Film and debt 1: self-investment, evaluation and governance in the work of Laurent Cantet

Earlier on this blog, I wrote a piece (here) summing up arguments developed by Maurizio Lazzarato in his La Fabrique de l’homme endetté (Editions Amsterdam, 2011), an important work, now available in English as The Making of Indebted Man (MIT, 2012). What I would like to do in this entry and one to follow, is to talk about the figure of the indebted person, the role of debt in governance and the possibility of resistance to indebtedness in works by Cantet and the Dardenne brothers that preceded Lazzarato’s book and in some way anticipated its themes. Here I will mainly be discussing Cantet’s 2001 film L’Emploi du temps (Time Out). But I would like to begin by referring to a lovely little scene in the same director’s Ressources humaines (Human Resources) (1999).

As people may know, the film narrates the story of what happens when Franck, a young management trainee, returns to his provincial hometown to do a work placement in the factory where his father, a machine operator, has always worked. The scene I am interested in occurs at a moment in the film when Franck invites his parents to a restaurant to celebrate what seems a promise to him of future employment in the company that owns the factory. Franck’s father goes to pay. Franck tries to stop him and the following conversation takes place:

–          Dad, dad! I’m paying. You’re my guests. It’s me who is paying, OK?

–          What are you going to pay with? You haven’t been paid yet. Don’t you think you have enough debt already?

–          Dad, it’s not a debt. It’s a loan. If I need more tomorrow, the bank will give me another one. It will be over the moon to do so.

–          That’s exactly what I’m saying. They’re debts.

–          If a bank is happy to loan me 70.000 francs to pay for my studies, it’s clearly because it considers that financing a student is a good investment, isn’t it?

–          But it’s for your studies. It’s not for having a good time (my translation).

The film recounts the ending of a social regime: Franck’s father is an embodiment of what one might call Fordist man. He carries out a highly routinized job within the confined environment of a factory, giving up his liberty and accepting alienating labour in exchange for security, predictability and deferred gratification (his end of year bonus, his son’s social mobility, his retirement). And, as we learn, the soon to be redundant father’s job, and the regime it embodied is giving way to something whose contours seem uncertain but will be neither predictable nor inclusive. The little conversation about the bill, trivial on the surface, resonates within this broader context of transformation. With his commitment to self-restraint and delayed gratification, the father is only happy to celebrate with money already earned. He sees borrowed money as something negative, a debt. The son belongs to a different regime where gratification is no longer to be deferred and where money borrowed is seen as an investment in the future rather than something negative. Yet, at the same time, implicit in the son’s words is also the sense that he has turned himself into an investment and built the ability to repay into his vision of the future. Behind his apparent empowerment – his self-confident wielding of his credit card – lies a sense that he may be as constrained as his father but in a way that limits his future more than his present. This connects, of course, to the sense of debt as future oriented memory, as developed by Lazzarato: because I remember I have contracted a debt then I know I will have to behave in ways that will allow me to repay it. This sense of the temporal reach of debt is developed much further in Time Out.

Time Out is about Vincent, a high flying management consultant who has lost his job and hides the fact from his wife, children and parents. Although he was one of those seemingly empowered by the contemporary economy, the part of his work that he really enjoyed was the driving, the time on the road giving escape and apparent autonomy. Yet there were, of course, appointments to be kept and, when he developed the tendency to drive straight on and miss them, he found himself let go. Unemployment seems to offer him the possibility, at least temporarily, of holding onto what he liked to do  while avoiding constraints. He can drive aimlessly and exist in a pure present, as for example when we see him singing along to a pop song in his car or playfully racing a train along a valley. This freedom cannot last: financial needs and the expectations of others will reel him in and debt will play a key disciplinary role.

To be free of conformist demands, Vincent has to hide behind a performance of conformism. He has to persuade his wife that he is busy, moving from appointment to appointment, helping companies restructure and shed workers in the process. He also has to convince her and the rest of his family that he is ambitious: to buy himself time, he invents a job for himself working at the UN development agency in Geneva, helping channel investments into countries of the global South. He even bluffs his way into the UN building in Switzerland so that he can better learn the role he needs to play. A character who seems to yearn for a more authentic life, he seems trapped by the expectations of others in a world where surveillance seems to have become diffuse but ubiquitous. The hero’s factory-worker father in Ressources humaines was exposed to the controlling gaze of supervisors when tied to his machine in the factory enclosure. A more mobile figure, emblematic of a capitalist order loath to tie itself down to particular places, Vincent seems to escape any direct control, the car he is always driving embodying his freedom. Yet, he has to answer to family and friends and a persistent ex-colleague who is determined to help him find new work and restore him to ‘normality.’ And, of course, he has to find money to convince people he is still earning, still a good provider. Most obviously present in sequences with CCTV camera, more subtly felt in the many scenes where Vincent watches or is watched through glass, this diffuse surveillance is most powerfully expressed in the tussle between the car (automobile) and the mobile (cell) phone, the car embodying Vincent’s desire for freedom, the phone showing how, in the age of mobile communication, he can never drive far enough to escape others, their expectations and their evaluation. Surveillance is no longer limited to the workplace: it has been outsourced to the society in general.

Vincent raises funds in two ways. Firstly, he borrows money from his father in order to put down a (fictitious) deposit on an apartment in Geneva. Secondly, he develops what is effectively a Ponzi scheme: contacting old friends from business school, he convinces them that his UN job has put him in contact with a colleague who works in Eastern Europe and can move money across borders into exceptionally profitably but not very legal investment schemes. He is now a double debtor and the money that seems to buy him time also exposes him to evaluation. He, or rather, his wife, has to convince his father that the Geneva apartment makes good financial sense and that he will be able to repay his debt in a reliable and predictable way. The father, in turn, suggests he might like to go and inspect the apartment because, after all, he has put money into it. Likewise, Vincent’s friends become increasingly anxious about their investment, push for access to information and eventually want their money returned. These interactions underscore the moral hold and temporal reach of debt: opening himself up for inspection, Vincent has to generate a version of himself that suggests present financial soundness and the future ability to repay.

In his discussion of debt’s role in governance, Lazzarato suggests that, in his famous Collège de France lectures on Bio-politics, Foucault had taken a rather too positive stance on neo-liberalism, recognising how it would ask all individuals to become entrepreneurs of the self but not sufficiently engaging with the external constraints that would limit the individual’s room for manoeuvre and in particular the disciplinary power of debt. In its own way, Cantet’s film carries out a critique of the apparent freedom claimed by the neo-liberal subject. In the early, utopian stages of the film, freedom seems to have the upper hand over constraint: Vincent can circulate at will on condition he produces a version of self as reliable provider and ambitious high-flyer. Inexorably, however, he is reeled in by the governmental power of debt and the dispersed evaluation and inspection whose gaze he cannot evade.

The last scene of the film confirms his inevitable capitulation. After his schemes have collapsed and his deception has been exposed, his father procures him an interview with another company. The man interviewing him tells him that they plan to invest heavily in a new venture, that they want Vincent to lead it but would expect him to invest himself fully in return. The interviewer probes Vincent about the recent period of unemployment on his CV. He is someone who needs to feel enthusiasm for his job, Vincent explains, and has been waiting for a suitably motivating opportunity to present itself. The interviewer is happy with this reply. Vincent has been brought fully within the governmental orbit of debt: a self-investment responding to an investment, not only must he promise the company returns in the future, he must also erase the memory of his earlier rebellion in a way that highlights debt’s moral and temporal hold.

Lazzarato is careful not to use debt as a totalizing explanatory concept that could somehow explain all of the functioning of the current neo-liberal order. Rather, he associates its power with its transversal reach, its capacity to govern behaviours from the level of individuals up to that of national institutions or international interactions. He is also anticipated on this score by Cantet’s film. As the reader may remember, Vincent invents a job at the UN development agency. On his unauthorised visit to the agency’s headquarters, he listens in on a conversation about African countries and their capacity to offer a ‘business friendly’ environment. The man leading the discussion says:

I have given you documents among which you will find the ranking of countries according to their capacity to create a business friendly environment… This research also reveals another important piece of information: the indicators of an investment friendly environment. Obviously, the most frequently cited indicators are good governance and a predictable and transparent regulatory environment. And, of course, the primacy of law and social stability are necessary and come third.

In short, what we learn is that to attract investments (that they will be expected to repay), countries, like individuals, have to make themselves predictable and open themselves to evaluation. The same system of governance applies to individuals and countries. This, as Cantet’s wonderfully lucid film explores, is the grasp of debt.

Martin O’Shaughnessy, Nottingham Trent University

This entry was posted in debt in theory and culture, Film and crisis, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Film and debt 1: self-investment, evaluation and governance in the work of Laurent Cantet

  1. Pingback: Film and debt 2: calculable and incalculable debts in the films of the Dardenne brothers | La France et la Crise

  2. Pingback: Lazzarato and the governmental power of debt: La Fabrique de l’homme endetté or The Making of Indebted Man | La France et la Crise

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