Thursday, September 18, 2008


Nearly every explanation of our current financial crisis eventually settles on the claim that the problem is most fundamentally due to housing. Our housing sector was floated on cheap money and bad loans, and as defaults increased a financial house of cards began tumbling down.

While it's certainly true that the most visible cause of this unraveling is attributable to the collapse of housing prices and mortgage defaults, reflection suggests that the root cause is deeper still: it lies in a culture of abstraction. At nearly every level this financial collapse was precipitated by transforming reality into abstraction, unmooring grounded commitments and obligations and fostering new patterns of fantastical behavior throughout the populace.

It begins with an altered perception of one's abode. A rootless people - abstracted from particular places and settled patterns of life - perceive their abodes as investments, as notional assets that are packaged and bartered. In the 1980s and 90's - at the height of the American build-out into the exurban wasteland, the transformation of farmland into cul-de-sacs, six-lane feeder roads and blighted vistas of strip malls and box stores - a generation of people clung to the advice of Martha Stewart on how to create a country home with both peasant and aristocratic touches by means of purchasing bedding and paint colors at K-Mart. Houses in developments called "Hunter's Glen" and "Meadow Run" - built usually by destroying whatever the development was named after, as Kunstler wryly has pointed out - were built in a faux Victorian or classical style, using materials that wouldn't likely last 25 years without need for replacement. Designed for indoor living, with professional kitchens in which little cooking was done and separate living spaces for every member of the family, these cookie-cutter houses were paeans to a domestic idyll that was crushed under a reality of abstraction. Far-flung commutes, deadening institutionalized public school days bookended by chaotic bus rides, a younger generation that lacked meaningful interaction with adults who were not paid to be with them, lives that could not be lived without large streams of electronically supplied entertainment and "news" (increasingly indistinguishable), and frequent automobile drives to places that supplied essentials and detritus of life at the end of worldwide supply lines fueled by decreasing quantities of petroleum were the hallmarks of our disconnection with everyone and everything. This is what we called "home." The abstraction of this existence was further supported by words that had lost their meaning.

Their houses were purchased with loans that were immediately shipped out of their "communities," appearing as electronic 1s and 0s on a 23-year old broker's screen who sliced and diced them until they were bundled into a variety of derivatives (the word itself suggests its greater abstraction) and sold to "investors" overseas who recombined and flipped them again.

Most of these "homeowners" worked in distant "office parks" (another combination of words abstracted from meaning) where their daily activity bore no relation to anything in their immediate surroundings. Local and regional differences had long ago ceased to have any bearing on their financial or economic fortunes - they were part of a globalized system that made them more interested in the closing price of the Nikkei than the local rainfall. They were more apt to have an interest in the atrocities in Darfur or the hurricanes forming off the coast of Africa than the impoverished areas of the city into which they commuted, and out of which they gladly left each night. Their children were up to date on the latest computer games and unlikely to know anything about the local history or traditions of their area, since that had been obscured or rendered irrelevant, and in all likelihood it was a place into which they had moved and from which they would depart when a new "opportunity" came along.

We inhabit a world which we have made obscure to ourselves. The height of our civilization has been to render the world unknown to us. The modern project seeking the conquest of nature has resulted in the imperative that we become ignorant. We know much, but little of substance or based in the reality of the existence we inhabit. We are distant from where, what, and who we are.

Homes were replaced with interchangeable houses. Neighborhoods were abandoned for exurbs. Actual work was outsourced and replaced by jobs in "information technology." Local banks were eaten by conglomerates and mortgages became hedge funds. Things ceased to bear any real relation in a proper order and proportion.

As the media (more abstraction) seeks to expose what caused the financial crisis, we are advised to consider the cause that will go unexplored: the abstraction of our lives in an abstracted world. A world of homes, paid for with work, passed on to generations, embedded in communities, sustained by practices and memory and by fidelity and trust, based in faith in and faithfulness to a created world that we did not create and a Creator who wishes for us to know this creation (and not to abstract ourselves from it), is a world where at least the failure of some investment banks far away in New York is not all that interesting. The rainfall, the harvest, whether the birds are beginning to fly south, the passing on of one's culture and history to one's children, and the recollection of those who have died - but still live in one's midst - is what matters, or ought to matter, far more.


mark said...

Wonderful post. This is what I have wanted to say, but not as well as you have. I started noticing, years ago, that our so called "culture" seemed to be a mile wide, and deep as dew. "Home is just an abstraction. "Home" is really for many people, just their best investment. People know what new X-box game titles there are, but wouldn't recognize a Winslow Homer painting. And so on. It make me sad. I am a groundskeeper, so I am outdoors, and see much natural history. I tend flower beds, etc. I talk to many of the tenants. Pet their dogs, and cats. I don't have to sit in a cubical, and mummify. Even if I am not paid a great deal. But I never lost my wonder at the Creation, and the mysteries it holds. But most people could care less. They only want to know what happened last week on Surviver.
I am not better than they are. But I notice more, I think. Most people go thru the Library of Life, and only stop at the paperbacks.

Black Sea said...

As I know that you are an admirer of Wendell Berry, I will mention that today in class I will begin to go over with my students his essay, "Does Community Have a Value?" I selected this essay as the first reading in my course before the current Wall Street crisis (if indeed crisis is what it is), but it does seem to have a particular relevance at the present moment.

I would also mention that Berry points out that our economy resembles an autocratic monarch in that it can imagine no alternative to itself. Our investment banks and mortgage houses have made enormous profits off of suspect loans taken out by a gullible, and sometimes irresponsible, public. Now that they are in danger of default, we are told that the public must bear the burden of subsidizing these profit-seeking entities, because if they go down, the whole of our economy will go down with them.

To what extent this doomsaying is accurate, I'm not qualified to judge, but it does reinforce the point that our current system sees itself as the only viable system, perhaps because its masters see themselves as the only viable masters. People in power do tend to think this way.