How are vibes used to govern?

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Debt Imperialism Is A Vibe

Melinda Cooper calls neoliberalism’s imperative to resiliently overcome all limits “capitalist delirium” because “Freud tells us that the psychotic delirium, as opposed to the neurotic fantasy, is crucially concerned with the breakdown and recreation of whole worlds” (Cooper Life As Surplus 20). Fundamentally unconcerned with respecting present limits and focused instead on creative destruction, delirium is modulatory neoliberalism’s signature vibe. As Cooper explains, the epistemic model for capitalist delirium is that of a “perpetually renewed debt” (LaS 33), such as the US state’s perpetually renewed debt to its creditors. The quintessentially “too big to fail” debtor, the United States government exercises a relationship of “debt imperialism” (LaS, 30) over its smaller, less powerful, less quote-unquote ‘developed’ creditors, who must continually renew and extend credit to the US to ward off a global economic collapse in which they’ll draw the short straw. In debt imperialism, the imperial power extracts credit—not (just) natural resources, cultural artifacts, labor, and the like—from its post/colonies. Debt imperialism is a form of delirium grounded in white USian empire’s epistemically ignorant orientation in and to a world where its global economic hegemony means that even its most spectacular debts are perpetually renewed. As Jody Kim defines it, “Debt imperialism is a kind of temporal exception. It is a multiscalar process through which the United States imposes imperial power by rolling over its significant national debt indefinitely and not conforming to the homogeneous time of repayment that it imposes on others.” In Kim’s framework, debt imperialism limits the benefits of resiliently nonchronological time to the US as the prime beneficiary of patriarchal racial capitalism, and relegates the rest of the world to entropic linear time and all its hard limits. The US state’s debts, in other words, always count as legitimate ones in a world oriented for nearly a century toward US economic, cultural, and military hegemony. These legitimate debts are infinitely renewable because they are oriented toward patriarchal racial capitalist private property accumulation, whereas other debts that are not oriented in that way must stick to the traditional, linear schedule of payment and consequences for default. Capitalist delirium in general is likewise grounded in the same epistemic ignorance wherein the absolutely most privileged peoples’ experiences of austerity and privatization are (mis)taken for reality as such. Put differently, capitalist delirium is a perspective that emerges from the orientation of those at the top of the patriarchal racial capitalist status hierarchy in which all debt is legitimate and never punished or criminalized, only a crisis that spurs investment and overcoming.

Though Cooper’s account of capitalist delirium doesn’t frame it in these terms, reading her emphasis on the “delirium of the debt form” (LaS 31) alongside Ahmed’s theorization of cisheteropatriarchal racial capitalist orientations as debts clarifies that delirium is an orientation in Ahmed’s sense, and thus also what I call a vibe. As Ahmed argues, oriented subjects and/or phenomena are expected to make a return on what is invested in them by their orientation/situation. Recall her claim that “heterosexuality becomes a social as well as familial inheritance through the endless requirement that the child repay the debt of life with its life. The child who refuses the gift thus becomes seen as a bad debt, as being ungrateful, as the origin of bad feelings” (86). As described here, debt is the condition of failing to reproduce the orientation one has inherited. Debtors “refuse the gift” of the orientation that society has vested them with and head instead in another direction, disrupting in turn the orientations of the people, institutions, and traditions their given orientation is designed to support. This disorientation registers as bad vibes or “feelings,” a deficit of being in line that forces others to overcompensate to keep themselves in line, like the irritation one feels at someone who parks at an awkward angle and forces everyone else in the row of parking spots to maneuver into an inconvenient position. Here debt is not a quantitative figure like morgatge amortization tables, but a state of illegitimate orientation. From this perspective, though the US may owe a lot of money to many creditors, it is not actually “in debt” because its relations with its creditors renews and reproduces the US state’s imperial position and patriarchal racial capitalist hegemony. A state founded on stolen land and labor, the US is fundamentally an institution in which whiteness takes the form of never having to repay debts to those outside its bounds. (For example, unlike Haiti, who was made to pay its debt back to France after its slave led revolution won the nation’s independence, the US has never been thought to be in debt to its former colonial master.) Unlike the queer child whose disorientation is perceived as the source of bad vibes, the US state is categorically considered a good bet, a source of positive vibes, because its non-payment of debts contributes to the world’s white supremacist orientation. In other words, the US state’s financial obligations to creditors don’t put the hegemonic world order out of line, so they don’t function like debts in the traditional sense. This mismatch between the fact of fiscal debt and the perception of self-ownership is the delirium of debt imperialism. In debt imperialism, the US state is deliriously the source of good vibes because its debts return the “gifts” of patriarchal racial capitalist hegemony that it has inherited from its white, capitalist orientation. In this situation, debt is only perceived as such when its illegitimate, i.e., when it fails to adequately maintain and reproduce the world’s patriarchal racial capitalist orientation.

In the context of US debt imperialism, debt is less a matter of hard numbers and more of a vibe: the US’s relationship with its creditors isn’t measured as a quantity, but as an orientation toward racial capitalism. As this example suggests, the discursive complement to the biopolitical governance of vectoral orientations is not a norm, but a vibe. 

Murphy’s “The Girl” Figure as a Legitimate Vibe

Michelle Murphy’s discussion of “The Girl” figure clearly illustrates how vibes are the discursive medium in which sexual legitimacy is policed. Like Cooper’s claim about the shift from a biopolitics of population normativity to a neoliberal biopolitics that models life as a market, Murphy finds that in the 21st century, social science has shifted from modeling people as populations to modeling them as markets. She calls this “the economization of life.” In this framework, the individual subject appears as human capital. “The Girl” is Murphy’s term for how contemporary biopolitics imagines its ideal bundle of human capital (or subject). As she explains, the “‘Third World girl’–typically represented as South Asian or African, often Muslim–has become the iconic vessel of human capital” for whom “‘chance’ is translated into only two possible paths: the unproductive life and the productive life” (EoL 117). A “productive” life is one where the Black and Brown girls of the Global South reproduce “responsibly” and don’t rely on support from governments or NGOs. As Murphy puts it, “thoroughly heterosexualized, her rates of return are dependent upon her forecasted compliance with expectations to serve family, to adhere to heterosexual propriety, to study hard, to be optimistic, and hence her ability to be thoroughly ‘girled’” (EoL 117). A “productive” life is one where cisheterogender roles and participation in the patriarchal nuclear family govern sex and reproduction. The issue here is less sexual normality and more the girl and her family’s ability to privately assume the costs of her sexual choices (i.e., children). For example, in this framework chastity until marriage is not an issue of moral norms, but of increased capacity for private family responsibility. Here’ “girl” is less a gender norm enforced and produced through what feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky called “feminine disciplines,” and more of a set of tendencies–compliance, propriety, studiousness, optimism, etc.–oriented toward private sexual responsibility. Murphy’s counterexample of the unproductive life–”married by fourteen, pregnant by fifteen, after which she may have to sell her body” (EoL 117)–makes this clear: to be unproductive is to be unable to privately assume the costs of one’s sexual behavior and to engage in illegitimate sexual behaviors (figured here as sex work, which in most places is illegal). 

Though she doesn’t use the language of vibes specifically, Murphy’s account is especially helpful because she highlights how The Girl’s perceived il/legitimacy is represented as what is easily recognizable as a vibe: “The Girl is represented abstractly as a charged data point, an ebullient cartoon, or an animated icon. Through music, color, and animation, the icon of the Girl is excited with enthusiasm, hope, ambition, and responsiveness to transformation that joins Western liberal feminist imaginaries of empowerment into speculative finance” (EoL 118). The figure of “The Girl” isn’t an indexical representation of any empirical girl or set of girls, she is an orientation. The figurations Murphy describes all function like the vibes posts analyzed above, plotting out sensory data points–sounds, colors, motion graphics–that point audiences toward some affective possibilities and away from others. In other words, The Girl is an orientation towards legitimacy, or the “good feelings” that arise when individuals pay returns on what hegemonic logics of social reproduction invested in them. And just as liminal space is a vibe that any context can exhibit so long as its elements are oriented in a way that evokes liminality, “The Girl is a calculated risk pool that draws together a bloom of possibility, a bouquet of potential, a cluster of affect, applicable to any dispossessed condition anywhere, as long as it is ‘girled.’” (EoL 118-20). An abstraction conveying the successful privatization of the costs of reproduction, “the Girl” an orientation whose alignment fits with the imperatives of neoliberal feminism and finance capitalism gives rise to good vibes in people and institutions who are similarly aligned. 

Murphy’s analysis of “The Girl” is helpful because it is an example of the discourse of sexual legitimation that expresses such legitimacy as a vibe. As Murphy’s terms like “bloom” and “bouquet” demonstrate, The Girl vibe ties sexual legitimacy to the positive feelings and affects traditionally associated with normative (white, cishetero) femininity. Here, these associations aren’t perceived to be good because they are normative, but because they are oriented toward legitimacy. For example, Murphy argues that the same sort of cascading motion that seems like a “bloom” when oriented toward legitimacy is perceived as the threat of “terrorism” and “terrorist” radicalization when attributed to poor and working-class brown boys in the Global South. Neoliberal biopolitics governs by checking vibes for their legitimacy.

Biopolitics’ evolution from a solely normative form of governance into one that also governs for legitimacy occurs at the quantitative level, as newer forms of probability allow statisticians to model sex independently from reproduction. Returning to Seaver’s study of contemporary algorithms’ roots in MDS, it’s significant that his primary example of how people talk about modeling relations among vectors centers on the relationship between sex and procreation. As Seaver explains, in the keynote speech at the 2001 meeting of the International Society for Music Information Retrieval, David Huron uses “a striking pair of values: sex and procreation” to argue that vectorial models are advantageous because they allow mathematicians to disarticulate phenomena that otherwise appear mutually dependent. Seaver explains,  

For most of human history, Huron argued, people have valued sex and procreation but have been unable to pursue one without the other. In vector terms, sex and procreation are correlated: they point in the same direction. The advent of contraception, Huron claimed, rearranged these vectors, pushing them to (almost) 90o apart by making it possible to move in the direction of the sex vector without simultaneously moving toward procreation. As Huron put it, contraception decorrelated these values, making them orthogonal to each other. Such was the power of engineering, which could alter the bearing of value vectors “through the manipulation of physical or social reality,” resolving value conflicts by decorrelating them out of existence.” (Seaver CS 519)

The rise of the human sciences and the widespread use of normal curves to model populations lead power to study and govern sexual normality because it treated procreation and sex as dependent variables: the size and health of the population depends on people’s sexual behaviors, so the population can be managed by compelling people to behave normally when it comes to sex. However, now that we can study and manage people with tools that can treat sex and procreation as independent variables to reflect circumstances when material conditions are such that they actually are not dependent, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is itself less dependent upon normalization and can make use of other tools to cut the racialized, gendered line between acceptable and unacceptable sexual behavior and identities. Biopower has more tools in its arsenal to govern sexuality. For people in circumstances where sex and procreation are dependent (e.g., people who can get pregnant but don’t have access to contraception, queer couples trying to conceive, etc.), good old norms and normalization work just fine. But for people in circumstances where they are not necessarily dependent, practices of legitimation step in to do the work traditionally done by norms and normalization.