Introduction: the tale as a special discourse vehicle

Daniel Seabra Lopes, Inês Faria, and Sandra Faustino
CSG-Research in Social Sciences and Management, ISEG-Lisbon School of Economics and Management, University of Lisbon, Lisbon, Portugal

Published in JOURNAL OF CULTURAL ECONOMY 2022, VOL. 15 (1), pp. 1-13 https://doi.org/10.1080/17530350.2021.1977678

This special issue addresses a series of post-2008 financial developments by mobilising the concept of the tale, understood as a discursive artefact composed of a meaningful story or script that serves to separate good from evil, make sense of historical situations, stimulate action, and prefigure scenarios. Unlike standard workplace narratives, which are useful for practical decision-making, tales have strong collective and political connotations. As such, they assume two distinct forms: tales of ‘experiment,’ stemming from innovative projects that seek to transform the financial system from within, and tales of ‘defiance,’ which deal with the more ample changes that horizontal and disobedient practices prefigure. Several analytical coordinates are proposed in order to capture the semiotic and pragmatic natures of the tale. Regarding semiotics, tales involve not only themes and motifs but also polysemic metaphors and what are here defined as processes of characterisation, through which persons or institutions are positioned as characters and assume specific roles within a story. As for the pragmatic dimension, tales mobilise people toward specific functions and address audiences while also relying on material infrastructure to embed some of the content they convey.

Finance, narrative, tale, cultural economy, performativity, politics

Introducing the tale
The initial draft of this introduction was written in December 2019. Like most scientific texts at the time, it began with a reference to the 2008 financial crisis and the period that followed, which became known in Europe and North America as the Great Recession (in contrast with the Great Moderation of the preceding years). This period has become a major topic in social science research, not least in the Journal of Cultural Economy – see, for instance, the special issues ‘After the Crash: Beyond Liquidity’ (Pasanek and Polillo 2011), ‘Financial Panics and Crisis’ (Poovey 2012) or the themed section ‘Engaging Andrew Haldane’ (Pryke 2011). However, the year 2020 brought with it a pandemic that forcibly interrupted a whole series of economic activities – an event already described by the International Monetary Fund as the Great Lockdown – and which may indeed end up relativising the historical importance of the 2008 financial crisis and its sequels. In any case, what matters most for the purposes of this special issue is precisely how expressions such as Great Moderation, Great Recession, and Great Lockdown frame stories or tales that attempt to make sense of ongoing events. With that said, apart from circumstantial references to the Covid-19 pandemic, the contributions included here still dwell on finance and its post-2008 developments. The articles deal with a universe of projects and initiatives that actively promote changes within, or alternatives to, the current political, economic, and financial system. [2] Although some research has already been carried out in this heterogeneous field, especially on cryptocurrencies (see Maurer et al. 2013, Davidson et al. 2016, Dodd 2017, Swartz 2017, 2018, Nelms et al. 2018, DuPont 2018, Faria 2019, and Faustino 2019, among others), the implications of such cases of experiment and defiance deserve further exploration, as we will try to make clear throughout this introduction.

In broad theoretical terms, these cases of financial transformation are here explored through a pragmatist framework that highlights the contextual use of language and discourse (Burke 1969 [1945], Wittgenstein 1953, Austin 1955, Rorty 1989), combined with the concept of the ‘tale,’ which is originally derived from more formalist analyses of narrative typologies and motifs. According to the Russian philologist Vladimir Propp (1968 [1928]), a tale designates any story composed of a succession of functional events beginning with some loss or failure before culminating in repair (in popular stories, often attained through marriage). This somewhat rigid scheme was subsequently revised by other authors who ventured more flexible formulations (Bremond 1966, van Dijk 1972). The tale thus came to be regarded as any development that begins with a state of affairs and a certain number of characters, then proceeds on to confrontations between those characters and that initial state of affairs before culminating in a new situation that is the outcome of the previous action. Furthermore, as Barthes (1966) noted, the tale does not have to be provided in a conventional literary structure. Tales may assume any number of formats – from social science theory to political-technological manifestos, poetry, advertising, or comics – and be conveyed through various means of communication such as written texts, oral conversation, pictures, graphs, GIFs, memes, and so on (see Bal 1997 for a series of examples of the ‘narrativity’ of pictures).

The combination of the two perspectives outlined above leads to a general definition of the tale as a discursive artefact composed of a meaningful story or script that is applied to symbolically resolve issues, make sense of situations, stimulate action, and even prefigure scenarios (Bal 1997, Silva 2002, 2010) – providing the tale identifies a situation that is due to be altered and also indicates the appropriate direction for that transformation. By applying this notion to the financial universe, we thus expect to contribute to the idea that finance is more than a mixture of the abstract models, real-time practical decisions, and technocracy that make it so difficult to portray in popular culture, as Meissner (2017, p. 18) notes. Needless to say, there is more to this story than just the story itself. In our view, the tale constitutes a valid pretext for disentangling the morals, politics, and religiosity communicated by narrative devices employed in a variety of financial transformation situations. ‘Transformation’ is a crucial word here, as it enables the association of the tale with something more than mere routine practice and decision-making, in line with what some authors call experimental design, prefiguration, or prototyping (Corsín-Jiménez 2014, Tooker and Clarke 2018). Certainly, there are also narratives of conservation, oriented towards sustaining a particular state of affairs or a specific professional order in the face of disturbance or potential change, and such narratives also have political and moral significance; but they will not be the subject of this special issue. In sum, and with some liberty, we may approach the tale as a special discourse vehicle that nurtures the dialectics of permanence and change by providing meaning and content to action.

Before specifying how this idea may contribute to ongoing debates on finance, let us clarify some terminological issues. We speak of ‘tale,’ but we might as well be speaking of ‘myth,’ ‘legend,’ or ‘narrative’ (among other alternatives), as no absolute distinctions can be drawn between such concepts – indeed, one contribution to this issue is titled ‘The Myths and Legends of King Satoshi and the Knights of Blockchain’ (see Faustino et al. 2022). We feel, nevertheless, that the notion of the tale is more suitable to context-specific research dealing with concrete policies and situated practices. Furthermore, the concept of myth recalls an ambitious anthropological tradition (see, for instance, Lévi-Strauss’s famous Mythologiques) and the classic oppositions of mythos/logos and mythos/ritual, which will not be debated here. The notion of the tale thus appeals as a midway point between the cultural pervasiveness of myth and the more general character of narrative, one which requires a deeper contextual understanding that seems appropriate to the cases of financial transformation described below. Transformation is a complex process that requires not only [3] time but a reformulation of established temporal frames associated with change. Thus, in order to transform a state of affairs, a series of steps have to be taken. One such step involves telling a story. Not exactly a workplace-bounded narrative but rather another sort that is less institutionally circumscribed. We call these stories ‘tales’ and consider them special discourse vehicles that accrue around the alteration of financial realities (i.e. financial realities do not necessarily change because of these stories, the varying relevances of which thus deserve study).

Our choice of terminology will be further explicated in the sections that follow. The next section develops a series of theoretical coordinates, which may be useful in analysing the tale as a discursive, social artefact endowed with moral and political relevance. The third section of this introduction situates the previously outlined theory of the tale within discursive, performativity-related, and critical approaches to finance. The fourth section presents the empirical background of the articles included in this special issue.

The tale as a discursive and social artefact
In line with the rereading of Propp proposed by Bremond (1966) and van Dijk (1972), we assert that tales begin with a particular situation and characters, proceed on to a confrontation between these elements, then finally arrive at a new situation. Put simply, tales have a script. Following Barthes (1966) and Bal (1997), we accept that the content of this script may be subject to presentation in a variety of formats (textual, visual, textual-visual, textual-aural), language styles (scientific, fictional, political-discursive), and language uses (descriptive, classificatory, conjectural, playful, problem-solving). Bearing in mind the contributions included in this special issue, we now propose several coordinates that together sketch an open-ended – or, in our terms, experimental and defiant – theory of the tale.

Some of these coordinates emerge out of the discursive nature of the tale, while others relate to its pragmatics (i.e. its insertion in a concrete social milieu). To begin with, the tale is a narrative artefact that often circulates in dispersed or distributed forms rather than as an isolated, self-contained text. Nevertheless, tales contain discernible elements such as themes and motifs, that is, units that repeat themselves and thus help stabilise the meaning around the story’s key features (e.g. the purposes of actions or their conceptual grounding). According to Italian literary critic Cesare Segre (1981), themes take on a larger scope than motifs, encompassing almost the whole tale. Hence, in a consideration of the monetary policy tales of the European Central Bank (see Abreu and Lopes 2022, this issue), ‘Euro’ or ‘inflation’ could be regarded as themes while ‘uncertainty’ would be a motif invoked to account for the unpredictability of financial markets. Other pieces included in this collection revolve around the themes of financial inclusion, financial innovation, climate change, accelerationism, or the circular economy. Their motifs remain smaller than their themes but nevertheless include recurrent components or images, such as nirvana, blockchain, Gilles Deleuze, the payment of indulgences, the gift/commodity opposition, and the circular form of assemblies. Of course, ‘large’ and ‘small’ are here relative scales that depend, first and foremost, on the content at stake. As such, one tale’s motif may be another tale’s theme, with the two concepts designating meaningful and repeatable key points around which a particular story is (to a greater or lesser degree) shaped.

The repetition of themes and motifs has effects which themselves deserve special attention. Certain key points in a tale may be reiterated so often that they almost become cliché, while others assume the form of anathemas, adverse subjects that help circumscribe a tale’s theme or motifs by being insistently criticised (see Dalsgaard 2022, this issue, apropos of the tales surrounding carbon offsets). These dynamics of reiterated acceptance or critique testify to the political utility of the tale, revealing how it helps to separate good from evil and to align people in favour of some ideas and in opposition to others. This may be worth stressing against recent reflections that associate financial innovations and experiments with the abandonment of oppositional conceptual imaginary (see Clarke and Tooker 2018). We agree that the issue should not be framed simply from a pro- vs. anti-capitalist perspective, which remains insensitive to the trafficking between those two [4] poles and bypasses other tensions surrounding both experiment and defiance tales (Clarke and Tooker 2018). Yet the antagonistic element does not simply dissipate, nor does its focus on systemic change; both must therefore be accounted for.

From a semiotic perspective, themes and motifs can assume the role of metaphors (Eco 1980) and promote non-literal, polysemic understandings of situations, and even extend themselves to disputing either the tale’s point of departure (the problem or contradiction that requires solving) or its closure. Thus, the official tale around Narendra Modi’s financial inclusion reforms in India (see Ertürk, Gosh, and Shah 2022, this issue) combines aspects pertaining to the contemporary global technocracy, the national history of developmental economic policies, and Hindu mythology, and may indeed be considered a story of success. Modi’s opponents, on the other hand, prefer to associate financial inclusion reforms with Hindu nationalism and an unprecedented surveillance of citizens via digital technologies. Different interpretations of a tale’s metaphors may themselves lead to paradoxes and alternative tales. In this sense, no tale subsists alone but rather amid other tales, stories, and conversations. We may therefore speak of an ecology of narratives (Holmes 2018, p. 181) as well as the hegemonic (or more disputed) status that certain tales acquire within such ecosystems – something which is only fully apprehended when moving from a strictly semiotic perspective to a pragmatics of the tale that also considers its public reception.

As a phenomenon of communication, any storytelling involves functional roles (the narrator, the presenter or moderator, the assistant ...), the positioning of an audience, and the deployment of the conditions necessary to convey the story. The tale thus mobilises people, audiences, technologies, and places. The performativity literature (Latour 1987, Callon 1998, MacKenzie et al. 2007, Cochoy et al. 2010) is particularly important to account for the relevance of the material infrastructure underlying each tale, i.e. the spatial contexts in which it is fabricated and enlivened, the communication devices employed in its dissemination and discussion, and the highly technological substance of certain motifs. As certain contributions to this special issue make clear (see, for instance, Faria 2022 and Lopes 2022, this issue), infrastructures such as peer-to-peer computer networks, open-source encryption software, and non-organisational, communally occupiable places can also both embed some of the political-moral content for transmission and contribute to reinforcing a message which should in no way be reduced to its mere words and sentences. However, tales remain essentially a human affair and the analysis of their materialities should be distinguished from approaches to the ontology of sociotechnical assemblages, which equally highlight the agency of computerised models, fibre-optic cables, and other entities classified as non-human. The dispersed and multiform character of tales is also clear in what we call processes of characterisation, through which certain persons or institutions are positioned as characters in a story and correspondingly assume specific roles. Such processes can be carefully planned but, as their outcome depends on the public’s reaction, they often entail revision and recharacterisation. This dynamic of characterisation and recharacterisation is approached in Alexandre Abreu and Daniel Seabra Lopes’ article, which revisits the role of the European Central Bank (ECB) during the Euro crisis and reveals the hesitations behind what later came to be known, at least from a certain perspective, as a story of success: the famous ‘whatever it takes’ announcement by former ECB president Mario Draghi that reputedly saved the Euro and reinstated the heroic status of that iconic European Union institution.

We have introduced the tale as a collective and political story. This is so not only because the tale separates good from evil and puts forward a concrete perspective for political action, but also in the sense that its circulation fosters the formation of and cohesion within a social group (local community, international activist network, nation), thus moving beyond the more mundane stories that accompany routine organisational practice. As suggested before, routine organisational practices can be considered political given how they imply obedience to existing legal-bureaucratic orders (in the Weberian sense) and may be justified through conservation narratives that attribute meaning to established institutional systems. With tales of experimentation and defiance, however, the political [5] assumes a more visible character associated with mobilisation, engagement, activism, and other transformative behaviours. Finally, and as noted by Walter Benjamin (1969 [1936]), the tale appears as an enduring story, one which cannot be circumscribed to a particular moment in time but rather prevails through collective memory and is susceptible to revitalisation at a later stage. As several authors have stressed (Bourdieu, 1972, Connerton 1989), collective memory is something that only persists if continuously performed by individual gestures and habits, mundane interactions and conversations (including gossip), and official events and ceremonies. While this applies, first and foremost, to predominantly oral contexts (and it would be problematic to restore the oral-written divide within our debate of financial tales), similar mechanisms are also present in contexts marked by voluminous written content that serves to sort out what can be remembered from what is destined to be forgotten. Press conferences and Q&A sessions, for example, fulfil this function of reminiscence and allow for the tale to be reactivated under new circumstances (again, see the article by Abreu and Lopes that explores this idea of reminiscence apropos of the ECB and its processes of characterisation). That tales are stories that repeat themselves does not imply that they are intrinsically conservative. In fact, since socioeconomic and political change also requires time, tales of transformation must be periodically reenacted.

Finance: narratives of experiment and defiance
The importance of narrative to contemporary finance has been highlighted considerably within cultural economy approaches. This is a transdisciplinary field encompassing a growing body of research, ranging from artwork-centred analyses typical of cultural history and literary studies (Martin 2002, Knight 2013, Goggyn 2015, Meissner 2017) to political economy investigations informed by the classic social science literature (Leyshon and Thrift 1997, De Goede 2005, Marron 2009, Thrift 2010, Wansleben 2013). Aside from a shared focus on financial objects, many of these works adopt a common methodological strategy which involves a close reading of selected cultural items and the inference of the precise forms of subjectivity those same items create – a semiotic type of analysis which also resonates throughout some of the articles included in this collection (see the papers by Dalsgaard, Abreu and Lopes, and Faustino). These contributions therefore represent an ample theoretical framework informing the present approach to financial tales.

Such a framework to a large extent coalesces with that of performativity-related approaches – that lens deployed in the social sciences over the past sixty years to account for the complexity of ways in which thought influences socioeconomic reality in general (Austin 1955, Searle 1969, Knorr-Cetina 1981, Latour 1987, Butler 1990, Callon 1998, MacKenzie et al. 2007, Cochoy et al. 2010) and financial reality in particular (MacKenzie 2006, Arjaliès et al. 2017, Svetlova 2018). Starting out from diverse contiguity or metonymic relations such as those between cause and effect, theory and practice, or form and content, this literature accepts the pragmatist premise that no theory or model can perfectly represent reality and instead focuses on the various practical uses that theoretical constructs can have within particular socio-technical assemblages. In this vein, John Austin’s distinction between illocutionary and perlocutionary effects of speech acts has been used to distinguish practices taking place within preexisting institutional frames (illocutionary) from those associated with the creation of novel institutions (perlocutionary). Though some authors have criticised this interpretation for adulterating the genuine meaning of the two Austinian concepts – which, according to Mäki (2013), simply distinguish between constitutive (illocutionary) and causal (perlocutionary) speech acts – such an interpretive expansion is intentional and, as Bourdieu (1975) noted, indeed necessary to avoid attributing the power of words to words themselves, rather than to the social and institutional conditions of their use.

We too view the problems of performativity as mostly institutional and social rather than strictly linguistic. However, we note that the performativity perspective’s bias towards practice often tends to privilege narrative content that proves useful in organisational contexts where decision-making is [6] important (e.g. financial institutions). As such, other narratives are downplayed, namely those addressing moral and political questions which, though not circumscribed to specific professional contexts and the pressure of urgent decision making, are nevertheless equally relevant as they interrelate with matters related to people’s long-term beliefs.

As already indicated, the notion of the tale is here applied to two types of situations, classified as ones of ‘experiment’ and ‘defiance.’ The former includes all sorts of innovative projects that seek to transform (or reform) the financial system from within. In this sense, Douglas Holmes (2014) describes the ‘communicative experiments’ of contemporary central banks, and Jens Beckert (2016) approaches the ‘fictional expectations’ employed to cope with uncertainty in modern capitalist markets. Contemporary cultures of experimentation in finance would seem to be accompanied by a discourse of caution and responsibility even while encompassing the transformation of the current system, with many experiments enacted through already existing financialised tools and articulated through digital technologies and spaces (Langley and Leyshon 2017). The directions this may take are indeed multiple. A variety of moral and sociopolitical leanings are particularly visible in the early stages of financial techno-experiments, when actors are uncertain over which technology will contribute to solving which problem and the hopes and expectations around digital infrastructures are actively mobilised to pave the way for a ‘happy’ ending (Swan 2015, Antonopoulos 2016, Tapscott and Tapscott 2016, Clarke and Tooker 2018).

Experiments are the sort of examples that performativity accounts invoke to highlight the pervasiveness of innovation and diversity in modern economy and finance (Arjaliès et al. 2017, Svetlova 2018). They are also present in analyses that explore perlocutionary rather than illocutionary effects and thus seek to understand how social facts are created anew (Butler 2010, Boldyrev and Svetlova 2016). True, the role of innovation in markets has been subject to constructive discussion, with some authors seeing it as a form of bricolage (Engelen et al. 2010), imitation, or institutional conformity (Lopes 2013), or even as something leading only to extreme technicality and blind faith in automation (Thompson 2014). Harsher criticism of the performativity approach and its praise of diversity either underlines the fact that it is generally not very applicable (Santos and Rodrigues 2009) or openly attacks it for being notably ‘market-centric’ (Gregory 2014, p. 52) and constituting a sophisticated theological elaboration of the capacity of power and money to create reality at the expense of the poor and precarious (Graeber 2014 [2013], pp. 118–121; see also Bourdieu 1975).

Such a tension, we now contend, can be depicted as a clash of tales – accepting, of course, that theories can also function as stories. In this case, we draw on Rorty’s (1989) perspectivist view, which links the explanatory power of scientific theories to the employment of metaphors and the creation of new vocabularies. Another way of putting this is to say that storytelling is one possible language game (cf. Wittgenstein 1953) that can be played while presenting theory. On such a basis, one could suggest that performativity accounts entail a description of action which shares some of the basic characteristics of a tale as highlighted in the introductory section: the typical performativity tale would thus depart from a problematic dichotomous or naturalistic state of affairs and lead, through reasoning and a series of empirical illustrations, to a new state of affairs populated by humans and non-humans, discourses, and technologies – a reality no longer dichotomous but remarkably unstable, heterogeneous, innovative, and contingent (Callon 2010, Muniesa 2016, Boldyrev and Svetlova 2016). While this performativity script resonates with some of the examples presented in this collection (see Faria 2022 and Dalsgaard 2022, this issue), it is certainly not the only story to tell. At this point, we must turn to the second type of tale – the defiance tale, which is usually adopted by the harsher critics of performativity and other social actors.

Unlike experiments, cases of defiance imply more radical situations in which change is no longer associated with mere institutional reform, but rather with systemic change through prefigurative strategies involving open political disobedience and often prompting blatant repression by states or international authorities. In such cases, tales (including theoretical tales) may begin with worlds marked by inequality, in which people seek, through organising at the community level, to attain objectives such as widespread redistribution, revolution, or freedom. Such tales – we might call [7] them counter-tales – are less common in both illocution and perlocution-focused performativity accounts, except perhaps as objects of critique for their recourse to monolithic views of capitalism or money. However, as stated before, we consider the strong political persuasiveness of defiance tales equally useful for thinking about change. This is mainly for two reasons: First, such counter-tales illuminate the frequently unacknowledged strain of violence feeding the impressive creative potential of institutionally bound performativity; second, there are logical nexuses between performatives and the political prefigurative practices deployed by disobedient and horizontal projects (see Graeber 2014 [2013], p. 233). In this sense, there is no reason to abandon the general premises of the performativity approach, provided that we pay attention to both experimental and defiant varieties of the tale.

Alongside the pragmatist-performative approach, the problematisation developed here naturally draws on other socio-anthropological contributions to studying finance that also emphasise the importance of oral accounts and narratives (Smart 1999, Zaloom 2006, Lopes and Marques 2011, Tuckett 2012, Chong and Tuckett 2014), especially to planning and anticipation (Holmes 2014, Beckert 2016, Beckert and Bronk 2018). However, these perspectives remain intentionally confined to the institutional spheres of professional work, demonstrating the effects of stories and narratives on the quotidian practices of fund managers, traders, marketers, risk analysts, and so on, whereas our conception of the tale applies both to organisational experimentation and organisational creation or emergence. As such, these tales are not yet another narrative deployed to attribute meaning to the pressures and expectations surrounding institutional decision-making; they serve instead to detach people from their work-life routines and engage them in personal reflection, active consumerism, citizenship, and even the adventure of radical activism. The tale, especially the defiance counter-tale, thus differs from fictional expectations that, according to Beckert (2016), stem from the dynamics and creativity of modern capitalism and contribute to its reproduction.

Empirical background
The stories gathered in this special issue represent a variety of case studies from Europe (the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Portugal, UK, EU, Serbia), North America (the US), and Asia (India). Their subjects range across post-2008 central banking, digital money and banking, climate finance, blockchain, and cryptocurrencies. Some articles present firsthand empirical data in the form of interviews or ethnographic observations (the essays by Faria, Faustino, and Lopes), while others draw on the documentation and literature available (the essays co-authored by Abreu and Lopes and by Ertürk, Ghosh, and Shah, as well as the essay by Dalsgaard) or present a mixture of the two approaches (the essay co-authored by Faustino, Faria, and Marques). This collection is intended to illustrate our approach to the tale as a political story that draws on a series of semiotic and pragmatic elements, the former including themes, motifs, metaphors, and processes of characterisation while the second includes events where specific functions are attributed to specific people as well as physical and digital infrastructures. Each article draws attention to specific narratives while also exploring the types of effects they generate and reflecting on the conditions they require to be effective. Many other examples might surely be added to this collection, which nevertheless remains representative of the global scale of financial experimentation, financial defiance, and the special discourses that surround them. We now proceed to present the papers in their order of appearance, bearing in mind the previously outlined theoretical coordinates.

The essay by Alexandre Abreu and Daniel Seabra Lopes revisits the discursive practices of the European Central Bank (ECB), paying attention to the combination of narrator and character functions within a particular and highly communicative monetary policy tool: forward guidance. Departing from previous analyses of the relationship of central banks with the public (see Holmes 2014), Abreu and Lopes explore the feedback loops resulting from such a relationship and their impact on the overall building of an enduring story. The concrete examples discussed in this piece address both success stories (the ‘whatever it takes’ declaration that reputedly solved the [8] Euro crisis) and more contested episodes (the first reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic). Abreu and Lopes argue that, through its public communications, the ECB not only narrates but also positions itself as a character within the unfolding script. Such positioning, however, can be altered according to public reactions, which are expressed through market movements as portrayed in graphs, the questions journalist address to the ECB president in press conferences, and official reactions from elected politicians. Abreu and Lopes advance the notion of ‘processes of characterisation’ to account for these positionings and repositionings, showing how the memory of past tales (namely, the ‘whatever it takes’ story) may indeed contribute to the framing of new scripts around older guidelines and reveal the enduring and reminiscent quality of the tale. Ismail Ertürk, Indradeep Ghosh, and Kadambari Shah analyse the demonetisation reforms in India through which cashless payment methods were introduced and new bank accounts opened by underprivileged people hitherto broadly excluded from the formal financial sector. The authors describe how a Digital Financial Inclusion agenda promoted by the World Bank (Universal Financial Access 2020) was successfully implemented in this country, favoured by a conjuncture of impressive economic growth at the national level and the vibrant expansion in information and communication technologies worldwide. The success is also due to the deployment, by India’s government, of a polysemic and highly metaphorical tale that combines the neoliberal technocratic agenda, the history of development policies, and Hindu spirituality in an effort to dissociate individual wealth and destiny from communitarian spheres of worth (temples and other religious organisations) and assign them instead to possession of a bank account. The way this article handles the concept of metaphor is particularly important for our theory of the tale. According to Eco (1980), metaphors are expressions that establish new comparative relations whose meaning is not yet established, thus prompting interpretation and inference. Tales evolve around such interpretive tension, which renders them polysemic and adaptable to different contexts, as well as subject to dispute by the communities that hear them. More than themes or motifs that simply repeat themselves, metaphors are mobilising discursive resources that may assist in processes of characterisation and certainly contribute to cohering groups around particular interpretations.

Steffen Dalsgaard’s article focuses on a particular case of climate finance: carbon offsets, a subject the author has been engaged with for several years (see Dalsgaard 2013). This is a trading mechanism involving one actor compensating for their carbon emissions by paying others to achieve corresponding reductions somewhere else. While accepted by industry, governments, and many major non-governmental organisations, the idea that polluting behaviours may be counterbalanced through payments soon appears as problematic – and even pure anathema – to certain audiences (e.g. Mcafee 1999). The original tale of carbon offsets is thus disputed by these critics and reconfigured through the mobilisation of a new metaphor that compares climate commodification to the granting of indulgences, as practised by the Catholic Church and condemned by Protestantism. Shedding light on media, political, and institutional discourses (including those of international development NGOs), the author considers the implications of historical and present Christian understandings of the relationship between sin and finance and the narratives this relation produces in contemporary climate finance controversies. The article discusses different experiment and defiance tales around carbon offsets, stemming from both public opinion and the academy. Departing from public, market actor, and NGO discourses related to the market’s current carbon allowances, Dalsgaard suggests a new metaphor: that of the gift. This metaphor is here discussed to account for various moral motivations and actions – those of individual consumers and traders and those of institutions – focusing particularly on the example of the development industry and international aid. The article illustrates the interpretive dynamics of metaphors and how these are employed to contest the established meanings of tales, while also highlighting the role of academics in disputing the meaning of tales with stronger theoretical content.

The previous two articles are also relevant in that they reveal the importance of religious metaphors in the framing of the tale. The theme of religiosity is also at the core of the paper authored by Sandra Faustino, Inês Faria, and Rafael Marques. Drawing on the different coexisting narratives [9] invoked by Bitcoin’s appearance, this article reflects upon their mythical structure and identifies the mysteries and rhetorical devices that fuel Bitcoin and blockchain’s widespread acceptance and usage. The authors analyse an ecology of narratives around blockchain technologies, authored by technologists and a heterogeneous audience of users, investors, and enthusiasts. The scripts contained in texts (e.g. white papers), speeches (such as those of the ‘Bitcoin Wednesday’ or the 2019 Web Summit), and performatives (calendar-bound celebrations) highlight the pervasiveness of a romanticised narrative about fintech, notwithstanding its reliance on a techno-scientific rationale which supports the growing authority of programmers and coders (now equivalent to that of economists and accountants). The analysis of the tales surrounding blockchain also takes into consideration the role of the material infrastructure, as the motifs found in such tales are revealing of an enchanting effect stemming from the technology’s complexity. By revisiting Gell’s notion of the enchantment of technology (1992), the authors point to a reinvigorated material romanticism regarding contemporary financial technologies, which incorporates ritual, legend, myth, and acts of faith in digital technologies.

In turn, Inês Faria’s essay reflects on the failures and ambiguities of tales guided by the belief that blockchain and cryptocurrencies can serve as material infrastructures supporting the implementation of extremist libertarian proposals. Exploring the tales and valuation mechanisms produced by the Bitnation and Pangea project, Faria argues that, notwithstanding their dependence upon the motifs of decentralisation fed by blockchain architectures and their belief in the moneyness of cryptocurrencies, projects for alternative governance and economic spaces are deeply entangled with fiat and mainstream economy and markets (Maurer 2003). Treating money as a social technology (Ingham 2004), the paper explores how the dynamics of interest in cryptocurrencies as easy-to-trade, highly volatile assets reveal the absence of a sustainable community capable of trusting in those assets as monies, both in general terms and for the specific project that is analysed. The tales produced by Bitnation and Pangea seem to lack the capacity to maintain a community in the adverse situations created by the dominant economy and markets. In a rather perlocutionary manner, instead of responding to desires for socioeconomic change in specific places or communities, both the project and its tale seek to mobilise a global digital community to participate in the utopia its founders aspire to make real (Butler 2010). However, in terms of both social needs and economic and market dynamics, the conditions in which such aspirations might be materialised seem to be absent.

Sandra Faustino also considers a number of different blockchain-based projects, but her approach moves from the material stratum to a philosophical one to trace the theoretical tales woven around the emblematic figure of French author Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995). Her article aptly illustrates how groups of scholars, artists, and activists combine the technical potentialities of blockchain and other state-of-the-art information and communication technology with classic Deleuzian themes and motifs. More specifically, the projects analysed by Faustino use several philosophical concepts and theories to elaborate on the poignant narrative of accelerating the capitalist process in order to overturn its excessive powers, thus reinterpreting the process of financialisation as a path of liberation instead of exploitation. Deleuze and Guattari are credited with theorising about the wider theme of accelerationism in the 70s and thus constituting an enduring motif that points to the persistence of the accelerationist tale. By conceptually socialising their technological endeavours with Deleuzian philosophy, such projects contribute to the formation of emerging cultures of financialisation around decentralised fintech.

Finally, the article by Daniel Seabra Lopes centres on a disobedient international cooperative, formed in the aftermath of the Euro crisis, with the aim of defying mainstream finance and replacing capitalism with a circular, grassroots economy. While members of this cooperative have different occupations and reside in different countries, activism is a common denominator that cuts across the mainstream political coordinates of nation, organisation, and professional work – though that alone is insufficient to keep the tale alive and effective. The analytical focus of the essay is the prefigurative role of spatial organisation, demonstrating how temporary occupations of particular [10] places foster particular emotions (communality) and organising principles (horizontality), in contrast with occupations of formal institutions, which are marked by selectivity, division of labour, verticality, and secrecy. The article identifies how physical and digital settings induce both concrete activities and concrete discourses; they thus become part of the material infrastructures that enable the telling of a particular story of revolution, redistribution, and horizontality and also contribute to making that same story more real. The right story thus needs to be told and re-told in appropriate places to produce the desired effects in terms of social cohesion and political organisation.

Moving from experiment to defiance, these articles are presented in the order in which they have been discussed; starting out with transformative processes taking place inside mainstream banking (European Central Bank monetary policy and financial inclusion in India), they proceed on to blockchain-based innovations before ending with a more disruptive example (an international anti-capitalist cooperative). All these cases are political, sometimes hewing closer to the state’s point of view and at other times defying it, either from within regimes of representative democracy or without. All are moral as well; they deal with good and evil, which may then be rendered in a more political, religious, or philosophical tone. We believe these cases, and the analytical and conceptual propositions they contain, are not only relevant to the cultural economy field but also approach subjects and issues of interest to other audiences.

This special issue results from the workshop ‘Tales of transformation: the politics, morals and technologies of contemporary finance,’ held at the School of Economics and Management of the University of Lisbon in March 2019. The workshop was organised as the final event of the research project ‘Finance Beyond Fact and Fiction: Financial Transformation in Post-2008 Europe,’ funded by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (PTDC/IVC/ANT/4520/2014). The authors would like to express their deepest thanks to Carolyn Hardin, Darren Umney, and Liz McFall for their encouragement, constructive criticism, and continuous editorial support. All remaining blunders are our own responsibility.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

This study was supported by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology through the following grants: SFRH/BPD/78438/2011, PTDC/IVC-ANT/4520/2014 and UIDB/04521/2020.

Notes on contributors
Daniel Seabra Lopes is Assistant Professor at the School of Economics and Management and a researcher at the CSG-SOCIUS, University of Lisbon. He holds a PhD in Cultural and Social Anthropology (New University of Lisbon) and a PhD in Economic and Orgnaizational Sociollogy (University of Lisbon). He has conducted ethnographic research among urban Roma communities and, more recently, in diverse institutional contexts, including retail banks and courts. He has published articles in a number of international journals, including Economy and Society, European Societies, Social Anthropology, Anthropological Quarterly, Cultural Studies and the Journal of Cultural Economy.

Inês Faria is a researcher at the CSG-SOCIUS/ISEG, University of Lisbon. Inês has a PhD in Medical Anthropology from the University of Amsterdam, focusing on reproductive health and reproductive technologies. Since 2016 she has been developing research about ‘alternative’ and mainstream financial uses of blockchain technology, she was involved in the project Finance Beyond Fact and Fiction that explored financial changes and continuities in Europe after the 2008 crisis. Currently, Inês continues working about the relations between technology and society regarding the areas of finance, but also of healthcare, respectively in European and sub-Saharan African contexts.

Sandra Faustino is a researcher in the field of Economic Sociology at the CSG-SOCIUS/School of Economics and Management, University of Lisbon. With a background in Development Studies (ISCTE-IUL) and Journalism (ESCS- IPL), she is currently doing her PhD research on blockchain-based alternative economies.

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