Beyond the Logic of Debt, Toward an Ethics of Collective Dissent
The conference theme Beyond the Logic of Debt, Toward an Ethics of Collective Dissent called for discussions of "debt" in its many historical, contemporary, and allegorical dimensions, and invited thinking not only about the dominant logic of debt but also the alternative practices of collective dissent that disrupt and deregulate its coercive power. We could not be more pleased with the multiple ways in which ASA panels, sessions, and roundtables have engaged and elaborated on the theme. The program committee received almost 300 individual paper proposals and 377 session proposals representing an exciting range of projects that foreground practical, material, and institutional contexts such as Indigenous land theft, home foreclosure, environmental devastation, health care inequities, military violence, occupation, prison, and education, as well as rich historical and conceptual work around key words like debt, obligation, ethics, collectivity and dissent.
The topic of student debt is represented by panels such as the Program Committee and Students' Committee panel, The Cruel Optimism of the University of Debt, which investigates how the future-oriented, aspirational logics of contemporary universities, particularly with regard to diversity, encourage student debt. The panels Mortgaging Higher Education and Reordering Higher Education both represent perspectives in critical university studies while the Committee on Programs and Centers' workshop, Strategies for Financial Survival in an Age of Austerity and the International Committee's American Studies and the State of Collective Dissent in the Arab World promise to provide forums for discussing American Studies in the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East.
"Debt" serves as a kind of hinge linking schools and prisons and a number of panels focus on carceral spaces and practices of occupation. Downsizing Prisons or a Jubilee for Debts to Society, organized by the Critical Prison Studies Caucus, brings together practitioners and theorists working to reduce the number of people who incur the multiple debts generated by the prison industrial complex. The roundtable Prison Abolition and the Queer Commons centers queer/trans politics in anti-prison activism and scholarship while Deficiency, Debt, and Deportation: The Carceral Space of Migrant Removal connects histories and experiences of incarceration and deportation.
A number of panels focus on how regimes of debt generate and hide settler colonialism while informing Indigenous resistance. The Ethnic Studies Committee, for example, has organized two linked panels, Accumulation: Settler Colonialism and Military Occupation as Paradigms for Neoliberal State Formation I and II: Knowing Settler Colonialism and Legal Legacies, which analyze the ongoing history of settler colonialism in order to understand military occupation and neoliberal state formations. Meanwhile, the panel Indigenous and Critical Settler Cartographies: Mapping Labor and Debt in Public Spaces of Dissent counters the settler state's maps with those produced by Indigenous and critical settler cartographers that present alternative economies to regimes of debt. Debt and "The Palestine Question" in Latin America: Colonization, Zionism, Imperialism and Dissent theorizes the colonial "debt" of land owed to the Palestinian people as it intersects with the complex dynamics of colonialism, slavery, imperialism, dictatorship and the overdue "return" to democracy in the Americas.
Other panels highlight financial instruments of (neo) colonial power in histories and theories of money, credit, and financialization, including two ASA Program Committee Panels, What Does Money Mean? World-Making through Currency and Credit, which historicizes credit and currency as forms of Western (neo) colonial power from the early modern empires through the twentieth century rise of deterritorialized sovereignty; and Economies of Dispossession III: Life, Death, and Financialization, which focuses on how the genealogies and present-day constellations of financialization, debt, and expropriation in the U.S. work through social relations informed by imperial conquest and racial capitalism.
The conference theme prompted a number of submissions that analyze debt as a force for the normalization of race, gender, sexuality, and ability. Panels that turn a critical gaze on health care, for example, include Dying for Work: Latina/o Labor and the Price of American Health, 1930-1965 and the Women's Committee's Critical Conjunctures of Debt: Women of Color, Healthcare Disparities, & Advocacy; while other submissions, recalling the AQ special issue Race, Empire, and the Crisis of the Subprime, focus on housing such as 'Burning Down the House': Violence, Race, and Development (struggles over housing from the Cold War to the present in Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area, East Baltimore, and Brooklyn). Similarly, Normalizing Debt in the Americas analyzes how lending discourses and practices directed at working class Blacks and Latino and indigenous migrants serve as forms of social control in urban spaces in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada.
A series of panels engage histories of slavery, racial capitalism, anti-blackness, and social death. Drawing on disability studies and studies of race and slavery, Morbid Accumulation: The Body as Capital, Bodies in Debt, Embodied Resistance, historicizes 18th and 19th century forms of capital accumulation based in the production of morbidity. Acknowledging a debt to Clyde Woods and the special issue of AQ he edited titled In the Wake of Hurricane Katrina, the panelists on Lessons in Hegemony from the Neoplantation/Neoliberal Laboratory: Contests for Justice in New Orleans historicize anti-blackness and forms of neoliberal asset stripping in post-Katrina New Orleans. Ethical Confrontations with Antiblackness: To Whom is the Human Indebted? argues for a Black Studies framework, based in the particularity of anti-blackness, as essential for meeting the challenge of justice elaborated in the ASA meeting theme. Also referencing Woods, Life After Debt: The Politics of Afro Pessimism and Social Death shifts focus from social death in order to develop a critical framework for analyzing forms of Black dissent.
Many submissions center debt and related dynamics in critical histories of imperialism and militarism. For example, the Program Committee's Imperialism, Freedom, Refuge, Reparations, and The "Debt" of U.S. Cold War "Liberation": Rethinking Transnational Circuits of Labor in the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea investigates debt as a mode of colonial subjection, military expansion, and imperial warfare. The roundtable Hemispheres of Debt, Crises of Ecologies, Ethics of Collective Dissent: The Caribbean and Pacific Islands in American Studies calls attention to narratives of "first contact" between conquerors and Indigenous peoples on islands in the Caribbean and Pacific and examines the contemporary consequences of colonization for diverse groups and ecologies. Similarly, the panelists on Refugee Archival Memory: Disrupting the US Logics of Freedom and Debt in Hmong/Laotian History engage refugee art and literature to explore the absence of the "secret war" in histories of the Cold War and to invoke alternative knowledges and memories. Finally, the town hall session titled The United States and Israel/Palestine uses the theme of debt and dissent to encourage a discussion of historic and contemporary relationships between the U.S. and Israel/Palestine with a particular focus on their significance for American Studies.
Many proposals investigate cultures of debt in literature, film, music, performance, and visual culture, including Seeing and Being Seen as a Citizen: Collective Dissent in a Transnational Culture of Photography; This Debt We Pay: Black Identity, Labor, and Performance at the Nadir; and Toxic Debt: Creative Research on Crises of Ecology, Capital, and Sovereignty in Risk Society. Also noteworthy in this context are the Sound Studies Caucus panels, Musical Debts: Appropriations, Reparations or New Traditions?, and Sound Studies: Sampling Phonographies: Sonic Memory and the Long History of Sampling; as well as the Visual Culture Caucus panels, Spectacles of Debt: Visualizing Indebtedness in Landscape Painting, Documentary Photography, and the Mass Media, and Recuperating Disabled Spaces: Intimacies of Visual and Tactile Cultures (both held at the Smithsonian American Art Museum).
The convention theme called for critical reflection on alternative logics of debt and dissent, and scholars, activists and artists have responded in productive and creative ways. Several panels rethink the significance of intellectual and institutional debts, as in the Program Committee's The Burdens of Our Genealogies: Intellection, Indebtedness, and American Studies, and in the panels Intellectual Debts, Modernity and C.L.R. James: "Beyond a Boundary" Fifty Years On, and Our Debt to Michel-Rolph Trouillot: Haiti in the Americas and in the World. Other panels locate critical resources for reimagining survival, opposition, and transformation beyond dominant institutions and forms. The Politics of Exigency: Dispossession, Petitioning, and the Limits of Legal Recourse, for example, considers the potential but also limitations of legal petitions as means of opposing imperial occupations and removals in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Similarly, the Program Committee's Forgotten Histories, Continuing Pasts: Unaccounted Modes of Life, explores practices of life-making and creative survival within contexts of seemingly outmoded forms of expropriation such as debt-bondage, rent/tribute, and the theft of land and common resources. A Debt and A Dream: The Afterlives of the March on Washington reconsiders the significance of that seminal example of collective dissent for movements in the present. The roundtable Mobilizing Against Settler Colonialism: Idle No More and Allied Dissent discusses the renewed ethics of decolonization for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in settler states and beyond. The panel Autonomous Knowledge builds on contemporary notions of radical pedagogy, street mobilizations, student strikes, and anti-corporate education, as well as Black, queer, and Crip theory, in order to link together emergent possibilities for dissent from neo-liberalism in educational sites in Latin America, Asia, Canada, and the U.S. And The Strike Debt Assembly brings to the ASA a format created by Strike Debt, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, that will address the debt system at the center of professional academic life in the context of the new academic majority of contingent faculty and student labor.
The ASA artist in residence is Ricardo Dominguez, one of the co-founders of the Electronic Disturbance Theater and a theorist and practitioner of "virtual sit ins." For the convention he has organized the Disturbance Research Lab (DRL), which will focus on 3 initiatives: 1) a session providing training on how to create an "electronic disturbance," from coding to final performance; 2) Debt Strike, a digital exhibition of net art projects focused on data-driven manifestations and the question of debt; 3) Dominguez will seek out temporary spaces, at random times, and present micro-gestures entitled Unexpected Interfaces, which will fall between "flash crash" cultures and the promissory algorithms of past social debts unmet.
The site resources committee is planning a series of events that are tied to the conference theme and that enable members to learn more about D.C. This will include on-site programs about the policing of sex work in D.C.; histories of gentrification and social protest; and activist strategies for fighting foreclosure on multiple scales, local to global; among more. Off-site events include "Off the Mall" tours and activities that examine the history-as well as activist and cultural responses to-sites of reconstruction and conversion in D.C., from readings by local poets to a walking tour of Harriet Jacobs' 19th century Alexandria. These will be joined by events co-sponsored by the Visual Culture Caucus, including a reception and performance about artists and debt at the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art; a tour of the Federal Reserve Board's Fine Arts Collection; and a visit to "Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art," among much, much more.
We are incredibly grateful to the inspired and inspiring members of the program committee: Abigail Boggs, Rachel Buff, Jodi A. Byrd, Sarika Chandra, Arlene Davila, Bethany Moreton, Naomi Paik, Shelley Streeby, and Neferti Tadiar. Big thanks as well to the amazing John Stephens, without whom the convention could never happen. Finally, thanks to T'Sey-Haye Preaster for her brilliant administrative work.
Roderick Ferguson, University of Minnesota
Lisa Lowe, Tufts University
Jodi Melamed, Marquette University