The Friday morning sessions at the Now! Visual Culture conference this weekend in New York began with a timely wake up call: a panel organized by Dr. Joan Saab of the University of Rochester examining the twin crises of academic labor and student debt. Perhaps most compelling was New School and CUNY professors, Ashley Dawson and McKenzie Wark’s identification of the student debt issue as, at root, a crisis of visuality. Whereas the plight of underwater homeowners, our panelists stressed, became quite naturally embodied in the image of the evicted, gutted, foreclosed domicile–splashed lugubriously, on the nightly news and marked on real-estate site web searches–the student debt disaster has no analogous icon. It exists, afterall, on the site of individual subjects: living, working, beings incapable of the evacuation and ossification of built structures.
The Occupy Student Debt movement, presented in brief by fellow panelist Pamela Brown (activist and Sociologist at the New School), has been one such effort to visualize and politicize what has been metastasizing into an invisible catastrophe: the shackling and indenturement of an entire generation exhorted to mortgage its future in order to obtain an education. However, the struggles the fledgling movement faces in changing policy and public opinion shows just how much work remains to be done. The “dysfunctional family relationship” Brown illuminated between the government, universities, banks, and student borrowers characterizes the heretofore highly mystified and opaque economic systems of academia. Under cover of numerical abstraction, predatory lending and the dream-haze of future hopes, this family has increasingly shifted the burden of education financing from the collective realm of the state onto the (indebted) individual.
As we struggle to articulate this invisibility through visualization strategies (of data, and of politics ) I feel compelled to add an important extra-visual supplement. The invisibility of the indebted subject has been enabled by a concomitant muteness or silence, an unwillingness to speak, subject to subject, about our relationships with money and debt–both abstract and concrete. Personally, I begin making myself visible in this conversation, marking myself as a container of the debt crisis, through an act of speech. This means first and foremost, rejecting the miasmic social strictures that deem it impolite or improper to ask or volunteer personal financial information. To invert an old maxim with which we’ve become perhaps too comfortable, I want to stress that the political is personal. I choose to articulate openly–to friends, colleagues and family–my coordinates in what McKenzie Wark aptly identified as, “a new frontier of capitalism which is not the one we were promised.” This sharing functions as a speech act that brings crisis into being. Joining vocality with visuality is a critical component to identifying, iterating and embodying what has remained, for too long, inchoate, invisible, and therefore–much to the benefit of profiteers–functionally non-existent.