- Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First-Century Culture by Annie McClanahan
Annie McClanahan's Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First-Century Culture is a substantial and worthwhile book that not only helps to define the contours of contemporary economic criticism but will be important reading across many fields of cultural analysis. Announcing itself as "an attempt to show how … difficult lessons about debt are encrypted across contemporary culture" (1), it treats a wide range of cultural forms including novels, poetry, photography, and horror films. Debt is a lived social experience, the author argues, that cannot be reduced to the merely representational. While the foreclosure crisis of 2007–08 offers the most obvious example of debt's real-life consequences, it is merely a starting point in the book for understanding the pervasiveness of debt as a social form. With another crisis potentially unfolding around student loans, the debt economy might be seen as framing the text's contribution to leftist analyses of the historical stagnation of capitalism.
As an analytical device, debt offers a useful way to cut across the generalizing tendencies of terms such as financialization, globalization, and neoliberalism—whose processes have been extensively described—without neglecting the historicizing insights of those scholarly narratives. At a technical level, a debt economy can [End Page 579] be understood as combining increased liquidity with higher risks of default. In a broader historical sense, debt becomes a way of tying together a consumption-driven economy, long-term wage stagnation, the pressures of financialization, and the crisis caused by their collisions. In contrast to other recent scholarship in debt theory by David Graeber, Maurizio Lazzarato, and Richard Dienst, McClanahan's work turns more directly to cultural and literary texts. The book looks at debt both aesthetically and conceptually, as a form of cultural representation that is different from the cultural representations produced by a credit economy. Since debt confronts the hard limits that emerge after periods of exuberant expansion, it is particularly inseparable from its material ramifications. Calling debt "the defining feature of economic life today" (1), McClanahan focuses on texts in which debt is not merely the political unconscious of our economic moment but often enough the manifest content as well.
Literary texts appear in the first half of the book in chapters centered on the problem of subjectivity as it is shaped in a debt economy. McClanahan reads "credit crisis" novels—Jonathan Dee's The Privileges, Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic, and Martha McPhee's Dear Money—to examine the tension between novelistic and behavioral conceptions of the subject. In these texts the assumptions of economic behavioralism can be seen to infect and rival the novel's traditional depictions of character and psychology. Here is where readers interested in the literary-formal implications of a crisis-focused approach will find examples of such readings, concluding with the claim that the behavioralist tension between individual accountability and individual blame is manifested through the credit-crisis novel's self-consciously limited or indirect perspectives. Such perspectives trouble the microeconomic model of the homo economicus by ultimately producing more complex versions of displaced agency. Another chapter narrates a history of credit evaluation practices and reads Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story as revealing the ways that narrative forms of character evaluation persist behind seemingly objective, quantitative forms of credit scoring. Together these chapters produce a richly framed and thoroughly grounded analysis of the kinds of subjects conjured up by behavioral economics.
The second half of the book turns to the topic of property, named as "the social form that most explicitly mediates our relationship to debt" (16). Here are chapters on photography—documentary images of the mortgage bust—and several recent horror films, both read [End Page 580] against the backdrop of the housing crisis. Both of these genres offer a way of "seeing" crisis, either by producing a kind of visual historical temporality (as in the case of photos of abandoned industrial factories) or by manifesting the violence of property and...