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Roof shingles, anyone?

Last night I had dinner with a couple of friends and we got to talking about creative methods of civil disobedience. One brought up this idea of taking the credit card offers we get and mailing back blank applications in the prepaid envelopes…except with a roof shingle to accompany each one. We thought it would be pretty amusing, with all the credit card companies having to pay the extra postage for the weight added on by the shingles…

On a related (but slightly more academic) note, on Tuesday, November 8, I went to one of the UC Faculty Research Award Academic Senate Faculty Research Lectures. (That’s a mouthful!) The lecture was by Prof. Marcel Hénaff from the Literature Department (and also the Political Science Department), and it was titled “An Economy in Crisis – A Crisis of Civilization: Anthropological Perspectives on Money, Debt, and Time.” Known for his engaging seminars and the potluck dinners he hosts with his graduate students, Prof. Hénaff gave a very interesting and, in many ways, all-encompassing lecture.

I say that because, trained in philosophy and anthropology, Hénaff began his talk by illustrating the equilibrium and reciprocity on which pre-modern societies rested (and I am talking about hunter-gatherer societies here). The ancient view on social life strove for cycles of give and take, of returning what was borrowed so that that cycle would be maintained. Hénaff argued that this equilibrium has been undermined, however, by the rise of a modern world in which economic powers and the dynamics of debt have come to shape present-day political economies. This has led to what Hénaff eloquently described as the “hostage taking of our liberty and capacity for change.”

OK, I’m probably not doing his arguments justice here, but bear with me. What I got from the talk was essentially that today, with our economic crises and all this mounting debt, people are handling debts and credits in order to create profit, not just to maintain equilibrium. And whereas the logic of credit and debt originally worked upon the premise of a foreseeable “end point,” now we are stuck in a cycle of permanent debt, in which that end point of being debt-free is postponed indefinitely. Within the system of modern capitalism, time relentlessly moves forward as our debts build up-one painful example being that two-thirds of students at university are accumulating the kind of debt that will take them 25 years to pay back. Ouch.

So, time may be money, but they certainly don’t seem to be interested in fashioning a sense of equilibrium in our current society. With the absence of an end goal, how should we relate to time and money in modern society? How do we face the current situation of credit and (more significantly) debt? Hénaff left us with a final PowerPoint slide titled, “Where are we going?”-humorously (and a bit soberingly) left blank.

The talk was thought-provoking and incredibly well-attended-so much so that way too many of us had to stand at the back of the room. :( But, before the talk, I had a chance to talk with Prof. Hénaff, who greeted me with kisses on the cheeks, as he usually does. I told him that I was looking forward to his talk, and he asked me what I had been up to recently. I told him I was writing my dissertation-on gender construction and Japanese imperialism.

“And modernization, too,” I added.

“Ah, yes,” he responded. “That is always a good topic.”

Indeed, Marcel. Indeed.

[Photo Credit: Thanks for sending me these random cards, Chase and United!]

About the author

Satoko Kakihara

Satoko, blogging from Japan, is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Literature at UC San Diego. Her dissertation explores gender construction through literary outputs in the Japanese empire.