Cogut Institute for the Humanities

Economies of Aesthetics

Directed by Peter Szendy, David Herlihy Professor of Humanities and Comparative Literature

Economic categories—debt, exchange, value, and so on—have often been dramatized by writers, filmmakers, artists, and musicians. Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the Banker in Berg’s Lulu, Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street: many a fictional character has been inspired by the vicissitudes of finance.

But economy is not only present in novels, screenplays, or operatic librettos as an element of their plot: it also pervades their very texture—their textual, filmic, or sonic fabric. After Saussure, who described the linguistic web of significations as a system of fluctuating values between words, Deleuze wrote that “money is the reverse of all the images that cinema shows and edits on the obverse.” In sum, there is an intrinsically economic dimension to the languages of art.

Aesthetic practices thus capture various aspects of economy. They represent them, engage with them. The title of this initiative—Economies of Aesthetics—refers first of all to these multiple facets of economy that somehow belong to the field of arts.

But there is another, more critical side to this endeavor. Aesthetics could also be taken in a Kantian sense: time and space as the conditions of possibility for any experience. Economies of Aesthetics should then be understood in a quite different way: revisiting Kant’s transcendental aesthetics, we will reflect on space and time as subjected to violent appropriations by economic logics and agendas.

The Economies of Aesthetics initiative will host a variety of events: conferences, lectures, workshops, seminars, exhibitions, concerts, screenings, and readings.

Contemporary critical theorists explored the question of debt in an interdisciplinary perspective. The conference examined 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.
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Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women

2020–21 Pembroke seminar, led by Peter Szendy, explores Narrating Debt.

Debt itself also has to be considered as a narrative, i.e. a performative fiction that organizes time by linking past, present, and future in a diegetic chain. Hence, the first word in the proposed title for the seminar, “Narrating Debt,” should be considered both as a verb (the object of which is debt) and as an adjective (that qualifies debt as being intrinsically narrative).
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The issue is guest edited by Peter Szendy and features contributions by Arjun Appadurai, Anthony Bogues, Emmanuel Bouju, Silvia Federici, Mikkel Krause Frantzen, Raphaelle Guidée, Odette Lienau, Catherine Malabou, Vincent Message, Laura Odello, Peter Szendy, and Frederik Tygstrup.

As the problem of debt grows more and more urgent in light of the central role it plays in neoliberal capitalism, scholars have analyzed debt using numerous approaches: historical analysis, legal arguments, psychoanalytic readings, claims for reparations in postcolonial debates, and more. Contributors to this special issue of differences argue that these diverse approaches presuppose a fundamental connection between indebtedness and narrative. They see debt as a promise that refers to the future—deferred repayment that purports to make good on a past deficit—which implies a narrative in a way that other forms of exchange may not. The authors approach this intertwining of debt and narration from the perspectives of continental philosophy, international law, the history of slavery, comparative literature, feminist critique, and more.
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