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Metaphors of crisis

April 9, 2009

Of all the metaphors used to describe the spectacular failure of neoliberalism–that tentacled creature of moral ruin splayed dying for all to see–one is the most intriguing: ‘global meltdown.’ (There are over 1.5 million web references to a ‘global meltdown,’ enough to melt down Google.) A meltdown literally means ‘an accident in a nuclear reactor in which the fuel overheats and melts the reactor core or shielding.’ It transmutes into a figurative phrase when used to describe disastrous states of being, be they emotional (‘nervous breakdown’) or physical (‘disintegration’). In modified form, the phrase describes a chronic–perhaps lethal–condition of the corpus mundi, a spreading sickness infecting the body of the world. It is the metaphor most likely to be used by both investment banker and layperson, governor and citizen, North and South. It is used to describe both abstract (e.g. financial) and concrete (e.g. ecological) man-made disasters. Epic times imitate epic literature. In The Tempest, once solid structures perish and fold under ‘the globe itself,’ and:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’ed towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

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