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Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Cluster of Promises

A budget is more than just a budget. A budget is a piece of legislation, a policy text, a material force of governance – this is true. But a budget is also the enactment of a cluster of promises, a calculus of social values, threats and opportunities, debts and gifts. The budget debate occurs within an anticipatory and expectant space on the horizon of past and future imaginaries. The debt is an historical residue of exchange relations that persist in the present. Yet the memory work required to break down the behemoth of the budget into manageable chunks actively and selectively forges a link to a future that is not-yet.
In “The Country We Believe In” speech Obama remarks, “This debate over budgets and deficits is about more than just numbers on a page, more than just cutting and spending. It's about the kind of future we want. It's about the kind of country we believe in.” Obama first calls the citizen subject to conceive of the budget not in terms of its particular material effects but based on how we, as a country, orient ourselves toward the future. A further implication of this statement lies in its implicit acknowledgment that budgets exist through multiple generations. The debate beckons citizens to locate themselves within the larger context of the entire process of reproducing society.
This appeal has two functions. First, for the Left it displaces all of the blame placed on them by attributing much of it to the past. Secondly, it opens up the future to a question of desire rather than determination. In an essay on hope and technology Ben Anderson discusses the ways that “governance works through and modulates affects.” Anderson warns that before one can establish “a single collective mood to this or any other geo/bio-political present” one should attune to the ways that virtualities work in relation to affects. Drawing on Massumi’s theory of affect, Anderson writes, “Affect is a necessary component of anticipatory governance because it resolves the paradox of how the event can remain virtual, that is ‘be’ a threat or an opportunity, but at the same time is real in effect, i.e. it causes some form of event in the present.” Objects of hope or risk have to be embedded within a network of relations between “anticipatory epistemic objects – such as scenarios -that function to create what Massumi terms ‘affective facts.’”(Anderson) hope circulates “as an unstable object of governance” in the dramatization of the debt crisis because it refers to something that does not yet exist. The contours of the future’s form are yet to be imagined.
When affects are freed from referents they can circulate and thus accumulate force so freely that they can be redeployed to undermine their initial cause. Ahmed writes, “To declare a crisis is not “to make something out of nothing”…But the declaration of crisis reads that fact/figure/event and transforms it into a fetish object that then acquires a life of its own” (132). The crisis becomes a thing that grows larger than the sum of its parts. “Through designating something as already under threat in the present, that very thing becomes installed as “the truth,” which we must fight for in the future, a fight that is retrospectively understood to be a matter of life and death.” (132) The baby-boomers and the babies yet to be born are the main currency within the budget debate’s affective economy.
Representative Ryan makes parallel appeals to futurity in his description of the larger implications of the budget, “It is not just a budget – it is a cause. It represents our choice for America’s future, and our commitment to the American people” (Ryan). The rhetoric of ‘commitment,’ ‘responsibility,’ and ‘austerity’ emphasizes the need to have a specific subjective comportment in our relationship to the policy problem at hand. The budget debate is so laden with affect because it explicitly exposes the dialectic between discipline and desire. The budget is a problematic object because it attempts to strike a balance between multiple kinds of debts. There is a debt to suture past wounds, a debt to the suffering in the present, and a debt to ensure an equal, if not better, opportunity for future generations. But there’s also an obligation to principles, morality and character;
These budget debates are not just about the programs of government; they're also about the purpose of government. This is a future in which we will transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.

This excerpt from Ryan’s speech shows how our imaginings of a future have an effect on the types of subjectivities that will be produced. The GOP is not just defining their strategy in opposition to the excesses and waste of the budget, but appeal to the loss of creative potentials that will occur. The budget’s temporality exposes the ways that subjectivity is produced rather than existing as an unalterable form. Ryan warns us “irresponsibility threatens not only our livelihoods, but our way of life” (Ryan). This example functions as a good case study of Ahmed’s analysis on the tethering of catastrophe to character in which “narratives of crisis are used within politics to justify a “return” to values and traditions that are perceived to be under threat.” The affective intensities that swirl throughout the debate trigger a spectrum of emotional dispositions that expose the subject to its ontologically precarious state of vulnerability. The budget debate creates what Couze Venn calls, “an affective formation of uncertainty.” Austerity becomes a way of coping with the stark realities of an uncertain future. Ahmed theorizes about how “the fear of degeneration as a mechanism for preserving social forms becomes associated more with some bodies than others.” Obama said in his speech, “We will all need to make sacrifices. But we do not have to sacrifice the America we believe in.” The budget crisis forces us to rethink the way shame functions as the underbelly to the positively imbued value of austerity; and furthermore “to think of austerity in relation to claims that the vulnerable should recode loss as sacrifice and therefore produce an affective cushion to replace the loss of other material ones, which were both real and affective.”
There is a strange dialectic in which the fear of loss is always accompanied by what Lauren Berlant terms a ‘cruel optimism’ (93), or “the condition of maintaining an attachment to a problematic object in advance of its loss” (94). The budget (Politicians’ pork, peoples’ benefits and taxes) seems to be this frustrating endurance of an affective form par excellence. “Cruel optimism as an analytic lever,” for Berlant, “is an incitement to inhabit and to track the affective attachment to what we call “the good life” (97).

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