More than thirty years later, the onset of the 1980s retains a darkly mythic pull over Western imaginative media.footnote1 One memorable, iconic version of that transition is Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 Boogie Nights, where a murder/suicide at a New Year’s party coincides exactly with the opening moments of 1980; it is the bloody pivot moment in the film’s narrative of the capture and dismantling of an artisanal industry—in this case, pornography—by newly overabundant capital seeking any and all commodities to transform. The banner that stretches outside the scene (‘Good Bye 70s . . . Hello 80s’) might just as well be a Dantean warning. This is not just an American narrative; witness Elena Ferrante, in the final volume of her Neapolitan quartet, The Story of the Lost Child, offering a similar lament:
They were complicated years. The order of the world in which we had grown up was dissolving. The old skills resulting from long study and knowledge of the correct political line suddenly seemed senseless. Anarchist, Marxist, Gramscian, Communist, Leninist, Trotskyite, Maoist, worker were quickly becoming obsolete labels or, worse, a mark of brutality. The exploitation of man by man and the logic of maximum profit, which before had been considered an abomination, had returned to become the linchpins of freedom and democracy everywhere.
Or take Lars Iyer’s 2013 Exodus, whose narrator offers these dyspeptic thoughts on the Thames Valley: ‘In Reading, history ended in the 1980s, W. says. In Reading, the council houses are eternally being sold off. Housing estates are eternally being built. Golf courses are eternally opening up. The corporations are eternally moving in . . .’ These are nostalgias, frank and unapologetic, that have a utility perhaps nostalgias perform best: to make real historical transitions vivid.
The gambit of Leigh Claire La Berge’s Scandals and Abstraction is to explore this periodizing myth from the moment of its inception, in novelistic and filmic narratives from the 1980s themselves; in the process it suggests that ‘the long 1980s’ can scarcely be said to have ended yet. Although the book’s archive is of modest scope—Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), Jane Smiley’s Good Faith (2001), and a handful of autobiographies, including, most notoriously, Donald Trump’s 1987 The Art of the Deal—La Berge wants to draw the boundaries of a period of economic history that cannot properly be understood without the aesthetic mediations that did not just reflect upon, but in fact helped to constitute its ideological consistency. Despite its carefully circumscribed range of evidence, and a prose style that can be knotted and slipshod enough to suggest that its publisher has forgone the services of a proof-reader, it is an interesting, even at times daring, attempt at literary periodization. As La Berge puts it, her goal was to write ‘a literary history of what happens to narrative form when too much money circulates at once’—when capital, increasingly liberated from supply-side burdens such as fixed manufacturing costs and government regulation, flooded markets. Several moments might properly compete for the claim to be the origin of ‘the long 1980s’, including the 1971 abandonment of the gold standard and the Bretton Woods accords, the oil price shocks of 1973 and 1979, or the October 1979 Paul Volcker-led interest rate hike that attempted to manage the inflationary effects of oil prices; for her part, La Berge places emphasis on the Garn–St Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982, the deregulation of Savings and Loan activity that set the stage for a new era of commercial banks engaging in real-estate speculation and the highly leveraged transactions in mergers and acquisitions that became the decade’s signal financial activities. But more broadly, the period La Berge is describing is the moment when ‘the economy’ became wholly identified with finance—an act of rhetorical and ideological conflation that was not only described but enacted by the period’s financial narratives.
It is a helpfully supple kind of periodization La Berge is producing here, both more expansive than the artificial and mythic divisions of decades, and yet more precise than the usual literary-theoretical invocations of late capitalism. At the core of her exhibits are two narratives, Wolfe’s novel and Stone’s film, both suffused in a traditionally didactic-melodramatic mode, a form of realism as journalistic exposé, that directly tackle the subject of contemporary finance and its new instruments in an up-to-the-minute Manhattan milieu. Yet La Berge builds out from that core to take in narratives that register the spread of finance into the crevices of Midwestern middle-class life, either in the form of DeLillo’s postmodernist glance at personal banking, or Smiley’s virtually Balzacian account of real-estate speculation in the wake of S&L deregulation. She builds to the example of American Psycho as both the summary and brilliant undoing of what she calls ‘financial print culture’, a cunning adaptation of the Trumpian autobiography that also pushes Wolfe’s and Stone’s melodrama into Gothic parody; for La Berge, Ellis’s deliberately affectless narrative of an investment banker and luxe consumer-turned-serial-killer is a highwire act of rhetorical assimilation.
Financial print culture is also a frame that gathers together an era of financial deregulation, a generic crossing of realist and postmodernist narratives of financialization, and the moment of high poststructuralist theory in academic literary studies. La Berge argues that the moment when finance ‘took flight’, to use Arrighi’s term, from production was also the period in which production, and the Marxist models of literary history that took production as its grounding, were sidelined in literary theory, in favour of a floating, metonymic conception of plural ‘economies’. The theorists that emerged into prominence at this moment argued that orthodox Marxist categories were insufficient for explaining the new forms economic activity took, and in fact the hyper-speculative environment produced by an excess of capital bore a compelling resemblance to the poststructuralist theories of difference that happened to arrive at the same time. Economic determinism, and a language of base and superstructure, yielded to a discourse of homologies, differences, metonymies—just as, La Berge repeatedly reminds us, a deregulatory environment encouraged the vanishing of any sense of a productive ‘base’ to economic activity.
La Berge is careful to avoid nostalgia for the Marxist theory that came under fire in the 1980s, but she wants to signal the blindnesses of the insights that supplanted it. Primarily, the emphasis on the ‘abstraction’ of finance, a term that echoed the sublime aporias of poststructuralist theory in its pomp, slid unhelpfully into a sense of finance as ‘unrepresentable’. La Berge is canny in the way she shows how an acute recognition of the abstractions of post-regulatory capital flows became a (rather aestheticized) capitulation to the self-serving obscurantism of a financialized economy. The abstraction of finance from production, when it is, rightly or wrongly, understood as an abstraction that has always already escaped definition—and, not coincidentally, regulation—becomes a kind of literary-theoretical admonition that whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. Against this elision of abstraction and unrepresentability—part of the intellectual history of ‘the long 1980s’—La Berge wants to recover a particular representational history in the abstractions of finance.