20 November 2008

derivative of what?

Finally. John Lanchester, of whom I must admit I have never before heard, has a stunning piece buried in the back of Nov. 10 New Yorker on the credit crisis as it relates the broader cultural paradigms of modernism and postmodernism. Although I've appreciated the commentary of Krugman (who just today so succinctly declared: "This is an economic emergency"), Reich, and others these past few months, this is really the first piece of critical analysis that I've read that situates the credit crisis within a larger cultural and philosophical context.

Lanchester's article, which uses the format of a book review of recent books on the credit crunch as an excuse to analyze its cultural/theoretical dimension, is as revelatory as it is simple. Of course derivatives, credit-default swaps, and all those other bizarre financial instruments are nothing more than financial incarnations of the classic late twentieth-century disjunction between the signifier and the signified. And of course the root of the crisis lies in the escalation of this disjunction to the point where the signifier no longer retains any connection whatsoever to the original signified. Lanchester's piece echoes critic/philosopher/writer Mark C. Taylor (see his book Confidence Games from a few years back) in this idea of how money has essentially become nothing more than a floating signifier. All value is relative—or derivative, if you will. It's all a house of mirrors. Lanchester's key line:

It seems wholly contrary to common sense that the market for products that derive from real things should be unimaginably vaster than the market for things themselves.
Now forgive me for my sudden, euphoric lapse into the language of post-structuralism and deconstruction; nobody should have to parse such nonsense. But in all seriousness, most people have no idea what the hell is going on with this credit crisis, and hopefully Lanchester's reading of the situation can help to encourage a broader understanding. It sure did for me.

link: "Melting Into Air" by John Lanchestor, in the New Yorker

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