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An American in Buenos Aires

Benjamin Kunkel on the death of the novel, lessons from Argentina's economic collapse and the merits of psychoanalysis.

"Limits to Capital" by David Harvey

Park: Name one book that has changed your life or that you think everyone should read?

Kunkel: So, there are a number of them and it’s tempting to pick something that no one else would. I’ve been having a very hard time on an essay that I’m writing — it’s about this guy named David Harvey. So why don’t I tell everyone that they should read “Limits to Capital” by David Harvey?

Park: What’s it about?

Kunkel: [Harvey] wrote a Marxist account of finance capital and –

Park: — the financialization of our economy?

Kunkel: Yeah. From a quite abstract and categorical perspective, but it’s an amazing book, one that I’ve been rereading in efforts to try and explain it, and this essay that I’m writing also has to do with the uneven geographical fallout of financial crises, which is something that we’re probably going to be seeing a lot of in the next year.

Park: You touched upon Argentina’s economic recovery for a recent essay in n+1. And recently a lot of economists have started to say that the weaker European countries should just screw the bailouts and restructure their debt. Are there any lessons that the eurozone could learn from Argentina?

Kunkel: Yeah, I think Argentina may turn out to have been the canary in the coal mine — in the sense that it adopted a very pure form of neoliberalism in the ‘90s and this didn’t work. And then also may have turned out to be a precursor for a different type of economic organization after the collapse. I think it’s a point that [President] Cristina [Fernandez de] Kirchner has made a number of times and has been making since at least this past northern summer, southern winter — that Argentina really seems to have saved its skin by rejecting the IMF’s Council of Austerity back in 2001. And I think they clearly made the right decision in giving a pretty brutal haircut to their creditors. And, you know, reorienting the economy towards more domestic consumption, devaluing, all these things, that’s very difficult for Europe to do right now. And of course, they, in some ways, were in a quite analogous situation to the Irish and Portuguese in that they had the value of their currency shackled to someone else’s. In the case of Argentina, the U.S. dollar, and then of course the rest of the eurozone [to the euro]. I think the Argentine experience is a pretty instructive one and is one that Europe probably ought to look to.

Park: What keeps you up at night?

Kunkel: Being in Buenos Aires — nobody goes to bed until it’s three in the morning. But you know politically what keeps me up at night is more environmental stuff than anything else I suppose.

Park: What’s your assessment of the state of affairs back at home?

Kunkel: I feel deeply discouraged by American politics right now. And I think that, for cultural and for systemic reasons, you know, having to do with our lack of proportional representation and the over-representation of rural states — all that stuff Hendrik Hertzberg [writes] about — I do think that the kind of change I’d like to see in the country is going to be a very long time coming if it’s going to come at all. And I think it’s discouraging to feel that there was a moment where it looked as if … these big problems of our financial architecture and the global warming looked like they might actually be solved in some serious way. And both of them are pretty hopeless right now.

One of the many bookstores carrying psychoanalytic texts in Buenos Aires' Villa Freud. (Photo: Sharon Frost)

A bookstore in Buenos Aires' Villa Freud neighborhood that specializes in psychoanalytic texts. (Photo: Sharon Frost)

Park: Shifting gears, can we talk about the Argentine fascination with psychoanalysis?

Kunkel: Well, part of it is there’s a kind of historical explanation, I think, in that there was necessarily this sort of psychoanalytic diaspora that was caused by the Nazis coming to power, so psychoanalysis having been a German speaking, largely Jewish affair, it has to leave Germany and Austria and it ends up going to England and the U.S., but also very much to Argentina. It was easier to get a visa here than it was to those countries I think for much of the ’30s.

[And] it could be that simply something that did happen in the States and in Britain didn’t happen here — namely a kind of medicalization of psychological trouble. So, Argentines that I know are much less likely to be on an antidepressant or whatever and much more likely to be in some psychodynamic therapy than Americans.

I think that the relative poverty of these other psychological vocabularies, like cognitive behavioral [therapy] and neural biological reductionism to explain people’s lives — the relative explanatory poverty of these other approaches becomes clear to a lot of normally neurotic people, and so I think psychoanalysis probably has or ought to have some life left in it yet.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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  • Supermalvinder

    sigh! you need to be on your own to be able to write what you want to….too many responsibilities rob you off the edge…