This wasn’t the plan, exactly, but you held the line even when everyone else sold, and now you’re the majority shareholder in GameStop Incorporated. It’s all yours: five thousand stores to play with however you want. Some of the worried-looking executives took you on a brief tour of your new portfolio. They call it a brick-and-mortar business, but in fact it’s mostly drywall: scratchy, crumbling drywall slotted into dead linoleum malls. That’s right, the worried-looking GameStop executives told you, anything you want, you can game for free. You looked at the titles. Tax Accountant Simulator 4? A big-titted elf blows a kiss at you from the cover, whispering: come calculate my long-term capital loss carryover, my lord… Meanwhile Hog-Farm Tycoon promises to let you choose from over 1800 state and federal subsidies! and offers all-new groundwater contamination physics. Are the worried-looking executives trying to teach you some kind of lesson? But this one looks violent, at least. Operator: Drone Wars – real kills! Real carnage! NOT under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court! What happened to play? When did everything turn into a new kind of work?
This store was boarded up when you arrived, but everything inside is still pristine. In the dead malls the lights shine evenly and the acres of grey carpeting unroll smooth between empty shelves. This is the beige inferno. Brighter patches on the walls where the logos of long-extinct brands once hung: a massacre happened here. Empty fountains, ungurgling. And as you started walking out into the mall, dropping your free copy of Serf of Destiny (‘Ten thousand hours of tedious side quests!’) and just striding out until you could no longer hear the worried-looking executives calling you back, you noticed something else. A faint suggestion of music. Too ghostly to make out the tune or the timbre, but it was music and it was there. As if these square drywall columns were humming, resonating, as if they descended deep underground, becoming stakes to pierce the centre of the earth, where some lost demon sits in a cocoon of fire plucking each in turn. The music of the malls: a symphony for every abandoned retail space, everywhere in the world. If you could hear them all together, maybe they’d be beautiful. As it is, it’s maddening: the sound of a swallowed echo, the sound you hear once human life is gone. Maybe one day the entire universe will make that sound.
This is not a ruin. You saw ruins, as the worried-looking executives drove you from mall to empty mall. The great wide belly of America, blistered with bedsores. Wet rotting houses, potholes in the roads. It’s getting bad out there. First they gave out Fentanyl, now it’s the vaccine. For what? Haven’t you seen the weather? Better to stay inside and play video games. Better to stay inside and play the stock market. Build vast imaginary kingdoms from some warm mildewed pit of a home. At night, gales blow over the tangled woods that surround this place, and Main Street is clogged with dead slimy leaves. That was a ruin. This is something else. A clean white empty building on the edge of town, a mallsoleum. A monument to its own passing. America was always someone’s graveyard, from the moment the first Europeans blundered ashore; now, it’s a graveyard of malls. Your empire.
You read somewhere that these places were designed without right angles. Every corner is slightly wider than ninety degrees; they brought in the mathematicians to turn every mall into a labyrinth. The idea was to keep you dazed as you wandered about in there, lost but happy. Hide the clocks; make the exits a little harder to find. At every turn the mall would unfold into new, previously hidden dimensions: JG Ballard topologies, theoretically endless. Stores you’d never even noticed, stores not marked on the directory by the entrance, stores that sell stranger goods, amulets, muttering scrolls, tangle of beads in unholy patterns, tunnelling down to knucklebone and arrowheads, stores for our primordial selves, stores selling arrangements of the stars and knapped darts of flint, stores that are ossuaries, skulls rubbed with red ochre, each cleanly pricetagged, each with its barcode dangling on a bit of string… We have only penetrated the shallowest layers of mallspace. About a decade ago, some terrorists took a bunch of hostages at a luxury mall in Nairobi. The army surrounded the place, with Israeli counter-terrorism experts on the ground, but the siege was a disaster; dozens died. Hard to conduct straightforward military operations in this non-orthogonal world, where everything slips away.
After a few hours of wandering, you change your mind and head back. Your GameStop is gone; in its place there’s the coiled empty shell of a Nordstrom. This wasn’t the plan, exactly: the plan was to get rich. There are some people who make money effortlessly. Not that they were born into the stuff, not all of them at least, but they have a hunger for it. Hustle, they call it. Driving up and down the city, buying kitchen appliances on Facebook Marketplace and reselling for twice the value. Some nobody starts making bad egg videos on YouTube, suddenly they’re pulling in six figures. Everything is collapsing, falling into mulch, but someone will always get rich stripping out the copper wires. Not you, though. You are not one of those people. You worked a job and thought about quitting every day, until the virus came and your job quit first. You made just enough to start getting a taste for things you couldn’t afford, like lunch, or non-elective surgeries. It’s alright, you told yourself, I’m only beginning, my real life hasn’t started yet. You are thirty-eight years old.
So when GameStop stock started rising, you sunk everything you had. And at first it was a rush: your money doubled, tripled; you kept checking your phone every thirty seconds to watch the number go up. When you dreamed at night, you dreamed about stocks. No more weird oneiric geographies, no more disconnected images, no gorgeousness of childhood fears. In your dreams, you were in your perfectly ordinary apartment, looking at your phone, watching the numbers getting bigger – and when you woke up and looked instantly at your phone it was real, your dreams were literally coming true… Although you were barely sleeping at the time, because this stuff was like coke. A big fat fluffy line that never ends, racked up from here all the way to the moon. The shit that makes you mouthy, makes you tell complete strangers how much money you raked in just this month. I should start my own fund… I should sell stock tips on Patreon… And now – now you own a whole damn company. So why doesn’t it feel like victory? Why have you now spent six days lost in this dead and empty mall, licking sawdust out the corners, a million miles from home?
If you’re honest with yourself, it wasn’t even about the money, not really. It was a movement: standing up to the tycoons, the hedge-fund banshees, rallying around an embattled small business, the little guy… Only how did a retail giant with five thousand outlets become the little guy? Only because there are deadly waves moving through this ruined land. You can see them by the hollowness they leave in their wake. The next big thing in entertainment is cloud gaming: never mind physical discs, you don’t even need to download your games, you just stream them off a Google or Amazon server farm in a nuclear-hardened bunker somewhere out west. Pay a reasonable monthly fee to rent the computing power: feudalism is back, and this time it’s got a gun. In five years, owning an actual games console will be for weirdos and antiquarians. You might as well post some daguerreotypes to MySpace from your Leibniz wheel. It’s not just the malls: everything is emptying, becoming weightless, abstract. Everything you have is rented or streamed: your home, your music, and your opinions too. You don’t have a girlfriend, but there’s a stranger you’ve paid to moan your name on OnlyFans. You can pay rent on her attention. Squint your eyes, and it’s almost like touch.
You know that this is bad, even if it’s so convenient, even if you can’t really articulate why. The GameStop bubble began when hedge funds started spending billions shorting the company: they knew it wouldn’t survive the Great Emptiness that’s coming. But thousands of amateur traders didn’t pour their money into GameStop simply because they noticed that the short interest in GME was over 140% of the float, and that enough options could trigger a short squeeze on a potentially volatile security. They did it because, as various columnists have pointed out, these were nerds who congregated on Reddit; they liked GameStop, they had warm feelings towards it, and they didn’t like the idea of these rich Wall Street chads making a tidy profit by bankrupting something they cared about. It’s the same for all the meme stocks: people like going to AMC cinemas; they have fond memories of using a BlackBerry or a Nokia. They want to keep these things alive. (Or even practice a kind of corporate necromancy, bring them back from the dead. Shares in BB Liquidating, the holding company that inherited what’s left of Blockbuster, spiked by 700%.) The material world might be reduced to a handful of doomed capitalist enterprises, but we will not let it vanish! Of course, you still use Amazon like everyone else, and even if the cinemas were open you’d still be catatonic in front of Netflix every night; you invested in GameStop as a substitute for shopping there. A protest against the hollowing-out of reality – but one that took place entirely on the level of financialised abstraction. You made a bubble: something empty and lighter than air.
Still, it was funny. God, it was funny to see how much it made the titans of finance squirm. This is dangerous! This is the Capitol riots all over again! Speculative bubbles? Sure – but only for the right class of coked-up chancers, the ones with credentials, not for you. People with numbers after their names, yes, but Brick van Gloot III, not PussyEatah23. Don’t you know that the stock market exists to provide capital for productive industries? Don’t you realise that a good investor looks at the fundamentals? Don’t you care that you’re inflating this stock way above its intrinsic value? Only – what productive industries? What fundamentals? What intrinsic value? As everyone has already pointed out, nobody worries too much about these fogeyisms on a normal day, and the markets have been uncoupled from the ‘real’ economy for a very long time. Just google ‘Dow Jones’ and see: stock indexes have been coasting to an all-time high throughout the pandemic, while the rest of us were experiencing the sharpest economic collapse in modern history. But that’s only half the story. It’s not that what ought to be a single system has broken in two; this disarticulation is baked into how markets work.
The basics. A stock’s price rises when investors want to buy, and investors buy when they think its price will rise. In other words, prices are largely determined by what investors think other investors are likely to do. You might buy because you think a company has good ‘fundamentals’ – but equally, it could be because they’re about to get a fat federal bailout, or because there’s a cult of deranged day-traders out there who believe its CEO is the Maitreya Buddha. It doesn’t matter. This is why tech companies can make billions from IPOs despite never actually turning a profit: as long as everyone thinks that all those other rubes think it’s a moneymaker, then it is. Behind all the arcane language, it’s just ordinary dumb-ape psychology. Keynes compares these markets to a beauty contest in which the judges don’t vote for the contestant they personally find the most attractive, but the one that they think the other judges will go for. Everyone on the panel might have secretly fallen in love with Contestant Six, but each of them considers: well, my tastes run weird, and Contestant Four is a much more conventional beauty… As always, it’s not really about the girls, it’s about the other men. Keynes notes that ‘the shares of American companies which manufacture ice tend to sell at a higher price in summer when their profits are seasonally high than in winter when no one wants ice.’ If you were investing based on the year-round profitability of a company, buying ice shares in the summer would be a stupid bet. But if you’re buying because you think other people will make that same stupid bet, it suddenly makes a lot of sense. You end up with a whole field of very smart professionals, all making stupid hollow meaningless bets because everyone else is doing the same thing, setting up rituals, fluctuations that retrench themselves for no sensible reason – while the ice melts, unheeded, unimportant, underfoot.
For free-market ideologues, the market is an information-processing machine: its point isn’t to make money, but to send price signals. (Profit motive is what powers the machine, but it’s not its purpose, any more than the point of a car is to burn up petrol.) Here, they’re absolutely right, but not in the way they think: a stock market is a semiotic system, and it operates on the same rules laid down in Saussure’s structural linguistics. Every bet in the market exists in a field of relation to other bets in the market; the density of other bets are what gives it its value. There is no necessary relation between sign and referent.
But as psychoanalysis has shown, linguistic systems structure the entire psyche. It’s not for nothing that Keynes chose to describe the market as a beauty contest; he’s describing the same schema that Lacan gives for neurotic fantasy. In Lacan, your fantasy is not your own innermost authentic wish; it’s what you imagine the other desires from you. An animal simply wants to fuck something warm; as a fully neurotic human subject, you want to believe that your lover wants you too. You fantasise about their fantasy. ‘It is qua Other that man desires.’ Simulate the desire of the other for fun and profit. The markets really are a fantasy: all those heavily roided finance bros tenderly imagining what the other might want, these deep empaths trying to conjure your desires before you’ve even formulated them yourself. Che vuoi? What do you want? Is it equity in Tesla at $850 a share? Is that what your heart desires? Neurotic fantasy spills out of the trading floor; electric tendrils of desire cling and couple, writhing around each other – and as we recede from the wet kissy sounds of Wall Street, we can see the whole shuddering mess of tenderness and love, its spread, writhing to its outer edges, carving deep gashes into the invisible parts of the world, tearing them open, leaving ruins, leaving empty malls…
Yeah, where does this leave you? What about the proud owner of GameStop, Inc., wandering in mallspace, chained to all this obdurate physical waste? The GameStop investors challenged the entire fantastical system; rather than playing the subtle game of imagining what other people might want, they got together, reached a consensus decision on their desires, and then set about making it happen. Maybe this was why leftists got so into the whole thing: it might not abolish private property, but at least it looks a bit like collective action. If enough of us buy this stuff, its price will rise, so let’s do that. This isn’t supposed to happen, even though obviously it happens all the time. Technically, the structure of this kind of market activity is perversion: the pervert, unlike the neurotic, ‘knows very well’ what he desires. He disavows castration, the gap, the signifier hollowing out the world of things. (See all the GameStop investors who seemed to think their market hijinks could actually save a dying retail chain.) Well – so what? If the choice is between the madness of capital expressed as a monstrous, rational, all-consuming system, or the madness of capital expressed as a weird private perversion, I’ll always side with the perverts. Now that socialism is over, perversion is the only thing we’ve got left. But it still isn’t an answer to the Great Emptiness, and there was always going to be a crash. There would always be someone left in the desert of the real, the wordless rubble that remains once fantasy is gone. There would always be a loser. There would always be you.
On your twelfth day in the empty mall, you found a dead rat in the middle of the lino. A husk, dried in distant winds. Fur peeling back from fangs and eyes; that cavernous hollow of a belly sheltered under such delicate ribs, a fine scrim of red-black viscera between the naked bones, and full of maggots. You picked off those fat white worms and ate them one by one. Sucked them off your fingers. This was the meal you wanted. It tasted good.