Economies of Existence
In 1979, two giants of French thought offered analyses of their contemporary conjuncture that would prove extraordinarily prescient over the following years. In his seminar at the Collège de France on the "Birth of Biopolitics," Michel Foucault examined the neoliberal economic theory of the German ordoliberals and the Chicago School, finding in this a new formation of the subject of political economy. The classical homo œconomicus of laissez-faire liberalism was, he found, being replaced by a subject summoned to be an "entrepreneur of the self," in the context of the generalization of the market form to all aspects of social relations.1 At the same time, Jean-François Lyotard's "report on knowledge," The Postmodern Condition, situated itself against the horizon of a newly dominant ethos of efficient productivity, whose slogan Lyotard formulated as: "Be functional, i.e., commensurable, or disappear."2
Between them, these precocious interventions identified the heart of the neoliberal transformation: the increasingly capillary monetization of human existence through new modes of differential evaluation, in the context of a newly expanded economics of general equivalence. In recent years, their insights have been developed and supplemented by examinations of the relation between ontology and the financialization of existence, focusing on notions of measured life, and its antithesis: that which is incalculable (by means of rational choice), unaccountable, non-capitalized, non-optimized, non-transcendent, non-equivalent or untranslatable as a measure of economic, political and existential value. Bruno Latour, in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns, lends an object orientation to the quasi-religious credence assigned evaluation with the made-up term "value meter." "To tell the truth, we are very familiar with the paths through which economics transits: account books, balance sheets, pay stubs, statistical tools, trading rooms, Reuter screens, flowcharts, agendas, project management software, automated sales of shares, in short, what we can group under [End Page 3] the expression ALLOCATION KEYS, or, under the invented term VALUE METER—since it measures evaluations and values." He then contends: "The whole difficulty lies in not endowing these value meters and dispatch keys with virtues they lack."3 It is from the polysemy of the single word "value," that we glean our basic concept of "economies of existence."
Like French valeur or German Gewalt, value derives from the Latin valere meaning "to be strong, vigorous, in good health, to have force, to be able." In English these meanings are active in notions of test mechanism, economic rating, accrued interest, bond or securities investment, property appraisal, market worth, social status, ethical/moral duty or cultural value (as in one's value system or set of beliefs), but when opened up to linguistic pluralism the associations extend further to notions of economic value, as in Greek oikonomia (administration, management), the German cluster Wert (worth, surplus value), Geltung (validity, part of a general economy of the will to power, equilibrium), Schuld (debt, guilt), Beruf (work, vocation), the Russian sobornost' (collectivism), or the specific understanding of "utility" in Benthamite utilitarianism.4
Flash forward and the contemporary themes that emerge from this philological/philosophical nexus include the relation between concepts of work, employment, and leisure; the temporality of work 24/7 (and the formal-existential calibration of what Roland Barthes called "the daily grind"); the social distribution of income in a future characterized by pervasive automation; the impact of radical income inequality (often gendered, and invariably racialized), accompanied by a winner-takes-all competitive violence of the "one percent"; the relation (or non-relation) among categories of number and econometrics; the governance and monetization of existence via data analytics; the drive of the algorithm in banking, flash trades, derivatives markets, and predatory lending practices; the question of the ongoing viability of "symbolic capital" as a key construct of cultural economy, social-political rank and subjection; the emergence of technologies of self-tracking within the self-administered biopolitical governance of the entrepreneurial self; the infiltration of securitization protocols throughout increasingly privatized social space; the psychic collateral damage of the debt economy; the metaphysics and logic of "real abstraction"; the crisis of veridiction, consumer fraud, and credit-worthiness; the problem of remote responsibility in the information economy; the clash between aesthetic value (art) and philanthropy (capitalist artwashing) made manifest in the protest organized by Decolonize This Place to defenestrate Whitney Museum trustee Warren Kanders, a weapons manufacturer whose Safariland tear gas canisters were used at the Mexican border; the subsidization of cost by the cheap labor of prisoners and the undocumented; the globally disastrous, utilitarian treatment of forms of nonhuman life as disposable "externalities."5 We would also add to this relatively long, but nonetheless compact list notions of personal safety based on models of self-ownership and self-preservation, the latter characterized by Jane Elliott as the "most impervious form of interest," its microeconomic modes entailing constant cost-benefit analysis based on "a radically unmediated relationship between individuals and their own, single, irreplaceable living bodies."6 [End Page 4]
These issues form the punctual backdrop of this special issue of Diacritics, but our topic also takes its cue from a collective volume—Derivatives and the Wealth of Societies (2016)—spearheaded by a "critical finance" group that met regularly in New York for several years. The book includes an essay "The Wealth of Dividuals" by our contributor Arjun Appadurai, whose own study, Banking on Words: The Failure of Language in the Age of Derivative Finance (2015), was a model for our project in its deconstructive approach to the language of finance capitalism. Derivatives and the Wealth of Societies starts from the Marxist premise that derivatives "are examples of fictitious capital that produce enormous quantities of monetary wealth in global capitalism whose core is still the production of labor-based value."7 One economic practice that the group foregrounds is the calculation of volatility, a pendant to and key dynamic of "fictitious capital." As Benjamin Lee argues, it factors majorly in speculation involving risk, uncertainty, hedging, optionality and arbitrage and it leads to the extraordinary insight, formulated by Elie Ayache, that "if implied volatility is followed through all its implications we find that it perpetually leads to the devastation of its concept."8 Lee underscores the "proposal made by David Graeber for mitigating the social volatilities of contemporary global capitalism," which involves transforming "finance capitalism via radical measures such as debt refusal."9 This embrace of "debt refusal" as a tactic invites us to think about related modes of resistance to social volatilities precipitated by the military-industrial-academic complex. How does one desist or counter-speculate? What would be a politics of "to depreciate"? These questions are at the core of Michel Feher's Rated Agency: Investee Politics in a Speculative Age, which examines how finance capitalism fixes on the investee as a subjective unit of asset appreciation. Feher's emphasis on appreciation prompts a revisioning of depreciation as mode of active resistance to the hyperinflation of "brand value" and the promotion of shareholder value at the expense of the commons.10
Many postwar thinkers beyond those already mentioned have shaped these problematics. They include Georges Friedmann (machinism), Pierre Bourdieu (symbolic capital, the wages of social suffering), Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello (post-Fordist, network-based capitalism), Bernard Stiegler (the symbolic misery of the hyper-industrial epoch), Jonathan Crary (time measurement in the attention economy), David Harvey (accumulation by dispossession), Thomas Piketty (r > g), Achille Mbembe (the racial subsidy), Antoinette Rouvroy (algorithmic governmentality), Maurizio Lazzarato (debt as the basis of social life), Roberto Finelli (the ontology of real abstraction), Arlie Hochschild (affect management), Frédéric Lordon (willing slaves of capital), Randy Martin (the social logic of derivatives), Mark Fisher (capitalist realism), Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (accelerationist economics), Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (immaterial labor), Karen Gregory (subjectivity and digital labor), Yann Moulier Boutang (cognitive capitalism), Antonio A. Casilli (the microlabor of machinic taskers like Amazon Mechanical Turk or Clickworker), Keller Easterling (infrastructure as a space of extrastatecraft), Ivan Ascher (the portfolio society), Tiziana Terranova (free labor), Harmut Rosa (social resonance as anti-alienation), and Aaron Bastani (whose Fully [End Page 5] Automated Luxury Communism assumes a post-work, post-scarcity utopian techno-future even as it satirizes the transhumanist fantasy of cryogenic self-preservation). They could be said to have in common approaches with a politico-existential dimension. In virtually all this work the emphasis on financial outcomes, predictive processing, and quant-think typically found in professional economics is displaced by the investigation of their psychic and phenomenological fallout, often diffuse and hard to measure. What comes into focus is a subject field that might be characterized, borrowing from Bruno Latour's AIME project on "modes of existence" and the Frankfurt School's emphasis on "lifeworlds," as economic modes of existence theory. In this picture, unequal distribution, the loss of the living wage, food insecurity, factory farming, the human and environmental damage wrought by resource extraction, the ascendance of big pharma at the expense of public health programs, the poverty of students and the chronically unemployed and underpaid, the social impact of finance structures based on tax havens, LLCs, offshore hoarding, and flash trades, the financialization of sovereignty and political agency, the actuarialization of risk, decision, and genetic identity, the predominance of leveraging, hedging, and limited liability as ways of life, and the capitalization of self-exposure (or, as Christian Lorentzen puts it, "private life as public currency" in which "Hell is a place where everything anybody says is recorded, and the tapes are always playing") are arraigned as ontological preconditions of the new precariat.11 Conceptualizing such dynamics as economic modes of existence emphasizes the recursive relation established between the economic and the existential: if economics continues to form and deform human and nonhuman lives, a reciprocal movement sees these lives themselves drawn from constituting a dimension of tolerated relative exteriority (as resources permitting the reproduction of labor) to be parsed and disassembled in the invention of newly profitable differentials of value. The resulting existential precarity comes through not only at the level of material and psychological survival, but also at the meta level, which is to say, where the metaphoric undercurrents of online idioms describing new social behaviors take off. They hail from the cooperative platforms of infomercials, Grindr, Instagram, Twitter, and memes,12 from statistical record-keeping systems like birth certificates and social security numbers (analyzed by Colin Koopman in How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person), from self-tracking devices as modes of auto-surveillance and self-governance (the subject of Natasha Schüll's forthcoming book Keeping Track), as well as from expressions inspired by what Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart dub "ordinaries": "units of anything, revelations of realness, or facts . . . [that] stage a high-intensity tableau of the way things are or could become," identifiable in the form of "amplified description [that] gets at some quality that sticks like a primary object, a bomb or a floater."13
Let us take by way of example the relatively new concept of "being canceled," like a debt, contract, or account. An informal system of administering popular justice and holding someone to account, cancellation implies a distinct economy of existence. Historically it may be traced to older political technologies of social shaming, specifically the military punishment known as "cashiering" (on which Captain Alfred Dreyfus's [End Page 6] ritual dégradation in the cour militaire was based). Cashiering dates to a time when officers of the British army bought their commissions and refers to the punishment (particularly of high-ranking officers) whereby a soldier would no longer be allowed to recoup his costs through the sale of his commission. The prosaic reference to a financial loss was then yoked to the solemn ritual of "disciplining." It involved being quite literally de-graded, stripped of grade, and relieved of a position of command. To this indignity was added the choreographed destitution of the soldier's uniform: epaulettes torn off of the sleeves of the jacket, badges and medals thrown on the ground and stamped underfoot. Sociologist Harold Garfinkel, writing in the immediate aftermath of McCarthyism, coined the expression "status degradation ceremony" in his essay "Conditions of Successful Degradation Ceremonies" published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1956. Garfinkel, Ashley Crossman summarizes (noting the relevance of his theory to contemporary practices of online shaming), emphasized how these ceremonies tended "to follow moral outrage after a person has committed a violation, or a perceived violation, of norms, rules, or laws. Thus degradation ceremonies can be understood in the context of the sociology of deviance. They mark and punish the deviant, and in the process of doing so, reaffirm the importance and legitimacy of the norms, rules, or laws that were violated (much like other rituals, as discussed by Émile Durkheim)."14 Norm and nomos, the latter a term marked by Carl Schmitt to indicate the bounds of legal territorialism that underwrite normative social orders and the friend-enemy distinction precursive to war, are often theorized together. But what Garfinkel draws out is the more obscure link between norm, nomos, and status; with status, specifically degrading, distinguished as the mechanism that shifts the enemy into position through a change in identity: Garfinkel writes that the status degradation ceremony emphasizes alterations of identities: "successful degradation work [is] changed total identity." For Garfinkel, degrading is compared to the body's reflexive elimination of a foreign body, "as when we cough, blow, gag, vomit, spit, etc." Affect is similarly mobilized in ramping up the force of recoil, especially in the case of "moral indignation [as] a social affect."15 What makes the ceremony a success is when the target participates in the ritual of embodied expulsion and social extinction, acting out autoimmunity; performing a masochistic auto-da-fé. In the words of one of Garfinkel's subjects: "I could have sunk through the floor; I wanted to run away and hide; I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me."16 Garfinkel associates the status degradation ceremony with a "socially employed metaphysics."17
Cancellation (also referred to by the term de-platforming) is the latter-day process of existential indignification, bringing Schmitt's friend/enemy distinction to the contemporary marketplace of social interaction; specifically the Facebook parlance of "friending" and "unfriending." To cancel someone is to snuff them out, to eradicate their online presence. Urban Dictionary uses as colloquial synonyms: "done," "dead," "dusted," "terminated." Often these endgames are achieved through economically consequential acts of divesting, disinvesting, or firing since targets are distinguished by their assets, be they of celebrity, wealth, beauty, business success, number of followers, or talents as "influencers." Taking someone down involves devaluation, through the infliction [End Page 7] of reputational damage or harm to personal brand. A favored technique is "stacking receipts," which means hoarding kompromat harvested from secretly archived screen-shots of email exchanges, photos, and videos. Their viral dissemination on social media produces the threat of "retired accounts."
Cancellation was on full display in the YouTube dust-up between online beauty influencer Tati Westbrook and her ex-protégé James Charles that escalated over several months in 2019.18 Westbrook, a "life vlogger" who launched a vitamin supplement business in 2011, took under her wing Charles, a gay teenager who became the first male face of CoverGirl, enjoining her husband to coach him on building his brand. When Charles promoted a rival vitamin brand on Instagram, tempers flared, with Westbrook accusing him of disloyalty and disingenuous friendship. In a forty-minute video on YouTube, she aired her grievances, ultimately accusing him of coercing straight men into thinking they were gay. At the height of the affair Charles was effectively "cancelled": his subscriber count plummeted (he lost three million subscribers) while Westbrook's went up by four million. A live ticker on YouTube tracked the course of their reputational stock. Charles's market eventually rallied after he posted a video "No More Lies" that published receipts (screenshots of Westbrook's past text messages) next to each of her negative allegations. This score sheet helped redeem his value, and a subsequent video, in which he attested to having overcome his addiction to toxic social media, started to trend at #1. What's relevant here is the reliance of cancel culture on the language of financial transactions; it is as if Marx's notion of social relations mediated by commodity exchange were fully financialized in the form of social exclusion, itself defined as brand boycott. When the self is the commodity, the division between producer and product withdraws to the point at which social relations might be thought to have fully assumed "the fantastic form of a relation between things"—were it not that this withdrawal carries with it the distinction of "human" from "thing" as the basis of value.19 Suturing together human agent and material product, the social media star configures exploitation otherwise than as human exploiter–material means–human exploited, even as it pulls on chains of precarity and immiseration (from the factories of Shenzhen, to the cobalt mines of the Congo, to a global precariat of data farmers) in which that relation is emphatically operative.
In this context, Feher's exploration of possible practices of immanent resistance within the nexus of finance capital and investee subject may usefully be contemplated as a significant template for reflection on forms of action in response to these and other economic modes of existence. The datafication that defines so many of these economic modes of existence (whether essentially or tangentially) outstrips in scale and speed both the human sensorium and, consequently, any appropriation as mere instrument. What kind of resistance is secreted by this form of power? Will it be possible to imagine and to enact forms of resistance and emancipation immanent to modes of existence that are not those of solely human actors (let alone those that pursue their value-creation in forms inaccessible to human perception or cognition), in addition to and alongside those [End Page 8] required by the industrial abuse of human beings by human beings? To approach these questions, it will be necessary both to continue the work of delineating and analyzing the present conjuncture, and to project alternatives. It is to these tasks that the essays collected here seek to contribute.
We have arranged these eight essays loosely into four pairs, each of which corresponds to a key question in the theorization of economic modes of existence: imprisonment and emancipation in time; the temporality of finance; forms of existential affect; and the digital. We open with Gabriel Rockhill and Sophie Fuggle, who analyze the contemporary and near-future context through the intersecting motifs of incarceration and time. Rockhill diagnoses the temporal regime constitutive of this context as dominated by "the time of the now," characterizing this regime as "the prison house of the present," and proposing an exit from this which would give access to a deeper past and a future outside the reproduction of the same. In Fuggle's essay, imprisonment takes the literal form of heavily racialized mass incarceration: to the well-established analysis of this regime's economic role, Fuggle adds an ecological interpretation of the carceral regime, offering the thought experiment of "a future without prisons" as a temporal ecology that might escape the ever larger-scale incarcerations resulting from securitized responses to climate change.
In their respective essays, Arjun Appadurai and Peter Szendy also focus on questions of time, plotting the temporal foundations of financialization, through analyses of its performative linguistic elaboration. Drawing on his Banking on Words, Appadurai engages the temporality of the financial derivative through its promissory architecture, before extending this into the cases of public pronouncements by central bankers and the narratives of financial analysts to argue that a resistant critique of the colonization of everyday life by finance must incorporate an awareness of the linguistic infrastructure that secures the orientation of speculation in time. Building on Appadurai, Szendy proposes a reading of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice that approaches the play through the palimpsestic layers of its interpretations by Sigmund Freud and Sarah Kofman, and identifies its action as shaped by the structure of the promissory derivative in a manner that anticipates contemporary critiques of recessive financial chains.
If the politics of the derivative might be mapped along the surface where its constituent temporality meets the existence in time of living beings, our next pair of essays highlights the ways in which both legal-economic practices and features of the dominant social imaginary can produce this existence as a site of distress. Marc Crépon addresses the topic of precarious employment by focusing on the existential consequences of employment status within contemporary Western societies: rather than prioritizing a philosophical definition of work (as found in Marx or Arendt), Crépon takes the social fact of having or being deprived of a stable form of employment as constitutive of an expanded or reduced field of existential possibilities, notably the possibility [End Page 9] of projecting a future—the foreclosure of which defines a particularly contemporary form of immiseration. In her essay, Renata Salecl takes an equally contemporary phenomenon and similarly unfolds its capacity to generate distinct affective configurations. The phenomenon in question is the subjective possibility of experiencing embodied existence as organized by the causal narratives of medical science (notably genetics and neuroscience), especially as taken up in legal case history: as bodies are redescribed, and as the discrete elements of these redescriptions offer possibilities of commercial investment and disinvestment (primarily through the instruments of the insurance industry), the resulting rearrangements of existential temporality give rise to anxiety, confusion, and conflict.
The encounter that generates these effects might be thought of as that between the flux of embodied existence and the medico-commercial disassembly of this flux into units susceptible to differential valorization—or, in the terms of Alexander R. Galloway's essay, between the analog and the digital. Presenting these two as "mathematical economies of existence," Galloway argues that they stage significantly different philosophical commitments, indeed that they are two "elemental modes of philosophy": through sustained attention to the work of Alain Badiou, Galloway explores the implications of these commitments for a radical politics, in which the rationalist abstractions of "mathification" appear not as oppressive, but as opening a way towards possibilities of drastic subjective transformation. Albeit in a different sense, the politics of the digital also forms the horizon of Martin Crowley's essay, with which our collection concludes. The operation of discretization by which Galloway identifies the digital here appears in its familiar contemporary guise, namely the digital algorithm: after an account of Bernard Stiegler's discussion of the politics of automation, Crowley turns to what he calls the "automation of politics," i.e., the constitution of publics and actors through their digital-algorithmic interpellation. In this context, he argues, it becomes necessary to reconceptualize political agency in terms of "political data agents," already existing composites characterized by the impossibility of attributing their key capacities definitively to one or other side of the metaphysical division between the human and the technical, and capable of decisive political intervention.
Composite forms of a different kind run through the issue in the shape of images drawn from Mike Nelson's work, The Asset Strippers. Shown at the Duveen Galleries in Tate Britain, London, from March to October 2019, the work mostly presents decommissioned industrial machinery, factory equipment, and construction components, accompanied by salvaged symbols of empire. Against the impeccable neoclassical backdrop of the Duveen Galleries (opened in 1937 as the first purpose-built sculpture galleries in England), Nelson's recomposed objects address and withdraw from the spectator's [End Page 10] body, invoking the labors of their one-time operators and the occasional sublimity of their force, even as they hunker into their material fact: leftover fixed capital squeezed for the last drops of liquidation. Stories of industrialization and the devastating effects of its aggressive displacement from Western economies interweave with those of empire to form a skein of resonance in metal and cotton, stretching back to the slavery that sits indirectly upstream from the Tate, and forward to the persisting material violence of financialization.20 The presence of The Asset Strippers in the Duveen Galleries coincided with the final stages of this issue's preparation; struck by the forceful resonances between the work and our concerns here, we were delighted when Mike Nelson accepted our invitation to enhance the issue with his own thoughts and a selection of images from the exhibit.
In his discussion of Foucault's figure of the dispositif, Gilles Deleuze writes: "In each apparatus (dispositif) it is necessary to distinguish what we are (what we are already no longer), and what we are in the process of becoming: the historical part and the current part. . . . In each apparatus we have to untangle the lines of the recent past and those of the near future: that which belongs to the archive and that which belongs to the present; that which belongs to history and that which belongs to the process of becoming; that which belongs to the analytic and that which belongs to the diagnostic."21 The following essays offer analysis and diagnosis, critical interventions and new propositions, untangling and recomposing lines of thought and relations of force, between the recent past and the near future. [End Page 11]
Emily Apter is the Silver Professor of French and Comparative Literature at NYU.
5. See the statement from Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett, "The Tear Gas Biennial"; and the activist organization Decolonize This Place, "After Kanders, Decolonization Is the Way Forward."
7. Benjamin Lee, introduction to Derivatives and the Wealth of Societies, 1.
14. Ashley Crossman, "Degradation Ceremony," ThoughtCo., July 29, 2019, https://www.thoughtco.com/degradation-ceremony-3026245.
16. Garfinkel, 421.
17. Garfinkel, 423.
18. For more details on the drama see Valeriya Safronova, "James Charles, from 'CoverBoy' to Canceled," https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/14/style/james-charles-makeup-artist-youtube.html.
20. On the indirect relation between slavery and the sugar fortune of Henry Tate, see https://www.tate.org.uk/about-us/history-tate/tate-galleries-and-slavery.