Thursday, March 19, 2009

Fraser on the GFC

Just a placeholder to come back to.
Former Governor of the Australian Reserve Bank - Bernie Fraser - on the GFC.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The economy as sick machine

David Burchell's latest op-ed piece in today's Australian was an interesting analysis of the use of illness as metaphor in current political discourse on the financial crisis. Burchell observes, regarding a recent speech from PM Rudd, that it
revolve[d] almost entirely around a series of metaphors of infection and disease.

Our financial system is the lifeblood of our economy. Yet now the bloodstream has been "poisoned" by the contagion of "toxic assets" from Wall Street. The economy won't return to normal functioning until we have purged the blood of these impurities. "Sick and unhealthy assets have the capacity to affect healthy assets"; "it's like a virus which, if left untreated, can easily spread". Through intelligent economic analysis we have discovered the cause of the virus and are now in a position to treat it. Rudd is the nation's trusted medical specialist, cutting out the cancers of financial impropriety, bringing relief when no mere apothecary can.

The News Ltd op-ed calls for some element of culture-war fisticuffs and Burchell obliges by framing his article with some swipes at Susan Sontag's essay "Illness as metaphor":

THREE decades ago cultural critic Susan Sontag wrote a modish series of essays for The New York Review of Books on the subject of illness as metaphor. Sontag had been undergoing breast cancer therapy, and she was in an angry frame of mind. From where she stood it seemed as if the various metaphors of illness routinely deployed in literature chiefly served to obscure the things they were supposed to describe, all the while demeaning sufferers of illness by pathologising them in one way or another. (And so tuberculosis sufferers succumbed because they were too emotionally charged; cancer sufferers because they were too uptight.) Instead she claimed that "the most truthful way of regarding illness is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking".

In the manner of so many cultural critics before and since, Sontag took this fairly straightforward germ of insight and spun a complicated and implausible web of totalising implications out of it. All metaphors of illness demean sufferers; metaphors in general are designed to deceive; and so on. Then (in a startling piece of circular logic, of the kind clever critics succumb to surprisingly often) she asserted that societies such as ours are obsessed with metaphors of illness because they themselves are profoundly sick in some way. Our views on cancer are "a vehicle" for our "reckless improvident responses to our real problems of growth", our "inability to construct an advanced industrial society which properly regulates consumption", and so on. All the grand arm-waving gestures of the cultural critic turned economic prophet.

So, what does Burchell offer instead of the "overblown" illness metaphors? Try this:

Yet the easy-credit regime of the past decade was not just a sign of economic loose living, of too much steak and not enough green veggies. Plentiful capital was the necessary engine of the high-growth, high-demand global economy to which we've become accustomed. Likewise, China's extraordinary levels of growth were possible only because Chinese capital, lacking any useful domestic domicile, had to migrate elsewhere, thus providing the credit bubble with its necessary fuel. In turn, we became used to the idea that modest growth in real incomes could be facilitated by extravagant levels of gross domestic product growth.

The 'reality', or the non-metaphoric level of discourse, seem to be machinic: engines, fuel, growth. I mean, seriously, do economies actually grow, or is this just another biological metphor, in the same category as illness tropes?

American financial guru Warren Buffett was quoted today, via Huff Post, saying that the American economy had "fallen off a cliff". But, optimistically, Buffett also claimed that "Everything will be alright. We do have the greatest economic machine that's ever been created".

And there's the rub, for machines don't get sick like bodies do, and more importantly they don't die. Machines can be tinkered with, redesigned, fuelled, have parts replaced. It's telling that Burchell and Buffett seems to be speaking the same economic discourse, for both side with the concept of the economy as rational. Yet both also seem to want to hedge their bets, and bring biological tropes and anthropomorphic figures into their discourse. If I were to read these discourses symptomatically, as Sontag provides a model for in her still relevant essays on illness and metaphor, I'd say that the economy is a sick machine: a fucked-up cyborg that has viral and mechanical problems.

Crow - Broken Machine (Live, 1999)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Speed Hypnosis

Simple Minds cassette tapes accompanied me on a quick solo race around western European cities in 1985. I would spend nights in Vienna and Paris walking around with New Gold Dream in my ears, and then Sparkle in the Rain. These are transition albums for this Scottish band. The group was moving into a pompous Stadium rock-style sound and performance that would have them named U3 by some critics. But the Simple Minds of this period could create haunted city-scapes that also had Krautrock propulsion alongside the emerging songcraft that would eventually tip into overblown, grandiose hymns to romantic love and world-spirit mysticism. Prior to that descent into evangelical pop, they were often on the right side of expanding the inner space of their sound without diluting it or overblowing it. The trick was to harness a propulsive, hypnotic rhythm.

I prefer the original rhythm section - the one familiar from 'Love Song' - with Brian McGee and Derek Forbes. Although Mel Gaynor brought a more technically proficient drum sound, the loss of McGee then Forbes spelt the end of Simple Minds as a band that could hypnotise across its full sound -- from Kerr's slurrs, guitarist Charlie Burchell's extra-terrestrial delays and colours, and MacNeil's ethereal and driving sequenced key/synth patterns.

This song is from 1984's Sparkle - Speed your Love. It captures them still capable of hypnotising. Still linked into a 1970s idea of Western European technological modernism. Just.