Frank Rich has another wonderful article in the NYT, Obama, Lehman and 'The Dragon Tattoo' with his usual plethora of intriguing links. There has been a lot of talk about whether Stieg Larsson's novel is misogynist, but Rich points out that there is no doubt about how much he hated bankers and he wonders if this has anything to do with the extraordinary success of the Millennium Trilogy. (I just read the third, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest, and it is by far the best, brilliant plotting, but not a lot on finance). His point is that popular fiction may reveal more about what people really think than the politicians and conventional media articulate. He links this observation to the story of Lehman Brothers which is gradually coming out and has been featured in Michael Lewis's No 1 non-fiction bestseller, The Big Short. Rich draws from all this a prediction that a war is coming soon over the rules for banking and who imposes them. What matters is to identify the sides in this war and decide which one you are on. Obama, sitting gingerly in the middle, will be knocked off his perch unless he comes down squarely on the side of justice.

This analysis reminds me so much of the man who taught me more than any other, the Caribbean writer and revolutionary, C.L.R. James, whose American Civilization (1993) Anna Grimshaw and I edited for publication (it was written in 1950 and has gone out of print). He argued that the struggle for civilization was between ordinary people seeking more democracy in their own lives and the bureaucratic powers who would deny them more control. This class conlflict gains freest expression in popular culture, but it also points to political upheavals.

Since we seem to be having difficulty sustaining discussion at a high level of abstraction, I wondered if anyone would like to join in an exploration of how popular fiction and non-fiction (including movies, plays and journalism) throw light on the economic crisis we are living through by building up a narrative of what is happening that may or may not have political consequences. Perhaps you could add sources that have struck you as being particularly insightful. I will mention one that turned me on.

William Poundstone's Fortune's Formula: The untold story of the scientific betting system that beat the casinos and Wall Street (2006) is an amazing narrative over the last half-century bringing together Claude Shannon (the inventor of information theory), The Mob, Rudy Giuliani, Paul Samuelson, the guy who invented junk bonds and a cast of thousands. The basic question is can you beat the market or not? The economists say not, but you can if you have inside information. It all starts with a corrupt telegraph operator. Read on...


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Great cover, Nathan! I wouldn't call OWS decisive. The whole point is to do something symbolic and see if it strikes a chord. This one did for reasons that we could debate. The fact that it has spread around the world so quickly is that we are witnessing the collapse of the American empire which began in the Middle East, its strategic heartland. As long as the American people did nothing to shake their own government and corporations, it was business as usual. Imagine if the student protests in Britain or the London riots had escalated, would the global knock on effect be similar? I doubt it. What is evident is that the people who got the world economy into this mess are helpless to do anything about it. CLR James used to say that most people want to hold onto what they have, if they can. But when enough of them realise they have lost it, the switch to revolutionary action is very fast. The activists, who dream of this all the time, can then provide some temporary leadership. OWS has been that catalyst for many because it is at the core.
I meant to add that for me this image best captures the "narrative" of the crisis. The economy is depicted as a glacier flowing along quite apart from the actions of mere humans whilst at the same time everyone thinks that it's only "concrete" human action that can save it from disintegrating. Just as breaking news stories from financial news analysts have been shown to be "actants" in determining the state of the economy, we hook ourselves around the nearest solid object (or tropic point) and pray that it's the one that will stop us slipping off the cliff.
Do you know Albert Camus' The Plague? It is a withering attack on what he calls 'humanism', the deluded belief that disasters have a concrete human explanation and remedy. I prefer a more optimistic approach. What we can think about and do is a small part of what matters, but it is all we have and it doesn't pay to give up. This relates to what I wrote in the new section you introduced on the anthropology of finance. We have to build bridges from ethnographic particulars to the big picture or we remain trapped in self-induced impotence.

Nathan Dobson said:
I meant to add that for me this image best captures the "narrative" of the crisis. The economy is depicted as a glacier flowing along quite apart from the actions of mere humans whilst at the same time everyone thinks that it's only "concrete" human action that can save it from disintegrating. Just as breaking news stories from financial news analysts have been shown to be "actants" in determining the state of the economy, we hook ourselves around the nearest solid object (or tropic point) and pray that it's the one that will stop us slipping off the cliff.

Thanks for your replies Keith. I'll make sure I get hold of La Peste.

I particularly liked your comment in the other thread on methodology. I have been reading through a number of the older posts on the OAC and I've been wondering about how our choice of methodology (narrative analysis, participant observation, action research) constructs the anthropologist. If, for example we have a propensity to see colours, or feel dramatic performances more than perhaps academic articles we might be more inclined towards certain methods, just as participatory research seemed the answer to many activist anthropologists.

Slightly off the topic of the crisis but along the same lines of fiction and finance, Gordon L. Clark's article "Money Flows like Mercury" (Geografiska Annaler. 87:2) raises some interesting points.

Page 105 - "Characteristically, mercury tends to (1) run together at speed, (2) form in pools, (3) re-form in pools if disturbed, (4) follow the rivulets and channels of any surface however smooth it may appear to be, and (5) is poisonous in small and large doses if poorly managed. I would contend that global finance has similar characteristics, even if we should take care not to exaggerate commonalities between mercury and money. After all, the value of a metaphor is its suggestiveness rather than the precise relationship between the allusion and its object. Indeed, a metaphor works because of the apparent tensions between the allusion and its reference point. Put slightly differently, whereas a metaphor can suggest ways of conceptualizing social issues and institutions, they are neither sufficient in specifying the characteristics of the metaphorical object nor do they stand as adequate representations of underlying economic and social processes. Metaphors are instruments of inspiration, and they are instruments of communication, as any participant in related industry conferences will immediately recognize."

He also points us to Paul Slack's "Perceptions of the metropolis in seventeenth-century England" (1998) which he says looks at the metaphors used to emphasise the role of London in the circulation of commodities, income and wealth, in the seventeenth century:

Slack 1998: p. 162 - " no different from other great cities in the past in being pictured simultaneously as Babylon and Jerusalem and the polarity had particular appeal in an intellectual climate where such binary oppositions were familiar rhetorical devices. It was as natural to set urban images of sin, extravagance, dirt, and infection against those of (country) stability, wealth, light, and learning as it was to contrast the notions of London as economic parasite and economic stimulus."

Money as mercury, a very interesting metaphor, indeed. Can it be extended to rising up narrow tubes when markets are heated and then evaporating when they overheat? 

I am remembering a bit of philosophy of science in which the topic was operationalism, the idea that scientific knowledge is grounded in the operations performed during experiments. One puzzle was how to connect temperature in the range described by mercury thermometers with temperature on, say, the surface of the Sun. 

"The Ethiopians" 'intimating' the crash in 1968?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZqVUblgWxY

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