Review of 'Zizek's Jokes'

Nothing sharpens memory quite like regret, so I cannot help noting the anniversary of a tossed-off phrase that has come back to haunt me many times over the past 10 years.

In early 2004, I began writing an occasional series of two- or three-paragraph squibs on the latest publications and doings of the Slovenian thinker Slavoj Žižek for The Chronicle of Higher Education, where it ran under the title "Žižek Watch." In the subhead for one such mini-article, I referred to him as "the Elvis of cultural theory." The expression took wings and has been repeated on more occasions than any sane person could track. (As of this writing, it gets 79,000 returns from Google.)

The phrase will outlive me. Last year it appeared in an article in the journal Critical Inquiry, as well as in a Canadian dissertation on the concept of totalitarian evil in the work Hannah Arendt. Someone will eventually write a book using it as a title. Remembering the line always make me cringe, as if from mild food poisoning. For the most salient quality of "the Elvis of cultural theory" -- judged, by any standard, as a characterization of Žižek's work or career -- is its near perfect meaninglessness, verging on hopeless and absolute stupidity.

Unless you know the inside joke, anyway. By my count, roughly two people in the world are in on it. So to mark the anniversary, it is time finally to put the backstory on the record.

The idea for "Žižek Watch" came from my editor at the time, Richard Byrne, an estimable playwright and cultural journalist with family roots in the Balkans. These days Rich is at the helm of the University of Maryland Baltimore County's UMBC Magazine, of which he is the founding editor.  We shared a fascination with Žižek's close but complex relationship with the Slovenian post-punk band Laibach and the avant garde movement around it. Given the pace of his output (two or three books a year, just in English) and the growing frequency with which he had begun appearing in odd corners of the mass media, it felt like a matter of time before he graced The National Enquirer, or at least Weekly World News.

So it was that through a chain of associations that "Žižek Watch" alluded -- very much in passing -- to the definitive song about the improbable ubiquity of a tabloid phenomenon: "Elvis is Everywhere" by Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper.


And the rest is, if not history, at least a decade-long lesson in the sliding of the signifier across the greased skids of digital-age publicity.

A footnote in one article from 2005 did trace "the Elvis of cultural theory" back to its first appearance, albeit without identifying the origins of the phrase as such. But by now, context is irrelevant. The expression has long since escaped meaning. And even though nobody seems to get it, does not the very circulation of my remark participate in what Žižek identifies as the "mystery" of jokes -- that they seemingly appear "all of a sudden out of nowhere," produced by "the anonymous symbolic order" through "the very unfathomable contingent generative power of language"?

So writes Elvis, or somebody, in the introduction to Žižek's Jokes (Did you hear the one about Hegel and negation?), published by MIT Press. It is an anthology of the theorist's shtick, not an analysis of it. The cover describes it as "contain[ing] every joke cited, paraphrased, or narrated in Žižek's work in English (including some in unpublished manuscripts), including different versions of the same joke that make different points in different contexts." The sources of the collected passages are given in the book's endnotes, followed with a brief yet oddly repetitive afterword by a novelist and songwriter from Scotland who lives in Japan and writes under the pen name Momus.

The claim to be exhaustive is difficult to credit, and so is the rationale offered for its existence: "The larger point being that comedy is central to Žižek's seriousness." Along with his frequent digressions into popular culture, Žižek's use of jokes has lent his books an appearance of accessibility that accounts for his fame with a broad audience. But that quality is misleading. Žižek practices a form of what Freud called "wild psychoanalysis," with contemporary culture as the analysand. The remarks, quoted earlier, about the free-floating and anonymous nature of jokes are just Žižek's paraphrase of a point made in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, where Freud interpreted the erotic and aggressive drives manifested through manipulation of the funny bone.

By spelling that out, I've just told you more about why "comedy is central to Žižek's seriousness" than Žižek's Jokes ever does. In the afterword, Momus speculates that "the joke has become for Zizek what algebra is for his old ally and rival Badiou: the most concise way Žižek knows how to sum up a universal situational shape." The idea might well be developed further,  preferably by someone who knows that Badiou's interest is in formalized set theory rather than algebra. But as formulated it is more a gesture than an insight

A gesture serving mainly to distract attention from two striking things about the book. The first is that Žižek's Jokes makes unavoidably obvious something that it was still possible to overlook 10 years ago: the dynamic role of cut-and-paste in Žižekian production.

Žižek once said that his completed theoretical edifice, spanning several volumes, would amount to a Summa Lacanica rivaling Aquinas's Summa for both scope and cohesion. But along the way, he has met the growing demand for his work from the editors of books, magazines, and newspapers by tearing off suitably sized chunks of whatever manuscript he had in progress. Sometimes he tweaked things to make it appear like freestanding  essay or topical news commentary. And sometimes he did not, though publication was almost certain either way. (I know of one case where the author of a book tried, without success, to have the introduction commissioned from Žižek removed since it had nothing to do with the volume in question.)

Over time, reading Žižek became an experience in déjà vu, with passages from one volume reappearing in others or, in one case, twice in the same book. Žižek's Jokes takes this to a new level. He wrote nothing new for it. Even his two-page introduction consists of one long paragraph from an earlier book. It is a remarkable accomplishment and I do not imagine he will be able to surpass it.

The other striking feature of Žižek's Jokes is how grim the experience of reading it quickly proves to be. In accord with Freudian principles, they revolve almost entirely around sex and/or aggression, often involving racist or misogynist sentiments. All of which is fine when they appear as specimens in a cultural critique  --  where they might even elicit a laugh, given the incongruity of seeing them in a context where Hegel or Heidegger have set the terms for analysis. But running through them one after another, in the service of no argument, is deadening. It ceases to be shocking. It just seems lame. Maybe he should be known as "the Jay Leno of cultural theory?" (If, you know, Leno had Tourettes.)

Of course it's also possible that Žižek has a hidden agenda -- that he's sick of being considered hilarious by people who aren't really interested in Hegel, et al., and so has decided to destroy that reputation in the most efficient way possible. And I'm not even joking about that. It makes a certain amount of sense.

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Discussion among two adjuncts about bias against people with non-recent Ph.D.s

Adjuncts Interviewing Adjuncts

Two adjuncts consider the jobs available to them, and those closed off.

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Essay by MLA executibve director about the debate at association over the Middle East

As many of you know, controversy swirled at the 2014 Modern Language Association convention, before, during, and after. I’m still receiving dozens of messages from individuals with no connection to the MLA, some of which contain hate speech, others offering a more reasoned perspective. Only about two dozen members have communicated with me directly about the controversy, but hundreds participated in discussions at the convention, including the open hearings of the Delegate Assembly, the assembly meeting itself, and the session responsible for one part of the controversy. I want to give my perspective on these events and clear up some misunderstandings of how things at the MLA work.

Although approximately 7,500 convention attendees had a chance to experience more than 800 sessions and the Chicago meeting was successful in achieving its intellectual and social goals, one session generated inordinate attention: “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine.” This special session was evaluated by the Program Committee, which accepted about 60 percent of the approximately 500 session proposals it received. At the Program Committee meeting in May 2013 (long before the American Studies Association met in late November), members discussed the merits of this proposal and determined, using the committee’s guidelines, that the proposer made a cogent argument for the topic, its treatment, and the qualifications of the panelists to achieve the stated objectives. As sometimes happens, the Program Committee, which I, as executive director, chair, made suggestions for revising the session description. The committee wanted attendees to know that the “roundtable is intended to promote discussion of strategy, ethics, and academic work in larger world contexts through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and that the topic was “how to respond to this boycott or how to evaluate academic boycotts more generally.” The proposer accepted these suggestions, as the description of the session in the program reflects.

Subsequently, following its November meeting, the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli universities, an action that received considerable (and mostly negative) media attention. And that is when the phone calls and email messages started coming in to the MLA. I received warnings of what would transpire if I didn’t cancel the session. I was approached by two individuals representing large outside groups that opposed the MLA session. One person asked me to use my position to call off the session or instead allow people with an “opposing view” to be added to the program. Another asked for space at the convention so a group could stage a “counterpanel.” I denied both requests, just as I would have for any other topic.

Why? Because the MLA supports the fundamental right of its members to organize convention sessions according to the policies and procedures of the association. Convention programming is member-driven. Not all sessions can please everyone, of course. Some convention attendees will go to a panel and think “Hmm, those presentations I just heard were rather one-sided,” and then they will make their voices heard by offering a pointed comment or asking a tough question. That’s why we convene: to address issues — sometimes difficult and complicated issues — in scholarship, professional matters, and, yes, public policies that affect scholars, teachers, and students.

Of the hundreds of messages I received, almost all cast aspersions on the MLA just for holding the session that was approved by the Program Committee. One person after another declared that the panelists (and, by extension, the whole association) were motivated by hatred, bias, and a covert intention to promote an association-wide academic boycott. The letter writers invoked academic freedom, which seemed to mean that the MLA must be compelled to present what they thought attendees should hear. That’s certainly not how the American Association of University Professors views academic freedom. Cary Nelson, former president of the AAUP and one of the most outspoken critics of the session’s content, said that the “AAUP’s position on academic events is that they do not have to incorporate opposing points of view. I agree. It is the job of those who disagree with speakers to organize their own events to promote the positions they support."

Think about it: the MLA faced a virulent attack for allowing a conversation to happen. And a conversation it was. The session moderator posed questions to the panelists that challenged their views. Audience members lined up at the microphone to state a range of opinions during the half-hour discussion period. The “countersession” (held independently of the MLA at a hotel near where the MLA session took place) went forward — and was even announced at the MLA session.

An academic conference is a meeting of peers: the structures are overseen by members, and the meeting is intended for them. Members — and only members — can organize sessions. Can nonmembers offer opinions of the work we scholars do? Of course. But should they be allowed to reengineer our convention programming to reflect their views and values? Of course not — nor are MLA members entitled to stage a panel at a conference of another professional membership association, even when they hold strong opinions on issues of vital importance.

Members gave me advice. One suggested I quietly work behind the scenes to create a countersession to the roundtable on academic boycotts. Another encouraged me to find a way to have the Program Committee ensure that sessions of an “activist” nature have a “pro-contra” character in the future. Although my job would have been a lot easier if both suggested courses of action had been undertaken this year, I refuse to interfere once the Program Committee makes decisions, unless a procedural error is made (for example, if we were to misplace a submission). I believe that our members have the right to have proposals peer-reviewed by the Program Committee without the constraint of having them set apart as “activist” and as thus requiring special measures for balance.

As for the “right to enter” resolution, there are three things to say. One: members in good standing have the right to submit resolutions (see art. 11.C.3 of the MLA constitution), to discuss them (at the convention and on the MLA Web site), and to vote on them. Two: resolution 2014-1, approved by the Delegate Assembly, concerns the right of American academics to enter the West Bank. Please read what it says. Three: the resolution cannot become a statement of the association unless it clears two more hurdles (see art. 11.C.7 of the MLA constitution), including the requirement that “resolutions forwarded to the membership must be ratified by a majority vote in which the number of those voting for ratification equals at least ten percent of the association’s membership.” Despite the conclusions to which numerous outside groups, nonmembers, and even some members have leaped, the MLA membership has not yet ratified this resolution. If the resolution passes the Executive Council’s fiduciary review, it will be up to the MLA’s approximately 28,000 members to decide what happens next. The vote of the membership follows a monthlong period in which any member may post a comment on the members’ section of the MLA Web site.

This is a conversation that should happen, and I encourage MLA members to participate in it and to vote on the resolution. Despite majority votes, neither of the two 2013 resolutions cleared the 10-percent bar. Not enough members chose to submit an electronic ballot and have their say. If my in-box is any indication, 2014 is turning out to be quite a different year.

Rosemary G. Feal is executive director of the Modern Language Association.

Essay suggests a path forward for the MLA on the Middle East

The Modern Language Association is the largest professional organization for humanities faculty in the country. Its Executive Council will soon make two decisions that may well have substantial impact both on public perception of the humanities and on the influence that humanities disciplines can have on public policy. Long after the flawed and embarrassing process that brought two resolutions to the floor of the association’s Delegate Assembly for debate is forgotten, the actions of its leaders — and potentially its members — will signal what role humanities faculty can play in public life.

The Executive Council must first decide whether to send Resolution 2014-1 to its 30,0000 members for a vote accepting or rejecting it. The resolution singles out Israel for restrictive travel policies for foreign visitors that are hardly unique in the world. Indeed the resolution’s proposers were unable to present any statistical evidence proving that American faculty were often prevented from entering the West Bank to pursue teaching or research. One of the resolution’s proposers went so far as to proclaim it was outrageous to expect anything more than a few anecdotes in the way of supporting evidence. MLA Scholars for Faculty Rights, a new group formed to combat these and future ill-advised association actions, was able to demonstrate that only one anecdote was actually credible.

Instead of putting it to a vote, the Executive Council can return the resolution to its Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee for reconsideration or revision. That may well prove the path of least resistance, but the DAOC has not proven itself to be a reliable judge of policy initiatives. The resolution originally protested restrictions on entry both to the West Bank and Gaza. After MLA Scholars for Faculty Rights pointed out that Egypt (not Israel) controls the major entry point for Gaza, the resolution’s sponsors made a great show of removing Gaza from the text. The DAOC then announced that, as a result of that change and the deletion of the claim that Israel’s visa denials were “arbitrary,” it was now willing to recommend the resolution for adoption. But in fact Delegate Assembly members were aware the DAOC had been planning to put forward the original version with its endorsement as well. The DAOC’s public change of heart was merely play acting.

What the Executive Council could do instead is to issue a new statement both affirming its earlier stand on faculty travel and updating it to reflect current professional concerns, meanwhile asking the U.S. State Department to monitor all, not just one, foreign country’s treatment of visiting faculty. Such a resolution might also take note of the fact that the U.S. record of providing free access to international faculty has been rather less than ideal.

Here is how such a resolution might read: "Throughout the world there are countries that present serious obstacles and extended delays to foreign faculty, including American citizens, seeking entry to do research or take up either temporary or permanent teaching positions. Since the U.S. record in approving visas to foreign faculty members is uneven at best and includes instances of faculty being excluded for ideological reasons, reasons that undercut both academic freedom and our democratic values, the MLA Executive Council is addressing this issue without any illusion that our own country is blameless in this matter. We also recognize that some nations have valid security concerns that justify delays in offering visas or even denial of entry. But exaggerated security concerns and even xenophobic cultural traditions can also impede travel that would benefit all parties. We believe maximizing freedom of entry and access for faculty worldwide will facilitate international understanding and enhance research and teaching everywhere. We urge all countries to adopt policies that honor that principle. The MLA Executive Council also asks the U.S. State Department to investigate reports of unwarranted delays or exclusions of entry and report annually on patterns of faculty access to other countries.”

The Executive Council will also have an opportunity to decide on what, if any, action to take on an “emergency resolution” whose consideration was rejected by the Delegate Assembly. There seemed a certain interested pique in the way the person running the meeting announced it would be referred to the Executive Council despite its consideration being voted down. Once again, the document came forward with assertions, not evidence, this time claiming supporters of the American Studies Association resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli universities were the victims of intimidating emails and public attacks. Having received a number of critical emails myself, I find it easy to believe there is plenty of hyperbolic rhetoric on both sides of these debates. So what to do? The resolution will be received in public as a back door gesture of support for the ASA position.

But once again the MLA Executive Council could try to represent all its members, rather than take a position guaranteed to alienate many. And it could take a stand in the interest of broad principle. Here again is a draft of the kind of even-handed statement MLA’s leaders could issue: “As both local and national debates about the Arab/Israeli conflict and the rights of both Palestinians and Israelis have intensified in recent months, some faculty members and students have been subjected to hostile criticism from people outside the academy. The MLA recognizes that when faculty or their professional organizations take positions on matters invoking passionate commitments both here and abroad they have to expect strong responses not conditioned by campus standards of civility. We nonetheless decry instances when verbal attacks cross the line into intimidation. We also strongly reject attempts by outside groups to intervene in hiring and promotion decisions to oppose candidates whose views they reject. Such interventions in campus decision-making threaten academic freedom and the independent self-governance that make our academic institutions strong. Yet faculty and students have no way to control the rhetoric of the public sphere. Perhaps the best we can do is to lead by maintaining the example of campus civility.”

I do not personally pretend to be a disinterested observer in these matters. I have long argued that the occupation of the West Bank was destroying the soul of Israeli democracy. I support a two-state solution. More recently, I have suggested that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank unilaterally if negotiations continue to fail. And I endorse a boycott of West Bank industries as a targeted form of economic pressure, though I stand with the AAUP in opposing all academic boycotts. The fact that I take these stands does not prevent me, however, from standing back and trying to decide what would be in the best interest of a profession that includes a wider range of views than my own. The draft statements I offer here are offered in that spirit. They also reflect 20 years of experience in writing comparable policies for the AAUP.


Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Essay on the significance of a Twitter hashtag

Matthew Pratt Guterl analyzes a Twitter hashtag for what it says about academic mentoring, the role of senior and junior scholars, technology and the quest to write.

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Essay on teaching writing intensive courses

Instructors who embrace this educationally valuable approach need not let grading consume their lives, writes Andrew Joseph Pegoda.

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Essay on 'Creditocracy' by Andrew Ross and 'The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame' by David J. Blacker

Intellectual Affairs

Two great models of eloquence in the English language are The Book of Common Prayer and the translation of the Bible usually called the King James Version. A memorable passage that appears in both volumes crossed my mind while thinking about a couple of recent works of social criticism. (It also happens that Princeton University Press recently brought out The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography by Alan Jacobs, a professor of humanities at Baylor University, which a couple of readers have highly recommended.)

The text in question appears a couple of times in the New Testament as part of what's usually called "the Lord's Prayer." The Book of Common Prayer, the older of the two volumes, renders one line of the prayer as "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." The KJV rendering says, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."

To my ear, "trespasses" works better rhythmically, and it expresses the notion of "sin" or "offense" in a slightly more elegant manner. By contrast, "debt" or "debtor" expresses the same thought in a blunt and harsh way, and even conjures the old cartoon image of St. Peter recording good and evil deeds in a big ledger at the gates of heaven. Puzzled by the contrast, I consulted an extremely literal translation by J.N. Darby -- a Victorian Biblical scholar of uncompromising severity -- who suggests that "debt" is indeed what the original text says.  

Around the time Darby was working on his translation, Friedrich Nietzsche fleshed out an argument about the interrelationship among guilt, debt, and memory. Bringing up an atheist philosopher pretty well guarantees someone is now offended. But The Genealogy of Morals spells out in bleak and somewhat lurid terms a point left implicit in the prayer: The debtor is at the mercy of the creditor, who has the right (or at least the power) to inflict suffering -- even bloody revenge -- when payment is not made.

Whatever else it may signify, the brutal connotations of "debt" make forgiveness sound much more demanding and consequential than "trespass" would imply. (Awkward recollection: Learning the prayer as a little kid, I pictured God being unhappy that people were ignoring a sign on His lawn.)

Homo economicus never spent all that much time on moral accounting. But at least the old bourgeois virtues included restraint and a residual belief that self-interest was justified insofar as it served a larger good. The issues that concern Andrew Ross in his new book Creditocracy (discussed in last week's column) unfold in a world where debt itself is a kind of demigod, answerable to no higher power of any kind -- and certainly not to the state.

As the example of credit-default swaps on subprime mortgages in the go-go '00s made clear, the alchemists of finance are able to create profitable investment opportunities out of the risk (i.e., the degree of likelihood) of non-repayment -- making possible the creation of enormous fortunes from loans that cannot be repaid, at least not in full. That is but one link in a complex chain of debt-creation. Should the speculative bubble burst, the job of preventing economic meltdown falls to the government (which already has its own deficits, of course) at whatever risk to allocations for education, infrastructure, etc.

Add to it an average household debt that, Ross notes, grew from 43 percent of gross domestic product in 1980 to 97 percent in 2008 -- across three decades of stagnating wages. Throughout that period, 60 percent of income gains went to the country's wealthiest 1 percent -- a trend that changed dramatically when the economic crisis hit. Since then, 95 percent of income gains have gone to that debt-creating (if not job-creating) sliver.

David J. Blacker, a professor of philosophy of education and legal studies at the University of Delaware, characterizes the situation with a simple image in The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame (Zero Books):

"Imagine a casino in which you play with the house money and if you win you get to keep all the winnings to yourself, whereas if you lose, the house covers your bets. The literally astronomical public sums required to continue this arrangement for the minutest percentage of the population is the proximal cause of the squeeze on public resources. Schoolchildren, the poor, the sick, the disabled, the elderly etc., must all sacrifice so elites no longer have to undergo the risks that are officially supposed to be inherent in their role as fearless capitalist risk-takers. ..."  But genuine competition and risk are reserved "for small businesses and other little people like private and public sector employees."

Ross responds to the debt-driven status quo by challenging a whole series of moral reflexes that have traditionally accompanied debt: the feelings of obligation and culpability, of shame and implied weakness, that the prayer rendered in the King James translation take as a given. When access to socially necessary goods (particularly higher education) is restricted or undermined by an economy making debt all but inescapable for countless people, someone ought to feel guilty when students default on their loans -- just not the students themselves. The next step is to call for large-scale fiscal disobedience: a social movement of millions of people pledging to default on their student loans. On the far side of that and other radical confrontations with the debt machine, Ross conceives the possibility of morally sound, humanely responsible systems of finance, based on communitarian social forms. Not utopia, perhaps, but a long way from here.

Massive default is a strategy I find it easier to admire, or at least to daydream about, than to recommend. It is not impossible that a million people might make such a pledge. Carrying out the action is another matter -- and if only a fraction see it through, the result is bound to be martyrdom of an uninspiring and ineffectual kind. In any case, I have no student debt to default on in solidarity, and calling for others to do so would be a case of telling them, "Let's you and him go fight."

Like Creditocracy, David Blacker's book was written in the wake of Occupy Wall Street. But where Ross occasionally sounds like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon -- with his vision of a mutualist society of small producers, exchanging goods and services with a new form of money that doesn't promote inequality -- Blacker thinks along much more classically Marxist lines. The predatory forms of financial speculation that led to the crisis five years ago will not be regulated out of existence, nor are they deviations or tumors growing on a fundamentally healthy economy. The casino will keep rewarding the high rollers when they win and shaking the rest of society down when they lose. Such investment in manufacture as continues to be made will need workers with skills and the capacity to adapt to technological developments -- but ever fewer of them.

Most of the population will be an object for social control, rather than Schooling proper. At some level most of us sense this already, making the whole notion of "education as investment in the future" an ever more problematic principle. Blacker has written probably the gloomiest book I have read in years, but in some ways it seems like a practical one. He is not a survivalist. He thinks pedagogy still has a role, provided it's geared to understanding the dire probabilities and finding ways to respond to them. It helps that Blacker is a sharp and forceful writer, giving his analysis something of the  vividness and urgency of an Old Testament prophet delivering warnings that nobody really wants to hear.

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Part-time employment surges at Australian universities

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The number of non-full-time academics on Australian campuses rises by 17 percent, a figure officials attribute to universities' need for flexibility and financial constraints.

Essay on why faculty members shouldn't work only for love of their field

Tyro Tracts

Academics need not only to enjoy their work, but also to pay their rent, writes Nate Kreuter.

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Review of Andrew Ross, "Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal"

The golden age of unsolicited credit-card applications ended about five years ago. It must have been a relief at the post office. At least ten envelopes came each week -- often with non-functioning replica cards enclosed, to elicit the anticipatory thrill of fresh plastic in the recipient’s hot little hand.

For a while, I would open each envelope and carefully shred anything with my name on it, lest an identity thief go on a shopping spree in my name. But at some point I gave up, because there were just too many of them. Besides, any identity thief worth worrying about enjoyed better options than trash-diving for unopened mail.

Something started happening circa 2006 or ’07. More and more often, the very envelopes carried wording to the effect that approval for a new card was a formality, so act now! With the benefit of hindsight, this reads as a last surge of economic acceleration before the crash just ahead. But at the time, I figured that credit-card companies were growing desperate to grab our attention, since many of us were throwing the offers away without a second glance.

The two alternatives -- turbocharged consumerism on the one hand, the depleted willingness (or capacity) of consumers to take on more debt, on the other -- are not mutually exclusive. It was subprime mortgages rather than overextended credit cards that brought the go-go ’00s to an early end, but each was a manifestation of the system Andrew Ross writes about in Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal (OR Books).

Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, was active in Occupy Wall Street, and Creditocracy bears a few traces of the movement, both in its plainspoken and inclusive expressions of anger (this I like) and its redeployment of old anarco-syndicalist ideas (that, not so much).

One commonplace account of the near-collapse of the world financial system in 2008 is that it was the product of consumer hedonism at its most irresponsible. It was just deserts for people playing Xbox on jumbo flat-screen TVs in subprime-mortgaged houses they shouldn't be in. Whatever the limits of its explanatory power, this interpretation allows for a pleasing discharge of moralistic aggression. Hence its popularity. The most familiar argument opposing it places the blame, rather, on bankers, brokers, and other criminals “too big to jail.” It was they who were greedy and short-sighted, not average people.

Besides the more obvious similarities, what these explanations share is an implication that the disaster could have been avoided with some self-discipline and the understanding that hyperbolic discounting is a very bad habit.

Ross leans in the anti-plutocratic direction, but he proves ultimately less interested in the morality of anyone’s decisions than he is in the framework that permits, or demands, those decisions in the first place. The system he calls “creditocracy” turns out debt as fast and efficiently as Detroit once did automobiles, and just as profitably:

“Financiers seek to wrap debt around every possible asset and income stream,” he writes, “ensuring a flow of interest from each…. [T]he tipping point for a creditocracy occurs when ‘economic rents’ – from debt-leveraging, capital gains, manipulation of paper claims through derivatives and other forms of financial engineering – are no longer merely supplementary sources of income, but have become the most reliable and effective instrument for the amassing of wealth and influence.”

At that level of description, Ross has simply given a new name to what Rudolf Hilferding, writing a hundred years ago, called “finance capital.” But what Hilferding had in mind was the merger of banking and industrial capitalism – the marriage of big money and big factories, with monopoly presiding. Creditocracy, by contrast, “goes small,” insinuating itself into every nook and cranny of life. The relationship between creditor and debtor takes many different shapes, some more overt than others.

When you take out a student loan or a mortgage, your submission to the financial system is more or less deliberate, and in any event explicit. It runs deeper, and proves less purely voluntary, if you have to use credit cards in lieu of unemployment insurance. The credit relationship is much more efficiently disguised if it takes the form of an unpaid internship – the “exchange” of your time and skills for intangible and impossible-to-quantify  credit” toward a future job, if you’re lucky.

And if that doesn’t pan out, you might end up working in one of the less desirable positions at Walmart or Taco Bell, among other corporations that banks have persuaded, Ross writes, “to pay their employees with prepaid debit cards that are only lightly regulated.” The banks then “charge the users fees to make ATM withdrawls and retail purchases, along with inactivity fees for using their cards. Almost all of these are minimum or subminimum wage employees, compelled to fork over a fee to enjoy their paycheck." (The practice was described in a New York Times article a few months ago.)

In next week’s column, I’ll consider Ross’s analysis of how the impact of creditocracy on education amounts to a ruthless exploitation, not just of present-day society, but of the future. We’ll also take a look at the comparable argument in a new book called The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame (Zero Books) by David J. Blacker, a professor of philosophy of education and legal studies at the University of Delaware.    

Until then, I’ll sign off by mentioning that someone has just sent me an application for a $40,000 line of credit. This must be evidence of that “recovery” one reads about. If so, we’re in real trouble.

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