Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Wall Street: Abstraction or Virtuality?

In yesterday's hearing before the Senate Banking Committee, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was asked by the Democratic Senator of Ohio, Sherrod Brown, "Does Wall Street owe the American people an apology?"  Wall Street, Bernanke answered, is "an abstraction."

As I began to address here yesterday, the question of agency during this extended moment of financial crisis is an interesting one--particularly the question of how agency is mediated among our print, televisual, and networked news media.  Although Bernanke followed up his characterization of Wall Street as an abstraction by acknowledging that "a lot of people made big mistakes," the agency I am interested in identifying is not that of individuals--not the agency that the FBI is reportedly seeking to identify in its current investigation of fraudulent mortgage lending practices on Wall Street.  

Don't get me wrong.  I believe it is crucial that those individuals responsible for getting us into this mess be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law (and perhaps even beyond).  My concern as a media theorist, however, is a different one.  What I am interested in making sense of is how both formal and informal media help to create and amplify the agency of financial crisis to the point where Congress is on the verge of approving $700 billion for an economic downturn that has not yet happened, a crisis that we are told might or will happen unless Congress acts now.  In other words, how does it come about that Congress is about to approve a $700 billion bailout in response to the premediation of recession?

Which brings us back to the question of Wall Street's agency.

Ben Bernanke could not be further from the truth in characterizing Wall Street as an "abstraction."  Such a characterization depends upon a series of familiar fundamental binary oppositions that go back to the earliest moves of modernity: abstract vs. concrete, idealism vs. materialism, imaginary vs. real, mind vs. body, and so forth.  The very financial practices that have inflated the current economic bubble and that now threaten to throw the US and perhaps the world into a recession stand as the refutation of these oppositions.  While critics of these financial practices often point out, for example, that the problem with the buying and selling of derivatives stems from the fact that such mortgages appear to have lost their connection to real properties, these criticisms resort to the same dualistic metaphysics underlying Bernanke's characterization of Wall Street as an "abstraction."

As I tried to suggest yesterday by likening "Wall Street" or "the market" or "the Dow" to a pantheon of gods, these agents are anything but abstract.  They are powerfully complex and heterogeneous actors in our economic drama, what Bruno Latour has characterized as "hybrids," "quasi-objects," or (more recently, in a term also employed by Gilles Deleuze) "assemblages."*  Like Greco-Roman deities, which are complex sociotechnical actants inseparable from their votaries and priests, their icons and temples, their calendars and sacred places, their rituals of sacrifice and remuneration, so our current economic deities are anything but "abstractions."  "Wall Street," "the market," and "the Dow" name heterogeneous formations of humans and non-humans, of material and immaterial forces, of technical and social networks--including their own votaries and priests, icons and temples, calendars and sacred places, and rituals of sacrifice and economic remuneration.  The agency of Wall Street is not the agency of an abstraction, but rather the agency of the complex sociotechnical assemblage of financial employees, bank statements, office buildings, powerful computer servers and distributed financial software networks, and so forth.  

But to return to the question posed to Bernanke, does Wall Street owe the American people an apology? Or, to put it differently, what would it mean for "Wall Street" to apologize to the American people? Who or what would make that apology? And to whom or what would it apologize?

Such questions can best be answered if we think of Wall Street not as "abstract," but as what Deleuze might characterize as "virtual."  In describing Wall Street as a Latourian quasi-object or Deleuzian assemblage, I have been trying to resist thinking of it as some kind of immaterial essence or abstraction or conceptualization of very real and concrete sociotechnical, cultural, and economic practices and capital resources. Similarly, however, I would resist thinking of Wall Street as a fixed or stable entity.  By invoking the Deleuzian concept of virtuality I want to highlight the way in which such entities as Wall Street, the market, or the Dow are always emergent or in a state of becoming--and that, like the Greco-Roman gods, their agency derives precisely from this potentiality, from what they have just done and from what they may do in the future.  

Hence premediation.  The priests and oracles of the Greco-Roman pantheon explained many political, economic, and natural occurrences and historical events in terms of the agency of the gods.  Simultaneously they devoted considerable energies and resources to placating, predicting, and even controlling the agency of the gods in the future. Similarly, in invoking the virtual agency of our financial pantheon, today's print, televisual, and networked news media work both to explain the present and recent past in terms of such economic demigods as Wall Street, the market, or the Dow, and to premediate how these gods will act in the near and not-so-near future.  It is the agency of premediation, I would argue, that provides much of the force that is moving Congress to the verge of authorizing as much as $700 billion to prevent what is currently a virtual recession, that is to say, a recession that has only been premediated and that might, despite possibly having motivated Congress to authorize a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street, never even have occurred.  

* "An assemblage is, first, an ad hoc grouping, a collectivity whose origins are historical and circumstantial, though its contingent status says nothing about its efficacy, which can be quite strong. An assemblage is, second, a living, throbbing grouping whose coherence coexists with energies and countercultures that exceed and confound it. An assemblage is, third, a web with an uneven topography: some of the points at which the trajectories of actants cross each other are more heavily trafficked than others, and thus power is not equally distributed across the assemblage. An assemblage is, fourth, not governed by a central power: no one member has sufficient competence to fully determine the consequences of the activities of the assemblage. An assemblage, finally, is made up of many types of actants: humans and nonhumans; animals, vegetables, and minerals; nature, culture, and technology." [Jane Bennett, "The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout," Public Culture (17)3: 445-465.]

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