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The Ottoman Sarraf as a Theory-Machine of Finance
This paper draws on methods of historical anthropology to revisit the case of the Ottoman sarraf and push back against literature in critical financial studies that reads as if history began in the 1970s, centers around the global North, and moves outward like a mobile “frontier” remaking the world in its image. Such an approach follows in the footsteps of classic work on imperialism and financial capital that incorporated an origin story of finance as a product of the capitalist West, even though scholars of the Middle East and Indian Ocean know that if there is any such thing as a “frontier of finance,” it moved from East to West long before the Industrial Revolution. In this vein, the Ottoman Capitulations, for example, are usually left out of universalizing theories in the West, even though they are an infrastructure of commerce and finance in Europe as well. In contrast, I take the case of the Ottoman sarraf as a “theory-machine” (Helmreich 2011) of finance. The sarraf is usually read in specialist literature as a “pre-modern” character that disappeared with the rise of “real” banks in the mid-nineteenth century. Such approaches reinforce a lingering tendency to treat Ottoman financial infrastructures as local, particular, and ethnographic. Recent research unsettles that account, but the implications can be further extended. This case of the sarraf and the Ottoman public debt can contribute to theories of finance and financialization more generally. From such an approach, the sarraf reappears as a node in what economist Perry Mehrling calls, with reference to finance in general when examined from the “money-view,” an extended “web of time-dated promises to pay that stretches from now into the future, and from here around the globe” (Mehrling 2017).
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Ottoman Empire
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