Number, Price, and Knowledge

Ziad Dallal

Hatem Imam - Finance

           A century and a half ago, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq reminded us that Arabic words were formed according to a system of derivation and paronymy. Words decline into other words, all emanating from a root with which they share a conceptual connection. To think about words in this way is to incessantly map out the web of associations that connects them to each other; a paranoid tracing of how language speaks us more than we speak it. Below is an example of this tracing, seeking to draw a link between the etymology of the word raqm, Arabic for number, and the regime of Finance. Here’s how al-Shidyaq’s manner of thought could be put to work. 


أَمْ حَسِبْتَ أَنَّ أَصْحَـٰبَ ٱلْكَهْفِ وَٱلرَّقِيمِ كَانُوا۟ مِنْ ءَايَـٰتِنَا عَجَبًا ١٨:٩                    

“Have you [O Prophet] thought that the people of the cave and the inscription were one of the wonders of Our signs?” 18:9

            This verse from the al-Kahf chapter of The Quran, contains one of two instances of the Arabic root r-q-m. Ar-raqīm, translated by most sources as inscription or plaque, reveals a long-forgotten meaning behind our contemporary usage of the word number, رقم. Raqm was neither always nor originally associated with numbering and accounting, but with inscribing and writing. The Doha Historical Dictionary of Arabic dates the earliest known record of the root to the year 75 BH (549 CE) to mean “the embroidery with which a thawb is ornamented and inscripted.”[1] This process of ornamentation, tarqim, also referred to the dotting of letters in a manuscript as an operation of clarity.[2] The word receives its contemporary association with numbering-as-counting from its eventual usage to inscribe prices onto commodities

[وكّذَلِكَ إذا أخذه المُشْتري بِرَقمِهِ، ولوْ لم يعلم ما هو ثمّ علِمَ ما رَقْمُهُ، فَهوَ بالخِيارِ: إن شاءَ أخَذَهُ وإن شاءَ تركَهُ].[3]

In this arbitrage of meaning, wherein a small change leads to a big difference and minor variations derive from a common denominator, it becomes clear that Number (raqm) is inherently related to a regime of knowledge (عِلم).

Financial Ruins

            It is commonplace, if not altogether blasé, to speak of Lebanon in terms of ruins. Even more so, it has become insufferable to read of the contradictions inherent within the country’s social fabric. So much so that being Lebanese is always posited as a problem to be solved: to be Lebanese is to live in an insipid state, with strobes of light-hearted happiness that make the situation livable—as if the wounds of a damaged life under capital are particularly Lebanese, or worse, as if the plurality and multiplicity of identities, affiliations, and orientations are ours alone to live with and from which we alone have decided to suffer. We are so amorphous a nation that we at once defy and demand generality, and, in expected fashion, we have taken this to be both a blessing and a curse, without once resisting the urge to reproduce these cultural clichés. In our quest for a national identity—in our quest to know ourselves—we have reproduced multiple versions of ourselves and each other that further obfuscate what should have been, and could never have been, resolved after fifteen years of civil war. This, more than anything, is the chimera called Lebanon.  

            Perhaps nothing held us together, whether we like to admit it or not, than the peg of the dollar to the lira. Steady since 1997, this peg allowed us to debate in politics, however spurious and fickle these debates were; it allowed us to have a semblance of an economy, however increasingly unequal and punitive this economy was; it allowed us to make sense of the political-economic sphere through a period of growing cultural production, however niche these spaces became. The peg was our allowance. The peg was a formal and abstract identity that everyone could participate in, and which kept us moored in, and beholden to, the global financial system. Yet, this identity of price and numbers was as illusory as our attempts to “know ourselves.”

           Our financial identity and sovereignty were as much a chimera as the shadow play of our sectarian democracy. We may take comfort, however, in the fact that the effects of these chimeras are very much real: an insurmountable public debt on which banks prey and which puts the people in Lebanon, citizens and noncitizens alike, in a situation of risk and precarity. And worse, we are governed by those whose strength is their potent indifference. The Lebanese economy has proven to be an economy at the expense of the people, rather than an economy for the people. In the fallout of the financial collapse, our very social fabric is now at-risk. In contradistinction to those ruins of the civil war that indexed a withdrawn and repressed past, our current financial ruins index shorted futures.

            In the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, the late Randy Martin traced five consequences of the crash: a disruption of the knowledge-price continuum; the collapse of predictive models; the erosion of trust in the rule of experts; the unbounding of the economy as a field of knowledge; a shift in the relationship between knowledge and nonknowledge.[4] We are now in the realm of the unknown, and have been for a while; beyond economics as a general way of knowing and governing society, and towards financialization and risking society for profit. In Lebanon, the crises of the past year and a half have revealed this journey from an economy based on knowledge of a fixed peg, of fixed prices, and of fixed numbers, to an economy based on nonknowledge and the incessant rewriting of the numbers through which we knew ourselves.

Number, Price, and (Non)Knowledge

            Our modern understanding of the word economy derives from the Greek oeconomia, to mean the managing and governing of things and people, whereby this governance is inspired by the natural laws through which God governs the world. In Arabic too, the word اقتصاد comes to signify the process of efficiently and moderately managing the affairs of the household, and, more broadly, the nation.[5] More contemporaneously, the economy emerges as the name for a market system in which knowledge dictates how prices are numbered, set, and written. The management of the contemporary economy is nothing but the precise and predictable science of numbers.

           Faraḥ Anṭūn’s 1903 allegory, “The Three Cities: Religion, Knowledge, and Capital” [المدن الثلاث: الدين والعلم والمال] stages a confrontation between this grand trinity of society. Anṭūn’s allegory tackles the question of correct economic governance through a series of debates between men of knowledge, men of religion, men of capital, and workers. Underlying the text are two assumptions. The first is a providential assumption that, “God exists, and everything in nature signifies and points to God’s existence.”[6] The second is a temporal, and thus secular, consideration, that times change, and so, too, must the governance of social formations: “The concord of our country, between its elements, is not possible unless we give consideration to the new milieu in which we live; the old milieu has changed epistemologically, religiously, socially, and politically, and in this new milieu all sects, orientations, opinions, principles, and thoughts must come together.”[7] Despite this rosy prescription of a way forward, Anṭūn’s allegory ends with an apocalyptic scene in which the heavens and the earth conspire against the three cities,  destroying them along with the people living within them. Anṭūn’s male protagonists are saved by women who they eventually marry, echoing religious episodes of creative destruction such as Sodom and Gomorrah, albeit sans incest.

           Anṭūn solves the problem of a disbanding social fabric with a destructive event that radically changes the underlying context and allows his protagonists to write a different future. While we may not be so lucky to instantiate such creative destruction—so far, we have repeatedly been on the receiving end of violence as a tool against change and for fixing the status quo—we can learn from Anṭūn’s violent flight of fancy, and abstract from his allegory what Elie Ayache calls “The Writing of the Market.”[8] For Ayache, the defining act of the market is the writing of a price, which we may translate to Arabic by digging up and rehabilitating the old word for pricing mentioned earlier: tarqīm: “the market should appear as the only case (a singularity, a miracle) where history and its events take on the appearance of numbers.”[9] Ayache distinguishes probability from contingency: the former is based on a set of already indexed knowledge, found within single a context, while the latter is, like divine miracles and Antūn’s apocalyptic event, a case of a context-change.[10] Suhail Malik follows Ayache in seeing finance as the medium of contingency par excellence. Malik’s contribution is to read the temporal logic of Jacques Derrida’s différance in the derivative markets. He rewrites Derrida in the same way Ayache rewrites Nassim Taleb, and in the same way Borges’ Pierre Menard rewrites Don Quixote, and here I would like to insert a reinscription of my own, with the notion of tarqīm, in the hope that it may function like a worm-word: “constituting itself, dynamically dividing itself, this interval [that constitutes the derivative contract] is what could be called tarqīm [Malik: pricing, Derrida: spacing]; the becoming-price of time or the becoming-time of price.”[11] The derivative, tarqīm, is a writing of futurity that produces a new reality in the present. This is the logic of the derivative.  

Derivatives and Financial Ruins

           The Derivative, not to be confused with the narrow iteration of it in “the derivative market,” names and describes the dominant social logic of a financialized world. Derivatives signal a “transmission of some value from a source toward something else, an attribute of that original expression that can be combined with like characteristics, a variable factor that can move in harmony or dissonance with others.”[12] Yet the signature of this transmission is its very uncertainty: neither the destination, nor the very fact of movement, is certain.   

           When the logic of the derivative slices through an economy, three effects are now familiar to every person in Lebanon: interconnected fragmentation: we are forcefully dispersed into sectarian enclaves and communities that are constantly in a frivolous relationship to a bounded whole, which itself only exists in our national imaginary; volatility: every day we hustle to survive the daily swings of exchange rates, moods, polls, and risk; and finally arbitrage: small changes lead to big differences, similarly to how meaning proliferates through paronyms in Arabic, and to how small tax increases can spark a revolution. The logic of the derivative is with us and here to stay, the better to seek it and coopt it in our own politics and movements.

           In Spanish, derivar a otro lugar spells an idiom that is difficult to translate. It means, at once, to drift to another place, but also to connect to someone else in the course of that drifting. This idiom is a foundational metaphor of the “Precarias a la Deriva,” a militant research collective based in Madrid, whose practice of the dérive is inspired by Guy Debord’s essay, “Theory of the Dérive.” Debord defines the dérive as a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances that involves a psycho-geographical awareness. “In a dérive,” says Debord, “one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action.” People are led by rather than to encounters. The Precarias a la Deriva collective apply the social logic of the derivative to a practice of attentive care. If “capital fragments the social order in order to extract value, we join together in order to elevate it and displace it toward other places.”[13] The fragmentation wrought by the derivative spreads precarity across the social sphere, so that “precarity is not only a characteristic of the poorest workers.”[14] Everyone at-risk in the financial world becomes precarious and indebted.

           A politics of care pays attention to the social logic of the derivative and makes of it a source of moving together, rather than seeking to be an all-consuming and all-translatable politics. In moving together precariously, we repudiate the theoretical purity of infantile leftism, the demand for clear goals and leaders, the delineation of friends and enemies, the hierarchy of professionals and amateurs, and the shibboleths of ethnonationalism. We witness such movement in the joy of dancing dabke.

           Dabke choreography moves laterally and allows a non-existing socialization to occur in a public space.[15] In restaurants, cafés, weddings, and public squares, the dabke invites strangers to hold hands and move laterally in the same direction around a shifting center. It involves just three simple moves that increase and decrease in intensity according to the rhythm of the music. Its simplicity makes it easily learned, memorized, and allows people to improvise complexity onto its basic pattern. In Anton Shammas’ novel, Arabesque, the dabke, when performed by Palestinian villagers, is an example of the logic of the derivative:

And thus they stood, the soldiers of the Jaish El-Yahud on the one side and the inhabitants of Fassuta on the other, until from somewhere a mijwez was whipped out and to its strains the men who had come back from the fields arranged themselves in a semicircle and their feet responded as if of their own accord to the rhythm of the melody. They broke into the “Dabkeh Shamaliyeh.” A wild Galilean dabkeh, which had in it something of the joy of those who had been passed over by a fatal decree, and something of the pleasure of submission by the weak, and something of the fawning before the stranger, and something of the canniness of the villager who draws the most unexpected weapon at the most unexpected moment. It also had in it just plain capriciousness and frivolity. One way or the other, by the time the feet tired of the dance and the capriciousness of the defeated had cooled down, all those present in the ceremony were covered with a thin white layer of dust, and as is the way of all dust, it did not distinguish between the conquering soldier and the conquered villager. After which the official part of the ceremony began, and the celebrants were gently commanded to hand over to the army any weapons in their possession, including the ones concealed in the haystacks and the ones stashed in the fields.[16]

           The Dabke functions here to involve multiple modes of being and knowing, between survivors, the weak, the strangers, the ones who surrender, and “the villager who draws the most unexpected weapon at the most unexpected moment.” This unexpected weapon at the most unexpected moment evinces a rupture in the existing social divide, recasting the order of “the conquering soldier and the conquered villager.” A dance troupe manages to change reality in front of an army troop, and a different horizon of possibility opens from the ruins of the present.

Now, it is our time to dance so that we may be able to write and number our future.

[1]  .الوَشيُ الَّذي يُزيَّن بِهِ الثَّوْبُ وَنحْوُه.

[2] .كتاب مَرْقُوم أي قد بُيِّنتْ حروفه بعلاماتها من التنقيط

[3] .محمّد بن الحسن الشّيبانيّ، تح: محمد بوينوكالن، وزارة الأوقاف والشؤون الإسلامية، قطر، ٢٠١٢ م. ٤٦٢/٢. من موقع:

[4]. Randy Martin, Knowledge LTD: Toward a Social Logic of the Derivative (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2015), 23.

[5]. For a fuller genealogy of the theological and aristotelian usage of oikonomia,  consider Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, especially the appendix, in which Agamben traces the “subterranean connections that might link the economics of the moderns to the paradigm of the theological oikonomia and the divine government of the world” (278) and shows how the modern discipline of “political economy is constituted, in other words, as a social rationalization of providential oikonomia” (282).

[6]. Faraḥ Anṭūn, Al-Muʾalafāt al-Riwāʾiyyah, Ed. Adūnīs al-ʿAqrah, (Beirut: Dār al-Ṭaliʿah lil-Ṭibāʿah wal-Nashr, 1979), 74. In Arabic: كل ما في الطبيعة يدل عليه ويشير إليه، ولا ينكره إلا الأشرار الذين يخافون عدله

[7]. Ibid, 79-80. In Arabic: الوفاق في بلادنا بين عناصرنا لا يمكن إلا بمراعاة الوسط الجديد الذي صرنا فيه؛ لأن الوسط الماضي قد تغيَّر عمليًا ودينيًا واجتماعيٍّا وسياسيٍّا، وهذا الوسط لا بدّ أن تجتمع فيه جميع المذاهب والآراء والمبادئ والأفكار.

[8]. Elie Ayache, “The Writing of the Market,” in Collapse Volume VIII, ed. Robin Mackay (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2014), 517-602.

[9]. Ibid, 530. Can the market replace the social? When everyday life is financialized, and neoliberalism’s war against labor is won, then the social recedes and every aspect of the social becomes marketized.

[10]. Consider Elie Ayache’s tome, The Blank Swan: The End of Probability (John Wiley & Sons, 2010), 5-10.

[11]. Suhail Malik, “The Ontology of Finance,” in Collapse Volume VIII, ed. Robin Mackay (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2014), 691.

[12]. Randy Martin, Knowledge LTD, 51.

[13]. Precarias a la Deriva, “A Very Careful Strike – Four Hypotheses,” in The Commoner, (issue 11, spring 2016), 36. 

[14]. Ibid, 39.

[15]. I learn again from Randy Martin’s reading of the social logic of the derivative in hip-hop choreography, extreme sports, mosh-pits, and skateboarding, which are all part of what he calls decentered social kinesthetics. See especially the third chapter of Knowledge LTD: Toward A Social Logic of the Derivative (Philedelphia, Temple University Press, 2015).

[16]. Anton Shammas, Arabesque, translated by Vivian Eden (University of California Press, 2001), 121-122.