- Don DeLillo's Financial Sublime
In his 1997 book Wall Street: How It Works and for Whom, economic historian Doug Henwood takes postmodern theory to task for its failures to explain the "real world" of finance. Ignoring actual production, he argues, the discourses of global capital promote an understanding of finance so shallow that it could be "derived from capital's own publicists" (2). "Cybertopians and other immaterialists," he writes, "are lost in a second- or even third-order fetishism, unable to decode the real relations of power behind the apparently disembodied ecstasies of computerized trading." Rejecting fantastical descriptions of capital as "weightless," "astral," or able to "launch itself into orbit," Henwood cites the work of Jean Baudrillard as an example of how academic theories of capital have become indistinguishable from neoliberal faith in market self-regulation and quotes from two of Baudrillard's essays (2):
Marx simply did not foresee that it would be possible for capital, in the face of the imminent threat to its existence, to transpoliticize itself, as it were . . . to make itself autonomous in a free-floating, ecstatic and haphazard form, and thus to totalize the world in its own image. Capital (if it may still be so called) has barred the way of political economy. . . . [I]t has successfully escaped its own end. . . .("After the Orgy" 10-11)
Money has now found its proper place, a place far more wondrous than the stock exchange: the orbit in which it rises and sets like some artificial sun.("Transeconomics" 33) [End Page 246]
Six years later, in After the New Economy (2003), Henwood again criticizes the "partisans of weightlessness," arguing that they "overlook the monetized social relations behind seemingly insubstantial wares" (29), and reiterates his main point: "though financial markets seem very fanciful, appearing detached not only from production but even from social relations, they are actually institutions that consolidate ownership and control among the very rich of the world" (28). In the wake of the collapse of dot-com stocks, the widespread disillusionment with the so-called new economy, and numerous accounting scandals, Henwood quotes the same passages from Baudrillard, but beyond calling him "several years ahead of the accounting profs" and commenting, "[a]pparently the Asian crisis of 1997, like the Gulf War, didn't really happen" (27), he refrains from further critique, as if recent events had made their flaws sufficiently obvious.
The implication is that if we cannot separate the real and the mythical in our accounts of capitalism, and if we fail to reject euphoric metaphorizations of finance, history will at some point have a (painful) correction in store. Henwood has not been alone in calling attention to the overlap between certain leftist discourses about capitalism and neoliberal discourses on the market.1 But to accuse cultural theory of excessive abstraction from economic reality, as he and other commentators have done, is not simply to echo a by now standard complaint about postmodernist theory being essentially conservative and/or nihilistic. Instead, this critique highlights a central contradiction in our understanding of capitalism since the last quarter of the twentieth century—namely, the problem of abstraction itself. Although conceptions of "liberated" capital may have emerged out of an entirely different set of ideological commitments than "new economy" discourses in the 1990s, they converged around a shared image of markets as frictionless entities where abstract capital moves freely through barriers of time and geography, information is universally distributed, and the market itself symbolizes [End Page 247] a general system of intelligence too flexible and immense for individual control. As globalization narratives became increasingly shaped as financial narratives, finance capital, in particular, has come to define a new level of conflict between the real and the unreal. If the mythical and the real appeared to become exceptionally compatible during certain moments of technocapital advancement (which certainly happened during the rise of Internet and tech stocks in the 1990s and continued, except for a brief interruption in 2000 and 2001, in the spheres of housing and global debt financing), how do we discern capitalism's actual operations and effects on the world—except historically, in hindsight? Even though the most recent efflorescence...