Friday, November 18, 2011

Debt Of Conversation

- People think you are crazy.
- I know. Explain it to me.
- You talk too long. After twenty seconds of listening the only thought is escape. Also, twenty seconds is the maximum allowable eye contact.
- So I should stop after twenty seconds and ask, are you following me?
- You should give messages, not lectures. Conversation is the wrong place for that.
- I've just given you a lecture on debt lasting two minutes, ten times the maximum length allowable without pain to ears and eyes. Are you willing to....
- What?
- Mandated pause after twenty seconds. Can I go on?
- Yes.
- Debt, David Graeber says in his new book, is a perverted promise.
- Why?
- Thanks for the prompt.
- You're welcome.
- Do you think these rituals of "thank you" and "you're welcome" are there to split up lectures into conversation?
- Don't start any lectures. Why is debt a perverted promise?
- Well, when someone in normal friendly relations gives something to another, there is not necessarily any return expected. The friendly relations are themselves a constant promise.
- Then normal people would soon give everything away and have nothing.
- Only if they were living with abnormal people. Normal people would be making him gifts, not as a return for his, but because they liked giving gifts.
- You can't be serious.
- What are these short sentences we are exchanging but gifts to each other? You don't want me to talk too long because it doesn't give you a chance to make your gift to me.
- Maybe.
- You also could be acting on more perverse motives, wish to praise yourself, wish to trick me in some way, wish to hurt me by denying me the chance to do what I love.
- And debt is not allowing people to give away everything?
- Crazy as it sounds, that's right.
- What stops anyone from giving away everything he has and being happy?
- Well, you just gave a perfect example. You insist when I give you my words you be allowed immediately, or within twenty seconds, to give me back words in exchange.
- Go on.
- Thank you.
- You're welcome.
- You make a return for my gift immediately. Since we are not enemies threatening to kill each other, the question is, why insist on it? Why immediate return, why do you owe me or I owe you a debt of return, when return is not demanded at all?
- And?
- It means first that you don't want to wait. You don't believe you live with good people who like making gifts and especially like making gifts to those who have made them gifts. That you are not making a gift at all, but an exchange.
- What's wrong with that?
- In the exchange, your giving away hurts you and your receiving hurts the other. The pain of giving is balanced against the pleasure of receiving in a transaction between enemies.
- And that is why you say it is perverse.
- We calculate how much our words and time speaking cost us and how much we have to gain. We invest our time and effort for making a profit.
- So your lectures seem like stealing our time and we have to escape.
- Yes. When I am everyone's enemy.
- You know I am your friend. I am trying to help you.
- If I am trying to make a gift of my words, but all you want to get from me is my listening to you, to get a special, limited human relation of attention, you pay the cost of listening to me and I am cheating you by talking too long. You refuse the gift. And that puts the relation, again, into that of enemies. People who want to get something limited and defined from someone not lived with and potentially dangerous. Debt is the perverse giving to others in pain and getting from others with pleasure. You can turn around and stop covering your ears. I'm finished.
- You are talking about selfishness, not perversity. Selfishness is normal. It is what you owe yourself, not others. It doesn't have anything to do with what we mean by debt.
- Say you are fighting a war, but want something your enemy has. You call a truce so you can make a deal, you put aside temporarily your preference to use violence and take without giving, at least while you negotiate. Each enemy pretends a temporary peace.
- Why "pretend"?
- Because at every moment of that truce is the threat it will be broken. A debt is exactly this time of threat within truce between enemies: the time between getting back after you have given. Debt is the extension of this situation over time.
- If the person who owes is an enemy why does he pay?
- Because of the threat of violence. Debt is not a relation of people in permanent war with each other. It is of otherwise peaceful people entering into a temporary state of war.
- Then why not just kill and take?
- That happens too. Debt is a less risky alternative. It leaves open the possibility of returning to a separate, peaceful life lived more like between friends, the possibility of both making profit and staying safe. But if over time the debt is not repaid the truce is declared over and force used.
- Debt is the relation of enemies who rather than immediately try to kill each other make a temporary peace treaty.
- Yes. Both parties would prefer to take without giving. The party who succeeds is called the debtor.
- If the one who doesn't pay is the winner, why does everyone think it is bad not to pay?
- The answer is everyone doesn't think that. People think it is good not to pay, when you are under no real threat of violence to force you to pay. Look around you. Governments borrow and don't pay. Banks borrow and don't pay. It is only bad when you feel yourself under constant threat of violence until you do pay. You don't win the game simply by taking and not giving. You win by doing this safely, by getting away with it.
- Is everything you are saying taken from the book by Graeber?
- Yes. But I'm sure he would see it as a gift.