By Arun Jacob
Introduction: Amor Intellectualis Diaboli
What I felt was most interesting about the Gamestonk hullabaloo jumped at me from the pages of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. When referring to Marquis de Sade’s novel Juliette, or Vice Amply Rewarded, Adorno and Horkheimer drop the Latin phrase, amor intellectualis diaboli, or the joy of defeating civilization with its own weapons. And that term brought a grin to my face.1 This was precisely the nugget of insight I was looking for to make sense of the intellectual pleasure in regression. Was the r/WallStreetBets subreddit essentially bustling activity covering up a lack of moral substance? Was it a perverse gamified version of the excesses of our financialized world? Were these bets being placed on GameStop because they were representative of a certain innocent past that these Redditors longed for? Was this what weaponizing nostalgia looks like?
The Redditor demographic I imagine that is engaged in this trading are people who have seen their parents and extended family lose their steady jobs, pensions, retirement funds, and in some cases their homes. And the pandemic must have taken away some of those people in something like a Thanos-snap. Were they going to Leeroy Jenkins their way through Wall Street to stop the banker bros from foreclosing on the stores that gave them their favourite childhood memories?2 Were they turning the knobs and levers on their Snowpiercer to move up and ahead and get the best of the high-frequency traders? If one were to psychoanalyze the goings-on of the r/WallStreetBets scene, would we find a Janus-like whole, one half the institutionalized financial life and culture of the big investment bankers, the other the e-trade app-wielding Robinhood day traders?3 The superego that roams the financial district in a snazzy suit and pointy shoe is flanked by the id of high finance, dumb money, as the New York Times dubbed them, working the stock market from mommy’s basement.4
These aggressive, emotional impulse-driven investors probably aren’t products of fancy schools of tranche tradecraft and financial wizardry, yet they were able to turn the blunt instrumentality of Reddit and MacGyver a strategy to serve Wall Street some fine Rocky Mountain oysters. The testosterone-filled world of high finance and the hagiographic discourse about the titans of the industry seem to come with a sizeable helping of phallic references, which makes me wonder, should sexual excesses and repressions be the analytic prism through which one tries to examine financial violence? I’ll put a pin in my urge to cosplay pipe-smoking shrink for now and pivot to John Durham Peters, who takes up the idea of amor intellectualis diaboli to theorize what he refers to as “abyss-artists.”
Recreational Nastiness, or, the Cultural Logic of Abyss-Artistry
John Durham Peters (2005) takes up the idea that the ‘bad and boujee’ Other of Enlightenment is what he dubs the abyss-artist. They are characters who revel in making a mockery of the prevailing status quo, as the supposedly scientific economy of Wall Street erupted and Redditor /u/theacidicpenguin found himself $7000 dollars richer in under 10 minutes. They are chaos-monkeys stress-testing the system, actors for whom shit-slinging is not merely a way of life, it is how they practice their tradecraft: through a theatre of cruelty, and the sadistic glee that they accrue in the process (Peters, 2005: 88). They make apparent the vulnerabilities of the system through their performative acts. These abyss-artists treat the media as the stage upon which they get to perform their depraved acts of irony, inversion, and degradation.
In this case, the game stop investors showed us how using a market-maker like Robinhood, that acted as a financial diuretic — enabling payment for order flow, using short-and-distort strategies were able to turn the flow of capital to the plebs on reddit, pulling off a legit golden shower. These abyss-artists of Reddit share a genome with Juliette: they, like her, get that morality, and fiduciary responsibility and all that other financial mishegas is all just so ludicrous. What the meme stonkers were able to shed light on was how the forces of market democratization are only supposed to work for the high priests of investment banking.
Think along the lines of the Batman villains that Christopher Nolan summons on screen in his films: Heath Ledger’s Academy award-winning portrayal of Joker or Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Bane. The auteur filmmaker gets to be the abyss-redeemer that brings comic book abyss-artists to life (Peters 2005). The superhero fan base seems to have mainlined the on-screen chicanery and doubled-down on recreating the debauched aesthetic in their own endeavours. Abyss-artists want their audience to feel icky, squeamish and squirm as they put on their spectacle of the damned.5 They get a rise out of their ‘thought-provoking’ theatrical antics. When you take the mise en scene of Taxi Driver and King of Comedy and bring them to the Batman universe with a wink and nod at the political milieu suggesting that Thomas Wayne may have sexually assaulted his housekeeper Penny Fleck, and her son Arthur Fleck, may in fact be Wayne’s illegitimate son, you have Todd Phillips’ film The Joker. By giving Joaquin Phoenix, (who plays the Joker) an Academy award, the media institutions showering praise and attention on the film are abyss-redeemers who are egging on the narrative of the abyss-artist’s dissatisfaction with the zeitgeist. Emma Jane (2012) refers to the hyperbolic vitriol of online discourse as e-bile, and as technologically mediated interactions become the mainstay of our daily interaction, the invective language, e-bile and recreational nastiness become normativized (542). Just like Sade’s Juliette, the OG abyss-artist, today’s Juliette loves systems and logic, and the Redditors just showed us that they have got some l33t skills when it comes to wielding instruments of rational thought. Peters’ intellectual history of cultural criticism equips us with the insight “to understand our current problems in the firelight of past arguments” (2005, 27) and in turn to comprehend what it is that we are dealing with with the abyss-artists of Reddit. Peters’ prescription is “lead us into temptation”! Since without sin we cannot run the diagnostics to determine our virtue-metrics; and without obscenity we cannot roll out civility. So Hustler magazine and Jerry Falwell, Damien Hirst and the cows, Andre Serrano and the crucifix, each of them need the other in order for the system to work.
I’d like to take a detour through another kerfuffle before we get back to our regularly scheduled programming on sticking it to the hedge fund guys (as much as I’d like to revel in the Schadenfreude of seeing obscene amounts of money get taken away from these vampire capitalists). I am reminded of an academic hoax that might lend itself to thinking through this: namely, the Sokal Affair, and its sequel, the Grievance Studies Affair. In 1996, Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University got his paper titled Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity published in the journal Social Text. And once it was published he came out with his gotcha! Science wars ftw! Sokal said that his article was a hoax and the editors of the journal accepted his text because of the jargon-filled obtuse and turgid prose that he was touting and the ideologies he espoused. I’d contend the Sokal Affair did not do the Sciences any favours but it sure did get people to deride the Humanities as fashionable nonsense. Fast forward a couple of decades and the sequel to the Sokal Affair, Sokal Squared is released. And like all blockbuster sequels, the action budgets get amped up, so it was three authors, Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay and Peter Bhogassian who carried out the hoax, writing twenty hoax papers and getting seven accepted and four published, when they came out let the public know that they were trolling the Humanities and the culture of academic publishing.
It is in these academic hoaxes that I feel resides the media genealogical kin of what is happening with r/WallStreetBets. The Sokal Affair affected the Humanities more so than the Science disciplines in the Science wars, and both gave fuel to those who see the disciplines that were affected by it as frivolous. The academic trolls who purportedly were able to fire proton torpedoes into Academia’s Death Star fail to realize how they have set the stage for the emergence of the First Order. The archive of Grievance Studies papers tell us something that the r/Wallstreetbets archive doesn’t quite capture: it reveals the cultural techniques of abyss-artistry at work. It allows us to appreciate how trolls engage in the short-circuiting of language/desire, reality/fantasy, and the abstract/concrete. In both the r/WallStreetBets cabal and the Grievance Studies Affair the similarities I see are in the cultural techniques that were deployed, i.e. malicious attempts to disrupt normal traffic.6 Here we are seeing knowledges, and techniques used by the abyss-artists of computer networking being repurposed for high finance. The hallowed grounds of wall street had never been stress tested by abyss-artists in this way before.7 And we took for granted the logics that governed these spaces. We know the world of academic publishing is riddled with problems, and we are very well aware of the shenanigans that go on in high finance, but it takes abyss-artists who can shake up the status-quo and get the media, the abyss-redeemers defending abyss-artistry that will allow for progressive change to take place or perhaps, fortify the system and make it all the more impenetrable.
Greed, For Lack of a Better Word, is Good
The financial decision making praxis at work here becomes all the more interesting when we think about how behavioural finance was drawing from an itty-bitty teeny-weeny pool of humanity to extrapolate investor’s behaviour. The financial sector has over the years subjectivized a certain kind of stock trader. And if financial service providers intend to predict the investment behaviour of their investors, they need to train their algorithms on a more diverse dataset. Meme-stock traders are abyss-artists and they are not playing by homo economicus’ rules. They are not buying all this talk about “enlightenment as capitalist economic order” (Moore 2015, 119). What is with buying these marquee brands from the 90s? Is it post-authenticity coolness, i.e. Normcore!? The idea of buying up increasingly absurd ’90s-era nostalgia stocks does almost feel like the normcore aesthetic was operationalized in a stock market buying strategy. What if meme stock traders were hanging onto the comfort blanket of their teenage years, the video game store and cinema theatre are places that they have attached positive and happy childhood memories to. They used to send BBMs to their friends and it was better than text? Were they reminiscing about playing snake on a Nokia 3310? And they weren’t going to let their favourite media institutions get evicted. They were going to put up a valiant effort to keep the vulture capitalists at bay. Or were they lashing out at the hedge-fund tightasses and manifesting their sadomasochistic desires in particular through these acts of financial violence?8
Could we take a minute to reminisce and reflect on the dynamic that plays out in David Fincher’s film, The Social Network, the origin story of Facebook?9 Jesse Eisenberg plays a scrawny Mark Zuckerberg opposite Armie Hammer, who plays US Olympic rower mirror-twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. In real life, the Winklevoss twins chilled in Ibiza for a bit and came back for their second act: as Bitcoin billionaires who founded a cryptocurrency exchange. Of course, the twins would name their digital currency thingamajig Gemini, and sweaty Mark Zuckerberg would call his digital currency thingamabobber to compete with it, Libra. It seems now that the Winklevoss twins have inked a deal with MGM Studios to turn the Gamestop kerfuffle into a movie, tentatively titled The Antisocial Network.
I wonder if they will bring back Christian Bale to play Michael Burry (as seen in The Big Short) this time around? That would be quite the casting coup! After all, Burry initiated the Big GameStop Short Squeeze, which apparently made him a 1,500% gain at one point. He bought GameStop shares for $2 a piece spending $15 million in all. Michael Burry is the one who started the run on the bank, when he bought 3.3% of the company’s common stock (if that’s the right thing to call this hot mess)! He shorted Gamestop and that’s what started this whole Gamestonk kerfuffle. The Winklevoss twins, Chamath Palihapitiya, Elon Musk jumped in and started offering people advice on how to navigate the waters, and because they were using HFTs, they got to access the stocks before any of the small fry guys got to buy anything. Michael Burry is an interesting character to plot on to that masculinity grid. He’s financial aristocracy, but he went to med school to become a doctor and left because, well, in his own words, “I wanted to help people—but not really.” I appreciate that kind of honesty! He’s earned his stripes as a quant:he was able to do the “told you so” dance on a whole mountain of money, Scrooge McDuck-style, when the rest of the world was reeling from the brink of financial armageddon, trying to figure out if “too big to fail” actually meant “too complicit to regulate.” Burry is the personification of a disciplined financial decision-maker. Someone who knows what “fiduciary responsibility” means, right? I hope so.
Sidebar, besides playing Zuckerberg in The Social Network, there’s another nerdie villain character Jesse Eisenberg plays that we should talk about — no, not his attempt at Lex Luthor. Eisenberg plays a techie in Kim Nguygen’s film from 2018 called The Hummingbird Project. The film is about high-frequency trading and ultra-low latency direct market access and a media infrastructure construction project, riveting stuff! The title refers to the amount of time it takes for a hummingbird to flap its wing, that’s just how long it ought to take an algorithmic trading software can replicate market makers behaviours with their pace, scale and leveraging the patterns in financial data. High frequency trading algorithms need to beat the media infrastructure to generate profit. They look for faster connections with less time lag so that bots can juke the stats executing rapid-fire trades and gobble up the profits before anyone else can. The film The Hummingbird Project fictionalized what fibre optic cable companies like Spread Networks do spending millions to lay a straight piece of fiber-optic cable from New York City to Chicago so that high frequency traders get to transmit and receive data in milliseconds. And these HFT aren’t just making regular trades, they are using the infrastructural inequities to their benefit, pulling off shenanigans like quote-stuffing, pinging and spoofing to put their Sonic the Hedgehog meets Roadrunner persona to good use. By the way, the Winklevosses house their crypto trading platform Gemini at Equinix data centres allowing them to make sure they get to ride the HFT train all the time.
The Winklevoss’s turn to cryptocurrencies as the avenue by which they aspired to re-establish their social standing suggests they envision themselves as pioneers in the post-trust world offering a solution within the contemporary neoliberal political economy. I read the Winklevoss’ turn to cryptocurrencies as an attempt by the company to disrupt the financescape and, in turn, reject the grand narrative of the accounting ledger. The distributed ledger technology championed by Gemini runs on micro-narratives. Cryptocurrencies operationalized through distributed ledgers and micro-narratives suggest the postmodern turn in the discourse of high-finance.Gemini’s uptake of cryptocurrencies suggests that as a corporate entity they are acutely aware of the erosion of trust in society and along with the evacuation of trust in our interpersonal interactions. I’d wager they’re attempting to capitalize on the upsurge in cryptocurrencies to mobilize their user base to rebuke the grand financial institutions, fiat currencies and credit schemes. I contend that their schema pivots around the premise that financial intermediaries and/or state adjudicators are unnecessary third-parties that ought to be eliminated by the establishment of its algorithmic infrastructure, one in which trust has been thoroughly technologized. In the CNBC interview on January 28, 2021, when you hear Cameron Winklevoss poo-pooing “centralized finance” and associating censorship with being deplatformed, he is the summoning dark forces from as far and wide as contemporary cancel culture, don’t tread on me–the feds will never take my guns, states rights–distrust in the centralized/planned Soviet economy, i.e. the Winklevoss spiel on r/WallStreetBets is drenched in the rhetoric of crypto-libertarianism.
The cyberlibertarian rhetoric that fintech bros and their sugar daddies spout sublimate how they are in the process of weaponizing cryptocurrencies to gain control of the economic levers of society. Bitcoin is an expression of cyberlibertarianism (Golumbia 2016). The core tenant of the ideology is a distrust of state actors in favor of individuals. Its adherents believe that society functions best when it allows individual actors free will in a free-market economy driven by individual property owners—not governments or corporations—engaging in free trade of that private property. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies provide a technological alternative to currency and banking that would avoid tainting the pure individualism of the cyberlibertarian ideology. What if we took Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of liquid modernity, slapped some new drywall and paint on it and called it liquid trust. i.e. The trust placed in the computational apparatus that operates behind the scenes. The economic trust that is placed in international banking institutions can be replaced by the algorithmic logic of the blockchains. The technologization of trust is what happens when tech bros with trust issues start spouting how human actors cannot be trusted and in place of interpersonal trust and legally binding formal contracts the blockchain offers a market innovation that has risen out of low counterparty trust in the global financescape. (Anyone remember legalfling.io, that blockchain thingamajig they built to technologize consent, that’s right, someone had the bright idea to codify consent and put it into the blockchain. Transactionalize human interaction and legislate it into the technological infrastructure.).10
D’Anastasio, Cecilia. (2021, January 22). A Fight Over GameStop’s Soaring Stock Turns Ugly, Wired Magazine. <https://www.wired.com/story/gamestop-stock-wall-street-bets-short-squeeze/>
Galloway, Scott and James D. Walsh. (2021, January 28). An Elegant Revolution Followed by Slaughter, New York Magazine. <https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/01/scott-galloway-unpacks-the-gamestop-uprising.html>
Golumbia, David. The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism. U of Minnesota Press, 2016. Print.
Horkheimer, Max, Theodor W. Adorno, and Gunzelin Noerr. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2002. Print.
Jane, Emma A. “‘Your a Ugly, Whorish, Slut.’” Feminist Media Studies, vol. 14, no. 4, Routledge, July 2014, pp. 531–46, doi:10.1080/14680777.2012.741073.
Moore, Alison. Sexual Myths of Modernity: Sadism, Masochism, and Historical Teleology. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016. Print.
Ongweso Jr., Edward. (2021, January 28). Robinhood’s Customers Are Hedge Funds Like Citadel. Its Users Are the Product. Motherboard Tech by Vice. <https://www.vice.com/amp/en/article/qjpnz5/robinhoods-customers-are-hedge-funds-like-citadel-its-users-are-the-product>
Peters, John D. Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition. S.l: Univ of Chicago Press, 2020. Print.
Phillips, Matt and Taylor Lorenz. (2021, January 27). ‘Dumb Money’ Is on GameStop, and It’s Beating Wall Street at Its Own Game, The New York Times. <https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/27/business/gamestop-wall-street-bets.html>
Reilly, Ian. “Public Deception as Ideological and Institutional Critique: On the Limits and Possibilities of Academic Hoaxing.” Canadian Journal of Communication, vol. 45, no. 2, July 2020, doi:10.22230/cjc.2020v45n2a3667.
Stewart, Emily. (2021, January 27). The GameStop stock frenzy explained. Vox. <https://www.vox.com/the-goods/22249458/gamestop-stock-wallstreetbets-reddit-citron>
Striphas, Ted. “Caring for Cultural Studies.” Cultural Studies of Science Education, vol. 33, no. 1, Routledge, Jan. 2019, pp. 1–18, doi:10.1080/09502386.2018.1543716.
Arun Jacob is a doctoral student at the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto, working in the Media, Technology, and Culture concentration. His research interests include examining the media histories of educational technologies.
- ?: Did the grin look like this?
- ?: Was Leeroy Jenkins the beta-insurrectionist? That was the vibe I got during my 2020 Zoom Bomb (Tran, 2021).
- ?: Where is Janus’s place in the meme solar system?
- ?: Interesting how ableist language circulates as the currency of finance(rs). As Lana Schwartz observes, and I quote in the C-Side, “They use a lot of ableist language, but basically to say ‘Let’s get really st*pid with our money and go all-in.” An ableist construction of “action” stimulates financial labour. When completing my economics minor in undergrad, I was drilled to “make decisions on the margin,” which is to think about your NEXT step in terms of COST, both in doing and NOT doing. What is the cost of this rhetoric?
- ?: What are “memers” but abyss-artists on a lower budget?
- That is how distributed denial of service attacks are deployed.
- ?: Hmmm, I always perceived the register of abyss-artistry here to be in a lower-key. A key that could slip by a little more unnoticed in the background of us doing this work.
- ?: As this point, I’m reminded that Nerds weren’t the only people who gained in STONKS 2021. Some meme stockers lost money, other major funds gained millions.
- ?: Not a lot of women in these cinematic references… not a dig against Arun, just that Venture Capitalist cinematic university is very bro-y. At least the Wojack Meme ecosystem has girls…
- ?: No, I don’t remember it.