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Archive for October 2008

“the shade of some dead accountant”

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Charles Lamb on the South Sea House:

Situated as thou art, in the very heart of stirring and living commerce, — amid the fret and fever of speculation — with the Bank, and the `Change, and the India-house about thee, in the hey-day of present prosperity, with their important faces, as it were, insulting thee, their poor neighbour out of business — to the idle and merely contemplative,to such as me, old house! there is a charm in thy quiet — a cessation — a coolness from business — an indolence almost cloistral — which is delightful! With what reverence have I paced thy great bare rooms and courts at eventide! They spoke of the past — the shade of some dead accountant, with visionary pen in ear, would flit by me, stiff as in life. Living accounts and accountants puzzle me. I have no skill in figuring. But thy great dead tomes, which scarce three degenerate clerks of the present day could lift from their enshrining shelves with their old fantastic flourishes, and decorative rubric interlacing their sums in triple columniations, set down with formal superfluity of cyphers with pious sentences at the beginning, without which our religious ancestors never ventured to open a book of business, or bill of lading — the costly vellum covers of some of them almost persuading us that we are got into some better library, are very agreeable and edifying spectacles. I can look upon these defunct dragons with complacency. Thy heavy odd-shaped ivory-handled penknives (our ancestors had every thing on a larger scale than we have hearts for) are as good as any thing from Herculaneum. The pounce-boxes of our days have gone retrograde.

I’m having trouble keeping up, I must admit. It will be easier to finger up the dust when it’s all finally done and dead. More to come…

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October 24, 2008 at 12:41 pm

Posted in crisis, markets

in parts (free partial ebook in pdf! fiction! mine!)

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OK. I worked on something all summer, every day. As I said before, Starbucks, Tottenham Court Road, 3-5 pm. Everyday. I am dissatisfied with it, and so it has died. Or been killed. It was to be a sort of novel, a novel composed of single page tearouts from “other novels,” chronicling something like the soon to arrive decline and fall of the nation of my birth. Whatever. I’m going to start something new. Eventually. Maybe tonight. Probably not tonight but maybe tomorrow.

But here, for your edification and entertainment, are the first 25 pages of the thing. Maybe I’ll post more later – we’ll see. Yes, the blank pages are intentional. That’s just the point. And some of it already seems a bit anachronistic, given the (fuckit, yay!) even more rapid descent of things than I expected.

But the general themes are adswithoutproductsy. So here it is:


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October 15, 2008 at 11:49 pm

Posted in america, collapse, fiction, me, meta

central casting

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Oh dear… The video on the right here (sorry – can’t be embedded) does remind of more than one set of film strips that we’d rather we long behind us and elsewhere…

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October 12, 2008 at 9:32 pm

Posted in america

there have always been crises

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October 12, 2008 at 9:22 pm

Posted in crisis, literature


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From the sport section of today’s Observer:

Achille Mbembe, a professor writing in Cape Town’s Sunday Independent newspaper, gave a withering assessment of the problems to be overcome. ‘The biggest threat to 2010 is the anaemic state of the national football team,’ he wrote. ‘Hiring and firing coaches almost on a yearly basis won’t do. The weakness is structural and historical. Contrary to the major African football powerhouses (Cameroon, Nigeria, Ivory Coast), South Africa does not have a single player of international calibre plying his trade for one of the major European clubs.’

I love finding things like that! You know, Achille Mbembe, the author of things like that paper on necropolitics that everyone was reading a few years ago… Makes me feel a wee bit better about my long-standing and probably unbreakable habit of reading the sports section first!

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October 12, 2008 at 9:57 am

Posted in sports, theory

rate cut!

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From Bovary:

Ses expansions étaient devenues régulières; il l’embrassait à de certaines heures. C’était une habitude parmi les autres, et comme un dessert prévu d’avance, après la monotonie du dîner.

Futures down 289 after the Rate Cut of Global Unity! Everything that happens makes sense if you’ve read your Flaubert! I should write a business book!

Do you remember the beginning of the end of Bovary? There are a few endings, but do you remember what makes her start the process of killing herself? “Dans vingt-quatre heures pour tout délai.” – Quoi donc? “Payer la somme totale de…” And so on. The bursting of a shock-market bubble, her own personal little credit crisis, it is.

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October 8, 2008 at 1:30 pm

Posted in crisis, flaubert, markets

blame where blame is due

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This is classic.

The government is expecting the equity holder and bank management to suffer for conducting business legitimately in a regulated environment. If there is to be a day of reckoning then surely most of the blame should come back to the regulator and the government that removed the responsibility for oversight of the banking industry from the Bank of England to the FSA.

Class action lawsuit time! The banks can get in line right behind all those classics of vulgar apocryphal chitchat – you know, the woman who spilled coffee on herself at McDonalds, and the burglar suing the homeowner after he slipped entering through the back window and broke his ankle, and the guy who was injured while surfing on top of a subway car (but, dude, they could have posted a warning sign or something…..) and takes action against the MTA….

It’s quite a distinctive use of the word “legitimately” in that paragraph, no?

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October 8, 2008 at 12:15 pm

Posted in crisis, markets

niche blogging

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Ha! Somebody made a blog called contra james wood! How very specific. No, I understand though… It’s good to find a niche!

If James Wood didn’t exist, the publishing industry would have to invent him.

Can you imagine? Smoke filled room etc etc.

I wish someone would invent me. Warholian update about how in the future, we’ll each and all have at least 5 blogs specifically contra us.

I actually met JW briefly last year, won’t say where won’t say when, but it was near a swimming pool. He seemed, you know, nice. I didn’t argue. SK once did tho.

Ok seriously. I’m closing the browser now for good.

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October 8, 2008 at 10:41 am

Posted in criticism

“trade the volatility”

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Lots of this stuff boggles the mind, requires very very patient and concentrated searching around for slow explanations. Found a new favorite stumper today: one keeps finding folks advising the masses to “trade the volatility.” Trade the volatility… hmmm…. I know we live in strange days, when the demonic abstractions imagined into life by hedgefund mainframes are strutting across the brick and mortar surface of the world, spewing contagion as they pass. But it is hard, on first thought, to think exactly how one would devise an instrument that would allow you to “trade the volatility” in the markets itself. I can wrap my head around certain levels of abstraction – like trading risk, for instance, I can see how you can do that.

Volatility trading is still in its infancy, and not surprisingly critics abound. Naysayers suggest volatility is, in essence, a description of an asset’s return, not an asset unto itself. Yet most market players adopt the perspective that if it has a price, then it can be traded. (from here)

That seems like a good question from the naysayers in the crowd. And the response of the “market players” is pitch perfect. But there actually are instruments that you can buy (VIX futures contracts and VIX options…) to do this, but what are they, like, made of? Or are they simply pure betting table gambles, made of nothing more than the bet that you’d place at Ladbrokes on Wayne Rooney to score the first goal again Portsmouth this week? If you were doing it on “main street” (ugh) I guess you’d stock up on shotgun shells and can openers as well as oceanfront condos. But I can’t imagine that that’s how it works with these contracts.

Sometimes I wish I’d spent just a wee bit of time in the industry (where all of the lovely men I went to high school with are, er, or perhaps were) so I could understand this stuff. But that’s foolish isn’t it – they don’t know what these things are either. Silicon nightmares, terminator wisdom so far restricted to screens.

Does anyone know? Care to take a guess? OK, seriously, to work with me. Right now….

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October 8, 2008 at 10:23 am

Posted in crisis, markets, wtf?

the secret life of investment bankers

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Somehow, accidentally, the movie Boarding Gate snuck from the bottom to the top of my mail rental list, and it’s been sitting on top of the DVD player for quite some time. With great anxiety and embarrassment I talked my wife into watching it with me last night – this despite the fact that it is, there is no doubt, mostly a vehicle designed to get Asia Argento on screen as many times as possible in a black bra and not much else. Awkward that.

But anyway… I actually enjoyed it quite a lot. Despite the fact it was only released in 2007, it is well on its way already to the status of period piece, as it does the good old sexed-up globalization bit. Let’s see, the checklist: stacks of cargo containers, freelancing incredibly rich people, wild shifts in venue (Paris to Hong Kong), lots of Asians (especially Asian bad guys), fantastic mostly-empty high-rise apartments, subtitling of more that one non-English language, interesting cellphone sounds, phonecalls taken with a laptop open, and last but not least a scene that takes place is a ridiculous karaoke bar. Check, check, check, check, check, check, check. It’s all there. I’ll freely admit that I’ll miss the genre if it – as it promises to – fades away under the pressures of backscaling and collapse.

For chrissake, look at the title of the film! I don’t remember an actual boarding gate appearing in the film – but, to hell with it, someone knew that the smart decision would be to attach the movie to one of the privileged locales of our period, whether it makes sense or not.

So I enjoyed it. I’m not sure it made all that much sense in the end, but it was very pretty to look at. And it ignited (I admit it) a desire that seems increasingly absurd nowadays. You know the one…. It goes something like shit, I wish, without wanting to actually do anything that makes that sort of money, that I could be the kind of person who lives out of my mobile phone and a overnight bag, dripping myself from exotic locale to exotic locale, spending time in the best of airport executive lounges and having multiple passports. I’d order in, stay at the second best places, and always read the Financial Times, especially on Saturday. It won’t ever happen, but a boy can dream. Or could. If I became a moderately famous academic, maybe someone, once in my career, would pay for me to fly business class, right? Nevermind – this is all shameful. Don’t take any of it seriously.

But. OK. I’ve been thinking about starting up work on a new project, one that helps me to shift from being a modernist to a proper contemporaryist (erk) – basically, I will have soon said all that I really want to say about the period 1890 – 1945. So maybe something on the aesthetics and politics of 1973 – 2008, the aesthetics of financialization, etc. Who knows. But if I did do this, I’d spend a chapter on the following subject, a chapter that would feature a bit of discussion of Boarding Gate, I think:

What I want to write on is a bit counterintuitive, at least to my mind. The first-thought thing to say about films like this, that wrap financial activity in sex and violence, is that they are allegories of the violence that works off-stage in the real world to keep the business running. A simple furniture import-export business is really a front for murder-for-hire and heroin dealing etc etc etc. But this is not that, well, interesting. We’ve done this – and perhaps culture is basically insensitive at this point to that sort of allegory. (We already know, down to our bones, that the tea and crumpets are bought with money from the Jamaican sugar plantations or whatever….)

Rather, what is more interesting about films like this to me is the fact that we can see plainly just what it takes to narrativize a period whose interest is actively hostile to narrative. Michael Masden’s character is basically an investor, but an investor who practices shooting a gun and who has had, to date, an interesting (if mostly impotent) sex life. A really interesting sex life, actually. Argento’s character ridicules him for the failure of his enterprises – a failure that crosses the bridge from the financial to the narratological. A couple that runs a business, a boring one, just as boring as those that at least one friend went into when he decided academia wasn’t for him, is actually tangled up with roofie-attempted-murder. And every sexual act is tinged with the aftertaste of violence and ill-gotten gains.

I’m sure that some “investors” had interesting sex-lives back during 1973-2008, but probably not as interesting as they hoped. And I’m sure some carried a piece, but it was mostly for kicks and paranoid aura. Mostly the hours spent expensively in airport lounges are boring – boring drinks in a boring place.

Think again of The Sopranos, and the perfectly-tuned demographic fantasy that it massaged. Your next door neighbor, the fat ethnic guy next door, could well not just be in waste management, but could rather be clipping guys down on the Newark esplanade and taking the girl he wants at the ‘Bing. The show was a tailor-fitted fantasy about professionalism and the lifestyle that should justly accompany such difficult and morally-compromising work.

Somehow the world wants investment banking to be a task populated by the feral, the oversexed, the trigger-pullers. But it is not. Somehow the world wants something, something with ripped panties and shell casings, to be going on behind the hedges of the hedge funds. But I guarantee you – it is not. We lived – though may live no more – where all of us, deeply and darkly and perhaps with significant embarrassment, wish that our betters – the winners of the meritocratic game – live fuller and more interesting lives than they do.

Because if not them, then whom, exactly?

(Too tired to go on – but for a better read of Boarding Gate you could always take a look at Shaviro’s read, which is very helpful indeed….)

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October 6, 2008 at 12:26 am