This paper argues that the “debt narrative,” quite like the Rosetta Stone, is a historical, symbolic, and aesthetic way for us to decipher the interfaces between the three languages of economy, politics, and ethics. Debt narrative is not a simple figure of speech, literature, or thought; it acts, powerfully, in the real world. As in Europe today, the pressure of debts is related to a lack of credit for democracy and the future. Among the many examples of this relationship, the paper highlights Resistance Is Useless (29-0310059Resistere non serve a niente), a novel by Walter Siti.

A Rosetta Stone

There are many good stories of debt, including some very famous ones. Everybody knows the story of the man who’s long been absent for obscure professional reasons, and who realizes when he’s back home that so-called suitors have tried to seduce his wife, chase off his son, harass his dog, and, above all, lay waste to his wealth (they are his debtors in so many ways). He takes revenge by slaughtering them (that’s something they used to do at that time), which gets him into debt with all the big patres familias of the city, so he has to leave again, with an oar on his back. It’s Odysseus, of course: the first indebted man at the birth of Literature. There is also the story of that other man who, assured of his impunity, never stops taking out debts, playing language tricks, and contracting mock marriages, till he has to face the fact that he’s in debt not only to women and the whole of mankind but also to a transcendent authority, an archaic deus ex machina Commander-Father that he refuses to believe in. This is Dom Juan: hero and victim of the abiding play about belief. But my favorite story is the one about the gifted guy who frees a community of its rat scourge with a simple pipe; then, as no one would pay him back, he takes his fee by leading all the children (except one) to the sweet hereafter of the promised land where all debts are settled. The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Take pity on the lame one who could not “dance the whole of the way,” says Robert Browning in his poem (182): stuck in the real world, he can’t hope for a better future, as Russell Banks put it in “Feeding Moloch: The Sacrifice of Children at the Altar of Capitalism,” a beautiful lecture I had the privilege of attending at the Harvard Divinity School in November 2014.

Literature is a huge collection of narratives about debts—as are mythology and philosophy. “To Be or Not to Be in Debt” is a choice these fields have addressed since antiquity, and we may remember that Rabelais did so in the Tiers livre, when Pantagruel asks Panurge: “When will you be out of debt?”—“God forbid that I should ever be out of debt!” answers Panurge (qtd. in Graeber 126). According to David Graeber, “Panurge [. . . ] serves as a fitting prophet for the world that was just beginning to emerge” (126).

All of Shakespeare’s plays (including the somber to-be-or-not-be story of insolvent blood debts on the fringe of Europe) and the whole Comédie humaine by Balzac (Gobseck, César Birotteau, La maison Nucingen, Eugénie Grandet, Le faiseur, to name a few) are rife with debt narratives, which may still be accurate today—as Thomas Piketty argues in Capital in the Twenty-First Century—or may not be, if we consider that “credit-crisis” fiction can’t be as realistic as it used to be.

Why Is This Debt Narrative So Essential?

According to the French theory of “primordial debt” (Michel Aglietta, André Orléan, Bruno Théret): “It’s not that we owe ‘society.’ [. . . ] Society is our debts” (Graeber 136).1 Debt narrative is one of the primordial modes of causal representation of society and of textual embodiment of morality: “Arguments about who really owes what to whom have played a central role in shaping our basic vocabulary of right and wrong” (8). Narratives of debt are the way society tells its tale.

That’s why the debt narrative strictly articulates the power of authority, the empire of calculation, and the practice of violence—as in Livy (History of Rome, book 2, chapter 23), when the debt slave shows the injuries on his body in order for them to amount to a repayment: the body itself becomes a narrative of debt and a plea for its cancellation (289–95).

As such, the debt narrative is not a simple figure of speech, literature, or thought: it acts powerfully in the real world. What is the Golden Legend of the Conquista? It is the mythical flipside of another story: that of a genocidal adventure led by indebted soldiers to erase what they owe and to provide infinite wealth to even more heavily indebted European kingdoms. Many wars can be narrated as debt exports. Colonization can be viewed as systemic debt slavery. And revolutions always “took the form of pleas for debt cancellation,” notes Graeber, “the freeing of those in bondage and, usually, a more just reallocation of the land” (87). Ever since Solon, the first step of democracy in Europe has always been debt cancellation. And eighteenth-century French and American revolutionaries thought that the debts of one generation should not have to be a burden for the next. But on the other hand, narratives of colonial debt and “ecological debt” also tell us of irreducible debts, debts without the possibility of negotiation or redemption, for future generations burdened by the past.

So, let’s consider the debt narrative as a sort of Rosetta Stone, like the one that allowed Champollion to decipher hieroglyphics by comparing three different versions of a single text, the first one written in hieroglyphics (“the language of the gods”), the second one in demotic Egyptian (“the language of documents”), and the third one in Greek (“the language of communication”): three versions of a decree (a statutory order) that settled the credit and debt accounts of the Ptolemaic Priests in Memphis.

Quite like the Rosetta Stone, the debt narrative is a historical, symbolic, and aesthetic way for us to decipher the interfaces between the three languages of economy, politics, and ethics.

To Repay or Not to Repay (That Is the Question)

At the very core of this Rosetta narrative lies the principle of the acknowledgment of debts: the famous IOU (“I Owe You”). The debt narrative is an IOU narrative. That’s why literature likes it so much: it may model the interaction between the author and the reader right through the dieget credit-and-debt plot—or its failure.2 The IOU is the active ingredient of the debt narrative in any good causal story.3

But does the IOU imply the need for repayment? Graeber mentions “one puzzling aspect of the equation” that led Henry II to invent “the first successful modern central bank,” the Bank of England: “Henry’s IOU can operate as money only as long as Henry never pays his debt” (49). Becoming a debt-money narrative, the IOU ceased to imply a full repayment.

The general axiology of this (non)necessity of repayment is a complicated issue that has been around ever since Socrates, who argued on this matter with Cephalus and Polemarchus in the Republic (book 1, 331c) and concluded that justice can’t simply be repaying one’s debts (Shell 21–22). Let’s think about the odd “morality” of repayment that prevails in the Sicilian or Neapolitan vendetta, still current today, which is represented as the inheritance of ancient “blood money.” To repay one’s debts can’t be a strict guarantee of justice and the necessary end of all debt narratives because these narratives depend not only on guilt, power, and authority but also on violence, sexuality, and domination.

So: instead of “to be or not to be in debt” (who is not, after all?), we should rather say: “to repay or not to repay one’s debt,” that is the question. This is obvious in philosophical debates, especially in the post-Nietzschean critique of “infinite debt,” as in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus or in Derrida’s Given Time (which challenges Marcel Mauss’s essay, The Gift),4 and more recently in Maurizio Lazzarato’s The Making of the Indebted Man.5 On the other side of Mauss-inspired anthropology, Philippe Rospabé, in La Dette de vie: aux origines de la monnaie sauvage, argues that “primitive money is not originally a way to pay debts of any sort. It’s a way of recognizing the existence of debts that cannot possibly be paid,” like the bride-wealth (qtd. in Graeber 131). These debates also exist on the margins of law. For example, according to the formal doctrine of “odious debt,” as Odette Lienau puts it in Rethinking Sovereign Debt, “a fallen regime’s debt need not be repaid if it was not authorized by and did not benefit the underlying population”; such was the case of the repudiation of the tsarist debt after 1917. “In other words,” says Lienau, “debt should not be continuous in some cases” (9). In any case, it seems to me that we could consider two different debt-narrative possibilities, two different ways for cultural forms to connect consumer debt experiences to global economies and to articulate oikonomia, polis, and ethos (domestic, political, and moral economies).

On the one hand: to repay debts is an obligation (that is, a necessity). This is manifest in the teleological story of debt as Schuld, the soteriology of repayment as ethical reparation (see Nietzsche 39–40). The telos of responsibility has two versions: there is the spiritual or religious one, modeled on the story of the Last Judgment with its overwhelming narrative posterity, which extends through to recent apocalyptic sci-fi stories; the other is secular and bourgeois, a morality of double-entry bookkeeping (Kluge and Vogl 30) leading to a naturalist, or a behaviorist, model that could still be “too omniscient to fail,” as Annie McClanahan brilliantly puts it (42). On the other hand: unpaid debts create an obligation in the etymological sense of a literal bond;6 and this implies other ways of representing time and redistributing the future: either valuing and “securitizing” risks, scoring credits, trafficking in insurance (cat bonds and credit default swaps included), as in the big-short stories of finance heroism; or facing at best the spirit of uncertainty that Arjun Appadurai argues in favor of (522–24)—a spirit, an ethos, or an imaginary of uncertainty, which is, in my opinion, the very principle of any true literary engagement (Bouju).

This may be the way the debt narratives of our times embody the anthropology of the global condition. And in “credit-crisis fiction” (McClanahan 16–18), they may be inventing a poetics of insolvency, or maybe a poetics as insolvency, if we consider that no author ever gives back to the reader what was initially promised and that it is precisely the profit of narrative credit to be liquidated with floating interest that one would never be able to “probabilize.”

A New Abduction of Europe?

What happens today to the debt narrative in this Europe of the hard Brexit? Could the debt narrative still be useful to Europe as a way to address its foundations and values, its active principles and purposes (if they exist)? For the “debt crisis” is not only an economic, political, and ethical crisis of value, equality, and confidence, as I have mentioned; it is also a symbolic and aesthetic crisis.

It may be recalled, on that note, that the symbolon was invented precisely “as a token of agreement” in debt matters. As Marc Shell put it in The Economy of Literature: “Symbola were pledges, pawns, or covenants from an earlier understanding to bring together a part of something that had been divided specifically for the purpose of later comparison” (33). Such a symbolon could be a ring coin (sphragis): one that can easily be broken in two. Or later, as in Henry’s times, when it served “as token of debt owed to the government,” it could be in the shape of a tally stick, with a stock and a stub (of course).

So what we are facing today in Europe may be the political and symbolic confrontation between two leading debt narratives: the story of necessary repayment and the story of an inevitable cancellation of debts (or at least interest on debts), with in both cases a risk of breaking apart. This is, for instance, Thomas Piketty’s argument: since the European Union was built on the fiducia of a cancellation (or a sine die postponement) of the odious French and (especially) German debts after World War II,7 we cannot consider debt (especially Greek debt) outside the context of this fiduciary story about origins; and thus, we all need to face the possibility, if not cancellation, of at least debt pooling on the largest possible scale. Piketty suggests signing a new treaty for the democratization of the Eurozone (“Manifesto”),8 which would decide the rhythm of repayment and, moreover, allow for relying on a special European tax system for funding higher education, social solidarity, and ecological transformations.

As for me, I’m trying to understand what part literature plays in this debate. How does it fight against the sophistic trend of political discourse and the neoliberal increase in inequality? How can it save us from the magical thinking of the financial ethos and help us imagine what a deep democracy—“a democracy of suffering and confidence,” as Appadurai puts it (304–5)—could be in Europe today?

It can be seen that, in European novels today, the pressure of (sovereign and individual) debts is quite systematically related to a lack of credibility of, and credit for, democracy and the future: a crisis of “defuturization,” as Joseph Vogl put it in The Specter of Capital (125), emphasizing the way neocapitalism captured the very word future, turning it into a financial product; an agonistic conflict between violent probability patterns and the fragility of possible engagements, linked to the algorithmic articulation of time; and a credit crunch of democratic institutions and representations, which forbids the reunification of all social symbola. Among the many European novelistic examples of this relationship, I would highlight Resistance Is Useless (Resistere non serve a niente, 2012) by Walter Siti: an imaginary biographical portrait of a genius in international finance (Tommaso Aricò), who is secretly working for the Calabrian mafia (the ’ndrangheta).

Credit Crunch

The phrase credit crunch is used to designate the “tightening” of credit, a sudden sharp reduction in the availability of money from banks and institutional lenders due to an “unreasonable” rise of credit costs and to a lack of liquidities. In contemporary Europe, a credit crunch, as a crisis of sovereign debts that followed the global crash of subprime loans and derivative products, is weighing on the future of democracies. Even though the European Central Bank is trying to maintain low-interest loans to help systemically important banks keep their credit policies alive, the credibility of our economic sovereignty and solidarity has been seriously damaged—especially since the Greek crisis.9

This situation sets in motion an ancient mechanism: the one that lures individuals, companies, or communities to noninstitutional lenders during credit and liquidity crises. The large-scale practice of usury (usury and violence for recovering debts) is one of the most traditional and efficient businesses of mob organizations. And literature and narrative forms in general (see season 3 of the series Fargo) have, since Shylock, always been attracted to usurers and to usury-related plots.

But nowadays, the links between highly technologized finance and mafia have become deeply enmeshed—and this is one of the themes at the very core of Siti’s Resistance Is Useless:

The mutation seemed to be minimal, but it included a change of strategy: to deal less with businesses and stocks [. . . ] and ride the second-degree finance wave [nuotare nella finanza di secondo grado], between the fluctuations of the eurodollar and the jumps and starts of interbank loans [le capriole dei prestiti interbancari]; and to go after masterless money [inseguire denaro senza padrone], pure nominal values without origins [pura nominalità senza origine], “migrating money” [“soldi migratori”], as Boris used to say. “The world is indebted to itself, and we’re going to take our cut.” (Resistere 178; my translation)

At one point, there is a conversation between Walter (who is the fictional alter ego of the writer) and the theoretician of the “new mafia,” Morgan Lucchese. They talk about the link between covert mafia power and legally acquired wealth, a link that Roberto Saviano had already described in 24-0310059Gomorra. This link promises to become endlessly stronger with the advances of accelerated calculation systems and dematerialized finance:

The wave of fear that descended upon the markets after 9/11 (the crisis of airline companies, the suspended consumption) was decisive for the organization of the Web. And what is the Internet if not a web? That is the answer for the new century: no more battleships or blockades, but agile structures, knots linked together by spider webs. The remedies for the crisis are sivs, structured investment vehicles, and dark pools, platforms where money can pass through without leaving any trace. Whose money is it? Impossible to know in this misty bunch of acronyms [lì la titolarità dei Fondi sfuma in un polverio di sigle], of nested companies [società inscatolate], of risks to be eliminated and self-generating money through leverage operations [di azzardi da far sparire e di denaro che si autogenera mediante successive operazioni in leva]. (Resistere 256)

It’s not only a matter of marginal exploitation of the loopholes of neocapitalism by a few covert organizations: it’s also a question of the very form that constitutes the contemporary economy, where the erasing (or the unreadability) of the traces of any transaction, and the noninstitutional financing of liquidities, allow for the “natural” insertion of mafias into the political texture of our societies and for the perversion of the democratic contract. As Lucchese says: “We have to become a background noise, not a metastasis but the normal tissue of the economy [dobbiamo diventare un rumore di fondo, non una metastasi ma il tessuto normale dell’economia] [. . . ]. The future belongs to enlightened oligarchies that pass over the frontiers and the laws of any single State [il futuro appartiene alle oligarchie illuminate che scavalcano i confini e le leggi dei singoli Stati]” (Resistere 240–42).

One of Siti’s goals is thus to cast light on this threat hanging over our democracies by writing the fictional biography of a gifted trader, Tommaso Aricò, who has been involved in the mafia since his childhood: his father had to repay his debt to the famiglia by killing a traitor (the scene occurs in the prologue, titled “Before and After, Forever” [“Prima e dopo, per sempre”]). Tommaso, who thinks he therefore has “a debt to collect” (un credito da riscuotere), seeks protection from the ’ndrangheta that finances his advanced studies in mathematics. Eventually, he secretly works for the organization under the cover of a job at a hedge fund called Persona: his mask has become his true face.

Siti chooses to tell us about the contemporary truth of our masked reality through the character of Tommaso: it’s a matter of putting a face on the mask, as Leonardo Sciascia would say. (Il volto sulla maschera [English translation: The Face on the Mask] is the title of a book published by Sciascia in 1980.) Siti’s novel is a bildungsroman of the secretly mafioso constitution of late-capitalist economics.

In order to reach this goal, Siti has to find the right balance between theory and story. As in Saviano’s Gomorra, but with very different stylistic and narrative solutions, he seeks an embodiment of the neocapitalist covert economy: he needs a body to incarnate the abstract technology of money circulation in the era of transnational Internet spaces. So, unlike Saviano, Siti chooses the protective screen of a fictional character but without sacrificing the polemical power of the essayistic form, which in this novel culminates in a theorem of neofascism:

Morgan knows, he’s at the core of the theorem [nel cuore del teorema]: he hopes (like many others, more or less powerful than he is, more or less aware, all around the world) for a mixed, transnational regime, in which pop stars, drug lords, food cartels feel as though they were part of the same category of winners, the ones who knew how to make a profit from obligatory pleasure. An emerging desire layered on top of the fossilized desire of the old properties. No traceability whatsoever of personal wealth: dirty or clean, financiers will be the new prophets [direttori di coscienza]. (Resistere 281)

In this teorema of our times, Siti inherits Pasolini’s fight against “the disappearance of the fireflies.” It’s not just a matter of fighting against the abstract and disembodied global power of high finance; it’s a matter of fighting against the way this power weighs on the common body of democratic subjects:

Their superiority over a sublimated and self-referring finance consisted and consists in not losing contact with the material economy [non perdere il contatto con l’economia concreta]: ruined factories, unemployment, blood and land, the hopes and wastes of global desire [le speranze e i rifiuti del desiderio globale]. “We are the fulfilled formal model of finance [Siamo il modello formale compiuto della finanza]. Or its perfect complement: derivatives are phantom money [i derivati sono soldi fantasma], funeral shrouds looking for bodies [lenzuoli che necessitano di un corpo]; we are the bodies looking for a shroud.” (Resistere 260)

At stake here is the neofascist turn of formal democracies, accelerated by the secret art of speculation, whose phantom incarnation is Tommaso. Tommaso was born and raised under the empire of calculation: his father’s debt has been converted, thanks to his superior gifts in mathematics, into an “infinite credit” under the auspices of the mafia. He seems to be the only one capable of understanding the enigmatic logics of derivative titles and cdss (Credit Default Swaps) in the wake of the 2007 crisis; but he is also a libidinal monster whose devouring desires reflect the dynamics of finance. According to him: “risk-management models [. . . ] are the very same mathematical models that demonstrate how atoms of calcium penetrate into the bones [il penetrare degli atomi di calcio nelle ossa]. Just like large-scale financial cycles obey the Fibonacci spiral (‘we’re at the core of nature’). Finance is mathematical like music: it’s the music of desire when desire becomes concrete [è la musica del desiderio quando il desiderio diventa concreto]” (Resistere 35). Tommaso is the golden ratio of underground finance; he’s the exact flip side of McClanahan’s “Living Indebted.” His infinite credit balances the infinite debt of the democratic subject. He’s the living incarnation of the ideology of antidemocratic indebtedness Graeber addressed when he wrote: “What is a debt, anyway? A debt is just the perversion of a promise. It is a promise corrupted by both math and violence” (391).

Tommaso is also a literary construction: inventing a “true” character, a multidimensional and ambiguous illegal creditor, is not only an achievement of the ’ndrangheta; it is also a novelistic achievement that manages to make visible the “grey zone” and make audible the “background noise” (rumore di fondo) of the underground economy. But if, on the one hand, the presupposition that this is fiction allows us to think that this emblematic character is a literary object, constructed and fleshed out purely in writing, then on the other hand, the whole narrative is inserted into a kind of autobiographical story that incriminates the author and makes him dependent on his own creation.

The “invention” of Tommaso is a lesson in the anatomy of political economy and also a literary anatomy lesson. Siti draws on Sciascia (L’Affaire Moro), whose denunciation of the links between mafia power and the political culture of secrecy and corruption was based on his theory of “black on black” writing: “writing in black on the black page of reality [nera scrittura sulla nera pagina della realtà],” as he used to say, in order to allow us to see the nearly invisible patterns of fake democracy (Sciascia, Nero su nero). Sciascia thought that only the rational irony of literature could fight against the blinding power of the perversion of democracy.

This is exactly what Siti does right from the start, since his title (Resistance Is Useless, or “futile”) can be read both literally and as an antiphrasis: the novel tells of the fight, word for word and body for body, of its writer against disqualification from democracy at the hands of neofascists:

The individual is no longer the “qualified subject” of English empiricism; the informational delusion (which nobody is brave enough to evade) makes any private individual’s conscious decision about the common good completely illusory [rende chimerica per i privati qualunque decisione consapevole sul bene comune]. If the modern individual vanishes, his corollary, democracy, doesn’t make sense anymore either—although we continue wearily to partake in it during obligatory celebrations around the fetish that is the ballot box [intorno al feticcio dell’urna elettorale]. Democracy is the fallen god of modernity who survives as an idol made of papier mâché [la democrazia è il dio morto della modernità che sopravvive come idolo di cartapesta]. The babbling of political analysts is an indication of their embarrassment regarding a funeral rite that cannot be celebrated [l’imbarazzo per un rito funebre che non si può celebrare]: that’s why they cling to the last vestiges of insurrectional democracy, in underdeveloped regions or in the heart of cities. But democracy can’t be (or can no longer be) mass poetry [la democrazia non può essere (non più) un poema di massa]. (Resistere 280)

Resistance Is Useless is not mass poetry, or a thesis novel: it’s the story of an ironic combat in favor of an alleged eidolon of papier mâché.

This is clear from the beginning of the novel, with its three prologues. “Before and After, Forever [Prima e dopo, per sempre]” is a frightening vendetta and execution story as well as the scene of the origin of Tommaso’s bond to the ’ndrangheta, since the killer is his father, who is being forced to show his obedience to the organization. The second prologue, “The Perception of Prostitution [La prostituzione percepita],” is a fictional article by a professor from Yale about an ethological experiment involving a sort of prostitution practice among capuchin monkeys: it helps the narrator of the novel (who admits to being the author of this false article) introduce a motif that will become central to the novel—that of the relationship between voluntary servitude and a “universal mediator” (mediatore universale) such as money or sex. This double prologue, both narrative and theoretical, leads to a third one, which takes the form of a first-person repentance on the part of the author and also serves to establish the novel’s authorial contract: the author is meant to be one of the personae, one of the masks in the whole story: he is the exact counterbalance, the antagonist of the creditor, of the antidemocratic subject whose hedge fund is called, fittingly, Persona.

The aging, desiring author, Walter, is advised by his editor to quit “writing books for sissies [per froci]” and wants to earn enough money to renovate his crumbling house, so he agrees to write a potentially profitable nonfiction novel, a biography of Tommaso, who commissioned it himself. “Who am I to you [che cosa sono io per te]?” says Tommaso to Walter (Resistere 49).

What does this imply? Is it a kind of Faustian pact? Can he write on credit for the prince of calculation—in exchange for an advance that makes him the capuchin monkey of the genius mobster-financier?

One of the virtues of Walter Siti’s novel is to keep in plain sight the ambiguity, the perversion even, of the writing process: the “portraitist,” the contemporary equivalent of the court painter, is contracted, and the diversion that fiction creates seems to serve as a transparent “protection,” or a necessary hypocrisy (persona):

  • Aren’t you afraid of appearing as my accomplice [risultare il mio complice]? Do you need more money?

  • Money? I had some, I spent it the wrong way, and if I had more I would spend it even worse.

  • Listen, Walter, can I ask you a stupid question?

  • Stupidity is my favorite game.

  • Who am I to you? I mean, what do I represent, why did you commit . . . ?

  • I asked myself the same question [. . . ] maybe you are my stunt double, the one who does the dangerous scenes for me [. . . ] a prototype of mutation [. . . ] or maybe, on a deeper level, you’re my avenger [. . . ].

  • Everybody will say you’ve sold yourself to organized crime; you should keep away from a guy like me.

  • I’ll pretend you’re a figment of my imagination [. . . ] that’s the advantage of novels [questo è il vantaggio dei romanzi] [. . . ]. I delegated you to live themes that are mine [ti ho delegato a vivere temi che sono i miei] [. . . ] in short, I’m going to write a novel by proxy [un romanzo per procura]. (Resistere 313–14)

We shouldn’t read this literally, though: Siti knows that fiction is not a real protection by proxy, neither for the mafia nor the publisher. It is, rather, the necessary detour that allows one to focus on reality and tie together its loose ends, no matter the risk:
  • The question is: how much can I say about all this? Too many dark shades eventually risk ruining the portrait [il ritratto].

  • Why should I care? I’m going to hell no matter what. The important thing is that the big picture is clear [che risulti chiaro il quadro d’insieme]. (Resistere 290)

The novel is the compromise of a writer in the service of a deeper reality—his aging and his disqualification from democracy—represented metaphorically by his dilapidated house (which was bought on credit):

Here I am, with this “omniscient narrator” project that I’ve always been ashamed of [questo progetto di “narrator onnisciente” che m’ha sempre fatto arrossire]; the only “omniscient” being would be God, if he existed. In order to pose as an omniscient narrator, one must either be highly presumptuous or expect splendor from your epoch [richiedere splendore alla tua epoca]. But I have to act in order to save my poor apartment, whose plaster bubbles pulsate as though they were veins—or scars: my house is more alive than I am. I’ll be the rhetorical tool by which facts are purified and take on meaning while also becoming distorted: a fool in the service of things [un pagliaccio al servizio delle cose]. (Resistere 50–51)

And so, as the fool concludes, the epilogue, the “afterword” of the novel, replies to the prologue: “Forced to choose between justice and truth, I chose truth (even if truth took on unpalatable, sectarian, and intransmissible forms) [dovendo scegliere tra giustizia e verità, ho preferito la seconda (pur presentandosi la verità in forme indigeste, settarie e non transmissibili)]” (Resistere 319). This is one of the most interesting difficulties of Siti’s writing: the way the unbearable financier Tommaso (or any other character belonging to a corrupted reality) embodies the truth as an alter ego of the writer:

We were chatting about everything, his work and mine:

  • Kafka said it and he was right: literature is wage-labor in the service of the Devil [la letteratura è il salario per il servizio del diavolo].

  • You don’t necessarily have to possess goods to sell them [. . . ] you can sell money that doesn’t exist, that for the moment is just a hole [che per ora è solo un buco] [. . . ].

  • You also prefer the possible to the real [. . . ]. You’re breathing life into the infinite [date fiato all’infinito], you’re not just the Geiger counter of the will-to-power. (Resistere 46)

Tommaso, Prince of Possibilities, is the accursed share of Walter, whose “fascination with evil is obscure even to himself [la mia fascinazione per il male è oscura anche a me stesso],” according to the afterword. The fact that the novel is “written on credit” creates a “debt to the truth [un debito da pagare alla verità]” that the author wishes to repay (Resistere 316), and he does so by waging a war of detail and precision against the mob democracy—black on black, fiction against Fiction.

Resistance Is Useless is a political fiction in the sense Emily Apter and I have suggested, that is, a narrative form of political theory or political relation (Apter and Bouju). This novel by Siti (along with others, like the great Contagio) is structured as a debt economy (secrecy/truth), and the very possibility of telling the true story of underground, undercover finance relies on an intimate battle between the old “qualified subject” of democracy and the new Prince of Calculation, a battle in which high-wire finance is planning the credit crunch of democracy itself, as if it were making an idol of papier mâché. But also: a battle in which denunciation—the writer’s reporting on this crisis—turns the paper eidolon that is the novel into one of the last vestiges of democracy.

Epilogue

“Europe expiring in media insanitate!”
Fiducia devouring her children”
(Justice, Truth, etc.).
—Valéry

What has the narrative of Europe turned into in our times of debt: A tale of the Minotaur at the center of a labyrinth of nations? The story of Fiducia devouring her children (like the Commander did with Dom Juan)? An “article 50” Pied Piper leading us to the delusion of a sweet hereafter?10 What has become of the ring-of-stars symbol more than sixty years after the Treaty of Rome?

In Robert Menasse’s latest novel, The Capital, there is a story that takes place in a tattoo parlor (called “Mystical Bodies”) in Brussels. The old progressive (“heterodox,” as we say in France) German economist, Professor Erhart, wants to get a twelve-star circle tattoo around a bruise in the shape of Europe. “No. I’m not going to do it,” says the tattoo artist; “in a few weeks’ time it’ll have vanished anyway” (234). “So no stars for a vanishing Europe?” the professor asks, in this tragicomedy of the eu, which tells of the structural impossibility of any (economic, political, or moral) debt pooling in Europe.

When literature focuses on the dissent of any democratic subject, it addresses the contemporary crisis of political, economic, moral, or aesthetic credibility and helps the reader become aware of the major, essential conflict between truth and secrecy, power and justice, calculation and unconditionality. Let us hope—at a time when great demagogues are in charge almost everywhere—that new narratives of debts will manage to make the symbol of Europe a real ring of solidarity, and not a bunch of euro-stubs without stocks, or a broken Pied Piper IOU pipe.

Notes

1

See also Graeber 56: “Governments use taxes to create money, and they are able to do so because they have become the guardians of the debt that all citizens have to one another. This debt is the essence of society itself. It exists long before money and markets, and money and markets themselves are simply ways of chopping pieces of it up.”

2

On the causal model and its possible post-“crash” topicality, see Kluge and Vogl.

3

See John Lanchester’s nonfiction account of the crisis (IOU) and Annie McClanahan’s comment and critique (40).

4

See the critique of Derrida’s argument at the very beginning of Arjun Appadurai’s “The Ghost in the Financial Machine” in The Future as Cultural Fact 233.

5

Lazzarato’s theory powerfully echoes in the “coda” of McClanahan’s 18-0310059Dead Pledges, dedicated to “The Living Indebted,” after she criticizes it in chapter 2 because “it misses much of what is specifically new in contemporary credit relations”—namely, their normalization for economic survival and the “new forms of impersonal structural violence that operate on the debtor’s body” (79–80).

6

Recall that in Rome, at a time when debt slavery no longer existed, insolvent debtors were attached, bonded (nexi).

7

The London Conference in 1953 decided that the repayment of the German debt would be postponed to a hypothetical reunification of Germany, but it was eventually cancelled in 1991, officially because there wasn’t any calculation mechanism for inflation and GDP proportionality.

10

Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, enacted by the Treaty of Lisbon on December 1, 2009, introduced a procedure for a member- state to withdraw from the European Union.

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