This talk examines what transpires when the economic dynamics of primitive accumulation are transposed into what I call ‘the microeconomic mode’, a dominant contemporary aesthetic formation that brings together abstraction, extremity, and painful, life-or-death choices made by individual agents. I focus on The Revenant—both the recent film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and the novel on which it was based—in order examine the way in which a specific history of settler-colonial capital expansion becomes resignified via the microeconomic mode as a story of attrition for settler rather than indigenous lives. Building out from this reading, I evaluate the implicit political positions enabled and foreclosed when problems of scarcity, accumulation and relative plenitude are rendered in the microeconomic mode, in which the only meaningful currency seems to be life itself. In conclusion, I consider why it is that an either/or choice between lives, or what I call ‘binary life’, has emerged as such a consistent trope in recent contemporary culture—and what happens to arguments for material justice when necropolitical decisions are reimagined as inevitable, recurrent acts of individual choice.
Jane Elliott is Reader in Contemporary Literature, Culture and Theory in the Department of English at King’s College London. She is author of The Micro-economic Mode: Political Subjectivity and Contemporary Popular Aesthetics (Columbia UP 2018) and Popular Feminist Fiction as American Allegory: Representing National Time (Palgrave 2008) and co-editor of the ‘Genres of Neoliberalism’ issue of Social Text (2013) and Theory after Theory (Routledge 2011). Her essays on contemporary literature and culture have appeared in Novel, Modern Fiction Studies, PMLA, and Social Text.