Indebtedness and production of relatively independent subjectivity

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Yesterday’s talk in the foyer between professor of Comparativ Literature Frederik Tygstrup and director of SMK – the National Gallery of Denmark – Mikkel Bogh has been occupying my thoughts this gray Sunday. As such, the topics aren’t new for me as I have had a growing interest in these matters for a while. But many good perspectives and new concepts were brought into play – Besides, the conversation was well moderated by one of the two artistic directors of the festival Cecilie Ullerup Schmidt.

Prior to the conversation, there was a reading of the chapter “Debt and Study” from Harney & Moten’s The Undercommons – fugitive planning and black study published by Minor Compositions in 2013. I wasn’t familiar with  this book, so it was all the more a nice surprise that copies of the book were given out to those present – as long as you had someone to share it with, as the books were intended as share books between two people. The reading of “Debt and Study” served as basis for the conversation, which lasted approximately an hour.

The conversation circled around the matter of indebtedness as a mode of being today; debt as an instrument of government. An indebted citizen is a controlled citizen. Sociologist Maurizio Lazzarato speaks in this context of The indebted man. Also thinkers like Franco Bifo Berardi is a key voice in relation to the wider topic of economy and subjectivity.

Frederik Tygstrup pointed to the fact that we are all both the debtors and creditors – and to how this relationship between debt and credit is a fundamental social element in time. With the establishment of debt a social relation is fixed until full repayment – for the most a distant or unachievable status as debt is not only concrete and material but certainly also immaterial – hence an abstract matter.

I come to think of – and this is a peculiar reference I know – The Enneagram (a model of human personality which is principally understood and taught as a typology of nine interconnected personality types). Leaving out all the critic that one could certainly (and would certainly) direct against this model, the second personality type – the helper – is an interesting figure in relation to the topic of debt and social relations. The helper is apparently a very sympathetic figure as it constantly helps others. What becomes clear though, is that the strategy of the helper is to help others only to make them feel guilty; To make them feel in minus and hence to establish a secured social relation in time. The others will always owe to the helper, and so the helper always has the guarantee of social relations. What it all comes down to here is a fundamental fear of loneliness.

In relation to study – and to come back to the conversation – debt is built into the education system as part of the before mentioned instrument of government; In a concrete sense when students are in debt economically and hence forced to work with the system in order to repay; In an immaterial sense when the concept of a study program is understood as the fulfilment of expectations. When so, the system reproduces itself and the possibility of autonomous action becomes less and less possible.

“Teaching autonomy is a contradiction in terms,” Mikkel Bogh – former head of the Royal Danish Academy of Art – said, and added that good education is training through disorganisation and paradoxes in order to – hopefully – be able to create some kind of autonomous subjects. The total independent subject is not a possibility, he said, so perhaps we should operate with the idea of relatively independent subjects instead.

In extension of this, Frederik Tygstrup brought up the notion of interest as being connected to indebtedness and hence to dependency and the lack of autonomy. Questioning our interests in what we study and in what we want to do could be a starting point in direction of a showdown with the society of indebtedness. Disinterest – as brought up by Cecilie Ullerup Schmidt in the conversation – could be a second step. Not disinterest as in apathy and depression but disinterest as in nonappealing, unfittable interest.

I’ve spend some time this Sunday thinking of my interests – and of possible disinterests. I will return with further thoughts on this – as well as with a reflection on the performance program at this year’s festival. Give me a moment to digest.

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