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Average Person and Ordinary Reader

These notes concern texts which seek to explain the 2007/8 financial crisis to “average persons”, which are addressed to “ordinary readers”. These are not texts written by experts and the cognoscenti for their own circles and for people who can respond meaningfully to the crisis – who can make policies, take decisions, etc. These are texts written by experts and the cognoscenti to answer a demand from “average persons”/ “ordinary readers” who do not understand the crisis but who experience it passively in various ways and who are variously acted upon.

These texts, easily recognized by their style of expression and packaging and promotion, have been produced prolifically by journalists, academics, politicians, corporate gurus, actors in the crisis, fiction authors and other litterateurs …

The scale of text-production about the crisis has been extraordinary. The British Library’s catalogue alone gives access to 11,365 items published in 2007-2014 on the “financial crisis”, of which over 2000 are books (the others are articles and reports, excluding those in newspapers and news media). This is, by any measure, super-production. It would be fair to say that at least one of the beneficiaries of the financial crisis were publishers of texts about the financial crisis. Notably, the period of intensive production between 2008 and 2013 is the normally-allocated period of the financial crisis; in other words, the most intensive period of production is not so much responsive to something that happened but is woven within it, giving its articulation and discussion form, constituting the crisis as verbalization and cognizance – as crisis. The financial crisis is thus also a crisis in the excess of textual production, a kind of garrulity which is akin to a nervous disorder wherein words seem not merely to express but also to assuage.

To give a sense of the kind of authors who published such texts, here’s a brief list of journalists who wrote book-length volumes in that period (years of publication of such volumes and the authors’ news media affiliations are indicated):

Alex Brummer (Daily Mail), 2008, 2014; Nick Kochan (various) with Hugh Pym (BBC), 2008; Michael Lewis (various), 2008, 2010, 2011, 2014; Robert Peston (BBC), 2008, 2012; Danny Schechter (TV broadcaster/ independent journalist), 2008, 2010; Roger Boyes (Times), 2009; John Cassidy (New Yorker), 2009; Fintan O’Toole (Irish Times), 2009; Shane Ross (Sunday Independent), 2009, with Nick Webb (Sunday Independent), 2010; Andrew Ross Sorkin (New York Times), 2009; David Wessel (WSJ), 2009, 2012; John Authers (Financial Times), 2010, 2012; Michael W Hudson (WSJ, Forbes etc.), 2010; Paul Mason (BBC), 2010; Joe Nocera (New York Times) and Bethany McLean (Vanity Fair/Fortune), 2010; Wolfgang Münchau (Financial Times), 2010; Trevor Sykes (Australian Financial Review), 2010; Simon Carswell (Irish Times), 2011; Philip Coggan (Economist/Financial Times), 2011; Matthew Lynn (Bloomberg/Spectator), 2011; Philip Inman (Guardian), 2012; Yalman Onaran (Bloomberg), 2012; Ray Perman (Financial Times and others), 2012; Iain Martin (Sunday Telegraph and others), 2013; Zanny Minton Beddoes (Economist), 2014; Tom Clark (Guardian), 2014; Ian Fraser (various), 2014; Hugh Pym (BBC), 2014; Yannis Palaiologos (Kathimerini), 2014; Martin Wolf (Financial Times), 2014

And here’s another short list of high-profile corporate and political gurus and actors in the crisis (with years of their book-length publications and affiliations given):

Ben Bernanke (2013; Chairman of the US Federal Reserve 2006-2014); Gordon Brown (2010; UK Prime Minister 2007-2010, Chancellor of the Exchequer 1997-2007); Vince Cable (2009; Deputy Leader of Liberal Democrats UK 2006-2010, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills 2010-2015); Meyrick Chapman (2010; Fixed Income Strategist at UBS AG); Alastair Darling (2011; UK Chancellor of the Exchequer 2007-2010); Donal Donovan (with Antoin E. Murphy 2013; former staff member ending career as Deputy Director at IMF 1997-2005); Andrew Duguid (2014; UK Department of Trade and Industry and then senior executive at Lloyds Bank); Timothy Geithner (2014; US Secretary of Treasury 2009-2013, President of the Federal Reserve Bank NY 2003-2009); Tetsuya Ishikawa (2009; former investment banker at ABN AMRO, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley); Lawrence McDonald (with Patrick Robinson 2009; Vice-President of Distressed Debt and Convertible Securities Trading at Lehman Brothers 2004-2008); Henry Paulson (2010; US Secretary of Treasury, 2006-2009, CEO Goldman Sachs 1998-2006); Peter Schiff (2008, 2009, 2010, 2012; CEO Euro Pacific Capital Inc. 2005-, investment broker); Mike Soden (2010; CEO Bank of Ireland 2002-2009); George Soros (2009, 2012; Chairman of Soros Fund Management); Mark Zandi (2009, 2013; chief economist of Moody’s Analytics and cofounder of Moody’s Economy.com).

I could carry on with lists of other categories of authors … but this is not a catalogue.

The “average person” and the “ordinary reader” are taken as coterminous in such texts.  It is a guiding presumption in such books that in the mechanics of addressing the “ordinary reader” (which is a matter of style, register, etc.), the demand of the “average person” (which arises from experience, ignorance and bewilderment) will be answered. It is also tacitly assumed that the authors are not “ordinary readers”/ “average persons”, hence they take it upon themselves to textualize thus; and yet, these authors also anticipate, and therefore share, something of the sensibility of the “average person”. The very grain of writing, textualizing, explaining for the “ordinary reader”, assuming the demand of the “average person” – the very mechanics of address and exposition – places such authors as superior-to-you and as one-of-you at the same time.

This approach to the “average person”/ “ordinary reader is complicated by a couple (at least a couple) of countervailing factors.

First, as a phenomenon to be explained the financial crisis is par excellence one where the authority of explainers is already compromised. The insiders are already culpable, the experts already less than prescient, and the probity of both open to a general suspicion – the sullen skepticism of the uncomprehending and demanding average person. At best the explainers can say, after the fact: “I have been saying this would happen for years, so listen to me now”, which is an admission of not having had a say at all; or perhaps “I was fooled then but have learned better”, which suggests fallibility that may have persisted (who knows?). More rarely, they can openly affect common ground: “I am just like you, an average Joe – let’s try to understand this together”, which always begs the question, “why should we do this together, what have you to offer that I – another average Joe – do not already have?”. In other words, all the explainers are presumptively tarnished to some degree by the same kind of averageness that they assume for their demanding explainees. At the worst, they are presumptively agents of inequity pleading their averageness before a tribunal of “ordinary readers” after having assumed their extraordinary authority to be able to explain. But I am overstating the case here: despite the pall of suspicion, the habits of exerting and obeying authority, the socially-agreed or conferred rankings of status (a financial reporter, a chief executive, a government minister, a professor, etc. in such and such key institution) still patronizes the “ordinary reader”/ “average person” – after all, some animals are more equal than others. And yet, the explainers are troubled by their own implicit admission of averageness in another way. The financial crisis is also par excellence a phenomenon that reveals disagreements and disputes starkly, often petty and self-serving disputes, that exist among the ranks of insiders and experts: the “average person”/ “ordinary reader” is not addressed by a resoundingly unified and disinterested voice of knowledge and experience and power but by the smaller voices of those claiming these somewhat petulantly and often at odds with each other. Explaining to the “ordinary reader”, answering the demand of the “average person”, seems not too distant from the explainers explaining to each other and doubting each other.

Second, this great textual exercise for the benefit of the “ordinary reader”/ “average person” is tacitly underpinned by the dangerous potential of the average person’s reality. The financial crisis is experienced, and accentuated through talk, as a vast (local to national to global) and abstract affair with concrete manifestations which penetrate the very subjectivity of each “average person” – with effect on the material lives and emotional existence of all those deindividuated average persons separately, spreading a stench of compulsion and insecurity, generating incomprehension and the demand for explanation. “Explanation”, which I am using here predominantly in its simple philosophical sense as an attribution of causality, is already alive to its dual thrust: explain so that the “average person” can understand and be satisfied; explain so that the “average person” can judge and seek retribution. The core of the average person’s averageness is so implicated in this experience, so constructed into the implications of the financial crisis, that this demand for explanation presses heavily and the responses are correspondingly urgent. So, while the explanatory address to the “ordinary reader” may seem to pacify and patronize that readerly persona, at the same time the explanation is cognizant of the dangerously real potential of the “average person”. Thus, the explanations on offer either have a management function -- or its obverse, try to liberate from existing management. Thus also, no explanation is disinterested though it might present itself as such, and no reader is presumed to be passive though s/he may be addressed as such. The modus operandi of explanation for the “ordinary reader” cum “average person” hides, and reveals to those who are alert, ideological purposes that are managerial or anti-managerial: from trying to persuade the “average reader” that the financial crisis was fait accompli (live with it) to trying to persuade that the financial crisis was because of small human foibles in an otherwise robust arrangement (responsible people will make little changes and all will be well) to trying to persuade that the financial crisis is a symptom of a comprehensive malaise that requires a comprehensive change (consider revolution). Behind all this persuading is the specter of the failure of explanation: the irrationality which explainers assume to be the underlying reality of the “average person” – no longer compliant “ordinary readers” but the stubbornly uncomprehending and prickly “average person” who may become real actors of something unspeakably real.

Suman Gupta, May 2015