The Ouroboros Economy II

A few months ago I took the opportunity of the Business Week cover depicting the economy as ouroboros for a few snickers (“Ouroboros to Mise en Abyme,” 28 July 2008). Now the ouroboros economy makes another appearance, this time in the much more serious pages of The New Yorker (Lanchester, John, “Melting into Air,” 10 November 2008, pp. 80-84). Again, I don’t have anything in mind: it’s just an icon shopping around for more meanings. But Mr. Lanchester gives it a novel and grandiose go:

… finance, like other forms of human behavior, underwent a change in the twentieth century, a shift equivalent to the emergence of modernism in the arts — a break with common sense, a turn toward self-referentiality and abstraction and notions that couldn’t be explained in workaday English. In poetry, this moment took place with the publication of “The Waste Land.” In classical music, it was, perhaps, the première of “The Rite of Spring.” Jazz, dance, architecture, painting — all had comparable moments. The moment in finance came in 1973, with the publication of a paper in the Journal of Political Economy titled “The Pricing of Options and Corporate Liabilities,” by Fischer Black and Myron Scholes.

The revolutionary aspect of Black and Scholes’s paper was an equation that enabled people to calculate the price of financial derivatives based on the value of the underlying asset. … The trade in these derivatives was hampered, however, by the fact that — owing to the numerous variables of time and risk — no one knew how to price them. The Black-Scholes formula provided a way to do so. It was a defining moment in the mathematization of the market. The trade in derivatives took off, to the extent that the total market in derivative products around the world is counted in the hundreds of trillions of dollars. Nobody knows the exact figure, but the notional amount certainly exceeds the total value of all the world’s economic output, roughly sixty-six trillion dollars, by a huge factor — perhaps tenfold.

It seems wholly contrary to common sense that the market for products that derive from real things should be unimaginably vaster than the market for things themselves. With derivatives, we seem to enter a modernist world in which risk no longer means what it means in plain English, and in which there is a profound break between the language of finance and that of common sense. …

If the invention of derivatives was the financial world’s modernist dawn, the current crisis is unsettlingly like the birth of postmodernism. For anyone who studied literature in college in the past few decades, there is a weird familiarity about the current crisis: value, in the realm of finance capital, evokes the elusive nature of meaning in deconstructionism. According to Jacques Derrida, the doyen of the school, meaning can never be precisely located; instead, it is always “deferred,” moved elsewhere, located in other meanings, which refer and defer to other meanings — a snake permanently and necessarily eating its own tail. This process is fluid and constant, but at moments the perpetual process of deferral stalls and collapses in on itself. Derrida called this moment an “aporia,” from a Greek term meaning “impasse.” There is something both amusing and appalling about seeing his theories acted out in the world markets to such cataclysmic effect.