"Welcome to Yesteryear, Actus Primus"
March 12, 2009 feels real and solid and sober in my hand like a gun in those first microseconds of recoil. Not the day itself, but "March 12, 2009" the episode of the The Daily Show, with Jon Stewart. Otherwise forgettable, the day eventually winds into Stewart's 'showdown' with Mad Money host Jim Cramer. And in a flawlessly poignant moment, Stewart gets to the heart at the heart of the financial crisis in a human and meaningful way that no amount of scholarly diligence on the part of Andrew Ross Sorkin (whose beautiful work Too Big To Fail remains as a singular compass-star for understanding the mechanics of the Crisis) could ever produce. Some ten minutes into the conversation, Stewart says directly to Cramer,
"Now why when you talk about the regulators, why not the financial news network? That is the whole point of this? CNBC could be an incredibly powerful tool of illumination for people that believe that there are two markets: One that has been sold to us as long term--"Put your money in 401k's. Put your money in pensions and just leave it there. Don’t worry about it. It’s all doing fine". Then, there’s this other market, this real market that is occurring in the back room, where giant piles of money are going in and out and people are trading them. And it’s transactional and it’s fast, but it’s dangerous, it’s ethically dubious and it hurts that long-term market. So what it feels like to us--and I’m talking purely as a layman--it feels like we are capitalizing your adventure by our pension and our hard earned money. And that it is a game that you know. That you know is going on. But that you go on television as a financial network and pretend it isn’t happening."
"It feels like, we are capitalizing your adventure". It's a shining, perfect, Don Quixote moment whoever you are, whenever you are. A moment swathed in the everyday heraldry demanded by an ordinary world. Cutting to the heart of the thing, it speaks to the human element in financial crisis; that you did this to us, the you did this, that there's both agency (direct or arising from subtle interactions) and activity, and that collectively we've been on the receiving end of a strange conspiracy of both.
But the moment is shining, perfect, not in a sense of its identifying and simultaneously confronting directly the egregious horror perpetrated against us all. The moment is shining, perfect, because it installs in us almost unquestioningly the belief that, although this hasn't yet come to pass, the someday, somehow, the Crisis too might be prevailed over. Not that this monstrous, gutturally-evoked situation is at an end, not that its end is even in sight, but the idea that this condition is merely that, and that it can have an end, and that we might be able to reach that end.
"It feels like we are capitalizing your adventure"… After having come through slaughter, finally we can conceive of a victory over the agents that have caused our financial oppression. In the human glut of a single moment, nothing becomes clearer than 50 Cent's popular motto, "Get rich, or die trying". The obverse of now seems clearly to be, "Punish those who have prevented you from getting rich". Both ring true in the mind like a war slogan now, just as March 12, 2009 feels good and real and solid, like a gun in my hand, at the moment of recoil. Victory, I feel as you do too, can finally be in our grasp.
"It feels like we are capitalizing your adventure"… But by what infernal machineries did I come to have this gun in my hand in the first place? What occasioned my backslide into grandiose metaphors of violence? Why is Jim Cramer being made to kneel in what is more and more beginning to feel like a cathedral that has simply erupted around us all, a cathedral to the life we had begun to imagine for ourselves during the frenetic burst of wealth that seemed to culminate in 2007? And most of all, why, in the turn of a single phrase, "we are capitalizing your adventure", am I being deindividuated from you? It feels like I've done enough in my life, or at least attempted enough, to discern myself from you, and you in yours from me. Why now, on the Eve of Austerity, does it feel like there's a Greater Us being nationalized and pressed into service like an oil company on the morning of The Revolution?
Look hard enough at not the politics of Jon Stewart's statement, but the semantics of the thing and it becomes easy enough to understand how we can be swept up in the wonderhell that will break first as the Arab Spring, then as London 2011, then as Occupy. And next? Who's to say it won't government-engineered youth-led protest in China, in the Szechuan most likely, that goes horribly awry and begins to take on a life of its own? "It feels like we're capitalizing your adventure", and its only a matter of time before I too want to be anonymized within the crowd.
Stewart's comedic genius lies in the fact that he can leverage a single phrase into opening audiences to the idea that we are all already trapped in cascading metafictions of prenostalgia. That we can imagine ourselves having some manner of grand-scale, socially-networked revenge against the condition that stole away our pre-imagined economic stability, only to come up against the imponderable of the legal structure of civil society. There's a certain kind of prenostalgia to our dreams of breaking free from the system and Occupying, or shaping the world through hacktivism, taking down giant corporations like Sony by staging cyber-sit-ins while actual hackers break the seals and get away with the data. Just as there is a certain kind of prenostalgia to earlier having been able to imagine ourselves into the role of financial comfort, the stock market doing what it must, the boom continuing unflinchingly as it did since '93.
A handful of days before the new year of 2010, a very different kind of skirmish with prenostalgia plays out in the pages of MAD #502, "The 20 Dumbest of 2009", and plays out again in MAD #513, two years later's "20 Dumbest". Two entries, both written and drawn by Herman Mejia. These artistic statements speak to governmental activity (or inaction) spinning out from the financial crisis. The first in 2009, Mejia's "Keeping Bad Companies" that punches in at #2 on the list, is communicated beautifully in the visual. Hank Paulson, President Obama, Big Ben Bernanke and Larry Summer hoist an American flag in a tableau vivant of the flag raising at Iwo Jima.
But of course, in true MAD tradition, the flag being raised isn't anywhere near the shores of the Pacific isle. Instead, piles and piles of of crisp $100 bills, batched together in stacks of a thousand, make the craggy ground upon which the flag is hoisted. Even the flag itself is laced with parody. The familiar Field of Stars has been instead supplanted by corporate logos of the companies "saved" during The Bailout.
Two years later and it's not The Bailout, but The Downgrade being commented on. "The Walking Debt" is this time at #1 on the Dumbest list. Mejia uses the unprecedented success of a transmedia phenomenon, Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead and its eponymous AMC TV show analog, as a staging area for unlocking the true meaning of The Downgrade. The message? The Downgrade of the US Dollar by Standard & Poor is really a result of institutional gridlock in Washington. And gridlock is its own kind of zombie apocalypse.
Beautiful, savage statements both. But also a kind of reorientation in respect to prenostalgia. In the space of just 10 months we seemed to have moved from the kind of prenostalgia we engaged with on The Daily Show, to a "stronger, loving" kind of prenostalgia, to simultaneously quote and butcher John Cale. Earlier in 2009, The Daily Show seemed to offer us a unique formulation; that somehow, someway the prenostalgia of our happiness at the prospect of economic security was justifiable. Not the prospect of economic security itself, but our collective prenostalgia at the prospect. That we somehow deserved to be warmed by the loving glow of this memory that had not yet occurred.
The show's suggestion of the idea of culpability on the other side of the table reads like the pulp fictions of yore: imagine Wall Street as a kind of ghost town, ramshackle and long-abandoned, just now bought out by some savvy investor, and a Banner spanned at the reopening that reads "Welcome to Yesteryear". You'd bump into maybe Charlie Sheen or Julian Sands or Larry Hagman riding in the Batmobile. And at any moment Lone Ranger or the Phantom or the Spider might leap from the shadows, and save you. The show's position seems to at least diminish the idea of a networked complexity of interests and opts for good guy/bad guy in the more traditional, pulp fiction sense of things.
Somewhere, somehow, someone is to blame. And if we can't get at the good prenostalgia, it certainly seems plausible that we can get at the other kind, the kind that begins to feel like recoil in your hand. Already it feels like directly interdicting these thugs and villains and swindlers, might again produce, in us even now, that feeling of warmth and security of a memory that hasn't yet occurred.
Mejia and MAD offer a radically different redeployment of prenostalgia. Rather than being warmed by the glow of a memory that we haven't yet had a chance to enact, Mejia's prenostalgia forces us into the critical distance. What makes the parody of Iwo Jima so telling to our received understanding of The Bailout? Or to hone it even more, by what mechanism did we come to hope for The Bailout to be resolved in as morally unambiguous terms as raising the Flag on Iwo Jima? And by the same token, what about the gridlock and the consequent Downgrade makes us believe that Washington has been overrun by the zombie apocalypse?
Mejia's masterful statements not only deconstruct the power of the cultural moments themselves (truly, who hasn't longed for The Bailout to be resolved on Flag raising terms, or who hasn't conceived of DC as the Zombie Apocalypse?), but deconstruct the cultural moments themselves, and our power or apparent powerlessness in relation to them. And in so doing, deconstructs our own propensity for prenostalgia. By what mechanism did we come to yearn for a morally unambiguous resolution to The Bailout that would simply have Iwo Jima'ed things for us. By what mechanism have we already begun to subject Washington and the business of politics to an ongoing horror story?
It's not at all hard to make the jump from Mejia's use of prenostalgia to Reinhart & Rogoff's This Time is Different, perhaps the most accessible academic work on the recent financial crisis. The book details a historical context of some eight centuries of "financial folly". And Reinhart and Rogoff too offer a riff on the theme of pre/nostalgia. How is it we lose the lesson each time, This Time seems to push us towards asking. In other words, by what psychic mechanism can we time and again assume the current financial crisis as new territory, territory which has somehow invalidated what we know, or at least what we should already know?
The art of This Time lies in its secreting of this question of the human psyche at work in the broader world, within the deeper recesses of economic study. Reinhart and Rogoff don't blatantly pose the question of the human capacity to assume that a given financial crisis is somehow unique. That is to say, the book isn't an exercise in behavioral economics. Instead what they offer is a way for readers to embroil themselves in the question to find their own there by way of classical economics. Sooner or later you get to a point where you begin to ask, if the data is so clearly, so overwhelmingly pitched towards financial crises having almost exclusively one pattern, how is it we manage to delude ourselves into believing that this time is different?
[continued next week…]