Michael Burry: How the Man with a Glass Eye Saw Like Rauschenberg

Finance legend, Michael Burry, always knew he looked at the world differently, and it should have hardly been unexpected that he faced much incredulity and misunderstanding from others, writes Michael Lewis in his bestseller The Big Short.  It seemed to Burry his glass eye was the reason why.


In the years just preceding the financial crisis, Burry bet against everyone else who did not see the collapse of the market ahead. He charted his research on the subprime bond market and waged to short, or bet against it.  For those who adhered to his words, they perceived a man who somehow embodied his expertise: he imagined the depth of things he normally could not see into an intoxicating mastery of discrete knowledge. 


Burry proved to be somewhat of a lonesome misunderstood genius like an artist.  Both in the everyday and in finance, he augmented his position to reality to compensate for his idiosyncratic shortcomings.  He vested his conceptualization of the market with a charged uniqueness others were not accustomed to see.  However, in the end, people were stunned they did not even bother to look.  


There is a type of art of which Leo Steinberg wrote in Other Criteriain which both viewer and artist are faced with a similar situation.  Works of art present us with different ways of looking.  In French, they call it “le regard,” something like our look and personal consideration of another thing or person.  Burry could not look at people eye-to-eye.  So, instead, like the artists of which Steinberg teaches us – Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly – Burry sequestered himself among piles of research alone in his dark office and redirected his perceptions to the “flatbed picture plane.”  Steinberg writes:


The flatbed picture plane makes its symbolic allusion to hard surfaces such as tabletops, studio floors, charts, bulletin boards – any receptor surface on which objects are scattered, on which data is entered, on which information may be received, printed, impressed – whether coherently or in confusion.  The pictures of the last fifteen to twenty years insist on a radically new orientation, in which the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational processes.  


Steinberg recognized the uniqueness of this “special mode of imaginative confrontation.” Burris shift his attention away from a visual experience to a kind of mental map upon which he could chart the tangible value of things.  


Burry absconded, mined and sorted through counterfeit information no differently than Rauschenberg “researched” his screen prints of the 1960s with replicas of Old Master paintings, iconic archival newsprint photographs, diagrams, or even xrays.  

Robert Rauschenberg, Tracer, 1963.jpg

Decoding the piles of prospectuses in intricate detail was for Burry an abundant reserve of similar “concrete references freely associated as in an internal monologue” as Steinberg described Robert Rauschenberg.  Burry was constantly consuming and processing the data to be mapped onto an “overcharged field.”  Both Burry and Rauschenberg pursued their research feverishly and prolifically.  

Lewis quotes Burry: “I don’t take breaks in my search for value…There is no golf or other hobby to distract me.  Seeing value is what I do.”  


Then in 2007, Burry realized his eye was not the reason alone for his unusual gift.  When he and his wife realized their child had Aspergers, he realized he did too!  Even in medical school, nobody ever inquired into his tireless mental focus and dedication to obsessive fact mining in finance. 


Yet, the type of art of which Steinberg writes compares even further with Burry in light of the possibility of Aspergers.  Think of Rosalind Krauss’s assertion about Rauschenberg, drawing upon the thoughts of Brian O’Dougherty, that the artist “defamiliarized perception.” There was Rauschenberg making his screen prints in the early 1960s feverishly, or as Krauss would have it, insatiably, indiscriminately, with a wandering attentiveness, and a horrifying acknowledgement of emptiness – a leveling of perception – to find his way to redefine the picture surface as the “antimuseum.”

Rauschenberg Looking through Photography at Miami Herald.jpg

Artists like Rauschenberg, Johns and Twombly all exhibited the same tendency as Burry obsessively “scan” information and process it with a thoroughgoing rigorous and tireless logic.  This frame of mind may not seem to be categorically “artistic,” but these artists, and many more, tapped into human perception in a totally unexpected way.  What they discovered is the mind’s ability to “invest” in the ideas they exposed as trace effects of causality and allow our minds to process them through intuition and inferential reason.  They divested emotional and psychological content from their work.  


The obsession with time as an effect of causality is common to these artists and Burry as well. Steinberg described time as a result of the breakdown of the Renaissance worldspace.  The picture surface is a space of incidents.  In art history we call them indexical values, or trace effects of the real.  


In the same vein as these artists, Burry’s imprint of his mental map seemed to speak.  This recognition of causality as an indexical function, its temporal character, and the immanence of speech had been made already by the artist Marcel Duchamp when he wrote in his notes to the Green Box:


The important thing is just

this matter of timing, this snapshot effect, like

 a speech delivered on no matter 

what occasion but at such and such an hour. 


Duchamp describes an event and process coincidental with speech of capturing time.  As Steinberg would have it, these artists and Bury were digesting data on a tacit register of perceptible noise.  And, in fact, when the time approached and world started to see things Burry’s way, the clamor shattered the false aura of the traditional worldspace.  

Inflation and the Gold Standard in Old Master Drawings

In the human sciences, including economics, the “event” has a history of the concept of structure. Such is the reasoning of the philosopher and literary critic Jacques Derrida.  Let’s take the example of the gold standard as a structure. It is its own episteme, or logical system and embodiment of knowledge.


The gold standard will plunge only to absorb from the ordinary and rise again claiming it as part of itself.  That first point of reference remains as something like a fixed origin.  Drastic fluctuations from the center are relative: the higher the market, the more drastic the volatility may seem, but it compares proportionally to market trends of relative stasis.  Which is to say; inflation is more difficult to control upon greater shifts upwards from the gold standard.  


When this “play” of the structure fails to orient, balance, and organize its shape, its center is lost.  This is one of the most natural functions of language in the modern day as words begin to take expression as substitutions, and an endless deferral from an origin.  Both business analysis and financial analysis face this managing their information embodied in data.  The information about industries is permutational, constant repetitions and deferrals of the same variables; and the invariables are the extremities or deviants, what I call the intensional sites of rupture, which threaten to completely readjust the structure itself.  Such cases are either rife with disaster but potentially also opportunity.


In more troubled times, people invest in gold to avoid risk.  A phenomenal rupture happened in finance in the interwar period with the loss of the gold standard during the First World War and the invention of the coin.  Suddenly, in the face of depreciated value, coinage became as much of a fiction as a “counterfeit.” The situation no less affected literature as in the case of Stéfan Mallarmé in his famous poem Un Coup de Dés’.  


In the years prior to the First World War, the chaos in the Balkans and hysteria across Europe set the economy into a state of wreckage.  People were chattering nervously in cafés in Paris and reading the newspapers, at once feeling very distant and unaffected but also tenuously on the cusp of its impact. The rampant inflation ended up blowing the center way off the structure.  The permutations and deferrals of the impacts compounding meant that gold coinage could no longer be used.  It’s value increased greatly, but token money began to circulate from the bank to hand forming a new structure.  


How can the eye teach us to perceive inflation in sensuous form?  What does inflation in numbers translate to in an image? Such works of art are namely graphic. These are works of art that relate more to “skill,” no differently than in the sense of embodied knowledge in various fields where the manual operations are more inclined towards technique.  Such professions draw upon implicit inferences, memory, and haptic awareness.  


An exception to this rule are the types of drawings which are invested in historical myths and personalities.  In such a case we see the work of a mind of genius, which is why connoisseurs claim such graphic works of art are invested with an aura of not only an individual but a time, epoch and historical continuum. 


How does Picasso go about depicting images in the year 1912?We can think of those tokens of a linguist of which the signs continue to defer to the referent endlessly without ever reaching the tangibility of the real, its referent.In linguistics those operations of the sign are unmotivated and conventional.When we look at his Violin of 1912, two things stand out.For one, the newspaper and secondly the harsh scumbling up against intersections of bold black chalk lines.

Picasso, Violin, 1912.jpg

The newspaper emphasizes a diminished value of something disposable after use.  We see it in oppositional relationships, which seem to indicate the nature of things fitting together in inverse.  The scumbling means depth and opacity, something obdurate and exhaustive like burning coal.  The first seems to say something of an economy of inverse proportions; the second industrial waste.  


Old Master Drawings are usually considered the gold standard of connoisseurship.  If we look at one of my favorite drawings by Jean-Antoine Watteau of the French 18thCentury Rococo, we at once acknowledge a spark of genius.  With his eyes, he would ask his models to turn to several sides, examining them from every possible angle knowing that we all may seem to know something but have to look and look again.  He mostly drew models attired in fashionable costume dress.  He was a poor man from a poor background who was drawn into the aristocratic high life, a celebrity among the connoisseur class.  

Watteau, Heads.jpg

Watteau invented the trios crayontechnique – black, sepia, and white.  Those colors demarcate the sensuousness of color and highlighting, the objectivity of outline and mass, and the understatement of white heightening.  His technique goes beyond the mere tacit knowledge of Picasso’s papier colles.  We rather witness the individual eye of an artist observing the particularities of his own milieu and psychology interacting with virtuoso skill harkened upon the influence of great masters such as Pieter Paul Rubens.  


We can translate these perceptual features the genius of the gold standard and a kind of “counterfeit” art versus into the everyday.  Our practice of looking at commodities in an inflated market orient themselves towards hard data, implicit knowledge, and inferential reason.  We start with the observed and go from the specific to the general on the knowledge tree.  


By contrast, the gold standard takes us really the psyche, the mind.  We think more impressionistically, through metaphors and allusions; we practice deductive logic from the general to the specific. Moreover, this kind of art requires more of our sensibilities and affect to detect what is hidden and maybe even not even really there.  As we see in the most sever historical crises, the gold standard in art is that safe haven which rarely varies to far from the center.  It is always there to remind us of what happened as Europe began mobilizing for the first war.