T H E M O N E Y
1: Mind if I record this? I’m happy to turn it off if not. Okay. Excellent.
0: Thank you again for arriving so early. I appreciate punctuality. Even more so the faster the world proceeds. I instructed Dana to provide you access to the papers I emailed her. For our purposes in this conversation, they’re not that important. They were meant primarily as a gesture of good faith.
1: I got them just fine. Thank you. I went over them a few times––
0: Hopefully not too strenuously.
1: No. No––I only broke a bit of a sweat. You know––and I’m sure you know––I’m not well-versed in the structure and function of algorithmic trading. So the papers helped. Though I do have a few questions. I guess I could start at an obvious place. And this question speaks to my general ignorance about financial arcana. What percentage of your fund’s trades are made by trading algorithms? How important are they to you?
0: As of sixty days ago, zero.
1: Zero? Okay. So what happened sixty days ago?
0: First, I’d like you to do me a favor: Explain to me, in simple terms, what you and your family did over the last three days.
1: On Thursday, my wife and daughter went out to Queens to visit my grandmother. I worked at the office, and around lunch Dana called me in and told me to drop everything, and that you’d agreed to an interview. So throughout the rest of Thursday and Friday I holed up at home, reading about you and your work. Mostly your work, given your privacy. And… on Saturday, Beth––my wife and I took our daughter to the Y to swim.
0: In your account, you left out details about food and travel.
1: You prefer I don’t? Okay. Well… oatmeal in the mornings for me, a sandwich from the building’s cafe on Thursday, rice and stir fry at home on Friday, dumplings after the Y on Saturday, and, in terms of travel, the train to and from work, Beth and our daughter drove out to Queens in our Volt, and walking to and from the Y and dumplings.
0: If you’re willing to continue to indulge me, talk a little about what you think––in simple terms––about your family’s patterns of motion and consumption.
1: I guess you mean ecologically? Well… we’re okay, in terms of impact. Within the better percentile among our class, that is. I mean, globally, we’re probably at the level of scorched earth. I’ve been flying a lot less. We don’t live in a big place. Our utility bills are low.
0: Do you feel yourself participating in patterns that feel to you uncanny?
1: Jesus––sorry for laughing. That’s a strange question. Can you say more?
0: Sure. This question is one that I’ve been asking myself lately. The reason for this questioning isn’t necessary to our conversation quite yet, but it will be. I ask you the question that I’ve been asking myself in order to better understand the isolating powers of this kind of question, and this kind of looking. Over and above the regular mode of analyzing one’s life––prying apart its edges, filling the space with neatly causal stories, crafting potent little excuses that function exactly opposite to a bomb––over and above building and mending one’s self again and again, and then conflating this tailored cohesion with that of a world, and then roughly layering the world of one’s own over the world in common: Above this boring process is the inclination––inclination in the ill, a desire in the morbid––to dissolve the foundational order required of a mind if it is to be and move in the world without feeling constantly, profoundly disturbed. Do you feel this?
1: To be honest, I don’t.
0: And it seems that you shouldn’t. Though I have felt this, and I’ve seen this feeling come to dominate others, to ruin them. I’m sure you’ve seen this. I know that what I’m talking about doesn’t seem involved with money. But it is.
1: I’m going to try to rephrase your ideas a bit. And tell me if what I say sounds fair. Some people go further than merely forgetting; some people go further than trying not to build narratives about themselves, and instead try to break themselves open to fear, to illness. Is that right?
0: Yes. Well put. Do you agree?
1: I do.
0: Good. Do you feel that this voluntary openness––to the fear of the world, and to illness––is inappropriate?
1: Sure. I’ve profiled ex-cult members, and it’s a common pattern among cult indoctrinations to require members to break themselves down like that. To treat themselves like blank slates, capable of total erasure and reformation. I think it’s a sick premise. Harmful.
0: You think people incapable of remaking themselves?
1: To an extreme degree, yeah. But your earlier question––correct me if I’m wrong––implied the possibility of this openness being beneficial. Or maybe merely accurate?
0: More accurate in its understanding of the world than, let’s say, our own. Yes. I wouldn’t have believe that until very recently. That those who grind themselves down into something fragile, and overly receptive, in order to open their minds to the world with as much fidelity as possible… I would’ve argued that that was a mistake, or the symptom of an illness. The hyper-causality of the schizophrenic, or the transcendent narcissism of the manic, or the incommunicable pain of the depressed––all together they might form an outline of the workings of the networked, industrialized world that is uncannily precise.
1: What changed your mind?
0: Well, I’ve read much about mental illness during the last five years. My father suffered from a form of dementia that progressed slowly, but steadily destroyed most of his faculties. Many people would say that the disease erased the parts of him that afforded him humanity––much of my family believed that, argued that this was evident. I spent a great deal of time with my father before he died. Nearing his last days, I came to think that the abilities and possibilities still open to him were utterly foreign, but not merely reduced, or poisoned.
1: But these foreign capacities of your father, as he was dying––if translated or understood, they’d tell us something profound about the world? And I’m sorry for your loss. Lost my father to dementia, too.
0: Thank you.
1: I want to make sure that I’m not losing the thread of the conversation. You were saying that people can come to perceive the networked, industrialized world with an unusual accuracy, either willingly in a kind of self-destruction or unwillingly in the case of a disease like your father’s dementia.
0: That’s a clever gesture of good faith.
1: What is?
0: The rolling summary; simplification of your subject’s language with their permission.
1: I’d thank you if I thought that was a compliment. Gesture, simplification, my subject… Is there something about what I do that you disdain? Am I a peddler of simplicity?
0: Are you?
1: I’m a journalist. My job isn’t to capture problems in their entirety, and neither is yours. Feel free to call bullshit, but neither of us are scholars. We both make money through reductions of the world––my stories, your money.
0: I agree.
1: Look––I know you’re understood to be a very big fish, and that your privacy and your erudition precede you. That’s fine. I don’t need to be the smartest guy in the room. But my responsibility to the public is to present something that matters, and to do so with most of myself taken out of the picture. That means that I’ve gotta maintain a rigor in staying away from meta-conversations about my integrity. So are you okay to go back to a conversation in which your analytical shark fin is back underwater?
0: I am.
1: So why ask about this? Why talk about this altered perception of the world? To me, and now.
0: The global financial market is so complex and so powerful over human life that the only useful historical analog is that of the ancient Greeks under their gods. The unknowable volatility of the markets creates a local order, as the emotional volatility of the gods creates a local order. Out of conflict arises stability. Peace as stalemate. But when certain forces in the financial realm are granted undue support, terrible loss occurs; catastrophic busts are the result of walling in Mt. Olympus. But this state of ignorance is knowable in itself, as it guarantees explosive patterns.
1: So if human intervention into markets creates knowable, if dangerous, patterns––or clear boundaries to our knowledge––what patterns are the schizophrenic able to see that we can’t?
0: Answering that question was difficult to me before I understood the role of Cassandra in Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon. Her prophecy relied on a sophisticated first principle: All phenomena is underlain with pain. We maintain a similar principle, but have replaced pain with causality. Cassandra’s Greeks maintained one strictly causal social relation: revenge, and revenge brought upon you by your transgression of a cultural limit. Cassandra saw pain as first principle, informing and dictating causality as a byproduct.
1: So if the mentally ill understand the world to be founded in a principle that’s larger than causality, and partially incommunicable, what is that principle? Is it Cassandra’s? And why don’t the mentally well come to see it?
0: How would you address these questions?
1: The principle might be pain. But then I know plenty of people––mostly mothers and journalists––who believe that. So I don’t know––though you’ll have to pardon me; I’m rusty when it comes to thinking in metaphysical concepts.
0: Would you like coffee, or water?
1: I’m fine, thanks.
0: The weather’s so nice, it wouldn’t seem to permit our trouble.
1: Yeah, well I think it’ll take a Biblical flood in this city to bring any serious response to climate change. We’re the terrorized city. Eyes on us.
0: Were you here in February?
1: No. I was out of town on the day of the attacks, but Beth and Violet were here, in the city. I was in Pennsylvania on assignment, talking to residents of Mallard after their suicides. I heard back from Beth almost immediately––I started calling and texting her as news of the Grand Central attack hit. Like everybody else, I read about sarin gas, its stability, symptoms. That gallows humor acronym: SLUDGE. Violet was in school––that was terrifying. The three of us were removed form each other, Beth realizing she couldn’t make it to Violet’s school after the bank attacks, duct taping the cracks around the front door, and me sitting in a fucking Holiday Inn Express, praying for uninterrupted wifi. I’d never felt that helpless. Even after the lockdown let up––Violet was home, Beth was safe, military presence everywhere––I couldn’t shake that feeling of being a little participant, consigned by the size of this city to a thin illusion of power. We lost friends, two among two thousand.
0: And what else?
1: I don’t know exactly.
0: But if you had to say?
1: Control––control felt like… a performance.
0: This feeling is precisely my own. More importantly, I have evidence that this is the case. In my world, control is, and might irrevocably become, nothing but a show. Let me show you.