Conjuring Spirits in the Black Box of Finance

Conjuring Spirits in the Black Box of Finance

by Patricia de Vries

This essay appeared in State Machines: Reflections and Actions at the Edge of Digital Citizenship, Finance, and Art. Order a free copy or download the epub here.

The whole terrible fight occurred in the area of imagination. That is the precise location of our battlefield. It is there that we experience our victories and our defeats.

—Haruki Murakami, After the Quake

There seems to be a correlation between a series of events in the financial markets, starting in 2008, and the growing number of contemporary artists engaging with algorithmic trading. These events include worldwide stock market plunges, interbank market freezing, nationalization of international banks by national governments, the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the near collapse and bailout of the American International Group, and a subprime mortgage crisis followed by foreclosures.

With these events and their unfolding in the context of a global recession, the notion of financial markets as a cybernetic, self-correcting, and mathematical machine eroded. As the recession placed the biggest burden on people with lower incomes and didn’t leave middle-income earners unscathed, many people lost their sense of security and trust in banks, the housing market, retirement funds, job security, and in governments’ abilities to manage the financial markets. With the aid of bailouts and backstops by governments, quantitative easing by central banks, and regressive risk transfer in the form of austerity programs, repressed wages, mortgage bearing, debt loading, precarious employment, and rising asset prices, the financial markets keep on keeping on. For some, however, cracks were exposed in the financial markets’ foundations. Once seen these cracks could not be unseen.

Over the past few years, artistic imaginaries of the financial markets have emerged, positioning algorithmic trading in particular within layered and interrelated historical, technological, and environmental developments. In these works, focus has shifted to the larger cultural histories and frameworks of speculative risk exploitation to show how they are tied to socio-technical infrastructures, and also to climate change, as well as being embedded in certain belief systems, mythology, and theology. By means of these works, trading algorithms are imagined as ‘entangled, mediated, connected, interdependent, intertwined’.[1]These artistic imaginaries offer constellations that reach beyond and above the black box of finance, broadening the scope of algorithmic trading, and opening it up to alternative imaginations. Different sensibilities, a mix of influences, histories, and orientations give shape to imaginative horizons that serve as guides to alternative imaginaries of the future of automated capitalism.

To represent algorithmic trading, to give it shape and make it legible, some artists animate and personify the black box of finance. Paul Crosthwaite argues that throughout history artists ‘[have] turn[ed] to natural and animal imagery, or tropes of the monstrous or Gothic, or depictions of the gesticulating bodies of traders, or representations of the technologies used in trading, all in an attempt to reground finance in the materiality of things.’[2]Repeatedly, predatory animals and monsters are the kind of life form ascribed to algorithmic trading in artistic imaginaries.

In Fragments on Machines, a 17-minute experimental piece of docufiction by Emma Charles, something burrows beneath or beyond the predominantly cyber-utopian and cyber-dystopian accounts of algorithmic trading.[3]Fragments on Machines evokes the mythical figures of a hybrid, a specter, and the metaphor of a flood to represent algorithmic trading. Charles’ much-accoladed video essay has been included in numerous exhibitions on information technology,[4]and has garnered both popular and critical attention. In the spirit of Marx’s ‘The Fragment on Machines’, Charles’ video essay focuses on human–machine relations. The title of the film is a reference to Karl Marx’s Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy, in which he discusses the evolution of the production of labor and capital, from the division of labor to the increasing integration of machines in labor, and to the ever-increasing automatization of labor.

In Charles’ video essay, the opening scene of the first chapter—titled ‘Metropolis’—portrays Manhattan’s Financial District from the vantage point of a train crossing Manhattan Bridge. The camera captures the skyline of Lower Manhattan which, with its square blocks of skyscrapers and cube-like façades of Art Deco buildings, provides an association with the black box of finance. By portraying the architecture of New York’s Financial District from a distance and from the outside, Charles alludes to inaccessibility. The camera then cuts to medium close ups of the façades of the skyscrapers and of some of the main Art Deco buildings. In doing so, ‘Metropolis’ sets the scene for Fragments on Machines smack in the middle of Manhattan’s Financial District with its iconic and idiosyncratic plate-glassed skyscrapers, mixed with Art Deco architecture dating back to the days of heavy manufacturing for which these buildings were used in the early 20thcentury.

In a poetic tone, a male voice-over narrates:

I was once lost in the city; now, I don’t know where to disappear anymore. I exist in two states. I remove the animal from myself as animals are removed from the city. Undetected and unnoticed, they disappear. Slowly, the natural becomes unnatural. Slowly, the city evolves.

The streets of New York’s Financial District are almost empty, with just a few people in sight. The voice-over continues:

The spread of intelligence across Europe can be mapped, like an incurable epidemic of knowledge. In the place of public readings, came reading in private, in silence. The secrets of what never happened, in the end, cannot be burned, they multiply and imprint in every corner … I live through the structures and on the structures that have been planned by architects, designed by vibration, washed through with information … I stood before the source, an empty tomb. To be closer to the source is all I needed. The trucks could roll from their momentum, even with the brakes on. Their housings were dockside palaces. Treasure would travel hundreds of miles over days … A new king lives here …

A series of shots of fiber markings, manhole covers, street-level signs of underground utility ducts, and an industrial air ventilation system indicates that we are milling around the financial markets, located within the edifices of the depicted institutions and corporations.

The video’s next chapter, titled ‘Servers’, takes the viewer beyond the façade of an edifice in the Financial District and into the building’s empty hallways where ‘the new king’ allegedly resides. The sepia-colored, dimly lit architecture of the building’s foyer contrasts sharply with the bright white, tungsten-lit server room that the camera enters. The cut between the shot of the hallway and that of the server room hints at the film moving from the outside to the inside of the black box of finance. Inside, behind the walls of the lavish but decaying Art Deco architecture, we find what looks like a data center. A door opens, and then another, and another. The room entered is filled to the brim with mainframe computers and server racks.

The supposed new king of Wall Street is personified by an acousmêtre (a first-person, disembodied voice-over), and given a semblance of embodiment through a series of shots of aspects of the infrastructure of algorithmic trading. Numerous Art Deco buildings in the Financial District now house parts of the infrastructure of post-industrialist financial capitalism’s new king. Data centers are dotted around the Financial District, and their physical location is important. The closer a high-frequency trading company, brokerage, or bank is located to the servers (that is, the closer it is to the source), the faster its algorithms can respond. What appears to exist in an ether, as an immaterial, invisible, omnipresent structure, is represented as connected, strap-attached to, and kept on leash by rubber, fiber, copper cables and brick.

The dialectic relationship between the words of the narrator and the images in Fragments on Machines associates the computational infrastructure of the financial markets with an ‘incurable epidemic of knowledge’. The narrator metaphorically connects this ‘incurable epidemic’ to ‘trucks rolling with brakes on’. The imagery of an epidemic and of moving trucks suggests prevalence, development, spread, movement, and inevitability with regards to the new forms of productivity that have come about—the algorithmic automatization of the financial markets. At the same time, the cause of this seemingly inevitable development could also be taken as reference to a primary mover, or even to a force of nature, or the preternatural.

The voice-over continues:

My muscle has been replaced by flex and copper; my brain a server. Ones and zeros, my voice. I exist as a phantom under iridescent color. I speak in shimmering tones to the hidden construction of the form. I desire to become data. I will be mobile, moving to provide. I will become the information flow. I am your personal relationship to the source. I become more and more. I move in and out of position several times a day. I adjust by fractions to adapt to my surroundings.

Rooms filled with copper and fiber-optic cables, computer servers, air ventilation, and cooling systems that facilitate algorithmic exchange have to an extent replaced a form of labor time and productivity which previously involved the body. The embodiment with which Charles represents algorithmic trading is given the form of a disembodied, conscious voice, a phantom-like hybrid organism existing in ‘two states’, human and machine, natural and unnatural, residing in New York’s corporate Financial District.

Hybrids are charged with meaning, which raises the question, what is the meaning of the hybrid figure of algorithmic trading? In the history of science, hybrids were part of a larger cluster of prodigies, Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park explain in Wonders and the Order of Nature, an exhaustive chronicle of wonder that covers more than a thousand years of ‘wonders of nature’: strange, rare, and extraordinary phenomena which ‘straddled categories’.[5]Wonders had to be rare, mysterious, and real to be considered wonders, Daston and Park explain.[6]Over time, some objects lost their status as wonders for various reasons—for instance, the basilisk was debunked, comets explained, and unicorn horns became too common.[7]At the same time, new objects joined the canon of wonders, such as monstrous births or snow in summer.[8]Some such anomalies were considered ‘enhancing the beauty and diversity of the world’, while other singular anomalies were considered prodigies, ‘divine messages and signs of things (usually undesirable) to come’.[9]The category of the prodigious included earthquakes, eclipses, conjoined twins, unseasonable thunderstorms, examples of peculiar animal behavior, and other phenomena that were seen as ‘outside the order, movement and operations of nature’.[10]Daston and Park note that by the last quarter of the sixteenth century in Europe a specialized, canonical body of medical study on the causes of monsters was well established. Monsters, according to this literature, were caused by the violation of moral norms. Daston and Park point out that the category of the ‘monstrous’ did not spring from the blurring or exceeding of categories per se—which anthropologists such as Mary Douglas later placed at the heart of ideas of pollution. Rather, only when such blurring of categories was taken to be caused by the violation of moral norms was it considered monstrous.[11]

Hybrids, however, were the exception. Hybrids were seen as caused by ‘abhorrent’ behavior and therefore generally considered a sign of sin.[12]Images of demons, which served as a reminder of sins to be avoided, were frequently represented as hybrid figures, which further emphasized their association with sin and punishment.[13]Prodigies, Daston and Park chronicle, were taken to be the precursors of dramatic, local, and usually catastrophic events: epidemics, floods, famines, fires, and wars. Featuring a hybrid figure as the acousmêtre of the film and associating a hybrid being with algorithmic trading brings to bear moral transgression if not a premonition of God’s wrath. This leads one to ask, what moral transgression brought the hybrid into being?

Charles alludes to the automatization of labor as a possible cause. On the floors and in the offices that Fragments on Machines depicts, we don’t find white-collar workers sat in cubicles. The camera pans along the lines and grids of server rooms, of cables and wires in all colors, of air ventilation systems, computer buttons, rubber tubes, and along endless, brightly lit corridors and aisles full of whirring machines, where the activities of algorithmic trading are supposed to ‘happen’. The film shows an abundance of images with no human in sight. Here, Charles seems to allude to the Grundrisse, in which Marx contends that machines become an abstract, dominant power in the production of capital, enveloping humans and leaving workers scattered. According to Marx, this increasing reliance on machinery takes two forms. One is the development of machinery in which the mass of labor and the entire production process that enabled it has vanished from view, consumed by the machine. The second is the integration of these machines as a means of production for capital in a global market. Taken together, the development of human-labor-replacing machines as a means of production for capital in the world markets indicates the extent to which general intellect has become a tool for the ruling class.[14]


In Fragments on Machines, workers seem to have been replaced by machines. Humans have no function other than to keep the machines of automated financial capitalism up and running. The desolate and quiet images of Wall Street depicted in the previous chapter of the film are contrasted with the whirring and zooming sounds of server rooms, cable rooms, and generators that now occupy entire floors in buildings. Where once humans congregated, vents, server racks, loops of cables, and countless pipes and tubes have taken their place. The film’s images show empty chairs, empty halls, and empty cubicles. Further emphasis is placed on water, from images of clogged cooling systems, to rusty and leaky pipelines, to images of cesspools. In Fragments on Machines, the workers that still exist are maintenance workers, such as technicians, cleaners, and doormen. The heart of financial capitalism has largely been emptied of human traces; manual labor has been replaced by machine labor.

In the voice-over we hear:

I collect, I discard. I seek positive results. Then—the purge. At the end of the day, I refresh, renew, liquidate, and realign my entire self.

Charles’ use of the phantom figure is metaphorically and conceptually equivocal. In The Spectral Metaphor: Living Ghosts and the Agency of Invisibility, Esther Peeren explains that specters in contemporary culture and theory ‘are methodologically distinct and vary in the characteristics, functions and effects they assign.’[15]However, she distinguishes between three interrelated emphases within their usage in contemporary culture. Firstly, there is the ghost as the figure of return, expressing the persistence of the past in the present. Secondly, the ghost as a figure of presence-absence, ephemeral yet present in space as a matter that needs to be accounted for. And lastly, the ghost as a figure of mixed and hybrid phenomena, a conceptual figure of critique of the ‘unmixed’ and ‘pure’.[16]Ghosts indicate an agency that is present yet invisible and intangible, an eerie, hybrid entity. Described by Mara del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren as an ‘unruly’ and ambiguous figure, a ‘non-present present’, a ‘being-there of an absent or departed one’, they ‘signify precisely that which escapes full cognition or comprehension … what is placed outside, excluded from perception.’[17]

Ghosts have a penchant for lingering and haunting, often demand a response, and are associated with the preternatural and with simultaneous and mixed temporalities and categories.[18]Specters are unruly and ambiguous in the sense that they represent the bodiless presence of things that are conventionally conceived as disparate or even opposed: past and present, materiality and immateriality, the real and the imaginary, immanence and transcendence, and primary and secondary causes. To state it in a more accurate way, they cut through the limits and walk through barriers of the order of things. ‘The specter stands for that what never simply is and thus escapes the totalizing logic of conventional cognitive and hermeneutic operations,’ Peeren writes.[19]

Finance and money, in general, and algorithmic high-frequency trading, in particular, have a track record for being associated with mystifying, spectral, and gothic qualities. The acousmêtre, combined with images of vacuous office buildings and the haunting and ominous soundtrack that accompanies the film’s images, invoke the spectral dynamics of capital described by Mark Fisher as existing ‘at every level an eerie entity’.[20]It is ‘conjured out of nothing’ yet exerts palpable influence.[21]In The Weird and The Eerie, Fisher describes the eerie as ‘tied up with questions of agency.’[22]It can be found in places ‘where the forces that govern mundane reality are obscured.’[23]An eerie place is, as Fisher phrases it, ‘where there is nothing but should be something’, in ‘landscapes partially emptied of the human’ where an unknown agent seems to be acting.[24]An agent associated with fate and foresight.[25]

The ‘something’ that is missing in Fragments on Machines might be human labor. Depicting New York’s Financial District as an eerie space, emptied of most human labor, where a ghost-like agency lingers, also invokes the specter of communism, from the famous line from Marx and Engels’ ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’ (1848): ‘A spectre is haunting Europe—the specter of Communism.’[26]In the Manifesto, the specter indicates the persistent presence of the communist spirit in the fragmentized and incoherent activities of the proletariat, scattered all over Europe. Conjoined and unified, their spirited activities may at some point in time incite a revolutionary struggle. Felski writes, ‘[N]ew actors jolt alongside those with thousand-year histories; inventions and innovations feed off the very traditions they excoriate; “the past is not surpassed but revisited, repeated, surrounded, protected, recombined, reinterpreted and reshuffled.”’[27]

In Fragments on Machines, Charles ascribes a certain kind of spectral agency to algorithmic trading; it is thus given the power to act, wittingly and consciously, yet invisibly, as well as the ability to cut through time past and present. We might see no-body, no-thing, yet it sees everything.


The disembodied voice mentions daily activities and its desire to ‘become more and more’, to become an information flow with a direct link to ‘the source’. The textual and visual emphasis on liquidity and fluidity in each chapter of Fragments on Machines – ‘flows’ of data, ‘washed through’, combined with the repeated images of water pools, dripping and leaking tubes – becomes increasingly pronounced throughout the film. The final scene of ‘Servers’ depicts the Hudson River seen from a window inside the data center, inside the home of the ‘new king’, hinting it is the ‘new king’ that looks out on the Hudson. A sound bridge reinforces this view. It consists of the sound of streaming water, which is carried to the final chapter, titled ‘Flood’. In doing so, the sound bridge connects the perspective of the ‘new king’ to the first scene of ‘Flood’ which depicts the current of the Hudson. The soundtrack contains the continued sound of running and dripping water, mixed with the sound of a fire alarm, cut through with images of pools of water, rusty pipes, and broken cables, stressing both the entropic nature and the excessive use of energy of these parts of algorithmic trading. Repeatedly, Charles shows images of bodies of water, eroding copper wire, cesspools, and clogged cooling systems, and then cuts to images of the currents of the Hudson River. Visually and sonically, Charles links the data center to the Hudson and to approaching danger. Fomenting this impending danger the ambient musical score is foregrounded and becomes ever louder throughout the final chapter. Tracked by the haunting sound of an alarm creating suspenseful tension,the camera moves outward, from the edifice of the data center, out of the Financial District and onto a ferry on the Hudson River heading in the direction of New Jersey. The voice-over narrates:

The river flows and undulates underneath. Underground, organized tributaries completing the feedback loop. I was drawn in by the trickle of the stream, the meagre beginnings. The undulated notes that cascade on top of one another, collecting and forming to lead me on … A million pounds will roll into the sea, dissolve, burn, blow away. You will never breathe the ashes, nor will you drink the pulp.

A seemingly fateful teleological event awaits the viewer in the final scene. Fragments on Machines ends with images of a flooded Verizon data center building in the Financial District. Several floors of the building, a key switching facility for interconnecting and storing communications, sustained severe damage from flooding during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. According to the voice-over, it took weeks and a million pounds to replace and repair. The damage done by Sandy was a reminder that, despite the concept of the cloud, the majority of data travels through cables underground, a spaghetti-like cable network with a history dating back to colonial times, and through urban environments in which a flood can grind all traffic and operations to a halt for weeks on end. The communication technology on which algorithmic trading depends is ‘prone to weather disruption’ and sensitive to rain, fog, snow, and water.[28]The spectral temporalities of algorithmic trading are grounded in matter, Charles suggests.

The next scene of Fragments on Machines shows men dressed in green and white coveralls mopping and sweeping a flooded floor. With this ending, Charles connects algorithmic high-frequency trading to the damage sustained by an extreme weather event and to a flood. A flood is an ambiguous and versatile metaphor, too. Flood stories are numerous, stretch over epochs, and cross and cover all continents. In Europeanmythologies (amongst others), more often than not, a flood or deluge is sent by some kind of deity as a result of a conflict between deities, or as the fallout of a god’s wrath. Charles leaves the signification of the flood in Fragments on Machines open to interpretation.Understood as a metaphor for the ‘new king’ of algorithmic high-frequency trading, wrath is upon us.

In another reading, Charles links the apparatus of financial markets that use up so much energy to the natural catastrophes global warming engenders. Interpreting the flood in biblical terms, a different narrative arises. In ‘Noah and the Flood’—the flood narrative in the Book of Genesis—God sends his judgment of the wickedness and corruption of the world He created in the form of a flood, as a means to wash the world completely clean. The flood wipes all creatures off the earth, save for Noah and those with him in his arc, and turns the earth into a massive pool of water. After the flood, God asks Noah to remake and repopulate the earth. Seen this way, the flood connects algorithmic trading with a reversal, a remaking, a break away from what is humanly possible and conceivable. Fragments of Machines points to a sphere or realm outside the seemingly all-encompassing black box of finance, and to the influence this ‘outside’ can have on the vulnerable infrastructure of algorithmic trading. It points to that which cannot be predicted or financialized, that which cannot be protected by risk management or insurances, and to consequences that exceed the expected.

Can we relate to this ambiguity without mystifying it? Can we engage with this mystical and teleological metaphor without depoliticizing algorithmic trading? The answer is yes. The irony of Hurricane Sandy is hard to ignore: the flooding of much of the Financial District caused the New York Stock Exchange to close for the first time in almost three decades and, tellingly, algorithmic trading was closed for two full days. Aflood seems to be an equalizer, devastating all that it comes to pass and making everything an unrecognizable pool of muddy water. Human-induced climate change and the volatility and vulnerability of the financial markets are partly the result of flawed and inert government policies, however, both tend to hit the vulnerable hardest, and both are impacted by short-term thinking. The excesses of algorithmic trading and climate change are a product of both government and individual choices – from carbon emission rates, to fossil fuel laws, to the financial modelling of mortgage foreclosures, to our food choices, how we travel, and our use of natural resources – and both have incentive to take advantage of short-term benefits, while ignoring or down-playing the great risks further down the line.

The flood also nods to another recent development in the financial markets. Floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, pandemics, and earthquakes in Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Chile or Colombia, Florida-named and Texas-named storms, European windstorms, Californian wildfires, and other natural catastrophes have become a financial product, a speculative object. Financial markets quantify and price possible natural disasters in so-called ‘catastrophe bonds’; that is to say, probable future scenarios involving natural catastrophes happening at a specific time and location have become a financial instrument. In the case of one of these speculative catastrophic events really occurring, the catastrophe will not merely affect those involved, but it will also entail profits or losses for the investors of the said catastrophe bond.

In Turbulent Worlds, Melinda Cooper explains, ‘While weather-related risk had once been covered through indirect means, such as property insurance, the contingencies of the weather could now be directly hedged and traded in the capital markets. The curious effect is that climate change—and the critical or singular events it may engender—has become a speculative opportunity like any other in a market hungry for critical events.’[29]The bonds turn disruptive events where a great deal of uncertainty and risk are involved into financial opportunities for investors—in other words, environmental derivatives. The result has been ‘financial instruments designed to price and trade both in the uncertainties of the weather and our own uncertainties about the future of climate change.’[30]

Ambiguous and quasi-religious metaphors recur in Fragments on Machines. In addition to a flood, algorithmic trading is associated with an eerie, urban landscape, connected to a hybrid, conscious, ghost-like, and possibly prodigious figure, and seems to presage the coming of a catastrophic force. Each of these metaphors elude clear theorizations, and that seems to be the point. Fragments on Machines shapes an imaginary of algorithmic trading as a phenomenon as ambiguous as specters, hybrids, and floods.

What does Fragments on Machines reveal when it imagines trading algorithms this way? It hints to factors of influence outside the brightly lit, squarely bounded, and straight-lined space of the black box of finance, that nonetheless affect contemporary economics. In this process, the mechanical, boxed, linear infrastructure and the urban grid of algorithmic trading are imagined as mutually constituted by a re-pastoralized landscape, which includes a transformative encounter with a force of nature. To conceive of algorithmic trading by way of associating it with the figure of the specter, with an eerie and prodigious space that is, save for a few maintenance workers, devoid of human presence, and to tie it to a flood is to conflate and recombine what is usually considered as categorically distinct. Algorithmic trading is imagined here as internally related to and mutually constituted by financial and natural history, economy, and theology, and exists between the probable and the possible. Instead of swapping one dualism for another, and instead of furnishing algorithmic trading with all-capturing power relations, or imagining the black box of finance as mystical or otherworldly, Charles connects the porosity, entropic, error-prone matter of algorithmic trading technologies with the constant manual labor and maintenance work it necessitates, and adds to this a Marxist revolutionary trope and biblical imagery of sin, punishment, and new beginnings.

Many phenomena come together in Fragments on Machines to create an assemblage, and what is more, an open system. The constant maintenance work cannot prevent trading catastrophes, Fragments on Machines seems to suggest, as the black box of finance is not a closed system. This maintenance work happens on all levels, from the tweaking of algorithms by programmers, to the work done by cable guys, to the interventions by central banks and governments, none of whom are able to predict the future or transcend time and space. Giving constitutional significance to myriad metaphors and symbols charged with meaning invalidates dualisms and provides algorithmic trading with many ties to the world. Algorithmic trading is imagined as a synthesis between necessity and possibility, the infinite and the finite. Similar to water, a recurring visual trope in the film, algorithmic trading runs in every direction, affects everything it comes across, andis affected by what it encounters on its course, but not in equal measure.[31]

Fragments on Machines suggests that illuminating the conceived obscurity, immateriality, or intangibility of the black box of finance would not give way to more democratized, less obscure, or manageable financial markets. Rather, it imagines the black box of finance as part of a far larger, unstable, and ambiguous constellation that connects the hardware and software of algorithmic trading to the environment, to sensibility, to unruliness, and to seemingly invisible movers—from the dock palaces of yesteryear to an extreme weather event, and from clogged air strainers to a new testament. By drawing correlations between trading software and the catastrophes of nature, and between hardware and the divine, conventional assumptions about uncontrollability and the invisibility of algorithmic trading are put in doubt.

Catastrophe bonds and algorithmic trading are products of a culture of risk. And, climate change and financial crises have to do with bad management. Catastrophe derivatives, algorithmic trading, and risk all flourish when governments, policymakers, and individuals think short term. Climate change and algorithmic trading are, of course, not uncontrollable. The laments of the specter, the sounds of the alarm going off, suggest that algorithmic trading is not defined by its technological infrastructure alone but all the more with how it is managed. Fragments on Machines seems to suggest that we are not fully left to our own devices, and neither should we render algorithmic technology as beyond intervention and controlSpecters and a flood may provide a partial answer to present-day technological determinism and neoliberal fatalism, as these figures open fatalism and determinism up to other narratives and possibilities, to the chance of imagining and doing things another way.

On the one hand, there is finiteness, represented as the technical infrastructure of algorithmic trading. On the other hand, there is future possibility. Fragments on Machines could be considered as a form of artistic tactical resistance against global financial capitalism, and the algorithmic trading happening on its markets as an all-encompassing totality, as a regime that knows ‘no end’, ‘no alternatives’, ‘no exits’, and ‘no outside’, against a kind of thinking that asserts that everything that happens can have meaning only in relation to this totalizing frame. The figure of the specter in particular represents a shift in which the identification with a certain way of imagining things and life is broken—like the colloquial ‘you look like you’ve just seen a ghost’. Moreover, the specter as an ‘unstable’ figure ‘nullifies the conformism and arrogance of totalizing frames’ and it may help to imagine and mobilize different futures and endings of automated capitalism.[32]In the end, and to refer to Murakami, imagination is the place for defeats and victories.


Buchanan,Mark. ‘Physics in finance: Trading at the speed of light’,Nature, 11 February 2015,


Cooper, Melinda. ‘Turbulent Worlds’, Theory, Culture & Society27.2-3 (May 2010): 167-190.


Crosthwaite, Paul. ‘Meet the Curator: ‘Show Me the Money: The Image of Finance 1700 to the Present’, 7 November 2014,


Daston, Lorraine and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature: 1150 – 1750, New York: Zone Books,1998.


Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.


Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie, London: Watkins Media, 2016.

Fragments on Machines (dir. Emma Charles, 2013), video, 17:10 min.


Kal, Victor. Levinas en Rozenzweig, Zoetermeer: Uitgeverij Meinema, 1999.


Marx, Karl. The Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, London: Penguin Books, 1993.


[1]Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015, p. 146.

[2]PaulCrosthwaite, ‘Meet the Curator: “Show Me the Money: The Image of Finance 1700 to the Present”’, BAAS, 7 November 2014,

[3]Fragments on Machines(dir. Emma Charles, 2013), video, 17:10 min.

[4]See, for example, ‘Nervous Systems’ (2016) at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, Germany; ‘Globale: Global Control and Censorship’ (2015/2016) ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany; ‘Infosphere’ (2017) at CENART in Mexico City, Mexico; ‘Mediated Architecture’, Swiss Architecture Museum, HeK (House of Electronic Arts Basel), Switzerland; New Mythologies’,POSTmatter/Second Home, London, UK, and ‘I stood before the source’, The Blackwood Gallery, University of Toronto, Canada.

[5]Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature: 1150 – 1750, New York: Zone Books,1998, p. 10.

[6]Daston and Park, Wonders, p.24.

[7]Daston and Park, Wonders, p. 19.

[8]Daston and Park, Wonders, p. 20.

[9]Daston and Park, Wonders, p. 54.

[10]Daston and Park, Wonders, p. 51; 181.

[11]Daston and Park, Wonders, p. 181.

[12]Daston and Park, Wonders, p. 192.

[13]Daston and Park, Wonders, p. 186.

[14]Karl Marx, The Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, London: Penguin Books, 1993, p. 690–693.

[15]Esther Peeren, The Spectral Metaphor: Living Ghosts and the Agency of Invisibility,London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014, p. 10.

[16]Peeren, The Spectral Metaphor, 2014, p. 10.

[17]Maria del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren, The Spectralities Reader: Ghost and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory, New York: Bloomsbury, 2013, p. 9.

[18]Del Pilar Blanco and Peeren, The Spectralities Reader, p. 8.

[19]Peeren, The Spectral Metaphor,2014, p. 10.

[20]Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie, London: Watkins Media, 2016, p. 11.

[21]Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie, 2016, p. 11.

[22]Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie, 2016, p. 11.

[23]Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie, 2016, p. 13.

[24]Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie, 2016, p. 11.

[25]Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie, 2016, p. 13.

[26]For online reference, see Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, Marxist Internet Archive,

[27]Felski, The Limits of Critique, 2015, p. 158.

[28]Mark Buchanan,‘Physics in finance: Trading at the speed of light’,Nature(11 February 2015),

[29]Melinda Cooper, ‘Turbulent Worlds’, Theory, Culture & Society27.2-3 (May 2010): 175.

[30]Cooper, ‘Turbulent Worlds’: 176

[31]Water metaphors are part of finance jargon, too—think of dark pools, vaporized profits, flows of capital, frozen markets, liquidity freeze, streams of indexes.

[32]Victor Kal, Levinas en Rozenzweig, Zoetermeer: Uitgeverij Meinema, 1999, p.153. The translation is mine.