The Frankenstein Economy: Monster metaphor of the moment

[Note added 09/24/08: There is now a sequel post to this one, offering several more examples of the Frankensteinian “monster amok” theme as it’s being used in contemporary economic discourse.]

Has anybody else noticed the increasing prevalence of monster metaphors, especially Frankenstein-themed ones, in mainstream public discourse about the mounting economic and financial disaster? I’m noticing it mightily myself, and am thinking this trend lends even more credence to horror writer and filmmaker John Skipp’s diagnosis and pronouncement that “These are horror times.”

(Needless to say — if you’re a longtime reader of The Teeming Brain, that is — this observation is occurring against the backdrop of all the reading and commenting I did about the mounting financial and economic catastrophe in my series of posts titled “Headlines from the Meltdown” earlier this year. You can enter that term into the search box on this page to access those posts.)

Some examples of this monster metaphor rearing its head are:

On September 19 NPR’s Morning Edition aired a story that contained “former Wall Street economist” Nancy Kimmelman saying the current crisis stems largely from the extreme complexity of the financial products that were concocted by “mad scientist” type braniacs in the back rooms of Wall Street investment banks. You can listen to the entire story at the link and hear her words beginning about 2:30 into the roughly four-minute piece. Specifically, she says,

Wall Street has rocket scientists creating derivatives. These scientist types in back rooms with test tubes and bunsen burners. They’ve created monsters. They’ve created these securities that nobody has a handle on.

On September 20 there was a Reuters story (“U.S. readies massive toxic debt plan“) in which the second a third paragraphs invoked an apocalyptic biblical beast metaphor:

[The U.S. government’s] moves cap a week in which financial markets faced their most serious confluence of crises since the Great Depression in the 1930s and threatened national economies and the worldwide banking system.”It’s like having a heart attack, and you go and get your chest cracked open and get it fixed, but the next morning you’re still hurting,” said Warren Simpson, managing director at Stephens Capital Management in Little Rock, Arkansas. “This has been a beast of biblical proportions. Nobody has seen anything like it.”

Back in January, Bill Gross, manager of Pimco, the world’s largest investment bond fund and a frequently sought after commentator, talked in his newsletter about the “Frankenstein levered body of shadow banks” that actually runs world financial events behind the scenes, “craftily dodging the reserve requirements of traditional institutions and promot[ing] a chain letter, pyramid scheme of leverage, based in many cases on no reserve cushion whatsoever.” The Boston Globe quoted him prominently in a story titled “The Black Box Economy.” (Note: The story’s header said, “Beyond the recent bad news lurks a much deeper concern: The world economy is now being driven by a vast, secretive web of investments that might be out of anyone’s control.” Of course we now know, these eight months later, that this dire analysis isn’t conspiracy theorizing like some people might have suspected but a simple statement of the facts.)

In March The New York Times ran a piece about the mounting situation whose title says it all: “What Created This Monster?”

“Horror times,” indeed. Where’s Mary Shelley when we need her?

* * * * *

p.s. I’m still settling into my new living arrangement in Central Texas. I wasn’t blown away by Hurricane Ike, although the forecasts made it sound like my part of the state (Waco area) was destined for a damaging blast. The bulk of the storm went east of me, with the ironic result that it turned out my friends and family back in southwest Missouri had a worse time of it than I did.

I’m teaching some classes at a college in Waco. I’m learning to avoid fire ants. I’m making new friends and looking for a permanent house. I’m enjoying the fact that I didn’t have to leap back into the high school teaching grind when the new school year kicked off. I’m hoping to start posting here more regularly again (turns out the blog’s resurrection a couple of months ago was sort of short-circuited by my relocation). So there’s the in-a-nutshell update.

Be well and keep your head. As you and I and all of us know from recent news headlines, life looks like it’s about to get even weirder. Right on schedule.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on September 21, 2008, in Economy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. The last couple of decades seem to be a fertile ground for the zombie metaphor. I remember discussing that with you once or twice. I suppose that a new undead, previously dead, whatever creature is an ideal description of the mess we’re in now.

  2. You know, the zombie metaphor has also been used in talking about certain financial situations, as when banks, corporations, or other entities are propped up by some sort of governmental arrangement that allows them to survive, but only listlessly so, without thriving. The global financial press is littered with occasional references to “zombie banks,” “zombie corporations,” and so on.

    But obviously, yes, the archetypal Frankensteinian metaphor of a person or people creating some entity that attains a life of its own and then goes on to run amok and cause massive misery and destruction is the most apt one for the current economic situation as a whole.

  3. While driving home on Friday, I found myself listening to National Public Radio (which I barely knew existed before a few select academic team trips in which you, Cardin, tuned into it to listen to world events) and all they could really talk about was the economy. In fact, I’m reminded of Tim Russert’s humorous but accurate prediction of the 2000 Election: right now, everyone seems to be, “Wall Street, Wall Street, Wall Street.” One of the more fascinated moments was when NPR was talking with an economist about the planned government action to try to create an agency that will shoulder all of the debt. When the reporter asked for some more details, the economist was quick to point out that the exact nature of such an agency will have to be debated in Congress and he said, “I don’t know, it *might* work…” with that sort of emphasis. I found it rather amusing — in the same way that the sputtering, dying engines of an airplane in mid-flight might be amusing.

    Oh, and my dad recently purchased “Amusing Ourselves To Death” with me in mind. He also bought several books for a Philosophy of Education class that he is taking, including several books against standardized testing and education issues along those lines.

  4. My goodness, in rereading that post, I find that I made numerous spelling and grammatical errors. I suddenly feel rather foolish.

  5. An interesting and valid point regarding the use of metaphor in referencing our current atmosphere. A few months ago, as the market was teetering on the brink, a friend pointed out that as the news got worse, my enthusiasm regarding the theatrical release of The Dark Knight grew, and my interest in the Joker increased exponentially, to the point of obsession.

    What better way to sum up our fears than by using language that refers to monsters, things that don’t exist, the fantastic and amazing, the scary things we only imagine until they’ve found us and it’s too late. Our normal usage of language fails to sum up our fears when a crisis such as this occurs so we tend to employ such words.

    The grouping of the Shelleys, Polidori, and Byron at the Villa Diodati is probably one of the most influential points in the history of horror literature. Almost two centuries later, the specter of Frankenstein’s monster still resides within the collective consciousness of the Western mind, even being used by the news media.

    I’d like to think Mary would be amused.

  6. thefaithfulmind — Good to hear from you. Glad you’re paying attention to current events, as disturbing as they might be. And I hope you enjoy the Postman book.

    Mike — Thanks for weighing in. From what you write, I think you might be interested to read an academic paper I wrote some years ago that analyzes Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN as a dark parable about the conflicted relationship between Western civilization’s rational/scientific self and its cthonic, Dionysian, poetic/passionate “visionary powers.” It’s not as contemporary in its focus as the idea I’ve advanced in this Frankenstein-themed post but it does apply the archetypal themes of the novel to large-scale current cultural conditions.

    The paper is slated to appear in my forthcoming fiction-and-nonfiction collection DARK AWAKENINGS.

  7. Speaking of which, how goes that?

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