back to

On popular narratives of financial complexity


In The New Inquiry, Miranda Trimmier writes about how popular narrative of high finance—such as those of Michael Lewis, or of novels like Don Delillo’s Cosmopolis and Bret Easton Ellis’s in American Psycho—sometimes overstate the complexity of financial capital. Such narratives, writes Trimmier, take advantage of and reinforce a simplistic popular image of high finance as an dark, impenetrable realm occupied by rapacious “quants” who pull the strings of the global economy. Read a portion of the text below, or the whole thing here.

For all the developing talk of an unfathomable Wall Street, though, financialization was from the start intimately embedded in ground-level economic experience. La Berge points in particular to the way it was enabled by the advent of personal banking. After the gold standard was lifted, the resulting flood of currency presented financiers with a problem: where to go with all of it. When other strategies proved not lucrative enough, they turned to personal banking, pushing consumer bank and credit cards and the development of new types of savings, checking, and retirement accounts. “Third world loans weren’t going to take [the bank] where [its leadership] wanted it to go, nor would commercial lending,” La Berge quotes the business journalist Joseph Nocera, “only the consumer could take [it] there.”

One of the central images that attended this turn, according to La Berge, was the ATM. As they were rolled out around New York, the machines showed up in a series of news stories, most of which reported on the various ways they confused or worried people. In the words of one bank manager, “people are wondering where the bank is.” There’s a not-often-mentioned ATM at the center of White Noise that just might be the proxy-narrator for the entire book. And a whole host of them populate American Psycho, drawing the historical connection elided in other texts—the direct one between high finance and personal banking—with a calculus that was pretty simple to grasp. The trader Patrick Bateman visits them obsessively, often for money he doesn’t need, an activity he likes to follow by randomly killing someone.