This book is not for the faint-hearted. The general topic is crisis – crisis in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and indeed everywhere. The chosen case study is the 2007-08 sub-prime mortgage crisis. But don’t expect an analysis of what happened. The whole point of this book is to question whether anything “really” happened at all.
Janet Roitman is a philosophical anthropologist who is fluent in critical discourse analysis. Among her heroes is Michel Foucault, according to whom truth “is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements”. Crisis, we are told, is a “narrative device”. In this spirit, Roitman restricts herself to exploring a certain kind of “grammar” – “the grammar of financial crisis narratives”.
On Thursday 18 September 2008, Ben Bernanke, chairman of the US Federal Reserve, warned: “We may not have an economy on Monday.” To avert calamity, the Federal Reserve announced an unprecedented, taxpayer-funded bailout of the private banking system. Was this whole episode a crisis? Roitman quotes Democratic congressman Paul Kanjorski, chairman of the Capital Markets Subcommitee, who certainly thought it was. Kanjorski later reflected that without that massive bailout, $5.5 trillion (£3.45 trillion) would have vanished from the US money-market system within hours. This, he continued, “would have collapsed the entire economy of the US, and within 24 hours the world economy would have collapsed. It would have been the end of our economic system and our political system as we know it.”
Roitman responds by asking philosophical questions. What does it mean “not to have an economy”? What is signified by the “collapse of the world economy”? Critical to an extreme, Roitman has no faith in such terms. Her complaint is that anti-capitalist activists – involved in campaigns such as Occupy Wall Street – take crisis at face value. Instead of stepping back to “consider what is at stake with crisis in-and-of-itself”, they unconsciously accept the grammar of crisis narratives, viewing the world in binary-digital terms – capital versus labour, use value versus surplus value, politics versus morality and so forth. Internalising such antinomies, they end up by simply taking sides – allocating blame, for example, or insisting on a redistribution of wealth and power. Roitman soars above all that. In her view, “the point is to observe crisis as a blind spot, and hence to apprehend the ways in which it regulates narrative constructions”. Yes, people really did lose their homes, their jobs, their pensions. Yes, contradictions in the capitalist system really do exist. But rather than dwelling on them, Roitman advises, “one might prefer to consider what it would take to reconcile ourselves to the inevitability of antinomies”.
On the other hand, one might not. Indeed, one might interpret Roitman’s entire book as a recommendation to spiral down a philosophical wormhole while renouncing all action in the world. And I can see why this might prove popular in some quarters: it means leaving the corporate elite and their politicians in control.
Roitman’s aim, as she explains, is not to act in the world but to blur certain lines. In particular, she wants to “erase, or at least lighten”, the lines drawn between academic and popular “narratives”. Although some people might have lost confidence in the system, that’s no reason to begin rioting in the streets. We need to “step back”.
Quoting Umberto Eco, Roitman concludes by suggesting that our lived worlds are not real. Each of us is trapped in a narrative “in which, through multiple, truncated and nested trajectories; flashes, reversals, setbacks, duplications, parallels, recurrences, and reprises, the concept of time breaks down: events lose a notion of temporal progression, as in a dream”. But a dream, observes Roitman, is “a cosmically unnoticeable event”. There is no spectator, no witness. Nothing happened at all.
By Janet Roitman
Duke University Press, 176pp, £56.00 and £14.99
ISBN 9780822355120 and 54
Published 20 December 2013