It is possible to narrate the history of debt (and, therefore, of credit) as a history of relation. This does not mean turning a blind eye to all the uses of interest-bearing loans, borrowing, and other financial operations. On the contrary, it is necessary to examine closely how these uses of debt disregard every recognition other than that of the debt itself, rather than of a debtor—and that is an enormous difference.
It would be certainly necessary to linger for a while on these uses, their origins and their effects. Suffice it here to note something like the originary indebtedness of relation, allowing us to think relationality otherwise than as a secondary elaboration (through forging ties to an isolated existence) or as a stage on a path to communal fusion. Relation does not survive “mineness” and it is no longer effaced in a unity. Instead, it relates, which is to say that it engages each “one” in the recognition of and by others. This recognition is part and parcel of the unification and individuation proper to each “one.”
Sociality, community, or collectivity—the particular word is not very important here—represents nothing else than the imbrication of language, of recognition, and of mutual engagement. The three instances are not the elements but the aspects of a condition, which is that of “being-together” insofar as togetherness is not added to being but constitutes it.
Debt and credit—or, more precisely, the relation of credit to debt—weave what we call “a tie.” What binds, what attaches, holds fast to this creditor relation. In the first place, of others lending faith to or having confidence in my existence. Hence, I exist and I recognize them as the existents who carry this (con)fidence or this fiduciary quality, which I dispense back to them. I must dispense it back; there is an obligation—in the sense of the very ligature of the tie—because it is not a simple game of reflexes. It is exactly the rising of language and of meaning: “Bonjour!” Meaning opens itself in the reception and the return of confidence and credence of others—something that is modulated or modalized at different speeds and intensities among those who necessarily mistrust its role because it is one manner of “trust.”
Meaning is only by and for several participants. The same applies to credit and debt. I believe that you have said something to me and I am indebted, obliged to restitute to you meaning or value. That is what is incalculable: it can only be appreciated, announcing its price, with exchange and the recognitions that make exchange possible or impossible. As for someone who said “Bonjour!” to me, I will not cease profiting from the meaning of this word, or, better yet, robbing it of all meaning.
I can signal merely in passing that this value holds, moreover, for all the relations of nature or of the world that are the tributaries of our own relations amongst ourselves, because it always concerns that which molds recognition, location, and situation. It concerns that which orders a place, making it propitious to such and such type of life, such exchanges and such recognitions.
It seems that the relation and the exchanges it implies are not possible without what should be called “an economy of recognition.” One can contemplate breaking free of rules or implicit demands, for example by killing the other or by enjoying him or her for the sake of a higher meaning, such as the recognition of my omnipotence. However, the transgression preserves the transgressed forbidden element. And it even makes this element appear as such.
The possibility of refusing or deferring recognition can be only exercised in the space of its possible exchange. Transgression is not a return to nature (supposing that what one terms “nature” does not also consist of one or several regimes of recognition—particularly sexual, nutritive, or again parasitical, chemical or dynamic—in the relations of forces, attractions, collisions, repulsions, and compensations). Sacrifice, whether forced or accepted, pure expenditure, glorious or amorous, or rather pure use without finality, moves toward a recognition. Art recognizes an exorbitant expectation (named “form,” “appearance,” or “beauty”) for that which contracts an infinite debt.
There is always an economy, an exchange that cannot be of goods and services, which is in the first place an exchange of recognitions. And at stake in this primordial exchange is the existence of each with all. Does it follow that this existence turns into an object of commercial relation, which would recover more than alienate its simple use? On the contrary: use and exchange are conflated here. To live a human existence is, in the first instance, to receive one’s existence from the recognition that comes from its coexistents.
The idea of economy is not, primarily, that of profit; it is that of subsistence, of maintaining life under the conditions pertaining to a species or to an isolated life, albeit not in the sense of an exception. The maintenance of life is not, in the first place, in nourishment, protection against inclement weather, and reproduction. All these necessities require the preamble of mutual recognition, which surrounds them and involves the recognition of capacities, of roles, of authorities. The life isolated there, in this circle, is recognized by a shared life.
Such an economy is symbolic or spiritual as much as practical and material. Symbolic exchange is immediately active and operative. It even gives rise to its own ritualistic and proprietary practices. In this way one may offer the example of ceremonial money that represents the exchanged values. This kind of money does not function according to the principle of general equivalence but symbolizes determinate exchanges and is, itself, very often comprised of objects (for example, seashells) elaborated for the occasion. So, the Chinese have previously practiced paper money offerings, burning monetary notes in order to ensure the prosperity of the dead in the afterlife.
The function of equivalence that allows commerce, interest-bearing loans, investments, and so forth is but the expansion and the desymbolization of a practice that, in principle, sublates recognition and confidence. Recognition is always of a value, and it is in the name of this value that exchange is possible even when it practically has to do with the management of uses, of forces or of capacities. There is no horizon of use that would be excluded from all exchange, nor is there a horizon of exchange that would not imply a mutual recognition of exchangers, even if at its height the economy said to be “liberal” seems to be pointing at these possibilities.
There is, then, what we might call a practical commercial reason—if we can define it like this—in the Kantian sense, whereby reason is “practical,” that is to say, in and of itself moral. Reason, understood as a human faculty, is in itself engaged in commerce. It is in itself a commerce: a symbolical as much as a material exchange. The symbol is created in the exchange and as exchange. The first commerce is that of recognition. In the past, one used to talk of “commerce” in the sense of “company” and also of a sexual relation.
One can therefore say that debt and credit circulate originally between all. Debt first, when one considers the expectation or the demand for recognition; and credit first, if we imagine a recognition that precedes the demand. In truth, there is no temporal sequence but rather a simultaneity of the two (in the same way that there is neither escape nor menace). Each person is at the same time creditor and debtor according to their expectations, their demands, their needs, and their resources, both physical and moral.
Must we then conclude that there is never gratuitousness in human relations (nor in the relations of humans with the rest of the world)? This is really the conclusion, but not only and not primordially in the sense that there is nothing but interest with all the acrimony and ferociousness it is capable of producing.
In fact, the principle of exchange and of recognition is not subsumed under an interest of acquisition or appropriation: it does derive from an interest but that interest derives from being and not from having. It does not concern an appropriation but a “propriation.” To be recognized is to be recognized as a self (“propre”), in the proper way the self would be recognized (“proprement”). The thing I am indebted to at first is my own existence (a tautological expression, if one thinks about it). Insofar as one’s “own,” insofar as “every time my own” according to Heidegger’s formulation, existence is essentially indebted to its recognition. The latter does nothing but attribute to it its own. It is not a matter of simply sparing a life, as one might say in the context of a combat; it is a matter of, before all commerce and all combats—which will certainly appear together—, making way to or creating a place for the com- as such, that is to say, insofar as it entails an exchange of self to self.
The question of selfhood or property (propriété) appears from the start, clearly, but it appears only because the self of each living being is not a given: it can only begin to be through a recognition that recognizes a being but not immediately a having. A being has no doubt a right to have, but what and how one will have is the object of an elaboration of recognitions that we call society, economy, authorities, etc.
The question of what is one’s own, or property, is from the start articulated with the issue of society and of an organization. The same is true for power, which is the appropriation of recognition and, therefore, the possibility of an instrumental or objectifying recognition. The latter eats away at, or destroys, recognition itself…
What is therefore at stake before anything else? It is a “self” (“propre”) or a “propriation” that is at the same time recognized in itself, without limits but also without a defined property. This, that existence which is one’s own (existence propre), is recognized as inalienable (apart from some determined conditions, like the death sentence, for example) and at the same time unfounded in anything but recognition itself (in its demand and its agreement, from one party and the other).
One might say that what is recognized, and even recognized as much as recognizing, debtor insofar as creditor of the same, and, nevertheless, a singular existence which is one’s own—all that is also inexchangeable (it cannot be converted into money…) and has no value except as a sort of a promise that depends only on being recognized and on a kind of indebtedness of itself.
That which depends solely on a promise, an on the promise of nothing else than to exist in itself—therefore on nothing like a finality, a gain and an appropriation—is exactly what we call gracious (rather than gratuitous, which for now is nothing but its double). We mention this in relation to an elegant gesture, a charm, a happy disposition, as well as in relation to divine or sovereign attention, a pardon without a cause or a gift made without either giver or receiver getting something out of it—nothing but the grace of saluting one another.
Nothing is gratuitous, no doubt, and we cannot know whether something gracious is really produced. But were we to know about this, it would be one advantage too many, an undue appropriation. Like the sun, existence gives itself without ever receiving; this is why its light is blinding.
Its light is so blinding that it is dispensed for better or for worse. The condition of recognition implies the possibility of refusal to be recognized. The condition of debt implies the possibility that it will not be honored. These possibilities are more than simple, marginal eventualities: they belong to the structure and to the truth of the condition of communality as such, that is to say, as a symbolizing community. Because the internal fissure of the symbol is neither secondary nor accidental, but is constitutive and essential. The condition of commonality, or of being-with, is the condition of a separation, of a division and of a demand for retreat, of a refusal and of exclusion.
I want to be recognized as much as capable of not recognizing others, as capable of recognizing the other in return. Or, more precisely, recognition as such entails a double postulation. It is not a matter of hate or love, or, rather, hate and love are the colorations and the passions that pertain to the double movement through which, having been recognized, I detach myself from the one who recognized me. Because I am recognized in a unique and exclusive way.
Hate and love are the two sides of recognition, which always recognizes that there is the other, the inassimilable, and, in the end, the non-recognizable. There is at least, necessarily, competition, agonistics and rivalry. At the most, there is domination, enslavement and murder. In order to have the reverse of competition and an unreserved service to the other, the opening of the abyss has to be recognized. This also pertains to the strange grace of existing that is bestowed upon us.