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How do we visualize the economic crisis?

The current economic crisis has its origin in financial instruments of such complicated construction that even their users are said not to have understood exactly what they were and how they worked. How does one illustrate a credit-default swap? How would one shoot a video of a counterparty failing to pay up on a sketchy derivative trade? As the crisis deepened over the past two years, photographers took to the streets of our financial districts, and editors waded through stockpiles of images, looking for something to render the crisis visible – to depict what is at root an extremely abstract phenomenon. In an age of total image saturation, we hang instead on words; credit crunch, foreclosure, bailouts, zombie banks. We understood, when a week before we had not, that bad mortgages were somehow bundled in with other loans and passed around, like a bad money timebomb. When Bernie Madoff’s high rates of return were exposed as a giant Ponzi scheme, there was almost a sense of relief that all the economic mischief could finally be explained in terms of simple, unsustainable practices perpetrated by greedy and immoral individuals. But of course these were inadequate explanations: however hard they are to represent, we live in the midst of a series of abstractions that constitute much of our experience of reality. Any portrayal of contemporary capitalist society, artistic or otherwise, cannot do without an investigation into the real character of abstraction.

But just as reportage of the recent potential or real pandemics (H1N1, or swine flu, is of course only the most recent instantiation of a growing list of infections) rely by necessity on a set of tropes borrowed from previous outbreaks – government agents in biohazard suits, over-packed emergency rooms, face masks on mass-transit – the visual representation of the current financial meltdown often has recourse to images that derive from the last century’s economic crises. Photographs of queues stretching in front of bank branches, predominant at the beginning of this episode, force what is new into a framework borrowed from another period, and in doing so elide fundamental differences between our current situation and the depression of the 1930s. Going further back, images from the history of the economy as a whole become increasingly gothic and perverse – from Thomas Hobbes’ portrayal of money as blood keeping the body of the state alive, to Adam Smith’s invisible hand, and Karl Marx’s vampire sucking value from every corner of the globe. If we are stuck with zombies, we should work out what it means for economic abstraction to be undead.

A queue outside a branch of Northern Rock bank, Bromley, UK, 2007. Courtesy: Gareth Fuller/PA Archive/Press Association Images

A queue outside a branch of Northern Rock bank, Bromley, UK, 2007. Courtesy: Gareth Fuller/PA Archive/Press Association Images

The media’s efforts to report the crisis visually turn out in the most part to operate by humanizing it and in doing so to place it into a dramatic form. These tropes – from the queue on the high street through panicked traders on stock exchange floors to the junior financial officer leaving his office for the last time with his golf bag slung over his shoulder – are grounded in the sense that events have discernible beginnings and ends, moments of dramatic crisis and tangible transformation. The protagonists of the story shift from the anxious depositor to the foreclosed-upon homeowner, the over-zealous bank agent to the downsized factory worker. But the implicit belief that underwrites it all is that social stories only concern individuals, their guilt and their innocence, their idio-syncratic triumphs and failures, the tragic arcs of their personal narratives. Using images like these, the media converts macroeconomic processes into human interest stories, complete with all of the emotional and ethical atmospherics that come, as if naturally, along with the form. Constructing things this way sells papers and keeps viewers watching the news programme through to the next commercial break, just as soap operas capture and hold our interest; they are quickly understood in a way that complex financial and political machinations are not. But at the same time, there’s a significant amount of distortion that enters into the understanding of recent economic events – a kind of economic anthropomorphism, a reduction of structural corruption to the level of the made-for-television docudrama.

But how can we visualize the economy as a whole? As Susan Buck-Morss, in her 1995 essay ‘Envisioning Capital: Political Economy on Display’ points out: ‘because the economy is not found as an empirical object among other worldly things, in order for it to be “seen” by the human perceptual apparatus it has to undergo a process, crucial for science, of representational mapping.’ She argues that when we follow the evolution of the graphical representation of economic processes, from François Quesnay’s Tableau Économique (Economic Table, 1758) through the supply and demand schedules of the Marginalists at the end of the 19th century and onward toward the planned economies in the Soviet bloc, we discover that economics has always struggled to represent itself visually, to map itself on a scale wider than that of the individual transaction.

A Lehman Brothers employee removes personal belongings from his place of work, New York, 2008. Courtesy: Getty Images

A Lehman Brothers employee removes personal belongings from his place of work, New York, 2008. Courtesy: Getty Images

Amidst the shuffle of recession-related news photographs, another sort of image, and one reminiscent of the ‘representational mapping’ described by Buck-Morss, occasionally breaks through, even if we have to turn past the first few pages of the daily paper in order to find it. Streets lined with estate agents’ signs index homeowners desperate to sell into a collapsed market for property, just as images of strip malls in California where the windows of two out of three shops have been papered over with the Los Angeles Times speak of shrinking family budgets and the unavailability of credit for small businesses. Just outside Port Newark in New Jersey, huge empty lots are steadily filling with shipping containers. Because it is cheaper to make more containers at the point of manufacture than to ship them back empty, these stacks are a materialization of the US trade gap and, at a level of remove, its current account deficit, one of the economic underpinnings of the current crisis.

Rather than the ethical evaluation of individuals, such images propose that the scope of the current crisis is structural, global – and more importantly, that the imbalances underwriting the economic crisis are of a different order than the price of condominiums in Florida or the share prices of financial services companies. But this revelation only leads on to another one, potentially even more destabilizing. The cargo containers have been stacking up in and around Newark for quite some time now, and even if the reason for selling has changed from price inflation to price deflation, photojournalists would have found it just as easy in 2005 to find streets in which every other house has an estate agent’s sign posted in front of it as in 2009. That is to say, the aggregation of images points to a crisis that began long before August 2007, one that is in fact written into the DNA of the economic systems in which we work, consume, and live. Still, for all the undeniable lucidity of what they present, these images can still only bring us the crisis in fragments. For now, they provide iconographic elements for a future map drawn to the global scale of the crisis, a map that will not draw itself on the pages of our tabloid newspapers.

Nina Power is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University, London, UK, and the author of One Dimensional Woman (2009).

Michael Sayeau is a lecturer in English at University College London, UK.

Issue 126

First published in Issue 126

October 2009
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