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Eugene McCarraher

The Confidence Man

Meet Mark C. Taylor, the virtuoso of Nietzschean boosterism.

Say you're a theologian in the religion business who's concluded that your company's oldest and most trusted product doesn't really exist. What do you do after the death of God? You could lie to the customers and stockholders, continue writing copy, and ruefully await retirement. But if you're more imaginative, you could turn your crisis into an opportunity, as consultants like to say, and spin God's death as a new form of life, an "entrance of divinity fully into the human." You could "re-tool" and jump to another firm—English, philosophy, or perhaps a start-up in something-or-other studies.

Or, like Mark C. Taylor, you could become an entreprofessor, a broker in the emerging intellectual markets, trading in some of the hottest stocks in cultural capital. Pooling your dwindling fortunes in theology and philosophy with venture capital from postmodernism, you nimbly navigate the volatile and bubbling markets in profundity, hang out with the rich and famous, and after a while you're a pioneer in internet education, adulated in the Sunday New York Times. As long as the bubbles don't burst, and as long as the old business doesn't revive, you're as safe as a tenured academic—which, of course, you are already.

Lest anyone recoil from these remarks as ad hominem, consider that Taylor himself (a professor of humanities at Williams College) blithely endorses the opportunism they evoke. "For the canny player," he writes at the end of Confidence Games, life is a "game of poker." Since "one can never be sure that the chips can be redeemed"—redemption being a game for losers and suckers—"the best strategy is to keep the game going as long as possible." And since the game is, according to Taylor, increasingly played as a "complex adaptive system" of global information networks, "we" need to "cultivate an appreciation for the resources and limitations of many religious traditions." In short, don't invest too heavily in any one company—diversify. You can't be saved, but you'll live longer.

That's a sinister notion, however winsome Taylor makes it seem, and it epitomizes the super-cool sophistry that characterizes Confidence Games. A consummate bourgeois bohemian (or Bobo, to borrow from David Brooks), Taylor embodies the merger, or perhaps the now-unmistakable fraternity, of countercultural iconoclasm and late-capitalist business culture. (Call it the hipness unto death.) So even if it's read only by a few thousand academics, Confidence Games is symptomatic of the tony nihilism that pervades the American professional and managerial classes.

Taylor tells us that Confidence Games marks the culmination of his search for a "philosophy of culture" after God's demise. Not that he ever accepted the "secularization" narrative now discredited among scholars: in Erring (1984), he advanced an "atheology" that rejected transcendent divinity and relocated it in the processes of nature and culture. "Religion never disappears," he now writes; rather it "takes different forms." Those forms, he contended in Imagologies (1994) and The Moment of Complexity (2001), are increasingly those of deconstruction, cybernetics, and advanced communications technology. For Taylor, telecommunications represents an End of History without Francis Fukuyama's mandarin disdain for the Last Man's consumerism. "The net," he proclaimed in Imagologies with a characteristically aphoristic flourish, "wires the world for Hegelian Geist."

That geist has been decidedly capitalist since 1989, and it moved Taylor, in the late 1990s, to join with the financier Herbert Allen in founding Global Education Network (GEN), an online "service provider" of education in the humanities and sciences. A century after Thorstein Veblen scoured the Victorian pecuniary pieties regnant amidst "the higher learning," Taylor represents a brash new style in academic profiteering, fusing post-Christian religiosity with the glitzy banalities of info-capitalism. As Taylor observes, "the distance between Haight Ashbury and Silicon Valley is not as great as it often appears." Tom Frank has labeled this sort of convergence "the conquest of cool," and it names the transformation of Hip into the latest style of corporate hegemony.

Confidence Games is certainly brisk and truthful enough to seduce the uninformed or the intellectually fashion-conscious. Religion, art, and economics form an "intricate interplay." (Stroke chin, furrow brow, don't insist on distinctions.) Since religion "never disappears" but assumes new forms, God has, in our time, been "reborn as the market." Once ploddingly industrial and material, that market has evolved "from a manufacturing to an information economy" driven by computerized networks of growing speed, complexity, and scope. These vertiginous webs of information comprise a "self-organizing system" whose incessant metamorphosis generates its own forms of chaos and order. Drawing on "complexity studies," recent financial theory, and investor-philosophers like George Soros, Taylor argues that markets are not arenas of individual agents but elastic, adaptable, and "self-reflexive" webs of interrelationship.

All attempts to impose order from outside, whether political or religious, will inhibit and pervert the creative energy that surges through life, and especially through contemporary capitalism. Indeed, the very instability and evanescence of the info-capitalist order can enrich our lives if we embrace rather than fear uncertainty and ephemerality. If we welcome unreservedly the volatility of financial and technological change, life can be "a confidence game in which the abiding challenge is not to find redemption but to learn to live without it." Postmodern jouissance and market calculation form a lucrative partnership, sponsored by Hayek and Nietzsche. As Zarathustra spoke, "joy is everlasting flow," and economics morphs into a gay and not a dismal science.

It's hard not to swoon to Taylor's often lissome and buoyant prose, and there's much to savor in this exuberant affirmation of contemporary capitalism. We get elegant and illuminating accounts of window design, Times Square architecture, the origins of NASDAQ, and the fall of the gold standard. We follow the intellectual history of markets from John Calvin and Adam Smith to Robert Shiller. We witness the conflation of aesthetics, providence, teleology, and economics in Hutcheson, Kant, Schiller, Hegel, Marx, and Simmel. We trace the cultural history of money, from its religious origins, to its psychoanalytical status as projected anality, to its accelerating dematerialization. What's more, Taylor is savvy enough to know his derivatives from his IPOs. Like the protagonist of William Gaddis' JR—who's cited at the outset of almost every chapter—Taylor has "picked up the lingo of investors, traders, and LBO experts." (That's leveraged buy-out, for you incognoscenti.)

But Taylor is most engrossing when he borrows, not from neo-disciplines like "complexity studies," but from vintage thinkers who've already explored the religious nature of economics. He covers the work of Georges Bataille, whose ruminations on gift exchange and unproductive expenditure still don't receive their due. He elucidates Marx's perception of money as the perpetually mobile "god among commodities," who bestows, mediates, and incarnates value. It was the historical materialist, Taylor reminds us, who discerned that money was fundamentally "a mental form," irrelevant and even hostile to materiality. And Taylor reprises Simmel's Philosophy of Money (1900), a ponderous masterpiece in which money becomes "a coincidentia oppositorum worthy of Nicholas of Cusa," reconciling all worldly oppositions and establishing "an inconceivable unity of being."

Alas, Taylor has also inhaled deeply of the intellectual helium that inflates the "New Economy," and a fusillade of obfuscation permeates the text. There's the fustian of "complexity": "growing complexity," "increasingly complex," "infinitely complex." ("Complexity" and its cognates rank with "interesting" and "problematic" as tokens of mediocrity.) There's the Everything-Has-Changed School of Portentous Social Commentary: "When computers are networked, everything changes"—they get, well, more complex. Did you know that reality and image are becoming indistinguishable? Taylor muses, without a trace of facetiousness, that "the Vegas copy [of Venice] might prove to be as good as, if not better than, the European original." (Think about sex in this regard—that's all I'm writing.) There's even a We-Learn-from-the-Students scene, as Taylor and some dot-com whiz hang with undergrads from The-Kids-Are-Alright Academy, replete with backpacks and bottled water.

This is brain candy for middlebrows, and it makes Confidence Games a learned but utterly conventional artifact of New Economy literature. Other samples include Ray Kurzweil's wonder at "spiritual machines"; George Gilder's libertarian celebration of info-technology as "the overthrow of matter"; Michael Lewis' paeans to youthful and avaricious techno-geeks; Bill Gates' heralding of "friction-free capitalism." Heir to Italian Futurism and '60s "social forecasting," it's a heady and intoxicating genre, swelling the imagination with a frisson of movement, a synaptic romance of micro-circuitry, and a utopian promise of global communion. Bogus but beguiling, it demonstrates that an unrequited eschatological hope has always fueled the engines of accumulation.

Yet if Taylor had his way, it would remain unfulfilled, for in good postmodern fashion he rejects any final resolution or transcendence of our historical maelstrom as an authoritarian closure of possibility. Taylor's essentially neo-liberal affirmation of financial markets as self-reflexive and self-correcting reads, to me, like a micro-waved rehash of Smith and Hayek, and it dovetails nicely with his nihilist celebration of immanence as the unbounded play of desire. So Augustine, it seems, was wrong to desire a home for his restless heart. "The endless rustle of desire," Taylor writes, renders impotent and illusory all attempts at salvation and permanence. Thus can Taylor affirm the plenitude of life, and conclude with a rapturous vista of middlebrow gusto: "the interplay of light and darkness," he writes, is "inescapably disruptive, overwhelmingly beautiful, and"—you guessed it—"infinitely complex."

What does it take to write with such insouciance about failure, suffering, and death? I don't think it's flippant to respond: tenure, medical insurance, and a pension, the oblivious possession of which provides the Bobo set with security to neglect some intractable material and social realities. Focusing on the "financial-entertainment complex" (a nice phrase, I must admit), Taylor obscures the persistence of the military-industrial complex which remains indispensable and even central to the corporate economy. It's simply not true that information has "displaced" manufacturing: motion pictures, radio, and amusement and recreation services comprise 2 percent of gdp, for instance, while manufacturing makes up 20-25 percent. (What's more, business journalist Doug Henwood, writing of the 1990s, has characterized productivity growth in the financial and services sectors as "underwhelming.") It's also worth recalling that the "dematerialized" economy rests on a very concrete infrastructure of computers and fiber-optic cables, the production, use, and disposal of which entail enormous amounts of coal, oil, and uranium. And besides, what is "dematerialization," anyway? Aren't all those cyber-blips still matter, however "insubstantial" they seem?

To be even more pointedly materialist, Taylor's economy is unpopulated by office temps, dishwashers, cable installers, Filipino assembly-line workers who destroy their eyesight soldering computer circuits. There are no adjuncts who staff the courses that the tenured are too busy or proud to teach, no janitorial staff who dump their trashcans and vacuum their carpets, no domestic laborers who clean their kitchens, bedrooms, and toilets. There are no sweatshops, no overworked and underpaid counter help, no factory operatives or data-entry clerks without pensions or health insurance. In short, because they don't show up in the network—except perhaps as the cost of doing business—most of the world's population doesn't merit Taylor's attention.

This bone-deep solipsism, increasingly endemic to the suburban middle class, follows directly from an inability to acknowledge our humble and fragile materiality, the substance of which involves us, on this side of paradise, in painful and exploitative bonds as well as connections of felicity and flourishing. As Barbara Ehrenreich has observed, "to be cleaned up after is to achieve a certain magical weightlessness and immateriality." Such indifference to the world without quotation marks enables palaver about the capitalist economy as an "information-processing machine" of "complex adaptation." In the same vein, exotic pedantry about the joy of untrammeled desire conceals the coercive nature of capitalist markets and workplaces; marvel at the insubstantiality of money deflects attention from the commodification of activities once performed without pecuniary exchange; pabulum about "webs" and "processes" camouflages the mundane indignities and brutalities of class, power, and war.

Structured by the imperatives of profit and loss, this is the world of immanence in which postmodern sages would have us place our confidence—which is to say our faith—and for all his declamation against "fundamentalism," Taylor's confidence game seems to me one of the most credulous of faith-based initiatives. It's a rigged and merciless game, deliverance from which requires faith in a rigorous but forgiving transcendence who cancels debts, announces jubilee, and redeems all restless desires. Taylor's Nietzschean boosterism is but a modish apologia for the sway of power, and it deserves a resounding vote of no confidence.

Eugene McCarraher is professor of humanities at Villanova University. Next year, he will be a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies and will complete his second book, The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.

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