The Chinese word for “crisis,” as generations of commencement speakers have reminded us, is written using the same character as “opportunity.” Whatever inspirational quality this chestnut may possess does not grow with repetition – and it is a curmudgeonly pleasure to learn that it’s wrong, or at best only fractionally true.
In fact both “crisis” and “opportunity” are written with two characters. The one they share can mean “quick-witted” or “device,” depending on context, and can be combined with another glyph to write “airplane.” (An airplane is uplifting, albeit not motivationally.) And Victor H. Mair, the professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania who debunked this hardy linguistic urban legend, points out that apart from the Sinological blunder, it’s terrible advice: “Any would-be guru who advocates opportunism in the face of crisis should be run out of town on a rail, for his/her advice will only compound the danger of the crisis.”
But you don’t uproot a cultural weed all that easily -- especially not when crisis-mindedness has become totally normal. That’s a paradox but it’s also indisputable. A quick search of Google News finds 89.5 million articles with the word “crisis” in them as of this writing. Rhetorical inflation has a lot to do with it, of course. But it’s also the long-term effect of a state of mind that Susan Sontag characterized so well in an essay from 1988: “A permanent modern scenario: apocalypse looms … and it doesn’t occur. And it still looms. […] Modern life accustoms us to live with the intermittent awareness of monstrous, unthinkable – but, we are told, quite probable – disasters.”
The instances she had in mind were the threat of nuclear war and the AIDS epidemic. In 25 years, neither has disappeared, though other catastrophes (actual and potential) have moved to the fore. The crises change, but not the structure of feeling.
Anti-Crisis by Janet Roitman, published by Duke University Press, digs deeper than Sontag’s comments on apocalypse fatigue. Roitman, an associate professor of anthropology at the New School, approaches the ongoing discussion of subprime mortgage "crisis" (as it’s hard not to think of it) with questions about the assumptions and implicit limitations of a word so ubiquitous that it is normally taken for granted.
She does so by way of the late Reinhart Koselleck’s approach to intellectual history, known by a term even some of his English-language commentators have preferred to leave untranslated: Begriffsgeschichte. No way am I going to try to type that again, so let’s just refer to it as “conceptual history.” But arguably use of the full Teutonic monty is justified in order to distinguish Koselleck’s work from what, in the Anglo-American tradition, is called the history of ideas.
As Koselleck writes in an entry for a major conceptual-history handbook on social and political ideas, the term “crisis” played an important role in the work of the Young Hegelians, who took their master’s thinking about the philosophy of history as a starting point for the critique of existing institutions. Given that a key term in Hegel’s system is Begriff (the Concept) and that one of the Young Hegelians was Karl Marx, who maintained that recurrent crisis was an inescapable part of the history of capitalism itself – well, given all that, it’s possible to see how the word Begriffsgeschichte might carry layers of implication soon lost in translation.
The argument of Anti-Crisis is nothing if not oblique, and self-reflexive to boot, and paraphrasing it seems a fool’s errand. It is a good idea to grapple with Koselleck’s essay on crisis before reading Roitman’s book (so I learned the hard way) and no hard feelings on my part if you did so before finishing this column.
So now to run that errand. For Roitman, "crisis" is not simply a clichéd label for -- among other things -- recent economic developments, but a fraught and dubious concept. The word itself has roots in an ancient Greek medical term referring to the phase of an illness which will either kill the patient or end in recovery. It came into frequent use to describe social, political, and cultural phenomena beginning late in the 18th century -- one element in a very complex series of shifts of meaning between religious concepts of social and cosmic order and a (seemingly?) secular pattern of life.
The French Revolution, with the spectacle of comprehensive upheaval, doubtless made the word especially vivid. But Koselleck also cites Thomas Paine’s The Crisis, from 1776. “To Paine, the War of Independence was no mere political or military event,” he writes; “rather it was the completion of a universal world historical process, the final Day of Judgment that would entail the end of all tyranny and the ultimate victory over hell... .”
In sum, then, “crisis” came to possess small range of theological, political, and other connotations. Calling something a crisis implies its urgency or consequentiality. But it also posits that elements of the crisis are intelligible. They are the effects of departures from a norm, or aspects in the unfolding of some grand narrative. The crisis has causes, which we can discover. It has effects, which we begin to interpret even while enduring them.
“Crisis is a blind spot that enables the production of knowledge,” writes Roitman. “… More precisely, it is a distinction that secures ‘a world’ for observation.” The process rests upon “a distinction that generates and refers to an ‘inviolate level’ of order (not crisis)” that “is seen to be contingent (historical crises) and yet is likewise posited as beyond the play of contingency, being a logical necessity that is affirmed in paradox (the formal possibility of crisis).”
Now, assuming I understand her argument correctly, Roitman regards calling the great vertigo of financial free-fall a few years ago as something we can label a crisis -- at the risk of assuming we understand what it was, how it happened, and why.
That, in turn, posits that our ideas and information are adequate to the tasks: that government regulation distorts the healthy functioning of the marketplace (if you’re a neoclassicist) or that insufficient government regulation tips the market advantage to the unscrupulous (if you’re Keynes-minded) or that crisis is built into capitalism because of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (as Marx believed, or didn’t believe, depending on which Marxist you ask).
The problem in any case being that the causal explanations now available rest on understandings of the economy that don’t take into account how crises (or, rather, judgments about the risk of crisis) are not only a factor in how decisions are made in financial markets but operate in instruments involved in the functioning of those markets.
Derivatives and credit default swaps are the examples that everyone has now of, at least. More have been invented, and still more will be. Risk management is a thriving field. So can we judge something to be in a crisis when expectations of crisis (and of profit from crisis) are operational – and bound to become more so? That isn’t a rhetorical question. I have no idea one way or the other, and if Anti-Crisis answers it, I did not mark the page.
“We persevere,” the author says, “in the hope that we can perceive the moments when history is alienated in terms of its philosophy – that is, that we can perceive a dissonance between historical events and representations…. We are left in a chasm: perplexed and immobilized by the supposed radical dissonance between the value of houses and the value of derivatives of houses.”
Perplexed? Yes. Immobilized? Not necessarily. (Epistemologically induced paralysis is only one of the possible responses to a foreclosured mortgage.) I respect Anti-Crisis for making me think hard, even if it occasionally felt like thinking in circles. Meanwhile, it turns out that that Simon & Schuster will be publishing something now listed simply as Untitled Financial Crisis Book, appearing under the company’s Books for Young Readers imprint in early 2015. Whatever baggage its conceptual history has laden it with, the notion of crisis seems to be making itself very much at home.