Margin Call (J. C. Chandor)
Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
Two new entrants into the burgeoning genre of cinéma de
la crise offer strangely distorted meditations on the place of
number: the rhyming pair of Margin Call and Moneyball.
Being a ﬁctional, triumph-of-the-little-guy movie about
the Oakland A’s baseball team, the latter might not seem
an obvious candidate for inclusion in this topical category,
but it is well to note that Moneyball is based on a book by
the journalist Michael Lewis. He has been writing about
the ﬁnancial crisis since before it began: Liar’s Poker,
written in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis near
last millennium’s end, captured the era of securitization
and complex meta-speculation early in its ﬂight. It also
introduced us to new players in the drama of high ﬁnance:
the “young professors,” high-powered numbers guys who in
another age would have taught applied mathematics, but
now toil as highly paid “quants” in the ﬁnance shops.
For whom do they work? Of course they are employed by
the very ﬁrms that vaporized speculative megatons of capital
quite recently, ratcheting up global immiseration with a
pop. And yet they are abstract fellows, a race apart from the
traders and speculators of the front ofﬁce and the boardroom,
respectively. They are rationality sporting business casual.
They work for numbers.
The problem of quantiﬁcation has of late taken on a
troubling salience in relation to the United States’ sudden
and uncertain social movement, a movement that in some
accounts fashions itself against the domination of ﬁnance.
But it has its own numbers problem. The number in question
is 99, as in “the 99%” on whose behalf Occupy Wall Street
(and shortly the other more and less related Occupies)
ﬁrst gathered. As surely most everybody knows by now, this
quantity means to designate those who have not been getting
their fair share in the contest of capitalism, and indeed those
against whom the game is rigged—as opposed to “the 1%,” the
plutocrats who exercise far more than one percent of power,
and arrogate far more than one percent of the world’s stuff.
It is easy enough to point out that this is a way of talking
about class when talking about class has been systematically
disallowed. There is at least a dash of intuitive genius to
the formulation; it has done surprisingly well at inviting
identiﬁcation simultaneously from the sectors once known, in
another time and place, as the working class and as the petite
bourgeoisie—that is to say, those who have nothing to lose
but their chains, and those chained to their small businesses.
These are Marx’s categories, and they apply imperfectly to
the present conjuncture: toward the top of the agglomeration
we would want to add that sector of middle managers who
are neither purely wage labor nor self-employed, and at the
bottom those dispossessed from work entirely. But these can
still be located clearly enough in expanded senses of the petite
bourgeoisie and the proletariat, as a way of understanding the
structural rift that “the 99%” strives to anneal or at least repress.
The trouble is that by eliding this difference, the number
cannot hold. Its seeming objectivity does not describe the
real world’s shifting distribution of wealth, power, and fealty
to the present order. Neither does it allow for the entirely
distinct subjectivities of those who on one side can at least
exploit themselves, and on the other, those who must hawk
themselves on the moribund market, asking politely for the
chance to be exploited by another.
Unable to measure the situation either objectively or
subjectively, quantiﬁcation nonetheless possesses a powerful
appeal for Occupy. It is a useful slogan because it seems to
invite, well, quantities of participation, without preferring
any fraction in its unifying call. But number, the practice of
quantiﬁcation, has a habit of taking sides without seeming to
do so—and it is this specter that lurks behind the ambiguity
of the cinematic quants.
Margin Call opens with the ﬁring of lead risk analyst,
Eric, in a round of layoffs at a very Lehman Brothersesque
ﬁrm. On his way out the door (literally), Eric passes an
unﬁnished puzzle, an incomplete analysis of some unsettling
numbers saved on a ﬂash drive, to Peter, a younger analyst;
being a fresher quant with more current skills, Peter solves
it swiftly, sharing it with his jejune colleague Seth. What
they discover is that, in short, if the current wave of market
volatility persists, certain ﬁnancial instruments are not going
to pay (the “toxic assets” of recent renown).
The narrative bridges thirty-six hours between this
realization that their securitized mortgage pools are busted,
and general panic as they frantically dump the “risk” into
the eddying whorls of the world market. That is to say, it is a
PLAYING BY NUMBERS
MARX AND COCA-COLA JOSHUA CLOVER
Film Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 3, pps 7–9, ISSN 0015-1386, electronic, ISSN 1533-8630. © 2012 by the Regents of the University of California.
All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s
Rights and Permissions website, http://www.ucpressjournals.com/reprintinfo.asp. DOI: 10.1525/FQ.2012.65.3.07
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