Synchronous Derivatives

Wall St BullRight on cue, the London Review of Books has published a good article by John Lancaster about the City of London, financial derivatives and the ‘credit crunch’. If you are at all interested in the convoluted abstractions of greed that insidiously rule our lives, I highly recommend that you read it. (NB: I work in the financial industry so I’m allowed to be rude about it.)

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Published in: on December 31, 2007 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Abstraction

MondrianIf there is one feature that characterises modern thought above all others, it is an inescapable tendency towards abstraction. Modern thought deals not with things themselves but with abstract concepts and the relationships between such concepts. All modern thought consists of abstracting away from the particular and analysing the resultant, universal ideas. Such abstraction is a key facet of human thought, some philosophers have claimed that it is what distinguishes human thought from that of other animals, but in modernism abstraction finds its most extreme expression. Modern thought is dominated by abstraction. This article is an example of such abstraction and analysis applied to modern thought itself.

The abstractive process is most obvious in the scientific method, which is a body of practices specifically designed to enforce abstraction, but it can be found in every identifiably modern cultural phenomenon.

The goal of modern physics is to discover mathematical laws that describe all natural phenomena. This is the epitome of modernist abstraction. Individual occurrences are transformed from unique and separate events into manifestations of universal principles. Subsequent developments are the result of mathematical deduction, subject to experimental confirmation.

Similarly, modern finance bears little relation to the practical trade of pre-modern times. Rather than mere wealth creation, we now deal with abstract financial packages, derivatives and arbitrary indices. The wealthiest people today are not buyers and sellers themselves but middlemen: self-appointed advisors and managers who amass fortunes by skimming a little off every transaction. The simple practice of trade, of physically conveying actual goods from one place to another, is overshadowed by the buying and selling of abstract financial instruments whose existence is measured only by numbers in a ledger (or, more likely, an abstraction of electrical currents interpreted as a digital representation of a ledger.)

Modern life itself is an exercise in abstraction. We increasingly live in cities, artificial constructs intended to fulfil some conception of human needs. Tasks traditionally left to family and society are now undertaken by the state: education, care of the elderly, even the instilling of morals. Communities no longer consist of people who live and work together, instead they are made up of people who share some generalised trait. We hear about the “financial community” or the “religious community” or the “gay community” – all abstractions.

The state is a bizarre, modern distortion of what used to be society. We are no longer defined by our personal relationships, we are defined by abstract attributes bestowed on us from on high. We are citizens of the European Union rather than Europeans; the UK government would like to define ‘British’ and to administer ‘Britishness’ tests; we no longer earn rights through participation in a reciprocal system of rights and duties embodied in an organic society, instead we are universally granted an enumerated list of abstract “human rights.”

The “branding” procedures of modern capitalism attempt to replace values with corporate slogans. Posters around the city command me to “Be more Nokia”; George Orwell would have had something to say about Apple’s putrid catchphrase: “Think Different.”

Even those who dislike this modern trend towards ever increasing abstraction make the same mistake in their own prescriptions. They analyse the modern world, break it down into a set of abstract principles, and then merely rearrange those principles to come up with the solution to our woes. This sort of abstract analysis is inherent in modernism and clearly cannot be used to create anything that is not itself modern.

In The Laws of Media, Eric and Marshall McLuhan trace the development of modern, abstract thought from the seeds planted by Plato to their fruition in the Enlightenment. The McLuhans link modes of thought to modes of perception; they assign abstraction to a visual bias, in contrast to the pre-modern emphasis on audio/tactile perception. Furthermore, they identify various technologies which they believe engender different modes of thought, from consonants to television. It’s an interesting read and a book which has some sentimental value for me.

However, in addition to the influence of technology, I see a clear development from Christianity to secular modernism. The idea that every person is a manifestation of a single, universal principle is evident both in monotheism and the doctrine of human rights. It stands in direct opposition to the pre-modern concept of kinship and organic society. Rather than beginning at the bottom, with the particular, and rising up through networks of personal relationships, monotheism begins at the top, with an overarching principle, and imposes its authority downwards. Monotheism, Humanism, the European Union, the Third Reich… it’s all the same.

Abstract art really sucks.

Published in: on December 28, 2007 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  

Yule

LindisfarneIt’s that time of year again. Specifically, the beginning. That which has contracted now begins to expand once more. That which has hidden away begins to show itself again.

I have been to Lindisfarne with my kith to party like it’s 793. Today I ate turkey and little pieces of chipolata wrapped in bacon with my kin.

I have decided to take up my pen again, although this time I am more literal in my meaning. I intend to write more letters this year – real ones, with pen and ink – and to eschew e-mail where possible. I will continue to use e-mail for those jobs at which it excels, such as the quick and easy organisation of meetings or the rapid sharing of raw information, but where before I might have sat down at my computer to write a long and thoughtful e-mail, this year I will instead sit at my desk with paper and a fountain pen. I hope my correspondents appreciate the change and are not too horrified by my handwriting.

Similarly, I intend to write letters to newspapers and magazines in the place of writing blog articles. I don’t know whether this will increase or decrease my readership (a rather irrelevant question since this blog has been dead for three months) but I am looking forward to becoming “Disgruntled of Middlesex”.

Nevertheless, after pondering some of the words spoken in Lindisfarne this last weekend, I think I might continue this blog as well. My experiment with shared blogs did not bear much fruit and I think having my own place to rant might be good for my health.

So, I wish you all a happy Yule and a bountiful New Year. Don’t forget to remind Christians of their sacred duty to celebrate the birth of Santa.

Published in: on December 25, 2007 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment