The Big Short: Edmund Burke and the Sublime in our Stars, our Stripes, and Our Stocks

Some time ago, I heard a quotation from Marshall McLuhan that I instantly recognized as true–and quite insightful: “Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.” As an educator, I know what he’s getting at. We’re more likely to learn, when we’re having fun, either in the formal setting of a school, ambling through nature, or immersing ourselves in the rustle and bustle of community living.

Education and Entertainment: Carl Sagan and Ken Burns

Some of television history’s most memorable moments involve artistry that awakens the imagination and generates curiosity for the world around us. Carl Sagan’s multi-part Cosmos (1980) series is a good example. This series does not simply explain how astronomical discoveries have made people rethink their understanding of the heavens; it connects science to survival via the unlikely paths of religion, philosophy, and politics. These unlikely paths helped Sagan to show that the historiography of science was thematically important in ways beyond the invention of telescopes, or the discovery of Newtonian Physics. His history of science encourages questions about ethics and identity; it’s a bridge to understanding some of greatest dangers to our species’ survival–nuclear war and climate change–and suggestive of the tools we need to overcome them. He does all of this with language and stories that are both intoxicatingly poetic and genuinely fun. He educates and entertains with the same breath.

Maybe my favorite Carl Sagan quotation of all time: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

Sagan’s Cosmos series isn’t the only example of the connection between entertainment and education. Documentarian Ken Burns has informed people with his numerous documentary series, including baseball, jazz, the American West, the prohibition era, the Vietnam War, and, perhaps most famous, The Civil War (1990). But what makes the work of Ken Burns not just well watched but basically canonical television viewing is that his films are imaginative in their rhetorical delivery of historical information. They are invocations of the past. They don’t simply report what happened; rather they create a mood, with narration, music, motif, and carefully constructed rhetorical speeches. (The same is true of Cosmos, btw.)

Edmund Burke and the Sublime

These documentary series reach such artistic and rhetorical perfection that they occasionally enter what various literary and philosophical thinkers have thought of as “the sublime.” Edmund Burke described the sublime as a type of intense feeling that arises from one’s familiarity with one’s own sense of mortality and the terrifying realization of one’s insignificance in the world–or cosmos. Burke makes a distinction between pleasure and pain, and says that when people encounter something beautiful, then they experience pleasure, but that the sublime is an odd combination of the two.

“Dearest Martha, I write to you, with the hope that you’ll have something less boring to read, like People magazine, for Grant has us on an indefatigable march to finish reading something by Edmund Burke. And we are hard pressed to stop doom scrolling on Twitter” — Ulysses J. Stereotype, 1864.

Beautiful objects are those which invoke affection in us and positive feelings of appreciation. A glossary page at The University of Chicago helpfully encapsulates the difference: “Burke associates qualities of ‘balance,’ ‘smoothness,’ ‘delicacy’ and ‘color with the beautiful,’ while he speaks of the sublime in terms such as ‘vastness’ and ‘terror’ (Burke, 1757).” Beautiful objects are those that soothe us–they do not, in Burke’s eyes make us feel insignificant, frightened, or intimately aware of our ultimate mortality.

However, there is another type of desirable feeling, according to Burke, that comes not so much from beauty (and pleasure), but rather from pain and terror. There are times when we encounter something frightening, in such a way that it invokes in us an understanding of how large the universe is and how, in comparison, we are small. There are times when we are immersed within something so dark and ominous that we are reminded of our own mortality, and there are times when the baroque or gothic beauty of something overpowers us with its magnificence, but in a fascinating way. If this experience actually endangers our lives in an immediate and material way, then it is not pleasurable at all. But if this feeling is somehow terrifying but also safely removed from us, then it creates a type pleasurable sensation in us. This pleasurable sensation Burke refers to as the sublime.

The way the guy in this video pronounces egoism makes me want to summarize Burke’s sublime as “leggoism my eggoism.”

We can experience the sublime both in our own lives and through the experience of art, music, or literature. Burke’s ideas influenced Romanticism, a philosophical and aesthetic perspective of the late 18th Century and early 19th Century. These artists tried to capture through their talents the feeling that comes when we witness something of such terrific terror that it invokes in us the feeling of the sublime. When we are in the midst of such a feeling, our critical and rational thoughts are, according to Burke, either suspended or at least subservient to this delightful connection with the cosmos.

This diminution of reason to the sublime reaches its apex with what Burke calls Astonishment: “THE PASSION caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.”

Astonishment, then, is the most powerful form of the sublime, and Burke describes the feeling as a surrender to something great, a phenomenon wherein “the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it.” What this description reinforces is that the sublime is not so much a feeling we have, but a feeling that has us. It’s like inheriting of whirlwind of realization, of our own diminutive nature in a vast, expansive, timeless universe.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Shipwreck exhibited 1805–an example of the sublime.

Burke explains that this emotive whirlwind is most profoundly felt when we’re at some distance from it. It’s a point I briefly referred to earlier in this post, but it’s worth more explication. Burke observes that”[i]t is a common observation, that objects which in the reality would shock, are in tragical, and such like representations, the source of a very high species of pleasure.” The end of the universe, the death of 600,000 Americans, the 2008 financial crisis–up close these things are horrific and terrifying; but from a distance they are terrific, in the double meaning of the word. They create astonishment and awaken in us a sense of the sublime–or so says Burke.

The Sublime in Cosmos and The Civil War

So we can, perhaps, experience the sublime in Beethoven’s music, in the paintings of Joseph Mallord William Turner, or in the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge or William Wordsworth. But our capacity to experience the sublime continues on into the 20th and 21st Century, and into the mediums of television and film. As I mentioned before, two of the most seismic moments in late 20th Century history were Sagan’s Cosmos and Ken Burns’ documentary series, The Civil War. I don’t think there’s any question–at least not in my mind–that Burke’s explanation of the sublime goes a long way into explaining the pathos of both these shows.

“The Pale Blue Dot,” a grandiose speech in Cosmos that creates a sublime moment for its viewers.

Consider the subjects of both and the way both of told. Cosmos is the story of the big bang, the heat death of the universe, or the continual implosion and explosion of the particles that make up existence. It’s a story that combines philosophy, history, religion, and science together. It speculates about how we might be one species among millions or that we might be alone. It contemplates an almost never-ending story of humanity or the possibility that we will destroy ourselves soon through nuclear warfare. This portrayal of the Cosmos is quintessentially sublime, in the Burkien sense.

The Civil War is a tale told in epic fashion, with figures like Grant, Lee, and Lincoln represented in heroic fashion, and figures like Elisha Hunt Rhodes, Mary Chesnut, and Sam Watkins showing the average everyday perspective. It’s one of the most colossal moments in American history, one of the deadliest, and the series invites thoughts about America’s impermanence and its durability; the tales of life and death during these four years can’t help but make us think of our own mortality. In both of these documentaries, the enormity and grandiosity of the topic–combined with the language, cinematography, and sound the directors use–invoke the sublime. (Consider both YouTube clips I’ve provided.)

The opening monologue of the first episode of Ken Burns’ The Civil War, a speech that creates an enormity, in which we experience the sublime.

The Big Short, a Tale of Financial Collapse

The Big Short (2015) came out about seven years after the economy collapsed due to collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps and all the other financial chicanery that Wall Street portrayed as benevolent sorcery but was really just an elaborate shell game, where bankers would always win, even if they the made bad bets–even if they cheated.

This film tells the story of how that happened, examining the methods and motives of Wall-Street bankers, real estate brokers, and home owners all involved in a reckless bubble. But the film portrays this story from the perspective of a group of investors who could see the financial cliff coming and who enriched themselves off of this national calamity.

Those who bet against the housing market make what the financial markets refer to as a “short,” which essentially means they bet that people won’t pay their mortgages and that the housing market will plummet. Shorting a market usually involves borrowing shares from someone–or some group– and agreeing to give them back at a future time. If the price drops in the mean time, the person shorting stands to make a profit; but if the price rises, then that person will lose money. So a person shorting a stock is betting on the stock to drop. The shorting done in the housing market didn’t involve stocks; it was simply a contractual arrangement with the bank, whereby the shorter would bet against the housing market using credit default swaps.

The Big Short is a entertaining, informative, and dramatic film with a great ensemble cast.

If this sounds functionally the same as gambling–rather than investment–then, yes, you get it. If that sounds like a hell of a thing to risk the lives of billions of people on–then yes, you get it. If you’re wondering how this could have happened right under everyone’s noses, then a good place to start to understand this historical moment would be this film–note I said “start,” which implies that this film doesn’t tell the whole story.

If the term “credit default swaps” is confusing, then fasten your seat belt, it’s going to be a bumpy film. The Big Short introduces viewers to the complexities and grotesque horrors that was Wall Street in the first decade of the 21st Century (and surely still today). The story introduces terms like “mortgage bond,” “collateralized debt obligations,” “tranches,” “CDO Manager,” and the Securities Exchange Commission.

“What this description reinforces is that the sublime is not so much a feeling we have, but a feeling that has us. It’s like inheriting of whirlwind of realization, of our own diminutive nature in a vast, expansive, timeless universe.”

Me, a few minutes ago

This might sound more like an instructional video by Troy McClure–who you may have seen in such films as, “He’s not heavy, he’s my 27th President,” and “So You’re Starting to Have Questions about the Fed.” Or maybe it sounds like something your social studies teacher would put on when there just isn’t much to teach anymore. However, these fears–I assume they’re not hopes–would be misplaced.

In The Big Short, a slew of Hollywood and television stars break down these terms by breaking the fourth wall. They speak directly to the audience, to explain in simple and entertaining fashion, what all this gobblygook is about. Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez explain highfalutin’ concepts in ways that Bill Nye, the Science Guy might. For instance, Bourdain explains what CDOs are by talking about seafood stew in a restaurant kitchen.

This scene in The Big Short gets at many of the films layers–the humor, the cynicism, the breaking of the fourth wall, and the layman’s explanation of high finance.

The Big Short and Marshall McLuhan

And this is where we get back to Marshall McLuhan’s adage about entertainment and education. The Big Short aims to educate and entertain simultaneously. For this approach, it makes sense to have Adam McKay as the director. If you don’t know that name, you’ll know his work: he directed Vice (2018), and prior to 2015, he was involved in productions like Comedy Central’s Drunk History, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), and The Other Guys (2010). So what’s a director/producer of Will Ferrell films doing dramatically representing the 2008 financial crisis? I think the question answers itself, and clues us into how this film got its vibe.

Our narrator is Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who doesn’t hang around losers (he really wants you to know that) because he’s “got fashion friends.” He’s an amoral but amiable Wall Street banker who’s honest in the same way that Lex Luther is honest–that is to say, as a matter of pride to let you know how evil he is. This quality of his isn’t lost of Mark Baum, whose dialogue with Vinny Daniel (Jeremy Strong) clues us into each of their personalities:

Vinnie Daniel: How come you don’t hate this guy? He is everything you taught us not to trust.

Mark Baum: I can’t hate him. He is so transparent in his self interest that I kind of respect him.

The Big Short, 2015

Baum is one of the investors who shorts the housing market. The others include Michael Burry (Christian Bale), Charlie Geller (John Magaro), and Jamie Shipley (Finn Whittrock). The film portrays these investors as shamans, as brave prophets, as readers of riddles, solvers of sphinxes, and voices in the wilderness. The positive portrayal of these characters is, of course, part narrative technique; it’s helpful if the viewers can identify with some characters.

But the sympathy given to Baum and others goes past that. It’s disturbingly reflexive. The film was based on a book by Michael Lewis, who also wrote Moneyball, a book that lead to the film (2011) by the same name. In both these films, a small number of seers discover what others miss. Lewis seems to have a stylistic tick for drawing up figures who are just oh-so-super-smart. This is a fun way to tell a story, and it’s not entirely false. But this portrayal shrouds the moral complicity Baum and others have in the very unjust system they rail against.

You might not believe me, but this scene has economist Richard Thaler and Selena Gomez co-teaching the audience about “synthetic CDOs.

Vennet refers to Baum as the “hero” of the film, but this hero isn’t so much helping everyday people, as he is angry that large banks exploit the average American. His goal is to punish the banks, but in the end, his efforts only serve to enrich himself and others. This doesn’t necessarily make Baum a villain, but it certainly doesn’t make him a hero, either.

After all, it doesn’t take a prophet to see the financial game is rigged, and while his prowess at making money is certainly impressive, it doesn’t mean he’s a good guy. He’s not so much a truth teller or slayer of financial dragons, which is the way Vennet (in the story) and the writers/producers/directors (outside the story) attempt to portray him.

The Big Short and the Sublime

But there’s another scene in the film that shows that this story isn’t just an intrigue of brilliant amoral investors. It’s a film about the immense damage that American greed did to average, everyday Americans–middle-class, working-class, and poor. Actually, there’s more than one scene that conveys this ethical calamity, but the one with a speech by Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) stands out:

If we’re right, people lose homes. People lose jobs. People lose retirement savings, people lose pensions. You know what I hate about fucking banking? It reduces people to numbers. Here’s a number – every 1% unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die, did you know that?

The Big Short, 2015

This is a film that’s subject matter is, in the Burkien sense, sublime. There’s a portrayal of the ominous, cataclysmic end of the economy, and in the background we see images of people going about their day. There are characters in the story with no name or little attention, but we see them in the middle and then at the end of the film, their facial expressions telling us everything we need to know about how the housing crisis has wiped out their lives.

At the end of the film, there are empty trading floors, people walking out of their employers’ buildings for the last time, and extreme long shots of New York City, as if to pull out from the lives of a few investors to the fortunes of a country. At times the film slows down; the cinematography seems to slow and the music seems to stretch, as if to emphasize the massiveness of this historical moment. We sense its ominous greatness and feel our own mortality.

There are a few other things to note about the film. As I hinted earlier, it’s a bit much, the way the film lionizes investors who–though they might have been very smart–didn’t do anything ethically good. They were part of the same system that created havoc for everyone else. On a side note, the soundtrack is pretty amazing. I’m not sure how much there is to say about it, other than I enjoyed it so much I purchased some of the music.

A powerful moment of pathos that makes us realize what is at stake.

Ironic Quote: Purposeful or Mistake?

Finally, there’s a quotation at the beginning of the film, which is either an ironic mistake or a brilliant piece of trolling. The quote at the beginning is, “It ain’t what you know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so,” and it’s attributed to Mark Twain. Here’s the thing. I did some digging, and I couldn’t find any evidence that he actually said this (I’d be happy to be proven wrong.) In fact, it looks as if the quotation has been attributed to many different people.

So here’s the thing: did the producers/director of this film insert a possibly falsely attributed quotation by mistake? Or did they purposely include that falsely attributed quotation, so as to play a trick on the viewer? If the former, then they ironically committed the very mistake their film tells people to avoid. If the later, they are purposefully lulling their viewers into making the sort of mistake based on blithe trust that their film warns against. Either way, it’s an incredible way to begin a thoroughly sublime film, in both senses of the word!

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