Let’s Calculate: Reinventing Accounting with Bruno Latour?
AIME Workshop Paris, 5 May 2014
Organized by: Martin Giraudeau & Vincent Lépinay
“Calculemus.” Let’s calculate. Thus finishes Latour’s last book, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (Harvard University Press, 2013 – electronic version of “AIME” available at: www.modesofexistence.org, where he takes on accounting frontally, and calls for its reinvention. Modern accounting, Latour argues, is indeed the cause of major evils, and therefore also the place where reform should start if one wants to close the modernist parenthesis and finally settle the debt of the West, the Whites, or yet again the Moderns with the rest of the world. This workshop aims at understanding, discussing and eventually furthering this new, radical critique of accounting.
Accounting scholars have drawn abundantly on Latour’s work over the past twenty years (see, e.g., Robson, Miller & O’Leary, Quattrone, Mouritsen). They have however done so mostly by mobilising two core latourian formulations of very general problems: the idea that ‘non-human’ technologies have agency; and that the world is composed of socio-technical networks, or so called ‘actor-networks’. The politics of Latour’s long-term venture against the downsides of modernisation, as formulated for instance in We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard University Press, 1993), have remained a blind spot within accounting studies, and understandably so, since Latour himself had never previously engaged with accounting itself. Yet the fact that he now does leave no choice but to try to understand his critique and decide what to do with it.
The problem with accounting is, according to Latour, a moral problem: it inhibits the emergence and expression of scruples, of doubts, of hesitations over the distribution of resources, interests, roles and functions. Accounting finalizes this distribution: it is all about the ‘closing of the books’, about delimitation, about the setting of boundaries between entities and between periods. It has thus made it possible to believe that, following a certain number of transcendent principles, economic agents can ‘calculate automatically’, or almost, and without consulting all of the involved parties, most of which are left to shout out on the street. As Latour ironically concludes: ‘A god of the bottom line; that took some doing…’
This preeminence of closure within accounting is the result of a ‘small mistake’, an ‘epistemological mistake’: the idea that calculations are a matter of ‘reference’, that accounting numbers say something about the world as it is, like the calculations of physicists and chemists do, when in fact accounting measures do something quite different, which is to ‘reinforce, emphasize, amplify, simplify, authorize, format, and perform the distribution of agencies’ – in one word to ‘control’. Accounting thus appears as an actively conservative discipline, which reinvigorates the existing order instead of challenging it. Accounting is also a particularly consequential discipline: the ‘small epistemological mistake’ indeed leads to a ‘form of intellectual leprosy’ that has had such a ‘fatal destiny’ that it can actually be called a ‘mistake in civilization’ – the one that made the Economy an ‘ill-formed institution’, which lacks the fundamentals of civility, starting with the involvement of everyone in the public agora and hence also the taking into account of their desires. Yet because accounting is so consequential, it is also the place where changes could have major favorable effects and Latour therefore calls for a reinvention of accounting which would allow for the refilling of the empty agora, which would give back to all the silenced passions their rightful place within the economy, which would ‘re-intensify’ the experience of forgotten scruples over what belongs to whom and for how long – over what is right and wrong. Hence the call, for us Moderns, to ‘return to our calculations’.
Such a harsh critique, and such an imperative call for action from a major social science scholar, cannot remain unaddressed within the accounting discipline. Besides the importance of the stakes put forward by Latour – civilization! –, he raises many interesting questions regarding accounting per se. Is it accurate, for instance, to say that accounting is based on the idea of referentiality? Is that really what the ‘true and fair view’ designates? Similarly, what does it mean to state that accounting is a matter of morality? In what ways can valuation be considered a moral issue? Further, can we really say that the public agora is empty when it comes to accounting? What is the breadth and effect of consultation when it comes to the setting of accounting standards? These questions will be addressed in the workshop, along with the following ones. More fundamentally, indeed, is it true that accounting is all about closure, uses automatic calculation, is based on divine principles? Doesn’t accounting actually hesitate and, in any case, what is a scrupulous, hesitating, doubtful calculation? How can each book constantly be kept open for discussion? And anyway: is it really ‘accounting’ as accountants understand it that Latour is targeting in his critique? He does say ‘accounting’, ‘the accounting disciplines’, but uses these expressions as equivalents to ‘the disciplines of economization’, or even sometimes to ‘economics’, when it is not to ‘management’ and ‘organizing’. What does this mean exactly and is it acceptable?
These questions will be addressed in different ways. Some of the contributions to the workshop will be empirical studies of contemporary accounting, and draw on sociological methods of data collection and analysis. Others will propose histories of accounting modernization, to challenge Latour’s historical stance on modernity. Some, finally, will explore ways through which accounting may be reinvented along the lines proposed by Latour. They will do so for instance by providing accounts of accounting experimentations or by studying exotic forms of accounting, which challenge our common understanding of the discipline.
SUBMITTING A CONTRIBUTION:
Deadline for submission of empirical document: 21 March 2014
Notification of acceptance: 28 March 2014
Deadline for submission of article: 28 April 2014
By 21 March, participants are expected to submit one (or multiple) empirical document(s) relating to the accounting section of An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME): accounting tables and formats; norms and standards; ethnographic notes; interview excerpts; videos; etc. The point of the meeting is not to engage in abstracto with accounting theories, nor to indulge in critical accounting. On the contrary, its aim is to discuss empirically the perspective on accounting proposed in AIME, through the collective study of specific documents by the participants. The document-centred approach reflects the philosophy of the inquiry: moving from a critical stance towards a diplomatic position that demands new skills from the social scientists, turned into diplomats.
Accepted participants will then be invited to submit a paper analysing the proposed empirical document(s) and stating their relation to AIME by 28 April.
We are seeking contributions of any interested parties – scholars, but also individuals or groups who feel that they are concerned by the redefinition of accounting put forth by AIME. These contributions will question or challenge the diplomatic proposal contained in AIME in a two step operation:
Mobilize a case, or a situation that falls within the purview of the accounting section of the book (last three chapters)
AIME is an experiment with disciplines and genres. The scholarly text itself is an anchor for a series of other elements that make up an extended book. We wish to use the multimedia platform to encourage contributions and to select the contributors who will attend the workshop. To submit a contribution, please have a look at our website www.modesofexistence.org and make use of the tutorial at http://www.modesofexistence.org/tuto-contribution/
We think that contributing on the platform will enhance the collective dimension of the experiment. If any difficulty is encountered during the contribution process, we will obviously also accept more standard ways of applying to join the workshop. We will accept submissions of contributions until March 21. We will send notifications of acceptance by 28 March at the latest.
We will cover travel (economy class) and accommodation (1 night) expenses for everyone selected to present at the workshop. Please write to contactATmodesofexistence.org and Vincent Lepinay (vincent.lepinayATsciencespo.fr) for more information.
This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) as part of the 7th Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC Grant ‘IDEAS’ 2010 n° 269567.