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Predatory Bureaucracy: How the West was Dispossessed

Noelle Stout
New York University
Date and Time: 
Monday, October 16, 2017 - 15:30

Department of Anthropology
Main Quad - Building 50
Room 51A (Colloquium Room)


More than 14 million U.S. homeowners have lost their homes to foreclosure since the 2008 mortgage crash. In this talk, Stout reveals an enduring yet invisible form of violence endemic during the decade following the crisis: homeowners’ mundane, vexing confrontations with the bureaucracies of corporate lenders. Lenders executed mass bank seizures through seemingly benign administrative mishaps—lost paperwork, campaigns of misinformation, and hours spent on hold. Drawing on research in California’s hard-hit Sacramento Valley, Stout ventures into the homes of families on the brink of eviction and the byzantine call centers of corporate lenders processing their appeals. Here, Stout uncovers the rise of predatory bureaucracies—publicly funded but privately administered Kafkaesque mortgage assistance programs, through which corporate lenders pilfered billions of taxpayers’ dollars while denying assistance to over 70 percent of homeowner applicants. But just as predatory bureaucracies dispossessed Americans, they also gave rise to discourses of financial reciprocity, as foreclosed-upon Americans and low-level lending employees debated the social contracts implicit in financial ties. Trapped in an endless maze of mortgage modifications, borrowers began to view debt refusal as a moral response to lenders, in ways that advance longstanding anthropological claims regarding credit-debt ties and redefine the meaning of dispossession after the crash.


Noelle Stout is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Graduate Program in Culture and Media at New York University. During 2017, Stout is in residence at Stanford as a visiting scholar in the Department of Anthropology and a research affiliate at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Stout’s research on the U.S. foreclosure crisis has appeared in scholarly journals including Cultural Anthropology and American Ethnologist, and her work has won support from the National Science Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy among others. Stout’s book on the topic, Dispossessed: How Predatory Bureaucracy Foreclosed on the American Middle Class, is forthcoming with UC Press. Her earlier research focused on the intimacies of economic crisis in contemporary Cuba. Based on this work, Stout has authored the award-winning book After Love: Queer Intimacies and Erotic Economies in Post-Soviet Cuba (Duke University Press, 2014) and the prize-winning feature-length documentary film Luchando (2008).