Intellectual Biography: Dr. LaDale C. Winling

A response to this assignment. Unless otherwise noted, all material contained in this post is derived from an interview conducted on September 13, 2012.

————-

Dr. LaDale C. Winling is Assistant Professor at the Department of History at Virginia Tech, focusing on Urban and Digital History. After finishing his B.A. and M.A. in Public History at the University of Western Michigan, Dr. Winling worked as an Instructor at the University of Michigan, where he completed his M.U.P. in Urban Planning in 2007. While working as an instructor at Loyola University’s History Department, Dr. Winling completed his Ph.D. in Architectural Planning and Theory at the University of Michigan in 2010. His dissertation, entitled Building the Ivory Tower: Campus Planning, University Development, and the Politics of Urban Space, focuses on the interaction of a university as an institution as well as a specific set of architectural materiality with its urban and institutional surroundings. After his employment as a Visiting Assistant Professor for Temple University’s Department of History, Dr. Winling now serves as an Assistant Professor for Virginia Tech’s Department of History. [1]

While he was a Graduate Student, Dr. Winling’s formative intellectual experiences were influenced by David Harvey’s Limits to Capital as well as Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of a logic of practice. David Harvey’s accounts of abstract capital flows provided Dr. Winling with conceptualizations of what Harvey theorizes as the spatial fix by which capital, when actualized in specific places and sites, also actualizes itself as a universal and abstract flow, moving beyond the boundaries of the place it had constituted. The question left open by accounts such as Harvey’s, however, was how the seemingly abstract flows of capital are actually played out and articulated within the context of micro-sites. Here, Pierre Bourdieu’s work informed Dr. Winling’s work of prioritizing the real material environments in which the seemingly abstract paths of capital accumulation are played out. Special emphasis thus needs to be placed on the individual experience of such environments, as these are not only the means by which the articulation of space by capital, and the articulation of capital by its spatial sites can be accounted for, but also the means by which actors make sense of these constellations.

Thus, Dr. Winling’s work gives methodological priority to local spaces, situating historical developments that take place on broader scales – such as economic and political transformations taking effect throughout the United States, and even on a world-wide scale – within the micro-environments perceived, conceived, and lived by individual actors. His method is iterative: as space articulates social practices, while these, in turn, create space, it is important to focus on concrete experiences before building them up to (or within) theoretical frameworks, and in turn, keeping these conceptual and theoretical frameworks firmly rooted in empirical sources and representations.

Within this iterative method, however, the historian’s task contributes to another, practical iteration: as individual actors within a historical set of circumstances continually transform these circumstances through their social actions, the historian’s perspective allows them to become conscious of the similarities and variations of their situations over time, and are thus empowered to take action and resist, reinforce, or at last influence the practices articulating their social (and thus spatial) surroundings. History thus has a fundamentally public task for Dr. Winling: by contextualizing and historicizing current, seemingly self-evident ideas and social formations, actors subject to these are given agency to change them, as they are enabled to realize their historical contingency, as well as underlying similarities between their and earlier situations.

Focusing on the institution of the university within its urban surroundings, then, combines the two focal points of Dr. Winling’s work. The university is, first, a site of empowerment; that is, the very site of most historical work, and frequently a place in which individuals are given agency to change their environments. Situating the university within the broader context of its urban surroundings, however, shows a less benevolent side of the university as an actor, as well as a subject to corporate and instituional interests. Seen this way, the university contributes to a disempowering political economy dominated by the interests governing its institutional shape (for example, the entanglement, even of public American universities, within Department of Defense research allocations) as well as, more straightforwardly, financial interests resulting from pressures exerted by donors or by the university’s transformation to financial actors in their own right. Dr. Winling’s dissertational research, as well as research conducted in subsequent publications [2], focusing on the university situated in Muncie, Indiana, and its role within Muncie’s development as a city, as well as the university’s dependency on its donors – the Ball family – serves to illuminate not only a chapter in a pre-New Deal-history of private investments and public benefits. Rather, it shows parallels between structures set up by private interests, as they interact with public interests in forming a university and its surroundings in pre-1930 America, and the articulation of the same type of interests in the neoliberal universities of today’s American intellectual landscape. Thus, historical differences, but also similarities, can be examined and conceptualized based on empirical evidence highlighting the specific factors played out in every actor’s perspectives. Here, Dr. Winling’s research is informed less by fellow historians’ perspectives – as little research on the situation of universities and their urban environments exists – and more by his encounters with Harvey’s geographical and Bourdieu’s sociological conceptions.

Consequently, Dr. Winling’s view of the future of the profession of historians is shaped by his attention on specific factors governing the perception of situations by individual actors. Especially in the context of an urban or spatial history, new means of communication and digital storage open up new ways of inquiry. The growing availability of maps in particular allows historians to situate and represent spatial formations and developments on a wider scale and to a wider audience than was possible before. However, the narration of history, which can be supported by graphical representations, remains the most primary mode of historiography according to Dr. Winling. Narratives, providing arguments and representations for historical developments, changes and similarities, are the most powerful – though by no means the only – tool at the disposal of professional historians, even as digital technology’s possibilities allow for a broader range of such tools. To reconcile the impact of new technologies and the ways of inquiry they open up with traditional research and narrative interests governing historical work, then, remains the central task of future historiography.

———-

[1] Curriculum Vitae, available online at Urban Oasis, retrieved September 16, 2012

[2] LaDale Winling (2010): The Gravity of Capital. Spatial and Economic Transformation in Muncie, Indiana, 1917-1940. In: James Connolly (Ed.): After the Factory. Reinventing America’s Industrial Small Cities. Plymouth: Lexington Books, pp. 115-140.
LaDale Winling (2010): Economic Development and the Landscape of Knowledge, Journal of Urban History 36 (July 2010): 528-536.

Posted in Assignment | Comments Off on Intellectual Biography: Dr. LaDale C. Winling

En lisant (2)

Stephen Cohen and Bradford DeLong (2010), The End of Influence, New York: Basic Books.

tl;dr: The widespread fears of U.S. dependency on China, fueled by late announcements that “they now have the money”, seem less justified than most observers think. At the same time, I argue that neither the so-called United States nor so-called China (not to speak of smaller economic entities) are the sovereign states they used to be: rather, they themselves are dependent variables in an economic flow which precedes the countries it is seemingly originating from.

—————

On September 6, 2012, the New York Times Online published an article containing an interview with New York-based real estate broker Nikki Field on her four trips a year to mainland China, designed, as the paper puts it, “to more aggressively seek out Chinese buyers on their own turf.” (Barrionuevo 2012: par. 6) Indicating a turning tide in economic relations between American and Chinese businesses and their cultures, Field said: “’We as Americans always expected anyone to adapt to our business style, and they did […] That is no longer true with the Chinese. There are too many of them, they have too much power. We truly must adapt to their style of business in order to do deals.” (ibid.: par. 9).

At the same time, President Obama, in his acceptance speech, warned Democrats and Americans in general to maintain investments in education, to be able to “compete with the scientists and engineers coming out of China.” (Obama 2012: p. 2, par. 3) Republican nominee Mitt Romney, too, warned Americans, asking, in his acceptance speech: “Does the America we want borrow a trillion dollars from China? No.” (Romney 2012: par. 111)

Certainly, the issue these speeches and comments raise does not just apply to the relations between China and the United States, but it seems to me – and Stephen Cohan and Bradford DeLong agree several times in their The End of Influence – that these relations are, in many respects, the most significant example of a recent development in economic power and wealth that seems to benefit China at the expense of the United States. It will be remembered that the Economist, more or less prominently in several of its back issues in 2011 and 2012, warned that China would own the United States, should U.S. borrowing and Chinese lending continue at the pace currently observed. Furthermore, to give an international perspective, European politics are vexed by the same fear of China as a new powerful economic and political actor – a fear that was amply demonstrated when China, in October 2011, announced its plans to purchase a significant minority of shares in the Greek central port of Pireaus.

What is on the rise in trans-pacific relations, however, does not seem to be just China, as a political entity to be feared or an economic battlefield to be conquered. Nor is it China as a cultural phenomenon, which necessitates, as real estate broker Nikki Field said in the abovementioned New York Times Online article, “an at times exasperating journey to understand China,” (Barrionuevo 2012: par. 7), and which seems to fuel deep-seated fears of a Chinese century in Euro-American voters.

What is emerging, rather, is a closely intertwined system of exchange: a constant flow of goods from China to the United States and finance capital from the United States to China, mediated and upheld by “the U.S. financial system, which decides who gets to borrow and on what terms” (109). This emerging system is so closely intertwined, Cohen and DeLong maintain, that China and the United States have to maintain their uneasy relationship at almost any cost (5). The debt-driven relationship of the United States to China, then, is seen by most commentators, Cohen and DeLong among them, as “a financial balance of terror” (25), in which both sides depend on each other. In this balance, the United States would rely on China to force down both its wages (27) and its currency value relative to the US-Dollar (95), to continue raising the standard of living of the American population (24). China, on the other hand, would rely on the United States population to keep living beyond their means (107) by amassing debt obligations (91), thus fueling China’s growth (146).

The flipside of both also seems to be self-evident: on the one hand, all investments in imports from Chinese production are absent in American production (146), and what is more, American innovation hubs will also move, Cohen and DeLong caution, to countries which, instead of acting as “importer of last resort” (77), practice state-led development instead. Once more, China is the main example for this strategy, as its value-added, to an increasing degree, no longer relies on the exploitation of its workers (a claim that I find somewhat dubious) (96), but on technological innovation (97), which, the authors argue, can and will be shifted away from “the heartland of innovation” (126).

On the other hand, the Chinese model of growth not only relies on the stability of the US-Dollar and the United States’ general ability to maintain the global economic system’s stability (13), but also on the Chinese government’s ability to maintain its growth without risking a workers’ revolt against the conditions under which this growth is achieved and maintained. [1]

This type of explanation certainly has its merits. It especially allows to emphasize that China is not the threat to the United States (or Europe) that it is perceived as in the newspaper articles and sources mentioned in the beginning of this paper, but rather, that the interdependence between the two countries (and, by extension, between both countries and the rest of the world) makes it necessary for them to cooperate, at least to some extent (25). It also, contrary to the specters both President Obama and Governor Romney raise, shows that the United States is not “simply becoming dependent – but it is no longer independent, either” (27), and that therefore some overtly extreme fears of a Chinese ‘takeover’ are almost certainly unjustified.

It seems to me, however, that the question: to just what is the United States not “dependent, but not independent, either”?, is not sufficiently answered by Cohen and DeLong, who, ultimately, focus on two distinct entities (‘the United States’, ‘China’), and treat their interdependence as a third, mediating, but ultimately secondary entity. What they do not see, in my opinion, is that the relation between the two countries is the primary entity: that the point of view from which the analysis is given must be changed, and that both the Chinese and the United States’ economy must be seen as effects of the flow that is seemingly taking place between them, but that really constitutes them.

The decisive element to consider here is that the role of the “U.S. financial system” (109), interpreted by Cohen an DeLong as a purely mediating force, is in fact a creating force: it is the flow of American debt to China which, in a very material sense, creates Chinese export goods to the United States. The United States financial sector, having become “a dominant force, perhaps the dominant force” (110) of the American economy, fulfills its role by lending money to American consumers to buy goods produced in China – but they can do so only because, as the authors maintain, there had been a flow of Chinese money, buying U.S. government obligations (22), such that the U.S. government could fund tax cuts and de facto high-risk mortgage subsidies (e.g., through financial deregulation) (148). American consumption and Chinese production exist simply because money is available: money flows, here, beget material goods. Neither supply nor demand exists without them.

The converse relationship is organized around the primacy of economic flows to stable country-based economies as well. Thus, Chinese ‘consumption’ of U.S. debt obligations can only be possible because the United States’ currency is stable and its credit rating maintained (hence the world-wide insecurity when a fringe fraction of the United States Congress led the way to what is now known as the ‘debt-ceiling crisis’ in 2011). This, however, relies simply on the need for the U.S. government to sell further amounts of its debt obligations, since, as Cohen and DeLong argue throughout the book, its abiltiy to repay them is literally non-existent. Finally, the condition of possibility for maintaining this operation is simply the Chinese need to have the U.S. government de facto subsidize U.S. citizens’ consumption – so Chinese goods can be sold, and the cycle can begin anew. It is thus not even money which begets material goods here, but, even further, the reproduction of a cycle of mutual deferral of a breakdown, which begets an exchange of a ‘production’ of U.S. government debt obligations for a Chinese ‘production’ of U.S. Dollars, which ‘produces’ U.S. consumption, which – in the final instance – produces Chinese material goods. Neither the so-called United States nor so-called China are independent variables in this game.

Whether the abovementioned American financial industry (which, as Roubini and Mihm had convincingly shown, is certainly not an American financial industry, but rather a global one) is an independent actor in this game seems to be highly questionable as well. Certainly, on the one hand, their mediating activity is indispensable for both American consumption and Chinese production, as well as Chinese ‘consumption’ of U.S. debt and American ‘production’ of money. On the other hand, however, and by the same token, their operations also, and to a more considerable degree than in the case of states, depends on the continuation of the abovementioned cycle – on top of which a large part of the impressive edifice that broke down in the 2007-2009 crisis was erected (113).

What, then, have so-called China and the so-called United States become, when they are no longer independent variables, i.e., sovereign states, entities which, due to their sovereignty, are outside of (financial) markets, free to interfere or to refrain from interfering as they wish?

A tentative answer would be: they, too, have become actors in this very financial market of which they no longer set the rules. Sovereign Wealth Funds, these seemingly state-run entities interfering in the affairs of other states – thus enhancing the fears mentioned at the beginning of this paper (96 sq.) – are, it seems to me, the new form state activity has taken in a time in which, at least at this scale of global economic relations, armed rivalry has given way to shaky non-violent rivalry. If, however, the goal of an SWF is to create consumption in the countries in which it invests – or, at least, in the one country that has consume all that the other countries in the world produce – then they, too, are subject to the necessity of maintaining cycles of borrowing, lending, consuming and producing. Ultimately, SWFs, and the countries that run/guide/steer them, are thus subject to maintaining a global economy based on their ability to keep flowing: neither the states from which they originate, nor the companies they are invested in, and neither the goods they help produce, nor the consumers who they give the money to buy the goods matter – only the overarching goal of all so-called financial actors: that the financial flows keep moving all over the world.

Countries and people, companies and goods are, as it were, a by-product of this.

——–

[1] This part of China’s successful growth policies is absent both in Cohen and DeLong’s praises of Chinese skycraper culture (62) and their narrative of Chinese economic growth in general (96 sq.), but is amply evidenced in other sources (see, for example, Harvey 2005: 127, 148).

——–

Works cited:

Cohen and DeLong, page numbers in brackets.

Barrionuevo, Alexei (2012): Big Deal. Why Brokers Study Chinese. New York Times Online, September 6, 2012. Available online (retrieved September 8, 2012).

Harvey, David (2005): A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Obama, Barack (2012): President Obama’s Full Remarks From the Democratic National Convention. New York Times Online, September 7, 2012. Available online (retrieved September 8, 2012)

Romney, Mitt (2012): Transcript: Mitt Romney’s Acceptance Speech. NPR, August 30, 2012. Available online (retrieved September 8, 2012)

Posted in En lisant | Comments Off on En lisant (2)

Assignment 2, September 10, 2012 (Part 2)

American History Review Forum: Historiographic “Turns” in Critical Perspective

Part Two: Forum Reflection

An answer to this assignment.

If the American Historical Review forum discussed here indeed aims to represent the most recent discussion in historiography (and given its date of publication, that seems highly likely), the criticism presented by Gary Wilder seems to be entirely justified: such a discussion indeed seems to be mere theory, “abstract … from its worldly entailments, as if it stands apart from history as something that can be used or applied” (730). After all, as the two responses by Julia Adeney Thomas and Nathan Perl-Rosenthal rightfully point out, all four initial essays focus on reflection on the reflection – reflecting on whether a “turn”, that is, a common denominator which, itself, has only been introduced reflexively (753), really existed, and what the ramifications of that might be (795). The responses, in turn, are not free of reflecting on the reflection: just like Judith Surkis, asking, “[h]ow can we historically assess this recent ‘turn’ to a generational account of historiography itself” (716), introduces an editorial “we” which, according to her own account (714), is one of the (reflexive!) characteristics of a “turn”, so does Nathan Perl-Rosenthal, who takes up the generational trope in his account of the historical profession (805).

Is there a way out of this predicament? Is it a predicament at all? Certainly, the turn upon “turns” does not aim to form a coherent set of movements called “turns”, neatly separated from each other, which is to say, closed and dead (753). Rather, as all papers agree, the task is to open up ways for the future of historiography (cf., e.g., 769). Which options are opened up?

The first, and arguably most problematic, is the option Julia Adeney Thomas introduces. That this option is highly problematic is not due to its – as I think – very sudden and somewhat surprising introduction of global climate change into the “‘conditions of possibility of the historical knowledge’ we produce” – as if this were a genuine problem of the historical profession as a profession -, nor to the strange and weakly presented [1] way she advocates “a readiness to accept eventfulness” (803) as a means to call attention to global climate change. Rather, in the context of a reflection upon turns, their merits and their shortcomings, I find it unconvincing to call for yet another turn: for the general message of such a call, within this context, is simply a return to the business of “turning” as usual – who is to say which new turn is to be introduced? Based on Julia Adeney’s piece, any new number of “turns” can be called for, focusing on any element of coherence, and moving towards any amount of goals.

On the other end of a hypothetical spectrum, one may find the equally problematic call for a less coherent, more experiment-based movement of leaving behind “turns” altogether. This challenge has been brought up against postcolonial, theory-driven research by, as Ghosh recalls, “scholars whose work remained resolutely autonomous, self-consciously based in ’empirical’ evidence” (787). Here, as in any number of new calls for new “turns”, it remains totally arbitrary which objects are to be analyzed, which stakes are to be assumed, and which ontologies are to be presupposed in the future work of historians.

One could, of course, take up a combination of Gary Wilder’s and Durba Ghosh’s accounts, specifically governed by Wilder’s call for an actualizing, engaged historiography, as an acceptable third way of writing and researching historical formations. I do not see any objections to such an approach.

However, there is another, perhaps more promising option implicit in some of the accounts discussed in the forum. It does not seem to be a coincidence, that the two “turns” most widely discussed in the entire “turning” problematique are the linguistic and the cultural turn, with their similar, implicit flipsides of asking for their own material underpinnings. These material underpinnings do not just, and (I maintain) not even primarily concern economic or environmental problems: their most immediate materialization is the medium in which they are written down; or, more precisely (for now), their literary form. Judith Surkis mentions, among other factors creating a “turn” as a coherent whole, anthologies (705), and Ghosh gives the example of “Subaltern Studies” being created by an anthology (786); there are Historical Forums like the one considered here; JSTOR indexes give graphic representations (748); and biographical accounts streamline bodies of work into more or less neatly arranged genealogies (764). Is a turn, perhaps, a question of mediation rather than a question of content?

If so, a more meaningful (less arbitrary) call for a different object of methodological coherence – a different “turn”, if necessary – would be yet another call to the archive, and even a reflexive call to the archive of historical works, to examine how an anthology, a reader, a collection of excerpts, portraits of historians (or scientists in general), and other forms of writing history have shaped what history is.

In other words, has the replacement of articles with blog entries, of blog entries with “tl;dr”s, and of “tl;dr”s with tweets changed historiography – or history?

————

[1] I am aware that this criticism is perhaps harsher than Thomas’s text deserves. Suffice it to say that it is not directed against her piece so much as it is directed against the so-called new materialist approach (or its twin brother, object-oriented ontology), which I deem to be an approach that deserves severe criticism.

Posted in Assignment | Comments Off on Assignment 2, September 10, 2012 (Part 2)

Assignment 2, September 10, 2012 (Part 1)

American History Review Forum: Historiographic “Turns” in Critical Perspective

Part One: Forum Readings

An answer to this assignment.

Judith Surkis: When Was the Linguistic Turn? A Geneaology, pp. 700-722

The historiographical task of historicizing historiographical turns is itself a historiographical turn (716, 717). Seen this way, the emergence of historiographical turns can be narrowed down to the emergence of, not necessarily a widespread “turning” per se, but of the reflexive self-evidence that there has been a “turn”. Then, the different influences leading up to it can be gathered: anthologies (705), political influences (709), and linguistic maneuvers, such as ironic distancing (710), the definite article “the” before “the” turn (712), and the editorial “we” (714). In the specific case of “the linguistic turn”, its overarching concern with language leads, consequently, to a constant questioning of what the other of language is: experience (713) or a politics of (the) body/bodies (721).

Gary Wilder: From Optic to Tpic: The Foreclosure Effect of Historiographic Turns, pp. 723-745

“Turns”, especially “the” linguistic and cultural “turns”, present a false choice between exclusively navel-gazing reflection while “the turn” lasts, and a complete closure of reflection in favor of a shallow empiricism when “the turn” is declared “over”, dead and done (728). To circumvent this false choice, a resurrection of a Marxism-inspired historiography is needed (739). The colonial alternative to imperial history, however, at the time being, only represents the above false choice (737). The task of the historian must rather be an actualization of history, to reflect contemporary concerns (742).

James W. Cook: The Kids Are All Right: On the “Turning” of Cultural History, pp. 746-771

The proclamation of the end of a “turn” (747) is always also a retroactive declaration of its coherence (753), such that subsequent theorizing, even within a new “turn”, remains retrospective reflection on the previous “turn” (755). At the same time, however, the proclamation of a “turn”‘s end also always happens within an ongoing and very much alive continuation of the “turn”‘s discussions and issues (749, 763), calling into question such seemingly self-evident elements of its coherence as the editorial “we” (759). Like the “linguistic turn”, the “cultural turn”, too, continually asks for its other (761 sqq.), reinforcing its coherence by asserting a common object.

Durba Ghosh: Another Set of Imperial Turns?, pp. 772-793

In the case of imperial and postcolonial studies, the coherence of a “turn” can be assumed because both of them revolve around a common political cause that can serve to overcome or alleviate the differences within their approaches (775). With empires being “a product of global history rather than a driver of it” (782), both imperial and (post)colonial history has to embed the story/ies of empire(s) into broad, non-Eurocentric narratives (783), thus serving the political cause. Within this setting, even archival research ceases to be positivist, and becomes a liberatory activity (791).

Julia Adeney Thomas: Not Yet Far Enough, pp. 794-803

The other four pieces focusing on the twin questions of whether there were “turns” at all, and if there were, what their prescriptions were (795), all four of them, and indeed most of historiography, misses out on one of the most fundamental threats to the possibility of doing historical research at all: global climate change (801). What historians can contribute to an ecological politics is a rewriting of historical accounts based on the insights of new materialism (802).

Nathan Perl-Rosenthal: Generational Turns, pp. 804-813

The four pieces of the forum focused on ruptures rather than coherence between the turns. It is precisely the generational set-up of historians following each other in academic position that provides for coherence (805). The current [as of 2012, S.E.] “turn”, if there is one (811), can be described as, not a turn to archival positivism (807), but an emphasis on discursive texts (808) within a broader framework made coherent by the overarching categories of the “everyday” (809) and “network structures” (810).

Posted in Assignment | Comments Off on Assignment 2, September 10, 2012 (Part 1)

En lisant (1)

Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm (2010), Crisis Economics, New York: Penguin Press.

tl;dr: The reasons given by Roubini and Mihm for the 2007-2010 crisis, culminating in their advice to create incentives for financial market actors to behave less recklessly, are insufficient. I argue that the heart of capitalism itself is identical to the mechanism leading to the crisis, and that, consequently, capitalism itself should be questioned as a result of the crisis.

—————

The specific forms of economic crises known as asset bubbles, as Roubini and Mihm emphasize, have been born at the same time and in the same place as capitalism itself: the Netherlands in the seventeenth century (20). They are “white swans” (19), frequently occurring and structurally alike, though based on different assets, with different triggers and different outcomes. The damage they inflict on economies, people and countries is similar every time (15) – where it is not, or not as widespread, the damage is simply deferred to a later time (31, 156) Finally, their long-term consequences are frequently more disastrous than even the crisis itself (15, 305).

It is, no doubt, tempting – as well as partially true – to put blame where it seems to belong: towards “Wall Street’s unbridled lust for money [which] had wrecked the entire financial system” (31). This strategy is morally understandable and may conceivably be politically feasible – after all, it was the American Occupy Wall Street-movement that was able to trigger, at least for a short amount of time, a globally orchestrated protest against financial actors that seem to be structurally invincible because they are too big to fail (229). (The German version of Occupy Wall Street – the tents of which, at the time of writing this, still stand in front of the ECB building in Frankfurt am Main – drew conclusions from this which are, in my opinion, unfortunately much more dangerous a cure than the sickness could ever be – e.g., a return to the gold standard.)

Roubini and Mihm are right, however, in pointing out the fallacy of such moral blame: “what made a difference [in the 2007 crisis as compared to earlier ones, S.E.] was not the magnitude of greed” (32). Rather, they outline three interconnected, but analytically distinct reasons for the magnitude and impact of the 2007-2009 crisis:

a) “new structures of incentives and compensation” (32), viz., the bonus system, separating payments to investment banking managers from the impact of their actions (187), as well as further moral hazard made possible by Federal Reserve policies (136);

b) a “particularly opaque and impenetrable” (32) financial system filled with assets unknown to even the actors themselves, leading to both panicked short-term selling activities crushing stock market values (19) and the following lack of liquidity based on banks’ fears of lending money to actors they
cannot be sure about (19, 97);

c) the world-wide simultaneous growth of unhealthy economic bubbles (overpriced financial assets) in more economies than just the United States’ (127), particularly sustained by central banks’ issuance of cheap money (e.g., by low interest rates following the 2001 events in the United States) between the so-called dotcom-bubble of 2000, and the housing crisis of 2007/2008 (268).

On a continuum of possible explanations – and hence policy recommendations – for an economic crisis, these fall almost completely on the side of structural reasons, inciting, but not determining the behavior of market actors. Thus, a moral question remains. The first reason, for example, namely structures of incentives, while politically attributable to a lack of oversight (in turn magnified by governmental structures [215] as well as financial actors’ influence in regulatory bodies [216]), creates an environment in which financial actors are encouraged or even forced to take excessive short-term risks – but there is still an option to remain on a more prudent course. (In Europe, the policies of banks like Santander or Germany’s Sparkassen may serve as cases in point.) One could thus be led to think that a moral problem like this can be solved by a different type of education, or other means of making actors more sensible to their environment.

Furthermore, one could thus be led to think – as Roubini and Mihm confidently assert at the very end of their policy recommendations (310) – that structural problems can be alleviated, if not contained completely. Thus, if incentive structures, oversight, and transparency issues could be sorted out, subsequent crises might, at least conceivably, be or lesser magnitude, and might have less disastrous consequences. Managing crises becomes, then, a question of global governance (261 sqq.), a question of negotiation and synchronization between political actors regulating financial actors.

It seems to me, however, that the decisive question – or challenge – such endeavours of global governance face, is more fundamental, and neither structural nor actor-based in the senses outlined above. Rather, it concerns an acceleration of the very movement which lies at the heart of capital itself, as it further approaches its perfected form in light-speed finance capital (120; cf. Castells 2010: XX). In other words, it seems to me that one must emphasize the co-originarity of capitalism and crisis more than Roubini and Mihm do.

According to Marx’ analysis, at the core of capitalism lies a movement which plays itself out and actualizes itself in structures and actors, but is itself independent of these concrete forms it takes. This movement is the operation of capital: value, as it constantly engenders surplus value, the concrete form of which is irrelevant, because its only function is to engender more subsequent surplus value (Marx 1857/1993: 313). Since the creation of finite amounts of value is an irrelevant by-product of the movement of capital, capital constantly tries to approach the creation of infinite surplus value, and is constrained only by its concrete environments and their structural rigidities (ibid.: 334). These rigidities, in turn, are merely barriers to capital, to be overcome as soon as possible (ibid).

Accordingly, finance capital is the most perfected form of capital – its fastest and least friction-laden way of realizing surplus-value. Its movement is constantly accelerated, as more and more goods become intangible (or, in Marx’ diction, ideal), and can thus be turned over at faster speed. The innovative force of finance capital, which Roubini and Mihm emphasize (66), consists in its ability to create more and more intangible goods, based solely on each other (an almost awe-inspiring example of this is certainly the series culminating in the CDO³ [67]) and thus completely removed from tangible (in Marx’ diction, material) economic realities.

This movement of capital towards its perfected form, in turn, is only completed when the material assets on which all other financial assets are based – in the case of the 2007 crisis, houses – themselves become ideal entities.2 First, houses, bought with credit forwarded by banks, become collaterals to borrowing more credit from these very banks (18). They are, in a sense, reinjected into the financial system that, through the original credit, made their purchase possible in the first place. Second, however, and much more importantly, the operation creating “mortgage-backed securities” (63), in essence, reduces houses (or whatever material asset is at the heart of a crisis) to simulacra of themselves in a Baudrillardian sense: as mortgages are pooled to create new bonds off them, the liquidity of an asset (that is, the ability of a homeowner to pay off their credit) is transformed into an ideal commodity – trust on the part of the buyer of the mortgage-backed security – almost completely unrelated to the original homeowner, and the original credit transaction. It is this trust, in turn – and not its material basis – which spawns the admirable yet toxic edifice of securitization (193). The secret to the financialization of capital, then, is the erasure of the incommensurability between material and ideal, tangible and intangible goods; in short, between use-value and exchange-value.

Asset crises can thus be interpreted as instances in which the attempt of capital to create infinite amounts of surplus-value is disrupted by a failure of its basic mechanism: the operation which cuts off the material basis of securitization, and transforms finance capital into a completely independent, ideal flow. As the fundamental commodity exchanged in finance markets – trust in the convertibility of ideal assets into material assets, or revenue derived from material assets – crumbles, the economy at large is scaled back to its material operations.

The obvious remedy for assets crises, then, would be to simply strip capital (or banks, or homeowners, or…) of its ability to cut off the ideal flow from its material basis.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that this would mean attempting something politically impossible: for this operation of idealization lies at the core of the capitalist economy. What is money – or, indeed, any reified form of value – but an idealization based on the very same fundamental operation outlined above: the erasure of the difference between use-value and exchange-value, and the recreation of the former as the necessary outside of the latter (Baudrillard 1981: 130)? In other words, what is it but the actualization of trust in the convertibility of exchange-value into use-value? In yet other words: every time money is exchanged for tangible goods – more generally, every time an ideal commodity is actualized by purchasing a material commodity – the capitalist operation collapses. In this sense, the mechanism of an asset crisis is precisely the same mechanism actualized by a simple transaction of money for material goods: the end of capitalism, in both senses of the word.

Any attempt to solve the problem of crisis economics, to prevent crises from happening again, would therefore have to take into account that the global economic system currently in place is identical to its crises. This would imply that the form of governance required to “solve” this problem would have to be sharply different from any of those currently attempted.

Works cited:
Roubini and Mihm, see above, page numbers in brackets.
Baudrillard, Jean (1981): For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. New York: Telos Press.
Castells, Manuel (2010): The Rise of the Network Society. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Marx, Karl (1857, 1993): Grundrisse. London: Penguin Books.
Weber, Max (1927): General Economic History. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Posted in En lisant | Comments Off on En lisant (1)

Assignment 1, September 3, 2012

a critical reflection on Georg Iggers: Historiography in the Twentieth Century. From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge, using images and sounds and, admittedly, some prose.

This blog post is a response to a class assignment. I do not own any of the works featured below, nor make any profits of featuring them here. This is solely for educational purposes.

what is objective history?

the course of the Empire?

the objective course of History: Emanuel Leutze,
Emanuel Leutze: Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (mural study, U.S. Capitol), 1861, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Public Domain. Hosted by upload.wikimedia.org.

what is objective history?

a Festschrift to archival certainty?

Wilhelm II., Address to the German People, August 6, 1914; calling the German people zu den Waffen (to take up arms) and not to betray the Vaterland.
Otto von Bismarck, private recording, Gut Friedrichsruh, October 7, 1889.
Both recordings are Public Domain. Neither of the two host websites endorses this work, or is affiliated with it.

what is objective history?

an unavoidable cataclysm?

Oswald Spengler: The Decline of the West | Ernst Juenger: Der Kampf als inneres Erlebnis
both public domain. Hosted by upload.wikimedia.org

in any case, it is ripe with decay:

For This…

Johann Strauß, Jr.: An der schönen blauen Donau
Op. 314, 1867, performed by Finnish orchestra Rytmi-Pojat, directed by Eugen Malmstén.

…engenders this

Horst-Wessel-Lied, 1927

both public domain. Hosted by upload.wikimedia.org

And what remains is

“…first and foremost, a world of silence, a ‘silence’ … that ‘swallowed up the past, all the past.'” (Spiegel: The Task of the Historian, p. 6)

Auschwitz-Birkenau, Krematorium IV, photograph by Wikimedia:Diether in 2008; Licensed under Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0. Wikimedia:Diether is in no way affiliated with or endorsing this use of his picture.

——————

the Postmodern Challenge

“there is nothing beyond the text” – Reb Rida.

to find out more about Jacques Derrida’s incarnation as “Reb Rida”, see The Book of Questions by Edmond Jabès (or Writing and Difference, Ch. 3 and 11)

except, of course, its rupture:

Stephane Mallarme, Un Coup de Des
Stéphane Mallarmé: Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard, 1897 (pictured is the 1914 edition [?]). Hosted by wired.com, Public Domain

& as the end of the picture is in the picture…

Rene Magritte: The Treachery of Images
René Magritte: La trahison des images, 1928-1929. Hosted by upload.wikimedia.org. I do not own the copyright of this work, or intend any copyright infringement. This link is solely for educational purposes.

& as the end of the music is in the music…

John Cage: 4’33”, premiere by David Tudor on August 29, 1952, at Woodstock, New York.
Hosted by interglacial.com. I do not own the copyright of this work, or intend any copyright infringement. This link is solely for educational purposes.

why does the closure of history

(Fukuyama or Derrida)

have to be

the end of its events? its facts? its movements?

(the text will forever articulate its others)

(and they will forever articulate the text)

Posted in Assignment | Comments Off on Assignment 1, September 3, 2012

zur Kritik

zur Kritik: German for “on the critique of…” as well as “on critique in general” or “toward a critique”.  Inscribing and re-inscribing narratives; ideally, before they become reified and sacrosanct.  Opening spaces for questions, doubts, attacks.  Circling the void at the core of the archaeo-teleology that is called “History”: the event is happening, and always, it will have happened, and it will not have been an event.  The latter is narrative; the former is critique: reinscription.

And yet, as always, the critique of historical narrative is done in the name of historical narrative; as always, rationality can only call itself in question; the petitio principii remains the same.

Posted in General | Comments Off on zur Kritik