Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Taking a Detour From Revision Street

Posted By on 11.30.10 at 01:35 PM

Anne Elizabeth Moore is putting Revision Street on hiatus, which is a damn shame:

Yet the most important thing about Revision Street: America is that it wasn’t exclusively about me. I was offered space in a public media environment I didn’t want to fill with pithy observations or suggestions for consumables. I wanted to talk about—through the voices of my fellow citizens—where this city is, in this country, in the world, and in this moment.

[snip]

Anyway, the purpose of Revision Street: America was to fit the round hole of contemporary media as only a square peg couldn’t. The US, and therefore most global media, have largely abandoned the long-form oral history mode of information-gathering and news-sharing because it doesn’t soundbite. The presumed desirability of the well-polished, easy-to-digest media tidbit has contributed to a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach in recent years: I fear that media has become so disembodied it no longer can reflect the interests, desires, and concerns of people anymore. (Certainly, the continuing struggles of media reform movements indicate more than corporate media’s growing predominance; they may also point to a disinterest in media itself. Which did come up, in interviews with Celi Gonzalez, Abby Smith, and Tom Shepherd.)

This is a knotty problem, but I don't entirely blame corporate media, with emphasis on blame.

One thing most journalists are taught is follow the money, a lesson learned from Watergate with phrasing courtesy of All the President's Men. And in the past couple decades the money has concentrated among the highest income brackets at levels not seen since the 1920s. So just on sheer mathematical terms, I'm not surprised that the media is drawn to the biggest corporate bug zappers.

And with more money comes more power; and with more money and power comes more systemic risk, as we (re)learned from the global economic crisis and its relationship to the revolving door leading from investment banks to government and back. To the extent that the media is charged with understanding the world and even protecting it from itself, it seems legitimate, or at least efficient, to concentrate increasingly limited resources on the pockets of greatest influence—some might say "threats."

Back in the day my journalistic interest was "the interests, desires, and concerns of people," as written about by journalists like Susan Orlean, Joseph Mitchell, McCandlish Phillips, and Chicago's own Studs Terkel and Ben Hecht. But more recently I've become interested in systems of economic and political power—which you would think get more than the attention they deserve, but often operate with the complexity and opacity of the rhythms of life on the street.

The best possible example may be the story told by Robert Caro in his all-time masterpiece The Power Broker, in which Robert Moses runs New York City as his own personal SimCity, wreaking havoc on the lives and histories of the common man with his engineering schemes, to near-silence from the popular press. Moore wonders if journalism can reflect the desires of people; while I do wonder that, I also wonder if it can capture the desires of institutions.

And I also wonder about the relationship between the two. I've read a number of excellent books on the economic crisis, from Matt Taibbi's Griftopia to Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail, which explain the macro and micro of it in compelling detail. But most of them don't answer the question that I assume is on everyone's mind: WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE???

And there's a book that's sort of a synthesis of Moore's concerns and mine, that may answer that question as much as is possible, and will hopefully get its due alongside works by bigger names like Nouriel Roubini and Bethany McClain: Liquidated, by Karen Ho. She's one of these people who finds themselves in the right place with the right background at the right time: a graduate of Stanford and Princeton, both feeder schools for the financial industry, who went on hiatus from her anthro program at the latter to join the financial ranks with an eye towards an ethnography of the industry—which would eventually become Liquidated.

It's an ethnography, so the presentation is understandably dry, but Ho paints a compelling (and as a graduate of another industry feeder school, familiar) portrait of elite-university grads seduced by Wall Street's self-presentation as the only rational destination for high achievers, which is used to justify their breakneck work schedules and massive compensation; the end result is a long chain of self-justification which ends, unsurprisingly, in the arrogance which has become so familiar to outsiders over the past few years:

Many investment bankers I interviewed remarked, occasionally with envy but usually with an edge of moral superiority, how inefficient corporate America is because people move so "slowly." As Wong suggested, it is extremely common for investment bankers to interpret their own experience of overwork as a sign that they know how to "get things done," as proof of their "smartness," in contradistinction to the masses of complacent, less capable workers out in the "real world" who therefore need to be restructured to more efficient use.

[snip]

Simultaneously, on Wall Street, hard work is always overwork—long, grinding hours spent staring at spreadsheets, perfecting pitch books, and managing clients. Investment banks' assumptions about their cultural and technical superiority are "proved" to their elite workers every day via the internalization of overwork, their work lives providing a kind of ideological discipline that keeps them focused on market position, profit making, and shareholder value. My informants often legitimated their work and its effects on corporations by appealing to their own work ethic: the mergers and acquisitions they manage must be good because, well, they work so hard at them. The very qualities assumed to make investment bankers the world's most elite workforce also justify the power of Wall Street investment banks and the dominance of their ideologies, especially shareholder value. The fetish for working hard and working constantly bolsters claims of hyperefficiency and extreme responsiveness to the demands and rhythms of the market. Not surprisingly, then, the culture of hard work legitimates Wall Street investment bankers' roles as spokespeople for, and embodiments of, the market.

It's an enlightening book, tracing as it does the emergence of the economic scene as we know it from rhetoric, ideas, and beliefs. UIC's Deirdre McCloskey is working on a not-dissimilar project with her half-complete four-part history of what she calls the "Bourgeois Era," and she offers something of a thesis statement in the second volume, Bourgeois Dignity:

The present book supports such a balancing step indirectly, by looking at a representative sample of apparently promising materialist and antirhetorical explanations of the Industrial Revolution and the modern world—explanations such as investment or exploitation or geography or foreign trade or imperialism or genetics or property rights. It finds them to be surprisingly weak. It concludes therefore (I admit the inferential gap) that the remaining explanations, such as ideas and rhetoric, must be strong. (The two books to follow will offer more positive evidence for the change in rhetoric.)

All of which is a very roundabout way of saying, as McCloskey writes: "Talk, talk talk. Ideas matter." That's the very great value of ethnographies, and literary journalism, and oral projects like Revision Street. But they can't stand on their own, and for better or worse "corporate" media finds itself in the position (as a result of not just economics but how its practitioners are trained—hey, back to rhetoric again) of recording local, national, and world events with relative efficiency and factual accuracy. Both of which may not always add up to truth—but that's where the rest of us come in.

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