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Monday, April 23, 2012

Roadside Attractions: MARGIN CALL : Seeing It Through Post Modern Thought

A perfect movie although not why you might think.

For an excellent review from the NY Times: Go here.

The financial crash of 2008, predicted by DeLillo in Cosmopolis and by Rand in Atlas Shrugged, albeit both clairvoyants saw it differently.

Derivatives: Just in case you don't really know what they are:

Take your mortgage with all its pages and shred it into almost microscopic bits, so teeny-tiny, itty-bitty that you can hardly even see these pieces. OK so far? Then take each of these pieces of dust and put each one in a separate invisible box. You will need hundreds of millions of boxes. Do the same for another mortgage, and another, and another........in fact to millions of mortgages until you fill each invisible box with millions of infintesimal pieces of specks. Of course the computer does all this on its hard drive, but just so concrete thinkers like me can visualize it in imagination like topological math of imaginary space.

Each imaginary box is one derivative, holding millions of pieces  representing one mortgage for each piece. See how representation breaks down in POMO thinking. Now these boxes are bundled and sold as securities, much like real mortgages used to be bundled and sold to spread the risk. Then if one mortgage went into default it didn't matter too very much because it was only one in a bundle. Now the bundles of derivatives have such a tiny particle of almost nothing that it couldn't drag the price of the bundle down if it wanted to. Voila! Foolproof! Now to get them insured by the highest triple A rating so they could also be sold to pension funds, as there are zillions of pension funds circulating all over the world!

This is simulated reality. There is no product. There is no reference point -house, building, paper mortage for that house or building, no bundle of papers, just nada. Just "floating signs" of investment paper, that investment bankers, investors, pension funds are buying, completely worthless except since people are buying them in droves and paying billions, how can they be worthless?

So now we get to Baudrillard's work on consumption, the commodity, Marx, labor, and sign. Consumption is no longer consumption of real objects, but consumption  of signs, "floating signs" which these bundles of derivatives were as are other commodities. (Vija Kinski: your condo is worth the number you paid for it.)Do you buy the Tommy Hilfiger shirt because it's a wonderful shirt, or are you buying it because the design screams Tommy Hilfiger? Do you buy the bundle of derivatives because the broker sells you on them, or because the broker is working at the prestigious Goldman-Sachs Corp? Do you buy them because it has that triple A rating? A sure bet. A safe bet. No risk security. Seems even better that a govt bond which is backed by the full faith of the US govt. My grandfather was a bond trader who had clients that went down on the Titanic and this is the kind of safe, safe thing they bought to give them a safe safe income, protect their wealth, and keep them in the style they were accustomed to living.

Back to MARGIN CALL at last.

The super smart research guy is let go. He is not adding to the bottom line. Gone. But he has been working on this as he knows it's all hot air so he's watching it carefully and expects the meltdown. So did I as a matter of fact, and only because I had had Alan Greenspan as a teacher and when he went in to the Feds I knew he had become an anti-Randian hero. Then when he became chairman I knew for sure, and knew for sure what to do altho I then was not in much of a position to do anything about it but try to remortgage my house and run with the cash. Alas it was zoned agricultural and I couldn't. But I do know that many knew this and did it. Did they do anything wrong? They did nothing illegal altho their intention was immoral:- ? -  to default on purpose? Isn't this the kind of blackmail Trump has used so successfully?
Rand, Greenspan, Friedman?

So when the hotshot math guy Peter looks at the flash drive handed to him as his mentor leaves, he sees what he was meant to see, that the house of cards is going to fall. And he is the only one who knows but he is not in a position to do anything so he must tell his superior, Kevin Spacey, an inspired leader of a brokerage group, a man of integrity and brilliance. Spacey is excellent at this kind of role. The rest of the cast Bettany, Demi Moore, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, etc are all wonderful.

So now that they are the first to know, what to do?

Spacey: Don't even think about what you are thinking to do? You can't sell something you know is worthless.

But they have always been worthless! But the veil of "truth", "reality" will be rent on the morrow or the day after when the whole financial industry knows they are worthless. They always did but pretended they weren't, then forgot that they were pretending.

Which brings us to that wonderful tale Baudrillard/Zizek tell: Two painters are enticed to enter a competition as to which one can paint the most "true" Trompe d'Oeil. One painter composes grapes so real that birds come down to eat them. Wonderbar! The other invites the judges to his studio. There is a curtain on the wall. The judges tell him to pull the curtain aside. But it is the curtain that is the Trompe d'Oeil,  so he wins. One could fool birds, but the other could fool judges.

Look at these bundles of derivatives the same way. Baudrillard looks at all conspicuous consumption the same. Rand would have agreed. She did not live among luxury tho she could well afford it. DeLillo says this also in Cosmopolis with Eric Packer who lives even more extravagantly than Gail Wynand. His penthouse bedroom swivels, Gail's was only all glass, it didn't go round like a marry-go-round, did not circulate globally like the sun. Things that go around and around are "floating signs" in Cosmopolis as the dialectic of opposites and linear time is over, and things just circulate now, even sex.

So the simulacra of derivative bundles, copies of copies having no original, are "floating signs" (floating signifiers without a signified) are signs that are unmasked revealing nothing, emptiness. Death in other words.

Now how brilliant is that! Is this capitalism? Is it the capitalism Rand talks about? Is it what even Marx talks about? The commodity now has no more labor value; no more use value. In fact it isn't even a commodity, but just a "sign". It is nothing.

So the film destroys Marx and speculative capital, two bogeymen with the same flyswatter to quote and refer to  Nietzsche's joke. The referent of language is language.

Well maybe here we go.


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