This dissertation argues that representations of economic experience as epitomized by heightened states of feeling—the despair following a bad day at the stock market, the panic set off by reports of an impending bubble, the excitement around rapid gains in a company’s valuation—tell only part of the story of economic feeling in the US and UK after 1973. Such inflationary narratives of economic behavior, which posit the drastic highs and lows of avid participation, fail to account for the lurking forms of non-participation that haunt the period. Guided by affect theory’s turn to what Lauren Berlant calls “reticent action,” “Letdown Aesthetics: Economic Withdrawal from 1970 to the Present” argues for the undertheorized centrality of withdrawal and withholding to 20th and 21st century notions of economic life and citizenship. Turning to scenes of not working, not investing, and not consuming, along with the genres that house them in literature, film, and television, I argue that critical focus on intensified states like runaway speculation and entrepreneurial hyperactivity cannot, on their own, account for the present’s affective structures. The aesthetic and practical strategies of withholding that become manifest in slacking on the job, declining to invest in one’s home, and turning away from commodities believed to degrade sociality capture the vast fallout of financialization, precarious employment, and overconsumption that characterize capitalistic development in the latter half of the 20th century to the present. By centering scenes of economic withdrawal, which emerge in conjunction with the transition from relative postwar prosperity in western industrialized economies to a crisis in profitability that continues into the present day, “Letdown Aesthetics” foregrounds both the seething discontent and minor pleasures of opting out precisely when one is expected to buy in. My case studies build new readings of convergences of affective and economic activity to offer a more nuanced account of the evolving connections between feeling and economic value that continue to shape contemporary life under capitalism. Letdown Aesthetics opens with the question of changing attitudes about compulsory (but increasingly insecure) work, focusing on through those who aren’t doing said work properly. Chapter One, “Suspense, Suspension, and Slackers in the Office,” follows historical transformations in white-collar worker unease with office life in order to understand what it has meant—historically, socially, affective—to work in the office. Suspense is this chapter’s term for aesthetic and existential states of suspension that surface in recent office novels such as Ed Park’s Personal Days, Ling Ma’s Severance, and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, in which the office becomes a space of uncertainty and precarity rather than drudgery. I argue that suspense and its new, deflated form in these novels, arises in response to the relatively fresh precarity that affects white-collar work as postwar prosperity begins to run out in the US…




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