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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