Antonia Hirsch’s The Surplus Library on Affect and Economic Exchange considers the library as a unique social space in which knowledge is circulated through a system of non-monetary trade or interpersonal exchange. The project’s website displays cover images of books on the subject along with the email addresses of their owners, and an open invitation to participate in the completely inefficient process of borrowing a book via mail. (To be included in the library, a book must be deemed worthwhile by Hirsch.) By facilitating the global exchange of these books about exchange—containers for ideas, but also personal objects marked by marginalia, dog-eared pages, personal inscriptions—Hirsch examines the relationship between social bonds and the production (and consumption) of knowledge. The Surplus Library, begun in 2011, currently includes around one hundred titles. In the past two years, Hirsch has also edited Intangible Economies, a thematically related series of articles published in the Canadian art magazine Fillip, where she is an editor at large; an anthology of the same name was published in the fall. Triple Canopy's Brittany Paris discussed the project and the book with Hirsch over Skype and email in November and December.
Brittany Paris: You’ve described The Surplus Library as a globally distributed library whose books are circulated through the website. The library might also build globally distributed social networks, with borrowers and lenders corresponding through email. I gather it is your intent for The Surplus Library to render online interaction more tangible, or to circumvent more impersonal modes of online interaction.
Antonia Hirsch: The library started in a completely analog way. Originally, it wasn’t even necessarily intended to be online. In early 2009, I was going back and forth between Vancouver and Berlin. I was working on various writing projects and I had started to do research on the Intangible Economies project. My writing and research were exclusively in English at the time; in theory, while in Berlin, I could either go to an English language bookstore and buy everything I needed in terms of reference material, or go to a university library and hope to find what I was looking for in English.
What happened instead was that I started to call on my network of friends and acquaintances in Berlin. I would, for example, ask whether anyone had an English copy of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy. If someone did, I would often receive a book—perhaps already bought secondhand—with lots of notes and marks in it. When you exchange books with friends, they don’t just hand you the book; you talk about the book and why you’re reading it. You have tangential conversations. These conversations often turn to recommendations, whether thematically related, by the same author, or secondary literature on the book in question. It was a very interesting and useful way of broadening my horizons—even in terms of how to circumscribe the topic I was working on, because every time I had such an encounter the very concept was reinterpreted by the person I was talking to based on her own knowledge, experience, and interests.
In the end, my temporary Berlin sublet became a library specializing in books on economic exchange and desire, and I became the custodian or librarian of this special collection of borrowed books. That’s where the whole idea was born to reconsider the notion of exchange and think of it as a non-fiscal activity (borrowing and lending) within an affective network. The materiality of the books was an important marker. Of course we can go to Amazon and be told what we might want to buy, based on other customers’ preferences. But a mathematical, and therefore limited, algorithm produces these selections, and the process is exactly about buying, not borrowing. Borrowing is, fundamentally, built on trust—a significant social bond. With the book, you give something of yourself—something that may hold some of your thoughts and deliberations in the form of notes, or indicate part of your personal history in that the book may be heavily used or not used at all; it may be a special edition or translation; it may show traces of having been dropped in the bath, speaking to your reading habits. And you’ll think about whether you want to risk handing it over: Will the borrower treat it respectfully, and return this part of you?
BP: It seems that the connection between the materiality of the books in the library’s holdings as something unique—personalized by the owner—and the affective activity of borrowing and lending based on trust and shared values is fundamental to the project. Could you talk more about how you understand value as it operates within The Surplus Library?
AH: Value can refer to economic value—exchange value or use value—but also ethical value. The intersection of these meanings of value is interesting because for a notion of value to arise, there has to be an exchange, a negotiation. By definition, a value is something that is shared. If I am the only person on the planet and I say this apple I hold in my hand is worth two dollars, it doesn’t matter, because I don’t have anyone to give it to. Similarly, ethical (and moral) values only make sense within a social matrix. The Surplus Library proposes the non-fungible sharing of ideas as a value, and this value is actually enacted in exchange. Sometimes the people I initially borrowed books from later became contributors to Intangible Economies, for example Olaf Nicolai and Monika Szewczyk. And the conviviality of this process of borrowing also carried over into the Intangible Economies conference that took place in Vancouver last November. It’s important to mention, too, that the organization that made this entire project possible, Fillip, often operates with complete disregard for economic viability. While Fillip works hard to adequately pay contributors to the magazine, much of its internal activities are carried primarily by an affective charge, so obviously there was also a philosophical and structural affinity.
BP: Today’s networked communication technology is often said to exploit social ties to the ends of capital. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue in Empire, the circulation of capital extends through space and time. “Capital tries to annihilate … space with time, i.e. to reduce to a minimum time spent in motion from one place to another.” How does The Surplus Library respond to this understanding of exchange?
AH: The Surplus Library is absolutely and purposely inefficient. The website shows the covers of books, and if you want to read one of them you have to email the owner and ask for it to be sent to you. You can’t download the PDF. The point is to make that contact and to become conscious of the material conditions of the object travelling. The books combine the personal experience of a text with the notion of an idea as object, one that is specific, owned by someone; they operate on the level of material, image, and language.
I’m totally into efficiency in many aspects of my life. But ultimately it’s the lack of efficiency that often creates a contemplative space, where serendipitous stuff can happen. You’re looking for a book in the library and you walk by the shelves and as you’re looking, as you’re wasting time trying to find a book, you come across something else. Maybe you come across another person. Maybe you find that someone left something interesting on the shelf. I think it’s the inefficiencies that are sometimes most productive, but they are just not predictable and not quantifiable, which makes it difficult to embrace them.
BP: What types of networks do you hope to encourage with The Surplus Library?
AH: I actually didn’t think about that very carefully. I was trying to recreate or extend something that I had experienced personally as valuable, and beyond that it was like wanting to experiment with an impulse and see what happens. Any project you engage with—and I consider this an art project—ideally pushes you beyond what you already know. When The Surplus Library first launched, there was a bit more attention drawn to it; I got book requests, to my own surprise, from strangers. I had thought that I would just receive responses from friends and extended acquaintances. But I also got book suggestions from people I didn’t know, who, interestingly enough, hadn’t gotten their information through art channels, either. I remember there was one woman from California who emailed complaining that there weren’t enough female authors. I asked her to suggest some; we ended up having a really interesting exchange and it caused me to look at the collection a bit differently.
BP: It’s interesting to think about how these conversations might make their way into the holdings of the library. I’m also curious about how these interrelated notions of borrowing, lending, and exchange manifest in the library’s structure and the ways in which you envision the project growing as a result of the interactions between borrowers and lenders.
AH: I’m interested in showing how ideas proliferate, and one way to do that is to accumulate multiple copies of books. There are, for example, three copies of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. One is mine. Two belong to a couple—“his and hers” copies of the same edition. The more these doublings occur, the more you can see how prominent certain ideas are. I also really like to see books in other languages. Some works aren’t translated widely; for example, Maurizio Lazzarato’s work is hard to get in English, so the French version is in the library, but this also means that his ideas are probably not that well known among English speakers. Whereas, unsurprisingly, there are multiple copies of Marx’s writings, even in the same language. Those sorts of representations are really crucial to this project.
BP: Looking at The Surplus Library website reminded me of the aesthetic structure of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, in which photographs showing the relationships between ancient sculptures and the physiques of female golfers, for instance, were tacked to wooden panels covered with black fabric, salon style. Warburg’s interdisciplinary approach to theory and research served as the impetus for his massive library; The Surplus Library also performs a multimodal demonstration of the relationship between affect and economic activity. This may be a shot in the dark, but I was wondering if you had the Mnemosyne Atlas in mind when you were conceiving of The Surplus Library.
AH: Warburg’s work is so omnipresent in artistic practice these days—it’s difficult to escape, and almost tiresome. However, I recently wrote an essay that centred on notions of exchange, the proliferation of ideas, and astronomy, and in a roundabout way this made me reconsider Warburg’s various projects. Warburg was very interested in astronomy and particularly Johannes Kepler, who established that planets move on an elliptical path rather than a circular path, as Nicolaus Copernicus had proposed not too long before. Acknowledging the importance of the ellipse, Warburg built the reading room of his Hamburg Library in that shape, which I thought was really beautiful. He declared the ellipse to be describing “space for thought”; the ellipse is a particular figure in that it orders itself around two poles and therefore implicitly proposes a relationality. Warburg’s project seems to have been all about a dynamic way of relating things to one another—mostly images and text, but from wildly different contexts, whether academic, artistic, or quotidian—and thereby permitting complex and equally dynamic patterns of meaning to appear. You could say that, in a modest way, The Surplus Library attempts to do something similar by virtually placing all those privately owned books on a table, like so many pictures and texts pinned to one of Warburg’s panels. Warburg came up with the notion of the “pathos formula,” an embodiment of universal affective forces. He drew attention to the importance of affective forces in cultural formations, and I think he tried to express this architecturally in the elliptical reading room. The Surplus Library attempts to build a dynamic architecture of relationships (rather than of mortar and brick).