2020-21 Pembroke Seminar

Narrating Debt

Seminar leader:  Peter Szendy, David Herlihy Professor of Humanities and Comparative Literature

There seem to be infinite approaches to the problem of debt—a problem that has grown more and more urgent in the light of the central role played by indebtedness in neoliberal, financialized capitalism (as Maurizio Lazzarato has demonstrated in The Making of Indebted Man). There have been genealogies of debt (Nietzsche’s second essay in On the Genealogy of Morality), monumental histories of debt (David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5.000 Years), claims for reparations in postcolonial debates (starting with Fanon’s statement in The Wretched of the Earth that “just reparation” doesn’t owe anything to aid or charity), legal arguments about what is known as “odious debt” (see Odette Lienau’s Rethinking Sovereign Debt), psychoanalytical readings of debtor characters like Antonio in The Merchant of Venice (from Freud to Sarah Kofman and beyond), inquiries into specific types of debt (like student debt). . . Gender has also emerged as a key factor in analyzing historical or contemporary forms of debt: while there still seems to be no equivalent for debt of Marilyn Strathern’s The Gender of the Gift (1988), critical studies are being dedicated to topics ranging from “marital debt” in Canon law to the targeting of women as reliable debtors in recent microfinance practices.

Now, the main, guiding hypothesis of our seminar is that all these approaches, diverse as they may be, presuppose a more fundamental tie between indebtedness and narrativity, or the very possibility of narration.

There are many ways of narrating—witnessing—the condition of being indebted and the historical rise of indebtedness as a mode of governance. Indeed, we will try to map rhetorical or narratological techniques, genres, and gendered voices within various narratives of debt. But it is debt itself that also has to be considered as a narrative, i.e. a performative fiction that organizes time by linking past, present, and future in a diegetic chain. Hence, the first word in the proposed title for the seminar, “Narrating Debt,” should be considered both as a verb (the object of which is debt) and as an adjective (that qualifies debt as being intrinsically narrative).

In this twofold perspective, our seminar will attempt to formulate or formalize (to form) a series of questions: How does redemption or payment of a debt relate to ending, to completion in narrative terms (the Latin absolvere means both)? Could debt or indebtedness be considered as synonymous with causality or necessity—whereas gift would be equated with chance? One cannot but remember here this crucial assertion in Nietzsche’s genealogy of debt: one of the preconditions for the making of debtors, i.e. for “breed[ing] an animal with the prerogative to promise,” he writes, is “learn[ing] to distinguish between what happens by accident and what by design, to think causally, to view the future as the present and anticipate it.”

This first series of questions will then hopefully lead us to a further series that will address our contemporary context: What about capitalism as an endless “cult” of debt, as Benjamin suggested in one of his most thought-provoking and difficult posthumous fragments (“Capitalism as Religion”)? How does debt configure—or preempt—the future in general? How is this preemption of time as possibility translated into a geopolitics of debt (the North-South divide, for example, is largely a creditor-debtor divide) and a micropolitics of debt (race and gender)?

If debt cannot be completely distinguished from promise and from what Nietzsche calls “think[ing] causally,” there is no simple way out of debt (one should be wary of any naïve discourse on general cancellation or absolute jubilee). Our task, instead, might be to imagine and invent—i.e. narrate—other kinds of debts (to environment, to becoming, to possibilities. . .).