An earlier version of this piece was originally presented by the author at State of Emergency: Politics, Aesthetics, Trumpism, a public forum that took place at New York University on December 10, 2016.
Text by Emily Apter
For this Sense of Emergency: Politics, Aesthetics, Trumpism forum I initially thought of reworking a pre-election blast I’d written for a Queens Museum exhibition on “janking,” a term associated with the art of dissing or offending, as in “the dozens” or rapping and slamming. I associated what I called “janking off” with Trump’s incessant jibing and calumniating, specifically with the vicious, viral Twitter-vomit of his lamely derisive adjectives, weaponized as online cyberbullying. Trumpist janking derives its energy from hate speech, trolling, and verbal battery. It exults in forms of baiting reliant on ad hominem attacks on a person’s heritage, race, physical rating, character, and body parts, and now, as we’ve seen most recently, on a worker’s professional integrity—the union leader of United Steelworkers Local 1999, Chuck Jones, who called out Trump for “lying his ass off” after Trump made specious claims about saving jobs at Carrier.
Janking off is certainly a topic with relevance to this forum, but what I feel pressed to talk about even more concerns the politics of resistance to abstract, financialized forms of investor-driven speculation, which under Trump are on course to attain their triumphalist apotheosis.
To this end, we might consider new uses of depreciation. The term is drafted from arguments developed by Zone Books editor Michel Feher, whose ongoing study of finance capitalism fixes on the investee as a subjective unit of asset appreciation.1 Feher’s emphasis on “appreciation” prompts a revisioning of depreciation as a mode of active resistance to the undeclared economic wars that we find ourselves trying to fight, despite the difficulty of discerning where their front lines are demarcated, despite the immaterialities of capitalist speculation. Two related questions then: What would “to depreciate” be as theoretical praxis? As a mode of direct action that takes aim at quasi-invisible targets of the portfolio society?
Ivan Ascher’s book Portfolio Society: On the Capitalist Mode of Prediction (2016) sits at the intersection of a growing body of critical work on the relation between ontology and the financialization of existence. Much of this work focuses on notions of measured life, and its antithesis: that which is unaccountable, non-capitalized, non-optimized, non-transcendent, non-equivalent, or untranslatable as a measure of economic, political, and (existential) value. The corpus has been marked by the interventions of Arlie Hochschild, Ulrich Beck, Matt Taibbi, Luc Boltanski, David Harvey, Thomas Piketty, Robert Meister, David Graeber, Randy Martin, Benjamin Lee, Wendy Brown, Maurizio Lazzarato, Michel Feher, Frédéric Lordon, Nina Power, Jonathan Crary, Arjun Appadurai, and many others. Key issues include the 24/7 temporality of work 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 accompanied by a winner-takes-all competitive violence of the “1%”; the relation (or non-relation) among categories of number, econometrics, and social calculation; the governance and monetization of existence via data analytics; the drive of the algorithm in banking, flash trades, derivatives markets, volatility, and predatory lending; the globally disastrous treatment of forms of human and nonhuman life as disposable “externalities” or “overburden” (waste, topsoil, deforested or mountain-topped landscape). A collective volume from a Critical Finance group titled Derivatives and the Wealth of Societies covers some of this ground in greater depth, departing 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.”2 One economic practice that the group seems to agree is super-important 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” (quoted in DWS 7). Lee underscores the “proposal made by David Graeber for militating the social volatilities of contemporary global capitalism,” which involves transforming “finance capitalism via radical measures such as debt refusal” (DWS 1). 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?” Such questions elicit no ready program, but they beckon in the direction of some prescriptions, marshaled with vigilance if not full-on ethical militance:
—We should resist financial models of the “dividual” as “subject” of a speculation economy dedicated to producing dividends, stock, and rents.3
—We need to reverse the financial turn (whose grand pivot was the 1970s when New York City declared bankruptcy) in which banks realized they could run the world without politics, instituting austerity, non-negotiation with unions, and the logic of markets as unilateral principle of sovereign decision.
—We need to illegalize the practices of private equity firms, which strip out assets and reduce wages, benefits, pensions, job security, worker safety, and union representation, enriching CEOs with leveraged debt, squeezing workers, and knowingly sending them down the path of unemployability in the name of shareholder value.
—We need to disallow states, cities, or communities to be taken hostage by companies that shake them down in the name of “saving jobs.”
—We must connect the dots—through aesthetic strategies of effective visual exposure—between financial engineering and social life, or lives at street level that have been overwritten by real-estate deals, evictions, gentrification, and the exorbitant price of ground rent, food, and basic commodities. We need to shore up the collective strength of lives at risk, of landless depreciators of value.
—We need to train in the art of lighting, developing laser beams that penetrate the turret-towers of financial traders and their communities of politically immune professionals.
—We need to blanket the facades of banks and corporate headquarters (as well as the virtual spaces of dark economies) with protest holograms; we need to organize ghost marches on real estate cordoned off from public access.
—We need to devise new graphics for following the money to where the assets are hiding; invade the sanctums of “limited liability,” off-shore accounting, sheltered art, shell companies, and isles de paradis (the felicitous French name for tax havens).
—We can distill strategies of direct action against new forms of primitive accumulation by the 1%.
—We need to figure out the technics of how to depreciate an asset, using boycotting, divestment, work stoppage, property devaluation, worthless labor, care, and “minimal affirmatives” associated with dodges, sidesteps, and deviations. Most importantly, we need to assert “the right to demand little” in the context of a “double discourse of scarce resources and limitless demands.”4
—We need to take a stand against modes of existence organized around heirloom culture, estate planning, maximal returns, production quotas, actuarial betting.
In the education sector, where the humanities, arts, and social sciences are increasingly under threat, we need to think not just about returning to the aesthetics of de-skilling or non-instrumental knowledge production, but about developing specific forms of training:
—Let us train our critical faculties on who or what profits the most from student debt.
—Let us delegitimate business models of education imposed through structures of accreditation, “best practices,” and the harvesting of “human resources.”
—Let us resist the reliance on “quant” measures of research value and performance indicators.
—Let us reject the role of educator as asset appreciator.
—Let us challenge the notion of labs and libraries as profit centers, of university property as tax write-off or branding opportunity.
—Let us resist data-driven, outcome-oriented, packaged educational product.
—Let us refuse corporate monolingualism and insist on plurilingualism.
—Let us decelerate pedagogy, through slow reading and “difficult” theory.
—Let us challenge the championing of Digital Humanities as an investment-worthy resource at the expense of other kinds of learning.
—We need to fight against student poverty and contingent academic labor.
—We need to protect undocumented students.
—We need to resist the legitimation and mainstreaming of fraudulent institutions like “Trump University!”
—We need to recover the pleasures of agitprop, the art of political satire and caricature.
—We need to un-stall the reign of hypernormalization.5
—We must find a way to exit the gamespace of the alt-real.
—We need to counter-speculate.
1 Michel Feher, “Investee,” talk delivered at the conference “Political Concepts: The Balibar Edition,” Brown University, Dec. 2, 2016.
2 Benjamin Lee, Introduction, Derivatives and the Wealth of Societies, eds. Benjamin Lee and Randy Martin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 1. Further references to this work will appear in the text abbreviated “DWS.”
3 The “dividual,” writes Arjun Appadurai, “is not an elementary particle (or homunculus) of the individual but something more like the material substrate from which the individual emerges, the precursor and precondition of the individual, more protean and less easy to discern and to name than the individual, which is one of its structural products.” For Appadurai, the dividual becomes the preeminent name for the financialized subject. It “is largely an effect of the workings of financial capitalism since the early 1970s and in particular a collateral effect of the spread of the derivative form as the quintessential tool of making money out of uncertainty in this era of financialization.” See his “The Wealth of Dividuals” in Derivatives and the Wealth of Societies, 17.
4 Anne-Lise François, “Late Exercises in Minimal Affirmatives,” in Theory Aside, eds. Jason Potts and Daniel Stout (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 35. A prime example of such affirmatives is culled from the impasse identified with the “desire to flee a culture that asks him to pursue, lay claim to, and activate desire, and that already anticipates his resistance, rebellion, insurgency.” Barthes, says François, responds to the “yes/no impasse” by doing no more “than lay out in disordered catalogue various types of dodges (esquives), sidesteps, deviations, retreats or fuites, all of them too fugitive to work for long or to be counted on to duplicate their success a second time” (41).
5 A point borrowed from Adam Curtis’s documentary HyperNormalilsation (2016). The film’s titular concept is adapted from Alexei Yurchak’s Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, in which politicians and citizens develop ways of living in the present that comply with regimes which have erased truth-fact distinctions along with the capacity to draw such distinctions.
Image via theilluminator.org.