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  • Introduction
  • Martin McQuillan (bio) and Simon Morgan Wortham (bio)

“In the midst of life we are in debt,” as Peter Cook and Dudley Moore quipped. There is an urgency today to think about debt and its implications for human and planetary life, from the ongoing aftermath of the global financial crisis, through the legacies and futures of advanced capitalism, to the financialization of the modern subject and the privatization of “public” institutions and services, including the university. However, to the extent that “debt” is something to be “thought,” it is also necessary to reflect upon the debts of philosophy, in order to consider what reserves the philosophical tradition may hold in store for this most exorbitant of tasks. What would be at stake in identifying philosophy, among several discourses (in contrast to, say, economics, political science, or history), as a discipline or body of knowledge equipped to take on the duty of accounting for our present debt crisis? Might we say that it is time for Western philosophy to repay its debts not just to the academy, but to the entire project of Enlightenment or European culture from which it seems to arise, a “project” that is itself heavily embroiled in the “debt” question under consideration here? In order to leverage a profitable outcome against the massive and unyielding problem of debt and indebtedness today, it may be necessary for philosophy to distinguish between and analyze the multiple terrains of debt. Speculative thought must take the risk of calculating an exchange between finite and infinite debts, between its debts and its responsibilities. If “debt,” and its supposed obverse “credit,” are themselves philosophical concepts that arise from both a conceptual and non-conceptual history, then to understand debt today will require us to “double down” on philosophy in what Jacques Derrida has described as at once an erasure and a reaffirmation of debt. Philosophy must work through the contradictions of debt and credit, not to hedge their risks, but in order to render their distinctions unstable, if not untenable. Philosophy will not resolve the financial crisis or forgive us our debts, but it does tell us that life is complicated (“in the midst of life we are in debt”), and that we should assume this complexity rather than seek to argue it away, even if the “enrichment” that ensues does not result in straightforward “economic” benefit.

This special issue of Postmodern Culture gathers authors who together speculate on how to combine theoretical and practical knowledge of debt as both a contemporary phenomenon, an urgent question for today, and a complex legacy, materially instituted in many ways, that the future will continue to inherit. By and large, the essays are as much conceptual as they are empirical or experiential (or rather, they expose to conceptual enquiry the fact and experience of debt); they are, however, broadly systemic rather than individualistic in their approach and focus; they consider general structures of debt rather than local feelings about debt or specific historical accounts of debt in a given community or region of the world. That said, they mainly focus on the current question of debt in the West, and as such specify their own historical moment; accordingly, they reflect the common perspectives of the authors which are indeed as much localized and embodied as all experiences of debt may be. In this sense, the essays are largely framed by the philosophical project—that of modern European philosophy—which informs this systemic exposition of debt. Such a paradoxical and perhaps irresolvable negotiation between the universal and particular may well be part and parcel of the problem of debt as it is discussed here.

The volume opens with a new essay by Étienne Balibar. In “Politics of the Debt,” Balibar considers the specificities of the debt economy within contemporary finance capital: its production of profit, credit, money, taxes, derivatives; its control of institutions and its organizational techniques; its relationship to the State, to banks, to industry, to labor and consumption; its management of risk and cycles of boom and bust. It offers an incredibly detailed description of debt-power, not just in the narrow sense of the “capacity to borrow at affordable rates, decided by financial...

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