Nonknowledge as Capacity: Randy Martin’s Knowledge LTD and the Limits of Rationality in the Age of the Derivative

Journalist Farhad Manjoo describes the “post-fact society” as “a parallel universe of fact: a place at once part of the mainland but profoundly distant from it, a place where another truth—a truth pocked with holes, but one just true enough to do damage—hold sway.”1 Manjoo argues that generalized trust is gradually being replaced by particularized trust, which engages tribalistic, Manichean worldviews that go well beyond just partisan politics but nonetheless construct different realities and lived experiences. And yet, the political left in the United States remains preoccupied and dumbfounded by this “post-fact society.” Why, many ask, are Americans so impervious to facts, history, or even basic reasoning? Numerous plausible explanations circulate. And while the emphases diverge among such explanations, the critical calculus typically involves some familiar variables including: the erosion of social institutions, especially public education; a culture of anti-intellectualism, individuality, and/or media spectacle; economic decline and insecurity; and intensifying bigotry and groupthink to name a few. President Donald Trump’s rise to power—including his association with white nationalism, his bizarre Twitter persona, and the proliferation of so-called “fake news”—have given more cause for worry and incredulity.

To scholars familiar with the body of thought that falls under the heading of “post-structuralism” and “post-modernism,” that things fall apart upon close inspection, that truth is socially and historically contingent, or that Progress is modernity’s meta-narrative are often taken-for-granted epistemological stances. We can trace this intellectual genealogy to Karl Marx (if not further), who insisted that the reality of social relations and empirical history are only meaningful within a rigorous theoretical paradigm. Nonetheless, such cultural and epistemological relativism does not preclude scholarly analysis of the present that is original and penetrating—which is just what the late Randy Martin achieves in his last and arguably best book Knowledge LTD: Toward a Social Logic of the Derivative. Indeed, one of the book’s organizing themes is that nonknowledge (rather than knowledge) now characterizes contemporary forms of domination while simultaneously presenting new political and aesthetic sensibilities. Nonknowledge represents both a political limit and a political horizon.

Knowledge LTD continues Martin’s lifelong interest in the intersections of political economy and aesthetics (specifically dance) and concludes a more than decade-long project on how the operations of financialization and risk management have seeped into nearly every aspect of the social—from global governance and war to the practice of everyday life.2 Knowledge LTD deals specifically with the derivative, which, in the simplest terms, is a transferable financial contract that specifies the price of a given asset to be paid at a future date. Commodity futures, stock options, and currency swaps are the most common types of derivatives, but anything with a price that can be bought and sold can form the basis of a derivative. According to Edward LiPuma and Benjamin Lee, “derivatives have come to the foreground because they are the chosen instrument of a speculative and opportunistic capital that circulates globally, with worldwide implications, but is controlled by a rather small coterie of socially interconnected, mutually aware Euroamerican agents and institutions.”3 Derivatives not only represent a multi-trillion-dollar-a-year economy, but are also powerful if indirect instruments for shaping national economies particularly in the developing world.

In Knowledge LTD, Martin is less interested in mapping out the political economy of derivatives than he is in theorizing their profound social implications, and at a moment when the discourse of “neoliberalism” seems to have exhausted itself. While “neoliberalism” has become a kind of shorthand for “privatization” and its attendant ideologies, Martin argues instead that “public and private are always constituted through a kind of interdependence, and the challenge is to understand what creates their mutual imbrications and differentiation, a problem to which the derivative logic provides some keys.”4 Derivatives exploit risk by disassembling attributes of a commodity and reassembling them into something ad hoc, unfixed, but nonetheless productive. Similarly, publics are increasingly derived from individual identities, special interest groups, or venture philanthropists, creating new attachments and intimacies among numerous aggregates of individuals and groups. The public does not disappear but rather proliferates, albeit in a kind of fractured, unpredictable way. Similarly, neoliberalism has become synonymous with deregulation; however, the derivative economy represents a growing swarm of micro-regulations. No wonder, then, the proliferation, too, of alternate realities in the “post-fact” society described by Manjoo.

In many ways, Knowledge LTD can be read as a twenty-first century companion to Georg Simmel’s oft-neglected masterpiece The Philosophy of Money. In this apparently idiosyncratic and meandering work, Simmel examines the social logic of the money economy, which is the tendency to accelerate the “content” of life including changes in lifestyle, collective values, art and aesthetics, and social character to name a few. Unlike Marx, who theorizes production, or Veblen, whose concern is consumption, Simmel is interested in the circulation of money, perhaps anticipating Martin’s interest in the social logic attendant to financialization and the derivative. As with Simmel and money, Martin considers the social logic that underlies the derivative, that is, a mutual indebtedness that stems from abundance and the inability to generalize that abundance; from the production of volatility and risk by attempting to hedge it; and from “a fracturing of shared values and common norms in the face of a proliferation of means for making sense and creating forms and flows of life.”5 As a financial instrument, the derivative reveals the impossibility of economic knowledge. Neoliberalism is often understood as submission to the authority of the market, where the market reflects the sum total of knowledge both expert and circumstantial. And yet, Martin insists, economic knowledge presumes what it cannot demonstrate: market function and value. The derivative operates by creating value from nonknowledge of the market but also from the very contestability of value of commodities. The result is an ever-increasing excess and noise in which a new social principle emerges: a “frustration that nothing can be done collides with a conviction that immediate and targeted action can make all the difference, that arbitrage between observed and desired outcomes and leverage of what can be made liquid will create a propitious moment for a salutary context.”6

One need only look at recent political and cultural life to understand the social logic of the derivative, how volatility and disaster stage the conditions for a kind of hope or cruel optimism only to be thwarted by the next disaster. The KKK shows up to a Trump rally; we think this will be the game changer we’ve been waiting for, but instead a white supremacist is appointed to White House staff. Another transwoman is beaten to death; this will open people’s eyes, we hope, and yet the violence persists. Of course, Martin is attuned to the profound implications of his work, but he turns his attention in the book’s last chapter to the aesthetics of dance and movement. Martin’s goal here is not to use dance as a metaphor for finance but rather to show “the relationship of movement practices across disparate sites that share certain kinesthetic attributes [that are] derivative in character.”7 In consideration of postmodern dance, hip-hop dance, and skateboarding, Martin locates a common riskiness and improvisation performed by the de-centered body where a minor movement can be the difference between danger and virtuosity. The social kinesthetic of these forms of dance and movement highlight the lateral mobility of both finance and movement—and perhaps, too, what Lauren Berlant has called lateral agency.8 For Berlant and implicitly for Martin, lateral mobility or lateral agency is quotidian; it interrupts the obligation for self-containment and intentionality, and in that sense it suspends us from the normative and the hierarchical, however briefly.

Every new episode of our collective reality show—with its cacophony of authoritarian dictates and media blunders, television satire and Internet memes, protests and phone calls to lawmakers—summons some new disaster, outrage, or absurdity. Still, some progressives’ abiding belief that scientific rationality is our most powerful tool to “speak truth to power” holds traction—and perhaps dangerously so. In this post-fact age of Trump, where emotions hold sway over reason, where alt-facts become political realities, and where bigotry and xenophobia are normalized, we cannot rely on rationality to guide our politics. What Martin so aptly demonstrates in Knowledge LTD is that the impossibility of knowledge need not be a hindrance but rather an asset—a fact evidenced so clearly in the derivatives market. If the logic of the derivative reigns supreme as an instrument of domination, then it also supplies the weapons for its undoing. Indeed, as Martin observes: “Beyond the telos of cognitive decision-making that drives collective action toward the norms of perfectible decision-making machinery, nonknowledge opens what can be done together that elicits a visceral response, something that takes in excess and yields a moment of joy.”9


Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.

LiPuma, Edward and Lee, Benjamin. 2004. Financial Derivatives and the Globalization of Risk. Durham: Duke University Press.

Manjoo, Farhad. 2008. True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Martin, Randy. 2002. Financialization of Daily Life. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Martin, Randy. 2008. An Empire of Indifference. Durham: Duke University Press.

Martin, Randy. 2015. Knowledge LTD: Toward a Social Logic of the Derivative. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Simmel, Georg. 1978 [1900]. The Philosophy of Money. Translated by Tom Bottomore and David Frisby. London: Routledge Classics.

  1. Manjoo, True Enough, 6.
  2. Martin, Empire of Indifference; Martin, Financialization of Daily Life.
  3. LiPuma and Lee, Financial Derivatives and the Globalization of Risk, 33.
  4. Martin, Knowledge LTD, 105.
  5. Martin, Knowledge LTD, 6-7.
  6. Martin, Knowledge LTD, 75.
  7. Martin, Knowledge LTD, 144.
  8. Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 95-100, 114-117.
  9. Martin, Knowledge LTD, 48.

John Andrews

John Andrews is visiting assistant professor of sociology at Vassar College. He is co-editor of The Unhappy Divorce of Sociology and Psychoanalysis (Palgrave, 2015) and is currently revising his monograph "The Economy is Everything: An Affective Genealogy of a Category," which examines the affective and aesthetic contours of “the economy” in the United States since the 1970s.