- “Today I am worth”:K. Lorraine Graham’s Graph
In The Making of the Indebted Man, Maurizio Lazzarato presents “the increasing force of the creditor-debtor relationship” in the world remade by financial capitalism since the late 1970s (23). “Debt acts as a ‘capture,’ ‘predation,’ and ‘extraction’ machine on the whole of society,” he writes (29); “the creditor-debtor relation concerns the entirety of the current population as well as the population to come” (32). If, in the last chapter of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber exculpates contemporary working-class debtors, subject to decreased wages and plied continually with credit opportunities, for incurring debt to live life above the level of mere survival, floating consumption as conviviality or social participation, Lazzarato perhaps more absolutely deindividuates debt, for in this neoliberal epoch it always already profoundly conditions any given economic circuit, whether one’s transactions are mediated by payment plan or not.1
One concern that emerges from these excerpts from K. Lorraine Graham’s Graph – with its unstinting demonstrations of the subject’s inextricability from debt, the degree to which debt saturates social relations – is the strange morphology of economic non-agency in debt culture, the extended mutations of (the alibi of) the sovereign subject of contractual exchange. In this contemporary working class universe, a work “ethic” has become even less about sacrificing for the future than about a futurity already intractably mortgaged to or sold out for a still-precarious present: how to maneuver among seemingly non-negotiable vectors of hyper-exploitation that not only enjoin and profit from labor, but require life itself to be rented? As Graham lays bare the intricacies of this ruthless system, she puts on display the surplus exactions of (gendered) affective labor, but more so the affect and social judgment generated around each reticulation of an ever-complexifying debt network. What Graph finally portrays is not canny, street-smart manipulations of what exactly must be rendered – would-be debt-defying feats – but the very impossibility of being a “good” subject of debt, of navigating labyrinths designed to be so difficult to negotiate that the debtor, regardless of fidelity to dues, is dug continually deeper in arrears.
Take, for instance, Graham’s appropriation text (outright expropriation of pre-fabricated language or sublet?), comprised of select search results for the phrase “is not easy” combined with those for the term “austerity.” Here the grotesquerie of the neoliberal suffocation of the welfare state posed as natural fact meets the sleazy, faux-sympathetic come-on of coping mechanisms for hire: Graham pinpoints and plays up the debt-service industry’s massaging rhetoric—“we’re here to help”—with its promise to understand rather than condemn the debtor who must pay by exposing herself if she is ever to get out of the hole, as it lures her to meet the class antagonism of debt redeemingly re-branded as life challenge. Graham’s reframing perfectly captchas the paradox of the creditor’s invocation of bygone civility in the very act of describing a most uncivil insistence: “You can write us a letter and we will stop contacting you.” If its inclusion of protest (“thousands of people in Lisbon protest austerity measures”) opens onto a possible opposition to working with austerity—indeed, of profiting from it—the piece also exemplifies the affective dynamics that overtax working-class virtues, preying upon vulnerability, an aversion to being beholden, and the willingness to pull the belt tighter, even as the debt economy works over labor only to extrude it. “In capitalist logics of askesis,” as Lauren Berlant observes, “the workers’ obligation is to be more rational than the system, and their recompense is to be held in a sense of pride at surviving the scene of their own attrition.” Or as Graham says: “Life is not easy for any of us, but what of that?” Another appropriation text, on “office automation,” reads as a counter-exemplar of actor network theory: the repeated imposition of the word “automation” in discourse cribbed from corporate ad copy serves to mystify precisely which tasks the technology will perform, as human causality continually slips logics in these triumphalist formulations. Such deskilling...