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Myth and labor in 'Inventing Anna' - by Thomas Travers
Towards the end of Netflix limited series Inventing Anna (2022), “Manhattan Magazine” journalist Vivian Kent worries that she has somehow missed the real story. Working against a deadline set by her disapproving male editors – who would rather she dutifully file copy on sexual harassment in Wall Street – but also imposed biologically, by her pregnancy, Vivian has staked what’s left of her reputation as a reporter on a hunch that an obscure high society fraud case has the potential to sharpen into expressive form a particular period in the history of New York, the city and its people. The published article is a viral sensation, returning Vivian from her exile in “Scriberia” [sic] and transforms the remainder of the series into a courtroom drama, where the events previously investigated by Vivian are re-narrated, contested, and voraciously consumed as media spectacle. Vivian’s subject is the fake German heiress Anna Sorokin, a hustler whose charismatic aura Vivian falls under and whose present-day notoriety Vivian’s words help create, gifting Anna the one thing she can’t make for herself: fame.
Across its nine, at times torturous, episodes, Inventing Anna dramatizes the schemes through which the proletarian Anna Sorokin re-invents herself as the fabled Anna Delvey, a trust fund kid and serious player in the New York social scene. Parsing through the indictment against Anna, Vivian notes that the charges read like a “novel,” a form-determining principle which structures the show’s own plotting, interconnection of characters, multiplicity of discourses, and expansive range of sets, milieus, and locations. Scaling up from basic credit card scams to defrauding finance bros, Inventing Anna surveys how key nodes in the emergent attention economy – namely social media and tech start-ups but also the art world – circulate through stories and fictions, narratives that affect investors and users alike and get them to move in specific directions. Yet as its ostentatious tone (or is it vibe) makes clear, Inventing Anna is disinterested in adjudicating on the veracity of Anna’s biography. What emerges from Vivian’s reconstruction is a contradictory portrait that vacillates ambiguously from wronged friend to villainous sociopath, an individual who is decentered and schizophrenic. The one constant is Anna’s determination to establish something through her own Promethean endeavors: the Anna Delvey Foundation (ADF), a cultural space intended to provide refuge for artists, content creators, and all the other fabulous outsiders who reject the slovenly lures of consumer society – whose pitiful appetites, Anna directly addresses the audience, include binge watching trashy Netflix dramas.
Inventing Anna seemingly aspires to induct Anna Sorokin within a contemporary rogues’ gallery of capitalist malfeasance, whose fellow members would include Martin Shkreli (Pharma Bro), Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos), Adam Neumann (WeWork), and Sam Bankman-Fried (FTX). What perhaps links these figures in the popular imaginary is the ways in which their respective cons prey on anxieties around what is perceived as a pernicious separation of fictitious capital from any underlying tangible asset. In this sense, Anna becomes something like a “mythical attractor,” one whose narrative of deceit attracts our attention and by passing through us reorganizes our understanding of the world and modifies our reactions. Yet such a reading of individualized guilt is at odds with Vivian’s own hot take, which is attracted to the myth for what it might disclose about “class, social mobility, and identity under late capitalism.” If Vivian shares the investigator’s impulse to “follow the money,” her intention is less to expose a conspiracy perverting the otherwise smooth functioning of capital accumulation than to exonerate Anna of wrongdoing – if not legally, then at least symbolically. Impressed by Anna’s moxie and unrelenting work ethic, Vivian frames Anna’s story as one of refusal, of the non-reproduction of class, of a subjugated worker becoming an entrepreneur and winning autonomy from bosses and patriarchs alike.
The mobilization of the con by the exploited in order to get theirs is arguably one of the themes running through Jessica Pressler’s work, whose article “Maybe She Had So Much Money She Just Lost Track Of It,” Inventing Anna is adapted from. An earlier story about a crew of former strippers who would party, drug, and then steal their marks credit cards and bank details is re-articulated in Hustlers (dir. Lorene Scafaria) as an act of class vengeance against the Wall Street traders who crashed the US economy in 2008. There is an odd resonance here with John Holloway’s recent book Hope in Hopeless Times, which eschews militant insubordination to consider everyday forms of non-subordination and refusal. The non-subordinate are misfits, figures whose desires and capacities overflow the efforts to contain and discipline these practices back into the conformity of waged labor. For Holloway, our daily misfitting – which can be as banal as showing up late for work or calling in sick – constitute the crisis of capital. Inventing Anna ostensibly leans into this refusal from below, both in terms of Anna’s restless drive to free her talents from external compulsion but also for the enjoyment her outrageous transgressions elicit. Pitted against investment banks, exclusive hotels, and the sycophantic hangers-on of the ultra-privileged, Anna’s law breaking is presented in terms of an outlaw who, by exploiting the credulity of the obscenely wealthy, becomes a populist hero of sorts.
If such an overly sympathetic interpretation relies on the feelings of indignation towards a financial system that profits through the misery of the indebted and tones down Anna’s own palpable revulsion when confronted with people beneath her desired class status, it nonetheless exemplifies Todd McGowan’s distinction between enjoyment on the right and left. Whereas Leftist enjoyment explores the radical impossibility of acts within a given social field, enjoyment on the Right preserves that social order precisely through its transgression. Anna’s actions might well create cracks within the social synthesis that weaves together real-estate, financial speculation, and social media; however, they also track how the striving for self-determination has been captured and re-classified as the entrepreneur, one, in Anna’s case, whose product is their (counterfeit) identity. In its attachment to the ethical necessity of the hustle, Inventing Anna amplifies a pervasive belief that “work is the last remaining activity of transformation left to us.” As Jason Read continues, work has been “stripped of any collectivity, any solidarity, to become a sheer test of individual will and intention,” a performance fully embraced by Anna’s unshakeable commitment to the grift. Anna is again a “mythical attractor,” although now one whose narrative is paradigmatic for a generation of workers who feel their futures have been foreclosed. Abandoned to permanent precarity and an endless sequence of gig work, the side-hustle constitutes the only hope for salvation. Very much at the mercies of the attention economy herself, Vivian teases that perhaps there is an Anna at work within each of us as we frantically seek to optimize every aspect of our private existences, capitalizing on personal traits which are nothing more than assets within an investment portfolio.
An alternative way of approaching this tension between a resistance to work and its hypertrophied celebration is through the concept of imaginary labor. This concept is lifted from a short essay by the late Argentinian novelist and critic Ricardo Piglia, which begins with the provocative claim that money is the greatest narrator in the world. Money, Piglia suggests, is both the cause and effect of literature, “a machine for producing fiction.” On the one hand, “to have money one has to invent, falsify, con, ‘make believe’,” and on the other, “getting rich is the illusion […] that is always built on what one might have in money.” Money is an effect of literature because it is the medium through which to dream, the magical object that promises to materialize every conceivable desire and structures our striving. Anna’s childhood bedroom, as Vivian discovers, is a kind of shrine to the power of images, romance, and spectacle, to the perfected versions of ourselves that money would make possible. Conversely, money is the cause of literature because to get their hands on it, characters must make up stories, tales in which their marks can be duped, and assets swiped. As Piglia clarifies, these transgressors do not “earn money, they make it, and that imaginary labor they find literature.” Anna finds literature, both in terms of the business prospectuses she puts together but also in the enigmatic backstory through which she invents herself, an elaborate ruse which knots together trust funds, family accountants, and promises of a cash influx to come, confidence tricks that either accelerate her projects or temporarily arrest their unraveling.
Imaginary labor, then, works on and through stories, fictions that affect the bodies and minds of their targets, modifying their actions and aligning them with the needs of the hustler. In Inventing Anna, imaginary labor takes myth as its raw material, fabricating a personality which itself becomes mythological: the VIP lifestyle that sees Anna attract followers and financial backers as well as haters. Combining a “puritanical ethic of effort” and an alchemical power to transform “a vacuum into cash,” such laborers of the imagination, Piglia contends, become conductors of “capitalist magic.” The imaginary dimension of these acts mediates the generic quality of hard work and the appropriation of riches through something like virtuosity, ingenuity, and intellect: the concrete talents that set the gifted apart from the compliant masses. To be sure, not all “contrepreneurs” draw on preternatural smarts, as Dan Olson has demonstrated in a Folding Ideas video on the Mikkelsen twins, who find literature and a passive income through Audible, Amazon’s audiobook platform. What hucksters like the Mikkelsen’s market and what Anna re-appropriates for herself, is the power to script one’s own actions and direction of travel, to unmake the conditions of servitude.
I’ve tried elsewhere to provide a provisional sketch of what is at stake in outlaw literature’s short-circuiting of the scenes of political subjection and economic exploitation. For now, I will conclude with the briefest of reflections on why the contrepreneur, trickster, and grifter have taken on a new cultural and social valency in recent years. Piglia notes that “in a society that sustains the illusion of becoming wealthy on the myth of making money, falsification presents itself as the very metaphor of productive labor.” The displacement and erasure of the relations between producers and their phantasmatic recoding as relations between things is a crucial aspect of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. What perhaps distinguishes the present is the disappearance of any figure or image of collective labor around which a workers’ movement could organize and assert its political subjectivity. Class collectivity has been broken up and disbanded, its constituent members enclosed within forms of work that are variously intensifying their rates of exploitation, mining ever more intimate parts of being, or relentlessly deskilling – all overshadowed by the grim prospect of expulsion from paid employment altogether through off-shoring, automation, or obsolescence. Given this backdrop of diminishing joy – as either an artisanal worker or satiated consumer – the virtuoso gestures and ploys of the con-artist appear like a holdout, a defiant rearguard stand that insists on the creativity of labor, on its power not just to passively reproduce material conditions but to actively reconfigure them too. The poisoned charm of the criminal restores the plasticity and malleability of the world. Ideology is reimposed, however, as imaginary labor remains wedded to a mythology that debilitates certain sections of the left: the naturalization and valorization of labor itself. What is required are the collective stories and myths that corrode and dissolve all currently existing arrangements and imaginings of work.
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