"The financial industry is a global franchise, and governance has limited leverage to impose global transformations"

24 Oct 2016

Global finance is a world unto itself, with its own rules, practices, norms, expectations, pressures, risks and rewards. Can it be regulated from the outside or modified from within to heal its many disfunctionalities, which effect everyone?

Following the Global Finance and the Moving Image meeting in Pamplona, its Academic Leader, Constantin Parvulescu, gave STI this interview.

There seemed to be two threads running through the meeting papers. One considered the objective and subjective morality of the financial sector. The other, the moving image “archive” and its relationship to the sector and to the culture at large. How are these related?

Popular culture in general and quality film and documentary in particular tend to legitimate their contribution to the public sphere in ethical terms as well, trying to sell more than entertainment. The films we talked about in the Workshop provide critical representations of the financial industry and its protagonists. They thus articulate moral judgements. But in the post-2008 era, the framing of this critical representation has changed. It has become less about characters, about good and bad people; and also less about us (Main Street) judging them (Wall Street). The critique has moved more toward the hazard the industry represents for its economic, social and political environments. It has also approached its dysfunctionalities and various aspects of white-collar crime.

Within the thread devoted to considerations of the virtues of the system itself and its actors, two lines were visible: that which concludes that regulation of the system would be necessary in order for actors to reasonably act differently; and the other that puts more emphasis on fomenting individual moral virtue in the face of often perverse incentives. Can they be reconciled?

Almost every recent fiction or documentary film on financial services acknowledges the amoral character of the industry (and of the capitalist mode of production in general). They also acknowledge that the global public sphere has become increasingly one of shareholders, whose investments or retirement plans are guarded by their banks. Discussions about virtue become more complicated in this context, because any moral normative injunction on the behavior of the industry might affect the profits of those who demand it. In this context, the discussion has moved toward “the structural” or the “systemic,” but these do not help either. The financial industry is a global franchise; governance is mainly national and thus has limited leverage to impose global structural systemic transformations.  

Why take a cultural studies perspective on global finance? And within cultural studies, why consider the moving image (film/documentaries)? How is the moving image particularly instructive?

Why not?! The cultural studies perspective is an alternative one—definitely (perhaps unfortunately) not the main discourse used by finance to improve its performance or global responsibilities. What cultural studies can do well is think critically. It can ask questions from a humanistic perspective, because humans are not only rational subjects that react to arithmetic calculus. Humans are emotional, they imitate each other, tell and listen to stories, dream, interpret the world, form opinions, lie, cheat, threaten each other, and, feel compassion—the latter sometimes even on the trading floor. Traditional economic theory can’t deal with all these variables. But students of cultures can. Moreover, they are not caught up in providing solutions, so they can keep their heads cool and their eyes on the big picture, and can see beyond the bureaucratized and increasingly elitist hypercapitalism we live in today.

Is the general public influenced by these portrayals, or vice versa, or both? Is the financial sector influenced by them?  To what degree are these portrayals intended to influence? Insofar as some may be primarily intended to reflect, how is this a useful contribution to society-culture? Professor Burgoyne said that popular films can give us a way of imaging alternatives. Is that the purpose, or among the purposes of popular films?

Gordon Gekko, the movie character, appeared on the cover of business magazines. He has been featured in FBI clips against insider trading. He has a Wikipedia page and Forbes has even calculated his “value” in dollars.  Generations of bankers have dressed and talked like him, and, unfortunately, walked like him as well (however, without going to jail). I guess that makes Gekko quite real and influential. I can indicate similar movie characters or situations that have made it into the industry. I am, however, more interested in how representations of popular culture negotiate the relationship between the global finance industry and the rest of the world. My work is to emphasize where audiovisual discourse serves the public, which usually happens when it broadens perspectives, informs accurately, and stimulates critical thinking and imagining alternatives.

Another way of stating a similar question is:  How much does the moving image “shape public perception” and how much does it respond to or reflect existing perception?

The question refers to the social function of popular culture, which is to negotiate between shaping and reflecting. This negotiation reminds us of the aesthetic dimension of these artifacts—aesthetic in the sense of rendering an engaging, insightful, persuasive, easily recognizable, coherently articulated, and emotionally and intellectually rewarding representation.

How do documentaries, big studio films and “indie” films contribute differently to the cultural perception of the situation? 

Each has its limits of representation —as does any public testimony on the practices of the financial industry, with its culture of secrecy. I will mention a plus and a minus for each format. Documentaries deal with real-life participants and actual locations, but are limited to the degree to which these real people and locations care to reveal themselves. Ironically, often, people in the industry are willing to be more open under a pseudonym, or with many of the personal details that make them a unique and actual person erased. They talk more when they can act as generic industry people, which, of course, also brings them closer to movie characters.  Independent films have more freedom regarding the way in which they tell their stories and construct their characters—as they also have a tendency to focus more on victims than on perpetrators. The minus is that they have a limited audience and sometimes smaller research budgets. This is of course the plus of the mass-marketed films, which, like Margin Call, the Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short or the most recent Money Monster are all star-driven, and Oscar-hunting. The biggest minus of these films is that they have to sell well, and in order to sell well, they have to shape their storytelling in a way that limits their insights and sometimes involuntarily redeems the bad guys.


Constantin Parvulescu is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Culture and SocietyUniversity of Navarra, Spain and invited faculty at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland. He writes on the cinema of Eastern Europe, film and history and the audiovisual representation of financial services. He coordinates the research project Finance and the Moving Image.