Dead Pledges
Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First-Century Culture
Annie McClanahan


Contents and Abstracts
1 Behavioral Economics and the Credit-Crisis Novel
chapter abstract

Chapter 1 analyzes novelistic representations of the 2008 credit crisis. Focusing on Jonathan Dee's The Privileges, Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic, and Martha McPhee's Dear Money, it reads the post-crisis novel's interest in individual psychology alongside and against the rise of behavioral economics. Behavioral economists understand the financial crisis as a consequence of individual choices and cultural climates: from excessive optimism and irrational exuberance to greed and overweening self-interest. At once mirroring and refuting these explanations, the post-credit-crisis novel reveals a deep ambivalence about the model of psychological complexity that undergirds both novelistic character and behavioralist economics. Exploring these problems through experiments with narrative perspective, these post-crisis novels suggest that the rich, full, autonomous homines economici of both the realist novel and microeconomic theory are bankrupt.

2 Credit, Characterization, Personification
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Chapter 2 addresses the relationship between debt and personhood. Practices for evaluating economic credibility in the late eighteenth century relied on subjective, qualitative, narrative forms of evaluation and thus depended on a realist model of literary character. By the early twenty-first century, however, credit scoring had become objective, quantitative, and data driven. Yet contemporary creditors still import the fictions of personhood stripped from human subjects into the scores themselves. To understand the perduring presence of the person, this chapter considers both characterization and personification. Gary Shytengart's 2010 novel Super Sad True Love Story attests to the persistence of racial discrimination in "objective" credit scoring, while conceptual art by Cassie Thornton, Occupy Wall Street debtor-portraits, and poetry by Mathew Timmons and Timothy Donnelley register debt as a material and historical force.

3 Photography and Foreclosure
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Chapter 3 brings together a wide range of photographs—photojournalism, art photography, and satellite images—that document the economic crisis with images of abandoned homes. These photographs reveal the effects of the boom and bust of the mortgage market on our view of the home. They also raise questions about the politics of representation, especially when the photographer's ability to enter the home depends on the power of the police to process an eviction. Photographs of empty houses, it suggests, draw on the aesthetics of what Freud termed the Unheimlich—unhomely, uncanny—to register the uncanny power of property. Turning from photographs of single houses to images of abandoned industrial landscapes and empty housing developments, this chapter argues that such images foreshadow a financial crisis to come.

4 Houses of Horror
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Chapter 4 begins by noting that contemporary discourse on the economic crisis is profoundly shaped by the language of horror and fear. To understand why, this chapter turns to four post-crisis horror films that explicitly link fear, foreclosure, and financialized credit: Drag Me to Hell (dir. Sam Raimi), Dream Home (dir. Pang Ho-cheung), Mother's Day (dir. Darren Lynn Bousman), and Crawlspace (dir. Josh Stolberg). All four films take up real estate lending, mortgage speculation, and foreclosure risk and locate horror in the "dead pledge" of the mortgage. Using horror and the home-invasion genre to explore the shifting understandings of ownership consequent to the housing crisis, these films frighteningly literalize the doctrine of caveat emptor. Exploring the relationship between "paying back" and "payback," they suggest that introduction of speculative risk has shifted the social force of credit contracts from the promise of trust to the threat of revenge.

Coda: The Living Indebted (on Students and Sabotage)
chapter abstract

The Coda to Dead Pledges explores an emerging anti-debt politics, arguing that "debt strikes" and the occupation or sabotage of domestic space are forms of protest that attempt to block capital at the point of circulation. Exploring the economics of student debt and taking up the treatment of education debt as an "investment in the future," this chapter suggests that the politics of student debt illuminate the relationship between workers and students and between the university and capitalism. It concludes by exploring the emergence of what it terms "crisis subjectivity": a demystified condition of radical percipience and canny knowing.