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by Rob Horning

9 Jun 2009

Feeling a bit sorry for the bankers, historian Harold James in this Project Syndicate op-ed attempts to shift some of the blame for the economic crisis on, of all things, postmodernism.

Other academic disciplines have looked rather smugly at the public humiliation of their colleagues in economics. The non-mathematical appear to have their revenge, as the perils of over-reliance on complex symbolic notation and arcane formulae are relentlessly exposed.
In fact, developments or fashions in other academic disciplines and also in the general culture contributed at least as much to a willingness to engage in absurd risks and to provide and accept valuations of complex and inherently unfathomable securities. The general cultural developments are sometimes termed post-modernism, which involves the replacement of reason by intuition, feeling, and allusion.

Sure. That seems fair enough. It is easy to picture the trading floor at Goldman Sachs littered with Lyotard, easy to imagine risk management falling through the cracks because all the continental philosophy bankers customarily read persuaded them they should believe in nothing and that so-called “risk” was just a signifier with no fixed transcendental relevance. When they were through decentering their subjectivity, the minions at credit-rating agencies went ahead and gave structured securities whatever the hell rating was requested; after all, any evaluative criteria will be compromised by the tautological assumptions that are always already tacitly accepted.

As far as I can tell, James is not joking. He wants readers to believe that postmodernism is responsible for a climate of irresponsibility among bankers on Wall Street—and not something more immediately salient and obvious like, say, greed. This is an actual, undoctored quote from James’s essay: “At the era’s height, major financial players built vastly expensive collections of highly abstract modern art. A post-modern neglect or disdain for reality generated the sense that the whole world was constantly shifting and malleable, and might be as transient and meaningless as stock quotations.” It seems a pretty postmodern way to argue, actually; just present a few incoherent juxtapositions of vaguely associated notions and demand that readers tease out and decide what it might mean (or better yet, have them settle on undecidability itself). James argues that financial innovation, political cowardice, and postmodernism all worked together so that “every sort of value - including financial values - came to be seen as arbitrary and fundamentally absurd.” But just because philosophers may have been exploring the possibility that there was no “there” there with regard to Western values doesn’t mean they advocated the idea that fictitious values should be actively created to artificially inflate asset values, or that derivatives whose notional value far exceeded the assets from which they were derived should be written. Just because both critical theory and quantitative finance are hard for laypeople to comprehend does not make them morally equivalent. And the fact that a postmodern analysis could be used to elucidate the techniques of finance (the building something out nothing aspects of it anyway) revealed how awry finance had become; it didn’t supply a justification for it. Greed did that. The spirit motivating philosophers ( a concern for ways in which ideology distorts what passes for truth) is fundamentally different than the one that spurred financial innovators; to elide them is to discredit the whole notion of responsibility, which seems to be James’s aim. In his final paragraph, he laments the possibility that society might regress to a “medieval” witch-hunt mentality by playing blame games. Better by far to suggest that everyone is responsible in some small way and preserve the existing social order.

A non-risible critique about the role of ideas in the crisis from Neil Sinhababu can be found here, and it demonstrates how a postmodernish style of inquiry can actually help unmask problems rather than contribute to them:

economists have managed to convince people of indefensible views on normative topics such as what it’s rational for individuals to do, what’s an appropriate object of moral criticism, and what would be a good distribution of resources. I don’t know how many of them would, when pressed, defend these sorts of claims—their discipline isn’t supposed to be one that makes normative claims.
Saying you’re not making any normative claims is, of course, a good way of getting people to accept the normative claims you make. A lot more in this sort of thing depends on the sorts of emotions that get communicated as people talk about stuff and the loaded words you use. Pareto optimality, for example, has ‘optimality’ built into it, and who doesn’t like optimality? Of course, as Rawls tells us, a distribution where one person owns all tradable goods and services while nobody else has anything is Pareto optimal.
In any event, this is the kind of thing we ought to be concerned about, both as citizens and as philosophers. While ideas from other parts of academia can’t get out to the public, economists are convincing people of ridiculous theses in moral and political philosophy that their research doesn’t even support. (It probably helps that widespread social acceptance of these theses is favorable to the interests of very wealthy people.)

by Sarah Zupko

9 Jun 2009

Basement Jaxx release their new single “Raindrops” on 22 June in the UK. It’s been a really long time since we last heard from them and they have been sorely missed. The tune is deliciously disco-esque and the video videos are colorful, glam and kaleidoscopic.

by Mike Edison

9 Jun 2009

The unsinkable Mike Edison — former High Times Publisher, Screw editor, Hustler correspondent, and professional wrestler of no small repute — is hitting the road to promote the new paperback of his outrageous memoir, I Have Fun Everywhere I Go: Savage Tales of Pot, Porn, Punk Rock, Pro Wrestling, Talking Apes, Evil Bosses, Dirty Blues, American Heroes, and the Most Notorious Magazines in the World.

He recently began his “I Have Fun in Brooklyn Tour”, a five-neighborhood odyssey that he promises will be “more fun than the circus”. He’ll be blogging his adventures here. (See below for dates.)

HULK HOGAN R.I.P.

I have been feuding with Hulk Hogan for twenty years now. So why does winning feel so ugly?

Those of you following this blog know I have been on tour promoting my book, I HAVE FUN EVERYWHERE I GO, a fair part of which is dedicated to my career as a wrestler and a wrestling journalist, not to mention my high-minded philosophies of the game. To wit:

“Wrestling is like what Dostoyevsky says about faith. If you get it, no explanation is necessary, and if you don’t, no explanation will do.”

by Sarah Zupko

9 Jun 2009

Stuart Murdoch from Belle and Sebastian has a new project God Help the Girl releasing their album on 23 June. The first single “Funny Little Frog” is a lot jazzier than B&S, but every bit as poppy as the Scottish group.

by shathley Q

9 Jun 2009

It is the discipline of form. Not unlike writing in pentameter, Seagle tells the five stories of “Blueprint” in single-panel exposition, only allowing only two panels per page. Like his fictional architect William Babcock, Seagle weaves these five tales into a single work, a perfect narrative line. For readers to easily join the panels to their correct stories, Seagle writes each tale in distinctive narrative form, and unique captioning style. Babcock’s story around his occul inspiration for the Mansion’s design, takes the form of a letter captioned in ornate penmanship.

Through Babcock’s letter, the story of a love affair between construction foreman Ed and Missus Reichuss, and the story of a power-struggle within the Duwamish tribe who originally used the Mansion’s property as a place of exile and punishment, Seagle unfolds a prehistory of horror around Reichhuss Mansion. Along with the more esoteric vignettes wherein Babcock’s blueprint and the Mansion relate their ‘own’ stories, Seagle unveils a supernatural conspiracy by which unseen forces influence events to ultimately make the Mansion’s construction inevitable.

The richness of “Blueprint” lies in exactly this lingering sensation of the unseen winding its way through coincidence and happenstance. Seemingly unconnected events intersect each other until a perfect chain of consequence leads to the Mansion being built and the ghostly jury being ‘awakened’ to take up residence. Just as each panel is nothing more than a segment, luring the reader into the false sense of being momentarily afforded a glimpse of a fully-developed world, so too do the unseen spirits become the central characters animate the lives of Babock, Foreman Ed and Audrey Reichuss.

Originally detailing the story of Rain, a refugee of the Seattle grunge scene of the ‘90’s, House of Secrets’ seventh issue provides readers not only with an origin for the possessed Mansion, but also a comment on comics crossovers as the tales of Ed, Babcock, Audrey and the Duwamish intersect to produce something of enduring horror.

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