Nightmare on Wall Street

Global stock markets continue to fall as Japan's main stock index plummeted nearly 10 percent Friday. European indexes followed suit, with main exchanges down from 7.5 percent in London to nearly 10 percent in Germany and France. In the U.S., President Bush made a statment on the crisis in the credit markets that has caused widespread sell-offs on Wall Street.
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 11, 2008

All week long, the images screamed financial panic. And if it seemed the same ones were appearing over and over again, it's in part because the media don't exactly know what they're looking at yet. We kept seeing the Wall Street functionary, agonizing over tumultuous markets, because the real consequences of the downturn haven't been tallied on Main Street. Is this unprecedented? Or all too precedented? Will there be men in tattered overcoats selling apples, or some new image of poverty we've never seen before?

Uncertain how big, deep or long-lasting the turmoil is, newspapers reached for a classic and rather neutral synecdoche -- the form of speech in which a part represents the whole. Wall Street is one of the most archetypal synecdoches we have: a street, in Manhattan, that stands for the whole of the financial industry. And so it was tempting to use the architecture of the world's financial districts to display stories about the turmoil in the markets. The Wall Street Journal ran an ominous image of financial graphs superimposed on a line of architectural columns, as if to suggest the entire edifice of world finance is crumbling.

But most newspapers and Web sites, at some point in the week, reached for an even deeper synecdoche: the hapless broker, who may or may not stand for the whole of America -- and you and me and the future, too.

Images of people suffering from natural disasters, floods or earthquakes or acts of God, are often rather muted. Resignation or stupefaction prevails. Faces are caught at some dull, disoriented transitional moment between trauma and grief.

The broker, who already communicates in an exaggerated language of gesticulation, took on an operatic excess. Frantic little men (and praying women) were overwhelmed by the tools of their trade. Computer screens loomed in the background, screaming an expressionist fury of downward trend lines. Hands clutched cellphones to the face with exaggerated force, as if squeezing them harder would make them spit out better news. The classic pathetic fallacy was in full force: The sun, it seems, never shines on the anguished broker, who toils in a surreal, seemingly subterranean space that captures the unnatural mood of the whole nation. Even cultural differences were flattened: Faces in Iceland, London, Singapore, Germany all wore the same tragic mask of calamity.

Their melodramatic gestures were borrowed from bad poetry or silent movies. The Washington Post front page Friday featured a man with his back to the camera, his hands clutching at his bald head, as if he had literally torn out his hair. Tuesday's New York Times ran a collection of small photographs of financial types with their hands clutching their faces, as if to silence screams of Edvard Munchian proportions.

We tend to kick ourselves more for disasters in which we are complicit than for catastrophes that befall us through no fault of our own. We scream at the roulette wheel in a way we'd never scream at a tree that landed on our car. And so these overdramatized displays of emotion emphasize the peculiar nature of this global crisis: It is a vast symbolic meltdown. A man-made system of numbers and other strange glyphs that stand for wealth, risk and promises is no longer functioning properly. Doubt has crept into the exchange. The consequences are real for all too many people, but what is unraveling is a huge abstraction that represents wealth that may never have really existed.

The meme of the frenzied broker (now anatomized at invites us to travel this chain of connections -- the broker stands for Wall Street which stands for finance which stands for America -- until we arrive at a vast, mutual, shared complicity in the entire fiasco. Which obscures the obvious fact that most people who invested their retirement savings in Wall Street did so as the safe, prudent, responsible thing. There was never supposed to be anything theatrical or symbolic about it. Mutual funds were just like Grandma putting money under the mattress.

It is possible that the old synecdoche that linked us all to Wall Street may not survive the current crisis. The anguished broker, who is already a rather tired figure after a long week of standing for all of America, may have to be retired. Failure on Wall Street may no longer be imputed to collective hubris, or experienced as some kind of abstract hurricane that blows up from time to time. Wall Street may become what it once was: a metaphor not for the whole of America, but for wealth and privilege, in contrast to want and suffering. There is a rich imagery for articulating that understanding, but it hasn't been seen for decades, and it's terrifying to imagine its recurrence.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company