- After the wonderful sweep of theory in the 70s and 80s, we seem to be condemned to live in a neoliberal dunciad, where the sweep of theory has piddled out into the most embarrassing Social Darwinism rewarmed versus the kind of socialism that simply wants to rebuild the social democracy we once had in the postwar period, and that our political agents on both sides of the aisle – those third wayers! – systematically dissected. It is like rerun time at the funny farm. Meanwhile, of course, we are all pretending that there is not a monster coming to town. Yeah, Godzilla is here. Instead of being reawakened by atomic blast, the monster is made up of all our credit-driven consumption, our plastics, electricity, cars, etc. The twentieth century is his very skin, the decline of public investment his teeth, our plutocracy his beating heart. And where is our lifestyle going to live without those things?
Saskia Sassen is one of the sociologists who foresaw the imbrication of finance and communication technology before most people – in the eighties. In this interview in the King Review, she says a lot of scary things. Many of them we see around us.
GT: In a lecture that you gave at the University of Cambridge in March, you talked about extreme territories as the product of processes of extraction, both material and immaterial: of natural resources, labour force, identities, and so on. Indeed, some of these considerations already emerged in 2014, in your book Expulsions. How does this extractive logic relate to the financial age that made possible the emergence of global cities?
SS: The economic system I described above was always, in a way, extractive. Starting with what it took to make digital technologies. Finance, I argue, took a very specific and distinctive shape, one that also makes it extractive, and radically different from traditional banking. What marks the specificity of our current period is that we have extracted so many resources from our planet and pushed so many people and whole communities off their land to do so, that this extractive logic is now becoming highly visible. Elsewhere I have argued that this extractive mode has also generated new types of migrations. And it is not clear to me how this all ends, but it can’t be very good.
GT: Recently I was reading an article in which you were positing the importance of considering expulsion as an analytical category, which adds something more to the well-established category of exclusion, as it introduces the concept of ‘systemic edge’. What are the main differences between borders, peripheries, and systemic edges?
SS: Very glad you picked up on this. In Expulsions I develop an argument, partly methodological and partly conceptual, that aims at identifying a radical rupture that goes well beyond what is captured with more familiar categories such as inequality and social exclusion. When that systemic edge is crossed, such conditions become invisible to our ‘standard measures’. I see a multiplication of sharp breaking points that can be thought of as systemic edges. Once crossed you are in a different space; it is not simply a less agreeable or liveable zone, as might be the spaces of social exclusion. It is far more radical: you are out.
Unfortunately, James Waddell’s article on indexing for the TLS is under lock. For those fortunate enough to have a subscription, or who want to go to the library (let’s get physical! Physical!) and pick up the October 25th addition, do so! Indexers, it appears, suffer from the blanket contempt of the publishing world – they are not thanked in anybody’s credits. Nobody goes to the indexer ball. And yet there they are, importantly attached to the non-fiction book – more importantly, for sure, than the table of contents. I admit I suck as an indexer. I once was hire by Bob Solomon to index one of his philosophy books and it was torture. I know a little bit about on the job torture – one summer, I had to staple insulation to the walls of a narrow attic in a big house in Atlanta Georgia whilst being boiled to death by a summer sun. Insulation is murder. But even that job was not as irritating as indexing. Even though, of course, we have the find function now – it is one of the revolutions in human thinking. Some of us live on the find function, and die on it too. James Waddell is to be applauded for having taken up the Indexer and dived into this world.
Who are the indexers of The Indexer? They are, often by their own admission, obsessives. Kerry Anderson, in her “View of the Indexing Experience”, reports finding herself instinctively “indexing conversations in the supermarket, around the dinner table, on the television”. Eileen Allen admirably suggests that readers might “learn to play an instrument” in preparation for indexing a book on music history – raising the impressive spectre of a furrow-browed indexer momentarily setting aside their work to pick up a bassoon or viola. Even in their own writings, indexers are compulsive completists, relentlessly searching out and apologizing for omissions and failings. This does not diminish the evident pleasure they take in language, lingering over miscellaneous morsels: “bebop, cool jazz, reggae, torch song, Fender bass, riff, barn burner, axe, death growl, metalhead”. The indexer’s task is to impose order on this linguistic mish-mash but, like a recalcitrant cat wriggling out of its owner’s affectionate clutches, it constantly slips from their grasp. Allen frets over whether an entry for the singer Prince should include sub-entries for his aliases Jamie Starr, Joey Coco and Alexander Nevermind. Alberto Cevolini, meanwhile, ponders whether a book about the discovery of America should be filed under history, geography or biography.
The trouble is heightened by the fact that such questions, as in that last case, entail ideological choices. In one Indexer article Nicola King discusses Kecia Ali, a scholar of religion who analyses the indexes of academic books and counts how many entries refer to women, posting the results on Twitter. The problem with using this method to name and shame authors, King argues, is that bias is just as likely to have been introduced by the indexer. On the other hand, what if an activist indexer were to push under-represented voices up their priority list, effectively indexing against the author? There is no such thing as neutrality when you are representing information.
- I am fascinated by the economic substructure of the arts – arts in the broadest sense. The whole system of patronage that broke down in the 18th century – and across the 19th century – is, to my mind, one of the great causes of the pessimism of the artists. In a culture that increasingly legitimated itself on the principle that the system created the greatest happiness for the greatest number, the artist was perpetually unhappy. In the twentieth century, the terms of patronage started to change radically, as the university system became the plugin pad for the artist – as student and as teacher. But this change was shortlived, as the student took on enormous debt, and the teacher took on precarity. This article in Artsy by Elana Goukassian is a pretty excellent run-down of the current state of the art (of being a debt serf).