Browsing the blog archives for March, 2009.


The Saddest Banknote in the World

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My wife and I had dinner the other night with our friends John and Jean Comaroff, South Africans by birth, jetsetting anthropologists by trade, just back from Cape Town and bearing — as a gift for us, it turned out — the Zimbabwean billion-dollar banknote depicted above. I had heard of these, as maybe you have too. I knew that hyperinflation in Zimbabwe has led in recent months to the printing of even higher denominations: the trillion-dollar bill, the hundred trillion. But knowing that these bills existed, I discovered, was not at all the same thing as encountering the billion-dollar bill itself, laid out delicate and dignified on the dinner table before me, its head-spinning pathos catching me so utterly off guard that, days later, I am still sorting it out.

There was, of course, the vast ironic gap between the boldly lettered phrase ONE BILLION DOLLARS, in all its astronomic magnitude, and the actual value of the bill it was printed on. Currently the Zimbabwe dollar lists on foreign-exchange trading sites at a price of roughly 3 millionths of a U.S. cent (a rate so outlandish that its like nowadays can only be found among the currencies of massively multiplayer online fantasy games, such as Ultima Online’s Britannian gold piece, lately selling for about a million to the dollar). But even this pitiful valuation appears to be a polite fiction, papering over the reality that the Zimbabwe dollar scarcely trades at all, the U.S. dollar having, for all intents and purposes, become Zimbabwe’s legal tender, and the Zimbabwean finance minister having declared the national currency, as of late last week, “essentially dead.” Amid the heartbreaking vertigo of all those zeroes, then, the billion-dollar note now carries a hint as well of the memento mori’s sad uncanniness.

But saddest and most vertiginous of all, in the end, is what is written in the bill’s fine print: Zimbabwe Reserve Bank governor Dr. G. Gono’s signed promise, at once personal, official, and majestically absurd, to “pay the bearer” the billion dollars represented by the note should the bearer appear before him and demand that payment.

Sure, the chief cashier of the Bank of England makes a similar promise on every British pound sterling note in circulation, and no doubt the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe borrowed the exact phrasing at least partly in hopes of borrowing a little of the pound’s credibility. Sadly, though, the rhetorical effect is quite the opposite. Printed on the pound, the promise seems a quaint yet venerable archaicism, like wigs on judges — an assurance of essential continuity between today’s postmodern banking practices and the days when real money was made of gold and silver and a banknote simply guaranteed that you could get your hands on some. But on the Zimbabwe dollar, it has the flavor of a desperate stunt — as if Dr. Gono, like some “craaaaazy” discount-electronics guy on late-night television promising to eat his shorts if you can find a better deal, were literally daring you to walk into his office and trade banknotes with him if you doubt the value of his product — and only drives home the dizzying ungroundedness of all contemporary money.

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Chris Cox Lets His Critique Flag Fly

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Daniel Roth’s article on the future of financial-data analysis in the latest Wired (Road Map for Financial Recovery: Radical Transparency Now!) is a must-read if only for the last few paragraphs, in which Christopher Cox, outgoing SEC chairman and a card-carrying Orange County Reagan Republican, starts getting all post-Marx/postmodern widdit like some kind of white-shoed Baudrillard of the Beltway:

“The SEC was founded on the legal concept of disclosure and transparency,” [Cox] says. “It was not a technological concept.” He flashes a politician’s smile, a quick display of blindingly white teeth—cover while he thinks about what comes next. “Today, we have technology that was unimaginable in the early part of the 20th century, that can reify this idea in ways that are far more expansive and consequential.”

As Cox sees it, that massive computational power has primarily been used by financial engineers, who create abstract models of how the market should operate and make bets based on those models. “You know Borges, the writer?” Cox asks. “He wrote those fantastical short stories. He has one called On Exactitude in Science.” The parable tells of a kingdom obsessed with creating a perfect map of itself—an essentially useless quest that leads them to draw a map that is the same size as the territory it is supposed to represent. Cox sees the story as a metaphor for the modern financial industry, which is so obsessed with modeling the market that it has lost sight of the data beneath those models. But make more data available and you don’t need the perfect map. “To the extent that we can atomize what now are these hopelessly complex forms, dense with legalese, and let people have ready means to pull from actual reality what it is that they need, it’s no longer a model. It’s real.”

I’m sorry, did he just say reify? And did he, or did he not, then recapitulate almost move for move the opening of Jean Baudrillard’s key essay “The Precession of Simulacra” — from the tell-tale deployment of that very same Borges allegory to the annunciation of a higher order of coding in which distinctions between the map and the territory, the real and the represented, collapse entirely?

More to the point, what does it tell us that the man who ushered the U.S. financial system to its rendez-vous with doom seems to have viewed his world in much the same way the high postmodernists viewed theirs? Perhaps that their critique of late capitalism has all along been more correct than its detractors claim. Maybe also that it’s every bit as useless.

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Kittens, Kittens, and the Online-Cultural Crisis of Propriety

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This week’s memetic-research news begins with an experimental human-subject trial I conducted the other day — the human subject being my seven-year-old daughter, whom I deliberately exposed to the viral video “Kittens Inspired By Kittens”. As you probably know, the video features an adorable little girl doing adorably inventive voice-over kitten impressions while paging through her copy of the children’s photo book Kittens, all of which you might think would have been too much for the young test subject to resist. Interestingly, however, subject displayed high levels of immunity to the video’s virulent cuteness, responding only when the little girl’s uncanny rendition of the sound of a tiny, fluffy, impossibly cuddlicious white kitten going pee-pee managed to elicit a chuckle — and even then perhaps only because the manifest amusement of subject’s father suggested it might be polite to play along.

What can we conclude from these results? Given the small sample size — not to mention the conflicting results in at least one report from the field — some might say not much. But as the hour is late and I have a point to make, I say we agree the experiment proves exactly what I suspected all along: That “Kittens Inspired By Kittens” is, for all the childish charm of its content, a peculiarly adult entertainment.

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