The 2013 meeting in Washington DC, “Beyond the Logic of Debt: Toward an Ethics of Collective Dissent,” brought our focus on the ramifications of “debt” - financial, social, political, environmental, affective - to the nation’s capitol. It was a richly productive program that engaged “debt” in manifold ways. From the home foreclosures of the subprime mortgage crisis to the financialization of social life, from the debts incurred by histories of slavery, racial capitalism and anti-blackness to those of settler colonialism, native dispossession, and military occupation - the conference program reflected on the nation’s past, present, and future. Sessions explored debt in relation to the restructuring of education, the prison industry, and national sovereignty, while others mined the logic of debt as obligation, inheritance, pedagogy, and responsibility. A broad variety of disciplines and interdisciplinary fields were represented: history, sociology, political science, anthropology, literary and cultural studies, music, and art history, as well as critical race and ethnic studies, indigenous studies, Black studies, Latino studies, feminist and queer studies, and disability studies. Sessions included a suggestive, original mix of methods, approaches, and orientations, as well as engagements and conversations that crossed disciplines, generations, geographies, and historical periods. A brief sampling of the intellectually provocative interpretations of debt threaded through the program includes: the “American dream” deferred, food justice and sustainability, debt and diasporas, military colonial debts, sex work and trafficking, memory work and borrowed time, present destruction and the unpaid future, the “balance sheet” of racial struggle, the afterlives of civil rights, debt and U.S. Cold War “liberation.” Yet other discussions explored the question of the “ethics of collective dissent” to such debt regimes, and imagined a range of alternatives to debt that includes: nonpayment and refusing debts, deficits and “failures,” being in the “red,” returning debt, spectacularizing debt, and the creation of new attachments, commons, and accumulations.
The location of the conference was itself significant, and the program committee assembled various site-specific panels that were organized not only to familiarize members with Washington D.C.‘s rich history but also to retheorize that history in relation to the theme of debt. For instance, there were presentations on how activists responded and continue to respond to the policing of sex in the district, how gentrification has reshaped neighborhoods and communities within D.C., and how the foreclosure crisis has become a site of mobilization and contestation among D.C. residents. With site-specific panels such as these, the 2013 program provided a model of how to use an “economic” theme to recast local histories of race, sexuality, and gender.
In addition, the conference became fertile ground for contemplating debt in relation to histories of devaluation and dispossession. For instance, the three-part panel series on “Economies of Dispossession” used the theme to consider the different effects and agendas of racial capitalism—from how financialization operates as a system of valuation and devaluation for social groups, determining which communities are racialized for the expansion of life and opportunity and which groups are racialized in the service of that expansion and in the direction of social death. As a reflection on racial capitalism’s links to settler colonialism, the panel also analyzed how histories of land dispossession and the resulting disfranchisement of indigenous communities produces genealogies of debt for and to those communities.
Exploring debt as an invocation of intellectual genealogy, the panel “The Burden of Our Genealogies: Intellection, Indebtedness, and American Studies” brought together American Studies scholars in African American, Asian American, Latino, Performance, Gender, and Native American Studies to address the intellectual formations, traditions, and genealogies to which the present ASA is indebted. As a theoretical exercise the panel was a way to clarify the critical foundations that make up the association’s current diversity. Panelists invoked “debt” as a mode of subjection and agency, a sense that American Studies scholarship represents a negotiation with the disabling and enabling legacies of critical formations around race, gender, sexuality, and indigeneity.
In pursuit of artistic representations of debt, the ASA artist in residence was 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 organized the Disturbance Research Lab (DRL), providing training on how to create an “electronic disturbance,” launching Debt Strike, a digital exhibition of net art projects focused on data-driven manifestations and the question of debt, and presented Unexpected Interfaces, a techno-event that fell between “flash crash” cultures and the promissory algorithms of past social debts unmet.
In his presidential address “Seeing in the Red: Looking at Student Debt,” Curtis Marez oriented our critical attentions to the contemporary “university of debt,” framing it as “a form of racialized and gendered settler colonial capitalism” based on the exploitation of land and labor. In doing so, he outlined an “American Studies version of Critical University Studies” that synthesized approaches from critical ethnic studies, indigenous studies, gender and sexuality studies, and visual studies, among other constituencies. Through an “analytic of debt,” Marez critiqued the material conditions of exploitation endemic to the business of the university today, from the staggering levels of student debt that disproportionately entrap students of color to the devaluation of women and young people of color as cheap labor. At the same time, he exposed debt itself as a form of pedagogy, which ensures student “fidelity to the normative,” limits time for critical thinking and experimentation, and teaches that capitalist rationalities are implacable, natural and benign. Attending closely to dissent on college campuses, from mass student protests against budget cuts to social movements protesting militarism and the Israeli occupation, Marez concluded that what is at stake in all these cases - and in the regime of university debt itself - is the “right to education, or more broadly, what Harney and Moten call ‘study’, a practice of collective thought and social activity irreducible to and, in fact, antagonistic to market logics.” Marez concluded with suggestive examples of how film and visual media provide tools for honing our critical gaze on debt education and its consequences, capacitating critical thinking and action across class and national borders. In particular, he drew “speculative visions of debt abolition” from Alex Rivera’s film “Sleep Dealer” and Alberto Ledesma’s drawing “Berkeley Dreamers,” offering them as critical projections of paths through new forms of social solidarity to different and better worlds beyond debt.
One of the most provocative sessions from the 2013 meeting was the “ASA Town Hall: The United States and Israel/Palestine,” a town hall designed to inform the membership about one of the iterations of debt—that is, the Israeli nation-state’s indebtedness to U.S. foreign and military aid, an indebtedness that produces conditions of devaluation and social death for Palestinians, in particular. The town hall panel was made up of some of the keenest commentators and scholars of the U.S.‘s relationship to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Alex Lubin of the University of New Mexico and the American University in Beirut discussed the ways in which the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords allowed the U.S. and Israel to implement systems of neoliberal governance—rather than overt colonialism—in the West Bank and Gaza. Angela Davis, emeritus professor of feminist studies at UC Santa Cruz, offered a critical assessment of how the Israeli occupation is assisted not only by the U.S. nation-state but by corporations such as Caterpillar, Inc. Another panelist, Ahmad H. Sa’di, professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of Negev in Israel, presented archival and historical research that demonstrated the Israeli government’s attempt to manage Palestinian populations during the first two decades of Israel’s founding.
The “ASA Open Discussion: The Israeli Occupation of Palestine,” an event organized by the ASA executive committee, allowed members who were present to discuss a resolution to support the academic boycott of Israeli institutions. There were spirited remarks on both sides of the issue, and the moderators Avery Gordon and Matthew Frye Jacobson concluded the session by congratulating the audience and participants for being able to engage what is a difficult issue for many within and outside the association.
In sum, the 2013 conference was a truly historic one. The theme of “debt” was one of the first times that the association addressed head-on a category and formation that one typically associates with the field of economics, in particular, and the social sciences in general. Inasmuch as the theme allowed the association to address the transnational expressions and ramifications of debt, the conference can be read as an outgrowth of the association’s long engagement with global processes concerning race, empire, and capital. The meeting was also historic as it occasioned the most sustained deliberation that the association has had on one of the contemporary expressions of race, capital, and empire—that is, the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Ultimately, this deliberation helped to create the conditions for the ASA’s historic resolution calling for the observance of the academic boycott of Israeli institutions. In doing so, this meeting—perhaps like no meeting before it—has allowed the association to promote and broadcast its interest in and commitments to social justice, not only to people within this country but also to people across the globe.