advert invites us to view Wall Street as the epitome of the global Geist, as James Carrier and Daniel Miller do with their thesis of economic 'virtualism'. There is even something charmingly innocent about the notion that Wall Street might still be a paragon of universalism and transcendence, a sort of meta-culture that is only matched by the meta-system of dollars and digits on screens. Bring back Francis Fukuyama and Bill Clinton!
This naivete does have an anthropology, just not a very accurate one. It tends to draw on Oliver Stone's famous depiction, and the Gordon Gecko 'greed is good' speech. What Stone didn't grasp was the central insight of Max Weber's economic sociology, namely that capitalism (and no doubt other economic systems too) requires non-economic metaphors, norms and rituals in order to justify itself. By contrast, the 'greed is good' speech was simply a rearticulation of homo economicus - the model of the rational egotist. It couldn't provide the non-economic 'spirit' of capitalism.
Financiers and traders don't go around repeating core principles of neo-classical economics to each other. They don't scream out 'I just performed a Pareto optimal distribution!' while high-fiving their mates. Nor do they speak some global logos of dollars and digits, as the virtualists claim. They tend to favour metaphors of sexual violence and anal penetration (presumably not to the exclusion of other metaphors). How significant this is, I don't know. Whether it will be transformed by the current crisis, who knows. 'Wall Street English' ought now to include words such as 'woops', 'bailout' and 'sorry'. Perhaps these will now bubble up in an equally Freudian way, as the traders gradually let some inner shame emanate via their symbolic codes. Some hope.