Cogut Institute for the Humanities

4.5.2019 Narratives of Debt

Contemporary critical theorists explore the question of debt in an interdisciplinary perspective.

The conference examines the various ways of narrating—witnessing—the condition of being indebted and the historical rise of indebtedness as a mode of governance, each narrative entailing decisions about justice, ethics, politics.

Debt itself is also considered as a narrative, i.e., a performative fiction that organizes time by linking past, present, and future in a diegetic chain. Money, if we define it with Deleuze and Guattari as “the means for rendering the debt infinite,” constitutes the backdrop of this economic narratology.

View the conference playlist on YouTube

The conference, which took place on April 5 and 6, 2019 in Pembroke Hall, was co-organized by Peter Szendy and Emmanuel Bouju and presented as part of the Economies of Aesthetics Initiative, the conference was co-sponsored by the Institut Universitaire de France, the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3, Brown University’s Humanities Initiative Programming Fund, the Cogut Institute for the Humanities, and the Departments of Anthropology, Comparative Literature, English, French Studies, German Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Philosophy.

Sessions were moderated by Peter Szendy (panels 1 and 8), Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg (panel 2), Adi Ophir (panel 3), Emmanuel Bouju (panels 4 and 8), Michelle Clayton (panel 5), Amanda Anderson (panel 6), and Timothy Bewes (panel 7).

This short introduction “on credit” argues that the narratives of debt are one of the fundamental modes of causal representation of society, and of textual (or syntactical) embodiment of morality. They are articulating the power of authority, the empire of calculation and the practice of violence –– as in Titus Livius, when the debt-slave shows the injuries on his body, in order for them to amount to a repayment: the body itself has become a narrative of debt and a plea for its cancellation. And, as such, the “Debt Narrative” is not a simple figure of speech, literature, or thought: it acts, powerfully, in the real world.

2019 Biography

Emmanuel Bouju is Professor of Comparative Literature at the Université de la Sorbonne nouvelle and Senior Member of the Institut Universitaire de France (where he directs the research initiative “Literature on Credit: Contemporary European Novel and the Fiduciary Paradigm”). He is the author of Réinventer la littérature: Démocratisation et modèles romanesques dans l’Espagne post-franquiste (Presses universitaires du Mirail, 2002, with a preface by Jorge Semprún) and La transcription de l’histoire: Essai sur le roman européen de la fin du XXe siècle (Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2006). He is the editor of Fragments d’un discours théorique: Nouveaux éléments de lexique littéraire (Cécile Defaut, 2015); he also edited four volumes for the Presses Universitaires de Rennes: Littératures sous contrat (2002), L’Engagement littéraire (2005), Littérature et exemplarité (2007), and L’Autorité en littérature (2010).

This talk takes up the history of theories of economic stagnation from Adam Smith to Larry Summers, attending especially to the way the exhausted body figures in those theories both as a metaphor for the economy’s lack of development and as an empirical explanation for that non-development. The talk examines the political implications of these demographic theories of slow- or no-growth, reframing revanchist claims about immobile classes, stagnant regions, and “burnt-out” generations as powerful signals that something is rotten in late-stage capitalism.

2019 Biographical Sketch

Annie McClanahan is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and 21st Century Culture (Stanford University Press, 2016) and she is currently at work on two new projects: an intellectual history of microeconomics and methodological individualism, and a cultural study of tipwork, gigwork, microwork, and automation.

This talk examines the articulation of the narrative of debt in several French 18th-century novels by addressing a question that could also be applied to contemporary novels: can the protagonist of a novel also assume the role of an ungrateful debtor? How do the Ancien Régime memoir-novels of parvenus manage (or ostensibly fail) to reconcile the position of the hero-narrator with the identity of “ungrateful” debtor? And how is this “ingratitude” defined in the novel? What are the effects, in terms of narrative axiology, of the reader partly identifying with such a narrator?

2019 Biographical Sketch

Florence Magnot-Ogilvy is Professor of French Literature at the University of Rennes 2, France. She specializes in 18th-century novels (in particular the subaltern or lateral forms of speech in memoir-novels) and has worked on the relationship between fiction and the representation of exchanges, analyzing the interactions between novelistic techniques and the premises of economic liberalism. She recently edited a volume on the cultural impact of John Law’s bankruptcy (Gagnons sans savoir comment: représentations du Système de Law du XVIIIe siècle à nos jours, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2017). She is currently the general secretary of the Société française d’études sur le XVIIIe siècle.

The practices and instruments of financialization have radically changed capitalist modes of accumulation, reproduction and subjection, to a degree where culture at large is itself becoming a financialized culture. This presentation will introduce a research platform for a cultural studies-based approach to financialization: an aesthetics of finance. This “aesthetics” addresses how finance modifies the ways in which time, space, and relations are experienced; how the forms and genres we use to understand societal processes come to align with the logic of finance; and finally, how properly aesthetic artefacts like art and literature engage in producing insight into a financialized world. The momentous contemporary amassment of debt and the financial organization and processing of debt has begun to modify how temporality is experienced and lived, and today’s literature is concomitantly committed to inventing new aesthetic forms that can accommodate and represent the way we live now under the predicament of debt—how debt encroaches on the feelings we nurture, the futures we imagine, and the fictions we fancy.

2019 Biographical Sketch

Frederik Tygstrup is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Copenhagen and principal investigator on the research project “Finance Fiction,” funded by the Danish Research Council 2018-21. Among his recent publications: “After Literature : The Geographies, Technologies, and Epistemologies of Reading and Writing in the Early 21st Century,” in Futures of the Study of Culture (De Gryuter, 2018); “Speculation and the End of Fiction,” in Paragrana 25, no. 2, 201; “Distant Relations: Negotiating Experiences of Space in Modern Literature,” in Socioaesthetics: Ambience — Imaginary (Brill, 2015).

2019 Biographical Sketch

Odette Lienau is Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Faculty Research and Intellectual Life at Cornell University. Her research interests include international economic law, international law and international relations, bankruptcy and debtor-creditor relations, and political and legal theory. Her book, Rethinking Sovereign Debt: Politics, Reputation, and Legitimacy in Modern Finance (Harvard University Press, 2014, winner of a Book Award from the American Society of International Law), challenges the conventional wisdom that all states, including those emerging from a major regime change, must repay debt or suffer reputational consequences. Among her recent publications: “Law in Hiding: Market Principles in the Global Legal Order,” Hastings Law Journal 68, no. 3 (2017); “The Challenge of Legitimacy in Sovereign Debt Restructuring,” Harvard International Law Journal 57, no. 1 (2016); “The Longer-Term Ramifications of a Sovereign Debt Restructuring,” in Sovereign Debt Management, ed. Lee Buchheit and Rosa Lastra (Oxford University Press, 2014).

2019 Biographical Sketch

Anthony Bogues is Asa Messer Professor of Humanities and Critical Theory, and Director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University. He is the author of: Empire of Liberty: Power, Freedom and Desire (University Press of New England, 2010); Black Heretics and Black Prophets: Radical Political Intellectuals (Routledge, 2003); and Caliban’s Freedom: The Early Political Thought of C.L.R. James (Pluto Press, 1997). He is the editor of From Revolution in the Tropics to Imagined Landscapes: The Art of Edouard Duval-Carrié (Pérez Art Museum, 2014) and he has recently curated The Art of Haiti: Loas, History, and Memory, an exhibition at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

At the very end of his monumental essay Debt: The First 5000 Years, David Graeber pleads unsurprisingly for the advent of a world free of debt. Like many other critics of capitalism, he invites us to imagine a new world of “genuinely free men and women” who may be able to “make real promises to one another.” What would this world look like? Graeber honestly admits that he has no idea. This talk offers a literary answer to these timely questions: the fiction of bankruptcy. The novels of Stefano Massini (Qualcosa sui Lehman, 2016) and Benjamin Markovits (You Don’t Have to Live Like This, 2015) are rooted in the historical reality of a spectacular payment default caused by unlimited credit (the bankruptcy of the Lehman Bank triggered the 2008 global financial crisis) or incommensurable debt (financially choked by economic and demographic decline, the city of Detroit eventually filed for Chapter 9 Bankruptcy federal protection in 2013). By breaking the downward spiral of debt as much as the crazy growth of an economy based on the logic of credit derivation, default becomes the paradoxical breeding ground for the utopia of debt cancellation: to the frenetic pleasure of the capitalist homo fruor responds the frugality of the dispossessed.

2019 Biographical Sketch

Raphaëlle Guidée is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Poitiers, France. Her research interests include the writing of history, representations of disasters, and political imagination in literature, arts, and social sciences. She is the author of Mémoires de l’oubli: Faulkner, Roth, Perec, Sebald (Classiques Garnier, 2017) and has co-edited several volumes about contemporary literature, melancholy and politics: Hantologies: les fantômes de la modernité (special issue of Otrante, no. 25, 2009); Patrick Modiano (L’Herne, 2012); W. G. Sebald (special issue of Europe, no. 1009, 2013); Utopie et catastrophe (Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2015); Dire les inégalités (Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2017); L’Apocalypse, une imagination politique (Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2018).

This paper explores the soteriology of debt, which is bound up with promises of the eternal life of capital, the performativity of financial promises, and the salvational power of liquidity. These are all elements of the narrative logics of today’s financialized capitalism.

2019 Biographical Sketch

Arjun Appadurai is Paulette Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, where he is also Senior Fellow at the Institute for Public Knowledge. He is Honorary Professor in the Department of Media and Communication, Erasmus University, Rotterdam; Tata Chair Professor at The Tata Institute for Social Sciences, Mumbai; and Senior Research Partner at the Max-Planck Institute for Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen. Among his numerous writings: Banking on Words: The Failure of Language in the Age of Derivative Finance (The University of Chicago Press, 2016); The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition (Verso, 2013); Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (Duke University Press, 2006); and Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (University of Minnesota Press, 1996).

Emerson’s call for innovation and intuition stems from a sense that the world is impoverished, that humans are alienated from nature, and that human words (like debased coins) have become detached from their original source of meaning. The paradox for Emerson, however, is that his call for renewal depends on learned ideas borrowed from Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, and others. Literary and intellectual debt comes up frequently in his writing, alongside meditations on monetary debt, and he is particularly interested in imagining how one borrows from precursors without incurring debt. As part of his meditations on U.S. cultural indebtedness to England and Europe more generally, Emerson defines the genius as one who engages in a generative form of indebtedness marked by production rather than insufficiency.

2019 Biographical Sketch

Jennifer Baker is Associate Professor of English at New York University, where she specializes in 18th- and 19th-century American literature, culture, and intellectual history. She is the author of Securing the Commonwealth: Debt, Speculation, and Writing in the Making of Early America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), which examines the impact of financial developments, particularly the advent of public debt and paper money, on 18th-century American writing. Her other published work includes essays on Benjamin Franklin, Cotton Mather, Judith Sargent Murray, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. She is currently at work on a study of American Romanticism and the life sciences.

The paper will trace the deep history of theatre and debt in relation to the development of modern European and American dramaturgy. It will involve short readings and performances and gesture to the global and hemispheric histories of which they are a part.

2019 Biographical Sketch

Patricia Ybarra is Professor and Chair of the Department of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies at Brown University. She is the author of Performing Conquest: Five Centuries of Theatre, History and Identity in Tlaxcala, Mexico (University of Michigan Press, 2009) and Latinx Theatre in Times of Neoliberalism (Northwestern University Press, 2018); she co-edited with Lara Nielsen Neoliberalism and Global Theatres: Performance Permutations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Her most recent publication is “Neoliberalism, Professionalization, Debt and the MFA” in The Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 32, no. 2 (2018). She is a former President of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.

2019 Biographical Sketch

Bonnie Honig is Nancy Duke Lewis Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Political Science at Brown University. She is the author of Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics (Cornell University Press, 1993, awarded Scripps Prize for best first book); Democracy and the Foreigner (Princeton University Press, 2001); Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2009, awarded the David Easton Prize); Antigone, Interrupted (Cambridge University Press, 2013); and Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair (Fordham University Press, 2017). She is currently writing a book, based on her 2017 Flexner lectures, titled: After Bartleby: Feminism and the Politics of Refusal.

In an early fragment, “Capitalism as Religion,” Walter Benjamin argued that capitalism is the first cult to infinitize Schuld (debt/guilt) rather than offer redemption. My talk will attempt to flesh out the nature of this cult by supplementing the familiar concepts of the fetish and fetishism with another term popularized in the literature of comparative religion and anthropology at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, mana.

2019 Biographical Sketch

Eric L. Santner is Philip and Ida Romberg Distinguished Service Professor in Modern Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago. He has written a number of books at various intersections of literary studies, philosophy, political theory, religious studies, and psychoanalytic theory, among them: My Own Private Germany: Daniel Paul Schreber’s Secret History of Modernity (Princeton University Press, 1996); On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig (The University of Chicago Press, 2001); The Royal Remains: The People’s Two Bodies and the Endgames of Sovereignty (The University of Chicago Press, 2011); and The Weight of All Flesh: On the Subject-Matter of Political Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).

As a branch of utilitarianism, “effective altruism” is a philosophical ethical trend that aims at “maximizing the good” done to other people by giving money or organs to strangers in need. Its main representative, Peter Singer, argues that such an altruism has nothing to with guilt or the feeling of being morally indebted, but pertains to rationality only. My presentation will confront those claims with Levinas’s affirmation of an originary Schuld and Derrida ’s approach to gift.

2019 Biographical Sketch

Catherine Malabou is Professor of philosophy at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University and Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California at Irvine. She is the author of: Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality (Polity Press, 2016); The Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity (Polity Press, 2012); The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage (Fordham University Press, 2012); The Heidegger Change: On the Fantastic in Philosophy (SUNY Press, 2012); Changing Difference (Polity Press, 2011); Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction (Columbia University Press, 2009); What Should We Do With Our Brain? (Fordham University Press, 2009); and The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality, and Dialectic (Routledge, 2004).

Narrativity and indebtedness are inextricably intertwined. Absolvere, in Latin, means both to “pay off” a debt and to “relate” a historical event that has reached its conclusion, that is complete (absolutum). In the Arabian Nights, Scheherazade tells many stories about debt and debtors, but it is also her very narration that she evokes as the redeeming of a debt (“I am willing to pay my debt,” she says when resuming her story at the beginning of the Twelfth Night). Taking Nietzsche’s second essay in the Genealogy of Morality as the narrative of debt par excellence in the history of philosophy, I will try to follow in it these two indissociable movements: relating the origins and evolution of indebtedness, putting an end to it.

2019 Biographical Sketch

Peter Szendy is David Herlihy Professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities at Brown University. Among his recent publications: The Supermarket of the Visible: Towards a General Economy of Images (Fordham University Press, forthcoming); “Usury,” in Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon, 2017; Of Stigmatology: Punctuation as Experience (Fordham University Press, 2017); “Katechon,” in Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon, 2016; Apocalypse-Cinema: 2012 and Other Ends of the World (Fordham University Press, 2015); and Kant in the Land of Extraterrestrials: Cosmopolitical Philosofictions (Fordham University Press, 2013).

Modernity has given rise not merely to the sovereign state apparatus, to international trade companies, to influential financiers, and to decentralized markets. It has also witnessed the formation of a particular type of power that cannot be properly described in terms either of political structures or of economic strategies. This type of power is constituted, instead, by the interpenetration of these poles. From the integration of private creditors into the politics of early modern states, to the creation of central banks and public credit, we can trace the emergence of a type of ‘seigniorial’ power that is tied up with the settings of politico-economic zones of indifference and defined by institutionalized debts.

2019 Biographical Sketch

Joseph Vogl is Professor of German Literature and Cultural and Media Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin and permanent Visiting Professor at Princeton University. He is the author of over a hundred articles and book chapters on German literature, literary and media theory, the history of knowledge, and political thought. His books include: Ort der Gewalt. Kafkas literarische Ethik (Fink, 1990); Kalkül und Leidenschaft. Poetik des ökonomischen Menschen (diaphanes, 2002); Über das Zaudern (diaphanes, 2007 [On Tarrying, The University of Chicago Press, 2011]); Soll und Haben. Fernsehgespräche (diaphanes, 2009, co-authored with Alexander Kluge), Das Gespenst des Kapitals (diaphanes, 2010 [The Specter of Capital, Stanford University Press, 2014]); Der Souveränitätseffekt (diaphanes, 2015 [The Ascendancy of Finance, Wiley & Sons, 2017]).