The Constellation of Debt

Nathalie Karagiannis (Institute for Social Research, Frankfurt)

The project is a collective poetic exploration on the theme of debt involving ten (rather than five) pairs of poets, each comprised by a Greek and a German poet, who write taking by turns the position of the debtor and that of the creditor. The pairs are the following:

Oswald Egger – Katerina Iliopoulou (Κατερίνα Ηλιοπούλου)
Christian Filips – Lenia Safiropoulou (Λένια Ζαφειροπούλου)
Hendrik Jackson – Dimitris Allos (Δημήτρης Άλλος)
Barbara Köhler – Vassilis Amanatidis (Βασίλης Αμανατίδης)
Brigitte Oleschinski – Nathalie Karagiannis (Ναταλία Καραγιάννη)
Monika Rinck – Iordanis Papadopoulos (Ιορδάνης Παπαδόπουλος)
Anja Utler – Iana Boukova (Γιάννα Μπούκοβα)
Peter Waterhouse – Dimitra Kationi (Δήμητρα Κατιώνη)
Ron Winkler – Γιώργος Χαντζής (Giorgios Chantzis)
Uljana Wolf – Orfeas Apergis (Ορφέας Απέργης)

All translations in both directions are done by Marina Agathangelidou.

1) credit and debt performed
This project intents to perform its object, as it were, by making possible the encounter of German and Greek poets under the constellation of the debt. Poets will create a debt to each other (are perhaps already indebted to each other, as Rabelais suggests we all are), and will be asked to reflect poetically on the very conditions of possibility of this debt. This will be done in pairs of two, constituted each by one Greek and one German poet, which will remain the same all along the project. One poet will have to propose a poem on the subject of debt (see 2) and will thus be a creditor. After due translation , the other poet will have to respond to the first poem by a poem of her own, using a concept/theme/significant wording/verse of the first poem. The debt will thus be paid. There will be one more such cycle, with the poet who has originally started (the original creditor) taking now the place of the debtor ie the respondent. And the whole process will be repeated at least once more.
The poems and their translations in both languages will appear, as they are created, on an interactive blog, which will be created for this project. All of the participants will have reading access to it, but are bound not to post their own or the others ́poems anywhere else until the end of the project. Our webmaster is visual artist Yiannis Isidorou.
At the end of the process, all debts will be squared in two events. At the same time, a bilingual edition will be made.
Below are a few lines along which a poetic thought around the debt can be deployed.
2) five inter-related themes to start with
a) Rabelais ́ cement
The unavoidability of the debt can be considered not so much as a horizon but as an origin, in the sense that one may conceive of our existences as always indebted. Can this unavoidability be turned on its head and considered differently?
b) reversibility and irreversibility: `nothing but time is at stake ́(Bourdieu)
In a text called Outline of a Theory of Practice, Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, distinguishes the mysterious institution of the gift from the market exchange and from the debt in terms of time. The time of exchange, he says, is immediate in the case of the market exchange and immediately stipulated though practically deferred in the case of the debt. One interesting point is
this one, I think, the hiatus between what is said and is done, or quite simply, the delay, and it points to the idea of promise as making the future more certain.
[Hannah Arendt has worked on the theme of the promise as a way of acting on time (the future), whereas she saw forgiving as another way of acting on time (the past). Which, of course, brings to mind the theme of debt-forgiving. Promise against forgetfulness is also the starting point of the 2d essay of Nietzsche ́s Genealogy of Morals.]
However, another interesting point that can be found in Bourdieu is that he claims that once the practice of the gift has started, social actors must act as if the process were reversible (as if they could choose to stop it, to not give back), whereas it is actually irreversible. The play between reversibility and irreversibility opens, I think, very fruitful perspectives, and one of the main references in this area is V. Jankélevitch. Jacques Derrida points to a similar thing when he says that the gift cannot be acknowledged as such because then it ceases to be a gift, even though at the same time it must be received. What are the differences with the debt?
c) memory, mourning
The links between memory and debt fetch far into our past, beyond the question of forgiving. This theme is closely connected to irreversibility, because it touches our perception of time, of it being too late (to start again, to change, to free ourselves, to choose another path, not to die etc). The most evident path here is the debt towards the ancestors, which involves mourning for their death and the pledge to keep their memory alive (the theme is ubiquitous in the late Derrida). I find this path to be closely connected to another, rather common one, in a certain poetry of the XXth century: that of the poets ́duty.
The ambivalence of debt and duty (and guilt) is crucial in the development of several psychoanalytical schools, even thought it remained implicitly in Freud ́s work.
d) Jubilee or the abolition of debt and Nietzsche
In the Jewish tradition, the Jubilee is the last year of seven sabbatical years, either the 49th or the 50th. That year, slaves are freed, property is redistributed and debts are cancelled. See, for example, Leviticus 25:8-13 .
The abolition of debt can also be related to Nietzche ́s famous On the Genealogy of Morality, where Schuld (guilt) is found to proceed from Schulden (debt), and where the debtor, guilty of not being able to pay back, is made to suffer a physical punishment, which produces pleasure to the creditor.
Solon ́s seisachtheia. The seisachtheia (the abolition by Solon of certain, too heavy, debts) is interesting both etymologically (achthos means both debt and weight) and because of one of its particular points, which is that it forbade guaranteeing the debt with one ́s body (or freedom). Both aspects direct our gaze to the body of the debt, or how the debt is embodied, what it weighs and how it can unbearable.
Current radical denunciations of debt can be find in the US movement Strikedebt ( and in Maurizio Lazzarato ́s books.
e) Alsatia or debt sanctuary
Enclaves where other forms than the state law reigned have existed all along history and they always arose out of defiance to the powers that be. In earlier years I have done some research on the
historical roots of solidarity in the medieval métiers, but I am now surprised to find out that such let ́s call them purely defensive or self-excluding practices also existed. The idea of debt sanctuaries in pre- or proto-capitalistic conditions contradicts, I think, Nietzsche ́s genealogy. See, for instance, a website dedicated to one of these places, called Alsatia: