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critical writing

Surplus Debt

About work

With the recent emergence of peer-to-peer digital currency as well as social media debt, a new paragraph in the long history of debt is unfolding. By negating the core concept of debt, this essay introduces and outlines the idea of ‘surplus debt’ in this new context. Using the movement Fucking Friendly together with emergent new business paradigms as an offset, surplus debt sets out to create meaningful social experience on a local scale, yet with a global awareness. Without aiming to provide the answer to the debt crisis, surplus debt is a game changer and a call for action.

Surplus debt, Fucking Friendly, transformation paradigm, shared value creation, systemic thinking, constructivism.

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Editors comments More info on Curators & Editors ›

The text from Soren Rosenbak synthesizes well constructed arguments that work on different practical and theoretical examples, interestingly, starting from the opposite to "debt", that is, "surplus". How are we then to conceive, as an alternative thought, but also experiment the negation of the existing? The author gives us a few important contemporary examples through which it is possible to imagine different sort of community and different attitudes towards money and circulation. One could perhaps already insert the logic of surplus within the debt itself and thus open another potentially interesting line of argument. Very solid material, obligatory reading.

View other works commented by Gal Kirn  ››

Soren writes that we should explore other conceptions of debt than the traditional one, countering the idea of financial indebtedness with a social one, akin to the idea of gift exchange. Gift exchange, or Surplus Debt as this essay puts it, entails a social relationship, the creation of ongoing social relationships that feature generosity and reciprocity. Societies marked by such exchanges tend to be small, with a lot of face-to-face interaction and kinship structures. Perhaps one reason currency exchange and financial indebtedness arose was to accommodate larger- scale societies in which transactions became more wide-ranging and impersonal. But the idea underpinning Surplus Debt, that ultimately we are all in this together in a web or network of relationships, might take on new life in the age of social media, in which we have quasi-personal interactions and relationship across a wide network. Perhaps this idea can be read back into the idea of financial debt, on the macro level. While Surplus Debt on a personal level as described by the author is certainly a charming idea, he acknowledges that it does not solve the problem of the widespread debt crisis that exists today. But in pursuing macro solutions to a macro problem, the recognition that ultimately we are all tied together in this crisis could lead to policy solutions that an obstinate lack of empathy does not allow. Punishing harshly those people and countries in debt will only create worse consequences for richer institutions and, especially, richer countries. For instance, not helping people who are about to lose their homes brings down the value of all other homeowners’ assets. Many people do not see this, unfortunately. A greater recognition of the bonds of the non-financial kind that exist among us could lead to a more stable and prosperous future for everyone. Sometimes the utopian gesture actually makes the most common sense, as well as bringing a little sunshine into our daily interactions.

View other works commented by Daniel Marcus  ››

This essay is very stimulating with regards to the topic it explores (social media debt), the methodology used in the rethinking debt (thought experiments, imagining the opposite, so as to develop the argumentation, i.e. thinking dialectically), and in the development and deployment of an original concept (surplus debt). As the work discusses what are to my mind so far under examined features of social life the importance of which, however, will only grow in the future, deploys new concepts and lays bare its own methodology, it also strikes me as a "friendly" and "open" work in the sense of inviting others to continue in its tracks. The essay also backed up with relevant research, this well documented in the footnotes and bibliography. Some of the examples and argumentation, however, could have been given more space to develop and so as to allow readers who are not necessarily at home in the field covered in this essay to understand it better.

Apart from stress and illness, what are the other levels at which debt works? Is conventional credit really experienced as something abstract? If so, then why are some of the consequences of debt felt so personally, so physically?

It also seems to me that one way in which the concept of surplus debt could be expanded is to see it as a basic condition of individual and social life in the sense that this depends on a) the previous work of others and b) a vast contemporary network of interdependencies across all the divisions of labour.

I find the idea of dying in debt as the sign of a rich life very productive and alluring. One problem with this idea though is that it can necessitate disengagement from the various networks of relationships that the individual is involved in. This is primarily because debt can be passed on to others who are otherwise unwilling to assume its burden. To give a concrete example regarding monies: I may want to die in debt. My life may become a lot richer than it is now is because of this. This is something I can revel in. On the other hand, my partner who will legally inherit all my financial debts after I die may face the prospect of my death in debt with dread as she will be forced to pay off what I owe.

Now, one solution to this problem is that my partner and I terminate our relationship. Another solution is that we both plunge into a life of debt and leave our relatives to pay it off after our deaths. Neither solution seems very ethical to me. And the only way I can, at this moment in time, think of being ethical with regards to this problematic is to adopt some basic egoism and extreme individualism in the manner of Max Stirner or Ayn Rand. I do not, however, find this proposition very attractive or, for that matter, actually properly ethical: it may be a self-fulfilling pleasure to be a Stirnerite or Randian subject, but those who are consigned to being the "objects" of the actions of such subjects may find the condition they are in not in the least enabling.

Connected to the above is the problem of what I see as "forced social media debt". The example of a distant friend sending one their best wishes for one's birthday is productive and, yes, one then does feel indebted and may want to return the courtesy. But are we dealing with just a courtesy? This "gift" was not called for. As such it can thus force individuals into an activity and a network they do not really want to participate in but feel obliged to nonetheless, precisely because they do not want to feel stigmatised (as insensitive, isolated, alienated, misanthropic, etc) because of their inaction or because they do not want to feel indebted.

A further problem with such "forced social media debt" is that the gift frequently comes with the "currency" in which it has to be returned and the subject to which it has to be returned to. Maybe I want to chose my own currency, my own subject, my recipient, my own theatre of intervention, my own social texture to weave? Or, to expand on this theme but in different domain: imagine that you received an unsolicited letter with the offer of a credit card but this letter also stated that you were, by virtue of being sent it, in financial debt to the issuers of the credit card in question.

One has to have the possibility of refusing the gift and without consequences and this has to built into the gift itself. Of course this then opens up the question as to whether a gift is free or not. And while this problematic is noted in the essay it could also be expanded on precisely because social media offer a good example of the free/non-free gift dichotomy.

I think it is important to keep a balance, as this essay does, between over enthusiastic responses to social media and outright negativity towards them. We are dealing tools that can be used for a variety of purposes and that can have a variety of different and radically contrasting effects.

In addition, I feel that the essay strikes a good balance between understanding various phenomena as both possible alternatives to capitalism as well as forms that can aid the reproduction and expansion of capitalism. Drawing on some of my experiences as an activist I must admit that I have much sympathy for actions aimed at positively changing one's immediate social environment rather than deferring this change on to other (collective) subjects, spaces, and historical moments. In this light I can see the example of Fucking Friendly as a positive one and the further (practical) deployment of surplus debt as worth further research and discussion and as potentially emancipatory.

View other works commented by Nikolai Jeffs  ››

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This work has been commented by 3 editor(s):
Gal Kirn Daniel Marcus Nikolai Jeffs go to comments ›

Entry details


Surplus Debt

Concept author(s)

Søren Rosenbak

Concept author year(s) of birth




Competition category

critical writing

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Subfield description

The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts – The School of Design (Visual Communication) + Aalto University – School of Art, Design and Architecture (New Media & Graphics)