Contracting Financial Crisis

by Toon Fibbe

Tied down with a belt on a kind of operating chair, a man’s head has been cut open. Although he can’t get away he manages to punch the surgeon holding the knife, while two other doctors extract what seems to be a stone from his forehead. A stone of madness - though today we’d probably call it a tumour. The stone causes quite a particular disease, they believe. A disease not limited to this man’s body alone, but one that managed to invade society at large... a financial disease. The man’s speculative activity on the 1720 stock market caused physical deformities that drove him to madness. The financial market manifested in his body and distorted his view on reality. The only possible remedy? To remove it.

This image was made in response to the first large scale international stock market crash of 1720. Although now largely forgotten it greatly impacted France, England and The Netherlands and was caused by unleashing of a system of finance of an unprecedented scale onto the world. As the boom and bust cycle of the stock market ruined their economies, many people had trouble understanding this new and rather abstract financial system. Suddenly the buying and selling of stock - essentially just pieces of paper - had the power to generate enormous wealth, albeit of a kind that could just as easily disappear overnight. The stock market seemed like hot air to people, causing it to often be referred to as wind-trade - the trade of nothing.

In a contemporary context, the image of a mutilated trader whose body has been invaded by finance would be rather unusual; even after the 2008 financial crisis the ensuing satirical imagery remained quite tame. But this depiction of finance invading the body is perhaps more in line with the ancient Greek meaning of the word crisis, which signifies the turning point of a disease. It is in this critical moment a patient is expected to either recover or die. Perhaps then more than now, it was understood how financial crises can hit us in the head and the body, how it mobilises our desires and fears, and impacts the nervous system - the place where the body’s physical needs and drives meet thought and the perception of reality.

The Great Mirror of Folly

I found the image of the lobotomised trader in a book called Het Groote Tafereel der Dwaasheid (known in English as The Great Mirror of Folly). Published in 1720, it gathers the many satirical prints, plays and poems made in response to the crisis and the financial system that produced it. Flicking through the book one sees images of desperate traders holding up signs with cries for help. Or a devil who uses bellows inserted into the rectum of a trader to pump him so full of finance that he starts to vomit share-papers over a cheering crowd. The prints are as dense as they are crude and filled with an incredibly dark sense of humour. What strikes me is how in a number of images financial speculation is made visible as something that moves through the body, causing painful contortions, vomiting and uncontrollable movements. Here, finance is something that penetrates, deforms and pulsates through the body. A visual strategy to make the difficult to grasp and abstract underpinning of the crisis accessible, not through rational analysis - but through bodily and visceral imagery. The body becomes a medium through which the abstractions of high finance are made visible, all the while making stock market papers flow like blood, vomit, and shit.

Warm Paper Trails
or the euphoric alliance of information and capital

Throughout the 18th century Het Groote Tafereel der Dwaasheid was republished whenever speculative tendencies resurfaced. It was a time when, for unclear reasons, the development of the stock market halted, leading the bibliographer Arthur Cole to wonder whether the book itself had become an economic force. This however requires a bit more scrutiny, as financial speculation at the time had elicited an entire industry that catered to the demand for satirical images. Printers filled their pockets by publishing poems, prints and plays criticising the crisis. Furthemore, they had become increasingly dependent on the financial markets due to the significant income they earned from printing the many financial forms, contracts, stocks, transfers and options. The very same printers who provided the infrastructure for the market also printed and controlled the critique of it. Something that didn’t go unnoticed at the time. In the already described print Kermis Kraam van de Actieknapen, a trader dressed as a jeste isr pumped so full of windtrade that he vomits stock market papers. The spewed-out stock paper however, was printed by the same printer as the print itself. Perhaps an early commentary on how finance thoroughly permeated media and communication.

The intensification of trade led to a rapid increase in both the dissemination ánd collection of information. Traders were constantly on the lookout for the latest news about events that could possibly effect prices. Printers contributed to the circulation of rumour and information - then as now, the lifeblood of speculation.With the birth of the financial market, the connection between media, speed and communication truly took off. The faster and more efficiently information could be obtained and collected, the more advantage one had over other traders. This ushered in a euphoric alliance between information and capital. A direct line can be drawn from the 1720 printing presses via the 19th-century telegraph, to the use of transatlantic cables and now computerised and high frequency trading. Finance was instrumental in accelerating communication at every step of the way. For practically every dramatic increase in the speed of communication, the financial market was either the driving force, or the first to benefit directly.

Memes of the flesh
Let’s get back to the first image. For those with an impeccable knowledge of art history the image of the man in the chair may look familiar. This might be because it is a rather precise copy of a print drawn by Pieter Bruegel the Elder called The Extraction of the Stone of Madness (1557). The other figures in the print echo the style of Hieronymus Bosch - for instance the man smoking a pipe seems to derive from his Ship of Fools (1490-1500). On surveying the book as a whole, it appears that the list of appropriated material is almost endless and isn’t limited to images alone but includes poems and plays as well. Material was used economically, metaphors were regurgitated, drawings recycled and poems rehashed. For instance, material made during the time of the tulip mania could - without much tweaking - be repurposed and recontextualised to comment on the current crisis.

So pre-existing images and texts that were typically humorous in nature were copied, often with slight variations and spread rapidly - almost like an 18th-century meme. And just like memes these images were not popular for being logically sound or rationally legible - but spread among the populace primarily because of their emotional and affective intensity, which provoked joy and laughter, anger and outrage. Printers used what were considered vulgar poetic forms aimed at spreading, channelling and controlling anger against the financial system, to curb the socially destabilising power of the financial crisis. The popular, affective imagery turned people into both transmitters and receivers. By showing and spreading the imagery - pointing to images that made them laugh - people helped circulate not only critique of the market but also its infrastructure and thereby aided its incorporation. Perhaps this is an early example of how capitalism’s self-propagating quality mobilises and infects our collective behaviour and emotions.

Nowadays these systems have been perfected. Immersed in social media, we are continuously prompted to share, engage, like, react and buy. Feeds, images and notification sounds have been carefully designed to precisely pierce our brains and effectively and affectively re-code our flow of thoughts. All devised to make us exude more data that in turn can be sold in split seconds to the highest bidder. Information on customers has become more important than products sold. A transaction yields data that can be sold again and contains valuable information about potential future purchases.

This was preceded by a similar development in the world of finance, where information about a transaction has become more important than the transaction itself. Here again, the crux of the matter lies in the way prices on financial markets compile information about the future of prices - this information turns out to be more valuable than money itself. This effectively prioritises the distribution of information over money and explains the close embrace of finance and technology. As Joseph Vogl writes: “an efficient market is a market efficiently distributing information”. He even takes it a step further by saying: “If the international finance economy can be understood as a technologically implemented theory of money, then the circulation of money takes on the function of an information producing apparatus.”

Sliced, Diced, Broken Apart and Reaggregated
In many ways social media resort to the same technologies used by financial markets. They’ve adopted their unique mode of valuation and cleverly found ways to quantify precisely those things that were previously thought to be unquantifiable. The success of an app lies in its ability to butcher us, to slice us open, to turn us into data points, properties and risk factors - in its ability to scrape the lived experience off of our bones, to break us apart so that we can be reassembled, algorithmically mapped and pooled together to be further combined, reaggregated, assessed, targeted and predicted.

Where Het Groote Tafereel der Dwaasheid still shows the complete body (albeit mutilated), nowadays it seems, we have become fully financialised, chopped into pieces and reassembled to form a monstrous mess of body parts. This has happened to such an extent that one could wonder how relevant the images still are. Finance has become increasingly abstract and now operates at speeds far beyond the comprehension of the human brain. Paradoxically perhaps, I believe that the body is still a place where finance makes itself visible (although in a distorted way). With the help of Het Groote Tafereel der Dwaasheid, it becomes easier to understand how finance has permeated the most intimate parts of our lives; how it invaded the houses we live in, controls the energy we consume and the food we ingest. Through the speculation on food, finance influences how intensively land is farmed, which crops are used and the aggressiveness of the pesticides employed. Pesticides that leave residues in the wheat and the bread that we then consume. While looking at Het Groote Tafereel der Dwaasheid and its many depictions of traders defecating and digesting paper, all the while producing a kind of fecal finance - I cannot escape the thought that this is no longer a metaphor, but that nowadays even our intestines have turned into a testament of the global financial system.