A recent issue of Nation magazine (Jan. 2, 2012) includes an essay by its principal art critic, Barry Schwabsky, that begins with some observations about Conceptual Art and moves from there to commentary on some of the signs displayed by OWS (Occupy Wall Street). The resonance of both topics with key aspects of GA invites further consideration.
Schwabsky’s reflections on conceptual art feature its paradoxical structure, which Eric Gans has shown to characterize esthetic production in general since its inception with the first sign: attention oscillates between the sign constituted by an aborted act of appropriation, and its referent, its object, with the result that the sign basks in an aura of sacrality that radiates from the now unappropriable object. The paradox lies in the horizontal reference of the sign to its object—they are visibly and audibly on the same sensorial plane—that, by the joint attention to the sign, enables a vertical, transcendental, universal relation of signs to the world they designate. I have written elsewhere (“Art and Incarnation,” Anthropoetics 15:2, Spring 2010) that the history of Western art could be rewritten in terms of this oscillation between world and image-sign, including the late 20th-century’s art movements that abandon iconic representation entirely to focus self-destructively on the differences between art and non-art rather than on the world that the work might refer to. Shwabsky’s formulation is apt: “Questioning the boundaries between art and everything else is a reflex inculcated by conceptual art” (43). At this stage, resolutely post-modern art is signing its own death sentence, which we need not lament if we follow Gans’s argument in “No more masterpieces” (Chronicles, No. 27, 6/27/96) that Western art has exhausted its capacity for anthropological discovery, whose inventory it is the task of GA to reconnoiter and clarify.
But Schwabsky’s remarks on conceptual art, we find, is only a lead-up to reflections on some of the signs displayed by the OWS participants in Zuccotti Park in the late Fall of the past year. In view of GA’s staunch defense of the efficiency of markets as opposed to command economies, where we have state control over the distribution or redistribution of wealth, there is an opportunity here as well for some reflection on controversies surrounding the financial crisis that has motivated the OWS movement and its avatars in other cities across America and in some of Europe’s as well. Here too, I find that GA and CA are in virtual conversation.
Schwabsky’s thumbnail description of conceptual art is laden with paradox. As an example of CA’s “self-deconstructing tautologies,” its “will to sustain rather than resolve paradox” (44), Schwabsky cites a work by John Baldassari entitled “Everything Is Purged From This Painting but Art; No Ideas Have Entered This Work” (1966-68), a white canvas bearing its title, painted in block letters: “The pleasure the painting affords is the pleasure of paradox—of trying to grasp something that on the face of it is all idea and no art, and trying to see it as all art and not idea” (43). The paradox here consists in the irresolvable oscillation between the truth and falsehood of what the canvas says about itself; we have an instance of the paradox of the liar, whose “I am lying” is true if false, false if true. I leave it to others to decide how much pleasure games like this (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” etc.) can afford, especially when you consider that they have been going on since Marcel Duchamp planted an upside-down urinal at a gallery show (“Fountain,” 1917).
What is more interesting for GA about Schwabsky’s commentary is the way he foregrounds it with reflections on the paradoxes of linguistic representation, beginning with the remark that “while the rules of a language and its vocabulary are supposed to be universally valid, every utterance is a specific event in the here and how of its occurrence. As soon as we start to think about the relations between the specific and the universal in language, we are liable to find our heads spinning” (43). Head spinning is the effect of paradox, which GA unravels in its clarifying insistence on the horizontal and vertical axes of all linguistic utterance, namely, the location of signs amidst the world of things they represent and their transcendence as well of that world of reference, for their meaning only functions in terms of their difference from other signs, not their connection to any thing whatsoever in the world. The reference of a word to an object is only possible by its difference from all other words in the virtual world of meaning. It is because sign and world exist in this “tangled hierarchy” (Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Ordres et désordres: Enquête sur un nouveau paradigme. Paris: Seuil, 1982, Chap. VIII) that new meaning, indeed scientific discovery itself, is endlessly available to language users, who relentlessly construct and reconstruct hypotheses about reality while doing the same with the semantics and rules of their discovery procedures.
CA inscribes utterance as an event since its works aspire to one-off, unique, or monumental status, to being of moment in art, to being momentous, inaugural in the flow of art history. At the same time, their self-referential antics ever more strenuously proclaim their own futility. Their vacuum packed (de)constructions seek to absorb the viewers’ attention in a way that is analogous to sucking the air out of a room until its walls implode, the room here being the space devoted to containing art objects in galleries and museums. “Every art work is a model of the originary event,” writes Gans (“The Esthetic Moment,” Chronicle 369, 14/3/09), and CA models the event in its an-esthetic, aniconic, abstract purity in its effort to convene joint attention to significance as such, to difference as such. This sort of self-referential strip-tease has understandably made buyers skittish about what to bid on for their own collections, and to rely heavily on professional consultants for their acquisitions—much as investors rely on market analysts for advice on where to place their money. As Jeff Koons commented at a 1980’s colloquium—his works have gone for the tens of millions at a time—”the market is the critic now” (in Raphael Rubenstein, ed., Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of their Practice. Lenox, MA: Hard Press, 2006, p. 102).
Every utterance is unique in the here and now of its performance by its individual users, however many they may be at the same time and place. If we seek to refute that observation by insisting that every utterance is endlessly, infinitely repeatable by anyone, anywhere, and so is shorn of its uniqueness, we are merely underlining its memorability as an event in the first place. Andy Warhol’s entire oeuvre is constructed and deconstructs itself on this paradox, which it raises in turn to monumental status, attesting to the triumph of consumerism, to the artist as anybody. His “memoirs” bear the title: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B & Back Again.
The massive repetition and replication of slogans, chanted or printed, of all sorts, as in political rallies, instantiates just this event-driven striving, this backward looking and forward moving intention, whether reactionary or progressive, whether seeking a break or continuity with the past, rupture or reconciliation: it convenes a community to make something happen: a touchdown, an election, whatever. OWS is no exception to this rule. For Schwabsky, some of the signs at Zuccotti Plaza display the “guerilla semiotics” of CA. He cites in particular the sign bearing the sentence “I’M SO ANGRY I MADE A SIGN.” He astutely points out that for the “vacuity of its content, the lack of demands, of concrete proposals . . . it could easily be the work of a satirist of Occupy” (44). There is little doubt that the Wall Street Journal would seize on it as an example of the utter fecklessness of OWS—if only to point away, as I shall argue further on, from the financial debacle that OWS protests against. For those derisive of OWS, as a recent chronicle seems to be (“The Occupation of Utopia,” No. 414, 12/ 3/2011), this sign might provide a demonstration of the movement’s irresponsibility, its romantic or utopian naiveté replicating the purblind hostility to the market that has characterized the academic left. Even Schwabsky applies Walter Benjamin’s expression “left wing melancholy” (45) to the signs he discusses. With no agenda, no program, the movement seems stillborn, a sterile exercise in anti-market resentment.
But Schwabsky also remarks upon the self-deprecating humor that this and other signs display, and that, I think, is more to the point. Genuine humor convenes in a reconciling way. Representation defers violence; laughter dispels it. When I read about the hostility to OWS’s hostility to markets, I am amused by the flagrant confusion here. After all, the movement is not called Occupy Macy’s, or Gristedes, nor even Tiffany’s for that matter. It is directed against the very demonstrable intemperance of financial markets, whose origin and operations are not to be confused with markets in general, the exchange of goods and services as efficiently, because minimally, mediated by money. In financial markets only money is exchanged, and transactions are rewarded by spectacular amounts that are patently out of proportion with any other system of compensation that the world has seen since Napoleon, in the wake of his conquests, doled out principalities to his entourage (some of whom—Ney, Murat, Bernadotte, Talleyrand—shorted his stock when his ratings tumbled later on).
The operations of financial markets are of a different order of magnitude from those that answer to the needs and desires of human producers and consumers. They are not noxious in themselves; indeed, in a global economy engaging currencies and commodities worldwide, they are absolutely necessary. But because they are purely metaphysical entities in which nothing tangible is produced or exchanged, they, like potlatches which only destroy goods in a rivalry for pure prestige, are especially prey to mimetic pathologies of internal mediation, to speculation on the speculation of others in a hall of mirrors, which may expand in inverse proportion to its contact with reality—tangible, material reality or even economic reality. It is a world in which faith in an unregulated market has spun out of control, where monetary success confirmed that faith and converted it to blind dogma. It is a largely self-referential world, where competition for investors is driven by… competition for investors.
What follows is a précis of narratives drawn from Scott Patterson’s The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It (New York: Crown Business, 2010), Michael Lewis’s The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (New York: Norton, 2011), André Orléans’s L’Empire de la valeur: Refonder l’économie (Paris: Seuil, 2011), his De l’euphorie à la panique: Penser la crise financière (Paris: Ecole Normale Supérieure, 2009), as well as myriad journalistic sources. As a telling precedent for these deceptions and self-deceptions, I recommend Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: Norton, 2011) by the MacArthur Award and Parkman Prize winning author Richard White, who shows how every railroad expanding Westward to the Pacific in the late 19th century lost money, despite, or rather because of, the colossal fortunes amassed by their entrepreneurs. His lively and learned narrative (660 pp.) gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “free enterprise.”
Of course there is, or was at one time, a material base for all this Wall Street speculation, that of individual home ownership. What could be more earthbound, of the earth and earthly, than that? In fact the basic needs of shelter, along with food and procreation, are the only ones we share with the rest of the animal kingdom. Everything else humans do is not nature, but culture, which GA deftly and decisively defines as a system of representations, which it traces in turn to a deferral of violence by means of a sign that represents an appetitive object as unappropriable to its mimetically desiring subjects. Representation and desire, uniquely human, are born of one and the same aborted act of appropriation, desire being minimally and adequately defined as deferred possession.
A mortgage is a genial instrument for the satisfaction of desire, allowing for immediate possession and habitation of a property by means of deferring full payment for it over several decades, the deferral being granted in exchange for an interest on the loan; this results in a system that assures both the buyer of a home and the lender of a profit on the loan that over time is quite substantial vis-à- vis the original cost of the property. It is as if the buyer, while nibbling away at the cost of the principal over time, is paying rent in the form of interest for the benefit of immediate occupation. The benefit to the buyer in this nonetheless usurious transaction consists in the expectation that property values will increase, so that the property can be sold off at a higher price than its original loan, so that the interest paid out is more than recuperated, in the form of enhanced home equity, in the potential resale of the property. As there is more and more money in interest payments to be made with more and more loans, lenders are motivated to seek more and more borrowers, which results in the extension of loans to more borrowers at the lower-income base of the economic pyramid; and we know that real estate mortgages were contracted by parties with inadequate sources of income necessary to make payments on them. We might construe these loans as the street-floor level of borrowers, or worse, as its basement; but they came by the more upbeat name of “mezzanine” loans: such are the euphemisms with which mimetic desire adorned its delusions in a process of contagious reality-denial that became self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating.
With the expectation that property values increase over time, the risk of default on more dubious loans is thought to decrease. Risk is further diluted when these subprime loans are mixed with loans extended to buyers with more probable resources to repay them. Enter the CDO (collateralized debt obligation), where sound and unsound mortgages are bundled together in large quantities and sold as interest-bearing investments, and are bundled together yet again with other interest bearing loans, such as those borne by credit card expenditures. Rating agencies, whose evaluations are paid for by the investors whose assets they rate, predictably awarded low risk grades (Triple A) to CDO’s consisting of a mixture of subprime and prime mortgages, the former bearing the euphemistic “B-” grade in their own tranche or slice of the lending stack. In a market economy which relies on consumer spending for 70% of its growth, this makes sense. And, as the trend in property values has been upwards over the several decades since the depression of 1929, it made sense to increase the number of loans, to extend home loans to ever wider segments of the population. And furthermore, as if motivated by the idea that one cannot do too much to avoid investment risk, another “financial instrument” was devised, the CDS (credit default swap), which consisted in insurance against the default of these loan packages, and which could be obtained at a yearly premium amounting to a very small percentage, always less than 1%, of the estimated value of the assets.
The complexity of these financial instruments, by the admission of all concerned in these transactions–originators, sellers and buyers–was such that no one involved could claim to really understand them, to be able to parse them with any assurance of clarity. This did not seem to matter as long as the system paid off, and it paid off in billions. And here is the paradox: the instrument common to all these deals is one of the simplest tools of human invention, the lever; as the market expanded, all these deals were more and more leveraged by investment banks and brokerage firms, reaching ratios of 20- and 30-to-one of loans to assets.
All this made sense, or seemed to: the more loans, the more interest. Amidst mounting prosperity in the last decades of the previous century, the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act freed commercial banks from the kinds of regulation to which investment banks, still less hedge funds, were never subjected. The less regulation there was, the more money there was to be made in bundles of interest-bearing loans predicated on rising home prices. “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance,” Charles Prince, former CEO of Citicorp, told the Financial Times in July 2007, adding, without a scintilla of irony, of forethought or afterthought, “We’re still dancing.” (I imagine Napoleon dashing to Moscow, saying “as long as they keep retreating, we’ll keep on advancing.” We know how that turned out: Bérézina is the word that the French use to describe a particularly disgraceful debacle). As the pitch escalated of lending and investing in those loans and of bonuses awarded for their composition and sale and recomposition and resale (along come “synthetic CDOs,” comprised of bundles of CDOs), Newton’s law of gravity seemed abrogated—as indeed, in the minds of the investment bankers, it was. Teams of mathematicians, physicists, and rocket scientists attracted from academic departments were brought on board investment houses. They came equipped with algorithms devised to interpret variables and volatilities according to laws of large numbers and the calculus of astrophysics that assured market efficiency as traceable in investment/yield patterns dating back over 50 years. The Quants, as they came to be known, boosted market confidence into a virtual world of higher mathematics, whose referents are numbers, not anything like “real estate.”
When the crash came, it was blamed on falling housing prices, but there is no point in this narrative arc that this effect can be traced to that cause. Michael Lewis is emphatic on this point: all that had to happen to precipitate a crash was for prices to stop rising, as occurred when investors, sensing perhaps the slurry of bad loans at the base of the financial pyramid, began to call in their bets, take their winnings. The same mimetic behavior that drove the market up drove it down, but much more precipitously, once the emperor’s clothes were seen to be plaited of bluster. At this point, the only people who made money in the market were those who had shorted its stocks or bought insurance against its failure: those, in sum, who bet against it. One small investment house, so small that its mere 30 million dollars of assets were too small for the big bankers to return its calls, cashed in the investment on its insurance premiums at a ratio of 80 to 1. These few winners, incredulous of the unsustainable risk that was involved, came to understand in conversations with the actors of this drama that they themselves did not understand what they were doing. As one winner stated, “The system is fucked” (Lewis 263). The reason that the federal government had to shell out hundreds of billions of dollars to cover liabilities of these “troubled assets” is that their host institutions could not unravel their varying liabilities, could not separate wheat from chaff, sheep from goats.
One investment firm was buying up insurance of this kind on one floor of its offices while it continued to package and sell CDOs on another floor. The broker who set a world record for inducing losses of 7 billion dollars to his company, Morgan Stanley, lost his employment with them, but not his 25 million in salary and bonuses. We are in a surreal environment, with all the absurdity and idiocy promoted by those crazies.
The total collapse of financial markets worldwide, generating a worldwide depression, was only averted, we are told, because of the absorption of debt by the US federal government, by its guarantee to those at the top of the pyramid of its controlling the bad debts at the bottom of their loans. Instead of a depression, we have an ongoing recession, with double digit unemployment that this country has not known since the Great Depression. Instead of Hoovervilles, we have OWS, whose protests express a scandalized awe at the magnitude of a crisis stemming from such a tiny crossroad in lower Manhattan. It is not an anti-market movement. Panhandling was absent; neighboring Starbucks did well. It expresses outrage at the doings of financial markets, and at the doers’ pronouncements of innocence, at their criminally muddled understanding of their own transactions. An index of this pandemic confusion is clearly legible in the garbled syntax of Alan Greenspan, chair of the Federal Reserve during all this speculation, who testified in its aftermath to a congressional committee: “A flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.” How that sentence works is beyond comprehension, and there are plenty more examples of this kind of ungrammatical spluttering on the part of highly placed academic economists, former Federal Reserve officers, and well educated CEOs, that anyone with a taste for absurdist prose can savor in the Oscar winning documentary, Inside Job (aka Ubu redivivus).
Financial markets are subject to the general laws of the market except that instead of the exchange of goods and services, only the exchange of financial services prevails. The more tenuous the service, the more abstract, disembodied, the more fragile it is, and the more it is prey to mimetic pathologies that spiral away from concrete reality. Schwabsky’s take on the relevance of CA to the signs displayed at OWS pales before the deep-structural affinity between CA’s self-referential high-jinx and the dealings of financial markets, which has been reality-averse enough to merit the label “conceptual finance,” (or ” high concept finance,” because ” high concept” directors in theater and opera, such as Peter Sellars and Mary Zimmerman, notoriously devote more attention to their own ingenuity than to what the work they are directing is actually about). Economics is notoriously labeled “the dismal science”; it is no less dismal for its greater resemblance to science fiction, or merely to farce.
None of this is illegal. Nor is it likely, given the political culture of Washington, that any effective legislation will emerge to prevent similar crises in the future. Roland Barthes borrowed from Nietzsche the claim that he inhabited a culture in which truth could only be uttered as sarcasm. Nothing about the recent operations of financial markets belies that observation. SNL is reality TV.
A good anthropological theory has, according to the principle of parsimony, to explain much with little. Its explanatory power should extend no less to current events and contemporary cultural patterns than to past history. GA is matchless in this regard, especially as it is articulated in the Chronicles of Love and Resentment, and not least in the sound anthropological interpretation it brings to the superior rationality of free markets. If it is to understand the fluidity, droughts and deluges, monsoons, and tsunamis of recent financial markets, GA’s interpretive model is to be found in the pages of Molière and Jarry rather than those of Hayek, Schumpeter, and Friedman. This is consistent with GA’s identification of great literature as an anthropological discovery procedure. As heir to the narrative tradition begun with the novel, great film belongs to this level of understanding. As a recipe for penetrating putatively complex systems of the kind OWS deplores, start with Duck Soup. No kidding.