I’m not sure I want to explore this in my homo economicus book. But it fascinates me.
In Schumpeter’s history of economic analysis, he devotes a section to the excellencies of the tableau as a tool.
1. “First of all, the tableau method achieves a tremendous simplification. Actually the economic life of a nonsocialist society consists of millions of relations or flows between individual firms and households. We can establish certain theorems about them, but we can never observe all of them. But if we replace them by relations between classes or by flows of class (or other) aggregates, the unmanageable number of variables in the economic problem suddenly reduces to a few which are easy to handle and follow up.”
2. “Second, the simplification of the analytic pattern achieved by the tableau method opens up great possibilities for numerical theory. Quesnay was more alive to these possibilities than had been Cantillon and, in this particular respect, he carried the latter's work much further. He troubled himself about statistical data and actually tried to estimate the values of annual output and other aggregates.”
3. “Third and most important, the Cantillon-Quesnay tableau was the first method ever devised in order to convey an explicit conception of the nature of economic equilibrium… Now Cantillon and Quesnay had this conception of the general interdependence of all sectors and all elements of the economic process in which—so Dupont actually put it—nothing stands alone and all things hang together. And their distinctive merit—shared, to some extent, by Boisguillebert—was that, without realizing the possibilities of the method later on adumbrated by Isnard, they made that conception explicit in a way of their own, namely, by the tableau method: while the idea of representing the pure logic of the economic process by a system of simultaneous equations was quite outside their range of vision, they represented it by a picture. In a sense, this method was primitive and lacking in rigor—which is, in fact, why it fell out of the running and why analysis historically developed on the other line. But in one respect it was superior to the logically more satisfactory method; it visualized the (stationary) economic process as a circuit flow that in each period returns upon itself. This is not only a method of conveying the fact that the economic process is logically self-contained, a distinct thing that is complete in itself, but it is also a method of conveying features of it—definite sequences in particular—that do not stand out equally well in a system of simultaneous equations.”
Indeed, on Schumpeter’s account, class consciousness finds its privileged tool in the tableau method.
The opening up of a whole new textual space might have come about – I’d speculate furiously - from two separate lines of descent. The first line, as one might expect, is double entry book-keeping. The second line is more complex, and slithers through the visual arts. Kosseleck, in the first chapter of Future’s Past, uses a historical painting by Albrecht Altdorfer, Alexanderschlacht, as an iconic correlate to his thesis concerning the construction of historical time in different epochs. Altdorfer’s 1528 painting depicts the Battle of Issus – in which Alexander defeated the Persians. As is well known in philosophy, the battle is a model event – the stoics used it as such, the Bhagavad-gita uses it as such, novelists (Stendhal, Tolstoy) depict the confusing there-ness and non-there-ness of the battle, Deleuze remarks upon it in Logique du Sens – and Altdorfer is no different.
“Careful examination of the painting enables us to reconstruct the entire course of the battle. For Altdorfer had in this image delineated a history, in the way that Historie at that time could mean both image and narrative (Geschichte). To be as accurate as possible, the artist, or rather the court historiographer
advising him, had consulted Curtius Rufus so as to ascertain the (supposedly) exact number of combatants, the dead and those taken prisoner. These figures can be found inscribed upon the banners of the relevant
armies, including the number of dead, who remain in the painting among the living, perhaps even bearing the banner under which they are about to fall, mortally wounded. Altdorfer made conscious use of anachronism so that he could faithfully represent the course of the completed battle.”
Altdorfer’s ability to “portray” the diachronic axis – not the battle at some one instant, but the battle as a continuous event across its entire temporal length – is due to the synthesis of a late medieval representational style – which would temporalize the pictorial space according to some rule that would, for instance, put foreground figures in an earlier ‘moment’ than background figures – and the rules of perspective. The tableau is, in a sense, the heir of this synthesis. Marx made the tableau method dialectical in the same way that the perspectivally supplied artist was able to unfold an event in terms of a panorama. I wonder if the tableau is not the tool hidden behind Hegel’s Phenomenology and the Logic. Rather than the panorama of a battle scene that enfolds the entire event in a fictitious there-ness, the tableau allowed the physiocrats to enfold the entire economy in a fictitious thereness that, as Schumpeter saw, bears a name – a name we could inscribe on a banner: equilibrium. That impossible moment of the event in the event.