The February 2016 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “#Indebted: Disciplining the Moral Valence of Mortgage Debt Online,” by Noelle Stout, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at New York University. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editors Andrés García Molina and Franziska Weidle conducted with Stout about the article and her broader research in contemporary Cuba and the United States.
Andrés García Molina (AGM) and Franziska Weidle (FW): How did you come to research the mortgage crisis?
Noelle Stout (NS): Foreclosure stories started circulating in my family as early as 2007, but I initially discounted them. I am originally from a working-poor community in Northern California, and stories about money troubles from home were nothing notable. But as the foreclosure epidemic continued to grow, more friends and colleagues who had once considered themselves financially secure were facing evictions. As housing prices plummeted, nearly everyone I knew in California was struggling with an underwater mortgage. I soon realized that we were confronting a massive transformation in our understandings of debt relations and middle-class stability. There was a wealth of quantitative research being done on the crash, but hardly any qualitative work. This glaring absence was leading policymakers, media pundits, and economists to come to troubling conclusions. The situation called for a more nuanced, fine-grained analysis that only ethnography could provide.
AGM and FW: One part of the Cultural Anthropology article that especially struck us was your research using digital media. Could you give us some insight into your empirical approach? Did you literally sit down and observe the participants while they were researching underwater mortgage and foreclosure cases online? To what extent would your presence and relationship to the participants change their online behavior?
NS: I did sit with people as they ventured online. Many homeowners, particularly older people, were trying to find ways to save their homes and wanted help sorting through online information: What was a scam? What were legitimate websites for assistance? How could you find the phone number for Bank of America’s loan assistance program? Other times, I would come to the forums during my own online searches. Online forums are particularly rich because they offer a living, dynamic archive for ethnographers. While online adventures need to be contextualized by other forms of research into daily life, the forays online were a critical component of contemporary social life to include.
AGM and FW: One aspect that becomes even more significant, then, is the degree of anonymity that these online platforms provide. What did this mean for your own research? Did you have discussions around anonymity with your participants regarding the publication of your findings? How did you deal with their wish for anonymity in the context of such precarious issues?
NS: I am particularly sensitive to issues of anonymity and the circulation of my work. In Cuba, I made a documentary film, Luchando (2008), which follows the lives of sex workers in Havana’s queer nightlife. It was a collaborative project that entailed imagining, with the participants, the film’s ideal audiences and forms of circulation. We decided not to sell the film in order to honor these agreements.
Recently, though, Luchando was pirated and enjoyed an unauthorized distribution online. Seeing the film being sold without my permission for $19.95 a copy, I realized that online domains present new ethical dilemmas of circulation and collaboration. That said, I do my best to protect the identities of my subjects, but I no longer make many promises. Luckily, many of my participants in my foreclosure research had moved past the shame of foreclosure and were eager to be heard. Some even offered to participate in an online digital storytelling project that I’m coproducing with a California video artist who went through foreclosure. The project, America Foreclosed, harnesses the promiscuous circulation of online media to bring awareness to the lasting effects of foreclosures.
AGM and FW: Your work outlines how online publics have extended forms of sociability that challenge media narratives and question normative paths of action. You even note that “digital media might be used to realize the promise of Jürgen Habermas’s ideal democratic public sphere.” But what about those who are excluded from online participation, namely those who are not Internet-savvy, or simply without Internet access or access to computers and mobile devices? In what ways might that sector of the population complicate the idea of public participation through digital media?
NS: The digital divide is a tremendously important issue in discussions of online sociality and these divisions exist not just between nations, but between neighborhoods. Even small issues, such as accessing the Internet through the public library, shape online sociality in fundamental ways. Faye Ginsburg has talked a lot about this issue, and anthropologists like Bill Maurer are also engaging with these ideas by considering mobile access in innovative ways. While in this article I am interested in how the online domains themselves discipline forms of normativity that are informed by forms of racial and class inequality, I am also interested in the broader forms of exclusion that prevent people from getting online. I explore some those issues in a chapter on predatory lending in a low-income Sacramento community in my book manuscript, Bound by Default: Homeowners, Lenders, and the Enduring Debts of the U.S. Foreclosure Crisis.
AGM and FW: In your article, you also hint at the gendered stakes in some of your interlocutors’ ways of rationalizing their situation. Renaldo Suarez, for example, connects “doing the right thing” to being a man; Rachel Leibrock declares losing her job and facing foreclosure made her feel “like [she] had failed as an adult.” In what ways would you say that gender is a part of the question of moral personhood in relation to indebtedness?
NS: I’m glad you brought up the issue of gender. On one level, gendered narratives are reinforced and given new life in everyday representations of the 2008 crisis. Masculinities, as reproduced by Wall Street, for example, are seen as overpowering the domestic (read: female) sphere. On another level, there is a feminist theoretical issue of theorizing capitalism and its effects by seeing how intimate social life plays out in the realm of hyperfinancialized markets. What you’re picking up on in my respondents’ comments, for example, is not only a rehearsing of traditional gender roles, but also the affective dimensions of late capitalist dispossession. Feminist approaches to contemporary capitalism help to illuminate these affective orientations to indebtedness and are imperative to conceptualizing what we mean by “the economy.” The Gens manifesto is a great starting point for revisiting some of these longstanding debates.
AGM and FW: On a mainstream media note, what are your impressions of the recent film The Big Short (2015), in terms of the way that it frames the 2008 financial crisis?
NS: The Big Short is creating awareness about some of the Wall Street machinations that triggered the crash. Even now, I think there’s a general amnesia or, perhaps, ignorance about what transpired. Like most Hollywood films, they’ve managed to reduce the roles for women to supporting stereotypes—the concerned wife, the blonde stripper, and the black mother. The film also perpetuates a troubling media trend related to the crash in which homeowners’ stories are erased from narratives of the crisis. People assume that they know what it means to experience foreclosure, to become victimized by Wall Street, but there is much more critique and debt refusal happening than one might expect.
AGM and FW: To conclude, then, could you elaborate on some of the bridges that connect your work in Cuba, on the “boundaries between labor and love, affection and exploitation, and desire and decency” (Stout 2014, 3) in the context of queer intimacy and erotic economies in post-Soviet Cuba, to your research on the U.S. mortgage crisis?
NS: In both cases, my interest lies in how intimate social ties are generated and reshaped through economic imaginaries and vice versa. After returning to the United States from Cuba in 2008, I recognized significant parallels between the transformations in intimacy Cubans described when narrating the rocky transition to postcommunism and how Americans dispossessed by the Great Recession were rethinking debt obligations. Whereas Cubans critiqued the introduction of capitalism by harkening back to an imagined time of true love and intimacy, Americans identified a precrash era in which forms of intimacy and mutual aid were fundamental to U.S. mortgage markets. In both cases, those marginalized by swift and devastating economic downturns made claims about the ideal morality of exchange in order to criticize emergent inequalities. My foreclosure research reverses the emphasis of my earlier work, moving away from the moral anxieties that arise when economic transactions define intimate relations to studying intimacy within market engagements themselves.
Stout, Noelle M. 2014. After Love: Queer Intimacy and Erotic Economies in Post-Soviet Cuba. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.