This essay tracks how discourses of abstraction and complexity have been deployed in both academic and popular writing about finance, financialization, and the financial services industry. It begins with the assumption that “abstract” is perhaps the most commonly used qualification of finance in humanities-oriented criticism and suggests that although the concept of abstraction has a rich and varied conceptual archive, it is almost always used generically in such criticism. Through a reading of historical and contemporary political economic texts, the essay reviews some variations on the concept of abstraction and presents specific forms of abstraction — real abstraction, lived abstraction, and second-order abstraction — that might help humanities scholars specify how and when finance is abstract and how and when it is concrete. Finally, through a reading of the discourse of financial “complexity” in popular writing, the essay argues that the use of complexity might be read as an allegory of the problem of abstraction in the emerging field of critical studies of finance.

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