- Forecasting Catastrophes of Whiteness: Affects of Neoliberal Realism and Visions of a Terrorized Multiracial Precariat in Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life
This is what it means to wear a color and believethe embrace of its touch. What white long expectedwas to work its way into an upwardly mobile fit.In the old days white included a life, even without luckor chance of birth. The scaffolding had rungsand legacy and the myth of meritocracy fixed in white.
Now white can’t hold itself distant from the day’s touch―even as the touch holds so little white would own―foreclosure vanished pensions school systemsin disrepair free trade rising unemployment unpaidmedical bills school debt car debt debt debt.Claudia Rankine, “Sound & Fury”
Neoliberalism’s Real Victims: Affects of Worldly Realisms and the Depressed Wages of Whiteness
On the eve of the Trump era that it so predicted, Atticus Lish’s 2014 novel Preparation for the Next Life was uniformly lauded by the Anglo-American literati as a “profoundly political book” (Flanery) that, as Cathleen Schine itemized in her New York Review of Books article, surveys “the greatest contemporary failures of this country―immigration policy, poverty, racism, prisons, war” (Schine). Indeed, Lish’s text hurtles from the first catastrophe of the twenty-first century―the post-9/11 [End Page 549] intensification of the counter-terrorism security state―toward the looming horizon of the 2007–2008 financial crisis. Situated between these two epochal events, Lish’s novel rejects the periodization of the 2007–2008 subprime mortgage crash as the onset of a crisis in neoliberalism. It instead trains its focus on the everyday and un-remarked disasters experienced by those within a multiracial and global precariat (undocumented immigrants, working-class veterans, and ex-prisoners) who could not avail themselves of the paltry security credit might provide. It covers this terrain through the movements of Zou Lei, an undocumented, Uighur-Chinese immigrant who, displaced from her native Xinjiang by the socioeconomic rezoning of China and the increased policing of Uighurs, makes her way to New York City where she treads water by working off-the-books, low-wage service industry jobs. There, she finds a precarious handhold in her lover, Brad Skinner, a white working-class veteran who is traumatized by the three tours he served in Iraq. They build a tentative world together in his basement Queens apartment which is destroyed both by the hovering threat of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and by Jimmy Turner, a white supremacist recently released from prison, who violently targets Skinner and Zou Lei.
In this essay, I read Preparation for the Next Life for what I am terming its realism of neoliberal affects as evidenced in its depiction of the catastrophes caused by the global spread of post-9/11 biopolitical security regimes and their deep imbrication in neoliberalism’s dismantling of the public sphere. Regarding these braided phenomena, I draw from Joseph Masco’s Theatre of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror where he emphasizes that the global expansion of the United States’ counter-terrorism apparatus was coterminous with the deepening spread of socioeconomic insecurity. The “existential” threat of terrorism, he reminds us,
creat[ed] ideological barriers to dealing with a vast set of everyday forms of suffering and vulnerability that Americans experience, now rejected in favor of warding off imagined catastrophes. The escalating violence of neoliberal economies in the twenty-first century . . . and of an increasingly destabilized biosphere . . . generate an intensifying experience of [End Page 550] precarity in the United States but rarely rise to the level of a formal national security concern.(2)
The fist-in-glove relationship that he identifies between the post-9/11 metastasizing spread of counter-terror operations and the abandonment of populations to the brutalities of neoliberal capitalism, was preceded as Loïc Wacquant has chronicled, by “the Malthusian retraction of the social wing and the gargantuan enlargement of the penal clutch” (xvii) which occurred during the concurrent backlash against the Civil Rights movement and the gutting of welfare under the Reagan and Clinton administrations. As of this...