Where's My Benjamins

Wall Street’s trash is fiction’s gold, w/ cameos from Wittgenstein and Marie NDiaye

The financial blogger Matt Levine has a running joke in his Money Stuff column: “Is everything securities fraud?” The punchline riffs on a legal construct that lets shareholders sue companies pretty much any time the stock price falls. Anyway, swap out “securities” for “reality,” and we’ve arrived.

Is Everything Reality Fraud…?

My last post, on the art of the internet novel, allocated a good bit of real estate to the idea that fiction “competes” with reality. I argued that this is, in part, the pleasure of the novel: it does not map one-to-one to life.

The art of fiction, maybe, lies in investigating gaps—in our “model failures,” if you will.  

I wouldn’t be surprised if reality fraud continues to be a major theme of this Substack, given its inseparability from art, and from the pandemic, and from the not-so-literary subjects I’m interested in, including markets and statistics and econometrics, which is what I studied/did for money in a previous life—and whose particular genre of “model failure” is, in large part, what this post is about. 

Who knows what the baseline reality quotient is anymore—did we ever have one?—but it certainly seems in flux. And that flux, I think, brings us first to Wall Street, then back to novels (not least, the one I am trying to write).

First, the Wall Street part.

Where’s My Benjamins

There’s a specter haunting market economics—the specter of the hundred dollar bill. 

I refer, by way of exaggeration, to a popular object lesson: A student and a professor are strolling campus, discussing the former’s underwhelming performance on the options pricing midterm, when they come across a crisp Benjamin on the sidewalk. The student pauses to pick it up. Don’t bother, her professor says. If it really was a hundred dollars, it wouldn’t be there in the first place. (This was rather the point of the exam.)

The cash-poor student looks from the bill to her professor, back to bill. Is this for extra credit? Because if it isn’t $100, then, uh, what else could it be? Counterfeit? Stolen? Maybe it’s bait. The serial number will tie her to a bank robbery, screw her over, screw her into the Rube Goldberg machinery of the perfect crime… The student has a talent for hyperbole, ultimately she’ll give up economics, write novels instead (semi-autofictional aside). The professor’s suggestion here is that everyone else knows something the student doesn’t; that’s why they left it alone. The campus is assumed to be an environment of “perfect information,” with ample channels through which to act on that information (“liquidity”), and the student body composed of more or less rational actors. Logically, there can be no free money on this campus. Ipso facto, the Benjamin does not exist. 

On the other hand, maybe this is just a bit of sophisticated denialism. Maybe the $100 really is just $100, in which case there’s something awry in your starting assumptions. 

This specter is generally called the Efficient Market Hypothesis and while it is entirely less inspiring than the one haunting the opening lines of The Communist Manifesto, a post-mortem of the 2008 financial crisis suggests that it’s a haunt not to be underestimated. How can so many be so wrong for so long? The basic problem: there’s a lag between the moment underlying market conditions begin to drift from model assumptions, and the moment we notice there’s a gap. 

We all know what happens next: Trillions evaporate, Wall Street falls into the sea, and we ride the resulting tidal wave to the doorstep of revolution proper, or at least to the stoop of Ben Bernanke’s brownstone—an auspicious start for a tragicomedy, maybe, a disaster in real life.

Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit on a hundred dollar bill, of course.

Uh, a hundred bucks is a hundred bucks...

Especially when we’re climbing out of a recession. 

To rational non-economists, the world as described by the professor has something of the unapologetic (in)sanity of the early Wittgenstein: internally consistent, yet ruthlessly contrary to the world as it appears before your eyes. As Bertrand Russell once famously recounted after tea with his most brilliant pupil  (and I paraphrase), “I’ve just seen Ludwig. He would not admit that there was not an elephant in the room.”

The idea that there is always-possibly-an-elephant-in-the-room is the result of Wittgenstein’s attempt to formalize language as a function that maps from thought to “states of affairs” that obtain in the real world. (You can see how this might be pretty important for philosophers, who tend to make lots of claims about the real.) That the results of these linguistic stress-tests, collected in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, eventually led Witty to waffle on the presence of an elephant in the tea parlor—to everyone else very clearly sans elephant—tells us something about how far this kind of empiricism can bring us, truth-claim wise. Everything (including spectral elephants) is possible when nothing can be proved. 

Economists are often accused of having abstracted human behavior and conceptions of value to such an extent that they’ve lost touch with underlying material reality; it doesn’t take an advanced degree to see that the S&P 500 has become untethered from the living conditions of the average American. Wittgenstein, we see here, worked his way to a similar kind of paradox, through the opposite approach. It was precisely his attempt prove that language and reality are inextricably linked that led him, in the Tractatus, to lay waste to the way we talk about the world. A proof by over-earnest contradiction.

Lemma: Put any model of reality under stress—Wittgenstein, a debt crisis, slips in human rationality (ha)—and you’ll find that a lot of what we say and trade begins to look like nonsense. In other words, hardly “real” at all. 

Is everything reality fraud??

(Yes.)

Bad dreams 

Though this isn’t necessarily cause for despair.

The French writer Marie NDiaye, master of haunted, tilted, postcolonial worlds backlit by a kind of fever logic, alluded to the novelistic potential of reality-fraud in a recent interview with the The White Review: “These multiple interpretations of the same term form the entire basis of the novel’s sense of mystery,” she said. (Mathematically speaking, the opposite of mapping one-to-one.) 

Novels may not map to life any more reliably than economic models or Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, but they do lead to someplace adjacent and, for better or worse, are also less likely to precipitate global economic or analytic-philosophical crises. This is to say that Wittgenstein’s failure—or the trader’s nightmare—is the novelist’s dream. 

NDiaye is speaking here of En Famille, but the mystery she references obtains in all of her books. Her characters often fail to recognize themselves in the words and structures others assign to them—or else they fail to find receptive audiences for the concepts they’d use to describe themselves. The plot exploits these gaps, ripping the existential rug out from beneath unwitting (usually female) protagonists and transporting them to uniquely liminal, unfamiliar spaces; no wonder critics often have trouble categorizing NDiaye’s work. Is this surrealism, horror, thriller, fairytale? In Rosie Carpe, a wretched Frenchwoman and deeply reluctant mother (her son is the product of rape) comes across a couple who are almost certainly her own parents, only impossibly younger, happier, richer; they’ve shacked up in a proper Parisian mansion and hardly seem to recognize their daughter. Her brother proves equally elusive when Rosie arrives in the Caribbean to appeal to him for cash. In Ladivine, the French daughter of an immigrant woman from unspecified tropics leaves home, changes her name, and begins passing for white; by the time we reach her daughter, the eponymous Ladivine, this suppressed family history has begun to manifest in supernatural ways. On a vacation to—maybe??—the tropical country where her grandmother (also named Ladivine) was born, Ladivine the second finds her own clothes for sale in the streets. She’s inexplicably recognized by strangers. Stray dogs treat her with a special understanding. Increasingly estranged from her own children and husband, she is unable to decode these signals. Is this all white noise, or is the world trying to tell her something? 

I’m not much one for listing favorites, but if you twisted my arm, NDiaye is probably one of the first names I’d give up (from the same interview: “I’m always slightly surprised when people call out, Marie! It feels like a mistaken identity...”) and for just this reason: I think she does gaslighting better than pretty much anyone else.

A case for gaslighting

In a world where, per lots of 19th- and 20th-century continental philosophy, every aspect of modern life is administered and bureaucratized by increasingly siloed technocratic institutions that operate according to increasingly private logics; where most major decision-making processes have been delegated to esoteric expertise and therefore lie far beyond the reach of even the informed democratic vote; when most of those major decision-making processes, as in modern financial markets, have themselves become automated and supercomputed; in a world where $100 might be $100 or $0, by a trick of the light, it seems to me that gaslighting is a perfectly suitable mode in which to be writing fiction.

The costs of late capitalism, the Weberian state, and the fracturing of the public sphere are usually captured under the umbrella of alienation. But this discourse (to me) skirts around another key feature of modern life: not only are we estranged from our bodies and labor, but from a stable baseline reality. Shifting the accent from estrangement to gaslighting better emphasizes, I think, that daily existence often amounts to a series of rapid state-changes through contrasting extremes—virtual v. IRL; S&P 500 v. “real economy.” There’s an existential friction to constantly transitioning between “worlds.” And the lag time in adjusting to newfangled rules, rules you didn’t make and cannot change, can be experienced as gaslighting. 

Kafka, for example, is the uncontested king of administrative estrangement. But the primary source of misery in his fiction isn’t so much alienation as how abruptly the rules of the world seem to change. You’re a man; you’re a bug! Your trial is at nine; it’s perpetually an hour and five minutes before whenever you planned to show up.

In a novel like The Trial, it’s the state that pulls the strings. Of contemporary writers, NDiaye invites my evangelism for examining the kind of gaslighting that occurs when private life is exposed to less well-defined authorities: dreamworld parents; stray dogs in unnamed countries; women in green. These entities, often indifferent to the protagonist’s confusion or pain, are perhaps all the more menacing for the fact that they both do and don’t map, one-to-one, to analogous authorities in the real world. The ambiguity leaves us stranded, holding slack reins: Who are we to blame?

The lack of clearly defined antagonists (e.g., colonialism, the Kafkaesque state, history, but also not not these things) often leads characters back to the only logical conclusion of any successful neoliberal gaslighting campaign: the problem is you; the sickness, the confusion, lies with the self. 

Reading NDiaye, you feel that someone is responsible, someone is to blame. At the same time, it’s hard to charge perpetrators who refuse to produce themselves, who manifest more as a general, haunted atmosphere than real human beings—rather like the Oz behind the financial crisis, still wanted, still at-large. 

In other news 

I promised thoughts on flowers in this post, but things got out of hand, so you can expect notes on common garden weeds in my next or next-next post. I’ll also return to the Efficient Market Hypothesis and later Wittgenstein, so those of you preparing to lecture at me about Philosophical Investigations, give it a few weeks. 

(We’re building here toward the limits of language and markets, and to plant utopia as a long-shot panacea...it’s spring, after all.)

Also: 

  • Here again is that very nice interview with Marie NDiaye in The White Review, conducted by Aurélie Maurin and translated by Samuel Rutter.

  • Here’s something I wrote on Marie NDiaye for 4Columns a while ago. If you’re not already familiar with her work, I think you can profitably (sorry) read just about anything she’s written, but I tend to find Rosie Carpe is under appreciated. As perhaps is University of Nebraska Press, which publishes the English translation.

  • On university presses: I started Maceo Montoya’s Preparatory Notes for Future Masterpieces, out from University of Nevada Press later this month. I’m new to Montoya’s work, and still only partway through, but thus far it’s very good: comic and metafictional and full of footnotes that could double as their own separate volume of literary criticism &/or a treatise on the past, present, and future state of Chicanx literature. It’s kind of Barthelme (very funny, irreverent, lots of allusions) and Hrabal (picaresque journey up and down the class ladder) meet Borges (found documents-within-documents)? Plus something all Montoya’s own.  

Two points for Nebraska and Nevada, overrepresented in the electoral college, under- on bestsellers lists,

Jessi 

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