‘The very fact that we don’t know what debt is, the very flexibility of the concept, is the basis of its power’ David Graeber -‘ Debt, The first 5000 Years’
This week I updated the online version of The Book of Debts, from the physical version in the gallery.(Read or add to it here). There were around 30 new entries from the last time I was in, and it was moving to read and transcribe a whole batch in one go like that, quite a rollercoaster!
From ‘I owe everything to everyone‘ to ‘I expect nothing and I promise nothing’ shows me once again that our relationship to debt is perceptual. There are debts of labour, love, time, lives lost and saved, relationships broken and redeemed. Debts to unions, banks, thinkers, do-ers, teachers, lovers, rock stars, mothers, the earth .. and the contributors themselves. With the odd heckle in between. Brighton is of course surfacing a beautiful eclectism which I am familiar with as a former resident, and now the Festival has begun I’m wondering what else will cover its pages up to May 22nd, when we recite and burn it (meet at Fabrica, 6.30pm if you want to hear /watch it)
I asked once again the leading question ‘What do you think about when you think about debt?’ at a talk/writing session I gave to gallery volunteers (who are at the frontline of the project at the moment at Fabrica, as the interface between it and the public) and a whole spectrum of responses came up – many of which, as I note-take at each such encounter, are being absorbed into the Ode to Debt / provocation that acts as my intro at live events. I am collecting definitions, responses, metaphors, like so many brushstrokes of a painting that I cannot yet clearly see from frame to frame. From fear, guilt and powerlessness to generosity and gratitude, there is always a growing sense when bringing the subject to the table that debt is something that is elusive and hard to understand, a threat, a stalking beast, or at the very least a subject requiring a degree of self-honesty or transparency that can be threatening to even contemplate.
Except when talking of debts of gratitude. Gratitude and indebtedness seem to often eclipse each other or even wear each other’s clothes. My understanding is that gratitude, like gift, does not come at a price, but indebtedness can easily follow in its wake, depending on the relationship of the recipient to the giver or even to the act of being given something – which may be culturally dependent. Within indebtedness lies the idea that there is something the recipient wants to repay to the other party, hence the word debt in its midst. At the heart of this is exchange, equality and power – and most of the entries in the The Book so far speak of this, if they don’t speak of gratitude/indebtedness.
David Graeber writes in his ‘Debt, The first 5000 Years’ (the first ever history of debt) that debt ‘is strictly a creature of reciprocity‘ but that ‘All human interactions are not forms of exchange, Only some are. Exchange encourages a particular way of conceiving human relations. This is because exchange implies equality, but it also implies separation. It’s precisely when the money changes hands, when the debt is cancelled, that equality is restored and both parties can walk away and have nothing further to do with each other.
Debt is what happens in between; when the two parties cannot yet walk away from each other, because they are not yet equal. But it is carried out in the shadow of eventual equality. Because achieving that equality , however, destroys the very reason for having a relationship , just about everything human happens in between – even if this means that all such human relations bear with them at least a tiny element of criminality, guilt or shame.’
Hence, the presence of debt in almost every great literary drama, the depiction of that ‘space in between’ where everything human – read interesting – happens! For a brilliant ride through that, read “Payback:Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth’ by Margaret Atwood, which also inspired an excellent recent documentary featuring the writer herself – and ‘arch villain’ Conrad Black – made by Jennifer Bachwal.
So, debt is inherently relational and so in shifting ones relationship to it, the debt itself can change shape. I found this with our financial situation of debt, which I have disclosed on the earlier pages of this blog, and which prompted my interest in the subject. It used to be a symbol of literal terror, shaking the very foundations of my being, until I got clear on my rights, the outer limits of own my moral compass, opened up to support and got clear on what I was and was not responsible for. With clarity and information, the terror turned to curiosity, and an ongoing project was born…
I’m next out with The Book of Debts (which is filling steadily, check some of the entries online here) at Hove Museum on Thurs May 8th 2-4pm. If you come and see me, I will offer you a free cup of tea, in return for your attention to the subject of debt, the shadow side of gift, in all its dark glory and transformative potential.
I’ll also be in conversation with French artist Samuel Rousseau 7-8pm on the same day, May 8th, at Fabrica, on the subject of artist as agent of social change (question mark) details here.. Please come and join in the conversation. It’s free, nothing will be left owing…