In recession, we talk about bursting bubbles. Doing so makes sense: it suggests the importance of distinguishing between inflated appearances and hard realities. The global great recession, however, has so blurred the lines between appearance and reality that pundits like the Atlantic’s Henry Blodgett propose a new way to talk: “bubbles are to free-market capitalism as hurricanes are to weather: regular, natural, and unavoidable.” In a similar vein, The New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten notes that the recession “is enormous and all-pervading, evolving and ongoing, history-altering yet in many respects banal. It is a persistent state, like the weather.” For Blodgett, at least, the meteorological metaphor makes clear that just about the best we can do is to “raise an eyebrow when our children explain that we really should get in on the new new new thing because, yes, it’s different this time.”
The solitary raised eyebrow. I had a high-school teacher who coined a term for that: the roarny. It’s a gesture when conditions are hard to give words to.
So let’s give the roarny to the metaphoric shift from bubbles to hurricanes. I rather like the shift. It discourages simplistic judgments. It’s the banker’s fault that we’re in this mess. It’s all those ponzi schemers. It’s the politicians. The storm metaphor, with all its reminders of large, complex systems, reminds us that it’s just too easy to scapegoat one particular agent for lacking the character or competence to keep us from recession. The storm metaphor not only defers judgments about economic agency; it also complicates the critic’s position by suggesting that even analytic detachment—the upraised eyebrow—does not remove the critic from the conditions under study. Criticism tracks satellite storm imagery while the hurricane bears down on the critic’s studio.
But perhaps the most interesting to thing to me about the bubble-to-hurricane shift is the kind of posture it commends to us. The reason it commends something to do with our eyebrows, for example, is that locates an exchangeability between crisis and ordinary life. You’ve heard people talk about the New Normal—when what was once extraordinary has become mundane. Of course, across the popular mediascape—Fox News, CNN, talk radio, Hollywood—there’s a tendency to blow up everybody’s phone, treating everything in an inflated manner, as if every cultural moment were a movie trailer for an impossibly exciting coming attraction. But the next move we make in our public culture may be just as disconcerting: when academics, pundits, and late-night ironists administer some quasi-eucharistic rite to moments and turn them into ordinary life. So Blodgett commends an upraised eyebrow as wisdom.
The gesture feels a bit arthritic, though. Just try walking around with a roarny permenantly fixed on your face.
So, let me ask you: when crisis and ordinariness switch places in our public culture, or even on our campus, what are some postures, gestures, comportments that you’ve found to be adequate to our time? I think of the way Allison Backous used to make the sign of the cross on people. I think of Dr. Colosimo’s bow. I think of Dan Thayer’s laugh. All these are ways and means to carry ourselves in the face of What’s Going On. They are social bearings. Stances. Do you have others to add to the list—other ways that we might embody wisdom and dismiss folly?
Henry Blodgett, “Why Wall Street Always Blows It,” The Atlantic, December 2008, 60.
Nick Paumgartner, “The Death of Kings,” The New Yorker, May 18, 2009, 40.