What we owe to retroactivity: the origin and future of debt

Morgan Wortham, Simon (2013) What we owe to retroactivity: the origin and future of debt. Postmodern Culture, 23(3), ISSN (online) 1053-1920


This essay examines recent writings on debt, notably those by Maurizio Lazzarato and David Graeber. I ask whether Graeber’s Debt: the First 5000 Years is able to resist the insidious logic of a retroactive interpretation of debt that it seeks to overturn. Meanwhile, Lazzarato’s notion of a catastrophic future-without-future of unending debt relies on an understanding of the ever-intensifying asymmetry of power. While this suggestion may derive from a strand of Nietzschean thought, the further implication of a debt so all-pervasive that it leaves no creditor intact opens up the possibility of rigorous thinking about the divisible limits of sovereignty and sovereign debt (an opportunity Lazzarato does not pursue). One can also excavate from Nietzsche the idea that the retroactivity so pivotal to the very possibility of debt is based on a false continuity between past and present, ‘origin’ and ‘aim’, which implies in turn that debt itself aggresses against temporal continuity in general. As such, debt’s ostensible sponsorship of neoliberalism’s violence against all future time itself becomes questionable and resistible.

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